Posts Tagged ‘sean belt’

The fall-into-winter theatre season is in full swing in St. Louis. With the Holiday season starting up, and a host of new productions getting ready to open, there’s a feast of options on stage for theatre fans to enjoy. Here are short reviews of three recent productions–one recently closed, but two still running, that all feature strong casting and some clever staging, with two being literary adaptations, and one exploring the inner life of a struggling writer. 

Elektra: Elektra’s Version
Based on the play by Sophocles, translated by Anne Carson
Directed and Designed by Spencer Lawton
November 16, 2023

Maida Dippel (Center, on bed) and Cast
Photo: Critique Theatre Company

Director Spencer Lawton has brought together an enthusiastic cast for a new look at the classic Greek tragedy Electra as filtered through the lens of early 2010’s Tumblr culture and the Marina and the Diamonds Album Electra HeartWith some input from the cast and from local artist/director Lucy Cashion–who is known for these kinds of literary re-imaginings–Lawton’s production is a cleverly staged, well-cast show that provides much to think about, as well as making the most of its space at the fun new venue, Greenfinch Theater and Dive

The venue is great for this staging, providing a blank canvas of sorts on which the artists can present their vision. The cast, led by Maida Dippel as the brooding, vengeful Elektra, is in excellent form, with several of the actors playing more than one role. The ensemble is especially strong and cohesive, including Katie Orr, Victoria Thomas, Miranda Jagels-Félix, Celeste Gardner, Alicen Kramer-Moser, Laurel Button, and Emma Glose, with similarly costumed Ross Rubright and Anthony Kramer-Moser as “The Man Parade”. 

While there’s a lot going on here, and sometimes it could be hard to follow–especially at a point in which most of the cast members are speaking at once–this is a fascinating staging with a lot to think about, especially in terms of the often conflicting messages that society presents to teenage girls. It’s got drama, dark comedy, and lots of attitude, as well as a sense of social critique that seems fitting considering the name of this theatre company. The stylized look of the characters and costumes–influenced by the Electra Heart album–also contributes to the distinctive style of this show. 

It’s a compelling production, and I hope it has a life beyond the one weekend it played at Greenfinch. 

Q Brothers Christmas Carol
Based on the Novella by Charles Dickens
Written by Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, JAX, POS)
Developed with Rick Boynton
Music Composition by JQ
Directed by Q Brother Collective (GQ, JQ, & JAX)
November 24, 2023

Garrett Young, Mo Shipley, Victor Musoni, Maya Vinice Prentiss
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The Q Brothers Collective has had a relationship with St. Louis Shakespeare Festival for a few years now, starting with their hilarious production of Dress the Part in early 2020. The Festival has now brought the Chicago-based company’s lively, hip-hop-influenced Q Brothers Christmas Carol to town in a memorable, eye-catching staging at the National Blues Museum downtown. With an energetic, musical staging featuring DJ Stank (Mel Bady) spinning the tunes, this is an update of a classic that brings a lot of humor, heart, and style.

With a cast of just four actors, this show’s comedy benefits a lot from all the quick changes and the fact that most of the actors are playing multiple characters. With Garrett Young as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, the story plays out essentially as expected, but with many modern twists and jokes. Young is especially effective as Scrooge, making the character’s journey believable, and working well with co-stars Victor Musoni, Mo Shipley, and Maya Vinice Prentiss, who each play a variety of roles, from the various ghosts, to townspeople, to figures from Scrooge’s past, present, and future. It’s a fast-paced show with a memorable musical score and a modern festive spirit. 

It’s also a great-looking show, with excellent costumes by Erika McClellan, scenic design by William Attaway, lighting by Jesse Klug, and sound by Stephen Ptacek. The staging is quick and lively, and the update is decidedly 21st Century, with a tone that I would characterize as PG-13-ish in terms of language and subject matter. It works very well in the space at the Blues Museum, with a themed bar set up for before the show. It’s a good way to start off the holiday season in a theatrical way.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Q Brothers Christmas Carol at the National Blues Museum until December 23. 

Leannán Sidhe
by Deanna Strasse
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2023

Matt Hanify, Tanya Badgley
Photo by David Hawley
First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre’s mission of presenting world premiere productions of shows by Midwestern playwright’s continues, staging Milwaukee-based playwright Deanna Strasser’s play Leannán Sidhe, an intriguing look at the life of an ambitious playwright who, Strasser admits in the program notes, is based on herself. Directed by Sean Belt and featuring a small, effective cast, this is a well-staged production to which I think a lot of artists–and especially writers–may relate, even if they don’t go as far as the main character does in retreating into a fantasy that threatens to take over her life. 

Mya Sraid (Tanya Badgley) is a playwright whose life isn’t exactly going the way she would like it to, considering producers keep wanting her to write farces, and her friends all seem to want to bring her to productions of the same old plays because they know people in the cast and/or crew. Her house is a mess, as her friend Jessica (Amie Bossi) notices when she arrives for an outing to a production of The Music Man that Mya has been dreading, and the audience is made to wonder who that guy in the background is who is doing dishes seemingly without being noticed. After Jessica leaves, we find out that the “background guy” is actually Vincent Thane (Matt Hanify), an actor Mya saw in a recent production and has become obsessed with. Well, this guy isn’t actually Vincent, but an imaginary version of him that Mya has invented to be her fantasy lover and artistic muse. He’s there to be able to dance in the rain (produced at whim by Mya’s imagination) to Etta James’s “At Last” and spout encouraging words to her, admiring the always-full moon out the window and serve as inspiration for Mya’s latest play, which is a drama for once, and not a farce. Soon, though, we find that even the imaginary Vincent is starting to protest, and not behave exactly as Mya would wish, as Mya’s apartment gets messier, and her real-life friends grow concerned.

The staging here is effective, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, as well as props and set decoration by Gwynneth Rasuch and Denise Mandle that lend a sense of realism to the proceedings. There’s also excellent lighting by Michelle Zielinski and sound by Leonard Marshell, bringing the world of Mya’s apartment, and the world inside her mind, to life and aiding the strong performances of the cast, led by Badgley in a relatable performance as Mya, whose descent into fantasy and flirtation with the darker sides of her imagination is believable and compelling. There’s also good support from Hanify as the not-so-perfect dream lover Vincent, and Bossi as the convincingly concerned Jessica. 

This is a show that explores issues that I think a lot of writers and creative people face, as well as looking with a bit of critical eye on “celebrity worship” culture as well as dealing with the subjects of depression and social detachment. It’s an intriguing and promising new work. It’s running for one more weekend, so there’s still a chance to check it out.

First Run Theatre is presenting Leannán Sidhe at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 3, 2023


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Bernice’s 70th Birthday
by Nancy Gall-Clayton
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2022

Tanya Badgley, Deb Dennert
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre has a commendable mission to showcase new plays by regional playwrights. Their latest production, Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton has much going for it, with a well-staged production and good cast. There’s a compelling story here, although perhaps a little too much for one play in terms of subject matter, and not enough in terms of action. 

This is essentially a character study, focusing on the active, upbeat Bernice (Deb Dennert), who is celebrating her 70th birthday, although she balks at being called a “senior”. Bernice is fun-loving a likes to think outside the “box” society seems to want to put her in. She clashes with her middle-aged daughter, Carol (Tanya Badgley) about her life goals and plans for her house and living arrangements. Carol, who has issues of her own with workaholic tendencies and a struggling marriage, encourages Bernice to look into moving into a condo in a retirement community, while Bernice tries to help Carol “loosen up” a bit. Bernice offers marriage advice, but also has her own issues coming to terms with her late husband’s long-ago death and its impact on her family, including estranged son Evan (Tyson Cole), who is much younger than Carol and was a child when his father died. He’s also gay, which Bernice has trouble accepting, and when he turns up after eight years asking lots of personal questions, Bernice is forced to confront several issues in her life that she has previously avoided. The dynamic between Carol and Evan–who have stayed in touch but don’t seem to have much in common–is also explored, as a series of meetings and conversations and meetings on Bernice’s back porch challenge the characters to examine their relationships, decisions, and attitudes toward each other, their loved ones, and their attitudes toward life.

There are a lot of ideas in this play, and many of them have been explored before elsewhere. The structure is fairly laid-back, but the conversations can get intense, to the point at times where it just comes across as a lot of yelling. Also, there might be a little too much here in terms of subject matter for one play, and the characters’ story arcs (especially Carol’s) can seem a little simplistic. There isn’t a lot of action here, and while there have been some great plays that consist mostly of a series of conversations, this one could use a little more focus on what it’s trying to say. Also, I often found myself wishing to see some of the characters who are just talked about–such as Carol’s husband, Evan’s partner, and Bernice’s “yoga friends”. 

The fine cast does a good job making the characters compelling, with Dennert’s Bernice leading the way. Dennert does an excellent job of portraying Bernice’s strengths as well as her flaws, and her attitudes toward both of her children are complex and credible. Cole is also strong as Evan, who longs for answers and a better relationship with his mother, and Badgley does a creditable job with the difficult role of Carol. The scenes between Badgley and Cole are especially well-done, and all three make a believable, if strained, family unit.

The production values are fairly basic, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, fine lighting by Nathan Schroeder and suitable costumes by Tracey Newcomb, working well in the black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center. The play itself could use some editing, but what First Run has presented here portrays this script in a compelling light. It’s not the most lively of birthday celebrations, but it’s a credible family dynamic with a good cast, and there’s a lot to think about here. 

Deb Dennert, Tyson Cole
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Bernice’s 70th Birthday at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 4, 2022

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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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