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AN APOLOGY For the Course And Outcome of Certain Events Delivered By DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS On This HIs Final Evening
and The Hunchback Variations
By Mickle Maher
The Midnight Company
September 21, 2018

It’s FAUSTival part 2! As the latest entry in the extended “festival” featuring works from various local theatre companies, Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is presenting something that’s appropriately Faustian and also reflective of the Midnight Company’s offbeat style. And, also as is usual for this company, the result is well-cast, thoughtful, and fascinating.

A revival of a production staged a few years ago, this is a set of two separate one-act pieces, one of which is a “Faust” tale. Both, however, are somewhat metaphysical explorations of concepts and characters. AN APOLOGY… is, essential, just what the title says. Here, Hanrahan plays Dr. John Faustus on the last day of his life on earth, having agreed to sell his soul 20 years earlier to Mephistopheles (David Wassilak), who spends most of the play looming in the background, clad in black velvet and wearing sunglasses and appearing somewhat bored of Faustus’s whole spiel. For Faustus’s part, he’s in regret mode, as well as desperate to hold on to a semblance of privacy as he recounts his efforts to keep some privacy from Mephistopheles, who as part of the agreement has lived as Faustus’s servant for the past 20 years, a constant, annoying presence and reminder of Faustus’s pride and rashness. The casting here is strong, with Wassilak’s presence being suitably menacing by just sitting there most of the time, and Hanrahan’s Faustus being increasingly desperate and grasping for some sort of meaning in his life that’s about to end in moments. Since it’s essentially a long speech with a few brief interruptions by Mephistopheles, it does tend to get rambling and a little hard to follow at times, although Hanrahan’s presence keeps it interesting, as do some clever immersive elements involving Faustus handing out beer and chips to the audience.  It’s a particularly philosphical and condensed take on the “Faust” story, with more of an introspective focus as Faust tries to gain the audience’s sympathy.

While An Apology… certainly has its moments, especially in terms of its exploration of language and the concept of time and the overall brevity of life, the more entertaining piece of the evening is the more fast-moving, comic seminar-styled The Hunchback Variations. Here, there’s much more of a focus on humor, and the situation is even more bizarre than it is in the first play.  Here, the audience is given an imaginary scenario in which composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame character, Quasimodo (Wassilak) are seated at a table littered with various offbeat musical instruments (kazoo, tin whistle, etc.) and are giving a lecture recounting their efforts to identify an elusive sound described in a stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. The show is essentially a series of vignettes, with similar staging and introduction, as the two, usually led by the more outwardly confident Beethoven, recount their efforts to meet and discover this mysterious sound, as the more sullen, earnest Quasimodo plays various sounds and expresses more of an initially pessimistic outlook about their meetings. This is a fascinating play on many levels–first, it’s hilarious, and the comic timing is impeccable. Second, it’s also kind of sad, as we see the futility and failure of the endeavor as they recount attempt after attempt with the big unasked question lingering in the air–what’s the point? The interplay between these two characters presents their relationship as sometimes companions in futility, sometimes frenemies. It’s an intriguing dynamic to watch, and both players play their parts extremely well, from Hanrahan’s bossy, overconfident Beethoven to Wassilak’s gruff-voiced, weary but still hopeful Quasimodo.

Both of these plays are presented in a small backroom at the Monocle bar in the Grove neighborhood, and the intimate setting adds to the mood in both plays. This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, somtimes profound, always unusual production, showcasing two excellent local actors. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

The Midnight Company is presenting AN APOLOGY and The Hunchback Variations at the Monocle until September 29, 2018

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St. Lou Fringe 2018

The St. Lou Fringe festival has come to Grand Center again, featuring two headline acts–one national and one local–and a variety of performances by an array of different local and national artists. It’s a celebration of the performing arts at their most quirky and inventive–or, at least, it’s supposed to be. I didn’t get to see as many shows this year as I would have liked, but what I did see was something of a mixed bag in terms of quality, ranging from top-notch shows, to shows that need work. Here are my reviews:

The Gringo (Local Headliner)

Music, Lyrics, and Book by Colin Healy

Directed by Colin Healy

Cast of The Gringo
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

The first show I saw at this year’s Fringe is a show that embodies a lot of the qualities that I have come to expect in a Fringe show–challeging, thought-provoking, timely, and inventive. It’s not a perfect show, but there’s definitely promise there, and the music and cast are excellent. Written entirely by local artist Colin Healy but taking place in Miami, the show is certainly distinctive, even though the sound balance and odd acoustics in the .Zack made it difficult to understand at least half of the lyrics. Still, there’s a story here, and some great characters, even if there are too many and some of their situations and relationships are difficult to figure out.

The Gringo is also somewhat of a baffling title, since it references a character who isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the focus of the show, and whose role in the show is confusing to say the least. Ishmael (Riley Dunn), who is white, is a wandering street artist whose wanderings have taken him to a mostly non-white neighborhood in Miami. I sort of get the initial focus on him in terms of portraying how often artists of color are ignored in favor of white artists trying to be “edgy” and getting celebrated as such, but still, the real focus of the show is (and should be) Kahlo (Alcia Reve Like), a famous artist who laments being treated as a curiosity at best by white tourists. The story takes place in the aftermath of the killing of local artist El Fantasma by police, and it follows the reactions of various people who were close to him, such as his brother Diego (Gheremi Clay), who is something of a “friends with benefits” type relationship with Kahlo, although Kahlo, along with Ishmael, decide to navigate the unpredictable world of online dating, which is how the two artists meet and form a tentative relationship, which further alienates Diego, who is wary of Ishmael but also gives him his nickname, “The Gringo”. As white “internet celebrities” such as @Sally7777777 (Janine Norman) discover Ishmael’s work and plaster it all over Instagram in a self-congratulatory “look what I discovered” sort of way, the rest of the neighborhood prepares to memoralize El Fantasma, Diego searches for answers and validation, and the somewhat mysterious Manni (Robert Crenshaw) occasionally appears expressing his animosity for The Gringo. There’s also popular drug dealer Molto (Omega Jones) and Kahlo’s friend Reya (Evann De-Bose), who have a tragic subplot of their own. The characters’ relationships and motivations are muddled, to say the least, and there are  simply too many plots to follow coherently. I think keeping the main focus on Kahlo’s and Diego’s situations would make the most sense, and while Ishmael has his moments, he seems mostly irrelevant by the time the story draws to a close.

There are some great performances here, especially from Like, Clay, Jones, and Norman, and the songs are clever and memorable, at least from what I could hear of them.  The look of the show is striking, with an eye-catching set (designer not credited in the program), art by Tielere Cheatem, and distinctive costumes by Carly Uding. The band conducted by Healy is excellent as well, as is the energetic choreography by Christopher Page-Sanders. The sound mix is uneven, though, and the story is incomprehensible at times because the lyrics of the songs were often drowned out by the band. This is a show with definite promise, if Healy could streamline it some and make a clearer focus on the more compelling characters and define the relationships and character motives more clearly. Overall, it’s an impressive debut, even though it still needs some work.

Race Cars and Romance (National Headliner)

Book by Klay Rogers, Music by Brent Rogers, Lyrics by Klay Rogers and Brent Rogers

Directed and Choreographed by Brandon Bieber

Even though it’s not a perfect show, The Gringo has a lot of potential and fares much better than Fringe’s national headline act, Race Cars and Romance, which is, frankly stated, a mess. Staged with much fanfare at the Grandel, this show just leaves me asking “why?’ on so many levels. Billed as a “family friendly musical”, it’s basically just a big collection of stereotypes, shallow characters, poor plot structuring, and a plot that’s so episodic it almost comes across as more of an anthology than a play–and not a very good anthology at that. I will say to start, though, that the performance I saw was a preview, and I hope the overall energy improved in the subsequent performances, but in terms of characters and structure, I don’t see how seeing one of the “official” performances would have mattered.

The focus is on an oil change shop in a small Alabama town, in which a collection of characters work, including new “star” mechanic Roni (Emily Trumble), who grew up in the town but spent some time working on the racing team of star stock car racer Chuck Champion, who is talked about a lot but never actually appears on stage. Another stock car racer and childhood friend of Roni’s, the clueless and somewhat vain Johnny Ray Ratchet (Ralph Meitzler), has been struggling on the racing circuit and is due to race at Talladega starting in last position, and needs his car fixed in preparation for the race. He brings it to the oil change, meets Roni, and… well, that’s all for a really long time while the play takes a break from their story to tell a lot of other stories that are only peripherally related to the main plot. It’s odd how much this plot is treated like an afterthought even though it’s supposed to be the lead story, as all the other characters are given their moments but not in a way that contributes much to the main story arc. We just get a lot of cliches and stereotypes, with some interesting characters but mostly a lot of filler, and excuses for songs that don’t advance the plot. There are some good performances here, especially from the big-voiced Trumble as Roni and Rachel Bailey as Roni’s friend, the romantically adventurous Louraine, who has a sweet but somewhat confusing romance with sweet-natured mechanic Pedro (Fredy Ruiz). Meitzler is fine as Johnny Ray, even though his character doesn’t have much to do beyond bragging about his racing prowess and inexplicably changing his mind a lot. The chemistry between the two leads is OK but not great, and there are some interesting songs but only one that really stands out–the plaintive duet “Lonely Lovers Game” for Johnny Ray and Roni, but the song is in the wrong place in the show, and it doesn’t do much to save the convoluted, implausible romance that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the long run. The cast does the best they can with what they are given, but they aren’t given much.

Techically, the show looks good, with a colorful set and costumes (production design credit is given to Klay Rogers). Still, as it is this is little more than a theme park show, and I’ve seen better shows at theme parks. Creator Klay Rogers gave an introduction before the performance explaining that a lot of the stories here are based on a real job he had at an oil change shop in Texas, but there are too many stories here and for the most part, this doesn’t work as one show. Maybe it would be better if he split the stories up into several different shows.

As a writer who sees myself as a fan more than as a critic, I try my best to be kind even when I don’t like a show, but I find that difficult with a show like this. The cast deserves credit for the effort, but the show itself has little to recommend.  I really hope Fringe picks something better to take center stage next year.

Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… BOND, JAMES BOND

by Joe Hanrahan

Directed by Shane Signorino

The Midnight Company

From the always intriguing Joe Hanrahan comes a delightful show that’s part personal memoir, part history lesson, part nostalgia, and all fascinating. It’s a cleverly constructed one-man show from St. Louis’s king of one-man shows, Hanrahan, who narrates and plays all the characters as needed. It’s a lesson in theatre appreciation as well, along with baseball appreciation and an appreciation for the 1960s-era James Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love. 

Telling the story as himself, Hanrahan takes the audience back to his childhood in St. Louis during the storied 1964 World Series-winning season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He weaves the story of that team with reminiscences of his little league practices and what he refers to as his introduction to theatre–a recounting of the plot of the “new” James Bond movie by one of his teammates, Danny.  As Hanrahan, playing Danny, tells the story of the movie, Hanrahan as himself gives the audience background information about the film and also stories about that famous Cardinals team, St. Louis in the 1960s as well as the history of theatre, World War II and more. It’s a somewhat difficult show to describe adequately, but what it is is excellent. Hanrahan through use of his great storytelling skills and impressive use of video designed by Michael B. Perkins, holds the audience spellbound for about an hour. It’s a great show, and I hope Hanrahan will get a chance to perform it again in another venue. It’s entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, and an ideal example of the best of what the Fringe can be, along with the last show I’m reviewing.

Aphrodite’s Refugees

Created by Monica Dionysiou, Visual Art by Aaron Young

MonTra Performance

Monica Dionysiou
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

I was looking forward to seeing this show, after seeing and enjoying Dionysiou’s last show at St. Lou Fringe in 2015, the  Alice In Wonderland inspired “Paper Glass”.  Here, like in that previous show, Dionysiou combines dramatic performance with visual art, but now her story is more personal, taken from her own family’s story, and she’s joined by Aaron Young, who paints a picture during the performance, illustrating and augmenting Dionysiou’s narrated tale.

Dionysiou tells the story, weaving with legends of the Greek goddess Aphrodite playing a card game with Ares, the God of War. In between these segments, she narrates the story of her family on the island of Cyprus. The main figure in this story is Dionysiou’s father, George, called “Koko”, portrayed by Dionysiou along with his sisters Eleftheria and Andrula, and his brother Dionysus. Through personal recollections, they tell the story of the family throughout various conflicts involving the continuing conflicts between the Greek (represented by the Dionysious) and Turkish populations of Cyprus. It’s a compelling story, based on Dionysiou’s interviews with her family, and her portrayals of all the characters, particularly the determined Koko and the mischievous Andrula, are convincing and impressive. She also makes excellent use of sound effects for the “card game” sequence as Young impressively recounts the story with his painting, including elements of movement that add to the story and the overall drama. It’s a fascinating story, and another ideal example of the excellence and inventiveness that should be celebrated by Fringe. I’ve been extremely impressed by both of Dionysiou’s shows that she has done here, and I hope to see her at a future Fringe as well.

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Judgment at Nuremberg
by Abby Mann
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company at the Missouri History Museum
April 27, 2018

Cast of Judgment at Nuremberg
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company usually puts on plays with small casts–often just Hanrahan himself and maybe one other cast member. The company’s latest production, though, is anything but small. Presented at the Missouri History Museum from April 25-29th, Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg recalls an important time in world history that is essential to remember. With a large cast and excellent staging, this production is one I wish had been given a longer run.

The play is a fictionalized version of one of the historic Nuremberg Trials that took place in Germany after World War II. Various defendents involved in different ways in the Nazi regime and the Holocaust were put on trial, with those convicted being sentenced to prison or death.  The trial represented in this play involves three German judges (Terry TenBroek as Emil Hahn, Hal Morgan as Frederick Hoffstetter, and Steve Callahan as Ernst Janning), who are charged with playing various roles in supporting the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi government from the bench, including ordering sterilizations of political dissidents and sending Jewish defendants and others to concentration camps. The cast of 16 is led by Hanrahan as Judge Dan Haywood, a North Carolina jurist who has been brought in to preside over the trial along with Judge Curtis Ives (Jack Corey) and Judge Ken Norris (Charles Heuvelman). The story centers largely on Haywood as he learns about the cases and defendants and other issues involved, such as international and national pressures trying to influence the outcome. Other key players include the passionate American prosecutor Colonel Tad Parker (Chuck Winning) and determined German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe (Cassidy Flynn). There’s also Frau Margarete Bertholt (Rachel Tibbetts), a widow who used to live in the house in which Haywood is staying, and who is soon revealed to have a highly personal connection to the trials.  Through the course of the play, issues of  personal and corporate responsibility, and national loyalty vs. conscience are raised, among other issues, as the German judges are brought face-to-face with witnesses to their actions and reacting in different ways, from self-justification to acknowledging guilt.

This is a somewhat sprawling play, with a lot going on at once and a large cast to keep track of. Structure-wise, it’s reminscent of a lot of other mid-century courtroom dramas, and the play’s program design (graphic design by Dottie Quick) even has a look and style suggestive of this time period. The drama has a lot of players, but the focus is mostly on the courtroom, and the staging here is engaging and energetic, with a cast of excellent performers that bring dimension and energy to their roles. Hanrahan is a good focus figure as Heywood, who functions in many ways as a surrogate for the audience, learning about the events and the people involved, and the history of the city of Nuremberg itself, as the story unfolds. Hanrahan’s Haywood has a kind of easy forthrightness about him that works very well in this role. He is surrounded by an excellent cast as well, including Callahan as the most introspective and remorseful of the defendents, Janning; and also Winning and Flynn as the equally fiery and determined opposing attorneys. There are also excellent turns from Tibbetts as the proud, grieving and somewhat enigmatic Frau Berthtolt, and Micahel B. Perkins, Francesca Ferrari, and Steve Garrett as key witnesses in the trial. The entire ensemble (also including Mark Abels, Jaz Tucker, Charlotte Dougherty, and Alex Fyles) is strong, with memorable performances all around, calling attention to the important and weighty issues brought up in this play–issues that are still relevant today.

The production design serves the play well, with Jonah Sheckler’s fairly simple set impressively augmented by Michael B. Perkins’s excellent video projections. There’s also crisp, focused lighting from Bess Moynihan as well as clear sound by Ellie Schwetye and well-suited period specific costumes by Sarah Porter. The overall atmosphere of a 1940’s military trial is well maintained in this fascinating production.

This is a show that could have run a little longer. I’m assuming the Missouri History Museum had limited availability, but it’s a shame that such a well-staged, powerful production like this couldn’t have had more performances. A production like this deserves to be seen by a larger audience.

Chuck Winning, Cassidy Flynn and cast
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

 

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Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
The Midnight Company
August 1, 2014

joe Hanrahan Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan The Midnight Company

joe Hanrahan
Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan is one of those actors with a particular talent for playing multiple characters in the same play, and one-man shows are a great vehicle for this. Unlike the Midnight Company’s last production, Solemn Mockeries, which told a cohesive story, Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is more of a collection of monologues with related themes, providing an ideal showcase for Hanrahan’s skills and allowing for an evening of outrageous and sometimes dark humor that’s sure to make the audience think as well as laugh.

The show is mostly an examination of consumerism and selfishness in modern society. The happiest guy in the show is the homeless bottle collector in the opening sequence, who’s content with his bottles (“or cans–no difference” he says)–which he recycles to make a little bit of money–and the occasional egg salad sandwich. Most of the other characters in the play are selfish, greedy, culturally ignorant and sometimes downright hostile.  Self-help philosophies get parodied in two segments, and misguided charity in another. All the elements of the title are there, as well as a cynical take on religious belief and musings on the purpose and importance of art and creativity.  It’s gritty, irreverent, and unquestionably funny, with jokes ranging from lighthearted to sarcastic to outrageously dark.  It’s an ideal vehicle for a versatile actor like Hanrahan, and he makes the most of every opportunity.

Hanrahan does a great job with the various characters represented here. He’s great with comedy and some of the darker moments, with a good range of voices and accents (with help from dialect coach Pamela Reckamp), from the aging British rocker staging a benefit concert, to the Southern motivational speaker trying to help his audiences get in touch with their “inner baby”.  With energy and charisma, Hanrahan manages to hold the audience’s attention through the course of the play even when portraying some of the more unsavory aspects of his characters.

Hanrahan and director Rachel Tibbetts have done an excellent job of presenting this show in just the right context. The basement room at  Herbie’s Restaurant in the Central West End is an excellent venue for this play, with the small performance space giving the show more of an interactive vibe. and the use of props and various quick-change costume elements is excellent as well. The play, written over 20 years ago, has been updated here and there with a few references to current events and St.Louis settings, thrown in to add to the overall atmosphere and accessibility of the piece. It’s all very timely,with the focus on self-actualization and self-help (which can be useful or misused), as well as conspicuous consumption in today’s consumer-driven society. It’s a relatively short play, running just over an hour, although that’s plenty of time to be introduced to this wide-ranging cast of characters all played by the same guy. Some of the characters are appealing and some are scoundrels, but as presented by Joe Hanrahan, they’re all worth listening to even if it’s  just to make us think.

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Solemn Mockeries

by Rick Creese

Directed by Sarah Whitney

The Midnight Company, Tower Grove Abbey

January 3rd, 2014

Joe Hanrahan Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is starting off the New Year with a trip back in time. With their new production of Rick Creese’s one-man play Solemn Mockeries, the Tower Grove Abbey has been turned into a sort of “Wayback Machine”, transporting the audience to 19th Century London, where we are introduced to the colorful William-Henry Ireland (Joe Hanrahan), who recounts his fascinating, alternately comic and tragic life story, focusing on that one time, 30 years earlier in 1795, when he almost got away with forging a full-length Shakespeare play and managed to have the play staged by some of the most prominent theatrical figures of the era in one of the most well-known theaters in London. It’s one of those too-strange-to-believed anecdotes of history that, astoundingly enough, actually did happen, and this production turns that improbable tale into an entertainingly immersive evening of theatre.

The setting is very simple, but completely effective. Just a few pieces of furniture and a series of placards announcing Ireland’s appearance (introduced by a silent, sober-faced man in impeccable early 19th Century costume) help set the mood and transport the audience back to an era in which the apologetic but also proud and enterprising Ireland is making a living out of reliving his earlier adventures before the general public.  The Tower Grove Abbey, a re-purposed early 20th Century church building with its wooden pews and stained glass windows,is a fitting venue for this event, and Hanrahan, as Ireland, even makes a sly reference to the building in his opening remarks. It’s easy to get caught up in the illusion of the 1820’s setting as Ireland tells his story and interacts with the audience, giving impromptu quizzes, asking for opinions and offering whimsical commentary on the events as he portrays them.

Hanrahan, looking like he stepped out of the pages of a history book in costume designer Taylor Steward’s well-appointed ensemble, portrays Ireland as an eager-to-please, charming rascal who is at once proud and apologetic about his career as a forger. His accent is a bit uneven in places, but that doesn’t really matter in the long run since his Ireland is such a fascinating character, and his descriptions of his upbringing and the events that led into his acts of fraud are thoroughly compelling to watch.

Hanrahan portrays not only Ireland, but also Ireland’s impressions of various character’s in Ireland’s life, from his stern, historical relic-obsessed father, to his opportunistic actor friend, to the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV)  and the various actors involved with the production of Ireland’s faux Shakespearean tragedy, Vortigern.  It’s a hilarious comic performance, but also tinged with regret and even tragedy, as Ireland is shown as an ingratiating sort whose greatest wish in life was to please his own implacable father, who ignored and neglected the young Ireland until he suddenly “found” all these documents supposedly written by the Bard.  Hanrahan’s Ireland is a mass of contradictions–reveling in his adventures while simultaneously showing regret and a desire to be accepted, full of self-deprecating wit and giddy, gleeful energy as the story of his colossal failure unfolds.

The play itself finds a lot of sympathy in Ireland, especially in his upbringing and neglect by his parents, but it also presents him as something of a pathetic figure–a mediocre artist looking for validation, but who was born into a world where celebrity was highly valued and enterprising people could make their own fame if they had the right motivation, and the right gimmick.  It actually sounds a lot like today, which is why I think a story like this can be so entertaining for modern audiences.  Today’s William-Henry Ireland would probably have his own reality show as opposed to appearing on the lecture circuit, but regardless of how enlightened people may think they are today, there still seem to be engaging frauds like Ireland popping up from time to time looking for attention and, eventually, forgiveness.

Ultimately, I was impressed by how vividly the times and places of William Henry Ireland’s life were evoked by this production, with nothing more than the impeccable costumes, simple sets and Hanrahan’s compelling performance to hold the audience’s attention and capture our imaginations.  Ireland is a person that many people may not have heard of,  and this production introduces us to him and and the events of his life in a thoroughly engaging way. It’s a very amusing and thought-provoking  journey through time.

Joe Hanrahan  Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

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