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Labute New Theater Festival 2018
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2018

The Labute New Theater Festival is back with Set Two, and it’s a stronger set altogether. St. Louis Actors’ Studio is continuing its festival with another set of plays that feature thought-provoking concepts, strong acting and staging, providing for an all-around impressive production at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. In addition to the continued run of the festival’s namesake playwright Labute’s “The Fourth Reich” in which Eric Dean White’s performance is even more insidiously creepy than it was the first time around, the bill includes a strong group of three intriguing plays:

“The Gettier Problem”

by Michael Long

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first of the new plays is an intriguing work that challenges the audience’s perception and raises some interesting questions. The “Gettier” of the title here is Edie Gettier (Colleen Backer), a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward who is awaiting a surgical procedure and is attended by a stern, wary nurse (Erin Brewer) and an assistant (Spencer Sickmann) with whom Gettier seems to be enamored, referrring to him as her “boyfriend” and insisting he stay with her after the nurse leaves. Then, she spins a story that he finds difficult to believe at first and calls to question everything we’ve seen up until this point. It’s an interesting premise, although the short play format makes the ideas raised somewhat difficult to explore. It would be interesting to see what a longer version of this play could look like. The performances are universally strong, especially from Backer who presents an enigmatic character with impressive credibility. Sickmann and Brewer provide strong support, as well.

“The Process”

by Peter McDonough

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is a puzzle of sorts–an unfolding mystery that becomes increasingly riveting as the story unfolds, although there is a degree of predictability to it. That doesn’t take away from the poignancy, though, in this tale of an interview that at first appears to be a therapy session of some kind, with a “client” who is soon revealed to be a soon-to-be-married elementary school teacher (Carly Rosenbaum). She’s meeting with someone who initially seems to be a counselor (Erin Brewer) who is helping her “client” recover memories that she seems to have blocked out. What is happening becomes more apparent as the details are gradually revealed, although I did guess the “twist” fairly early in the story. The weight of the drama is still here, though, even if you can guess where this is going. With great, sympthetical and emotional performances from both Rosenbaum and Brewer, this is a stunningly effective play and story.

“Unabridged”

by Sean Abley

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Zak Farmer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This, the last and most inventive production of the evening, is an impressive exercise in world-building, with well-realized characters and an intriguing setting for a short play. It’s something of a venture into fantasy that could easily have been an episode of The Twilight Zone–an imagined “what if” situation in which words have become a valued commodity. Here, in what appears to have once been a library or bookstore in an unspecified but vaguely post-apocolyptic setting, a shopkeeper (Zak Farmer) hosts a frequent customer (Spencer Sickmann) whose passion for new words is almost akin to a drug habit. He’s desperate, intense, jittery, and hanging on every word he can find, both from Farmer and from an unseen competitor who seems to be feeding Sickmann faulty definitions for some inexplicable reason, leading to some humorous moments as well as some poignant ones. It’s a clever script, tackling some intriguing ideas and touching on some timely topics and some challenging philosophical concepts. It’s another play that I wish could be longer, because it would be interesting to see these ideas elaborated further. Farmer, Sickmann, and Eric Dean White (as another of Farmer’s customers) perform their parts well, with Sickmann especially memorable. This is probably my favorite of this year’s festival plays. It’s a highlight of a particularly strong week of plays that is well worth catching while this year’s festival heads into its final weekend.

Set Two of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 29, 2018

 

 

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Labute New Theater Festival 2018, part 1
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 6, 2018

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s annual Labute New Theater Festival is on again at the Gaslight Theatre, showcasing new short plays by a variety of artists, including its namesake playwright. Set One has another weekend to run, with Set Two preparing to open next week. The first batch of plays showcase a variety of characters and situations, from amusing to confusing to downright disturbing. Here are my brief reviews:

“The Fourth Reich”

by Neil Labute

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As with all of Neil Labute’s previous showcased works at the festival, this play will be featured for the entire run of the event. Also like most of his festival offerings, this one comes across as more of an extended acting exercise than a play. It features an excellent local performer, Eric Dean White, in a memorable performance as an initially polite-enough seeming guy talking to the audience in an interview of sorts. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a formal interview, or some kind of organized event, or if White is just talking to the audience because he wants to. Still, he’s there, sitting in his comfy chair, growing more and more effusive in his praise of Adolf Hitler, acknowledging that Hitler lost World War II but insisting that history hasn’t given him a fair hearing. It’s a weird, defensive sort of monologue, as White’s unnamed character wheedles his way through a succession of repetitive arguments, growing more and more obviously sinister all the while, and even directly challenging the audience to broaden their perspective. It’s an impressive, measured performance by White, who manages to make the character grow more and more obviously sinister through the course of the monologue until the end, which is positively chilling. It’s a strong performance, but as a play I’m not sure what to do with this. A case could be made that this illustrates the sheer insidiousness of people and ideas like this, but still the play’s purpose isn’t entirely clear. The end result is just simply disturbing.

“Shut Up and Dance”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second play of this set is in more of a darkly comic, somewhat fantastical vein, basing its situation at least in part on a real event. Here, a nameless Rockette (Erin Brewer), is haunted by imaginary “Rockette”-like apparitions in her dreams after she decides not to dance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. She flees to a hotel, later calling her mother (Margeau Steinau) and reflecting on the impact of her decision and the concerns about the future of the country. It’s an interesting idea, with good performances by all, especially Brewer and Steinau, although it seems disjointed in terms of format, almost like two plays instead of one, which becomes an even greater issue in the third play of the evening…

“Advantage God”

by Norman Kline

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Talk about disjointed. This is certainly a clever idea, but there’s a little too much going on here and the situation isn’t set up as clearly as it could be. Here, a couple of well-to-do suburbanites (Eric Dean White and Colleen Backer) try to cope with an apocalyptic crisis, as they find themselves in the midst of some nebulous invasion. The two prattle on about their various self-centered concerns while it looks like the world is falling apart around them, but then the Voice of God (Reginald Pierre) starts talking and the whole course of the play changes. The story then shifts to a philosophical and metaphysical debate of sorts before taking a more literal turn that requires a jarring and time-consuming scene change. It has some funny moments, and White, Backer, and Pierre give strong performances, but ultimately the story comes across as disjointed and confusing, although it defintely has some funny moments.

“Hipster Noir”

by Jame McLendon

Directed by John Pierson

Reginald Pierre, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The last play of the first set is the most memorable, and the funniest. A cast of three, in excellent comic form, present an old-style Maltese Falcon-type detective story set in a coffee shop in ever-so-trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nick (Pierre) narrates the story with a sense of earnest urgency, as he recounts the tale of his meeting with the mysterious Delilah (Carly Rosenbaum), who apparently needs Nick’s help but who also has an agenda of her own. There’s also Atticus (Joshua Parrack), a young hipster with a fondness for typewriters and fountain pens. How he figures into the story isn’t made obvious until later in the play. The comedy here is sharp, with a kind of faux-serious tone that goes well with the Film Noir theme. It’s a fun, clever story with strong performances and a lot of jokes, particularly about hipster culture, relying largely on stereotypes and innuendo. It’s a little obvious at times, but it’s funny.

The production values across the plays are good, with some clever costuming by Megan Harshaw, a simple and versatile set by Patrick Huber, and strong lighting by Huber and Dalton Robison. So far, the festival has presented some interesting ideas, although most of the scripts do need some work, especially in terms of overall cohesiveness and clarity. Still, this festival is an excellent showcase for local actors and directors, presenting some interesting new works. I’m especially curious to see what Set Two is going to to bring.

Set One of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 2018 Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theater until July 15, 2018. Set Two opens on July 20 and runs until July 29, 2018. 

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2017
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 9 and 22, 2017

It’s time again for the LaBute Festival, and St. Louis Actors’ studio has populated the Gaslight Theatre this year with a variety of short plays that cover questions of truth, identity, belief, power struggles, and more. As usual, the festival’s main feature is a play by the festival’s namesake, celebrated playwright Neil LaBute. His play runs throughout the festival, with the rest of the plays shown in two sets, the first one having opened on July 7, and the second–which is still running–opening on July 21. Overall, it’s an intriguing group of plays this year, showcasing some promising playwrights and some excellent local acting talent. Here are my thoughts:

“Hate Crime”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Greg Hunsaker, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s contribution from Neil LaBute is a two-character piece focusing on a complicated relationship and a secret “plan”. Greg Hunsaker and Chauncy Thomas play two men who are obviously involved in some sort of romantic relationship, although it seems Hunsaker is more enamored with Thomas than the other way around. In fact, it often seems like Thomas can barely stand to be around Hunsaker, even though Hunsaker’s attitude toward Thomas is more on the level of adoration. As the two plan to carry out a sinister plan, it’s fairly clear who is in control and who is being manipulated. This is an intriguing character study, exploring issues of self-acceptance and self-loathing,  as well as the power of attraction and personal manipulation. It’s quite disturbing when the nature of the plan becomes known, as well as the two men’s different attitudes toward it, and toward each other. The dialogue is sharp, and the performances are strong and believable. It’s a strong, but unsettling, entry from the always provocative LaBute.

Part 1 (July 9, 2017)

“Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”

by Ron Radice

Directed by John Pierson

This play is the first of two in this festival that have strikingly similar themes. Basically, an unsuspecting individual in a seemingly mundane situation is confronted by other characters who seem intent on messing with his mind. Here, Ryan Lawson-Maeske is waiting for a commuter train at a station he hasn’t been to before, and two “regulars” at the station, played by Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre, confront him and challenge his very sense of what is real. Tone-wise, this is essentially a suspense comedy, and it’s well played by all three actors, although the overall point of it isn’t entirely clear. There’s a lot of energy to this production, though, and the staging is clever, with casting that emphasizes the intimidation factor, in that both Sickmann and Pierre are much taller than Lawson-Maeske, and the height difference adds to the sense of tension that grows as the play progresses. It’s a simply staged piece, and has some memorable comic moments.

“Sacred Space”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Nancy Bell

This is a short, poignant play that deals with issues of death, mourning, and atonement. Two women (Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow) are preparing to carry out a Jewish cleansing ritual for a woman in her upper 80s who has recently died. While they are preparing for their task, however, they talk about their day, and strange messages keep appearing on the wall that they first try to dismiss, but they won’t stop.  As the women try to continue their work, they can’t help but be caught up in the messages, and the story that they tell. It’s a story they are both familiar with, as they’ve heard it on the news. Brown and Furlow are both excellent in this short production that serves as a tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, as well as a reflection on life, death, tragedy, and the importance of remembering.

“Percentage America”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Kelly Schaschl, Nancy Bell, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As far as I’m concerned, this play is the highlight of the festival. An extremely well-constructed, cleverly written, incisive and impeccably staged piece, this play is several things at once, and they all work. It’s a mystery, a light romance, a story of political intrigue, and more. It’s framed as a “date play”, in which a man and woman (Chauncy Thomas and Nancy Bell), who have met via an online dating site are getting to know one another, and decide to engage in a little fact-finding game in order to escape the boredom of every day life.  They decide to pick a news story and by comparing various news reports and finding their own sources, they try their best to determine the truth of what happened.

This is such a clever, insightful, incisive play, with commentary on the nature of news coverage, the current state of political affairs in the US, and the general media culture, as well as insights into modern dating, teenage life, and more. So much is said in such a short piece. The story is structured so well and the performances are universally strong. It’s a riveting production from start to finish.

Part 2

“How’s Bruno”

by Cary Pepper

Directed by Nancy Bell

I guess the moral of this play is “when you get a text from a stranger, don’t text back”. In a story that’s oddly reminiscent of “Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”, an unwitting young man finds himself surrounded by strangers who may or may not be deliberately messing with his mind. Spencer Sickmann plays the man, who is sitting in a coffee shop and gets a text from a number he doesn’t recognize. When he responds, two men (Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Reggie Pierre) soon appear with an urgent story about how Sickmann is apparently in a whole lot of trouble. Chauncy Thomas later shows up and continues the story, increasing Sickmann’s confusion. The tone is broadly comic, for the most part, with similar themes as “Lackawanna” but with the added element of modern technology-induced paranoia. It’s a funny play, with a somewhat mysterious ending, although there doesn’t seem to be lot of point to it beyond the shock factor.

“Sin Titulo”

by Tearrance Chisholm

Directed by Linda Kennedy

This play, the last and longest of this year’s plays at the festival, is actually set in St. Louis, looking at the experiences of three members of an African-American family shortly following the 2016 presidential election. Damascus (Reggie Pierre) is an activist who led a local chapter of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and after her loss, he feels aimless and depressed. His wife Naomi (Patrice Foster) is concerned about him, and encourages him to find a new focus for his energy. Complicating the situation is Naomi’s unemployed brother Lloyd (Jaz Tucker), who is full of conspiracy theories that Damascus tries to play along with in order to manipulate Lloyd into being more responsible with his life choices. There are a lot of important, timely issues covered in this play, although it’s a bit disjointed and the ending is especially abrupt. Still, the performances are excellent, the relationships are credible, and the story provides a lot to think about, even though  it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s happening in Damascus’s mind. This is a promising play, even if it can be a little confusing at times.

There are still a few days left to catch the second half of this year’s festival. It’s a fascinating group of plays this year, with humor, drama, suspense, and strong casting. It’s a memorable feature of the St. Louis summer theatre season.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 30,2017

 

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2016
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 22, 2016

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute festival has become one of the highlights of the summer theatre season in St. Louis after just a few years. Every year, the festival features a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as a variety of new one-act plays by various playwrights. This year, I was unfortunately unable to see the first installment of the festival, although I was able to see the second. In this edition’s selection of plays, the theme of power and control seems to be prevalent. Here are the selections and my thoughts:

“Life Model”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s entry from festival namesake LaBute is an exploration of the relationship between artists and the models who pose for them, as well as an exploration of the nature of art itself. The artist (Jenny Smith) has been drawing this particular model (Bridgette Bassa) for a number of weeks or months, although the artist is secretive about her work. When the model challenges the artist’s motives, a power struggle ensues that leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion. This is a well-staged play and the cast members do an excellent job, from Smith’s defensive, evasive artist to Bassa’s confrontational model. Still, the play itself is a little confusing as to what message it’s trying to convey.

“American Outlaws”

by Adam Seidel

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The next play in this installment explores the relationship between two men who have something undisclosed in common. The revelations of this play are too complex to explain without spoiling much, but I’ll just say things aren’t necessarily as they seem, although the conclusion is fairly easy to guess. Eric Dean White is the nervous, conflicted man who has called the meeting, and David Wassilak is the more assured party in the arrangement. It’s clear from start to finish that, although White’s Mitch thinks he has some say in what goes on, it’s Wassilak’s Mike who is in control. The dialogue here is sharply written, and the secrets are revealed in a suspenseful way. Both actors give terrific performances, as well. This is the strongest play of the collection, I think, although it’s extremely bleak.

“Show of Affection”

by Laurence Klavan

Directed by Patrick Huber

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Here, the festival veers into the realm of horror/fantasy/dark comedy, with a story about a family getting ready for dinner. At first, they seem like a fairly ordinary family, but soon we learn more, as vampires, murder, jealousy, and revenge are brought to bear on the plot. The performances are strong, with Emily Baker’s determined matriarch and David Wassilak’s loyal father anchoring a story that also features memorable performances from Bridgette Bassa and Ryan Foizey in energetic performances as their adult children.  This is an unusual, fast-moving play that features a lot of caustic humor and stylized horror elements. It’s also somewhat predictable, but entertainingly so.

“Blue Balls”

by Willie Johnson

Directed by Patrick Huber

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final play of the evening has an unfinished quality to it. Ostensibly, it’s about a nervous man, Peter (Eric Dean White) waiting for a woman to get ready for their first date, only to be intimidated by her adult son, Benoit (Ryan Foizey). And that’s it, really. Benoit tries various ways to make Peter uncomfortable, and Peter tries to keep the situation civil, but essentially this is just a son being snarky to his mother’s date. The fact that Benoit has cerebral palsy is made an issue, but it’s ultimately a fairly minor element of the plot. Both actors give good performances, but there really isn’t much to this story beyond that simple conflict.  It also ends rather abruptly with no apparent resolution. Although this has the potential to be an interesting character study, it’s really just a simple situation without much of a story.

Overall, I think the LaBute Festival is an excellent showcase for local talent and new playwrights, and I wish I had been able to see all of the plays this year. The production values are all excellent as well, from Patrick Huber’s versatile set and lighting design to Carla Landis Evans’s costumes and props. It’s another good year for this festival, and I look forward to seeing what STLAS has in store next summer.

The LaBute New Theatre Festival, presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 31, 2016.

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The LaBute New Theater Festival has become a summer tradition for St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Featuring a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as plays submitted by playwrights all over the world, the festival seems to get bigger and better every year. A total of ten plays have been selected this year, in addition to a special reading of scripts written by high school students. Of the main stage productions, they’re being presented in two consecutive engagements, with LaBute’s “Kandahar” being presented in both time slots. There’s a great variety of plays this year, ranging from comedies and dramas to thrillers and even science fiction.  The second installment of this years festival is still running until this weekend. Here are some brief thoughts on all ten plays:

 

“Kandahar” by Neil LaBute (Presented in parts 1 and 2 of the Festival)

Michael Hogan Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This riveting short play, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is the centerpiece of this year’s collection, as well as its highlight. It’s basically an extended monologue, although it builds drama and tension very well, presenting a difficult character and situation in a fascinating, if disturbing, manner. Michael Hogan gives an intense performance as an unnamed soldier recently returned from Afghanistan. He recounts a violent event that’s just taken place with an unapologetic and chilling tone. LaBute manages to examine the brutality of war as well as exploring what makes a killer, both before and after war. This is a play a that gains power on seeing it the second time. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s profoundly memorable.

Part 1 (July 10-19)

“Custom” by Mark Young

This is an intriguing drama about a young man, Robert (Nathan Bush), who walks into a custom jeweler’s shop ostensibly to try to sell some jewelry. The jeweler (GP Hunsaker) has strong opinions about what kind of jewelry he buys, and makes. As the conversation evolves, it becomes clear that Robert has ulterior motives, and the jeweler has a secret.  While I managed to guess the “twist” about halfway through the production, this is a compelling piece, exploring relationships between people as well as an artists’ relationship with his art. The performances were engaging and believable, as well.

“A Taste of Heaven” by Chris Holbrook

In the festival’s sole venture into science fiction, this play has an interesting concept that’s somewhat overdone, and an ending that’s distinctly underdone.  There are some fine performances, but the story isn’t particularly convincing. It concerns a woman (Nancy Crouse), who walks into what appears to be some sort of government agency to talk to an administrative representative (Kevin Minor) about her health benefits. Apparently, they’ve been terminated because the government thinks she’s dead.  This starts an increasingly absurd chain of events that leads to a “surprise” development involving another agency employee (Rhyan Robinson) and the nature of the agency itself, and the woman’s request. It’s a twist that’s too little, too late.

“Cold In Hand” by Steve Apostolina

The story of a developing friendship between an elderly, blind African-American man and a young, white street musician, this play is distinguished by fine performances by its two actors, Don McClendon as the older Razz, and Rynier Gaffney as young Luke. The two bond over blues music, and Gaffney plays it well on his guitar. The exploration of an unlikely relationship between people of different ages and backgrounds is an intriguing concept, and the performances make it even more so. It’s a strong script with an even stronger cast.

“Stand Up for Onseelf “by Lexi Wolfe

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Aside from “Kandahar”, this was my favorite production of the festival’s first wave.  It’s something of an offbeat, UK-set romance, as the outgoing young Lila (Alicia Smith) meets the more standoffish, older Lucas (Nathan Bush) at a party. While the possibilities of a romantic encounter are discussed, we learn a lot more about both of these individuals and what draws them together. There’s much more than initially meets the eye, and both performers give convincing portrayals and display a strong sense of chemistry. This is a thoroughly engrossing story, with a sweet conclusion.

A Stranger Here Myself” by Rich Orloff

This is something of an oddity–probably the least raunchy sex-comedy I’ve heard of.  It follows a stressed-out business woman, Patricia (Jenny Smith) in a hotel room on the eve of an important presentation. When various methods of getting to sleep don’t work, she decides to relieve the tension through an elaborate fantasy that takes on a life of its own, involving a hunky movie star (Paul Cereghino), her ex-husband (Don McClendon), and her adventurous next-door neigbhor (Stephanie Benware). It’s a funny little play with some excellent comic timing, deciding to major on the absurdity of the fantasy to hilarious effect.

Part 2 (July 24–August 2)

“Homebody” by Gabe McKinley

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Overall, I think part 2 of the festival is generally stronger than part 1, and this dark, somewhat disturbing play is a highlight.  It explores the relationship between a dejected aspiring novelist, Jay (Michael Hogan), and his manipulatiive and apparently invalid mother (Donna Weinsting). The performances here are extremely strong, and the script is excellent. Hogan and Weinsting have a believably combative relationship, and the plot developments are both gripping and surprising.  It’s a sharp, incisive play that deals not only with a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, but also deals with issues of commercialism in the publishing industry, integrity and identity in writing, and the lengths to which one might go in order to succeed.  Just when I thought I knew where this story was going, the playwright turned the tables, and it’s all as utterly convincing as it is unsettling.

“Pitch” by Theresa Masters & Marc Pruter

This is a sweet little comedy about two long-time friends who collaborate in writing television scripts. When Matt (Paul Cereghino) suggests to Trina (Stephanie Benware) that they stray from their usual subject matter of fantasy scripts and try a romantic comedy, she’s skeptical at first. Then, the story starts taking shape in ways that oddly reflect on the writers’ lives. It’s a cute concept and very well acted by both performers, although the ending isn’t particularly convincing.  The interactions between Trina and Matt are compelling to watch, for the most part.

“Deirdre Dear” by Norman Young

This play has its moments, but seems unfinished. It tells the story of Deirdre (Jenny Smith), a once-famous actress who has taken time off to raise her daughter, Bobbi (Maya Dickinson), but now wants to get back into the business. Bobbi is helping Deirdre run her lines for an audition when they run into the younger, more recently successful Bea (Alcia Smith), who is auditioning for the same role.  The play also features Ryan Robinson and Stephanie Benware. This is a play that tells an interesting story, showing the fickleness of show business and the difficulties of being an aging performer in such a world. There are some good moments in this production, and the actors all do a fine job, although it runs out of steam near the end, and the ending is abrupt and confusing.

“There You Are” by Fran Dorf

Jenny Smith, B. Weller Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Jenny Smith, B. Weller
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second installment of the festival ends with one of its strongest entries. Featuring an excellent script, well-drawn characters and two top-notch performances, “There You Are” presents two interesting and likable characters in a thoroughly believable but unsettling situation. Two married (not to each other) writers, the more established George (B. Weller) and aspiring first-time novelist Jesse (Jenny Smith) have met at a writers’ workshop and have quickly developed a strong friendship with more than a little bit of a flirtatious tone. These two are clearly drawn to one another, and the sense of temptation is clear throughout the production as George and Jesse share their love of writing and profound connection with one another. The “will they or won’t they” is always there in the background, and for once, the eventual conclusion is both plausible and true to the characters. It’s anchored by two very strong characterizations from Weller and Smith.  Along with “Kandahar”, “Stand Up For Oneself,” and “Homebody”, this is one of my favorite productions of this year’s festival.

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LaBute New Theater Festival
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 25, 2014

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has, true to its name, been an excellent venue for local actors to exercise their talents in high-quality productions of well-known plays as well as more obscure works. With their LaBute New Theater Festival, now in its second year, STLAS has teamed up with acclaimed playwright Neil LaBute to highlight the works of up-and-coming playwrights, while simultaneously providing an excellent opportunity for some of the area’s best actors. I was able to attend the festival’s second opening night, featuring this year’s festival finalists: four new one act plays–three  by new playwrights and one by LaBute.  It’s an evening that shows off the great variety of new writing, from broad comedy to intense drama, with a little bit of sci-fi/fantasy thrown in for good measure.  The range of plays is impressive, and it’s great to be reminded of all the promising aspiring playwrights out there, and the importance of developing new theatrical work.  What also continues to impress me is the quality of acting talent this city has to offer.  These are fully staged productions that highlight the talent of the writers and the performers. The festival runs until August 3rd, and I highly recommend checking it out. Here are some brief reviews of the shows I saw:

“Coffee House, Greenwich Village”

by John Doble

Directed by John Pierson

Nathan Bush, Paul Cereghino, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, Paul Cereghino, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The evening’s performances began with this darkly comic tale that puts something of a macabre twist on the concept of the blind date, as well as Existentialist philosophy.  This simply staged play starts off as a simple coffee meeting between the timid Jack (Nathan Bush) and the more confrontational Pamela (Ellie Schwetye), but then gradually develops into a rather extreme form of “Truth or Dare” involving the pair and their nameless, snarky waiter (Paul Cereghino).  The script is witty and clever in places, although I could figure out where it was going about halfway through the story, and the conclusion is not a little disturbing. The actors give strong performances all around, with Bush and Schwetye managing to keep their characters engaging even as the proceedings grow darker and darker, with Schwetye expertly manipulating the initially mild-mannered, insecure Bush. Cereghino, as both antagonist and catalyst for the play’s action, turns in a believably abrasive performance as well.  It’s a satirical exploration of some of the more unsettling aspects of human nature, although the conclusion does seem a bit abrupt and oversimplified.  It’s an intriguing concept, brought to life by some solid direction and the strong performances of the three performers.

“The Thing With Feathers”

by Susan Steadman

Directed by John Pierson

Caroline Adams, Chopper Leifheit, GP Hunsaker Photo by john Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Caroline Adams, Chopper Leifheit, GP Hunsaker
Photo by john Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Two strangers meet in a hospital corridor–the middle-aged Aaron (Chopper Leifheit), who is battered and bruised an appears to be under arrest, guarded by a somewhat menacing police officer (GP Hunsaker); and the young, troubled Mara (Caroline Adams). The two form an unlikely connection as the details of Aaron’s arrest and both patients’ injuries are revealed, and Aaron convinces the initially suspicious Mara to retrieve a poetry notebook from his hospital room.  Issues of trust, respect, courage and hope are discussed via the poetry of Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath and others, as these two very different people learn to communicate and learn from one another.

As is the theme for most of this evening’s presentations, the acting is what makes this production. It’s an intriguing idea, although the play’s action moves a little too quickly conclusion is too easily achieved.  There’s a credible chemistry between these two performers–Adams’s guarded but ultimately vulnerable Mara and Leifheit’s engaging, erudite Aaron.  The hospital atmosphere is effectively achieved through Patrick Huber’s simple set design and Carla Landis Evans’s costumes, as well.  This is a play that I think needs more development to be a more effective script, as right now it projects a sort of movie-of-the-week vibe. It’s enjoyable as a performance, and STLAS has produced it probably as well as the play will allow.

“Comeback Special”

by JJ Strong

Directed by Tom Martin

Chopper Leifheit, Ellie Schwetye, Paul Cereghino Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Chopper Leifheit, Ellie Schwetye, Paul Cereghino
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is, hands down, my favorite of the plays I saw.  Blending sharp comedy, fantasy, and an intriguing blend of absurdity and humanity, this play tells the story of a young couple, Jesse (Cereghino) and Bonnie (Schwetye) on a road trip to New Orleans, who have stopped in Memphis along the way to visit Graceland, the home of the legendary Elvis Presley.  When Bonnie convinces Jesse to break from the guided tour and explore Elvis’s bedroom, they are surprised to find a belligerent, overly friendly jump-suited character claiming to be the King himself (Leifheit), who challenges the couple’s thinking about reality, authenticity and their perceptions of one another.  So, is this guy really Elvis and what does he want from this conflicted couple?  What does this confrontation mean for all three players here?  Those questions are all answered by the play and it would spoil far too much of the fun to say much else. This is a very cleverly written, dynamically staged and impeccably acted production that never gets boring and continues to challenge assumptions, with great costuming and sets that add to the overall atmosphere of this hilarious and compelling show.

Leifheit is a delight as the energetic and charming Elvis, and Schwetye as the adventurous fan Pamela and Cereghino as the more skeptical, somewhat pretentious Jesse also give winning performances.  The script is fast-moving, as is the staging, and there is never a dull moment as these three perform their roles with enthusiasm.  This is a very clever idea that has been given an ideal staging at STLAS, and I really hope that there will be more productions of this play in the future. Although I respect Elvis’s talent, I’m by no means a die-hard fan, and the beauty of this show is that I think it has plenty of appeal for fans and non-fans alike.  Of the four plays presented here, this is the one that I think has the most potential for future stagings. It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by Milton Zoth

Reginald Pierre, William Roth Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Reginald Pierre, William Roth
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final play of the evening, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is something of an enigma.  As a showcase for actors, I think it’s excellent, and the script is full of strong, dramatic exchanges, although I don’t find anything particularly innovative about the script itself. The plot is very predictable, telling the story of a confrontation between two men in a park. As the seemingly happy, relaxed Bill (William Roth) sits on a park bench to eat his lunch (with the sounds of children playing nearby clearly audible), he’s soon joined by the more serious, purposeful Kip (Reginald Pierre), whom Bill has never met before but who has a grievance involving his wife and, particularly, his child, whom Bill has befriended.  The issue with this play is that I don’t think I really need to say anything else about the plot for it to be any more obvious where this story is headed.  I found myself hoping for some surprises, but there weren’t any. Kip challenges Bill, and Bill tries to defend himself and rationalize his behavior,and that’s pretty much all that goes on.  As a character study, it’s interesting, and both actors portray their characters well–Pierre with effective righteous anger spurring on Roth’s initially affable and increasingly defensive Bill to gradually implode with devastating intensity.  The dialogue is good and the performances are great, but this kind of situation has been staged many times already.  It’s an important, timely topic, although this play doesn’t really bring anything new to the discussion, simply providing a situation for two actors to act. It’s very well presented, and  LaBute is a master of dialogue, but I find myself wishing there was more of a story to go along with that dialogue.

Overall, I think the LaBute New Theater Festival is an exciting development for the theatrical community in St. Louis. Developing strong new scripts and showcasing the talents of excellent local actors, St. Louis Actors’ Studio has made a festival to look forward to. I hope this is a tradition that continues for many years in the future.

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