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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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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