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Judgment at Nuremberg
by Abby Mann
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company at the Missouri History Museum
April 27, 2018

Cast of Judgment at Nuremberg
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company usually puts on plays with small casts–often just Hanrahan himself and maybe one other cast member. The company’s latest production, though, is anything but small. Presented at the Missouri History Museum from April 25-29th, Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg recalls an important time in world history that is essential to remember. With a large cast and excellent staging, this production is one I wish had been given a longer run.

The play is a fictionalized version of one of the historic Nuremberg Trials that took place in Germany after World War II. Various defendents involved in different ways in the Nazi regime and the Holocaust were put on trial, with those convicted being sentenced to prison or death.  The trial represented in this play involves three German judges (Terry TenBroek as Emil Hahn, Hal Morgan as Frederick Hoffstetter, and Steve Callahan as Ernst Janning), who are charged with playing various roles in supporting the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi government from the bench, including ordering sterilizations of political dissidents and sending Jewish defendants and others to concentration camps. The cast of 16 is led by Hanrahan as Judge Dan Haywood, a North Carolina jurist who has been brought in to preside over the trial along with Judge Curtis Ives (Jack Corey) and Judge Ken Norris (Charles Heuvelman). The story centers largely on Haywood as he learns about the cases and defendants and other issues involved, such as international and national pressures trying to influence the outcome. Other key players include the passionate American prosecutor Colonel Tad Parker (Chuck Winning) and determined German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe (Cassidy Flynn). There’s also Frau Margarete Bertholt (Rachel Tibbetts), a widow who used to live in the house in which Haywood is staying, and who is soon revealed to have a highly personal connection to the trials.  Through the course of the play, issues of  personal and corporate responsibility, and national loyalty vs. conscience are raised, among other issues, as the German judges are brought face-to-face with witnesses to their actions and reacting in different ways, from self-justification to acknowledging guilt.

This is a somewhat sprawling play, with a lot going on at once and a large cast to keep track of. Structure-wise, it’s reminscent of a lot of other mid-century courtroom dramas, and the play’s program design (graphic design by Dottie Quick) even has a look and style suggestive of this time period. The drama has a lot of players, but the focus is mostly on the courtroom, and the staging here is engaging and energetic, with a cast of excellent performers that bring dimension and energy to their roles. Hanrahan is a good focus figure as Heywood, who functions in many ways as a surrogate for the audience, learning about the events and the people involved, and the history of the city of Nuremberg itself, as the story unfolds. Hanrahan’s Haywood has a kind of easy forthrightness about him that works very well in this role. He is surrounded by an excellent cast as well, including Callahan as the most introspective and remorseful of the defendents, Janning; and also Winning and Flynn as the equally fiery and determined opposing attorneys. There are also excellent turns from Tibbetts as the proud, grieving and somewhat enigmatic Frau Berthtolt, and Micahel B. Perkins, Francesca Ferrari, and Steve Garrett as key witnesses in the trial. The entire ensemble (also including Mark Abels, Jaz Tucker, Charlotte Dougherty, and Alex Fyles) is strong, with memorable performances all around, calling attention to the important and weighty issues brought up in this play–issues that are still relevant today.

The production design serves the play well, with Jonah Sheckler’s fairly simple set impressively augmented by Michael B. Perkins’s excellent video projections. There’s also crisp, focused lighting from Bess Moynihan as well as clear sound by Ellie Schwetye and well-suited period specific costumes by Sarah Porter. The overall atmosphere of a 1940’s military trial is well maintained in this fascinating production.

This is a show that could have run a little longer. I’m assuming the Missouri History Museum had limited availability, but it’s a shame that such a well-staged, powerful production like this couldn’t have had more performances. A production like this deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

Chuck Winning, Cassidy Flynn and cast
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

 

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Cast of The Awakening Photo by  St. Louis Actors' Studio

Cast of The Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin
Adapted for the Stage by Henry I. Schvey
Directed by Milt Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio, Missouri History Museum
March 15, 2014

I’m constantly amazed at the seemingly boundless possibilities of stagecraft.  Even without the benefits of an elaborate set, a good director , cast, and creative team can make a world come alive onstage and let the members of the audience fill  in the details with their imaginations. It’s exciting to see what the enterprising minds of the creators can produce. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s stage adaptation of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is an excellent example of such a fully realized, although minimalist, production. Even though the story is quite long and there’s more talk than action, it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of theatre that provides a window into life among society’s elite in the late 19th Century South.

Presented at the Missouri History Museum and based on the most famous work of the celebrated writer and St. Louis native Kate Chopin, The Awakening takes its audience to the genteel and highly regulated upper class society of late 19th Century Louisiana, with its elegant balls and gatherings, leisurely afternoon strolls, and rigidly defined gender roles.  In the midst of the summer season at the beach resort on Grand Isle, we are introduced to Edna Pontellier (Emily Baker), the wife of wealthy businessman Leonce (Terry Meddows) and mother of two sons.  Edna at first appears detached and melancholy in contrast to her more vivacious friend Adele Ratignolle (Maggie Murphy), who seems much more content in her society-dictated role than Edna does.  The initially nervous and reserved Edna is soon shaken out of her resigned existence through an intense reaction to a musical performance by the renowned and eccentric pianist Mademoiselle Reisz (Christie Mitchell) and a growing attraction to a longtime family friend, the earnest and seemingly aimless young Robert Lebrun (Antionio Rodriguez).  Edna’s reaction to these new found emotional responses is a quest for self-discovery that takes her to the edges of polite society and, in the play’s second act, into the more Bohemian fringes of New Orleans life.  As Edna struggles with her image of herself in contrast with society’s expectations, and her personal relationships and perceptions of her husband, children and friends old and new, she is forced to confront the realities of life in such a strictly defined world and decide how, and whether, she fits into that world.

I’m still somewhat in awe of the visual design of this production. Here, removed from STLAS’s usual space at the Gaslight Theatre and brought onto the somewhat stark setting of the History Museum stage, the designers have worked a visual wonder.  The set (designed by Patrick Huber) consists mostly of a table and four chairs, which are artfully arranged on a pillar in the middle of the stage and taken down and brought into the scenes as needed, and two video screens.  The rest of the setting is provided by Teresa Doggett’s beautifully detailed costumes, Michael B. Perkins’s excellent mood-setting projections, Patrick Huber’s atmospheric lighting, and Robin Weatherall’s sound. All these elements together set the tone for this production and provide for some intensely striking moments such as a particularly dramatic scene in the second act that takes place behind a screen, lit so that the actors are seen only as larger-than-life shadows.  That’s only one example, however. From start to finish, all these technical elements work together with the strong performances of the cast to present this thought-provoking and intellectually challenging story.  Even though the pacing is a bit slow at times, and the show is a little over long, the performances and stunning technical elements keep the audience engaged.

As for performances, the central figure in this play is Baker’s enigmatic Edna. With a remarkably expressive voice and facial expressions that provide an ideal window to the character’s thoughts, Baker carries the show well, portraying a fully believable journey from the reticent, emotionally evasive Edna of the beginning, to the her growing sense of wonder and thirst for experience, to her confusion and conflicted affections and devastating final scene.  Edna is easy to understand in some respects (her feeling of suffocation in her expected role in society, in which she had very little choice), but the way she goes about her discovery sometimes comes across as selfish, although Baker manages to keep the character sympathetic.  There’s a great scene in the second act where Edna tells a story to her children involving a tiger escaping from its cage that is clearing meant to be a metaphor for Edna herself, and Baker’s energetic and hopeful in her delivery.  I also particuarly enjoyed her scenes with Rodriguez’s passionate and conflicted Robert, and Mitchell’s larger than life and richly characterized eccentric musician Mademoiselle Reisz.  Rodriguez portrays Robert’s struggle between nobility and desire convincingly, and Mitchell presents a memorable and thoroughly credible portrayal of a Victorian-era Bohemian artist. Murphy, as Adele, gives a warm and effervescent performance that grows in depth as the story progresses. Meddows infuses the difficult role of Leonce with a intriguing contrast of capriciousness and humanity. He’s a man of his time, caught up in his billiard games and dinners at his club while content to foist most of the child-rearing duties on his wife. It’s an ill-suited match, although Meddows manages to make me believe that, in his way, Leonce does love Edna despite not being able to understand her. There’s also a nice turn by Nathan Bush as the suave womanizer Alcee Arobin, who crosses paths with Edna in New Orleans.

This is a somewhat difficult play, in that I think I know what it’s trying to say and I agree with a lot of it, but some of Edna’s actions aren’t easy to understand.  Not having read the book, I only have this play’s representation of the character and her story.  She seems to care for few people other than herself and doesn’t seem to think a lot about the effects her actions will have on others, but considering the world in which she was raised, I can more easily sympathize with her.  It’s easy to romanticize the Victorian era with its beautiful clothes, richly appointed furnishings and style, but thinking about the strictly controlled societal conventions makes it seem a lot less pleasant.  The men are free to do whatever they want, but the women are given little choice but to marry a (she hopes) nice gentleman, raise their children and do whatever her husband wants her to do, often living a pampered, childlike existence where the man makes all the “important” decisions often without consulting his wife. In today’s world where a woman has a lot more choices about how to live her life, a world like Edna’s can be hard to imagine, but it was a reality for so many women in 19th Century society.  This production presents the dilemma of that existence clearly, even though it’s at an extremely leisurely pace most of the time.  Still, with its excellent cast and truly astounding technical production, The Awakeningis well worth watching, and is sure to provide a lot to think and talk about after the show.

Emily Baker, Antonio Rodriguez Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Emily Baker, Antonio Rodriguez
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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Medal of Honor Rag
by Tom Cole
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
Missouri History Museum
December 5, 2013

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre Photo by John Lamb

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre
Photo by John Lamb

One of the best things about live theatre is that it is so versatile. It can be so many different things. It can be a big, flashy musical with a large cast and lots of complicated sets and lighting effects; it can be a Shakespearean tragedy with a complex plot;  it can be a light, airy drawing room comedy; or it can simply be a conversation, where all the complexity and drama comes from the characterization of the performers.  Medal of Honor Rag, presented by West End Players Guild is one of those simpler presentations, and this expertly presented production is no  less fascinating than an elaborately staged spectacle.

Tom Cole’s play, which is being presented at the Missouri History Museum in conjunction with the museum’s “1968 Exhibit”, is simply staged and set, depicting a room in a a Pennsylvania Army hospital in the early 1970s.   The set is minimal, with basic office furniture and an imposing security door.  The story (based on a real person) depicts a therapy session, of a traumatized African-American Vietnam vet who has won the Congressional Medal of Honor but finds it difficult to reconcile his life at home with what went on during the war. DJ (Reginald Pierre) meets with psychiatrist Doc (Tom Kopp) in an interview that starts out guarded and becomes increasingly confrontational as it continues, and Doc reveals some personal issues of his own.  In the course of this short play (a little less than an hour and a half, with no intermission), the audience is made witness to the raw emotions of both men as issues of the morality of war, survivor’s guilt, and racial prejudices (both overt and covert) are brought to light.

This is essentially a two-man show. Darrious Varner is fine in a small role as an Army guard, but for the vast majority of the play, the stage belongs to Pierre and Kopp.  The weight of this play rests on their shoulders, and they carry it extremely well.  Pierre’s DJ is wounded (emotionally rather than physically), suspicious, alternately numb and agitated, and ultimately sympathetic.  He portrays a regular guy turned damaged war vet in with all his volatile energy, and his wrestling with reconciling his actions in war with his winning a medal for those actions, as well as his guilt for having survived the war, are dynamically portrayed.  Kopp as Doc, with an oddly balanced mixture of smugness, nerves, and compassion, serves as both a foil and a support for DJ.  Doc genuinely wants to help DJ but doesn’t exactly know how, and DJ is not sure what to think since he’s seen a succession of doctors and re-hashed his story over and over, although this doctor seems both the same and different at once. This tension is well portrayed by the actors as they take us through a whirlwind of emotions, and the issues–of whether the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, is justified, or how a man can function amid the brutal amorality of a combat setting (and get rewarded for it) and then come home and expect to resume a “normal” life, and whether his survivor’s guilt can ever be overcome, and also of a doctor’s dilemma of how to help his patient–are made immediate and believable by the remarkable performances of these two actors.

The staging is simple, dynamic and builds well, from the tense formality at the beginning to the violent emotional and physical sparring, and the abrupt, quiet and devastating conclusion. The action is perfectly pitched by director Belt and his cast, and the very simple set (by Ken Clark) suggests the time and place effectively.  This is an expertly written, crafted and performed piece of theatre, distilling all of the intensity of these issues into one relatively brief performance that holds the audience’s attention and makes us not only think about, but feel for these men, and DJ in particular. 

The Vietnam War ended almost 40 years ago, but its influence on American history and culture is still apparent, and shows like this help us to remember.  The issue of war itself, and whether it is ever necessary, will always be a topic of discussion and debate, as will the effects of war upon its individual participants.  For those of us who haven’t experienced combat first-hand, a play like this one takes these issues out of the realm of the academic and makes them personal.  It doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the questions it raises, but this is never going to be an easy issue. Medal of Honor Rag  an intense, gripping play, and West End Players Guild’s production brings it to life with remarkable clarity, emotion and strength.

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp Photo by John Lamb

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp
Photo by John Lamb

 

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