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Admissions
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 28, 2018

Thom Niemann, R. Ward Duffy, Henny Russell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first Studio production of the season is Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, which combines comedy and drama in a highly thought-provoking combination that looks at the highly charged topics of race and privilege particularly in the field of academics. It looks at an issue many families deal with–education for their children–and explores it through the eyes of a prep school administrator in Connecticut and her family. It’s also a critical look at whiteness and white privilege that’s sure to make its audience think.

In the interview with playwright Joshua Harmon in the program, he said he wanted to write a play where the characters’ whiteness is on clear display, in terms of how they live, think, and make decisions regarding race. It’s particularly focusing on white liberals, and a family of academics that has a degree of privilege that’s so ingrained they don’t even seem to notice it–not really, anyway, even if they say they do, and when anyone else tries to point it out, that’s when things get especially uncomfortable. The central figure is Sherri Rosen-Mason (Henny Russell), the admissions officer for a prestigious Connecticut prep school. She’s spent most of her career in the effort to increase the mostly-white school’s percentage of non-white students. Her husband, Bill (R. Ward Duffy) is the head of the school, and together they take pride in their diversity efforts. Their son, Charlie (Thom Niemann), is a high-achieving student at the school and has high hopes of attending Yale. Essentially, the plot shows how this family is presented with a series of dilemmas that challenge their perceptions of themselves and others, calling into question exactly how “progressive” they really are, and how much they will rely on their own privilege when they know it will help their own son in the quest to go to the “right” kind of college. The issue of appearance and numbers vs. people comes up a lot, particularly in situations involving Sherri’s friend Ginnie (Kate Udall), who is married to a teacher at the school who is black, and whose son–Charlie’s best friend–is also applying to Yale. There’s also a mostly comic subplot in which Sherri’s colleague Roberta (Barbara Kingsley) is trying to produce a new academic catalogue for the school, but Sherri wants to make sure it encourages diversity.

This is a show that raises several important issues and takes a hard look at privilege and self-awareness, or lack thereof. It raises a lot of questions but doesn’t exactly answer them, at least not completely. Mostly, this is a look at issues that seriously need to be talked about, portrayed by characters who don’t always know how to respond to those questions. These characters are relatable to a point, and I think a large point of the story is to have us–and particularly, white audience members–asking questions of ourselves–how much do we see our own privilege? Do we see racism or biases within ourselves? If we had the chance to give up some of our privilege to truly help someone else, would we? Or would we encourage our loved ones to do so? Do we see how we can come across to those around us? How important is “elite” education? Those are only some of the questions raised by this play, and they’re embodied by characters that are often relatable and sometimes, but not always, likable.

The scenic design is perfectly realized, recreating the world of an upper middle class New England family and Sherri’s office at the prestigious prep school that forms the center of this family’s world. Bill Clarke’s set is detailed and specific, and Lou Bird’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also excellent evocative lighting by Nathan W. Schuer and sound by Rusty Wandall. All these aspects work together to create the world these characters inhabit, which is at once a realistic representation and a stereotype.

The small cast does an excellent job here, bringing their characters to life credibly, navigating the play’s sometimes witty, sometimes sharply comic, sometimes dramatic tone well. Russell has perhaps the most difficult job as Sherri, the well-meaning but sometimes clueless center of the production. She and the equally strong Duffy–amiable but also clueless in his own way–anchor the production. Niemann is also strong, giving a sometimes obtuse, sometimes sensitive, ultimately engaging performance as the sometimes entitled, sometimes confused Charlie, and Udall also makes a strong impression as the initially upbeat but increasingly conflicted Ginnie. Kingsley, as the perpetually exasperated Roberta, gives the most obviously comic performance and provides a great deal of energy and personality to her scenes.

Admissions is a play that should have audiences talking. There are some uncomfortable concepts, and truths, here, and a challenge in the sometimes deceptively lighter tone. There are also awkward moments, such as when the audience enthusiastically applauds one speech, only to have the character immediately chastised for the same speech. I’m not sure this play does everything the playwright says he wants it to do, but what it does best is raise questions. It’s a strong start to the Studio season at the Rep.

Henny Russell, Barbara Kingsley
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Admissions in the Studio until November 11, 2018.

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The latest project at the Rep Studio is probably the most difficult production I’ve ever had to review. In fact, I’m tempted to just write: “this is really interesting and non-tradtional–go see it!” When audiences are brought into the studio space, they’re given a program for an art exhibition, not a play. Still, they’ve billed it as a play, and the Rep is a theatre company. Although the initial setup isn’t usual, it’s fairly obvious there’s something theatrical going on here. Still, because Caught depends so much on form, and surprise, I’m not going to describe it in detail. It’s not a vague show in any sense, but the structure of it essentially requires a somewhat vague review.

So, go see it! Enjoy!

Actually, I have to describe it a little. Just be warned that everything is not exactly as it seems, ever, in this production. We first get an art show, and a lecture by a Chinese artist, and then more situations that end up differently than how they start out. There are actors involved, and I have to credit them because of their excellent performances with comic and dramatic twists, but I’m only listing their names here: Kenneth Lee, Rachel Fenton, Jeffrey Cummings, and Rachel Lin. There are also excellent production values–an impressivly detailed, evolving set by Robert Mark Morgan, well-suited costumes by Felia K. Davenport, striking atmospheric lighting by Ann G. Wrightson, and strong sound design by Rusty Wandall. All the elements work together to make this a unique, challenging work of theatre that addresses timely issues of truth in media, as well as the very concept of truth itself. In fact, you’re likely to leave the space not only wondering what you just saw, but questioning the very idea of truth in communication.

That’s it, really. That’s about all I can write without spoiling too much. The overall experience of this production and the unfolding nature of it is so essential to its purpose, that telling too much could mar that experience. So, what I’m back to is simply–“this is really interesting and non-traditional. Go see it!” Especially if you like experimental theatre, you won’t regret it

By the way, you get the “real” program at the end of the show. And in keeping with that structure, I’m ending with this:

Caught
by Christopher Chen
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 9, 2018 (Running Until March 25, 2018)

Kenneth Lee Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Heisenberg
by Simon Stephens
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St.Louis, Studio
October 27, 2017

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening its Studio season with a much talked-about two-character play called Heisenberg. It’s a short play, running at just under an hour and a half, and the focus is much more on character than on the plot. It’s a clever, somewhat unpredictable script that serves as a great showcase for its two excellent lead performers.

The title of this play isn’t referenced in the story itself, but it’s one a lot of people will be familiar with, even if they aren’t well-versed in physics. Although associated with a particular scientific concept, one doesn’t really have to know anything about physics to get the gist of this title. Essentially, the first word most people associate with the name Heisenberg is “uncertainty”, and in this play, that’s the general idea. Life is uncertain, and people are uncertain, and we don’t even know how much time we have with the people who come into our lives. The story follows the quirky relationship of two very different people, the 40-something American expat Georgie (Susan Louise O’Connor) and 75-year-old Irish-born butcher Alex (Joneal Joplin), who meet at a train station in London and eventually become more involved in one another’s lives, due largely to Georgie’s persistence. Over the course of their relatively short acquaintance (six weeks, according to director Steven Woolf’s note in the program), there are lies, misrepresentations, revelations, sudden decisions, and other surprises as we learn more about these two and the qualities that draw them together. There isn’t much else to say that doesn’t spoil too much, but the real focus here is on the relationship, as these two characters grow closer and show how their relationship and their interactions with the world around them and other important people in their lives shapes their present decisions, relationship, and character.

The set here is minimal. Designed by Peter and Margery Spack, it consists mainly of two long tables and some chairs, with video screens to help suggest the setting. Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute to the overall atmosphere here, which is more of a suggestion of settings than a concrete representation. Marci Franklin’s costumes are well-suited to the characters and their well-defined personalities.

And it’s those personalities that are the chief focus of this show, boldly embodied by the superb actors who bring them to life. Joplin does a great job of presenting Alex as a well-rounded character even early on, when he doesn’t speak as much and is largely reacting to Georgie. There’s so much communicated in Joplin’s mere looks and reactions, and as we find out more about him as the play progresses, Joplin continues to make these revelations fascinating, and his chemistry with O’Connor is wonderful. O’Connor is equally superb as the more outwardly expressive Georgie, although we soon learn that although she’s not as reserved as Alex, she has her own secrets. The contrast and dynamic between these two characters is really what makes the play so fascinating, and the performers here make the most of that relationship.

The play is fairly simple, plot-wise, even though its driven by a series of surprises, and the ending is somewhat abrupt. The point, I suppose, is that we never really know what to expect from life, so we might as well make the most of it while we are here. Here, that lesson is exemplified by two memorable characters in this witty, poignant play. This production, with it’s terrific leads and the assured direction of Steven Woolf, carries its message well. Life may be uncertain, but this play is certainly worth seeing.

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Heisenberg in its Studio Theatre until November 12, 2017.

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The Royale
by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Stuart Carden
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio
March 10. 2017

Bernard Gilbert, Lance Baker, Akron Lanier Watson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Royale is an ambitious concept. It’s a story inspired by history, told in manner that resonates well for today’s audiences. The latest production at the Rep Studio, this is a dynamic, fascinating play that features fine production values and a fantastic cast. Telling a tale that’s in a way as timely today as it would have been 110 years ago, it’s a challenging and vibrantly staged piece of theatre.

The story of The Royale takes place at “some point between 1905 and 1910”, according to the program. It’s a tale inspired by the real-life story of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. It’s a story that’s been told before on stage and on screen in the form of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Here, though, the format is different and much more stylized. The lead character here is called Jay “The Sport” Jefferson (Akron Lanier Watson), and the story follows him as he engages in a series of matches with other black fighters across the country, although his real aim is for a chance at the world Heavyweight title, held by the retired (and unseen) white boxer Bernard Bixby. As Jay wrangles with his promoter Max (Lance Baker) and befriends a talented opponent, Fish (Bernard Gilbert)–who becomes Jay’s sparring partner–the potential of a match with Bixby looms, along with all the implications of such a fight, especially if Jay wins. The impact of the match on the highly segregated society of the time is shown especially in the form of Jay’s relationship with his sister Nina (Bria Walker), who is proud of her brother but has serious reservations about the title fight. The story is told in a unique format, with the boxing matches often staged side-by-side instead of head-to-head, and with carefully staged movement and use of rhythmic body percussion choreographed by Stephanie Paul.  It’s an inventive construction that helps to keep the story moving with a great deal of dynamic energy.

This play depends a lot on its cast, and that’s its biggest strength. Watson brings a real sense of charisma and presence that is essential for the dynamic, iconoclastic Jay. His boasting and bravado, as well as his athletic prowess, are on clear display, and when the situation gets more challenging, his sense of conflict is clear. His scenes with Walker’s determined Nina are a highlight of the show, as are his scenes with the excellent Gilbert as the determined, ambitious Fish. There are also strong performances from Baker as Max and by Samuel Ray Gates as Jay’s trainer and friend, Wynton.  Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the excellent ensemble of this well-choreographed, briskly staged play.

The more contemporary structure of the play actually works well in portraying the spirit and tone of the early 20th Century setting of the play. There’s also an excellent set by Brian Sidney Bembridge that basically puts the audience in the ring with the fighters, as well as strong atmospheric lighting also by Bembridge. Christine Pascual’s costumes are richly detailed and appropriate for the time and characters, from the boxing attire to Jay’s and Max’s stylish suits and Nina’s dress and hat. The only real misstep in terms of period accuracy is an odd anachronism I’m surprised hasn’t been caught already, in terms of radio. The characters keep talking about listening to events on the radio, when commercial broadcast radio didn’t exist until the 1920’s. Otherwise, the time, place and spirit of the production are well maintained, and the sense of drama is well-built in the structure, and especially in the thrilling climactic bout.

The Royale is a memorable production, and a fascinatingly inventive theatrical event. Theatre is a good venue for a sport like boxing, that can be theatrical in itself. Boxing also works as a fitting allegory for the struggle that Jay, his sister, and their contemporaries endured every day in a highly segregated and often brutal society. It’s a show with a message that still resonates now, because although times have changed,  events in the news show us that there’s still a lot of change needed. This is a strong production from the Rep Studio, closing out a first-rate season.

Akron Lanier Watson, Bria Walker
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Royale in its Studio Theatre until March 26, 2017.

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Constellations
by Nick Payne
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio

January 20, 2017

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a two person play with fairly simple production values, and with a clever concept. Constellations, the latest production at the Rep Studio is not a long show, but it’s a fascinating one. This inventive, emotional, witty play finds its strength in its cast and in its concept, as well as in its s strong script.

This isn’t a long play, running at about 75 minutes with no intermission, but there’s a lot of story in that 75 minutes. In fact, there are a lot of stories in one. It’s a “what-if” sort of situation, focusing on a would-be couple in England, Marianne (Ellen Adair) and Roland (Eric Gilde), playing multiple variations of the same scene over and over to show many possible scenarios. The idea of multiverses is brought up by Marianne in-story, as  examining the theory is part of her line of work. Roland is a beekeeper who incorporates his work into his everyday life in some humorous ways, particularly in one scene–or set of scenes–that I won’t spoil here but it involves reciting a sweetly geeky prepared speech. As the story unfolds, the various possibilities of this pairing unfold, from false-starts, to betrayals, to break-ups and re-uniting, to health scares and potential tragedy. The structure, is mostly linear, also there are some moments that keep being revisited seemingly out of turn, but playwright Nick Payne deftly arranges the script so it’s not confusing. In fact, it’s fascinating.

Steven Woolf’s clear direction and the winning performances of the leads also contribute massively to the appeal of this play.  Gilde’s charming and sometimes socially awkward Roland, and Adair’s unconventional and sometimes brash Marianne make an excellent team, with strong chemistry and a great deal of energy. Adair is especially adept at changing the tone of a scene at the drop of a hat, joking one moment and crying real tears the next. The emotional arc of this piece depends greatly on the chemistry of these two, and they carry the story well.

Technically, this is a simply staged piece with a simple set. Designed by Bill Clarke, the set consists of a triangular “stage” backed by a glowing, crinkly backdrop that suggests clouds or possibly even brainwaves. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting design ably illuminates the action and the backdrop in a variety of colors, and Lou Bird’s costumes are well-suited to the characters. Rusty Wandall’s sound is also clear and strong. It’s a somewhat whimsical set-up that serves the story well.

Constellations certainly isn’t the first dramatic work to explore the idea of alternate timelines, but its strong script and intimate focus on just two characters makes it compelling. The two leads definitely make the most of their roles, and it’s a story that’s prone to provoke some interesting thoughts and conversations. There’s every possibility that you will enjoy it!

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Constellations in the Studio Theatre until February 5, 2017.

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Mothers and Sons
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 29, 2016

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons, currently playing at the Rep Studio, isn’t a long play, but there’s a whole lot going on. A complex plot and well-drawn characters make this play interesting and at times profound. The Rep’s production is especially notable for its excellent performances, conveying a lot of the depth of this story and making it riveting to watch.

It’s a somewhat complicated plot, mostly based on conversation and reflection. The play opens with Katharine (Darrie Lawrence) standing by the window in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment with Cal (Harry Bouvy), who’s pointing out the view of Central Park and various sights. The conversation is awkward, and we soon learn why. It turns out that Katharine is the mother of Andre, who died of AIDS 20 years previously and who was in a long-term relationship with Cal, who hasn’t seen Katharine since Andre’s memorial service. A lot has changed in 20 years, in the country as well in the personal lives of Katharine and Cal. Katharine is a recent widow, and Cal is now married to Will (Michael Keyloun), and they have a 7-year-old son, Bud (Simon Desilets). Katharine’s visit is a disruption of Cal and Will’s happy existence, and many issues are stirred up, including Katharine’s regrets concerning her relationship with Andre and with Cal, Cal’s feelings of guilt for having survived Andre and having achieved the happy married life he and Andre were unable to have, Katharine’s denial of various aspects of her son’s life, Will’s jealousy of the memory of Andre, the age difference between Will and Cal and its effects on their views of the world, and more. It’s a somewhat talky play, taking place in one space and with only four characters, so the emphasis is on the character dynamics and the relationships.  It covers a lot of issues in its 90 minutes, but the story builds well and the playwright Terrence McNally’s dialogue is incisive and insightful, for the most part. The biggest strength of this production, though, is in the acting.

Darrie Lawrence gives a remarkable, powerful performance as Katharine, an extremely flawed character who is made to face and deal with her own flaws, despite her frequent bouts of denial.  Lawrence makes Katharine’s rigidity, her resistance to change, and her humanity extremely believable, bringing weight to all the developing relationships in the play, especially with Bouvy’s Cal and the unseen but very well-realized Andre. Bouvy is also excellent as Cal, a man who has found happiness after loss but still deals with some unresolved guilt and regret. His scenes with Lawrence are charged with tension, and he also has some great moments with Keyloun as the amiable, earnest and thoughtful Will.  Young Desilets also gives a strong performance as Bud, a well-loved little boy who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening around him, but who wants everyone to be happy.  The love between the family unit of Cal, Will, and Bud is convincing, as are Bud’s attempts to include Katharine in the family dynamic.

The play’s staging setup works well for the drama that unfolds, as the action is surrounded on three sides by the audience, allowing for an effective sense of immediacy. James Wolk’s set recreates an upper class Manhattan apartment convincingly, and Elizabeth Eisloeffel’s costumes suit the characters well, also helping to emphasize the age and generational differences between the characters. There’s also strong use of lighting by John Wylie and clear, effective sound by Amanda Werre.

Overall, as its title suggests, Mothers and Sons is a play about relationships, featuring well-drawn characters and situations.  It tackles a number of issues specific to these characters as well as some important universal themes.  Terrence McNally is a an excellent playwright and he has a strong sense of time, place, and character, although what really brings this production to life is its superb performances, and especially that of Lawrence as Katharine.  There are a lot of difficult, intense emotions here, and they are portrayed with intensity, depth and clarity in this excellent, well-directed production at the Rep Studio.

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons is being presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio until November 13, 2016.

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Molly’s Hammer
by Tammy Ryan
Based on the book Hammer of Justice by Liane Ellison Norman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 11, 2016

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Cold War was tense time in American history, and it’s one I remember first-hand, at least to a degree. The threat of nuclear war and the generalized looming sense of dread it created is something I remember well from my childhood and teen years. Molly’s Hammer, a new play currently being presented at the Rep Studio, focuses on the anti-nuclear protest movement that developed as a result of this general threat of war to which the stockpiling of nuclear weapons contributed. Focusing on one key figure in this movement, the play seeks to present a personalized account of this movement and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Molly Rush (Nancy Bell) was a Pittsburgh area housewife who had been involved in various Catholic-led activist movements. This three-person play focuses on her increasing involvement in the opposition to nuclear weapons and her involvement with a protest action led by Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan (Kevin Orton, who plays many roles in this production), along with his brother and others. They formed a group known as the Plowshares Eight, and their protest action at a Pennsylvania General Electric plant in 1980 serves as the central focus of this production, including the events leading up to the action and its aftermath. The play also highlights the relationship between Rush and her husband Bill (Jose Osheroff), who loves Molly but isn’t sure what to think about her increasingly activist ways, especially when the threat of imprisonment and separation from him and their children becomes more and more likely.

This is an ambitious, inventively structured play, with two performers playing one role each and one performer (Orton) performing a variety of roles with no costume changes to indicate the variations of character. In fact, Orton’s performance is the most impressive simply because it depends so much on body language and line delivery. His portrayals of everyone from Daniel Berrigan to the Rushes’ various sons, daughters, and other family members as well as other activists, a judge, a female prison guard, and more are made convincing due to Orton’s clarity of performance. Bell turns in a fine performance as Molly, as well, portraying her determination and zeal for her cause in a thoughtful manner, and Osheroff is equally convincing as the conflicted but loving Bill, whose mission to convince Molly to temper her activist tendencies doesn’t go exactly as planned.

The structure of this play is at times confusing and also a little on the talky side. There’s a lot of talking about things that are about to happen, and a generally linear timeline that occasionally gets interrupted with a flashback, although there aren’t enough of these flashbacks to justify them, and they come across as interfering with the forward progress of the plot rather than augmenting it. Also, the staging can get cluttered with stagehands running on and off stage to change the scene, as Gianni Downs’ scene design mostly consists of a generalized backdrop with set pieces that are moved into place as needed, and sometimes these quick scene changes can come across as frantic and distracting. Aside from the set, there’s a good use of lighting and projections by Mark Wilson, and authentic looking early 1980’s costumes by Lou Bird.

Molly’s Hammer is an intriguing play about an important era of American History and a protest movement that generally isn’t talked about as much as others. Its a thought-provoking play led by an amiable cast, although the staging is sometimes muddled. Still, the performances and generally authentic evocation of the era make this show entertaining, educational, and worth seeing.

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Molly’s Hammer runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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