Tuesday, July 10, 2018

LaBute New Theater Festival I • St. Louis Actors' Studio

The LaBute New Theater Festival is back for its sixth year at St. Louis Actors' Studio. The finalists are culled from about 300 entries, and six new short plays have been chosen, along with an annual debut by the festival’s namesake, Tony-nominated playwright Neil LaBute, who made an appearance on opening night. The first set of three will run through the 15th, and the second trio will run from the 20th through the 29th, with LaBute’s premiere featured every night of the festival. There were also four high school finalists that received a free-admission stage reading this past Saturday.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Grand Center Theatre Crawl • St. Louis Public Radio, Grand Center & Kranzberg Arts Foundation

Presented by Grand Center, St. Louis Public Radio, and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, the sixth annual Grand Center Theatre Crawl kicked off last Friday. Over the course of 2 days, with venues scattered throughout the Grand Center Arts District, over 2 dozen companies performed short presentations every 30 minutes -- all for free! It’s another one-of-a-kind theatre celebration that’s pretty unique to St. Louis. The organizers of the Theatre Crawl did some limited research on theatre events and festivals around the country. They found lots of Fringe Festivals, events devoted to specific playwrights, and events dedicated to new work. They did not, however, find anything that celebrated the local theatre community quite like the Crawl. Here’s a very small taste of what was on offer.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

BLOW, WINDS • Shakespeare in the Streets: Downtown St. Louis

Playing out on the steps of the St. Louis Central Public Library, Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Streets celebrated its sixth year last weekend. Originally scheduled to run in September 2017, the acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley generated protests downtown, making it necessary for Shakespeare in the Streets to cancel due to security concerns. Galvanized by these developments, Nancy Bell’s original adaptation was modified with the help of playwriting fellow, Mariah L. Richardson, to further address the divisions, as well as the strengths, within St. Louis. Past productions have concentrated on one neighborhood, but this year, South County, West County, North County and the City were all cunningly incorporated into the tragedy of King Lear, or in this case, King Louis. Tom Martin keenly directed a top-notch cast, and the contributions by Central Baptist Church Choir, The Gentlemen of Vision Step Team and Genesis Jazz Project provided an intense boost to the production. Margery & Peter Spack’s spectacular projections provided a feast for the eyes, transforming the library’s exterior to a sprawling St. Louis City flag design, neon landscapes, lightning-charged storms, and a magnificent stone brick castle -- complete with battlements, torch sconces and crests.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

HEDDA GABLER • Stray Dog Theatre

Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play, adapted here by Jon Robin Baitz, introduced what would become an icon of dramatic literature. During the course of the play, Hedda Gabler (an outstanding Nicole Angeli) tries to fracture the lives of everyone around her, resulting in her own undoing -- all in a matter of a couple of days. Her cruelty is driven by boredom and a lack of purpose or agency near the turn of the twentieth century. She’s a control freak with nothing to control.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

LUCHADORA! • Mustard Seed Theatre & Theatre Nuevo

If you’ve ever run across an odd item in a relative’s home that you’ve never seen before and wouldn’t in a million years expect to see, it can send your mind racing with the possible stories behind it. In Alvaro Saar Rios’ 2015 memory play, Vanessa finds a wrestling mask in her Nana Lupita’s briefcase, and after a little prodding, the story of that mask, lucha libre or Mexican wrestling, family secrets and the ardent perseverance of girls play out in flashbacks at Fontbonne University, courtesy of Theatre Nuevo and Mustard Seed Theatre.

In late 1960’s Texas where Nana Lupita grew up, she spent her summers selling flowers at her widowed father’s stand so he could give his aching back a rest. When she could get away, she’d ride bikes and eat watermelon with her friends, German immigrants Leo and Liesl. Lupita finds that same mask in her father’s briefcase, and is shocked to learn from a mysterious mask maker that her father is none other than Mascara Rosa, a renowned luchador. With a recent challenge from Mascara Rosa’s nemesis, El Hijo, having been issued, and her father’s health precluding him from answering the call, Lupita decides to enter the world of lucha libre and begin training with the mask maker.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

ROMEO & JULIET • Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Ah, young love. And long-standing family feuds, potions, poisons and suicide. Whether it’s in the form of a ballet, opera or West Side Story, Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers is known the world over. Shakespeare Festival’s production is a vibrant one, starting with the colorful streamers draping the set and the trees of Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen. Margery and Peter Spack’s two-story set features bold stripes, a central tower, lit curlicue spirals and a “Benvenuti Verona” sign. Dust Ensemble, a tight little three-piece garage band (in a little garage!), peppers the play with original compositions that are lively one moment and ominous the next, and the clear diction and phrasing of the cast make it easy to revel in some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful verses.

The serenity of the procession of the Blessed Virgin Mary that starts this production doesn’t last long, as the Capulet and Montague servants start scuffling soon after, and pleas from the exasperated Prince (Pete Winfrey) to keep the peace under pain of death causes them to retreat to their corners -- for now.

Friday, June 1, 2018

LIFE SUCKS • New Jewish Theatre

The angsty boredom that tugs at the characters in Anton Chekhov’s, Uncle Vanya, pours out in f-bomb-laden grievances in Aaron Posner’s, Life Sucks. With a contemporary spin and self-aware winks, each character tussles with their own bouts of love and loss, in those pesky little niches we all carve out for ourselves. Closing NJT’s season, this production also serves as a transition, as the company’s founding artistic director, Kathleen Sitzer, steps down after 21 years and passes the baton to Edward Coffield, who also directs.

After the pre-show music of acoustic Beatles tunes, the cast assembles to introduce themselves and clue us in on what we’re about to see. It seems everyone staying at Sonia’s rural country home wants a dance partner they can’t have. Sonia’s father, the professor, actually owns the place, but Sonia and her Uncle Vanya manage the property. The professor’s current wife, Ella, is also in tow. Dr. Aster, Vanya’s pal, lives down the road, but he’s been staying close, no doubt because Ella is visiting. Babs, an old family friend, and Pickles, who lives above the garage, are also on hand. Played out on Peter and Margery Spack’s idyllic set, each character takes turns lamenting their lot.

Monday, May 14, 2018

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE • Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Hardly a mention of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 classic can be made without a reference to its iconic film counterpart. Don’t remember the film? Good. It’s better to have a head free of any nagging comparisons, because this production, headlining this year’s third annual Tennessee Williams Festival, stands firmly on its own, with splendid creative touches and stellar performances.

Under a canopy of wooden window frames and clotheslines, Blanche DuBois shows up on the New Orleans doorstep of her sister Stella and her unfriendly brother-in-law Stanley. Escaping her past in Laurel, Mississippi, she’s come to live with Stella and Stanley now that Belle Reve, the family estate, has been lost. As put off as Blanche is with her sister’s dingy downstairs flat, she’s even more displeased with Stanley. His lowbrow poker games clash with Blanche’s highbrow constructions. Stella finds herself stuck in the middle, crazy for her husband but careful to protect her big sister’s mental fragility. Blanche, always leading with her feminine charm, sees nothing wrong with a little harmless fibbing if it bolsters her delicately spun illusions. Stanley, dangerous when brought to anger, has no tolerance for uppity bullshit. Things are bound to come to a head.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG • The Midnight Company

Between 1945 and 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany, prominent Nazi officers were brought to account by the Allied Forces for war crimes after World War II. Abby Mann’s fictionalized account focuses on the 1947 Judges' Trial, one of a string of military tribunals that took place after the major players had been convicted. Adapted from his 1959 teleplay, Mann is able to find the grays in-between the black and white atrocities that took place after the Nazi’s rise. Under the direction of Ellie Schwetye, The Midnight Company’s staging last week at the Missouri History Museum offered not only some strong performances, but also a brutal look at the underside of love of country and the consequences of compliance. And a shock of relevance.

Judge Dan Haywood, played with homespun charm by Joe Hanrahan, wasn’t the tribunal’s first choice for presiding judge. But after a lost re-election bid in North Carolina and the death of his wife, this district court judge found himself in Nuremberg with two other American judges, hearing testimony from key witnesses in the trial of three German judges -- complicit in allowing the law to become bent to serve the Third Reich.

Monday, April 16, 2018

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR • Stray Dog Theatre

After an appearance last season at the Muny and a live broadcast this Easter, St. Louisans have another opportunity to catch Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's classic rock opera that’s been around since the '70s. Loosely based on the Gospels, Jesus Christ Superstar details the last week in the life of Jesus Christ -- a demanding show for any company, and Stray Dog’s production has some hits and some misses.

Omega Jones in the title role stands out as one of the show’s hits. With strong vocals (and a great upper-register), Jones’ charismatic presence is easygoing, winning over the audience and justifying the devotion of Jesus’ followers. His frustration when a flood of appeals from the down-trodden threaten to overwhelm him at the end of a nicely staged, “The Temple”, is well played, and after laying down a groundwork of growing despair, Jones delivers one of the high points of the night with “Gethsemane” -- full of hopelessness and appropriately jaded insolence.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

NEW JERUSALEM • New Jewish Theatre

Most people don’t like to have their views challenged. But when your long-held convictions about religion are upended? Oof. Forget about it. That’s what got Baruch de Spinoza excommunicated from his Jewish community in Amsterdam, as told in David Ives’ cerebral historical drama -- with its mouthful of a subtitle, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Torah Talmud Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.

Spinoza is regarded as an eminent Dutch philosopher, but in his 20’s, he was seen as a pagan when his probing theories about the pervious nature of God and his association with free-thinkers clashed with the provincial religious tenets of the day. Rob Riordan’s portrayal is animated with flashes of inspired observations, and to hear his musings about God’s infusion in all things, Spinoza's passion seems apparent. Still, deference was preferred over dissection, so prosecutor Abraham Van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz), speaking on behalf of the Christian population, wasn’t having any of it. Imposing and inflexible, Van Valkenburgh pushes for Baruch’s expulsion from society, and Butz seethes with righteous indignation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sixth Annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Another awards night has come and gone, this time generously hosted by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, with a delicious buffet provided by With Love Catering. Congratulations to all of the nominees and award recipients! As cliché as it sounds, the amount of talent in our own back yard makes us all winners. Here's the list of the sixth annual St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominees with the award recipients in red.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Heather Beal, Dot, The Black Rep
Rachel Christopher, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis
Andra Harkins, Steel Magnolias, Stray Dog Theatre
Larissa White, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Theatre Macabre
Gwen Wotawa, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Insight Theatre Company

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

CAUGHT • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

An art installation titled Devil in a Red Dress greets the guests downstairs at the Rep’s studio theatre. Featuring the work of visiting Chinese conceptual artist, Lin Bo, the showing is complete with docents and a program guide. After a brief introduction by director Seth Gordon, Bo steps up to the podium and talks about the inspiration for his work, and how his viral, visionary protest project commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre resulted in his brutal imprisonment by an oppressive Chinese government. With a profile in The New Yorker magazine and a book on the way, Lin Bo is starting to garner attention. He’s got an intriguing story to tell, but it’s not what it seems.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

ANYTHING GOES • New Line Theatre

The racy shenanigans and silly scheming going on among the passengers aboard a transatlantic cruise in Cole Porter’s, Anything Goes, offered a welcomed breather from the gloom of the Great Depression when it first set sail in 1934. New Line’s staging of the show’s 1962 version, energetically directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, includes a song list jam-packed with Porter standards like “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “Anything Goes,” and a strong cast to make those numbers soar. Though the book’s greatest strength may be its role as a vehicle for the tunes, it does offer a keen depiction of an America where gangsters are worshipped like celebrities and evangelism is akin to show business. Not much has changed on that score.

Evan Fornachon is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker there to see off his boss, Wall Street exec. Elisha J. Whitney (Jeffrey M. Wright). He decides to stow away on the SS American after he spots Hope Harcourt (Eileen Engel), a girl whose heart he aims to win. Hope is traveling to London with her well-heeled husband-to-be, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Zachary Allen Farmer), and her social-climbing mother, Mrs. Harcourt (Kimmie Kidd-Booker). Billy’s pal Reno Sweeney (Sarah Porter), who traded up in her career from evangelist to nightclub singer, decides to help Billy in his romantic quest, along with Moonface Martin -- Public Enemy No. 13 (Aaron Allen), a gangster in priest’s clothing, and Bonnie Letour (Sarah Gene Dowling), moll to a goon called Snake Eyes Johnson.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

BLACKBIRD • St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The air in a dreary office lunchroom is thick when Ray finds himself there with Una. They haven’t seen each other since their relationship ended fifteen years ago -- when he was 40 and she was 12.

It seems eerily timely that St. Louis Actors’ Studio would stage David Harrower’s disturbing drama now, amidst the attention the MeToo movement has garnered with sexual abuse and harassment allegations taking up residence in the headlines. Braced with strong performances and unyielding direction, the psychological bruises on our two characters, sustained as a result of a young girl’s sexualization, will leave a mark.

After seeing a picture of Ray (John Pierson) and his work colleagues in a magazine, Una (Elizabeth Birkenmeier) has tracked him down and stands before him, like an exposed nerve, looking for answers, while he fidgets in a panic of annoyance and apprehension. Their first words to each other are sporadic and fraught, but after their pretense dissolves away, they give recollections of their three-month relationship, the night it all ended, and the perverse connection that neither has managed to be rid of is laid bare. After pursuing an increasing level of intimacy with Una after meeting her at a family barbecue, Ray was subsequently convicted of child abuse. Their involvement led Ray to prison, and left Una emotionally incapacitated.

ShareThis