Posts Tagged ‘prison performing arts’

by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield
Directed by Christopher Limber
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
September 24, 2021

Cast of Elsinore
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

Hamlet, as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, has been the subject for many treatments by other playwrights over the years. There have been parodies, sequels, re-imaginings, and more. The latest production by Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company is a prequel, called Elsinore and imagining what Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and company were doing in the years leading up to the famous tragedy. Seeing it staged in an engaging production at the Chapel over the weekend, I’m left with the thought that this is an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential if developed a little more. 

The play, written by company members David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, features many of the well-known characters from Hamlet, with a few notable additions. The two-act structure features the characters at different times in their history–with the first act taking place 15 years before the events of Hamlet, and the second act taking place in the year leading up to the start of the more famous play. In Act One, the young Prince Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) is a rebellious teenager who resents his authoritarian father, the King (John Wolbers), and prefers goofing off with his buddies Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File) or hanging out at the home of his uncle Claudius (Satterfield), who is happily married to Collette (Julie Antonic), who is expecting a child. King Hamlet is bothered that the young prince seems to favor his uncle, as well as being generally immature and not taking his role as heir to the throne seriously. Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) is also frustrated, but more at her domineering husband than at her son, who she suggests might benefit from being sent to study in Wittenberg. We also see the burgeoning romance between young Hamlet and Ophelia (Summer Baer), who has returned from an unhappy time at the royal court in France, and envies Hamlet’s opportunity to study. As the story progresses to Act 2, we get to see what all this education has done for Hamlet, as well as increasing the focus on Claudius, and his growing ambition as he serves a temporary term as regent while his brother is ill. Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows where the story is going, but the mystery concerns how events develop to that point, as tensions increase and scenes begin to parallel and foreshadow events in Shakespeare’s story. 

For the most part, playwrights Nonemaker (who also plays Polonius here) and Satterfield have constructed a compelling backstory for Hamlet, Claudius and company, with some clever nods to its inspiration as well as intriguing developments of the characters. There are a few things that could be worked on, though, as the second act is a bit long, and there’s a little too much “quoting” of the “parent play”. Also, the King Hamlet character comes across as one-dimensional much of the time, despite a strong effort from the consistently excellent Wolbers. The cast, made up of a mixture of Prison Performing Arts program alumni, professional and student actors, is strong, for the most part, as well. Satterfield as Claudius has perhaps the largest part, and his journey as a character increases in power as the story goes on. There are standout performances from File in a dual role as Guildenstern and as “Young Claudius” (son of the elder Claudius), Lawson-Maeske as Rosencrantz and Horatio, and Antonic as the sweet-natured  Collette; with fine performances across the board from the rest of the cast. The biggest standouts, though, are Bacus as the initially wild but gradually maturing young Hamlet and Baer as a witty, sort of feminist Ophelia. The scenes between these two are the true highlight of this production, and their chemistry is electric. Every moment they are onstage together is a delight. There were times I wished the whole play was about them, although knowing where their story is going to lead adds poignancy to these scenes, and the developing story of how Claudius becomes who he is in Hamlet is also intriguing. 

The staging is fairly simple, with a static set that consists of two thrones backed by flags. Erik Kuhn’s lighting helps set the mood, especially as the sense of mystery grows in the second act. There are also excellent, detailed costumes by Liz Henning and crisp, clear sound by Ellie Schwetye, with the technical elements working together well to help this production maintain a consistent look and tone.

Overall, Elsinore strikes me as a promising play that, with a little more development, could potentially be produced by other companies, as suggested by director Christopher Limber in his notes in the program. As produced at the Chapel by the PPA Alumni Theatre Company, it’s a thought-provoking production with an energetic cast. It’s a compelling look at what could have happened before the tragic events of one of the world’s most well-known works of theatre. 

John Wolbers, Oliver Bacus
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts


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Run-On Sentence
by Stacie Lents
Commissioned by Prison Performing Arts
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
June 9, 2018

Wendy Renée Greenwood, Margeau Baue Steinau, Jamie McKittrick, Bess Moynihan, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE continues to be one of St. Louis’s boldest, most remarkable theatre companies, continuing to present challenging, thought-provoking, impeccably-staged theatre primarily in the small, versatile Chapel arts venue. I’ve made it no secret what I think of SATE. I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of their productions, and they continue their streak of excellence with an intense, confrontational work originally written for the Prison Performing Arts organization. It’s called Run-On Sentence, and it’s a truly remarkable production.

This is a small-cast, one act play, set in a women’s prison and orginally performed in one. Under the direction of SATE co-producer Rachel Tibbetts, the Chapel has been transformed into a starkly furnished cell, with four bunk beds and a small bank of lockers. The story is structured as something of a flashback/testimonial, told by Mel (Taleesha Caturah), who has been incarcerated for over 15 years on a life sentence. She describes what it’s like to be in prison, which as you would expect, is rough. We meet her fellow inmates, the moody, suspicious, aspiring baker Bug (Wendy Renée Greenwood), the trusting, potato-chip loving Giant (Jamie McKittrick), who appears to be mentially challenged, and the more even-tempered Miss Alice (Margeau Baue Steinau), who has been there a long time and who leads aerobics classes for the inmates. There’s a complexity of relationships, and difficulty building trust among inmates, which is demonstrated with the arrival of a newcomer, Mary (Bess Moynihan), a first-timer with a PHd and a complicated story that doesn’t get revealed right away. Intially, Mel is annoyed by Mary, but their relationship soon develops to a point that makes Bug (Mel’s best friend) jealous and even more suspicious of Mary. There’s also a new prison guard, Officer Wallace (Kristen Strom), who tries to be fair-minded and is taunted by the inmates for being naive. Through a series of scenes we get to see the dynamics among the inmates, hear some of their stories, and see the routines and hierarchies to which they have become accustomed. The story is told in what is essentially a series of vignettes, but the major threads are about Mel and Mary, how their relationship develops, and how that relationship is affected by various revelations that happen during the course of the story. The harsh realities of prison life are emphasized, and so is the underlying uneasiness with the idea of hope–everyone wants to get out, but nobody knows for sure if and when they ever will.

This is a challenging play, with relationship dynamics at its center, along with SATE’s usual clever use of their performance space and dynamic, well-paced staging. The cast is in top form, with all players turning in powerful, memorable performances, led by Caturah as the guarded, tough-talking Mel, whose vulnerability becomes more apparent as the story progresses. The entire cast’s chemistry is strong, with the characters’ relationships immediate and credible. Everyone is excellent, with Greenwood’s unpredictable Bug and McKittrick’s somewhat childlike Giant as particular standouts. Stil, there’s not a weak link in this six-member cast, with all the players having their memorable moments, and the sense of bonding and also tension among the inmates readily apparent. The script is well-structured, revealing important information gradually, as the reason for this format is eventually made clear.

The sheer despair and monotony of prison life is on display here, as are the very real fears, grievances, and hopes of the characters. The emotions can be raw, and the drama can be tense, but there are also moments of humor, and it’s all pitched just right in this production. The simple, spare set designed by Moynihan, and the realistic costumes by Rachel Tibbetts just add a sense of authenticity to the realism of the script. There’s also effective use of lighting by Dominick Ehling and sound by Ellie Schwetye, helping to transform the performance space of the Chapel into the stark setting of a prison.

This isn’t an easy play to watch at times. It’s confrontational; it’s personal; it’s raw. It shines light on the realties of life in prison for audiences who might not know much about what that’s like. It’s also an intriguing character study and showcase for SATE’s always excellent cast of first-rate actors. Run-On Sentence is another strong example of the excellence that is SATE.

Kirsten Strom, Jamie McKittrick, Margeau Baue Steinau, Wendy Renée Greenwood, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Run-On Sentence at the Chapel until June 17, 2018

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