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The Agitators
by Mat Smart
Directed by Lisa Tejero
Upstream Theater
October 4, 2019

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

For me, The Agitators at Upstream Theater is an educational experience as well as a theatrical one, and I would imagine the same would be true for many others in the audience. Following the true but not generally highlighted friendship of two well-known and important historical figures, this production also serves as an ideal showcase for its excellent actors. Its also notable for a memorable musical soundtrack and strong production values.

A lot of audience members will (or should be) familiar with prominent 19th Century activists Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. I had read a fair amount about both before, but I wasn’t aware that the two shared a close friendship that lasted for decades. This play focuses on that friendship, and on both central figures’ lives in devotion to their causes, the abolition of slavery and equal rights (including voting rights) for African-Americans and for women. The story spans the decades, starting in the 1840s when Douglass (Jerome Samuel Davis) and Anthony (Erin Kelley) first meet and form a friendship, through the years before and after the Civil War, to the effort to pass the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and in the continuing fight for women’s sufferage. The two are portrayed as affectionate friends and allies, but also strong personalities who occasionally clash in pursuit of their causes, as their focuses and approaches do not always align. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the struggles that activists can face, and the temptations to compromise some goals in favor of others. It also shows both characters challenging one another at various times, putting strains on their life-enduring friendship. It’s an in-depth look at these two and at a particularly tumultuous time in American history.

The casting is ideal here, with both performers giving terrific performances and working together especially well, showing an incredible bond between their characters. The strong presence and historical importance of both Douglass and Anthony is well-embodied by Davis and Kelley, as is their humanity, as well as the passage of time and aging of the two central figures over the years and decades. It’s a compelling portrayal from both, and the relationship forms the foundation of the drama. There’s also a strong musical soundtrack provided by Syrhea Conaway that is essentially a character in itself, lending much poignancy to the production.

The set, by Patrick Huber, is versatile and evocative, consisting of a wooden stage area and several blocks that are moved around by stagehands as needed, backed by excellent projections. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler also add to the sense of time, place, and character. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes. All of these elements, as well as the props by Jenny Smith and wigs by The Wig Associates, work together to make for an impressively credible production.

The Agitators is a compelling drama, with its important historical characters–and the top-notch performers portraying them–at front and center. It’s educational and enlightening, highlighting important historic events as well an timeless themes of equality and justice. It’s an impressive season opener for Upstream Theater.

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting The Agitators at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 13, 2019

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Salt, Root, and Roe
by Tim Price
Directed by Kenn McGlaughlin
Upstream Theater
April 26, 2019

Amy Loui, Donna Weinsting, Sally Edmundson
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater has taken audiences on theatrical trips to various places around the world through its productions, from Australia to England to Germany and beyond. The company’s latest production heads to Wales, with Welsh playwright Tim Price’s Salt, Root, and Roe. It’s an atmospheric piece and vivid portrayal of characters, with a lyrical tone and serious subject matter, as its characters deal with memory, mortality, old attachments, and more. At Upstream, this play is given a compelling treatment with a strong cast and great production values.

The setting here is Pembrokeshire, in southwestern Wales, where elderly twin sisters Iola (Donna Weinsting) and Arnest (Sally Edmonston) grew up. The play begins as Arnest’s daughter Menna (Amy Loui) has returned to the old seaside cottage prompted by a “goodbye” letter from her Aunt Iola, frantic to find Iola and stop her from doing anything drastic, but fearing she might be too late. As Menna and her childhood friend and possible former love interest, police officer Gareth (Eric Hyde White), discuss plans and dread what may have happened, the sisters arrive at the cottage, surprised to see Menna there. That’s only the beginning. From there, the story gradually unfolds and more details are revealed about all four characters and their situations, which are a lot more complicated than they first appear. The structure is more or less linear, although there are non-linear elements and breaks from continuity for poetic musings and reminiscences from the sisters. The Welsh setting, culture, and language are essential elements of the story. I won’t give away too much, except to say some of the subject matter here is especially intense and may be difficult for some viewers, as it deals heavily with the subjects of aging, dementia, and mortality.

The setting is well depicted in this production. Scenic designer Michael Heil has transformed the small black box space at the Kranzberg Arts Center into a vividly realized representation of a seaside cottage and its surroundings. Lighting designer Steve Carmichael and props designer Rachel Tibbetts, along with scenic artist Lucy Garlich also contribute impressively to the overall mood of the production. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters especially well.

The characterizations here are particularly strong, despite an inconsistency with the accents. As the sisters, Weinsting and Edmonson display excellent chemistry and a thouroughly believable bond. There’s a real sense of history, and mutual dependence, in their relationship. Weinsting in particular is a standout for the sheer range of emotions in her portrayal, as Iola struggles to retain a sense of herself as her memory is rapidly fading. Loui, as the protective, world-weary Menna, is also excellent, and White lends fine support as the loyal friend Gareth. It’s a strong ensemble that brings a real sense of poignancy and heart to the already poignant script.

Salt, Root, and Roe is a play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and discussion, especially in terms of some of the characters’ choices, but also in questions of mortality that are inherent to the human condition regardless of particular situations. The Welsh setting lends a lyrical air to the production, as well. It’s another memorable production from Upstream Theater.

Amy Loui, Eric Dean White
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Salt, Root, and Roe at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 12, 2019

 

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Wittenberg
by David Davalos
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2019

Alan Knoll, Steve Isom Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

It almost sounds like a set-up for a joke–Hamlet, Martin Luther, and Doctor Faustus walk into a classroom. What’s the punchline? Well, there’s a lot more to Upstream Theater’s latest show than punchlines. Wittenberg by David Davalos takes its intriguing premise and develops it into a compelling, funny, and thoughtful story, and Upstream has staged it with some impressive local talent.

So, this is a mash-up of sorts. It features a real-life character and two iconic fictional protagonists from theatrical history and puts them together in a way that provokes humor, yes, but also a lot of thought. The setting is Wittenberg, Germany, and the time is 1517. Hamlet (Corey Boland) is an aimless young student at the university, and he looks up to his favorite teachers, Doctor John Faustus (Steve Isom), who teaches philosophy; and Martin Luther (Alan Knoll), who teaches theology. The focus seems to be on Faustus most of the time, and his affectionate but often antagonistic relationship with Luther. They are essentially opposite influences on the impressionable Hamlet, who isn’t sure he’s ready to be king of Denmark and is still trying to figure out his purpose in life. There are no literal “deals with the devil” for Faustus here. Instead, he tries to make the most of life, reaching for experiences to validate him, such as his relationship with a woman, Helen (Caitlin Mickey, who plays several roles). The continuing philosophical and religious struggles and dilemmas of Faustus and Luther continue to play out and influence Hamlet’s and their own choices, as Luther vacillates about what to do about his theological issues with the Catholic Church, Hamlet struggles with identity, and Faustus tries to influence both of them while also trying to make sense of his own life.

It’s a fun show, with some interesting twists like having Faustus moonlight as a lute-playing lounge singer, Hamlet playing tennis with an offstage Laertes (voice of Nicholas Henke), Faustus and Luther as bickering friends, and more. All of the performers are excellent, with Isom giving the best performance I’ve seen from him as Faustus, portraying him as charming and fun-loving, but also with an underlying sense of sadness about him. Knoll is also fantastic as the sometimes strident, sometimes reticent Luther, and the scenes between him and Isom are the highlight of the production. Boland is also a delight as the eager-to-learn Hamlet, and Mickey does an excellent job in several roles, including the sophisticated Helen (described in the program as a “lady of pleasure), cheerful barmaid Gretchen, and–in an amusing vision of Hamlet’s–the Virgin Mary.

The space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is very small, but the production makes the most of that space, with a stunningly realized set by Michael Hall that portrays Faustus’s richly appointed office and desk laden with various artifacts and gadgets. The costumes by Laura Hanson are sumptuously detailed, as well, and the props by Rachel Tibbetts are excellent. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael and sound by Philip Boehm to help maintain the mood and occasionally whimsical atmosphere of the production.

This is a play that has to be seen to be believed. It’s easy to describe in one sense, but it really has to be experienced. WIth a top-notch cast, stellar production values, and a smart, thoughtful, witty script, Wittenburg is a trip through the imagination that’s well worth taking.

Casey Boland, Steve Isom, Caitlin Mickey Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wittenberg at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 10, 2019

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Chef
by Sabrina Mahfouz
Directed by Marianne de Pury
Upstream Theater
October 5, 2018

Linda Kennedy
Photo: Upstream Theater

Chef at Upstream Theater isn’t exactly what it may first seem to be.  Yes, it’s about a chef, but it’s about a lot more than cooking. It’s an intense, emotionally harrowing one-woman show that explores many facets of its title character. It also features a remarkable performance by one of St. Louis’s most accomplished local performers.

Linda Kennedy plays the title role, who is given no other name throughout the story. She’s only ever called “Chef”, and it soon becomes clear after we meet her that she’s not just any chef. She’s a chef at a prison, as well as being an inmate there. What then transpires is a series of monologues telling her story, punctuated by a provocative soundtrack of sounds that contribute to the atmosphere of the production. It’s a highly personal tale, as Chef reads out menus, reflects on her ideas about food and her occupation, as well as her personal relationships with her family and violent men. It’s not a story as much as an examination of one character and what brought her to where she is. The tone is stark, chilling, and increasingly mysterious as we find out more and more about particular events in Chef’s life both before and after she arrived in prison.

This is a show that depends a lot on its central performance, as is expected for one-person shows. The story isn’t linear, and it can be challenging to follow at times, but Linda Kennedy makes every moment worth watching, and thinking about. We see the world Chef inhabits entirely through her eyes, and Kennedy brings the story to life with a rich, multi-faceted performance that makes her experiences all the more intense and compelling. From her present reality as an inmate to the circumstances of how she got there, as well as her treatment and that of her fellow inmates is reflected clearly in her bold, intelligent and highly emotional performance. The production values add a lot to the experience as well, with a simple but effective scenic design by Kristin Cassidy, costumes by Laura Hanson, and especially Tony Anselmo’s stark lighting and Jim Blanton’s atmospheric sound.

Chef isn’t exactly what I had expected. It’s an especially intense, insightful look at one woman’s life and how its been affected by those around her, and by her chosen profession. It’s not really a play about cooking, although cooking is an essential element of the plot, and the character. It’s not easy to describe without giving too much away. Still, what’s most important is the indelible performance of Linda Kennedy in the lead. It’s a tour-de-force for her, and another thought-provoking production from Upstream.

Linda Kennedy
Photo: Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Chef at the Kranzberg Theatre until October 14, 2018

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A Tree, Falling
by Ron Elisha
Directed by Michael Dorsey
Upstream Theater
April 28, 2018

Jerry Vogel, Kari Ely
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

There’s no use mincing words about this–Upstream Theater’s latest production, Australian playwright Ron Elisha’s A Tree, Falling is a sad play. It’s incredibly sad. It’s the kind of sad that just sort of sits with you for a while, daring you to cry. Yes, there are small spots of hope, but the overarching emotions here are sadness and regret.

Director Michael Dorsey has brought two prominent, top-notch St. Louis performers to this production. Jerry Vogel plays Lenny, an 80-year-old retired physician who essentially lives in his own world. His former life isn’t even a memory to him, as he is suffering from profound memory loss. Kari Ely plays Lola, a “friendly visitor” who has been sent by the local council to help Lenny, although she has to re-introduce herself every time she visits because Lenny never remembers her. Through the course of the story, we learn more about Lenny’s former life, as well as about personal issues in Lola’s life, as she deals with news about her own family and struggles to help Lenny remember anything of his. As Lenny’s health declines, the relationship dynamic grows more urgent, and more sad, and the sense of loss of a richly lived life is emphasized all the more.

The play’s staging and production design give it a sense of fantasy as well as realism, with Cristie Johnson’s detailed set also evoking a “vortex” type motif that adds emphasis to the theme of memory loss. The costumes by Laura Hanson, lighting by Tony Anselmo, props by Katie Schoenfeld, and sound by Michael Dorsey also work together well to suggest a sense of realism as well as a crushing sense of confusion and loss, augmenting the truly excellent performances of the two leads. Vogel, as the stubborn but personable Lenny, and Ely, as the friendly but equally stubborn and detrmined Lola, bring excellent chemistry and a full range of emotions to this heartwrenching production. Part of the sadness comes from the clear realization of the life that Lenny has forgotten, as well as the continued, increasingly frustrating efforts of Lola to help him, as well as to make sense of her own life as she learns that her own past isn’t quite what she thought. There is a true sense of affection that builds between the characters, but always that sense of profound sadness as well. It’s a difficult play to watch, even with the stunning performances.

A Tree, Falling is a short play, running at roughly 80 minutes with no intermission, and there’s a lot that goes on in that short running time. It’s an ideal length for such a relentlessly heavy subject matter, really, because more time would only have served to prolong the sadness, although there is a degree of hope at the end, depending on how you look at it. Still, this was worth seeing as a reminder of the importance of life and personal connections, even when those connections are muddled or entirely lost. It’s also a showcase for some truly excellent St. Louis acting talent.

Kari Ely, Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

 

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Infected
by Albert Ostermaier
Translated by Philip Boehm
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
February 15, 2018

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Infected, the latest play from Upstream Theater, is something of an immersive experience. The audience members are given masks to wear when they enter the theatre, and a voice instructs when to put them on, and the clincal, antiseptic atmosphere of quarantine is set and maintained throughout. The story itself is somewhat confusing, although it provides an excellent showcase for actor Alan Knoll.

Knoll plays a nameless character described in the program as “a trader in quarantine”, and that’s essentially what the play is about. We see him in a catatonic state as the play begins, and then an attendant gives him an injection of something and he wakes up, agitated and full of excuses and stories. He’s a stock trader, apparently, and the market has been his life, but now he’s being held in quarantine for an unnamed illness, and we get to hear about his life, his personal philosphies, his family, his hopes, his fears, and his mistakes. It’s not made clear what illness he has, and although there are suggestions that he’s done something to put himself here, the story isn’t entirely clear. It’s also not clear whether or not this “quarantine” is real or just an elaborate dream or delusion. What we do see, though, is a man who has sold his soul to the market to the degree that he’s lost touch with his priorities, his family, and possibly even reality itself. Alan Knoll gives a compelling performance as the trader, displaying a full range of emotions as we see this desparate, once confident man try to make sense of his world and the predicament in which he finds himself. The trader isn’t the most likable of characters, but Knoll makes him interesting, and engaging to watch. It’s an impressive performance that takes a lot of energy.

Knoll’s performance is augmented and assisted by the technical elements of the show that work to create the chilling, intense atmosphere of this trader’s confinement. David A. N. Jackson provides a variety of sounds that contribute to the story–sometimes responding to Knoll, and sometimes underscoring his tales. Patrick Huber’s simple, all-white set and Geordy van Es’s dramatic lighting help to maintain the overall unsettling feel of the story. There’s also excellent work from media designer Michael Dorsey, props designer Elizabeth Lund, and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, who outfits Knoll in an appropriately businesslike three-piece suit that becomes increasingly rumpled as he sheds the outer layers and grows more animated as the play continues.

The story of Infected isn’t always easy to follow, but the main attractions here are Knoll’s remarkable performance and the overall atmosphere for the audience. It’s as if we’re all in quarantine, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s a show that’s definitely going to leave an impression, and keep its audiences guessing–and thinking–even after they leave the theatre.

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Infected at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 25, 2018.

 

 

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Sweet Revenge
by Aleksander Fredro
Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 12, 2017

Whit Reichert, John Contini
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is bringing a Polish comedy classic to the stage with style. Aleksander Fredro’s Zemsta (or “Revenge”) may not be as well known in the United States, but it’s extremely famous in Poland, and Upstream’s director Philip Boehm has now brought it to the stage in St. Louis, with the added bonus of paying tribute to a Polish-American theatrical troupe that was active here in the mid-2oth Century. It’s a fun show, with excellent staging and a great cast.

Sweet Revenge, as Boehm has titled his translation, is given the framing device of being a 1933 performance by the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society, which is a real company with which cast member John Bratkowski and several of his family members were involved. In the opening scene, the cast members sing a Polish song and an audience member (Eric Conners) sings along, whereupon he is noticed by the cast and invited to join them in performing the play, since they are apparently one actor short for their play. From there, until the very last scene that revisits the framing device, the play proceeds in a straightforward manner. The story follows feuding neighbors Czesnik (Whit Reichert) and Milczek (John Contini), who already hate each other but then dispute over the repair of a wall that separates their property. To further complicate the story, several people are vying for the hand of Czesnik’s ward, Klara (Caitlin Mickey), including Czesnik’s friend Papkin (Bratkowski), Czesnik himself (at first), and Milczek’s son, Waclaw (Pete Winfrey), who Klara actually loves. There’s also the widow Hanna (Jane Paradise), who Papkin pursuades Czesnik to woo but who has an agenda of her own that involves Waclaw. In the midst of all this romantic scheming, Czesnik and Milczek are both intent on doing whatever it takes to get “sweet revenge” and emerge victorious in their years-long feud.

The play is inventively staged, with a traditional proscenium set-up as would be fitting for a performance in the 1930s. The set by Patrick Huber is colorful and appropriately whimsical, with excellent work by scenic artists Erica Ahl, Mary Hopkins, and Cristie Johnston to help set the scene. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Steve Carmichael, prop designer A. S. Freeman, and costume designer Laura Hanson, helping to present the play in a way that is both true to its comic style and to the way it might have been presented in 1933 St. Louis. The framing device, while not strictly necessary and not really having much bearing on the actual plot of the play, still works well enough to call attention to the importance of this play in Polish culture, as well as communicating a message of diversity and reconciliation that is timely now as it would have been in 1933.

As for the play itself, it’s hilarious, with crisp staging and broadly drawn characters, and a rhyming verse structure that is handled extremely well by translator and director Philip Boehm and the cast. The cast is extremely strong, as well, led by Reichert and Contini in excellent form as the stubbornly feuding neighbors, and by Bratkowski as the hapless, self-serving Papkin. It’s a great cast all around, as well, with excellent comic timing by all, and good chemistry between Mickey and Winfrey as the young lovers caught in the midst of all the scheming. Paradise, as Hanna, and Conners as the audience member and in three different roles in the play, are also impressive. This is a very funny play, especially as the plot gets even more complicated as it goes on, and the whole cast rises to the challenge presented by such a broad, physical type of comedy.

Ultimately, Sweet Revenge works well as both a comedy and a bit of a history lesson, as a present-day St. Louis theatre company pays tribute to one from the city’s past, and to an important Polish theatrical work. As is usual with Upstream, it’s an impeccably cast production, as well. It’s well worth seeing.

Cast of Sweet Revenge
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Sweet Revenge at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 22, 2017.

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