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Jitney
by August Wilson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 13, 2022

Kevin Brown, Phillip Dixon
Photo: The Black Rep

August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights of the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  His Pittsburgh Cycle (also called the “Century Cycle”) is a celebrated series of works, mostly centering on Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th Century and focusing on the life experiences of various characters in this historically Black neighborhood. The Black Rep here in St. Louis has been duly lauded for its well-regarded productions of Wilson’s plays, with its latest production, Jitney, continuing this tradition of excellence.

Taking place in the 1970s, Jitney is named for its setting–a “Jitney” or unlicensed cab station, which were popular because the “official” cabs often refused to serve the neighborhood– in an area of the Hill District that’s being rapidly redeveloped. A variety of well-drawn characters inhabit the space–mostly drivers and occasional customers and relatives. It’s a time when a lot of change is in the air, and much of it is driven by outside interests that are more interested in making money than retaining the character of the neighborhood, or caring for its Black residents. Change is also in the air for the Jitney drivers, as the youngest driver, Darnell AKA “Youngblood” (Olajuwan Davis), hopes to buy a house to better provide for his girlfriend, Rena (Alex Jay), and their young son, Jesse. Youngblood is full of hopes and dreams, but these are threatened by a misunderstanding and the gossip of resident busybody Turnbo (Ron Himes), an older driver who seems to resent Youngblood because of his youth. The station’s owner, Becker (Kevin Brown) deals with a variety of changes and challenges, as his long-estranged son, Clarence AKA “Booster” (Phillip Dixon), has recently returned to town after having spent 20 years in prison, and Becker isn’t so sure he wants to renew their relationship. There are also the pressures of running the station in the midst of the uncertainty concerning its future, as well as the pressures of managing his crew of drivers and their personal issues and conflicts–including the clashes between Turnbo and Youngblood, as well as longtime driver Fielding’s (J. Samuel Davis) ongoing issues with drinking. Fellow driver Doub (Edward L. Hill) attempts to keep the peace between his squabbling coworkers but is frequently exasperated in the process, and numbers runner Shealy (Robert A. Mitchell) is a continued source of stress for Becker as he insists on running his operation from the payphone in the station, and also asks Becker to use his influence at the local mill to get a job for a young relative.

The ups and downs of life in this small area of the country serves as a picture of the times, as well as a study of Wilson’s well-realized characters and their relationships. One of Wilson’s great strengths as a playwright is his ability with authentic, idiosyncratic dialogue and well-drawn characters that present credible “every day” situations in this specific setting while also exploring broader themes of what was happening in the wider world at the time, especially in the lives of Black Americans. Wilson’s plays are vivid and specific, as well as being both timely and timeless, and Jitney  continues this trend. At the Black Rep, Wilson’s vision is fully realized through means of excellent casting and production values, as director Himes gets the tone and pacing just right, as usual. There’s also an impressive, detailed set by Harlan D. Penn that brings the Jitney station to life, as well as excellent costumes by Jamie Bullins that reflect the characters’ personalities and the time period especially well. Joseph W. Clapper’s lighting and Justin Schmitz’s sound design also work well to establish and maintain the period, tone, and mood of the play, with lighting effects especially used well to punctuate dramatic moments in the story. 

On top of its first-rate production values, the biggest strength of the Black Rep’s Jitney is its cast. All of the players here fit ideally into their roles, led by Brown as the older and world-weary Becker and Olajuwan Davis as the young, determined Youngblood. These two anchor a cast that has no weak links, with standouts being Himes as the belligerent busybody Turnbo, J. Samuel Davis as the amiable, frequently inebriated Fielding, and Hill as the increasingly exasperated Doub. There’s also a strong turn by Richard Harris in a smaller role as frequent Jitney customer Philmore. The chemistry between Olajuwan Davis’s Youngblood and Jay’s Rena is also excellent and credible. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing life to Wilson’s excellent script and keeping the energy going in the midst of the varied pace of the story. 

The Black Rep is a company with a reputation for excellence in all its productions, but I particularly look forward to their August Wilson productions because they are always especially strong. Jitney is worth the anticipation. It’s a vivid, sometimes humorous, sometimes intense look at life for its characters at a specific time and place in history, but although it takes place in the 1970s, it has a lot to say to contemporary audiences as well. It’s a must-see performance.

Cast of Jitney
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Jitney at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 29, 2022

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Anomalous Experience
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Morgan Maul-Smith
The Midnight Company
May 5, 2022

Payton Gillam, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is back, with an original show that’s not very long in terms of time, but is full of intensity and meaning in its own way nonetheless. Anomalous Experience is actor-playwright Hanrahan’s foray into the unexplained, covering the often controversial topic of alien abductions. It’s an intriguing piece with a strong cast, but what stands out especially are the surprisingly strong production elements that add much to the overall sense of eeriness and mystery.

The play is presented in the format of a lecture by psychologist and professor James Collins (Hanrahan), who has worked with a variety of clients over the years who have claimed to have been abducted by aliens. He introduces us to two such clients–Virginia (Payton Gillam), whose case is described as more “classic”, and Scott (Joseph Garner), whose tales are a little more unusual. It’s all very straightforward in terms of presentation, but the tension ramps up as the stories get going.

There isn’t much here in terms of subject matter that hasn’t been covered in science fiction or shows like Unsolved Mysteries back in the day, but the actors make their stories compelling. Hanrahan makes an effective facilitator as Collins, and both Gillam and Garner are credible in their portrayals of their experiences. What especially adds to the experience, though, is the stellar work by sound designer Ellie Schwetye and lighting designer Tony Anselmo, in elevating this production from a simple interview format to a more increasingly chilling experience. As the characters tell their stories, the lighting and especially the sound effects add a creepy, suspenseful tone that punctuates the storytelling with surprising effectiveness. The pacing and staging by director Morgan Maul-Smith also lends much to the overall tone of the production, and even though you may have heard similar stories on TV or in movies before, these characters and their stories are made all the more compelling by the strong acting and excellent technical production.

No matter what you think about the topic of alien abduction in the real world, the topic makes for an intriguing subject as presented here. Anomalous Experience may not being breaking any new ground in its portrayal of this topic, but it’s a story told especially well. It’s a simply staged production, but an impressive cast and especially impressive technical design elevates the material. It’s an engaging, occasionally chilling, and thought-provoking piece from The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan, Joseph Garner
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Anomalous Experience at the .ZACK Theatre until May 21, 2022

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The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Robert Ashton
West End Players Guild
April 28, 2022

Jason Meyers, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s latest production is from celebrated Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh, whose specialty is dark comedy with a penchant for the gruesome. The Lonesome West, however, even though it’s still essentially a dark comedy, is something of a departure in that it explores its relationships with not just a sharp edge, but also with a bit of a softer side and not a few moments of true poignancy. As staged at WEPG, it’s also an expertly paced showcase for four excellent local performers.

Set in Leenane, Galway, Ireland, the play follows two brothers, Valene (Jeff Kargus), and Coleman (Jason Meyers), who are constantly squabbling over multiple issues, big and small. We first meet them after the funeral of their father, who was shot by Coleman apparently by accident. Valene is extremely possessive, putting his initial on everything that belongs to him, from his new stove to bottles of booze to snack foods, and is reluctant to share with his brother. He also irritates Coleman by obsessing over his collection of figurines of various Catholic saints. Coleman, for his part, irritates his brother by constantly flouting his rules, and both brothers are a source of frustration for the local village priest, Father Welsh (Ted Drury), whose name they can’t even always get right, and who is frequently questioning his faith because of his perceived inability to have any effect whatsoever on the moral development of the townspeople. There’s also Girleen (Hannah Geisz), a neighborhood schoolgirl who hawks her father’s homemade booze and seems to look up to Father Welsh, despite the priest’s continued self-doubt. It’s these two characters who most often produce the occasional poignant moments that appear from time to time in the play, while the brothers are a chaotic force that drives the dark comedy ever darker. Even when there’s a new tragedy that makes the brothers take stock in their own lives and their relationship, they still can’t seem to help their constant needling of one another. 

Like McDonagh’s other plays that I have seen, the sense of setting is strong here, with a believably Irish tone and atmosphere that’s well maintained in this production by the excellent work of the actors and designers. The small, seemingly ancient farmhouse is well-realized in Brad Slavik’s remarkably detailed set, and the characters are appropriately outfitted by costumer Tracey Newcomb. There’s also strong work on props from Frank Goudsmit, as well as excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo and skilled sound design by Jenn Ciavarella.

The actors are especially impressive here, with Meyers and Kargus play against one another particularly well as the belligerent brothers, Coleman and Valene. Their strong personalities are well-realized, as is their sharp sense of comic timing and physicality. There’s also superb work from Drury as the self-doubting Father Welsh, who provides much of the emotional heart of the play, and Geisz as the feisty Girleen is also strong, especially in her scenes with Drury. The pacing is strong, as well, and the whole cast brings a sense of energy to the production that adds much to its entertainment value, as well as it’s occasionally thought-provoking themes.

McDonagh’s plays are often crass, sometimes gory, and definitely not for all ages, but this one has a degree of emotional resonance that I haven’t seen in some of his other dark comedies. Dark, physical, and frequently irreverent comedy is still at the forefront here, but there’s a level of depth that makes this play especially intriguing. As performed by a first rate cast at WEPG, The Lonesome West is certainly worth checking out.

Ted Drury, Hannah Geisz
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Lonesome West at Union Avenue Christian Church until May 8, 2022

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Triassic Parq: The Musical
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Marshall Pailet
Book and Lyrics by Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 15, 2022

Rachel Bailey, Bryce Miller, Tristan Davis, Michael Wells, Dawn Schmid
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is going on a modern prehistoric adventure with an entertainingly goofy show that presents itself as a parody of a well-known book and movie franchise. It’s not Jurassic Park, but it is, sort of; or it uses that story as a starting point before going its own way, with its funny title, silly and frequently raunchy humor, and dinosaurs galore. In fact, it’s the dinosaurs who take center stage here, played by an impressive, enthusiastic cast, and featuring some catchy songs and eye-catching production values. 

This story leans into the silly humor, and the dinosaur-theming. The lead characters are dinosaurs, and the humans are mostly only mentioned and not seen, with one notable exception–a funny “cameo” by initial narrator Morgan Freeman (Laurell Stevenson) Even the band is presented as made up of dinosaurs. billed as Pianosaurus (Leah Schultz), Guitarotops (Adam Rugo), and Drumadon (Joe Winters). Pianosaurus even figures into the story and interacts with the main characters at various points. Those main characters are, as one might expect knowing the source material, mostly velociraptors and t-rexes, with the addition of another dino called “Mime-A-Saurus” (Bryce Miller) who figures into the story both as a character and as occasional scenery. The key figures are a trio of velociraptors, The Velociraptors of Faith (Michael Wells), Innocence (Tristan Davis), and Science (also Stevenson), as well as two tyrannosaurs, T-Rex 1 or “Kaitlyn” (Dawn Schmid), and her BFF T-Rex 2 (Rachel Bailey). As is explained in the intro that echoes the film, all the dinosaurs are female, or are supposed to be, so they won’t reproduce. Well, that may have been the plan, but soon T-Rex 2 starts exhibiting some strange symptoms and behavior, which leads to some complicated situations which disrupt the established order of things that has been emphasized and enforced by the dinosaurs’ de facto leader and spiritual advisor Faith, who leads the dinosaurs’ religion that centers around worshiping the lab that produced them, as well as hiding uncomfortable truths from Innocence, who Faith refers to as her “Little Miracle”, and is consistently given special treatment, which both confuses and fascinates Innocence. In the midst of the chaos that’s building from T-Rex 2’s discovery as well as Faith’s continued avoidance and efforts to hide uncomfortable truths, Innocence goes on a quest to find the “Exiled One”, Science, who has been sent away from the others after a conflict with Faith. In the midst of the story, the referential humor continues, with jokes involving lines and events especially from the first of the Jurassic Park films. 

While there is a message here, which seems to be a lot about fear of the unknown (as director Justin Been points out in his note in the program), as well as the need for honesty and communication, what stands out the most is the over-the-top humor, including the dinosaur puns, referential jokes, raunchy moments, and more. The songs are mostly rock-based, and are presented well by the cast, who are in excellent voice. The comic timing is strong, as is the ensemble chemistry, with impressive individual performances from all, with a particularly strong turn from Davis as Innocence, who brings a great deal of presence, likability, and soaring vocals to the role. Stevenson is also a standout in two notable roles as well as a small ensemble role, showing off especially strong comic abilities. Schmid as Kaitlyn/T-Rex 1 has a strong voice as well, and a fun, quirky energy, working well with the equally strong Bailey as the conflicted T-Rex 2. Wells, as Faith, handles a difficult role well, and Miller, as Mime-O-Saurus, adds some fun comic moments especially with physical comedy. 

The look and atmosphere here are eye-catching, with a well-realized set by Josh Smith that effectively evokes the setting of the source film without exactly copying it. There’s also dazzling lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as whimsical, colorful costumes by Eileen Engel that suit the characters well, presenting them as dinosaurs in a more stylized rather than literal way, with some flashy, rock-band like looks. And speaking of bands, there’s a great one here, led by music director Schultz, who also does well with a few small acting moments. The choreography, by Michael Hodges, is energetic and in keeping with the spirit of the production, as well.

This show started at the New York Fringe Festival before eventually running Off-Broadway, and it has the look and attitude of a fringe production. It’s not super deep or profound, and many of its themes have been done before, but it’s fun, flashy, and at SDT, boasts a great cast with strong voices and lots of enthusiasm. It provides for a fun evening at the theatre, especially if you like raunchy, irreverent humor and memorable, rock-based singing. It’s another crowd-pleaser from SDT.

Dawn Schmid, Michael Wells, Laurell Stevenson, Tristan Davis, Bryce Miller, Rachel Bailey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Triassic Parq: the Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until April 30, 2022

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Hand to God
by Robert Askins
Directed by Andrea Urice
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 8, 2022

Phoebe Richards, Mitchell Henry-Eagles
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Hand to God is one of those sharp, crass, biting comedies that’s not for all audiences, with crude humor, strong language, and uncomfortable subject matter. Still, it has a lot to say, in the words of its human and puppet characters. Onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Gaslight Theater, STLAS’s latest production brings a lot of laughs from the audience, but for me, what shows through the most is an underlying sadness, considering the situation of the characters involved, and the culture in which they live.  

The play takes place mostly in the basement of a church, where the recently widowed Margery (Colleen Backer) is trying to channel her grief into leading a youth puppet ministry. It’s not a very big or enthusiastic effort, with only three teens involved, whose attitudes range from apathy to outright hostility, but there’s a sense of urgency because the pastor keeps asking Margery about their progress, and wants them to perform in front of the church at an upcoming service. The group includes the abrasive, foul-mouthed Timmy (Josh Rotker), the generally amiable but slightly snarky Jessica (Phoebe Richards), and Margery’s insecure son Jason (Mitchell Henry-Eagles), who seems to channel his own conflicted feelings through his puppet Tyrone. The problem is that Tyrone increasingly appears to have a mind of his own, and often appears to be telling Jason what to do rather than the other way around. The main focus here is on Jason and the increasingly difficult and ultimately menacing Tyrone, who also opens and closes the show with a pair of especially caustic, cynical monologues that only serve to emphasize the overall chaos of the world in which these characters live. In the story itself, Tyrone appears relatively passive at first, then starts injecting a few inappropriate comments into Jason’s conversations, and things get more extreme when Jason has an opportunity to take out his anger on the puppet, and Tyrone strikes back with a vengeance, affecting everyone in the play in various ways. We also get to see the strained relationship between Margery and Jason, as well as  Margery’s efforts to handle her own grief, which begin to spiral in a dangerous direction, as Timmy continues to antagonize her. There are also the awkward efforts of Pastor Greg (Eric Dean White)–who makes his attraction to Margery painfully obvious–to intervene in various ways. A variety of over-the-top, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright cringeworthy situations ensue, along with desperate and hilarious efforts to “fix” the situation caused by the out-of-control puppet Tyrone. There are also the questions of Jason’s involvement–is he consciously or unconsciously acting out his frustrations through Tyrone, or does the puppet really have a mind of his own? 

This is a show that depends a lot on timing and casting, and it impresses in those areas especially. The quick pacing adds to the overall darkly comic tone, and the cast is first-rate, led by a truly remarkable performance from Henry-Eagles as the conflicted Jason and his crass and increasingly domineering puppet, Tyrone. Henry-Eagles doesn’t miss a beat in the interplay between these two characters, also doing well with a snippet of a classic comedy routine early in the play, and credibly ramping up the intensity as events start to spiral out of control as the play goes on. Backer is also excellent as Margery, who seems meek at first, but shows more emotion and conflicting reactions as her own situation heads in a disturbing direction. White is effective as the sometimes painfully awkward Pastor Greg, and there are also strong performances from Rotker as the confrontational Timmy, and Richards as Jessica, who comes across as perhaps the most level-headed of the characters.  

Technically, the play is impressive, making the most of STLAS’s small stage with an excellent detailed set by Patrick Huber that effectively transforms from basement/classroom to Pastor Greg’s Office as needed. The truly remarkable puppet and prop design by Jenny Smith and STLAS is also memorable, as are the well-suited costumes by Teresa Doggett. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer Robin Weatherall, fight choreographer Cameron Ulrich, and intimacy choreographer Dominique (Nikki) Green. 

This show is definitely a comedy, but I found myself thinking a lot more about the pain behind the comic situations much of the time while the audience laughed around me. Much has been written over the years about the relationship between comedy and pain/sadness/tragedy, and that relationship is on clear display here. It’s a show that will make audiences laugh, but also can make them think, and notice just how messed up most of the characters’ lives are, as are the circumstances that got them to where they are, as well as a culture that seems to emphasize “putting on a good face” over honesty. At STLAS, what Hand to God has going for it most notably is a strong cast of impressive local performers. 

Eric Dean White, Colleen Backer
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Hand to God at the Glaslight Theater until April 24, 2022

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Proof
by David Auburn
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
March 26, 2022

Summer Baer, Michael James Reed
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company continues to impress with its second production onstage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. David Auburn’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof is a profoundly thoughtful drama with rich characterizations and intelligent explorations of subjects from math to family relationships to struggles with mental health. It’s a challenging play to stage, and Moonstone has risen to the challenge admirably with a remarkably well-cast production.

The play tells its story with a blend of straightforward realism, flashback, and fantasy, as it explores the lives that have been affected by renowned mathematician and university professor Robert (Michael James Reed), and especially that of his younger daughter, Catherine (Summer Baer), a once-promising math student herself, who left school early to care for her father as he struggled with mental illness. In the aftermath of Robert’s death, three characters are dealing with his passing in different ways. Catherine is left struggling to cope, and also dealing with fears that she will inherit her father’s condition. Her business-minded older sister Claire (Julie Amuedo), deals with what to do with Robert’s house, and how to take care of Catherine, whom Claire views as “fragile”. There’s also Hal (Oliver Bacus), a former student of Robert’s who now teaches at the university. Hal has been looking through the many notebooks Robert left behind in case there might be some important math discovery hidden among the often incoherent scribblings Robert filled them with in his later years. As Catherine deals with memories of her father, the expectations of her sister, and her initially awkward interactions with Hal that soon reveal an obvious mutual attraction, she is forced to confront her own fears, as well as unresolved issues concerning her father’s legacy, her own future, and her mathematical gifts. 

This is a story about relationships primarily–interpersonal relationships, teacher/student, parent/child, and sibling relationships, and potential romantic relationships. It also focuses on mental health and also on individuals’ gifts, talents, and intelligence, and how they utilize them. With Catherine as the central character with the most personal issues to deal with, and Robert being a looming presence even when he’s not on stage, the other characters are developed mostly through their relationships with these two key figures. Catherine is a bundle of contradictions, and a lot of promise but also self-doubt, and she is portrayed with vivid complexity by Baer, who shines in every scene she is in, and especially in her moments with the superb Reed as Robert; and with Bacus, who gives an impressively likable performance as the initially awkward but determined Hal. Amuedo is also strong in the difficult role of the somewhat haughty Claire, who is essentially the antagonist of the piece, and her scenes with Baer are fraught with tension. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and the staging and pacing help to maintain the emotion of the story.

The action takes place at Robert’s old, deteriorating house and backyard, which are vividly realized by means of Dunsi Dai’s simply impressive set. Michele Siler’s costumes suit the characters well, and there’s also excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan that adapts well to the changing tones of the show. Along with Amanda Werre’s strong sound design, the technical aspects help to maintain the mood of the production.

There is so much going on here in terms of emotion, unfolding discoveries, and character relationships, and there are some especially intense moments, but it’s all approached deftly by the cast and director Sharon Hunter that it never seems too heavy, even though there’s a lot to think about here. It’s a profound story and a rich portrayal of well-drawn characters. The relationships between the characters and some of the more philosophical and mathematical concepts are also portrayed in a fascinating way, and I can see why this play won a Pulitzer. Proof marks another strong showing for this relatively new theatre company.

Oliver Bacus, Summer Baer
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Proof at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until April 10th, 2022

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan
From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Kate Bergstrom
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 25, 2022

Futaba Shioda, Ryan Colbert, Jimmy Kieffer, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 39 Steps is a popular play, possibly because it’s so deceptively simple, with a small cast and a format that’s conducive to basically any budget. This latest production at the Rep is the fourth production I’ve seen in St. Louis over the last twelve years, including presentations by three different theatre companies. In fact, the first time I saw it was also the first show I saw at the Rep, in 2010. Even though they’ve staged it before, the Rep brings a new, fresh energy to this latest staging, led by a first-rate cast of four flexible and seemingly fearless performers.

I think one of the reasons this show is so popular, with theatre companies and audiences, is that it brings so much with seemingly little. It’s a small cast, and the production values can be as simple or elaborate as the director and company wants, but the true appeal is in the characters, and the energy they bring, with most cast members playing a variety of different characters. In fact, the only cast member who plays the same role throughout is the actor playing Richard Hannay (here played by Ryan Colbert), a Canadian living in London who unwittingly finds himself in the midst of an international espionage plot. After attending a seemingly innocent evening at the theatre, Hannay finds the experience turning ominous as he meets a mystery woman (played by Olivia Gilliatt), who soon ends up murdered in his apartment, but not until after she drops some hints of spies plotting a scheme that threatens to imperil the country in the leadup to World War II. Hannay is then forced to flee for his life, as he is suspected of murder, and along the way he meets a collection of characters from police officers to spies, to Scottish farmers and hotel keepers, as well as theatre performers, and eventually, a woman (also Gilliatt) with whom he becomes entangled (sometimes literally) in the process of trying to stop the plot and clear his name. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed comedy full of memorable characters mostly played by two “Clowns” (Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda), as well as three memorable women played by Gilliatt, while the hapless Hannay desperately seeks to find answers, and the audience is treated to a hilarious romp through English and Scottish cities, towns, farms, and railways. 

The cast and the staging make this show, and the technical aspects blend seamlessly  with the broad, hilarious performances to make this clever riff on classic spy stories, and particularly the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a treat from start to finish. Director Kate Bergstrom has staged the show with lots of action, and the cast is more than able to keep up, showing great physical comic abilities–and Kieffer and Shioda are especially adept at this. Kieffer and Shioda also show off their versatility in a range of different roles, as does Gilliatt in convincingly portraying three very different women–the mysterious Annabella, the lonely and infatuated Margaret, and the determined Pamela. As Hannay, Colbert shows a convincing blend of dashing charm, stubborn determination, and a little bit of goofy cluelessness. His chemistry with Gilliatt’s Pamela is especially strong.

The physical stunts are also well-staged, with kudos to fight director Michael Pierce. There’s a versatile set by Stephanie Osin Cohen that suggests an old-time theatre stage, but also is especially adaptable as pieces are moved around to form different set pieces as needed. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are also excellent and versatile, and there’s great atmospheric work by lighting designer Christina Watanabe, lending much to the old fashioned spy film look and feel of the show. 

The 39 Steps is popular for good reason. It’s fast-moving, funny, and crowd-pleasing, as well as being clever, witty, and evocative of an earlier era and genre of films. It’s an especially great showcase for an enthusiastic cast, and the Rep definitely has that. It’s an immensely enjoyable show, and the Rep has, once again, staged it with excellence.

Ryan Colbert, Futaba Shioda, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The 39 Steps until April 10, 2022

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Laughter on the 23rd Floor
by Neil Simon
Directed by Edward Coffield
 New Jewish Theatre
March 24, 2022

Jacob Flekier, John Wolbers, Joel Moses
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is back to live performances with a lively new production of a well-paced, semi-autobiographical comedy by celebrated playwright Neil Simon. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the playwrights look back at his early years as a television writer, but for NJT it’s a promising look ahead at a new season that’s finally able to get underway. It’s a welcome return for this company, and the strong cast makes the most of Simon’s vivid, personal look at an important era in his own life, as well as the entertainment industry’s–and the country’s–history. 

The “Golden Age of Television” may be a distant but living memory for some, or the subject of stories, rumors, and reruns for others. For Neil Simon, it was a formative era of his career as a comedy writer. This play is based on Simon’s early years as a writer for legendary television comic Sid Caesar, sharing a writers’ room with other up and coming writers including Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. Here, Simon has fictionalized the story somewhat, but the influence of his own personal life in the depiction of the early, formative years of television comedy is clear. Simon’s alter-ego in this play is Lucas Brickman (Jacob Flekier), an eager young writer who is excited to be working with a team he considers the best in the business, working on the staff for Sid Caesar-like TV star Max Prince (Ben Ritchie). Set entirely in the show’s writers’ room, it’s a story populated with larger-than-life characters, from the talented and caring but frequently insecure Max, to a collection of writers whose talents are obvious, but whose personalities constantly clash, including the theatrical Milt Fields (Joel Moses), world-weary Russian immigrant Val Skolsky (Aaron Mermelstein), ambitious Kenny Franks (Michael Pierce), attention-seeking, health-anxious Ira Stone (Dave Cooperstein), along with Irish-American Brian Doyle (John Wolbers), who aspires to write for the movies, and Carol Wyman (Kirsten De Broux), the only woman on the writing staff and, along with ditzy secretary Helen (Annie Zigman), one of only two women in the play, as a reflection of the times. Also in reflection of the times, we get to see not only the process of writing a hit comedy show in the early 1950s–we also get to see how the characters, and the show, are affected by world events, and especially the rise of McCarthyism and the haunting specter of the blacklist, as well as corporate influence on the arts, changing public tastes, and more. It’s a vivid look at a specific era in history, lent extra credibility by the fact that it’s informed by the playwright’s personal experiences.

The characters are sharply defined but, for the most part, manage to avoid stereotypes, and the actors here portray them with as much depth as can be imagined. Flekier makes for a likable, relatable focus character, narrating the proceedings and being an effective “tour guide” to this world and these characters. Ritchie conveys Max’s caring leadership especially well, even though not always as “big” a personality as he could be. The big personalities are definitely here, though, portrayed with excellent timing by Moses, Mermelstein, Pierce, and Cooperstein, who bring a strong sense of ensemble chemistry as their characters work, laugh, and bicker together at different times. De Broux is also strong in the somewhat underwritten role of Carol, and Zigman brings comic energy to her role as well, despite Helen’s being the closest thing to a real stereotype in the play. In an important way, the way this show plays out, the characters are the story, and this cast brings enthusiasm, strong timing, and lots of energy to the proceedings.

Technically, the show is something of a time machine, in that it effectively channels a bygone era in a way that’s immediate and relatable. From Rob Lippert’s detailed set, to Michele Friedman Siler’s period and character-specific costumes, the show brings 1953 to life with vivid style. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, and sound and projection designer Ellie Schwetye, adding to the mood and atmosphere of the production.

I’m glad that NJT is finally back staging plays again, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor is an excellent choice to start the new season. It’s focus is on a much-written and talked about time in history that many today haven’t experienced first-hand, and this production manages to bring that world to life with an excellent cast and production values. It’s a light comedy much of the time, but with important moments of resonance, both as a look at history and a somewhat surprising reflection of today as well. It’s a memorable return to the stage for this excellent theatre company.

Michael Pierce, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until April 10, 2022

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Behind the Sheet
by Charly Evon Simpson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 18, 2022

Jeff Cummings, Chinna Palmer
Photo: The Black Rep

Behind the Sheet is an intense drama about an aspect of history that has been often overlooked over the years. While much has been written about the horrors and brutality of slavery, the role of enslaved people as subjects of medical experimentation isn’t as known as it could be. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson’s play is a fictional story, but it’s inspired by actual events, and embellished in a way that sheds further light on the reality of the experience of slavery in America from the point of view of the enslaved women themselves, as they serve as test subjects for an ambitious white surgeon who views them more as a means to an end than as actual human beings. In fact, it’s the human experience of these women, even in the midst of the brutality, that shines through most of all in this play, compellingly staged by the Black Rep at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre.

The story, based on the work of Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims in 19th Century Alabama, focuses on a group of enslaved Black women who are suffering from fistula, which is a painful and chronic complication of long labors in childbirth. As the play begins, a new patient, Dinah (Patience Davis) arrives from another plantation, and the doctor in charge, George (Jeff Cummings) buys her from the plantation owner so that he can keep her at his own plantation and work on trying to develop a surgical procedure for repairing the fistula. Dinah joins the established patients Sally (Christina Yancy) and Mary (Taijha Silas), who have already endured several surgeries each, as the increasingly obsessed George works to discover the proper procedure, meanwhile not giving them any pain relief during surgery despite learning about the use of ether as anesthesia, and requiring fellow enslaved women Philomenia (Chinna Palmer) and Betty (Alex Johnson) to assist in holding them down while he operates. All the while, George seems most concerned with his own discovery process and building his reputation, as well as the potential to help the white plantation owners’ wives once he has perfected the process, despite the fact that he seems to find working on women’s bodies repulsive. He also is particularly interested in Philomenia, who assists him in his practice and is initially looked on with suspicion by the patients. Soon, however, Philomenia, who is expecting, will learn even more about the brutality of the situation in which the patients live, as she also deals with George’s whims and obsession, as well as suspicion and contempt from the lady of the house, George’s wife Josephine (Alison Kertz), who Philomenia has known all her life, being born into servitude to Josephine’s family.

This is a play that doesn’t shy away from the truly horrific elements of the situation, while also focusing on the problematic ethical situation involved, as George does seek to cure these women of a condition that causes enduring pain, but holds them captive so they have no choice about what he does and how he goes about his efforts. It also serves to highlight the brutality of slavery in terms of everyday realities for these women, who live at the whim of their plantation owners and are often separated from their loved ones, and are sometimes forced into personal situations that they are not allowed to refuse. The women still form friendships and rivalries, and struggle to find hope in the midst of their bleak situation, finding purpose and bonding in small but essential tasks like using flowers to make perfume to disguise the smell caused by their condition. There’s also an attraction and tentative courtship that develops between Philomenia and Lewis (Brian McKinley), a young enslaved man who works in the fields at the plantation, even though neither is free to truly pursue a relationship. 

There are a lot of issues covered in this play, and it’s told in a sometimes stylized, sometimes bluntly realistic manner, with a well-paced script and a first-rate cast. The central figure in the story is Philomenia, who goes through quite an intense journey as the story develops, and Palmer gives a compelling, truly remarkable performance as a woman who deals with trial after trial, and shows her strength and resilience in the midst of it all. There are also excellent performance from Davis, Yancy, and Silas, who display strong ensemble chemistry as the women bond in the midst of their shared trials. Kertz is also memorable as the entitled, suspicious, demanding Josephine, and excellent support from Johnson as Betty, as well as McKinley in two roles and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in a dual role as a haughty plantation owner and a young doctor who assists George. 

The story is also given added poignancy and power by means of the technical production, through use of Margery and Peter Spack’s versatile and evocative set.  Joe Clapper’s remarkable lighting is also memorable, especially in moments when surgery takes places behind a sheet that drapes from the ceiling, making the figures loom larger and the situation seem all the more horrific and ominous. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Andre Harrington in providing detailed period clothing, as well as sound designer Lamar Harris.

Behind the Sheet is a truly remarkable, as well as harrowing and intense theatrical experience. It showcases the brutality of slavery while also highlighting a problematic medical situation and shedding light on the figures whose stories have not been emphasized much until recently–these women who survived the horrors not only of slavery, but of unethical and often brutal medical treatment. This is not an easy show to watch in many moments, but it’s an important story to tell, and the Black Rep has presented it with remarkable effect. 

Taijha Silas, Christina Yancy, Chinna Palmer, Patience Davis
Photo: The Black Rep

 

The Black Rep is presenting Behind the Sheet at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until April 3rd, 2022

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Good People
by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 19, 2022

Stephen Henley, Liz Mischel, Stephanie Merritt, Lavonne Byers
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is an intriguing, compelling piece that features a vivid depiction of its characters and setting. Playwright David Linsday-Abaire’s Good People is a prime example of a thoughtfully-written play that finds its heart and resonance in its sense of detail and rich portrayal of a specific locality and the people who inhabit it. It’s also an excellent showcase for a strong cast, and especially in its leading role. 

This is a play about character, but also about class distinctions, and the conflicts and issues that can be stirred up in their comparison. The story centers on Margaret “Margie” Walsh (Lavonne Byers), who is a lifelong resident of Boston’s working-class “Southie” neighborhood. As the play begins, her boss, Stevie (Stephen Henley), breaks the bad news to her that he has to let her go from her job at a convenience store due to chronic lateness. The ever-determined Margie doesn’t go out without a fight, and she’s got a good reason to be late, as she has difficulty getting consistent care for her developmentally challenged adult daughter, Joyce, who is much talked about but not seen onstage. Eventually, she’s resigned to her fate, but determined and even desperate to find a new job, under pressures from her passive-aggressive landlady Dottie (Liz Mischel) that she might lose her apartment if she can’t keep up with the rent. Soon, Margie’s longtime friend, the no-nonsense Jean (Stephanie Merritt), suggests that Margie look up their childhood friend Mike (Stephen Peirick)–who Margie briefly dated years ago–in hopes that he might be able to offer her a job. Mike has recently returned to Boston after years out of town, having built up a career as a successful fertility doctor, now living in the upscale Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Their reunion stirs up a lot of old tensions, especially for Mike, who insists he’s the same as he always was, but who takes pride in having “gotten out” of the old neighborhood, and has things he hasn’t told his wife, Kate (Laurell Stevenson) that Margie brings into the light. Margie, for her part, also has some things she hasn’t told Mike. Over the course of the show, from Southie to Chestnut Hill, from a swanky doctor’s office to Bingo night with a usual crowd, this show highlights the differences between situations while dealing with issues of friendship, loyalty, deception, class distinctions, racism (both subtle and blatant), and more. 

The tone tends to be comedic much of the time, with forays into the the dramatic and some darker undertones, and the characters are vividly drawn, and the sense of history is clearly apparent, between Margie and her neighborhood friends, to the strained dynamic between Mike and Kate, and the backstories that are revealed slowly but surely. It’s a briskly paced play, with a tone and setting that are as well-drawn as the characters. As produced at SDT, it’s a showcase for a great cast, led by the always excellent Byers in a superbly complex performance as Margie. As gifted with comedy as she is with drama, this is an ideal role for Byers, who gets to use her sharp sense of wit and timing along with a compelling emotional range. Byers also gets great support from the rest of the cast, from the quirkiness of Mischel’s Dottie, to Merritt’s tough-talking Jean, to Henley’s conflicted but well-meaning Stevie. Peirick and Stevenson are also excellent as Mike and Kate, highlighting their complex relationship and different approaches toward Margie.

Josh Smith’s set, consisting largely of a series of doors and occasional necessary furniture, provides a good backdrop to the action here. The character’s personalities are also well represented by way of director Bell’s excellent costumes. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow and sound designer Justin Been, as the technical elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere and mood of the play.

Good People is more than a good play. It’s a thoughtful, sometimes witty, sometimes intense play in which the characters and the setting feel authentic. The cast, and especially Byers, also make the most of the piece. It’s both entertaining and challenging, With only one more weekend of performances left, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stevenson, Stephen Peirick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Good People at Tower Grove Abbey until February 26, 2022

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