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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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This Random World
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 29, 2018

Kate Weber, Ted Drury
Photo: West End Players Guild

The subtitle of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, This Random World, is “The Myth of Serendiptiy”. It’s an attempt to challenge concepts of fate and coincidence, with some intresting and at times frustrating answers. It’s an intriguing concept, certainly.

This is a difficult play to review, because going into too much detail will spoil the story. It’s essentially a puzzle, of sorts, with the various characters as the pieces, and the constantly looming question of how, and even if, the pieces will eventually come together. Those “pieces” include brother and sister Tim (Ted Drury) and Beth (Tinah Twardowski), who start off the play reflecting on life, death, and world travel. Through a series of seemingly random events, Tim and Beth, along with their mother Scottie (Lynn Rathbone), Scottie’s caretaker Bernadette (Jessa Knust), Bernadette’s sister Rhonda (Kate Weber), Tim’s former high school girlfriend Claire (Eleanor Humphrey), and Claire’s boyfriend Gary (Joel Zummak) find themselves in some hard to believe situations that bring some of them into contact with more than a few “near misses” along the way. Situations involving a funeral home, world travel, and various relationships serve to advance the story, with increasing degrees of implausibility, and a last-minute “twist” that somehow manages to be both surprising and not-so-surprising at the same time.

This is the kind of play that especially frustrates me, since so much of the plot depends on contrivances, as well as characters behaving in ways that make little sense. Although there are some thought-provoking ideas and memorable characters, the overall story comes across less as a serious exploration of concepts and more of an exercise in fooling the audience in ways that become more and more ridiculous as the story unfolds. For me, despite some strong performances, especially from Rathbone as the aging but adventurous Scottie, Drury as the bewildered Tim, and Weber as the somewhat flighty Rhonda, this play succeeds more as an exercise in frustration than anything else. It’s a well-done production, but the story is just too pretentious for its own good most of the time. The staging and technical aspects, including the minimal but effective set by Carrie Phinney, lighting by Phinney, Sound by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, and costumes by Mary Beth Winslow, are effective, adding interest and atmosphere to the production.

There’s a lot to think about conceptually in This Random World, as implausible as this whole story can be. Still, the idea is intriguing, and the strong cast makes it even more so. It’s a memorable start to a new season for West End Player’s Guild.

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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2018

Michelle Hand, Jamie PItt, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Henrietta Leavitt isn’t exactly a household name, but her contributions to astronomy are important still. In Silent Sky, the latest production from West End Players Guild, playwright Lauren Gunderson shines a light on Leavitt and her colleagues and the struggles of women in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by a strong cast and with some impressive visual elements, this is an illuminating production.

The story follows Leavitt (Rachel Tibbetts) as she moves from rural Wisconsin to take a job as a “computer” at Harvard, alongside fellow computers Annie Cannon (Jamie Pitt) and Williamina Fleming (Michelle Hand). Leavitt leaves her family, including sister Margaret (Colleen Backer), with whom she is close but whose life’s ambition is vastly different than her own. While Margaret stays home, marries, and has children while playing music in her church, Henrietta, along with her colleagues, strives to gain recognition for her work and engages in a flirtation with Peter Shaw (Graham Emmons), the assistant to the astronomy professor for whom Henrietta works. While Peter is initially skeptical of Henrietta’s abilities, he grows to admire her, as she also gains the admiration of her coworkers, and she becomes engrossed in a project that eventually leads to a remarkable breakthrough in astronomy, and in the very perception of the universe, While Henrietta’s closest relationships with people are highlighted, it’s also made clear that to her, her most important relationship is with her work. It’s an insightful, imaginitive look at figures from history that might not be household names, but whose stories are important to remember. It’s also a somewhat jarring depiction of views about women in science in the not-too-distant past.

The roles are cast well, from Tibbetts’s intrepid, inquisitive, determined Henrietta to Emmons’s sincere but often bewildered Peter, and the excellent chemistry these two display, to Backer’s loyal but exasperated Margaret, who also has excellent rapport with Tibbetts in their scenes together. There are also memorable performances from Hand as the witty Scottish former housekeeper Williamina, and Pitt as the sometimes brash, activist Annie. There’s a great sense of chemistry among all the players, in fact, and an overall spirit of boldness, wonder and passion for discovery that underlies the whole story.

Visually, this show is a stunner, with excellent lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder and clever video designs by Ben Lewis and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, whose staging is inventive and dynamic, as well. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are detailed and period-appropriate, as well. The overall sense of time and place, as well as the overall atmosphere of wonder and exploration, are evoked well in the technical elements as well as in the performances.

This play is about astronomy, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject with passion and even a sense of poetry. The dedication to learning more and more about the universe is clearly portrayed in the story of Henrietta and her colleagues. These women were true pioneers, and this play brings their story to life in a somewhat stylized way, but also in a way that inspires. Silent Sky is the title, but there’s a lot to be said here, and West End Players Guild’s production says it well.

Colleen Backer, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Silent Sky at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 18, 2018.

 

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Stones In His Pockets
by Marie Jones
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 10, 2017

Jason Meyers, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild take its audience to Ireland for its latest production. Stones In His Pockets is a play with many characters, but only two actors. A story with strong comic and dramatic elements, the show features the talents of two excellent local performers.

Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers form the entire cast of this production, each playing a variety of characters. Mainly, though, they are Charlie (Sanz-Agero) and Jake (Meyers), two new friends in a small Irish village that has been chosen as the setting for a major motion picture starring a well-known American actress. Many of the locals, including Jake and the newly-arrived Charlie, have been cast as extras in the film, and that’s the source of much of the comedy and drama of this play, as the filming impacts the town in various foreseen and unforeseen ways. Through the course of the story, we see the movie filming and life in this town through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, as well as through other memorable characters like the film director, the mostly friendly but self-absorbed movie star, a veteran extra who is the last surviving extra from the filming of the John Ford/John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara classic film The Quiet Man, and a troubled teenager and his friend. It’s the young teenager, Sean, whose character ultimately impacts the story the most, turning what starts out as a pleasant, insightful comedy into something more bittersweet and even tragic. The issues explored include the importance of hopes and dreams, as well as commercialism and self-importance in the film industry, and the simple decency of treating people like human beings and not just a means to an end.

The technical elements here work well to set the overall mood and atmosphere of rural Ireland, with Tracy Newcomb’s fairly minimal set and Nathan Schroeder’s evocative lighting setting the stage appropriately. Newcomb’s costumes are also excellent, with the two actors in basic, character-specific costumes but then adding small elements–hats, scarves, etc.–to suggest the changes in character. There’s also good work from dialect coach Richard Lewis, helping the actors achieve consistent and believable Irish accents, although there is a small issue with one name (that of a production assistant on the film, named Aisling) being consistently mispronounced. Still, the overall sense of Irish-ness is achieved and maintained well by this production, with the real centerpiece being the remarkable performances of the two leads, as well as the excellent direction that makes the story flow so well.

Sanz-Agero and Meyers are both wonderful in their roles, as the hopeful aspiring screenwriter Charlie and more jaded Jake, who has just returned from a disappointing time trying to make his fortune in America. Both are excellent at changing from character to character but consistently and quickly resuming their “base” characters as needed. For Sanz-Agero, his most memorable other characters include the movie star, Caroline, and the film director. Meyers excels at physicality in his roles, as well, especially finding poignancy in portrayals of Mickey, the elderly extra, and the moody young Sean. Their portrayals are so vivid, and their transitions so smooth, that it almost does seem like there are more actors in the show than just these two at times. These two play against each other extremely well, too, working to tell a convincing story full of humor, sadness, and ultimately hope.

This is the first time I’ve seen this play, and I’m glad I got to see it here. It’s an excellent production from West End Players Guild. Especially, the actors are to be commended for bringing the audience into such a well-realized world.

West End Players Guild is presenting Stones In His Pockets at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 19, 2017.

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Oedipus Apparatus
by Lucy Cashion
from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
Directed by Lucy Cashion
West End Players’ Guild
April 21, 2017

Will Bonfliglio, Mitch Eagles
Photo by John Lamb

West End Players Guild

There’s a lot of plot, and plotting, in Oedipus Apparatus. There’s also a king, a queen, a precocious 10-year-old, goddesses and Oracles who host a talk show, and lots of talk of physics, prophecy, psychology, and plagues. This is a Lucy Cashion classic adaption, and it’s just as strange and as fascinating as her takes on Shakespeare she’s done with ERA. Here, at West End Players’ guild, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been turned into a fascinating experiment, and it makes for a production like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Here, the classic tale of Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) is told, and re-told, and deconstructed, and re-tooled, and fused with all sorts of different influences from various times in human history, and particularly the 20th and 21st centuries. In a show that runs just short of two hours and keeps a brisk, steady pace with lots and lots of talking, framing and reframing of scenes, this is sure to keep the viewers’ brains engaged. The experience begins before the play even officially starts, as audience members are ushered down the stairs to Thebes by Antigone (Alicen Moser), Oedipus’s daughter, who is working on a project for history class. That project–a family tree–forms much of the framing device for this play, although what we first hear is a long, guided meditation on the concept of death, and fear of death. When the story begins, the main story focuses on the king, Oedipus, and his efforts to appease the angry god Apollo (Joe Taylor, who also plays music throughout the production) and end a plague in his city. He’s sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to visit the Oracle at Delphi and is informed that he needs to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, in order to stop the plague. Well, anyone who’s read the original play knows where this is going, at least to a degree, but since this is a Lucy Cashion creation, that means there will be additional–and fascinating–complications. The scene plays, and then it’s reset several times with elements of physics and geometry included in the dialogue, while there are frequent breaks from the linear story as Antigone carries out her history project and the Oracles–Athena (Rachel Tibbetts), Artemis (Cara Barresi), the Sphinx (Ellie Schwetye), Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Cassidy Flynn) hold a televised talk show. Meanwhile, Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (Maggie Conroy), lounges on a couch on one side of the set, seemingly out of the action, until she ultimately joins in.  As the story goes on, and plays and replays, Antigone and several of the cast members arrange props, readjust the set, and start, stop, and speed up the action as directed by Apollo.  As the story is told and retold, the tension keeps building and the situation gets more and more urgent and chaotic as the plot moves to its eventual devastating conclusion.

This isn’t a play that’s particularly easy to describe. There’s so much going on here, and it’s really important to pay attention, and it keeps a steady, increasingly tense pace. There’s tragedy here, but there’s also humor, philosophy, and a lot of math and physics. The blending of story elements from different eras adds a lot of interest here, with Greek goddesses and oracles hanging out with Dr. Freud, and Jocasta serenading the audience with a pop standard. The ideas of fate and the inevitability of death are built into the story as the story builds the machine. The characters here are memorably characterized and expertly played, from Moser’s persistent, enthusiastic Antigone to Eagles’s stubborn, proud Oedipus, to Conroy’s wild-eyed, bewildered Jocasta, to Bonfiglio’s insistent Creon. The pantheon of god, goddesses, and prophets is also strongly represented, from Overly’s belligerent Tiresius, to Flynn’s philosophical Freud, as well as Tibbetts, Schwetye, and Barresi giving strong support along with Taylor’s monotonous, relentless Apollo. It’s a very strong cast, and they’re given a lot to do, even when they’re not speaking, as their actions work to build a machine as the story continues and replays, again and again until just the right moment.

The set here is like a character in the drama, and the whole space has been transformed in service to the set. Kudos to designers Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis for the intricately constructed set, which is essentially a puzzle with all its pieces to be assembled as the story plays out. Meredith LaBounty’s colorful, whimsical costumes also contribute to this extremely well-realized creation of a timely and also timeless representation of ancient Thebes with a mix of modern sensibilities like cameras and video screens.

This is an immensely clever and  insightful work. There’s a whole lot going on, but there are a lot of strong moments, and fascinating ones like when Freud and Oedipus talk about Hamlet. Yes, that happens. Oedipus Apparatus isn’t what you would expect, and then sometimes it is.  It’s an exciting new experiment and an excellent season closer for West End Players Guild.

Carl Overly Jr., Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Oedipus Apparatus at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 30, 2017.

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The Ice Fishing Play
by Kevin Kling
Directed by Adam Grun
West End Players Guild
February 16, 2017

Scott De Broux, Colleen Backer, Colin Nichols Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Scott De Broux, Colleen Backer, Colin Nichols
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Ice Fishing Play is a strange kind of play. It’s got a lot of character, and that’s its strength, but it also struggles with being a little too obvious in its premise. The production currently being staged by West End Players Guild is full of strong performances and an excellent sense of time and place. Still, it’s the story that’s a little thin.

This is an extremely atmospheric play, and that’s not just talking about the weather. The whole situation of a Minnesota ice fishing cabin is extremely well realized, with an extremely detailed set by Zachary Cary and excellent costumes by Tracey Newcomb-Margrave that augment the characterizations of the cast well. The radio show that constantly plays, featuring local personalities Tim (Mark Abels) and Paul (Michael Monsey) is hilariously appropriate, and even occasionally ominous as the story requires. The characters are well-drawn and well-played, as well, but what’s thin is the story concept itself. Following Ron Huber (Colin Nichols) as he waits out another “storm of the century” in his ice fishing hut and entertains a number of guests in the process, the underlying point of this story becomes obvious in about the first ten minutes of the play. From there on, despite the interesting stories and good amount of humor, the play becomes somewhat of an exercise in patience, as the story plays out and leads to its obvious, inevitable conclusion. Despite a small surprise toward the end of Act 2, this play is fairly obvious in where it’s leading, from almost the beginning.

While the obviousness of the story is its biggest weakness, its biggest strength is its characters, and particularly the performances. Nichols makes a fine sympathetic if sad protagonist as Ron, and Colleen Backer is particularly strong as the most prominent figure in his imaginary musings, his determined and devoted artist wife, Irene. There are also strong performances from  Soctt De Broux as Ron’s brother Duff, Michael Pierce and Shannon Lampkin as a pair of bickering evangelists, Moses Weathers as Ron’s friend and bait shop owner Junior, and George Nicholas as a somewhat mysterious Young Man who shows up near the end of the play. It’s a quirky, well-populated world represented here. I just wish the story was a little less predictable.

The Ice Fishing Play has a lot of humor, and some moments of emotion and despair as well. It’s something of an existential play, with a strong element of fantasy, although it’s obvious where everything is going and exactly what Ron is doing fairly early in the play. It’s worth seeing for the richly portrayed world its characters inhabit and for some particularly strong performances, and particularly the well-portrayed relationship between Nichols and Backer.  Although the story itself does have its weaknesses, this play’s biggest strength is its performances, and it’s quirky charm that makes it ultimately entertaining if not as thought-provoking as the playwright may wish.

West End Players Guild is presenting The Ice Fishing Play at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 19, 2017.

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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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