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The LaBute New Theater Festival, Part 2
Directed by Spencer Sickmann
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 22, 2022

Carly Uding, Brock Russell, Bryn Mclaughlin in “St. Louis”
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is back this week with the second round of their 2022 LaBute New Theater Festival. This week’s selection features one from last week, namesake playwright LaBute’s “St. Louis”, which stood out for its sharp dialogue on this viewing, as well as its strong performances by Carly Uding, Brock Russell, and Bryn Mclaughlin. The rest of this installment’s entries represent a mix of styles and subject matter, with a bit of a focus on the unexpected, as well as a turn more toward drama. Here are some thoughts:

“TNT”
by Steve Apostolina

This play is the most comedic of this set, focusing on relationships between work colleagues Tucker (Drew Patterson), Nunez (Mara Bollini), and Thompson (William Humphrey), who work in the parking garage of some type of movie and/or television studio. The personality conflicts, political differences, and hidden secrets between these three characters form the story. Tucker and Nunez, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, seem to barely tolerate one another while trying to maintain a cordial working relationship, while Nunez drops hints about new co-worker Thompson and soon, a series of surprises reveal themselves as the story plays out, revealing how quickly feelings can change when key information is revealed. It’s briskly paced, and all three performers handle the timing well, even though the ending is more than a little abrupt, to the point where it almost leaves me wondering what the point of this play is. Still, it’s a timely reflection on how relationships are affected by core beliefs, with some amusing moments, along with some room for thought and reflection.

“Maizie and Willow, Brown Penny, Blue Pillow”
by John Yarbrough

This is by far the shortest of the plays in this set. In fact, it comes across more as a scene from a larger play, and as such it leaves a lot of questions. There’s a lot of detail here that doesn’t get explored because the play is so short. The story focuses on married couple Maizie (Missy Heinemann) and Willow (Jaelyn Hawkins), as they deal with a major life decision having to do with Willow’s apparent terminal illness. There are intense moments in this play, and both performers exhibit strong chemistry and intense, credible emotion while dealing with a controversial subject that is going to affect different audience members different ways. It’s an intriguing vignette, but for the most part, it  seems incomplete. 

“What Do they Want”
by Gary Pepper

This play gets my vote for “best of the festival” this year–in a near-tie with the next play of this set–with its fascinating twists and turns in the plot, as well as it’s surprisingly well-drawn characters and excellent pacing. In this story, strangers Gary (Brock Russell) and Burt (Drew Patterson) meet on the roof of a building, while Gary tries to figure out a puzzling issue and Burt is trying, again, to quit smoking. At first, it’s not entirely clear what Gary’s problem is, but when Burt tries to help, he finds himself more and more disturbed. Then, the situation turns in a striking way with a fairly simple revelation, and the power balance shifts back and forth as these two work out their issues and talk through a variety of issues in their lives. It’s a mixture of comedy of drama in terms of tone, with both performers turning in excellent performances as these two increasingly fascinating characters. 

“Who Will Witness For the Witness”
by Susan Hansell

This is another strong entry in the festival, with a focus on women from history that you may or may not have heard of, and an infamous, horrific, and tragic event

that is well known. Told in a narrative style, first presented by a photojournalist character identified in the program as “Woman 1” (Jaelyn Hawkins) and then intertwining with the stories of Woman 2 (Mara Bollini), a philosopher, mystic, and activist; Woman 3 *Bryn Mclaughlin), a resistance fighter; and Woman 4 (Missy Heinemann), a Catholic convert and nun. All are essentially contemporaries, standing up against atrocities and injustice, mostly revolving around the World War II and specifically the Holocaust. This in an intense play, with a strong sense of story and character, as these historical figures tell their tales and implore the audience never to forget. There’s a lot here, but it’s a well constructed story, making a profound, emotional impression. This is a remarkable production. 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Part 2 of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theater until July 31, 2022

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The LaBute New Theater Festival
Directed by Spencer Sickmann
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 10, 2022

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Eric Dean White, Carly Uding in “Time Warp”
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s usually annual LaBute New Theater Festival is back at the Gaslight Theater after a two year hiatus, in its usual 2 part format. The first set of plays, which opened on July 8, focus largely on relationships–romantic, adversarial, and friendship. It’s an intriguing set of plays, and as usual, features an entry by the festival’s namesake, Neil LaBute, that will be running throughout the festival. Unlike previous years’ festivals, which had a variety of directors, all the plays this time were directed by Spencer Sickmann. The set design and lighting design are by Patrick Huber, the costume design is by Carla Landis Evans, and the props and sound design are by STLAS. Here are my thoughts on Part 1:

“What Else is New”
by Aren Haun

Eric Dean White, Mitch Henry-Eagles
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is a character-focused show that seems to drag a little at first, but picks up as the story plays out. The setting is a nameless diner, and Bruno (Eric Dean White) enters with a roll-on suitcase and begins asking questions of the only worker in the place, Mark (Mitch Henry-Eagles), who we soon find out is an art student. Bruno is very particular, bringing his own silverware and straw to the diner, as well as asking Mark pointed questions and insisting he turn on the TV. At first, Mark seems annoyed by Bruno, but as Bruno shares more of his story, the tone starts to change. It’s an intriguing look at the developing relationship between two characters who are initially strangers, although it does seem to run a little long. The point seems to be about finding connection in the midst of loneliness and disappointed dreams, and both actors do an excellent job portraying these two contrasting characters.

“Twilight Time” 
by John Doble

Bryn Mclaughlin, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This one is the shortest play of the night, again featuring two strangers meeting and forming a connection. What’s different about this play is that the characters, Benjamin (Alexander Huber) and Geraldine (Bryn McLaughlin), soon find that they are both there for the same dark reason. Not to give too much away, but I feel the need to provide a warning here, as suicide is discussed, along with various methods. Soon, however, the mood shifts, as the two characters find that they share much more in common than their mutual, sad goal. In fact, an attraction quickly grows between them, and the tone of the show starts to shift somewhat rapidly. The overall staging is simple, but well-paced. This is a very short play, and the overall comic tone may strike some audience members as odd, but both performers play out this story with excellent chemistry and compelling stage presence, and the characters seem surprisingly well-developed as a result, considering the length of the play. 

“Funny Thing”
by Willie Johnson

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Drew Patterson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This entry is more of a relationship drama, with a non-linear element that can become confusing at times, although the staging and especially the lighting help in figuring out what is going on, and when. It shows the development and breakup of a romantic relationship between two characters identified as Older Man (Drew Patterson) and Younger Man (Mitch Henry-Eagles), with Older Man starting and ending the show holding a large rock-like object that he then hangs on the wall for the most of the play, taking it back down at the end. I’m not entirely sure what this action and object are supposed to mean. Maybe the relationship–or the act of of meeting, dating, and then breaking up is seen as a cyclical burden–but that’s not made entirely clear. It’s mostly just an “observational” type story as we see these characters meet, get to know another, and then break up, with the initial breakup scene happening right after the first meeting scene, forming two basic “threads” of the story. It’s an intriguing structure, reminding me somewhat of the musical The Last Five Years except here, both characters are interacting in both threads. It’s an interesting concept, but  Older Man isn’t especially likable, and there’s not enough time to show exactly why the relationship sours, so it’s not as easy to follow as it could be. The performances are strong throughout, but there doesn’t seem to be a major point here much of the time. 

“Time Warp”
by Fran Dorf

Eric Dean White, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is, to my mind, the most fascinating concept, as well as featuring the most compelling characters. The story takes place in what appears to be an antique shop in New York City, as an older couple, Brian (Eric Dean White) and Beth (Carly Uding) are celebrating their anniversary with a trip, and find themselves wandering into this shop, run by a friendly but mysterious proprietor , CG Young (Mitch Henry-Eagles). Soon, both Brian and Beth begin recognizing objects in the shop, as well as remembering, or almost-remembering, events that seem to have happened in their dreams. Soon, we hear about Brian’s experiences while serving in the Vietnam war, and an old Army acquaintance of his starts to figure into his memories and Beth’s–the angry but talented artist Joey Passarelli (Alexander Huber). It soon becomes clear that this shop is not what it first appears to be, and the answer to Brian and Beth’s growing confusion is something that the audience may not have guessed. I know I didn’t guess. The acting here is especially strong, although some of the subject matter is highly disturbing. Still, it’s a compelling story, and all of the players work well together. The lighting and sound are also especially notable in this production, working to lend a mysterious air to the proceedings.

St. Louis
by Neil LaBute

Carly Uding, Brock Russell, Bryn Mclaughlin
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As the “headline” act of this festival, “St. Louis” strikes me as curious. It’s a cleverly structured, interview-style play, featuring a developing story of the intertwining relationships of characters listed in the program as Him (Brock Russell), Her (Carly Uding), and She (Bryn McGlaughlin), although they do have names that are mentioned throughout–Scott, Stephanie, and Sue, respectively. All three seem to be responding to an interrogation of sorts by an unseen interviewer, as their answers are sometimes hostile and/or defensive. It tells a fairly simple story in an “unfolding mystery” type of way, as Scott moves into the same apartment building as Stephanie and Sue, who are a couple. Soon, though, he and Stephanie strike up a rapport, and the story plays out from there, in a somewhat predictable fashion. It’s fairly easy to follow, and the characters and their relationships are clearly defined and portrayed, even though all three are standing alone in different areas of the stage. The acting is strong here, with characters who aren’t always easy to like (especially Scott), but the setting is somewhat superficial. The title of the play is “St. Louis”, and the story is ostensibly set here, but that setting doesn’t go any further than mentioning a few local place names. These names could easily be changed to have to play set essentially anywhere. Still, the dialogue is sharp and the characters well-defined. I’m curious to see what I will think when I see it again in Part 2 of the festival.

Part 1 of the LaBute New Theatre Festival is running at the Gaslight Theater until July 17, 2022. Part 2 begins on July 22, 2022.

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