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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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Comfort
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2021

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest production isn’t just a St. Louis premiere–it’s a World Premiere, by playwright Neil LaBute, with whom the company has had an ongoing working relationship. They’ve produced several of his plays before, mostly as part of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival. The new play, Comfort, is a two-character drama examining a strained mother-son relationship, while exploring and challenging the character and choices of the mother in particular. It’s a superbly cast and acted play featuring two excellent local performers, and it works especially well as a showcase for their impressive talents.

The mother character, Iris (Kari Ely), is the main focus of the play, and the real catalyst for its action, even if what she did to set the play’s action in motion happened offstage and years before the events depicted in the play. Iris is a celebrated, multi-award-winning author who lives alone and cherishes the time she spends by herself, as well as the accolades she has received–and hopes to receive, as she has apparently recently been subject to some Nobel Prize buzz. Cal (Spencer Sickmann), her adult son, was primarily raised by his father–Iris’s recently deceased ex-husband–since the couple split up when Cal was 10 years old. The action begins when Cal breaks into Iris’s house while his mother is out, ostensibly to retrieve some photo albums that feature old family pictures from before the divorce, but we find out when Iris inevitably comes home and discovers him that Cal has an underlying motive that he doesn’t initially admit. What ensues is a series of scenes and events that work to challenge Iris’s choices as a writer, as a mother, and as a person, as well as reveal some of the reasons behind her estranged son’s resentment toward her.

As one who finds LaBute’s work somewhat hit-or-miss, I have been curious to see what this new work would be like. I have to say now that in my mind, this one is a lot more “hit” than “miss”, although it does contain some elements that I that I think need some editing or reworking, such as some repetitious situations and dialogue and some “revelations” that are too obvious, as well as some points that could be elaborated more. I also think the character of Cal isn’t as well-drawn as he could have been, although Sickmann does a commendable job of making him interesting. Both he and Ely make the most of their roles, and their dynamic interplay is the main source of the drama here, as at first it’s not entirely clear what Cal wants, and the revelations throughout the play are introduced gradually. Iris is a complex character with many levels of depth, and Ely does a fantastic job of portraying all of these levels with clarity and, when needed, startling intensity. Iris is also not especially likable, although Ely’s performance makes her fascinating to watch as the story unfolds and her interactions with Sickmann’s Cal become more emotionally charged.

As for the staging, director Anamaria Pileggi makes the most of the small stage here, and Patrick Huber’s thoroughly detailed set. The mood is helped along through means of Huber’s excellent lighting as well, and costume designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters well. I’m continually impressed by how STLAS is able to use their relatively small venue to the best of its potential, and this show is no exception.

Overall, Comfort is a worthwhile theatrical experience. It’s not a perfect play, but it makes an excellent showcase for two superb performances. With its complex relationship dynamic dealing with academic, social, and personal issues, it’s an intense drama that’s sure to make audiences think.

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Comfort at the Gaslight Theater until December 3, 2021

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The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee and
The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2021

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are two of the most celebrated playwrights of the of the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Their work is often performed and reviewed, and has influenced many great playwrights that have followed. Now at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, two of the writers’ more influential early works, both two character plays, are being featured with the same two actors in both plays. Albee’s The Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are both important plays in the history of theatre, and as shown at STLAS, they are both still powerful, thought-provoking works that serve as excellent showcases for actors. 

Presenting these plays in this manner makes for an excellent way to challenge the actors in their versatility, as William Roth and Joel Moses each play contrasting roles in the two different plays. In The Zoo Story, Roth is Peter, a mild-mannered family man who is enjoying a quiet afternoon reading on a bench in Central Park, when he is suddenly approached by Jerry (Moses), a much more confrontational character who does most of the talking, as he announces he has been to the zoo and then takes a roundabout way of telling the story of why, revealing much about his character and background in the process, as he openly challenges Peter’s more “status quo” lifestyle. Here, Jerry is essentially in control for most of the proceedings, and the play is a challenge for both actors in different ways, as Jerry is very active and loud, while Peter doesn’t speak through much of the story, and Roth is forced to sit there and react to this increasingly uncomfortable invasion of his personal space. Both actors do an excellent job here, with Moses bringing much emotion and humanity to the confrontational Jerry, and Roth giving something of a master class in “reaction acting”, as both characters display a strong sense of increasingly combative chemistry. It’s a challenging play–not out of the ordinary for modern audiences, but especially controversial in its day, as director Wayne Salomon points out in his note in the program. 

The director’s comment also applies to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is from the same era as The Zoo Story, but has a British setting, and this time the two actors take markedly different roles, as two hit men who are waiting in a windowless basement room for a call about their next assignment. Here, Moses plays Gus, the younger, more reticent hit man, while Roth is the more commanding “senior partner”, Ben. Like The Zoo Story, this play also focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters, with one seeming to be more in control than the other. Here, though, the location is also a “character”, in a way, as the titular dumbwaiter seems to have a mind of its own, serving as the instrument for communication (along with a snake-like “speaking tube”) between the main characters and some unseen “others” who keep sending food orders like they are in a restaurant. The dumbwaiter is also prone to opening and–startlingly–slamming shut at unannounced moments, providing a strong source of tension in the play. The performances here are first-rate, as well, with Moses impressive as the more naive, nervous Gus and Roth excellent as the gruff, more businesslike Ben, who is in for some surprises of his own as the play leads to a somewhat surprising, abrupt end.

To echo Salomon’s comments in the director’s note, neither of these plays should be unusually “shocking” for a modern audience, as this sort of grittiness has become much more commonplace in theatre. Still, the sense of character and storytelling is sharp in both, and each is memorable and thought-provoking in its own right. The productions here are well-paced and dynamic, with a strong sense of ensemble chemistry between the two actors, and good technical elements, as well, including especially impressive work from set designer Patrick Huber in producing two very different settings for the plays–as backdrops and a bench provide the park setting for The Zoo Story, and these later give way to the stark, grimy basement setting of The Dumb Waiter. Huber’s lighting design is also effective, as  are Teresa Doggett’s meticulous costumes. 

It’s intriguing to see these two one act plays by different, important playwrights presented this way. Using the same actors in both plays allows both to show more of their range, and allowing the audience to see both plays together allows for comparing and contrasting and getting a direct display of the early foundations of modern theatre. These are plays you may have heard about, or read, or seen in separate productions, but here STLAS is providing an ideal opportunity to see them together. It’s an impressive return to the stage for this local company.

 

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter at the Gaslight Theater until October 3, 2021

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Annapurna
by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

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A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 8, 2019

William Roth, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

If you’ve ever been involved in theatre at any level, St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest production will have something to which you can relate. A Life in the Theatre is David Mamet’s two-hander focusing on two actors at different stages in their careers, continuing STLAS’s season of two person plays. Here, with two excellent performers in the leading roles, this is a show that serves as an insightful glimpse at the theatrical life, for actors and for anyone who loves this art form.

This isn’t a long play, running at roughly 85 minutes and with no intermission, but makes its point well in that short running time. Its a series of vignettes, essentially, following the interactions of two actors who frequently work together. Robert (William Roth) is the older, more seasoned performer and John (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is the younger actor whose career is on the way up. Through the course of the evening, we get to see their backstage interactions as well as portions of some of their plays, including a World War I drama, an office drama, and others. As the show goes on, there are successes and mishaps, including several that many who have worked on a play will recognize. There are missed technical cues, forgotten lines, mistimed entrances, and more. Also, we see the changing dynamics of the relationship between the two characters, as John experiences new successes and Robert is reminded of the swift passage of time and deals with jealousy as well as mortality. Mamet’s script is insightful and frequently humorous in a knowing sort of way, demonstrating the timelessness of theatre and the acting profession, and how the art goes on even as the performers age and change. It’s a witty show with moments of cynicism and poignancy, but ultimately it reinforces the old adage that “the show must go on”.

It’s an intriguing character study in which the characters are “types” as much as they are individuals. The two are played with flair by STLAS veterans Roth and Lawson-Maeske. Roth gets to make the most of his range as Robert starts out with a sense of projected overconfidence and then gradually loses that and grows more and more unsure and unstable. Lawson-Maeske is also winning as the young performer gaining experience and learning to deal with success as well as managing his relationship with his colleague. The two share a strong on-stage rapport as well, that turns into something of a “frenemies” situation, occasionally crossing the line into combative, and both performers excel in these moments, and in the more comic moments as well.

The staging by director John Contini is well paced, and Patrick Huber’s set is versatile and well-realized, allowing for various easy scene changes that change the perspective from backstage to on stage. There’s also a range of appropriately suited costumes by Andrea Robb, and excellent sound design by Contini and lighting by Huber. Even in its staging, this is an excellent glimpse of the life of a performer in its various aspects.

This is a show for theatre lovers, and especially for anyone who has worked on a production. If you know theatre, you should know a lot of what’s portrayed here. A Life in the Theatre is an apt title, since even though it depicts particular characters, there is something universal about this art, and the life of a performer. It’s well worth seeing, and remembering.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Life in the Theatre at the Gaslight Theater until December 22, 2019

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Fifty Words
by Michael Weller
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 20, 2019

Isaiah Di Lorenzo, Julie Layton
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season is titled “2 to Tango”, featuring a complete line-up of two-character plays. This concept strikes me as a particularly strong opportunity to highlight the dynamics of various relationships as well as serving as a showcase for actors. The season’s first offering, Michael Weller’s  Fifty Words certainly provides that showcase, with an excellent pair of actors displaying their range in the portrayal of a complex and often combative marital relationship.

There isn’t much, if anything, in this story that hasn’t been done before in other “marriage story” works, and the revelations that enfold in this play aren’t entirely surprising. Still, the plot isn’t as much the point here. This show is more about power dynamics, and what makes this relationship tick, and I think it does manage a sort of surprise near the end, depending on the viewer’s perspective. It follows a married couple, Adam (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) and Jan (Julie Layton), both professionals who are devoted to their careers, as well as parents of a young son who is out of the house spending the night away at a friend’s house for the first time. Adam and Jan apparently haven’t had an evening alone together since their son was born, and they are trying to make the most of the time, although they appear to have different agendas. Adam seems to be all about making the most of the romantic (and sexual) possibilities of the evening, while Jan seems to be more focused on finishing an important project for work. Their contrasting personalities–the more spontaneous Adam and the more goal-focused Jan–are a catalyst for some of the drama, but as more information is revealed about Adam’s upcoming business trip, about their history as a couple, and about their approaches to parenting, more is revealed about both characters and the nature of their relationship. It’s an exploration of the challenges of modern married life and the conflicting commitments of parenting and career, as well as looking at some of the more stereotypical assumptions that come from those commitments for husbands and for wives. Through the course of the evening, there are ups and downs, revelations and reactions, confrontations and contrasts, but overall this is a game of balances and who, ultimately, holds the power in the relationship.

This is a fine character study, with some intense moments, although both characters aren’t particularly easy to like. Still, this script has some sharp insights into what a marriage between these two personalities would be like, and it’s a particularly strong showcase for the performers, who in this production are both superb, and impressively well-matched. Di Lorenzo brings the calculating, trying-to-be-charming energy and Layton’s more initially aloof exterior carries a range of emotions below the surface. The combination of the two is dynamic, occasionally volatile, and entirely credible. The drama here is these two, and both performers rise to the challenge of the script, providing the play’s emotional weight in the varacity of their relationship.

The production values are, as is usual for STLAS, excellent. I’m continually impressed by how well this company uses its small stage space, here recreating a small-ish New York apartment with care and detail in Sammy Kriesch’s meticulous set. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer John Pierson, props designer Jenny Smith, and costume designer Andrea Robb. Pierson’s staging is well-measured, bringing out the gradually building tension of the piece and the relationship.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season from STLAS. There are some intriguing productions lined up. The starter, Fifty Words, is essentially successful in the pure strength of the casting and the dynamic between these two caustically contrasting characters. It’s worth seeing for the sheer quality of the performances.

Julie Layton, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fifty Words at the Gaslight Theatre until October 6, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2019

The second set of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is now on stage at the Gaslight Theatre. Featuring a fresh collection of plays, all ably directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood, and the one holdover–festival namesake LaBute’s entry “Great Negro Works of Art” (directed by John Pierson). Featuring strong casts, these plays are also thought-provoking if not quite as well-formed as most of the first set. A new set of issues is in focus here, including artificial intelligence and privacy issues with technology, as well as journalistic integrity and couples therapy. Here are some thoughts about Set Two:

“Predilections”

by Richard Curtis

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Kim Furlow, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play, which opens the newer set, features a meeting between a reporter named Sparlin (Tiélere Cheatem), and an enigmatic stranger named Laura (Kim Furlow). Being a journalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner who now writes obituaries, Sparlin has done research on Laura, but he hasn’t figured out why she wants to see him. As the plot–or really, the conversation–unfolds, Laura tells Sparlin a story, the importance of which becomes clear soon enough. It’s an intriguing concept, with the intended ideas apparently being about sensationalism in journalism and how easy it is for a person’s whole life to be obscured by one incident, but as a play it doesn’t have much suspense or structure. It’s just a conversation, basically. Furlow and Cheatem do well in their roles, bringing about as much drama as this play can produce, although there isn’t much here that couldn’t be covered just as well by an essay.

“Henrietta”

by Joseph Krawczyk

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The evening’s second play is its cleverest concept, being part “perils of modern technology” tale and part morality play. Here, as Carl (Chuck Brinkley) prepares for an extramarital tryst in a nearby motel, he finds his new “upgraded” GPS AI has other plans. Called “Henrietta” and voiced by Carly Rosenbaum, this AI isn’t putting up with Carl’s excuses, taking him for a nightmare ride as she takes control of his car. It’s an especially well-acted and staged bit of thriller-fantasy that’s especially chilling is its basic plausibility. It’s one of those “be careful what you do when you don’t think anyone’s looking” tales beefed up with a bit of “Big Brother” technological fear thrown in for good measure. The staging and pacing here is crisp and chilling, and both Brinkley and Rosenbaum give especially convincing performances, and particularly Rosenbaum as the determinedly in-control “Henrietta”.

“Sysyphus and Icarus: a Love story”

by William Ivan Fowkes

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Tiélere Cheatem, Shane Signorino
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final of the new entries for Set Two is a cute concept that evolves into something reminiscent of a late-episode Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s a fun concept, with the mythological figures of Sysyphus (Tiélere Cheatem) and Icarus (Shane Signorino) speaking in faux-Shakespearean dialogue and forming an attraction, then, as the story veers into SNL territory, they show up a few years later as a married couple clad in hipster-ish beanies being counseled by the New York-accented Libra (Colleen Backer), a self-promotional therapist who tries to help them see why their once-exciting relationship has soured. It’s a fun show, full of broad comedy that brings laughs but not much in the way of substance. The performers seem to be having a great time, though, and they’re all excellent. The production values are particularly notable here, too, with great work from festival costume designer Megan Harshaw and lighting designers Patrick Huber (who also designed the set) and Tony Anselmo.

Overall, the LaBute Festival continues to be an intriguing showcase for new playwrights, with some hits and misses but with some thought-provoking subject matter and strong work from the actors and directors. Set Two has one more weekend left, and it’s worth checking out.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set Two of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 28, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2019
Set One
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 5, 2019

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest installment of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival is now under way at the Gaslight Theatre. The first set of plays, which opened over the weekend, feature a variety of thought-provoking, timely issues, along with some memorable characters and strong performances. Here are some brief thoughts:

“Great Negro Works of Art”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Carly Rosenbaum, Jaz Tucker
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first play of the evening is the annual work by the Festival’s namesake playwright, Neil LaBute. It’s also the first of two plays in the set that deal in some way with what can be best described as “the perils of online dating”. That issue is more directly addressed in the set’s second play, but it’s an issue in this one as well, although other topics are more prominent. This pairing features Jerri (Carly Rosenbaum), who is white, and Tom (Jaz Tucker), who is black, who are meeting in person for the first time after communicating online. Jerri chose the location, which is an art exhibit with the same provocative title as the play itself. The main focus here is on the interplay between Jerri and Tom, who points out the similarity of their names to the well-known cartoon characters, as well as cringing at Jerri’s increasingly flippant and obtuse comments and ignorance not only of African-American culture, but also apparently of her own inability to listen and recognize her obtuseness. It’s an all-too-realistic encounter, which serves as a challenge to the systems in society that have historically recognized works of white artists over those of artists of color, as well as a challenge to individuals (especially white individuals) to recognize how they contribute to this disparity. The performances of both performers are strong, and the play is both an intense character study and a thought-provoking personalization of timely issues.

 

“Color Timer”

by Michael E. Long

Directed by Jenny Smith

Shane Signorino, Rachel Bailey, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

Or “The Perils of Online Dating, Part 2”. In this play, the couple in question features intellectual Aaron (Shane Signorino), and calculating reality TV production worker Stacy (Colleen Backer). They meet for their first date at a restaurant, and Stacy comes on strong, challenging Aaron with confrontational questions and a few shocking revelations. This play, more than the first, is a more direct examination of dating in the age of technology, as well as the challenges and perils of a tech and entertainment-oriented society in general. The highlight here is Backer’s gleefully brash and enigmatic performance, along with excellent performances by Signorino as a man put on the defensive and by Rachel Bailey as a well-meaning and seemingly clueless server. This one is especially chilling, and keeps you guessing up until the very end.

 

“Privilege”

by Joe Sutton

Directed by Jenny Smith

Chuck Brinkley, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play has a lot of ideas but probably needs some more work. The premise is compelling, as a young would-be lawyer, Peter (Spencer Sickmann), undergoes an unexpectedly aggressive line of questioning when applying for his law license. The unseen questioners are particularly interested in Peter’s family, including his uncle, Mark (Chuck Brinkley), to whom Peter turns for advice. His cousin, Amy (Carly Rosenbaum), another aspiring lawyer, who is the daughter of another of Peter’s uncles, experiences the same questioning, which turns out to relate to a violent incident from years before that involved Peter’s cousin (Amy’s brother), and that the family had done their best to cover up. Peter, for his part, doesn’t want to sweep it under the rug–he wants to find out what really happened, and to meet with the victim (Shane Signorino). There seems to be an element of symbolism here, concerning the family’s last name and some lines uttered by Mark and Amy, but the short nature of the play makes it difficult to cover the subject adequately. Still, the performances are compelling, especially from Sickmann as the determined Peter, and the use of lighting (by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo) is particularly effective.

 

“Kim Jong Rosemary”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Eli Hurwitz, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

I had been especially anticipating this play, considering its author, Carter W. Lewis, is the writer of my overall favorite play from a LaBute Festival (2017’s “Percentage America”). This one, though, certainly has its moments, but it isn’t quite as cohesive and effective as the previous play. It has a fascinating premise, as mother and daughter Rhonda (Jenny Smith) and Beth (Eli Hurwitz) talk about issues relating to Rhonda’s anger, which is physically represented by a giant, overstuffed bag that she pushes around on a dolly. Colleen Backer makes a memorable appearance as an incarnation of the playwright, explaining the reasons for writing the play and acknowledging contributions to the anger of Rhonda and women in general. It’s an interesting character-piece, with talking points about gender roles and identity, societal expectations, and more, but it leans a little on the self-indulgent side this time. Still, there are great performances all around, and the dialogue is witty and provides food for thought on several timely topics.

Overall, I would say this set is more cohesive and themed than I’ve seen before from the Festival. It continues to be an excellent showcase for new plays and playwrights. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Set Two.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 14, followed by Set Two from July 19-28, 2019.

 

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True West
by Sam Shepard
Directed by William Whitaker
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 12, 2019

William Humphrey, Isaigh Di Lorenzo
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has just opened the final play of their 2018-2019 season, and it’s a certainly a wild one. True West by celebrated playwright/screenwriter/actor Sam Shepard is a caustically comic look at family relationships, show business, and more. It’s definitely on the “unusual” side to say the least, and STLAS has staged it with their usual flair, and an excellent cast of local actors.

The story is set in Southern California in what appears to be the early 1980s, reflected in Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. The central characters are two brothers–college-educated screenwriter Austin (William Humphrey) and the gruff, confrontational Lee (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who lives more of a wandering life and has just returned from a stint in “the desert”. Austin is house-sitting for the brothers’ mother (Susan Kopp), who is on an extended vacation in Alaska, and he’s working diligently on a film script, anticipating a meeting with producer Saul (William Roth)–a meeting that Lee ends up crashing, and making a surprisingly positive impression on Saul. The play charts the increasingly antagonistic and competitive relationship between the brothers, as each begins to take on aspects of the other’s personality in surprising ways, some of which involve typewriters, televisions, and toasters. That’s all I will say, since the comedy of the piece revolves a lot around the element of surprise. It’s an usual story, to say the least, with larger-than-life characters, gritty dialogue, and fast-moving situations.

The comedy also hinges a lot on characterization, as the two very different brothers begin to show that they might not be as different as they thought. It’s a lot of “reaction” humor, as the brothers keep doing things that surprise one another. Humphrey, as the more strait-laced Austin, is especially hilarious in his transformation. Di Lorenzo, as the more initially outrageous Lee, is also convincing, and the actors play off of each other well. There are also fine performances from Roth as the somewhat fickle producer Saul, and Roth as the brothers’ mother, who is surprising in her own way.

The technical aspects of the show, as is usual for STLAS, are well done. The small space at the Gaslight Theater is used especially well, transforming belivably into a suburban California dwelling, and the props are great, too, such as the vintage typewriter and a variety of household appliances. Steve Miller’s lighting also contributes well to the tone of the show, as do Andrea Robb’s costumes, which suitably reflect the characters’ personalities. The staging is smart and fast-paced, as well, with Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography of special note.

True West isn’t a show for everyone, and at moments it seems like the story is just weird for the sake of being weird, which some viewers might find especially hilarious and others might find frustrating.  Still, the characterizations are strong and the STLAS actors are especially well-cast. It’s a memorable way to close out the season.

William Humphrey, WIlliam Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio is presenting True West at the Gaslight Theater until April 28, 2019

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Farragut North
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 16, 2019

Spencer Sickmann, Joshua Parrack, David Wassilak, Shannon Nara
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio hits the campaign trail in its latest production, Farragut North. Taking an incisive, often harsh look at the world of contemporary political campaigns, this play features some sharply drawn characters and intense situations and a thought-provoking, occasionally witty script.  Onstage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre, this production features a strong cast of excellent local performers.

This play was also the source material for the 2011 film The Ides of March, although if you’ve seen that movie, don’t think you know what’s going to happen in this play, because it’s quite a bit different even though the initial situation and some of the characters are the same. The play opens in the midst of a fictionalized 2008 primary race, as campaign staffers for a leading Democratic presidential candidate gather at their hotel bar and swap stories. The central figure is Stephen Bellamy (Spencer Sickmann), the candidate’s press secretary, who is confident of victory in the upcoming caucus, and of the endorsement of a major political figure that will help their candidate emerge as the front-runner in the presidential race. Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (David Wassilak), is also confident as he prepares to travel to an important meeting in another state. As Stephen and Paul tell their stories, a newer staffer, the young and promising Ben (Joshua Parrack) listens, as does ambitious journalist Ida (Shannon Nara), who is eager for every juicy scoop that Stephen can give her. The situation for Stephen gets more complicated when Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer), the campaign manager for another prominent candidate, calls and requests a confidential meeting, and Stephen debates whether or not he should tell Paul. In the midst of the intrigue that results from the meeting, Stephen also navigates a burgeoning personal relationship with an ambitious young intern, Molly (Hollyn Gayle), and Stephen finds out that the campaign situation isn’t as simple as he had imagined. As new twists emerge, Stephen finds himself in the midst of several difficult dilemmas, and his own personal goals as well as those of his colleagues and candidate, undergo some intense challenges.

The centerpiece of the this play is Stephen’s emotional journey, which is deftly navigated here by the always excellent Sickmann, who brings an accessible relatability to his especially determined, sometimes difficult character. Wassilak is also strong as the dedicated political veteran Paul, and Mayer makes the most of his limited stage time as the tough-talking, hard bargaining Tom. There are also excellent turns from Parrack as the idealistic, aspirational young Ben, and Nara as the persistent Ida. Luis Aguilar, in a dual role as a waiter and another campaign staffer, and Gayle as Molly are also fine, although Gayle’s portrayal isn’t quite as worldly as the character seems to suggest. The strongest moments are the scenes between Sickmann and Wassilak, and Sickmann and Mayer, which crackle with energy and intensity as the intrigue of the well-constructed plot unfolds.

Technically, this production uses its space well, with a versatile if somewhat stark set by Patrick Huber. The characters are well outfitted by costume designer Andrea Robb, as well. Huber also designed the lighting, which works well to set and establish the mood and tone of the show, as does director Wayne Salomon’s sound design.

This is an intense, taut, intriguing political thriller, with much of the intensity coming from the characters’ big personalities and the great cast’s memorable performances. It’s a decidedly cynical, sometimes bleak take on the world of politics, although hints of idealism show up from time to time, only to be crushed by harsh realities and the reminder that anyone on a campaign, no matter how seemingly essential, can be replaced. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production brings these stark realities to the stage with crisp, biting incisiveness.  There’s one more weekend to catch it.

Peter Mayer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Farragut North at the Gaslight Theatre until February 24, 2019

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