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Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Kopp
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 25, 2017

Chris LaBanca, Britteny Henry, Chad Little, Riley James
evPhoto by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus is often thought of as something like “B-movie Shakespeare”. It’s kind of like the Bard’s equivalent of a slasher flick, full of blood and guts and drama, and because of that, it hasn’t been that highly regarded until relatively recently. It’s over-the-top in many ways, although St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest staging strikes me as about as “toned-down” as this show could get. The violence and blood are definitely there, but with this production, those elements aren’t as sensationalized as they could be. It’s still not for the squeamish, but there appears to be an attempt to find some meaning amidst all the gore.

The story, set in the time of the Roman Empire, follows victorious general Titus (Chad Little) upon returning from battle. Titus has a close-knit family, with brother Marcus (Chris LaBanca), daughter Lavinia (Britteny Henry), and sons Lucius (Erik Kuhn), Quintus (Maxwell Knocke), Martius (Brennen Eller), and Mutius (Joshua Parrack). He angers the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Suki Peters) by sacrificing her son, and then upsets new Emperor Saturninus (Roger Erb) when Lavinia won’t marry him, as she prefers to marry his brother Bassianus (Scott Mcdonald). So, then Saturninus marries Tamora and Tamora plots revenge on Titus, aided by her sons Demetrius (Ted Drury) and Chiron (Michael Pierce), and her lover Aaron (Darrious Varner).  And then, well, things just go from bad to worse, with lots of plotting, executions, brutal assaults, dismemberments, and one element that’s somewhat reminiscent of Sweeney Todd, even though this story predates that one.

This is a tragedy, but with sensationalism inherent in the plot, and a lot of opportunities to play up that sensationalism. This production, however, mostly downplays those opportunities, although there are some strong acting moments and an especially poignant final scene. The acting is strong, for the most part, with Little as a determined and somewhat bewildered Titus, and Henry especially strong as Lavinia, who is at once the most blameless and the most mistreated character in the show. There are also good performances from LaBanca as the loyal Marcus, Kuhn as Lucius, Peters as the scheming Tamora, Varner as the equally scheming Aaron, and Drury and Pierce as Tamora’s vicious and murderous sons. It’s a large cast, and everyone does a good job with what they are given, but I find the overall direction to be a little too restrained considering the material.

The time and mood of the play are set well in the technical aspects, with Chuck Winning’s set well-detailed and suggestive of a crumbling city in disrepair, which works as a reflection of the story, and Zahra Agha’s costumes suit the characters and the play’s Roman setting well. There’s also excellent lighting by Darren Thompson, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley.

Titus Andronicus is an intense play, with some downright gruesome and brutal subject matter including murder, rape, betrayal, and even cannibalism. There’s a lot of plotting and scheming, and revenge that begets more revenge. Although Shakespeare’s plays can be violent, this one is probably the most extreme in that way, although the way St. Louis Shakespeare stages it, it’s not quite as extreme as it could be. In a way, that works, making the characters seem more human than they could, but in other ways it seems like the direction doesn’t quite fit the material. Still, it’s a good production, and worth seeing if you have a strong stomach.

Suki Peters, Darrious Varner
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Titus Andronicus at the Ivory Theatre until September 3, 2017.

 

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Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Kopp
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 6, 2016

Cast of Julius Caesar Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Julius Caesar
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

There’s a whole lot of plotting going on in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s tragic history play focuses on political machinations and personal loyalties in ancient Rome. St. Louis Shakespeare’s production fills the stage at the ornate Ivory Theatre, with a strong cast and a great deal of tension and intrigue.

Even though the play is called Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s play focuses more on the key figures who surround the charismatic Roman leader, particularly his friend, the senator Brutus (Ben Ritchie), who is persuaded by the scheming Cassius (Maxwell Knocke) into joining the conspiracy to kill Caesar before he can become too powerful. Torn between his personal loyalty to his friend and his concern for the good of Rome, Brutus is the central player in the drama, which also involves omens, prophecies and dreams uttered by various characters from a Soothsayer (Josh Saboorizadeh) to Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Annalise Webb). There’s also Caesar’s loyal ally Mark Antony (Brennan Eller), who is determined to see the conspirators brought to justice. It’s a play full of memorable speeches and well-drawn characters, bringing the stories of history to life by bringing a sense of immediacy to the proceedings.

The cast here is a large one, with several cast members playing more than one role. The staging is at once dynamic and intimate, with emotions and relationships given sharp definition in the memorable portrayals of the central cast members, anchored by Ritchie in an impressively measured performance as a thoughtful, reflective and conflicted Brutus. His scenes with Knocke’s angry, plotting Cassius are particularly dynamic. Eller makes a strong impression as Antony, as well, with a believable sense of loyalty, determination, and charisma, and Callahan is excellent as the regal, doomed Caesar. These standouts are also backed by a particularly strong cast portraying the conspirators and various Roman citizens, the roles being too numerous to list but all strikingly well-played, and staged with a buildings sense of suspense and ominous foreboding. The battle sequences are also memorably staged by Fight Director Erik Kuhn.

The stage at the Ivory is suitably transported to ancient Rome by means of Chuck Winning’s convincing multi-level set. The costumes by Liz Henning are suitably detailed and evocative of the time and place, as well. There’s also distinctive, haunting lighting by James Spurlock and excellent sound design by Robin Weatherall.

Julius Caesar is a play about politics and ambition, but portrayed a very personal sense. It’s an examination of motives and loyalties, and a complex character study and intense drama. The characters, drawn from history, are brought to life convincingly in St. Louis Shakespeare’s thoughtful, thought-provoking production.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Julius Caesar at the Ivory Theatre until August 14, 2016.

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Great Falls
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Tom Kopp
West End Players Guild
April 9, 2016

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Great Falls is not a happy play, and that’s an understatement. The newest offering from West End Players Guild is a two-person travelogue of a play that takes its audience on a tour not only of the American Northwest, but of its lead characters’ emotions and personal struggles. It’s a well-cast character study that does manage to evoke a few laughs, although for the most part its outlook on life is grim.

The characters here–a recently divorced man and his former stepdaughter–aren’t given names. They’re listed in the program and referred to in the play as Monkey Man (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Bitch (Shannon Lampkin). In the wake of multiple infidelities and an acrimonious divorce, Monkey Man is eager to salvage his relationship with his ex-wife’s daughter, so he takes her on an impromptu road trip to South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana with the intention of revisiting the locations of his own childhood vacations, as well as having some serious conversations. Although his intent is to maintain a relationship, Bitch isn’t interested, at least at first. Through the course of the play, their journey takes them to a variety of well-known and lesser known locations, and some surprising truths are revealed. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that many of those truths are unpleasant, and the play’s revelations about the nature of the men and boys in Bitch’s life are more than a little disturbing. It has its lighter moments, but the overall mood is increasingly dark.

The interplay between the two performers is the highlight of this production. DiLorenzo portrays a determined, guilt-plagued Monkeyman, trying to maintain a sense of optimism and not quite succeeding, as he continually spars with Lampkin’s snarky, moody character who insists that Monkeyman call her Bitch. Their verbal sparring is the centerpiece of the show, and their journey from antipathy to empathy and beyond is compelling to watch.

The setting here is fairly simple. As usual for most WEPG productions, the production utilizes the stage and the area in front of it, with Stephanie Draper’s set framed by material suggesting a cavern of some sort. There’s a low-budget hotel room set on the stage, and a simple framework of Monkeyman’s car that is brought for several scenes, and a backdrop with projections representing the various landmarks the characters visit. The costumes, by Tracey Newcomb-Margrave, are well-suited to the characters, and Draper’s lighting is also effective.

This play is more than “not happy”, really. It can be downright depressing, with an ending that leaves more questions than answers. Themes of estrangement, loneliness, violence and assault are addressed in a matter-of-fact manner that can be jarring and relentless. Still, it does a good job of creating a mood and setting, and the characters are well portrayed.  Great Falls is not for all audiences, but it tells a memorable story.

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Great Falls is being presented by West End Players Guild at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 17th, 2016.

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