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Tennessee Rising
Conceived, Written, and Performed by Jacob Storms
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
May 12, 2018

Jacob Storms
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival STL

This year’s Tennessee Williams festival is focusing the playwright’s time in New Orleans. From its headline production, A Streetcar Named Desire to various panel discussions and presentations, the festival is calling to mind Williams’ relationship with the city he loved, and particularly the French Quarter neighborhood, where Williams spent some important years that shaped his development as a playwright. One excellent highlight of the festival has been Jacob Storms’ one-man show Tennessee Rising, in which Storms portrays the playwright in a key era of his life.

Spanning the years from 1939 to 1945, the play follows Williams as moves from St. Louis to New Orleans and then travels around the country as his career begins to take off, as a playwright in New Orleans and New York, and also briefly as a screenwriter in Hollywood. The important people in his life, from his family relationships to his love affairs to his theatrical associations, are brought to life in Storms’ vivid portrayal of an affable, ambitious, and reflective Williams as he transitions from Tom Williams the aspiring writer to Tennessee Williams the successful playwright. It’s a fascinating tale, told essentially in the form of letters and reflective monologues, augmented by frequent lighting changes and blackouts that help to portray the passage of time. Storms is outfitted appropriately as a young Williams showing the development of his success, as in Act 1 he’s dressed more casual and in Act 2 he wears a dapper suit. It’s a well-structured play, with some interesting personal and professional anecdotes, with the stories of the productions of his plays being the most fascinating to my mind. It all leads up to the opening of his first hit play, The Glass Menagerie, and Storms takes the audience on a compelling journey in the process.

Unfortunately, this play isn’t running anymore, as it only ran for two days over the weekend. Storms has performed this work before in various venues, and perhaps he will perform it again elsewhere. It’s an excellent and fitting component of this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

May 10, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The 3rd annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has opened with a highly ambitious main stage production. With this year’s festival concentrating on the playwright’s years in New Orleans’ French Quarter, it makes perfect sense that their headline production is Williams’s much-lauded A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in that neighborhood in the late 1940s. Often considered Williams’s best play, Streetcar has been performed so many times at so many different levels over the past few decades, but this production is aiming to take a fresh approach, with some bold casting and directorial choices. It’s a stunning production not to be missed.

The well-known story follows the enigmatic Blanche DuBois (Sophia Brown), who arrives in the French Quarter from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella Kowalski (Lana Dvorak) and her husband Stanley (NIck Narcisi), who is immediately suspicious of Blanche, who has arrived suddenly and announced she’s taken a “leave of absence” from her job as a teacher. Through the course of the play, more is revealed about Blanche, as well as about the controlling Stanley. Blanche is haunted by her past in more ways than one, as well as being threatened by the present, and by Stanley’s forceful personality and mistreatment of the devoted Stella. Blanche’s role as an outsider is emphasized by the rest of the characters, and the neighborhood itself, which is essentially a character in the play. Stanley’s poker buddies Steve (Isaiah DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Jesse Munoz) help empasize the Stanley’s primal, impulsive behavior, and their neighbor (and Steve’s wife) Eunice (Amy Loui) is at turns helpful and suspicious. There’s also another poker buddy, Mitch (Spencer Sickmann) who is different–more gentle, senstive, polite, but also something of a follower to the more forceful Stanley. Mitch is also attracted to Blanche, and they begin a tentative relationship that provides both of them with some hope, for a time. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as well-known as it is, except to say that ultimately, this is a tragedy, told in Williams’ most poetic, lyrical style.  Everything–every character, every interaction, every moment of dialogue is important, and the brilliance of the script is highlighted here by the bold, incisive direction of this production.

Visually, this play is simply stunning, with the techical elements enhancing and augmenting the overall atmosphere and performances of the stellar cast. James Wolk’s detailed set essentially lives and breathes the French Quarter, with the emphasis being on windows and doors rather than walls. The world of the Kowalskis’ apartment and the world of the surrounding neighborhood are brought together through the use of this meticulous but open design. There’s also excellent, responsive lighting by Sean Savoie that not only helps set the mood, but changes in response to it. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are vividly detailed, with colors fitting the personalities of the characters and styles appropriate to the period and tone of the show. There’s also excellent use of sound by Amanda Werre and an evocative new score by Henry Palkes, bringing the French Quarter to life in an auditory sense to complement the visual.

The casting here is a little different in some roles than what has generally been done in other productions, with Blanche especially being cast younger than usual. This, according to the Festival’s press release, is to reflect Williams’ original stage directions and making Blanche around 30, which adds some irony to the frequent mentions of her age in the play. Casting younger works extremely well in this production, especially in the truly remarkable performance of Brown, who brings a mixture of hope and regret to the role, and a youthful energy as well as sense of gravity and gradual unraveling as the story progresses. It’s an outstanding performance, and the rest of the cast matches her, from Narcisi’s increasingly controlling, emotionally needy and ultimately brutal Stanley, to Dvorak’s adoring but increasingly wary Stella. Sickmann is especially effective as the conflicted Mitch, and his scenes and chemistry with Brown are especially compelling. There’s also strong supporting work from Loui, DiLorenzo, Munoz, and the rest of the strong, cohesive ensemble. Director Tim Ocel has staged this play emphasizing the relationships and sense of immediacy, and the result is profoundly effecting.

There’s only one weekend left to see this play. It’s a production I had been looking forward to for a while and it’s more than lived up to the hype. William’s briliantly scripted, poetic and emotionally volatile play has been brought to the stage in a dynamic, bold, youthful production that brings its character and setting to life with rich, visceral detail. The production closes Saturday. Don’t miss it. You have to catch this Streetcar.

Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival STL is presenting A Streetcar Named Desire at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2018

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A Tree, Falling
by Ron Elisha
Directed by Michael Dorsey
Upstream Theater
April 28, 2018

Jerry Vogel, Kari Ely
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

There’s no use mincing words about this–Upstream Theater’s latest production, Australian playwright Ron Elisha’s A Tree, Falling is a sad play. It’s incredibly sad. It’s the kind of sad that just sort of sits with you for a while, daring you to cry. Yes, there are small spots of hope, but the overarching emotions here are sadness and regret.

Director Michael Dorsey has brought two prominent, top-notch St. Louis performers to this production. Jerry Vogel plays Lenny, an 80-year-old retired physician who essentially lives in his own world. His former life isn’t even a memory to him, as he is suffering from profound memory loss. Kari Ely plays Lola, a “friendly visitor” who has been sent by the local council to help Lenny, although she has to re-introduce herself every time she visits because Lenny never remembers her. Through the course of the story, we learn more about Lenny’s former life, as well as about personal issues in Lola’s life, as she deals with news about her own family and struggles to help Lenny remember anything of his. As Lenny’s health declines, the relationship dynamic grows more urgent, and more sad, and the sense of loss of a richly lived life is emphasized all the more.

The play’s staging and production design give it a sense of fantasy as well as realism, with Cristie Johnson’s detailed set also evoking a “vortex” type motif that adds emphasis to the theme of memory loss. The costumes by Laura Hanson, lighting by Tony Anselmo, props by Katie Schoenfeld, and sound by Michael Dorsey also work together well to suggest a sense of realism as well as a crushing sense of confusion and loss, augmenting the truly excellent performances of the two leads. Vogel, as the stubborn but personable Lenny, and Ely, as the friendly but equally stubborn and detrmined Lola, bring excellent chemistry and a full range of emotions to this heartwrenching production. Part of the sadness comes from the clear realization of the life that Lenny has forgotten, as well as the continued, increasingly frustrating efforts of Lola to help him, as well as to make sense of her own life as she learns that her own past isn’t quite what she thought. There is a true sense of affection that builds between the characters, but always that sense of profound sadness as well. It’s a difficult play to watch, even with the stunning performances.

A Tree, Falling is a short play, running at roughly 80 minutes with no intermission, and there’s a lot that goes on in that short running time. It’s an ideal length for such a relentlessly heavy subject matter, really, because more time would only have served to prolong the sadness, although there is a degree of hope at the end, depending on how you look at it. Still, this was worth seeing as a reminder of the importance of life and personal connections, even when those connections are muddled or entirely lost. It’s also a showcase for some truly excellent St. Louis acting talent.

Kari Ely, Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

 

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Judgment at Nuremberg
by Abby Mann
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company at the Missouri History Museum
April 27, 2018

Cast of Judgment at Nuremberg
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company usually puts on plays with small casts–often just Hanrahan himself and maybe one other cast member. The company’s latest production, though, is anything but small. Presented at the Missouri History Museum from April 25-29th, Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg recalls an important time in world history that is essential to remember. With a large cast and excellent staging, this production is one I wish had been given a longer run.

The play is a fictionalized version of one of the historic Nuremberg Trials that took place in Germany after World War II. Various defendents involved in different ways in the Nazi regime and the Holocaust were put on trial, with those convicted being sentenced to prison or death.  The trial represented in this play involves three German judges (Terry TenBroek as Emil Hahn, Hal Morgan as Frederick Hoffstetter, and Steve Callahan as Ernst Janning), who are charged with playing various roles in supporting the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi government from the bench, including ordering sterilizations of political dissidents and sending Jewish defendants and others to concentration camps. The cast of 16 is led by Hanrahan as Judge Dan Haywood, a North Carolina jurist who has been brought in to preside over the trial along with Judge Curtis Ives (Jack Corey) and Judge Ken Norris (Charles Heuvelman). The story centers largely on Haywood as he learns about the cases and defendants and other issues involved, such as international and national pressures trying to influence the outcome. Other key players include the passionate American prosecutor Colonel Tad Parker (Chuck Winning) and determined German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe (Cassidy Flynn). There’s also Frau Margarete Bertholt (Rachel Tibbetts), a widow who used to live in the house in which Haywood is staying, and who is soon revealed to have a highly personal connection to the trials.  Through the course of the play, issues of  personal and corporate responsibility, and national loyalty vs. conscience are raised, among other issues, as the German judges are brought face-to-face with witnesses to their actions and reacting in different ways, from self-justification to acknowledging guilt.

This is a somewhat sprawling play, with a lot going on at once and a large cast to keep track of. Structure-wise, it’s reminscent of a lot of other mid-century courtroom dramas, and the play’s program design (graphic design by Dottie Quick) even has a look and style suggestive of this time period. The drama has a lot of players, but the focus is mostly on the courtroom, and the staging here is engaging and energetic, with a cast of excellent performers that bring dimension and energy to their roles. Hanrahan is a good focus figure as Heywood, who functions in many ways as a surrogate for the audience, learning about the events and the people involved, and the history of the city of Nuremberg itself, as the story unfolds. Hanrahan’s Haywood has a kind of easy forthrightness about him that works very well in this role. He is surrounded by an excellent cast as well, including Callahan as the most introspective and remorseful of the defendents, Janning; and also Winning and Flynn as the equally fiery and determined opposing attorneys. There are also excellent turns from Tibbetts as the proud, grieving and somewhat enigmatic Frau Berthtolt, and Micahel B. Perkins, Francesca Ferrari, and Steve Garrett as key witnesses in the trial. The entire ensemble (also including Mark Abels, Jaz Tucker, Charlotte Dougherty, and Alex Fyles) is strong, with memorable performances all around, calling attention to the important and weighty issues brought up in this play–issues that are still relevant today.

The production design serves the play well, with Jonah Sheckler’s fairly simple set impressively augmented by Michael B. Perkins’s excellent video projections. There’s also crisp, focused lighting from Bess Moynihan as well as clear sound by Ellie Schwetye and well-suited period specific costumes by Sarah Porter. The overall atmosphere of a 1940’s military trial is well maintained in this fascinating production.

This is a show that could have run a little longer. I’m assuming the Missouri History Museum had limited availability, but it’s a shame that such a well-staged, powerful production like this couldn’t have had more performances. A production like this deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

Chuck Winning, Cassidy Flynn and cast
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

 

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Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 26, 2018

Omega Jones (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar is s show that’s been staged in various different ways over the years.  There are the more straightforward Biblical-style stagings, and there have been some re-imaginings, which seem increasingly popular in recent times. In their latest production, Stray Dog Theatre has gone the “re-imagining” route, resulting in an entertaining, well-cast production that can be somewhat confusing in its theming.

Telling the story of Jesus Christ (Omega Jones) mostly from the point of view of the disciple who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling), this rock opera has had its controversies over the years, but while it’s over 40 years old now, the music has held up well over that time. Here, though, the story isn’t told in the traditional Biblical setting. Here, director Justin Been has updated the show to give it something of a futuristic, sci-fi type setting that isn’t entirely consistent. Still, the music is all here, performed extremely well by the excellent Stray Dog band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. In this production, Jesus and his disciples are presented as some kind of enigmatic rebels to a futuristic regime that has suggestions of various Evil Empires from a variety of science fiction stories, especially Star Wars and Star Trek in terms of costuming.  The drama is in the performances and music, with well-known songs such as the title number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the show-stopping “Gesthsemane” represented extremely well, although sometimes the power of the story seems a little muted due to the theming.

There’s a great cast here, especially in terms of voices. Jones has a remarkably versatile vocal range and charismatic presence as Jesus, and Leveling sings better than I’ve ever heard him as a particularly cynical version of Judas. There are also strong performances from Heather Matthews as an enthralled Mary Magdalene, Gerry Love hamming it up with gusto as King Herod, and Lavonne Byers as a conflicted, reflective Pontius Pilate, with the songs particularly suiting her lower vocal range. Riley Dunn as Simon Zealotes, and Kevin Corpuz as Peter also have standout vocal moments, and the main players are backed by a strong, energetic ensemble, who are in excellent voice and also move well as expertly choreographed by Mike Hodges, who also puts in a memorable, oily turn as Annas as a complement to Jon Hey’s deep-voiced, menacing Caiaphas.

Visually, the show is striking and otherwordly. Josh Smith’s set is vividly realized, with an imposing, marble-like staircase as the most prominent feature, surmounted by a pair of ominous doors. The various levels of the set also lend well to the theatricality of the production, with ladders, platforms and various areas of the stage used to great effect. The costumes by Eileen Engel are meticulously crafted but not entirely cohesive in terms of making it seem like all the characters are inhabiting the same world. Still, the show is visually memorable, with exellent lighting by Tyler Duenow adding to the overall effect.

This is definitely an entertaining production. It’s unquestionably Jesus Christ Superstar in terms of the performances and music, but theming-wise, this production doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be. Still, the cast is wonderful, and the music is driving, powerful and memorable. Overall, I would say this was a worthwhile and truly memorable theatrical experience.

Phil Leveling, Heather Matthews, Omega Jones, Jon Hey, Mike Hodges and ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Torn Asunder
by Nikkole Salter
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 25, 2018

Myke Andrews, Brandi Threatt, Alan Knoll, LaShunda Gardner
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a world premiere production. Torn Asunder tells the story of a married couple separated by slavery, and its title comes from a common biblical phrase often used in marriage vows. This is about more than a marriage being split up, however. This heartbreaking, heartrending, memorable play focuses on a few characters–with excellent production values and a first-rate cast–but it also vividly portrays how much of American society was torn apart by the injustice and brutality of slavery.

The story begins on a Maryland plantation in 1859 and takes place over eleven years in the lives of the characters. Hannah Louise Ballard (LaShunda Gardner), who grew up as a slave on the plantation, is married to Moses (Myke Andrews) in the first scene, as Master James (Alan Knoll, who plays various roles) performs the ceremony emphasizing the fact that slave marriages weren’t considered permanent by the slaveholders. In fact, the very marriage vows ask them to accept this idea. That’s just the beginning of the story. Soon Master James becomes ill and dies, promising “provisions” for  Hannah in his will that give her cause to hope that she and Moses will be able to stay together, but that hope doesn’t last long. Hannah is soon bequeathed to Master James’s daughter and son-in-law and taken to Virginia, along with her baby son, Elijah, but without Moses. Her new “Master” is the ambitious, insecure shopkeeper John Allen (Graham Emmons), who forbids Hannah from contacting Moses. Also joining Hannah in her new situation is Malinda (Brandi Threatt), whose relationship with Allen is complicated, but who ultimately learns what he really thinks of her as she and Hannah are both sold and sent to Georgia. A few years pass, and as Moses makes his way to Canada, never giving up on his quest to find and reunite with Hannah, Hannah and Malinda are working in a cotton field with Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), who is interested in Hannah although Hannah still holds to the hope of finding Moses. As the war ends and slavery is abolished, Hannah, Malinda, and Henry eventually make their way North, but then things get even more complicated. Basically, this play depicts not only the sheer brutality of slavery, but also the aftermath of this brutality for individuals, couples, families, and society itself.

The cast here is exceptional, with strong performances all around, led by Gardner’s determined Hannah, who has strong chemistry with both Andrews’s earnest, focused Moses and Overly’s devoted, optimistic Henry. Threatt as the conflicted Malinda, Emmons as the deluded unstable Allen, and Knoll in a variety of roles are also impressive, and the casting brings energy and life to Salter’s thoughtful script.  The production values are also truly stunning. with dynamic staging by director Ron Himes, and brilliant and evocative scenic design by Dunsi Dai that makes excellent use of Geordy van Es’s vivid projections. Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting also adds much to the drama of the production, as do Daryl Harris’s detailed costumes.

This is a remarkable new work. Although the show runs a little long and there are elements that could be better explained, Torn Asunder is a challenging, thought-provoking, heartbreaking play, and  The Black Rep’s production is excellent, with first-rate production values and a brilliant cast. I hope this isn’t the only production, though. I hope there will be more performances of this remarkable work in the future.

Carl Overly, Jr., LaShunda Gardner, Brandi Threatt
Photo: The Black Rep

 

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The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 22, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak, Richard Lewis
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Dresser is a well-known look at life in the theatre in the mid-20th Century. It’s been revived a few times and filmed twice, and now it’s on stage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. As is fitting for a play about actors and theatre, this is a notably theatrical production, highlighting excellent performances from some celebrated local performers. Also, for this theatre company, the play represents an opportunity to call to mind a memorable previous production.

The first production I saw at STLAS was King Lear in 2013, starring John Contini in the title role, Bobby Miller as the Fool, and Missy Heinemann as Lear’s daughter, Regan. Now, STLAS is staging this play with those three players all involved, and with Contini again getting to, in a way, revisit his role as Lear. Here, Miller is directing and Contini is playing a veteran British actor referred to only as “Sir”, who is getting ready for yet another performance of Lear for his touring repertory company, and being attended to by his long-time faithful dresser Norman (David Wassilak). Heinemann plays Sir’s wife, addressed as “Her Ladyship”, who is also in the company, playing Cordelia in the evening’s planned performance. Sir, who has been declining in health, has apparently had something of a breakdown and was sent to the hosptial, putting the performance in doubt, but he eventually turns up, and Norman has to manage the emotional drama and various backstage complexities. Also involved in the production are loyal stage manager Madge (Emily Baker), who has been working with Sir for longer than anyone else, as well as actors Geoffrey Thornton (Richard Lewis)–who is making his first appearance as the Fool replacing an actor who had to leave the company, Mr. Oxenby, a somewhat belligerent new member of the company, and Irene (Bridgette Bossa), an initially niave-seeming younger cast member who reveals a more crafty, ambitious side after Sir reveals his more lecherous intentions toward her.

This is a somewhat difficult play because Sir is not a particularly likable character. He’s belligerent, arrogant, bigoted, and misogynistic, although Contini does a good job of making him watchable. Wassilak, as Norman, is also excellent, carrying the emotional weight of the play much of the time and displaying a sense of wary respect. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with particular stand-out performances from Heinemann as the weary, concerned Her Ladyship, and Baker as the hardworking, even reverent Madge as the standouts. It’s a well-structured play for the most part, with strong performances all around although the first act tends to be a bit shouty. It’s still an intriguing look at tensions backstage and in the world in 1940s England, in the midst of World War II and as the production is also threatened by air raids.

The time and place of the production are effectively evoked in Patrick Huber’s meticulous set design and Teresa Doggett’s detailed costumes. Particularly, the Lear costumes seem authentic to what would be used at the time. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Dalton Robinson in helping to achieve the overall theatrical atmosphere, as well as Miller’s sound design and Jess Stamper’s props.

The Dresser is a detailed, unsentimental look at a specific era in history, as well as life in the theatre. This isn’t a nostalgia play, but more an examination of the depth of relationships and various personalities involved in a company such as this, and the challenges of a life on the stage. Although the central actor figure isn’t particularly sympathetic, the world around him is fully realized and the characters are intriguing, especially in this production with such a strong cast. It’s also an interesting callback to STLAS’s earlier production of King Lear, serving as an opportunity for contrast to anyone who has seen both productions. There are only a few performances left, but this production is worth checking out.

Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak, John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Dresser at the Gaslight Theatre until April 29, 2018.

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