Posts Tagged ‘wayne salomon’

Fiction
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
October 8, 2022

William Roth, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I’ve sometimes thought that if I were ever to write my memoirs, they would have to be at least partially fictionalized. Since life is rarely as dramatic as literature, at least a little embellishment would be necessary in telling my life story. Also, there are real people involved in my story, and I don’t own their lives, so fudging to protect privacy would also be needed. In addition to these reasons, imagining what could have happened is often easier, more fun, and sometimes less painful than remembering what really happened. These ideas–of truth vs. fiction in telling our stories and those of others we know–are dealt with in intriguing, highly personal detail in Steven Dietz’s relationship drama Fiction, which explores the marriage of two writers who, upon being faced with mortality, are forced to confront their own secrets, mysteries, and realities in their relationship and in their writings. 

The story begins mid-conversation in a café in Paris, where Michael Waterman–played by William Roth, and Linda, played by Lizi Watt–are arguing about music. It’s a conversation that establishes the characters’ personalities to a degree, and we see the good-natured banter and obvious affection between them. Then, the story flashes forward to the present, in which Michael and Linda are both well-known authors who have been married for 20 years. Linda, who lives in the shadow of her more famous husband and the memory of her celebrated first novel, teaches a college writing class. Michael churns out a series of best-selling novels that keep getting made into movies. They have their concerns and regrets, but they know each other well, and they’re happy. That is, they’re happy until Linda gets diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and is given just weeks to live. In the midst of the pending grief, Linda tells Michael she wants him to read her journals after she dies, and requests to read his. Michael is hesitant, but eventually agrees, and as they say, the plot thickens, as the years and years of diaries contain secrets that Michael hasn’t told Linda, involving a young woman that he met at a writers’ colony–Abby, played by Bryn McLaughlin. It may appear obvious where this story is going, and in a way, that is where it goes, but in a much bigger way, this story leads back to something less obvious and potentially more devastating. It’s a story that challenges not only the Watermans’ relationship, but also their identities as writers, and the very ideas of truth and fiction in their lives, as these concepts blend together in mysterious and occasionally confusing ways, leading to some startling revelations and a conclusion that brings the story back to where it began, with a degree of resonance concerning what is to come for the young, unwitting couple. 

I’ve seen a few plays by Steven Dietz, and I think this is most well-constructed, although the characters are hard to like at times–especially Michael. Still, Roth manages to infuse him with enough charm that, as blustery and self-important as he can be, I can understand the connection between him and Linda. Linda, for her part, is much more likable at first, and Watt conveys such an earnestness in her portrayal that makes later revelations all the more surprising. It’s a rich, nuanced performance, and the centerpiece of the play. Watt and Roth also display believable chemistry. McLaughlin, in the somewhat mysterious role of Abby, is also excellent, as her motives aren’t made obvious at first. McLaughlin is adept at maintaining the mystery until the necessary reveals, playing well against both Roth and Watt with a believable degree of antagonism mixed, occasionally, with admiration.

The staging by director Wayne Salomon is fairly briskly paced, taking just enough time for the drama to play out credibly and with due poignancy, but without dragging. The set, designed by Patrick Huber, is dark and minimal, with a bit of abstraction represented by the vague scribblings painted on the walls, like the mysterious vagaries of a writer’s mind. Kristi Gunther’s mood-setting lighting adds to the atmosphere of the production, as do Carla Landis Evans’s well-suited costumes. 

Overall, this is a play that holds my attention from the sheer strength of the acting, as well as the well-crafted intrigue of the unfolding mystery that has more layers than may be apparent at the start. It’s a difficult story at times, in terms of trying to figure out where it’s going, but I’m sure that’s deliberate on the playwright’s part, as even the strongest relationships have their difficulties, and their conundrums. Fiction is the title, but there’s much truth here, in the play itself as well as in the first-rate staging and performances. 

William Roth, Bryn McLaughlin, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fiction at the Gaslight Theatre until October 23, 2022

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The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee and
The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2021

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are two of the most celebrated playwrights of the of the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Their work is often performed and reviewed, and has influenced many great playwrights that have followed. Now at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, two of the writers’ more influential early works, both two character plays, are being featured with the same two actors in both plays. Albee’s The Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are both important plays in the history of theatre, and as shown at STLAS, they are both still powerful, thought-provoking works that serve as excellent showcases for actors. 

Presenting these plays in this manner makes for an excellent way to challenge the actors in their versatility, as William Roth and Joel Moses each play contrasting roles in the two different plays. In The Zoo Story, Roth is Peter, a mild-mannered family man who is enjoying a quiet afternoon reading on a bench in Central Park, when he is suddenly approached by Jerry (Moses), a much more confrontational character who does most of the talking, as he announces he has been to the zoo and then takes a roundabout way of telling the story of why, revealing much about his character and background in the process, as he openly challenges Peter’s more “status quo” lifestyle. Here, Jerry is essentially in control for most of the proceedings, and the play is a challenge for both actors in different ways, as Jerry is very active and loud, while Peter doesn’t speak through much of the story, and Roth is forced to sit there and react to this increasingly uncomfortable invasion of his personal space. Both actors do an excellent job here, with Moses bringing much emotion and humanity to the confrontational Jerry, and Roth giving something of a master class in “reaction acting”, as both characters display a strong sense of increasingly combative chemistry. It’s a challenging play–not out of the ordinary for modern audiences, but especially controversial in its day, as director Wayne Salomon points out in his note in the program. 

The director’s comment also applies to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is from the same era as The Zoo Story, but has a British setting, and this time the two actors take markedly different roles, as two hit men who are waiting in a windowless basement room for a call about their next assignment. Here, Moses plays Gus, the younger, more reticent hit man, while Roth is the more commanding “senior partner”, Ben. Like The Zoo Story, this play also focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters, with one seeming to be more in control than the other. Here, though, the location is also a “character”, in a way, as the titular dumbwaiter seems to have a mind of its own, serving as the instrument for communication (along with a snake-like “speaking tube”) between the main characters and some unseen “others” who keep sending food orders like they are in a restaurant. The dumbwaiter is also prone to opening and–startlingly–slamming shut at unannounced moments, providing a strong source of tension in the play. The performances here are first-rate, as well, with Moses impressive as the more naive, nervous Gus and Roth excellent as the gruff, more businesslike Ben, who is in for some surprises of his own as the play leads to a somewhat surprising, abrupt end.

To echo Salomon’s comments in the director’s note, neither of these plays should be unusually “shocking” for a modern audience, as this sort of grittiness has become much more commonplace in theatre. Still, the sense of character and storytelling is sharp in both, and each is memorable and thought-provoking in its own right. The productions here are well-paced and dynamic, with a strong sense of ensemble chemistry between the two actors, and good technical elements, as well, including especially impressive work from set designer Patrick Huber in producing two very different settings for the plays–as backdrops and a bench provide the park setting for The Zoo Story, and these later give way to the stark, grimy basement setting of The Dumb Waiter. Huber’s lighting design is also effective, as  are Teresa Doggett’s meticulous costumes. 

It’s intriguing to see these two one act plays by different, important playwrights presented this way. Using the same actors in both plays allows both to show more of their range, and allowing the audience to see both plays together allows for comparing and contrasting and getting a direct display of the early foundations of modern theatre. These are plays you may have heard about, or read, or seen in separate productions, but here STLAS is providing an ideal opportunity to see them together. It’s an impressive return to the stage for this local company.

 

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter at the Gaslight Theater until October 3, 2021

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Farragut North
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 16, 2019

Spencer Sickmann, Joshua Parrack, David Wassilak, Shannon Nara
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio hits the campaign trail in its latest production, Farragut North. Taking an incisive, often harsh look at the world of contemporary political campaigns, this play features some sharply drawn characters and intense situations and a thought-provoking, occasionally witty script.  Onstage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre, this production features a strong cast of excellent local performers.

This play was also the source material for the 2011 film The Ides of March, although if you’ve seen that movie, don’t think you know what’s going to happen in this play, because it’s quite a bit different even though the initial situation and some of the characters are the same. The play opens in the midst of a fictionalized 2008 primary race, as campaign staffers for a leading Democratic presidential candidate gather at their hotel bar and swap stories. The central figure is Stephen Bellamy (Spencer Sickmann), the candidate’s press secretary, who is confident of victory in the upcoming caucus, and of the endorsement of a major political figure that will help their candidate emerge as the front-runner in the presidential race. Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (David Wassilak), is also confident as he prepares to travel to an important meeting in another state. As Stephen and Paul tell their stories, a newer staffer, the young and promising Ben (Joshua Parrack) listens, as does ambitious journalist Ida (Shannon Nara), who is eager for every juicy scoop that Stephen can give her. The situation for Stephen gets more complicated when Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer), the campaign manager for another prominent candidate, calls and requests a confidential meeting, and Stephen debates whether or not he should tell Paul. In the midst of the intrigue that results from the meeting, Stephen also navigates a burgeoning personal relationship with an ambitious young intern, Molly (Hollyn Gayle), and Stephen finds out that the campaign situation isn’t as simple as he had imagined. As new twists emerge, Stephen finds himself in the midst of several difficult dilemmas, and his own personal goals as well as those of his colleagues and candidate, undergo some intense challenges.

The centerpiece of the this play is Stephen’s emotional journey, which is deftly navigated here by the always excellent Sickmann, who brings an accessible relatability to his especially determined, sometimes difficult character. Wassilak is also strong as the dedicated political veteran Paul, and Mayer makes the most of his limited stage time as the tough-talking, hard bargaining Tom. There are also excellent turns from Parrack as the idealistic, aspirational young Ben, and Nara as the persistent Ida. Luis Aguilar, in a dual role as a waiter and another campaign staffer, and Gayle as Molly are also fine, although Gayle’s portrayal isn’t quite as worldly as the character seems to suggest. The strongest moments are the scenes between Sickmann and Wassilak, and Sickmann and Mayer, which crackle with energy and intensity as the intrigue of the well-constructed plot unfolds.

Technically, this production uses its space well, with a versatile if somewhat stark set by Patrick Huber. The characters are well outfitted by costume designer Andrea Robb, as well. Huber also designed the lighting, which works well to set and establish the mood and tone of the show, as does director Wayne Salomon’s sound design.

This is an intense, taut, intriguing political thriller, with much of the intensity coming from the characters’ big personalities and the great cast’s memorable performances. It’s a decidedly cynical, sometimes bleak take on the world of politics, although hints of idealism show up from time to time, only to be crushed by harsh realities and the reminder that anyone on a campaign, no matter how seemingly essential, can be replaced. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production brings these stark realities to the stage with crisp, biting incisiveness.  There’s one more weekend to catch it.

Peter Mayer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Farragut North at the Gaslight Theatre until February 24, 2019

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A Behanding In Spokane
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2017

Jerry Vogel, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

With a show like this, it’s tempting to fill this review with “hand” puns and jokes, but I won’t. Or I’ll try not to, anyway. A Behanding In Spokane, by Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh, is the latest production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio, and as is common for McDonagh’s plays, it’s a dark comedy with a macabre twist. And as is usual for STLAS, it has a great cast and dynamic direction.

This is a strange story, no question. The characters are broadly drawn, and the situation is kind of ridiculous, to say the least, but that’s kind of the point in this play. The story follows the brash, bigoted, single-minded Carmichael (Jerry Vogel), who has checked into a small-town hotel in Indiana to carry out a bizarre transaction. According to his elaborate story, his hand was cut off when he was a teenager by a group of strangers, and he’s been on an obsessive 47-year quest to find that hand. This hotel stay is another stop on that journey, where he deals with small-time pot dealers Toby (Michael Lowe) and Marilyn (Léerin Campbell), who have told him they have what he’s looking for. There’s also the curious, meddling reception desk attendant, Mervyn (William Roth), who keeps inserting himself into the situation and seems to have an unusual agenda of his own. That’s basically all I can say without spoiling too much. Basically, it’s all true to McDonagh’s style, with a pitch-dark sense of humor, a good deal of blood, and a cast of not especially likable characters who all have their own competing self-serving agendas.

A story like this depends on the right cast to make it really work, and STLAS has assembled an excellent group of performers here, led by the always-great Vogel in a confrontational performance as Carmichael. Vogel plays well against the also outstanding Roth as the enigmatic, gleefully disruptive Mervyn, who seems to hold the most power in this power struggle most of the time. Campbell, as the excitable Marilyn, and Lowe, as the often bewildered Toby, are also strong here, contributing to the overall excellent ensemble chemistry, consummately directed by Salomon with quick, sharp timing and palpable, suspenseful energy.

The small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is effectively transformed into a small, seedy hotel room by means of Patrick Huber’s set. Huber’s lighting design and Salomon’s sound also contribute well to the overall atmosphere here. There’s also great work from costume and props designer Carla Landis Evans. The props are especially important, contributing to the macabre humor and overall shocking tone of this play.

A Behanding in Spokane is a superbly staged play, but it’s not for all audiences. It’s definitely in the “gruesome humor” category, with a special emphasis on “gruesome”. Still, there’s a first-rate cast here, and a sharp, compelling story and script. If super dark, bloody humor is your thing, this is a play to check out.

Jerry Vogel, Léerin Campbell, Michael Lowe
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Behanding in Spokane at the Gaslight Theatre until December 17, 2017.

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August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 14, 2017

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

August:Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio runs about three and a half hours and serves up some intense and even brutal situations in the life of an Oklahoma family. It may seem like a difficult play to watch, and in ways it is, but with the superb,Pulitzer Prize-wining script, excellent direction and stellar cast, it’s a fascinating, riveting experience that’s sure to hold the audience’s attention from start to stunning finish.

This is a large-cast play, filling STLAS’s small stage at the Gaslight Theatre and bringing out all the sharpness, drama and caustic wit of Tracy Letts’s script. The action centers around Violet Weston (Kari Ely), the sharp-tongued, drug-addicted matriarch, whose poet husband, Beverly (Larry Dell) disappears, bringing the family together and revealing the dynamics and relationships between the various members, including the Westons’ three daughters–Barbara (Meghan Baker), the “responsible” eldest; Ivy (Emily Baker), who still lives nearby and is berated by her mother for not being able to find a lasting romantic relations; and Karen (Rachel Fenton), the youngest who has spent a lot of time in Florida out of touch with the family, only to return at a crisis point with smarmy fiance’ Steve (Drew Battles) in tow. It’s a complicated family, including Violet’s cheerful but pushy sister Mattie Fae (Kim Furlow), her affable husband Charlie (William Roth), and socially awkward son Little Charles (Stephen Peirick), as well as Barbara’s seemingly “perfect” husband, Bill (David Wassilak) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Bridgette Bassa). There’s also Johnna (Wendy Renee Farmer), a young Cheyenne woman who has been hired by Bev against Violet’s wishes to be a housekeeper and caretaker for the family, and who Violet frequently badmouths and berates. The family and interpersonal dynamic is the source of much of the drama and biting humor here, with various revelations and ensuing emotional outbursts as part of the territory. It’s a richly portrayed portrait of a family of “big” personalities that don’t come across as caricatures and, while the situations and characters may be extreme at times, there’s something about the various family dynamics that provides much with which viewers can relate. Even if we don’t have relatives exactly like this, there are things here that most families will be able to recognize to one degree or another.

The language, rhythm and pace of this script is expertly represented here in director Wayne Salomon’s “master class” level of a production. The cast is positively stellar, led by the remarkably complex and multi-layered performance of Ely as Violet. While Violet is not a likable character, Ely does an admirable job of making her fascinating, and even sympathetic at times. Her mood swings, her deep-seated resentment of the life she has led and even the members of her own family, and a dual sense of desperation and resignation are brought to the stage in this incredible portrayal. Ely’s is well-matched by the rest of the cast, as well, especially by Meghan Baker as the “responsible” Barbara whose own life isn’t what it seems and shows her own degree of desperation as life continues to spin out of control; and also by Emily Baker as the sometimes neglected, sometimes bullied middle child Ivy, whose quest for personal happiness and fulfillment takes on its own level of desperation. There are also strong performances from Fenton as the seemingly clueless Karen, Bassa as the conflicted and rebellious Jean, Peirick as the much-maligned (by his own mother) Little Charles, and Roth as Charlie, who is even-keeled until his wife–the also excellent Furlow–reveals his breaking point. Farmer is also memorable as Johnna, who admirably manages to help mitigate the chaos around her. Battles, as the outgoing and decidedly creepy Steve, and Dell as the well-meaning but overwhelmed Bev also turn in excellent performances. This is an excellent ensemble, giving well-pitched performances that do justice to the challenging and sometimes explosive script.

Also impressive are the production values here. The multi-level set by Patrick Huber is something of a wonder, representing the large, well-appointed Weston house with remarkably vivid detail on the Gaslight Theatre’s small stage. Carla Landis Evans’s excellent costumes and props also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this play, as does Dalton Robinson’s effective lighting. The staging of such a large-cast play on such a small stage could easily seem cluttered, but here, everyone fits, and the small stage actually works well for helping to achieve a claustrophobic effect when that is needed, especially in the revelatory family scenes.

This is a wondrous production. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and it runs three and a half hours, but it is never, ever boring. This lucid, intense script is brought to life in such a challenging and stunning way. It’s a truly great production, not to be missed.

Emily Baker, Meghan Baker, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting August: Osage County at the Gaslight Theatre until April 30, 2017.

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Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 23, 2016

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee is unquestionably one of the greatest playwrights of the last 100 years. That St. Louis Actors’ Studio opened its long-planned production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women one week after the playwright’s death was a coincidence. Still, such an excellent, superbly cast production of this intensely personal play couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to this celebrated artist.

Three Tall Women is the title of this play that takes much of its inspiration from Albee’s own life, and especially that of his mother, and despite the title it’s essentially about one woman. The three women of title are only identified as A (Jan Meyer), B (Amy Loui), and C (Sophia Brown), although the central figure is A. The construction of this play is difficult to describe without some degree of spoiling, so let that be a warning. Essentially, this is an examination of one woman’s life at different ages, looking back in retrospective in the first act as elderly A is cared for by her middle-aged caretaker B, and visited by C, a young representative from her lawyer who has trouble dealing with A’s difficult personality. This is all somewhat straightforward until Act 2, when everything changes dramatically and the play suddenly enters the realm of fantasy and A, B, and C all become representatives of the same woman at different ages, all looking at life from their limited perspectives and informing one another of what happens in “their” life. There’s also the somewhat shadowy figure of “The Boy” (Michael Perkins), who appears onstage but doesn’t say anything, although A, B, and C comment on his presence and his relationship to “them”, his elderly mother.  It’s a very talky, philosophical play that delves deeply into the motivations of this woman and her relationships with her son and with her late husband, as well as looking at the different generations of women and how they relate to one another and how they reconcile their own life decisions within themselves.

The casting here is excellent. Meyer, as A, is able to project a simultaneous sense of stubbornness and vulnerability. A is not a particularly likable character, but Meyer embodies her humanity. Loui, as B, portrays the patient caretaker in Act 1 and the middle-aged version of A in Act 2 with assured strength, as well, and Brown plays the suspicious C in Act 1 and the cautiously optimistic C (young A) in Act 2 with convincing conviction. The interplay between these three characters is the essence of the play, from the literal generation gap in Act 1 to the more figurative one in Act 2, and it’s fascinating to watch these three top-notch performers as they spar and confide and conceal and reveal. Perkins is fine as The Boy, doing the somewhat daunting job of sitting there on stage as a focal point for the discussion that his character isn’t really able to hear. The key to the play, though, is the performances of Meyer, Loui, and Brown, and they are all entirely convincing.

Patrick Huber’s static set is meticulously appointed, suggesting the upper class New York apartment of the wealthy, aging central character. Carla Landis Evans’s costumes are ideally appropriate, as well, from the accurate early 1990’s attire of Act 1 to the differently colored and styled glamorous evening gowns of Act 2. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and clear sound by director Wayne Salomon. The fantastical aspects of the play are more achieved by the overall staging and tone than by any special effects, however. The excellent technical aspects simply provide the setting for Albee’s well-crafted words, Salomon’s lucid staging, and the first-rate performances of the leads.

Albee’s look at aging, marriage, and family relationships is crisp and cynical, although there is a glimpse of some kind of positive message toward the end. Ultimately, this is a character study, and a richly drawn one at that. The unusual construction only serves to further illuminate Albee’s difficult, complex central character, who is apparently based on his own mother. At STLAS, the play has been impeccably cast and staged. It’s an ideal tribute to a legendary American playwright.

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Three Tall Women is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until October 9, 2016.

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Ivanov
by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 15, 2016

Cast of Ivanov Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Cast of Ivanov
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Ivanov by Anton Chekov has a rather large cast for the small stage at the Gaslight Theatre. I can’t remember seeing so many people on stage at once in a St. Louis Actors’ Studio production. That could be seen as a problem considering the small stage that STLAS has to work with, but with this latest production, director Wayne Salomon makes the most of the space. With an excellent cast and some inventive staging, Chekov’s play is brought to life in an intriguing, fascinating production.

The story is a critical look at Russian society in last half of the 19th Century. The central figure, the once-vibrant Nikolai Ivanov (Drew Battles) has reached a point in his life in which he is chronically unhappy. His formerly passionate marriage to Anna (Julie Layton)–who gave up her Jewish faith to marry him–is now stagnant and unsatisfying for him. Even though Anna is dying from tuberculosis, Ivanov can’t bring himself to care very much. He’s constantly criticized by self-proclaimed “honest man” Lvov (Reginald Pierre), who is caring for Anna. He’s also beset with pressures, temptations and confusion from others in his life, including his scheming pal Borkin (David Wassilak), the elderly and cantankerous Count Shabelsky (Bobby Miller), and the lovestruck, naive young Sasha (Alexandra Petrullo), the daughter of Ivanov’s old friend Lebedev (B. Weller), whose domineering wife Zinaida (Teresa Doggett) is constantly reminding Ivanov of the money he owes her and is unable to pay. There are more characters and more subplots, but the central dilemma is Ivanov’s struggle to find meaning in his increasingly aimless life.

STLAS’s space at the Gaslight Theatre is tiny, but this company has been able to make the of their limited space time and again. Ivanov is no exception, despite the fairly large cast. The style is generally 19th Century, with Patrick Huber’s wood plank-lined set and Teresa Doggett’s richly detailed costumes, but that set is also marked by fluorescent tube lighting lining the walls, illuminating the stage as the actors rarely leave, even when their characters’ aren’t in a given scene. The performers are kept on stage throughout most of the action, just standing or sitting on the sidelines, sometimes with their backs to the audience and sometimes watching what’s happening on stage. This staging adds to the sense of uneasiness that Ivanov expresses, and it works extremely well. The lighting, also designed by Huber, is particularly striking and effective, as the overall  effect of the play is one of increasing depression and futility for Ivanov.

The actors do an excellent job here with this rather talky play, especially Battles as the melancholy Ivanov and Weller as the more optimistic Lebedev. Weller is particularly strong as possibly the most likable character in the play. Petrullo as Sasha convincingly plays the determined young woman who’s prepared to devote her whole life to “saving” the dejected Ivanov. Pierre is fine as the “honest” Lvov, although he does tend to underplay the role. Layton makes a sympathetic Anna, and Miller brings his usual energy and charm to the role of the amoral Count. There’s also a memorable turn by Wassilak as the gleefully manipulative Borkin. The rest of the ensemble is convincing, as well, carrying the tone of the production as the tension builds leading up to a somewhat abrupt conclusion.

One of the biggest issues I had with this play is that the title character isn’t particularly easy to sympathize with despite Battles’s excellent performance. Neither are most of the characters, for that matter. To a degree that seems to be Chekhov’s aim, though, looking at the society and mores of his day and how they would contribute to Ivanov’s growing sense of ennui. The people around him vary in degrees of ridiculousness, and the staging of this production helps to heighten that sense of dissatisfaction. It’s a clever production, well-acted and impressively presented.

Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of Ivanov runs at the Gaslight Theatre until May 1, 2016.

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Art
by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 17, 2015

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

How subjective is beauty? What about the value of art? What happens when longtime friends disagree on these issues, and how does this conflict affect the friendship? These are several of the issues brought up in Yasmina Reza’s Art, which is currently onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  As is usual for STLAS, this is a memorable production, bringing together a very strong cast and production values to tell this emotionally charged comedy.

The story here is introduced by Marc (John Pierson), a curmudgeonly sort of guy who has something of a distrust for the modern, especially modern art. He’s highly skeptical, even personally offended, when his friend Serge (Drew Battles) purchases a ridiculously expensive painting by a famous artist. The problem is that the painting is white, as in it’s all white, although Serge insists there is more to it than that.  Also on the scene is their more ingratiating friend Yvan (Larry Dell), who tells each friend what he wants to hear and just wants everyone to get along. In the midst of this initial conflict, the play also injects issues of friendship jealousy and criticism of the friends’ relationships with the women in their lives, including Yvan’s upcoming wedding and the family conflicts it causes. Although the main argument is between Marc and Serge, the dynamic of all three men’s relationships with one another provides the tension of the play, and much of its comedy, as these guys argue about everything from the nature of great art to the value and importance of friendship itself.

This is a play in which there isn’t much of a plot, particularly. It’s the relationships that make the story, and therefore it requires strong actors to maintain the energy and carry the show. There are three very different men here, so it requires strong ensemble chemistry to make their relationships believable. Fortunately, the cast here is uniformly excellent, working together well and portaying a convincing combative friendship. Pierson as the gruff, contrary Marc spars well with Battles as the pretentious and nervous Serge, with both actors displaying a strong sense of presence. Dell as the harried, people-pleasing Yvan, who becomes something of a combination referee and punching bag for his two more assertive friends, gives a particularly winning performance, as well.

Technically, this production is strong as I’ve come to expect from STLAS, with one notable exception. On opening night, there was a sudden power outage toward the end of the play that stopped the show for a few minutes, although it was well-covered by the cast. Aside from that, everything else is impressive, most notably the set by Cristie Johnston, which recreates an upscale city apartment with rich detail. The costumes by Teresa Doggett appropriately suited the characters. Dalton Robison’s lighting and Wayne Salomon’s sound design also contributed well to the atmosphere of the production.

Aside from a little too much departure from the action in which the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, this is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining play.  STLAS has brought together a strong cast and crew to close out their season well. There are many interesting issues dealt with here, but the real story is the relationships, and those are convincing and compelling.  It’s a work of art worth the investment.

John Pierson, Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

John Pierson, Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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