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Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 9, 2017

Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is back again, producing their remarkably ambitious, dynamic brand of theatre and this time succeeding in transforming a theatrical classic into something that’s at once faithful to the source material and dynamically immediate for today’s audiences. Of Mice and Men, as presented at the Chapel, features a remarkable cast and truly innovative direction, making for a must-see theatrical production.

As far as I can tell, not a word of the actual script has been changed. What has changed, instead, is the subtext, and deliberate casting and directorial choices that make this old story into something new. It’s still the story of migrant farm workers in 1935 California, centering on the small-statured, world-weary George (Adam Flores) and his friend, the larger, much stronger but developmentally challenged and somewhat childlike Lennie (Carl Overly, Jr.). The story follows them as they have left a recent job and are about to start a new one. George is protective of Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength and isn’t aware of the consequences of his actions or of the way he is perceived by others. The new job is on a ranch owned by The Boss (Jack Corey), whose son, Curley (Michael Cassidy Flynn), is highly insecure and suspicious, with a grudge against anyone bigger than him and mistrustful of his new wife (Courtney Bailey Parker). The work crew consists of a disparate group including Candy (Natasha Toro), who is drawn to Lennie and George and wants to help them achieve their dream of getting a place of their own, joining them in living “on the fat of the land”. There’s also the somewhat impulsive Carlson (Shane Signorino), the gossipy Whit (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), the more easygoing Slim (Joe Hanrahan), and stablehand Crooks (Omega Jones), who doesn’t get to share the bunkhouse and is treated with more suspicion than the other workers because he is black. The story plays out as written, as trouble continues to find Lennie and George, and tragedy follows. What’s different about this production, though, is the relationship dynamics brought about by the insightful direction and deliberately non-traditional casting, which works to emphasize the element of secrecy that’s already inherent in the plot.

The casting really does change things up, forcing the viewer to see this well-known story through a new lens. It still works for the time and place, as well. Here, the traditionally white roles of Lennie and George are played by Flores, who is Latino, and Overly, who is black but of lighter complexion than Jones, who plays Crooks and whose character is clearly treated as inferior by his co-workers. Here, a key scene between Lennie and Crooks gains new power as Crooks points out the difference in their situations, also making it clear that Lennie is unaware of the reason for this difference, although Crooks is very aware. There’s also the casting of a Latina woman, Toro, playing the traditionally white male role of Candy, although the clear suggestion, made even more obvious by a scene with Curley’s wife, is that this Candy is a woman living as a man, although few people seem to realize that fact. The relationship dynamics bring a lot to the story, making the sense of alienation and looking for a place to belong even more of a prominent theme than it was already in this story.

The casting is first-rate, with strong, memorable portrayals by all of the players. Overly, as Lennie, gives a truly remarkable performance especially, portraying Lennie’s childlike enthusiasm and a sense of longing that underscores all of his actions, and his affection and rapport with Flores as George is apparent. Flores is also strong in a poignant performance as the determined, weary and protective George. There’s also excellent work from Toro as Candy, Jones as Crooks, who also has a poignant musical moment singing “The House of the Rising Sun” at the beginning of Act 2, accompanied by the production’s musical director, Chris Ware, who is a presence throughout the production, sitting just offstage playing his guitar, supplying the music that underscores this production. There are also strong performances from Flynn as the belligerent Curley, and by Parker as his lonely wife. Corey, Signorino, and Lawson-Maeske lend excellent support, as well. It’s a fully inhabited, real, human world on stage at the Chapel, and the excellent chemistry of the cast adds much to the drama and immediacy of this production.

Also adding to the production is the strong sense of time and place conveyed in the technical elements here. Bess Moynihan’s versatile set and evocative lighting suggests an authentic setting as well as the transience of the characters. Liz Henning’s excellent costumes, Rachel Tibbetts’s props, and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contribute well to the overall mood of the production, as does Chris Ware’s aforementioned striking music and Lawson-Maeske’s fight choreography.

This is the story you may know, but it’s also not. It’s old and it’s new, and it’s profoundly affecting. Of Mice and Men at SATE is another superb, intelligent and challenging production from this continually impressive theatre company.

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Natasha Toro, Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores, Courtney Bailey Parker, Omega Jones Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

 

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Of Mice and Men at the Chapel until November 18, 2017.

 

 

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The Color of August
by Paloma Pedrero
Translated and Adapted by Will Bonfiglio
Editing and Dramaturgy by Miranda Jagels Félix
Directed by Lucy Cashion
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 10, 2017

Ellie Schwetye, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell

SATE Ensemble Theatre

I have made it no secret that SATE is one of my favorite theatre companies in St. Louis. One of the things I like most about them is that they aren’t pretentious, but they are always trying new approaches to theatre. Their latest production, The Color of August, is another example of this theatre company’s simple, matter-of-fact boldness. It’s a difficult play in several ways, but it’s always challenging, and provocative. It’s a short play, running at just about an hour but there’s a lot going on in that hour. The play also serves as an excellent showcase for its stars, Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye.

The casting is actually one of the novel concepts in this production. There are two characters in this show, which takes place in Madrid sometime in the 1990’s. Maria is a successful artist and Laura is her childhood friend who works as a model. The twist at SATE is that both performers have learned both roles, and as they see them as “two sides of the same coin”, they have decided to let a coin-toss from an audience member decide which person play which role at each performance. On the night I saw the show, the coin-toss result was “heads”, which meant Tibbetts played Maria and Schwetye played Laura, as in the picture I have posted below. That’s how I will be reviewing the show, although I wish I had time to see the show again and see the show the other way.

In the story, it’s been eight years since the once-close Maria and Laura have seen one another. The circumstances of their falling-out, as well as the nature of their relationship, gets revealed as the play progresses. There isn’t much else I can say that doesn’t give away too much, and the gradual revelations are an important part of the experience of this play. The real “story”, though, is in the relationship of these two characters. We’re told right away that Maria has an attachment to Laura from the simple fact that all of Maria’s paintings feature Laura in some way or another. From Maria’s attitude, an audience member might be led to believe that the two are still close. Then Laura shows up and we find out things are a lot more complicated than we may think. Their history, their relationship to one another and to a third off-stage character named John, get spelled out in the way these two interact, as well as the passive-aggressive way they communicate, with words, body language, and even paint. The world is well-established by director Lucy Cashion in the brisk, confrontational staging, and by set and lighting designer Bess Moynihan, costume designer Elizabeth Henning, and painters Maggie Genovese and Anne Genovese. It’s a fascinating production, anchored by the powerful, enigmatic performances of Tibbetts and Schwetye.

Tibbetts plays Maria as alternately haughty, possessive, clingy, and jealous. Schwetye’s Laura is weary, mysterious, and sometimes aloof. The interplay between the two characters is occasionally affectionate and occasionally combative, with strong suggestions that their relationship used to be more than “just friends”, and that at least Maria would like it go back to where it was. Both actresses give energetic performances charged with a mixture of anger, affection, desire, and regret. Their on-stage chemistry is strong, and helps keep the momentum of this fascinating but occasionally confusing play.

Overall, I think The Color of August is an intriguing production. It’s a character study  most of all, exploring the dynamics of a particularly complicated relationship. With two excellent performers at its heart, this is a compelling drama that’s definitely worth seeing, at least once and possibly even twice.

 

Ellie Schwetye, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is presenting The Color of August at The Chapel until August 19, 2017.

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Cuddles
by Joseph Wilde
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
November 4, 2106

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

I was expecting an “ordinary” play about vampires. What I got is something more complex than that, and I should have known considering who is staging it. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, the ambitious, always adventurous theatre company that never seems to be afraid of taking risks, is now presenting an unusual and somewhat disturbing play, Cuddles. Although it takes a while to figure out exactly what it’s about, it presents a world that’s at once fantastical and realistic, and not a little unsettling. Marked by SATE’s characteristic strong acting and inventive use of its performance space, Cuddles provides a unique and distinctly memorable theatrical experience.

According to Eve (Rachel Tibbetts), she’s a teenage vampire being brought up by her older sister, Tabby (Ellie Schwetye) after the death of their father. Eve’s world is a world of fairy tales, dragons, princesses, very strict rules, and a seemingly insatiable hunger for blood. Tabby’s world, however, appears to be quite different. While Eve never leaves the small, dark room in which she lives, Tabby carries on a regular job in present-day London, trying to live a “normal” life day by day and returning at night and on weekends to spend time with Eve, who has to be kept hidden from the world because it’s not safe for her to be living in the human world. Eve knows the three things that kill vampires, and one of them is sunlight, so she stays in her dark room and recites the rules to herself while she waits for Tabby to return. The rules, however, may not be as inflexible as Eve had thought, although Eve has grown accustomed to the routine, even though Tabby has begun to bristle against it.  I don’t want to describe too much more about the plot because the discovery process is part of the drama, but lets just say that not everything is as it seems for either of these characters.

The atmosphere here is dark, creepy, and mysterious in an increasingly creepy way.  Tibbetts presents Eve as childlike, determined, and firmly devoted to the rules and the image of the world as she sees it. It’s an impressive, primal sort of performance from Tibbetts, and her sense of attachment to Tabby is clearly conveyed. Schwetye, as Tabby, presents a character who is at once more conventional and more mysterious than Eve, because it’s clear that although Tabby cares for Eve, she yearns for a more normal life, although it’s clear that she has secrets of her own. The dependent relationship of these two is the central characteristic of this play, with all its intensity and increasingly unsettling mystery.  There definitely seem to be metaphorical aspects here, of “monsters” that may or may not be literal but are still real and menacing. This is all extremely well-portrayed by Tibbetts, Schwetye, and director Joe Hanrahan in this compelling, confrontational, sometimes witty and snarky, sometimes intensely dramatic play.

That dark, dank, claustrophobic atmosphere is well achieved in the technical elements of this play. Bess Moynihan’s set effectively portrays the stark, bleak living situation that Eve inhabits. The lighting, also by Moynihan, augments that atmosphere with striking effect. Elizabeth Henning’s costumes do well to highlight the difference between the isolated Eve and the more worldly Tabby, and director Hanrahan’s sound is clear and strong.

Overall, this is more than a play about vampires. True to the format of fairy stories that Eve tells to start the play, this is a play as much about fantasy as is it about reality, and about what happens when fantasy confronts reality and vice versa.  Although the story as it unfolds does seem more and more implausible as it continues, the production here brings the story to life with much immediacy and intense emotion. The situation may be hard to believe, but the characters’ motives are clearly communicated and believably presented. It’s another strong production from SATE.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s production of Cuddles is being presented at the Chapel until November 12, 2016. 

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As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Ellie Schwetye with Original Music by Jason Scroggins and Cast
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
February 5th, 2016

Cara Barresi, Katie Donnelly, Kevin Minor and cast Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cara Barresi, Katie Donnelly, Kevin Minor and cast
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

As You Like It is my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s funny, it’s romantic, it’s silly, it’s occasionally bawdy, and it’s extremely versatile. There’s so much that can be done with this show depending on the director’s vision. Now, one of St. Louis’s most inventive theatre companies, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, has taken the Bard’s work and given it a 1920’s Ozarks settting, a memorable bluegrass soundtrack, and an excellent, enthusiastic cast.

This is Shakespeare’s story, but it’s been a little bit streamlined and the setting updated and musicalized. Some traditionally male roles are played by women, and as women. The angry Duke Frederick and her kinder sibling Duke Senior are played as women (still called “Duke”) by one actress, Rachel Tibbetts, and the clown Touchstone (Tonya Darabcsek) and the surly forest wanderer Jaques (Rachel Hanks) are also women, among others. The story of Rosalind (Cara Barresi) and her cousin Celia’s (Katie Donnelly) flight to the forest of Arden, and Rosalind’s disguising herself as a man and entering into a teasing mock courtship with her beloved Orlando (Kevin Minor) is here, as is the story of the lovesick Silvius (Chris Ware) and the disdainful shepherdess Phebe (Mollie Amburgey). There’s also Orlando’s initially mean older brother Oliver (Will Bonfiglio), who follows his brother into the forest and a multitude of romances–both likely and unlikely–ensues.

The adaptation by director Ellie Schwetye and the musical score by Jason Scroggins, who also appears in the play as a forester and musician, is tuneful and fast-moving. In addition to the songs already included in the play, some of the more familiar spoken passages have been set to music, such as Jaques’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech and some of Orlando’s letters to Rosalind.  The actors get their moments to sing, and often play their own instruments as well. In fact, during the Arden sequences, the ensemble members often assemble in a circle onstage to play and sing.  It’s mostly bluegrass and folk styled music, including a few old standards such as “Froggy Went a’Courtin'” in addition to the Shakespearean material. And it’s all extremely well-sung, with Donnelly, Hanks, Barresi, Tibbetts, Bonfiglio and others all getting memorable solos.

The cast has been downsized, with a a few actors playing two roles, and there are strong performances all around. Barresi and Donnelly make an excellent team as cousins and best friends Rosalind and Celia. Barresi is an impulsive, lovestruck Rosalind who takes on a notable swagger in her disguise as Ganymede, and her banter with Minor’s earnest, charming Orlando is amusing.  Donnelly is a sweet but feisty, determined Celia, memorable in her scenes with Barresi and with Bonfiglio as a convincing Oliver. Bonfiglio also displays excellent comic skills in another role as shepherd Corin. Other standouts include Hanks as a particularly surly, hucksterish Jaques as well as the wrestler Charles; and Darabscek as the witty Touchstone, who engages in a sweetly goofy courtship with flighty forest-dweller Audrey (Alyssa Ward). Ware is also excellent as the besotted Silvius, playing songs on his guitar and pursuing Amburgey’s gleefully scornful Phebe with determination. Tibbetts in her dual role as both Dukes is convincingly authoritative, whether it’s in a dictatorial fashion as Frederick or as the more kindly Senior. It’s a cohesive cast that works together well, communicating the play’s sense of humor, whimsy and romance with style and tuneful flair.

The setting is established well in the technical elements of the show. The small stage at the Chapel is believably transformed in a 1920’s Ozarks Forest of Arden, with a simple but effective set by Schwetye and Bess Moynihan. Moynihan’s lighting also helps to maintain the generally festive mood, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are delightfully colorful and detailed, representing a variety of styles from the period and fitting the characters well.

This is Shakespeare in the Ozarks with music, and it’s marvelous. A strong cast, a great score, and lots of energy and heart highlight this joyful, witty production. It’s As You Like It as you’ve probably never heard it before, and it’s a real treat.

Cast of As You LIke It Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cast of As You LIke It
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE’s production of As You Like it is running at the Chapel until February 13, 2016.

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan, from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Kirsten Wylder
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
November 7, 2015

 

Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left) Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left)
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps is the most famous of several filmed adaptations of John Buchan’s 1915 novel. Patrick Barlow’s stage adaption takes both versions, condenses the story, streamlines the cast, and ramps up the comedy in an inventively staged piece that has been performed in London, on Broadway, and in various regional theatres before being taken on by the always adventurous Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Performing in a cleverly arranged production at the Chapel, SATE’s production is characterized by the sense of enthusiasm and excellence for which this company is known.

Telling the story of Richard Hannay (Pete Winfrey), a Londoner who becomes a reluctant participant in an espionage plot. When a mysterious woman (Rachel Tibbetts) who claims to be a secret agent is unexpectedly murdered, Hannay finds himself accused and goes on the run to not only clear his name, but also to stop a nefarious plot that threatens national security. His journey takes him to rural Scotland, where he encounters a variety of characters, including a woman named Pamela (also Tibbetts) who is unwillingly drawn into the adventure, with a lot of twists, turns, and surprises along the way.

The film, and the book on which it is based, are more focused on the suspense and adventure elements, but this adaptation is more of an exaggerated comedy, staged with only four performers. Winfrey, as the hapless Hannay, is the only performer who plays one role throughout. Tibbetts plays three different women with significant roles in Hannay’s story–the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, the suspicious Pamela, and a young Scottish farmer’s wife named Margaret, who helps Hannay despite the objections of her much older, jealous husband. Carl Overly, Jr. and Ellie Schwetye, billed as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2” in the program, play all the other roles in the play, trying on a range of accents and mannerisms in service to the story. All four performers are excellent, with Winfrey and Tibbetts displaying strong chemistry, Tibbetts getting to show off three distinct accents from the exaggerated German (Annabella) and Scottish (Margaret) to Pamela’s upper-class English. Overly and Schwetye are commendably versatile and energetic as the clowns, showing excellent comic timing and strong characterization in several roles each, such as the aforementioned jealous husband, a small hotel owner, and a celebrated theatre performer with a remarkable memory for Overly; and a Scottish innkeeper’s wife and assistant, a villainous spy, and various other roles for Schwetye. These four gifted performers work well to maintain the energy, suspense, and most of all the comedy of this production, with entertaining results.

The staging makes excellent use of the Chapel performance space, setting up three primary performance areas including an old-fashioned Music Hall-styled stage as well as two smaller areas to represent various locations on Hannay’s journey.  The sense of movement is well-maintained, with trips in trains, cars, and on foot contributing to the fast-moving atmosphere of the production. The set, designed by Scott De Broux, is inventive and versatile, and the costumes by Elizabeth Henning range from the historically appropriate to the more whimsical, as is fitting with the overall tone of the production. Erik Kuhn’s lighting and Schwetye’s sound also contribute well to atmosphere of this well-staged production.

I saw this show a few years ago at the Rep, and I enjoyed it, but it’s great to see what an innovative smaller theatre company like SATE is able to do with a show like this. As is usual for this company, SATE delivers a well thought-out, superbly acted and highly entertaining production. It’s definitely one to see before it closes this weekend.

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE’s production of The 39 Steps runs at the Chapel until November 14th, 2015.

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One Flea Spare
by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
August 19, 2015

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE

I’m continually amazed at how much a small theatre company is able to create with limited resources and a whole lot of energy and creativity. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has been one of the more impressive smaller theatre companies in St. Louis, and I’ve never seen a sub-par production from them. In their latest production, the historical drama One Flea Spare, the SATE team uses their usual performance space at The Chapel to its fullest potential, presenting an intense, disturbing and remarkable production that’s sure to keep audiences thinking.

The subject matter for this play is difficult, as it’s set in London during the height of the Black Plague in 1665.  A wealthy couple, William Snelgrave (Joe Hanrahan) and his wife, Darcy (Kelley Weber) are the only survivors of their household and are about to be released from a month-long quartantine when the arrival of two uninvited guests causes the local guard, Kabe (Andrew Kuhlman) to prolong their confinement.  The two new arrivals, the young, mysterious Morse (Hannah Ryan) and the destitute sailor Bunce (Charlie Barron) upset the balance in the household and force the Snelgraves to take a closer look at their own identities and actions, as well as those of their new companions in light of the horrific tragedy that is engulfing their city.

The set is stark and simple, designed by Bess Moynihan and director Ellie Schwetye. The basic wooden platform suggests the floor of the main room in the Snelgraves’ house. In the intimate atmosphere of the Chapel, this basic set is remarkably effective at bringing the audience into these characters’ world. The brilliantly striking lighting, also designed by Moynihan, adds to the atmosphere of play, and Elizabeth Henning’s extremely detailed period specific costumes help to further set the scene and mood. All of these technical aspects work together to augment the heightening drama of this memorable, expertly written and staged play.

The drama here is in the conflict between the characters, and also their relationship with the increasingly gruesome outside world, with the realities of the plague and the presence of death in every street made all the more horrifying because it’s not directly shown. Instead, we see the characters’ reaction to their situation, and to each other. We see the initially genteel Snelgrave reveal more of his true character, along with his increasingly emboldened wife, the suspicious and desperate but concerned Bunce, and the deceptively childlike Morse, who serves as the play’s primary viewpoint character and shows that she’s a lot more clever than she initially may seem. As these four disparate characters get to know one another, and clash and conspire in various ways, they’re watched over by the looming presence of Kabe, the guard who has been put in the situation of holding the power over people who would normally have been considered his superiors in that society. It’s a rich, fascinating and occasionally highly unsettling character study, revealing how dire situations and close quarters can bring out all aspects, including the very worst, of human nature.

The cast here is universally superb.  As the play’s central character, the young and resourceful Morse, high school junior Ryan is a real find.  She brings a determined, sympathetic and mysterious quality to the character, as well as demonstrating a fine singing voice in snippets of traditional folk songs that she sings at various moments. She presents a complex portrait of this character we get to know gradually throughout the production, in her compelling stories as well as in how she relates to the other characters. Kuhlman is also a standout at the superstitious, ubiquitous Kabe, displaying a strong stage presence and a thoroughly convincing Cockney accent. An unusual relationship develops between Bunce and the long-neglected Darcy Snelgrave, which is portrayed convincingly by Barron and Weber, conveying both characters’ regrets and losses with poignancy. As Snelgrave, Hanrahan does an excellent job of portraying the outwardly polite character–and his recurring mantra “I’m not a cruel man”–and the gradual revealing of his true character.  All of these characters are nuanced and flawed, and each of the cast members portrays all of these aspects with supreme authenticity.

This is a dark play, no question.  It delves into a much written-about subject in a particularly personal way, letting us see what happens when people of different backgrounds are thrown together, but also what happens to society when such a major upheaval as a coutnry-wide epidemic takes place. SATE has brought this play to the stage with incredible skill and sensitivity. It’s another dramatic triumph for this company.

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE presents One Flea Spare at The Chapel (Skinker Blvd. and Alexander Dr.) until August 29th, 2015

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Or,
by Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
February 19, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Nicole Angeli, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, one of the more daring theatre companies in St. Louis, has begun a new season with the them of “Mistaken Identity”. The first offering in this vein is Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which explores incidents in the life of an unconventional woman in 17th Century England, as well as her famous and infamous friends.  It explores issues of identity and social acceptability, as well as artistic expression and women’s roles in society.  As usual for SATE, it’s an intriguing and very well put-together production, with a striking visual presentation and a sharp sense of comedy.

The central figure here is Aphra Behn (Rachel Tibbetts), a Restoration-era writer and onetime spy.  As one of England’s first female professional playwrights, Behn is working on a manuscript and trying to find a producer. As Behn reflects on her life and interacts with notable and memorable figures of the day, as well as important people from her past, various historical figures, business contacts, as well as lovers of both sexes–past, and present. John Wolbers and Nicole Angeli both play more than one role, with Wolbers as both King Charles II and Behn’s former colleague in espionage, and former lover, William Scot. Angeli plays Behn’s saucy maid Maria, as well as the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, who becomes lover to both Aphra and the King.  In a unique twist, there’s another role in the play that’s alternated between two of the performers, and to determine who plays it on a given night, names are drawn out of a bowl.

This is a fast-paced, bawdy production that needs to be perfectly timed with all the quick costume and character changes.  The cast members perform with wit, energy, and utmost precision as they carry out the intricacies of the somewhat convoluted plot.  Still, while there’s a lot going on, it’s finely tuned and well-staged by director Ellie Schwetye. Tibbetts, as Behn, has perhaps the simplest job, since she only plays one character and she is onstage for most of the play, and she performs it amiably.  Angeli plays both the brash Nell and the crass Maria–as well as the “mystery role” on the night I saw it–with verve and gusto. The third cast member, Wolbers, does an excellent job of playing two very distinct characters, the grandiose and swaggering Charles, and the suspicious, anxious William. Ensemble chemistry is essential in a show like this, and all three players work extremely well together. Angeli and Wolbers are especially memorable in their scenes together as Nell and Charles.

The set is simple, as designed by Bess Moynihan to spell out the title of the play in giant letters and also provide wing space for the actors’ quick changes. Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are bold, colorful and appropriately outlandish.  It’s a small stage at the Chapel, where SATE stages most of its performances, and that familiarity has helped since they have learned to make the most of the limited space.

This is not a play for all audiences, as it’s full of crass humor and suggestive situations, although it’s hilariously entertaining for adult audiences.  It’s something of a slight plot, with a lot of action but not as much substance as it could have, but SATE has staged it well. Or, with its questions of identity and creative expression, as well as its over-the-top and meticulously executed comedy, provides for a fun, occasionally shocking, but overall entertaining evening of theatre.

John Wolbers, Nicole Angeli Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography SATE

John Wolbers, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
SATE

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