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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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Blackbird
by David Harrower
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 17, 2018

Elizabeth Berkenmeier, John Pierson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is known for producing challenging plays, and their latest offering is certainly in that vein. Just reading the plot description for Blackbird gives me the creeps, and the program has a warning regarding its subject matter. This is not an easy play to watch. Still, as directed by Annamaria Pileggi and cast with excellent local performers, this difficult but well-written play makes a thought-provoking impression.

The play begins in the midst of a confrontation. In the stark, litter-strewn breakroom of the company where he works, Ray (John Pierson), a seemingly average office worker, has just seen someone he didn’t think he would ever see again. Una (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), hasn’t seen Ray for 15 years, but the last time they saw each other, he was 40 and she was 12. The nature of their earlier relationship is made clear fairly quickly, as is the fact that Ray served time for sexual relations with a minor. Since his release from prison, Ray has changed his name and started a new life, hoping to never be reminded of his past again, but Una has seen a picture of him with co-workers in a magazine, so she has tracked him down, and this confrontation ensues. What happens is understandably uncomfortable to watch, especially since the nature of their prior relationship is described in detail. The emotions are also on clear display, as both Ray and Una process their feelings about what happened, and about each other. I can’t really describe much else because it would give too much away, but essentially the play is one long, intense conversation. It’s a well-written, believable encounter, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing, and to a degree, I wonder why the playwright would choose to explore such a relationship in such detail, although it does provide a showcase for the excellent actors here, and I suppose it shows the far-reaching impact of abuse in a direct, confrontational way.

The performances here are extremely strong. The extremely conflicted dynamic between Pierson and Birkenmeier is intense and credible. Although Ray is a difficult character who has done something reprehensible, Pierson plays him in a way that makes him at least somewhat approachable, if not exactly understandible. He’s full of conflict and self-reproach, but also a clear measure of self-excusing. Birkenmeier especially portrays Una’s mixture of anger, hurt, loneliness, and conflict with intense veracity. There’s also a fine performance from Sienna Hahn in a brief appearance as a character listed in the program as “Girl”.

The discomfort of the subject matter and the disturbing nature of the characters’ confrontation is reflected in Patrick Huber’s stark, grey set and sharp lighting. Costumer designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters appropriately, as well. There’s also good work from props designer Jess Stamper and sound designer Pierson. The technical elements of this play aren’t flashy or obvious, but they provide just the right backdrop for the proceedings.

As I’ve already noted, this is a difficult play. It shows a distressing, uncomfortable confrontation on a direct, human scale. Blackbird is definitely not for all audiences, but STLAS has done about as excellent a job with it as I can imagine. It’s a disturbing, challenging, thought-provoking experience.

John Pierson, Elizabeth Berkenmeier
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Blackbird at the Gaslight Theatre until February 25, 2018

 

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A Behanding In Spokane
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2017

Jerry Vogel, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

With a show like this, it’s tempting to fill this review with “hand” puns and jokes, but I won’t. Or I’ll try not to, anyway. A Behanding In Spokane, by Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh, is the latest production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio, and as is common for McDonagh’s plays, it’s a dark comedy with a macabre twist. And as is usual for STLAS, it has a great cast and dynamic direction.

This is a strange story, no question. The characters are broadly drawn, and the situation is kind of ridiculous, to say the least, but that’s kind of the point in this play. The story follows the brash, bigoted, single-minded Carmichael (Jerry Vogel), who has checked into a small-town hotel in Indiana to carry out a bizarre transaction. According to his elaborate story, his hand was cut off when he was a teenager by a group of strangers, and he’s been on an obsessive 47-year quest to find that hand. This hotel stay is another stop on that journey, where he deals with small-time pot dealers Toby (Michael Lowe) and Marilyn (Léerin Campbell), who have told him they have what he’s looking for. There’s also the curious, meddling reception desk attendant, Mervyn (William Roth), who keeps inserting himself into the situation and seems to have an unusual agenda of his own. That’s basically all I can say without spoiling too much. Basically, it’s all true to McDonagh’s style, with a pitch-dark sense of humor, a good deal of blood, and a cast of not especially likable characters who all have their own competing self-serving agendas.

A story like this depends on the right cast to make it really work, and STLAS has assembled an excellent group of performers here, led by the always-great Vogel in a confrontational performance as Carmichael. Vogel plays well against the also outstanding Roth as the enigmatic, gleefully disruptive Mervyn, who seems to hold the most power in this power struggle most of the time. Campbell, as the excitable Marilyn, and Lowe, as the often bewildered Toby, are also strong here, contributing to the overall excellent ensemble chemistry, consummately directed by Salomon with quick, sharp timing and palpable, suspenseful energy.

The small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is effectively transformed into a small, seedy hotel room by means of Patrick Huber’s set. Huber’s lighting design and Salomon’s sound also contribute well to the overall atmosphere here. There’s also great work from costume and props designer Carla Landis Evans. The props are especially important, contributing to the macabre humor and overall shocking tone of this play.

A Behanding in Spokane is a superbly staged play, but it’s not for all audiences. It’s definitely in the “gruesome humor” category, with a special emphasis on “gruesome”. Still, there’s a first-rate cast here, and a sharp, compelling story and script. If super dark, bloody humor is your thing, this is a play to check out.

Jerry Vogel, Léerin Campbell, Michael Lowe
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Behanding in Spokane at the Gaslight Theatre until December 17, 2017.

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The Feast
by Cory Finley
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 22, 2017

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

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is highlighting local talent in the first play of its new season, The Feast. Written by a St. Louis native and featuring three talented local performers, The Feast is something of a comedy thriller, but with the “thriller” elements becoming more and more apparent as the story plays out. It’s a memorable, even chilling production.

This is the story of a man and his toilet, essentially. Matt (Spencer Sickmann) is a painter who lives in a small apartment with his girlfriend Anna (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). He’s woken up one morning by a visit from a plumber (Ryan Foizey, who plays several roles), who informs Matt that Anna has called because their toilet has been making unusual noises. Matt himself seems both disturbed and increasingly fascinated by the strange sounds. As Matt tries to go about his everyday life, his thoughts keep getting drawn to that toilet, and the strange noises and sights that go on in his bathroom. The “toilet problem” grows as Matt talks to his therapist and his agent (both played by Foizey), and as he navigates difficulties in his relationship with the evasive Anna.  Something of a mythology emerges through the course of the play about what’s actually happening. We know Matt believes there’s something real behind these strange phenomena, and something of an odd mythology emerges, although we aren’t sure if the strange occurrences are real or if they are all in Matt’s head. The script is clever, with a balance of comedy and horror elements. The comedy is inherent in some of the relationship dynamics and in the basic premise of a toilet that “speaks”. Still, the tone gets increasingly unsettling as the story goes on, and the playwright keeps the element of mystery right up until the jarring conclusion.

The production values here help the story along a lot. Patrick Huber’s set is a detailed representation of Matt and Anna’s apartment with a place of prominence given to the bathroom, and the all-important toilet. Huber’s lighting also contributes a great deal to the mood of the piece, especially as the creepiness factor amps up, and the toilet glows. There’s also superb sound design by director John Pierson, lending those otherworldly noises emanating from the throne. There’s also excellent work from costume and props designer Carla Landis Evans.

The acting here is top-notch as well, focusing especially on Sickmann’s impressive performance as Matt. Sickmann is adept at portraying Matt’s many facets, as the frustrated artist, confused and insecure boyfriend, and increasingly fascinated and bewildered witness to the strange goings-on in his toilet and sewer system. The question of Matt’s grasp on reality is clearly apparent in Sickmann’s performance, as is his relatable “everyman” quality even as the weirdness continues to get weirder. There are also strong performances from Theby-Quinn as the professionally ambitious but personally evasive Anna, and by Foizey, billed as “The Man”, playing a variety of characters who may or may not be versions of the same person.

This isn’t a long play, but it’s not the easiest play to describe. It runs slightly more than an hour, but there’s a lot going on in that short period of time. It can be seen as metaphorical in a lot of ways, and there are issues here beyond the simple premise–of honesty in relationships, artistic motivation and integrity, and more. With richly drawn and impeccably cast characters and some simply fantastic technical elements, The Feast is one of those shows that might keep you thinking–and questioning–for a long time after it’s over.

Spencer Sickmann, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Feast at the Gaslight Theatre until October 8, 2017.

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