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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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Tribes
by Nina Raine
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 2, 2018

Miles Barbee, Bridgette Bassa
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 12th season has been titled “Blood is Thicker Than Water”. I’m assuming that by that title, the plays will be examining the concept of family in one way or another. Their latest production, British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes, looks at the concept of family from various different angles–from literal family to “chosen family” and what those concepts mean to a people who can become caught between two or more distinct groups. It’s an incisive, fascinating script filled with well-drawn characters, and STLAS has brough them to life in this intense, thoughtful and profound production.

The story, set in England, introduces us to a close but occasionally volatile family unit. The parents, professor Christopher (Greg Johnston) and aspiring novelist Beth (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) live with their three adult children–aspiring opera singer Ruth (Hailey Medrano), insecure academic Daniel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), and Billy (Miles Barbee), who as the only deaf member of the family, has grown up in his hearing family’s world, learning to read lips and, at Christopher’s insistence, never learning sign language. The family is often loud and opinionated, with Billy frequently having to ask them to explain what they’re talking about. Eventually, Billy meets Sylvia (Bridgette Bassa) at a party.. Having grown up as a hearing child of deaf parents, Sylvia is fluent in sign language, and she is able to introduce Billy to the deaf community as she reveals that she herself is gradually going deaf. As the relationship between Billy and Sylvia grows, Syliva is introduced to Billy’s family and Billy begins to discover a new world of possibilities around him just as Sylvia is growing increasingly confused about what the world will be like for her, as Billy’s parents struggle with their son’s increasing independence, and as his siblings deal with a combination of jealousy and dependence. The dynamics are complicated to describe, although they are extremely well played-out, with various implications brought up as natural outgrowths of the characters, their relationships, and where the story takes them. It’s a fascinating play, intricately scripted, with moments of humor and poignant drama blended into an increasingly intense, riveting theatrical experience.

The family dynamic here is extremely well portrayed by an excellent cast. Barbee, who like his character is deaf, plays Billy with strength, sensitivity, and eagerness as Billy discovers more about the world around him, explores the possibilities, and challenges his family’s restrictions and perceptions of him. His chemistry with the equally excellent Bassa is strong, and Bassa is also particularly effective as a young woman who is essentially a part of two worlds but questioning how she fits in to both of them. Lawson-Maeske, as the insecure, struggling Daniel, is also impressive, particularly in his scenes with Barbee, the brother he alternately resents and desperately needs. There are also strong performances from Medrano as the competitive Ruth, Johnston as the belligerent, highly opinionated and controlling Christopher, and Townsend as the conflicted Beth, who seems to genuinely want the best for her children but struggles to understand what that is. It’s a highly emotional play, and thoroughly believable in its relationships and in its use of British Sign Language (BSL) on stage, with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and supertitles helping to translate.

The world of these characters is brought to life believably in director Annamaria Pileggi’s thoughtful staging and the technical aspects of the play. Patrick Huber’s vividly realized set, video design, and striking lighting make the most of the small stage space at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. There’s also impressive work from costume designer Megan Harshaw, props designer Jess Stamper, sound designer Jeff Roberts, and dialect coach Pileggi. The accents aren’t universally perfect, but they’re good enough as to not be distracting from the action.

This is a stunning, highly thought-provoking play that covers so many issues in terms of identity, family, and belonging that it’s almost too much to describe. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself, which I highly recommend. Tribes is another impressive production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Cast of Tribes
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Tribes at the Gaslight Theatre until December 16, 2018

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The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 30, 2018

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Richard Lewis, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season’s theme is “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”. It leads off with a 20th Century classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. It’s a play I’d heard a lot about but had never actually seen before. Now, I’m glad this is the first production I’ve seen. It’s an intense, emotionally fraught play characterized by some truly remarkable performances by a cast of superb local actors.

The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, inspired by members of playwright Hellman’s own family. Set in the American South at the turn of the 20th Century, it offers a glimpse into wealthy Southern society at the time, both as a portrayal and as a scathing critique, as the inner workings and relationships among members of a wealthy extended family serve as a reflection of societal expectations, traditions, and injustices of the era. The central figure is Regina Giddens (Kari Ely), an ambitious woman whose fortunes have been determined largely by her financial dependence on her scheming brothers Ben (Chuck Brinkley) and Oscar (Bob Gerchen), as well as her mild-mannered, ailing husband Horace (William Roth). When the brothers arrange a deal with wealthy Chicago businessman William Marshall (Richard Lewis) to build a cotton mill, they pressure Regina into investing along with them but she needs to get Horace to agree, which means she has to send her young daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa) on a train to Maryland, where he has been receiving treatment for his heart condition, to bring him home. Meanwhile, Oscar schemes to arrange a marriage between his immature son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Alexandra as a way of securing Horace’s money. Alexandra, for her part, doesn’t like Leo very much and seems to be closer to her aunt, Oscar’s gentle but mistreated wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell), who was born into a wealthy landowning family and who the abusive Oscar married for this reason. Trapped in a loveless, frequently violent marriage and a highly restrictive society, Birdie clings to music and drink as forms of comfort. The haunted Birdie serves as a contrast to the steely, strong-willed and ruthless Regina, who will use any means necessary to get what she wants.

Hellman pulls no punches in this devastating play, depicting the schemes, machinations, greed, brutality, and racism of Regina and her brothers–and the society in which they grew up and aim to thrive–with sharp characterization and caustic dialogue. The liberal use of racial slurs by the characters is difficult to listen to at times, but it’s reflective of the times and the characters and society. It’s difficult to watch the casual racism of most of the characters clearly demonstrated in their attitudes toward the family’s household servants, Addie (Wendy Greenwood) and Cal (Dennis Jethro II), although this too is realistic. The household dynamics are on clear display, and the nature of the various relationships is made clear in the script as well as in John Contini’s thoughtful direction. It’s clear, for instance, before anything needs to be said, the brutality of the relationship between Oscar and Birdie, as well as Horace’s contempt for Regina, Alexandra’s closeness to Birdie and Addie (Wendy Greenwood), and Addie’s thoughts about the various family members, positive and negative. Regina’s scheming is also evident, both in the script and in Ely’s crafty, measured performance. The story is intricately plotted, structured in three acts and with the tension building and with a series of devastating moments.

This is both a well-plotted story and a rich character study, and all the actors perform their roles with impressive ability. Ely, as mentioned, is a commanding presence as the scheming Regina, with Gerchen as the cold, brutal Oscar and Brinkley as the equally ambitious but more diplomatic Ben also convincing. There are also strong performances from Roth as the kind but sickly Horace, and Bassa as Alexandra, who shows a great deal of character growth as the story develops and she learns what her family is really like. Lawson-Maeske is appropriately eager and clueless as Leo, and Greenwood is especially strong as Addie, as well, particularly in her scenes with Bassa and Roth. The biggest standout, though, is McConnell, in a truly stunning, multi-layered and heartbreaking performance as Birdie. A gentle woman whose fond memories of her family are clear, as well as her increasingly obvious disillusionment and loss of hope, Birdie’s story is made especially convincing by McConnell, who is always excellent and is at her best here.

In addition to the excellent cast, this show displays impressive production values as well. STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is a challenging space in terms of how small it is, but this company has continually made the most of that space, and they seem to have outdone themselves this time. Patrick Huber’s mult-level set is stunning, representing a well-appointed 1900-era Southern mansion with clarity. The costumes by Megan Harshaw also suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Patrick Huber, sound designer Contini, and props designer Jess Stamper. All of these elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere, tension, and drama of the play.

The Little Foxes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is not to be missed. Whether you are familiar with the works of Lillian Hellman or not, this is a must-see show. It’s a reflection of the excellence of this company as well as the outstanding cast of local actors who have brought these characters to life. Although many of the characters in this play are unlikable to say the least, they are vividly portrayed here. The running time is fairly long–it’s three acts with two intermissions, and it’s riveting from start to finish. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss it.

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Wendy Greenwood, Richard Lewis, Chuck Brinkley, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Bob Gerchen
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Little Foxes at the Gaslight Theatre until October 14, 2018

 

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Labute New Theater Festival 2018
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2018

The Labute New Theater Festival is back with Set Two, and it’s a stronger set altogether. St. Louis Actors’ Studio is continuing its festival with another set of plays that feature thought-provoking concepts, strong acting and staging, providing for an all-around impressive production at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. In addition to the continued run of the festival’s namesake playwright Labute’s “The Fourth Reich” in which Eric Dean White’s performance is even more insidiously creepy than it was the first time around, the bill includes a strong group of three intriguing plays:

“The Gettier Problem”

by Michael Long

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first of the new plays is an intriguing work that challenges the audience’s perception and raises some interesting questions. The “Gettier” of the title here is Edie Gettier (Colleen Backer), a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward who is awaiting a surgical procedure and is attended by a stern, wary nurse (Erin Brewer) and an assistant (Spencer Sickmann) with whom Gettier seems to be enamored, referrring to him as her “boyfriend” and insisting he stay with her after the nurse leaves. Then, she spins a story that he finds difficult to believe at first and calls to question everything we’ve seen up until this point. It’s an interesting premise, although the short play format makes the ideas raised somewhat difficult to explore. It would be interesting to see what a longer version of this play could look like. The performances are universally strong, especially from Backer who presents an enigmatic character with impressive credibility. Sickmann and Brewer provide strong support, as well.

“The Process”

by Peter McDonough

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is a puzzle of sorts–an unfolding mystery that becomes increasingly riveting as the story unfolds, although there is a degree of predictability to it. That doesn’t take away from the poignancy, though, in this tale of an interview that at first appears to be a therapy session of some kind, with a “client” who is soon revealed to be a soon-to-be-married elementary school teacher (Carly Rosenbaum). She’s meeting with someone who initially seems to be a counselor (Erin Brewer) who is helping her “client” recover memories that she seems to have blocked out. What is happening becomes more apparent as the details are gradually revealed, although I did guess the “twist” fairly early in the story. The weight of the drama is still here, though, even if you can guess where this is going. With great, sympthetical and emotional performances from both Rosenbaum and Brewer, this is a stunningly effective play and story.

“Unabridged”

by Sean Abley

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Zak Farmer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This, the last and most inventive production of the evening, is an impressive exercise in world-building, with well-realized characters and an intriguing setting for a short play. It’s something of a venture into fantasy that could easily have been an episode of The Twilight Zone–an imagined “what if” situation in which words have become a valued commodity. Here, in what appears to have once been a library or bookstore in an unspecified but vaguely post-apocolyptic setting, a shopkeeper (Zak Farmer) hosts a frequent customer (Spencer Sickmann) whose passion for new words is almost akin to a drug habit. He’s desperate, intense, jittery, and hanging on every word he can find, both from Farmer and from an unseen competitor who seems to be feeding Sickmann faulty definitions for some inexplicable reason, leading to some humorous moments as well as some poignant ones. It’s a clever script, tackling some intriguing ideas and touching on some timely topics and some challenging philosophical concepts. It’s another play that I wish could be longer, because it would be interesting to see these ideas elaborated further. Farmer, Sickmann, and Eric Dean White (as another of Farmer’s customers) perform their parts well, with Sickmann especially memorable. This is probably my favorite of this year’s festival plays. It’s a highlight of a particularly strong week of plays that is well worth catching while this year’s festival heads into its final weekend.

Set Two of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 29, 2018

 

 

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Labute New Theater Festival 2018, part 1
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 6, 2018

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s annual Labute New Theater Festival is on again at the Gaslight Theatre, showcasing new short plays by a variety of artists, including its namesake playwright. Set One has another weekend to run, with Set Two preparing to open next week. The first batch of plays showcase a variety of characters and situations, from amusing to confusing to downright disturbing. Here are my brief reviews:

“The Fourth Reich”

by Neil Labute

Directed by John Pierson

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

As with all of Neil Labute’s previous showcased works at the festival, this play will be featured for the entire run of the event. Also like most of his festival offerings, this one comes across as more of an extended acting exercise than a play. It features an excellent local performer, Eric Dean White, in a memorable performance as an initially polite-enough seeming guy talking to the audience in an interview of sorts. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a formal interview, or some kind of organized event, or if White is just talking to the audience because he wants to. Still, he’s there, sitting in his comfy chair, growing more and more effusive in his praise of Adolf Hitler, acknowledging that Hitler lost World War II but insisting that history hasn’t given him a fair hearing. It’s a weird, defensive sort of monologue, as White’s unnamed character wheedles his way through a succession of repetitive arguments, growing more and more obviously sinister all the while, and even directly challenging the audience to broaden their perspective. It’s an impressive, measured performance by White, who manages to make the character grow more and more obviously sinister through the course of the monologue until the end, which is positively chilling. It’s a strong performance, but as a play I’m not sure what to do with this. A case could be made that this illustrates the sheer insidiousness of people and ideas like this, but still the play’s purpose isn’t entirely clear. The end result is just simply disturbing.

“Shut Up and Dance”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second play of this set is in more of a darkly comic, somewhat fantastical vein, basing its situation at least in part on a real event. Here, a nameless Rockette (Erin Brewer), is haunted by imaginary “Rockette”-like apparitions in her dreams after she decides not to dance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. She flees to a hotel, later calling her mother (Margeau Steinau) and reflecting on the impact of her decision and the concerns about the future of the country. It’s an interesting idea, with good performances by all, especially Brewer and Steinau, although it seems disjointed in terms of format, almost like two plays instead of one, which becomes an even greater issue in the third play of the evening…

“Advantage God”

by Norman Kline

Directed by John Pierson

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

Talk about disjointed. This is certainly a clever idea, but there’s a little too much going on here and the situation isn’t set up as clearly as it could be. Here, a couple of well-to-do suburbanites (Eric Dean White and Colleen Backer) try to cope with an apocalyptic crisis, as they find themselves in the midst of some nebulous invasion. The two prattle on about their various self-centered concerns while it looks like the world is falling apart around them, but then the Voice of God (Reginald Pierre) starts talking and the whole course of the play changes. The story then shifts to a philosophical and metaphysical debate of sorts before taking a more literal turn that requires a jarring and time-consuming scene change. It has some funny moments, and White, Backer, and Pierre give strong performances, but ultimately the story comes across as disjointed and confusing, although it defintely has some funny moments.

“Hipster Noir”

by Jame McLendon

Directed by John Pierson

Reginald Pierre, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The last play of the first set is the most memorable, and the funniest. A cast of three, in excellent comic form, present an old-style Maltese Falcon-type detective story set in a coffee shop in ever-so-trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nick (Pierre) narrates the story with a sense of earnest urgency, as he recounts the tale of his meeting with the mysterious Delilah (Carly Rosenbaum), who apparently needs Nick’s help but who also has an agenda of her own. There’s also Atticus (Joshua Parrack), a young hipster with a fondness for typewriters and fountain pens. How he figures into the story isn’t made obvious until later in the play. The comedy here is sharp, with a kind of faux-serious tone that goes well with the Film Noir theme. It’s a fun, clever story with strong performances and a lot of jokes, particularly about hipster culture, relying largely on stereotypes and innuendo. It’s a little obvious at times, but it’s funny.

The production values across the plays are good, with some clever costuming by Megan Harshaw, a simple and versatile set by Patrick Huber, and strong lighting by Huber and Dalton Robison. So far, the festival has presented some interesting ideas, although most of the scripts do need some work, especially in terms of overall cohesiveness and clarity. Still, this festival is an excellent showcase for local actors and directors, presenting some interesting new works. I’m especially curious to see what Set Two is going to to bring.

Set One of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 2018 Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theater until July 15, 2018. Set Two opens on July 20 and runs until July 29, 2018. 

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The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 22, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak, Richard Lewis
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Dresser is a well-known look at life in the theatre in the mid-20th Century. It’s been revived a few times and filmed twice, and now it’s on stage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. As is fitting for a play about actors and theatre, this is a notably theatrical production, highlighting excellent performances from some celebrated local performers. Also, for this theatre company, the play represents an opportunity to call to mind a memorable previous production.

The first production I saw at STLAS was King Lear in 2013, starring John Contini in the title role, Bobby Miller as the Fool, and Missy Heinemann as Lear’s daughter, Regan. Now, STLAS is staging this play with those three players all involved, and with Contini again getting to, in a way, revisit his role as Lear. Here, Miller is directing and Contini is playing a veteran British actor referred to only as “Sir”, who is getting ready for yet another performance of Lear for his touring repertory company, and being attended to by his long-time faithful dresser Norman (David Wassilak). Heinemann plays Sir’s wife, addressed as “Her Ladyship”, who is also in the company, playing Cordelia in the evening’s planned performance. Sir, who has been declining in health, has apparently had something of a breakdown and was sent to the hosptial, putting the performance in doubt, but he eventually turns up, and Norman has to manage the emotional drama and various backstage complexities. Also involved in the production are loyal stage manager Madge (Emily Baker), who has been working with Sir for longer than anyone else, as well as actors Geoffrey Thornton (Richard Lewis)–who is making his first appearance as the Fool replacing an actor who had to leave the company, Mr. Oxenby, a somewhat belligerent new member of the company, and Irene (Bridgette Bossa), an initially niave-seeming younger cast member who reveals a more crafty, ambitious side after Sir reveals his more lecherous intentions toward her.

This is a somewhat difficult play because Sir is not a particularly likable character. He’s belligerent, arrogant, bigoted, and misogynistic, although Contini does a good job of making him watchable. Wassilak, as Norman, is also excellent, carrying the emotional weight of the play much of the time and displaying a sense of wary respect. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with particular stand-out performances from Heinemann as the weary, concerned Her Ladyship, and Baker as the hardworking, even reverent Madge as the standouts. It’s a well-structured play for the most part, with strong performances all around although the first act tends to be a bit shouty. It’s still an intriguing look at tensions backstage and in the world in 1940s England, in the midst of World War II and as the production is also threatened by air raids.

The time and place of the production are effectively evoked in Patrick Huber’s meticulous set design and Teresa Doggett’s detailed costumes. Particularly, the Lear costumes seem authentic to what would be used at the time. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Dalton Robinson in helping to achieve the overall theatrical atmosphere, as well as Miller’s sound design and Jess Stamper’s props.

The Dresser is a detailed, unsentimental look at a specific era in history, as well as life in the theatre. This isn’t a nostalgia play, but more an examination of the depth of relationships and various personalities involved in a company such as this, and the challenges of a life on the stage. Although the central actor figure isn’t particularly sympathetic, the world around him is fully realized and the characters are intriguing, especially in this production with such a strong cast. It’s also an interesting callback to STLAS’s earlier production of King Lear, serving as an opportunity for contrast to anyone who has seen both productions. There are only a few performances left, but this production is worth checking out.

Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak, John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Dresser at the Gaslight Theatre until April 29, 2018.

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