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Here Lies Henry
by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company
June 10, 2021

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Here Lies Henry is a show that’s perfect for Joe Hanrahan. Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has become known for his one-man shows (although that’s not all they do), and I can’t think of a better vehicle for Hanrahan’s talent than this one. It’s an ideal showcase, also featuring the talents of a strong technical crew and consistently excellent director.

This is kind of an odd show, but that’s par for this course for The Midnight Company, as well. When we first see Henry (Hanrahan), he’s obviously nervous, and it’s not obvious why he is there, shifting back and forth between different approaches to speaking to the audience, from telling personal stories to corny jokes, to singing a little bit of a song and, occasionally, dancing. For a while, the point of this presentation isn’t clear, and many of Henry’s comments seem random, but as the show continues, everything begins to fall more into place, as references return and return, eventually revealing their meaning, and the purpose for Henry’s speech is gradually revealed, leading to an abrupt but poignant conclusion.

The overall effect here is that the audience gets to know Henry little by little as he catalogs his history of being a great liar, which is one reason for the show’s punny title. In the midst of these lies, though, there is truth, as Henry reveals realities concerning his background, relationship with his parents, his experiences of love and personal identity, and more.  There is also much truth in Hanrahan’s relatable performance. Hanrahan, as usual, is excellent, and this show gives him an ideal opportunity to display a wide range of emotions, as well as philosophizing about the meaning of life–in general, and specifically for his character. 

The staging and technical aspects here are also superb, and deceptively simple, as the show is essentially Hanrahan on a mostly empty stage. Still, even though it’s simple, there’s a lot going on, as Tony Anselmo’s lighting and Kevin Bowman’s production design lend a lot of atmosphere to the story, and the overall effect is a testament to the proficiency of these artists and director Ellie Schwetye in letting Hanrahan shine as Henry tells his fascinating tale and Hanrahan embodies every moment with substance, humor, and drama.

It’s been a welcome return to theatre for me and theatre fans around St. Louis, with a variety of shows currently onstage. Here Lies Henry may seem like one of the “smaller” offerings, although it features a big performance and much to provoke thought and reflection. It’s another excellent and intriguing work from Hanrahan and The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Here Lies Henry at the Kranzberg Arts Center until June 27, 2021

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Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

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King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Carl Cofield

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

June 4, 2021

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis and the cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Live theatre is back! I can’t properly express how excited I’ve been to finally be able to attend a real, in-person theatrical production for the first time since March 2020. There have been several excellent and creative virtual productions from various theatre companies, both national and local, but for me nothing has the same energy as a live show. I know many theatre fans, fellow critics and bloggers, and theatre artists have felt the same, and now that a lot of pandemic restrictions are being revised and relaxed, anticipation has been high.  It’s been a long break, and now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has answered that longing with a first-rate, riveting production of the Bard’s tragedy King Lear, starring an excellent cast of local and non-local performers and led by a genuine Broadway legend, André De Shields, in the title role. Along with a terrific cast including some excellent local performers, De Shields and the Festival usher live performance back to St. Louis in a bold, poignant, and unforgettable way.

This isn’t the first production of King Lear I’ve seen, or reviewed, although it couldn’t be more different than the last time I saw this show live, which was indoors and in a much smaller venue, and with a different director’s vision and setting. Here, the action is set in the present-day (or near it) in a kingdom in North Africa, with the atmosphere set by means of Wilson Chin’s striking set that features a crumbling facade and the suggestion of decline. The story is well-known, as the aging King Lear (De Shields) decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril (Rayme Cornell), Regan (Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (Nicole King). When the elder daughters flatter him excessively and Cordelia refuses to do the same, Lear is driven to anger, cutting off Cordelia and sending her away from the kingdom to marry the King of France (Michael Tran). Also banished is the king’s devoted friend the Earl of Kent (J. Samuel Davis), who supports Cordelia, although the ever-loyal Kent simply disguises himself under the name of Gaius and is taken into the king’s service. Lear, accompanied by the disguised Kent  and another devoted retainer, the Fool (Allen Gilmore), travels to stay with his remaining daughters–first Goneril and her husband, the sympathetic Albany (Jason J. Little), and then with Regan her co-conspiratorial husband Cornwall (Carl Overly, Jr.). As he is mistreated by his vain and scheming daughters, Lear is forced to confront his own vanity and rashness at rejecting Cordelia. This plot is intertwined with the story of Gloucester (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his two sons, the kindhearted Edgar (Daniel José Molina), and the scheming Edmund (Leland Fowler), who bemoans his “illegitimate” birth and resents his brother, who is the heir to his father’s title. Edmund’s plots against his brother leads to Edgar’s exile disguised as “Poor Tom”, who eventually comes into contact with Lear, who in his grief has taken to wandering in the wilderness with Kent and the Fool, bemoaning his fate, as well as Gloucester, who falls afoul of Lear’s daughters’ schemes and is also exiled. All of these events eventually lead to much conflict, personal reflection, and eventually war and and a series of tragedies. It’s an intense story, as expected, but the interpretation here is even more intense than I had remembered.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast is strong, although De Shields is unmistakably the star here. Known more for his performances in musical theatre over the years, he brings a singer’s vocal variation and a dancer’s physicality to this iconic Shakespearean role, although he doesn’t actually sing or dance. His journey from self-centered impulsivity to defiant regret and self-reflection, to abject grief is striking and bold. His scenes with the also excellent Davis as the ever-faithful Kent, Gilmore as the comedian/philosopher Fool, and King as the brave and honest Cordelia are especially memorable, as is his visceral disappointment in his self-focused daughters, Goneril and Regan, who are portrayed memorably by Cornell and Thompson respectively. There are also strong performances from Molina as Edgar, who ably morphs from gentle, hippie-ish skater dude to wild forest dweller to protective son; and Fowler as the ever-scheming Edmund; and especially Wilson as their duped and regretful father, Gloucester. Jason J. Little as loyal (to Lear) Albany and Overly in a dual role as the power-hungry Cornwall and a Gentleman attending Cordelia are also excellent, as is Tran as Goneril’s determined and sycophantic steward, Oswald as well as a brief turn as Cordelia’s suitor, the King of France. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, working together to bring the sense of intensity and drama, and occasional humor to this fully realized production.

Technically, this production also shines. The versatility of Chin’s set serves the story well, as pieces are reused to depict not only the changes in locales, but the deterioration of Lear’s kingdom. There’s also impressive work from fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, percussion director Atum Jones, and sound designer David R. Molina. John Wylie’s lighting design is also especially impressive, augmenting the drama especially in the moments of Lear’s exile and as military conflicts heat up.

This stunning production from St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a particularly profound answer to the year-long anticipation of the return of live performance. The Forest Park setting and modified “pod seating” also works well, lending a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Anchored by an essential performance by its headlined star, and supported by a superb cast and technical crew, King Lear may be a tragedy as a play, but as a production it’s an outright triumph.

Michael Tran, Jacqueline Thompson, Rayme Cornell, Carl Overly Jr., André De Shields and cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting King Lear in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 27, 2021

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Moscow!
Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
May 28, 2020

Promo Image by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

 

Since live theatre is sadly on pause at the moment, several St. Louis theatre companies have been taking the opportunity to experiment with the medium of online theatre in various forms. At the forefront of that experimentation is one of the area’s more daring and inventive theatre company’s, Equally Represented Arts (ERA), who have taken this opportunity to re-present one of their productions via the Zoom video conferencing format. It’s a bold move for a theatre company known for its boldness, and even though it still doesn’t completely fill the void left by a truly live in-person performance, it makes the most of its medium and provides a thoroughly provocative, memorable experience.

Moscow! was previously performed at the St. Lou Fringe Festival in 2015 in a more traditional, live format, although as is typical for ERA, the story, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, was done in a unique, experimental manner, in this instance as a drinking game. That structure remains in the Zoom version, with viewers instructed to take a drink every time one of the characters says “Moscow”.  In a way, this format works better in a setting in which viewers are watching from home.  Of course, you also have more choice of beverages in your own home, whether you choose to drink “high-octane” or “low-octane”–although I would caution viewers to take care, because the characters say “Moscow” a lot.  I had to refill my cup twice during the one-hour production, and I was only drinking water. Let’s just say I was well-hydrated by the end. 

This production is especially clever, using the Zoom format to its best advantage, allowing for the various cast members to stream from their own homes while maintaining the illusion that they are meeting together when the story calls for that. I was especially grateful for the “after party” talkback session afterwards, in which the cast and crew explained the preparation that went into this production, which featured excellent work from production designer and director Lucy Cashion, costume designer Marcy Wiegert, music director Joe Taylor, and stage manager Miranda Jagels Félix. The video conferencing setup also provided some unique pitfalls, though, such as the viewing format varying according to which way the viewers chose to watch–on smart phone or computer via the app, or on a computer via their web browser. As ideally presented and designed, the viewer was supposed to see the perspective alternating between individual characters’ view, and gallery view in which all characters were visible at once. Some viewers, including myself (watching on my Chromebook with the app), this presentation didn’t come across, Instead, I and others only got to see the alternating focus on individual characters. Still, the pacing the production and performances made it riveting even with the difference in format. 

The story is also probably easier to follow if you’re familiar with Chekhov’s original play, which I hadn’t seen or read before. Still, the excellent cast and Cashion’s strong direction made this presentation memorable. The story follows the Prozerov family–the three sisters Olga (Ellie Schwetye), Masha (Rachel Tibbetts), and Irina (Alicen Moser), and their brother Andrey (Will Bonfiglio), who live in a small Russian town and miss their time growing up in Moscow (drink!). Various romantic entanglements, living situation woes, occupational issues, and personal conflicts ensue as several years pass through the course of the story and the characters’ fortunes and life attitudes change according their circumstances. We meet Masha’s nice but not particularly exciting husband Kulygin (Gabe Taylor), Andrey’s controlling wife Natasha (Maggie Conroy), and the dashing soldier and Masha’s paramour Vershinin (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), along with two officers battling for Irina’s affections–the more dependable Baron Tuzenbach (Mitch Eagles), and the impulsive Solyony (Jakob Hultén). The cast also features Carl Overly, Jr. as old family friend Chebutykin, Cashion as longtime family servant Anfisa, who occasionally provides a bit of narration to set the scene, and Joe Taylor (who is playing atmospheric music throughout) as Ferapont.  It’s a strong cast all around, with the sisters especially strong with their contrasting personalities, from Schwetye’s more even-tempered Olga, to Tibbetts’s melancholic Masha, to Moser’s initially hopeful but conflicted Irina. Bonfiglio is also memorable as the increasingly bitter Andrey, as is Conroy as the selfish, controlling Natasha. The entire cast is excellent, though, with surprisingly strong ensemble chemistry considering the fact that none of the players are in the same room. There’s a degree of energy here that’s especially impressive considering it’s a streamed performance, although the fact that each performance was done live certainly helps with the energy level. 

The shifting tone and pace of the show is also handled especially well, with comic moments punctuating the piece early on, and some moments of poignancy as the story continues. It’s a worthwhile experiment from the always clever and provocative ERA. Even though I still look forward to the day when I can go to the theatre again, productions like this make the wait a lot easier.

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The stage for last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle Awards at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Arts

I’ve said it many times to friends and acquaintances both in town and out of town–St. Louis has an exciting theatre scene, much larger and more spread out than many can imagine. We have big companies like the Muny and the Rep, but also smaller and just as excellent companies too numerous to mention. Unfortunately now, live theatre has been put on hold due to the current major health crisis, in St. Louis and throughout the country and the world. Still, just because we are staying home, that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate theatre in our city. Several local theatre companies are sponsoring events, and I’ll be featuring two of these companies later in this post. First, though, I want to mention an event that’s coming up tomorrow night in which I’ve been honored to participate–The St. Louis Theater Circle Awards streamcast.

Usually, the Theater Circle Awards are a live event affectionately nicknamed “Theatre Prom”, in which people from throughout the St. Louis theatre scene have been able to attend, including actors, directors, theatre company staff, and more, hosted by the St. Louis Theater Circle, the critics’ organization of which I am a member. It’s not just an awards event. It’s a party, and it’s been fun to participate in the festivities for the past several years. This year, however, in light of the current situation, the awards presentation is going online. The Theater Circle has voted, and the results will still be announced, but now you will be able to watch the results from your own home thanks to HEC TV, who will be streaming the awards on their Facebook page starting at 7pm.  Next year, I hope “Theatre Prom” will be able to return, but I’m glad this medium has been made available, and I hope many people will be watching. One benefit to this format is that viewers from outside of St. Louis will be able to watch, so I encourage readers to spread the word and tune in!

Now, although live theatre is a unique experience, the next best thing is being able to film these productions and post them online, which many theatre companies have done around the world. In St. Louis, you can stream Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s recent production of The Cake (details at this link). The Rep is also participating with several other regional theatres around the country for a project called Play at Home, which you can find here.  

Another especially exciting online offering is Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s the outstanding Cymbeline, presented by their TourCo ensemble and featuring a first-rate cast (Hannah Geisz, Britteny Henry, Mary Heyl, Keating, Halli Pattison, and Jenni Ryan), deftly directed by Tom Ridgely, with an excellent creative team including music director Tre’von “Tre G” Griffith, stage manager Emily Clinger, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, and props master Laura Skroska. This is a superb production, well-paced and cleverly presented, and it’s up on the SFSTL Facebook page here. Go watch it while you can! Also, SFSTL is offering other streamed offerings from the TourCo ensemble, including readings of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” and Albert Camus’s The Plague. Check out their Facebook page for these productions and more. 

I hope the wonder that is live theatre will be able to return before too long, but in the meantime what we can do is stay home to flatten the curve, support our local theatre companies as best we can (viewing, donations, buying tickets to future productions, etc.), and always remember the value of the arts and the people who make them.

 

 

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The Cake
by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Sara Bruner
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 13, 2020

Rigel Harris, Denny Dillon, Dria Brown
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last play of the Rep’s Steve Woolf Studio series is also, unfortunately, the last show of the Rep’s whole season. As the nation and the world are embroiled in uncertainty and encouraged to stay apart for the good of everyone, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake also explores, in a different way, issues of distance, connection, and conflict. Also this play has nothing to do with the the current virus situation, it’s hard not to think of it in light of the current situation now that the play has had to cut short its run, and considering the overall mood of the audience on Opening Night. Ultimately, it’s a striking character study that highlights some especially strong performances, and also the desire, and need, to be seen, heard, and loved.

The Cake is, for the most part, a comedy, but there are serious issues to deal with here in terms of long-held traditions and ideas, as well as the need for connection and understanding among neighbors, friends, family, and everyone. It’s structured as a linear story punctuated with a series of fantasy sequences focusing on Della (Denny Dillon), who owns a bakery in North Carolina and is preparing to appear as a contestant on The Great American Baking Show. Della has been married to plumber Tim (Carl Palmer) for years, but they have been unable to have children, and Della seems to have transferred her maternal longings to her shop and also to the families of her friends. When Macy (Dria Brown), a writer from Brooklyn, appears in her shop with the seeming pretext of conducting an impromptu interview, Della is soon surprised to learn that Macy is accompanied by Jen (Rigel Harris), the daughter of Della’s late best friend. Jen then tells the initially delighted Della that she’s engaged. Della offers to bake Jen’s cake, but soon is looking for excuses not to when Macy reveals that she is the one Jen is marrying. This sets off a conflict not just between the couple and Della, but also between Della and Jen (in different ways) with their own fundamentalist backgrounds, and also reveals tensions between Della and Tim, who both have trouble dealing with the results of their inability to have children.  Throughout the story, in a series of humorous and increasingly bizarre fantasy segments, Della imagines an array of baking show “challenges”. The characters are, for the most part, well-drawn and although occasional dialogue and monologues sound more like they come from an essay than a play, it’s an intriguing show with some genuinely funny and heartwarming moments, and and an ultimate commitment to hope.

The cast here is first-rate, led by the remarkable Dillon as the increasingly conflicted Della. Dillon does an admirable job of portraying Della’s complexities and both likable and less savory qualities in a believable way. Della is a memorable character, made all the more so by Dillon’s energetic performance. Harris as Jen is also especially strong, showing her intense conflict of trying to reconcile her past with her present. There are also strong performances from Brown as the determined Macy and Palmer as the occasionally clueless Tim. Both couples have credible chemistry as well, and their private moments together also reveal a lot about the characters as individuals. 

Visually, this show is a colorful confection reflecting the bright hues and cheery atmosphere of a small-town bakery, reflected in the remarkably detailed set and cake designs (not credited in the program). There’s also well-suited costumed design by Ulises Alcala, as well as striking lighting by Robert Denton and excellent sound by David Van Tieghem. The whole look and atmosphere of this show reflects the setting and characters well.

On the way to this show, I told my husband that I expected this to be the last play I would see for a while, and before and after the play I overheard the same sentiment from others in the audience. It’s sad that this play had to close early, as do essentially all live theatre productions for a time. But still, in this time of “social distancing” it’s always good to remember the importance of connection, and communication. The Cake is an excellent production that highlights those needs in its own memorable ways.

Now for my readers, I’m not sure when I’ll be reviewing a live production again, but in the meantime, please stay safe and well, and remember that even when we have to stay apart for a time, we all need that sense of connection. 

Carl Palmer, Denny Dillon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

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