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Posts Tagged ‘repertory theatre of st louis’

The stage for last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle Awards at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Arts

I’ve said it many times to friends and acquaintances both in town and out of town–St. Louis has an exciting theatre scene, much larger and more spread out than many can imagine. We have big companies like the Muny and the Rep, but also smaller and just as excellent companies too numerous to mention. Unfortunately now, live theatre has been put on hold due to the current major health crisis, in St. Louis and throughout the country and the world. Still, just because we are staying home, that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate theatre in our city. Several local theatre companies are sponsoring events, and I’ll be featuring two of these companies later in this post. First, though, I want to mention an event that’s coming up tomorrow night in which I’ve been honored to participate–The St. Louis Theater Circle Awards streamcast.

Usually, the Theater Circle Awards are a live event affectionately nicknamed “Theatre Prom”, in which people from throughout the St. Louis theatre scene have been able to attend, including actors, directors, theatre company staff, and more, hosted by the St. Louis Theater Circle, the critics’ organization of which I am a member. It’s not just an awards event. It’s a party, and it’s been fun to participate in the festivities for the past several years. This year, however, in light of the current situation, the awards presentation is going online. The Theater Circle has voted, and the results will still be announced, but now you will be able to watch the results from your own home thanks to HEC TV, who will be streaming the awards on their Facebook page starting at 7pm.  Next year, I hope “Theatre Prom” will be able to return, but I’m glad this medium has been made available, and I hope many people will be watching. One benefit to this format is that viewers from outside of St. Louis will be able to watch, so I encourage readers to spread the word and tune in!

Now, although live theatre is a unique experience, the next best thing is being able to film these productions and post them online, which many theatre companies have done around the world. In St. Louis, you can stream Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s recent production of The Cake (details at this link). The Rep is also participating with several other regional theatres around the country for a project called Play at Home, which you can find here.  

Another especially exciting online offering is Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s the outstanding Cymbeline, presented by their TourCo ensemble and featuring a first-rate cast (Hannah Geisz, Britteny Henry, Mary Heyl, Keating, Halli Pattison, and Jenni Ryan), deftly directed by Tom Ridgely, with an excellent creative team including music director Tre’von “Tre G” Griffith, stage manager Emily Clinger, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, and props master Laura Skroska. This is a superb production, well-paced and cleverly presented, and it’s up on the SFSTL Facebook page here. Go watch it while you can! Also, SFSTL is offering other streamed offerings from the TourCo ensemble, including readings of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” and Albert Camus’s The Plague. Check out their Facebook page for these productions and more. 

I hope the wonder that is live theatre will be able to return before too long, but in the meantime what we can do is stay home to flatten the curve, support our local theatre companies as best we can (viewing, donations, buying tickets to future productions, etc.), and always remember the value of the arts and the people who make them.

 

 

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The Cake
by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Sara Bruner
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 13, 2020

Rigel Harris, Denny Dillon, Dria Brown
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last play of the Rep’s Steve Woolf Studio series is also, unfortunately, the last show of the Rep’s whole season. As the nation and the world are embroiled in uncertainty and encouraged to stay apart for the good of everyone, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake also explores, in a different way, issues of distance, connection, and conflict. Also this play has nothing to do with the the current virus situation, it’s hard not to think of it in light of the current situation now that the play has had to cut short its run, and considering the overall mood of the audience on Opening Night. Ultimately, it’s a striking character study that highlights some especially strong performances, and also the desire, and need, to be seen, heard, and loved.

The Cake is, for the most part, a comedy, but there are serious issues to deal with here in terms of long-held traditions and ideas, as well as the need for connection and understanding among neighbors, friends, family, and everyone. It’s structured as a linear story punctuated with a series of fantasy sequences focusing on Della (Denny Dillon), who owns a bakery in North Carolina and is preparing to appear as a contestant on The Great American Baking Show. Della has been married to plumber Tim (Carl Palmer) for years, but they have been unable to have children, and Della seems to have transferred her maternal longings to her shop and also to the families of her friends. When Macy (Dria Brown), a writer from Brooklyn, appears in her shop with the seeming pretext of conducting an impromptu interview, Della is soon surprised to learn that Macy is accompanied by Jen (Rigel Harris), the daughter of Della’s late best friend. Jen then tells the initially delighted Della that she’s engaged. Della offers to bake Jen’s cake, but soon is looking for excuses not to when Macy reveals that she is the one Jen is marrying. This sets off a conflict not just between the couple and Della, but also between Della and Jen (in different ways) with their own fundamentalist backgrounds, and also reveals tensions between Della and Tim, who both have trouble dealing with the results of their inability to have children.  Throughout the story, in a series of humorous and increasingly bizarre fantasy segments, Della imagines an array of baking show “challenges”. The characters are, for the most part, well-drawn and although occasional dialogue and monologues sound more like they come from an essay than a play, it’s an intriguing show with some genuinely funny and heartwarming moments, and and an ultimate commitment to hope.

The cast here is first-rate, led by the remarkable Dillon as the increasingly conflicted Della. Dillon does an admirable job of portraying Della’s complexities and both likable and less savory qualities in a believable way. Della is a memorable character, made all the more so by Dillon’s energetic performance. Harris as Jen is also especially strong, showing her intense conflict of trying to reconcile her past with her present. There are also strong performances from Brown as the determined Macy and Palmer as the occasionally clueless Tim. Both couples have credible chemistry as well, and their private moments together also reveal a lot about the characters as individuals. 

Visually, this show is a colorful confection reflecting the bright hues and cheery atmosphere of a small-town bakery, reflected in the remarkably detailed set and cake designs (not credited in the program). There’s also well-suited costumed design by Ulises Alcala, as well as striking lighting by Robert Denton and excellent sound by David Van Tieghem. The whole look and atmosphere of this show reflects the setting and characters well.

On the way to this show, I told my husband that I expected this to be the last play I would see for a while, and before and after the play I overheard the same sentiment from others in the audience. It’s sad that this play had to close early, as do essentially all live theatre productions for a time. But still, in this time of “social distancing” it’s always good to remember the importance of connection, and communication. The Cake is an excellent production that highlights those needs in its own memorable ways.

Now for my readers, I’m not sure when I’ll be reviewing a live production again, but in the meantime, please stay safe and well, and remember that even when we have to stay apart for a time, we all need that sense of connection. 

Carl Palmer, Denny Dillon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

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The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 14, 2020

Esteban Andres Cruz, Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a much-celebrated play that was especially popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now onstage at the Rep, the concept is fun and interesting, and the technical aspects are stunning. There’s also a pair of hardworking, talented actors playing all the roles. Still, although this combination of elements may look great on paper, what plays out on stage comes across as oddly too much and too little.

The conceit is clever and fun–a tribute/send-up of classic Gothic horror tropes with all the roles being played by two actors, with a lot of quick costume changes worked into the staging. With some nods to monster movies and a setup similar to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this is the story of a couple and the odd goings-on around them. The “Irma Vep” of the title is the deceased first wife of Lord Edgar (Esteban Andres Cruz), who has recently married a new wife, recently retired actress Lady Enid (Tommy Everett Russell). Like in Rebecca, there’s also a household maid who was particularly fond of the first wife and not too sure about the second. That maid, Jane (also Cruz), also has something of a familiar but combative relationship with another household servant, Nicodemus (also Russell), who is harboring his own dark secret. In fact, dark secrets abound in this tale that takes us from a mansion in England to an archeological jaunt to Egypt and back, with legends of vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, and more thrown in for good measure.

It’s an intriguing concept, with all the broad comedy, quick changes, and fast pacing, and as popular as this play has been over the years, I’m curious to see another production sometime. The Rep, and especially the main stage with its lavish production values, doesn’t seem like the ideal venue for this piece. With the resources they have, the Rep has provided a stunningly detailed set by Michael Locher, appropriately atmospheric lighting by Marie Yokoyama, and especially dazzling and delightfully over-the-top costumes by Sara Ryung Clement. Still, with all the details here and in the spirit of this show, it all seems a little too much. It seems to me that this would be a better fit for the Studio Theatre than the main stage, with the focus being more on the performers themselves and the comedy than on overwhelming production values.

As for the comic elements and the performers, actors Cruz and Russell are given a lot to do, and they give entertaining performances especially in their “main” roles–the eccentric Lord Edgar and the suspicious Jane for Cruz, and the determined Lady Enid and oddball Nicodemus for Russell–but the pacing and energy seem a bit off and the show is not nearly as laugh-inducing as it could be. The first act drags a bit, as well, with more action in the second act although things don’t really get going until near the end. It’s a commendable effort for the two obviously talented performers, but there wasn’t quite “enough” with the timing of everything.

The Mystery of Irma Vep was an intriguing choice for the Rep, but ultimately the sum of all the elements doesn’t add up to as much as it could. This strikes me as the kind of show that needs just the right balance of timing, energy, and talent, and while this production has the talent, it lacks in the other important areas, while the technical aspects end up coming across as somewhat overblown. It does have its moments, though. Still, I wish there were more here, and also in a way, less.

Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Mystery of Irma Vep until March 8, 2020

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The Thanksgiving Play
by Larissa Fasthorse
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2020

Ani Djirdjirian, Adam Flores, Jonathan Spivey, Shayna Blass Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep Studio’s newest production looks at a controversial subject from a satirical point of view. The Thanksgiving Play, by playwright Larissa Fasthorse, tackles an especially relevant issue in society with a somewhat novel approach–over-the-top, biting satire that is unquestioningly hilarious while at the same time tackling some uncomfortable truths. Although the characters can be seen to some degree as “easy targets”, that doesn’t change the relevance and outright bombastic hilarity of the piece, or the overall importance of its message.

To a degree, the characters here are funny because they are so familiar, and the type of obtuse, “trying-too-hard” white liberals portrayed here have been poked fun of in various media before. Still, there’s also a point to be made that these “types” are so funny because they do, to various degrees, represent reality. Also, from the point of view of a Native American playwright, we get to see even more how misguided many efforts of “cultural inclusion” turn out to be when you look at them closely enough, as well-meaning white artists try to “help” the cause, trying to avoid cultural appropriation and stereotype so much in one area that they don’t realize how much they reinforce these ideas in other ways. So here, we have self-important street performer and yoga enthusiast Jaxton (Adam Flores) and the ever-earnest and anxious director Logan (Shayna Blass), who are tasked with staging a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving themed play at an elementary school for Native American Month. Joining them are Caden (Jonathan Spivey), a history teacher and aspiring playwright who is hired to be their consultant on historical matters, and Los Angeles-based Alicia (Ani Djirdjian), who has been brought in to act in the show under the assumption that she’s Native American–an assumption reinforced by her series of specifically styled headshots that have been shopped around by her agent. What she turns out to be is vapid “Hollywood” type who, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t pretend to be anything else and as a result, is envied by Jaxton and Logan because of her “simplicity”. So, these four work together to tell the traditional Thanksgiving story in a “sensitive” way and, predictably, things don’t go exactly as planned–and that’s an understatement. Their efforts start out relatively predictable and get more and more outrageous as the show goes on, managing to to provide loads of laughs along with some especially sharp and biting social commentary, along with some truly brutal reminders of the more unsavory aspects of history that have been glossed over in the “traditional” telling of the Thanksgiving story. Interspersed with the linear story are some out-of-time moments in which the four players enact some truly bizarre and sometimes horrifying representations of Thanksgiving presentations from various schools around the country. I’m not sure if these are taken from real life or not, but sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are. In addition to its main message, the play also pokes fun at some other conventions, such as Hollywood, pretentious artists, and more.

The pacing here is ideal, as the story starts off slow-ish and then snowballs out of control, and the characters respond to the various conflicts in kind. The casting is excellent, as well, with Flores and Blass making a credible couple as both play off of each others’ quirks, augmenting them and spurring on the rest of the players in turn. Blass especially is strong as the over-earnest, increasingly insecure Logan, who is nervous about getting her play right but doesn’t quite know what “right” looks like. Djirdjian is also a treat as the vapid starlet who owns her vapidness, and Spivey also stands out in a strong performance as the closest thing to a “straight man” (in the comic sense) in this group, although he has his quirks as well. It’s the interplay between these four disparate characters and the way they play off of each other with their varying expressions of well-meaning but clueless determination that provides the bulk of the comedy here, and this company gets the tone just right.

Technically, the production values are simple but well-suited. The unit set, by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., is a detailed representation of an elementary school classroom. The costumes, by Lux Haac, represent the characters and their personalities, especially well. There’s also excellent lighting by Porche McGovern that especially highlights the “interlude” scenes, and Cricket S. Myers’s sound is proficient, as well.

Overall, this is one of those shows that’s likely to make audience members laugh their lungs out and then, when they’ve caught their breath, feel uncomfortable at the harshness of the reality being conveyed even by these broadly drawn, hilariously stereotypical characters. The reality that history has been written by those in power, at the expense of those not in power, is made clear in the midst of the hilarity, and the sharp satire works especially well in getting this message across. This is an ideal show for making one think, as well as laugh.

Shayna Blass, Adam Flores, Ani Djirdjirian, Jonathan Spivey Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Thanksgiving Play in its Studio Theatre until February 9, 2020

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Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Rebecca Martinez
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 10, 2020

Cheryl Umaña
Photo by Cory Weaver
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a new year and a new production for the Rep, as the company takes on a tale inspired by a well-known Greek tragedy, with a decidedly 21-Century twist. In Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, playwright Luis Alfaro adapts the Euripides classic Medea to focus on a timely topic and a challenging, thought-provoking theme. At the Rep, director Rebecca Martinez’s production boasts an excellent cast and a memorable presentation.

Alfaro’s adaptation basically distills the Medea story into a highly personal look at Mexican immigrants adjusting to life in Los Angeles in different ways. After a difficult and sometimes violent journey from their hometown, Medea (Cheryl Umaña), Jason (Peter Mendoza), and their family react to life in America in different ways, with Jason eager to assimilate and succeed in American society, and seamstress Medea still haunted by her past and not knowing how to move forward, although she tries for the sake of Jason and their son, Acán (Cole Sanchez). Also accompanying the family from Mexico is their companion and household servant/helper Tita (Alma Martinez), who is devoted to Medea and tries to mentor her in carrying on her tradition of healing arts as well as trying to make an effort to adjust to a new way of living. Tita enlists fellow immigrant Josefina (Guadalis Del Carmen) to befriend Medea, all the while Jason aspires to make the most of his new life and his job with real estate developer Armida (Maggie Bofill), who has her own designs on Jason and, it seems, Medea’s whole family. Medea is increasingly shown to be the outsider, struggling to hold on to her family and identity as Jason becomes more and more ambitious and secretive, and as Medea’s relationship with her family and friends are threatened by the pressures of ambition and the pressure to assimilate into an upwardly mobile “American dream” based focus. The show paints a vivid portrait of Medea’s past, as well as setting an increasingly inevitable, ominous pace for her present, and future. Anyone who knows the classic Medea story knows where this is leading, and what’s most compelling here is the portrayal of how the characters, and especially Medea herself, get to that point. It’s a jarring story in ways, especially at the end, and also compelling, thoughtful, and especially timely today’s world.

As the show’s most vividly drawn characters, Umaña and Martinez are the standout performers here in an excellent ensemble. Martinez is strong as the one character who sticks by Medea throughout, displaying a fierce devotion as well as compassion and strength. Umaña is equally strong as the conflicted Medea, with a strong sense of presence and credible chemistry with Mendoza’s somewhat enigmatic Jason. Del Carmen is also a delight as the friendly but (eventually) also conflicted Josefina, and young Sanchez gives a fine performance as Acán, who is affected by the conflict between his parents and their competing views of life in LA. There’s also Bofill, as the driven Armida, giving a convincing performance in a somewhat underwritten role, and Luis Chavez who makes the most of his small role as a menacing soldier.

Technically, the show reflects the usually strong production values at the Rep, although not quite as dazzling as one may have come to expect. There’s one prominent special effect, employed late in the second act, that comes off as something of a gimmick and doesn’t quite add the dramatic effect to which it seemingly intends. Still, Mariana Sanchez’s set is convincingly realistic, as are Carolyn Mazuca’s costumes. There’s also effective lighting by Maria-Cristina Fusté and strikingly evocative sound and score by David R. Molina.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles is ultimately a fine example of adapting a time-honored classic and its timeless themes to a modern, especially timely setting. With a first-rate cast and an especially strong leading performance, this is a well-paced, compelling drama. It’s another strong showing for this new artistic era at the Rep.

Alma Martinez, Guadalis Del Carmen, Cole Sanchez, Cheryl Umaña, Peter Mendoza
Photo by Cory Weaver
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles until February 2, 2020

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Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Adapted by Christopher Baker
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 6, 2019

Nick Rehberger, Katie Kleiger
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s brand new Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif makes her directorial debut with the company with an adaptation of the much-dramatized Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, and it’s a fun production. Although, as is usual with stage adaptations of literature, there are some liberties taken with the story, this version is extremely fast-paced and comedic, and the leads give compelling and relatable performances. It’s witty and engaging, with sumptuous production values and inventive staging.

The story here is essentially what anyone who knows the book will remember, with a few alterations. For instance, instead of five Bennet sisters as in the novel, there are four, and their age order has been changed around a bit. Jane (Rebecca Haden), Elizabeth (Katie Kleiger), and Lydia (Sydney Leiser) are presented essentially as they are in the book, but Mary (Maison Kelly)–who is the youngest sister here–is something of an amalgamation of book-Mary, her younger sister Kitty (excised from this adaptation), and youngest Dashwood sister Margaret as interpreted in the two most recent filmed versions of another Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility. Also, some characters, such as Georgiana Darcy and Anne DeBourgh, are relegated to off-stage status, mentioned but not seen. This all makes sense in terms of the direction the adapter seems to have taken with the material, which is to focus on the most important characters and relationships, and to play up the comedy while managing to keep most of the characters on a more human scale and out of the realm of caricature. The central relationship, as always, is between the witty second daughter Elizabeth and the seemingly haughty, socially awkward Mr. Darcy (Nick Rehberger), with due time also given to Jane’s courtship with new neighbor and Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley (Grayson DeJesus), and the initially charming but rakish ways of Darcy’s old acquaintance Mr Wickham (Stephen Michael Spencer), who tries to cast his spell on both Elizabeth and Lydia, with varying degrees of success. What I especially like here is the emphasis on the Bennet parents (Michael James Reed as Mr. Bennet, Michelle Hand as Mrs. Bennet), and their portrayal as genuine flawed human beings rather than caricatures. Mrs. Bennet in particular has often come across as cartoonish in adaptations, and thankfully she doesn’t come across that way here. While she certainly can be single-minded and meddling, the playwright and the production give her a clearly communicated reason for her actions, which I find especially refreshing. Although the second act especially seems to move too fast at times in an effort to get all the important plot points covered, for the most part this is lively, quick-witted and spirited production that preserves the general essence of the novel while also making the story work as a theatrical presentation.

The cast here is, for the most part, excellent and ideally chosen. Kleiger and Rehberger lead the way with their strong personalities and palpable chemistry in a particularly effective pairing as Elizabeth and Darcy, who grow and change believably throughout the production. The sisters are also excellent, with fine performances from Haden as the shy and sweet-spirited Jane, Leiser as the more reckless Lydia, and especially Kelly in a fun performance in this show’s unique interpretation of Mary. There are also convincing performances from DeJesus as the kind, charming Mr. Bingley, Rebeca Miller as Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, Blake Segal as the fastidious and over-eager Mr. Collins, and Jennie Greenberry as Bingley’s haughty sister Caroline. Particularly notable, though, are Reed and especially Hand as the Bennets, who bring a real sense of humanity along with humor to their characterizations and their relationship. Hand was also particularly impressive on opening night, dealing with a set furniture malfunction in a thoroughly in-character and appropriately hilarious manner. There are fine performances all around, with the one weaker link being Lizan Mitchell as Lady Catherine DeBourgh, whose wildly over-the-top performance seems like it belongs in a different play than everyone else. Still, that’s a small role and not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of this delightful production.

In terms of set, designer Scott Bradley has given us something that’s appropriately dazzling, with grand windows and staircases and an excellent use of shadowy rooms behind the main playing area, where the audience is allowed to view the various characters observing one another at various moments. There’s also dazzling lighting by Xavier Pierce and colorful, meticulously detailed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis. The music and sound by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes contributes an effective brightly atmospheric tone to the production, and the projections by Alex Basco Koch contribute well to the transitions between scenes, although they do occasionally suggest an “English travelogue” vibe.

I love Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve seen many adaptations (film, television, and stage) over the years in addition to having read the book a few times. To my mind, this latest version from the Rep strikes a lively tone and pace, bringing out qualities of the characters that have sometimes been ignored in other productions. Austen purists might object to some of the liberties taken, but I think that they are mostly well within the spirit of the piece. It’s a fun, witty, extremely fast-moving show that showcases a classic literary pairing with appropriate emphasis, but also provides a tone and atmosphere that adequately reflects its English Regency setting and Austen’s well-established characters. The adapter, Christopher Baker, even managed to work Christmas into the story in a believable way that makes this work as a holiday show. It’s a treat of a production.

Cast of Pride and Prejudice
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Pride and Prejudice until December 29, 2019

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Feeding Beatrice
by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Daniel Bryant
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
November 1, 2019

Lorene Chesley, Nathan James
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is launching its Steve Woolf Studio Series for 2019-2020 with a World Premiere production that provides a new, semi-immersive experience to go along with a thought-provoking, thoroughly chilling play. Kirsten Greenidge’s Feeding Beatrice takes its characters, and its audience, on a mysterious, increasingly terrifying journey into a crumbling old Gothic house, and into a highly metaphorical exploration of several important topics in American life. As is usual for the Rep, the casting and production values are impressive, as well, with the house as very much a character in the show, and a particularly strong set of performances at its heart.

As I’ve written before, I’ll be the first person to say that horror shows aren’t generally my cup of tea. Especially around Halloween season, though, these kinds of shows are not uncommon in the St. Louis theatre scene. This year, the Rep’s offering is essentially the only one, and it’s more of the “psychological thriller” type than the “blood and guts” type, which makes it initially easier to take at least for me. Still, even though this isn’t a gory show for the most part, it’s still thoroughly creepy and insidious, as the horror kind of sneaks in slowly and then moves in to stay. Or, in the case of one particular ghost, never really left in the first place. The premise starts out simple enough, as new residents Lurie (Nathan James) and June (Lorene Chesley) spend some romantic time in the upstairs bathroom and share their hopes and dreams for the house. Soon, however, we learn more about the couple and the house itself, as June plans for a dinner party to impress the new neighbors, and as they make an unsettling discovery in that same upstairs bathroom. Another important aspect of the show is that while Lurie and June are African-American, their new neighborhood is essentially all-white, and has been for generations. So at first, when a teenage white girl, Beatrice (Allison Winn), shows up at their door to introduce herself, it doesn’t seem that unusual to them. Soon, however, they find that Beatrice is not just another neighbor. She uses a lot of outdated–and even offensive–terminology, and drops pop culture references that are decades old. She also likes June’s homemade jam, quite a lot, and is frequently asking for glasses of milk and dance lessons. She also talks about her parents, and how strong an influence they have been on her even though she declares herself to be different. She’s also very attached to the house, and especially concerned about who lives there, even though she claims to like June and Lurie. What ensues is a struggle of sorts between the couple and Beatrice, and also between June and Lurie in their different attitudes toward the house, the neighborhood, events in their past, and initially Beatrice as well. Also figuring into the story is Lurie’s younger brother, Leroy (Ronald Emile), a plumber and family man who has a lot of things June says she wants, but not in the way that she has imagined or that she perceived society to expect. There’s a lot going on here, and a whole lot of it is metaphorical, in terms of what the house means, what Beatrice herself stands for, as well as Leroy’s standing in opposition to that, and the struggle that Lurie and to a larger degree June face in dealing with their own disappointments, hopes, and dreams. It all plays out in a highly personal, increasingly creepy tale that’s dominated by a dark, insidious atmosphere and the developing power struggle between Beatrice and June.

The themes, as noted in the supplemental materials in the program from playwright Greenidge, director Daniel Bryant, and the Rep’s Artistic Director Hana Sharif, deal very much with the insidiousness and pervasiveness of racism in American culture, and how it affects generations of people, black and white, in different ways. It’s all played out in a classic horror style, with acknowledged echoes of Hitchcock, as well as elements of several classic ghost stories and other familiar horror tropes. It’s all metaphor, but highly personal as well, with thought-provoking situations and characters that can–and should–provoke much thought, discussion, and awareness that can–and should–contribute to real, lasting change.

The structure is inventive, and the characters impressively portrayed, with the two performances of Chesley as the determined, grieving, increasingly focused June and Winn as the initially cheerful, but damaged and increasingly controlling Beatrice at the center of the production. These two performances are the highlight here, as the struggle between these two characters is the center of the drama. There are also impressive performances from James as the well-meaning but increasingly baffled Lurie, and Emile as the level-headed Leroy. The metaphors are evident everywhere, but the relationships are what drive the story as a story, and the top-notch performances make that drama accessible and real.

Technically, the show is remarkably impressive, pushing the established boundaries of what has been done in this space before. The thoroughly detailed set by Lawrence E. Moten III brings the antique house to life vividly, and the set-up, in which audiences enter the “house” through a long hallway and sit in creaky old kitchen chairs, adds to the overall atmosphere and chilling effect of the show. Jason Lynch’s evocative lighting adds to this effect as well, as does David Kelepha Samba’s sound design, the dance choreography by Heather Beal and fight choreography by Erik Kuhn, along with the well-suited costumes by Mika Eubanks.

Feeding Beatrice is in some ways what you might expect, but in a lot of other ways, it’s inventive and new. It’s also a striking exercise in how to make a thoroughly engaging character drama from a largely metaphorical basis. From its ominous first moment to its chilling final moments, this is a show that’s going to make you think, as it should. Although it does call to mind some similarly themed movies in recent years–such as Get Out and Us–this story’s origins are older than those films, and the recurring of such themes emphasizes their importance. It’s at timely, thoroughly well crafted play that makes a memorable impression at the Rep Studio. It’s definitely worth seeing, thinking about, and talking about.

 

Lorene Chesley, Allison Winn
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Feeding Beatrice in the Studio Theatre until November 17, 2019

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The Lifespan of a Fact
by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell
Based on the Book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 18, 2019

Griffin Osborne, Brian Slaten
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

“What is truth?” That’s a question that’s been asked by many at various times and in various settings, from the Bible (John 18:38), to philosophical treatises, to journalism, to politics, and beyond. The latest production from the Rep, The Lifespan of a Fact, explores this question from a writer’s, and editor’s perspective, also parsing out the difference between “facts” and “truth” and whether or not there is (or should be) any difference. It’s also a fast-paced, well-constructed and frequently funny look at its characters and their conflicts, staged with the Rep’s usual excellence in casting and production values.

The Lifespan of a Fact starts on a fairly typical business day for a magazine, as editor Emily Penrose (Perri Gaffney) is preparing to publish a new essay by celebrated writer John D’Agata (Brian Slaten). She praises the essay for its beauty, intensity, and truth, but as part of the regular publishing process, she enlists an intern, Jim Fingal (Griffin Osborne) to fact-check the piece. That’s where things get complicated, because Fingal turns out to be more zealous in his efforts than Emily expected, and John isn’t particularly receptive to Jim’s questioning, especially at first. The subject matter of the essay is a serious one–a Las Vegas Teenager’s suicide, and John wants to give the topic the weight that it calls for, but Jim keeps finding problems with the details. The quirky, somewhat intense Jim makes charts, draws diagrams, and researches the tiniest details to make sure John hasn’t taken liberties with the facts, eventually finding all sorts of discrepancies, from the seemingly insignificant to more important issues. Eventually, all three characters end up at John’s house in Las Vegas, and the questions keep coming. How much fudging of the facts is allowed in pursuit of a “true” story? Is the writer’s quest for a dramatically told, well-crafted story foiled by facts? Is there such a thing as writing the “essence of truth” without sticking to all the minute details? And which details are minute and which aren’t? Those questions and more are explored in this fast-paced, character-driven piece. The tone is mostly comedic, although are dramatic and poignant moments as well. Mostly, it’s a clash of personalities and philosophies, and ethical standards. It’s a fascinating topic of discussion, and it’s personified well in this “inspired by a true story” tale.

I think most, if not all, writers will recognize the dilemma–the need to tell the well-crafted story while accurately representing the facts. Also, what’s the difference between a “non-fiction” essay and a news article? And is rigorous, down-to-the-last-detail fact-checking necessary, or does it hinder the author’s creative process? This is a compelling story in that it represents both positions–John’s vs. Jim’s–while also providing a “middle ground” in the form of Emily, who wants the best for her magazine and serves as something of a mediator between the two positions. The cast is especially well-chosen, with Osborne’s quirky, frenetic Jim and Slaten’s stubborn, occasionally arrogant John providing much of the show’s dramatic and comedic energy, with Gaffney’s initially more measured, gradually exasperated Emily providing an able foil to both.

The staging is fast-paced, and well-served by Arnel Sancianco’s remarkably versatile quick-changing set that utilizes the Rep’s stage and newer technical features well as the locations switch between the minimally decorated magazine office and John’s cluttered home. Kathleen Geldard’s costumes suit the characters well, and Paul Toben’s lighting adds to the overall atmosphere of the production and serves to isolate characters and their situations as needed. There’s also excellent sound design by Christian Frederickson.

Overall, this show doesn’t really answer any of the questions it raises, but that would be a much bigger task than a simple three-character play can tackle, and it’s one that humankind will continue to struggle with through the ages. The question of facts vs. truth is also an especially timely topic in today’s society, and it’s well-personified here. I don’t think the purpose is to answer the questions, though, as much as it is to keep the audience asking, and considering them. The Lifespan of a Fact is sure to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion, and I think that’s the point.

Brian Slaten, Perri Gaffney, Griffin Osborne
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Lifespan of a Fact until November 10, 2019

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Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 13, 2019

David Ryan Smith, Barrett Foa
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is continuing its new production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with Part 2: Perestroika, which will run in repertory with Part 1: Millennium Approaches. It’s an ambitious undertaking, staging both plays at the same time, since seeing both requires a large time commitment. Still, it’s an endeavor that’s more than worthwhile, as now having seen both parts, I can’t imagine seeing one part without the other. And the Rep’s staging makes this challenging, thoroughly compelling drama all the more essential, with strong acting all around and even more stunning production values.

Part 2 is an excellent play on its own, as is Part 1, but if for some reason you only have time to see one of them, I think Part 1 makes more sense without Part 2 than the other way around. With this installment–subtitled Perestroika after the Soviet Union’s “restructuring” (the word’s meaning in English) in the 1980s–playwright Tony Kushner picks up almost exactly where Part 1 left off, after a brief prologue showing a speech by the “World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik” (Meredith Baxter) that foreshadows some of the play’s themes, but isn’t particularly essential to the plot. Once the plot gets going, we’re expected to know who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing, which makes seeing Part 1 all the more necessary. Although we do get a “recap” of sorts from the perspective of one character, Prior (Barrett Foa), other characters continue their stories with little or no preamble, as confused, valium-addicted Mormon housewife Harper (Valeri Mudek) first appears in the middle of one of her drug-induced fantasies, and other characters such as the ailing angry, self-serving lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette), Prior’s estranged boyfriend Louis (Ben Cherry), and Harper’s conflicted husband Joe (Jayson Speters), Joe’s recently relocated mother Hannah (Baxter), and Prior’s friend and hospital nurse Belize (David Ryan Smith) simply continue the stories they began in Part 1. A lot more happens to them in this installment, and some themes that were hinted at in Part 1 are spelled out a lot more thoroughly, and the fantastic goings-on that began in Part 1 get a much more complete explanation, especially concerning the Angel (Gina Daniels) that visits Prior. Here, without spoiling too much, I think it’s safe to say there are a lot more angelic happenings in this installment, as well as a lot more intense, sometimes harrowing human drama. Even with the fantasy elements, this is ultimately a thoroughly human story, and the main characters, no matter how noble or evil or somewhere in-between, are undeniably human. Like Part 1, it’s an adult story, with frank talk of sex and sexuality, some brief nudity, and an unwaveringly honest depiction of the horror and suffering of AIDS. It’s a remarkable, insightful, and sometimes brutally intense play, even more so than Part 1, but even with the dark themes, there is light, and hope, especially in the sense of “chosen family” that develops as the story plays out and characters from different walks of life are brought together in sometimes surprising ways.

As with the first part, the cast is an impressive one, with Foa, Frechette, Smith, Mudek, Daniels, and Baxter especially standing out in this part of the story. Foa carries a lot of the emotional weight here with an intense, thoughtful performance, and Frechette manages to mine a degree of sympathy for his unlikable character in the midst of immense suffering. Cherry and Speters are also fine in their performances, although I didn’t quite feel the connection between their characters. For the most part, though, the ensemble chemistry is more than credible. In fact, it’s the connection between all these disparate characters that drives a great deal of the drama.

Technically, this production continues to impress, and the special effects are even more extensive in this part. The staging and especially the flying effects by ZFX, Inc. are dazzling, and Broken Chord’s music and sound design is used to excellent effect. Also notable are Alex Basco Koch’s vibrant projection design and, again, Tim Mackabee’s simple and versatile set, Dede Ayite’s ideally suited costumes, and Xavier Pierce’s powerful, cleverly constructed lighting design. It’s a well-paced production that blends technical expertise with acting excellence, to remarkable effect.

Overall, I would say this much-touted production has more than lived up to its hype. It’s somewhat amazing to think that the Rep has never staged this show before, although considering its time commitment and technical demands, perhaps the delay is understandable. I would say this production is more than worth the wait. Whether (like me) this is your first time seeing these plays, or if you’ve seen them before, I would say this is a must-see exercise in theatrical excellence from the Rep. It’s an especially memorable way to usher in a new era for this company.

Barrett Foa, Meredith Baxter
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika in repertory with Part 1 until October 6, 2019.

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Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 6, 2019

Valeri Mudek, Jayson Speters, Barrett Foa, Ben Cherry
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening a new season with a new Artistic Director, and a two-part production of a play that has become a modern classic. I have to admit I had never seen either part of Tony Kushner’s much-lauded Angels in America before, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. So far, this production has lived up to the hype, with an excellent cast including a few high-profile names, and truly stunning production values. It’s a fascinating story with richly drawn characters as well, although it’s clearly only half of a two-part story. I was actually considering holding off on this review until after part 2 opens next weekend, but I had to write a few words about this memorable first chapter.

This part of the story introduces the major characters who will continue into the next part. It has the air of the epic about it, telling a tale that blends realism and fantasy, focusing on a small group of characters primarily based in New York City in the mid-1980s, during the escalation of the AIDS crisis in America. The various threads of the story seem isolated at first, but connections gradually develop as the play progresses, and each of the actors plays more than one role. Most of the characters are fictional, although a few are based on real people–particularly, high-profile conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette). In addition to the aggressively closeted Cohn, the characters include boyfriends Prior Walter (Barrett Foa) and Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry), who face trials when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; as well as Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), a young Republican of Mormon background who works for Cohn and who is struggling to come to terms with an important reality in his life; and Joe’s unhappy wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), who faces the truth about her relationship with Joe and goes on medication-induced flights of fantasy. There’s also Joe’s mother, Hannah (Meredith Baxter), who travels from Utah after a sudden revelation from Joe on the phone; and Prior’s longtime friend Belize (David Ryan Smith), an ex-drag queen and nurse at the hospital who provides support for Prior and difficult truths for Louis. And then there’s the mysterious Angel (Gina Daniels), who speaks to Prior with confusing and unsettling messages. The cast members play other roles as well, as the various plots unfold and intersect in different ways, some expected and some more surprising. The whole story has the air of an epic about it, with moments of searing drama blended with humor and wild fantasy, telling the story of mid-80s America and challenging major elements of society, such as materialism, corporate greed, social and religious conventions and restrictions particularly dealing with homosexuality, social progress, predictions for the then-future 21st century, and more. It’s a highly ambitious piece, and it’s at turns insightful, affecting, and challenging. The sense of suspense as a cohesive story begins to unfold is palpable, and some of the characters’ plots seem to be only just getting started as part 1 ends, adding to the anticipation for part 2, which I’m eager to see. These are compelling stories that one play–even with a running time of more than three hours–can’t entirely contain. The way the plot is structured, Part 2 is as necessary as it is inevitable, even though part 1 is remarkable on its own.

The overall tone of heightened realism and forays into fantasy is well maintained by the physical production of the show, as well as the perfectly paced staging by director Tony Speciale and associate director and “violence, intimacy and movement director” Tommy Rapley. Tim Mackabee’s set is versatile, making ideal use of the Rep stage’s turntable and trap doors, and the scene changes are elegant and fluid, aided by Broken Chord’s poignant and stirring original music and sound design. There’s also evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, ideally suited and period appropriate costumes by Dede Ayite, and excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. It’s a stunning play to look at, listen to, and experience, with a full range of emotions reflected in the whole look and feel of the production in addition to the remarkable script and first-rate acting. It is for mature audiences, considering some of the language, intensity, frank talk of sexuality, and one brief scene of nudity.

As for the cast, they are universally superb, led by a trio of actors who are probably best known by the general public for their television work but also have a good amount of stage experience. It’s an impressively cohesive ensemble, with excellent work from all. Particularly effecting is Foa as Prior, whose journey is as compelling as it is harrowing. Foa brings out the many facets of the character with approachable and charismatic presence. Frechette is also strong as the confrontational, perpetually-in-denial Cohn, managing to make a character intriguing to watch even when he’s not particularly likable. Mudek, as Harper, is also remarkably affecting, as is Baxter in a variety of roles including Hannah, an elderly Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also convincing and effective are Cherry as the conflicted Louis, Speters as the confused and also conflicted Joe, Daniels in a variety of roles including the Angel and a hospital nurse, and Smith as both Belize and a character from Harper’s fantasies called “Mr. Lies” . This is a cast that mines emotion without overdoing it, bringing out the nuances in character and making the stories all then more compelling in this installment and creating even more promise for part 2.

So far, I would say Hana S. Sharif’s first season as the Rep’s Artistic Director is off to an impressively promising start. With a stunning Angels in America part 1, the only real “letdown” is that I the first part is only half of the story, but that makes me even more eager to see the continuation.  Part 1 is powerful, emotional, and challenging, and creates anticipation for part 2, which debuts this weekend–and the Rep will also have some “marathon days” for theatregoers who want to see both parts in one day. Go see it! It’s an excellent example of the Rep–and theatre itself–at its best.

 

Peter Frechette, Jayson Speters
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches until October 6, 2019. 

 

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