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First Impressions
Adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Conceived by Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
May 17, 2017

John Wolbers, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

 I’m a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, seen various filmed adaptations, and like a lot of Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels. Also like a lot of Austen fans, I have a lot of strong opinions about the story and its adaptations. Austen seems to inspire a lot of strong emotions about her works, and that trait is represented well in SATE Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, First Impressions, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice in a dynamic way while also telling the stories of many of its readers.

The basic story of Pride and Prejudice is well-known by many, whether they’ve read the book or seen many of the various filmed and staged adaptations. Here, with First Impressions, adapters Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye have given the story the SATE treatment, presenting the story in a somewhat straightforward way in one sense, but opening it up in another sense, in terms of framing, staging, and casting. Here, various testimonials of of people’s “first impressions” of the story are interspersed with the story. All the familiar characters are here, as Elizabeth Bennet (Schwetye) meets Mr. Darcy (John Wolbers) and the romantic and family drama and comedy unfolds. Elizabeth and her sisters Jane (Cara Barresi), Mary (Parvuna Sulamain), Kitty (Jazmine K. Wade), and Lydia (Katy Keating) live with their parents, the marriage-obsessed Mrs. Bennet (Nicole Angeli) and the somewhat world-weary Mr. Bennet (Carl Overly, Jr.). When the handsome, eligible Mr. Bingley (Michael Cassidy Flynn) moves into a nearby estate, the story is in motion, following Elizabeth as she learns more about the mysterious Mr. Darcy and about the world around her, populated by characters like the sycophantic Mr. Collins (Andrew Kuhlmann), the dashing but caddish Mr. Wickham (also Flynn), and the imperious Lady Catherine DeBourgh (also Angeli).  The story is narrated by Mary, and as the action unfolds, it’s often interspersed with the “first impression” stories that provide commentary not just on the story itself, but on its place in history, its appeal to people from all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also occasional critique of Austen’s perspective and her era.

It’s a fast-paced, fascinating, riveting presentation, full of motion and emotion, with characterizations that are at once true to the spirit of the book and strikingly modern. The fact that some performers play more than one role also provides interest in the form of contrast, such as Angeli’s portrayal of the meddling Mrs. Bennet, the imposing Lady Catherine DeBourgh, and the personable Aunt Gardiner. Angeli is particularly notable for portraying a Mrs. Bennet who doesn’t come across as a caricature or a cartoon as she can in some filmed adaptations. Yes, she can be silly, but Angeli provides some substance behind the silliness, and there’s a degree of affection between Angeli and Overly’s Mr. Bennet that adds a level of depth to their relationship. Sulamain’s portrayal of Mary is similarly refreshing, making the middle Bennet sister appear more thoughtful than sanctimonious. The other Bennet sisters are also strong in their characterization, from Barresi’s reserved but gentle Jane, to Wade’s excitable Kitty, to Keating’s brash, outspoken Lydia.  Flynn is excellent as both the generous, lovestruck Bingley and the charismatic but unprincipled Wickham. Kristen Strom gives another strong contrasting performance as two distinctly different sisters–the haughty Caroline Bingley, and the more humble, kindly Georgiana Darcy. Rachel Hanks is memorable as a particularly enthusiastic incarnation of Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and also as Elizabeth’s practically-minded best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who ends up marrying the Bennets’ silly cousin, Mr. Collins, who is portrayed with a gleeful, almost morbid intensity by Andrew Kuhlman. And last but not least are Schwetye in an engaging, determined portrayal of Elizabeth and Wolbers as Mr. Darcy, giving him a more reserved and occasionally witty portrayal. The chemistry between Schwetye and Wolbers is strong, as is the chemistry among the sisters, and the staging lends to the characterization, and the sisters are often seen gathering to eavesdrop on their sisters’ conversations.

It’s a fresh, timely staging that brings out a lot of the story’s humor as well as examining its seemingly universal appeal. The set and lighting by Bess Moynihan contribute a great deal to the tone of the show. The big white tent and and minimal furnishings add to the always-in-motion quality of the play, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are especially impressive, featuring a blend of period details and modern flair, from Wickham’s leather jacket and pants to the colorful dresses of the Bennet sisters, and more, this is a production that celebrates the classic elements and the timeless quality of this show. There’s excellent sound design by Schwetye as well, and the use of music–mostly modern pop music rearranged as chamber music–works extremely well, especially in the wonderful Netherfield Ball sequence.

This is a fun show as well as a thought-provoking one. References to Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier are thrown in along with comments on women’s roles, the affluence of the characters, and more. A frequent theme that comes up in the testimonials is how the story can mean different things to the same person depending on when they read it.  Pride and Prejudice is a story that means a lot to many people, and although opinions can greatly vary, it’s a story that’s clearly made an impact over the generations. SATE Ensemble Theatre has presented this story well, as well as examining it, somewhat deconstructing it, challenging it, and celebrating it. Like so many of the shows SATE does, this show takes a unique approach, and it provides for a singular theatrical experience.

John Wolbers, Katy Keating, Nicole Angeli, Andrew Kuhlman, Jazmine K. Wade, Parvuna Sulaiman, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting First Impressions at the Chapel until May 27, 2017

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Mary Shelley Monster Show

by Nick Otten

Based on a Concept by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts

Directed by Kelley Weber

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

August 20, 2014

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) is closing out its year-long “Season of the Monster” with a brand new show that revolves, partly, around one of the most iconic monster stories ever.  Mary Shelley Monster Show even opens with a montage of projections of various versions of the infamous monster that’s at the heart of Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein. This story, though, is about much more than Frankenstein. In this innovative, technically stunning  production, SATE brings Mary Shelley and her world to life in an entertaining and thoroughly riveting manner.

The play is short but extremely contemplative, and it’s never boring.  As Mary (Rachel Tibbetts) poses for her most well-known portrait by painter Richard Rothwell (the offstage voice of Carl Overly, Jr.), she recalls the important moments of her life and the people-both real and imaginary–that inhabited it.  These characters, from the monster himself to such real-life figures as Mary’s poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, the illustrious poet Lord Byron and others, are all played by Ellie Schwetye. Through Mary’s recollections, reenactments, and an abundance of projections, we are given a glimpse into Mary’s mind as she recalls historic moments in her life, and her various relationships with those who have been most important to her.  We also see her relationship with her work, represented by her various philosophical discussions with the shadowy figure of the monster, who gradually evolves throughout the course of the show and challenges Mary to think about her relationship, as a writer, with her creation. It’s an exploration of one woman’s life and also the lives of famous literary figures and of one work in particular and how that work has survived its creator and even eclipsed her in notoriety, reflected in the play as Mary tells the monster–who questions his reality–that a creation often becomes more “real” than its creator.

What’s real here is the sheer wonder of this production, both technically and in its performances. Tibbetts gives a reflective, confident performance as Mary, portraying her various stages of life and conflicting emotions with veracity and depth.  From her regrets over the deaths of loved ones, to her deep love and near-worship of her dynamic husband, to her verbal sparring with the charismatic Byron, Tibbetts is thoroughly affecting.  Schwetye also impresses in at least nine different roles, portraying this wide range of characters clearly with, for the most part, only minimal changes in costume.  She is particularly effective as the self-confident Byron, as the reassuring ghostly figure of Mary’s late mother, as Mary’s emotional step-sister “Claire”, and especially as the increasingly confrontational monster.  Schwetye makes the transitions between the various characters seem effortless, and the chemistry between her (in her various incarnations) and Tibbetts is excellent.  Lending support to these two dynamic actresses is Overly, who never actually appears onstage but manages to make an impression with his voice, as the painter who serves as something of a catalyst and sounding board for Mary’s reflections.

Technically, this show is nothing short of marvelous. With a striking set by David Blake, along with Bess Moynihan’s atmospheric lighting, Michael B. Perkins’s abundant and colorful projections, Elizabeth Henning’s costumes and Schwetye’s sound design, this production strikes and maintains just the right mood.  It’s haunting, reflective and educational all at the same time. This team has managed to use the somewhat limited space in the small Chapel venue to its best advantage, taking the audience on a trip into Mary Shelley’s world and into her very thoughts.  This is  great example of a show in which the technical elements add to the drama of the production rather than dominating or distracting from it. It’s  a highly commendable effort from all involved.

This is a unique and fascinating play that educates as it entertains, as well as providing a basis for thoughtful discussions on the nature of writing and of an artist’s relationship to her craft. It’s another triumph for the collective creative talents of SATE. Over the past few years, this small, unpretentious theatre company has consistently turned out some of the most exciting,intriguing productions in St. Louis. I’m constantly impressed at how much the team at SATE continues to grow and stretch their limits as a company, continually trying to challenge expectations and then rising to the challenge. It’s companies like this that help make the St. Louis theatre scene great. Mary Shelley Monster Show is the latest, and quite possibly the greatest, of SATE’s many successes.  I look forward to seeing what their next season brings.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

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Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
The Midnight Company
August 1, 2014

joe Hanrahan Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan The Midnight Company

joe Hanrahan
Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan is one of those actors with a particular talent for playing multiple characters in the same play, and one-man shows are a great vehicle for this. Unlike the Midnight Company’s last production, Solemn Mockeries, which told a cohesive story, Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is more of a collection of monologues with related themes, providing an ideal showcase for Hanrahan’s skills and allowing for an evening of outrageous and sometimes dark humor that’s sure to make the audience think as well as laugh.

The show is mostly an examination of consumerism and selfishness in modern society. The happiest guy in the show is the homeless bottle collector in the opening sequence, who’s content with his bottles (“or cans–no difference” he says)–which he recycles to make a little bit of money–and the occasional egg salad sandwich. Most of the other characters in the play are selfish, greedy, culturally ignorant and sometimes downright hostile.  Self-help philosophies get parodied in two segments, and misguided charity in another. All the elements of the title are there, as well as a cynical take on religious belief and musings on the purpose and importance of art and creativity.  It’s gritty, irreverent, and unquestionably funny, with jokes ranging from lighthearted to sarcastic to outrageously dark.  It’s an ideal vehicle for a versatile actor like Hanrahan, and he makes the most of every opportunity.

Hanrahan does a great job with the various characters represented here. He’s great with comedy and some of the darker moments, with a good range of voices and accents (with help from dialect coach Pamela Reckamp), from the aging British rocker staging a benefit concert, to the Southern motivational speaker trying to help his audiences get in touch with their “inner baby”.  With energy and charisma, Hanrahan manages to hold the audience’s attention through the course of the play even when portraying some of the more unsavory aspects of his characters.

Hanrahan and director Rachel Tibbetts have done an excellent job of presenting this show in just the right context. The basement room at  Herbie’s Restaurant in the Central West End is an excellent venue for this play, with the small performance space giving the show more of an interactive vibe. and the use of props and various quick-change costume elements is excellent as well. The play, written over 20 years ago, has been updated here and there with a few references to current events and St.Louis settings, thrown in to add to the overall atmosphere and accessibility of the piece. It’s all very timely,with the focus on self-actualization and self-help (which can be useful or misused), as well as conspicuous consumption in today’s consumer-driven society. It’s a relatively short play, running just over an hour, although that’s plenty of time to be introduced to this wide-ranging cast of characters all played by the same guy. Some of the characters are appealing and some are scoundrels, but as presented by Joe Hanrahan, they’re all worth listening to even if it’s  just to make us think.

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