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Posts Tagged ‘lucas hnath’

Hillary and Clinton
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Tim Naegelin
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2022

Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Hillary Clinton seems to elicit strong opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. She’s run for President twice, in addition to previously having been First Lady to a two-term President. In Hillary and Clinton, West End Players Guild’s latest production, playwright Lucas Hnath focuses on his own imaginations surrounding Hillary, Bill Clinton, and the dynamics of complicated relationships, political aspirations, and public perception. It’s a bit of a fantasy exercise grounded in a kernel of reality, and as staged at WEPG, the engaging cast makes it intriguing, thought-provoking, and most of all, funny.

The play, narrated by Hillary (Deborah Dennert), presents itself as an “alternate universe” take on events in the lives of the Clintons, centered on the New Hampshire Primary during the 2008 Presidential campaign, as Hillary campaigns for the Democratic nomination. The “fantasy” format allows playwright Hnath to explore ideas and concepts using these characters and situations without having to hew too closely to the facts of history, as well as allowing him to explore “behind the scenes” goings-on. There are several conflicts that arise, as Hillary’s chief pollster/campaign strategist Mark (Tyson Cole) tries to keep the focus on Hillary’s record and not her public image, while also trying to minimize the influence of her larger-than-life husband, former President Bill (Kurt Knoedelseder). The dynamics between these two–Hillary and Bill–are the main focus of the story, as their different approaches to politics, life, and commitment to one another all come into play. There’s also a memorable appearance from Hillary’s main rival for the nomination, Barack (Jonathan Garland), who proves to have a few surprises of his own in store. For the most part, this is a character and relationship study, with a mostly comic tone, although there are some serious issues raised in terms of how men are treated as candidates vs. women, the importance of style vs. substance in the public mind, and more.

Another result of the fantasy aspect of this play is the decision not to pay too much attention to physical resemblance and mannerisms when portraying these characters. While Dennert is styled to bear a passing resemblance to Hillary, there is no effort to make Knoedelseder resemble the real Bill Clinton, either in physical appearance or voice, and all the actors have some leeway in terms of their portrayals. It’s not a caricature like a Saturday Night Live sketch, either, although there is a great deal of humor here, and lots of laughter from the audience. Here we see the characters as people, but also as “types”, in a sense, and the portrayals are excellent across the board, with Dennert leading the way in reflective, determined turn as Hillary. She and Knoedelseder as an initially affable, casually manipulative Bill have strong chemistry, driving the action of the play as well as its humor and more thoughtful moments. There’s excellent support from Cole as the increasingly exasperated Mark, as well as Garland in a small but memorable role as an especially clever, ambitious Barack. 

The technical aspects of the play work set the mood well, from director Tim Naegelin’s efficient set, to Jacob Winslow’s excellent lighting, to costume coordinator Tracey Newcomb’s well-chosen outfits for the cast. It’s the cast that really makes this show, especially, with strong timing and energy. This Hillary and Clinton as characters may or may not be what you expected, but what is clear is at WEPG is that this is a show that’s likely to provoke much thought and discussion. 

Tyson Cole, Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Hillary and Clinton at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 20, 2022

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Death Tax
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Bess Moynihan
Mustard Seed Theatre
May 17, 2019

Kim Furlow, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre has closed its 2018-2019 season with playwright Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax. Something of a morality play with a timely subject matter, the play offers thought-provoking drama and well-drawn characters. Still, although the cast and staging are strong, sometimes it seems the play is trying to say too many things at once.

Hnath is a celebrated and prolific playwright whose works include the Tony-nominated A Doll’s House, Part 2. Death Tax, first staged in 2012, was his first published play. As a script, it makes sense to me that this is a first play, considering its lofty ideas and strong characterization, but somewhat confusing and unbelievable goals and premise. The setup involves an ailing, aging nursing home patient named Maxine (Kim Furlow) and her primary nurse, Tina (Jeanitta Perkins), who narrates the play and sets up its five scenes. For most of the play, the plot focuses on Tina, a divorced immigrant who desperately wishes to be reunited with her young son, who is currently living with his father in Haiti. Maxine, who is estranged from and highly suspicious of her adult daughter (Kristen Strom), presents Tina with an outlandish theory and a shocking proposal that Tina sees as a way to eventually help her see her son again. Standing in the way of Tina’s plans is her supervisor and would-be romantic suitor, the socially awkward and insecure Todd (Reginald Pierre), who is willing to help Tina on his own terms. This sets up a chain of increasingly complicated moral dilemmas for Tina, who becomes even more conflicted after finally meeting Maxine’s daughter. As the scenes progress, more and more unpredictable events happen until the last scene, which features a twist that is at once clever and muddling to the rest of the story. It’s an intense drama for most of the production, but the last scene almost sends it too far into the realm of the absurd, although there are some thought-provoking points raised as well.

The casting here is this production’s greatest strength, led by Perkins in a dual role as the increasingly conflicted and mostly sympathetic Nurse Tina and as a businesslike social worker in one of the scenes. Furlow, as Maxine, is suitably cantankerous, doing the best she can with a character that’s difficult to like. Pierre has a similar issue with his primary role, as the manipulative, self-focused Todd, giving a strong performance in a largely unsympathetic role, and also in another more ambiguous role in another scene. Strom, as the daughter, impresses in what is perhaps the most surprising role in the play, lending much sympathy to the character and her plight.

Technically, Death Tax is well-presented, with a versatile modular set by Jamie Perkins, atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, excellent sound by Zoe Sullivan, and well-suited costumes by Jane Sullivan. Although there are some plot holes, the story raises a lot of timely questions concerning end-of-life care, parent-child relationships, sexual harassment and coercion, and more. Mustard Seed’s production is, as usual, thoughtfully staged and boasts an excellent local cast.

Reginald Pierre, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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A Doll’s House, Part 2
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Timothy Near
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 12, 2018

Caralyn Kozlowski, Michael James Reed
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

What would happen if Nora Helmer came back?  Would she even try to come back? And if so, when, and why? Those are questions that have been asked countless times since Henrik Ibsen’s classic and initially controversial play, A Doll’s House, first premiered in 1879. Well, now playwright Lucas Hnath has provided his own answers in the succinctly named A Doll’s House, Part 2. Produced on Broadway to critical acclaim in 2017, it’s now being produced here at the Rep, in a production that’s sure to provoke more questions and a lot of thought.

This play features four characters, all seen or mentioned in Ibsen’s original play. It’s 15 years later, and the once well-appointed Helmer home now shows signs of disarray, with chairs heaped in a corner, fading paint, and obvious spaces on the wall where paintings were once on display. The play begins with a knock at the door, which is eventually answered by the Helmers’ longtime housekeeper and nanny Anne Marie (Tina Johnson), who opens the door to find the long-absent Nora (Caryalyn Kozlowski) returned at long last, elegantly dressed and carrying herself with an initially confident, assertive air. Playwright Hnath has given her a believable backstory and a reason to return which I won’t go into here other than to say it makes perfect sense considering the characters, especially as they are presented here. She’s back in town to see Torvald (Michael James Reed), the husband she left in shock so many years before, with an urgent request that he’s reluctant to fulfill for his own personal reasons. What ensues is essentially a series of conversations, between Nora and Anne Marie, between Nora and Torvald, and also between Nora and Emmy (Andrea Abello), Nora’s youngest child and only daughter who was a small child when Nora left but is now a young adult. Things have changed lot since Nora left, both for her and for the family she left behind.

The characters and the issues presented are richly portrayed, in a sharp, confrontational and often darkly comic tone that brings out the contrast in the characters, their situations, and their conflicting views. Nora is a writer and activist now, with strong opinions about her own role in society and that of women in general, and the institution of marriage in particular. Even thought her portrayal in the play affirms her choice to leave, Hnath is also not shy in portraying the sometimes devastating consequences of her actions on those she left behind, as well as the sharp contrast between her own idealistic views of life and those of the young, newly engaged and also idealistic (in her own way) Emmy. The confrontations are personal as well as ideological, and as is to be expected, her scenes with Torvald are the most emotionally charged. This is a play of big ideas, strong personalities, and struggles to find an individual voice in the midst of strictly defined societal roles and expectations. Like its famous predecessor, this play is thought-provoking, to say the least, taking the issues from Ibsen’s play and casting them in the light of a more contemporary perspective, even though the setting remains in the 19th Century period.

There’s a great cast here, led by the dynamic, stage-commanding performance of Kozlowski as the determined, highly idealistic Nora. This is a woman who knows what she wants, but also struggles with the idea that not everyone wants what she wants. The always excellent Reed is also strong as a particularly stubborn Torvald, who is still nursing his old wounds from Nora’s departure and still seems confused and bewildered by her, for the most part. The scenes between these two are a dynamic highlight of the production. Abello is also memorable as Emmy, who although she is more traditionally-minded than her mother, in her own way is just as idealistic and stubborn as Nora. There’s also a great performance from Johnson as the loyal but exasperated Anne Marie, who is devoted to the family and still struggles to make sense of Nora’s departure as well as her return.

Director Timothy Near’s staging is brisk and physical, making the most of the actors’ energy and chemistry, as well as Scott C. Neale’s vivid, evocative set. This is a home in disrepair, sparsely furnished and seeming appropriately incomplete. The costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall are meticulously detailed, reflecting the characters with precision, from the confrontationally elegant Nora to the more strait-laced Torvald to the older, weary Anne Marie to the youthful, optimistic Emmy. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson and sound designer Rusty Wandall in setting and maintaining the mood and tone of the production.

This was a highly talked-about play when it debuted on Broadway, which is fitting considering it’s a sequel to a play that’s been talked about, thought about, and written about for almost 140 years. That time difference adds a lot of perspective to this piece, revisiting the original setting but with a tone change that provides a contemporary flair. With the Rep’s first-rate production values, energetic staging, and strong cast, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is sure to get audiences thinking, and talking.

Caralyn Kozlowski, Andrea Abello
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Doll’s House, Part 2 until November 4, 2018

 

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