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Posts Tagged ‘vladimir zelevinsky’

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
December 7, 2019

Samantha Hayes, Kent Coffel, Mary Tomlinson, Kellen Green, Charles Heuvelman, Chuck Winning, Gracie Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

 

As the title of the giant storybook onstage at West End Players Guild suggests, it’s a Charles Dickens Christmas for the company this year. It’s a thoroughly Dickens story, and probably the second most well-known of the author’s Christmas writings. The Cricket on the Hearth has been dramatized and filmed quite a few times over the years, although not nearly as much the more famous Dickens holiday tale, and WEPG is presenting an all-new adaptation by a playwright they’ve worked with before, Vladimir Zelevinsky. As is to be expected with Dickens, it’s a play full of memorably named characters involved in a somewhat convoluted plot with some surprising twists and moral messages involved. As adapted and presented here, even though there are some slow moments, overall it makes for a heartwarming theatrical experience for the holiday season.

The storytelling convention used here works well for this particular story, having various characters take turns narrating the story, starting and ending with the cheerful Mary “Dot” Peerybingle (Grace Sartin), a young mother and the wife of the local mail carrier, the kindly but much older John Peerybingle (Chuck Winning), who dotes on his wife and child but is somewhat insecure about whether he deserves his by all accounts devoted young bride. It certainly seems like a happy home, blessed with occasional chirping of a cricket, viewed as a symbol of good luck. The cricket may not be seen by the audience, but its presence is made known through the use of playwright Zelevinsky’s memorable score, admirably played by Heather Chung on violin and accompanied by Cameron Perrin on flute. The Peerybingles’ lives are intersected with various others in this twisty little story, including the kind and weary toymaker Caleb Plummer (Charles Heuvelman), who weaves fantastic tales of an idealistic life to his daughter Bertha (Samantha Hayes), who is blind but who turns out to be much more perceptive than Caleb realizes. Caleb, who is a widower and whose other child, a son, is apparently lost after leaving to travel the world, works for an imperious boss, Mr. “Gruff and” Tackleton (Kent Coffel), who hates toys and children despite his line of business. Tackleton is set to marry the young May Fielding (Mary Tomlinson), and old friend of the Plummers and of Dot Peerybingle’s, to the consternation of Caleb. The preparations for the impending wedding, along with the situation of the Peerybingles’ taking in a mysterious, obviously disguised “Stranger” (Kellen Green), form the center of the conflict in this story that seems to emphasize the virtues of loyalty and kindness and their eventual triumph over the evils of greed.

Not having read the original story, I don’t know exactly how faithful the adaptation is, but as a play, it works. There are some twists and resolutions that at turns seem overly obvious, sudden, and implausible, but that’s in keeping with some Dickensian conventions. The story is dramatized well, for the most part, with a focus on generally likable characters (with the exception, for the most part, of “villain” Mr. Tackleton), as well as the musical themes that recur throughout the show and provide a fitting soundtrack to the production. The acting is excellent all around, with especially strong performances from Sartin and Winning as the Peerybingles, who seem well-matched despite the oft-mentioned age difference. Heuvelman as Caleb and Hayes as Bertha are also excellent, as is Coffel as a suitably and comically “Gruff” Tackleton. Green as the enigmatic “Stranger” and Tomlinson in the somewhat underwritten role of May round out the strong ensemble with their fine performances.

The production values here are especially impressive, among the best I’ve seen from this company, with a versatile, detailed, and whimsical set by George Shea that forms the ideal backdrop for the story. There are also well-suited, colorful costumes by Tracey Newcomb and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo that helps to set and maintain the overall mood of the production. There’s also that excellent music, already mentioned but worth mentioning again, serving so well to emphasize the overall Dickensian tone and themes of the story.

Overall, I would say this production makes an effective, thoroughly entertaining holiday tale. The Cricket on the Hearth may not be as celebrated as other Christmas stories, but it’s a worthwhile one nonetheless. As staged so effectively by the strong cast at West End Players Guild, this is an engaging, heartwarming holiday story.

Kent Coffel, Chuck Winning
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Cricket on the Hearth at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 15, 2019

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The Great Seduction
by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 10, 2018

Alex Fyles, Heather Sartin, Gracie Sartin, Jason Meyers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s latest production, The Great Seduction, is at once straightforward and surprising. Featuring a well-realized 18th Century setting and an excellent cast, it’s a show where the audience expects to laugh, and does. Still, there are also some surprising elements that elevate this beyond the expected.

According to the program, this play is “increasingly freely adapted from” Alexandre Dumas’s play Mademoiselle de Bell-Isle. For the most part, this is a fairly straightforward period comedy of manners and romantic and sexual scheming set in 18th Century France. The Countess de Bourbon (Heather Sartin) and her friend and sometime lover the Duke of Richelieu (Jason Meyers) both have set their sights on new prospective conquests. The Countess has designs on the earnest young chevalier Raoul d’Aubigny, while the Duke is yearning for Gabrielle de Belle-Isle (Gracie Sartin), who hails from the country but is eager to help her father, who has been imprisoned in the Bastille. What the Countess and the Duke don’t seem to know, though, is that Raoul and Gabrielle are previously acquainted, which adds some complications to their schemes, as does a bet that the Duke makes with Raoul. That’s about all I can say about the plot without spoiling, but I will say that the script is witty and clever, and with well-defined characters and an air of mystery and intrigue that increases as the show continues. There are definitely some surprises along the way, as well, although I’m not entirely sure how well set up they are, especially the ending.

The production has assembled an excellent cast, all playing their roles with energy and excellent timing and presence. Heather Sartin as the countess is expert in her vivacious, worldly portrayal, enjoying a flirtatious chemistry with Meyers’s equally scheming, sometimes overconfident Duke. There are also strong performances by Fyles as the earnest, somewhat naive Raoul and especially Gracie Sartin as the deceptively innocent Isabelle, whose sense of determination is strong. There’s also a strong comic performance from Rachel Bailey as the Countess’s adventurous housemaid Mariette. The personal interactions in this play are crucial, and the chemistry among the ensemble is especially important, along with wit and comic timing. Fortunately, all of these qualities are on clear display in this thoroughly entertaining, but also immensely thought-provoking production.

There’s also a strong sense of time and place presented through the technical aspects of this production. Ken Clark’s well-appointed set maintains the atmosphere of an aristocratic French country estate well. There are also sumptuous costumes by Tracey Newcomb that suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Nathan Schroeder, sound designer Michael Perkins, and props designer Dani Mann. The production does an excellent job of taking the audience back to this specific time and place in history.

The Great Seduction is an intriguing title, especially after having seen the play. After a while it does seem to turn into a game of “who’s seducing who?” That’s to this play’s credit, as well. It’s certainly going to provoke a lot of thought, and maybe even some historical research. It’s an impressive theatrical feat from playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky and West End Players Guild.

Rachel Bailey, Heather Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Great Seduction at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 18, 2018.

 

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Manifest/Destiny
by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 5, 2016

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s newest production is a look at immigration and migration and how generations of settlers have shaped the identity of a nation. It’s also a look at the concept of immigration itself, exploring the reasons why people move from place to place. This St. Louis production of Russian-American playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky’s Manifest/Destiny is constructed in an intriguing way and features some strong performances and memorable moments.

There isn’t one story in this play. There are many. The four player (Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Ariel Roukaerts, and Zach Venturella) all play a variety of characters existing over a span of decades and centuries, representing the many immigrants and settlers, mostly from various parts of Europe, who have come to the United States with hopes of making a home here. The first act focuses on getting here, with the various characters describing their journeys and also their reasons for coming to America, including personal aspirations, religious reasons, and fleeing from oppressive governments. Some of the stories are dramatic and others are humorous, alternating with depicting the experience of travel itself, including water leaks, disease, and dealing with immigration officials at Ellis Island upon arrival. In Act 2, the focus shifts to settlement and migration within the country, as the immigrants traveled an ocean to get to America now find themselves for various reasons wanting to move further and further West. Grueling wagon journeys, disputes with fellow travelers, personal prejudices and legal disputes are depicted as the settlers try to find their place out West. Westward migration isn’t the end, though, as the play suggests the desire to keep moving, keep exploring, is still apparent even toward the “end’ of the story.

This is all very episodic, with some profound and memorable moments such as stories of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, and Irish settlers dealing with the harsh realities not only of migration, but of mistreatment and prejudice by their neighbors. There are some clever elements involving the representative nature of the story, as various characters from different time periods interact and inform one another of their own experiences. There’s a funny moment, for instance, when a man from one time period (Venturella) proposes to a woman (Roukaerts) from a different time, and she points out that it will never work out.  Little moments like this exist amidst the other stories of hopes, dreams, conflict and the ever-present desire to find a home. All four performers do an excellent job of portraying different people from different time periods, with Goldmeier getting some of the more memorable monologues, and Johnson getting to lead the cast in a striking rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The staging, as is usual for most West End productions, utilizes the main stage area and the floor in front of the stage. Director Steve Callahan designed a set that works well with the transient nature of the story, with movable set pieces that can be adjusted to suggest a ship at sail, or a great Western plain, and more. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes outfit the performers well, allowing for the flexibility of playing different characters in different times. There’s also strong lighting work from Rebecca Winslow and sound from Mary Beth Winslow. Overall, the production has much in-motion feel that works very well for the theme of this show.

Manifest/Destiny is a well-told story. It’s not anything especially innovative or groundbreaking, but these stories are important to remember and playwright Zelevinsky has portrayed them with poignancy. The cast members do an excellent job of living the story instead of simply telling it, as well. It’s a history lesson, but it doesn’t forget that it’s humans who make history.

West End Players Guild is presenting Manifest/Destiny at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 13, 2016.

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