Posts Tagged ‘nancy bell’

What the Constitution Means to Me
by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Nancy Bell
Max & Louie Productions
April 6, 2023

Michelle Hand, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo by Dunsi Dai
Max & Louie Productions

How well do you know the United States Constitution? This document is the basis for our country’s government, but not everyone knows exactly what’s in it, or how it should be interpreted. At Max & Louie Productions’ latest staging of Heidi Schreck’s Pulitzer-nominated What the Constitution Means to Me, they’re passing out little booklets containing the entire Constitution, so you can read it for yourself. You also get to witness a heavily thought-provoking, highly personal presentation based on the playwright’s own experience, acted out by a some excellent local performers and providing for a challenging, thoroughly fascinating evening of theatre. 

This show was originally performed by Heidi Schreck herself along with the original cast, and it was filmed for Amazon Prime. I’ve seen the Prime version, which is excellent, but it’s a new experience to see Heidi portrayed by a well-known local performer, Michelle Hand, along with Isaiah Di Lorenzo as a Legionnaire and a trio of young students (Riley Carter Adams, Aislyn Morrow, and Maahi Saint) alternating as the Debater, who participates in a one-on-one competition with Hand at the end of the show, debating about whether or not the Constitution should be abolished. The story itself follows Heidi’s experience participating in a series of contests in her high school years in order to earn money for college, with many digressions about her family and her life since high school. The contrasts between her understanding  of the Constitution as a teenager vs. later are highlighted as Heidi tells stories from her own personal experience, as well as those of her mother, grandmother, and great-great grandmother, along with bringing up a series of historical incidents and Supreme Court cases (complete with actual audio recordings). The general theme is of the Constitution as a flawed document that wasn’t written with all Americans in mind, excluding women and people of color specifically. While it was written with the ability to be amended, and there have been many amendments, the idea is raised that it might be a good idea to start over and write a new Constitution.

Also in a departure from the original version, Hand participates in the debate as herself, and not as Heidi, which works well here, as Hand’s rapport with Adams (the Debater I saw) is excellent, and their mutual respect shines through even in the midst of intense debate. I assume this rapport is present with the other Debaters, as well. In the main story, Hand is also excellent as Schreck, not exactly copying her mannerisms but conveying her personability, humor, and emotion with strong stage presence and clarity. Di Lorenzo is also strong as the Legionnaire, who acts as moderator of the teen Heidi’s contest and also has some surprises in store as the story veers more and more from the original narrative. Adams is also impressive as the Debater, giving convincing arguments and demonstrating great enthusiasm for the subject. 

Technically, the show recreates an old American Legion hall with a twist, with a simple and effective unit set by Dunsi Dai that features a lot of wood paneling and scores of serious-looking photos of men, skewed at an angle suggesting the photos may slide off their shelves at any minute. This works as a suitable backdrop for the proceedings. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Zak Matalsky and sound designer Phillip Evans. The direction is thoughtful and well-paced, with many emotional highlights, and underscoring the personal connection that Heidi has formed with her former teen self and with the Constitution and her ideals.

What the Constitution Means to Me is a highly thoughtful, personal, and thought-provoking show, and it raises good points for keeping the Constitution and for abolishing it and starting over. No matter what an individual viewer’s opinion may be on this subject, I think this is a show worth seeing, with an excellent, highly likable cast and strong production values.  It’s sure to raise questions and lead to interesting conversations, as well as making audiences think and examine how this country has treated its citizens over the years, and how we can strive to do better. 

Michelle Hand, Riley Carter Adams
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting What the Constitution Means to Me at the Marcelle Theatre until April 23, 2023

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Into the Breeches!
by George Brant
Directed by Nancy Bell
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
November 1, 2018

Kari Ely, Katy Keating, Jacqueline Thompson, Mary McNulty, Michelle Hand
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is branching out. Known for years for its free mainstage productions in Forest Park as well as a few other projects like Shake 38 and Shakespeare in the Streets, the Festival is now adding another program to their schedule. The “In the Works” festival highlights more modern works based on Shakespeare by contemporary playwrights, including a headline show at the Grandel Theatre. This year’s headliner is called Into the Breeches! and it’s delightful. Featuring a first-rate cast of mostly local St. Louis performers, the show looks back at a pivotal time in American history, as well as celebrating Shakespeare, women in the arts, inclusion, and most of all, a real sense of love for the theatre.

The story takes place in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. With so many men overseas fighting in the war, women have been enlisted to hold down the fort at home. At the Oberon Theatre, a respected Shakespearean playhouse, its director Andrew Dalton and many of its actors have been enlisted in the military, so the board of directors is contemplating canceling the upcoming season. The director’s wife, Maggie Dalton (Michelle Hand), has other ideas, however, and she approaches the Oberon’s celebrated leading lady Celeste Fielding (Kari Ely) with an unusual idea–why not keep the season going, and go ahead with producing the planned production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), but with a cast of women? After a bit of convincing, the board’s somewhat obtuse chairman Ellsworth Snow (Gary Wayne Barker) agrees, and his wife Winnifred (Katy Keating) signs up to participate. Then, casting needs to happen, as Maggie works with stage manager Stuart (Ben Nordstrom) and seamstress and costumer Ida (Jacqueline Thompson) to prepare for the play, eventually casting two young women whose husbands are serving overseas–the enthusiastic June (Mary McNulty), and the more reticent but highly talented Grace (Laura Resinger). As rehearsal proceeds, Maggie and company encounter various obstacles and conundrums, such as dealing with various societal restrictions, biases and prejudices, as well as efforts to keep up morale during the war as most of the women have husbands who are serving. There’s also the issue of long-time “star” Celeste, who is facing the reality of aging out of some of her most beloved roles, and Maggie’s efforts to find her own voice as a director rather than living in the shadow of her well-respected husband. Some of the more specific plot points are better to find out as the play goes along, but it’s an excellent look at challenging widely accepted conventions and injustices of the time while also providing a window into life in the 1940s in terms of sights, sounds, cultural references, and styles.

The advertising is billing this show as “A League of Their Own meets Henry V“, and I think that’s an apt comparison, because in addition to its World War II-era setting, one of the things that characterized the film A League of Their Own was its clear affection for its subject matter, which in that case was baseball. In Into the Breeches! the subject is theatre, and the affection is on clear display. It provides a look at the inner workings of a theatre in the 1940s, as well as an examination of themes from Shakespeare as applied to the situations in the story, and how the company eventually uses those applications in their production. It’s also a nice touch that playwright George Brant’s script–which has been produced before in other cities–has been adapted slightly to adjust the setting to St. Louis. The setting makes the story even more immediate.

Speaking of setting, the production values here are superb. Margery and Peter Spack have designed a set that works as something of a time machine, re-creating the backstage of a 1940s theatre in exquisite detail. Michelle Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellently detailed and authentic to the era. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Joe Clapper and impressive sound design by Rusty Wandall, taking the audience back to the 1940s with clarity and charm.

There’s a wonderful cast here, too, led by the ideally cast Hand as Maggie, bringing an air of determination and authority as well as vulnerability to her role. Ely is also a marvel as Celeste, hamming it up when appropriate but also portraying a credible sense of the consummate actress and a degree of insecurity about the passage of time. There are also excellent performances from Keating, believably playing older as the enthusiastic Winnifred; Resinger as the initially fearful but determined, talented Grace; McNulty as the energetic June; Thompson as the resourceful, also determined Ida; Nordstrom, who has some excellent comic moments as Stuart, who finds delight in his new role; and Barker, who lends his support as the stubborn, set-in-his ways but ultimately persuadable Ellsworth. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and a real sense of rapport develops among them that adds to the overall momentum of the play, to the point where, when the show eventually ends, I wish it could continue, to spend just a little more time with these characters and witnessing what they have created.

Into the Breeches! is an intelligent, funny, sometimes poignant play that makes excellent use of its time, place, and Shakespearean source material. It’s about challenging conventions, pushing boundaries, forming bonds of friendship and family, and an unmistakable love of the theatrical. In fact, I could easily see this show being adapted as a film. If the playwright isn’t exploring that possibility already, he should. I think it could work. It’s also a wonderful way to kick off a new chapter for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and it makes me even more eager to see what’s ahead for the “In the Works” series.

Michelle Hand, Laura Resinger, Kari Ely
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Into the Breeches! at the Grandel Theatre until November 18, 2018.






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Blow, Winds
Written by Nancy Bell, Music and Lyrics by Lamar Harris, Additonal Material by Mariah L. Richardson
Directed by Tom Martin
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Shakespeare In the Streets
June 16, 2018

Reginald Pierre, Erika Flowers Roberts, Joneal Joplin, Adam Flores, Michelle Hand
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis


Shakespeare in the Streets is back again, after a postponement, with an important, challenging message for St. Louis. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Blow, Winds departs from previous SITS productions–which each featured a particular neighbhorhood–and focuses on the St. Louis metro area as a whole. In many ways, this production–presented on the steps of the Central Library downtown–is the most polished of the SITS productions, as well as the most visually spectacular and the most directly challenging to the “status quo” of the St. Louis area.

Blow, Winds was originally scheduled to be performed in September 2017, but was canceled due to unrest following the verdict for police officer Jason Stockley, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, and subsequently and controversially acquitted. The original program for the scheduled production is included in the program for the 2018 presentation, in fact. The 2018 version, however, isn’t the same production as was previously planned. Now it’s been revised, with additions by SFSTL Playwriting Fellow Mariah L. Richardson, to more accurately reflect the state of St. Louis after, and because of, that controversial and troubling verdict. Based on King Lear but modified to reflect modern-day St. Louis, the show also makes a tonal change from the straight tragedy of Lear to a more comedy-drama approach, certainly with tragic elements but with a more hopeful twist at the end. The Shakespeare characters have also been modified, with some composite characters representing two or more original Lear characters, and one instance where one original character has been split into two. Also, as musical as the previous SITS efforts have been, this one is even more so, with an original score by music director Lamar Harris and significant contributions from the Central Baptist Church Choir, the Genisis Jazz Project, and the Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

In this story, King Lear becomes King Louis (Joneal Joplin), an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom–the St. Louis metro area west of the Mississippi River, represented by a large map hanging up on the face of the Central Library building–among his four children, his daughters Goneril, (Jeanitta Perkins), Regan (Katy Keating), and Cordelia (Erika Flowers Roberts) and his “illegitimate” son Edmund (Reginald Pierre). While Regan and Goneril are focused on their own advancement and flatter their father insincerely, Cordelia refuses to flatter and asks only for justice, and is banished from St. Louis while her greedy sisters are rewarded, and Edmund is given the “less desirable” North section of the map and essentially exiled there by his father. Cordelia flees to the Kingdom of Illinois, welcomed by its king (Jaz Tucker), who gladly marries her and supports her cause. Also exiled is the king’s faithful counselor Kent (Michelle Hand), who criticizes his treatment of Cordelia and Edmund. Through the course of the play, Louis slowly but definitively learns the error of his ways, as the shallowness of his elder daughters and the truth of Cordelia’s and Edmund’s causes is brought to light for him. All the while, the action is narrated by the Fool (Adam Flores), who serves as something of a Greek Chorus and occasional translator of the Shakespearean language into more modern speech. The Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team also contribute memorably to the production, with the dance and movement elements among the highlights of the production.

The technical elements here are the strongest and most striking yet for a SITS production. The distinctive Central Library building makes an ideal backrop for the action, aided by some truly stunning projections by scenic designers Marjery and Peter Spack, as well as excellent lighting by John Wylie and memorable costumes by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek. The steps make an ideal stage, setting off the performance well, and the cast is excellent, led by Flores as a particularly earnest Fool, Joplin as the conflicted and self-deceived King Louis, Perkins and Keating as the unapologetically greedy sisters Goneril and Regan, Hand as the devoted Kent, Pierre as the rejected but determined Edmund, and Roberts as the also determined, justice-minded Cordelia. They are supported by an excellent ensemble, as well, including the truly impressive performances from the aforementioned Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

The story is compelling and challenging, adapting the Lear story to focus on St. Louis in some specific, sometimes funny and often serious ways, with references to the oft-asked “high school” question as well as neighborhood and city landmarks, as well as serious questions about the need for racial and economic justice and equality in the area. Occasionally there are tendencies to “tell” rather than “show” in terms of the play’s message, but overall, this is an important work, showcasing the strengths of the Shakespeare In the Streets concept. There were only two performances of this production, and I’m glad I was able to see one of them. It’s a remarkable production.

Cast of Blow, Winds
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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The How and the Why
by Sarah Treem
Directed by Nancy Bell
New Jewish Theatre
January 25, 2018

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, 2018

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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


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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