Posts Tagged ‘william shakespeare’

The Game’s Afoot
based on William Shakespeare’s Henriad
Written by Benjamin Hochman
Directed by Adam Flores
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Streets
September 14, 2023

Jailyn Genese, Keating, Summer Baer, Jack Kalon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare in the Streets has returned, but it was a little different this year. For the latest installment of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s annual melding of Shakespeare and St. Louis neighborhoods, the focus is more on a citywide sports tradition than any specific area of the city.  The Game’s Afoot, written by Benjamin Hochman, directed by Adam Flores, and based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, took a loving and whimsical look at the city’s long love affair with soccer, and how the sport has shaped the city’s culture and facilitated both rivalry and unity among players and fans alike.

The setting for this show was part of its appeal, in addition to the informative story and great cast. The stage was set up on a side street adjoining the parking lot of Schlafly Taproom, with the looming, stylish presence of CityPark clearly visible in the background. Scott Neale’s clever, multilevel set included a representation of a soccer field and provides an appropriate setting for the wide-ranging story that spans several neighborhoods and decades of St. Louis soccer history. There was also a smattering of local humor (including the manner of time travel) that added to the very St. Louis character of the story. Some eye-catching costumes by Shevaré, striking lighting design by M. Bryant Powell, and mood-setting percussion provided by one of the local soccer supporting squads, Fleur De Noise also contributed to the overall atmosphere and lively spirit of the show.

As for the story, it mostly followed Hal (Jack Kalan), a young soccer prodigy coming of age in the 1970s, who initially would rather hang out in bars with his hard-partying friends Falstaff (Keating), Pistol (Jailyn Genyse) and Nym (Victor Mendez) than seriously apply himself to becoming St. Louis’s next “Soccer King”. Instead, cocky upstart and rival Hotspur (Thomas Patrick Riley) challenged Hal for the crown, and the media attention. There story also featured a time-traveling Scout (Lynn Berg) assembling the soccer greats from various eras, and lots of mentions of the various major soccer events over the years, such as the 1950 US team that featured several St. Louis players, and the highlights and stars of various professional and school teams over the past few decades.

It’s a streamlined story both in terms of soccer history and the Shakespearean source material, so the show was probably easier to enjoy for audience members familiar with one or both of these subjects. Still, I had a lot of fun, and the performances were strong across the board, led by Kalan and Riley as the rivaling local soccer heroes, and Keating as the fun-loving Falstaff, along with great turns by Summer Baer as a local supporter who grows from enthusiastic young fan to equally enthusiastic “soccer mom”, Genyse, Mendez, and Tara Bopp in various roles, and Berg as the time-traveling scout. There were also some fun surprises with appearance by some local soccer personalities.

Ultimately, this was a fun celebration of soccer in St. Louis and and enthusiasm for the sport and the city alike, even despite various challenges and hardships over the years. St. Louis Shakespeare is a clever, unique tradition, and this latest entry in the series is more entertaining evidence that St. Louis and Shakespeare go together well. 

Cast of The Game’s Afoot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

This review was originally published at

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This Palpable Gross Play
A Kind-Of Midsummer Night’s Dream
Adapted from Shakespeare by Ellie Schwetye, with Lucy Cashion and Jimmy Bernatowicz
Directed by Lucy Cashion
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 17, 2023

Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

In considering the latest new production from SATE, the old adage “you write what you know” comes to mind, considering both the source material and the adaptation. It’s clear that this is a very “theatre-y” production, by theatre people, about theatre people, and probably best appreciated by theatre people. Still, even if you’re not an actor, director, or other theatre maker, this is a fun deconstruction that showcases its fine cast and is sure to provide much laughter and pondering. 

This show is more whimsical remixing from creatives who are known for this kind of thing, and they do it extremely well. Primary adaptor Ellie Schwetye and director Lucy Cashion (who also contributed to the adaptation) have both been involved with several productions that take established works and either re-examine them or turn them completely on their heads, and usually both. This one does both with an emphasis on the “turning on its head” element. Here, the characters and basic plot is taken from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s not a straightforward telling of that story. Here, the story focuses mostly on Puck (Ross Rubright) and the “Mechanicals” (Kristen Strom, Andre Eslamian, Kayla Ailee Bush, Joshua Mayfield, and Anthony Kramer Moser)–the group of artisans and amateur actors who put on a play for a royal wedding. In this show, though, the play isn’t about Pyramus and Thisbe, but about the mixed-up lovers from the source play–Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena.  Puck is involved here as “Robin Starveling”, growing more and more frustrated with the various attempts at “acting” from the group–from the overzealous and opinionated Bottom (Eslamian), to the unenthusiastic Flute (Bush), to the self-doubting newcomer Snug (Kramer Moser), to overwhelmed director Peter Quince (Strom). Puck has ideas about what to do about this problem, though, that somehow involve a sleeping drug commercial from a few years ago. Meanwhile, Puck also has his fun with an ongoing feud between fairy Queen Titania (Victoria Thomas) and King Oberon (Spencer Lawton), with the anticipated  result being switched up in clever and hilarious manner. 

My description of the show seems woefully inadequate, since I would spoil too much if I went into too much detail. Let me just say that a lot goes on here, from “actor-y” in-jokes to clever staging, and hilarious “behind-the-scenes” moments, as the play rehearsal happens on one plane on the stage, with the Titania/Oberon/Puck hijinks happening mostly in the background. The cast is marvelous, as well, led by Rubright in a self-assured performance as the charming and somewhat smug Puck. Everyone is excellent though, so it’s difficult to single anyone else out. The ensemble chemistry is brilliant, and the staging is precise and well-timed. It looks great, too, with a fantastic set by Schwetye and Cashion, delightful costumes by Liz Henning and props by Rachel Tibbetts, and strikingly atmospheric lighting design by Erik Kuhn. There’s also a memorable music score and sound design by Joe Taylor. 

This is SATE, so I was expecting clever, unique, and unusual, and that’s what This Palpable Gross Play provides, with a lot of enthusiasm and personality. It’s one of those shows that might benefit even more from repeated viewings, considering how much is going on in one place. It’s another fun, thoughtful show from this excellent local company. 


Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting This Palpable Gross Play at The Chapel until September 2, 2023

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Merry Wives
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo
August 8, 2023

Michelle Hand, Rae Davis, Carl Overly Jr., Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Christina Yancy
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Imagine if The Merry Wives of Windsor was a 1990’s sitcom. That’s the premise of Merry Wives, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo show that’s running (for free) in various parks and other locations in the St. Louis area throughout the month of August. With a small, energetic and versatile cast, and some fun production elements, this is an entertaining Shakespearean update, even if it is a bit on the long side.

As is true for a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies, Merry Wives involves a lot of trickery and mixed-up romances. It also involves a popular character from some of the Bard’s history plays that he brought back, Sir John Falstaff, played here by Carl Overly, Jr. The swaggering, party-loving Falstaff has made the mistake here of trying to woo two women at once–Mrs. Page (Michelle Hand) and Mrs. Ford (Christina Yancy)–who are too clever for his own good. Upon discovering that Falstaff has sent the same letter to both of them, the two women set out to play a trick on the knight that involves a lot of hilarious hijinks. Meanwhile, the jealous Mr. Ford (Joel Moses) sets out to expose his wife’s supposed treachery by disguising himself and asking Falstaff for “help”, and the Pages’ daughter Anne (Rae Davis) deals with a trio of varying suitors all played by Mitchell Henry-Eagles, with expected mix-ups and hilarity ensuing in that plot, as well. 

The sitcom structure works well here, with a fun soundtrack provided for the transition scenes, and a host of 90’s pop-culture references thrown in for good measure. The cast is excellent, with great enthusiasm and comic timing, and a whimsical production design by Laura Skroska with clever costumes by Kayla Lindsey. The approximately 90-minute runtime is a bit long for a sitcom, and, and it might have benefited from a little bit of trimming. Still, the whole cast and crew manage to keep up the spirit of the show throughout. Overly, as the only cast member who doesn’t play multiple roles, is an energetic Falstaff, and the rest of the players are commendable in their sheer versatility. 

I love the TourCo shows because they are so accessible. It’s not just free Shakespeare, like the headline shows in Forest Park each year. These are shows that go to various different venues throughout the region. I saw Merry Wives in Tower Grove Park, and if you look at STLSF’s website, you will find the schedule and locations for the rest of the run. It’s more than worth checking out. Even with its slightly long runtime for a show of this format, it’s a lively, fun production that’s easy to enjoy, especially for fans of 1990’s sitcoms and pop culture. 


Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Joel Moses
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photgraphy
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo is presenting Merry Wives in various locations until August 29. 2023

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Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lisa Portes
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
June 2, 2023

Clave Sol (band) led by Philip Gomez, Esteban Andres Cruz, Cassidy Flynn, Alisha Espinoza, Ricki Franklin
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–I love how versatile Shakespeare’s plays are in terms of staging. Their being in the public domain gives directors much freedom in terms of how to present the plays, and while I’ve seen many great stagings that are more on the “traditional” side, I love modern dress presentations and re-imaginings, because I think that these versions can do a lot to help modern audiences relate to Shakespeare’s stories and characters, as well as bringing the meaning of his dialogue to life in a fresh, contemporary way. St. Louis Shakespeare Festivals latest production of the comedy Twelfth Night in Forest Park is an excellent example of how this more modern approach can work so remarkably well. 

The whole vibe of this piece is fantastic. The traditional setting has given way to a modern Miami-inspired look and feel, with lots of excellent Latin music arranged by music director and sound designer David R. Molina and played by the terrific onstage band, Clave Sol, led by Phil Gomez. Also featured are the excellent vocals of Esteban Andres Cruz, who plays Feste, the “fool” who is more of a minstrel, really. The story is the familiar one, of a shipwreck that separates twins Viola (Gabriela Saker) and Sebastian (Avi Roque) and the mixed-up romances involving Duke Orsino (Felipe Carrasco) and Olivia (Jasmine Cheri Rush); along with more hijinks in the form of the plotting by Olivia’s hard-partying cousin Toby, called Dame Toby here (Ricki Franklin), along another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Cassidy Flynn), and Olivia’s assistant Maria (Alisha Espinosa), who play a trick on Olivia’s stuffy security man Malvolio (Ryan Garbayo). The comedy is fast-paced and fun, and the setting, based in the largely Cuban-American culture of Miami, works especially well here.

The look, style, and tone of the production is excellent, from Regina García’s stylish set to the vibrant, eye-catching costumes by Danielle Nieves, to John Wylie’s striking lighting design. The pacing is quick and energetic, and the excellent music provides an ideal mood to the proceedings. 

The performances are top-notch, led by the engaging Saker as an appropriately bewildered but strong-willed Viola. Her scenes with the equally strong Rush as the haughty Olivia and Carrasco as the determined Orsino are highlights. There are also delightful comic performances from Franklin and Flynn as the scheming pair of partying pals, Dame Toby and Andrew Aguecheek, along with memorable support from Espinosa as Maria, and a marvelous turn by Garbayo as the hilariously duped Malvolio. There’s a strong cast all around, providing a strong sense of ensemble chemistry that adds to the overall comic mood and contemporary air of the production. 

This Twelfth Night is vibrant, energetic, at turns bawdy and slapstick-ish, and just a pure delight from start to finish. It’s an excellent example of how Shakespeare can be adapted to different settings and cultures, all the while still highlighting the themes and characters of the story. And it’s free. This “Shakespeare in the Park” entry from STLSF is a great way to start off the summer theatrical season. 

Jasmin Cheri Rush, Gabriela Saker
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Twelfth Night in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 25, 2023

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The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2022

Alex Jay, Coda Boyce, Olajuwon Davis, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their new season with an intriguing period drama based on true events. The African Company Presents Richard III is going to be a history lesson for a lot of viewers, since while its subject is important, it’s not as widely known as it probably should be. At the Black Rep, the production continues the company’s usual tradition of excellence, in acting, staging, and production values. 

As mentioned, this is something of an educational play, in the sense that it tells about a particular set of events that actually happened and people who really existed, although I imagine there has been a degree of dramatic license, like all dramatizations of historical people and events.  The focus here is on a Black-operated theatre company in 1820s New York City, called the African Company and founded by William Henry Brown (Olajuwon Davis), who goes by “Billy” to his friends. Billy and his company have been staging a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at their small venue, but they have been drawing relatively large crowds and receiving notices in the newspaper. The show, geared for Black audiences, has been drawing more white patrons lately, as well, and this attention has raised the ire of Steven Price (Eric Dean White), who manages the nearby Park Theatre, which is about to host its own production of Richard III starring noted white English actor Junius Brutus Booth. Price is concerned that the African Company will be drawing attention away from his production, and is determined to shut them down, with the help of the local police constable listed in the program as “The Contable-Man” (Dustin Petrillo). Meanwhile, the African Company is dealing with some internal drama of their own, as leading actor James Hewlett (Cameron Jamarr Davis), known as “Jimmy”, tries to keep the increasingly dissatisfied Ann “Annie” Johnson (Coda Boyce)–who plays Lady Anne–from leaving the show. Also in the company are seamstress/actress Sarah (Alex Jay), who works as a maid for a wealthy white woman who becomes a somewhat surprising unseen ally; and the drum-playing, storytelling Papa Shakespeare (Wali Jamal Abdullah), who acts in the play as well as adding his rhythmic soundtrack to the proceedings. 

This is a fascinating show that shines a light on a particular moment in history during a time when Black people–even in Northern cities like New York–are treated with suspicion and hostility even without institutionalized slavery. There are still expectations, and lines they are not supposed to cross, and the African Company and their members risked a lot–their lives, their jobs, and more–in challenging these boundaries. We also get to see moments of their Richard III rehearsals and performance, which provides a look into the making of theatre in the 19th Century. It’s got humor, drama, suspense, and a real sense of the historic, as well as shining a light on the sheer pervasiveness of systemic oppression.

There’s a great cast here, with excellent performances all around, from Olajuwon Davis’s ambitious, earnest Billy to Cameron Jamarr Davis’s charismatic, determined Jimmy; to Boyce’s conflicted Annie, who has great scenes with Jimmy and with the also excellent Jay as Sarah. Abdullah is full of engaging presence in a scene-stealing performance as Papa Shakespeare, and his drumming skills are impressive. There are also memorable villainous turns from White as the scheming Price and Petrillo as the somewhat sycophantic Contable-Man. There’s vibrant ensemble chemistry, especially among the members of the African Company, and the action is well-paced and compelling. 

Technically, the production has ably transported the stage at the Edison Theatre into 1820s New York, with an authentically detailed set by Jamie Bullins and excellent costumes by Andre Harrington. There’s also superb work from lighting designer Jasmine Williams, sound designer Kareem Deans, and props designer Emily Kennebeck. Nobody alive now will have been able to attend an actual 19th Century theatrical performance, but as staged here, we’re given as close an approximation as could be expected. 

Overall, this is a thoroughly well-staged and riveting production. It’s thoughtful, challenging, and historical but with important, timeless themes. If you’re familiar with the Shakespearean source and/or the historical background, or if you are not, this is a play that’s not to be missed. It’s a profound and remarkable theatrical experience.

Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The African Company Presents Richard III at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2022

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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
June 3, 2022

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Much Ado About Nothing seems to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies these days. I think that’s because it’s probably one of the least intimidating for general audiences who aren’t as familiar with the Bard’s work, or who may have only studied his plays in school. The plot is fairly straightforward, and many of the situations are easily relatable for modern audiences. It’s also especially conducive to various setting updates. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, with its latest production, reiterates just how immediate and engaging this play can be, with a strong cast, sharp comic timing, and superb production values. 

The main story, as pointed out by Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely in his program note, is relatable because it’s timeless. The dynamic between the quick-witted Beatrice (Claire Karpen), and the equally sharp-tongued soldier Benedick (Stanton Nash) is one that’s been featured in stories–and especially in romantic comedies–for generations. As is usual for productions of this show, it’s the central relationship that shines through most clearly, as showcased through the strong chemistry, presence, and comic timing of Karpen and Nash, who make an ideal pair here. The subplots are done well, also, with the all-too easily persuaded Claudio (Kenneth Hamilton) wooing the sweet-natured Hero (Carmen Cecilia Retzer) but easily falling prey to the machinations of the scheming, gravelly-voiced Don John (Sorab Wadia), who seems to want to cause trouble just for the sake of it. There are also strong performances from Chauncy Thomas as the soldiers’ leader Don Pedro, who comes up with the idea to playfully trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. There’s also a goofy comic subplot involving bumbling local constable Dogberry (Liam Craig) and his assistant Verges (Whit Reichert), who have some hilarious moments with their watchmen, who despite Dogberry’s comic ineptitude, manage to catch Don John’s henchman Borachio (Aaron Orion Baker) and Conrade (Alex Rudd) in revealing an act of deception that causes a a lot of havoc between Claudio and Hero. There’s an excellent cast all around here, with standout moments from Gary Glasgow and Carl Overly, Jr. in dual roles, as well as Christopher Hickey as Hero’s father Leonato, Tim Kidwell as Leonato’s brother Antonio,  and Jenna Steinberg and Maison Kelly as Hero’s waiting gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula.  

According to the program notes, this version of the story is given a setting toward the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century, just after the First World War. That time period is the inspiration for the eye-catching production design here, including props like an authentic-looking Victrola-style phonograph, and the colorful and striking costumes by Dorothy Englis. Josh Smith’s multi-level set is also richly detailed and an ideal setting for the action, and the overall whimsical, witty, and musical tone of this production. And speaking of music, there’s a wonderful soundtrack here, with music to Shakespeare’s songs composed and played by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle, and beautifully sung by Michael Thanh Tran as Bathasar. The atmosphere and mood are also helped along nicely through means of John Wylie’s excellent lighting design, sound design by Rusty Wandall, sound effects by Kareem Deanes. It’s a great looking and sounding show that fits especially well into the outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is a fast-paced production with moments of slapstick comedy, witty banter, underhanded scheming, and an overall uplifting tone even though there are some darker moments sprinkled in amidst the comedy. The tone, the style, the energy, and especially the first-rate cast make this show a true delight, worthy of the excellent reputation of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and the Bard himself. 

Claire Karpen, Stanton Nash
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Much Ado About Nothing in Forest Park until June 26th, 2022

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blake Anthony Edwards
St. Louis Shakespeare
February 11, 2022

Evie Bennett
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is one of those shows that most Americans seem to know from having studied it in school. There have also been several filmed versions over the years, as well as the multitude of staged productions over the past few centuries. It seems to be seen as “entry level Shakespeare” for a lot of people. In that vein, St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production strikes me as an ideal first Shakespearean show for novices, in that it fully conveys the weight and message of the piece while also presenting it in an especially accessible and approachable manner, featuring a streamlined script, fast-paced direction, and a strong and relatively age-appropriate cast, albeit with a few notable casting “twists”. 

Staged at Kirkwood’s Reim Auditorium, the relatively large stage makes an effective backdrop for the production, which is played out on Cris Edwards’s simple but efficient wooden unit set. The costumes, by Amanda Handle and Tracy Newcomb, are mostly modern, with Romeo (Erik Peterson) dressed in simple jeans and button-down shirt over a t-shirt, and others in similarly contemporary clothes, but others, such as Tybalt (Jade Collins), and Benvolio (Emma McDonough) are dressed in outfits with a mix of modern and Elizabethan flair, and Friar Laurence (Nick Freed) is garbed as an old-fashioned robed priest. The simple set and simply styled costumes lend to the overall straightforward air of the production, and the cast has been simplified as well, with a few twists, as both Tybalt and Benvolio are played as women, and Romeo’s parents have been blended into one, Lady Montague (Rhianna Anesa). Some minor characters have ben left out, as well, with the important ones remaining–led, of course by Romeo and his star-crossed love Juliet (Evie Bennett). The story, of forbidden love among feuding families, is made immediate and fresh here, and the plot concise and briskly paced while allowing for the poignant moments to resonate. There’s lot of action–and some impressive fight choreography by Dennis Saldana–as well occasional humor, and eventually the building sense of tragic leading up to the play’s well-known conclusion.

The cast is impressive, for the most part, led by the suitably youthful Peterson and Bennett as the rash young lovers, with Peterson alternately earnestly determined and Bennett the more sheltered but occasionally playful and brash Juliet. Also standing out is Quinn Spivey in a dynamic turn as Romeo’s ill-fated friend, Mercutio, who commands the stage even though there are a few moments that might be a little too intense. McDonough as Benvolio, Freed as the Friar, and Collins as Tybalt are also excellent, as is Matthew Kauzlarich in a small but memorable role as Capulet servant Peter. Hillary Gokenbach and Robert Stevenson are believable as Juliet’s parents, with Gokenbach conveying some sympathy and Stevenson showing some frightening moments of anger as he orders the reluctant Juliet to marry kinsman Paris (Nic Tayborn). There’s also an especially memorable, alternately witty and poignant turn from Donna M. Parrone as the Nurse, Juliet’s caretaker and confidante. The cast works together well, from the romantic moments between Peterson and Bennett, to the clear friendship bonds between Peterson, Spivey, and McDonough, to the obvious affection between Bennett and Parrone as Juliet and the Nurse.  The ensemble energy adds much to the believability and power of this much-told story.

Aside from a few minor sound issues, the technical production flows well, supporting the cast in this simple but effective staging of a time-honored Shakespearean classic. It’s not the most elaborate or “theme-heavy” of productions, but those attributes work in this production’s favor. If you’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet before, or if you’ve seen it many times, this production brings the story to the stage in an immediate and memorable way.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Romeo and Juliet at the Reim Auditorium in Kirkwood until February 20, 2022

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King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Carl Cofield

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

June 4, 2021

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis and the cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Live theatre is back! I can’t properly express how excited I’ve been to finally be able to attend a real, in-person theatrical production for the first time since March 2020. There have been several excellent and creative virtual productions from various theatre companies, both national and local, but for me nothing has the same energy as a live show. I know many theatre fans, fellow critics and bloggers, and theatre artists have felt the same, and now that a lot of pandemic restrictions are being revised and relaxed, anticipation has been high.  It’s been a long break, and now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has answered that longing with a first-rate, riveting production of the Bard’s tragedy King Lear, starring an excellent cast of local and non-local performers and led by a genuine Broadway legend, André De Shields, in the title role. Along with a terrific cast including some excellent local performers, De Shields and the Festival usher live performance back to St. Louis in a bold, poignant, and unforgettable way.

This isn’t the first production of King Lear I’ve seen, or reviewed, although it couldn’t be more different than the last time I saw this show live, which was indoors and in a much smaller venue, and with a different director’s vision and setting. Here, the action is set in the present-day (or near it) in a kingdom in North Africa, with the atmosphere set by means of Wilson Chin’s striking set that features a crumbling facade and the suggestion of decline. The story is well-known, as the aging King Lear (De Shields) decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril (Rayme Cornell), Regan (Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (Nicole King). When the elder daughters flatter him excessively and Cordelia refuses to do the same, Lear is driven to anger, cutting off Cordelia and sending her away from the kingdom to marry the King of France (Michael Tran). Also banished is the king’s devoted friend the Earl of Kent (J. Samuel Davis), who supports Cordelia, although the ever-loyal Kent simply disguises himself under the name of Gaius and is taken into the king’s service. Lear, accompanied by the disguised Kent  and another devoted retainer, the Fool (Allen Gilmore), travels to stay with his remaining daughters–first Goneril and her husband, the sympathetic Albany (Jason J. Little), and then with Regan her co-conspiratorial husband Cornwall (Carl Overly, Jr.). As he is mistreated by his vain and scheming daughters, Lear is forced to confront his own vanity and rashness at rejecting Cordelia. This plot is intertwined with the story of Gloucester (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his two sons, the kindhearted Edgar (Daniel José Molina), and the scheming Edmund (Leland Fowler), who bemoans his “illegitimate” birth and resents his brother, who is the heir to his father’s title. Edmund’s plots against his brother leads to Edgar’s exile disguised as “Poor Tom”, who eventually comes into contact with Lear, who in his grief has taken to wandering in the wilderness with Kent and the Fool, bemoaning his fate, as well as Gloucester, who falls afoul of Lear’s daughters’ schemes and is also exiled. All of these events eventually lead to much conflict, personal reflection, and eventually war and and a series of tragedies. It’s an intense story, as expected, but the interpretation here is even more intense than I had remembered.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast is strong, although De Shields is unmistakably the star here. Known more for his performances in musical theatre over the years, he brings a singer’s vocal variation and a dancer’s physicality to this iconic Shakespearean role, although he doesn’t actually sing or dance. His journey from self-centered impulsivity to defiant regret and self-reflection, to abject grief is striking and bold. His scenes with the also excellent Davis as the ever-faithful Kent, Gilmore as the comedian/philosopher Fool, and King as the brave and honest Cordelia are especially memorable, as is his visceral disappointment in his self-focused daughters, Goneril and Regan, who are portrayed memorably by Cornell and Thompson respectively. There are also strong performances from Molina as Edgar, who ably morphs from gentle, hippie-ish skater dude to wild forest dweller to protective son; and Fowler as the ever-scheming Edmund; and especially Wilson as their duped and regretful father, Gloucester. Jason J. Little as loyal (to Lear) Albany and Overly in a dual role as the power-hungry Cornwall and a Gentleman attending Cordelia are also excellent, as is Tran as Goneril’s determined and sycophantic steward, Oswald as well as a brief turn as Cordelia’s suitor, the King of France. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, working together to bring the sense of intensity and drama, and occasional humor to this fully realized production.

Technically, this production also shines. The versatility of Chin’s set serves the story well, as pieces are reused to depict not only the changes in locales, but the deterioration of Lear’s kingdom. There’s also impressive work from fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, percussion director Atum Jones, and sound designer David R. Molina. John Wylie’s lighting design is also especially impressive, augmenting the drama especially in the moments of Lear’s exile and as military conflicts heat up.

This stunning production from St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a particularly profound answer to the year-long anticipation of the return of live performance. The Forest Park setting and modified “pod seating” also works well, lending a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Anchored by an essential performance by its headlined star, and supported by a superb cast and technical crew, King Lear may be a tragedy as a play, but as a production it’s an outright triumph.

Michael Tran, Jacqueline Thompson, Rayme Cornell, Carl Overly Jr., André De Shields and cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting King Lear in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 27, 2021

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A Late Summer Night’s Stroll
Conceived and Curated by The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Tom Ridgely, Producing Artistic Director
In Partnership with PaintedBlack STL
Javyn Solomon, Co-Founder, Charlie Tatum, Coordinator

August 14, 2020

Logo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is making me especially happy at the moment, since they are helping to usher in the return of something I’ve missed terribly the past few months–live theatre! That’s live theatre in a somewhat limited way, with some serious restrictions due to COVID-19, but it’s still theatre, and it’s still live and in person.  In lieu of the usual mainstage production in Forest Park, the newly renamed festival, led by Artistic Director Tom Ridgely, has partnered with PaintedBlack STL to present a production that utilizes one of St. Louis’s most prominent assets, Forest Park, to showcase the arts–visual and performing–in a fun, whimsical way that also serves as a showcase for several other local theatre companies and arts organizations, like SATE Ensemble Theatre, The Black Rep, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, and more.

Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the roughly mile-long, 60-90 minute “stroll” is a (mostly) self-guided walk that starts in the Festival’s “Shakespeare Glen” and follows a meandering path through the park, ending at the foot of Art Hill in front of the park’s picturesque Grand Basin. The path is marked by a series of beautifully painted arches, painted by Jessie Donovan, Eugenia Alexander, Nicholas Lawery, Tiélere Cheatem, Kyla Hawkins, Sherelle Speed, Brilynn Asia, Tyler Harris, Ryean Clark, N’Dea ‘Ori Tala’ Collins-Whitfield, Taylor Deed, Lashawnda Smith, Brock Seals and Dee Drenning. Each arch is unique and marks the performance space for the various presentations from the different theatre, music, and dance companies. These performances range from the more straightforward, such as Shakespeare Squadron’s introductory scene, to the more abstract, such as dances from The Big Muddy Dance Company and (traveling from one arch to another) Consuming Kinetics Dance Company. Most of the theatrical offerings are broadly comic, with memorable interpretations from Circus Flora/Ten Directions (featuring Lynn Berg and Audrey Crabtree), the Black Rep (featuring Brian McKinley and Christina Yancy), SATE (featuring Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, and a stuffed Ninja Turtle), and STLSF’s finale featuring Brittney Henry, Mary Heyl, Carl Overly Jr., and Michael Tran. Especially notable are performer Laura Coppinger and a special guest (you’ll have to see for yourself) performing as Titania serenading Bottom, who has been transformed into a donkey. The walk also features a fun presentation by Improv Shop (featuring Mo Burns), and memorable musical performances by Jazz St. Louis (featuring Benjamin Paille, Kendrick Smith, Bernard Taylor, and Micah Walker) and the Preparatory Program of the Community Music School of Webster University (featuring Ruth Christopher). It’s somewhat helpful if you are familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the energy and enthusiasm of the performers, as well as the unique format of the walk, make for an entertaining evening regardless.

While I’ve enjoyed several of the free online offerings by the Muny, Stray Dog Theatre, and other local companies, and I encourage theatre fans to support artists in this difficult time, there’s nothing like the experience of live theatre. It’s a unique art form, and I’ve missed it. While I’m expecting that a more widespread return of live productions will still be a few months away (at the soonest), I appreciate opportunities like this one from the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival to see, hear, interact, and experience the performing arts in person. A Late Summer Night’s Stroll is a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable endeavor makes the most of its setting and a host of talent and ingenuity. So, wear your sunscreen, bring your bug spray, put on your walking shoes, and give this “stroll” a try. It’s a lot of fun, and an excellent celebration of the arts in St. Louis.

Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting A Late Summer Evening’s Stroll in Forest Park until September 6, 2020


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Dress the Part
Music and Lyrics by Q Brothers
Directed by GQ and JQ
Choreographed by Sheena Laird
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
January 31, 2020

Garrett Young, Jordan Moore
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is doing something different, in various ways, with its newest production, Dress the Part. It’s a comic adaptation of Shakespeare, with a high school setting and a hip-hop beat, staged at a concert venue in one of St. Louis’s trendier neighborhoods. It’s also a superb showcase for two actors who, between them, play a variety of characters with a fast-paced, quick-change dynamic.

Written and directed by Q Brothers, who have produced other hip-hop Shakespeare adaptations in the past, Dress the Part has a fairly short running time (80 mins), but it’s long on talent. Featuring just two actors (Jordan Moore, Garrett Young) and a DJ (Crim Dolla Cray), the show manages to create its own world and larger-than-life characters within seemingly limited parameters. It’s based on Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but this time “Verona” is a high school. The show’s main characters, Valentine (Young) and Proteus (Moore) are best buddies and teammates on the Verona College Prep football team, until Proteus starts seeing “artsy” girl Julia and tries to quit the team. Valentine is upset, accusing Proteus of choosing a girl over their friendship, but then he finds himself smitten with new cheerleading captain Sylvia, who also catches the eye of someone else, causing much consternation and hilarious complications. The play, with a driving hip-hop soundtrack and performed in rhyme, features Moore and Young swapping costumes and props quickly in order to portray all the characters, including the team’s adage-mixing Coach Duke, marching band flautist Speed, Julia’s best friend Lucetta, enthusiastic team water boy Lance, a “Skater Boy” with a hidden talent, and more. It’s a high-energy look at high school “types” and old tropes like “jocks vs. nerds” etc. but done with a witty comic flair, some great “meta” humor, and terrific performances by its two leads and DJ. There’s also a fun immersive element, as the venue is festooned with posters advertising events at the school (even in the restrooms), and the audience is encouraged to chant along with the characters at various times, and especially during the climactic football game.

The set by Peter and Margery Spack is simple in the best way–it’s colorful and works well as a backdrop for the action. Christina Leinecke’s costumes are colorful and appropriate for the quick-change nature of the show, establishing the different characters clearly. There’s also great work from choreographer Sheena Laird, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and prop master Katie Orr. This production has a very distinctive look and tone, and all the technical aspects serve the story especially well. Even the program is excellent in how it helps audiences keep track of all the characters, with its “yearbook page” included with pictures.

Front and center here are the superb actors. Both Young and Moore play a range of characters each, and there are a few (such as Sylvia and drama kid Iggy) that they both play at different times, sometimes with the costume changes hilariously worked into the story. Both of these two have the energy, stage presence, and rhythm required for a laugh-a-minute show like this that never lets up. These two dynamic actors are also ably supported by DJ Crim Dolla Cray, who keeps her cool in the midst of the madness and contributes to the dialogue on occasion.

Dress the Part is something different for SFSTL, and that’s a wonderful thing. It works well in appealing to many different ages, including some that might be put off by a more “traditional” Shakespeare production. It’s also a great way of expanding SFSTL’s presence in the city’s neighborhoods, as an addition to the company’s already established Shakespeare in the Streets program. This production is something fresh, bold, and especially well-performed.  It’s new, it’s cool, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Dress the Part at The Ready Room until February 15, 2020

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