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Posts Tagged ‘nancy bell’

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

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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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