Saturday, December 13, 2014

BECOMING DR. RUTH • The New Jewish Theatre

Before Ruth Westheimer became "Dr. Ruth", she was Karola Ruth Siegel, born in Wiesenfeld, Germany to Orthodox Jews in 1928. Her petite stature, spright, thickly accented voice and honest talk about human sexuality led her to fame as a sex therapist and media personality, but the little known facts about her astonishing life make up the bulk of Mark St. Germain's one-woman play, portrayed strongly by Susie Wall.

Scenic designer Cristie Johnston's impressively cozy space welcomes us into the cluttered Washington Heights apartment of Dr. Ruth Westheimer as she packs up for a move a few months after the death of her third husband, Manfred Westheimer. She's surprised to see all of us in her living room, and invites us to keep her company while she struggles to continue packing up boxes. Just about every trinket or photograph she picks up to wrap in newspaper reminds her of her past. Wall engagingly relates Westheimer's childhood in an orphanage in Switzerland, sent there by her mother and grandmother through kindertransport after her father was taken to a labor camp when the Nazis rose to power. There's also anecdotes about her time in Palestine where she lived on a kibbutz, her joining the Haganah where she was trained as a scout and sniper, her studies in France, and her three marriages and two children. The indomitable spirit of Dr. Ruth can't be denied, but the translation of that vivacity tends to get bogged down in the plodding rhythms of St. Germain's script, with an occasional change of pace when she's interrupted by phone calls from the movers, her children, or advice seekers. The play perks up when it builds to Dr. Ruth's 1980’s radio program, “Sexually Speaking", a call-in show where she frankly and warm-heartedly answered questions from listeners about sex, and the popularity it gained, eventually making her a household name. 

Susie Wall (Dr. Ruth).
Photo credits: John Lamb
Wall, under the direction of Jerry McAdams, gives an appealing performance and breathes life into the play where it allows, and Michael B. Perkins provides the projection design that illustrates some of Westhimer's memories with images projected onto a curtained window, with Kimberly Klearman providing the lighting design and Teresa Doggett providing the costumes.

The road that led to Dr. Ruth's fame is certainly an interesting one, but ultimately, the pace becomes mechanical, zapping the zest out of too many of the stories. It's playing until the 21st.


Susie Wall (Dr. Ruth).
Photo credits: John Lamb
BECOMING DR. RUTH

Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Jerry McAdams
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through December 21 | tickets: $36 - $40
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Sunday the 7th at 2pm & 7:30pm

Cast:
Susie Wall* (Dr. Ruth)
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; costume design by Teresa Doggett; sound and projection design by Michael B. Perkins; stage manager, Emily Clinger.

Monday, December 8, 2014

REALITY • HotCity Theatre

The drama-filled, cheap to produce genre of reality television has, for better or worse, multiplied over the last several years, and if anything, it's proven that there will always be people willing to lose their innocence on national television, and others with no shame willing to put their dignity on the back burner for a shot at fleeting celebrity at the risk of public humiliation. Lia Romeo's comedy, HotCity's chosen script from its 2013 GreenHouse New Play Festival, takes a perverse and very funny look at what happens to the lives of those involved in a dating reality show once the cameras are off.

Annie (Maggie Conroy), a small-town girl from Iowa, thought she had gotten everything she wanted when she became engaged to Matt (Tyler Vickers), a wealthy hunk, on a reality show called "Looking for Love". One of the show's producers, Josh (Ben Nordstrom), oversees the taping of the engagement on a video monitor, making sure to squeeze every drop of carefully choreographed emotion from the scene. Once the taping for the show's finale is finished, Annie, Matt and Josh are sequestered in the production's "safe house", securely out of the public eye. While Josh finishes up the series, Annie's whirlwind love affair with Matt doesn't look as dreamy in the harsh light of day once the show's in the can. The show's runner-up, the pinot grigio toting Krissandra (Julie Layton), whose only real motive for being a contestant was to use her brief fame as a springboard for an aspiring acting career, drops in to visit Annie from time to time. She and Annie formed a bit of a friendship during taping, and now she offers an ear to Annie, whose eyes are being forced open to the snares of reality television, with a wicked turn of events at the end as the facade of happiness comes crashing down.

Ben Nordstrom (Josh),
Maggie Conroy (Annie) and Tyler Vickers (Matt).
Romeo's script allows for some insight among the hilarity, and the ensemble of four are perfectly cast. Conroy as Annie, the ingenue, is authentically sweet and very funny, and Vickers is perfect as Matt, the hunky lunkhead whom producers pick for his money and good looks, though he's not quite ready for a commitment. Nordstrom nails the role of Josh, the cynical producer willing to do anything for ratings, and Layton's Krissandra is a gas, striking you as the type of reality tv girl most likely to get a little too drunk at a party. Under Annamaria Pileggi's smart, fast-paced direction, they all bring charm to their roles and perform with a natural ease.

There were also some neat things that the creative team came up with as part of the production concept -- along with the small tv monitor mounted above the stage, scene changes are done with the houselights up instead of down, offstage areas are instead over to stage-left, where actors receive props and wait for their entrances in plain view -- all succeeding in breaking normal theatre conventions in a way unique to the subject matter.

Julie Layton (Krissandra) and Maggie Conroy (Annie).
The curtain will close for HotCity Theatre after this world premiere run, and the company's decade-long offerings of challenging, modern plays will be greatly missed. The house was completely sold out on opening night, and though HotCity's absence will leave quite a gap on the St. Louis theatre landscape, it will also leave memories of some of the boldest theatre St. Louis had to offer. ("Equus", "Whammy" and "The Normal Heart" are among my favorites.) You've got until December 20 to check out this wildly funny play from one of the city's best.


Maggie Conroy (Annie) and Tyler Vickers (Matt).

REALITY

Written by Lia Romeo
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through December 20 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Maggie Conroy (Annie), Julie Layton (Krissandra), Tyler Vickers (Matt) and Ben Nordstrom* (Josh).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Patrick Burks; assistant director, Rachel Blumer; assistant stage manager, Sarah Palay; stage manager, Kate Koch.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 • Mustard Seed Theatre

"All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914", was originally presented as a radio show on Minnesota Public Radio by the vocal ensemble, Cantus and Theatre Latte Da, until Mustard Seed Theatre gave this a cappella musical a fully staged production last year. The musical's text is comprised of letters and historic documents associated with a brief truce that occurred during World War I on Christmas Eve, with songs ranging from folk tunes and traditional carols to patriotic hymns and ballads. It remains, like last season's production, an aural feast.

Everyone from last season's award winning ensemble cast (and practically all of the crew) is back for this season's revival, and along with an additional number ("Good-By-Ee"), there are also several subtle changes in the staging that enhance the presentation. The show is broken down into sections -- "The Optimistic Departure", "The Grim Reality ", "Christmas", "The Truce", "The Return to Battle", and an Epilogue. Within these sections, the audience is taken through the soldiers' nervous excitement heading out on the open sea to battle the Germans (a battle that many thought would be over with by Christmas), the bleak gloom of war at the front -- from rat infested trenches and sniper fire to the loss of comrades, the short truce on Christmas Eve where cigarettes, rum and gifts were exchanged, along with a lively game of football, and the sobering joint burial of the dead. Once superior officers find out about the fraternization of the troops, they put an end to it, bringing the saddening return to battle.

Luke Steingruby, Gary Glasgow, Shawn Bowers,
Christopher Hickey, Charlie Barron, Jason Meyers,
Tim Schall, J. Samuel Davis,
(front row) Jeffrey Wright and Antonio Rodriguez.
Photo credit: John Jamb
Under Joe Schoen's musical direction, the voices of this cast of 10, including Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright, are exceptional. They marvelously handle songs with gentle, solemn harmonies like, "The Old Barbed Wire" and "I Want to Go Home". Then there are songs that begin in unison and blossom into these full, thick chords several notes deep with refreshing harmony turns and chill-inducing dynamic changes like the haunting prologue,"Will Ye Go to Flanders?", "Wassail" (my fave), "Auld Lang Syne" and "Silent Night", that fluidly dissolves during the last quarter of the number into the titular "All Is Calm". The monologues work into the music so easily, it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins. Love. There's also much mirth to be had in songs and passages in last half of "Christmas in the Camp" and "Good King Wenceslas", and a special shout out to Antonio Rodriguez for his solo, "Minuit chr├ętiens (O Holy Night)". I said this last year and I'll say it again -- if the hair on the back of your neck doesn't stand on end, it's very likely that there's something wrong with you.

Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Shawn Bowers,
Gary Glasgow, Tim Schall, Charlie Barron,
Jeffrey Wright, Luke Steingruby and Antonio Rodriguez.
Photo credit: John Jamb
Deanna Jent's direction spreads the spoken text aptly among the cast who handle the many dialects required, with the help of dialect coach Richard Lewis, quite well for the most part, with standouts that include Barron, Glasgow, Hickey and Meyers. Jane Sullivan outfits the cast in authentic attire, and Kyra Bishop's effective scenic design of barbed wire, barricades and crates, along with "no man's land" in the middle, is evocatively lit by Michael Sullivan, highlighting the solos, and depicting stars and the illumination of mortar fire against a backdrop. All of these creative elements, with a seamless integration of songs and dialogue, make for an affecting night of theater -- perfect for the Holiday season.

If you saw it last year, it's worth seeing again. If you haven't, it's not to be missed. Aural feast, I'm tellin' ya! It's playing until December 21st.

Christopher Hickey, Gary Glasgow, Tim Schall,
Jason Meyers, J. Samuel Davis, Luke Steingruby,
Shawn Bowers, Jeffrey Wright, Antonio Rodriguez
and Charlie Barron.
Photo credit: John Lamb
ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914

By Peter Rothstein
Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach 
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through December 21 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 5pm

Cast:
Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis*, Gary Glasgow*, Christopher Hickey*, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall*, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Musical direction by Joe Schoen; scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; dialect coach, Richard Lewis; props manager, Meg Brinkley; stage manager, Jessica Haley.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

THE RESIDENTS OF CRAIGSLIST • ERA

Experimental theatre company, Equally Represented Arts, is currently staging an original piece created entirely from Craigslist ads. Yep, you heard me. Artistic director Lucy Cashion and associate artistic director Will Bonfiglio have sifted through local Craigslist posts and adapted a variety of entries into a unique one-act play.

Performed at the AlphaBetaClub on a no-frills set with chili pepper lights, a couple stacks of phonebooks, a few lawn chairs, and a drawn outline of a house, six actors (Cara Barresi, Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Natasha Toro and Ryan Wiechmann) give life to a wide array of advertisements -- people trying to get rid of stuff, people looking for stuff, people looking to escape their past, or create their futures, and of course, the "casual encounters". There's no plot to speak of, but the passages range from spurned lovers and heartbreaking loners, to groups who gather to gossip, ponder the supernatural, hook up, or rant. Taken as a whole, these stories, no matter how wacky some of them are, are relatable because they all center on the shared common denominator of people trying to connect. Directed by Cashion, the members of the ensemble work wonderfully together in their moments as a choreographed chorus, and shine in their individual representations, painting vibrant portraits of the Craigslist denizens.

Ryan Wiechmann, Natasha Toro,
Will Bonfiglio, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi and Mitch Eagles.
Photo credit: Katrin Hackenberg
The play threatens to overstay its welcome near the end, and the accompanying music drowns out the performers on occasion, but this quirky play, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad and sometimes raunchy, is worth checking out for something different. It's a short run, so you've only got one more chance to check it out!


THE RESIDENTS OF CRAIGSLIST

Written by Lucy Cashion and Will Bonfiglio
Directed by Lucy Cashion
AlphaBetaClub, 2618 N 14th Street
through November 16 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Wednesday to Sunday at 8pm

Cast:
Cara Barresi, Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Natasha Toro and Ryan Wiechmann.

Creative:
Lighting design by Erik Kuhn.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A KID LIKE JAKE • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

The Rep's Studio season kicks off with Daniel Pearle's skillfully crafted one-act drama, "A Kid Like Jake", and begins with Alex (Leigh Williams) frantically brooding over a table full of applications for her son. The rat race of getting your kid accepted into a good private school is fraught with pressure, you understand -- even if the schools you're applying to are pre-schools. But Pearle's play is about much more than this.

Alex, an ex-lawyer who is now a stay-at-home mom, and her husband Greg (Alex Hanna), a clinical psychologist, are trying to place their gifted 4-year-old son Jake, never seen onstage, into one of Manhattan's prestigious kindergartens. Jake has excelled in all of the tests these schools require, but he loves Disney movies and favors dressing up as Cinderella or Snow White as opposed to your run of the mill pirate costumes for Halloween, and his penchant for Disney princesses over GI Joe has been getting him into a couple of scuffles with the other kids at school.
Leigh Williams (Alexandra) and Alex Hanna (Greg).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Judy (Susan Pellegrino), a friend of the family and administrator at Jake's current pre-school, suggests that his "gender-variant play" might help him stand out and offer a bit of the diversity these esteemed pre-schools are looking for, but Alex and Greg's reaction to their son's tendencies take increasingly diverse paths during the course of the play. Alex is convinced that her son is just going through a phase, and Greg, willing to accept that Jake's inclinations may be more than just a phase, favors therapy to help Jake work through the taunts he's been getting from other kids, and the stress the family is going through from Alex's new pregnancy.

Susan Pellegrino (Judy), Leigh Williams (Alexandra)
and Alex Hanna (Greg).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Pearle, endowed with a great ear for dialogue that rings true, strikes a full round of emotional notes in his play. Seth Gordon's nimble direction keeps the play running at an engaging clip, and Hanna and Williams display a palpable chemistry that draws you to these parents, so that later when the tensions that rise between them reach an emotional apex, you're completely invested. Pellegrino gives a wonderfully shaded performance as a well-intentioned Judy, and Jacqueline Thompson completes the cast as a warmhearted nurse who consoles Alex during her difficult pregnancy. Gianni Downs makes great use of the Rep's studio stage providing backdrops and set inserts that stand in as the couple's house, Judy's office and a waiting room. Lou Bird's modern costume design, John Wylie's agile lighting design and Rusty Wandall's sound design and original music round out the production's sharp creative contributions.

Leigh Williams (Alexandra) and Alex Hanna (Greg).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
"A Kid Like Jake" may play out against a backdrop of privilege, but the topic at the center is a challenging one, and here, executed with polish. You've only got this weekend to check it out at the Rep Studio.


A KID LIKE JAKE

Written by Daniel Pearle
Directed by Seth Gordon
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 16 | tickets: $50 - $65
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays to Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Cast:
Alex Hanna* (Greg), Susan Pellegrino* (Judy), Jacqueline Thompson (the nurse), Leigh Williams* (Alexandra)
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Gianni Downs; costume design by Lou Bird; lighting design by John Wylie; original music and sound design by Rusty Wandall; stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

CHANCERS • Max & Louie Productions

After a debut in Ireland last year, Max & Louie Productions gives Robert Massey's "Chancers" its US premiere. In it, a married couple are having a rough time making ends meet, and this comedy proves that good jobs go to the young, the rich get richer, and nice guys finish last.

Aiden (Nathan Bush) and Dee (Pamela Reckamp) own Farrell's Quickstop, a convenience store in Kildare, Ireland, but economic times have forced them to rent out their house to make a little money and live out of two back storerooms of the shop. In the opening scene, Dee gets ready for her first job interview in years, and Aiden busies himself setting up the store for customers who won't come. About the only customer they do have is Gertie (Donna Weinsting), the neighborhood nag, who made a ton of money off of a shrewd property deal, and now she visits the Quickstop for her sausage sandwich, to throw her (hilarious) foul-mouthed criticism around, and remind the couple how much their lives suck. When Aiden discovers that Gertie has her hands on a winning lottery ticket, his buddy JP (Jared Sanz-Agero), also suffering from Ireland's economic downturn, advises him that they should get a hold of that ticket by any means necessary. Aiden has serious reservations about JP's ballsy plan, but once Dee signs off on it, after her job prospects dwindle and a bombshell she drops in the second act, an urgency is cleverly added that propels the threesome to consider the boldest of moves.

Nathan Bush (Aiden), Pamela Reckamp (Dee),
Donna Weinsting (Gertie) and Jared Sanz-Agero (JP).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Under Sydnie Grosberg Ronga's direction, there are fine performances from this tight cast of four, starting with Bush as Aiden, a good husband and father who reacts to JP's suggestions with wide-eyed resistance. Reckamp is convincing as Dee, as is her chemistry with Bush, and their fear of how they will make it. Sanz-Agero provides a lot of humor as the conniving JP, who coincidentally was once engage to Dee, and Weinsting is reliably uproarious as Gertie, the town harpy. Margery & Peter Spack's scenic design presents a fully realized convenience store, from the tatty "save", "half-price" and "deal" signs to the colorful stringer pennants. Also, there's nothing like a well executed Irish brogue (love), and these four handle it with ease. The hardships and moral dilemmas the characters face in Massey's play are real, and the comic spin, for the most part, works well. It's a fun play that shows how far good people will go to get their due, playing until the 16th at the Kranzberg.


Nathan Bush (Aiden) and Jared Sanz-Agero (JP).
Photo credit: John Lamb
CHANCERS

Written by Robert Massey
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through November 16 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Nathan Bush (Aiden), Pamela Reckamp* (Dee), Donna Weinsting (Gertie) and Jared Sanz-Agero (JP).
Nathan Bush (Aiden), Jared Sanz-Agero (JP)
and Pamela Reckamp (Dee).
Photo credit: John Lamb
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Margery & Peter Spack; lighting design by John Cameron Carter; sound design by John Clark; props by Rai Feltmann; dialect coach, Katy Keating; stage manager, Kristin Rion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE K OF D: AN URBAN LEGEND • Blue Rose Stage Collective

Along Cherokee Street's Antique Row, through an alleyway of rusty remnants and wrought iron running alongside Revisionist Inn, there's a crackling fire pit, hot cider, s'mores, and a makeshift stage on the back of a broken-down facade -- the perfect setting for playwright Laura Schellhardt's "The K of D", presented by director Tom Martin’s Blue Rose Stage Collective and featuring the dexterous Em Piro, the founder and creative fireball behind St. Lou Fringe. She inhabits over a dozen characters to present a legend that was generated by an odd series of events that followed the tragic death of a young boy.

After a few shared ghost stories, a girl from the audience says she’s got one – more urban legend than ghost story. She tells us about the rural town of St. Marys, Ohio, her group of rowdy childhood friends who spend their summers hanging out on a pier by a man-made lake, and Charlotte McGraw. It was Charlotte’s twin brother, Jamie, who was hit by a blue Dodge while he was skateboarding to school.
Em Piro
Photo credit: Todd Heilman
The death of her twin leaves her devastated beyond speech, and a dying kiss from him seems to impart Charlotte with a lethal knack that the group of friends try to figure out during the course of the play, along with a possible connection to the appearance of an eerie gray heron spotted on the lake. In addition to our narrator, the kids in the group include the muscle-head, a pair of brothers, the jaded leader beyond her years and the monied valley-girl. The adults include Johnny Whistler, the reckless redneck driver of the car that killed Jamie who moves next door to the McGraws, his flock of girlfriends, Charlotte's father, who's got a dark streak of his own, and her slightly deranged mother, obsessed with her accolades as a teacher. Then of course there's Charlotte herself, who stopped talking after her brother was killed.

Em Piro
Photo credit: Todd Heilman
After a professional premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2008, this play is picking up steam, being performed in more and more places, but Martin and Piro's choice to stage it outdoors is a brilliant first. Piro, slight in stature and huge on physical energy, deftly guides us through the tale, embodying the wide range of kids and adults with a quick change in voice and carriage. Atmospheric sound design by Michael Perkins helps color in the tone wonderfully, and Mark Wilson adds a bit of nifty stagecraft with shadow puppets and the use of a fan, as well as providing the scenic and lighting design, and Billy Croghan's original music effectively punctuates the story. Playwright Schellhardt, who spent her summers at St. Marys as a child, has an intriguing script, and though it's slender on payoff, the terrific creative elements of this production, along with Martin's well-paced direction and Piro's tireless performance, elevate the material to a unique night of memorable theater. It's playing until the 25th. Did I mention there's yummy cobbler for after the show? There's cobbler after the show.


Photo credit: Todd Heilman
THE K OF D: AN URBAN LEGEND

Written by Laura Schellhardt 
Directed by Tom Martin
Revisionist Inn, 1950 Cherokee St.
through October 25 | tickets: suggested donation $10 - $20
Performances October 17 at 11pm, doors open at 10:30, October 24 and 25 at 10pm, doors open at 9:30

Cast:
Em Piro

Creative:
Shadow puppets, scenic and lighting design by Mark Wilson;  sound design by Michael Perkins; original music by Billy Croghan.

Musicians:
Billy Croghan and Gavin Duffy.

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