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Posts Tagged ‘william shakespeare’

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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The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Gill
St. Louis Shakespeare
November 8, 2019

Addison Brown, Julie George-Carlson, Riley Capp
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

For St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production, director Phil Gill has made a bold move. The Merchant of Venice is known as one of the Bard’s more problematic plays, especially when viewed by modern audiences. Other companies have found various ways of approaching this material to mitigate or somehow try to “fix” some of the problems, but this production seems to go the other way, presenting a fairly straightforward staging–aside from one notable twist–that highlights the difficulties, forcing the audience to confront them and think about what they mean, both for the Shakespearean setting and for today.

The one twist here is that the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually played by a man, is played here by a woman (Julie George-Carlson), and as a woman, with all the pronouns and other references previously referring to the character as male changed to reflect the casting. Otherwise, though, nothing else has significantly changed. It’s a difficult story, ostensibly a comedy, in which characters who are supposed to be likable do some especially unsavory things, especially in reference to Shylock and the attitude toward Jewish people in general. When this was written in Shakespeare’s day, the message regarding Shylock may have been considered moderate for its day, but now it’s most certainly not, and the audience is forced to face the reality of how society mistreats and marginalizes those who don’t fit in. So, while the Shylock character does make a demand that seems unreasonable, the staging and portrayal here emphasizes what her reasoning may have been for that. The rest of the story, in which Antonio (Addison Brown) borrows the money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp) woo the wealthy Portia (Liv Somner), and some other plot points involving Bassanio’s associates Gratiano (Jeremy Goldmeier), Portia’s lady in waiting Nerissa (Erin Struckhof), as well as Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Joseph Garner) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Erin McRaven) are more in the vein of romantic comedy, but these get tied into the Antonio and Shylock dispute eventually, as Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to participate in the trial, and the Duke of Venice (Jeff Lovell) presides. There’s also some funny business involving a provision by Portia’s father for how she is to find a husband, involving choosing between three caskets and featuring some hilariously bombastic would-be suitors, the princes of Morocco (Victor Mendez) and Arragon (Duncan Phillips). It’s a compelling story, if more than a little uncomfortable to watch at times, as we see otherwise “noble” characters behaving not-so-nobly in several notable moments, and particularly at the trial, and then after some fairly brutal moments we are expected to switch back to more light romance scenes. It’s jarring, and in this staging remarkably effective.

The casting is, for the most part, excellent. Leading the way is George-Carlson in an especially memorable turn as Shylock. Her Shylock is stubborn, to be sure, but there is also a real sense of pain and anger here, which is credible considering how everyone else treats her. She is the clear standout here, although there are strong performances all around. Brown is something of a laid-back Antonio, but Capp is a lively Bassanio, displaying strong chemistry with Somner’s equally strong Portia. Goldmeier is also memorable as a particularly boisterous Gratiano, who is well-matched by Struckhof’s amiable Nerissa. Mendez and Phillips are also notable in strong comic performances as the would-be suitors, and also with Phillips in an additional role as Shylock’s dissatisfied servant Launcelot. It’s a good ensemble all around, keeping up the pacing and tone well.

The physical staging is limited somewhat by the venue. The stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church isn’t ideal, with a difficult seating set-up and not much in the way of a backstage. Still, the simple set by Kyra Bishop Sanford is in keeping with the traditional setting, even though the frequent scene changes can get monotonous. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler are excellent, however, with rich period detail and well-suited for the characters. The lighting by Tony Anselmo, sound by Kaitlynn Ferris, and props by Trish Baylard also work well for the production, making for a coherent, engaging presentation.

The Merchant of Venice is, for various reasons, not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It has its moments, but it’s especially problematic in its overall theme. St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for facing the problems straight on with this relatively simple, bold staging. It’s a picture of a society that’s not particularly pretty, which forces viewers to reflect not only on the reality of this situation, but on the aspects of our own society that need to be confronted. Even with a few rough edges staging-wise, it’s a truly memorable production.

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Love’s Labors Lost
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Ridgely
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 31, 2019

Bradley James Tejeda, Kea Trevett, Sky Smith, Laura Sohn
Photo by Philip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

It may be over 400 years old, but as staged this year by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in their usual outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen, Love’s Labors Lost may as well have been written for this venue. With an inventive set, crisp staging, and ideal casting, this show provides more than a simple outdoor entertainment. It’s energetic, it’s musical, it’s a conversation starter, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

As usual, the first thing that’s obvious in this year’s SFSTL production is its set, this time designed by Jason Simms and managing to be remarkably versatile and striking while blending into the surrounding setting at the same time. The set represents the estate of the King of Navarre (Sky Smith), who along with his friends, students Longueville (Sam Jones), DuMaine (Riz Moe), and Biron (Bradley James Tejeda) makes a bold vow to devote himself to study for three years, shunning worldly pleasures and, especially, the company of women. This plan is soon challenged by the arrival of a delegation from the King of France, led by his daughter the Princess (Kea Trevett) and her attending ladies Maria (Vivienne Claire Luthin), Catherine (Kiah McKirnan), and Rosaline (Laura Sohn), who predictably attract the attentions of the men, who proceed to court the women in increasingly bombastic ways. Meanwhile, the Spanish soldier Don Armado (Philip Hernández) arrives, attended by his witty pageboy Moth (Naima Randolph) and immediately falls in love with local country girl Jaquenetta (Molly Meyer), who has also attracted the attentions of rustic local Costard (Patrick Blindauer). Basically, the story involves a series of romantic misadventures, as well as the concurring efforts of several locals including self-important academic Holofernes (Carine Montbertrand) and local priest Nathaniel (Katy Keating), along with Costard and others, to put on a play for the King and his visitors.

The play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, isn’t incredibly plot-heavy and relies on a lot of witty banter and the relationships between the characters to make it interesting, and this production makes the most of that banter and the larger-than-life characters, as well as an atmospheric, melodic musical soundtrack provided onstage by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra along with the cast members themselves, particularly Blindauer who demonstrates a strong singing voice along with excellent comic timing in his role as Costard. The casting across the board is especially ideal, with everyone doing an excellent job but with particular standouts including Hernández as the bombastic Armado, making an excellent team with the equally superb Randolph as the clever, witty Moth. Tejeda and Sohn are also first-rate in their superb chemistry and witty banter as Biron and Rosaline, along with strong performances from Smith and Trevett as an also well-matched King and Princess. There’s also excellent support from Jeffrey Cummings as the Princess’s adviser Boyet, and fun comic turns from Montbertrand and Keating as the pompous and bumbling Holofernes and Nathaniel. It’s an exceptionally strong cast all around, with a great deal of energy and presence, and director Tom Ridgely’s fast-paced staging serves the production, the characters, and the broad comic tone especially well.

In addition to the excellent set, the other technical aspects of the production are equally stunning. The setting, which mostly seems to be in the early 20th Century era, is further spelled out via the colorful and meticulously detailed costumes by Melissa Trn. There’s also dazzling lighting by John Wylie and excellent sound by Rusty Wandall. The world of the play is brought into Forest Park with whimsical wonder.

Love’s Labors Lost is a remarkable effort for SFSTL. It has romance, charm, wit, humor, and a whimsical tone. It’s one of the most successful shows I’ve seen from the Festival in terms of integrating the play into its space. It’s a delightful production.

 

Philip Hernández, Naima Randolph
Photo by Philip Hamer
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Love’s Labors Lost in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 23, 2019

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Othello
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrice Foster
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 6, 2019

Reginald Pierre, Bridgette Bassa
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has moved to a new venue, and they’re bringing a fresh approach to a classic tragedy along with the change of location. This Othello is updated in setting and costumes, but also given an intense, personal approach that lends a sense of timeliness to the story. There are a few surprises here, and an especially strong cast to bring even more resonance to this oft-staged play.

Othello is the name of the play, as well as its lead character, played here by Reginald Pierre. He’s a Moorish general who has recently married Desdemona (Bridgette Bassa), the daughter of the influential Brabantio (Brad Kinzel). Othello has also upset his ensign Iago (Cynthia Pohlson) by promoting Cassio (Phil Leveling) as his lieutenant instead of Iago. The vengeful, self-absorbed Iago then sets out to ruin Othello’s life, enlisting the help of the disappointed Roderigo (Jesse  Muñoz), who had hoped to pursue Desdemona himself. That’s essentially the setup, and the plot grows from there, as Iago plays on Othello’s trust for him and doubts about Desdemona’s loyalty, as well as using and manipulating everyone around him in his single-minded quest to destroy Othello, and Cassio as well.

This production, brought into a contemporary setting, highlights personal relationships as well as the insidious influences of both racism and sexism. The show emphasizes injustices–the mistreatment and mistrust of Othello first, and of the women consistently–even by the supposedly “good” Cassio. Iago is there trying to use everything to his advantage, as well. He is a monster, but he gets away with his monstrosity for a long time because he’s “one of the guys”, and the women are, for the most part, treated as convenient accessories, and sometimes as nuisances. It’s an intense, dynamically staged production that highlights the relationships of the characters and makes the most of the company’s new performance space at Tower Grove Church.

The casting here is especially notable in the choice to cast Pohlson as Iago, playing the role as a man, and as a swaggering, entitled, fiercely scheming one at that. It’s a dynamic performance, and a stunning one. Pohlson commands the stage with every step and plot from beginning to end. Pierre is also excellent as the highly conflicted Othello. and Phil Leveling makes a strong Cassio, still complex in his own right. Bassa, as Desdemona and Hillary Gokenbach as Iago’s mistreated wife Emilia are also outstanding, and there are fine turns from Muñoz as the manipulated Rodrigo and Lisa Hinrichs as Cassio’s sometime-lover Bianca as well. The cast chemistry is especially strong. The “bedroom” scene at the end is positively chilling, with top-notch performances all around, and the tragic conclusion carries credible emotional weight.

In terms of staging, the set by Jared Korte is simple, consisting of boxes that are moved around as needed. Brendan Schmidt’s lighting is effective as well, highlighting the increasingly ominous tone of the story. There are also well-suited contemporary costumes that work especially well, particularly the striking military uniforms. There’s also good work from props designer Amanda Handle, sound designer Ted Drury, and fight choreographer Tod Gillenardo. The new venue has its drawbacks (pew seating in particular), but for the most part, it works well for this production.

This is an Othello for today–intense, confrontational, timely. The staging by director Patrice Foster is intelligent and poignant, with a sense of energy and immediacy from beginning to end. It’s worth checking out on its final weekend.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Othello at Tower Grove Baptist Church until April 13, 2019

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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