Posts Tagged ‘maggie ryan’

Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
October 19, 2018


Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Elizabeth Townsend, Gwendolyn Wotawa, Chrissy Steele Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company


Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a popular play, apparently. It has already been performed in St. Louis in an excellent production by another theatre company earlier this year, and it seems to be a favorite of various theatre companies across the country. Now, it’s onstage at the Kranzberg Arts Center in a heartwarming, superbly staged and ideally cast production by Insight Theatre Company.

The show tells the story of pioneering women in the field of astronomy, and particularly of Henrietta Leavitt (Gwendolyn Wotawa), who takes a job as a “computer” recording data at Harvard in the late 1890s and eventually makes a discovery that has far-reaching influence on the field of astronomy. She also gets to know her co-workers, fellow computers Williamina Fleming (Chrissy Steele) and Annie Cannon (Elizabeth Townsend), forming a strong bond over the years as the three do their jobs and struggle for recognition in a male-dominated field. The story also highlights Leavitt’s relationship with her sister Margaret (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who in many ways is the opposite of Henrietta, even though they have a close bond. While Henrietta dreams of the stars and focuses on her career, the musically gifted Margaret stays home, marries and has children, encouraging Henrietta in her work but still hoping she will come visit her and their minister father more often. Although there is also a subplot involving a romantic attachment to another co-worker, Peter Shaw (Alex Freeman), the play continually makes the point that, for Henrietta, her true love is her work. The close female friendships and bond with her sister are important, as well, but ultimately, she focuses on the stars and wants to leave a legacy for those who follow after her. It’s a strong script, with well-defined characters and relationships, with an overarching theme of persistence in going after one’s goals and defying expectations.

The casting here is especially strong, with the relationship between Henrietta and Margaret a dramatic highlight, as Wotawa and Theby-Quinn give their characters a great deal of credibility. Both give thoughtful, energetic portrayals, with Theby-Quinn’s obvious musical ability on display as she plays and sings hymns and classical style music on the piano. Wotawa’s Leavitt is determined, persistent, and relatable, as well. In addition, Townsend as the tough, iconoclastic Annie and Steele as the encouraging, also determined Williamina are also excellent, as is Freeman as the initially incredulous but increasing supportive Shaw, and his scenes with Wotawa are especially strong. With such a small cast, ensemble chemistry is especially important, and this production has that, bringing the characters to life in relatable, believable relationships and motivations.

The small black box space at the Kranzberg is impressively transformed into a dynamic field of stars through the excellent set design by Constance Vale. Rob Lippert’s lighting is highly effective as well in helping achieve a starry effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer James Blanton and costume designer Julian King, who outfits the cast in period-appropriate costumes that are well-suited to the characters’ personalities. The sense of time and place, as well as the passage of time, is well communicated here, as the story covers several decades in the characters’ lives.

As popular as this play is, and as recently as it has been performed in St. Louis, you may be wondering why you would need to see this production if you’ve seen it before. My answer to that question is this–excellence. It’s a well-told tale impressively portrayed, with especially strong performances by a standout cast. Even if you’ve seen this play before, this production is impressive in its own right. It’s a small cast show with a big scope, highlighting an important historical figure who deserves recognition, and boasting a truly wonderful cast. Go see it!

Gwendolyn Wotawa, Alex Freeman Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Silent Sky at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 4, 2018.

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Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Maggie Ryan
October 14, 2017

John O’Hagan, Gwen Wotawa, Elliot Auch, Kent Coffel
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is closing out their latest season with a comic mystery that’s familiar in more ways than one.  Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is another telling of a well-known story about a well-known literary detective, but its style is also somewhat familiar, calling to mind another popular theatrical comedy thriller. At Insight, this story benefits from an impressive cast and some clever staging.

The first thing that came to my mind when reading about the structure of this show wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but another popular mystery story that’s been given the comic theatrical treatment, The 39 Steps. Like that popular and often-staged play, Baskerville is staged with a small cast, and with some of the cast members playing a wide variety of characters. It also has some similar staging conventions and pacing. Still, it stands well on its own without appearing merely derivative. The story is based on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more well known Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The characters of Holmes (John O’Hagan) and Dr. Watson (Kent Coffel) are central, especially Watson in this staging. All the other characters are played by three performers, billed as Actor 1 (Elliot Auch), Actor 2 (Ed Reggi), and Actress 1 (Gwen Wotawa). The story follows Holmes and Watson as they investigate a strange case involving a murder on a moor bordering a country estate and an old family legend of a gigantic killer hound. The estate’s heir is transplanted Texan Sir Henry Baskerville (Reggi), who gets a note warning him to stay away from the moor. Watson then goes with him to his newly inherited estate to try to figure out what’s going on. Much intrigue, scheming, and hilarity follows, as the various characters and would-be suspects are introduced, and as the plot is further complicated by an unexpected romantic entanglement.

Although this is billed as a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s actually Watson who seems to get the most stage time, and Coffel plays his role with charm and energy. O’Hagan is also excellent as the brilliant but evasive Holmes. The other three players, each playing a number of roles, are excellent as well, with Auch displaying a variety of accents in various roles ranging from Baskerville neighbor Dr. Mortimer, to mysterious and butterfly-obsessed Jack Stapleton to a young informant helping Holmes. Reggi plays the friendly but bewildered Baskerville and a number of other roles, including the gruff Inspector Lestrade, among others. There’s some particularly clever staging involving an extremely quick character change by Reggi that provokes a big laugh from the audience. Wotawa rounds out the cast in a variety of roles ranging from various women involved in the case–particularly Beryl, who becomes involved with Sir Henry–as well as a young boy who helps Holmes gather information in London. The staging involves a lot of quick costume changes, as well as some self-referential humor, and it’s all performed with a lot of enthusiasm by this energetic ensemble.

The set, designed by Matt Stuckel, is versatile and works well for the quickly moving nature of this play. With movable set pieces and a prominent video screen, the locations can be set easily and moved around with speed. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Connor Meers and strong sound design by Robin Weatherall, providing the various affects needed for the situations, from comic to spooky. All the technical elements work together well to help tell this story and facilitate the high-energy, always moving style of the show, as well as the traditional “Sherlock Holmes” look.

Baskerville is a lot of fun.  It’s a well-timed and cleverly staged production that provides a lot of opportunities for versatility among the cast members. It’s Sherlock Holmes, but not like you may expect. It’s a memorable way for Insight to close a successful season.

Ed Reggi, Kent Coffel, Elliot Auch
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the .Zack Theatre until October 29, 2017



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The Spitfire Grill
Music and Book by James Valco, Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley
Based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
August 23, 2014

Janet Wells, Troy Turnipseed, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Janet Wells, Troy Turnipseed, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s latest musical offering is a charming little musical called The Spitfire Grill, which is somewhat loosely based on the 1996 film of the same name. It’s an inspiring story of second chances, reconciliation and redemption, with engaging characters and an engaging story. It’s a small,somewhat quirky show, and for the most part, Insight has presented it in an entertaining way, emphasizing its memorable characters.

Set in the rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin, The Spitfire Grill follows Percy Talbott (Sam Auch), a young woman from West Virginia who has just been released from prison and who comes to Gilead to start a new life.  Her parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter (Pete Winfrey) helps her get a job as a waitress at the town’s only restaurant, after which the show is named. Along the way, we meet such characters as the grill’s widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah, and her embittered nephew Caleb (Troy Turnipseed), who feels unappreciated by his family. There’s also Shelby (Jenni Ryan), Caleb’s neglected wife who finds a new sense of purpose working at the grill; as well as the earnest town sheriff Joe (Pete Winfrey), who finds himself attracted to Percy;  Effy (Amy Loui), the town’s postmistress and chief busybody; and a mysterious Visitor (played at this performance by Paul Balfe), whom Percy befriends. The grill has been put up for sale by its widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah (Janet Wells), who hasn’t been able to find a buyer in ten years, but when Percy suggests a raffle/essay contest with the prize being the grill, a sense of renewed hope begins to build, many long-kept secrets are revealed, and various relationships are challenged.

This is a show that’s about its characters more than anything else, this production has cast them well. Auch gives a strong, sympathetic and vulnerable performance as Percy, displaying a strong, clear voice with a country-style twang on her songs, such as he wistful “A Ring Around the Moon” and the hopeful “Shine”.  She also harmonizes well with Ryan on perhaps the show’s best number “The Colors of Paradise”. Auch, Ryan and Wells’ gruff but kindhearted Hannah form the backbone of this show, displaying a convincing bond as their characters’ friendship grows. Winfrey gives an amiable performance as Joe, and Turnipseed manages to infuse the difficult Caleb with some sympathy.  There’s also a strong comic performance from Loui as the meddlesome Effy, and Balfe shows a strong, gentle presence in his silent role as the Visitor.  Even though the story takes a little while to get moving, the cast manages to find their energy and make these characters and this story interesting and intriguing, with some memorable moments including the Act Two opening number “Come Alive Again”, various character-establishing songs and a stirring finale.

I find the show somewhat strangely structured, in that the first act is mostly sung-through while the second act has more spoken dialogue, and the plot doesn’t really get moving until about the middle of Act One.  Also, some songs are more memorable than others. Still the cast performs well and the story gets more and more involving as the show goes along.  The technical aspects are handled well, too, for the most part. Aside from the issues with volume (especially in the singing) that have been apparent at every Insight show I’ve seen, the look and atmosphere of the show is portrayed well. Kyra Bishop’s set and Jeff Behm’s lighting, along with Tracy Newcome’s costumes, work together well to set the tone of the piece. There’s also an excellent band led by Catherine Kopff, making the most of show’s score even though they do occasionally overpower the voices of the singers.

I didn’t know much about this show beyond its basic premise before seeing this production at Insight.  I think director Maggie Ryan and her cast and crew have done a commendable job in bringing out the most important aspect of this show–the humanity of its characters. It’s not a big, flashy show. It’s a simple story simply told, with an inspiring message of hope and redemption for these quirky and complex characters. It’s a story with warmth, music, a lot of personality, and most of all, heart.

Pete Winfrey, Sam Auch Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Pete Winfrey, Sam Auch
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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