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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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