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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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Tennessee Rising
Conceived, Written, and Performed by Jacob Storms
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
May 12, 2018

Jacob Storms
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival STL

This year’s Tennessee Williams festival is focusing the playwright’s time in New Orleans. From its headline production, A Streetcar Named Desire to various panel discussions and presentations, the festival is calling to mind Williams’ relationship with the city he loved, and particularly the French Quarter neighborhood, where Williams spent some important years that shaped his development as a playwright. One excellent highlight of the festival has been Jacob Storms’ one-man show Tennessee Rising, in which Storms portrays the playwright in a key era of his life.

Spanning the years from 1939 to 1945, the play follows Williams as moves from St. Louis to New Orleans and then travels around the country as his career begins to take off, as a playwright in New Orleans and New York, and also briefly as a screenwriter in Hollywood. The important people in his life, from his family relationships to his love affairs to his theatrical associations, are brought to life in Storms’ vivid portrayal of an affable, ambitious, and reflective Williams as he transitions from Tom Williams the aspiring writer to Tennessee Williams the successful playwright. It’s a fascinating tale, told essentially in the form of letters and reflective monologues, augmented by frequent lighting changes and blackouts that help to portray the passage of time. Storms is outfitted appropriately as a young Williams showing the development of his success, as in Act 1 he’s dressed more casual and in Act 2 he wears a dapper suit. It’s a well-structured play, with some interesting personal and professional anecdotes, with the stories of the productions of his plays being the most fascinating to my mind. It all leads up to the opening of his first hit play, The Glass Menagerie, and Storms takes the audience on a compelling journey in the process.

Unfortunately, this play isn’t running anymore, as it only ran for two days over the weekend. Storms has performed this work before in various venues, and perhaps he will perform it again elsewhere. It’s an excellent and fitting component of this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

 

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A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

May 10, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The 3rd annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has opened with a highly ambitious main stage production. With this year’s festival concentrating on the playwright’s years in New Orleans’ French Quarter, it makes perfect sense that their headline production is Williams’s much-lauded A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in that neighborhood in the late 1940s. Often considered Williams’s best play, Streetcar has been performed so many times at so many different levels over the past few decades, but this production is aiming to take a fresh approach, with some bold casting and directorial choices. It’s a stunning production not to be missed.

The well-known story follows the enigmatic Blanche DuBois (Sophia Brown), who arrives in the French Quarter from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella Kowalski (Lana Dvorak) and her husband Stanley (NIck Narcisi), who is immediately suspicious of Blanche, who has arrived suddenly and announced she’s taken a “leave of absence” from her job as a teacher. Through the course of the play, more is revealed about Blanche, as well as about the controlling Stanley. Blanche is haunted by her past in more ways than one, as well as being threatened by the present, and by Stanley’s forceful personality and mistreatment of the devoted Stella. Blanche’s role as an outsider is emphasized by the rest of the characters, and the neighborhood itself, which is essentially a character in the play. Stanley’s poker buddies Steve (Isaiah DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Jesse Munoz) help empasize the Stanley’s primal, impulsive behavior, and their neighbor (and Steve’s wife) Eunice (Amy Loui) is at turns helpful and suspicious. There’s also another poker buddy, Mitch (Spencer Sickmann) who is different–more gentle, senstive, polite, but also something of a follower to the more forceful Stanley. Mitch is also attracted to Blanche, and they begin a tentative relationship that provides both of them with some hope, for a time. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as well-known as it is, except to say that ultimately, this is a tragedy, told in Williams’ most poetic, lyrical style.  Everything–every character, every interaction, every moment of dialogue is important, and the brilliance of the script is highlighted here by the bold, incisive direction of this production.

Visually, this play is simply stunning, with the techical elements enhancing and augmenting the overall atmosphere and performances of the stellar cast. James Wolk’s detailed set essentially lives and breathes the French Quarter, with the emphasis being on windows and doors rather than walls. The world of the Kowalskis’ apartment and the world of the surrounding neighborhood are brought together through the use of this meticulous but open design. There’s also excellent, responsive lighting by Sean Savoie that not only helps set the mood, but changes in response to it. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are vividly detailed, with colors fitting the personalities of the characters and styles appropriate to the period and tone of the show. There’s also excellent use of sound by Amanda Werre and an evocative new score by Henry Palkes, bringing the French Quarter to life in an auditory sense to complement the visual.

The casting here is a little different in some roles than what has generally been done in other productions, with Blanche especially being cast younger than usual. This, according to the Festival’s press release, is to reflect Williams’ original stage directions and making Blanche around 30, which adds some irony to the frequent mentions of her age in the play. Casting younger works extremely well in this production, especially in the truly remarkable performance of Brown, who brings a mixture of hope and regret to the role, and a youthful energy as well as sense of gravity and gradual unraveling as the story progresses. It’s an outstanding performance, and the rest of the cast matches her, from Narcisi’s increasingly controlling, emotionally needy and ultimately brutal Stanley, to Dvorak’s adoring but increasingly wary Stella. Sickmann is especially effective as the conflicted Mitch, and his scenes and chemistry with Brown are especially compelling. There’s also strong supporting work from Loui, DiLorenzo, Munoz, and the rest of the strong, cohesive ensemble. Director Tim Ocel has staged this play emphasizing the relationships and sense of immediacy, and the result is profoundly effecting.

There’s only one weekend left to see this play. It’s a production I had been looking forward to for a while and it’s more than lived up to the hype. William’s briliantly scripted, poetic and emotionally volatile play has been brought to the stage in a dynamic, bold, youthful production that brings its character and setting to life with rich, visceral detail. The production closes Saturday. Don’t miss it. You have to catch this Streetcar.

Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival STL is presenting A Streetcar Named Desire at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2018

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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2017
“The Magic of the Other”

Part 1

The Tennessee Williams Festival has returned for its second year here in St. Louis, this year themed around “The Magic of the Other”, highlighting the legendary playwright’s focus on people outcast from society in various ways. Alienation, loneliness, and the longing for meaningful human connection–no matter how fleeting that may be–are major themes of Williams’s work, and each of the productions I saw this year touched on those topics in one way or another.  From a humorous flight of fancy cabaret performance, to a dramatization of Williams’s own family relationships throughout his lifetime, this year’s festival, now concentrated solely in the Grand Center theatre district, brought to poignant life many memorable characters and their situations.

This is the first of two articles on the festival. In this one, I’ll talk about most of what I saw last weekend. In the second, I’ll highlight the two shows that are still running, and that St. Louis theatregoers still have a chance to check out. Now, on to the festival:

“Bertha In Paradise”

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3, 2017

Anita Jackson
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Bertha lives! And she sings!

This is the premise of the festival’s cabaret performance by  St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee Anita Jackson, whose heartbreaking performance in the short play “Hello From Bertha” as part of The St. Louis Rooming House Plays was a highlight of last year’s festival. This year, the whole three-woman cast of that show was back on stage to start off this year’s festival, and the undisputed center of attention is Jackson’s bawdy, energetic, witty, and expertly sung performance as a newly energized Bertha.

Last time we saw Bertha, she was on her deathbed in the brothel where she worked, being tended to by her friend and colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger) and her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting). This year, in an inventively crafted cabaret performance, Goldie plays host and lets us know that, contrary to what last year’s play may have suggested, Bertha didn’t die, and now she’s back with all her style, verve, and attitude to sing a collection of jazz and blues songs and engage in a blatant flirtation with her stagehand (Joel King), and to occasionally sneak off behind the curtain with him. There was also a special appearance by Wininger, whose pregnancy has been cleverly written into her character’s story. “Remember,” Goldie reminds the audience. “It’s been a year.”  Wininger spent most of the performance seated on one side of the stage, knitting baby clothes and reacting to performances, as both Bertha and Goldie sang songs and engaged in something of a battle for the attentions of the stagehand.  Jackson was the obvious star, showing off her impressive comic skills on raunchy, innuendo-laden songs like “My Handy Man” and “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It”; and her astounding emotional and vocal range on classics like “The Very Thought Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and the poignant “Paradise”. Weinsting also sang well, getting laughs with the hilarious “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage”, and dueting with Jackson on “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues”. Jackson, Weinsting, Wininger, and King all joined together at the end of the performance to lead the audience in singing the old standard “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. It was a fun evening, and a great way to start off the festival.

“St. Louis Stories”

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The .Zack

May 6, 2017

Staged by a group of theatre students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “St. Louis Stories” was a dramatization of several short stories and poems that Williams wrote before gaining notoriety as a playwright. Set in and around St. Louis, these stories also reflect his recurring themes of loneliness and alienation. The stories included “An Afternoon Off For Death”, in which an overworked shoe factory employee reflects on making the most of his opportunity to take an afternoon off on the occasion of his supervisor’s death. There’s also “Useless”, in which a middle-aged married woman imagines herself ill so that she can be visited by a handsome young doctor, to the annoyance of her husband. The others range from the bleak tale of two poets “Pack of Cigarettes”, the wistful, sad, and occasionally bitter “Ate Toadstools, But Didn’t Quite Die”, about a lonely single woman who is haunted by memories of a violent man from her past; to the more upbeat “The Age of Retirement”, which follows a 70-year-old retired clergyman’s moving to St. Louis to start a new life. There’s also a group reading of the poem “Middle West” in which the cast members read lines from papers that they then threw down onto the stage or into the audience. It was a fascinating collection of stories, giving insight into life in St. Louis during Williams’s time here, and also into Williams’ own growth as a developing writer. This production featured  strong performances from its entire ensemble–Joi Hoffsommer, J.W. Morriseette, Ann Marie Morrissette, Yvon Streacker, sara Freedland, and Kyle A. Thomas.

 Deseo

by Raquel Carrió

Directed by Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten

The Marcelle Theatre

May 5, 2017

Deseo (“Desire) is an ambitious, inventively staged Spanish-language adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that adapts the characters and situations to reflect Cuban-American culture. It’s a minimalist staging, with very little in the way of set, and the mood is set mostly by way of Richard Rodgríguez’s fantastic lighting design, and Hector Aguero Lauten’s evocative music.  The story is essentially the same as Streetcar, but with the plots pared down to the essential elements to highlight the emotion and relationships, and a few elements have been changed to reflect the updated characters. For instance, Santiago (Carlos Caballero) and his best friend Miguel (Jorge Luis Álvarez) play pool here instead of poker like their Streetcar counterparts, Stanley and Mitch. There are stunning performances from Ana Sobero and Lilliam Vega as sisters Estrella and Blanca, and both have excellent, volatile chemistry with Caballero’s possessive, confrontational Santiago. There are some excellent, poignant moments between Vega and Álvarez as well, and Ivanesa Cabrera also turns in a strong performance and Estrella and Santiago’s neighbor and building owner, Vecina.

The staging here is particularly dynamic and intimate. The lack of a set and emphasis on movement highlights the extreme emotion of this piece. Although sometimes it was a little difficult following the action and having to constantly look at the translations projected on the side wall at the Marcelle Theatre, this didn’t really detract from the performance. This was an excellent production, bringing all the intensity of Streetcar to a new setting and language.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Magic of the Other”

Curtain Call Lounge

April 7, 2017

This was the official closing night of the festival, even though there was still one more show to debut, and two productions carrying on after it closed. Before the Closing Night party at the Curtain Call Lounge, though, several notable St. Louis performers gathered to read  selections from Williams’s works and sing songs from the middle years of the 20th Century. There was even an aria from Andre Previn and Philip Littell’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, with soprano Deanna Breiwick giving an expressive performance as Stella. The evening’s highlights also included a reading by Jeremy Lawrence from Williams’s “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”,  a song-and-dance duet by father and daughter Lara and Elizabeth Teeter on “Paper Moon”, Michael James Reed reading from Williams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and to close out the evening, the outstanding Anita Jackson returning to sing “Paradise” once again.

Ensemble 2.0 

Directed by Richard Chapman

The .Zack

April 8, 2017

This show, produced by Francesca Williams and featuring a small ensemble of talented performers, told the story of Tennessee Williams and his family by way of letters they wrote to one another throughout their lives. Here, Williams’s longtime agent Audrey Wood (Kari Ely) narrated the story starting with Williams’s parents, focusing on his mother Edwina (Angelica Page), and her relationship with her three children–Rose (Bridgette Bassa), Tom (Paul Cereghino), and Dakin (Ben Watts), as they grow up in St. Louis and then live out the rest of their lives, as Tom becomes the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, and as his family relationships and interactions influence his own life and work.

This is a fairly straightforwardly staged production with minimal set–in fact, it’s performed on the set of Small Craft Warnings–and with original music by Tor Hyams and Lisa Rothauser that helps set the mood. The performances are engaging, and I found myself invested in the story even though it was essentially a staged reading. Overall, this was a fascinating look at Williams’s life and his relationships with the various members of his family.

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The first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis took place last week in various locations in Grand Center and the Central West End. A celebration of the great American playwright who spent a significant part of his formative years in St. Louis, the festival was an impressive effort spearheaded by Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk. Over several days, various performances, lectures, presentations and more were held, including an outdoor screening of the film A Streetcar Named Desire, a “Stella!” shouting contest, a bus tour of important Williams-related sites, and several informative lectures and readings.

Among the events I attended were a fascinating “Tennessee Williams 101” presentation by Augustin Correro, and a panel discussion comparing two plays that were both performed in conjuction with the festival, The Two-Character Play and The Glass Menagerie.  There was also an excellent tribute reading presentation, “Tennessee Williams: I Didn’t Go To the Moon, I Went Much Further” in which several local and national performers took turns reading from Williams’s plays and other writings, as well as singing songs written by him and his colleagues. The highlights of this evening for me were the essays, including one about actresses Williams worked with, read by Jeremy Lawrence, as well as one about Williams’ father read by Lisa Tejero, and one about his involvement with the Mummers theatre troupe in St. Louis in the 1930’s, read by Ken Page. Williams’ St. Louis years in the 1930’s seemed to be the major inspiration for most of the theatrical productions I saw, as well, including the previously reviewed The Glass Menagerie and two of the three shows I saw last week. Here are some short reviews:

The Two-Character Play (May 12)

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Ride Hamilton The Midnight Company

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Ride Hamilton
The Midnight Company

Presented by the Midnight Company and directed by Sarah Witney, The Two-Character Play stars local performers Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand as a brother and sister acting team whose personal relationship informs the play they perform. This production is given an extra degree of authenticity since it was performed at the Mummers Theatre, inside the Learning Center building (formerly the Wednesday Club) in the Central West End. This theatre hasn’t been renovated in years, and so it retains its atmosphere as an old, historic theatre. That works well for this play as the two leads find themselves abandoned by their company on the eve of a touring performance, stranded in this old theatre and deciding to try to make the most of their performance.

There’s a decidedly mysterious air to this play, as we’re not entirely sure what’s real and what isn’t, and the “play within a play” seems to reflect a great deal of the characters’ own relationship and background. In fact, the actors are called Felice (Hanrahan) and Clare (Hand), but so are the characters they play. The brother-sister dynamic also seems to be informed by Williams’ relationship with his own sister, which formed the inspiration for several of his works.

Hanrahan and Hand are well-cast, imbuing the flawed, bickering siblings with an underlying sense of connection and care. As the situation grows more and more unusual, and as Hand’s Clare begins to take charge and change the play as it goes along, the sense of a nebulous but inevitable conclusion builds, as does the odd sense of tension and affection between the characters. It’s a fascinating performance, played out on a vaguely cluttered set that contributes to the overall atmosphere of building chaos.

The Two-Character Play will continue its performances at Winter Opera St. Louis on The Hill on May 27 and 28, and June 3 and 4. I highly recommend checking it out.

A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot (May 13) 

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyler, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Peter Wochniak

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyle, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Peter Wochniak

The new Curtain Call Lounge was the perfect setting for this short comedy, directed by Brian Hohlfeld, that gives us a glimpse into the life of two contentious traveling friends, Bessie (Kelley Anderson Weber) and Flora (Rachel Tibbetts) who have stopped in for a few drinks while in St. Louis for a convention. As they bicker and reminisce of days gone by, a singer (Landon Tate Boyle) serenades them and the audience with tunes from the era, and a nice waiter (Bob Harvey) brings drinks and joins in their banter.

This show was the first of two “time trip” performances I attended on the same night, and the setting really helped set the mood. The Curtain Call Lounge was set up as usual, with Bessie and Flora seated at one of the tall tables and Boyle singing on the stage. It was like being transported to 1930’s St. Louis with the audience as the “fly on the wall” witnessing the conversation, as Tibbetts’s more emotional Flora and Weber’s outwardly tougher Bessie express their loneliness and regret in various ways, along with the continuing hope of just being able to have a good time. They snark, they bicker, they laugh, and sometimes they even dance. Both actresses give excellent, well-realized performances, with Boyle in great voice as the suave singer and Anderson engaging as the waiter. It’s an alternately hilarious and poignant performance, set in the absolutely perfect venue.

The St. Louis Rooming House Plays (May 13)

roominghouse1

Peter Mayer, Photo by Ride Hamilton

Speaking of perfect venues and time trips, this fully immersive production at the historic Stockton House was perhaps the most extraordinarily unique theatrical presentation I’ve witnessed. Directed by David Kaplan with Brian Hohlfeld, this was a collection of plays written by Williams about various characters in a rooming house setting, and so the audience is taken on a tour, traveling from room to room and witnessing the action as well as stopping in the parlour at various moments for live musical performances of atmospheric songs of the period, with various cast members singing and musical director Henry Palkes on piano. It was all wondrously evocative, with a melancholy air as the characters we met expressed varying degrees of longing and regret.

Broken up into four groups based on the colors of the tags of the room keys they are given, the audience members start out in the parlor and are ushered in different orders to various rooms throughout the house. I was in the “gold key” group, and I’ll be reviewing the plays in the order I saw them. First, my group was taken upstairs for “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches”. We sat around the room as aging shoe salesman Charlie (Peter Mayer) lamented the passing of his era of sales, complaining to the somehwat brash younger salesman Bob Harper (Jared Sanz-Agero) about how much has changed. The overall air of sadness in this room was emphasized by B. Morgan Thomas as the Porter who only “spoke” by playing his saxophone with a bittersweet tone. Mayer’s performance was especially memorable, painting a vivid portrait of this career salesman who had lived his life on the road and whose best years were behind him. His collection of watches–awards for his work in previous years–served as a testimony to the glory years gone by.

From there, we were taken downstairs for “In Our Profession”, a short play about a needy, lonely actress (Julie Layton) and the two men (Ben Nordstrom, Christian Chambers) to whom she quickly grows attached. This, while still having that undertone of loneliness, was played more for laughs, with strong, believable performances from all three leads. After this, it was back to the parlor for some more singing, then for a brief interlude in the foyer as residents carried on a conversation on the stairs, then back upstairs for the heartbreaking “Hello From Bertha”, featuring Anita Jackson in an extraordinary performance in the title role. Bertha is bedridden in the brothel in which she has worked, supported by sympathetic colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger), and ranting to her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting) about her own regrets, and a lost love from her past. It’s obvious to everyone but Bertha that she is dying, and it’s devastating to watch. It’s a brilliant performance, with excellent support from Wininger and Weinsting.

Next, our group was led down the hall to another room, “The Pink Bedroom”, in which a young woman (Julia Crump) waits for the married man (Eric Dean White) with whom she has been carrying on an extended affair. This play has something of a surprise twist that changes the tone at the very end, although for the most part it’s again about loneliness and regret, as Crump’s character wishes for more appreciation from White, who has come to treat this relationship as more of a routine over the years. There’s no joy here. It’s all loss, jealousy, and regret, with strong performances by both Crump as the somewhat petulant mistress and White as the apathetic man.

After this play, we were then ushered down the steps–after another brief interlude witnessing a rooming house interaction–to finally wait in the foyer for the cast to descend the staircase for another soaring, wistful musical performance and “curtain call”. It was all so well-done that I truly felt for a few moments as if I had been transported to 1930’s St. Louis. The costumes (by Bonnie Krueger), the staging, and the room sets (designed by David Richardson) all lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings, and the sense of longing and regret permeated the entire evening. This was such an incredible experience, and I hope there will be a way for this to be staged again, either in this venue or elsewhere.

Overall, I would say that the first edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was successful and extremely promising. It was a fitting celebration of Williams’s life and work, showcasing some truly excellent creative and dramatic talent.  Long may this festival continue!

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