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I Now Pronounce
by Tasha Gordon-Solmon
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 18, 2019

Graham Emmons, Jessica Kaddish
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

For the last show of its 2018-2019 season, New Jewish Theatre has invited its audiences to a wedding. Tasha Gordon-Solmon’s I Now Pronounce is probably best described as a comedy with dramatic moments, telling a series of inter-connected stories within the context of one eventful wedding. As directed by NJT’s Artistic Director Edward Coffield, the production is a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, highly memorable event.

The structure of the play is, for the most part, episodic, with stories playing out over the course of one night involving the wedding of Nicole (Jessica Kaddish) and Adam (Graham Emmons), detailing the aftermath of an unexpected and shocking event that happens during the ceremony. An aging, forgetful Rabbi (Craig Neuman) introduces the story with some background information that gets increasingly mixed up as the speech–along with the mimed ceremony–progresses. Then, it’s over, and as familiar “wedding reception”-type songs play over the scene transitions, the story in all its comedy and drama unfolds. We meet the bride and groom, who individually try to deal with the events of the ceremony and its implications for their relationship, as well as the bridesmaids and groomsmen, including the bubbly, adventurous Michelle (Delaney Piggins), the initially more level-headed Eva (Frankie Ferrari), the brash, crass Dave (Will Bonfiglio) and the recently married but lovelorn Seth (Ryan Lawson-Maeske). Through the course of the evening, the characters interact and play out dramas of their own, involving some commonly accepted “wedding story” cliches, but also with some real moments of insight. There’s also a fun concurrent side story involving a trio of flower girls (Millie Edelman, Abby Goldstein, and Lydia Mae Foss) who find their own adventures and offer their own unique perspective of events. Although sometimes it seems like too much is going on at once, ultimately it’s a fun story and a celebration of hope in the midst of chaos and unpredictable life events.

This is an ensemble show, with a fairly broadly characterized cast of characters, and the actors play their parts well. Emmons and Kaddish, as the loving but sometimes combative newlyweds, lead a fine cast of local performers. Also strong are Piggins as the well-meaning but flighty Michelle, Lawson-Maeske as the sullen Seth, well-matched with Ferrari as the seemingly dependable but surprising Eva, and Bonfiglio in a somewhat unusual role for him as the boorish Dave. Neuman has some excellent moments as well, starting off the play memorably as the Rabbi, and young Edelman, Goldstein, and Foss are simply delightful as the flower girls. It’s an excellent, cohesive ensemble with strong chemistry, contributing to the overall comic energy of this production.

The whole wedding atmosphere is represented with authenticity here by means of David Blake’s detailed set, Michele Siler’s meticulously well-suited costumes, and excellent lighting by Tony Anselmo and sound by Amanda Werre. The choice of music throughout the production is especially notable, as well–with hits from ABBA, Cyndi Lauper, and others featured in the transition scenes and seeming especially appropriate for the setting. Director Edward Coffield’s staging is well-paced, as well, building up to a fun, upbeat conclusion.

I Now Pronounce is a memorable conclusion to the season for New Jewish Theatre. It’s not the deepest of stories, but there are some poignant moments and a lot of well-timed comedy. What stands out the most, though, is the top-notch cast. The curtain call is a real treat, as well.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Will Bonfiglio, Graham Emmons
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting I Now Pronouce at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 2, 2019

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Death Tax
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Bess Moynihan
Mustard Seed Theatre
May 17, 2019

Kim Furlow, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre has closed its 2018-2019 season with playwright Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax. Something of a morality play with a timely subject matter, the play offers thought-provoking drama and well-drawn characters. Still, although the cast and staging are strong, sometimes it seems the play is trying to say too many things at once.

Hnath is a celebrated and prolific playwright whose works include the Tony-nominated A Doll’s House, Part 2. Death Tax, first staged in 2012, was his first published play. As a script, it makes sense to me that this is a first play, considering its lofty ideas and strong characterization, but somewhat confusing and unbelievable goals and premise. The setup involves an ailing, aging nursing home patient named Maxine (Kim Furlow) and her primary nurse, Tina (Jeanitta Perkins), who narrates the play and sets up its five scenes. For most of the play, the plot focuses on Tina, a divorced immigrant who desperately wishes to be reunited with her young son, who is currently living with his father in Haiti. Maxine, who is estranged from and highly suspicious of her adult daughter (Kristen Strom), presents Tina with an outlandish theory and a shocking proposal that Tina sees as a way to eventually help her see her son again. Standing in the way of Tina’s plans is her supervisor and would-be romantic suitor, the socially awkward and insecure Todd (Reginald Pierre), who is willing to help Tina on his own terms. This sets up a chain of increasingly complicated moral dilemmas for Tina, who becomes even more conflicted after finally meeting Maxine’s daughter. As the scenes progress, more and more unpredictable events happen until the last scene, which features a twist that is at once clever and muddling to the rest of the story. It’s an intense drama for most of the production, but the last scene almost sends it too far into the realm of the absurd, although there are some thought-provoking points raised as well.

The casting here is this production’s greatest strength, led by Perkins in a dual role as the increasingly conflicted and mostly sympathetic Nurse Tina and as a businesslike social worker in one of the scenes. Furlow, as Maxine, is suitably cantankerous, doing the best she can with a character that’s difficult to like. Pierre has a similar issue with his primary role, as the manipulative, self-focused Todd, giving a strong performance in a largely unsympathetic role, and also in another more ambiguous role in another scene. Strom, as the daughter, impresses in what is perhaps the most surprising role in the play, lending much sympathy to the character and her plight.

Technically, Death Tax is well-presented, with a versatile modular set by Jamie Perkins, atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, excellent sound by Zoe Sullivan, and well-suited costumes by Jane Sullivan. Although there are some plot holes, the story raises a lot of timely questions concerning end-of-life care, parent-child relationships, sexual harassment and coercion, and more. Mustard Seed’s production is, as usual, thoughtfully staged and boasts an excellent local cast.

Reginald Pierre, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2019
May 11, 2019

As I noted in my last review, this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival opened with a stunning production of The Night of the Iguana. As is usual, however, the main stage production is not the only thing the festival has to offer. Here are two other excellent shows from the festival:

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kari Ely

Kelley Weber, Maggie Wininger, Julie Layton, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

A strong local cast and brisk staging are the highlights of this show, one of Williams’ later plays originally staged in 1979. Set in a Central West End apartment in the 1930s, this is a funny, poignant piece that features the common Williams theme of loneliness, but the tone is more comic than usual. In fact, it almost has a sitcom-like feel at times, which might be part of what lends to the theory (touted in the festival’s advertising) that this play was an inspiration for the 1980s comedy series The Golden Girls. On my viewing, I would say resemblances to that series are slight, and the play’s appeal rests more in its portrayal of its time, setting, and character situations, along with the very “St. Louis” vibe of the piece.

The story emphasizes class differences and individual aspirations as well as personal hopes and dreams, along with relationships among very different women who initially have wildly different goals. For Bodey (Kelley Weber), the middle-aged single daughter of German immigrants, her hope seems to revolve around picnics at Creve Coeur Lake and setting up her also single twin brother–the unseen but much talked-about Buddy–with Bodey’s younger, Southern-born high school teacher roommate Dorothea, or “Dottie” (Maggie Wininger). Dottie, however, has other plans that revolve largely around another unseen but much discussed character, her school’s principal, Ralph Ellis. As Bodey prepares food and tries to convince Dottie to go on an outing to the lake with her, Dottie is determined to stay home and wait for an expected phone call from Ralph, and both women are surprised at different times by two guests. First, there’s the social-climbing Helena (Julie Layton), who works with Dottie and hopes to get her to move into an expensive, more fashionable apartment with her. Then, there’s Miss Sophie Gluck (Ellie Schwetye), a German-born neighbor in the apartment building whose mother has recently died and who Bodey has been trying to console. As the story progresses, much is revealed about the motives of the various women, as well as the truth about the objects of their aspirations.

It’s a fast-moving, broadly comic piece with a clear undertone of melancholy, and the casting is excellent, from Weber’s determined, down-to-earth Bodey to Wininger’s dreamy and conflicted Dottie, to Layton’s haughty Helena. Schwetye, as the grieving, awkward Sophie, is a standout, with a memorable performance that is at equal turns poignant and broadly comic. The staging is fast-paced, with some impressive moments of physical comedy along with the strong characterizations.

The production values are also excellent, with a detailed and somewhat whimsical recreation of a 1930s St. Louis apartment by scenic designer Ali Strelchun, and excellent costumes by Garth Dunbar, lighting by David LaRose, and sound by Kareem Deanes. It’s a fun, compelling treat of a performance of a show that many viewers may not have heard of. It’s well worth checking out.

Tennessee Williams Festival is presenting A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur upstairs at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2019

“Dear Mr.Williams”
Written and Performed by Bryan Batt
Directed and Developed with Michael Wilson

Bryan Batt
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Also on stage this weekend was another show that ran for three performances. Dear Mr. Williams is a one-man show written and performed by Bryan Batt, who is probably best known for his role on the television show Mad Men. Here, Batt has collaborated with director Michael Wilson to present a highly personal show, portraying how Tennessee Williams and his plays have inspired Batt throughout his life.

This was a fascinating show, part dramatization and part autobiographical monologue, as Batt intersperses the story of his own life growing up in New Orleans with dramatized quotes from Williams about the city he also loved, as well as theatre, sexuality, and more. The story is poignant and personal, with Batt telling how his family’s history sometimes coincided with Williams’ plays, and also how he discovered Williams’ plays along with his journey into acting as well as coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1970s and early 1980s. Batt has a strong stage presence and personable manner, and his transitions between “Bryan” and “Tennessee” were, for the most part, seamless, although at times the transitions were so quick that they could be confusing. Still, this was an intriguing and fascinating portrayal.

Technical director and stage manager Michael B. Perkins also contributed to the simple but impressive staging, although Batt–and his portrayal of Williams–are front and center. It was a witty, poignant, and memorable performance, working well in the small but elegant space in the Curtain Call lounge. It’s another strong example of the variety and excellence on display at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

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The Night of the Iguana
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
May 9, 2019

James Andrew Butz, Lavonne Byers, Harry Weber, Nisi Sturgis
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has made a lasting impression on the theatre scene here in four short years. Through its mainstage productions, other theatrical offerings, panel discussions and additonal events, the festival has established a strong presence. Last year’s mainstage show, A Streetcar Named Desire, proved to be a highlight of the entire St. Louis theatrical year. Now, the festival is following up last year’s success with a new, bold staging of Williams’ thought-provoking The Night of the Iguana, boasting a strong cast and especially stunning production values.

The stage of the Grandel Theatre has been strikingly transformed into a run-down hotel in Mexico by means of a spectacular set by Dunsi Dai and luminous lighting by Jon Ontiveros, along with meticulously detailed costumes by Garth Dunbar. The story focuses on common themes for Williams–loneliness, flawed people, and seemingly unattainable dreams. Here, the focus is on a disgraced former minister-turned-tour guide in the early years of World War II. Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (James Andrew Butz) is an alcoholic who left his last church job in disgrace after an inappropriate relationship with a very young Sunday school teacher. Now, he’s leading a tour group of young ladies from Texas on an excursion that is straying from the advertised route, to the great dismay of chaperone Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), who is especially upset about Shannon’s attentions toward one of her charges, the 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall (Summer Baer). There’s also the newly-widowed Maxine Faulk (Lavonne Byers), who owns the hotel and has designs on Shannon. Meanwhile, a group of German tourists (Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay, and Hannah Lee Eisenbath) meander about, gleefully singing and celebrating news from Europe (basically, bombings and perceived Nazi victories). Into this situation come traveling artists and hustlers in their own way Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis) and her grandfather or “Nonno”, elderly poet Jonathan Coffin (Harry Weber), who is dealing with memory loss and struggling to finish his last poem. As memorable as all the characters are, including a supporting ensemble that features Victor Mendez (as Pedro), Luis Aguilar (as Pancho), Spencer Sickmann (as Hank), and Greg Johnston (as Jake Latta), the key figures are Shannon, Maxine, Hannah, and Nonno, and the most gripping and compelling drama revolves around these characters. Questions raised include regret, lost dreams and aspirations, temptation vs. desire for redemption, loneliness, and more. It’s a deep, intense, and sometimes disturbing character study that explores how these characters play off of one another and what makes them who they are.

The atmosphere is stunningly realized by the production, and the theme and struggle of the characters is well-portrayed by the first-rate cast, led by the always excellent Butz as the troubled Shannon and the especially impressive Sturgis as Hannah, who imbues her character with a hopeful energy and a believable mid-century accent and excellent chemistry with Butz, along with a credible sense of a lived history and genuine bond with the also excellent Weber as the determined, ailing Nonno. Byers also turns in a memorable performance as the brash, possessive Maxine. The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well, with standouts including Townsend as assertive Judith, and Isom and Doggett as deceptively cheerful German tourists. It’s a cohesive cast all around, with everyone turning in a strong performance, supporting the truly remarkable leads.

The Night of the Iguana is a compelling evocation of time, place, and character, with characters who are notably flawed and struggle to maintain hope in the midst of a sense of looming menace, both internal and external. It’s a vividly staged, impeccably cast production. It ushers in the Fourth Annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with remarkable energy and poignancy. It’s another stunning success from the Festival.

James Andrew Butz, Nisi Sturgis
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Night of the Iguana at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2019

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Salt, Root, and Roe
by Tim Price
Directed by Kenn McGlaughlin
Upstream Theater
April 26, 2019

Amy Loui, Donna Weinsting, Sally Edmundson
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater has taken audiences on theatrical trips to various places around the world through its productions, from Australia to England to Germany and beyond. The company’s latest production heads to Wales, with Welsh playwright Tim Price’s Salt, Root, and Roe. It’s an atmospheric piece and vivid portrayal of characters, with a lyrical tone and serious subject matter, as its characters deal with memory, mortality, old attachments, and more. At Upstream, this play is given a compelling treatment with a strong cast and great production values.

The setting here is Pembrokeshire, in southwestern Wales, where elderly twin sisters Iola (Donna Weinsting) and Arnest (Sally Edmonston) grew up. The play begins as Arnest’s daughter Menna (Amy Loui) has returned to the old seaside cottage prompted by a “goodbye” letter from her Aunt Iola, frantic to find Iola and stop her from doing anything drastic, but fearing she might be too late. As Menna and her childhood friend and possible former love interest, police officer Gareth (Eric Hyde White), discuss plans and dread what may have happened, the sisters arrive at the cottage, surprised to see Menna there. That’s only the beginning. From there, the story gradually unfolds and more details are revealed about all four characters and their situations, which are a lot more complicated than they first appear. The structure is more or less linear, although there are non-linear elements and breaks from continuity for poetic musings and reminiscences from the sisters. The Welsh setting, culture, and language are essential elements of the story. I won’t give away too much, except to say some of the subject matter here is especially intense and may be difficult for some viewers, as it deals heavily with the subjects of aging, dementia, and mortality.

The setting is well depicted in this production. Scenic designer Michael Heil has transformed the small black box space at the Kranzberg Arts Center into a vividly realized representation of a seaside cottage and its surroundings. Lighting designer Steve Carmichael and props designer Rachel Tibbetts, along with scenic artist Lucy Garlich also contribute impressively to the overall mood of the production. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters especially well.

The characterizations here are particularly strong, despite an inconsistency with the accents. As the sisters, Weinsting and Edmonson display excellent chemistry and a thouroughly believable bond. There’s a real sense of history, and mutual dependence, in their relationship. Weinsting in particular is a standout for the sheer range of emotions in her portrayal, as Iola struggles to retain a sense of herself as her memory is rapidly fading. Loui, as the protective, world-weary Menna, is also excellent, and White lends fine support as the loyal friend Gareth. It’s a strong ensemble that brings a real sense of poignancy and heart to the already poignant script.

Salt, Root, and Roe is a play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and discussion, especially in terms of some of the characters’ choices, but also in questions of mortality that are inherent to the human condition regardless of particular situations. The Welsh setting lends a lyrical air to the production, as well. It’s another memorable production from Upstream Theater.

Amy Loui, Eric Dean White
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Salt, Root, and Roe at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 12, 2019

 

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True West
by Sam Shepard
Directed by William Whitaker
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 12, 2019

William Humphrey, Isaigh Di Lorenzo
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has just opened the final play of their 2018-2019 season, and it’s a certainly a wild one. True West by celebrated playwright/screenwriter/actor Sam Shepard is a caustically comic look at family relationships, show business, and more. It’s definitely on the “unusual” side to say the least, and STLAS has staged it with their usual flair, and an excellent cast of local actors.

The story is set in Southern California in what appears to be the early 1980s, reflected in Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. The central characters are two brothers–college-educated screenwriter Austin (William Humphrey) and the gruff, confrontational Lee (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who lives more of a wandering life and has just returned from a stint in “the desert”. Austin is house-sitting for the brothers’ mother (Susan Kopp), who is on an extended vacation in Alaska, and he’s working diligently on a film script, anticipating a meeting with producer Saul (William Roth)–a meeting that Lee ends up crashing, and making a surprisingly positive impression on Saul. The play charts the increasingly antagonistic and competitive relationship between the brothers, as each begins to take on aspects of the other’s personality in surprising ways, some of which involve typewriters, televisions, and toasters. That’s all I will say, since the comedy of the piece revolves a lot around the element of surprise. It’s an usual story, to say the least, with larger-than-life characters, gritty dialogue, and fast-moving situations.

The comedy also hinges a lot on characterization, as the two very different brothers begin to show that they might not be as different as they thought. It’s a lot of “reaction” humor, as the brothers keep doing things that surprise one another. Humphrey, as the more strait-laced Austin, is especially hilarious in his transformation. Di Lorenzo, as the more initially outrageous Lee, is also convincing, and the actors play off of each other well. There are also fine performances from Roth as the somewhat fickle producer Saul, and Roth as the brothers’ mother, who is surprising in her own way.

The technical aspects of the show, as is usual for STLAS, are well done. The small space at the Gaslight Theater is used especially well, transforming belivably into a suburban California dwelling, and the props are great, too, such as the vintage typewriter and a variety of household appliances. Steve Miller’s lighting also contributes well to the tone of the show, as do Andrea Robb’s costumes, which suitably reflect the characters’ personalities. The staging is smart and fast-paced, as well, with Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography of special note.

True West isn’t a show for everyone, and at moments it seems like the story is just weird for the sake of being weird, which some viewers might find especially hilarious and others might find frustrating.  Still, the characterizations are strong and the STLAS actors are especially well-cast. It’s a memorable way to close out the season.

William Humphrey, WIlliam Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio is presenting True West at the Gaslight Theater until April 28, 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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