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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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Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Kopp
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 6, 2016

Cast of Julius Caesar Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Julius Caesar
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

There’s a whole lot of plotting going on in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s tragic history play focuses on political machinations and personal loyalties in ancient Rome. St. Louis Shakespeare’s production fills the stage at the ornate Ivory Theatre, with a strong cast and a great deal of tension and intrigue.

Even though the play is called Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s play focuses more on the key figures who surround the charismatic Roman leader, particularly his friend, the senator Brutus (Ben Ritchie), who is persuaded by the scheming Cassius (Maxwell Knocke) into joining the conspiracy to kill Caesar before he can become too powerful. Torn between his personal loyalty to his friend and his concern for the good of Rome, Brutus is the central player in the drama, which also involves omens, prophecies and dreams uttered by various characters from a Soothsayer (Josh Saboorizadeh) to Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Annalise Webb). There’s also Caesar’s loyal ally Mark Antony (Brennan Eller), who is determined to see the conspirators brought to justice. It’s a play full of memorable speeches and well-drawn characters, bringing the stories of history to life by bringing a sense of immediacy to the proceedings.

The cast here is a large one, with several cast members playing more than one role. The staging is at once dynamic and intimate, with emotions and relationships given sharp definition in the memorable portrayals of the central cast members, anchored by Ritchie in an impressively measured performance as a thoughtful, reflective and conflicted Brutus. His scenes with Knocke’s angry, plotting Cassius are particularly dynamic. Eller makes a strong impression as Antony, as well, with a believable sense of loyalty, determination, and charisma, and Callahan is excellent as the regal, doomed Caesar. These standouts are also backed by a particularly strong cast portraying the conspirators and various Roman citizens, the roles being too numerous to list but all strikingly well-played, and staged with a buildings sense of suspense and ominous foreboding. The battle sequences are also memorably staged by Fight Director Erik Kuhn.

The stage at the Ivory is suitably transported to ancient Rome by means of Chuck Winning’s convincing multi-level set. The costumes by Liz Henning are suitably detailed and evocative of the time and place, as well. There’s also distinctive, haunting lighting by James Spurlock and excellent sound design by Robin Weatherall.

Julius Caesar is a play about politics and ambition, but portrayed a very personal sense. It’s an examination of motives and loyalties, and a complex character study and intense drama. The characters, drawn from history, are brought to life convincingly in St. Louis Shakespeare’s thoughtful, thought-provoking production.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Julius Caesar at the Ivory Theatre until August 14, 2016.

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Richard III
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 8, 2016

Charlie Barron Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespeare

Charlie Barron
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

Richard III, as told by William Shakespeare, may or may not be particularly accurate from a historical point of view. It’s clear whose side the Bard was on in the epic battle between the Houses of Lancaster and York, but what matters in drama is the how the story is told and how the characters portray that story. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s superbly cast new staging of the classic history play, raw ambition is at the forefront as Richard schemes his way to the throne.

Richard (Charlie Barron) begins the play as the Duke of Gloucester. In a series of asides to the audience that seem something like “talking head” interviews from a TV show, the unscrupulous Duke hatches and executes his plan to become King of England, starting with having his brother, George, Duke of Clarence (Maxwell Knocke) imprisoned and later killed. He wheedles his way into marriage with the (very) recently widowed Anne Neville (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) in order to secure an alliance with her family. Through the course of play Richard connives and manipulates, running afoul of the current queen, Elizabeth (Michelle Hand), the former queen, Margaret (Jeanitta Perkins), and even his own mother, the Duchess of York (Margeau Steinau). He enlists an array of henchmen and “advisors”, but his trust in them varies. Chief among these allies is the conflicted Duke of Buckingham (John Foughty), who is increasingly uneasy with Richard’s plans. Eventually ascending the throne, Richard is eventually led to war with his chief rival, the nobly depicted Henry, the Earl of Richmond (Erik Kuhn).

Regardless of historical quibbles and whose side the viewer may be on in this legendary clash, Shakespeare’s Richard is painted as a clear villain. Usually portrayed with a contorted body and a decided stoop, Richard here is portrayed by Baron as more upright in the posture department, but still as gleefully villainous. Walking with a limp is about the extent of the physical limitations of Barron’s Richard, although he brings a sharp physicality to the role, and a wily, conniving, viciously forceful manner. He holds the viewer’s attention with ease, and his scenes with Theby-Quinn’s defiantly reluctant Anne, Hand’s harried Elizabeth, Perkins’s confrontational Margaret, and Foughty’s principled, conflicted Buckingham are intensely charged. Other standouts include Chuck Winning in a dual role as King Edward IV and another of Richard’s allies, Sir Robert Brackenbury. There’s also a particularly menacing turn by Brennan Eller as hired assassin Sir James Tyrell. Erik Kuhn plays a reluctant assassin with sympathy, although his turn as the heroic Richmond is slightly less convincing. For the most part, though, this is an extremely strong cast, with too many strong performances to name.

It’s a well-staged production, with a multi-level set by Jason Townes that appropriately evokes the era. JC Krajicek’s costumes are colorful and detailed, and Steve Miller’s lighting sets the mood well. There’s also some impressive staging particularly in the battle scenes, bringing the Battle of Bosworth Field to the stage in a convincing, personal way.

St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a lot of humanity to this production. It’s easy to see Richard III, as portrayed by Shakespeare, as a monster, and while he’s clearly a villain, here he’s a decidedly three-dimensional villain. The people whose lives he manipulates, challenges and destroys are portrayed in vivid detail as well, particularly the women. It’s a fast-moving, never boring staging of this classic portrayal of of King’s ambitious, brutal ascent to the throne and his inevitable downfall. This Richard III at its most approachable, and most powerful.

Charlie Barron, cast Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespeare

Charlie Barron, cast
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Richard III at the Ivory Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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