Posts Tagged ‘tesseract theatre company’

Welcome to Arroyo’s
by Kristoffer Diaz
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
April 29, 2023

Victor Mendez
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

Welcome to Arroyo’s! That’s the name of Tesseract Theatre Company’s latest show, currently being staged at the .ZACK Theatre. Production-wise, it’s vibrant and fun, with an energetic cast. The play itself can be frustrating in its structure at times, but for the most part it’s an intriguing journey into the world of a small New York City bar, its staff and would-be regulars, with a lively, mostly hip-hop soundtrack.

The story, narrated alternatingly by aspiring rap duo Nelson (Kevin Corpuz) and Trip (Jacob Schmidt), and by earnest grad student Lelly (Hannah de Oliveira), follows three main threads, as Alejandro (Victor Mendez) strives to turn his mother’s former bodega into a thriving bar; Alejandro’s younger sister Molly (Remi Mark), a graffiti artist, looks to establish a name for herself despite run-ins with the police, including Officer Derek (Marshall Jennings), with whom she develops a reluctant attraction; and Lelly’s quest to discover the identity of an influential figure in the early hip-hop scene, about whom she’s writing a thesis. These stories all intersect at various points, with the bar as the central locale, but really, it’s a story about hopes, dreams, personal history, family connections, and the role of a community in the lives of its residents, and vice versa.

It’s a compelling story, for the most part, with memorable characters, a good dose of humor, and excellent use of music. Still, the structure can be a little difficult to follow at times, as each plot keeps putting off key revelations in ways that seem more designed to frustrate the audience than to really drive the story. At Tesseract, the story is well-played, though, with the characters and memorable performances bringing energy to the overall presentation, along with vibrant production values.

The production manager is Sarah Baucom, but there’s no credit given to the set designer or projection designer, although the simple but effective set and memorable projections provide much of the overall atmosphere. Also contributing to the mood are Tony Anselmo’s eye-catching lighting and Jaz Tucker’s excellent sound design. The hip-hop soundtrack and use of other music adds much to the overall energy of the show.

As for the cast, the standouts here are Corpuz and Schmidt, who are both hilarious and personable as the aspiring hip-hop artists who work at the bar. Much of the play’s energy and humor comes from these two, and they energize all the scenes they are in. Mark and Jennings are also strong as the rebellious Molly and somewhat weary but well-meaning cop Derek, who has his own identity issues to deal with concerning sharing his name with a celebrity. Mendez also puts in a solid performance as Alejandro, making the most of a part that isn’t given much to do beyond being alternately sad and determined; and de Oliveira is fine as Lelly, although she could use more energy in some moments. Overall, it’s a cohesive cast that makes the most of this show’s oddly organized script.

While the script is not without its flaws, Welcome to Arroyo’s is a compelling story with good characters and lots of humor and heart. It’s a show about relationships between people, as well as between artists and their art, and individuals and the communities in which they live.  At Tesseract, it’s an entertaining and thoughtful production.

Remi Mark, Marshall Jennings
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Welcome to Arroyo’s at the .ZACK Theatre until May 7, 2023

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The Last Five Years
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
February 19, 2023

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre company is staging its second musical, Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical two-hander The Last Five Years, at the .ZACK Theatre. It’s a mostly sung-through show that’s known as a showcase for excellent singers, and director Taylor Gruenloh has chosen the leads well, in prolific local performers who have the voices, the presence, and the chemistry to carry this emotional roller-coaster of a show. There are also some inventive directorial choices that add to the drama and characterizations. 

Some of the drama of this show is provided by its structure, as its tale of a failed relationship is told in two directions at once. Cathy, an aspiring musical theatre performer played by Grace Langford, starts at the end of the relationship and progresses backwards. Jamie, a successful young novelist played by Kevin Corpuz, begins at the beginning, shortly after he and Cathy have met, and moves forward in the story. Their narratives catch up in the middle, at their wedding, and then move further apart.  

It’s an intriguing structure, and in most productions–like the last one I saw, twelve years ago–Jamie and Cathy spend most of their moments apart from one another, trading songs and stories but only interacting in the middle, when their narratives meet. Here, director Gruenloh has staged it differently, so both characters are frequently onstage together, as Jamie will be there reacting to Cathy’s songs, and Cathy reacts to Jamie’s. They are able to respond to one another more directly, which adds to the drama and adds a degree of depth to the relationship. I still find myself sympathizing with Cathy more, as Jamie often comes across as an a self-centered jerk, although this production seems to bring out Jamie’s charm a little more, especially in the first half of the show, and we also get to see more nuance in Cathy’s perspective. 

The casting is excellent. I already knew Langford and Corpuz had great voices and strong acting skills from seeing them in a variety of previous productions. Here, it’s just the two of them together, and they are matched well, with strong chemistry and excellent voices. Jason Robert Brown’s music is memorable and challenging, and both of these two performers rise to the challenge. Josie Schnelten is also strong in a brief, wordless appearance later in the show. 

The staging is fairly simple in terms of set, since the action takes place on a mostly empty stage, with evocative lighting by Gruenloh and Brittanie Gunn, along with projections by Gruenloh that help the audience keep track of what year it is in each scene. Both performers are simply dressed, as well, with Langford in red and Corpuz in black and grey. The band, led by music director Leah Schultz, is onstage above and behind the actors, and they sound great, although the acoustics of the venue make it so the band can sometimes drown out the performers as they sing, making it difficult to understand the lyrics at times.

For the most part, though, this is a highly effective, moving production that benefits greatly from the inventive direction and the dynamic performances of the two leads. The Last Five Years runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, and there are no dull moments here. It’s another impressive musical production from Tesseract. 

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Last Five Years at the .ZACK Theatre until February 26, 2023

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Ordinary Days
by Adam Gwon
Directed by Elisabeth Wurm
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 18, 2022

Jacob Schmidt, Lauren Tenenbaum
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Ordinary Days isn’t a big musical, but its staging is a big step for Tesseract Theatre Company. The show, a sweet-natured relationship story from writer/composer Adam Gwon, is Tesseract’s first venture into the world of musical theatre, after focusing primarily on new and lesser-known plays. As a first foray into a new creative direction, with more musicals planned for next year, I would say this production gets the company off to a promising new start.

The show revolves around four characters–or five, since New York City itself is essentially a co-star in this story. Four young New Yorkers navigate the city, relationships both romantic and platonic, and their life goals in the first decade of the 21st Century. The play is tied to its time for at least one important reason that is made apparent as the story unfolds, but it’s also just as tied to its location, with New York City representing both ordinary day-to-day life struggles as well as the “Big Picture” goals as emphasized in one of the show’s more prominent songs. The characters interact primarily in pairs. There’s Micheal Lowe as Jason, a hopeful young man who has optimistic dreams for his relationship with his girlfriend Claire, played by Brittani O’Connell. The two are embarking on a new stage of their relationship, having just moved in together, but Claire struggles with making a lasting commitment due to issues from her past that she hasn’t revealed to Jason. Meanwhile, ambitious graduate student Deb, played by Lauren Tenenbaum, is frustrated when she misplaces her notebook containing her thesis, and is thrust into a halting friendship with the ever-cheerful Warren, a would-be artist played by Jacob Schmidt. Deb first views Warren, who finds her notebook, with suspicion, but their interactions eventually help her to see beauty in the “little picture” of everyday life in addition to the bigger picture of the lofty goals she pursues. There’s nothing flashy about this story, but it’s simple and full of heart, humor, and moments of poignant drama, focusing on the characters and their relationships as they live their lives in the Big Apple.

The staging is simple but effective, with a deliberate pace dictated mainly by the songs, as the show is mostly sung-through. Even though the odd acoustics of the .ZACK Theatre sometimes make the show difficult to hear, Director Elisabeth Wurm has assembled a strong cast, with excellent ensemble chemistry and credible interaction between the pairs of performers. Lowe is an amiable, believably optimistic Jason, with a strong voice although he tends to sound a bit shouty in some of the more intense moments. He’s well-matched by O’Connell, who is appropriately mysterious as the reticent Claire, and also in good voice except for a few occasional cracks. The best singer in the production is Schmidt, who has a strong tenor voice that works well with his songs and his sometimes overly cheerful character, who Schmidt infuses with an affable spirit that makes him likable even when his cheeriness threatens to go over the top. Tenenbaum also turns in a strong performance as the ambitious, anxious Deb, delivering her songs with energy and conviction, and working especially well with Schmidt as their characters’ unlikely friendship grows. The show also looks good, with the simple staging augmented by Taylor Gruenloh’s memorable projections, Brittanie Gunn’s evocative lighting, and Zach Neumann’s proficient piano accompaniment. 

Pivoting their focus to (mostly) musicals is a bold decision for Tesseract, but Ordinary Days shows that it’s a good call. This show also had the biggest audience I’ve ever seen at a production from this company, so theatregoers seem to like the decision, as well. It’s an auspicious beginning for Tesseract’s next act, represented by a little show with a big heart and a strong cast. 

Micheal Lowe, Brittani O’Connell
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Ordinary Days at the .ZACK Theatre until November 27, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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All That Remains
by JM Chambers
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 23, 2022

Nyx Kaine, Sherard E. Curry, Victor Mendez
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

The second, and final, play in the Tesseract Theatre Company’s 2022 Summer New Play series is an in-depth look at the impact a great tragedy has on individual survivors, on relationships, and on an entire community. All That Remains deals with its heavy subject matter in a credible way, and the production features some excellent performances by its strong cast. It’s a well-structured play, for the most part, focusing on the direct human impact of a public tragedy, and it’s a fascinating, ultimately emotionally moving production.

This play doesn’t take any time to get to the drama. In fact, it starts in the middle of a loud, emotional argument between married couple Gary (Sherard E. Curry) and Elaine (Melody Quinn). Both are distraught for different reasons related to the same event–Gary is refusing to leave the house or do much of anything as he is still dealing with immense grief and trauma following a mass shooting at the high school where he was a teacher. Elaine is upset because she’s at the end of her rope, not knowing how to help Gary and still dealing with her own grief over both the shooting and another personal tragedy a few months before the shooting. She’s trying to encourage Gary to get out and try to move on, hanging out with friends Maggie (Morgan Maul-Smith) and Dylan (Luis Aguilar), but the one attempted get-together doesn’t go well. Gary, for his part, knows on one level that he needs to do something, but is still too overwhelmed, as he continually deals with flashbacks to the shooting and still hears the voices of victims he was close to–his best friend and fellow teacher Melody (Nyx Kaine) and Alejandro (Victor Mendez), one of his students. The emotions and issues continue to spiral out of control, until Elaine feels forced to take a drastic action to help Gary, which at first only appears to make things worse. Elaine, for her part, is also a sounding board for Maggie, who has lost one of her twin sons in the shooting and is dealing with how to help the surviving son. Much of the focus is on Gary, who has a huge struggle ahead of him, and Dylan proves to be a surprising resource of help in that regard. It’s a long, slow road as Gary and Elaine try to work their way back toward one another, but are there feelings and efforts enough? And what of the rest of the community that has been devastated by this tragedy?  

This is a story that pulls no punches in its depiction of deep grief and trauma resulting from tragedy. Emotions are laid bare, and there are many sensitive issues dealt with–such as violence, mass shootings, mental illness, the loss of loved ones, stillbirth, and more. It’s an intense show, but it’s well structured for the most part. There are some somewhat confusing timeline issues at times, but mostly, this is a compelling story centered on the various effects that a mass shooting can have on individuals, families, friendships, and whole communities.  The focus here is highly personal, with little to no mention of the political debates that often surround these tragic events. This is about Gary, and Elaine, their circle of friends, and their small Nebraska town, dealing with an overwhelming event that none of them had expected. It shows how they try, fail, and hopefully eventually succeed in picking up the shattered pieces of what had been and making a way in life. 

The direction and performances are excellent, as the build-up, tension, and road to recovery are shown with all the messiness and difficulty of grief, but also with an ever growing sense of hope in the midst of the struggle. As Gary, Curry gives a credible, emotionally resonant performance, as does Quinn as Elaine. Even throughout their intense struggles, they portray a couple that one wants to succeed. Aguilar and Maul-Smith are also convincing in support as Dylan and Maggie, who each have their own struggles to relate. Kaine and Mendez are also especially memorable as Melody and Alejandro, whose appearances seem to mark different levels of Gary’s struggle. It’s an especially cohesive ensemble, and the writing is also sufficient in that even with such a small cast, the overall sense of community and collective grief process of a whole town is clearly evident.

The production values are simple but effective, with a basic set by director Brittanie Gunn that forms an appropriate background for the action, and excellent lighting by Kevin Bowman that emphasizes the stark simplicity of the setting and centers on the performances. All That Remains may be intense, but it also has an undercurrent of persistent, even stubborn striving for hope. It’s another promising new play from Tesseract.

Melody Quinn, Morgan Maul-Smith
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting All That Remains at the Marcelle Theatre until July 31, 2022

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The Length of a Pop Song
by Taylor Gruenloh
Directed by Karen Pierce
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 9, 2022

Donna Parrone, Rhiannon Skye Creighton
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company


The Tesseract Theatre Company is opening its 2022 Summer New Play Series with an emotional work by the company’s Artistic Director, Taylor Gruenloh. The Length of a Pop Song is a somewhat heavy play, featuring some particularly frank discussions of difficult topics. It’s not without hope, however, portraying one young woman’s struggle with her own difficult life and how to deal with the way she has been treated by others. It focuses on three important relationships in her life–two with people, and one with pop music. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, well-acted piece, although there are some structural issues. 

The Length of a Pop Song isn’t very long, actually. It runs about 95 minutes with no intermission, but a lot happens in those 95 minutes. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, with a “present day” story intersecting with flashbacks and some sequences that seem to be set in the mind of the central character, Lex (Rhiannon Skye Creighton). Lex was once an aspiring songwriter with big ideas about how pop music speaks into her own life and the lives of others, but she seems to have given up on writing lately, as well as on life itself.  She has had a hard life, with a devout Catholic mother, Anna (Donna Parrone), who has been somewhat emotionally distant and who Lex perceives as judgmental, and a philandering father who doesn’t seem to care much about his own family. The story begins as Lex comes home after being away for a long time, after a life of drug addiction, self-harm, and being mistreated, abused, and assaulted by various men. When a video of her being assaulted is put up online, she becomes involved in a court case against the perpetrators, but isn’t sure she wants to continue participating. Anna is trying to connect with her daughter, owning up to her mistakes as a mother, while Lex continues to lash out and push her away. All the while, childhood best friend Oliver (Kelvin Urday) is there as something of a sounding board/moral compass/conscience figure, although it’s not always clear when he’s actually there or when he’s only in Lex’s imagination. Also, the music and lyrics keep coming back as a recurring theme, until ultimately Lex has to decide what to do about her own life, as well as her relationships and her music.

For the most part, this is a fascinating play, with well-drawn characters and especially strong performances, led by Creighton in a dynamic, emotionally volatile portrayal of Lex. Through her performance, we get to see the the full range of her character–from the pain, cynicism, and self-hatred to the sense of idealism and hope that once was there and could still be there. Her relationships with Urday as Oliver and especially Parrone as Anna are credible and compelling. Parrone is also strong as Anna, a woman who obviously loves her daughter, and is struggling greatly to understand her and, especially, to help her. Urday is also excellent as the encouraging Oliver, who tries to see the best in Lex even when she can’t see it herself. The acting and pacing are excellent here, as is Creighton’s singing in her performance of the original song “Again” by Gruenloh, Gracie Sartin, and Teddy Luecke. There are also simple but effective production values–a good basic set by Brittanie Gunn, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Bowman, and strong sound design by Gruenloh. 

It’s a promising play, but does have its confusing moments, as the blend of present-day story, flashback, and conscience/imagination can be hard to follow at times, and there are several moments where I wish Anna was given a little more to say in response to some of Lex’s accusations. Still, it’s a thoughtful, highly emotional drama, with a strong cast and simple but effective staging. There is some sensitive subject matter-including drug use, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide, and there is a general warning posted in the theatre. Ultimately, though, this is a play that doesn’t leave the audience with despair, and although the relationship struggles can be difficult, there is obvious care and love on display.  The Length of A Pop Song is a promising new play, well worth seeing.

Kelvin Urday, Rhiannon Skye Creighton, Donna Parrone
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Length of a Pop Song at the Marcelle Theatre until July 17, 2022

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Mama’s Boy
by Rob Urbanati
Directed by Brad Schwartz
The Tesseract Theatre Company
September 22, 2018

Tesseract Theatre Company is one theatre company I’ve seen that has seemed to figure out how to make the best use of the performance space at the .Zack Theatre. The space is known for difficult sight lines and a high stage, but in both productions I’ve seen from Tesseract at this venue, the space has been used to excellent effect and minimized its more challenging issues in terms of staging. Their latest production is a well-cast production that presents a few challenges of its own, mostly from a storytelling standpoint, althought it’s definitely a compelling story. The show is Mama’s Boy, a by Rob Urbanati, and the focus is on an infamous figure in American history and his family.

The central figures in Mama’s Boy are Lee Harvey Oswald (Brandon Atkins) and his mother, Marguerite (Donna Parrone). It’s largely told from Marguerite’s perpective, and told in flashback as she tries to challenge public perceptions of her son in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby. It’s an exploration of the relationship between Oswald and his mother, as well as with his Russian-born wife Marina (Carly Uding) and his older brother Robert (Jeremy Goldmeier), recounting events between the time Oswald returned to the United States after defecting to the Soviet Union, and the JFK assassination and its aftermath. Now, there are a lot of theories about what exactly happened and what Oswald’s role was in those events, but this play focuses Marguerite’s view, and her complex and sometimes controlling relationship with her sons, and particularly Lee. It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking story for the most part, especially in terms of relationship dynamics, but there are also some elements that don’t seem necessary and only serve to add confusion to what wants to be–and is, for the most part–a tense, character-focused drama. Those elements involve characters that are referred to in the program as “Shadows” (Lydia Aiken, Kathryn Kent, Alexa Moore, Melody Quinn), who wear masks and hover around at various times throughout the play, sometimes serving a functional role by playing various minor characters as needed, and sometimes adding a mysterious air to the proceedings, but at other times they just seem to be wandering around for no specific reason. Sometimes, they can be confusing, especially in one key Act 2 scene in which Lee goes through a series of unexplained motions with one of the “Shadows” in the foreground while the rest of the characters are having a tense conversation. Although there are moments when the “Shadows” did add to the drama, most of the time they just seemed superflous and distracting.

The set, designed by Brittanie Gunn, makes excellent use of the .Zack performance space. It’s a simple stage setup with furniture that can be moved around as needed. The costumes by Amanda Brasher help to set the time and place well, and the lighting, designed by Kevin Bowman, is effective for the most part, although there are a few moments when it’s difficult to see what’s going on. Staging-wise, the show is well-paced, especially in the interactions between the main cast members.

The casting is excellent, and the relationships are well-defined. Parrone’s Marguerite is a looming, controlling presence, effectively dominating the action as fits the character. Her scenes with Atkins as the enigmatic Lee and Goldmeier as the neglected (by her) but responsible Robert are excellent. Uding, as Marina, also gives a strong, affecting performance as a woman who is increasingly confused and bewildered by her husband’s actions, and increasingly wearying of her mother-in-law. The relationships here are the heart of the play, lending emotional drama to the events as they unfold.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Oswald beyond the basic facts before seeing this play, and it works well in an educational capacity to one degree. Front and center, though, are the relationships. Apart from a few confusing moments (mostly involving the “Shadows”), this is a gripping, well-portrayed story that provides a different, closer and more intimate look at lesser known figures involved in a major moment in history.

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Mama’s Boy at the .Zack Theatre until September 30, 2018


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by Kevin D. Ferguson
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 15, 2014

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company’s latest production, Orders by Kevin D. Ferguson, explores issues of faith, love, and duty. It’s an intriguing play with a fascinating premise along with timely and thought-provoking situations. Tesseract’s production is technically proficient in its simple staging, although uneven casting makes the story somewhat difficult to completely believe.

Orders provides much to think about as young lovers Maggie (Brenna Whitehurst) and Troy (David Smithson) deal with their own personal issues of faith and duty. Maggie is a devout Catholic, dutifully saying her prayers and attending confession, and trying to reconcile her devotion with Troy’s general apathy about the subject, as well as his inability to hold a job.  When Troy suddenly joins the Marines and Maggie is confronted with an unusual experience that leads her to believe she’s being called to become a nun, their relationship becomes even more complicated. Maggie also has a challenging relationship with her best friend Adam (Jarris Williams), a fun-loving guy who is seriously considering his commitment to his devoted Marine boyfriend Joe (Maalik Shakour), who is currently deployed in Afghanistan and is shown reciting letters to Adam, Maggie and Troy.  Maggie’s frequent trips to the confessional reveal her conflicted thoughts about her own religious beliefs and her desire to serve God on the one hand, and her concerns with certain teachings of the Catholic church–such as its teachings about same-sex relationships such as Adam’s and Joe’s–on the other.

This is a very fascinating play in terms of script. A lot of concepts are brought together and enacted in intriguing ways, with well-defined and relatable characters.  The ending is perhaps too simplistic, although I wonder if the problem there is really with the script, or with the cast.  The uneven performances sometimes make the play difficult to follow, especially in the critical scenes of Maggie’s devotional life.  Whitehurst has some good moments, usually in her scenes with the excellent Williams and Smithson, although perhaps the most central aspect of her character–her devout Catholic faith–is difficult to believe, as Whitehurst recites the prayers and confessions with very little sense of conviction. These scenes, which should be crucial to understanding Maggie’s dilemma, only add more confusion because of the lackluster an unenthusiastic line delivery. Smithson as Troy is in a similar situation, although his initially subdued performance does gain some energy in later scenes as he talks about his devotion to both Maggie and the Marines.  He and Whitehurst do show some convincing romantic chemistry, though.  Williams is more successful in his engaging performance as the conflicted but loving Adam, and Shakoor delivers the play’s strongest scenes as the strong, dedicated Joe. As excellent as Shakoor is, I found myself wishing he had more scenes.

Although I had seen their production at this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, I hadn’t seen a full length production at Tesseract before. One impressive thing I discovered is that each Tesseract show begins with a 10 minute pre-show–a short play that’s been written to cover a theme similar to the main production. The latest pre-show is called “Spooky Action At a Distance” by Will Coleman, directed by Sean Green.  This is a compelling little drama that’s set up as a series of parallel monologues by two performers (Sean Michael and Maalik Shakoor), talking about the roles of science and faith in their lives. It’s a thoughtful dramatic exercise that’s well-performed by both actors and provides an effective introduction to topics concerning faith–whether its religious or otherwise. It’s a good lead-in to Orders, which deals with its issues in a more confrontational way.

Orders is a short play, running about 75 minutes or so, with a simple but effective set and a thought-provoking introduction in the form of the 10 minute pre-show.  It’s an impressive script from playwright Ferguson, although the unpolished, uneven performances of the some of the cast make me think about what this play could be like if cast more ideally. Tesseract’s presentation is still worthwhile, if flawed, and gives its audience a great deal to think about in terms of love, duty and belief.

Maalik Shakoor PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company

Maalik Shakoor
PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company


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St. Lou Fringe 2014

St. Lou Fringe 2014

Welcome to Part 2 of my “Notes From the Fringe”! Before I continue in reviewing the shows I saw at this year’s St. Lou Fringe, I want to add a few comments about the general atmosphere of the festival.  The “Street Fringe” in Strauss Park was a great idea. With various acts performing on the stage in the middle of the park near the Fringe Box Office, it provided a great “home base” for the festival, and a good place for patrons to spend time between shows. The Fringe Family events on Saturday and Sunday were a great way to encourage participation from patrons of all ages.  There was such a great overall atmosphere of artistic expression and mutual appreciation at the final party, as well, and I’m glad I was able to see even more shows this year.  The shows ranged from rough experiements to “works in progress” to polished, professional presentations, and while I enjoyed some shows more than others, that variety is really the essence of what makes a Fringe festival unique. It’s a celebration of the arts and of creativity in general.  I have high hopes for next year, and for the future of the arts in this great city.

Now, on to the rest of my reviews!

Core Project Chicago
Saturday, June 21st, 2:00pm

I have to give credit to this production for reading my mind, at least partially. I had never reviewed a purely dance production, so about halfway through the first segment of this show, in which the five primary dancers (Megan Beseth, Patti Garvey, Christine Hands, Kate O’Hanlon and Tiffany Philpott) danced an expressive routine with a classical music background, I had been feeling somewhat inadequate and wondering how I would review it. Then, after this piece, the words flashed onto the screen behind them to the effect of “Now, you’re probably wondering–oh shit, this is just another modern dance show!” I laughed, as did the rest of the audience. What followed was definitely not “just another modern dance show”, as the dancers presented very personal works while their pictures and stories were projected on the screen behind them.

Directed by Erin Rehberg and choreographed by Rehberg, Beseth, Hands and Matthew Frasier-Smith, this presentation impressed me as an ingenious combination of acting, dancing, and multi-media storytelling. The various routines ranged from the humorous (an ode to housecleaning, a celebration of individuality and quirkiness, a segment in which two dancers talk about their lives as they get ready to dance) to the more serious (a segment called “Dividing Line”, in which dancers jockey for position as they stretch before a routine, and another segment that highlights feelings of coldness and isolation). There was even a fun interlude in which the venue’s house manager was brought into the act. This struck me as a very personal, very current production that very cleverly integrated the dances with other forms of storytelling to create a very 21st Century presentation.

Foster and Fortitude
Cranky Yellow
Sunday, June 22nd, 2:00pm

This is quite possibly the strangest show I have ever seen. It’s a struggle to even think about how to describe it in written form, since this was such a completely immersive production–even more so than any of the others I saw at Fringe, or really anywhere else. It’s a play, but it’s also a concert, an art show and a rummage sale. Yes, a rummage sale. They actually stop the show in the middle so that the audience will have the opportunity to purchase the various knickknacks that decorate the stage, as jazz-influenced music plays and David Wolk (as Fortitude) wanders the space with a hand puppet, encouraging patrons to get up out of their seats and shop. I’m not sure what to think about this aspect of the show, although the overall “anything goes” attitude of this production is certainly impressive. This is is the kind of show in which a group of enthusiastic artists just keep throwing out more and more outrageous ideas, hoping that the audience will go along with their enthusiasm. In this case, for the most part, the audience did go along for the journey.

The essential story, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, presents a story of an artist’s journey to find his lost creativity. Foster (the more subdued Jake Adams) and Fortitude (the outrageously energetic Wolk) are separated early in the story, and the initially reluctant Foster is eventually encouraged to chase after Fortitude in a quest that takes him under the sea, and through his own doubts and lost confidence. The audience is brought into the action as they are encouraged to hold hands and shout at Foster to awaken him, and the story continues through elements of musical theatre, jazz performance, guided visualization (and a funny song about a weasel) and finally, a chaotic celebration. It’s colorful, it’s ambitious, and the cast is extremely, infectiously enthusiastic. It’s more than a little confusing at times, but for the most part, it works. A Fringe Festival is the ideal setting for a highly experimental, hit-or-miss show like this, and I’m very glad for the experience of it.

Creepy Basement Players
Sunday, June 22nd, 3:30pm

Creepy Basement Players Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Creepy Basement Players
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

The Creepy Basement Players, a local improv troupe, were everywhere at this year’s St. Lou Fringe. Featured in various presentations at the Street Fringe in Strauss Park, including a hilarious turn representing each of the acts that were unable to appear at the Fringe Tease presentation at the Fringe Kick-Off Party, this troupe also got their own dedicated show. Players Alex Carnes, Melissa Darch, Steven Harowitz, Colin Katrenak, Ben Lyons, and Petey Papavlasopoulos performed various routines with prompting from the audience, both in a long-form alternating scene format and in a more short-form, improv-games format.

Improv acts can be very uneven, but the Creepy Basement Players are very consistent. I was especially impressed by their energy and focus, and some of their funnier ideas in their long-form sketch, which consisted of a series of unrelated scenes that cycled throughout the performance. The “literary gangs” skit, in which street gangs based on classic authors like John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and Louisa May Alcott, threaten to engage in a gang war, was especially well done. The audience-participation aspect was handled very well, too, as they allowed audience members to choose settings for their scenes, and contribute variables for such games as “Home Shopping Network”. All the players did a great job of keeping up the energy and timing, holding the audience’s attention throughout and generating many laughs. They managed to carry the whole hour they were allotted, with no real lulls in the performance, which is an impressive feat. This show was the comic highlight of the festival.

John Clark
Sunday, June 22nd, 5:00pm

This production, by local writer John Clark, was the shortest production I saw at Fringe, although I think it used its time very well. Running at about 20 minutes, Olivia is a play told in interview format, as various friends and acquaintances of a bright, artistic young college student, Olivia Jordan, recount their experiences with her upon learning of her tragic suicide. This is a concise, well-written, intense production with some excellent performances and a strong story with a great deal of emotion that, commendably, doesn’t veer over the edge into melodrama. It also deals with some very timely issues in a clear, poignant and challenging way.

Clark casts himself in perhaps the play’s most difficult role, that of Olivia’s narcissistic, entitled, abusive boyfriend, Riley, who refuses to take the blame for his own heinous actions that very likely contributed to Olivia’s suicide. Clark does a great job of being so thoroughly unlikable but still a believably human villain and not an unrealistic, cardboard ogre. Other standout performances include Alicen Moser in a sympathetic turn as Olivia’s best friend from high school, and Sarah Griffith as Olivia’s self-doubting college roommate. This is a show that intrigued me a lot, in that I didn’t know much about it before seeing it, and I found it extremely affecting. It was a very simple production, staged with the cast members sitting in chairs and recounting their interconnected stories. I was also impressed in that the unseen Olivia was such a fully realized character, even though she only “appears” in the descriptions of the other characters. Although it did have the air of a student performance, I found it to be a believable and well performed production, and the biggest surprise of the festival in my opinion. Clark is a promising young playwright and actor, and he has assembled a strong cast in support of his play.  This whole production was very well done.

The Apotheosis of Big Jim
Tesseract Theatre Company
Sunday, June 22nd 6:00pm

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

This is another production that epitomizes the concept of “experimental theatre”. Written by Tesseract member Taylor Gruenloh, it’s more of a straightforward presentation than something like Foster and Fortitude, although it still plays around with the traditional theatrical form. Overall, I think this was a well-cast, well executed production even though the format was not always easy to understand. It’s supposed to make audiences think, though, and it certainly does that.

Presented initially as a play about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and its members’ unexpected common connection with a recently deceased local apartment complex owner named Big Jim, the show starts off as a traditional play and then changes course into a more absurd direction. The meeting starts with its members (Jessica Alvarado, Brittanie Boado, Jamie Fritz, Taylor Gruenloh, Alexander L. Hylton, Chris Williams) sharing their stories and eventually get into an argument when one character, Sarah (Boado), gets angry and challenges them, but just when it looks like she’s going to tell her story, Boado breaks character and addresses the audience, and then other performers follow, as the the story then shifts between the “serious” plot and the more existential quest of its performers, as they act out various sketches involving clown noses, audience interaction (with Laurell Stevenson and Jarris Williams lending support as “clowns” in the audience), which eventually leads to a staged rebellion against the very concept of linear drama and the roles they are forced to play.It all ends in an abrupt and somewhat jarring manner. It’s a well-cast and crisply staged exercise in dramatic experimentation that comes across as two very different plays transposed together. It’s a clever idea, and the cast performed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, although I did find myself wonder what exactly it was trying to communicate. It’s certainly thought-provoking, though, and perhaps that was the real point.

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

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