Posts Tagged ‘west end players guild’

The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Robert Ashton
West End Players Guild
April 28, 2022

Jason Meyers, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s latest production is from celebrated Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh, whose specialty is dark comedy with a penchant for the gruesome. The Lonesome West, however, even though it’s still essentially a dark comedy, is something of a departure in that it explores its relationships with not just a sharp edge, but also with a bit of a softer side and not a few moments of true poignancy. As staged at WEPG, it’s also an expertly paced showcase for four excellent local performers.

Set in Leenane, Galway, Ireland, the play follows two brothers, Valene (Jeff Kargus), and Coleman (Jason Meyers), who are constantly squabbling over multiple issues, big and small. We first meet them after the funeral of their father, who was shot by Coleman apparently by accident. Valene is extremely possessive, putting his initial on everything that belongs to him, from his new stove to bottles of booze to snack foods, and is reluctant to share with his brother. He also irritates Coleman by obsessing over his collection of figurines of various Catholic saints. Coleman, for his part, irritates his brother by constantly flouting his rules, and both brothers are a source of frustration for the local village priest, Father Welsh (Ted Drury), whose name they can’t even always get right, and who is frequently questioning his faith because of his perceived inability to have any effect whatsoever on the moral development of the townspeople. There’s also Girleen (Hannah Geisz), a neighborhood schoolgirl who hawks her father’s homemade booze and seems to look up to Father Welsh, despite the priest’s continued self-doubt. It’s these two characters who most often produce the occasional poignant moments that appear from time to time in the play, while the brothers are a chaotic force that drives the dark comedy ever darker. Even when there’s a new tragedy that makes the brothers take stock in their own lives and their relationship, they still can’t seem to help their constant needling of one another. 

Like McDonagh’s other plays that I have seen, the sense of setting is strong here, with a believably Irish tone and atmosphere that’s well maintained in this production by the excellent work of the actors and designers. The small, seemingly ancient farmhouse is well-realized in Brad Slavik’s remarkably detailed set, and the characters are appropriately outfitted by costumer Tracey Newcomb. There’s also strong work on props from Frank Goudsmit, as well as excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo and skilled sound design by Jenn Ciavarella.

The actors are especially impressive here, with Meyers and Kargus play against one another particularly well as the belligerent brothers, Coleman and Valene. Their strong personalities are well-realized, as is their sharp sense of comic timing and physicality. There’s also superb work from Drury as the self-doubting Father Welsh, who provides much of the emotional heart of the play, and Geisz as the feisty Girleen is also strong, especially in her scenes with Drury. The pacing is strong, as well, and the whole cast brings a sense of energy to the production that adds much to its entertainment value, as well as it’s occasionally thought-provoking themes.

McDonagh’s plays are often crass, sometimes gory, and definitely not for all ages, but this one has a degree of emotional resonance that I haven’t seen in some of his other dark comedies. Dark, physical, and frequently irreverent comedy is still at the forefront here, but there’s a level of depth that makes this play especially intriguing. As performed by a first rate cast at WEPG, The Lonesome West is certainly worth checking out.

Ted Drury, Hannah Geisz
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Lonesome West at Union Avenue Christian Church until May 8, 2022

Read Full Post »

Hillary and Clinton
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Tim Naegelin
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2022

Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Hillary Clinton seems to elicit strong opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. She’s run for President twice, in addition to previously having been First Lady to a two-term President. In Hillary and Clinton, West End Players Guild’s latest production, playwright Lucas Hnath focuses on his own imaginations surrounding Hillary, Bill Clinton, and the dynamics of complicated relationships, political aspirations, and public perception. It’s a bit of a fantasy exercise grounded in a kernel of reality, and as staged at WEPG, the engaging cast makes it intriguing, thought-provoking, and most of all, funny.

The play, narrated by Hillary (Deborah Dennert), presents itself as an “alternate universe” take on events in the lives of the Clintons, centered on the New Hampshire Primary during the 2008 Presidential campaign, as Hillary campaigns for the Democratic nomination. The “fantasy” format allows playwright Hnath to explore ideas and concepts using these characters and situations without having to hew too closely to the facts of history, as well as allowing him to explore “behind the scenes” goings-on. There are several conflicts that arise, as Hillary’s chief pollster/campaign strategist Mark (Tyson Cole) tries to keep the focus on Hillary’s record and not her public image, while also trying to minimize the influence of her larger-than-life husband, former President Bill (Kurt Knoedelseder). The dynamics between these two–Hillary and Bill–are the main focus of the story, as their different approaches to politics, life, and commitment to one another all come into play. There’s also a memorable appearance from Hillary’s main rival for the nomination, Barack (Jonathan Garland), who proves to have a few surprises of his own in store. For the most part, this is a character and relationship study, with a mostly comic tone, although there are some serious issues raised in terms of how men are treated as candidates vs. women, the importance of style vs. substance in the public mind, and more.

Another result of the fantasy aspect of this play is the decision not to pay too much attention to physical resemblance and mannerisms when portraying these characters. While Dennert is styled to bear a passing resemblance to Hillary, there is no effort to make Knoedelseder resemble the real Bill Clinton, either in physical appearance or voice, and all the actors have some leeway in terms of their portrayals. It’s not a caricature like a Saturday Night Live sketch, either, although there is a great deal of humor here, and lots of laughter from the audience. Here we see the characters as people, but also as “types”, in a sense, and the portrayals are excellent across the board, with Dennert leading the way in reflective, determined turn as Hillary. She and Knoedelseder as an initially affable, casually manipulative Bill have strong chemistry, driving the action of the play as well as its humor and more thoughtful moments. There’s excellent support from Cole as the increasingly exasperated Mark, as well as Garland in a small but memorable role as an especially clever, ambitious Barack. 

The technical aspects of the play work set the mood well, from director Tim Naegelin’s efficient set, to Jacob Winslow’s excellent lighting, to costume coordinator Tracey Newcomb’s well-chosen outfits for the cast. It’s the cast that really makes this show, especially, with strong timing and energy. This Hillary and Clinton as characters may or may not be what you expected, but what is clear is at WEPG is that this is a show that’s likely to provoke much thought and discussion. 

Tyson Cole, Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Hillary and Clinton at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 20, 2022

Read Full Post »

A Piece of My Heart
by Shirley Lauro
Directed by Dani Mann
West End Players Guild
December 11, 2021

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Vietnam War is something to learn about in history class for today’s young people, and many adults do not remember the war first-hand, either by participating, protesting, or watching and reading news reports. It’s a war that ended when I was a child, but is still in living memory for many people in the Baby Boomer generation and older. It’s been the subject of many stories, books, plays, tv shows, and movies, even if now its memory is seeming more distant as the years go by.  Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, the latest production from West End Players Guild, brings the war and its aftermath for those who participated–and specifically the women–into immediate, sharp, and stunning focus. It’s a profound lesson and theatrical experience, and an especially strong showcase for a first-rate cast.

One aspect of this play that I especially appreciate is that it covers a fairly “complete” experience of the war for its characters. The war itself only covers the first act, as six women describe their experiences of the war and what they did there. The second act covers their experiences after returning to the United States. The six women represent various backgrounds and levels of experience, and there is one actor (Shane Signorino) who plays the various male characters the women interact with over the years, from soldiers to doctors, fathers to boyfriends to talent agents, etc. As reflects reality, nurses comprise a significant portion of the cast. There’s Martha (Mara Bollini), who grew up in a military family and whose mother was also a Navy nurse; Sissy (Madison Jackson), who comes from a relatively sheltered background; and Leeann (Vicky Chen), who is of Chinese and Italian descent and was active in protests against the war. There’s also Red Cross volunteer Whitney (Annalise Webb), who comes from a wealthy background; career Army “WAC” Steele (Patience Davis), who has faced discrimination over her 18 years in the military before going to Vietnam because she’s Black and a woman; and MaryJo (Chelsie Johnston), a singer and guitar player who is recruited with her band to travel around entertaining the troops. Throughout the dramatic and sometimes harrowing events of the play, we see each woman’s experience of the war and what happens to them after they return home. The story culminates with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 1982, as the main characters are among the many vets who convened in the nation’s capital for the event.

The play itself is an especially poignant and at times intense experience, with descriptions of war-related violence, death, PTSD, assault, rape, and strong language including usage of racial and ethnic slurs. There’s a note in the program concerning this content, as well. It’s a heavy show, as it’s about a war and many difficult experiences related to that war. It also serves as something of an education concerning issues that the general public we made more aware of as a result of this war; especially concerning the mental and physical health effects on its participants. It’s a vivid, personalized portrayal, giving names and faces to the thousands of women who served during the war, and acknowledging their roles as essential, even when they weren’t always appreciated at the time. 

The staging is dynamically paced and visually memorable, with an excellent set by Zac Cary, vivid lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and strong sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also excellent music of the period played before the show and at intermission, as well as strong live singing and playing by Johnston as MaryJo, who provides a stirring soundtrack to the proceedings in several key moments. There’s also a uniformly outstanding cast,  as everyone plays a variety of characters in addition to their main roles. Everyone has memorable moments, with especially notable work from Chen as she recounts the story of her friendship with a soldier during the war; as well as Webb as Whitney struggles with coping with her experiences and using alcohol to mask the pain; Davis, as Steele deals with more distrust and discrimination as she works in intelligence; Jackson as Sissy recounts describes physical effects of the war on herself and her family; and in a profoundly affecting moment and perhaps the most intense emotional moment in the play, Bollini as Martha recounts her PTSD and overall homecoming experience in a support group. Signorino also does an excellent job portraying a range of men of different roles and personalities over the course of the story. The ensemble chemistry is also especially strong, contributing much to the overall affecting nature of this play.

A Piece of My Heart may not be an easy show to watch at times, but it’s more than worthwhile. With a vivid portrayal of the experience of war in general, as well as the specifics of the Vietnam war and the women who served there, this is a highly stirring, profound theatrical presentation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the true highlights of the St. Louis theatre season this year.

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting A Piece of My Heart at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 19, 2021

Read Full Post »

Bloomsday
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
September 16, 2021

John Moore, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild has joined the numerous other St. Louis theatre companies in returning to the stage for its first live production since early in 2020. Their production of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday was originally planned for that earlier season, and its staging now is especially welcome, being a pleasant, intriguing romantic comedy that plays with the convention of time, featuring an engaging cast and a simple but especially effective set that evokes its Dublin location in an elegant manner.

Of all the “time travel” type stories I’ve seen (and there are many), this one seems to be less “sci-fi” focused than most, in that the time-twisting is treated as a given, and can also be seen more as a metaphor than as literal, for the most part. The setup has Robert (Jeff Lovell), an American college professor, narrating the story as Caithleen (Megan Wiegert), a young Irish tour guide, begins the introduction to her tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin”, which is focused on Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. At first, it appears as if Robert is narrating a memory from 35 years previous, but then as he starts actually talking to Caithleen and seeming to know things that, from her perspective, he shouldn’t know, the story turns into something different. Later, we meet Robbie (John Moore)–a young American tourist who goes on Caithleen’s tour–and Cait (Colleen Heneghan)–an older, world-weary woman who knows a lot about Caithleen’s past, present, and future. Caithleen, for her part, soon realizes what is happening, as it reminds her of something that happened to her mother–although Robbie remains clueless. Overall, the story plays out as a character study and a meditation of the nature of regret, and how sometimes simple, brief events can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a warm, thoughtful tone to much of the story, and a light humor that is punctuated with moments of poignancy that adds impact to the play, and for me, it works a lot better than another Dietz play, This Random World, that was also staged at WEPG a few years ago. Where that play often seemed like it was toying with the audience for the sake of being clever, this one speaks more to a universal condition to which I think a lot of viewers can relate, and that’s the idea of “what if?” Or more precisely, “what would my life be like if I had done this one thing differently?” That idea has been explored in different ways in other works in more elaborate ways–like in the musical If/Then, for instance, but here the emphasis isn’t as much on the structure or the concept but on the characters themselves, and their interactions. 

It’s the characters that make this play more than the concept, and the performances here breath credible life into those characters. The chemistry in their interactions is also strong and palpable, whether its between the older Robert and Cait, the younger Robbie and Caithleen, or any combination of the four. Lovell as Robert manages to combine cynicism and a reflection of youthful idealism especially well, and Wiegert’s strong-willed but wary Caithleen is also excellent, as are Moore as the captivated and increasingly confused Robbie, and Heneghan as the regretful but still energetic and hopeful Cait. There are many excellent moments between all four of these characters, and these make the show especially memorable. A little bit of knowledge about Dublin and Joyce helps, as well, but the play provides enough information to enjoy it no matter what your level of experience with those subjects may be.

Another factor that adds to the overall atmosphere of this production is the simple but vivid set painting by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith. There isn’t a lot of set; it’s mostly only furniture that’s moved around as needed, with the setting provided by an excellent, seemingly three-dimensional backdrop painting that evokes the Dublin setting remarkably well. Played out against this backdrop, the Irish setting comes to life with style. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, in outfitting the characters to reflect their personalities. Jacob Winslow’s lighting, Ted Drury’s sound design, and Jackie Aumer’s props also contribute well to the overall effect of the play.

Overall, Bloomsday is a welcome return for West End Players Guild. Whether you have been to Dublin, read Ulysses or not, it’s an especially relatable trip through time, space, and memory, examining how events can effect people in ways that won’t leave them even years after the fact. Here played out by an excellent cast against a vivid backdrop, it’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

John Moore, Colleen Heneghan, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Bloomsday at Union Avenue Christian Church until September 26, 2021

Read Full Post »

The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
February 22, 2020

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Relationships can be complicated, and so can influence within those relationships. Whether they are romantic relationships, friendships, siblings, parents and children, etc., the dynamics of various relationships have often formed the basis for exploration through drama, and comedy. The latest production from West End Players Guild, Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which explores the developing relationship between two middle-aged women who start out as strangers, then become friends, and then… well, let’s just say it’s complicated. And in the hands of the excellent performers in this production, it’s also fascinating from start to finish.

Described in the show’s promotional materials as a “dark comedy”, The Roommate introduces audiences to two very different women who are brought together by necessity and loneliness. It also explores the development of influence and shifting power balances within interpersonal relationships. At first, Iowa homeowner Sharon (Jane Abling) seems shy and uneducated about much of the world outside of the Midwest, even though she stresses that she knows better than the Iowa-born residents around her, because she’s originally from Illinois. Regardless of where she’s from, Sharon isn’t happy, as her marriage has just ended, and her son lives in New York City and doesn’t seem to be home often when she tries to call him. She doesn’t get out much, and in her loneliness she advertises for a roommate. That roommate turns out to be Robyn (Julie George-Carlson), who seems somewhat scary to Sharon at first, since she’s very different–a vegan lesbian from NYC who is very secretive about her past–but Sharon is determined to get to know her new roommate, and the two soon form a friendship that’s full of surprises. One surprise is that the dynamic begins to shift, as Sharon grows bolder and Robyn more reticent, becoming drawn back into some activities that Robyn was trying to leave behind her. It’s a funny play, certainly, but also has its moments of poignancy and also a dark, insidious undercurrent that makes the proceedings increasingly uncomfortable, which seems to be deliberate. The relationship and its results are complex, to be sure, and certainly the cause for much thought and reflection concerning a variety of issues such as middle-aged loneliness, peer pressure (no matter what your age), the difficulties of fleeing past regrets, and more.

The script is witty and insightful, and it builds well, and the relationship here is made all the more believable by the truly compelling performances of the two leads. Abling is excellent in portraying the development of Sharon from shy and naive to bold and assertive, giving a strong sense that the character is revealing aspects of her personality that she has kept hidden for a long time, perhaps even to herself. Then there’s George-Carlson, whose Robyn is consciously hiding things, but then finds herself reluctantly opening up and then dealing with the palpable struggle between excitement at finding a friend to regret at how that relationship influences her new friend, and also herself. There’s a strong sense of chemistry and bonding between the two, as well, which adds to the credibility of the relationship and makes the story all the more compelling.

Technically, the show makes the most of the stage in the basement of Union Avenue Christian church, as the stage itself and area in front of it are put to use by means of George Shea’s detailed, believable set. There’s also excellent lighting from Tony Anselmo and sound from Chuck Lavazzi. Most impressive, however, is the costuming work by Tracey Newcomb, and in how the costumes not only suit the characters but also play a considerable part in showing the evolving relationship between these women, and how both characters are influenced by one another over the course of the play. It’s an impressive feat from both director Sean Belt and costume designer Newcomb that adds a great deal of depth to this play.

The Roommate is an insightful comedy that shows especially well how relationships–whatever their nature–can be influential, empowering, revelatory, and even dangerous. It deals with moral dilemmas as well as the conflicting emotions that come with such dilemmas. It’s certainly a thought-provoking piece with a lot of humor, but also a lot to think about. At WEPG, it’s ultimately an especially strong showcase for two talented performers.

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Roommate at Union Avenue Christian Church until March 1, 2020

Read Full Post »

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »