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Nonsense and Beauty
by Scott C. Sickles
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 17, 2019

Jeffrey Hayenga, Robbie Simpson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s closing production for its 2018-2019 Studio season is a world premiere, which had a reading last year at the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival. Nonsense and Beauty is a poignant story that’s inspired by real events and people, most notably the 20th Century English author E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howards End, etc.). With simple, effective staging and an especially strong cast, this is a compelling, promising new play.

In first hearing about this play and what it’s about, I did a little bit of research of my own because while I had known that Forster was gay, I didn’t know about his long relationship with English police officer Bob Buckingham, which is the basis of this play. Here, playwright Scott C. Sickles tells the story of their relationship and their relationships to other important figures in their lives. In fact, the effect of the play makes it more of the story of a small group than of the one couple in particular, although that relationship is at the center. The story is also the story of a different time in history, in which gay relationships not only carried a social stigma, but were actually illegal in the United Kingdom. So, when Forster (Jeffrey Hayenga) is first introduced to young Bob (Robbie Simpson) by his friend, J.R. “Joe” Ackerley (John Feltch), there’s an air of secrecy about how they conduct their relationship, and the social and legal pressures on Bob as a police officer are also made apparent. Still, the relationship grows with a sense of sweet simplicity despite the societal pressures, until Bob meets May (Lori Vega), a vivacious young nurse with whom he begins a flirtation that eventually leads to marriage. Needless to say, this complicates the situation with Forster, called Morgan by his friends and Edward by his imperious mother, Lily (Donna Weinsting). For Morgan, Bob is the great love for which his has waited, but for Bob, the situation becomes especially complicated since he seems to genuinely love both Morgan and May, and almost despite himself, Morgan begins to admire May as well. Although Lily’s presence is an obvious influence on Morgan, the real drama and focus in this play is on the relationship dynamics between Morgan, Bob, May, and Joe. The story plays out over several decades, with an air of poignancy and sadness about it, although there are elements of hope as well.

It’s a well-constructed play, for the most part, although the first act seems slow at times and some characters are more developed than others, it’s ultimately a fascinating play, exploring the complexities of love and friendship in an extremely restrictive time and place. The direction is simple and effective, and the casting is especially strong, particularly of Hayenga, who shines as the sensitive, loyal and initially lonely Forster, and Feltch as the devoted, occasionally snarky Joe. Vega is also excellent as May, and Simpson gives a fine performance as Bob as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Hayenga and Vega. Weinsting makes a memorable impression in the small but significant role of Forster’s mother Lily, as well, although for the play itself, her character seems the most extraneous. It’s a strong, especially cohesive ensemble, making the most of Sickles’ thoughtful, literate script.

Technically, the show is simply staged in the round. The set, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, is sparse, consisting of a simple square performance area and some furniture as needed. Bembridge also designed the lighting, which is especially evocative and helps set the tone of the play well. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall, and well-suited period costumes by Felia K. Davenport. Overall, the technical aspects support the mood and style of the piece and reflect its period setting well.

Nonsense and Beauty is a compelling new play, with a sense of time, place, and character that’s well-defined, although it could use a little bit more defining here and there. Ultimately, it’s an effective, evocative and highly personal focus on the life and relationships of an important literary figure who was a real person, not just a name to read about in English class. It’s an excellent production to close out the season at the Rep Studio, and it’s a highly promising new play.

Robbie Simpson, Jeffrey Hayenga, Lori Vega, John Feltch
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Nonsense and Beauty in its Studio Theatre until March 24, 2019

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The Wolves
by Sarah DeLappe
directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2019

Esmeralda Garza, Mary Katharine Harris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has a new show in its Studio, and it’s a great one. The Wolves is a compelling, realistic look at life through the eyes of the various members of a suburban girls’ soccer team. It’s a richly portrayed world, with an impressive script and especially insightful dialogue and language rhythms. As presented at the Rep Studio, it’s a well-cast production that’s fascinating from beginning to end.

Presented on a simple but effective artificial turf-dominated set by James Wolk, the audience is introduced to the teenage players on the Wolves, a girls’ indoor soccer team. There’s no preamble. We are simply plunged into the middle of a conversation–or rather, several at the same time–as the girls warm up and stretch for practice. The players are identified by number rather than name–although at least two have names we will find out eventually–and the routine is repeated with variations throughout most of the play. There are warm-ups, drills, talks about soccer and hopes for college recruitment, and comparisons to the other teams they will be playing. In the midst of the soccer talk, and interspersed throughout, are the hopes, dreams, and struggles of these girls–their relationships with family, their romantic interests and pursuits, their varied outlooks on life. One of the players, #46 (Mary Katherine Harris), is new, with a somewhat mysterious background, and she has an initially awkward time integrating into the close-knit team of other girls who all seem to have grown up together, playing together for years. The captain, #25 (Rachael Logue) acts as leader and quasi-coach, directing the practices much of the time. There are a variety of personalities here, from the socially awkward but outgoing #46 and the authoritative #25, to the socially conscious but still somewhat sheltered #2 (Cecily Dowd), to the adventurous, partying #7 (Keaton Whittaker) and her slightly less adventurous best friend #14 (Cassandra Lopez), to the socially anxious, soft-spoken goalkeeper #00 (Esmeralda Garza), and more. The tone shifts quite a bit as the play progresses through the soccer season, and as each game becomes more crucial and life events become more stressful. There’s humor, drama, and intense emotion here, but I won’t say anymore because it would spoil too much. The power of this show comes from watching the events unfold, and feeling the emotions along with the players. It’s especially well-structured, with events unfolding in a way that leads the viewer to try to guess what’s coming next.

This is an unusual play in that it’s a story, a conversation, and a series of soccer practices all at once, requiring a lot of quick exchanges of dialogue, as well as physical fitness and dexterity, as the players warm up, stretch, and perform soccer drills throughout the production. It’s a little bit daunting at times sitting so close as the cast members kick soccer balls around so close to the seating areas on either side of the field. This staging emphasizes the immediacy of the piece, as does the quick-paced staging by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The technical aspects, from the set to the simple but effective lighting by John Wylie and sound by Rusty Wandall, to the authentically accurate costumes by Marci Franklin, help to maintain the realistic tone of the production, supporting the top-notch performances of the first-rate cast.

The cast here is especially strong. With a list of characters who are identified mostly by numbers, each cast member impressively manages to make each individual unique personality shine through. It’s an ensemble piece, and the ensemble chemistry is strong, with energetic performances from all of the players. The whole cast (also including Maya J. Christian as #13, Colleen Dougherty as #8, and Nancy Bell as “Soccer Mom”) is excellent, with particularly memorable turns from Harris, Garza, Whittaker, Lopez, Logue, and Dowd. The Wolves are a team, and the teamwork is apparent in this cast.

The Wolves is a play that takes you into its world immediately, and it can be a bit jarring at first, although the experience is ultimately especially rewarding. It’s an especially clever, insightful script, impressively performed by the strong cast at the Rep. There are a few twists, but they are admirably not telegraphed and don’t seem like tricks, either. This is a dynamic, cohesive, intense, and supremely rewarding production. It’s a show worth rooting for.

Cast of The Wolves
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Wolves in its Studio theatre until February 3, 2019.

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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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