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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 3, 201512039250_10206184703591047_5710833879887949041_n

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.

This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke),  and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate.  And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.

With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy.  Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well.  There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio.  The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.

Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look.  The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.

Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.

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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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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Moramarco and Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 18, 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. It’s also one that seems to lend itself particularly well to modern-dress variations. It’s been done in various historical and contemporary settings with relative seamlessness. St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production is set in the late 1940s, and the consistence of theming is this version’s greatest strength.

In this version of Shakespeare’s classic “battle of wits” tale, the action takes place at an Italian villa circa 1948. Army officer Pedro (Stefan Ruprecht) and his comrades-in-arms Benedick (Phil Leveling) and Claudio (Michael Pierce), along with his disgruntled brother John (Wininger) are decked out in World War II-era uniforms.  Beatrice (Ariel Roukaerts), Hero (Ashley Bauman) and their friends at the villa speak with light Italian accents here, as do  the bumbling policeman Dogberry (James Enstall) and his assistant Verges (Nathaniel Carlson).  This production borrows a page from the Joss Whedon film in making one of John’s cronies, Conrade (Angela Bubash), female and romantically involved with the scheming John, who wants nothing more than to frustrate the plans of his brother and his companions. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick conduct their “merry war” while Pedro and friends hatch a plan to trick the quarreling pair into falling in love, and Claudio woos Hero with some interference from the scheming John.  It’s the usual mixture of romantic comedy with moments of drama, all with a backdrop of  1940’s-era music.

This is a production not without faults, but what it does well, it does very well.  The sense of time and place is well realized with the Big Band soundtrack, the simple set by Kyra Bishop, and especially Felia Davenport’s great era-specific costumes, from the Army uniforms to the colorful 40’s style dresses. There were some noticeable problems with the lighting on the night I saw the show, especially with a relatively long blackout in the middle of a scene that the actors admirably kept talking through.  There was another shorter blackout near the end of the show, and I’m assuming these issues will be worked out as the run continues.  Even with these little glitches, though, the technical elements of the show and overall atmosphere are among the highlights of this production.

In terms of the cast, this production deserves credit for great casting of the show’s most difficult role, John.  Wininger, with his strong stage presence and weaselly voice and mannerisms, commands the stage and controls the action every time he appears.   It’s an impressive performance in a mostly engaging but somewhat uneven cast. Leveling is a more laid-back Benedick than I’ve seen before, with Roukaerts a fiery Beatrice, and their scenes together are never boring, although their romantic chemistry is more “cute” than electric. Pierce is engaging as Claudio, although he is more convincing in his scenes of strong emotion–especially anger–than in his earlier scenes.. Bauman is fine as Hero, and Bubash comes across very well in her small-ish role as Conrade.  Enstall and Carlson have some funny moments  in their roles as the bumbling Dogberry and Verges, with their scenes providing some of the comic highlights of the show. There’s a lack of energy from some of the other cast members, although overall, this is a competent cast with a few real standouts.

The story of Much Ado About Nothing is full of romance, charm, and comedy with a few moments of drama and darkness, and different versions highlight different aspects of the story.  This production has a bit more of a relaxed tone than I’ve seen before, and although there are some obvious flaws, it’s worth seeing. Especially with the 1940’s style and atmosphere, along with some amiable leading performances and a top-notch villain, St. Louis Shakespeare has crafted a well-themed, entertaining production.

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
July 12, 2014

Maggie Wininger Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Wininger
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

This isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s Hamlet. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s new production of the oft-produced classic play, Hamlet is played by a woman (although the character is still portrayed as male), the castle guards brandish automatic rifles and Hamlet himself carries a handgun and a large hunting knife, the usurping King Claudius and his court are dressed to the nines in dapper suits and chic gowns, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take selfies with their smartphones in the palace. All of these ideas could easily come across as cheap gimmicks, but in director Donna Northcott’s bold new staging, all of these elements work together along with a palpable sense of tension and urgency to create a fresh, exciting and thoroughly fascinating production that never bores and frequently captivates.

The story is familiar to anyone who studied the play in English class or saw one (or more) of the many filmed versions of the story, or saw one of the many, many staged productions that have been produced for generations.  Just as it says in the title, it’s about Hamlet (Maggie Wininger), the Prince of Denmark whose father, the King, has recently died and been succeeded by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), who has also rather quickly married the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Kelly Schnider).  When Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father (Tom Moore), he is informed that Claudius is not only an opportunist but a murderer, and Hamlet is encouraged to take revenge. Much of the drama that ensues revolves around Hamlet’s wrestling with what to do about this charge.

This version of the play is set on a very simple stage, but with all the right trappings to suggest an elegant royal court. It’s all efficiently designed by Pippin McGowan and sumptuously costumed by Michele Friedman Siler.  The men wear the finest, most stylish suits and the women are in fashionable gowns and jewelry.  Gertrude is appropriately regal, and Ophelia (Taylor Steward) wears flowing, patterned dresses. The younger, flashier Rosencrantz (Paul Edwards) and Guildenstern (Shane Bosillo) are given more obviously trendy outfits, and Hamlet spends a fair amount of time dressing down in ripped pants and a wrinkled hoodie. The palace guards are imposing in camouflage, and the court attendants wear military-like livery. It’s all very well thought-out and consistent with the updating of the production. Also, while the guards, Hamlet and Laertes do carry guns at key moments in the show, the iconic sword duel at the end is still there, using modern fencing equipment and excellently choreographed by Erik Kuhn. With the excellent, dynamic staging of the piece, none of the updates seem out of place and all work to serve the story, actually adding to the accessibility and overall drama of the play.

The cast, like the overall production, is uniformly excellent. Wininger, with her short-ish, curly mop of a hairstyle and brooding energy, is a particularly intense and youthful Hamlet.  While she never completely manages to make me forget the fact that she’s a woman playing a man, Wininger’s wonderful and richly nuanced performance makes that distinction work in her favor.  Her Hamlet is among the more collected portrayals I’ve seen, clearly showing the character’s self-examination and struggles with indecision and doubt.  This Hamlet also shows obvious affection for the visiting Players, with the scene of their arrival and Hamlet’s interactions with them being among the most memorable and effective moments in this production.  She also notably shines in her scenes with Schnider’s Gertrude and with Edwards and Bosillo as the ever-present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose memorable and somewhat flighty characterizations are another notable aspect of this production. Schnider is excellent as Gertrude, as well, eschewing the somewhat silly, distracted characterization I’ve seen so many times for a more elegant portrayal. Whatever her own personal flaws may be, this Gertrude clearly loves her son and is concerned about his well-being.  Jones, who also played Claudius in Equally Represented Arts’  excellent re-imagining–called Make Hamlet–earlier this year, here portrays the King in a self-doubting, considered characterization that gives weight to his famous “attempted prayer” scene.  Michael Amoroso is another stand-out as an earnest, single-minded Laertes.  There are so many excellent performances here that it’s difficult to name them all without naming the whole cast.  There’s Steward’s waifish, bewildered Ophelia, Richard Lewis’s gently officious Polonius, Ben Watts’ fastidious and attentive Osric, and more. It’s a great cast in a very strong interpretation of the show that brings the audience into the action just as it brings the characters to the audience by the very skillful updating of the setting.

One of the reasons I love Shakespeare so much is that his plays are so adaptable.  While some interpretations have come across as more stunt than substance, there’s so much capacity for updating that clarifies the story rather than confusing it, especially in the hands of a good director with a consistent vision.  This production is a prime example of the good kind of updating.  It’s style and substance, elegance and drama, emotion and action, and ultimately, it’s a thoroughly convincing production. This is a Hamlet with heat, energy and immediacy, as well as some well-placed humor at the right moments. It’s one of the better examples of a “modern dress” staging of Shakespeare that I’ve seen. It’s a strong opening to St. Louis Shakespeare’s 30th Anniversary season, and it makes me look forward even more to seeing what else this company has in store.

Cast of Hamlet Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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Make Hamlet
a version of Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
April 23, 2014

Mitch Eagles, Ethan H. Jones, Julia Crump, Nick Henderson, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, WIll Bonfiglio  Photo by Katrin Hackenberg Equally Represented Arts

Mitch Eagles, Ethan H. Jones, Julia Crump, Nick Henderson, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, WIll Bonfiglio
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

 

When I say HamletI would imagine most people would know what I’m talking about. It’s one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and it has been subject to volumes of literary and theatrical criticism and enjoyed numerous productions over the past few hundred years. There have been so many conflicting interpretations, although most of the ones I’ve seen are still basically the same story with a few differing style and/or characterization elements.  With this new production, called Make Hamlet and produced at The Chapel arts venue by Equally Represented Arts, director/adapter Lucy Cashion and her cast are presenting a take on the classic show like I’ve never seen it before. In this audacious re-imagining of the material, the ERA company challenges the audience to re-examine what we think about this much-performed and studied work, as well as reflect on the art and craft that goes into making and presenting a play.

This is a somewhat condensed, re-arranged, visually striking production that uses all of its technical resources to the fullest, and takes the cast members everywhere throughout the performance space, from the stage to the back of the performance space, to the audience and even perched on the pews that line one side of the venue. The space is adorned with various implements of gardening and sewing (a watering can, a window basket of flowers, a sewing machine, sewing patterns, etc.), suggesting a motif of creation and growing, and we see this process as the “backstage” is onstage, and characters change costumes and adjust the set in full view of the audience.  The six member ensemble presents their characters with distinctive interpretations, as well–confrontational, larger-than-life Hamlet (Nick Henderson), earnest and determined Horatio (Mitch Eagles), fast-talking and detached Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), aloof socialite Gertrude (Julia Crump), moody and conflicted Ophelia (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), and relatively mild-mannered Laertes (Will Bonfiglio).  The other characters in the action are mostly referred to but not seen, with two notable exceptions–the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, which is rendered by a actors manipulating an intensely-backlit dressmaker’s dummy; and Polonius, who is “played” in most scenes by a colorful clown costume on a hanger, except in the memorable and somewhat disturbing take on the scene in which Polonius offers Laertes advice before Laertes returns to school and then warns Ophelia concerning Hamlet’s romantic attentions. I say “disturbing” because it’s not entirely clear if Henderson is supposed to simply be Polonius in these scenes, or if he is portraying Hamlet-as-Polonius. The reactions of Bonfoglio and Theby-Quinn certainly suggest that something isn’t exactly right.  And then there are the scenes where famous speeches are delivered several times by different characters, or when the characters break into song, such as Gertrude absently singing The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and Ophelia’s darkly jarring rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” at a key moment.

This is a take on Hamlet that recasts the story as more of a dark farce than a straightforward tragedy, and it works surprisingly well, with the staging and characterizations in keeping with that style, and it’s also all very 2014. Claudius’s “crown” is golf club. Hamlet wields a large, shiny pair of sewing scissors as a sword in one scene, and he and Laertes duel with garden clippers in another. Hamlet and Ophelia share a ballet-inspired dance as Ophelia chats with her father on a cell phone. Bright LED flashlights, sounds of sewing machines, rain, and ominous music help set the scene and the mood, and in a particularly intriguing conceit, character deaths are portrayed by having them remove their costumes, leaving their “shed skin” behind.  Hamlet and Horatio play out something of a volatile “bromance”,with the rich-voiced Henderson portraying a Hamlet who is alternately sympathetic and downright menacing, and Eagles–who physically reminds me of Harry Potter–in an endearing performance as a noble, hipsterish Horatio. Theby-Quinn, in an excellent turn as a particularly intense Ophelia, swings wildly from coquettish to annoyed to fiercely unhinged, pelting the other characters with spools of thread that represent herbs in the most violent rendition I’ve seen of her well-known “madness” scene. These three are the real stand-outs in this cast as far as I’m concerned, and I was especially surprised at how much emphasis this production focuses on Horatio specifically.  All six players put in good work, however, and the ensemble scenes are well-staged and convincingly played, concluding in a truly riveting finale.

I feel so much at a loss to adequately describe everything that goes on with this production. I could overuse adjectives like “bold”, “daring”, “dark”, “witty”, “audacious”, etc. This production certainly is all those things, and it takes the Hamlet story and the characters in directions that I’d never thought of before. I’m sure it will be the catalyst for some excellent conversations about this play, its characters, and what it all means.  As wonderful as the cast is, much of the credit for the success of this production goes to Cashion, who not only adapted and directed it, but also designed the set and the wonderful sound effects.  It’s such a fully realized, consistent vision, played out expertly by this great cast and crew.

 There’s a lot of Shakespeare happening in St. Louis this week, with the celebration of the Bard’s 450th birthday and Shake 38 taking the Bard’s works to various neighborhoods and venues throughout the area.  Even the midst of all those works, however, this one is a must-see. As a truly challenging, entertaining and engaging new presentation of an oft-performed show, ERA’s Make Hamlet is a winner.  It’s a Hamlet for the 21st century, and it’s not to be missed.

Will Bonfligio, Nick Henderson Photo by Katrin Hackenberg Equally Represented Arts

Will Bonfligio, Nick Henderson
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

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Solemn Mockeries

by Rick Creese

Directed by Sarah Whitney

The Midnight Company, Tower Grove Abbey

January 3rd, 2014

Joe Hanrahan Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is starting off the New Year with a trip back in time. With their new production of Rick Creese’s one-man play Solemn Mockeries, the Tower Grove Abbey has been turned into a sort of “Wayback Machine”, transporting the audience to 19th Century London, where we are introduced to the colorful William-Henry Ireland (Joe Hanrahan), who recounts his fascinating, alternately comic and tragic life story, focusing on that one time, 30 years earlier in 1795, when he almost got away with forging a full-length Shakespeare play and managed to have the play staged by some of the most prominent theatrical figures of the era in one of the most well-known theaters in London. It’s one of those too-strange-to-believed anecdotes of history that, astoundingly enough, actually did happen, and this production turns that improbable tale into an entertainingly immersive evening of theatre.

The setting is very simple, but completely effective. Just a few pieces of furniture and a series of placards announcing Ireland’s appearance (introduced by a silent, sober-faced man in impeccable early 19th Century costume) help set the mood and transport the audience back to an era in which the apologetic but also proud and enterprising Ireland is making a living out of reliving his earlier adventures before the general public.  The Tower Grove Abbey, a re-purposed early 20th Century church building with its wooden pews and stained glass windows,is a fitting venue for this event, and Hanrahan, as Ireland, even makes a sly reference to the building in his opening remarks. It’s easy to get caught up in the illusion of the 1820’s setting as Ireland tells his story and interacts with the audience, giving impromptu quizzes, asking for opinions and offering whimsical commentary on the events as he portrays them.

Hanrahan, looking like he stepped out of the pages of a history book in costume designer Taylor Steward’s well-appointed ensemble, portrays Ireland as an eager-to-please, charming rascal who is at once proud and apologetic about his career as a forger. His accent is a bit uneven in places, but that doesn’t really matter in the long run since his Ireland is such a fascinating character, and his descriptions of his upbringing and the events that led into his acts of fraud are thoroughly compelling to watch.

Hanrahan portrays not only Ireland, but also Ireland’s impressions of various character’s in Ireland’s life, from his stern, historical relic-obsessed father, to his opportunistic actor friend, to the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV)  and the various actors involved with the production of Ireland’s faux Shakespearean tragedy, Vortigern.  It’s a hilarious comic performance, but also tinged with regret and even tragedy, as Ireland is shown as an ingratiating sort whose greatest wish in life was to please his own implacable father, who ignored and neglected the young Ireland until he suddenly “found” all these documents supposedly written by the Bard.  Hanrahan’s Ireland is a mass of contradictions–reveling in his adventures while simultaneously showing regret and a desire to be accepted, full of self-deprecating wit and giddy, gleeful energy as the story of his colossal failure unfolds.

The play itself finds a lot of sympathy in Ireland, especially in his upbringing and neglect by his parents, but it also presents him as something of a pathetic figure–a mediocre artist looking for validation, but who was born into a world where celebrity was highly valued and enterprising people could make their own fame if they had the right motivation, and the right gimmick.  It actually sounds a lot like today, which is why I think a story like this can be so entertaining for modern audiences.  Today’s William-Henry Ireland would probably have his own reality show as opposed to appearing on the lecture circuit, but regardless of how enlightened people may think they are today, there still seem to be engaging frauds like Ireland popping up from time to time looking for attention and, eventually, forgiveness.

Ultimately, I was impressed by how vividly the times and places of William Henry Ireland’s life were evoked by this production, with nothing more than the impeccable costumes, simple sets and Hanrahan’s compelling performance to hold the audience’s attention and capture our imaginations.  Ireland is a person that many people may not have heard of,  and this production introduces us to him and and the events of his life in a thoroughly engaging way. It’s a very amusing and thought-provoking  journey through time.

Joe Hanrahan  Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

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Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rick Dildine

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

May 25th and May 30th, 2013

20130524_182458

I look forward to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis every year. You get to see a top quality Shakespeare play outside in beautiful Forest Park with many fun pre-show activities, and it’s free! What’s not to love about that? This year, the show is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies, Twelfth Night, and as usual, SFSTL does not disappoint, putting on a very funny, engaging and musical production that more than lives up to SFSTL’s already excellent reputation.

The gender-bending story follows Viola (Kimiye Corwin) who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Vichet Chum), and disguises herself as a boy to serve as a page to Duke Orsino (Joshua Thomas), who is trying to woo the melancholy Countess Olivia (Leslie Ann Handelman) who is grieving for her recently deceased father and brother. Meanwhile, Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Eric Hoffmann) and her handmaiden Maria (Candice Jeanine) scheme with another suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling and ineffectual Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Haas Regen) to humiliate Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Anderson Matthews).  Little does Viola know, though, that Sebastian has survived the shipwreck with the aid of sailor Antonio (Michael James Read), and his presence soon adds further complication to the already complex plot involving love-at-first-sight, mistaken identity and romantic confusion.

Music is a key element to this production, with live musicians onstage performing Shakespeare’s lyrics set to the folk-style tunes written by Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, sung by Andy Paterson as the amiable fool Feste with a clear, soaring tenor voice. In fact, music pervades and underscores the whole show, setting the mood whether it’s mournful, melancholy, whimsical or romantic.

The striking set by Scott C. Neale is also a vital element in setting the mood of the production, with its colorful, off-kilter Mediterranean-style villa with an outsized full moon beside it.  The costumes, designed by Dottie Marshall Englis, suggest a mid-Victorian setting and are as colorful as the set.  The duped Malvolio’s getup in the second act is a real highlight that adds to the comedy of the production.  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shakespeare’s words “yellow stockings and cross-gartered” are quite hilariously interpreted here.

As for the performances, it’s a top-notch cast all around.  Corwin makes a strong, equally earnest and bewildered Viola, whose struggles between her attraction to Orsino and trying to do her duty are made poignantly plain. She also has just the right amount of affected swagger that makes her masquerade both obvious and believable.  Her scenes with both Thomas as Orsino and Handelman as Olivia are expertly acted, and her chemistry with Thomas in particular is notable.  Thomas does a great job of portraying Orsino as both determined and somewhat conflicted as his determination to woo the reluctant Olivia conflicts with his growing attachment to his courtier “Cesario”, who he doesn’t realize is really Viola in disguise.  Handelman portrays Olivia with a mixture of aggressive melancholy and lovestruck energy, and Chum as Sebastian also does great work in his few scenes, displaying remarkable chemistry with both Handelman as his sudden love-interest and Corwin as his seemingly long-lost sister.

I loved the cohesive unit that was formed by the affably drunk Sir Toby, the awkward Sir Andrew and the scheming Maria, and all three actors work so well together and make their scenes a real joy to watch.  Sir Toby and crew baiting Malvolio is a masterfully staged moment of side-splitting physical comedy that was reminiscent of classic slapstick comedy and had me and most of the audience laughing our heads off.  The real standout in this plotline, though, is Matthews as Malvolio, who is brilliant in both his stiff pomposity and his bumbling foolishness.  The comic sword-fighting involving Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby was also well-done and extremely funny.

As evidenced by the description in this review, this is a show with a whole lot of plot, and all the various elements fit together seamlessly as portrayed by this remarkable cast.  It was a great show, and almost came across as a musical with the many songs and live musicians.  The outside setting of the production also worked to set a dreamy mood, and the overall effect was one of sheer delight.

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Othello

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Bruce Longworth

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

June 13. 2012

I love Shakespeare, and I especially love when directors set his plays in different time periods, because I think that more modern settings help today’s audiences relate more to the material rather than dismissing it as “boring old Shakespeare”.  While I’ve always contended that people who insist that Shakespeare is boring because of reading the plays in school must have had the wrong teacher, and that traditional settings of the plays can also be wonderful (such as SFSTL’s outstanding Hamlet two years ago), I think that non-traditional settings can bring a new freshness and vitality to the works for contemporary audiences, and this production of Othello, set in 1912, is an excellent example.

Othello is a Moorish general and war hero who loves and marries the Venetian Desdemona.  Iago is a junior officer who hates Othello.  Othello is happy, and Iago hates that, and so Iago sets about trying to destroy Othello’s happiness by playing on his jealousy. It’s the classic tragedy that deals with timeless issues of honesty, trust, insecurity and racial and class prejudices. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis brings it to life in an intense, haunting production.

The outdoor setting in Shakespeare Glen is perfect for setting the mood, as is the haunting music especially of Desdemona’s “Willow Song” in the second half.  The period-accurate costumes and vaguely steampunk-inspired set with lots of gears everywhere to suggest a giant early 20th Century machine also add to the mood.  The lighting effects, often reflecting the mood of the characters (green for jealousy, red for anger) provide a powerful complement to the drama as well.  I particularly enjoyed the post-battle scenes that suggested old WWI era movies, with soldiers in khakis and Cassio with his pith helmet and goggles.  Other touches like an authentic-looking Victrola in Othello’s and Desdemona’s bedroom lend to the period atmosphere.

As for the performances, Justin Blanchard is a commanding, convincing Iago.  Much is said of the scheming villain’s “honesty” and Blanchard does an excellent job of making his duplicity seem convincing.  He is obviously not honest, but he believably convinces his victims of his trustworthiness.  His single-minded determination to destroy Othello (Billy Eugene Jones) is thoroughly believable, and he ably shifts from wheedling and placating with Othello to downright menacing with his wife Emilia (Kim Stauffer).  The scene in which he finally convinces Othello  of Desdemona’s “infidelity” is especially powerful, well-acted by both Blanchard and Jones.  Jones is compelling as Othello, ably displaying an honorable general’s descent into the darkness of his own suspicions.  His later scenes with Desdemona (the also excellent Heather Wood) are intense and heartbreaking.  Other standouts in the cast are Stauffer as the longsuffering Emilia and Joshua Thomas as Cassio, the military officer who is caught in the middle of Iago’s plans.  The entire ensemble is excellent and they work together extremely well.

Some of the later scenes can be challenging for modern audiences, as the women are constantly mistreated by their husbands and they are not in the position to defend themselves. Also, Othello’s easy trust of Iago and distrust of Desdemona can be annoying, but the actors play the scenes so well as to make these situations all the more tragic in their believability.  Jones especially does an excellent job of making Othello sympathetic in the end.  The scenes between Desdemona and Emilia are also convincing and compelling.

This is a tragedy on many levels, as a good man is given over to the “green-eyed monster” and loses his own character in the process, and an evil man is allowed to hold sway in his vile machinations and everyone around them (especially their wives) is made to suffer because of an inexplicable grudge. It’s a timeless tale given new life by its setting and thoroughly convincing portrayals.  The production is yet another remarkable success from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.

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The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

Directed by Sean Graney

June 1, 2011

It’s Shakespeare in Forest Park, it’s for everyone, and it’s free!  That’s been the premise of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis since its founding in 1997.  Since then, they have put on high-quality, professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays—a new one each season—in an area near Art Hill that is now known as “Shakespeare Glen”.   It’s a wonderful atomosphere–the stage set up at the foot of a hill and plenty of space for picnic blankets and chairs, and a nightly “Green Show” before the main event featuring various forms of live entertainment such as jugglers, musicians, and academic lectures.  Previous productions include Much Ado About Nothing (staged as a Western), Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor and last year’s marvelous Kevin Kline Award-winning Hamlet. This year’s offering, the festival’s eleventh production, is the often controversial but still popular The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sean Graney of Chicago’s The Hypocrites theatre company and done in a 1950s style that really helps bring the show to life for a contemporary audience.

Everything from the sets by Scott C Neale (especially the amazingly colorful Mid-Century Modern house that’s painted to look like a cartoon) and the costumes by Alison Siple, to the use of 50’s era music by Elvis Presley and others helps to set the atmosphere of this play.  It was also fun how the introduction to the show (called the Induction, and not always used in previous productions) helped to set up the action as well as add to atmosphere. In fact, Kurt Ehrmann, who plays the drunken Christopher Sly, wanders through the audience in character before the play begins, so that when he finally staggers up onto the stage to start the show, he’s already a familiar face.

The premise is that the drunken Sly wanders into the front yard of an upper middle class house, whereupon the occupants decide to convince him he’s a Lord and stage a play for his amusement.  He’s then plunked into an aluminum swimming pool on the side of the stage, where he sits watching the action for the entire first act.

The play he’s presented is the familiar story of of a father, Baptista (Steve Isom) with two daughters–the young, beautiful Bianca (Megan M. Storti) who has many suitors, and her older sister Katherina, known as Kate (Annie Worden), who has a reputation as a “shrew”.  Baptista decides that Bianca can’t marry until Kate does, which prompts Hortensio (Michael James Reed), one of Bianca’s suitors, to enlist his old friend Petruchio (Paul Hurley), newly arrived in town, to pursue Kate.  Since Petruchio came to town to get a rich wife and Kate, the daughter of the wealthy Baptista, qualifies, he decides to take up the challenge.

Petruchio and Kate are the heart of the story, as always, and for the first time, I really thought their story had heart.  Paul Hurley’s Petruchio is less domineering than usually portrayed–full of boasting and bravado at first, but gradually becoming more bewildered by his situation and by Kate herself.  He seems to be at first challenged, then frustrated, and finally fascinated by her, while Annie Worden’s Kate is slouchy, grumpy and surly at first, with a posture and strut that reminds me of a goose,  but she seems to have gained a real confidence at the end.  This isn’t as much a case of one of them trying to beat the other down, as I’ve seen in other productions of this play, as it is more of a mutual challenge and discovery, so that by the last scene when Kate gives her famous speech (full of attitude), it’s as if the two of them are in this together, trying to put one over on everyone else.  It’s a “me and you against the world” kind of approach that I really liked. Theirs is definitely an unconventional relationship, but I actually believe they’re in love in this production, and that’s a good thing.  I also have to say that I love the costuming in the last scene, which also emphasizes how Petruchio and Kate are somehow out-of-step with everyone else.

The other main subplot of Bianca and her suitors, Hortensio, the elderly Gremio (Gary Glasgow) and Lucentio (Will Shaw) is handled in a slapstick-ish manner and is entertaining as well, but not quite as much as the Petruchio/Kate plot.  Storti is fine as Bianca, but she plays up the “pampered princess” angle a bit much at times, although she is excellent in a scene with Kate, as the two argue and fight over a large pink teddy bear.  Shaw is amiable if a bit bland as her main suitor.  Glasgow as Gremio and David Graham Jones as Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, are the standouts in this plot, as is Ehrmann when he joins the action in the second half in a dual role as Lucentio’s father, Vincezio and as the man pretending to be Vincenzio.  This situation allows for some hilarious moments as the staging sets up quick changes for Ehrmann between one character and the other.  It’s a bit dizzying at times, and very, very funny.  Another stand-out in the cast is Karl Gregory as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, who plays the physical comedy very well.

I also would like to make special note of the music in this production, which uses classics from the 50’s and early 60’s to set the mood wonderfully.  I especially enjoyed the use of “Chapel of Love” in the wedding scene, as the entire cast sings and dances along, with Ehrmann as Sly’s reactions from the sidelines a real highlight.  “All Shook Up” works very well as the scene-setter in the beginning, as well.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite productions at SFStL, along with 2007’s Much Ado About Nothing and last year’s Hamlet.  The updating to the 50s/60s era really works to make the story more accessible to a modern audience, and the the direction, performances, costumes, sets and music all helped to make this an extremely enjoyable experience. There is still a week left to see it, and if you’re in St. Louis, I highly recommend checking it out.

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