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Posts Tagged ‘repertory theatre of st louis’

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 She uses a lot of outdated–and even offensive–terminology, and drops pop culture references that are decades old.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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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 Play That Goes Wrong
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 15, 2019

Michael Keyloun, Ka-Ling Cheung, Evan Zes
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The expression “hilarity ensues” easily comes to mind when thinking of the Rep’s latest production, The Play That Goes Wrong. In fact, that expression itself is an accurate and succinct description of the play itself. While a lot goes on in this show, the emphasis is on physical comedy, mile-a-minute humor, and, especially, the element of surprise. It’s a wild and wacky show, even if it’s not really about anything other than generating as many laughs as possible, and the Rep’s version boasts an energetic, comedically gifted cast.

The basic conceit of this play is initially reminiscent of another celebrated farce that has been staged memorably at the Rep–Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Like with that play, the basic idea is that a theatrical company is putting on a production, and nothing happens as planned. What’s different here is that the action begins before the play-within-a-play officially begins, as actors and “crew members” wander the house looking for a lost dog, or a Duran Duran CD, and sometimes enlisting audience members to help repair elements of the already-crumbling set. Eventually, the play’s director and star, Chris Bean (Michael Keyloun) enters and introduces his company–the Cornley University Drama Society–and their play, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Bean plays Inspector Carter, who is investigating the murder of Charles Haversham, played by Jonathan Harris (Benjamin Curns), who starts out the play lying “dead” on a couch and trying to stay “dead” as various mishaps occur around him. The story of the play involves trying to solve the murder amid the various intrigues that arise, involving Haversham’s fiancée, Florence Colleymore played by Sandra Wilkinson (Ruth Pfirdehirt), her brother Thomas played by Robert Grove (John Rapson), and Haversham’s brother Cecil played by Max Bennett (Matthew McGloin). There’s also bumbling butler, Perkins played by Dennis Tyde (Evan Zes). While the story plays out and gets more and more absurd as it goes along, lighting and sound operator Trevor Watson (Ryan George) and stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ka-Ling Cheung) become increasingly involved in the antics onstage as well, in increasingly surprising and hilarious ways.

This isn’t the most original of concepts, but a show like this depends on the execution, timing, and energy more than a witty script. The fictional show-within-a-show is basically a stock English murder mystery, and the characters are stock concept characters, but the “play-within-a-play” conceit adds to the humor in that we see the actors acting—one who’s constantly appearing at the wrong time, another who repeatedly mispronounces words, another who responds enthusiastically to audience applause and hams it up accordingly. The stage crew members also become unexpectedly enlisted in the onstage performance, and a hilarious competition ensues as a result. More laughs come in the form of physical comedy, pratfalls, mishaps, and general mayhem that involves the actors, the props, and gradually more and more elements of the set. I won’t give too much away in terms of detail, but I will say that there are so many jokes and gags here that once you start laughing, it’s hard to stop because there’s always something that comes along to add to the pandemonium.

In a show like this in which everything is so chaotic, precision in the staging is essential, and director Melissa Rain Anderson has impressively managed to order the mayhem with energy and style. The technical aspects here are wondrous, as well, especially in the form of Peter and Margery Spack’s spectacularly whimsical set, which is the source of a lot of the unexpected humor here. There’s also top-notch lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Rusty Wandall, as well as delightfully colorful costumes by Lauren T. Roark.

The casting here assembles some stalwart comedy veterans of the Rep along with other impressive performers making their Rep debuts. Everyone is excellent, with strong comic timing and deliciously over-the-top performances, with the standouts being Keyloun and Rapson for their impressive physical comedy, McGloin for his delightful self-satisfied mugging, Zes for his expertly inept use of language as well as physicality, and especially Cheung for her increasingly determined, delightfully deadpan turn as stage manager and last-minute understudy.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a hilarious closer for the Rep’s 2018-2019 season, the last under retiring Artistic Director Steven Woolf. It’s one of those “throw in all the jokes and see what happens” kind of shows, staged with energy, style, and a lot of impressive technical prowess. It’s not the cleverest or wittiest of its type, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Ruth Pferdehirt, Matthew McGloin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Play That Goes Wrong until April 7, 2019

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Oslo
by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 8, 2019

Kathleen Wise, Jim Poulos Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest play at the Rep is a multi-award winning play by J.T. Rogers. Oslo is a fact-based play about diplomacy, essentially. Despite its widespread critical acclaim, this is one of those plays that, to me, sounds a lot less dramatic in description than it actually plays out on stage. It’s a testament to the skill of the playwright that he was able to take a series of secret negotiations over a year and half and craft them into such a riveting, insightful, surprisingly witty drama. The excellent cast at the Rep adds to the dramatic value as well.

This play runs at a little over two and a half hours, and there are three acts, structured in an inventive and ultimately compelling way. At first, it can be a little hard to follow because there are a lot of characters and a lot of talking, but the appeal of the story and the characters soon draw attention. It follows the secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and the PLO that eventually resulted in the famous Oslo Accords in 1993, focusing on married Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen (Jim Poulos) and Mona Juul (Kathleen Wise), who arranged and facilitated the meetings. The unprecedented negotiations take careful diplomacy, unorthodox methods, and a lot of interpersonal influence, involving Norwegian government officials like Johan Jorgen Holst (Jonathan Gillard Daly), Israeli officials like Yossi Beilin (Jerry Vogel) and “unofficial” negotiators Yair Hirchfeld (John Rensenhouse) and Ron Pundak (Michael James Reed), and official negotiators Uri Savir (Ben Graney) and Joel Singer (Jim Shankman), as well as PLO negotiators Ahmed Qurie (Rajesh Bose) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). The process is slow and careful, with tensions readily apparent, but with the insistent Terje setting up ground rules that encourage socialization outside the negotiating room. It’s a fascinating play on many levels, with the dramatic tension coming mostly from personality conflicts and the urgency of the situation. There’s also a fair amount of humor and wit, along with the charismatic characters and performances.

Director Steven Woolf has paced this play well, with the action getting more and more tense as the proceedings continue. The production values add a lot to the drama, with Michael Ganio’s versatile set and Nathan W. Scheuer’s stunning projections helping to set and maintain the mood of the show. There are also excellent costumes by Dorothy Marshal Inglis, as well as effective lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Fitz Patton.

The technical aspects help to set the stage, but the performances are what carry the weight of this excellent, thoughtful script. The central figures, Terje and Mona, are embodied expertly by Poulos and Wise, who have strong chemistry that make them believable as a married couple, as well as a great deal of energy and determination. Also standing out are the dynamic, charismatic performances of Bose as Ahmed Qurie and Graney as the initially enigmatic Uri Savir. There are also fine performances from the rest of the cast, including Daly, Rensenhouse, Reed, and Michelle Hand in various roles. It’s a superb cast all-around, contributing a great deal to the already riveting story and first-rate script.

Although it took me a few minutes to get into the story, once I did, the long running time of this play didn’t really matter. The structure of Act One especially is particularly clever, and the rest of the play continues the compelling storytelling all the way through until the bittersweet ending that acknowledges history since 1993. The play is a fascinating lesson in history, character development and the careful balancing act that diplomacy can be. It’s an insightful and thoroughly human drama, expertly staged at the Rep.

Rajesh Bose, Jim Shankman, Amro Salama, Ben Graney Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Oslo until March 3, 2019

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