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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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LaBute New Theater Festival 2017
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 9 and 22, 2017

It’s time again for the LaBute Festival, and St. Louis Actors’ studio has populated the Gaslight Theatre this year with a variety of short plays that cover questions of truth, identity, belief, power struggles, and more. As usual, the festival’s main feature is a play by the festival’s namesake, celebrated playwright Neil LaBute. His play runs throughout the festival, with the rest of the plays shown in two sets, the first one having opened on July 7, and the second–which is still running–opening on July 21. Overall, it’s an intriguing group of plays this year, showcasing some promising playwrights and some excellent local acting talent. Here are my thoughts:

“Hate Crime”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Greg Hunsaker, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s contribution from Neil LaBute is a two-character piece focusing on a complicated relationship and a secret “plan”. Greg Hunsaker and Chauncy Thomas play two men who are obviously involved in some sort of romantic relationship, although it seems Hunsaker is more enamored with Thomas than the other way around. In fact, it often seems like Thomas can barely stand to be around Hunsaker, even though Hunsaker’s attitude toward Thomas is more on the level of adoration. As the two plan to carry out a sinister plan, it’s fairly clear who is in control and who is being manipulated. This is an intriguing character study, exploring issues of self-acceptance and self-loathing,  as well as the power of attraction and personal manipulation. It’s quite disturbing when the nature of the plan becomes known, as well as the two men’s different attitudes toward it, and toward each other. The dialogue is sharp, and the performances are strong and believable. It’s a strong, but unsettling, entry from the always provocative LaBute.

Part 1 (July 9, 2017)

“Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”

by Ron Radice

Directed by John Pierson

This play is the first of two in this festival that have strikingly similar themes. Basically, an unsuspecting individual in a seemingly mundane situation is confronted by other characters who seem intent on messing with his mind. Here, Ryan Lawson-Maeske is waiting for a commuter train at a station he hasn’t been to before, and two “regulars” at the station, played by Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre, confront him and challenge his very sense of what is real. Tone-wise, this is essentially a suspense comedy, and it’s well played by all three actors, although the overall point of it isn’t entirely clear. There’s a lot of energy to this production, though, and the staging is clever, with casting that emphasizes the intimidation factor, in that both Sickmann and Pierre are much taller than Lawson-Maeske, and the height difference adds to the sense of tension that grows as the play progresses. It’s a simply staged piece, and has some memorable comic moments.

“Sacred Space”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Nancy Bell

This is a short, poignant play that deals with issues of death, mourning, and atonement. Two women (Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow) are preparing to carry out a Jewish cleansing ritual for a woman in her upper 80s who has recently died. While they are preparing for their task, however, they talk about their day, and strange messages keep appearing on the wall that they first try to dismiss, but they won’t stop.  As the women try to continue their work, they can’t help but be caught up in the messages, and the story that they tell. It’s a story they are both familiar with, as they’ve heard it on the news. Brown and Furlow are both excellent in this short production that serves as a tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, as well as a reflection on life, death, tragedy, and the importance of remembering.

“Percentage America”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Kelly Schaschl, Nancy Bell, Chauncy Thomas
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As far as I’m concerned, this play is the highlight of the festival. An extremely well-constructed, cleverly written, incisive and impeccably staged piece, this play is several things at once, and they all work. It’s a mystery, a light romance, a story of political intrigue, and more. It’s framed as a “date play”, in which a man and woman (Chauncy Thomas and Nancy Bell), who have met via an online dating site are getting to know one another, and decide to engage in a little fact-finding game in order to escape the boredom of every day life.  They decide to pick a news story and by comparing various news reports and finding their own sources, they try their best to determine the truth of what happened.

This is such a clever, insightful, incisive play, with commentary on the nature of news coverage, the current state of political affairs in the US, and the general media culture, as well as insights into modern dating, teenage life, and more. So much is said in such a short piece. The story is structured so well and the performances are universally strong. It’s a riveting production from start to finish.

Part 2

“How’s Bruno”

by Cary Pepper

Directed by Nancy Bell

I guess the moral of this play is “when you get a text from a stranger, don’t text back”. In a story that’s oddly reminiscent of “Waiting for Erie Lackawanna”, an unwitting young man finds himself surrounded by strangers who may or may not be deliberately messing with his mind. Spencer Sickmann plays the man, who is sitting in a coffee shop and gets a text from a number he doesn’t recognize. When he responds, two men (Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Reggie Pierre) soon appear with an urgent story about how Sickmann is apparently in a whole lot of trouble. Chauncy Thomas later shows up and continues the story, increasing Sickmann’s confusion. The tone is broadly comic, for the most part, with similar themes as “Lackawanna” but with the added element of modern technology-induced paranoia. It’s a funny play, with a somewhat mysterious ending, although there doesn’t seem to be lot of point to it beyond the shock factor.

“Sin Titulo”

by Tearrance Chisholm

Directed by Linda Kennedy

This play, the last and longest of this year’s plays at the festival, is actually set in St. Louis, looking at the experiences of three members of an African-American family shortly following the 2016 presidential election. Damascus (Reggie Pierre) is an activist who led a local chapter of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and after her loss, he feels aimless and depressed. His wife Naomi (Patrice Foster) is concerned about him, and encourages him to find a new focus for his energy. Complicating the situation is Naomi’s unemployed brother Lloyd (Jaz Tucker), who is full of conspiracy theories that Damascus tries to play along with in order to manipulate Lloyd into being more responsible with his life choices. There are a lot of important, timely issues covered in this play, although it’s a bit disjointed and the ending is especially abrupt. Still, the performances are excellent, the relationships are credible, and the story provides a lot to think about, even though  it’s not always clear what’s real and what’s happening in Damascus’s mind. This is a promising play, even if it can be a little confusing at times.

There are still a few days left to catch the second half of this year’s festival. It’s a fascinating group of plays this year, with humor, drama, suspense, and strong casting. It’s a memorable feature of the St. Louis summer theatre season.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 30,2017

 

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August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 14, 2017

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

August:Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio runs about three and a half hours and serves up some intense and even brutal situations in the life of an Oklahoma family. It may seem like a difficult play to watch, and in ways it is, but with the superb,Pulitzer Prize-wining script, excellent direction and stellar cast, it’s a fascinating, riveting experience that’s sure to hold the audience’s attention from start to stunning finish.

This is a large-cast play, filling STLAS’s small stage at the Gaslight Theatre and bringing out all the sharpness, drama and caustic wit of Tracy Letts’s script. The action centers around Violet Weston (Kari Ely), the sharp-tongued, drug-addicted matriarch, whose poet husband, Beverly (Larry Dell) disappears, bringing the family together and revealing the dynamics and relationships between the various members, including the Westons’ three daughters–Barbara (Meghan Baker), the “responsible” eldest; Ivy (Emily Baker), who still lives nearby and is berated by her mother for not being able to find a lasting romantic relations; and Karen (Rachel Fenton), the youngest who has spent a lot of time in Florida out of touch with the family, only to return at a crisis point with smarmy fiance’ Steve (Drew Battles) in tow. It’s a complicated family, including Violet’s cheerful but pushy sister Mattie Fae (Kim Furlow), her affable husband Charlie (William Roth), and socially awkward son Little Charles (Stephen Peirick), as well as Barbara’s seemingly “perfect” husband, Bill (David Wassilak) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Bridgette Bassa). There’s also Johnna (Wendy Renee Farmer), a young Cheyenne woman who has been hired by Bev against Violet’s wishes to be a housekeeper and caretaker for the family, and who Violet frequently badmouths and berates. The family and interpersonal dynamic is the source of much of the drama and biting humor here, with various revelations and ensuing emotional outbursts as part of the territory. It’s a richly portrayed portrait of a family of “big” personalities that don’t come across as caricatures and, while the situations and characters may be extreme at times, there’s something about the various family dynamics that provides much with which viewers can relate. Even if we don’t have relatives exactly like this, there are things here that most families will be able to recognize to one degree or another.

The language, rhythm and pace of this script is expertly represented here in director Wayne Salomon’s “master class” level of a production. The cast is positively stellar, led by the remarkably complex and multi-layered performance of Ely as Violet. While Violet is not a likable character, Ely does an admirable job of making her fascinating, and even sympathetic at times. Her mood swings, her deep-seated resentment of the life she has led and even the members of her own family, and a dual sense of desperation and resignation are brought to the stage in this incredible portrayal. Ely’s is well-matched by the rest of the cast, as well, especially by Meghan Baker as the “responsible” Barbara whose own life isn’t what it seems and shows her own degree of desperation as life continues to spin out of control; and also by Emily Baker as the sometimes neglected, sometimes bullied middle child Ivy, whose quest for personal happiness and fulfillment takes on its own level of desperation. There are also strong performances from Fenton as the seemingly clueless Karen, Bassa as the conflicted and rebellious Jean, Peirick as the much-maligned (by his own mother) Little Charles, and Roth as Charlie, who is even-keeled until his wife–the also excellent Furlow–reveals his breaking point. Farmer is also memorable as Johnna, who admirably manages to help mitigate the chaos around her. Battles, as the outgoing and decidedly creepy Steve, and Dell as the well-meaning but overwhelmed Bev also turn in excellent performances. This is an excellent ensemble, giving well-pitched performances that do justice to the challenging and sometimes explosive script.

Also impressive are the production values here. The multi-level set by Patrick Huber is something of a wonder, representing the large, well-appointed Weston house with remarkably vivid detail on the Gaslight Theatre’s small stage. Carla Landis Evans’s excellent costumes and props also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this play, as does Dalton Robinson’s effective lighting. The staging of such a large-cast play on such a small stage could easily seem cluttered, but here, everyone fits, and the small stage actually works well for helping to achieve a claustrophobic effect when that is needed, especially in the revelatory family scenes.

This is a wondrous production. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and it runs three and a half hours, but it is never, ever boring. This lucid, intense script is brought to life in such a challenging and stunning way. It’s a truly great production, not to be missed.

Emily Baker, Meghan Baker, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting August: Osage County at the Gaslight Theatre until April 30, 2017.

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American Buffalo
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2016

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Desperation is on display in David Mamet’s modern classic play American Buffalo, and it’s not Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” either. In fact, the characters in this highly charged three-person play can get rather loud. With a powerful script and equally powerful acting, this production is a highlight of the year in St. Louis theatre.

The setting is a resale shop in Chicago in the 1970’s. Donny Dubrow (Peter Mayer), the owner of the shop, talks with his young protege, Bobby (Leo Ramsey) about an initially unnamed project they’re working on. Soon after the arrival of their friend, Walter “Teach” Cole (William Roth) we find out exactly what’s being planned. Donny had apparently sold a valuable “Buffalo” nickel to a customer for much less than it was worth, and he wants to get the nickel back by any means necessary, or more specifically, to steal it back. Teach, however, has strong opinions about Bobby’s being involved in this job, and is determined to take Bobby’s place. That’s really the basic plot. Of course more happens and there are some rather devastating developments, but what is front and center here is the world Mamet has created, and these intricately flawed characters and their complicated relationships, with each other and with a few associates they constantly talk about but are never shown, as well as with the world around them.  The language is thoroughly believable and effective. Each character has distinct rhythms of speech. The strong language for which Mamet is known is not as shocking today as it may have been when the play was written, but it’s still effective and perfectly suited to the characters who inhabit this story.

The real “show” here isn’t the plot, really. It’s the characters, and they are exquisitely well-drawn and, in this production, just as exquisitely portrayed. The relationships are also clearly defined. The wary friendship between Donny and Teach, the father/son-like dynamic between Donny and Bobby, and the not-so-thinly veiled suspicion between Bobby and Teach, are all clearly on display here in this lucidly directed production. Mayer is able to find a glimmer of desperate hope behind the defeated world-weariness of Donny, and his protectiveness of Bobby is readily apparent.  Ramsey portrays a real sense of determination and affection for Donny in his portrayal of the somewhat naive but determined Bobby. Roth, for his part, emphasizes the underlying rage in the part of the swaggering, confrontational Teach. All three actors interact with a believable sense of relationship and personal history, and the energy in their confrontations is palpable.  It’s a remarkable feat of acting from all three.

Another intensely impressive aspect of this production is the creation of the characters’ physical world. Set designer Cristie Johnson and props designer Carla Landis Evans have brought Donny’s junk shop to such vivid life that every time I walked past it on the way in and out of the theatre, I just wanted to stop and stare at the sheer level of detail, as every item in the well-stocked shop seemed to have a story of its own. The authenticity is complete down the the display cases, the realistic shop windows, and the well-worn linoleum on the floor. Evans’ costumes also perfectly outfit the characters and anchoring them into the play’s established time and place.  There’s also stellar lighting work from Dalton Robinson and excellent sound design from director John Contini.  The Gaslight Theatre is small, but STLAS continues to impress me with how much they can do with the stage area, creating a space that’s so meticulously detailed and entirely believable as the setting for such a fully realized production.

American Buffalo is a well-crafted work from one of America’s most celebrated modern playwrights. It’s volatile, raw, revealing, and not particularly hopeful, but it gives us a world and characters that are achingly authentic. At St. Louis Actors’ studio, such a work has become something of a master class for top-notch acting directing, and design. That description might make this sound clinical, but it’s not. This play is real, and on clear, emotional display. It’s intense, it’s devastating, and it’s not to be missed.

William Roth, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting American Buffalo at the Gaslight Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 23, 2016

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee is unquestionably one of the greatest playwrights of the last 100 years. That St. Louis Actors’ Studio opened its long-planned production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women one week after the playwright’s death was a coincidence. Still, such an excellent, superbly cast production of this intensely personal play couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to this celebrated artist.

Three Tall Women is the title of this play that takes much of its inspiration from Albee’s own life, and especially that of his mother, and despite the title it’s essentially about one woman. The three women of title are only identified as A (Jan Meyer), B (Amy Loui), and C (Sophia Brown), although the central figure is A. The construction of this play is difficult to describe without some degree of spoiling, so let that be a warning. Essentially, this is an examination of one woman’s life at different ages, looking back in retrospective in the first act as elderly A is cared for by her middle-aged caretaker B, and visited by C, a young representative from her lawyer who has trouble dealing with A’s difficult personality. This is all somewhat straightforward until Act 2, when everything changes dramatically and the play suddenly enters the realm of fantasy and A, B, and C all become representatives of the same woman at different ages, all looking at life from their limited perspectives and informing one another of what happens in “their” life. There’s also the somewhat shadowy figure of “The Boy” (Michael Perkins), who appears onstage but doesn’t say anything, although A, B, and C comment on his presence and his relationship to “them”, his elderly mother.  It’s a very talky, philosophical play that delves deeply into the motivations of this woman and her relationships with her son and with her late husband, as well as looking at the different generations of women and how they relate to one another and how they reconcile their own life decisions within themselves.

The casting here is excellent. Meyer, as A, is able to project a simultaneous sense of stubbornness and vulnerability. A is not a particularly likable character, but Meyer embodies her humanity. Loui, as B, portrays the patient caretaker in Act 1 and the middle-aged version of A in Act 2 with assured strength, as well, and Brown plays the suspicious C in Act 1 and the cautiously optimistic C (young A) in Act 2 with convincing conviction. The interplay between these three characters is the essence of the play, from the literal generation gap in Act 1 to the more figurative one in Act 2, and it’s fascinating to watch these three top-notch performers as they spar and confide and conceal and reveal. Perkins is fine as The Boy, doing the somewhat daunting job of sitting there on stage as a focal point for the discussion that his character isn’t really able to hear. The key to the play, though, is the performances of Meyer, Loui, and Brown, and they are all entirely convincing.

Patrick Huber’s static set is meticulously appointed, suggesting the upper class New York apartment of the wealthy, aging central character. Carla Landis Evans’s costumes are ideally appropriate, as well, from the accurate early 1990’s attire of Act 1 to the differently colored and styled glamorous evening gowns of Act 2. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and clear sound by director Wayne Salomon. The fantastical aspects of the play are more achieved by the overall staging and tone than by any special effects, however. The excellent technical aspects simply provide the setting for Albee’s well-crafted words, Salomon’s lucid staging, and the first-rate performances of the leads.

Albee’s look at aging, marriage, and family relationships is crisp and cynical, although there is a glimpse of some kind of positive message toward the end. Ultimately, this is a character study, and a richly drawn one at that. The unusual construction only serves to further illuminate Albee’s difficult, complex central character, who is apparently based on his own mother. At STLAS, the play has been impeccably cast and staged. It’s an ideal tribute to a legendary American playwright.

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Three Tall Women is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until October 9, 2016.

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2016
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 22, 2016

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute festival has become one of the highlights of the summer theatre season in St. Louis after just a few years. Every year, the festival features a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as a variety of new one-act plays by various playwrights. This year, I was unfortunately unable to see the first installment of the festival, although I was able to see the second. In this edition’s selection of plays, the theme of power and control seems to be prevalent. Here are the selections and my thoughts:

“Life Model”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s entry from festival namesake LaBute is an exploration of the relationship between artists and the models who pose for them, as well as an exploration of the nature of art itself. The artist (Jenny Smith) has been drawing this particular model (Bridgette Bassa) for a number of weeks or months, although the artist is secretive about her work. When the model challenges the artist’s motives, a power struggle ensues that leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion. This is a well-staged play and the cast members do an excellent job, from Smith’s defensive, evasive artist to Bassa’s confrontational model. Still, the play itself is a little confusing as to what message it’s trying to convey.

“American Outlaws”

by Adam Seidel

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The next play in this installment explores the relationship between two men who have something undisclosed in common. The revelations of this play are too complex to explain without spoiling much, but I’ll just say things aren’t necessarily as they seem, although the conclusion is fairly easy to guess. Eric Dean White is the nervous, conflicted man who has called the meeting, and David Wassilak is the more assured party in the arrangement. It’s clear from start to finish that, although White’s Mitch thinks he has some say in what goes on, it’s Wassilak’s Mike who is in control. The dialogue here is sharply written, and the secrets are revealed in a suspenseful way. Both actors give terrific performances, as well. This is the strongest play of the collection, I think, although it’s extremely bleak.

“Show of Affection”

by Laurence Klavan

Directed by Patrick Huber

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Here, the festival veers into the realm of horror/fantasy/dark comedy, with a story about a family getting ready for dinner. At first, they seem like a fairly ordinary family, but soon we learn more, as vampires, murder, jealousy, and revenge are brought to bear on the plot. The performances are strong, with Emily Baker’s determined matriarch and David Wassilak’s loyal father anchoring a story that also features memorable performances from Bridgette Bassa and Ryan Foizey in energetic performances as their adult children.  This is an unusual, fast-moving play that features a lot of caustic humor and stylized horror elements. It’s also somewhat predictable, but entertainingly so.

“Blue Balls”

by Willie Johnson

Directed by Patrick Huber

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final play of the evening has an unfinished quality to it. Ostensibly, it’s about a nervous man, Peter (Eric Dean White) waiting for a woman to get ready for their first date, only to be intimidated by her adult son, Benoit (Ryan Foizey). And that’s it, really. Benoit tries various ways to make Peter uncomfortable, and Peter tries to keep the situation civil, but essentially this is just a son being snarky to his mother’s date. The fact that Benoit has cerebral palsy is made an issue, but it’s ultimately a fairly minor element of the plot. Both actors give good performances, but there really isn’t much to this story beyond that simple conflict.  It also ends rather abruptly with no apparent resolution. Although this has the potential to be an interesting character study, it’s really just a simple situation without much of a story.

Overall, I think the LaBute Festival is an excellent showcase for local talent and new playwrights, and I wish I had been able to see all of the plays this year. The production values are all excellent as well, from Patrick Huber’s versatile set and lighting design to Carla Landis Evans’s costumes and props. It’s another good year for this festival, and I look forward to seeing what STLAS has in store next summer.

The LaBute New Theatre Festival, presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 31, 2016.

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Ivanov
by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 15, 2016

Cast of Ivanov Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Cast of Ivanov
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Ivanov by Anton Chekov has a rather large cast for the small stage at the Gaslight Theatre. I can’t remember seeing so many people on stage at once in a St. Louis Actors’ Studio production. That could be seen as a problem considering the small stage that STLAS has to work with, but with this latest production, director Wayne Salomon makes the most of the space. With an excellent cast and some inventive staging, Chekov’s play is brought to life in an intriguing, fascinating production.

The story is a critical look at Russian society in last half of the 19th Century. The central figure, the once-vibrant Nikolai Ivanov (Drew Battles) has reached a point in his life in which he is chronically unhappy. His formerly passionate marriage to Anna (Julie Layton)–who gave up her Jewish faith to marry him–is now stagnant and unsatisfying for him. Even though Anna is dying from tuberculosis, Ivanov can’t bring himself to care very much. He’s constantly criticized by self-proclaimed “honest man” Lvov (Reginald Pierre), who is caring for Anna. He’s also beset with pressures, temptations and confusion from others in his life, including his scheming pal Borkin (David Wassilak), the elderly and cantankerous Count Shabelsky (Bobby Miller), and the lovestruck, naive young Sasha (Alexandra Petrullo), the daughter of Ivanov’s old friend Lebedev (B. Weller), whose domineering wife Zinaida (Teresa Doggett) is constantly reminding Ivanov of the money he owes her and is unable to pay. There are more characters and more subplots, but the central dilemma is Ivanov’s struggle to find meaning in his increasingly aimless life.

STLAS’s space at the Gaslight Theatre is tiny, but this company has been able to make the of their limited space time and again. Ivanov is no exception, despite the fairly large cast. The style is generally 19th Century, with Patrick Huber’s wood plank-lined set and Teresa Doggett’s richly detailed costumes, but that set is also marked by fluorescent tube lighting lining the walls, illuminating the stage as the actors rarely leave, even when their characters’ aren’t in a given scene. The performers are kept on stage throughout most of the action, just standing or sitting on the sidelines, sometimes with their backs to the audience and sometimes watching what’s happening on stage. This staging adds to the sense of uneasiness that Ivanov expresses, and it works extremely well. The lighting, also designed by Huber, is particularly striking and effective, as the overall  effect of the play is one of increasing depression and futility for Ivanov.

The actors do an excellent job here with this rather talky play, especially Battles as the melancholy Ivanov and Weller as the more optimistic Lebedev. Weller is particularly strong as possibly the most likable character in the play. Petrullo as Sasha convincingly plays the determined young woman who’s prepared to devote her whole life to “saving” the dejected Ivanov. Pierre is fine as the “honest” Lvov, although he does tend to underplay the role. Layton makes a sympathetic Anna, and Miller brings his usual energy and charm to the role of the amoral Count. There’s also a memorable turn by Wassilak as the gleefully manipulative Borkin. The rest of the ensemble is convincing, as well, carrying the tone of the production as the tension builds leading up to a somewhat abrupt conclusion.

One of the biggest issues I had with this play is that the title character isn’t particularly easy to sympathize with despite Battles’s excellent performance. Neither are most of the characters, for that matter. To a degree that seems to be Chekhov’s aim, though, looking at the society and mores of his day and how they would contribute to Ivanov’s growing sense of ennui. The people around him vary in degrees of ridiculousness, and the staging of this production helps to heighten that sense of dissatisfaction. It’s a clever production, well-acted and impressively presented.

Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of Ivanov runs at the Gaslight Theatre until May 1, 2016.

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