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Eat Your Heart Out
by Courtney Baron
Directed by William Whitaker
R-S Theatrics
December 7, 2014

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

A nervous man and woman who are meeting for the first time after connecting via a computer dating site share an awkward first date at an art museum.  Elsewhere, another nervous man and woman–a married couple–are preparing their home for a visit from a social worker, whose report will help determine their suitability to adopt a baby from overseas.  At the same time, a teenage girl and her male best friend discuss her frustration about being bullied at school because of her weight.  This is only the beginning of R-S Theatrics’ fascinating new production, Courtney Baron’s Eat Your Heart Out.  How these seemingly unrelated stories fit together is part of the drama of this piece, and the very strong performances and inventive staging make it riveting to watch.

Aside from the brief description of its premise, it’s very difficult to talk about this play without spoiling the suspense. Discovering how the plot lines fit together is part of this show’s appeal, although there’s much more to it than that mystery.  The key connecting figure is the woman on the first computer date, Nance (Ann Marie Mohr).who is a social worker and the mother of Evie (Katie Donnelly), the distraught teenager.  Nance is also the one visiting the nervous married couple Alice (Michelle Hand) and Gabe (Eric Dean White), revealing a little bit too much about her own personal life in the process.  There are more surprises I won’t spoil, but the real drama here comes from the relationships, and what the various interactions reveal about Nance and her relationships with those around her. She starts out likable enough, but the way she deals with the home visit and with her daughter reveals a selfish streak, and complex reasons behind her actions.  The writing is dynamic and believable, with a good balance of drama and humor. Many issues are dealt with, leading to an ending that asks more questions than it answers.

All of the characters here have more depth than is initially apparent, and the excellent cast here convincingly brings out all those layers of complexity. The most compelling story is Evie’s. As an overweight teenager who desperately yearns to be loved and accepted not only by her peers, but especially by her mother, Donnelly gives a strong, emotionally rich performance. Her thinly veiled crush on her friend Colin (Casey Boland) is also thoroughly believable, and it is easy to sympathize with her in conflicts with her mother. Hand and White are also convincing as the overly eager Alice and Gabe. They both manage to communicate desperation and concern at the same time. Mohr has the most difficult role, as Nance, as the character starts out likable but gets less so as we learn more about her, and especially how she relates to her daughter. Mohr handles the role well, managing to find some sympathy. Boland is charming as Colin, Evie’s friend who is new in town but still hung up on his girlfriend from back home, and Stephen Peirick is good as Nance’s lonely but optimistic date, Tom.    The relationships here are key, and the players work together well, particularly in the emotionally charged scenes between Evie and Nance, between Alice, Gabe and Nance, and between Evie and Colin.

The strong cast is given support by the excellent, clever staging. This show is performed at The Chapel, which has a very flexible performance space. The way the show is set up has the action taking place in three performance areas on the main floor of the space, with the audience set up in chairs on three sides (including on the stage) surrounding the performers. This gives a level of depth to the staging that heightens the drama. The three story “threads’ are based in different areas of the performance space, with occasional overlap and rearranging. The set is cleverly designed by Kyra Bishop, with a fairly minimal approach that works very well for the tone of the show.  There’s also excellent lighting work by Nathan Schroeder that enhances the mood of the production.

There’s a lot to talk and think about in this show, and some of the issues are ones that can get very emotional. Anyone who has dealt with issues of weight and body image should find something to relate to here, especially. There are also some valuable questions raised about parenting, relationships and perfectionism.  It’s a thoroughly engaging drama, compellingly staged.  It’s the first time this play has been performed in St. Louis, and it’s a worthwhile debut.

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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Parade
Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 5, 2013

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn Photo by Michael Young

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Michael Young

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis. Of all the shows I have seen in 2013, only one has rated less than “very good” to me, but still there are those few truly transcendent productions that stand out even from a great crop of contenders. R-S Theatrics’ ambitious production of Parade is one of those stand-out productions. This is the first production from this company that I have seen, and to say I’m impressed is an understatement. I was bowled over by the level of talent, intensity and sheer drama of this production of a show that is certainly not a “feel good” musical. It’s raw, intense and stunningly real presentation of subject matter that can be difficult to watch and process, but needs to be told and is done so is a truly involving and compelling way.

This is not a happy musical, to put it mildly. Parade is the story of the famous case of Leo Frank, a New York-raised Jewish factory manager in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, who was accused and convicted of the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan, even though he was almost certainly innocent (and was eventually pardoned in 1986). It’s the story of a Southern town unable to forget (and, in fact, celebrating) its Confederate past with all its problems and inequities all wrapped in a rosy idealistic formula, as most of the town turns out—miniature battle flags in hand and waved enthusiastically–for the annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. Meanwhile, Leo (Pete Winfrey) feels his detachment not only from the town and a culture that romanticizes the Old South, but also from his own wife, Lucille (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who is also Jewish but grew up in Georgia and views herself as a part of Southern society. In this setting, the murder of the well-liked young Mary (Beth Wickenhauser) brings all the doubts and distrust of the “outsider” Frank to the boiling point and bringing the whole town into the spotlight and all the ugliness of racism and antisemitism to the surface, as well as some other unsavory elements such as the thirst for revenge at all costs–represented notably by Mary’s friend Frankie Epps (Zach Wachter), and the self-serving desire for political advancement at all costs, demonstrated primarily by District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ken Haller).

The players in this production are excellent, with particular stand-outs being Haller as the charismatic but corrupt Dorsey, Wachter as the grieving and increasingly vengeful Epps as well as an idealistic young Confederate soldier at the start of the show, and Marshall Jennings as the smooth-talking factory janitor Jim Conley (who most historians believe was the real murderer). Jennings grabs the stage–and the audience’s attention–and won’t let go in his chillingly energetic numbers “That’s What He Said” (at Frank’s trial) and “Blues: Feel the Rain” (in Act 2). Kevin Hester is sympathetic as the conflicted governor Jack Slaton, to whom Lucille Frank appeals for help, and Shawn Bowers (as night watchman and original suspect Newt Lee), Alexis Coleman (as the Franks’ house maid Minnie McKnight), Kay Love (in a dual role as Mrs. Phagan and Mrs. Slaton) and Wickenhauser as Mary deliver strong performances as well, with Bowers and Coleman delivering one of the show’s strongest musical moments at the beginning of Act 2 in “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin'”. This is a show full of powerful musical moments from the very beginning (the haunting “Old Red Hills of Home”), to the sweetly comic (Frankie and Mary’s “The Picture Show”), to the disturbing (most of the trial), to the heartbreaking (Mary’s funeral) and the hopeful (the Franks’ “This Is Not Over Yet”). This is a cast of fine voices, and the ensemble carries the mood of the show convincingly as well.

In the midst of all this tension and injustice is a tragically beautiful love story, anchored by the truly brilliant performances of the two leads. As Leo and Lucille Frank deal with trying to prove Leo’s innocence, the initially emotionally distant couple find not just answers, but each other, and this relationship is portrayed compellingly and with much warmth and honesty by Winfrey and Theby-Quinn. Individually, their performances are the centerpiece of this production–Winfrey’s initially cold and nervous and increasingly vulnerable Leo, and Theby-Quinn’s gentle and polite but ultimately fiery and determined Lucille. What’s more, all of their scenes together are outstanding, with the devastatingly intense “All the Wasted Time” being perhaps the best single scene I’ve seen on stage all year. Their chemistry is more than believable—it’s electric, and their efforts to say all the things they had left unsaid is almost unbearably honest, but so deeply compelling it’s impossible to look away. It’s all the more tragic seeing their relationship develop and watching all the tenderness and intensity of this scene, all the while knowing what is going to happen ultimately. It’s one of those moments where I find myself wishing I could just freeze the show right at that point, so these two can have their moment and nothing bad will happen, but this isn’t that kind of show. The genius of this show, and this production, is that it can make the audience wish for a happy ending even when it’s not possible. We want it to be possible, but it’s not to be, and the final scene, displaying the aftermath of the tragedy, is gut-wrenchingly effective.

The time and place are effectively suggested by a minimal set–a darkly painted stage, starkly lit, with a a few set pieces and furniture brought in as needed to suggest the factory, the courtroom, a jail cell, and more. It all plays particularly well in the ornate, red-curtained Ivory Theatre, with period music playing before the show to set the mood, and the excellent musical ensemble playing Jason Robert Brown’s excellent score.

I don’t cry easily at shows, but this production had me near tears on at least three occasions. Even though this is based on a true case and the exact circumstances have changed since 1913-15, the issues of prejudice, pressure for conformity, and the dangers of mob mentalities and vengeance, as well the overarching message of reconciliation as personified by the Franks themselves, are still relevant today. Stories like this need to be told, and R-S Theatrics has told this story with clarity and truth. It’s a remarkable piece of theatre.

Parade Ensemble Photo by Michael Young

Parade Ensemble
Photo by Michael Young

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So, I went to the Fringe last weekend. The St. Lou Fringe, that is. It’s the biggest theatre festival in St. Louis, having just finished its second year under the direction of  Executive Director Em Piro and a large crew of staff and volunteers, involving many local theatre companies and some from around the country, as well as dance, live music, after parties, family activities and more.  There was a lot going on in Midtown, but I only managed to see a small portion of it. One of the thoughts I had after attending was that I wish it were bigger, and with all the creative energy and enthusiasm of all involved I’m sure it eventually will be. Still, for an event only two years into its life, it’s an impressive venture, with many different acts on a schedule spread out over four days in Midtown.

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I only managed to see five shows this year, but I was able to see such a variety of styles on display in just those few shows.  The quality of the performances and the overall atmosphere makes me want to see even more shows at the festival next year, and maybe attend a workshop or after party.  There’s so much to do at the Fringe for all ages, and it was fun to participate even in a small way.  Here are my thoughts on the shows I saw:

Total Nonsense

by Joey Puricelli and Zach Paule

Directed by Joey Puricelli

Grand High Productions

This production was the least polished of the shows I saw at the Fringe. The title is descriptive, as there was very little sense and a lot of rapid-fire jokes, some landing and some not.  That’s part of the nature of experimental theatre, though, and there were some interesting, funny things going on here.   The cast, led by co-author Joey Puricelli as Skitz O. Frenic, whose house and mind are the setting for the action, made a good effort and displayed a strong sense of enthusiasm, even though some volume and enunciation issues occasionally made some of the dialogue unintelligible (and this doesn’t count the intentional gibberish that is part of the performance). I especially liked the use of music in the scene breaks. Overall, it was an interesting performance with a plot that’s difficult to describe, but performed by an enthusiastic ensemble.

Underneath the Lintel

By Glen Berger

Pat O’Brien’s Vanity Theatrics

This performance, a one-man show performed by actor O’Brien with more energy than I could have imagined, was a delight from start to finish.  Well-written, perfectly paced, impeccably researched and organized, the production tells the story of as a socially awkward, Dutch librarian who undertakes a life-changing quest when he becomes obsessed with finding the person who turned in an extremely (100+ years) overdue library book. This remarkable play made excellent use of slides from around the world and recorded music to establish the mood and tone of the story.  Issues of relationship, love, religion and regret are dealt with along this fascinating journey, and I continue to be amazed at the sheer range of O’Brien’s remarkable performance.  This was a real treat.

No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying

By Ed Krystoek

Directed by Peter Connor

1up Productions

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I walked into the space for this performance as “ABC” by the Jackson 5 played over the sound system, in a bouncy instrumental version deliberately arranged to sound like it came from an  8-bit video game console.  The 8-bit video game-style music enhanced the performance and included various popular songs from Lady Gaga and others.  There was a clever set that resembled a giant Nintendo system that folded out to serve alternately as a couch, two chairs and a bed. This production told a compelling story that follows two childhood friends identified only as Player 1 (Charles Azkenaizer) and Player 2 (Gannon Reedy), who bond over video games, and Super Mario Bros. in particular.  The play follows the two players as they grow up, attend college, and encounter the various challenges of adult life, all the while constantly re-visiting their video game addiction while dealing life issues including religion, romance, jealousy, parenthood, responsibility and mortality. The performances were thoroughly believable and both actors displayed a genuine sense of friendship throughout the challenges presented in the show.  This was a truly heartwarming production that featured moments of real humor as well as some intense drama.

This is a Play

By Daniel MacIvor

Directed by Mark Kelley

R-S Theatrics

Hilarious, spot-on send-up of theatrical conventions, as three actors (Casey Boland, Beth Wickenhauser and Kirsten Wylder) put on an intentionally incomprehensible, derivative play about love, loss and lettuce while narrating their thoughts as actors. This truly hilarious production has a lot of appeal for theatre geeks like me, with its references to the dynamics of the actors’ relationships to each other, the creatives and the material itself, with mentions of such varied figures in performing arts as Tennessee Williams, Uta Hagen and Robert Pattinson. The production is spot-on in dealing with issues of differing acting styles, image and ego, technique, popularity, technical details and all aspects of producing a play. This was a delightful production with excellent comic work from all three players, and anyone who has ever been in a play would especially be able to relate.

I am My Own Militia, or Mea’s Unique Garage Sale

by Joel Henning Doty

Directed by Keaton Treece

JHD Productions

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This thought-provoking, funny, engaging piece about a young girl’s struggles to make sense of modern society made clever use of various interactive elements (props handed out, texting) to enhance the performance and add to the overall atmosphere.  It follows the story of Mea (Sofia Murillo), a teenage girl who feels outcast from society, on her quest to understand her world and figure out which path to follow and who to listen to. Audience members with cell phones were further immersed in the story through the use of text messages sent during the show, ostensibly from characters in the play.  These texts in particular helped advance the story in a compelling way. Slowly, the various characters act as influences on Mea’s life,  the plot develops and you eventually see what’s going on.  It was fascinating to watch and ultimately very moving, with strong performances all around, especially by Murillo, who held the stage admirably, portraying all the character’s conflicting emotions and loneliness, as well as her strong personality, and made the audience genuinely care about her situation.  It felt like a fully integrated 21st century presentation, and I was honored to experience it.

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro

Overall, I would say the Fringe is more than an enjoyable weekend, and even the word “success” seems inadequate.  It’s more than a success. It’s a living, growing, vibrant work-in-progress that celebrates not only the arts, but the revitalization of Midtown St. Louis as well.  I look forward to seeing what’s in store for next year.

For more information about St. Lou Fringe, check out the link to their website in the sidebar of this blog. 

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