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The Tempest
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Siler
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 13, 2018

Donna Northcott, Ian Carlson, Erika Flowers-Roberts
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Tempest from St. Louis Shakespeare is an audio-visual experience. It’s the well-known Shakespearean story, but with some interesting twists, especially in terms of sights, sounds, and staging. Here, director Patrick Siler makes a few casting modifications and brings the audience into this wild, weird, wondrous world, making the most of the space at the Ivory Theatre with a bold, mysterious, excellently cast production.

This production takes an approach that’s traditional and non-traditional in different ways. The costuming and setting are essentially Elizabethan style, with excellent detailed and colorful costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, and the island setting is well realized through Kyra Bishop-Sanford’s versatile unit set. The “non-traditional” is more in the casting, with many of the male characters being recast as women here, from lead character Prospera (Donna Northcott), the exiled Duchess of Milan, to her usurping, scheming sister Antonia (Teresa Doggett), to the Queen of Naples, Alonza (Laura S. Kyro), whose ship is wrecked in a storm stirred up by Prospera and scattered about the island. Alonza’s son Ferdinand (Ian Carlson) is thought to be lost, but instead he’s found by Prospera and her young daughter Miranda (Erika Flowers-Roberts), who has grown up on the island and hasn’t seen many humans besides her mother. She is fascinated with Ferdinand, and he with her, but Prospera wants to test him first before allowing them to marry. There’s also the mischievous sprite Ariel (Karl Hawkins), who helps Prospera in seeking to foil the plans of the scheming Antonia and Sebastian (Charles Winning), as well as of the vengeful, half-human outcast Caliban (Dustin S. Massie), who attaches himself to the bumbling shipwrecked Stephano (Jeff Lewis) and Trinculo (Anthony Winninger).

What is particularly memorable about this production is its sights and sounds–the dynamic lighting by Joseph Clapper and especially the sounds–mostly supplied by David N. Jackson and a variety of different instruments, from an electronic keyboard to an array of drums and percussion instruments. The cast members also employ drums and percussion on stage at certain moments, particularly the chilling “tempest” and shipwreck scene at the beginning and a celebration at the end. The staging is fast-paced, for the most part, with particular focus on Prospera, Miranda, and Ferdinand, as well as Ariel’s frequent influence and presence. Northcott makes a particularly determined, somewhat enigmatic Prospera, who is especially protective of her daughter. The chemistry between Carlson and Flowers-Roberts as the lovestruck Ferdinand and Miranda is sweet, as well, and Hawkins is a strong presence as the ethereal Ariel. There are also some strong comic moments from Winninger, Lewis, and Massie in their subplot, and memorable turns from a particularly regal Kyro as Alonza and Winning and Doggett as the self-serving Sebastian and Antonia.

This is an odd play, certainly. It’s one of Shakespeare’s strangest, and that’s saying something. There are some difficult questions regarding motives and social roles, but the focus in this production seems more on sensations and basic emotions. Here, on stage at the Ivory Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a storm of sights, sounds, complicated relationships, and whimsical mysticism. This Tempest still has a lot to say, but even more so, a lot to see, hear, and experience. It’s an impressive technical feat.

Cast of The Tempest
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Tempest at the Ivory Theatre until October 21, 2018

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Infected
by Albert Ostermaier
Translated by Philip Boehm
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
February 15, 2018

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Infected, the latest play from Upstream Theater, is something of an immersive experience. The audience members are given masks to wear when they enter the theatre, and a voice instructs when to put them on, and the clincal, antiseptic atmosphere of quarantine is set and maintained throughout. The story itself is somewhat confusing, although it provides an excellent showcase for actor Alan Knoll.

Knoll plays a nameless character described in the program as “a trader in quarantine”, and that’s essentially what the play is about. We see him in a catatonic state as the play begins, and then an attendant gives him an injection of something and he wakes up, agitated and full of excuses and stories. He’s a stock trader, apparently, and the market has been his life, but now he’s being held in quarantine for an unnamed illness, and we get to hear about his life, his personal philosphies, his family, his hopes, his fears, and his mistakes. It’s not made clear what illness he has, and although there are suggestions that he’s done something to put himself here, the story isn’t entirely clear. It’s also not clear whether or not this “quarantine” is real or just an elaborate dream or delusion. What we do see, though, is a man who has sold his soul to the market to the degree that he’s lost touch with his priorities, his family, and possibly even reality itself. Alan Knoll gives a compelling performance as the trader, displaying a full range of emotions as we see this desparate, once confident man try to make sense of his world and the predicament in which he finds himself. The trader isn’t the most likable of characters, but Knoll makes him interesting, and engaging to watch. It’s an impressive performance that takes a lot of energy.

Knoll’s performance is augmented and assisted by the technical elements of the show that work to create the chilling, intense atmosphere of this trader’s confinement. David A. N. Jackson provides a variety of sounds that contribute to the story–sometimes responding to Knoll, and sometimes underscoring his tales. Patrick Huber’s simple, all-white set and Geordy van Es’s dramatic lighting help to maintain the overall unsettling feel of the story. There’s also excellent work from media designer Michael Dorsey, props designer Elizabeth Lund, and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, who outfits Knoll in an appropriately businesslike three-piece suit that becomes increasingly rumpled as he sheds the outer layers and grows more animated as the play continues.

The story of Infected isn’t always easy to follow, but the main attractions here are Knoll’s remarkable performance and the overall atmosphere for the audience. It’s as if we’re all in quarantine, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s a show that’s definitely going to leave an impression, and keep its audiences guessing–and thinking–even after they leave the theatre.

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Infected at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 25, 2018.

 

 

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A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
Adapted from the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
May 12, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater is an interview play. Based on true events and a book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night looks back at events in the relatively recent history of South Africa, personalizing them by telling the author’s story of meeting with a convicted man who has committed many heinous crimes. It’s an exploration of the concepts of guilt, justice, racial injustice and reconciliation, and forgiveness, as well as humanity itself, and in the hands of the excellent cast and creative team at Upstream, it’s a powerful, thought-provoking production.

The story follows the book’s author, Pumla (Jacqueline Thompson), who is a psychologist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following the dissolution of the Apartheid system of government in the 1990s. Pumla introduces her story via a lecture at a podium, but then the wall opens up behind her to reveal the room at the jail where infamous former Police officer and assassin Eugene De Kock (Christopher Harris), or “Prime Evil” as he was called in the press. Following De Kocks’s conviction for numerous horrific crimes, Pumla interviews him in jail and tries to get an idea about what made him do what he has done, and what kind of person would do such things. Eugene doesn’t deny his crimes, and seems quite defensive at first, while also pointing out that while he did all the things he was accused of doing (and probably more), he wasn’t the only one doing them, as he tells stories of organized and systematic crime in his department and among other branches of government. This is a very personal story, but the interview format somewhat limits it, although the portrayals here are excellent. The concepts of reconciliation, forgiveness, guilt, blame, and justice are dealt with as Pumla and Eugene talk about their lives and what has happened over years of a corrupt, unjust, and brutal system of government in South Africa. Also dealt with is the idea of humanity–the humanity of the victims as well as of the perpetrators of the crimes. Is it easier to see a mass-murderer as a soulless monster or as a human being who did horrible things?  And conversely, what happens when the murderer is finally forced to recognize the humanity of his victims, and how does that change what he thinks about what he has done?  Those last two questions become the source of the title of the book, and this play. There’s a lot to talk and think about here in this relatively short play.

The performances here are excellent, and a lot of the drama of the play comes from the interpersonal dynamic between the characters. As Pumla, Thompson projects authority as well as empathy, and as more of her own personal story comes out through the course of the interview process, Thompson makes the process compelling. Also well-portrayed is Pumla’s increasing investment in the interview process and in hearing Eugene’s story and contributing to his realization of the real human weight of his crimes. Harris is equally convincing in portraying Eugene’s process of not just admitting his guilt, but owning it. These performances are augmented by the staging and presentation of the piece, with Patrick Huber’s inventive set, Michele Friedman Siler’s excellent costumes, Joseph W. Clapper’s vivid lighting design, and Michael Dorsey’s striking media design contributing to the atmosphere and mood of the production.

A Human Being Died That Night is another provocative, thoughtful production from Upstream. Despite its format limitations, the performances and presentation work to make this a compelling piece of theatre. It’s sure to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion, not just concerning South Africa, but concerning how the concepts portrayed here apply here, and universally.

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting A Human Being Died That Night at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 28, 2017

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Adapted and Directed by Patrick Siler
With Special Music Composed and Performed by Sleepy Kitty

Upstream Theater

April 11, 2015

Jerry Vogel Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

This isn’t high school English class.  Currently on stage at Upstream Theater is a staged version of Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a form that brings the work to life in a way that couldn’t have been imagined by my teenage self when I was assigned to read it in school. Taking the text of the poem, along with some classic engravings by Gustave Dore’, Upstream has joined forces with musical duo Sleepy Kitty to construct a living, breathing and singing presentation that brings the story off of the page and onto the stage in a vibrant, memorable and thoroughly winning manner.

This is the well-known and oft-studied English poem with many well-known passages and concepts, such as the albatross around the neck, “water, water everywhere” and so forth.  It’s a vividly told story in written form, and director Patrick Siler has adapted it beautifully for the stage.  With a three person cast and the two musicians, the story of the Ancient Mariner (Jerry Vogel) comes to life with color, depth and haunting melody. Joined by fellow cast members Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer in various roles, Vogel portrays the the Mariner as he interrupts a festive wedding to tell his tale of adventure, calamity, despair and redemption on the high seas. Accompying them are Sleepy Kitty members Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult, who each play a variety of instruments and contribute vocals to the folk-influenced rock score of the production.

This production is a marvel of inventive staging, presented in the cozy black box theatre at the Kranzberg Arts Center. With Kyra Bishop’s simple but detailed set suggesting the bow of a ship, along with ropes, a rope ladder and other nautical accessories that are walked, climbed and danced on by the performers throughout the show. There are also vibrant costumes by Lou Bird, with late 18th Century English styles represented as well as some fantastical elements, as a number of realistic, stylized and ethereal creatures inhabit the story. There are some striking uses of clothing items like a scarf for the fabled albatross, as well as a variety of masks and veils utilized in different situations. The lighting, by Joseph W. Clapper, is striking as atmospheric, shifting in mood as the play shifts, and there’s excellent use of Dore’s engravings as projections to highlight various moments in the story.

This is a show where all the different elements are essential and blend together seamlessly. It’s remarkable how the musicians are brought into the story as well, with Brubeck and Sult donning costumes and featuring in the story on occasion, most notably in a haunting “death ship” sequence toward the middle of the play.  The cast is top-notch as well, led by the charismatic, weary-eyed Vogel as the weathered, alternately optimistic, then haunted, then despairing, then penitent and ultimately joyful Mariner. Vogel navigates the gamut of experience and emotion with expert skill, displaying strong stage presence and a strong voice, especially in an ode to loneliness in the middle of the play and a joyful, worshipful refrain at the end. Blindauer and Gabrielle lend their support with much flair, as they both appear in a variety of roles from wedding guests to shipmates to sea creatures and more, displaying excellent voices and movement in the various sequences.

This is an excellent and somewhat surprising multi-media performance that makes great use of projection, video and sound to bring this 18th Century tale to a 21st Century audience with spirit and heart.  Its short running time (about 65 minutes) is packed with action, song and story. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I saw this production, but what a wonderful surprise it is. This is a truly memorable, inventive and cleverly staged production that takes a classic work and brings it to the stage with remarkable modern style.

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

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