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Posts Tagged ‘slightly askew theatre ensemble’

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

Ellie Schwetye, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell

SATE Ensemble Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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First Impressions
Adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Conceived by Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
May 17, 2017

John Wolbers, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

 I’m a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, seen various filmed adaptations, and like a lot of Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels. Also like a lot of Austen fans, I have a lot of strong opinions about the story and its adaptations. Austen seems to inspire a lot of strong emotions about her works, and that trait is represented well in SATE Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, First Impressions, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice in a dynamic way while also telling the stories of many of its readers.

The basic story of Pride and Prejudice is well-known by many, whether they’ve read the book or seen many of the various filmed and staged adaptations. Here, with First Impressions, adapters Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye have given the story the SATE treatment, presenting the story in a somewhat straightforward way in one sense, but opening it up in another sense, in terms of framing, staging, and casting. Here, various testimonials of of people’s “first impressions” of the story are interspersed with the story. All the familiar characters are here, as Elizabeth Bennet (Schwetye) meets Mr. Darcy (John Wolbers) and the romantic and family drama and comedy unfolds. Elizabeth and her sisters Jane (Cara Barresi), Mary (Parvuna Sulamain), Kitty (Jazmine K. Wade), and Lydia (Katy Keating) live with their parents, the marriage-obsessed Mrs. Bennet (Nicole Angeli) and the somewhat world-weary Mr. Bennet (Carl Overly, Jr.). When the handsome, eligible Mr. Bingley (Michael Cassidy Flynn) moves into a nearby estate, the story is in motion, following Elizabeth as she learns more about the mysterious Mr. Darcy and about the world around her, populated by characters like the sycophantic Mr. Collins (Andrew Kuhlmann), the dashing but caddish Mr. Wickham (also Flynn), and the imperious Lady Catherine DeBourgh (also Angeli).  The story is narrated by Mary, and as the action unfolds, it’s often interspersed with the “first impression” stories that provide commentary not just on the story itself, but on its place in history, its appeal to people from all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also occasional critique of Austen’s perspective and her era.

It’s a fast-paced, fascinating, riveting presentation, full of motion and emotion, with characterizations that are at once true to the spirit of the book and strikingly modern. The fact that some performers play more than one role also provides interest in the form of contrast, such as Angeli’s portrayal of the meddling Mrs. Bennet, the imposing Lady Catherine DeBourgh, and the personable Aunt Gardiner. Angeli is particularly notable for portraying a Mrs. Bennet who doesn’t come across as a caricature or a cartoon as she can in some filmed adaptations. Yes, she can be silly, but Angeli provides some substance behind the silliness, and there’s a degree of affection between Angeli and Overly’s Mr. Bennet that adds a level of depth to their relationship. Sulamain’s portrayal of Mary is similarly refreshing, making the middle Bennet sister appear more thoughtful than sanctimonious. The other Bennet sisters are also strong in their characterization, from Barresi’s reserved but gentle Jane, to Wade’s excitable Kitty, to Keating’s brash, outspoken Lydia.  Flynn is excellent as both the generous, lovestruck Bingley and the charismatic but unprincipled Wickham. Kristen Strom gives another strong contrasting performance as two distinctly different sisters–the haughty Caroline Bingley, and the more humble, kindly Georgiana Darcy. Rachel Hanks is memorable as a particularly enthusiastic incarnation of Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and also as Elizabeth’s practically-minded best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who ends up marrying the Bennets’ silly cousin, Mr. Collins, who is portrayed with a gleeful, almost morbid intensity by Andrew Kuhlman. And last but not least are Schwetye in an engaging, determined portrayal of Elizabeth and Wolbers as Mr. Darcy, giving him a more reserved and occasionally witty portrayal. The chemistry between Schwetye and Wolbers is strong, as is the chemistry among the sisters, and the staging lends to the characterization, and the sisters are often seen gathering to eavesdrop on their sisters’ conversations.

It’s a fresh, timely staging that brings out a lot of the story’s humor as well as examining its seemingly universal appeal. The set and lighting by Bess Moynihan contribute a great deal to the tone of the show. The big white tent and and minimal furnishings add to the always-in-motion quality of the play, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are especially impressive, featuring a blend of period details and modern flair, from Wickham’s leather jacket and pants to the colorful dresses of the Bennet sisters, and more, this is a production that celebrates the classic elements and the timeless quality of this show. There’s excellent sound design by Schwetye as well, and the use of music–mostly modern pop music rearranged as chamber music–works extremely well, especially in the wonderful Netherfield Ball sequence.

This is a fun show as well as a thought-provoking one. References to Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier are thrown in along with comments on women’s roles, the affluence of the characters, and more. A frequent theme that comes up in the testimonials is how the story can mean different things to the same person depending on when they read it.  Pride and Prejudice is a story that means a lot to many people, and although opinions can greatly vary, it’s a story that’s clearly made an impact over the generations. SATE Ensemble Theatre has presented this story well, as well as examining it, somewhat deconstructing it, challenging it, and celebrating it. Like so many of the shows SATE does, this show takes a unique approach, and it provides for a singular theatrical experience.

John Wolbers, Katy Keating, Nicole Angeli, Andrew Kuhlman, Jazmine K. Wade, Parvuna Sulaiman, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting First Impressions at the Chapel until May 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Shelley Monster Show

by Nick Otten

Based on a Concept by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts

Directed by Kelley Weber

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

August 20, 2014

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) is closing out its year-long “Season of the Monster” with a brand new show that revolves, partly, around one of the most iconic monster stories ever.  Mary Shelley Monster Show even opens with a montage of projections of various versions of the infamous monster that’s at the heart of Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein. This story, though, is about much more than Frankenstein. In this innovative, technically stunning  production, SATE brings Mary Shelley and her world to life in an entertaining and thoroughly riveting manner.

The play is short but extremely contemplative, and it’s never boring.  As Mary (Rachel Tibbetts) poses for her most well-known portrait by painter Richard Rothwell (the offstage voice of Carl Overly, Jr.), she recalls the important moments of her life and the people-both real and imaginary–that inhabited it.  These characters, from the monster himself to such real-life figures as Mary’s poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, the illustrious poet Lord Byron and others, are all played by Ellie Schwetye. Through Mary’s recollections, reenactments, and an abundance of projections, we are given a glimpse into Mary’s mind as she recalls historic moments in her life, and her various relationships with those who have been most important to her.  We also see her relationship with her work, represented by her various philosophical discussions with the shadowy figure of the monster, who gradually evolves throughout the course of the show and challenges Mary to think about her relationship, as a writer, with her creation. It’s an exploration of one woman’s life and also the lives of famous literary figures and of one work in particular and how that work has survived its creator and even eclipsed her in notoriety, reflected in the play as Mary tells the monster–who questions his reality–that a creation often becomes more “real” than its creator.

What’s real here is the sheer wonder of this production, both technically and in its performances. Tibbetts gives a reflective, confident performance as Mary, portraying her various stages of life and conflicting emotions with veracity and depth.  From her regrets over the deaths of loved ones, to her deep love and near-worship of her dynamic husband, to her verbal sparring with the charismatic Byron, Tibbetts is thoroughly affecting.  Schwetye also impresses in at least nine different roles, portraying this wide range of characters clearly with, for the most part, only minimal changes in costume.  She is particularly effective as the self-confident Byron, as the reassuring ghostly figure of Mary’s late mother, as Mary’s emotional step-sister “Claire”, and especially as the increasingly confrontational monster.  Schwetye makes the transitions between the various characters seem effortless, and the chemistry between her (in her various incarnations) and Tibbetts is excellent.  Lending support to these two dynamic actresses is Overly, who never actually appears onstage but manages to make an impression with his voice, as the painter who serves as something of a catalyst and sounding board for Mary’s reflections.

Technically, this show is nothing short of marvelous. With a striking set by David Blake, along with Bess Moynihan’s atmospheric lighting, Michael B. Perkins’s abundant and colorful projections, Elizabeth Henning’s costumes and Schwetye’s sound design, this production strikes and maintains just the right mood.  It’s haunting, reflective and educational all at the same time. This team has managed to use the somewhat limited space in the small Chapel venue to its best advantage, taking the audience on a trip into Mary Shelley’s world and into her very thoughts.  This is  great example of a show in which the technical elements add to the drama of the production rather than dominating or distracting from it. It’s  a highly commendable effort from all involved.

This is a unique and fascinating play that educates as it entertains, as well as providing a basis for thoughtful discussions on the nature of writing and of an artist’s relationship to her craft. It’s another triumph for the collective creative talents of SATE. Over the past few years, this small, unpretentious theatre company has consistently turned out some of the most exciting,intriguing productions in St. Louis. I’m constantly impressed at how much the team at SATE continues to grow and stretch their limits as a company, continually trying to challenge expectations and then rising to the challenge. It’s companies like this that help make the St. Louis theatre scene great. Mary Shelley Monster Show is the latest, and quite possibly the greatest, of SATE’s many successes.  I look forward to seeing what their next season brings.

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

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

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St. Lou Fringe 2014 was a wild, weird and wonderful weekend of daring, experimental and sometimes off-the-wall artistic activity.  This is my second year attending the festival, and while the event is still not as big and as well-attended as I wish it were, it’s getting there.  The sheer enthusiasm demonstrated by Executive Director Em Piro and the entire Fringe staff is impressive, as is the passion and artistry displayed by the various participants, from right here in St. Louis and from around the country.  I was honored to be included as a member of the Reviewers’ Panel at this year’s festival.  I managed to see 10 shows this year, as well as attending the Closing Extravaganza party at Fubar in Midtown, where I got to share my thoughts about the shows I saw and vote for my own favorite (noted below).  It was a great experience, and I have high hopes that next year’s Fringe will be even bigger, bolder and better.  Here are my thoughts on the first five shows I saw:

A Goofball Rock Recital Grand High Productions Thursday, June 19th at 6:00pm

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Joey Puricelli certainly has a lot of enthusiasm. I saw his show, Total Nonsense, at last year’s Fringe, and my impression was that it had some good ideas and some funny moments, but came across as unpolished and a little confusing. This year seems to be in the same vein, but in concert form. In A Goofball Rock Recital, Puricelli takes the stage by himself for two performances, and with special musical guests for two more. The performance I saw featured Ben Mankus on guitar and vocals, with Puricelli singing lead vocals and playing a variety of instruments including jaw harp, harmonica, and tambourine (with his foot). As with last year’s performance, there are some good ideas here, and some truly funny moments, especially with Puricelli’s parodies of pop songs featuring various subjects with geek-appeal, like “The Legend of Zelda” video games (“The Fresh Princess of Hyrule”), The Hobbit (“Precious Confusions”, a parody of Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand In My Pocket”) and Homestar Runner (“The Cheat’s Exploding Head”, a parody of Katy Perry’s “Firework”). There’s even a lyrically clever literary parody with “Poe Folks”, singing about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado to the tune of The Eagles’s “Desperado”.

The original songs are, for the most part, cleverly written and have some fun ideas, but the vocals are uneven and although Puricelli is a likable guy, he doesn’t have a lot of presence as a performer. He also spends a lot of time reading the lyrics off of his computer. He comes across better when bantering with Mankus between songs, and the spoken/rapped numbers are more successful than those that are sung. He and Mankus work well together on some of the more interesting covers, such as a mashup of the Beatles “Hey Jude” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya” which is basically the lyrics of the former spoken/chanted to the rhythm of the latter. An obscure song from YouTube artist Lemon Demon, “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”, also has its fun moments. Although the overall quality of this performance is uneven and unpolished, there are some genuinely good ideas here, and I think Puricelli’s best skill is as a lyricist who would probably be more successful writing for other artists. He and Mankus seemed to be having a great time, although the overall effect was more of two friends practicing songs at home rather than as a complete performance.

Nine/Sketch Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble with Leverage Dance Theatre Thursday, June 19th at 7:30pm

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

An encore presentation of a show that was originally performed last year at the beginning of SATE’s current season, Nine/Sketch is a truly fascinating piece of theatre. Blending two separate works into a seamless presentation, each focuses on two women and their relation to one another. The first segment, Sketch (devised by Hannah Fischer) has dancers Keli Hermes and Erin Lane in various short situations emphasizing emotions, from quick poses punctuated by blackouts to longer sequences of movement. There is no music so the mood is set by the dancers and the lighting. This is an expression of relationship and emotion, with the fluid movements of the dancers and their expressions communicating a range of feelings from sadness to confusion to pain to concern and compassion. This presentation leads directly into the next segment, which features two women in what only can be described as a bleak situation.

In SATE’s production of Jane Shepard’s Nine, Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye begin the performance sprawled on the floor, each confined inside a chalk circle which is drawn on the floor, and each wearing a long, heavy chain around her neck. They are apparently prisoners of some nameless, unseen captors, who are made to seem all the scarier because we don’t know much about them. Of the prisoners, Tibbetts is initially the more confident one–the veteran who has been here longer, and Schwetye is the newcomer who has just arrived back from what seems to be a grueling torture session. The two remain on the floor throughout the play,talking to one another in sometimes taunting, sometimes insulting, and sometimes concerned tones, making up little stories and remembering old sayings to keep their minds off the brutality of their situation. With intense, fully committed performances from the two leads, this is a powerful and riveting performance that’s more than a little disturbing. Just thinking about the horrors these two prisoners are facing is unsettling, and both actresses convey the brutality of the situation as well as their ever-present humanity in the midst of the horror. It’s terrifying, nerve-wracking,and completely compelling to watch. I didn’t get to see this show when it was first performed, and I’m glad Fringe has given me the opportunity to see it. This is an unforgettable performance.

Nine/Sketch is my Critic’s Pick for Best of St. Lou Fringe 2014

Landslide First Time Puppet Theatre Thursday, June 19th, 9:30pm

Through a combination of puppeteering, voiceovers, music and projection, the First Time Puppet Theatre presents the story of Amelia, a 40-year-old woman with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a highly emotional performance, focusing on images, sounds and feelings and although it can sometimes be difficult to follow, for the most part it’s an effective, moving story. It follows Amelia–portrayed by a puppet controlled by three puppeteers–as she emerges, birth-like, from a pile of clothes at the beginning of the performance, throughout her journey through the difficulties of losing her ability to care for herself, and as she rummages through old pictures and clothes, attempting to hold on to precious personal memories. Throughout the performance, images are projected on a screen along with short videos on a small TV inside a replica of a Victorian style house. This is all very stylized, mostly in a very serious tone, and again not always easy to follow, although that may be the point as Amelia herself is struggling with holding onto her memories and self-awareness.

This is a striking, unusual performance with probably the most expressive puppet I’ve ever seen. Even though her facial expression is fixed and incapable of actually changing, the careful manipulation of the puppeteers combined with the music and overall mood of the piece makes it appear as if the puppet’s face does change. Credit goes to the puppeteers and the puppet designer (Kim Wilson) for creating and operating such a fully realized character. It’s a unique, very emotionally affecting, even poetic multi-media performance.

The Next Dog King Jim Julien Friday, June 20th, 6:00pm

Jim Julien with "Saffron" Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Jim Julien with “Saffron” in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

In the history of humans’ relationship with dogs, who is really in charge, and what do the dogs really think about their human companions? These questions are among those explored by Asheville, NC artist Jim Julien in his mixed-media presentation that features Julien playing several human roles in addition to providing the voices for the three puppets representing the dogs. In one of the funnier sequences in the show, Julien starts off portraying the death of Grendel, King of the Dogs, through the use of an articulated cut-out “acting” against a white board representing grass. Grendel then sprouts wings and ascends to heaven, precipitating the need for another dog to take over as King. What follows is a somewhat disjointed presentation in which Julien, portraying a professor or lecturer of some kind, talks from an academic perspective about humans’ relationship with dogs. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the dogs prepare to choose a new King, with the prime candidates being Bolan, a young mixed-breed dog who loves his human companion, and Yuan Shao, a purebred dog who is proud of his lineage and has a great distrust of humans. Both of these dogs vie for the attentions of Saffron, who was essentially Grendel’s Queen (“his bitch”, in her words), and who presumably will be the new King’s mate as well. Julien also portrays Bolan’s owner, who shows a mixture of affection and confusion in relation to his dog.

Overall, this was an entertaining production, if a little uneven and confusing at times, with an over-emphasis on the lecture aspect and not as much focus on the dogs, whose story was the most compelling aspect of the piece. I think there could have been more backstory about why the dogs have a King and what the King does, and why it has to be a King and not a Queen, as well. Julien’s donning of a hat that reads “DOGBRAIN” whenever he’s speaking for the dogs is a clever device, and he does a good job of providing distinct voices for the dogs. The story drags on a little long, though–especially in the lecture sections, and the transitions between scenes were a little choppy and confusing. Overall, though, I think it’s a good idea and I hope Julien continues to develop it and polish the presentation.

Trial By Jury Act Two Theatre Friday, June 20th, 8:00pm

This is basically “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Divorce Court”. Adapted from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s more obscure operettas, with additional music and arrangements by David Phillips and additional book and lyrics by Phillips and Sean Green, this production updates the setting of the original to modern day reality TV. For the most part, it’s a clever and often hilarious production with a great deal of audience participation, broad characterizations, and excellent singing. Portraying a trial for “breach of contract of marriage”, the show depicts an overly involved Bailiff (Harry Pickup), a moody jury and an Elvis-like Judge (Robert Michael Hansen), along with the much-vilified Defendant, the romantically conflicted charmer Eddie (Omega D. Jones), and the adored Plaintiff, the pageant queen-like Angelina (Brittany Kohl Hester), who is being wooed by both the Judge and the Bailiff in the midst of the trial. There are many pop-culture references and a very energetic ensemble, as well.

The stand-out performances here were from Hanson as the egotistical Judge, Pickup as the deep-voiced, overzealous Bailiff, and Jones as the smarmy Eddie, displaying an extremely strong tenor voice. Kohl Hester as Angelina and Shannon Slavik as the Jury Foreman also gave strong performances, with impressive voices and good comic timing. Kevin Hester as the Plaintiff’s Counsel gave a fine acting performance, although his singing wasn’t as strong. This performance, aside from the singing, is most notable for the very strong use of the audience participation elements, including in the amusing finale. The Judge even gave me a scarf as I was sitting in the front row.  The staging was kind of chaotic at times, but the overall performance was mostly a lot of fun.

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Bachelorette
by Leslye Headland
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
May 9, 2014

Ellie Schwetye, Wendy Renee Greenwood, Cara Barresi Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye, Wendy Renee Greenwood, Cara Barresi
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Bachelorette is the latest entry in Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s “Season of the Monster”.  Rather than the more straightforward interpretation of “monster”, as represented in SATE’s last production of the popular ghost story The Woman In Black, this latest production explores the monstrous side of ordinary people, taking the highly stressful but usually happy occasion of a wedding  as an opportunity to delve into some of the very darkest aspects of its characters’ lives and relationships.  It’s a short, extremely intense drama that showcases some of its characters at their worst, as well as the impressive cast of actors at their very best.

When it comes to wedding preparation, you may have heard of the “Bridezilla”, or over-controlling bride.  This play, instead, focuses on more of a “Bridesmaidzilla” and many crazy and petty goings-on on the eve of a wedding.  Becky (Jamie Fritz) is the bride, but she actually doesn’t show up until late in the play, although we hear a lot about her from icy Maid of Honor Regan (Ellie Schwetye) and her friends Gena (Cara Beresi) and Katie (Wendy Renee Greenwood), who Regan has invited to a bachelorette gathering in Becky’s hotel room without Becky’s knowledge. Much debauchery, gossip and bitching ensues, as the friends (or, more accurately, frenemies) indulge in copious amounts of drugs and alcohol while revealing their true thoughts about Becky, her wedding, and each other. In the midst of this, Regan indulges in a belligerent flirtation with Jeff (Jared Sanz-Ager), whom she has just met that night, while Jeff’s friend Joe (Carl Overly, Jr.) develops a bond with the initially perky party-girl Katie, who reveals an increasingly depressed and self-destructive side as the evening’s events progress.

The casting for this show is about as close to perfect as I can imagine. All the players are ideally cast in their roles, with Schwetye and Greenwood the particular standouts.  Schwetye plays cool, controlling Regan with just the right amount of humanity and a huge dose of icy resolve, precision-aimed cruelty and a brutal self-focus.  Greenwood portrays the fragile Katie with a convincing blend of perkiness, vulnerability and edge-of-a-cliff instability, singing her heart out on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby” in one memorable scene. As Joe, the perpetually stoned friend of Jeff’s who forms a quick connection with Katie, Overly is a strong, dependable presence. His scenes with Greenwood, as they both reveal some of their darkest personal secrets, are devastatingly truthful. Sanz-Agero, as the smug Jeff, does a good job especially in his scenes with Schwetye as the two act out their antagonistic attraction. Barresi, as the alternately aggressive and protective Gena, and Fritz as the much-maligned and seemingly clueless Becky also give strong performances.  It’s a very strong cast that brings an air of gritty authenticity to the raw and sometimes brutal proceedings of the play.

The scenic design is by Schwetye and director Rachel Tibbetts, and it works just right. Set up in the Chapel arts venue so that the audience is on the stage and the “stage” is the floor of the space, this arrangement suggests the high-class hotel room setting with just a little bit of furniture and an area rug complementing the existing bar area very well. There’s also great use of music and excellent atmospheric lighting by Bess Moynihan.  This is a dark play in its subject matter, and the overall look is appropriately stark.

This is a show about adults acting like petulant children, and it’s definitely for an adult audience with its language and themes. It’s a well-written character study that explores some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature, showing just how monstrous and cruel people can be, even toward those they claim are their friends. Although it’s not a happy show, there are flickers of compassion and humanity that bring the more brutal aspects of some of the characters into sharper focus by the contrast. It’s a sharp, incisive and undeniably provocative  experience, and another profoundly memorable success for SATE.

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Carl Overly, Jr. Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

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