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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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