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Here Lies Henry
by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company
June 10, 2021

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Here Lies Henry is a show that’s perfect for Joe Hanrahan. Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has become known for his one-man shows (although that’s not all they do), and I can’t think of a better vehicle for Hanrahan’s talent than this one. It’s an ideal showcase, also featuring the talents of a strong technical crew and consistently excellent director.

This is kind of an odd show, but that’s par for this course for The Midnight Company, as well. When we first see Henry (Hanrahan), he’s obviously nervous, and it’s not obvious why he is there, shifting back and forth between different approaches to speaking to the audience, from telling personal stories to corny jokes, to singing a little bit of a song and, occasionally, dancing. For a while, the point of this presentation isn’t clear, and many of Henry’s comments seem random, but as the show continues, everything begins to fall more into place, as references return and return, eventually revealing their meaning, and the purpose for Henry’s speech is gradually revealed, leading to an abrupt but poignant conclusion.

The overall effect here is that the audience gets to know Henry little by little as he catalogs his history of being a great liar, which is one reason for the show’s punny title. In the midst of these lies, though, there is truth, as Henry reveals realities concerning his background, relationship with his parents, his experiences of love and personal identity, and more.  There is also much truth in Hanrahan’s relatable performance. Hanrahan, as usual, is excellent, and this show gives him an ideal opportunity to display a wide range of emotions, as well as philosophizing about the meaning of life–in general, and specifically for his character. 

The staging and technical aspects here are also superb, and deceptively simple, as the show is essentially Hanrahan on a mostly empty stage. Still, even though it’s simple, there’s a lot going on, as Tony Anselmo’s lighting and Kevin Bowman’s production design lend a lot of atmosphere to the story, and the overall effect is a testament to the proficiency of these artists and director Ellie Schwetye in letting Hanrahan shine as Henry tells his fascinating tale and Hanrahan embodies every moment with substance, humor, and drama.

It’s been a welcome return to theatre for me and theatre fans around St. Louis, with a variety of shows currently onstage. Here Lies Henry may seem like one of the “smaller” offerings, although it features a big performance and much to provoke thought and reflection. It’s another excellent and intriguing work from Hanrahan and The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Here Lies Henry at the Kranzberg Arts Center until June 27, 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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King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Carl Cofield

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

June 4, 2021

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis and the cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Live theatre is back! I can’t properly express how excited I’ve been to finally be able to attend a real, in-person theatrical production for the first time since March 2020. There have been several excellent and creative virtual productions from various theatre companies, both national and local, but for me nothing has the same energy as a live show. I know many theatre fans, fellow critics and bloggers, and theatre artists have felt the same, and now that a lot of pandemic restrictions are being revised and relaxed, anticipation has been high.  It’s been a long break, and now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has answered that longing with a first-rate, riveting production of the Bard’s tragedy King Lear, starring an excellent cast of local and non-local performers and led by a genuine Broadway legend, André De Shields, in the title role. Along with a terrific cast including some excellent local performers, De Shields and the Festival usher live performance back to St. Louis in a bold, poignant, and unforgettable way.

This isn’t the first production of King Lear I’ve seen, or reviewed, although it couldn’t be more different than the last time I saw this show live, which was indoors and in a much smaller venue, and with a different director’s vision and setting. Here, the action is set in the present-day (or near it) in a kingdom in North Africa, with the atmosphere set by means of Wilson Chin’s striking set that features a crumbling facade and the suggestion of decline. The story is well-known, as the aging King Lear (De Shields) decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril (Rayme Cornell), Regan (Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (Nicole King). When the elder daughters flatter him excessively and Cordelia refuses to do the same, Lear is driven to anger, cutting off Cordelia and sending her away from the kingdom to marry the King of France (Michael Tran). Also banished is the king’s devoted friend the Earl of Kent (J. Samuel Davis), who supports Cordelia, although the ever-loyal Kent simply disguises himself under the name of Gaius and is taken into the king’s service. Lear, accompanied by the disguised Kent  and another devoted retainer, the Fool (Allen Gilmore), travels to stay with his remaining daughters–first Goneril and her husband, the sympathetic Albany (Jason J. Little), and then with Regan her co-conspiratorial husband Cornwall (Carl Overly, Jr.). As he is mistreated by his vain and scheming daughters, Lear is forced to confront his own vanity and rashness at rejecting Cordelia. This plot is intertwined with the story of Gloucester (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his two sons, the kindhearted Edgar (Daniel José Molina), and the scheming Edmund (Leland Fowler), who bemoans his “illegitimate” birth and resents his brother, who is the heir to his father’s title. Edmund’s plots against his brother leads to Edgar’s exile disguised as “Poor Tom”, who eventually comes into contact with Lear, who in his grief has taken to wandering in the wilderness with Kent and the Fool, bemoaning his fate, as well as Gloucester, who falls afoul of Lear’s daughters’ schemes and is also exiled. All of these events eventually lead to much conflict, personal reflection, and eventually war and and a series of tragedies. It’s an intense story, as expected, but the interpretation here is even more intense than I had remembered.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast is strong, although De Shields is unmistakably the star here. Known more for his performances in musical theatre over the years, he brings a singer’s vocal variation and a dancer’s physicality to this iconic Shakespearean role, although he doesn’t actually sing or dance. His journey from self-centered impulsivity to defiant regret and self-reflection, to abject grief is striking and bold. His scenes with the also excellent Davis as the ever-faithful Kent, Gilmore as the comedian/philosopher Fool, and King as the brave and honest Cordelia are especially memorable, as is his visceral disappointment in his self-focused daughters, Goneril and Regan, who are portrayed memorably by Cornell and Thompson respectively. There are also strong performances from Molina as Edgar, who ably morphs from gentle, hippie-ish skater dude to wild forest dweller to protective son; and Fowler as the ever-scheming Edmund; and especially Wilson as their duped and regretful father, Gloucester. Jason J. Little as loyal (to Lear) Albany and Overly in a dual role as the power-hungry Cornwall and a Gentleman attending Cordelia are also excellent, as is Tran as Goneril’s determined and sycophantic steward, Oswald as well as a brief turn as Cordelia’s suitor, the King of France. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, working together to bring the sense of intensity and drama, and occasional humor to this fully realized production.

Technically, this production also shines. The versatility of Chin’s set serves the story well, as pieces are reused to depict not only the changes in locales, but the deterioration of Lear’s kingdom. There’s also impressive work from fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, percussion director Atum Jones, and sound designer David R. Molina. John Wylie’s lighting design is also especially impressive, augmenting the drama especially in the moments of Lear’s exile and as military conflicts heat up.

This stunning production from St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a particularly profound answer to the year-long anticipation of the return of live performance. The Forest Park setting and modified “pod seating” also works well, lending a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Anchored by an essential performance by its headlined star, and supported by a superb cast and technical crew, King Lear may be a tragedy as a play, but as a production it’s an outright triumph.

Michael Tran, Jacqueline Thompson, Rayme Cornell, Carl Overly Jr., André De Shields and cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting King Lear in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 27, 2021

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Moscow!
Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
May 28, 2020

Promo Image by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

 

Since live theatre is sadly on pause at the moment, several St. Louis theatre companies have been taking the opportunity to experiment with the medium of online theatre in various forms. At the forefront of that experimentation is one of the area’s more daring and inventive theatre company’s, Equally Represented Arts (ERA), who have taken this opportunity to re-present one of their productions via the Zoom video conferencing format. It’s a bold move for a theatre company known for its boldness, and even though it still doesn’t completely fill the void left by a truly live in-person performance, it makes the most of its medium and provides a thoroughly provocative, memorable experience.

Moscow! was previously performed at the St. Lou Fringe Festival in 2015 in a more traditional, live format, although as is typical for ERA, the story, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, was done in a unique, experimental manner, in this instance as a drinking game. That structure remains in the Zoom version, with viewers instructed to take a drink every time one of the characters says “Moscow”.  In a way, this format works better in a setting in which viewers are watching from home.  Of course, you also have more choice of beverages in your own home, whether you choose to drink “high-octane” or “low-octane”–although I would caution viewers to take care, because the characters say “Moscow” a lot.  I had to refill my cup twice during the one-hour production, and I was only drinking water. Let’s just say I was well-hydrated by the end. 

This production is especially clever, using the Zoom format to its best advantage, allowing for the various cast members to stream from their own homes while maintaining the illusion that they are meeting together when the story calls for that. I was especially grateful for the “after party” talkback session afterwards, in which the cast and crew explained the preparation that went into this production, which featured excellent work from production designer and director Lucy Cashion, costume designer Marcy Wiegert, music director Joe Taylor, and stage manager Miranda Jagels Félix. The video conferencing setup also provided some unique pitfalls, though, such as the viewing format varying according to which way the viewers chose to watch–on smart phone or computer via the app, or on a computer via their web browser. As ideally presented and designed, the viewer was supposed to see the perspective alternating between individual characters’ view, and gallery view in which all characters were visible at once. Some viewers, including myself (watching on my Chromebook with the app), this presentation didn’t come across, Instead, I and others only got to see the alternating focus on individual characters. Still, the pacing the production and performances made it riveting even with the difference in format. 

The story is also probably easier to follow if you’re familiar with Chekhov’s original play, which I hadn’t seen or read before. Still, the excellent cast and Cashion’s strong direction made this presentation memorable. The story follows the Prozerov family–the three sisters Olga (Ellie Schwetye), Masha (Rachel Tibbetts), and Irina (Alicen Moser), and their brother Andrey (Will Bonfiglio), who live in a small Russian town and miss their time growing up in Moscow (drink!). Various romantic entanglements, living situation woes, occupational issues, and personal conflicts ensue as several years pass through the course of the story and the characters’ fortunes and life attitudes change according their circumstances. We meet Masha’s nice but not particularly exciting husband Kulygin (Gabe Taylor), Andrey’s controlling wife Natasha (Maggie Conroy), and the dashing soldier and Masha’s paramour Vershinin (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), along with two officers battling for Irina’s affections–the more dependable Baron Tuzenbach (Mitch Eagles), and the impulsive Solyony (Jakob Hultén). The cast also features Carl Overly, Jr. as old family friend Chebutykin, Cashion as longtime family servant Anfisa, who occasionally provides a bit of narration to set the scene, and Joe Taylor (who is playing atmospheric music throughout) as Ferapont.  It’s a strong cast all around, with the sisters especially strong with their contrasting personalities, from Schwetye’s more even-tempered Olga, to Tibbetts’s melancholic Masha, to Moser’s initially hopeful but conflicted Irina. Bonfiglio is also memorable as the increasingly bitter Andrey, as is Conroy as the selfish, controlling Natasha. The entire cast is excellent, though, with surprisingly strong ensemble chemistry considering the fact that none of the players are in the same room. There’s a degree of energy here that’s especially impressive considering it’s a streamed performance, although the fact that each performance was done live certainly helps with the energy level. 

The shifting tone and pace of the show is also handled especially well, with comic moments punctuating the piece early on, and some moments of poignancy as the story continues. It’s a worthwhile experiment from the always clever and provocative ERA. Even though I still look forward to the day when I can go to the theatre again, productions like this make the wait a lot easier.

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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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Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder, Music Arranged by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2020

Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Alyssa Wolf, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre continues its tradition of offbeat hits with its latest production of Head Over Heels. Essentially a “jukebox musical” featuring music by pop group The Go-Go’s, this show show incorporates its musical catalog in a clever, crowd-pleasing way that’s more about telling a whimsical story inspired by classic literature and an ancient Greek setting than being a simple tribute to its musical source. It also provides a great opportunity for an excellent cast to showcase their talents as well as a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The plot can get convoluted at times, as a lot is going on here, but it’s a lot of fun, and the occasional confusion is part of the enjoyment. At first, in the kingdom of Arcadia, there are a lot of conflicting goals and motives. The King, Basilius (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Queen, Gynecia (Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer) have two daughters with romantic dilemmas. Younger daughter Philoclea (Melissa Felps) is in love with a rustic shepherd, Musidorus (Clayton Humburg), of whom her father does not approve. Meanwhile, the King is doubling his efforts to find an acceptable suitor for his elder daughter Pamela (Grace Langford), who isn’t interested in any of the men presented, and initially seems to be more in love with herself than anyone else. When the King and his attendant Dametas (Aaron Allen) go to visit the mysterious Oracle Pythio (Tiélere Cheatem), the oracle tells them of a four-fold prophecy which will lead to Arcadia’s losing its “Beat”. The king, determined to foil the prophecy, takes his people on a seemingly aimless journey, where eventually truths are revealed, lies are exposed, and there are a lot of whimsical twists and turns involving the King, Queen, Princesses, the Oracle, Dametas and his daughter, Pamela’s handmaid Mopsa (Jaclyn Amber), and more. 

Don’t think you have to be a fan of the Go-Go’s to enjoy this show. The group has always been more on the periphery of my musical interests, and I wasn’t extremely familiar with their songs beyond their bigger radio hits. Still, this show uses the songs well, and in a setting that might not seem an obvious one for these tunes. Everything from the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat” to other hits such as “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is used in an inventive way that contributes to the story. Especially notable is the fun, cleverly staged “Mad About You”, sung by Musidorus and a chorus of puppet sheep, staged in a hilarious, energetic way that makes it a highlight of the production. There is a message here, of accepting and encouraging change and not being bound to tradition simply for tradition’s sake, as well as some perspectives on challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes, and everything is integrated into the story so that it fits the characters and situations well. Most of all, though, it’s a fun show with a lot of broad comedy and catchy, well-utilized pop tunes that serve the setting surprisingly well, even with the dialogue that’s more Elizabethan-sounding for the most part.

As is to be expected at New Line, the casting is strong, and the singing is especially impressive. Everyone from the leads to the ensemble puts in a winning, energetic performance, with standouts being Langford and Felps as the sisters who are at once different and not-so-different;  Humburg as the lovesick Musidorus, who through the course of the story has to change his appearance in a way that drives a lot of the plot; and Amber as the loyal, determined Mopsa, who both challenges and inspires Pamela. Farmer and Priesmeyer are excellent as the King and Queen, as well, as is Cheatem in a dynamic performance as the oracle Pythio. The chemistry among all the couples is strong, as well, as is the spirit and enthusiasm of the ensemble. There’s some especially clever staging here by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, along with a great band led by music director Nicolas Valdez.

The presentation here is colorful and whimsical, with Rob Lippert’s classically inspired set serving as an ideal backdrop for the action. There are also bright, striking costumes by Courtney Gibson and Sarah Porter that add to the overall tone of the show nicely. Also lending to the overall atmosphere is Kenneth Zinkl’s dazzling lighting. Overall, the look and feel of this production is in keeping with the catchy, bright pop score and the general comic tone that blends the classical and the modern in a cleverly inventive way.

Head Over Heels is another example of one of those shows that seems to fit better in a smaller setting like New Line than on Broadway. Staged at New Line’s home base, the Marcelle Theatre, this show makes the most of the space and the closeness to the audience, who are seated on either side of the performance area here. It’s a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre.

Clayton Humburg and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Head Over Heels at the Marcelle Theatre until March 28, 2020

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The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Fox Theatre
February 25, 2020

Sasson Gabay, Janet Dacal
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The Band’s Visit North American Tour

The Band’s Visit is a Tony-Winning musical that’s more about characters and atmosphere than plot. That’s a good thing, in this case, since the characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is haunting and memorable. Currently on tour at the Fox, this production boasts an excellent cast and a stunning sense of musicality to underscore these characters’ simple but profound stories.

It’s not a long play, running at 90 minutes with no intermission, and the setup is simple. An Egyptian police band has arrived in Israel to perform a concert, having been invited to appear at the opening of a cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. There’s a misunderstanding at the bus station, however, and the band ends up in the small, out-of-the-way town of Bet Hatikva. Once the mistake is realized, band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his band are informed that the next bus arrives the following day, so they find themselves unexpectedly spending the night in the town, making the acquaintance of local restaurant owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (played at the performance I saw by standby Danny Burgos). The various band members split up and spend the evening with the locals. Tewfiq and the suave Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina, and Dina shows Tewfiq the town while Haled tags along with Papi and his friend on a double date, discovering that Papi is insecure and doesn’t know how to connect with his date. Clarinetist and composer Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik’s family, forming a bond and finding himself helping in an unexpected way. Dina and Tewfiq share a bond and an attraction, but Tewfiq is haunted by past regrets. Meanwhile, the ever-persistent “Telephone Guy” (Mike Cefalo) waits by a payphone hour after hour for his long-absent girlfriend to call. This is more a series of episodes with a common theme than one cohesive story, and ultimately there is a message of persistence and hope in the midst of regret and despair, as well as finding common bonds among people from different cultures. There’s a memorable score by David Yazbek with standout songs like “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different” for Dina, and “Haled’s Song of Love” as well as the emotive “Answer Me” and more, played with heartrending beauty by the onstage band conducted by Adrian Ries.

The production values here are impressive, especially considering this is a tour, with detailed, fluidly-moving set by Scott Pask that represents all the various locations in the town and uses the stage’s turntable particularly well. There’s also evocative lighting by Tyler Micoleau that further sets and maintains the show’s lyrical tone and mood. Also excellent are the detailed costumes by Sarah Laux that help bring these characters to life along with the stunning performances.

As for those performances, the entire ensemble is strong here, with superb voices and strong presence. The heart of the show is the connection between Dacal’s bold Dina and Gabay’s soft-spoken Tewfiq, and both performers are stunning in their portrayals and in their chemistry. Other standouts include Joseph as the smooth-voiced ladies’ man Haled, Burgos as the anxious Papi, and the clear-voiced Koch as Itzik, who gets a poignant moment with “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Cefalo is also memorable as the determined Telephone Guy. The whole cast is strong, with a strong sense of cohesive energy and determination, singing the score well and bringing out the emotion of the memorable score.

Overall, The Band’s Visit is about little moments that turn out to be bigger than expected. It’s a “little” show in some ways, with a short run time and a relatively small cast, but it’s got a big heart and sense of musicality that shines through even beyond the curtain call. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking production.

The North American tour of The Band’s Visit is running at the Fox Theatre until March 8, 2020

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The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
February 22, 2020

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Relationships can be complicated, and so can influence within those relationships. Whether they are romantic relationships, friendships, siblings, parents and children, etc., the dynamics of various relationships have often formed the basis for exploration through drama, and comedy. The latest production from West End Players Guild, Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which explores the developing relationship between two middle-aged women who start out as strangers, then become friends, and then… well, let’s just say it’s complicated. And in the hands of the excellent performers in this production, it’s also fascinating from start to finish.

Described in the show’s promotional materials as a “dark comedy”, The Roommate introduces audiences to two very different women who are brought together by necessity and loneliness. It also explores the development of influence and shifting power balances within interpersonal relationships. At first, Iowa homeowner Sharon (Jane Abling) seems shy and uneducated about much of the world outside of the Midwest, even though she stresses that she knows better than the Iowa-born residents around her, because she’s originally from Illinois. Regardless of where she’s from, Sharon isn’t happy, as her marriage has just ended, and her son lives in New York City and doesn’t seem to be home often when she tries to call him. She doesn’t get out much, and in her loneliness she advertises for a roommate. That roommate turns out to be Robyn (Julie George-Carlson), who seems somewhat scary to Sharon at first, since she’s very different–a vegan lesbian from NYC who is very secretive about her past–but Sharon is determined to get to know her new roommate, and the two soon form a friendship that’s full of surprises. One surprise is that the dynamic begins to shift, as Sharon grows bolder and Robyn more reticent, becoming drawn back into some activities that Robyn was trying to leave behind her. It’s a funny play, certainly, but also has its moments of poignancy and also a dark, insidious undercurrent that makes the proceedings increasingly uncomfortable, which seems to be deliberate. The relationship and its results are complex, to be sure, and certainly the cause for much thought and reflection concerning a variety of issues such as middle-aged loneliness, peer pressure (no matter what your age), the difficulties of fleeing past regrets, and more.

The script is witty and insightful, and it builds well, and the relationship here is made all the more believable by the truly compelling performances of the two leads. Abling is excellent in portraying the development of Sharon from shy and naive to bold and assertive, giving a strong sense that the character is revealing aspects of her personality that she has kept hidden for a long time, perhaps even to herself. Then there’s George-Carlson, whose Robyn is consciously hiding things, but then finds herself reluctantly opening up and then dealing with the palpable struggle between excitement at finding a friend to regret at how that relationship influences her new friend, and also herself. There’s a strong sense of chemistry and bonding between the two, as well, which adds to the credibility of the relationship and makes the story all the more compelling.

Technically, the show makes the most of the stage in the basement of Union Avenue Christian church, as the stage itself and area in front of it are put to use by means of George Shea’s detailed, believable set. There’s also excellent lighting from Tony Anselmo and sound from Chuck Lavazzi. Most impressive, however, is the costuming work by Tracey Newcomb, and in how the costumes not only suit the characters but also play a considerable part in showing the evolving relationship between these women, and how both characters are influenced by one another over the course of the play. It’s an impressive feat from both director Sean Belt and costume designer Newcomb that adds a great deal of depth to this play.

The Roommate is an insightful comedy that shows especially well how relationships–whatever their nature–can be influential, empowering, revelatory, and even dangerous. It deals with moral dilemmas as well as the conflicting emotions that come with such dilemmas. It’s certainly a thought-provoking piece with a lot of humor, but also a lot to think about. At WEPG, it’s ultimately an especially strong showcase for two talented performers.

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Roommate at Union Avenue Christian Church until March 1, 2020

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Annapurna
by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

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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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