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Posts Tagged ‘stray dog theatre’

Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
November 30, 2017

Sarah Gene Dowling, Eileen Engel, Andra Harkins, Alison Linderer, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is of a well-known play that I, and I assume many others, have previously only seen in its even more well-known 1989 film version. On stage, Steel Magnolias is similar to the film in that it serves as an excellent showcase for a strong cast of women, only it’s notably different in structure and somewhat in focus. It’s a character study, essentially, not just of people but of a time and place as well.

Unlike the film that “opens up” the story and features some of the characters only talked about in the play, the stage version has an all-female cast and takes place in only one location, the small-town Louisiana beauty shop owned by personable stylist Truvy Jones (Sarah Gene Dowling). The play starts out as Truvy is hiring a new employee, the initially shy and guarded Annelle (Alison Linderer), and then the story unfolds in four scenes spanning a two-year period from April 1987 to November 1989. Over the course of the story, we meet several of the “regulars” in Truvy’s shop, learning about their characters and the atmosphere and traditions of the town in which they live and the people who populate their lives, even though we don’t actually meet anyone except for the six main characters. There’s the lovably cranky Ouiser (Andra Harkins) and her old friend, Clairee (Liz Mischel), who is the widow of the town’s former mayor and who shares a snarky but affectionate friendship with Ouiser. There’s also M’Lynn (Jenni Ryan), a local social worker and overworked mother whose eldest child Shelby (Eileen Engel) is preparing to get married. The story, while featuring all of the characters well, soon focuses primarily on M’Lynn and Shelby’s story, as we learn of Shelby’s desire to have children despite her serious health concerns, and M’Lynn’s struggle to accept her adult child’s decisions even when she doesn’t think they are wise. It’s a story full of character moments, lots of humor and stories of life in this small Southern town, as well as some poignant and even heartbreaking moments of drama. For the most part, though, even with the intense emotional moments, the overall tone is more comic than tragic, and the overall message seems to be one of hope through the up and down moments of life.

The casting here is strong, with all the performers suiting their roles well. Dowling gives a solid performance as the kind, dependable Truvy, and Linderer is especially impressive as the character who undergoes the most change in the play, the shy, then secretive, then fun-loving, then devout Annelle. Mischel and Harkins lend excellent support as the snarky but loving long-time friends Clairee and Ouiser, and Ryan and Engel portray a believable, poignant mother-daughter relationship as the concerned M’Lynn and the sometimes frustrating upbeat Shelby. The interplay between all six performers is strong, as well, which is essential to this play that depends largely on ensemble chemistry for its humor and its drama. The 1980’s look and atmosphere is well-maintained as well by means of Josh Smith’s detailed unit set, and the colorful, period-specific costumes by Engel and director Gary F. Bell. Tyler Duenow’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of this production.

This is a story about women and their relationships, as friends, mothers, daughters, and neighbors. It’s also a specifically Southern play, with strong dialogue and a well-realized setting and tone. It’s essentially the same story as the 1989 film, but the structure makes some of the story elements play a little differently, and the overall tone is more intimate. It’s another memorable show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Alison Linderer, Liz Mischel, Andra Harkins, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Steel Magnolias at Tower Grove Abbey until December 16, 2017.

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Spring Awakening
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the Play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 6, 2017

Allison Arana, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spring Awakening is that edgy musical from 2006 based on an even edgier (for its day) German play from 100 years earlier. The musical has become quite popular with regional theatres over the last decade or so, and this is actually the second time Stray Dog Theatre is producing it. Their first production was five years ago, though, and although I’ve heard good things about it, I didn’t see it. Actually, I hadn’t seen the show at all before this latest SDT presentation, although I had heard some of the music. Still, having read about the show and listening to the music doesn’t entirely prepare someone for seeing it live. On stage at SDT now, Spring Awakening is daring, shocking, extremely well-cast, and overall just plain excellent.

The story here is essentially an object lesson for adults in “how not to teach (or not teach) your kids about the facts of life”. It’s not all about sex, but that’s an important focus of the plot. It takes place in Germany in the 19th Century, in a rigid society where there are expectations for proper behavior, and for proper education, and that’s different for boys and for girls. The girls, like Wendla (Allison Arana), are expected to be “good” and eventually grow up and be a good wife and mother, although they’re not expected to know exactly where the babies come from. Wendla’s mother (Jan Niehoff, who plays all the adult women) isn’t much help, and so her daughter is dangerously naive when she eventually finds herself in a growing flirtation with young student Melchior (Riley Dunn). The other girls gossip and swoon over the boys and wonder about their futures, while the boys are in school learning how to be upstanding members of society. They’re drilled in Latin, math, and other subjects by their strict schoolmaster (Ben Ritchie, who plays all the adult male characters), and they are not expected to question authority. The boys are stressed out about their classes and expectations, but they’re also discovering their sexuality as well, which especially confuses Melchior’s friend Moritz (Stephen Henley), who is so distracted by certain thoughts that he can’t study, and the teachers determine he’s just not fit for school. As the play goes on, Wendla, Melchior, Moritz, and their friends deal with the strictness and evasion of the adults and society in different ways, with distressing and even tragic results. There are also other stories involving Wendla’s friend Martha (Brigid Buckley), who doesn’t want to share the full story about how badly her father treats her, and also Ilse (Dawn Schmidt), who ran away from a similar situation to live a more free-spirited life as a model at an artists’ colony, although she’s still gossiped about by her childhood friends. There are also Hanschen (Luke Steingruby) and Ernst (Jackson Buhr), who discover an attraction to one another. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things turn out better for some and worse for others, but generally, the rigid rules and strict expectations of this society don’t mesh well with the passions and desires of youth.  There’s little effort for actual communication–just dictation and evasion from the adults and confusion and impulsive reactions with sometimes devastating consequences for the youthful characters.

There’s a lot of story here, but it’s told well, and Ducan Sheik’s rock-influenced score augments the story especially well, with its frank and confrontational treatment of sexuality, among other subjects. The music works to tell the story well, from quieter, plaintive moments (“The Word of Your Body”) to full-on adolescent rage (“The Bitch of Living” and the riotous, spectacularly staged “Totally Fucked”). It’s a memorable score, and the staging here, with dynamic choreography and synchronized movement, adds much to the overall feeling of the production. The cast manages to get the whole performance area in Tower Grove Abbey shaking at one point. The casting is excellent as well, with Arana ideally cast as the innocent, bewildered Wendla well-matched with Dunn as the skeptical, would-be iconoclast Melchior. These two display strong, halting chemistry as well. There are also strong performances from Henley as the conflicted Moritz, and by Schmid, who displays a great deal of presence as the somewhat mysterious Ilse. Steingruby and Buhr, as Hanschen and Ernst, are also excellent, as are Ritchie and Niehoff in the adult roles, Buckley as the haunted Martha, and the entire ensemble (Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk).  It’s a confrontational show in a lot of ways, but it’s also a human show, and the wonderful cast does an excellent job of portraying the humanity of these teenagers with all their hopes, dreams, and flaws.

The stage is set minimally, with Robert M. Kepeller’s set consisting of a few wooden set pieces that frame the action more than establishing a concrete scene. The excellent band, led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, is right on stage with the actors, as well, blending the music into the environment in a thoroughly immersive way. There are also superb costumes by Eileen Engel and striking lighting by Tyler Duenow to help realize this richly portrayed world.

Spring Awakening is an important show in portraying the dangers of an overly rigid society and especially lack of true communication and essential education for growing teenagers to the point of stifling and even denying their basic humanity. It’s a timeless message despite the 19th century setting, and blend of the modern music with this setting helps to augment the universality of some of its themes. There’s some difficult and sometimes downright brutal subject matter here, but there is also hope, especially personified in the dazzling final scene and “The Song of Purple Summer”. As someone who hadn’t seen this musical before, I think  SDT has done the show about as well as I can imagine it being performed. It’s absolutely worth seeing while you have the chance.

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Spring Awakening at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 21, 2017.

 

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Ragtime, the Musical
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 3, 2017

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

“Ambitious” is a good word to describe Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Ragtime, just thinking about it. SDT isn’t a huge company, and their venue, the Tower Grove Abbey, isn’t that big either, but Ragtime is a big musical, in terms of casting, technical demands, and overall scope. This is one of those situations that might make someone wonder if a production like this would even work. Fortunately, however, this production does work, extremely well.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, heavily plotted novel, the musical Ragtime is grand in scope, examining life in New York City and its suburbs in the early 20th Century, and the major societal changes that were going on during that time. There’s a lot of story here, and the writers deserve credit for fitting all the plots into a coherent and fascinating musical. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), Harry Houdini (Joseph Gutowski), J.P. Morgan (Gerry Love), Henry Ford (Jason Meyers), Evelyn Nesbit (Angela Bubash), and Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.) appear in the show interacting with the fictional characters and helping to set the scene and paint a picture of the times. The three main plots involve characters from different backgrounds living in a world of class and racial tensions, systemic racism and discrimination, as well as the rise of immigration, changes in technology and societal expectations, and more.  There’s an upper-class family in the rich, and very white, suburb of New Rochelle, featuring a somewhat obtuse but world exploring Father (Phil Leveling), a cynical Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi), a pampered Mother (Kay Love) who is learning that the world isn’t as simple as she had thought, and the Little Boy, Edgar (Joe Webb).  Against the expectations of society, Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah (Evan Addams) and her newborn son. The child’s father is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones), who wants to marry Sarah and has big dreams for their future as a family. There’s also Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), a Jewish immigrant artist from Latvia who arrives in New York with his daughter (Avery Smith) looking to make a new life in America. This is only the beginning, though. Complications occur for everyone involved, as Mother starts to see her values conflicting with those of her husband, Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee) looks for a purpose in life, Coalhouse is bullied and harassed by the local fire chief (also Lavazzi) and his cronies who don’t like the idea of a black man with a fancy new car spending so much time in New Rochelle, and Tateh’s efforts to provide for his daughter take him from the streets of New York to Boston and beyond. Hopes and dreams are confronted with harsh reality, cruelty, and injustice, and life changes significantly for everyone involved.

This isn’t an easy story to describe without taking too much time and spoiling too much, but all the plots are woven together expertly, and the tension builds throughout the first act and explodes in the second. This is an intensely challenging, moving, and thought-provoking work, and SDT has staged it as well as I could imagine. The singing is first-rate, from the leads to the large and impressive ensemble. From the very first moment of the show, the ensemble and the music set the mood, along with the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The music is a mixture of traditional Broadway and turn of the 20th Century styles including, as is to be expected from the title of the play, a major ragtime influence.  The time and place are evoked well through means of David Blake’s expansive, multi-level set with platforms, staircases, and the look of steel-beam construction from the era. There are also meticulously detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel, and dramatic lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps transport the audience to this specific era and place in history. The only small issue I have with this production is that Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby (played by a doll) never actually ages despite the fact that several years go by in the course of the story.

The cast here is simply remarkable, with not a weak link among them. Everyone is ideally cast, and the character relationships are well-established and believable, with excellent chemistry in the ensemble and among the leads. Jones and Addams especially display a strong connection as Coalhouse and Sarah, with powerful voices as well. Their hopeful duet “Wheels of a Dream” in Act 1 is a particular highlight. Jones is also especially adept at portraying Coalhouse’s journey throughout the story, as the character goes through a great deal of profound changes. Also strong are Kay Love, in a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully sung turn as Mother; Wright, determined and engaging as Tateh; and Bee as a particularly earnest and determined Younger Brother. There are also some memorable performances from Lavazzi in two distinct roles–the jaded Grandpa and the bigoted, bullying fire chief–as well as Bubash as the perky singer and actress Evelyn Nesbit, who is the center of a national scandal; Kyro as the insistent activist Emma Goldman; and young Webb and Smith as the Little Boy and the Little Girl. Everyone is excellent, though. If I named all the strong performances, I would be listing the whole cast, because everyone is just that good. This is a show that demands a lot from its cast in terms of vocals, acting, and overall energy, and this cast delivers all that and more, from the very first note to the stirring Act 1 finale “Till We Reach That Day” to the Epilogue that ends the show.

I’m fairly sure this is the biggest show Stray Dog has ever done, and it’s simply stunning. The pacing is just right as well, not too rushed and not too slow. The moments of emotional resonance are given just the right amount of time, and all the players work together with precision and strength. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a pivotal time in American history, but it also has a lot to say for today’s times as well. This is a truly brilliant production.

Kay Love, Evan Addams
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ragtime at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 19, 2017.

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Monsters
by Stephen Peirick
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2017

Kevin O’Brien, Jeremy Goldmeier, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

The latest production in Stray Dog Theatre’s 2016-2017 season is a new play by local playwright and actor Stephen Peirick. Monsters is billed as a “comedy thriller”, and it certainly provides elements of both of those genres even though the “comedy” element is more prominent, at least for most of the play. With a talented, enthusiastic cast and some sharp humor and good pacing, this is a promising show, even though it does have a few issues that could be addressed.

Monsters doesn’t feature any literal monsters. The title is more metaphorical, examining the idea that seemingly good human beings can be capable of monstrous acts and attitudes. The situation is essentially a version of the “bumbling unlikely criminals” idea, with “manchild” brothers Jeremy (Kevin O’Brien) and Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier) planning a scheme for personal reasons that they won’t initially share with Davis’s wife, Andi (Sarajane Alverson), who happens across Jeremy in her basement accompanied by a strange man, who Jeremy introduces as Carl (Michael A. Wells), whom Jeremy has put in a difficult situation. The story of what exactly is happening takes a while to be told, as the nervous Jeremy is hesitant to disclose his secret. But Andi has secrets of her own that she’s trying to hide from Jeremy and, especially Davis. Another unexpected event is the arrival of Andi’s brash younger sister, Piper (Eileen Engel), who unbeknownst to Jeremy and Davis, has a habit of coming to the house on Tuesdays to do her laundry–a revelation that the jealous Jeremy, who has no such privileges, highly resents. I can’t say much more about the plot because the revelations of the various “secrets” and the motivations behind them are the centerpiece of the show. I’ll just say that some things are exactly as they seem, and other definitely are not.

The dialogue and characterization are the strongest elements of this show, along with the excellent performances. Alverson as the confrontational, sarcastic and secretive Andi, and O’Brien as the earnest, excitable and bumbling Jeremy are standouts in an impressive, cohesive cast. Engel plays against type well as the opportunistic, self-absorbed Piper, and Goldmeier is also good as the not-so-masterful “mastermind” of the “secret plan”, Davis, and Wells gives a funny, sympathetic performance as a man who spends the majority of the production being pushed around by the other characters. The characters are interesting, alternating between being sympathetic and not as likable, and generally this is a gripping, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking production, although it does have a few issues, most notably in the “comedy-thriller” designation, since the “thriller” aspect of the production–and particularly the revelation of one character’s seemingly sudden decision–that are less credible and not given sufficient build-up.  The comedy aspect is well done, however, and there are some interesting explorations of the ideas of personal responsibility, opportunism, truth and secret keeping, as well as the idea that not everything or everyone is how they may first appear.

The play does a good job of maintaining the audience’s interest, and the visual presentation is excellent, as well, with a set by Justin Been that is a realistic representation of the unfinished basement in which the action takes place. The characters are all outfitted appropriately by costume designer (and director) Gary F. Bell, as well, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting contributes to the overall atmosphere well.

Overall, this is an impressive, promising new production. While I do think there are some story and character elements that can be improved, it’s a funny and provocative play with well-drawn and well-portrayed characters. It’s definitely worth seeing, and it’s great to see a local theatre company developing such an intriguing new theatrical work by a talented local playwright.

Eileen Engel, Jeremy Goldmeier, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Monsters at Tower Grove Abbey until June 24, 2017.

 

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From and Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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A Doll’s House
by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 2, 2017

Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

A Doll’s House is a much-performed and studied classic of theatre by famed 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s been celebrated and criticized over the decades for its feminist message, and its central role has been played by many accomplished actresses. At Stray Dog Theatre, this play represents a revolution of sorts, as it brings this always good theatre company into a new level of excellence, especially where non-musical plays are concerned.

The story, set in a small town in Norway in 1879, follows pampered housewife Nora Helmer (Nicole Angeli), who lives a seemingly idyllic existence as the wife of respected local business man Torvald (Ben Ritchie), who has just accepted a prestigious job as manager of a local bank. Her husband dotes on her, calling her his “Songbird” and “Skylark” and treating her something like an overgrown child. Nora has her own children, too–two young sons (Joe Webb as Ivar, Simon Desilets as Bobby) and a baby daughter, cared for by Nora’s childhood nanny, Anne-Marie. Her house is well-appointed and her husband’s reputation is impeccable. He’s frequently visited by his old friend, the kind but sickly Dr. Rank (John N. Reidy), and revels in the prospect of his new job and the money and status it will give him and the family, including Nora, who seems to enjoy spending his money.  As simple and stereotypical as Nora may seem at first, however, we soon learn of secrets that she is hiding even from her husband. As old school friend Kristine Linde (Rachel Hanks) arrives, newly widowed and looking for a job, Nora reveals the truth about her past with Torvald, and exactly how she was able to afford a trip to Italy some years previous that proved lifesaving for him but put Nora into the debt of Nils Krogstad (Stephen Peirick), a disgraced and disgruntled employee of the bank who is at risk of losing his job when Torvald takes over, and who desperately doesn’t want that to happen. As events progress and more is revealed about Krogstad, Kristine, Dr. Rank, and especially Torvald, Nora is forced to examine the life she has led and her future with the man she’s married to but isn’t sure she knows as well as she had thought.

This play is masterfully constructed, and even though it was written over 100 years ago and is focused on a specific time and place, it still has resonance today in terms of the roles of men and women in marriage, societal expectations and personal agency. In a way, this play is something of a counterpoint to another Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler, depicting a woman’s plight amid the expectations of society but with somewhat different circumstances and drastically different conclusions. At Stray Dog, director Gary F. Bell has staged this work meticulously, emphasizing character relationships and pacing the show with just the right balance of urgency and patience, allowing the characters’ decisions and thought processes to convey believably and with resonance.  It all takes place on an exquisitely wrought birdcage-like set designed by Robert J. Lippert, with sumptuous, richly detailed costumes by Eileen Engel that evoke the era and style of period with excellence. These qualities are strongly supported as well by Tyler Duenow’s excellent lighting and Justin Been’s clear sound.  It’s a stunning technical production, augmenting the truly first-rate performances of the cast.

As Nora, Angeli excels. I’ve seen her in many plays over the years, and she continues to impress with her sheer ability to lose herself in a role. She inhabits Nora here with an impressive mixture of girlishness, shrewdness, vulnerability, and an underlying intelligence that shows itself more as the story plays out. She makes Nora’s journey 100% credible, and she shines in all her scenes, especially with Ritchie, also impressive as the controlling, self-absorbed but emotionally dependent Torvald. Also making strong impressions are Reidy as the earnest, kind but ultimately sad Dr. Rank, Hanks as the determined, honest Kristine, and Peirick as the oily, desperate Krogstad, whose villainy has a distinct reason. The whole supporting cast is strong, as well, with Melanie Kozak impressing as the all-seeing family maid Helene, and convincing performances from Renard as kindly nanny Anne-Marie and young Webb and Desilets as the Helmers’ sons. This is a strong script, and it demands a strong cast, which Stray Dog’s production emphatically provides.

Stray Dog Theatre is an excellent theatre company, and I’ve seen some wonderful shows there over the years, especially in the area of musical theatre. With this timely, transcendent production of A Doll’s House, though, this company has achieved a new level of excellence with a non-musical play. It’s a production that manages to celebrate Ibsen and shine a light on the plight of women in society in his time as well as now. This is a challenging work, and SDT has more than met that challenge. It’s a truly superb production.

John N. Reidy, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

John N. Reidy, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting A Doll’s House at the Tower Grove Abbey until February 18, 2017.

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Buyer & Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 1, 2016

Will Bonfiglio Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s fun when you can see a new production of a show you’ve seen before and feel like you’re seeing it for the very first time. I loved Buyer & Seller when I saw last year’s production by another local theatre company. This year, though, Stray Dog is presenting the quirky one-person show featuring the delightfully talented Will Bonfiglio, and it seems like a new experience. In fact, I think I like it even more this time.

The story is a crazy one–a fictionalized tale of out-of-work California actor Alex More (Bonfiglio), who is hired to work as the only employee in an old fashioned shopping mall in superstar Barbra Streisand’s basement. The house is real, as is the basement mall, and Streisand’s book, My Passion For Design, that describes and pictures the real house and mall. What’s not real, however, is the rest of the story, which springs from the vivid imagination of playwright Jonathan Tolins and serves as an excellent showcase for a talented actor with lots of energy, and the personable Bonfiglio is perfectly cast.  With seemingly boundless reserves of bouncy, bright and approachable verve, Bonfiglio makes an ideal central figure and story teller.  He takes us throught Alex’s journey with warmth and clarity, also ably portraying various other characters in Alex’s story, including Alex’s screenwriter boyfriend Barry, various Streisand associates and relatives, and of course, Barbra herself.  His portrayal, as Bonfiglio clearly outlines at the beginning of the play, is not a direct impression of Streisand, but it’s vividly effective, portraying an underlying toughness as well as vulnerability in the superstar.  Most of the time, though, Bonfiglio is Alex, and as he tells his story and acts it out, the sense of alternating wonder, suspense, surprise, awe, and disappointment is readily apparent. It’s a superb and extremely approachable performance.

The technical elements of this play also integrate seamlessly into the telling of Alex’s story. Scenic designer Rob Lippert has created a “blank canvas” type set, all in white, on which Bonfiglio can paint the portrait of his experience. Through excellent use of projections, Tyler Duenow’s colorful lighting, and sound designer Justin Been’s evocative sound effects, the humor and drama of the story is wonderfully augmented. Director Gary F. Bell also designed the costumes, outfitting Bonfiglio in a comfortable, versatile ensemble that suits his character well.

This play is an excellent showcase for Bonfiglio as well as an insightful portrayal of the plight of an actor who wants to work, as well as the perks and insecurities of being a world-famous superstar like Streisand. Although this is not a true story, there’s a lot of truth in it nonetheless. That truth is on vibrant, hilarious display currently in this remarkable production at Stray Dog Theatre.

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Will Bonfiglio Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Buyer & Cellar is being presented by Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 17, 2016.

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