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Posts Tagged ‘max and louie productions’

End of the Rainbow
by Peter Quilter
Directed by David New
Max & Louie Productions
June 22, 2018

Angela Ingersoll
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Judy Garland. She’s a legend, no question. She’s famous for her extraordinary voice, her film roles, and her turbulent life. In End of the Rainbow, the latest show from Max & Louie Productions, the focus is on Garland at the end of her too-short life. This play is also an excellent opportunity for the showcasing of two remarkable talents–the legendary Garland, of course, and also the wonderful performer who portrays her, Angela Ingersoll.

The Judy Garland we see in End of the Rainbow isn’t the star in her prime. Peter Quilter’s play focuses on a dramtatized and semi-fictionalized account of a six-week period of Garland’s life when she did a series of concerts at the “Talk of the Town” nightclub in London, portraying the famous performer near the end of her life. This Judy Garland is tired, in debt, addicted to alcohol and various prescription drugs, and engaged to the man who will become her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Kyle Hatley). In this story, as Garland and Deans arrive at a luxurious hotel suite that Garland proclaims “too small”, they are surprised by Anthony (Thomas Conroy), a British pianist who has worked with Garland before, but not recently. Still, he reveres her, even being familiar with her flaws as well as her still obvious talent. That great big voice is there, as is Garland’s sense of stage presence and audience rapport, but that rapport is challenged by Garland’s increasingly erratic behavior. Through the course of the play, we see Garland’s talent as well as her struggles, as well as a sort of battle between two men who try to show their love for her in different, and sometimes less than helpful, ways.

This is a tour-de-force kind of show. The role of Judy Garland is a demanding one, both in terms of talent and of energy. I’ve seen the Olivier and Tony Award nominated Tracie Bennett play the role impressively in London, and now this challenging, intense role is taken by Angela Ingersoll, who is every bit as impressive, if not more so. Ingersoll has the vocal stylings as close as I can imagine to Garland’s on hits like “Just In Time”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “The Man That Got Away”, “The Trolley Song”, and of course the iconic “Over the Rainbow”. She’s also got an explosive kind of energy, able to portray Garland in this era at her worst, as well as her best, allowing a youthful glow to shine through in a poignant scene in which Conroy’s caring and nigh-worshipful Anthony does her makeup before a show. Her chemistry is strong with the excellent, likable Conroy, and also with Hatley, memorable as the enigmatic, sometimes forceful, sometimes capitulating Deans. Paul Cereghino is also strong in a trio of roles–as a bewildered BBC radio presenter, a weary hotel porter, and an overworked assistant stage manager at the club.

The look and atmosphere of 1960s London is represented well in Dunsi Dai’s sumptuous, versatile set. It’s essentially just the well-apppointed hotel room, but part of the back wall opens up to reveal a backing band during the concert scenes, and additional furniture is added for a few scenes in various other locations. Patrick Huber’s lighting is stunning, accentuating the mood in the hotel scenes as well as the glitzy performance scenes. There are also appropriately suited period costumes by Bill Morey and Teresa Doggett. Garland’s glamourous concert outfits are especially memorable. The concert-within-a-play format is well-served by the excellent band and music direction by Conroy.

During the conclusion of End of the Rainbow, I realized that the day I saw the show, June 22, was the 49th anniversary of Judy Garland’s death. This play, while showing the performer at rock bottom but with glimmers of her earlier glory, may seem like an unusual memorial. It does have its moments of melodrama, but it’s the performances that make this show, and particularly Ingersoll’s seemingly boundless energy and evocation of the spirit of the legendary Garland. It’s a performance not to be missed.

Thomas Conroy, Angela Ingersoll, Kyle Hatley
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting End of the Rainbow at the Grandel Theatre until July 1, 2018

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Grey Gardens
Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Max & Louie Productions
July 9, 2016

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Grey Gardens, the offbeat musical based on a cult-hit 1975 documentary about two reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy’s, is making its St. Louis debut with a presentation by the ambitious Max & Louie Productions. Although the source material was also made into an HBO movie in 2009, I don’t think audiences need to be familiar with the story to enjoy this stunning, memorable production. The top-notch production values, ideal casting, and thoughtful direction makes this a show that should intrigue audiences regardless of whether they have seen either of the films.

I can make the above statement with some authority since, while I had heard of the films, I had never seen either before seeing this production. I had heard a few of the songs before, but aside from that and from knowing a little bit about the story on which the films and show are based, I went into this production with a fresh perspective, and I’m glad that this excellent production could be my introduction to the show. It’s the story of a mother and daughter–Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” Beale, who were at the height of New England society in the first part of the 20th Century, but by the 1970s had become reclusive and lived together surrounded by clutter and cats in their once-grand mansion, Grey Gardens, The show’s two acts show the audience their existence at two important eras of their lives, the 1940’s and the 1970s. Debby Lennon plays “big” Edith in the 1940s and older “Little” Edie in the 1970s, with Donna Weinsting playing “Big” Edith in the 70s and Madeline Purches playing the younger “Little” Edie in the 40s.  It’s a depiction of these women’s close but volatile relationship and the eccentricities of both.

In a way, this is almost two plays, although Act 2 is essentially dependent on Act 1 as background. Act 1 shows Edith Bouvier Beale in her prime, as she holds court in her palatial mansion planning an engagement party for Edie and her fiance’, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), although despite her daughter’s wishes, Edith intends to make the party more of a concert with herself as the star, accompanied by her ever-present pianist, George Gould Shaw (Terry Meddows). While Edie and Joe hope for the future, Edith lives in a somewhat deluded version of the present, where her ever absent husband is just “too busy” to be around, although she clings to the hope that he will be there to attend the party. The future is also represented by Edith’s young nieces Jackie (Phoebe Desilets) and Lee (Carter Eiseman) who are encouraged to “Marry Well” and fit into society by their domineering grandfather, Edith’s father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Tom Murray). All the grand plans don’t go entirely as planned, however, and the result of what happens is seen in Act 2, where the mother and daughter are still living in the shell of a mansion and “Little” Edie clearly resents being tied to her mother, who has turned her attentions to the cats and to a hippie-ish young man named Jerry (also Bonfiglio) while the ghosts of the 1940s characters remain as a chorus of echoes from the past. It’s a difficult play to describe, and I don’t want to say too much so as to spoil it, but there’s a lot to see here and this wonderful cast makes it fascinating to watch.

The music ranges from more classical to more popular sounding songs, and the lead part of Act 1 Edith/Act 2 Little Edie is a demanding one, in terms of acting as well as musically. Fortunately, this production has the marvelous Debby Lennon, who gives a commanding performance, holding court as the imperious Edith in the 1940s and as the resentful, regretful, offbeat Little Edie of the 70s. There’s a suggestion of emotional/mental challenges for both women, although Edith seems much more assured in Act 1, trying to control the life of her only daughter, the excellent Purches as the desperately ambitious young Little Edie. In Act 2, when Lennon becomes the haunted, erratic older version of Little Edie, the superb Weinsting takes over as a sadder but not necessarily wiser Edith. Mother and daughter in Act 2 have a caustic, if dependent, relationship, and this is expertly played by both actresses and staged well by director Annamaria Pileggi, as silence and deliberation becomes as important in communication as the speaking. There are also strong performances from Meddows as the jaded, snarky pianist Gould, Murray as the affable but domineering Major Bouvier, and Desilets and Eiseman in winning performances as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier. Bonfiglio and Omega Jones are also memorable in dual roles–Bonfiglio as the ambitious Joe Kennedy and as the sweet slacker Jerry, and Jones as the Beale’s butler Brooks in the first act, and as his son the groundskeeper Brooks, Jr. in the second. The whole ensemble is excellent, working together well and presenting the material with clarity, ably supporting Lennon and Weinsting, whose performances are the anchor of this production.

The production values here are first rate, with a meticulously detailed set by Dunsi Dai that allows is appropriately luxurious in the first act, and then dressed down in Act 2 to show the mansion’s state of disrepair. There are also colorful, ideally suited costumes by Jennifer JC Krajicek and hair and wig design by Emma Bruntrager , highlighting the high style of the rich elites in the first act, and reflecting more eccentric personal styles of the Edies in the second. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is used to excellent effect to help set the scene and tone of each era.

The overall tone of this piece is melancholy, with shades of lost hope, regret, and emotional dependence. Still, these are truly formidable women regardless of their circumstances, and their story is vividly portrayed here. Max & Louie’s shows are always memorable, and this one is no exception. It’s an extraordinary work of theatre, not to be missed.

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Production  is presenting Grey Gardens in the Wool Studio Theatre the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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Sublime Intimacy
by Ken Page
Directed by Ken Page
Max & Louie Productions
December 11, 2015

J. Samuel Davis, Bethany Barr, Alfredo Solivan Photo by Patrick Huber Max & Louie Productions

J. Samuel Davis, Bethany Barr, Alfredo Solivan
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Ken Page is something of a living legend in St. Louis theatre. A veteran Broadway actor and singer, Page has become a fixture at the Muny and in the local theatre community, especially since moving back here to his hometown a few years ago. Page has now taken much of his own memory and life experience, as well as the stories of friends, and portrayed them in a new play, Sublime Intimacy, which is currently being presented in an impressive, ambitious staging by Max & Louie Productions.

Page, who also directed this play, explains in his directors’ note in the program that he was inspired by the stories of friends over the years who have relayed their stories of searching for, and occasionally achieving, a level of connection and intimacy that goes beyond the sexual into a more spiritual and emotional level. That’s the “sublime intimacy” of the play’s title, and Page’s stories revolve largely around dance. Using one dancer (Alfredo Solivan) to portray several different characters representing the “muse” or “ultimate love” or “unattainable ideal” of various figures in the play, Page relates the stories as narrated by his obvious fictionalized representation, Tim Pace (J. Samuel Davis).  He takes us into the world of actors and artists in early 1970s St. Louis, 1970s and ’80s New York, Los Angeles in the 1940’s and 1990’s, along with a brief trip to Paris in 1980 and a return to St. Louis in the early 2000’s. He follows a group of gay men including the initially troubled young artist Gene Donovan (Michael Cassidy Flynn) and his intellectual friends Don Taylor (John Flack) and Bill Ross (Reginald Pierre), as well as other friends also played by Flack and Pierre at various moments in time. There’s also Katharine Reilly (Bethany Hart), a theatre teacher and actress who seems to find herself frequently falling in love with gay men, including her childhood friend Michael, represented by Solivan who also portrays Gene’s artistic “muse’–a Washington University dancer named Steve, as well as important figures in stories told by Don and later Tim.

Perhaps this play’s greatest strength is its extremely vivid sense of time and place. Page deftly transports his audience back to the St. Louis academic community in 1972, as well as to its other times and cities with vivid description and characterization. Especially powerful are the experiences of Gene, a young gay man learning to accept his sexuality, as well as Don, an older gay man remembering what it was like to be a Hollywood movie extra in the 1940’s with a strong attraction to a dancer from a movie filming at the same studio. Katharine’s stories, that interweave with those of Gene and Tim, are also memorable, as is Tim’s brief interaction with a dancer he meets in Paris. The dance sequences are beautifully danced by Solivan, who makes a believable representation of the various objects of affection, desire, and inspiration for the characters. Sometimes the play tends to get a little talky, but for the most part it’s a fascinating trip through time, place, and imagination, anchored by some excellent performances–especially by Davis, Barr, and Flack, who has perhaps the most memorable and sensitively portrayed moments in the play recounting his Hollywood story.

Technically, the production is imaginative and cleverly staged, with a striking, versatile set by Dunsi Dai. There are also marvelously evocative period costumes by Teresa Doggett, and a truly excellent use of music, consisting of some popular music of the 1970’s and atmospheric original music by Henry Palkes. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also impressive, contributing a somewhat ethereal atmosphere to the production and helping to maintain the overall lyrical tone.

It’s obvious from seeing Sublime Intimacy that Ken Page’s memory is vivid, as are his imagination and his artistic sensibility. This isn’t a flawless work–there are some moments that seemed slow at times–but for the most part it’s highly emotional, excellently acted, and fascinating to watch. It’s a strong original effort by Page and company, and it’s well worth seeing and experiencing.

Alfredo Solivan, John Flack Photo by Dunsi Dai Max & Louie Productions

Alfredo Solivan, John Flack
Photo by Dunsi Dai
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions, in association with Ken Page, presents Sublime Intimacy at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until December 20, 2015.

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The Killing of Sister George
by Frank Marcus
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
July 12, 2015

Shannon Nara, Erin Kelley, Lavonne Byers, Cooper Shaw Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Max & Louie Productions

Shannon Nara, Erin Kelley, Lavonne Byers, Cooper Shaw
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Max & Louie Productions

What a difference 50 years makes.  The Killing of Sister George apparently caused quite a scandal when it debuted in 1965, due to its then-daring subject matter. Today, the play isn’t as shocking as it would have been half a century ago, but it’s still relevant in many ways. In fact, there are issues in this play that are probably more noticable now because of the lack of “scandal”.  As presented by Max  & Louie Productions, it’s an ideally cast production with a colorful 1960’s aesthetic and sharp, incisive humor.

The title of the play refers to June Buckridge (Lavonne Byers), an actress in a BBC radio drama who is so invested in her character, the moped-riding small-town nurse Sister George, that her friends actually call her “George”.  She also frequently talks about the characters on the show as if they’re real. George shares a flat with the younger, seemingly childlike Alice “Childie” McNaught (Shannon Nara). The two are obviously romantically involved, although that’s not explicitly stated. George is growing increasingly insecure because she thinks her character on the show may be killed off, and she’s also extremely jealous and possessive of Childie, who she apparently is afraid will cheat on her with a man. When one of the BBC executives, the prim and scheming Mrs. Mercy Croft (Erin Kelley) comes to call, George is sure that her days on the show are numbered, and Childie is concerned about her own security in various ways. Their volatile relationship is witnessed by their neighbor, the good-natured self-professed psychic Madame Xenia (Cooper Shaw), who seems to genuinely like George and distrust Childie.

The show is, appropriately, not updated for setting. It’s very much of a 1960s sensibility, and so the setting and costumes are all appropriately in-period. The production values are meticulously detailed, particularly in the costumes, designed by Bess Moynihan. Each character’s costumes reflect their personality with precision, from George’s dowdy attire, to Mrs. Mercy Croft’s severe, chic suits and Madame Xenia’s more colorful and eccentric garb. Childie’s outfits are a highlight, representing the mod 60s styles with wild, colorful patterns and stylish accessories. Dunsi Dai’s detailed set is suitably appointed to suggest the era, as well. There’s also excellent sound design by Michael B. Perkins, and an entertaining representation of George’s radio show, Applehurst.

It was the same-sex relationship aspects of the show that apparently caused such an outrage 50 years ago, although now that just plays as a matter of fact. Actually, I wonder if the other issues represented in the play have been brought into sharper focus simply because the shock value isn’t as apparent anymore. It’s still a caustic, dark comedy portraying an extremely dysfunctional relationship and characters who, for the most part, aren’t easy to sympathize with. It seems everyone has her own agenda, and the machinations just get more and more obvious as the play goes along.  Among the issues dealt with are those of personal identity, job security, age vs. youth, and art vs. marketability in the entertainment industry. The very nature of and motivations for relationships and friendship is also explored, as are the consequences of actors’ identifying too closely with their roles. Throughout, the tone is one of sarcastic, biting humor as well as some forays into despair.

Byers as George is a strong anchor to this superb cast. With a commanding presence and brisk manner, she presents George’s authoritarian nature, tempering it with a sense of obvious vulnerability, as well. She’s well-matched by Nara as the deceptively childlike Childie, who seems fairly innocuous at first but becomes increasing complex as the story unfolds. She and Byers have strong chemistry as a bickering pair, with clear affection as well as suspicion, weariness, and strong hints of fear. Their “Laurel and Hardy” routine in Act 2 is a memorable tragicomic moment. Kelley also gives a memorable performance, lending a palpable air of menace to Mrs. Mercy’s outwardly polite and cheerful manner, and Shaw is warm and engaging as the play’s most likable character and possibly George’s only real friend, Madame Xenia. All four performers work together well, maintaining the sense of pacing and energy that this show requires.

I’m impressed by the overall authenticity  of this production, set in London in the 1960s. The accents are very well done, and the sense of time and place is very believable.  It’s a play full of well-drawn characters and challenging situations, with suitably memorable performances. Even though its premise is not as shocking as it would have been 50 yeears ago, this production still feels current and challenging in ways that may not have been as apparent in 1965. It’s an incisive and sometimes brutal character study, making for an intense and thought-provoking theatrical experience.

Shannon Nara, Lavonne Byers Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Max & Louie Productions

Shannon Nara, Lavonne Byers
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Max & Louie Productions

The Killing of Sister George is being presented by Max & Louie Productions, onstage at the Wool Studio Theatre, A & E Building of the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex. It runs until July 26th, 2015. 

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Chancers
by Robert Massey
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
October 30, 2014

Nathan Bush, Jared Sanz-Agero, Pamela Reckamp Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Nathan Bush, Jared Sanz-Agero, Pamela Reckamp
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Forbidden fruit.  It’s a concept that’s at least as old as the Old Testament book of Genesis, and has been represented in many different ways throughout the years. The idea of wanting something you can’t have, and the lengths a person will go to in order to obtain the object of their desire, is dealt with in Robert Massey’s Irish comedy Chancers, which is currently being produced by Max & Louie Productions at the Kranzberg Theatre in Grand Center. Here, the object of temptation is that ubiquitous symbol of modern pie-in-the-sky optimism, the lottery ticket. It’s a dark comedy that explores some of the baser elements of the human condition, and it’s been given a sharp, well-focused treatment by Max & Louie’s excellent cast and creative team.

Aiden (Nathan Bush) and Dee (Pamela Reckamp), a married couple who own a small convenience store, are suffering the effects of a downturn in the Irish economy. While Aiden struggles to keep their store financially afloat, and while Dee prepares for an important job interview, both are worried about how they will continue to make ends meet and support themselves and their two young sons.  Meanwhile, the wealthy, haughty customer Gertie (Donna Weinsting) serves as constant reminder to Aiden that life isn’t fair.  When Aiden discovers that a lottery ticket he has checked for Gertie is a big winner and then tells her it’s not, he is presented with the dilemma of whether to tell Gertie the truth. A further complication comes when he seeks counsel from his opportunist friend JP (Jared Sanz-Agero), who always seems to have one get rich quick scheme after another.  JP’s rather extreme plan for obtaining the ticket throws Aiden for a loop, and when JP then brings Dee into the discussion, the situation gets even more challenging.  The action takes a little while to get going since the set-up takes a while, although the story really starts moving in Act 2, barreling forward towards an open-ended conclusion that challenges the audience to think about what we would do in this situation.

I’m struck by the cleverness of this script, which is being given a US premiere production here.  With sharp dialogue and characters who manage to serve as individuals and archetypes at the same time, the material presents a strong challenge for actors and director.  The story here is a fairly clear twist on Adam and Eve, with JP as the serpent.  There’s even an apple very prominently featured in a key scene early in Act 2.  Bush makes an appealing protagonist as the conflicted Aiden, who’s a decent guy just trying to figure out how to make his life make sense in a world that has become increasingly corrupted by greed, which is represented by the smug Gertie, played with much attitude and energy by Weinsting. Reckamp, as Dee, effectively portrays the frustration and conflict as she’s torn between siding with her husband or with the scheming JP. Sanz-Agero is full of forceful energy and wily manipulation as JP. His scenes with Bush and Reckamp are full of fierce humor and biting social commentary, as well as a very real sense of desperation driving his actions.  These three characters are all desperate in their own ways, and that desperation is well-portrayed by this strong combination of actors.

The world of the play is very well-realized in the meticulously detailed set, designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The director and design team obviously did their research, as evidenced by the photos of actual Irish convenience stores on display in the hallway outside the theatre, and by the well-appointed set, which strives for the utmost authenticity down to the last little candy bar and bag of chips on display.  The Lotto sign with its tempting catch-phrase of “it could be you” is an effective an omnipresent reminder of the theme of this play, and the constant sense of temptation resulting from the hope that a life-changing jackpot may be waiting just around the corner. The consistency of the Irish accents, courtesy of the cast and dialect coach Katy Keating, is also to be commended. The immersive quality of the production even extended to the handing out of free scratcher lottery tickets on opening night.

The authenticity of the production values and portrayals adds depth to the extreme sharpness of the comedy and the situation. Some of the humor here is downright brutal, but so is the desperate situation in which these characters are living. The situation here may be extreme, but it’s also grounded in  reality. Anyone who has bought a lottery tickets knows that fantastical sense of “what if” that comes with the purchase, even when, inevitably, those tickets don’t win big prizes.  This play uses dark humor to portray a universal aspect of the human condition–that of temptation and the dilemma how to handle it. Max & Louie’s production is at turns hilarious, shocking, and thought-provoking. It’s a memorable staging of a challenging, incisive play. It’s very much worth taking the chance to see.

Nathan Bush, Pamela Reckamp, Donnie Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Nathan Bush, Pamela Reckamp, Donnie Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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Quills
by Doug Wright
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
August 2, 2014

Ted Gregory Photo by John Lamb Max and Louie Productions

Ted Gregory
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

It may seem strange, at first thought, that when looking to make a statement about artistic expression vs. censorship, playwright Doug Wright chose as his subject one of the most incendiary figures in the history of world literature.  French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Sade lived and wrote in a manner that sparked much controversy, and the literary value of his prurient writings is still debated to this day.  Wright could easily have written a more modern story about censorship, avoiding the association with the controversial Sade.  Still, after seeing Max & Louie Productions’ impeccably staged production of Wright’s Quills, it becomes more clear why Wright chose to convey his message in this manner. It’s a story of extremes–of how the extreme desire to suppress the extreme ideas of another person can often bring out the most extreme and unsavory aspects of one’s own human nature. Expertly acted and presented, this production conveys its ideas clearly and memorably.

The story here is more symbolic than factual.  While the basic facts of Sade’s imprisonment at Charenton Asylum are true, the actual situation portrayed here is Wright’s invention. When Sade’s estranged wife Reenee Pelagie (Stacie Knock) is increasingly shunned by society because of her association with the notorious Marquis, she appeals to the asylum’s newly appointed director, Doctor Royer-Collard (David Wassilak) to stop her husband’s incessant and inflammatory writing, offering generous financial compensation as incentive.  The doctor, renowned for his commitment to traditional morality and his preference for more brutal methods of curbing the behavior of his patients, enlists the more benevolent Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez) in implementing his plans to silence the Marquis.  Meanwhile, Sade (Ted Gregory) has been enjoying relatively lenient treatment, indulging in his literary pursuits in his well-appointed cell, sipping wine and sharing his bawdy stories with the asylum’s kind-hearted seamstress, Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), for whom the Abbe harbors an attraction.  Through various inducements, the doctor uses the Abbe’s genuine concern about the well-being of the patients to induce him into more and more extreme methods of enforcing the ban on the Marquis’s writing, all the while Sade continues to seek to express his ideas with increasingly brutal consequences. There’s also a subplot about the doctor’s engaging an architect (Charlie Barron) to design a palatial home for his not quite virtuous wife (also Mickey), more as a way to keep her out of the public spotlight and save his own reputation than for her benefit.

There are several messages in this play, with the central one being that externally imposed censorship of art is not only bad–it doesn’t actually work in the long run, and the subject of the censorship often becomes much more well-known than he would have been (as echoed by Wright in the audience talk-back after the show). Also, even if the works are stopped, the thoughts behind them continue, and can only grow more and more insidious. Morality, for people like the doctor, becomes as Sade declares “a convenience”, and a means with which to exercise control. The Abbe becomes something of a surrogate for the audience, as his own struggles with maintaining his own principles in the face of pressure reflect the modern struggle to find balance between artistic expression, societal expectations and personal integrity.  Amid characters like the amoral Sade and the conflicted Abbe, the real villain here is the doctor, who seeks to further his own agenda while keeping his own hands “clean”, and more damage is done from the efforts to suppress the Marquis’s writings than had been done when he had been provided all the paper and quills he needed.

Wright’s script is masterfully written, with sharp dialogue, well drawn characters and even some fantastical elements thrown in for good measure, and director Brooke Wright’s production expresses the script as ideally as I can imagine.  With strong technical aspects such as Cyndi Lohrmann’s richly appointed costumes, Dunsi Dai’s appropriately atmospheric set, and Maureen Berry’s expert lighting design, the story comes to vivid life as the mood shifts from a more genteel, light start to a noticeably darker, more primal and horrific atmosphere as the play continues. The storytelling is enhanced especially in the remarkable performances of the uniformly excellent cast, with Gregory as Sade and Rodriguez as the Abbe being the standouts.  I’ve seen Rodriguez in many shows around St. Louis, and he’s never been better than he is here, making the struggle between his compassion, the doctor’s directions, and his own personal issues readily apparent.  Gregory is all oily charm as Sade, and regardless about what one may think about his writings, as the efforts to stop his writing become more and more intense,  it’s difficult not to sympathize with him in his increasingly desperate situation. These two are the focal point of this play, although there is not a weak link in this cast. Wassilak is memorable as the steely, unflappable doctor, and Mickey and Barron both shine in dual roles–Mickey as the sweet young seamstress and as the doctor’s lascivious wife, and Barron as the dandified architect and as brutish asylum patient who participates in an ill-fated scheme of Sade’s.

This play isn’t always easy to watch, as situations grow more and more grave and extreme and the outcome is increasingly unsavory.  Still, it’s an intriguing study of the effects of censorship, hypocrisy and morality-as-control, as well as the power of artistic expression. It’s a worthy topic for thought and discussion, and regardless of what one thinks about Sade as a person or as a writer, the extremity of his situation makes for an ideal setting to explore the many angles of this topic. Kudos to Max & Louie Productions for bringing this fascinating play to the St. Louis audience, especially in such a well-crafted production.  In addition to entertaining, art can instruct, anger, provoke, inspire and inform; and this play manages to do all of those things in the course of an evening. While it’s  not for all audiences (leave the kids at home), it’s a remarkable theatrical achievement.

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb Max  & Louie Productions

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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