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Equivocation
by Bill Cain
Directed by Tom Kopp
West End Players Guild
September 28, 2019

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, John Wolbers, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is opening their new season with the second play by a local company focusing on the working and personal life of the Bard in two months. There are some major differences, though, between those productions. The last one, Insight’s Shakespeare in Love, was a large-cast comedy. This one, Equivocation, has a relatively small cast and is more dramatic in tone, although it does have its humorous moments. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen from this company.

This play is something of a “What if?” story, presenting the playwrights idea of what could have happened in history, even if there’s no concrete evidence that it did. It’s an intriguing idea, too, with successful playwright William Shagspeare (Roger Erb) -as he is called here–being summoned by the Prime Minister, Robert Cecil (John Wolbers), who orders Shagspeare to write a play about the infamous–and recently foiled–“Gunpowder Plot”. Shagspeare is reticent for several reasons, but Cecil is insistent, as is Richard (Reginald Pierre), the leader of Shagspeare’s theatrical troupe. The other players, Nate (also Wolbers), Armin (Mark Conrad) and the newest member, Sharpe (Michael Pierce) are all intrigued as well, but Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith (Alicen Moser), who professes to hate theatre, isn’t so sure, especially since her father states he wants to tell the truth. “How can there be anything true about a play?” she asks, and that’s the big question here. How does a playwright write the truth when so many factors are working against him? There are pressures from his actors to write good roles for them, and to write a play that sells tickets. There’s also the more pressing government pressure to tell the “official” story of the plot, of which Shagspeare is skeptical, to say the least. There’s also his own self-doubt and personal regrets based on past reactions to his plays and what his audience expects from his plays. Add that to the personal tensions he has with his daughter, his lingering grief about having lost his son, and the outlook for this play doesn’t look promising, at least at first. Then, the playwright begins to interview some of the “plotters”–particularly Tom Wintour (also Pierce) and Catholic priest Garnet (also Pierre), learning that there’s a lot more to the story than the “official” account lets on, and that Cecil has his own reasons for wanting this play written and the plotters executed. What ensues is a positively fascinating plot full of twists, turns, memorable characters, and lots of intrigue, with a clever, insightful script and a surprisingly timely subject matter, as a playwright deals with the struggle to tell the truth in a society that is hostile to that truth. It also deals poignantly with issues of parent/child relationships and grief, as well as about the process of writing and an overall sense of love for the theatre. Also, the development of the play Shagspeare is writing, which turns into something you may recognize, is compellingly and cleverly portrayed.

The cast is excellent, led by Erb in an excellent, sympathetic portrayal of a writer, actor and father who searches for, and seeks to best represent, the truth while facing some difficult personal truths. Erb has a strong presence and relates well with the rest of the cast, especially the equally strong Moser as the initially surly, but ultimately well-meaning Judith. The other cast members all play multiple roles, and they play them well, from Wolbers as the scheming, aristocratic Cecil to Pierce as the somewhat insecure up-and-coming actor Sharpe as well as the devout, imprisoned Wintour and another role that’s unlisted but especially important, to Pierre as the determined, proud and aging actor Richard and the intriguing, philosophical Garnet, to Conrad in various roles including actor Armin. Everyone does an impressive job with the transitions between characters, which can sometimes be abrupt. The interplay between the cast members provides a lot of the drama here, and director Tom Kopp keeps the tone and pacing just right. Even though the play is relatively long, it doesn’t seem that way, and is fascinating from start to finish.

Technically, this show makes the most of the basement stage at Union Avenue Christian Church. George Shea’s set is versatile and effective, evoking its era but also allowing for the various changes of setting and for some striking staging effects. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters and the period especially well. There’s also appropriately evocative lighting design by Amy Ruprecht and sound and original music by Susan Kopp.

Equivocation is, unequivocally, a dramatic triumph from West End Players Guild. It’s a play I hadn’t heard of before, and I’m glad to have seen it now. This is a stunning piece of theatre, with a cast that is nothing short of stellar. It’s a superb way to start off a new season from West End Players Guild.

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce, Reginald Pierre, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players’ Guild is presenting Equivocation at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 6, 2019

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Photograph 51
by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
April 5, 2019

Alex Fyles, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is revisiting a winning formula with its latest production. It’s a biographical show about an important but historically overlooked woman scientist, and it’s directed by Ellie Schwetye. This year, though, it’s not Silent Sky. This time, the play in question is Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, and the featured scientist is 20th century English chemist Rosalind Franklin. The resulting production, as before, is wondrous and illuminating.

Here, in Ziegler’s intelligent, thoughtful, and surprisingly witty play, the emphasis is on efforts to discover the structure of DNA, in which Franklin (Nicole Angeli) played a significant but–until recently–largely uncredited role. The play follows Franklin as she comes to work at Kings College, Cambridge in the early 1950s, and shows her utmost devotion to her work and her often rocky relationships with her colleagues, including the socially awkward and initially dismissive Maurice Wilkins (Ben Ritchie) and doctoral student Ray Gosling (Ryan Lawson-Maeske). As Franklin sets out using x-ray photography to get a clear picture of the structure of DNA, other scientists around the world are using various methods to achieve the same goal, and most notably the team of American James Watson (WIll Bonfiglio) and the English Francis Crick (John Wolbers), who are working together in London and become especially interested in Franklin’s work. Meanwhile, Franklin corresponds with admiring American doctoral student Don Caspar (Alex Fyles), with whom Franklin forms a bond of mutual understanding. While this synopsis seems fairly basic, the structure of the play is anything but basic. It’s especially clever in the way it reveals the events and the personalities of the characters through it’s semi-linear structure and frequent fourth-wall breaking, having the characters narrate parts of the story in turn but also occasionally talk about their observations in an “after-the-fact” way. It’s a fascinating play, in its depiction of events but also in its personalization of those events and vivid portrayal of the characters involved. It shines a light on the continuing issue of women being overshadowed by men in professional settings, as well as examining interpersonal communication, connection, scientists’ relationships with their work, and the pressure to succeed and find the next big discovery first.

West End Player’s Guild’s space in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church is being well-utilized by this production, with a traditional stage setup and a remarkably detailed set by Kristin Cassidy, who also designed the props. The period setting and specific laboratory atmosphere is well-realized, with the two main lab spaces–Franklin/Wilkins and Watson/Crick, being the focal point but with the whole stage space being put to full use.  Tracey Newcomb’s excellent costumes also contribute to the authenticity of the tone and setting, as do Elizabeth Lund’s lighting and director Ellie Schwetye’s sound design.

The staging is smooth and dynamic, and the cast is simply ideal, with top-notch local performers led by the outstanding Angeli in a compelling performance as the determined, complex Franklin. She’s tough, snarky, and determined, but she’s also vulnerable and awkward at times, and her chemistry with her co-stars–particularly the also excellent Ritchie and Fyles–is excellent. Lawson-Maeske is also a standout as the opinionated and often overlooked Gosling, and there are also outstanding performances from Bonfiglio as the fiercely determined Watson and Wolbers the equally determined but more diplomatic Crick. It’s a truly stellar cast with no weak links, and the witty interplay between the characters is among the best features of this smartly staged production.

West End Players Guild has another winner with Photgraph 51. With an impressive cast and a thoughtful, often philosophical approach to its subject, it’s a show that manages to be surprisingly funny and poignant in equal measures. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss this one.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbes, Nicole Angeli, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Photograph 51 at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 14, 2019

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Teresa Doggett
West End Players Guild
February 9, 2019

Alex Fyles, Lexa Wroniak Photo: West End Players Guild

In a St. Louis theatre weekend that featured the opening of two shows that were on the longer side, West End Players Guild’s offering veers toward the other extreme. At approximately 75 minutes with no intermission, prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear has a quick pace and quirky structure to go with that brief running time. On stage at West End’s usual venue in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church, this play features an enthusiastic cast and a lot of broad humor, and for what is being billed as a “revenge comedy”, for the most part it’s surprisingly upbeat.

The story follows Nan Carter (Lexa Wroniak), who isn’t related to former President Jimmy Carter, but she seems to wish she was because she seems to have memorized his writings, and she quotes him a lot. Nan is married to Kyle (Alex Fyles), a somewhat stereotypical brutish redneck husband who has neglected and abused Nan for too long, and now Nan has decided to take action. The play begins with Kyle duct-taped to a chair, and with his mouth covered with tape as well. Nan, along with her new friend, stripper and aspiring actress Sweetheart (Tara Ernst), and her old friend, Simon (Ethan Isaac)–who shows up in a cheerleading uniform complete with skirt at first–has decided to act out a little play to teach Kyle a lesson. Then, as she tells Kyle many times, she plans to surround him with packages of frozen venison (from the deer that Kyle has personally poached) and honey, leaving him at the mercy of the black bears in the area. Needless to say, Kyle isn’t happy, and he tries to plead his case during the moments when Nan removes the duct tape from his mouth.

The subject matter here could easily have been turned into something much darker than how this play has turned out. In fact, I was expecting something darker and grittier, but this play leads with the comedy more than the darkness. It’s an exercise in revenge fantasy, but with a more hopeful conclusion than other playwrights may have chosen. It certainly doesn’t excuse Kyle’s brutish behavior, but the focus is much more on Nan and her own personal journey of liberation, as well as her bonds of friendship with Sweatheart and Simon, along with the ideas of “chosen family” and the importance of new friends and old. Through a clever stylized structure that makes use of a screen to project a script outline throughout the course of the story, the theatrical nature of the show itself and the actions within the story are played up. I won’t say much else about the plot, except that, true to the overall tone of the play, the conclusion tends to major on hope rather than something more on the grim side. This is all played out on an excellent, remarkably detailed set by Robert M. Kapeller, and with director Teresa Doggett’s colorful, character-appropriate costumes, along with memorable projections by Michael B. Perkins, excellent lighting by Amy Ruprecht and equally excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

Although there is a bit of stereotyping, the characters are quirky and interesting, for the most part, and the performances are strong, with Ernst and Isaac almost stealing the show in their roles, which are more broadly comedic than those of Nan and Kyle. Wroniak and Fyles, for their parts, are also strong, with Fyles managing to bring more than one dimension out of Kyle, and Wroniak presenting Nan’s case in a relatable way that’s sure to make the audience root for her. The ensemble chemistry is great as well, especially between Wroniak, Ernst, and Isaac.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear isn’t as intense as I had been expecting. In fact, as plays about revenge go, it’s especially on the tame side. What’s here, though, is a collection of quirky characters and a message of empowerment along with, in keeping with Nan’s plan, a dose of honey. There’s little, if any, real sympathy for Kyle, but that’s part of the point. The sympathy, and the story, is with Nan and her friends. This is a short play, and not as deep as it maybe could have been, but what it does have is energy, and at WEPG, a quick pace and a great cast.

Tara Ernst, Ethan Isaac
Photo: West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Exit, Pursued by a Bear at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 17, 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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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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