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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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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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