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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tre’von Griffith
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival TourCo
August 16, 2022

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Simply put, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream–currently touring various parks and public areas in the metro area–is a whole lot of fun. With a small cast playing various roles, eye-catching costumes and a catchy musical score, this is a Midsummer like you won’t have seen before, but you should see it, because not only is it unique, fresh, and fun–it’s also free!

Described on STLSF’s website as a “highly musical Afro-futurist adaptation”, this production was directed by Tre’von Griffith, who also composed the music and designed the sound. There’s a lot of plot going on here if you are familiar with this show’s story, and six cast members may not seem like enough, but these actors are more than up for the challenge, each playing multiple roles with energy, enthusiasm, and great comic timing. There are also memorable, futuristic costumes with occasional steampunk influences by Brandin Vaughn that add an additional air of whimsicality to this production. Modern touches like cellphones and characters filming TikTok videos of each other (and themselves), also add to this fresh take on the source material, which has been streamlined to run about 90 minutes. It’s fast-moving, hilarious, and full of memorable performances by the entire cohesive ensemble–Tiélere Cheatem, Rae Davis, Ricki Franklin, Asha Futterman, Mel McCray, and Christina Yancy. 

All the players are excellent here as the action moves swiftly between three different stories–of mixed-up lovers, mischievous fairies, and ambitious actors–and although it does help to know the story beforehand, the players do an excellent job of setting up the plots in the introduction, as well as playing out the story with clarity and vibrancy. Although everyone is excellent, and commendable as each performer plays more than one role, there are some standouts. Franklin shines especially as the self-promoting, overacting weaver-turned actor Nick Bottom. Yancy as both the sprightly Puck and the shy Snug (who has to play a lion in the play-within-a-play) is also a standout, as is Cheatem particularly in the roles of the lovelorn Helena and the imperious director of the actors, Peter Quince. It’s such a strong ensemble, and everyone seems to be having a great time acting out this fast-paced, laugh-packed story that also features some memorable hip-hop/r&b/pop influenced music. 

I was able to see the production in the parking lot of Schlafly Bottleworks, which proved to be a great location, accommodating a good-sized crowd with plenty of room. For the rest of the performances, the company will be traveling around the St. Louis area, with times, dates, and locations listed on the STLSF website at this link. Even if you’ve seen this play before, I highly recommend checking it out. You’re in for some fun surprises, and a particularly strong cast. 

 

Rae Davis, Ricki Franklin
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at various locations in the St. Louis area until August 27, 2022

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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
June 3, 2022

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Much Ado About Nothing seems to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies these days. I think that’s because it’s probably one of the least intimidating for general audiences who aren’t as familiar with the Bard’s work, or who may have only studied his plays in school. The plot is fairly straightforward, and many of the situations are easily relatable for modern audiences. It’s also especially conducive to various setting updates. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, with its latest production, reiterates just how immediate and engaging this play can be, with a strong cast, sharp comic timing, and superb production values. 

The main story, as pointed out by Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely in his program note, is relatable because it’s timeless. The dynamic between the quick-witted Beatrice (Claire Karpen), and the equally sharp-tongued soldier Benedick (Stanton Nash) is one that’s been featured in stories–and especially in romantic comedies–for generations. As is usual for productions of this show, it’s the central relationship that shines through most clearly, as showcased through the strong chemistry, presence, and comic timing of Karpen and Nash, who make an ideal pair here. The subplots are done well, also, with the all-too easily persuaded Claudio (Kenneth Hamilton) wooing the sweet-natured Hero (Carmen Cecilia Retzer) but easily falling prey to the machinations of the scheming, gravelly-voiced Don John (Sorab Wadia), who seems to want to cause trouble just for the sake of it. There are also strong performances from Chauncy Thomas as the soldiers’ leader Don Pedro, who comes up with the idea to playfully trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. There’s also a goofy comic subplot involving bumbling local constable Dogberry (Liam Craig) and his assistant Verges (Whit Reichert), who have some hilarious moments with their watchmen, who despite Dogberry’s comic ineptitude, manage to catch Don John’s henchman Borachio (Aaron Orion Baker) and Conrade (Alex Rudd) in revealing an act of deception that causes a a lot of havoc between Claudio and Hero. There’s an excellent cast all around here, with standout moments from Gary Glasgow and Carl Overly, Jr. in dual roles, as well as Christopher Hickey as Hero’s father Leonato, Tim Kidwell as Leonato’s brother Antonio,  and Jenna Steinberg and Maison Kelly as Hero’s waiting gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula.  

According to the program notes, this version of the story is given a setting toward the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century, just after the First World War. That time period is the inspiration for the eye-catching production design here, including props like an authentic-looking Victrola-style phonograph, and the colorful and striking costumes by Dorothy Englis. Josh Smith’s multi-level set is also richly detailed and an ideal setting for the action, and the overall whimsical, witty, and musical tone of this production. And speaking of music, there’s a wonderful soundtrack here, with music to Shakespeare’s songs composed and played by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle, and beautifully sung by Michael Thanh Tran as Bathasar. The atmosphere and mood are also helped along nicely through means of John Wylie’s excellent lighting design, sound design by Rusty Wandall, sound effects by Kareem Deanes. It’s a great looking and sounding show that fits especially well into the outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is a fast-paced production with moments of slapstick comedy, witty banter, underhanded scheming, and an overall uplifting tone even though there are some darker moments sprinkled in amidst the comedy. The tone, the style, the energy, and especially the first-rate cast make this show a true delight, worthy of the excellent reputation of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and the Bard himself. 

Claire Karpen, Stanton Nash
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Much Ado About Nothing in Forest Park until June 26th, 2022

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King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Carl Cofield

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

June 4, 2021

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis and the cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Live theatre is back! I can’t properly express how excited I’ve been to finally be able to attend a real, in-person theatrical production for the first time since March 2020. There have been several excellent and creative virtual productions from various theatre companies, both national and local, but for me nothing has the same energy as a live show. I know many theatre fans, fellow critics and bloggers, and theatre artists have felt the same, and now that a lot of pandemic restrictions are being revised and relaxed, anticipation has been high.  It’s been a long break, and now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has answered that longing with a first-rate, riveting production of the Bard’s tragedy King Lear, starring an excellent cast of local and non-local performers and led by a genuine Broadway legend, André De Shields, in the title role. Along with a terrific cast including some excellent local performers, De Shields and the Festival usher live performance back to St. Louis in a bold, poignant, and unforgettable way.

This isn’t the first production of King Lear I’ve seen, or reviewed, although it couldn’t be more different than the last time I saw this show live, which was indoors and in a much smaller venue, and with a different director’s vision and setting. Here, the action is set in the present-day (or near it) in a kingdom in North Africa, with the atmosphere set by means of Wilson Chin’s striking set that features a crumbling facade and the suggestion of decline. The story is well-known, as the aging King Lear (De Shields) decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril (Rayme Cornell), Regan (Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (Nicole King). When the elder daughters flatter him excessively and Cordelia refuses to do the same, Lear is driven to anger, cutting off Cordelia and sending her away from the kingdom to marry the King of France (Michael Tran). Also banished is the king’s devoted friend the Earl of Kent (J. Samuel Davis), who supports Cordelia, although the ever-loyal Kent simply disguises himself under the name of Gaius and is taken into the king’s service. Lear, accompanied by the disguised Kent  and another devoted retainer, the Fool (Allen Gilmore), travels to stay with his remaining daughters–first Goneril and her husband, the sympathetic Albany (Jason J. Little), and then with Regan her co-conspiratorial husband Cornwall (Carl Overly, Jr.). As he is mistreated by his vain and scheming daughters, Lear is forced to confront his own vanity and rashness at rejecting Cordelia. This plot is intertwined with the story of Gloucester (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his two sons, the kindhearted Edgar (Daniel José Molina), and the scheming Edmund (Leland Fowler), who bemoans his “illegitimate” birth and resents his brother, who is the heir to his father’s title. Edmund’s plots against his brother leads to Edgar’s exile disguised as “Poor Tom”, who eventually comes into contact with Lear, who in his grief has taken to wandering in the wilderness with Kent and the Fool, bemoaning his fate, as well as Gloucester, who falls afoul of Lear’s daughters’ schemes and is also exiled. All of these events eventually lead to much conflict, personal reflection, and eventually war and and a series of tragedies. It’s an intense story, as expected, but the interpretation here is even more intense than I had remembered.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast is strong, although De Shields is unmistakably the star here. Known more for his performances in musical theatre over the years, he brings a singer’s vocal variation and a dancer’s physicality to this iconic Shakespearean role, although he doesn’t actually sing or dance. His journey from self-centered impulsivity to defiant regret and self-reflection, to abject grief is striking and bold. His scenes with the also excellent Davis as the ever-faithful Kent, Gilmore as the comedian/philosopher Fool, and King as the brave and honest Cordelia are especially memorable, as is his visceral disappointment in his self-focused daughters, Goneril and Regan, who are portrayed memorably by Cornell and Thompson respectively. There are also strong performances from Molina as Edgar, who ably morphs from gentle, hippie-ish skater dude to wild forest dweller to protective son; and Fowler as the ever-scheming Edmund; and especially Wilson as their duped and regretful father, Gloucester. Jason J. Little as loyal (to Lear) Albany and Overly in a dual role as the power-hungry Cornwall and a Gentleman attending Cordelia are also excellent, as is Tran as Goneril’s determined and sycophantic steward, Oswald as well as a brief turn as Cordelia’s suitor, the King of France. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, working together to bring the sense of intensity and drama, and occasional humor to this fully realized production.

Technically, this production also shines. The versatility of Chin’s set serves the story well, as pieces are reused to depict not only the changes in locales, but the deterioration of Lear’s kingdom. There’s also impressive work from fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, percussion director Atum Jones, and sound designer David R. Molina. John Wylie’s lighting design is also especially impressive, augmenting the drama especially in the moments of Lear’s exile and as military conflicts heat up.

This stunning production from St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a particularly profound answer to the year-long anticipation of the return of live performance. The Forest Park setting and modified “pod seating” also works well, lending a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Anchored by an essential performance by its headlined star, and supported by a superb cast and technical crew, King Lear may be a tragedy as a play, but as a production it’s an outright triumph.

Michael Tran, Jacqueline Thompson, Rayme Cornell, Carl Overly Jr., André De Shields and cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting King Lear in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 27, 2021

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A Late Summer Night’s Stroll
Conceived and Curated by The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Tom Ridgely, Producing Artistic Director
In Partnership with PaintedBlack STL
Javyn Solomon, Co-Founder, Charlie Tatum, Coordinator

August 14, 2020

Logo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is making me especially happy at the moment, since they are helping to usher in the return of something I’ve missed terribly the past few months–live theatre! That’s live theatre in a somewhat limited way, with some serious restrictions due to COVID-19, but it’s still theatre, and it’s still live and in person.  In lieu of the usual mainstage production in Forest Park, the newly renamed festival, led by Artistic Director Tom Ridgely, has partnered with PaintedBlack STL to present a production that utilizes one of St. Louis’s most prominent assets, Forest Park, to showcase the arts–visual and performing–in a fun, whimsical way that also serves as a showcase for several other local theatre companies and arts organizations, like SATE Ensemble Theatre, The Black Rep, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, and more.

Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the roughly mile-long, 60-90 minute “stroll” is a (mostly) self-guided walk that starts in the Festival’s “Shakespeare Glen” and follows a meandering path through the park, ending at the foot of Art Hill in front of the park’s picturesque Grand Basin. The path is marked by a series of beautifully painted arches, painted by Jessie Donovan, Eugenia Alexander, Nicholas Lawery, Tiélere Cheatem, Kyla Hawkins, Sherelle Speed, Brilynn Asia, Tyler Harris, Ryean Clark, N’Dea ‘Ori Tala’ Collins-Whitfield, Taylor Deed, Lashawnda Smith, Brock Seals and Dee Drenning. Each arch is unique and marks the performance space for the various presentations from the different theatre, music, and dance companies. These performances range from the more straightforward, such as Shakespeare Squadron’s introductory scene, to the more abstract, such as dances from The Big Muddy Dance Company and (traveling from one arch to another) Consuming Kinetics Dance Company. Most of the theatrical offerings are broadly comic, with memorable interpretations from Circus Flora/Ten Directions (featuring Lynn Berg and Audrey Crabtree), the Black Rep (featuring Brian McKinley and Christina Yancy), SATE (featuring Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, and a stuffed Ninja Turtle), and STLSF’s finale featuring Brittney Henry, Mary Heyl, Carl Overly Jr., and Michael Tran. Especially notable are performer Laura Coppinger and a special guest (you’ll have to see for yourself) performing as Titania serenading Bottom, who has been transformed into a donkey. The walk also features a fun presentation by Improv Shop (featuring Mo Burns), and memorable musical performances by Jazz St. Louis (featuring Benjamin Paille, Kendrick Smith, Bernard Taylor, and Micah Walker) and the Preparatory Program of the Community Music School of Webster University (featuring Ruth Christopher). It’s somewhat helpful if you are familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the energy and enthusiasm of the performers, as well as the unique format of the walk, make for an entertaining evening regardless.

While I’ve enjoyed several of the free online offerings by the Muny, Stray Dog Theatre, and other local companies, and I encourage theatre fans to support artists in this difficult time, there’s nothing like the experience of live theatre. It’s a unique art form, and I’ve missed it. While I’m expecting that a more widespread return of live productions will still be a few months away (at the soonest), I appreciate opportunities like this one from the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival to see, hear, interact, and experience the performing arts in person. A Late Summer Night’s Stroll is a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable endeavor makes the most of its setting and a host of talent and ingenuity. So, wear your sunscreen, bring your bug spray, put on your walking shoes, and give this “stroll” a try. It’s a lot of fun, and an excellent celebration of the arts in St. Louis.

Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting A Late Summer Evening’s Stroll in Forest Park until September 6, 2020

 

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