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LaBute New Theater Festival 2019
Set One
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 5, 2019

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest installment of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival is now under way at the Gaslight Theatre. The first set of plays, which opened over the weekend, feature a variety of thought-provoking, timely issues, along with some memorable characters and strong performances. Here are some brief thoughts:

“Great Negro Works of Art”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Carly Rosenbaum, Jaz Tucker
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first play of the evening is the annual work by the Festival’s namesake playwright, Neil LaBute. It’s also the first of two plays in the set that deal in some way with what can be best described as “the perils of online dating”. That issue is more directly addressed in the set’s second play, but it’s an issue in this one as well, although other topics are more prominent. This pairing features Jerri (Carly Rosenbaum), who is white, and Tom (Jaz Tucker), who is black, who are meeting in person for the first time after communicating online. Jerri chose the location, which is an art exhibit with the same provocative title as the play itself. The main focus here is on the interplay between Jerri and Tom, who points out the similarity of their names to the well-known cartoon characters, as well as cringing at Jerri’s increasingly flippant and obtuse comments and ignorance not only of African-American culture, but also apparently of her own inability to listen and recognize her obtuseness. It’s an all-too-realistic encounter, which serves as a challenge to the systems in society that have historically recognized works of white artists over those of artists of color, as well as a challenge to individuals (especially white individuals) to recognize how they contribute to this disparity. The performances of both performers are strong, and the play is both an intense character study and a thought-provoking personalization of timely issues.

 

“Color Timer”

by Michael E. Long

Directed by Jenny Smith

Shane Signorino, Rachel Bailey, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

Or “The Perils of Online Dating, Part 2”. In this play, the couple in question features intellectual Aaron (Shane Signorino), and calculating reality TV production worker Stacy (Colleen Backer). They meet for their first date at a restaurant, and Stacy comes on strong, challenging Aaron with confrontational questions and a few shocking revelations. This play, more than the first, is a more direct examination of dating in the age of technology, as well as the challenges and perils of a tech and entertainment-oriented society in general. The highlight here is Backer’s gleefully brash and enigmatic performance, along with excellent performances by Signorino as a man put on the defensive and by Rachel Bailey as a well-meaning and seemingly clueless server. This one is especially chilling, and keeps you guessing up until the very end.

 

“Privilege”

by Joe Sutton

Directed by Jenny Smith

Chuck Brinkley, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play has a lot of ideas but probably needs some more work. The premise is compelling, as a young would-be lawyer, Peter (Spencer Sickmann), undergoes an unexpectedly aggressive line of questioning when applying for his law license. The unseen questioners are particularly interested in Peter’s family, including his uncle, Mark (Chuck Brinkley), to whom Peter turns for advice. His cousin, Amy (Carly Rosenbaum), another aspiring lawyer, who is the daughter of another of Peter’s uncles, experiences the same questioning, which turns out to relate to a violent incident from years before that involved Peter’s cousin (Amy’s brother), and that the family had done their best to cover up. Peter, for his part, doesn’t want to sweep it under the rug–he wants to find out what really happened, and to meet with the victim (Shane Signorino). There seems to be an element of symbolism here, concerning the family’s last name and some lines uttered by Mark and Amy, but the short nature of the play makes it difficult to cover the subject adequately. Still, the performances are compelling, especially from Sickmann as the determined Peter, and the use of lighting (by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo) is particularly effective.

 

“Kim Jong Rosemary”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Eli Hurwitz, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

I had been especially anticipating this play, considering its author, Carter W. Lewis, is the writer of my overall favorite play from a LaBute Festival (2017’s “Percentage America”). This one, though, certainly has its moments, but it isn’t quite as cohesive and effective as the previous play. It has a fascinating premise, as mother and daughter Rhonda (Jenny Smith) and Beth (Eli Hurwitz) talk about issues relating to Rhonda’s anger, which is physically represented by a giant, overstuffed bag that she pushes around on a dolly. Colleen Backer makes a memorable appearance as an incarnation of the playwright, explaining the reasons for writing the play and acknowledging contributions to the anger of Rhonda and women in general. It’s an interesting character-piece, with talking points about gender roles and identity, societal expectations, and more, but it leans a little on the self-indulgent side this time. Still, there are great performances all around, and the dialogue is witty and provides food for thought on several timely topics.

Overall, I would say this set is more cohesive and themed than I’ve seen before from the Festival. It continues to be an excellent showcase for new plays and playwrights. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Set Two.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 14, followed by Set Two from July 19-28, 2019.

 

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