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Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 13, 2017

Ross Cowan, Jim Poulos, Stephen Hu
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play. It’s certainly oft-studied and oft-performed. Still, in its 51 years of existence in St. Louis, the Rep had never actually staged it, until now. And now, the Hamlet they’re staging is not exactly what you may expect. Produced by much of the team behind the Rep’s excellent A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a few years ago, this Hamlet is fresh, immediate, and characterized by a dynamic, highly physical performance from its leading actor.

Story-wise, this is Hamlet. It’s Shakespeare’s tale of the titular Danish prince (Jim Poulos), who is visited by the ghost of his late father, the previous King of Denmark, and urged to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, Claudius (Michael James Reed), who has not only taken over as king but has also married the queen, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Robynn Rodriguez). As Hamlet undertakes his effort at revenge, he confides his plans to his friend Horatio (Christopher Gerson), but his actions start to perplex those around him, including the members of the king’s court, Hamlet’s sometime love interest Ophelia (Kim Wong), her father Polonius (Larry Paulsen), Gertrude, and the increasingly suspicious Claudius, who enlists the help of Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Ross Cowan) and Guildenstern (Stephen Hu) and eventually Opehelia’s brother Laertes (Carl Howell) in foiling Hamlet’s plans. The results of all this plotting, planning, and revenge-seeking is famously tragic, with consequences affecting essentially everyone to one degree or another.

That’s the basic plot description, but this play–as with all of Shakespeare’s plays–can be staged in many different ways. The approach taken by director Paul Mason Barnes for this production is decidedly fast-paced and physical, particularly in the casting of Hamlet himself. Having previously played Puck so memorably in the Rep’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Poulos brings us a particularly puckish portrayal of the Melancholy Dane. His Hamlet is thoughtful, but he’s also confrontational, witty, and full of dynamic energy, challenging baffling Claudius and crew with his actions and body language as much as, if not more than, his words. It’s a brilliantly visceral performance. There are also impressive turns by Gerson as the sympathetic Horatio, Reed as the scheming, guilt-addled Claudius, Wong as the caring, manipulated, and increasingly unstable Ophelia, Paulsen as her busybody father Polonius, and Howell as a particularly earnest Laertes. Rodriguez as Gertrude is a standout as well, making her confusion and growing concern for Hamlet palpable and her famous “closet scene” devastatingly effective. Jonathan Gillard Daly and Tarah Flanagan are also excellent in dual roles as the Player King and Queen and as the gravediggers. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry and excellent support from the entire ensemble.

Visually, this production is notable for its stark, imposing minimalist set designed by Michael Ganio. Consisting of some scaffolding, an ominous leaning wall, and a series of plain square pedestals all arranged around a large looming column, the set serves well in facilitating the often urgent staging of this play. The fantastic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcarez, the sumptuously detailed 19th Century-influenced costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, and the superb sound design and atmospheric original music by Barry G. Funderberg all contribute to the overall immediate, intense atmosphere.

It could be easy to ask why it’s taken so long for the Rep to produce Hamlet, but it’s also easy to say now that I can’t imagine how they could have done it better. Particularly in its casting and fast-paced staging, this is a Hamlet that is confrontational and majoring on emotion, with a truly remarkable title performance at its heart. It’s a theatrical triumph for the Rep.

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Hamlet until November 5, 2017

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A Kid Like Jake
by Daniel Pearle
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
November 1, 2014

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s notable in that we never actually get to meet the title character. Four-year-old Jake is much described by his parents and others, with words such as “creative”, “imaginitive” and “unique”, although it is left to the audience to imagine exactly what he is like. What we are shown is the arduous journey that his parents undertake in order to get him placed into a prestigious New York City private school, and the process that leads them to understand more about their child, the educational system, and themselves in the process.  This is a simply staged play with a cast of four that deals with some very timely issues, and it’s been produced with much care and skill in the Rep’s studio theatre.

When we first meet Alex (Leigh Williams) and Greg (Alex Hanna), they are poring over yet another form they have to fill out in order to get their young son, Jake, considered for admission to a number of high-end private schools in New York.  Alex enlists Greg’s input into the essay she has written, and much talk ensues about how to best represent Jake in order to get him noticed by the schools’ officials. Gradually, we learn more about Jake–that he’s sensitive, imiginative, and individualistic, and that one of his favorite toys is a Cinderella doll.  In meetings with Jake’s pre-school administrator Judy (Susan Pellegrino), we learn more about Jake and the uniqueness of his personality, and particularly issues concerning his gender identity that both of his parents aren’t quite sure how to process.  They love Jake and have always been supportive of him, but issues of “labels” and using his personality as an angle to get him noticed by schools are points of stress, as is Jake’s increasing aggression and acting out at school. Meanwhile, Alex and Greg are also dealing with issues of a complicated pregnancy.  The play is structured as a series of vignettes–at home, at a restaurant, at school, at a doctor’s office, etc.–with each of the scenes shedding more light on the ongoing issues that are challenging Alex and Greg’s assumptions about themselves and their child, as well as their marriage and their own childhood issues that have affected their lives as adults.

This play covers various aspects of the issues concerning gender identity in children, and it also deals with issues of parental expectations, competitiveness in education, and more.  The school selection process seems daunting–even terrifying–for any parent, and the fairness of it all is called into question, as is the question of when parents need to recognize if and when they are putting their own goals for their children ahead of the children’s best interests. As much as Jake is talked about in this play, though, the focus here is mostly on the parents, and their relationship not just with their child but with one another. The fact that Jake never actually appears on stage is both a challenge and an asset for the play, in that he needs to be presented as a fully realized character without actually being seen, while the element of mystery also adds to the drama. The occasional references to various versions of the Cinderella story provide a compelling through-line for the story, as well. The setting is very simple, with a simple unit set designed by Gianni Downs, with panels that open and close to suggest various different settings, such as Greg and Alex’s home, Judy’s office, and more.  The atmospheric lighting, designed by John Wylie, also adds to the overall atmosphere of the play, providing a backdrop for the action and providing a somewhat otherworldly suggestion to a key scene late in the play.

The performances here are critical to the success of this simply structured but intense play, with Williams bearing most of the emotional weight as Alex, on whose journey much of the play focuses. Alex is the one who raises a lot of the questions that are talked about here, and she’s the one who goes through the most change as a character, and Williams puts a great deal of energy into her performance, finding a lot of sympathy even in some of her confrontational moments.  Hanna is also strong as the more even-tempered Greg, whose concern for both his son and his wife are clear, and Pellegrino gives a compelling performance as the concerned, compassionate Judy.  Jacqueline Thompson also turns in a good performance as a sympathetic nurse.  It’s the intensity of the emotions and relationships that propel the story in this play, and all four cast members do an excellent job, with strong rapport and energy.

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s bound to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion. It’s an intimate play, with a simple setting and a small cast, but dealing with some particularly weighty issues on a very human scale.  It’s a challenging, intriguing, and ultimately fascinating piece of theatre at the Rep Studio.

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 14, 2014

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Walking into the Rep Studio on opening night of Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976 made me suddenly feel like I was six years old again. The fully realized set is what first put me in that mindset, but the entire production kept me there.  A new play that has been developed through the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival, Soups, Stews and Casseroles is not only well-designed. With an excellent cast and authentic period atmosphere, the play provides a valuable look into small-town life in the mid 1970’s as well as displaying some thought-provoking parallels with the present day.

The title refers to an annual cookbook that’s being compiled by housewife and part-time journalist Kat (Nancy Bell) and her septuagenarian neighbor, Joanne (Susan Greenhill).  They’re typing up the recipes in the kitchen of Kat’s home, which is the center of the action in this play and in this family’s lives.  Kat’s family is a seemingly typical working-class family in small town Wisconsin. Her husband Kim (Vincent Tenninty) has worked on the production line of the same cheese factory for 17 years, and their teenage daughter Kelly (Emma Wisniewski) is working on a big debate project for high school while both her parents express their hopes for her future college education.  Life is as usual for them until Kim’s co-worker and union president, Joanne’s nephew Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), breaks the unsettling news that the cheese factory has been bought out by a large corporation, which starts a chain of events that leads the family into uncharted territory, introducing them to their new, more worldly and sophisticated neighbor, the new factory manager’s wife Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), and presenting various temptations and learning opportunities, as well as challenges to their assumptions and their relationships as their comfortable small-town existence prepares to change significantly.

Gilman’s script is chock-full of 1970’s and small town detail, dealing with issues of the day from the humorous (dressing up for a local historical pageant, descriptions of prominent local characters) to the more serious (labor vs. management, corporate greed, the death penalty, career aspirations for women, etc.), and and setting the immediate local issue (the factory buyout and workers’ concerns) against the backdrop of the 1976 Presidential Election. We can laugh as Elaine introduces Kat to chardonnay and the pop-psychology of the day, but also sympathize as the less sophisticated but intelligent Kat learns to assert herself and set goals beyond writing minutes for society club meetings and typing up cookbooks, and the good-natured but somewhat unfulfilled Kim is presented with opportunities for advancement at work and is forced to decide what his real priorities are. Meanwhile, Kelly and Kyle are there to represent the idealistic voices of youth and progress, and Joanne is there as a reminder of the importance of friendship and continuity.  It’s a very well-constructed play that covers many issues that still happen today, all with a quintessentially 70’s backdrop.

The cast here is impressive, embodying the well-drawn characters with energy and vitality.  As the earnest and dependable Kat, who is the center of the story, Bell portrays her character’s growth throughout the production with conviction, humor and sympathy. She and Teninty are convincing as the sweet, good-natured couple who obviously love each other even within the conflicts that the play presents.  Teninty does a great job of embodying Kim’s conflicted situation while keeping the character consistently likable. Elaine is somewhat of a challenging character in that she serves as both a mentor and an antagonist and representative of temptation in various forms, but Sandoval brings a bold, brash quality as well as a mixture of wit and a little sadness to the role that works very well. Greenhill is a real joy as Joanne, bringing a sharp, biting wit as well as an endearing quality that serves the play well and spurs on the rest of the cast.  Wisniewski’s spunky and infectiously idealistic Kelly and Gwiazdowki’s determined and charismatic Kyle also contribute great work to this excellent ensemble.

Visually, to describe it in cookbook terms, this show is quite a feast.  The wonderfully detailed set by Kevin Depinet is so richly detailed that I had to take some extra time just to look at it as I was walking out of the theatre. It’s a real nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the 70’s firsthand.  It really is as if the audience has stepped back in time to 1976, with cool little details like the rotary-dialed wall phone, the round braided rug, the gold refrigerator and avocado green stove, and all the little era-specific knicknacks in the kitchen along with books on the shelves, clothes hanging on hooks in the entryway, the 70’s-era typewriter and much more.  It provides such an ideal backdrop to this very period-specific show, and the costumes by Lou Bird also contribute well to the atmosphere.

It’s exciting to see local theatre companies like the Rep actively participating in the development of new plays, because as good as the classics are, new works will always be important to the future of theatre. Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 is a shining example the great success that these programs can produce.  It’s an intriguing new work–a funny, emotional and engaging trip back to an era many of us still remember, making for such a wonderfully immersive experience and an encouraging celebration of past, present and future. 

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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