Posts Tagged ‘steven dietz’

Fiction
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
October 8, 2022

William Roth, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I’ve sometimes thought that if I were ever to write my memoirs, they would have to be at least partially fictionalized. Since life is rarely as dramatic as literature, at least a little embellishment would be necessary in telling my life story. Also, there are real people involved in my story, and I don’t own their lives, so fudging to protect privacy would also be needed. In addition to these reasons, imagining what could have happened is often easier, more fun, and sometimes less painful than remembering what really happened. These ideas–of truth vs. fiction in telling our stories and those of others we know–are dealt with in intriguing, highly personal detail in Steven Dietz’s relationship drama Fiction, which explores the marriage of two writers who, upon being faced with mortality, are forced to confront their own secrets, mysteries, and realities in their relationship and in their writings. 

The story begins mid-conversation in a café in Paris, where Michael Waterman–played by William Roth, and Linda, played by Lizi Watt–are arguing about music. It’s a conversation that establishes the characters’ personalities to a degree, and we see the good-natured banter and obvious affection between them. Then, the story flashes forward to the present, in which Michael and Linda are both well-known authors who have been married for 20 years. Linda, who lives in the shadow of her more famous husband and the memory of her celebrated first novel, teaches a college writing class. Michael churns out a series of best-selling novels that keep getting made into movies. They have their concerns and regrets, but they know each other well, and they’re happy. That is, they’re happy until Linda gets diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and is given just weeks to live. In the midst of the pending grief, Linda tells Michael she wants him to read her journals after she dies, and requests to read his. Michael is hesitant, but eventually agrees, and as they say, the plot thickens, as the years and years of diaries contain secrets that Michael hasn’t told Linda, involving a young woman that he met at a writers’ colony–Abby, played by Bryn McLaughlin. It may appear obvious where this story is going, and in a way, that is where it goes, but in a much bigger way, this story leads back to something less obvious and potentially more devastating. It’s a story that challenges not only the Watermans’ relationship, but also their identities as writers, and the very ideas of truth and fiction in their lives, as these concepts blend together in mysterious and occasionally confusing ways, leading to some startling revelations and a conclusion that brings the story back to where it began, with a degree of resonance concerning what is to come for the young, unwitting couple. 

I’ve seen a few plays by Steven Dietz, and I think this is most well-constructed, although the characters are hard to like at times–especially Michael. Still, Roth manages to infuse him with enough charm that, as blustery and self-important as he can be, I can understand the connection between him and Linda. Linda, for her part, is much more likable at first, and Watt conveys such an earnestness in her portrayal that makes later revelations all the more surprising. It’s a rich, nuanced performance, and the centerpiece of the play. Watt and Roth also display believable chemistry. McLaughlin, in the somewhat mysterious role of Abby, is also excellent, as her motives aren’t made obvious at first. McLaughlin is adept at maintaining the mystery until the necessary reveals, playing well against both Roth and Watt with a believable degree of antagonism mixed, occasionally, with admiration.

The staging by director Wayne Salomon is fairly briskly paced, taking just enough time for the drama to play out credibly and with due poignancy, but without dragging. The set, designed by Patrick Huber, is dark and minimal, with a bit of abstraction represented by the vague scribblings painted on the walls, like the mysterious vagaries of a writer’s mind. Kristi Gunther’s mood-setting lighting adds to the atmosphere of the production, as do Carla Landis Evans’s well-suited costumes. 

Overall, this is a play that holds my attention from the sheer strength of the acting, as well as the well-crafted intrigue of the unfolding mystery that has more layers than may be apparent at the start. It’s a difficult story at times, in terms of trying to figure out where it’s going, but I’m sure that’s deliberate on the playwright’s part, as even the strongest relationships have their difficulties, and their conundrums. Fiction is the title, but there’s much truth here, in the play itself as well as in the first-rate staging and performances. 

William Roth, Bryn McLaughlin, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fiction at the Gaslight Theatre until October 23, 2022

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Bloomsday
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
September 16, 2021

John Moore, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild has joined the numerous other St. Louis theatre companies in returning to the stage for its first live production since early in 2020. Their production of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday was originally planned for that earlier season, and its staging now is especially welcome, being a pleasant, intriguing romantic comedy that plays with the convention of time, featuring an engaging cast and a simple but especially effective set that evokes its Dublin location in an elegant manner.

Of all the “time travel” type stories I’ve seen (and there are many), this one seems to be less “sci-fi” focused than most, in that the time-twisting is treated as a given, and can also be seen more as a metaphor than as literal, for the most part. The setup has Robert (Jeff Lovell), an American college professor, narrating the story as Caithleen (Megan Wiegert), a young Irish tour guide, begins the introduction to her tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin”, which is focused on Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. At first, it appears as if Robert is narrating a memory from 35 years previous, but then as he starts actually talking to Caithleen and seeming to know things that, from her perspective, he shouldn’t know, the story turns into something different. Later, we meet Robbie (John Moore)–a young American tourist who goes on Caithleen’s tour–and Cait (Colleen Heneghan)–an older, world-weary woman who knows a lot about Caithleen’s past, present, and future. Caithleen, for her part, soon realizes what is happening, as it reminds her of something that happened to her mother–although Robbie remains clueless. Overall, the story plays out as a character study and a meditation of the nature of regret, and how sometimes simple, brief events can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a warm, thoughtful tone to much of the story, and a light humor that is punctuated with moments of poignancy that adds impact to the play, and for me, it works a lot better than another Dietz play, This Random World, that was also staged at WEPG a few years ago. Where that play often seemed like it was toying with the audience for the sake of being clever, this one speaks more to a universal condition to which I think a lot of viewers can relate, and that’s the idea of “what if?” Or more precisely, “what would my life be like if I had done this one thing differently?” That idea has been explored in different ways in other works in more elaborate ways–like in the musical If/Then, for instance, but here the emphasis isn’t as much on the structure or the concept but on the characters themselves, and their interactions. 

It’s the characters that make this play more than the concept, and the performances here breath credible life into those characters. The chemistry in their interactions is also strong and palpable, whether its between the older Robert and Cait, the younger Robbie and Caithleen, or any combination of the four. Lovell as Robert manages to combine cynicism and a reflection of youthful idealism especially well, and Wiegert’s strong-willed but wary Caithleen is also excellent, as are Moore as the captivated and increasingly confused Robbie, and Heneghan as the regretful but still energetic and hopeful Cait. There are many excellent moments between all four of these characters, and these make the show especially memorable. A little bit of knowledge about Dublin and Joyce helps, as well, but the play provides enough information to enjoy it no matter what your level of experience with those subjects may be.

Another factor that adds to the overall atmosphere of this production is the simple but vivid set painting by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith. There isn’t a lot of set; it’s mostly only furniture that’s moved around as needed, with the setting provided by an excellent, seemingly three-dimensional backdrop painting that evokes the Dublin setting remarkably well. Played out against this backdrop, the Irish setting comes to life with style. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, in outfitting the characters to reflect their personalities. Jacob Winslow’s lighting, Ted Drury’s sound design, and Jackie Aumer’s props also contribute well to the overall effect of the play.

Overall, Bloomsday is a welcome return for West End Players Guild. Whether you have been to Dublin, read Ulysses or not, it’s an especially relatable trip through time, space, and memory, examining how events can effect people in ways that won’t leave them even years after the fact. Here played out by an excellent cast against a vivid backdrop, it’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

John Moore, Colleen Heneghan, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Bloomsday at Union Avenue Christian Church until September 26, 2021

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This Random World
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 29, 2018

Kate Weber, Ted Drury
Photo: West End Players Guild

The subtitle of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, This Random World, is “The Myth of Serendiptiy”. It’s an attempt to challenge concepts of fate and coincidence, with some intresting and at times frustrating answers. It’s an intriguing concept, certainly.

This is a difficult play to review, because going into too much detail will spoil the story. It’s essentially a puzzle, of sorts, with the various characters as the pieces, and the constantly looming question of how, and even if, the pieces will eventually come together. Those “pieces” include brother and sister Tim (Ted Drury) and Beth (Tinah Twardowski), who start off the play reflecting on life, death, and world travel. Through a series of seemingly random events, Tim and Beth, along with their mother Scottie (Lynn Rathbone), Scottie’s caretaker Bernadette (Jessa Knust), Bernadette’s sister Rhonda (Kate Weber), Tim’s former high school girlfriend Claire (Eleanor Humphrey), and Claire’s boyfriend Gary (Joel Zummak) find themselves in some hard to believe situations that bring some of them into contact with more than a few “near misses” along the way. Situations involving a funeral home, world travel, and various relationships serve to advance the story, with increasing degrees of implausibility, and a last-minute “twist” that somehow manages to be both surprising and not-so-surprising at the same time.

This is the kind of play that especially frustrates me, since so much of the plot depends on contrivances, as well as characters behaving in ways that make little sense. Although there are some thought-provoking ideas and memorable characters, the overall story comes across less as a serious exploration of concepts and more of an exercise in fooling the audience in ways that become more and more ridiculous as the story unfolds. For me, despite some strong performances, especially from Rathbone as the aging but adventurous Scottie, Drury as the bewildered Tim, and Weber as the somewhat flighty Rhonda, this play succeeds more as an exercise in frustration than anything else. It’s a well-done production, but the story is just too pretentious for its own good most of the time. The staging and technical aspects, including the minimal but effective set by Carrie Phinney, lighting by Phinney, Sound by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, and costumes by Mary Beth Winslow, are effective, adding interest and atmosphere to the production.

There’s a lot to think about conceptually in This Random World, as implausible as this whole story can be. Still, the idea is intriguing, and the strong cast makes it even more so. It’s a memorable start to a new season for West End Player’s Guild.

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Last Thursday, February 12, I was privileged to see two intriguingly presented productions by new local theatre companies. With relatively simple staging and somewhat unusual concepts, these plays provided for thought-provoking and entertaining theatrical experiences. Here’s what I thought:

The Nina Variations

By Steven Dietz

Directed by Andrew Michael Neiman

Flying Blind Productions

Taylor Steward, Leo B. Ramsey Photo: Flying Blind Productions

Taylor Steward, Leo B. Ramsey
Photo: Flying Blind Productions

A small but ambitious production directed by local actor/director Andrew Michael Nieman, The Nina Variations uses the backdrop of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull to explore themes of love, writing, theatricality, jealousy and more.  Staged at Clayton High School’s Little Theatre, this was a somewhat bizarre but thoroughly intriguing production, featuring two talented local performers. It seems like it would be easier to follow if one has seen the source material, although it still works even for those who may be unfamiliar with Chekhov’s work.

I have to admit I’ve never seen or read The Seagull, although the basic concept here appears to be a series of riffs based on that theme rather than a direct adaptation of the material. The leading characters here are taken from Chekhov’s work, although they are given life beyond the confines of that script. With a chessboard-like stage strewn with various editions of the play, The Seagull is kept in mind even as this play examines and deconstructs its characters and concepts. There are strong, extremely physical and emotional performances from Leo B. Ramsey as the playwright Treplev, and Taylor Steward as the actress, Nina, who serves as Treplev’s muse as well as his occasional adversary and writing rival.  The performers display excellent chemistry, energy, and engaging charm as they walk, glide and dance around the stage, sometimes even engaging the audience directly. In one particularly amusing interactive moment, Ramsey waxed rhapsodic about critics while sitting directly next to me.

This was a simple but visually striking production, making good use of music and multi-colored lighting effects as the performers explored their love for writing, theatre and, occasionally, each other.  The obsessive Treplev and the somewhat flighty Nina were well realized here, with dynamic staging and strong technical elements.  It was an unusual play that covered a multitude of concepts in its approximately 100 minute running time. It may appeal especially to Chekhov fans, although its strong performances and compelling concept should make it appealing for discerning theatre-goers in general.

 

Old Wounds

Written and Directed by Mollie Jeanette Amburgey

Good People Theatre

February 12, 204

Cara Barresi, Brian Rolf Photo: Good People Theatre

Cara Barresi, Brian Rolf
Photo: Good People Theatre

This very short new play ran just about 30 minutes, and it has the distinction of being staged in perhaps the most unusual setting I’ve personally seen. In the relatively cozy Betty Grable Suite at the Moonrise Hotel in the Loop, the atmosphere is one of a small dinner party, as the audience is invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between old friends. It’s a meeting that starts out light and friendly but soon takes a surprising turn.

The tone here is one of a somewhat matter-of-fact realism, as playwright/director Amburgey’s script and staging presents a situation that could easily happen any day.  As Samantha (Cara Barresi) and Matt (Brian Rolf), who haven’t seen each other in a while, indulge in Chinese takeout meal, they reminisce and catch up on their lives since they had last seen each other.  As the conversation goes on, we soon learn that there’s more to these two, and their relationship, than first meets the eye. These two have a past together, and as some particularly dramatic events are recalled and discussed, the drama develops, taking on themes of regret, loss, redemption and personal destiny, as well as the concepts of how a person’s past can effect his or her future. With engaging performances from both Barresi and Rolf, this feels not a little like an actual dinner conversation, with little in the way of production values beyond the basic elements–food, dishes, furniture, outfits–that one would see every day.

The whole immersive nature of this play, combined with its structure and perfectly pitched performances, makes for an intriguing blend of high-concept and utmost simplicity.  It’s like a dinner with friends in which a play suddenly breaks out.  I’m grateful for the invitation.

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