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The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Gill
St. Louis Shakespeare
November 8, 2019

Addison Brown, Julie George-Carlson, Riley Capp
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

For St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production, director Phil Gill has made a bold move. The Merchant of Venice is known as one of the Bard’s more problematic plays, especially when viewed by modern audiences. Other companies have found various ways of approaching this material to mitigate or somehow try to “fix” some of the problems, but this production seems to go the other way, presenting a fairly straightforward staging–aside from one notable twist–that highlights the difficulties, forcing the audience to confront them and think about what they mean, both for the Shakespearean setting and for today.

The one twist here is that the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually played by a man, is played here by a woman (Julie George-Carlson), and as a woman, with all the pronouns and other references previously referring to the character as male changed to reflect the casting. Otherwise, though, nothing else has significantly changed. It’s a difficult story, ostensibly a comedy, in which characters who are supposed to be likable do some especially unsavory things, especially in reference to Shylock and the attitude toward Jewish people in general. When this was written in Shakespeare’s day, the message regarding Shylock may have been considered moderate for its day, but now it’s most certainly not, and the audience is forced to face the reality of how society mistreats and marginalizes those who don’t fit in. So, while the Shylock character does make a demand that seems unreasonable, the staging and portrayal here emphasizes what her reasoning may have been for that. The rest of the story, in which Antonio (Addison Brown) borrows the money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp) woo the wealthy Portia (Liv Somner), and some other plot points involving Bassanio’s associates Gratiano (Jeremy Goldmeier), Portia’s lady in waiting Nerissa (Erin Struckhof), as well as Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Joseph Garner) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Erin McRaven) are more in the vein of romantic comedy, but these get tied into the Antonio and Shylock dispute eventually, as Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to participate in the trial, and the Duke of Venice (Jeff Lovell) presides. There’s also some funny business involving a provision by Portia’s father for how she is to find a husband, involving choosing between three caskets and featuring some hilariously bombastic would-be suitors, the princes of Morocco (Victor Mendez) and Arragon (Duncan Phillips). It’s a compelling story, if more than a little uncomfortable to watch at times, as we see otherwise “noble” characters behaving not-so-nobly in several notable moments, and particularly at the trial, and then after some fairly brutal moments we are expected to switch back to more light romance scenes. It’s jarring, and in this staging remarkably effective.

The casting is, for the most part, excellent. Leading the way is George-Carlson in an especially memorable turn as Shylock. Her Shylock is stubborn, to be sure, but there is also a real sense of pain and anger here, which is credible considering how everyone else treats her. She is the clear standout here, although there are strong performances all around. Brown is something of a laid-back Antonio, but Capp is a lively Bassanio, displaying strong chemistry with Somner’s equally strong Portia. Goldmeier is also memorable as a particularly boisterous Gratiano, who is well-matched by Struckhof’s amiable Nerissa. Mendez and Phillips are also notable in strong comic performances as the would-be suitors, and also with Phillips in an additional role as Shylock’s dissatisfied servant Launcelot. It’s a good ensemble all around, keeping up the pacing and tone well.

The physical staging is limited somewhat by the venue. The stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church isn’t ideal, with a difficult seating set-up and not much in the way of a backstage. Still, the simple set by Kyra Bishop Sanford is in keeping with the traditional setting, even though the frequent scene changes can get monotonous. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler are excellent, however, with rich period detail and well-suited for the characters. The lighting by Tony Anselmo, sound by Kaitlynn Ferris, and props by Trish Baylard also work well for the production, making for a coherent, engaging presentation.

The Merchant of Venice is, for various reasons, not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It has its moments, but it’s especially problematic in its overall theme. St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for facing the problems straight on with this relatively simple, bold staging. It’s a picture of a society that’s not particularly pretty, which forces viewers to reflect not only on the reality of this situation, but on the aspects of our own society that need to be confronted. Even with a few rough edges staging-wise, it’s a truly memorable production.

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan, From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Dustin Massie
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 31, 2019

In addition to performing the works of their legendary namesake playwright, St. Louis Shakespeare has also established an excellent track record for comedy, even when it’s not from the Bard. The company’s latest production is a popular one. The 39 Steps, with its basis especially on the Alfred Hitchcock film version of the story, has been performed memorably in St. Louis before, and it is likely to be seen here again in various amateur and professional settings. Still, perhaps the thing that makes this show so appealing is its fairly simple premise and casting requirements. If you have four gifted comedic actors, regardless of budget and set complexity, you can do this show. And STL Shakespeare certainly has those four gifted performers, as well as a fun approach and excellent pacing and setting.

In his note in the program, director Dustin S. Massie makes much of the European tradition of Clowns, which becomes the inspiration for this production. The sense of “clowning” is there from the very start of the show, when all four cast members (Phil Leveling, Kelly Schnider, Rebecca Loughridge, and Brian Kappler) appear onstage, wandering amid the prop-strewn set and playing around with the various props while a lively soundtrack plays. Eventually, the four come together to tell a story, that of The 39 Steps, and each cast member takes a role–or more appropriately, roles. In fact, the only actor who plays only one role is Leveling, who plays Richard Hannay, a resident of 1930s London who reluctantly becomes the center of a murder mystery, a spy plot, and a nationwide manhunt. Schnider appears as two prominent women in the story–the mysterious Anabella Schmidt, who plays an ominous and important role in the beginning of the story; and later Pamela Edwards, who finds herself forced to work with Hannay when she–like almost everyone else in the story–suspects him of foul play. All the other characters in the story–and there are many–are played by Loughridge and Kappler. It’s a sweeping story, leading from Hannay’s small flat in London to the Scottish countryside and elsewhere, and involving much pre-World War II international intrigue as well as a great deal of hilarity along the way, both in the situations and in the portrayals by this excellent cast of “clowns”.

The actors are clearly having a great time here, making the most of their roles as clowns and as the characters they portray. The comic timing is excellent as well. Leveling makes an ideal suave, witty, perpetually clueless Hannay, well-matched by the adept Schnider as two distinct and important women, and especially in her second and larger role as Pamela. The chemistry between these two fuels their story, and it works well. Loughbridge and Kappler are also full of enthusiasm and energy in their various roles, ranging from a music hall performance due to random spies to a married couple of Scottish innkeepers, to much, much more. The physical comedy is a highlight here as well, with all four performers. It’s their interaction and impeccable timing that make this show as hilarious and riveting as it is, but the setting certainly helps, as well. A result of the terrific work of set and lighting designer Devin Lowe, costume designer Kayla Lindsey, sound designer Michelle Paladin, and props designers Massie and Paladin, the stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church as been transformed into a space reminiscent of an attic of old treasures, strewn with the materials that make the story, along with an appropriately tone-setting soundtrack.

The 39 Steps works well as an affectionate send-up of Hitchcock and the classic spy genre as well as of English music hall style entertainment, in addition to being a prime showcase for a strong cast of gifted comic actors. The “clowns” are out in force in this production, and the result is delightful. It’s another excellent comedy from St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The 39 Steps at Tower Grove Baptist Church until September 7, 2019

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Othello
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrice Foster
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 6, 2019

Reginald Pierre, Bridgette Bassa
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has moved to a new venue, and they’re bringing a fresh approach to a classic tragedy along with the change of location. This Othello is updated in setting and costumes, but also given an intense, personal approach that lends a sense of timeliness to the story. There are a few surprises here, and an especially strong cast to bring even more resonance to this oft-staged play.

Othello is the name of the play, as well as its lead character, played here by Reginald Pierre. He’s a Moorish general who has recently married Desdemona (Bridgette Bassa), the daughter of the influential Brabantio (Brad Kinzel). Othello has also upset his ensign Iago (Cynthia Pohlson) by promoting Cassio (Phil Leveling) as his lieutenant instead of Iago. The vengeful, self-absorbed Iago then sets out to ruin Othello’s life, enlisting the help of the disappointed Roderigo (Jesse  Muñoz), who had hoped to pursue Desdemona himself. That’s essentially the setup, and the plot grows from there, as Iago plays on Othello’s trust for him and doubts about Desdemona’s loyalty, as well as using and manipulating everyone around him in his single-minded quest to destroy Othello, and Cassio as well.

This production, brought into a contemporary setting, highlights personal relationships as well as the insidious influences of both racism and sexism. The show emphasizes injustices–the mistreatment and mistrust of Othello first, and of the women consistently–even by the supposedly “good” Cassio. Iago is there trying to use everything to his advantage, as well. He is a monster, but he gets away with his monstrosity for a long time because he’s “one of the guys”, and the women are, for the most part, treated as convenient accessories, and sometimes as nuisances. It’s an intense, dynamically staged production that highlights the relationships of the characters and makes the most of the company’s new performance space at Tower Grove Church.

The casting here is especially notable in the choice to cast Pohlson as Iago, playing the role as a man, and as a swaggering, entitled, fiercely scheming one at that. It’s a dynamic performance, and a stunning one. Pohlson commands the stage with every step and plot from beginning to end. Pierre is also excellent as the highly conflicted Othello. and Phil Leveling makes a strong Cassio, still complex in his own right. Bassa, as Desdemona and Hillary Gokenbach as Iago’s mistreated wife Emilia are also outstanding, and there are fine turns from Muñoz as the manipulated Rodrigo and Lisa Hinrichs as Cassio’s sometime-lover Bianca as well. The cast chemistry is especially strong. The “bedroom” scene at the end is positively chilling, with top-notch performances all around, and the tragic conclusion carries credible emotional weight.

In terms of staging, the set by Jared Korte is simple, consisting of boxes that are moved around as needed. Brendan Schmidt’s lighting is effective as well, highlighting the increasingly ominous tone of the story. There are also well-suited contemporary costumes that work especially well, particularly the striking military uniforms. There’s also good work from props designer Amanda Handle, sound designer Ted Drury, and fight choreographer Tod Gillenardo. The new venue has its drawbacks (pew seating in particular), but for the most part, it works well for this production.

This is an Othello for today–intense, confrontational, timely. The staging by director Patrice Foster is intelligent and poignant, with a sense of energy and immediacy from beginning to end. It’s worth checking out on its final weekend.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Othello at Tower Grove Baptist Church until April 13, 2019

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The Tempest
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Siler
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 13, 2018

Donna Northcott, Ian Carlson, Erika Flowers-Roberts
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Tempest from St. Louis Shakespeare is an audio-visual experience. It’s the well-known Shakespearean story, but with some interesting twists, especially in terms of sights, sounds, and staging. Here, director Patrick Siler makes a few casting modifications and brings the audience into this wild, weird, wondrous world, making the most of the space at the Ivory Theatre with a bold, mysterious, excellently cast production.

This production takes an approach that’s traditional and non-traditional in different ways. The costuming and setting are essentially Elizabethan style, with excellent detailed and colorful costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, and the island setting is well realized through Kyra Bishop-Sanford’s versatile unit set. The “non-traditional” is more in the casting, with many of the male characters being recast as women here, from lead character Prospera (Donna Northcott), the exiled Duchess of Milan, to her usurping, scheming sister Antonia (Teresa Doggett), to the Queen of Naples, Alonza (Laura S. Kyro), whose ship is wrecked in a storm stirred up by Prospera and scattered about the island. Alonza’s son Ferdinand (Ian Carlson) is thought to be lost, but instead he’s found by Prospera and her young daughter Miranda (Erika Flowers-Roberts), who has grown up on the island and hasn’t seen many humans besides her mother. She is fascinated with Ferdinand, and he with her, but Prospera wants to test him first before allowing them to marry. There’s also the mischievous sprite Ariel (Karl Hawkins), who helps Prospera in seeking to foil the plans of the scheming Antonia and Sebastian (Charles Winning), as well as of the vengeful, half-human outcast Caliban (Dustin S. Massie), who attaches himself to the bumbling shipwrecked Stephano (Jeff Lewis) and Trinculo (Anthony Winninger).

What is particularly memorable about this production is its sights and sounds–the dynamic lighting by Joseph Clapper and especially the sounds–mostly supplied by David N. Jackson and a variety of different instruments, from an electronic keyboard to an array of drums and percussion instruments. The cast members also employ drums and percussion on stage at certain moments, particularly the chilling “tempest” and shipwreck scene at the beginning and a celebration at the end. The staging is fast-paced, for the most part, with particular focus on Prospera, Miranda, and Ferdinand, as well as Ariel’s frequent influence and presence. Northcott makes a particularly determined, somewhat enigmatic Prospera, who is especially protective of her daughter. The chemistry between Carlson and Flowers-Roberts as the lovestruck Ferdinand and Miranda is sweet, as well, and Hawkins is a strong presence as the ethereal Ariel. There are also some strong comic moments from Winninger, Lewis, and Massie in their subplot, and memorable turns from a particularly regal Kyro as Alonza and Winning and Doggett as the self-serving Sebastian and Antonia.

This is an odd play, certainly. It’s one of Shakespeare’s strangest, and that’s saying something. There are some difficult questions regarding motives and social roles, but the focus in this production seems more on sensations and basic emotions. Here, on stage at the Ivory Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a storm of sights, sounds, complicated relationships, and whimsical mysticism. This Tempest still has a lot to say, but even more so, a lot to see, hear, and experience. It’s an impressive technical feat.

Cast of The Tempest
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Tempest at the Ivory Theatre until October 21, 2018

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King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 19, 2018

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Bard liked to write about kings. He has quite a few plays about them, in fact, covering monarchs from ancient times to those of his more recent history. Well, if you’ve ever wondered how the Bard might dramatize the current British Royal Family, Mike Bartlett has come up with his own answer to that question in King Charles III. Imagining a future scenario in which the current Prince of Wales ascends to the throne, Bartlett has written a script–in iambic pentameter–that addresses some contemporary controversies while exploring the effects of the monarchy on the people, as well as on the monarchs themselves and their families. St. Louis Shakespeare has now brought this thought-provoking play to the Ivory Theatre, in a well-cast production that takes its time to express Bartlett’s vision.

The story, set in the future, is a fictionalization that’s even more so now, the recent Royal Wedding and other factors making the story even more of an obvious imagination. It’s an “alternate universe” story, if you will, ostensibly imagining what may happen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II and subsquent succession of Prince Charles to the throne. The Shakespearean styling becomes apparent in the use of various conventions and character archetypes that often occur in the Bards works, such as unlikely romances, ambitious throne-seekers, confused monarchs, and ghostly visitations. Here, the play begins just after the Queen’s funeral, as the new King Charles III (Colin Nichols) exercises his new royal authority in some surprising and unorthodox ways, to the confusion and shock of those around him, including members of his own family and the sitting Prime Minister Evans (Andra Harkins) and Opposition Leader Stevens (Patience Davis). Confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign a newly passed bill concerning regulation of the press, Charles hesitates, which threatens to cause a national crisis. Meanwhile, the aimless Prince Harry (Jeremy Goldmeier) is out clubbing with friends and meets the brash, anti-monarchy commoner Jess (Britteny Henry) and begins a relationship with her that he is warned will also cause a scandal. Also on hand is the popular Prince William (Michael Bouchard), who is reluctant to challenge his father’s authority but is encouraged to do so by his equally popular wife Kate (Lexie Baker), who has ambitions of her own. Also, both Charles and William recieve visions of the ghost of the late Princess Diana (Hannah Pauluhn), who seems to be telling both of them the same thing. This is an intriguing play full of interesting ideas and speculations, covering issues of royal responsibility, public perception of the monarchy, freedom of the press, and more. It’s a clever experiment, portraying some characters, such as Charles’s wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel) generally according to popular perception while presenting others in direct contrast to general expectations–especially Charles, William, and Kate, but also Harry as well.

This production, directed by Donna Northcott, is steadily paced and sometimes could benefit from a little more energy. Still, the story is fascinating and the casting, for the most part, is good. Nichols plays Charles in a mostly sympathetic light, but can sometimes come across as vacillating and overly meek. The Princes, Bouchard and Goldmeier, give credible performances as the Princes who have to deal with different kinds of pressure, although Goldmeier makes Harry come across as being more interested in Jess for the “novelty” of dating an opinionated commoner rather than genuinely being interested in her as a person. I’m not sure if that’s the result of the script, the direction, or the performance, though. There are also strong performances from Harkins and Davis as the determined political rivals, by Henry as the confrontational Jess, who for her part does seem genuinely interested in Harry, and especially by Dustin Allison in a memorable performance as the king’s press advisor James Reiss, and by Baker as a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque version of the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s these two –Reiss and Kate–who ultimately seem to be the ones really running the show, and their portrayers demonstrate that well. There’s also a strong, supportive ensemble playing various roles.

Visually, the show is simply and strikingly staged, with S. H.’s Boygen’s versatile set giving the suggestion a chess board with its tiled floor and movable set pieces. Jaime Zayas’s lighting provides a sometimes stark, sometimes ethereal atmosphere as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s richly detailed costumes are also noteworthy, lending a sufficiently regal air to the proceedings.

Overall, King Charles III is a fascinating if sometimes bizarre speculation presenting several “what-if” scenarios in terms of history and theatrical form. Although sometimes the energy is lacking, the story and characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention. I would imagine the actual royals might have some issues with it in terms of how they are portrayed, but for the most part, this production comes across as a worthwhile exercise in theatrical imagination.

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting King Charles III at the Ivory Theatre until August 26, 2018

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Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Kopp
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 25, 2017

Chris LaBanca, Britteny Henry, Chad Little, Riley James
evPhoto by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus is often thought of as something like “B-movie Shakespeare”. It’s kind of like the Bard’s equivalent of a slasher flick, full of blood and guts and drama, and because of that, it hasn’t been that highly regarded until relatively recently. It’s over-the-top in many ways, although St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest staging strikes me as about as “toned-down” as this show could get. The violence and blood are definitely there, but with this production, those elements aren’t as sensationalized as they could be. It’s still not for the squeamish, but there appears to be an attempt to find some meaning amidst all the gore.

The story, set in the time of the Roman Empire, follows victorious general Titus (Chad Little) upon returning from battle. Titus has a close-knit family, with brother Marcus (Chris LaBanca), daughter Lavinia (Britteny Henry), and sons Lucius (Erik Kuhn), Quintus (Maxwell Knocke), Martius (Brennen Eller), and Mutius (Joshua Parrack). He angers the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Suki Peters) by sacrificing her son, and then upsets new Emperor Saturninus (Roger Erb) when Lavinia won’t marry him, as she prefers to marry his brother Bassianus (Scott Mcdonald). So, then Saturninus marries Tamora and Tamora plots revenge on Titus, aided by her sons Demetrius (Ted Drury) and Chiron (Michael Pierce), and her lover Aaron (Darrious Varner).  And then, well, things just go from bad to worse, with lots of plotting, executions, brutal assaults, dismemberments, and one element that’s somewhat reminiscent of Sweeney Todd, even though this story predates that one.

This is a tragedy, but with sensationalism inherent in the plot, and a lot of opportunities to play up that sensationalism. This production, however, mostly downplays those opportunities, although there are some strong acting moments and an especially poignant final scene. The acting is strong, for the most part, with Little as a determined and somewhat bewildered Titus, and Henry especially strong as Lavinia, who is at once the most blameless and the most mistreated character in the show. There are also good performances from LaBanca as the loyal Marcus, Kuhn as Lucius, Peters as the scheming Tamora, Varner as the equally scheming Aaron, and Drury and Pierce as Tamora’s vicious and murderous sons. It’s a large cast, and everyone does a good job with what they are given, but I find the overall direction to be a little too restrained considering the material.

The time and mood of the play are set well in the technical aspects, with Chuck Winning’s set well-detailed and suggestive of a crumbling city in disrepair, which works as a reflection of the story, and Zahra Agha’s costumes suit the characters and the play’s Roman setting well. There’s also excellent lighting by Darren Thompson, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley.

Titus Andronicus is an intense play, with some downright gruesome and brutal subject matter including murder, rape, betrayal, and even cannibalism. There’s a lot of plotting and scheming, and revenge that begets more revenge. Although Shakespeare’s plays can be violent, this one is probably the most extreme in that way, although the way St. Louis Shakespeare stages it, it’s not quite as extreme as it could be. In a way, that works, making the characters seem more human than they could, but in other ways it seems like the direction doesn’t quite fit the material. Still, it’s a good production, and worth seeing if you have a strong stomach.

Suki Peters, Darrious Varner
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Titus Andronicus at the Ivory Theatre until September 3, 2017.

 

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Is He Dead?
by Mark Twain, Adapted by David Ives
Directed by Edward Coffield
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 4, 2017

Zac McMillan, Ben Ritchie
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has had a lot of success with David Ives’s adaptations in the past, including outstanding productions of The Liar and The Heir Apparent.  Their latest production, Ives’s treatment of  Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? is another comic triumph to add to that list. A fast-paced show with much wit, innuendo, and a hilariously convoluted plot, this show boasts an ideal cast and lots and lots of laughs.

The story features a young artist, Jean-Francois Millet (Zac McMillan), who spends a lot of time painting and trying unsuccessfully to sell his paintings. Despite having a group of supportive friends and admirers, Millet has debts to pay, as does his friend Leroux (Timothy Callaghan), whose daughter, Marie (Molly McCaskill) is in love with Millet. The lender is an evil, Snidely Whiplash-type villain, Andre (Ben Ritchie), who tries to force Marie to marry him in exchange for forgiving her father’s debts. When a potential art buyer (Joe Cella) tells Millet that his paintings would be a lot more valuable if the artist were dead, Millet’s friends–Chicago (Jack Zanger), Dutchy (John Fisher), and O’Shaughnessy (Jacob Cange) help him fake a life-threatening illness so that his reputation as an artist, and the price of his paintings, will rise. Millet then disguises himself as his own widowed sister, Daisy, which only makes the complicated plot even more complicated, as Andre and several others turn their amorous attentions to the “widow”, while Millet tries to figure out how to get out of this mess he’s created so he can be free to paint and be with Marie, and Marie’s sister Cecile (Natalie Walker), who is in love with Chicago, gets jealous of her beau’s attentions to Daisy and begins investigating the matter. There’s a lot going on here, with lots of physical comedy, mistaken identity, and lots of sneaking around as well as wit and wordplay, and the situation just keeps getting more ridiculous as the play carries on to its hilarious conclusion.

Director Edward Coffield’s pacing is quick and sharp, and the cast is more than up to the challenge of this fast-moving plot. As Millet, McMillan is suitably baffled and bewildered, and as Daisy his bewilderment grows, as does his desperation. He displays a great deal of energy and excellent comic timing, and excellent chemistry with all of his cast mates. There’s strong ensemble chemistry across the board, in fact, with all the players hamming it up and enjoying every minute of it. Cange, Fisher, and Zanger make a great team as Millet’s students and friends, and Ritchie is a delightfully oily villain as Andre. There are also some great comic turns from Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Quinn as Millet’s enthusiastic friends Madame Caron and Madame Bathilde. Callaghan as Leroux, and Walker as the suspicious Cecile also give strong performances. This is a show where timing and ensemble cohesiveness is crucial, and this production scores well on both of those counts.

The set, by Matt Stuckel, is colorful and equipped with a variety of windows and doors that figure prominently in the show’s physical comedy moments. There are also clever, whimsical costumes by JC Krajicek, including some striking wigs. The lighting by John Taylor, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley also contribute to the overall madcap air of the play.

This strikes me as a particularly difficult type of show, in that so much is going on and it has to be precisely timed and perfectly choreographed, but when it’s done well, it looks effortless. St. Louis Shakespeare has commendably risen to the technical challenge of this show, and the result is a pure comic treat. It’s a “laugh-out-loud” kind of show, and an excellent way to start off this company’s new season.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Is He Dead? at the Ivory Theatre until August 13, 2017.

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The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shaun Sheley
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 1, 2017

Michael Pierce, Chuck Winning, Zac McMillan, Shane Signorino
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

April Fool’s Day weekend was a great time to open St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production. The Comedy of Errors is basically like one big, elaborate, hilarious April Fool’s joke done extremely well. With sharp direction, a terrific cast, and lots of laughs, this is a treat of a production.

The Comedy of Errors is actually one of the few Shakespeare plays I had never actually read or seen, but it really doesn’t matter if an audience is familiar with the material with this production, as clearly and energetically presented as it is. It’s a fairly simple story of mistaken identity, challenging to audience to suspend disbelief but making that suspension entirely worthwhile. The story, set in Ephesus, involves a visitor from Syracuse, Egeon (Dan McGee) who is spared a death sentence for trespassing by the Duke (Erick Lindsey) and is searching for his long-lost family. Meanwhile, other visitors from Syracuse, Antipholus (Shane Signorino), and his servant Dromio (Zac McMillan) arrive and are immediately mistaken for their local doppelgangers Antipholus (Chuck Winning) and Dromio (Michael Pierce) of Ephesus. A somewhat complicated story ensues in which basically everyone is confused, as the Ephesus Antipholus’s wife, Adriana (Frankie Ferrari) and the local authorities also get involved, and Antipholus of Syracuse finds himself attracted to Adriana’s sister, Luciana (Jamie McKitrick). After a series of incidents in which the the wrong people are invited to dinner, the wrong people are locked out of the house, and people get arrested, escape, and just keep getting more and more people involved in the confusion, answers finally start to arrive, but not until after a great deal of hijinks and physical comedy. This play is the very definition of the phrase “hilarity ensues”.

The plot is not deep, but it is convoluted and complicated, and it seems quite challenging for a director and a cast to get all the timing right. Fortunately, St. Louis Shakespeare has found the right director and cast. The pacing is super fast, rarely slowing down, and everyone on stage keeps the energy going with style. The four principals are fantastic, and easy enough to tell apart but also making the confusion understandable. Pierce and McMillan, as the Dromios, carry the brunt of the physical comedy and do so with excellent comic flair. Winning and Signorino are also excellent as the determined and increasingly frustrated Antipholuses. There are also strong, funny performances from Ferrari as the surly Adriana, McKitrick as the bewildered Luciana, Patience Davis as a Courtesan who is caught up in the confusion, McGee as the unfortunate Egeon, Ben Ritchie in three roles including a Merchant and a Doctor, and Margeau Steinau as a local Abbess who gives shelter to one of the pairs, but turns out to be more than she seems. There’s a good-sized cast here, some playing more than one role, and all play their parts well and commendably maintain the breakneck comic pace of this fascinatingly ridiculous plot.

The direction is sharp and dynamically paced, staged on Scott McDonald’s colorful set that serves as a suitable backdrop for the play’s action. There are also well-matched, well-suited costumes by Annalise Webb, clear sound by Ted Drury, and excellent lighting by James Spurlock.

The Comedy of Errors is a short play, and this production is brisk, brief, and action-packed, running without an intermission. It’s a quick-witted, quick moving, laugh-fest of a story. Even though the plot itself is difficult to believe, the implausibility adds to the sheer fun of it all. This is a hilarious production from start to finish.

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Frankie Ferrari, Jamie McKitrick Photo by Ron James St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Comedy of Errors at the Ivory Theatre until April 9, 2017.

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Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 8, 2016

Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespear

Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

One of the many, many things I love about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are in the public domain, meaning directors and theatre companies can stage them whenever, wherever, and however they want. Sometimes this can lead to self-indulgence, but often it can lead to some truly innovative, riveting theatrical experiences. Macbeth at St. Louis Shakespeare is a prime example of how a director’s well thought-out vision can take an established classic and turn it into something intense, immediate, and  stunningly memorable.

The story is the familiar one, with some cuts to streamline it a little and add to the fast-paced feel of this production. It’s not rushed, however, and every decision makes clear sense. The tragic story of the ambitious Scottish thane Macbeth (Ben Ritchie) and his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Michelle Hand) is lucidly told here, and one of the most remarkable parts of it is in the representation of the three witches, or “Weird Sisters” (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Knocke, Taleesha Caturah, and Katie Robinson). In this production, the witches are everywhere, reappearing throughout the production as observers and participants in the action. Having them show up in various situations in other roles, but still in their witch makeup, amplifies the haunting sense of their presence and influence on the action. As the Macbeths conspire to murder the noble King Duncan (Kim Curlee) in order to help fulfill the witches’ prophecy, everything has a sense of palpable urgency. There are other figures who stand in opposition to Macbeth as well, such as the earnest, doomed Banquo (Maxwell Knocke), the determined warrior Macduff (Maggie Wininger), and Duncan’s displaced son and heir Malcolm (Eric Lindsey). The story of the insidious corruption of a thirst for power is told with glaring, visceral intensity, and the consequences of war are made real as well. It’s Shakespeare’s story, set in a mostly traditional setting, but told in a way that speaks to today’s audiences with clarity.

The cast here is impressive. Ritchie convincingly plays the title role, portraying the character’s journey from surprise to ambition to all-consuming lust for power with alacrity. Hand, as the scheming Lady Macbeth, is also superb in her role, expertly displaying the character’s manipulation and also the profundity and horror of her haunting, self-destructing remorse. There are also memorable performances from Knocke as the first devoted and then suspicious but always noble Banquo, and Wininger–who has previously played Hamlet for this theatre company–playing the usually male role of Macduff as a woman, with clear determination and a strong range of emotions, and clear skill as a warrior in the well-choreographed (by Erik Kuhn) duel scene with Macbeth toward the end of the play. There are also excellent performances from Wendy Farmer in a dual role as the witches’ queen Hecate and as the ill-fated Lady Macduff; Chuck Brinkley as the drunken Porter and as a Doctor who attends to Lady Macbeth; Lindsey as Duncan’s rightful heir Malcolm; the and an excellent ensemble of supporting performers in various roles.

The look, sound, and overall atmosphere of this production is stunningly realized by the top-notch creative team. Chuck Winning’s wood-and-metal set is a fitting backdrop for the action here, and JC Krajicek’s costumes are inventive, mostly in a traditional style but with more modern touches here and there. There is truly spectacular use of lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder, and sound designed by Ted Drury to create the eerie, haunting atmosphere and achieve some truly chilling storm effects throughout. All the technical aspects of this production are impressive, in fact, serving director Peters’ vision of a spooky, raw, fast-moving telling of this oft-told story.

There isn’t a lot of time left to see Macbeth at St. Louis Shakespeare, but I highly recommend making a trip to the Ivory Theatre to see this one-of-a-kind production. This production makes the most of the space it’s in, and director Suki Peters’ clear, bold concept comes across extremely well. I’ve seen a lot of excellent productions from St. Louis Shakespeare, but I think this is their best one yet.

Maggie Wininger, Eric Lindsey Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakepeare

Maggie Wininger, Eric Lindsey
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakepeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Macbeth at the Ivory Theatre until October 16, 2016.

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The Heir Apparent
by David Ives
Adapted from the play by Jean-Francois Regnard
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 26, 2016

Cast of The Heir Apparent Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of The Heir Apparent
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, but what if there isn’t a will? Will, in the inheritance sense, that is. That’s the premise for the madcap, witty, lightning-paced adaptationc The Heir Apparent, currently on stage at the Ivory Theatre as presented by St. Louis Shakespeare. With tons of energy, clever staging and a ridiculously funny story, this production is a comic treat.

The comically convoluted story is set in 18th Century Paris. A poor, lovestruck young man, Eraste (Scott McDonald) wants to marry his beloved Isabelle (Jeannita Perkins), who also wants to marry him. The problem is that Isbelle’s mother, the socially ambitious Madame Argante (Margeau Steinau) doesn’t care if her daughter’s in love. She wants Isabelle to marry for money, and Eraste doesn’t have any. He does, however, have a wealthy uncle, Geronte (Shane Signorino) who is in poor health and who hasn’t yet written his will. Since Madame Argante has told Eraste that he can only marry Isabelle if he is made sole heir in Geronte’s will, Eraste is on the verge of despair until servant Crispin (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Geronte’s mistreated maid Lisette (Britteny Henry) offer their assistance and a series of convoluted plots ensues.  That’s the basic set-up, but there’s a whole lot going on here, with a host of plot twists, sight gags, and witty banter as the story moves along to its zany conclusion.

This is a crazy play, with so much going on that it wouldn’t be too difficult to lose track of the plot, except that director Donna Northcott has staged this production extremely well, and the cast members all seem to be having a great time. The seven member ensemble is extremely well-cast, led by DiLorenzo as the scheming Crispin and Henry as his snarky girlfriend and accomplice, Lisette. Signorino is also gleefully surly as Geronte, and Steineau is hilariously haughty Madame Argante. McDonald and Perkins make a sweetly goofy couple as Eraste and Isabelle, and Anthony Winninger steals many a scene as Geronte’s lawyer, Scruple, whose diminutive stature requries Winninger to spend the entire performance walking around on his knees. There are lots of rhymes, mile-a-minute dialogue, and physical comedy that is handled extremely well by this excellent cast.

The whimsical nature of the show is well-reflected in Chuck Winning’s colorful set and Michelle Siler’s delightfully wacky costumes. There are also some fun surprises with the set that add to the comedy. Ted Drury’s sound and James Spurlock’s lighting are also excellent, adding to the mood of the produciton.

If you want to laugh a lot, see this show. It’s silly, it’s fast-moving, and it’s full of frantic energy.  It calls to mind this company’s previous successes with last year’s Wild Oats and 2014’s The Liar.  The Heir Apparent is another comic triumph for St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Heir Apparent at the Ivory Theatre until September 4, 2016.

 

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