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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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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 3, 201512039250_10206184703591047_5710833879887949041_n

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.

This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke),  and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate.  And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.

With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy.  Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well.  There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio.  The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.

Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look.  The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.

Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.

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Wild Oats
by James McLure
Directed by Shaun Sheley
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 22, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

There’s a lot more Shakespeare in Wild Oats than you may initially think. While not written by the Bard himself, the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare relies a great deal on quotes from his work. An uproarious, silly Wild West comic melodrama, this is a show that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s kind of the point.

There’s a lot of story here. Updated and adapted from John O’Keeffe’s 18th Century comedy, Wild Oats takes the action out West, with a large cast, larger-than-life characters and mile-a-minute laughs.  It’s a story of mistaken identity, unexpected love, long-lost relatives, and of course the cartoonish villains.  The wildly convoluted story is somewhat difficult to describe without spoiling the fun. The main characters include the blustering Colonel Thunder (John Foughty), whose son Harry (Michael Pierce) has gone back East, failed out of West Point and become an actor and somewhat of a dandy.  He’s made friends with fellow itinerant actor Jack Rover (Erik Kuhn), who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. When Harry and Jack go their separate ways, they both end up in the same town, along with Harry’s estranged father and feisty cousin Kate (Nicole Angeli), whom the Colonel is hoping Harry will marry. There’s also the Colonel’s trusty “Indian guide”, Crow (John Wolbers), who has red braids and speaks with an Irish accent, who seems to know more about the Colonel’s long-lost love, Amelia (Jamie Eros), than he lets on. The plot also includes the requisite bad guys, such as the scheming Ephraim (Christopher LaBanca), a would-be minister who operates his own exclusive sect, and who lusts after Jane (Ashley Bauman), daughter of the show’s other villain, the unscrupulous landlord Ike Gammon (Anthony Wininger). There are more characters here than can be easily named, but I’ll just say that things get weirder and weirder as the story goes on, with the expected implausible conclusions that go with the territory in an outrageous farce such as this.

The point of a show like this is comedy, and comedy requires timing and precision. That’s all here in this very well-staged and directed production. It’s one of those shows that throws so many jokes at the audience with the idea that they’re bound to laugh at some of them. It’s at turns silly and clever, with melodrama conventions such as the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks, mustache-twirling villains, and more.  There’s also the fun convention of having the stagehands hold up signs instructing the audience to cheer, boo, and more at various times throughout the show. It’s all put together with a strong sense of fun, and period flavor provided by Jason Townes’s colorful versatile set and Tayor Donham’s detailed, character-specific costumes.

The cast is energetic and amiable, and very enthusiastic.  The overall upbeat atmosphere of the show is augmented by the performances, with Kuhn and Angeli making an excellent team as the unlikely love interests, Jack and Kate. The rough-around-the-edges Kate tries and fails to act the refined lady, and Angeli portrays this dilemma with excellent comic timing, especially in a fun scene in which she and Kuhn try to rehearse a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Kuhn makes an ideal melodramatic hero, also working well with Pierce as the hilariously dandified Harry, and Foughty, who’s a joy as the perpetually confused Colonel. Other standouts including Wininger and LaBanca at their oily best as villains Ike and Ephraim, Bauman as the spunky Jane, and Wolbers in several roles including the scheming Crow, and one half of pair of delightfully ridiculous theatrical impresarios, Kliege (Brian Rolf) and Lieko (Wolbers).  The whole ensemble seems to be having a great deal of fun in this play, and that fun is certainly infectious.

Wild Oats is a silly play in the best sense of the word. It’s supposed to be goofy, over-the-top, and full of ridiculous coincidences, to highly comedic effect. The cast and crew at St. Louis Shakespeare have put together an immensely entertaining, fast-moving show that’s sure to bring lots of laughs.

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare presents Wild Oats at the Ivory Theatre until August 30th, 2015

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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Moramarco and Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 18, 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. It’s also one that seems to lend itself particularly well to modern-dress variations. It’s been done in various historical and contemporary settings with relative seamlessness. St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production is set in the late 1940s, and the consistence of theming is this version’s greatest strength.

In this version of Shakespeare’s classic “battle of wits” tale, the action takes place at an Italian villa circa 1948. Army officer Pedro (Stefan Ruprecht) and his comrades-in-arms Benedick (Phil Leveling) and Claudio (Michael Pierce), along with his disgruntled brother John (Wininger) are decked out in World War II-era uniforms.  Beatrice (Ariel Roukaerts), Hero (Ashley Bauman) and their friends at the villa speak with light Italian accents here, as do  the bumbling policeman Dogberry (James Enstall) and his assistant Verges (Nathaniel Carlson).  This production borrows a page from the Joss Whedon film in making one of John’s cronies, Conrade (Angela Bubash), female and romantically involved with the scheming John, who wants nothing more than to frustrate the plans of his brother and his companions. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick conduct their “merry war” while Pedro and friends hatch a plan to trick the quarreling pair into falling in love, and Claudio woos Hero with some interference from the scheming John.  It’s the usual mixture of romantic comedy with moments of drama, all with a backdrop of  1940’s-era music.

This is a production not without faults, but what it does well, it does very well.  The sense of time and place is well realized with the Big Band soundtrack, the simple set by Kyra Bishop, and especially Felia Davenport’s great era-specific costumes, from the Army uniforms to the colorful 40’s style dresses. There were some noticeable problems with the lighting on the night I saw the show, especially with a relatively long blackout in the middle of a scene that the actors admirably kept talking through.  There was another shorter blackout near the end of the show, and I’m assuming these issues will be worked out as the run continues.  Even with these little glitches, though, the technical elements of the show and overall atmosphere are among the highlights of this production.

In terms of the cast, this production deserves credit for great casting of the show’s most difficult role, John.  Wininger, with his strong stage presence and weaselly voice and mannerisms, commands the stage and controls the action every time he appears.   It’s an impressive performance in a mostly engaging but somewhat uneven cast. Leveling is a more laid-back Benedick than I’ve seen before, with Roukaerts a fiery Beatrice, and their scenes together are never boring, although their romantic chemistry is more “cute” than electric. Pierce is engaging as Claudio, although he is more convincing in his scenes of strong emotion–especially anger–than in his earlier scenes.. Bauman is fine as Hero, and Bubash comes across very well in her small-ish role as Conrade.  Enstall and Carlson have some funny moments  in their roles as the bumbling Dogberry and Verges, with their scenes providing some of the comic highlights of the show. There’s a lack of energy from some of the other cast members, although overall, this is a competent cast with a few real standouts.

The story of Much Ado About Nothing is full of romance, charm, and comedy with a few moments of drama and darkness, and different versions highlight different aspects of the story.  This production has a bit more of a relaxed tone than I’ve seen before, and although there are some obvious flaws, it’s worth seeing. Especially with the 1940’s style and atmosphere, along with some amiable leading performances and a top-notch villain, St. Louis Shakespeare has crafted a well-themed, entertaining production.

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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The Liar

by David Ives, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille

Directed by Suki Peters

St. Louis Shakespeare

August 15th, 2014

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

I cannot tell a lie–I couldn’t stop laughing at The Liar. The recent adaptation by David Ives of the 17th Century French comedy by Pierre Corneille is the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare, and it’s a fast-paced, witty, outrageous delight.  With some very clever writing and excellent casting and direction, this is a St. Louis area premiere that’s sure to cause a lot of honest-to-goodness laughter.

The setting is France in the 1600’s with a bit of a 1980s twist, with a few more modern touches like smart phones thrown in for good measure. It’s something of a hodgepodge, but it works surprisingly well.  The story follows bon vivant and pathological liar Dorante (Jared Sanz-Agero), who has just arrived in Paris full of wild, grandiose stories of his exploits that he uses to impress anyone he meets, particularly the truthful-to-a-fault Cliton (Ben Ritchie), whom Dorante hires as his servant; and Clarice (Nicole Angeli), a flighty and somewhat snarky young woman who is catches Dorante’s eye even though she is practically engaged to his old friend Alcippe (John Foughty).  Complications ensue when Dorante gets Clarice’s name mixed up with that of her more soft-spoken friend Lucrece (Maggie Murphy) and much confusion results, including unwelcome intervention from Dorante’s father Geronte (Robert Ashton), and more mistaken identity involving the identical twins Isabelle and Sabine (both played by Jamie Pitt), who are the servants of Lucrece and Clarice, respecitvely.

Since I’m unfamiliar with the original play, I’m not sure exactly how faithful Ives’s adaptation is, but it has obviously been embellished with some ingenious, quick-witted rhymes and contemporary use of language.  It’s full of broad characterizations, contrasting the outrageous vanity and materialism of some characters with the cluelessness of others, with hilarious encounters including an imaginary duel, a twisted Cyrano-like wooing scene, and many quick entrances and exits by characters.  The scene changes are even funny, with two costumed stage hands moving the set pieces to a soundtrack of 1980’s hits by Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, Robert Palmer and others. It’s all very precisely staged with impeccable timing by director Suki Peters, and the actors do an admirable job of keeping up the pace and making the rhyming dialogue sound natural.  Visually and technically, it’s all consistently realized, with the 17th Century French costumes augmented with a 1980’s aesthetic of bright, fluorescent colors, with puffy skirts and corsets for the women and ruffled shirts and brightly-hued jackets for most of the men, and a rainbow of wigs for all.  Costume designer JC Kajicek, set designer Michael Dombek and the entire technical crew are to commended for this very boldly realized production that manages to be both classical and edgy at the same time.

The actors here are all in top form.  As Dorante, Sanz-Agero is commanding and grandiose, and well-paired with Ritchie as the constantly bewildered Cliton.  These two have some great scenes together, particularly one in which Dorante tries to teach Cliton his techniques for deception, and Ritchie tries to copy Sanz-Agero’s broad gestures as well as his speech, to uproarious effect.  Foughty is also a delight as the theatrically suspicious Alcippe, with his “duel” with Sanz-Agero’s Dorante being another comic highlight. Angeli and Murphy make a great team as the best friends, the more caustic, manipulative Clarice and the more reserved but increasingly confused Lucrece.  There are also great performances by Ashton as the meddling Geronte, John Wolbers as Alcippe’s foppish friend Philiste, and especially Pitt as the two very different sisters–the flirtatious Isabelle and the more severe, bossy Sabine.  The players all work together extremely well, carrying off the sharp, witty dialogue and physical comedy with striking success.

While I enjoy seeing favorite familiar plays, there’s a particular joy in discovering something I haven’t seen before, and especially something like this that’s been given such an inventive approach and vibrant staging.  This play explores the different perils that can come from lying as well as from telling the truth, as well as being a witty exploration of the complications of romantic pursuits.  It may be set in 17th Century Paris, but it’s infused with many modern sensibilities and it’s sure to provide many a laugh for today’s audiences.

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
July 12, 2014

Maggie Wininger Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Wininger
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

This isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s Hamlet. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s new production of the oft-produced classic play, Hamlet is played by a woman (although the character is still portrayed as male), the castle guards brandish automatic rifles and Hamlet himself carries a handgun and a large hunting knife, the usurping King Claudius and his court are dressed to the nines in dapper suits and chic gowns, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take selfies with their smartphones in the palace. All of these ideas could easily come across as cheap gimmicks, but in director Donna Northcott’s bold new staging, all of these elements work together along with a palpable sense of tension and urgency to create a fresh, exciting and thoroughly fascinating production that never bores and frequently captivates.

The story is familiar to anyone who studied the play in English class or saw one (or more) of the many filmed versions of the story, or saw one of the many, many staged productions that have been produced for generations.  Just as it says in the title, it’s about Hamlet (Maggie Wininger), the Prince of Denmark whose father, the King, has recently died and been succeeded by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), who has also rather quickly married the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Kelly Schnider).  When Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father (Tom Moore), he is informed that Claudius is not only an opportunist but a murderer, and Hamlet is encouraged to take revenge. Much of the drama that ensues revolves around Hamlet’s wrestling with what to do about this charge.

This version of the play is set on a very simple stage, but with all the right trappings to suggest an elegant royal court. It’s all efficiently designed by Pippin McGowan and sumptuously costumed by Michele Friedman Siler.  The men wear the finest, most stylish suits and the women are in fashionable gowns and jewelry.  Gertrude is appropriately regal, and Ophelia (Taylor Steward) wears flowing, patterned dresses. The younger, flashier Rosencrantz (Paul Edwards) and Guildenstern (Shane Bosillo) are given more obviously trendy outfits, and Hamlet spends a fair amount of time dressing down in ripped pants and a wrinkled hoodie. The palace guards are imposing in camouflage, and the court attendants wear military-like livery. It’s all very well thought-out and consistent with the updating of the production. Also, while the guards, Hamlet and Laertes do carry guns at key moments in the show, the iconic sword duel at the end is still there, using modern fencing equipment and excellently choreographed by Erik Kuhn. With the excellent, dynamic staging of the piece, none of the updates seem out of place and all work to serve the story, actually adding to the accessibility and overall drama of the play.

The cast, like the overall production, is uniformly excellent. Wininger, with her short-ish, curly mop of a hairstyle and brooding energy, is a particularly intense and youthful Hamlet.  While she never completely manages to make me forget the fact that she’s a woman playing a man, Wininger’s wonderful and richly nuanced performance makes that distinction work in her favor.  Her Hamlet is among the more collected portrayals I’ve seen, clearly showing the character’s self-examination and struggles with indecision and doubt.  This Hamlet also shows obvious affection for the visiting Players, with the scene of their arrival and Hamlet’s interactions with them being among the most memorable and effective moments in this production.  She also notably shines in her scenes with Schnider’s Gertrude and with Edwards and Bosillo as the ever-present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose memorable and somewhat flighty characterizations are another notable aspect of this production. Schnider is excellent as Gertrude, as well, eschewing the somewhat silly, distracted characterization I’ve seen so many times for a more elegant portrayal. Whatever her own personal flaws may be, this Gertrude clearly loves her son and is concerned about his well-being.  Jones, who also played Claudius in Equally Represented Arts’  excellent re-imagining–called Make Hamlet–earlier this year, here portrays the King in a self-doubting, considered characterization that gives weight to his famous “attempted prayer” scene.  Michael Amoroso is another stand-out as an earnest, single-minded Laertes.  There are so many excellent performances here that it’s difficult to name them all without naming the whole cast.  There’s Steward’s waifish, bewildered Ophelia, Richard Lewis’s gently officious Polonius, Ben Watts’ fastidious and attentive Osric, and more. It’s a great cast in a very strong interpretation of the show that brings the audience into the action just as it brings the characters to the audience by the very skillful updating of the setting.

One of the reasons I love Shakespeare so much is that his plays are so adaptable.  While some interpretations have come across as more stunt than substance, there’s so much capacity for updating that clarifies the story rather than confusing it, especially in the hands of a good director with a consistent vision.  This production is a prime example of the good kind of updating.  It’s style and substance, elegance and drama, emotion and action, and ultimately, it’s a thoroughly convincing production. This is a Hamlet with heat, energy and immediacy, as well as some well-placed humor at the right moments. It’s one of the better examples of a “modern dress” staging of Shakespeare that I’ve seen. It’s a strong opening to St. Louis Shakespeare’s 30th Anniversary season, and it makes me look forward even more to seeing what else this company has in store.

Cast of Hamlet Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
March 28, 2014

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is, with the possible exception of Hamletprobably Shakespeare’s best-known play.  Most adults will remember it mostly from having to study it in English class in high school, or perhaps from one or both of the most popular movie versions (either Franco Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrmann’s).  This familiarity presents something of a challenge to theatre companies when they produce it. Since everyone already thinks they know what it’s about, the challenge is whether to try to live up to the general expectations (more like the Zefferelli film) or try something more bold and outside-the-box (more like the Luhrmann film).  In this latest production, presented at the Hunter Theatre at DeSmet Jesuit High School, St. Louis Shakespeare has gone the more straightforward route.  With a production built around the strong performances of its young lead performers, the company has produced a thoughtful, striking and, for the most part, well-paced production of a classic play that is more complex than it may appear.

One of the strengths of this production is that the tone is just right. This is something of a strange play in that it essentially starts out as a comedy. Yes, there are the feuding families–Montagues and Capulets–but the overall tone throughout the first half is lighthearted.  Director Suki Peters gets the pacing just right, as we are introduced to Romeo (Leo Ramsey) and his friends Benvolio (Brian Kappler) and Mercutio (Charlie Barron) as they prepare to attend a party hosted by Lord and Lady Capulet (Brian J. Rolf and Christi Mitchel), are taunted by brash Capulet kinsman Tybalt (Roger Erb), and listen to Romeo’s speeches concerning his infatuation with the unseen Rosaline, who he promptly forgets upon meeting the Capulets’ daughter Juliet (Emily Jackoway) at the party.  Juliet is young and curious about the world, with a doting Nurse (Jamie Eros) and parents who are eager to arrange her marriage to the well-connected Paris (Paul Edwards).  Upon meeting, Romeo and Juliet are suddenly struck by the giddiness and impulsiveness of young love.  They secretly marry and are all full of hope for the reconciliation of their families.  Then,the belligerent Tybalt, angry at Romeo for sneaking into the party, goes looking for him and things get serious.  Mercutio accepts Tybalt’s challenge when Romeo refuses, and an initially light-hearted sparring session quickly turns ugly. Everything goes downhill from there, as anyone who is familiar with the story knows.  The second half of the show is all tragedy, and the actors handle the transition extremely well as the play drives to its bleak and inevitable conclusion, in which the star-crossed lovers meet their fate.

The casting is key in this production, and the young leads make a convincing pair. It’s refreshing to see the teenage Romeo and Juliet played by actors who appear to be close to the right age. The youthful energy and impulsiveness is there, and both Jackoway and Ramsey do an excellent job of switching from the more upbeat earlier scenes to the more tragic later events.  Ramsey is all earnest and effusive, and Jackoway is full of wide-eyed wonder in their first scenes together, and the classic balcony scene is sweetly romantic and engaging, with genuine chemistry that makes their love scenes all the more convincing, and their parting after the tragedy begins to enfold is both truthful and heartbreaking, as are their tragic last moments. These two are the real emotional anchors of this production, ideally suited for their roles and bringing all the range of emotions from breathless joy to haunting sorrow with honesty and strength.  They are well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Eros as the earthy, sympathetic Nurse, Paul Devine as the wise but somewhat bumbling Friar Lawrence, Barron as the witty and brash Mercuitio, and Erb as the menacing Tybalt.  Mitchel also has a great moment as Lady Capulet mourns for Tybalt. There were a few supporting players who are less convincing, such as Maxwell Knocke as a particularly surly and shouty Prince Escalus, and Edwards as a basically bland Paris, although for the most part this is a strong cast, demonstrating excellent comic and dramatic abilities as the atmosphere of the play shifts.

The look of this production is very traditional, with well-suited costumes by Beth Ashby and an evocative set by Chuck Winning complete that effectively achieves the Old World marble-and-stone look, with some nice touches like a working fountain. Despite  a minor issue with the sound in that I sometimes had trouble hearing what was being said, it’s a solid effort technically. I was especially impressed by Brian Peters’ dynamic fight choreography, particularly the highly suspenseful sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt and the subsequent battle between Romeo and Tybalt.  In keeping with the tone change of the play, the first fight starts out playfully and then swiftly escalates in brutality. It’s an excellent showcase for the actors as well, and Ramsey’s moment of realization after his confrontation with Tybalt is one of the most memorable moments in the show.  It’s a very physical production, with a raw emotional energy that builds with startling realism.

This production is sure to spark all the usual debates about whether Romeo and Juliet were really in love, or what would have happened if the families didn’t let their own prejudices cloud their judgment, and whether or not the blend of comedy and tragedy works. In this production, I would say that blend is what works best of all.  With two charismatic and youthful leads, and a well-realized vision and excellent pacing, this story unfolds with engaging, shocking, jarring and ultimately gut-wrenching effectiveness.  It’s a classic story well-told.

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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