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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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