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The How and the Why
by Sarah Treem
Directed by Nancy Bell
New Jewish Theatre
January 25, 2017

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The How and the Why, the newest production from the New Jewish Theatre, is a story about relationships, about science, and about women. A one-act, two-woman show, Sarah Treem’s play is a strong showcase for two excellent local performers. It’s also an in-depth look at life through the eyes of two women at different stages of life who are inextricably tied to one another in more ways than one.

As the story begins, award-winning evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn (Amy Loui) sits in her office, alone, but she’s not alone for long. Soon, young graduate student Rachel Hardeman (Sophia Brown) arrives, and it appears that this may be a student-teacher meeting, but it’s more than that, as is evidenced by the obvious mixture of curiosity and awkwardness upon their initial meeting. Rachel has submitted a paper for presentation at a major conference of which Zelda is on the board, but that’s just the beginning. Through the course of the production, the two women gradually get to know one another, and we the audience learn about them in the process. That’s the basic premise, but a lot of ground is covered here in terms of establishing this relationship and revealing the differences and similarities between these two women at two different stages of their lives and careers. The playwright does a good job of making this situation credible, even though some of the plot may seem implausible. The play covers issues of science, family relationships, love and romance, dependence and independence, personal and professional priorities, goals and compromises, and more. It’s a somewhat sweeping range of subject matter made personal through these two well-drawn characters and their building relationship.

The characters are the story here, in a major sense, so ideal casting is essential. The performers here are both remarkable, not only convincing as individuals but also believably conveying an initially awkward but obviously important, growing relationship as these two women try to figure out how to relate to each other, as well as working out important choices in their own lives. Loui convinces as the older, sometimes wiser but sometimes regretful Zelda, projecting an air of confidence along with a real sense of vulnerability. She is well-matched by Brown, who gives a determined, earnest, occasionally angry and equally vulnerable portrayal of Rachel. This is a compelling story, but it’s made all the more real by the sensitive, strong performances of its leads.

Technically, the show is also impressive. Peter and Margery Spack’s two-sided set represents Zelda’s well-appointed office and then, later, a turntable revolves to reveal an equally detailed dive bar set. The whole set is also surrounded by representations of planets, shimmering and illuminated by Michael Sullivan’s excellent lighting. The costumes by Felia Davenport suit the characters appropriately, as well.

This production is notable in that it’s so focused on women. The playwright, the stars, the director and several of the designers are women, and a major focus of the story is the experience of what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, examining issues of science that are particularly centered around women. It’s also about an intriguing, thoroughly believable relationship, and as the title suggests, the “hows” and “whys” of life. It’s a fascinating story, thoughtfully staged at New Jewish Theatre.

Amy Loui, Sophia Brown Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The How and The Why the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 11, 2017

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Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014

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The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

 

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