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Posts Tagged ‘steve callahan’

Stones In His Pockets
by Marie Jones
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 10, 2017

Jason Meyers, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild take its audience to Ireland for its latest production. Stones In His Pockets is a play with many characters, but only two actors. A story with strong comic and dramatic elements, the show features the talents of two excellent local performers.

Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers form the entire cast of this production, each playing a variety of characters. Mainly, though, they are Charlie (Sanz-Agero) and Jake (Meyers), two new friends in a small Irish village that has been chosen as the setting for a major motion picture starring a well-known American actress. Many of the locals, including Jake and the newly-arrived Charlie, have been cast as extras in the film, and that’s the source of much of the comedy and drama of this play, as the filming impacts the town in various foreseen and unforeseen ways. Through the course of the story, we see the movie filming and life in this town through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, as well as through other memorable characters like the film director, the mostly friendly but self-absorbed movie star, a veteran extra who is the last surviving extra from the filming of the John Ford/John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara classic film The Quiet Man, and a troubled teenager and his friend. It’s the young teenager, Sean, whose character ultimately impacts the story the most, turning what starts out as a pleasant, insightful comedy into something more bittersweet and even tragic. The issues explored include the importance of hopes and dreams, as well as commercialism and self-importance in the film industry, and the simple decency of treating people like human beings and not just a means to an end.

The technical elements here work well to set the overall mood and atmosphere of rural Ireland, with Tracy Newcomb’s fairly minimal set and Nathan Schroeder’s evocative lighting setting the stage appropriately. Newcomb’s costumes are also excellent, with the two actors in basic, character-specific costumes but then adding small elements–hats, scarves, etc.–to suggest the changes in character. There’s also good work from dialect coach Richard Lewis, helping the actors achieve consistent and believable Irish accents, although there is a small issue with one name (that of a production assistant on the film, named Aisling) being consistently mispronounced. Still, the overall sense of Irish-ness is achieved and maintained well by this production, with the real centerpiece being the remarkable performances of the two leads, as well as the excellent direction that makes the story flow so well.

Sanz-Agero and Meyers are both wonderful in their roles, as the hopeful aspiring screenwriter Charlie and more jaded Jake, who has just returned from a disappointing time trying to make his fortune in America. Both are excellent at changing from character to character but consistently and quickly resuming their “base” characters as needed. For Sanz-Agero, his most memorable other characters include the movie star, Caroline, and the film director. Meyers excels at physicality in his roles, as well, especially finding poignancy in portrayals of Mickey, the elderly extra, and the moody young Sean. Their portrayals are so vivid, and their transitions so smooth, that it almost does seem like there are more actors in the show than just these two at times. These two play against each other extremely well, too, working to tell a convincing story full of humor, sadness, and ultimately hope.

This is the first time I’ve seen this play, and I’m glad I got to see it here. It’s an excellent production from West End Players Guild. Especially, the actors are to be commended for bringing the audience into such a well-realized world.

West End Players Guild is presenting Stones In His Pockets at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 19, 2017.

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Manifest/Destiny
by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 5, 2016

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s newest production is a look at immigration and migration and how generations of settlers have shaped the identity of a nation. It’s also a look at the concept of immigration itself, exploring the reasons why people move from place to place. This St. Louis production of Russian-American playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky’s Manifest/Destiny is constructed in an intriguing way and features some strong performances and memorable moments.

There isn’t one story in this play. There are many. The four player (Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Ariel Roukaerts, and Zach Venturella) all play a variety of characters existing over a span of decades and centuries, representing the many immigrants and settlers, mostly from various parts of Europe, who have come to the United States with hopes of making a home here. The first act focuses on getting here, with the various characters describing their journeys and also their reasons for coming to America, including personal aspirations, religious reasons, and fleeing from oppressive governments. Some of the stories are dramatic and others are humorous, alternating with depicting the experience of travel itself, including water leaks, disease, and dealing with immigration officials at Ellis Island upon arrival. In Act 2, the focus shifts to settlement and migration within the country, as the immigrants traveled an ocean to get to America now find themselves for various reasons wanting to move further and further West. Grueling wagon journeys, disputes with fellow travelers, personal prejudices and legal disputes are depicted as the settlers try to find their place out West. Westward migration isn’t the end, though, as the play suggests the desire to keep moving, keep exploring, is still apparent even toward the “end’ of the story.

This is all very episodic, with some profound and memorable moments such as stories of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, and Irish settlers dealing with the harsh realities not only of migration, but of mistreatment and prejudice by their neighbors. There are some clever elements involving the representative nature of the story, as various characters from different time periods interact and inform one another of their own experiences. There’s a funny moment, for instance, when a man from one time period (Venturella) proposes to a woman (Roukaerts) from a different time, and she points out that it will never work out.  Little moments like this exist amidst the other stories of hopes, dreams, conflict and the ever-present desire to find a home. All four performers do an excellent job of portraying different people from different time periods, with Goldmeier getting some of the more memorable monologues, and Johnson getting to lead the cast in a striking rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The staging, as is usual for most West End productions, utilizes the main stage area and the floor in front of the stage. Director Steve Callahan designed a set that works well with the transient nature of the story, with movable set pieces that can be adjusted to suggest a ship at sail, or a great Western plain, and more. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes outfit the performers well, allowing for the flexibility of playing different characters in different times. There’s also strong lighting work from Rebecca Winslow and sound from Mary Beth Winslow. Overall, the production has much in-motion feel that works very well for the theme of this show.

Manifest/Destiny is a well-told story. It’s not anything especially innovative or groundbreaking, but these stories are important to remember and playwright Zelevinsky has portrayed them with poignancy. The cast members do an excellent job of living the story instead of simply telling it, as well. It’s a history lesson, but it doesn’t forget that it’s humans who make history.

West End Players Guild is presenting Manifest/Destiny at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 13, 2016.

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Venus In Fur
by David Ives
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
September 25, 2015

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The theme for West End Players Guild’s newest season is “Battle of the Sexes”. This idea is well reflected in the season’s first offering, David Ives’s dark comedy Venus In Fur. With sharp dialogue, dynamic staging, and extremely strong performances by the two leads, this is a mysterious, intriguing, alternately funny and disturbing play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and conversation.

The play has a theatrical conceit with occasional mysterious and possibly even supernatural elements. The set-up is that an ambitious playwright and director, Thomas (Chris Jones), is conducting auditions for the role of a character called Vanda in his adaptation of a provocative 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher Masoch (from whose name the word “masochism” is derived). Thomas is exasperated because all of the actresses he’s seen are unsuitable in various ways, particularly in being either too modern or too immature, or both. He’s about to pack up for the day when a quirky character also called Vanda (Paula Stoff Dean) shows up and wants to audition. This Vanda is crass, forgetful, confrontational, and seemingly just as unsuitable as the previous auditionees, until she persuades Thomas to let her read for part and proves herself surprising in more ways than one. As the audition continues, it becomes clear that Vanda isn’t exactly who she had claimed to be, as she challenges Thomas concerning his very reasons for writing and staging this play, and their conversations grow more personal and the lines between the actors and characters become increasingly less clear.

This is an intense play, with an interesting tonal shift from basically wacky comedy at the beginning to a much darker tone as the story progresses. The characters are the story, really, with their continued challenges and questioning of each other adding to the mystery. The ending is somewhat confusing and ambiguous, but that’s likely deliberate. It’s all about the interaction between the two leads, as they shift in and out of character while reading the play, and it’s all so dynamically staged that even though the play runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, the story never gets boring.

The casting is absolutely essential in a play like this, as is the chemistry between the performers. This production gets both of those elements right. As the mysterious, initially flighty but also very much in control Vanda, Dean gives the best performance I’ve seen from her.  This is a role that requires a strong stage presence, excellent comic and dramatic skills, and the ability to transition between different characters at the drop of a hat. Dean accomplishes all those tasks with supreme proficiency, and Jones is an excellent match for her as the conflicted but driven Thomas. He proves an able sparring partner for Dean’s Vanda, and their chemistry is positively electric, as well.

The technical elements of this production are fairly basic, but well done. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting, Chuck Lavazzi’s sound, and especially Tracy Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are all excellent. The only major technical problem had to do with the air conditioner in West End’s performance space, which was loud and was an occasional distraction. Otherwise, this is a well-realized production, effectively recreating the backstage atmosphere required for the play.

Venus in Fur is a provocative, sharply written, thought-provoking two-person play. It’s definitely on the odd and mysterious side, plot wise, but it’s an especially strong showcase for actors.  I’d never seen this show before, and West End’s production strikes me as an excellent introduction. It’s intense, funny, bizarre, and extremely well cast. There are only two performances left, and it’s well worth checking out.

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s Venus in Fur runs at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 4th, 2015.

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