Posts Tagged ‘shualee cook’

AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody
Written by Shualee Cook, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, and Ben Ritchie
Concept and Direction by Suki Peters
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
July 8, 2017

Ben Ritchie, Roger Erb
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

I’m really glad there’s a list in the program for this show, just so it was easier to keep track. In typical Magic Smoking Monkey fashion, the company’s latest production, AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time–A Parody is fast-moving and wildly inventive. It’s also extremely funny.

Here, the AFI’s list is taken and given the Magic Smoking Monkey treatment, as the energetic, enthusiastic cast races through the list in reverse order, from Ben-Hur to Citizen Kane, with a bell ringing to indicate the changing of films.  Some are given more time than others, and the presentations range from the literal the more symbolic. It’s a fun experience to watch, and with films as well-known as most of these are, it’s fairly easy to understand the scenes even when I haven’t seen all the films (I checked off the list–I’ve seen 54 of them). The pace is quick, and there are even occasional jokes about that ringing bell, and some crossover jokes between some of the movie parodies. It’s a lot of fun, as usual.

There’s a great cast here, too, making the most of every joke and creating some memorable impressions–figuratively and literally. One of the fun conceits this show uses is to have the same performers reappear when the same actors appear in several different films. Alyssa Ward as Katharine Hepburn and Brennan Eller as Jimmy Stewart are special standouts, but the whole cast is great. Kudos to Rachel Bailey, Roger Erb, Chris Jones, Ben Ritchie, Fox Smith, and Ron Strawbridge for their versatile takes on a variety of film characters. There are also special appearances by Nate Cummings and Morgan Maul-Smith.

The creative team has done a great job as well, with great costumes by Carla Landis Evans, lighting by Justin Chaipet, sound design by Ted Drury, and slides by Dan Foster. It’s all kind of unpolished, but that’s part of the charm of these shows. Also, with the quick pacing, anything can happen, and that element of surprise lends a lot to the humor.

This show is great fun for film buffs and casual filmgoers alike. It’s an uproarious blend of movies and theatre, as well. With Magic Smoking Monkey’s usual wit, style, and goofy charm, this parody is an ideal comic tribute to classic American Film

Alyssa Ward
Photo: Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents AFI’s Top 100 Greatest Films of Al Time–A Parody, until July 7, 2015.

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An Invitation Out
by Shualee Cook
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 18, 2015

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst Photo by John Lamb Mustard See Theatre

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

A few years ago, I was browsing in a gift shop and saw a sticker that said “I love my computer because my friends live in it”. I laughed because, to a whole lot of people these days, there’s a great deal of truth to that statement. As someone who has interacted online via the internet and its precursors for many years, I can very much relate to this statement, although I can also see the dangers of taking that concept to the extreme. The latest production at Mustard Seed Theatre, the world premiere production of Shualee Cook’s An Inviatation Out  makes that statement to its literal by imagining a future in which most people live virtual lives online instead of in the real world. It’s a fascinating premise, structured as an Oscar Wilde-style drawing room comedy, brought to vibrant visual life by an excellent cast and particularly striking technical elements. It takes us into a new world that’s both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

After a cleverly presented virtual introduction by an animated talking-head version of director Deanna Jent, the play introduces us to Wridget (Bob Thibeault), who designs custom avatars for online dwellers. Apparently, the majority of the world’s citizens spend their whole lives “plugged in” from age 4, paying little attention to their physical bodies and spending their days exploring virtual chat rooms, shopping malls, flight simulations, and more.  In one of these chat rooms, Wridget is hosting a party for his sister Buttercup (Julie Venegoni), who has just spent a year “unplugged” in the real world so she and her husband, FlyByNite (Daniel Lanier) could have a baby. Wridget himself is fascinated by the outside world and wishes to experience it. He thinks he can share this dream with his online love interest, Flutterbye (Laura Ernst), although others in his circle, such as the gender-bending xLuci (Justin Ivan Brown in Act 1, Nicole Angeli in Act 2), who serves as a curious mixture of critic and conscience to Wridget. There’s also Raskin (Ellie Schwetye), a friend of Buttercup’s from the “outside” who challenges Wridget to pursue his dream, and some cleverly appropriated Wildean characters such as the crazy aunt, Scandalicious (Alicia Reve’ Like) and the gregarious cleric, Reverend Variety.org (Richard Strelinger), as well as an avatar-switching maid/butler (Angeli in Act 1, Brown in Act 2).

Playwright Cook has created a fascinating and fully realized world here, populated by colorful characters who are often more than they first seem. There’s a surprising amount of depth here, and although the first act could use some tightening of the script and possibly some more comedic moments, the second act is simply marvelous. It’s challenging, intriguing, and explores issues of self-expression, entertainment vs. duty, spirituality, identity (both real and perceived) and the very nature of happiness and personal fulfillment. Using cyberspace as a setting is very timely, although there are many issues here that are universal. It’s a whimsical world with crazy character names–I love the name “Wridget” especially–but it’s also a world of surprising depth, where the very shallowness of it reveals hidden aspects of characters that weren’t initially obvious.

As Wridget, Thibeault is an engaging protagonist, able to be both charming and sullen at different moments while never becoming too melodramatic or whiny. He is well supported by Venegoni as the happy but somewhat overwhelmed new mother Buttercup, and Lanier as her sweetly goofy but earnest husband, FlyByNite. Strelinger puts in a fun comic performance as the personification of made-to-order spirituality, Reverend Variety.org, and Like is deliciously batty and endearing as Aunt Scandalicious. Schwetye is also strong as the intriguing and somewhat secretive Raskin, as is Ernst as the bubbly and aptly named social butterfly Flutterbye.  Angeli and Brown are both standouts in alternate roles, as a hilariously surly maid (Angeli), and a robotically efficient and then wildly erratic butler (Brown). They also share the role of xLuci, who is perhaps the key figure in this story as the voice of both questioning and reason, and both do an excellent job of making me believe they are the same character, albeit in different guises.  Angeli in particular gets the weightier portion of the character’s story, in Act 2, and handles it well, revealing the character’s vulnerability behind the brassy exterior.

Visually, this show is nothing short of stunning.  Mark Wilson’s set features a digital screen framing the stage, which is set with a background that looks somewhat unfinished, as is fitting since its simply the canvas on which the virtual world is built. The projections by Chris Jent–of the various avatars and other elements of the virtual world–are strikingly well-realized, as are wonderfully quirky and colorful 19th Century influenced costumes, designed by Beth Ashby. The technical is especially important in a show like this, taking us into an entirely imagined world and doing so with great success.

An Invitiation Out invites the audience to imagine what the future might be if the current online culture is carried to the extreme. Mustard Seed Theatre has taken us into a world that’s at once fantastic and believable, populated by a very strong, energetic cast. It’s a memorable world, visually striking and at times funny, witty, challenging and even frightening. Even though I’m not sure I would want to live there, it’s definitely a world worth visiting.

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve' Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve’ Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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First Lady Suite
by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook
R-S Theatrics
September 5th, 2014

Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I was looking forward to seeing this production of First Lady Suite from R-S Theatrics. Their production of Parade last year is still one of my favorite musical productions that I’ve seen in St. Louis. Presented again at the grand Ivory Theatre, this production held a lot of promise for me, but I was ultimately disappointed, although that disappointment is more the result of the material than the production itself. R-S Theatrics has assembled a great cast, and the production values are good, but alas, First Lady Suite is not the exquisitely written, important piece of theatre that is Parade.  It gives me a lot of mixed feelings, since I think it’s an interesting idea, and R-S Theatrics has shown some daring in introducing this little-known show to the St. Louis audience.  Still, I wish this excellent cast would have been given better material to perform.

I have to say that I’m something of a Presidential trivia buff. I memorized the names of all the presidents in order when I was about 10 years old, and later I memorized their wives’ names as well. Presidential trivia books and biographies were “fun reading” for me growing up, so anything about presidents and their families piques my interest, at least at first.  The problem with LaChiusa’s work, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose for it. Is he celebrating the First Ladies, or is he ridiculing them?  Is he saying this is an important historical role, or a trivial one that people make too much of?  Taking some of the more remembered First Ladies in recent history–Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt–and presenting them in such unexpected ways sounds like a good idea, but what LaChiusa has produced just seems muddled, confusing, and occasionally needlessly disrespectful. This is historical absurdity with no obvious point, with a score that is largely tuneless and unmemorable.  There are some interesting ideas here in terms of focusing on the supporting players behind the First Ladies, but the script leaves a lot to be desired and much to wonder about.

There are four stories here, with differing degrees of fantasy and absurdity.  “Over Texas” focuses on the Kennedy staff–the First Lady’s insecure secretary Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly), and the President’s somewhat infatuated secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love)–as they make the fateful journey to Dallas in November, 1963. “Where’s Mamie?” takes Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt) on a fantastical odyssey from her White House bedroom to Little Rock, Arkansas and Algiers, with opera singer Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins) along for the ride. “Olio” features a short singing recital by First Daughter Margaret Truman (Christina Rios), presided over by a particularly boorish version of her mother, Bess (Nathan Robert Hinds). The last and longest segment is “Eleanor Sleeps Here”, in which a bizarrely vapid and capricious Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) is taken on an impromptu flight over Washington, DC by famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby), sparking the jealous ramblings of Eleanor’s close friend and confidant, former news reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Rachel Hanks).  Many historians believe the relationship between Hick and Eleanor was romantic, and that’s LaChiusa’s take, except the way this is written, it seems like the two have little in common and can barely stand each other. The oddest thing about these selections is that most of the First Ladies don’t come across very well–Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) is aloof and demanding, Lady Bird Johnson (Belinda Quimby) is a clueless airhead, Bess Truman  (Nathan Robert Hinds),  is portrayed as crass, boorish and insensitive; and Eleanor Roosevelt seems flighty and not particularly bright. The only First Lady who leaves a generally positive impression is Mamie Eisenhower, in a departure from the stingy and shrewish way she’s been portrayed. elsewhere. Here, she’s spunky and girlish, determined to change history and break out of the “rules” her husband (also Hinds) has set for her.  That segment is easily the most entertaining of the evening because of Van Pelt’s dynamic performance, although it’s not perfect either, since it oddly trivializes the desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Despite the difficult script and unmemorable score, however, the cast is very strong, and the production values are impressive. Especially notable technically are Amy Harrison’s richly detailed costumes.  The performers do their best with this material, as well. In addition to the production’s stand-out, Van Pelt, there are also strong performances from Donnelly as the self-doubting Gallagher,  Hinds as Dwight Eisenhower, Hanks as Hick, Quimby as Amelia Earhart, Rios as Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Truman, Perkins as Marian Anderson, and Love as Evelyn Lincoln and (making the most of an underwritten role) Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show opens with a promising ensemble number in which various First Ladies sing about the difficulty of the job, and it closes with a similar number, and these segments are probably the best parts of the show.

It’s a frustrating experience as a reviewer and a theatre fan to see such a well-produced production of a show that I don’t particularly enjoy.  As weak and confusing as the script is, though, this cast and crew have made the most of it, making it worth seeing just for the sake of the strong performances. R-S Theatrics continues to take risks in their productions, and that’s a good thing even when the risks don’t always pay off.

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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