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Posts Tagged ‘repertory theatre of st louis’

The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

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Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

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Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

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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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