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Posts Tagged ‘trish brown’

The Revolutionists
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
June 29, 2019

Jenni Ryan, Kimmie Kidd, Laurie McConnell
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre is continuing its latest season with a play by one of today’s most recognized playwrights. Lauren Gunderson’s plays have been performed by many theatre companies around the country, and in St. Louis lately, including Insight who last year was one of two local professional companies who presented Gunderson’s Silent Sky. This time, the featured show is The Revolutionists, a four-woman play that presents itself as a comedy, but has some striking dramatic twists.

The play, like other Gunderson plays I’ve seen, has a structure in which character interactions are crucial. There’s a plot, revolving around the French Revolution and specifically the Reign of Terror, and some prominent figures from that time, along with a fictional character who is something of a composite. The central figure is early feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Jenni Ryan), who as the play begins is struggling with how to continue her latest work-in-progress. As she struggles with style, story, dramatic form, and the purpose of her play, she comes into contact with other women who challenge her perspective. These women include determined assassin Charlotte Corday (Samantha Auch) and conflicted former Queen Marie Antoinette (Laurie McConnell), as well as Haitian activist Marianne Angelle, who is fighting to end slavery in her home country, which was then under French rule. The women share their stories and struggles with one another, encouraging Olympe to own up to her own convictions and not give into fear. Although the setting is specific, the situations and structure make the conflict more universal. It’s about France, but it also isn’t. Essentially, it’s about standing up for what one believes in, and about women making their voices heard. The interplay between the characters and witty, pointedly contemporary dialogue serve to make this show both compelling and relatable, with well-drawn characters and some fun “meta” moments thrown in along with some poignancy and an increasingly dramatic tone as the story plays out.

It’s a play essentially about the French Revolution, but it’s also “out of time” in important ways, such as language and the way in which the characters relate to one another, which is decidedly modern. It also has aspects that remind me of another Gunderson play, I and You, in some key ways that will become apparent to those who have seen both plays (although these stories are very different in other ways). The presentation of the show is unconventional, in a way, in that it’s especially minimalist, with a set by Leah McFall that consists entirely of a few period-specific furniture pieces that are used to set the tone and mood, but with the simplicity of the space highlighting the experimental tone of the play. It’s presented in the round, as well, which works especially well for the small-ish space at the Marcelle. Also of note are the costumes by Julian King, which are richly detailed and which help to emphasize the differences in situation between the characters. There’s also excellent use of lighting by Morgan Brennan that adds drama in some key scenes, and sound by Bob Schmit that provides essential context for the piece.

Even with its excellent technical aspects, the biggest asset of this production is its superb cast, led by Ryan in an impressively relatable turn as the show’s main viewpoint character, Olympe. In the midst of conflict and challenge, Ryan makes Olympe’s concerns and fears credible. She also shows strong chemistry with her castmates, who also give memorable performances. McConnell, as probably the best known character in the play, is especially strong, bringing a sense of real depth to a character who is portrayed as more complex than popular history has often painted her. It’s a winning portrayal. Kidd, as the idealistic Marianne, is also a strong presence, as is Auch in an intense portrayal as the single-minded Charlotte. It’s a impressive cast all-around, with excellent energy and rapport.

This is a play I didn’t know much about before seeing it, except for knowing a little about the history and having seen some of the playwright’s other plays. Overall, I think The Revolutionists holds up with Gunderson’s best work. It may not be the most detailed in terms of history, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s more about the characters and the points they are making, which revolve around women maintaining the courage of their convictions. At Insight, it’s a dynamically staged, impeccably cast production that’s sure to provoke some compelling conversations. It’s definitely one to check out.

Jenni Ryan, Samantha Auch, Kimmie Kidd
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theater Company is presenting The Revolutionists at the Marcelle Theatre until July 14, 2019

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On Golden Pond
by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 7, 2017

Susie Wall, Joneal Joplin
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

On Golden Pond is a play that’s perhaps best known by its film adaptation, starring movie legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The play itself has been seen as a showcase for distinguished peformers, and Insight’s latest production is a prime example, featuring a cast of excellent and award-winning local performers, and particularly in its two lead roles, played by the talented and prolific Joneal Joplin and Susie Wall.

This is a play that’s more character-driven than story-driven. The story is fairly slight, in fact. It’s a look at a long-married couple spending the summer at their lake house in Maine, like they have for the previous 47 years. Norman Thayer, Jr. (Joplin) is a retired university English professor, and he’s become increasingly curmudgeonly as he approaches his 80th birthday. His more optimistic wife, Ethel (Wall), grows weary of Norman’s constant talk about death and his strained relationship with their middle-aged daughter, Chelsea (Jenni Ryan), who has come to visit for Norman’s birthday with her new boyfriend, dentist Bill (Eric Dean White) and his 15-year-old son Billy (Michael Pierce) in tow. The “story” here is about the relationships, and how Norman and Ethel come to terms with aging and with the reality of the idea that each new summer at Golden Pond may be their last. It explores themes of aging, regret, broken and reconciling relationships, inter-generational friendships, and more while providing an excellent showcase for the actors involved.

And “the actors involved” are remarkable. Joplin, one of St. Louis theatre’s most prolific actors for the past few decades, has an ideal role here with Norman. Despite the more unsavory aspects of the character–his negativity and particularly his casual bigotry–Joplin’s considerable skill as an actor brings out the sympathy in Norman’s situation, and particularly in his relationships with Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy. Wall matches Joplin in every way as well in a formidable portrayal of the insistently, persistently optimistic Ethel, and their chemistry is heartwarmingly credible. There are also strong performances from the supporting cast–Ryan as the wounded but hopeful Chelsea, Pierce as the initially moody Billy–who bonds with Norman over fishing–White in the small role of the loyal new boyfriend Bill, and also from Kurt Knoedelseder as the sweet, slightly goofy local mailman Charlie, who grew up in the area and knows the family well.

The setting is well-realized, with Matt Stuckel’s detailed set bringing the rustic summer home to life with meticulous authenticity. The digital screen serving as the picture window overlooking the lake provides a nice atmospheric touch, and Robin Weatherall’s sound design contributes to the overall effect as well, as does Geordy Van Es’s lighting. My only small quibble is that the script, written in the late 1970s, doesn’t always lend well to the updating of the setting to the present day, as this production has done. Some of the dialogue and situations make more sense with the earlier setting.

There’s drama and a good amount of humor in On Golden Pond, with its somewhat talky story and with those richly portrayed characters, with the lake house itself becoming a prominent character as well. There isn’t a lot in terms of action, but at its best, it’s a moving look at aging, youth, family, and the power of memory and hope. The heart of the show, however, is the relationship between Norman and Ethel, which is touchingly portrayed here by two superb veteran St. Louis performers.

Jenni Ryan, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting On Golden Pond at the .Zack Theatre until July 23, 2017.

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John & Jen
Book by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald
Lyrics by Tom Greenwald, Music by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
July 15, 2016

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Brother and Sister. Mother and Son. These are important relationships to which many theatre goers will be able to relate, dealt with in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s two-person musical John & Jen, which is currently being presented by Insight Theatre Company. The production is well-cast, for the most part, and provides an intriguing look at one woman and two important relationships in her life.

The story features two performers playing the characters at various ages and stages of their lives. Jen Tracy (Jenni Ryan) is six years old when her brother John (Spencer Davis Milford) is born, and we get to see the dynamics of their relationship as both grow up and learn to deal with the world around them and with a domineering, sometimes violent father. Jen’s wish to protect her brother conflicts with her desire to get away from her hostile home environment, and as she goes to college in the 1960’s and gets caught up in anti-war activism, John stays home under the influence of his father and eventually finds his own views about the war and life conflicting with Jen’s. This relationship has a profound impact on Jen, who later names her own son (also Milford) after her brother. We get to watch as Jen becomes a loving but sometimes overprotective mother, and as young John grows and learns to assert his own independence. The mother-son relationship is alternately strong and strained, as Jen learns to deal with her own personal issues regarding her brother and how she relates to her son.

There isn’t a lot more detail I can go into without spoiling too much, but essentially this is a character study. The primary focus is on Jen, with relationships with her brother and son providing insight into her own issues of attachment, guilt, and conflict about how to be a good mother to her son. The two performers give strong performances, with both convincingly portraying the characters at different ages, and with Milford especially doing an excellent job distinguishing between the two characters he plays, both named John. Milford also has a strong singing voice, performing the show’s songs well and displaying a great deal of energy on songs like “Dear God”, “Little League”, and “Bye Room”. Ryan, while giving a convincing acting performance, sometimes struggles with the singing, particularly as many of the songs seem a little to high for her range. Both performers portray convincing relationships, first as brother and sister, and then as mother and son, and the conclusion of the play is particularly affecting.

The show is performed on a minimalist set designed by Kyra Bishop–consisting of a series of ramps, platforms, a wall, and a swing– that provides an effective backdrop for the action of the show. There’s also excellent use of projections–also designed by Bishop and filmed by David Sanford–and Leah McFall’s excellent costumes to effectively portray the changing times as the story moves from the 1950’s and eventually into the 1980’s.  There’s also excellent lighting from Oliver Littleton and sound by Brett Harness.

John & Jen provides a lot for audience to think about, although the underlying message can be unclear at times. For the most part, though, this is a vivid, interesting character study looking at three people over the course of four decades of American history. Although the history is there as a backdrop, this is primarily a personal story, and as that it’s compelling to watch.

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Spencer Davis Milford, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting John & Jen at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 31, 2016.

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Spinning Into Butter
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
August 29th, 2015

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley, John J. O’Hagan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s season-ending production, Spinning Into Butter, deals with important issues that are more timely than ever in today’s world. It’s a well-structured play given an impressive presentation at Insight. With a strong cast and excellent production values, this play is sure to make audiences think.

In this play, playwright Rebecca Gilman has set this very issue-oriented story into specific context. The central figure, Sarah Daniel (Jenni Ryan), the Dean of Students at a small Vermont college, deals with the struggles of how to confront various situations that arise among students of color at her predominantly white college. There’s Patrick Chibas (Rahames Galvan), who qualifies for a scholarship but is uncomfortable with the categories regarding ethnicity on the application form. There’s also the unseen Simon Brick, an African-American student who has been receiving hateful anonymous messages.  When Sarah brings in her fellow academics to deal with the crisis, their answers are problematic, to say the least. These situations set in motion a series of events that eventually leads to Sarah’s confronting herself and her own attitudes.

This is a well-structured play, presenting Sarah as a well-meaning but somewhat confused academic official surrounded by others who don’t help the situation. There are two figures who serve as more reasonable sounding boards–professer Ross Collins (John J. O’Hagan), who has complicated personal relationship with Sarah; and Mr. Meyers, the campus security officer who acts as something of an unofficial spokesperson for Simon. The antagonists are Deans Catherine Kenney (Erin Kelley) and Burton Strauss (John Contini), who often appear to be more concerned with the college’s reputation–or their own–than the needs of the students.  There’s also a young student, Greg Sullivan (Elliot Auch), who presents something of an enigma, in that his role in the story turns out to be much different than I was expecting. The issues raised here are complicated and vital, but the purpose here seems more to be a cause for reflection than anything else. Gilman doesn’t give easy answers, presenting subjects for drama and thought rather than offering easy solutions, since there are none to give.

The performances here are strong, led by the personable Ryan as Sarah, who goes on an obvious emotional journey through the course of the story. As the character begins to ask some extremely tough questions of herself, Ryan makes this process believable. She plays well opposite O’Hagan, who is likable as the conflicted but concerned Ross. Contini and Kelley are both memorable, giving a measure of depth to their roles as stuffy academics. Galavan, Auch, and Knoedelseder are all convincing in their roles, as well, with Knoedelseder emerging as probably the play’s wisest voice, and Auch convincingly portraying a character whose motives change in a somewhat surprising way.

As is usual for Insight, the technical aspects of this production are strong. The set, by Jeffrey Behm, is an appropriately detailed representation of a well-appointed academic’s office.  Tracey Newcomb’s costumes suit the characters well, the the sound (by Robin Weatherall) and lighting (by Paige Seber) are suitably effective.  The scene changes can occasionally last a little too long, but I hope that’s a detail that can be ironed out as the show’s run continues.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this play is that these topics require honest thought and dialogue. A show like this is there to simply help start the discussion. Insight’s well-staged production does that about as effectively as I can imagine, with a strong cast and staging that manages to take issues out of the realm of the theoretical and make them effectively personal.

John J. O'Hagan, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John J. O’Hagan, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s production of Spinning Into Butter runs at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves until September 13th, 2015.

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