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Into the Breeches!
by George Brant
Directed by Nancy Bell
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
November 1, 2018

Kari Ely, Katy Keating, Jacqueline Thompson, Mary McNulty, Michelle Hand
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is branching out. Known for years for its free mainstage productions in Forest Park as well as a few other projects like Shake 38 and Shakespeare in the Streets, the Festival is now adding another program to their schedule. The “In the Works” festival highlights more modern works based on Shakespeare by contemporary playwrights, including a headline show at the Grandel Theatre. This year’s headliner is called Into the Breeches! and it’s delightful. Featuring a first-rate cast of mostly local St. Louis performers, the show looks back at a pivotal time in American history, as well as celebrating Shakespeare, women in the arts, inclusion, and most of all, a real sense of love for the theatre.

The story takes place in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. With so many men overseas fighting in the war, women have been enlisted to hold down the fort at home. At the Oberon Theatre, a respected Shakespearean playhouse, its director Andrew Dalton and many of its actors have been enlisted in the military, so the board of directors is contemplating canceling the upcoming season. The director’s wife, Maggie Dalton (Michelle Hand), has other ideas, however, and she approaches the Oberon’s celebrated leading lady Celeste Fielding (Kari Ely) with an unusual idea–why not keep the season going, and go ahead with producing the planned production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), but with a cast of women? After a bit of convincing, the board’s somewhat obtuse chairman Ellsworth Snow (Gary Wayne Barker) agrees, and his wife Winnifred (Katy Keating) signs up to participate. Then, casting needs to happen, as Maggie works with stage manager Stuart (Ben Nordstrom) and seamstress and costumer Ida (Jacqueline Thompson) to prepare for the play, eventually casting two young women whose husbands are serving overseas–the enthusiastic June (Mary McNulty), and the more reticent but highly talented Grace (Laura Resinger). As rehearsal proceeds, Maggie and company encounter various obstacles and conundrums, such as dealing with various societal restrictions, biases and prejudices, as well as efforts to keep up morale during the war as most of the women have husbands who are serving. There’s also the issue of long-time “star” Celeste, who is facing the reality of aging out of some of her most beloved roles, and Maggie’s efforts to find her own voice as a director rather than living in the shadow of her well-respected husband. Some of the more specific plot points are better to find out as the play goes along, but it’s an excellent look at challenging widely accepted conventions and injustices of the time while also providing a window into life in the 1940s in terms of sights, sounds, cultural references, and styles.

The advertising is billing this show as “A League of Their Own meets Henry V“, and I think that’s an apt comparison, because in addition to its World War II-era setting, one of the things that characterized the film A League of Their Own was its clear affection for its subject matter, which in that case was baseball. In Into the Breeches! the subject is theatre, and the affection is on clear display. It provides a look at the inner workings of a theatre in the 1940s, as well as an examination of themes from Shakespeare as applied to the situations in the story, and how the company eventually uses those applications in their production. It’s also a nice touch that playwright George Brant’s script–which has been produced before in other cities–has been adapted slightly to adjust the setting to St. Louis. The setting makes the story even more immediate.

Speaking of setting, the production values here are superb. Margery and Peter Spack have designed a set that works as something of a time machine, re-creating the backstage of a 1940s theatre in exquisite detail. Michelle Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellently detailed and authentic to the era. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Joe Clapper and impressive sound design by Rusty Wandall, taking the audience back to the 1940s with clarity and charm.

There’s a wonderful cast here, too, led by the ideally cast Hand as Maggie, bringing an air of determination and authority as well as vulnerability to her role. Ely is also a marvel as Celeste, hamming it up when appropriate but also portraying a credible sense of the consummate actress and a degree of insecurity about the passage of time. There are also excellent performances from Keating, believably playing older as the enthusiastic Winnifred; Resinger as the initially fearful but determined, talented Grace; McNulty as the energetic June; Thompson as the resourceful, also determined Ida; Nordstrom, who has some excellent comic moments as Stuart, who finds delight in his new role; and Barker, who lends his support as the stubborn, set-in-his ways but ultimately persuadable Ellsworth. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and a real sense of rapport develops among them that adds to the overall momentum of the play, to the point where, when the show eventually ends, I wish it could continue, to spend just a little more time with these characters and witnessing what they have created.

Into the Breeches! is an intelligent, funny, sometimes poignant play that makes excellent use of its time, place, and Shakespearean source material. It’s about challenging conventions, pushing boundaries, forming bonds of friendship and family, and an unmistakable love of the theatrical. In fact, I could easily see this show being adapted as a film. If the playwright isn’t exploring that possibility already, he should. I think it could work. It’s also a wonderful way to kick off a new chapter for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and it makes me even more eager to see what’s ahead for the “In the Works” series.

Michelle Hand, Laura Resinger, Kari Ely
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Into the Breeches! at the Grandel Theatre until November 18, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blow, Winds
Written by Nancy Bell, Music and Lyrics by Lamar Harris, Additonal Material by Mariah L. Richardson
Directed by Tom Martin
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Shakespeare In the Streets
June 16, 2018

Reginald Pierre, Erika Flowers Roberts, Joneal Joplin, Adam Flores, Michelle Hand
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

 

Shakespeare in the Streets is back again, after a postponement, with an important, challenging message for St. Louis. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Blow, Winds departs from previous SITS productions–which each featured a particular neighbhorhood–and focuses on the St. Louis metro area as a whole. In many ways, this production–presented on the steps of the Central Library downtown–is the most polished of the SITS productions, as well as the most visually spectacular and the most directly challenging to the “status quo” of the St. Louis area.

Blow, Winds was originally scheduled to be performed in September 2017, but was canceled due to unrest following the verdict for police officer Jason Stockley, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, and subsequently and controversially acquitted. The original program for the scheduled production is included in the program for the 2018 presentation, in fact. The 2018 version, however, isn’t the same production as was previously planned. Now it’s been revised, with additions by SFSTL Playwriting Fellow Mariah L. Richardson, to more accurately reflect the state of St. Louis after, and because of, that controversial and troubling verdict. Based on King Lear but modified to reflect modern-day St. Louis, the show also makes a tonal change from the straight tragedy of Lear to a more comedy-drama approach, certainly with tragic elements but with a more hopeful twist at the end. The Shakespeare characters have also been modified, with some composite characters representing two or more original Lear characters, and one instance where one original character has been split into two. Also, as musical as the previous SITS efforts have been, this one is even more so, with an original score by music director Lamar Harris and significant contributions from the Central Baptist Church Choir, the Genisis Jazz Project, and the Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

In this story, King Lear becomes King Louis (Joneal Joplin), an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom–the St. Louis metro area west of the Mississippi River, represented by a large map hanging up on the face of the Central Library building–among his four children, his daughters Goneril, (Jeanitta Perkins), Regan (Katy Keating), and Cordelia (Erika Flowers Roberts) and his “illegitimate” son Edmund (Reginald Pierre). While Regan and Goneril are focused on their own advancement and flatter their father insincerely, Cordelia refuses to flatter and asks only for justice, and is banished from St. Louis while her greedy sisters are rewarded, and Edmund is given the “less desirable” North section of the map and essentially exiled there by his father. Cordelia flees to the Kingdom of Illinois, welcomed by its king (Jaz Tucker), who gladly marries her and supports her cause. Also exiled is the king’s faithful counselor Kent (Michelle Hand), who criticizes his treatment of Cordelia and Edmund. Through the course of the play, Louis slowly but definitively learns the error of his ways, as the shallowness of his elder daughters and the truth of Cordelia’s and Edmund’s causes is brought to light for him. All the while, the action is narrated by the Fool (Adam Flores), who serves as something of a Greek Chorus and occasional translator of the Shakespearean language into more modern speech. The Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team also contribute memorably to the production, with the dance and movement elements among the highlights of the production.

The technical elements here are the strongest and most striking yet for a SITS production. The distinctive Central Library building makes an ideal backrop for the action, aided by some truly stunning projections by scenic designers Marjery and Peter Spack, as well as excellent lighting by John Wylie and memorable costumes by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek. The steps make an ideal stage, setting off the performance well, and the cast is excellent, led by Flores as a particularly earnest Fool, Joplin as the conflicted and self-deceived King Louis, Perkins and Keating as the unapologetically greedy sisters Goneril and Regan, Hand as the devoted Kent, Pierre as the rejected but determined Edmund, and Roberts as the also determined, justice-minded Cordelia. They are supported by an excellent ensemble, as well, including the truly impressive performances from the aforementioned Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

The story is compelling and challenging, adapting the Lear story to focus on St. Louis in some specific, sometimes funny and often serious ways, with references to the oft-asked “high school” question as well as neighborhood and city landmarks, as well as serious questions about the need for racial and economic justice and equality in the area. Occasionally there are tendencies to “tell” rather than “show” in terms of the play’s message, but overall, this is an important work, showcasing the strengths of the Shakespeare In the Streets concept. There were only two performances of this production, and I’m glad I was able to see one of them. It’s a remarkable production.

Cast of Blow, Winds
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elena Araoz
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 1, 2018

Sigrid Wise, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is how timeless and adaptable the plays are. No matter what the setting, whether traditionally staged or modern dress, the plays still speak to modern times in terms of universal themes such as love, jealousy, family, friendships, and more. Sometimes, though, the staging of a play can set these themes in a way that’s more immediately accessible to modern audiences who may not be as famliar with more traditional stagings.  St Louis Shakespeare’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of that kind of modern immediacy. With a strong sense of theme, a quick pace, and particularly modern phrasing, this production brings the classic story to life in a way that’s especially likely to resonate with today’s audience.

The familiar story of star-crossed lovers is here, presented on a colorful, scaffolding-and-neon decorated set designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The brightly colored costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature elements of various times, from modern day, to the 1970s and 80s, to Elizabethan times. The men wear swords, but also occasionally sport modern-style backpacks or carry an 80s-era boombox. Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and his friends Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler) and Benvolio (Antonio Rodriguez) are dressed in more “today” clothes, while Romeo’s parents, Lord and Lady Montague (David Heron, Patrice Foster) are more 70s-styled, while Lord and Lady Capulet (Michael James Reed, Cherie Corrine Rice) are in more of a modern upper class style, and Juliet (Sigrid Wise) is in vaguely modern styles that can’t really be tied to a specific decade, and the Nurse (Jane Paradise) is outfitted in more generally traditional garb, as is Friar Lawrence (Gary Glasgow); and the Prince (Pete Winfrey, who also plays Paris) is decidedly more Elizabethan. It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but possibly because of the color scheme and the vaguely but not specifically modern set, it’s all more or less cohesive.  The tone-shift inherent in this play, from comedy in the first half to tragedy in the second, is maintained here, with the early scenes given a sort of ominous underscoring by the excellent Dust Ensemble, who provided a musical score for the production that lends much to the overall atmosphere, style, and drama of the production, along with Rusty Wandall’s sound design and John Wylie’s bold lighting design.

One notable difference from other productions of this play that I’ve scene is the way the language is delivered. Shakespeare’s dialogue has not been altered, but the way the characters speak it has been given a more directly modern cadence and approach, so that the youth of the title characters and their peers is highlighted all the more, as is the boldness and confrontational tone of much of the proceedings. The words and fast-paced direction blend well with the musical score to heighten the emotions of key moments. The cast is excellent, as well, with Piniella’s impulsive Romeo and Wise’s sheltered, curious Juliet well-matched, bringing a chemistry to their interactions that is easy to believe. There are also standout performances from Wheeler as a particularly brash Mercutio, Dakota Granados as the confrontational Tybalt, Paradise as the devoted, doting Nurse, Glasgow as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence, and Patrick Blindauer in three distinct roles. The Montagues and Capulets are well-paired, as well, and performances are strong and cohesive across the board.

As excellent as this production is, I have one quibble with the overall Festival set-up this year. The general layout of the space at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen has been changed around significantly, with the Green Show stage, refreshment stands, and other areas moved from where they have been for the past several years. For the most part, this works, except for the woefully inadequate restroom facilities that have been reduced in number and moved much further away from where they used to be. I imagine this could cause difficulties with crowds during intermission. I hope the Festival fixes this situation in future years.

As for the play itself, the overall impression of this production is a fresh, bold approach to the material that brings out the youthfulness of the protagonists and the seriousness of their story. Although much of the styling here in from previous decades, tonally this is a Romeo and Juliet for today, directed in a way that makes the action and relationships immediate and relatable.  It’s another excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s work from SFSTL.

Reynaldo Piniella, Sigrid Wise
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Romeo and Juliet in Forest Park until June 24, 2018.

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The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 2, 2017

Chauncy Thomas, Cherie Corinne Rice (Left), Charles Pasternak (Right) and cast of The Winter’s Tale
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

It’s time to return to Forest Park again, for the latest production from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the show is The Winter’s Tale,  the Bard’s somewhat mysterious tragedy/comedy/mystery/romance, and it’s in good hands, with veteran director Bruce Longworth, a strong cast, and stunning production values which contribute to a fascinating dramatic journey in SFSTL’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is an unusual play, and one of Shakespeare’s more controversial considering the major tone shift that happens in the middle, and the inexplicable actions of some of the characters. It’s a fascinating story especially when staged well, and it is here. The Winter’s Tale starts out somewhat light-heartedly but then plunges quickly into the drama, and then into tragedy, before transforming itself again into more of a comic romance with a somewhat mysterious ending. The “tale” follows Leontes (Charles Pasternak), the king of Sicilia, who is happily married to Hermione (Cherie Corinne Rice), who is expecting their second child. When their friend, Polixenes King of Bohemia (Chauncy Thomas) wants to cut short his visit and Hermione convinces him to stay, Leontes’ is suddenly plagued by irrational, raging jealousy, convinced that his wife has betrayed him and that her unborn child was fathered by his friend. This leads to a chain of events that involves murder plots, self-exile, accusations, and death. Then there’s the intermission, and we come back to a pastoral romantic comedy sixteen years later as Leontes’ exiled daughter Perdita (Cassia Thompson), who has been raised by a bumbling Shepherd (Whit Reichert) and his even more bumbling son (Antonio Rodriguez), is romanced by Polixenes’s son Florizel (Pete Winfrey), who hasn’t told Perdita who he is, nor has he told his father who he’s romancing.  At first, it isn’t entirely clear how the two sections of the play will be tied together, but eventually they are, in a grand, fantastical fashion orchestrated by Hermione’s wise, protective gentlewoman Paulina (Rachel Christopher).

This is a fascinating play, and the tone-shift is part of what makes it so interesting. The blend of tragedy, comedy, and romance is somewhat jarring, but this production makes the most of it. The music by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle contributes a great deal to the mood, with a more classical chamber-music type vibe in Sicilia and more folky, rustic air in Bohemia. The look of production is striking, as well, with richly detailed costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis that seem to be in a late-18th, early-19th Century style. Scott C. Neale’s versatile unit set shifts well from setting to setting, and there are some excellent effects from lighting designer John Wylie and sound designer Rusty Wandall. The overall pacing is brisk without being too hurried, and all the right tonal notes are met, from the poignant to the jarring to the whimsical.

The casting here, as usual for SFSTL, is strong, and features some welcome returning players, including the excellent Pasternak as the jealous Leontes, whose journey from irrational rage to contrition is made credible. Rice is also strong as the wronged Hermione, and there is excellent work from all of the key players, including Winfrey and Thompson, who display a sweet chemistry as the lovers Florizel and Perdita. There’s good comic work from Reichert and Rodriguez as the Shepherd and his son, and a wonderful comic turn by Gary Glasgow as the scheming, opportunistic con artist, Autolycus. Thompson as Polixenes and Anderson Matthews as the loyal courtier Camillo also give strong performances, as does Michael James Reed as the earnest Antigonus, Paulina’s husband and the unfortunate victim of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction (“Exit, pursued by a bear”). Christopher, as Paulina, is a real standout in a strong, powerful performance as the protective, somewhat mysterious Paulina. There’s also a strong ensemble lending excellent support to the principal cast.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is one of the highlights of June in St. Louis. Free Shakespeare done with such expertise and style is always a treat, and The Winter’s Tale is another prime example of this company’s excellence. It’s a thoughtful, engaging, superbly staged and performed production, and I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to next year in the Glen as well, when SFSTL will present the Bard’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

 

Pete Winfrey, Whit Reichert, Cassia Thompson
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting The Winter’s Tale in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 25, 2017

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rick Dildine
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

June 3, 2016

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is back with free Shakespeare in Forest Park, with a production that makes the most of the outdoor location and atmosphere. A Midsummer Night’s Dream as directed by the festival’s Executive Director Rick Dildine, emphasizes music and physicality. The production has a whimsical, earthy tone that’s augmented by a liberal use of music and a top-notch, extremely energetic cast.

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot is a familiar one to many viewers. It’s somewhat convoluted, and all the intersecting subplots provide the basis for much of the humor. The wedding of Duke Theseus (Paul Cereghino) and Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Jacqueline Thompson) provides the initial setting, and the plot moves forward from there, ranging in setting from the Athenian court to the surrounding forest, eventually involving an amateur acting troupe made up of local craftsmen and the fairies who inhabit the forest, led by King Oberon (Timothy Carter) and Queen Titania (Nancy Anderson), whose relationship is both flirtatious and contentious. Their sparring leads to much mayhem involving the mischievous Puck (Austin G. Jacobs and Ryan A. Jacobs), who carries out Oberon’s wishes as well as indulging in his own humorous whims. These actions lead to mix-ups in the romantic entanglements of four young Athenians as well as weaver Bottom (Stephen Pilkington), who becomes involved with Titania herself in a delightfully ridiculous plot twist.

This production’s emphasis on physical comedy is especially successful in the plot involving the young lovers Hermia (Cassia Thompson) and Lysander (Justin Blanchard), who want to marry despite the wishes of Hermia’s father Egeus (Whit Reichert), who orders her to marry Demetrius (Pete Winfrey), whose affection for Hermia is not returned. It’s Hermia’s childhood friend Helena (Rachel Christopher) who loves Demetrius although he doesn’t care for her, until Puck and a magical plant become involved, mixing up the affections of the men and causing further confusion for the women. All four performers give energetic, hilarious performances, with Christopher’s determined and perpetually rejected Helena being the standout. Kudos also to fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt for some truly marvelous physical moments.

The double-casting of Puck is an interesting choice, combined with director Rick Dildine’s inventive staging to make the character seem to appear and disappear in various places on stage with seemingly miraculous speed. Both actors give charming, impish performances. Other standouts in the cast include Carter’s bombastic Oberon, Anderson’s quirky and assertive Titania, and Pilkington’s delightfully hammy Bottom. It’s a strong, extremely cohesive cast overall, without a weak link, making the most of the comedic elements of the story. The “Pyramus and Thisby” play-within-a-play is riotously funny, as well–with all of the players (Michael Propster as Peter Quince, Jay Stalder as Francis Flute, Jerry Vogel as Robin Starveling, Reginald Pierre as Tom Snout, and Alan Knoll as Snug) contributing to the hilarity. This performance is a real highlight of this production. There’s also an excellent use of music, played on stage by the actors, including original songs by Peter Mark Kendall and some additional folk-style songs that have been added to the production.

The overall whimsical air of the production is augmented by Scott C. Neale’s colorful multi-level set, featuring a series of doors from which the players emerge at various times, particularly serving as a vehicle for Puck’s appearances. The costumes, by Dottie Marshal Englis, represent various styles mostly with an early 20th Century air,  and John Wylie’s lighting adds to the overall fantastical atmosphere of the production.

This staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of style, energy, and a great deal of fun. It’s the second production of this show for the festival, but their first was before I moved to St. Louis. From what I can see here, the second time is definitely a charm.

Cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 26, 2016.

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Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Donahue
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 22, 2015

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis 

It’s one of my favorite times of the year in St. Louis again.  That’s the time for free Shakespeare in Forest Park, where top-notch local and national performers and technicians put on a production in front of thousands in the green fields of Shakespeare Glen, brought to us by the excellent team behind Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the set looks like an abstract art piece, the costumes are richly detailed, the the performances strong and memorable as the the Festival takes on the Bard’s historical tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

I had read  Antony and Cleopatra back in college and had seen the old BBC filmed version of it, but it had been a long time since I last saw this play. It’s somewhat surprising seeing it after all this time, as the story plays out as a bit of a melodrama, and, at least in this production, the leads come across as a pair of self-obsessed, hyper-hormonal teenagers.  They’re both obviously older than that, but this has an air of “high school” about it, as Marc Antony (Jay Stratton) petulantly defies his fellow Roman leaders Octavius (Charles Pasternak) and Lepidus (Gary Glasgow) so he can hang out in Egypt with his paramour Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Cleopatra then gets jealous when Antony’s wife dies and he has to go back to Rome and make a political marriage with Octavius’s sister, Octavia (Raina K. Houston). Cleopatra is entertained at her own court by her handmaidens Charmian (Kari Ely) and Ira (also Houston), and the droll eunuch Mardian (Alan Knoll), while Antony gets involved in a sea battle that Cleopatra’s navy runs (or sails) away from. Then Antony gets mad at Cleopatra, but they kiss and make up.  Then there’s more intrigue involving Antony’s various followers and another failed sea battle, whereupon the tragedy happens, involving botched suicide attempts, swords and the infamous poisonous snakes and one of my favorite Shakespearean stage directions (Cleopatra “applies an asp”).

This show plays out as much lighter than I had remembered, with a few strong dramatic elements to keep it grounded.  The cast here, made up of some excellent out-of-town and local performers, is mostly first-rate.  Babb–as the vain  and impetuous Cleopatra–and Pasternak–as the more mature, imperially commanding Octavius–are the biggest standouts.  Both possess the regal bearing, strong stage presence and rich, resonant voices required for their roles, and they play them with style and substance.  Babb’s best moments are with Ely and Houston as her handmaidens, and her chemistry with Stratton’s indecisive Antony is good.  Pasternak, who was so dynamic as Hotspur in last year’s Henry IV, makes a memorable return here as the very much in control Octavius. There are also memorable performances from Ely as the loyal Charmian, Conan McCarty as Antony’s conflicted follower Enobarbus, Houston as both Iras and Octavia, and Knoll as Mardian. It’s a well-cast ensemble all around, with a great deal of energy and command of Shakespeare’s language.

Technically, this show is top-notch as well. The set, designed by Scott C. Neale,  is more modern in style, with an abstract suggestion of ancient classical columns coated in shiny, iridescent gold foil. The richly appointed costumes by Dottie Marshall Inglis are more literally classical, with some modern touches like trousers and boots for Cleopatra in her war scenes. The colors–rich reds, purples and blues, along with the ubiquitous gold trim–are vibrant and fittingly regal. There’s also striking lighting from John Wylie and Rusty Wandall’s crisp, clear sound design that helps to make the play approachable in its outdoor setting. The play also features an excellent use of atmospheric music by composer Greg Mackender, and some memorable special effects involving water cannons that drew applause from the audience.

One of the many great things about Shakespeare is that his plays can be easily set in all sorts of different ways, both classical and modern. With this production of Antony and Cleopatra, SFSTL has brought St. Louis audiences the best of both of those worlds.  It’s a classical drama with some modern sensibilities and and strong sense of style. It’s educational and thoroughly entertaining.

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Antony and Cleopatra is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park until June 14, 2015.

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Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014

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The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

 

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