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Alabama Story
by Kenneth Jones
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 4, 2019

Jeanne Paulsen, Carl Howell, Carl Palmer, Larry Paulsen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first play of the new year takes the audience on a trip to the Deep South in the early 1960s. Alabama Story, with a smart script and well-defined characters and setting, takes an important issue that is tied to its time in one way and transcends it in another. At the Rep, an excellent cast and inventive staging brings this story to life.

Based on a real incident that made news in 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama in which a childrens’ book, Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, was challenged by a state senator over its perceived pro-integration message, the play itself covers that story while painting a picture of Montgomery in that era through the use of real-life characters, as well as presenting the overall atmosphere of the time and place through the use of a fictional but highly plausible parallel story and characters. It’s told in a stylized manner, narrated by various characters at various times, and particularly by the book’s author, Williams (Larry Paulsen, who also plays a variety of other characters). The central figure is state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Jeanne Paulsen), a meticulous and conscientious librarian who sees it as her duty to protect the library’s mission and the books the library promotes. The controversy begins when her devoted assistant, Thomas Franklin (Carl Howell) shows her a newspaper headline in a local conservative paper about the book in question, and later she receives a visit from Senator Higgins (Carl Palmer)–based on the real-life senator E.O. Eddins. The senator is dedicated to his vision of the Deep South and long-standing tradition, which for him and many others includes segregation and institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, also in Montgomery, the parallel story features the surprise reunion of two childhood friends and a renewed relationship that serves to emphasize the depth of the enforced racial divide in southern society, and shows how white people were able to allow their privilege to keep them from seeing the truth of what was happening in the world. Lily (Anna O’Donaghue) is a young white woman who grew up in a wealthy family, living in the “big house” on her father’s cotton plantation. As she’s sitting on a park bench one day, she encounters Joshua (Corey Allen), who lived with his mother on Lily’s family’s property as a child, but who had to suddenly move away with his mother for reasons that Lily claims not to remember. Through the course of their interactions, we learn more about the reality of both characters’ lives, and Joshua’s efforts to make a difference in the state in which he grew up, and Lily’s gradual acknowledgment of her family’s role in reinforcing societal norms, and in what happened to Joshua’s family.

The structure of the play smoothly transitions between the main story and the parallel story, as well as incorporating more “out of time” elements like the narration. It’s almost deceptively whimsical, at times, because of the general tone that appears light but can also feature moments of poignant and challenging dramatic depth. It’s actually a lot more directly challenging than it first appears, in fact, and the characters are extremely well-defined. The cast is excellent, as well, led by Jeanne Paulsen’s remarkable performance as Reed, revealing many layers to the complex personality of this initially matter-of-fact, no-nonsense librarian. There are also strong performances from Howell as her mild-mannered but determined assistant, Thomas, and by Larry Paulsen in a various roles, most notably the eccentric, principled Williams, and also an older, weary state senator who has been a mentor of sorts to Higgins. There are also excellent performances from Allen and O’Donoghue as the reunited friends Joshua and Lily, whose story provides a lot of the depth of this play. Palmer, as Higgins, is also fine if occasionally over-the-top as the single-minded, sometimes cartoonish Higgins.

The staging and production values are a mixture of the stylistic and the more realistic, with meticulously designed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis and a more abstract, detailed set by William Bloodgood that prominently features looming bookshelves. There’s also impressive atmospheric lighting by Kenton Yeager, and an evocative soundtrack by composer and sound designer Barry G. Funderburg. All these elements, in addition to director Paul Mason Barnes’ crisp, quickly paced staging, work together to bring the audience into the world of this story, and the particular atmosphere of the Deep South in the 1950s.

Alabama Story is a surprising play in a few ways, and just what I expected in others. It’s a play that manages to explore its subject in many angles and also manages for the most part to avoid simplistic answers even with its occasionally whimsical tone. As was to be expected, it’s an impeccably staged production with the strong production values for which the Rep has come to be known. There’s a compelling story here, and a great cast. It’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

Anna O’Donoghue, Corey Allen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Alabama Story until January 27, 2019

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Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 13, 2017

Ross Cowan, Jim Poulos, Stephen Hu
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play. It’s certainly oft-studied and oft-performed. Still, in its 51 years of existence in St. Louis, the Rep had never actually staged it, until now. And now, the Hamlet they’re staging is not exactly what you may expect. Produced by much of the team behind the Rep’s excellent A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a few years ago, this Hamlet is fresh, immediate, and characterized by a dynamic, highly physical performance from its leading actor.

Story-wise, this is Hamlet. It’s Shakespeare’s tale of the titular Danish prince (Jim Poulos), who is visited by the ghost of his late father, the previous King of Denmark, and urged to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, Claudius (Michael James Reed), who has not only taken over as king but has also married the queen, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Robynn Rodriguez). As Hamlet undertakes his effort at revenge, he confides his plans to his friend Horatio (Christopher Gerson), but his actions start to perplex those around him, including the members of the king’s court, Hamlet’s sometime love interest Ophelia (Kim Wong), her father Polonius (Larry Paulsen), Gertrude, and the increasingly suspicious Claudius, who enlists the help of Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Ross Cowan) and Guildenstern (Stephen Hu) and eventually Opehelia’s brother Laertes (Carl Howell) in foiling Hamlet’s plans. The results of all this plotting, planning, and revenge-seeking is famously tragic, with consequences affecting essentially everyone to one degree or another.

That’s the basic plot description, but this play–as with all of Shakespeare’s plays–can be staged in many different ways. The approach taken by director Paul Mason Barnes for this production is decidedly fast-paced and physical, particularly in the casting of Hamlet himself. Having previously played Puck so memorably in the Rep’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Poulos brings us a particularly puckish portrayal of the Melancholy Dane. His Hamlet is thoughtful, but he’s also confrontational, witty, and full of dynamic energy, challenging baffling Claudius and crew with his actions and body language as much as, if not more than, his words. It’s a brilliantly visceral performance. There are also impressive turns by Gerson as the sympathetic Horatio, Reed as the scheming, guilt-addled Claudius, Wong as the caring, manipulated, and increasingly unstable Ophelia, Paulsen as her busybody father Polonius, and Howell as a particularly earnest Laertes. Rodriguez as Gertrude is a standout as well, making her confusion and growing concern for Hamlet palpable and her famous “closet scene” devastatingly effective. Jonathan Gillard Daly and Tarah Flanagan are also excellent in dual roles as the Player King and Queen and as the gravediggers. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry and excellent support from the entire ensemble.

Visually, this production is notable for its stark, imposing minimalist set designed by Michael Ganio. Consisting of some scaffolding, an ominous leaning wall, and a series of plain square pedestals all arranged around a large looming column, the set serves well in facilitating the often urgent staging of this play. The fantastic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcarez, the sumptuously detailed 19th Century-influenced costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, and the superb sound design and atmospheric original music by Barry G. Funderberg all contribute to the overall immediate, intense atmosphere.

It could be easy to ask why it’s taken so long for the Rep to produce Hamlet, but it’s also easy to say now that I can’t imagine how they could have done it better. Particularly in its casting and fast-paced staging, this is a Hamlet that is confrontational and majoring on emotion, with a truly remarkable title performance at its heart. It’s a theatrical triumph for the Rep.

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Hamlet until November 5, 2017

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 17, 2014

Jeffrey Omura, Gracyn Mix, Caroline Amos, Andy Rindlisbach Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeffrey Omura, Gracyn Mix, Caroline Amos, Andy Rindlisbach
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the most whimsical of Shakespeare’s works, as well as among the more accessible to those less familiar with Shakespeare. I sometimes think of it as “entry level Shakespeare” as a reflection of its accessibility.  It’s frequently performed at all levels–from schools to community theatres to professional companies–all around the world. Strong production values can add a lot of sumptuous detail to this play, and in the latest production at the Rep, the technical details are the forefront in a bright, well-choreographed presentation that emphasizes physical comedy and a lighthearted spirit.

The story here is relatively simple at first, but things quickly get more convoluted. As Athenian Duke Theseus (Alvin Keith) prepares to marry Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Rebecca Watson), nobleman Egeus (Jerry Vogel) is trying to marry off his daughter Hermia (Caroline Amos) to the devoted Demetreus (Andy Rindlisbach), although Hermia doesn’t  love him and would rather marry Lysander (Jeffery Omura). Hermia’s friend Helena (Gracyn Mix) loves Demetrius, but he only has eyes for Hermia.  Meanwhile, a troupe of craftsmen get together to stage a play, led by carpenter Peter Quince (Bob Walton) and weaver Nick Bottom (Michael James Reed). These groups of would-be lovers and would-be actors who wander into the forest and unwittingly get mixed up in the schemes of the woodland fairies who inhabit it, led by King Oberon (also Keith), who has a grudge against Queen Titania (also Watson). Oberon enlists the sprightly Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck (Jim Poulous) to play tricks on Titania and the unsuspecting mortals.  These schemes lead to a host of complications including bizarre transformations, misplaced affections, and much confusion as the many plots intersect and work toward their conclusion.

Although there is some doubling of roles, this is one of the largest casts I’ve seen at the Rep. Led by the strong performances of local talents like Reed, who is delightful in a somewhat rare comic role as Bottom, and Webster University student Amos, who brings a fiercely determined quality to Hermia, this is an excellent ensemble. Other standouts include Mix as the self-conscious Helena, Poulos as the engagingly mischievous Puck, Keith and Watson as the sparring Oberon and Titania, Omura and Rindlisbach as the bewildered suitors Lysander and Demetrius, and Walton as the charmingly dedicated leader of the acting troupe, Quince.  There’s some great work from the rest of the ensemble as well, particularly in executing the clever choreography by Matt Williams.

The atmosphere here is of colorful frivolity, with dynamic staging and hilarious physical comedy sequences. As good as the cast is, however, the most prominent successes of this production are in the sheer brilliance of its technical elements. With a glittery, colorful, almost cartoonish set designed by James Kronzer, and distinctive, 19th Century-influenced costumes by Susan Branch Towne, this production brings Shakespeare whimsy to life with style. And that’s just the visuals.  The sound and music, designed and composed by Barry G. Funderburg, is seamlessly integrated into the production is a wonderfully synchronized way.  When Oberon, Puck, or any of the other “fairy” characters exercises “magic powers”, the accompanying sounds and movements are thoroughly convincing.  It’s a dynamic blend of sight, sound, and movement that adds to the overall energy and entertainment value of this fun production.

I don’t want to overuse the word “whimsical”, although it really is the best word I can think of to describe this play, and especially this particular production.  The Rep’s has brought us A Midsummer Night’s Dream  that is at once organized and flighty, energetic and visually gorgeous. It’s Shakespeare for people who might think they don’t like Shakespeare, as well as for well-established fans of the Bard. Most of all, it’s just plain fun, and that’s wonderful.

Alvin Keith, Jim Poulos Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Alvin Keith, Jim Poulos
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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