Friday, December 30, 2011

Can I just talk about Stephanie J. Block for a minute? • Thank you.

Hello again theatre peeps, and Happy Holidays!  You know what the Holiday season brings -- among many other things, it's also typically when I ramble on about random stuff, so here goes…
I love Stephanie J. Block, aka, Broadway Crush #1.  I know, big surprise.  Why you ask?  Well, the first time I saw her was when she came through St. Louis with the first National Tour of WICKED as Elphaba in 2005.  That show is what prompted me to see more theatre.  I just thought to myself, "I enjoy this too much to not do more of it".  The rest is history.  Okay.  Not really history, but you get my point…

WICKED rehearsals with Stephanie J. Block
In preparation for seeing WICKED, I found an online trailer for the tour.  With "The Wizard of Oz" being one of my all-time childhood faves, after watching the trailer, my obsession with WICKED began immediately, and I did a little reading about Stephanie and the play.  At the time, she had suffered an injury from a flying accident in a scene that was later taken out of the show, and had thankfully recovered in time for the St. Louis stop.  After more online googling, I learned that she had been involved in the workshops for the show as early as 2001 - 2002 (Joe Mantello loved her), but the "higher ups" were concerned about the fact that she hadn't opened a Broadway show before, so they went with that other one…  Don't get me wrong -- Idina Menzel is a great talent, but Stephanie has a voice meant for this score.  A big-ass Broadway voice.  It's incredible.  Don't believe me?  I have clips at the end of this post -- don't even…
WICKED First National Tour with Stephanie J. Block.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Shame she wasn't able to originate the role.  Stephanie has always been very gracious about this, acknowledging the fact that nothing is a done deal until the papers are signed.  Although she had been with the show from very early on, she knew that she wasn't a shoo-in, but as far as I'm concerned, Idina Menzel has Stephanie's Tony Award on her mantel.  There.  I've said it.  Anyway, my girl is still featured in one of the original tour trailers included below.
Next for me was the rather unfortunate PIRATE QUEEN in 2007, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of Les Misérables fame.  Based on the life of Irish pirate and clan chieftain, Grace (Grania) O'Malley, this musical (a reported $18 million flop) didn't last too long on the Broad-Way.

Stephanie J. Block in THE PIRATE QUEEN
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
The life of Grace O'Malley had all of the makings of a hit -- potentially, but producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who brought us Riverdance, kind of mucked it up.  That, along with Schönberg and Boublil's blue-print, soulless book, that completely shortchanged the fascinating life of this historic figure, ensured this show a quick death.  The reviews were not kind.  Did I see it though?  Uh, yeah.  Twice.  Actually three times -- twice during previews in Chicago and once the last night of previews in NYC.  *sigh*  Poor Steph…
Megan Hilty (Doralee Rhodes), Allison Janney (Violet Newstead) and Stephanie J. Block (Judy Bernly).
Photo credit: Joan Marcus


Next up was 9 TO 5, which I also had to see out of a sense of obligation in 2009.  Stephanie as Jane Fonda's film counterpart, Judy Bernly, made the most out of a role that wasn't that great.  Again -- she gets the big 11 o'clock number, but those reviews...  Oof...
The next time I saw my girlfriend Ms. Block, she was "Grizabella, the Glamour Cat" right here at the MUNY's 2010 production of CATS.  Yes, she was brilliant belting out another powerful 11 o'clock number, "Memory", and was charming at the stage door.  Then the following year, we were both seeing a show in NYC (WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN).  She was like 5 seats down from me!  I didn't notice her there until the intermission, when I went up and said hello, and she recognized me from the MUNY… WHAT?!?! … and we talked a bit after the first act.  It was the bomb.  Mentioned it at the end of this blog post.


Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc


Then, last year I saw her in BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, where we had a cool, "low-key" chat after.  It was a matinee show and she was trying to escape the stage door, but she recognized me again (love) and we talked on our way down 43rd street for a little while.  Magic…  I went into more detail in the blog for the show.
Recently she got to fill in for Sutton Foster in ANYTHING GOES.  Her reviews were incredibly positive, and it makes me happy for her.  I hope in the near future she can originate a role in a show that doesn't suck.  She deserves it.  
So now, for your viewing and listening pleasure, here are a few little knick-knacks for your enjoyment!


WICKED Tour Trailer:





"No Good Deed" from WICKED




"Sea of Life" from THE PIRATE QUEEN




And yes, her voice is legit.  The "money notes" are at the end...


Saturday, December 10, 2011

KRAPP'S LAST TAPE • The Black Mirror Theatre Company

Samuel Beckett wrote of his character in KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, "Krapp has nothing to talk to but his dying self and nothing to talk to him but his dead one."  This hour-long, one-act, one-man classic is said to be the closest thing to an autobiography he'd ever written, and its current staging, the second show from the newly founded Black Mirror Theatre Company, is marvelous.  

The space where the show is presented, the Firecracker Press on Cherokee Street, is a graphic design studio and letterpress printshop.  This showroom is filled with handmade posters, stationary, and a ton of other little artistic knick-knacks for sale.  In enlarging Krapp's profession to include printing, this location served as the perfect backdrop.

The play begins with a lovely welcome and introduction by its director, Dennis Corcoran.  The action starts during the introduction, with Krapp (a superb Rob Suozzi) coming out to work on printing our programs in the background.  After this engaging initiation, Krapp slowly moves in and around the audience, turning off lights, putting on his vest, and eating a banana.  It's his sixty-ninth birthday, and after several minutes of quiet business, a weary and unkempt Krapp hauls out several boxes filled with audio recordings and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  After finally finding the spool he's looking for -- a recording made when he turned thirty-nine, he listens to excerpts.  This has been his ritual -- to listen to his impressions of the past as a younger man, and record new ones on his birthday.  On this reel, he mentions not only that the new light above his table is a great improvement, but that he had also just listened to a recording he'd made when he was in his twenties, and seems to regard his younger self with amusement mixed with scorn.  He recounts his resolution to drink less -- even as Krapp takes breaks, wandering outside his stark circle of light, to go to the back of the room for a healthy swig.  Or two.  The present Krapp seems to regard his thirty-something year-old self in the same way his thirty-something year old self regarded his twenty-something year old self.  Ordinary details, discarded pleasures and past and present aches of Krapp's life are alluded to and expanded upon as his memories unspool on the tape and in person.  I'd really rather not go into the particulars of what he listens to, and proceeds to document making his new recording.  Watching it intimately unfold in front of you is too rewarding to compromise with details.  Just get a ticket.

Rob Suozzi (Krapp)
Rob Suozzi was captivating as Krapp.  This young actor was able to pull off the role of a man in his late sixties, and I was impressed with the way he was able to command our attention with affecting silence -- also a great credit to Beckett's script and Corcoran's direction.  This is a slow moving play, but that's also what makes it so intriguing.  The lighting and costumes, along with that wonderful space, and Dennis Corcoran's invisible direction, all came together seamlessly for a truly cohesive and poignant presentation.

It's only playing until the 17th, so check it out.


KRAPP'S LAST TAPE

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Dennis Corcoran
The Firecracker Press, 2838 Cherokee Street
December 17 | tickets: (donncha@swbell.net or 314-740-6514): $10 donation at door*
* A portion of the proceeds to benefit the Family Resource Center – “Helping to Keep Kids Safe”
Performances Friday & Saturday at 7pm

Cast:
Rob Suozzi (Krapp).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO • New Jewish Theatre

The plays I've seen from The New Jewish Theatre often seem to be these intimate little "slice of life" affairs that offer lessons that sneak up on you.  This 1997 Tony Award winning play by Alfred Uhry (author of DRIVING MISS DAISY), with solid direction by Gary Wayne Barker, is no exception.
It's the Holiday Season in a 1939 well-to-do German Jewish community in Atlanta, Georgia.  "Gone With the Wind" is about to make its film debut, and a flighty, young Lala Levy (Rachel Fenton) cannot wait to soak up the atmosphere of this highly anticipated premiere.  Lala's social climbing mother, Beulah "Boo" Levy (Peggy Billo), is more concerned with securing a suitable gentleman to take Lala to "Ballyhoo" -- an annual celebration for southern Jews that culminates on the last night with a dance.  Lala, a college dropout who's not the most popular girl, is one of the only ones in her circle of friends who is still unmarried.  Lala and Boo live on one of the finest streets in Atlanta with Boo's single brother, Adolph (Greg Johnston), head of the Dixie Bedding Company, and their seemingly simple and endearing sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Laurie McConnell).  Although they boast a Jewish heritage that goes back 150 years, the Levys and the Freitags have hardly any idea what it means to be Jewish, aside from a couple of Yiddish words here and there.  They are so assimilated into the predominantly Christian South that the opening scene has Lala decorating their Christmas tree -- without the star on top (which makes it okay).

Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag), Peggy Billo (Boo Levy),
Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Adam Moskal (Joe Farkus)
and  Rachel Fenton (Lala Levy).
Photo credit: John Lamb
When Adolph brings his newest employee home for dinner, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn named Joe Farkus (Adam Moskul), the first hints of friction begin to surface.  Joe is a devout Jew -- baffled a bit by the presence of a Christmas tree in his employer's home, but he's also a Jew of Eastern European descent -- looked down upon by Jews of German descent.  Joe meets Reba's daughter Sunny on the train, after Adolph asks him to check up on her as she's on her way home from Wellesley College.  They hit it off.  But again -- those differences.  While Sunny seems willing to be more open to her Jewish identity, other members of the family seem blissfully oblivious to their heritage -- even going so far as hurling anti-semitic slurs.  Meanwhile, Boo is trying to angle a match between her daughter and Peachy Weil (Dylan Duke), a Jewish boy from a good family in Louisiana.  As the night of the dance approaches, tensions emerge, and the heavier subjects of self-hatred and inter-cultural prejudices are further explored, and it all hits the fan at…  yes… the last night of Ballyhoo.
Rachel Fenton  (Lala Levy)
and Peggy Billo (Boo Levy).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This show has a fantastic cast.  Peggy Billo as the ambitious Boo Levy was impressive.  A real piece of work that one.  With her own grudges to nurse, Billo is not only bitter and biting at times, but also sympathetic and very funny, with some of the best lines in the play.  Laurie McConnell's Reba Freitag was brought to life with a wonderful charm -- down to that spot-on Southern drawl.  Greg Johnston was marvelous as Adolph, delivering some of the most sentimental moments in the show.  Also nice work from Adam Moskul and Dylan Duke as Joe and Peachy, and Rachel Fenton was perfectly distracted as Lala.  Although her dialect didn't quite ring as true, Alexandra Woodruff's Sunny Freitag was also a delight.  The beautifully natural set by Justin Barisonek, enhanced by Michael Sullivan's lighting and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes, draw you further into the story.

Check this one out for a great cast and crew, seamless direction, and some food for thought when you leave the theatre.  You won't be sorry.


THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO
Written by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through December 18 | tickets: $35.30 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm
Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag)
and Alexandra Woodruff (Sunny Freitag).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
*Peggy Billo (Boo Levy), *Laurie McConnell (Reba Freitag), Greg Johnston (Adolph Freitag), Rachel Fenton (Lala Levy), Alexandra Woodruff (Sunny Freitag), Dylan Duke (Peachy Weil) and Adam Moskul (Joe Farkus).
* Member Actors' Equity Association
Creative:
Scenic design by Justin Barisonek; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Donald Smith; props, Peggy Knock; stage manager, Lorraine LiCavoli.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

GODSPELL • Mustard Seed Theatre

A musical about the New Testament?  Sure, why not?!  Originating as a thesis project that ended up running off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1971 (where it ran for 5 years and 2,000+ performances), GODSPELL transferred to Broadway in 1976 and ran for another 500 or so shows.  This musical is presented as a series of lessons based on the Gospel of Matthew.  The original production was set in a playground, but has since been set in various locations -- everywhere from a museum to a McDonald's.  Because there is no specific setting for the play in the script, directors are able to be creative and tailor the show's particulars to fit the times, the city, etc.  This production, beautifully directed and innovatively staged by Deanna Jent, takes place in the streets of St. Louis.  They even worked in the theme to "Angry Birds", that I loved!

Cast of GODSPELL -- Mustard Seed Theatre
Photo credit: John Lamb
As the audience enters the space, the action is already taking place onstage and cast members are gathering -- a random dude paints graffiti on a wall ("Too many things, not enuf poetry") and city folk gather around during the opening "Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord)".  The people congregate to listen to a prophet, newly and cleverly baptized with a bottle of water.  The teachings of Jesus (an incredible J. Samuel Davis) include everything from the parables of the Good Samaritan and Lazarus, to showing us His betrayal at the hands of Judas (Charlie Barron), along with His end days.  These parables are played out in wonderfully performed songs, or sometimes a game of charades, or plays within plays.  As the show progresses, the ensemble, beginning as strangers, come together to form a close knit community -- and when you think about it -- that's all it's really about, right?!
Cast of GODSPELL -- Mustard Seed Theatre
Photo credit: John Lamb
There's a lot of talent in this cast, and it was fantastic to hear so many of these actors bust out some impressive vocals.  J. Samuel Davis was… well… divine.  His Jesus was playful, compassionate and charming, but also vulnerable, wise and stern when he needed to be.  He completely inhabited the role.  Charlie Barron held his own as John the Baptist and Judas.  These leads were bolstered by an energetic ensemble that sounded marvelous -- particularly in "Turn Back, O Man", "By My Side" and "All Good Gifts" -- the latter including some nice flute action by Laura Ernst.  It's difficult to pick out any standouts in the ensemble, because they were all truly terrific in their moments to shine, but I have to give a shout out to Joe Schoen as "The Band" --  in his little music shop storefront window!  He did a great job, and was completely engaged right along with the rest of the cast.
Dunsi Dai's set was brilliant, with its storefronts and fire escapes, allowing the cast to roam around in the space.  The costumes by Jane Sullivan were perfect, with each character picking out what they needed for the assorted parables out of an on-set shopping cart on the spot, and Michael Sullivan's lighting was provocative and powerful, along with Kareem Deanes's sound design and choreography by Julie Venegoni, Laura Ernst & the ensemble -- all complementary, all making a statement at just the right moments.  Love...
This was the first time I'd seen GODSPELL, and I'm glad my first exposure to this classic was in my own backyard.  If my childhood church experiences had been like this, I would have paid a LOT more attention.  Although many of these lessons are stories we all may have heard before, this production will leave you with those feel good emotions that ring true, and make you want to go out and help your neighbor, forgive your enemies -- perfect for the Holiday season.  So I beseech thee - go see it.


GODSPELL 

Book by John-Michael Tebelak 
Music/lyrics by Stephen Schwartz 
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through December 11 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm
*Saturday 2pm performances are "Pay What You Can or Pay With a Can"

Cast:
J. Samuel Davis* (Jesus), Charlie Barron (John/Judas), Justin Ivan Brown (ensemble), Laura Ernst (ensemble), Justin Leibrecht (ensemble), Izzy Liu (ensemble), Amy Louis* (ensemble), Khnemu Menu-Ra (ensemble), Deborah Sharn (ensemble) and Anna Skidis (ensemble).
* Member Actors' Equity Association
 
Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Kareem Deanes; choreography by Julie Venegoni, Laura Ernst & ensemble; fight choreographer, Shaun Sheley; stage manager, Bess Moynihan.

The Band:
Joe Schoen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MURDERING MARLOWE • West End Players Guild

Charles Marowitz's fictional account of a rivalry between two real-life figures, playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, is an intriguing, slick little play, and under Robert A. Mitchell's wonderfully paced direction, completely entertaining.  I'm just gonna say right now you should get a ticket.

All that is known about Marlowe's death in May 1593 is that he was stabbed in the eye following an argument over a bill.  Marowitz takes this nugget and weaves a tale that seems incredibly plausible.

In 16th century London, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (John Wolbers) is all the rage.  His works dominate Elizabethan theatre, although he's considered by many to be a canker on the English landscape due to his blasphemy, drinking, and his willingness to engage with just about anything with an orifice.

Michael B. Perkins (Shakespeare)
and Jim Hurley (Philip Henslow).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Meanwhile, Shakespeare (Michael B. Perkins) is struggling to make a living with his writing and constantly nagged by his wife Anne about the family's dire financial situation.  Shakespeare is jealous as hell of Marlowe and his literary success.  Even the local theatre manager Philip Henslow (Jim Hurley) advises Shakespeare that his works were no match for Marlowe's, and that he could maybe punch up a few of his plays with a little more blood and sex.  At one point, he suggests that THE COMEDY OF ERRORS be re-worked into THE COMEDY OF EROS -- a title that would "draw the town!".  You know… sex always sells.  Shakespeare only seems to find solace in the arms of his lover, Emilia Lanier (Maggie Murphy), who also knows Marlowe ("knows" in the biblical sense).

Because of Marlowe's perceived "affronts to God and decent Christians", he draws the attention of the English government, so Shakespeare jumps on this opportunity to convince those around him that Marlowe should be dealt with.  He hires Robert Poley (David Wassilak) and Ingram Frizer (Todd Moore) to murder him -- conveniently ridding himself of an eminent rival.

David Wassilak (Robert Poley),
John Wolbers (Christopher Marlowe)
and Todd Moore (Ingram Frizer).  Photo credit: John Lamb

There are winning performances all the way around in this one.  John Wolbers is a wonderfully tawdry and talented Christopher Marlowe, and Michael B. Perkins as Shakespeare is aptly glowering and grim.  Jim Hurley as the theatre manager has some of the best lines, and his interrogation scene along with Reynard Fox as the investigator is worth the price of admission.  Laura Singleton was a bitter and angry Anne Hathaway and Maggie Murphy as Emilia Lanier was seductive and self-assured.  Their scenes together are very powerful.  The costumes by Teresa Doggett were beautiful, and the set (Nic Uhlmansiek) was simple with just a few pieces of furniture.  The lighting (Renee Sevier-Monsey) was low and foreboding, and I really liked the mood of the pre-show music.

MURDERING MARLOWE is a great show that sadly has just one more weekend left, so I pray thee -- go see it!


Laura Singleton (Anne Hathaway)
and Maggie Murphy (Emilia Lanier).
Photo credit: John Lamb
MURDERING MARLOWE

Written by Charles Marowitz
Directed by Robert A. Mitchell
Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
through November 20 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Shakespeare (Michael B. Perkins), Anne Hathaway (Laura Singleton), Christopher Marlowe (John Wolbers), Emilia Lanier (Maggie Murphy), Robert Poley (David Wassilak), Philip Henslow (Jim Hurley), Henry Maunder (Reynard Fox) and Ingram Frizer (Todd Moore).

Creative:
Costume design by Teresa Doggett; scenic design by Nic Uhlmansiek; lighting design by Renee Sevier-Monsey; sound design by Michael B. Perkins; stage manager, Elizabeth Henning.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE • Muddy Waters Theatre

Muddy Waters closes their 2011 season with Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning comedic drama, HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE.  Vogel's incredible script deals with some very unfunny things -- incest, alcoholism, pedophilia -- but it's also packed with humor and surprisingly manages to draw out some unexpected pathos.  Maybe that's why it won the Pulitzer.

L'il Bit (Laurie McConnell) serves as the narrator for much of the play, recalling driving lessons with her Uncle Peck (B. Weller).  With a family who gives each other nicknames for their genital characteristics, having an Uncle "Peck" can only mean one thing…  Peck is a war vet and recovering alcoholic, and it's during these driving lessons that he starts molesting L'il Bit, starting from the time when she was 11 years old.  These encounters continued until L'il Bit was 18.  Through these years, we not only learn about Peck's less than savory inclinations, but also about how these moments on the road are some of the only times in her life when L'il Bit feels able to enjoy a feeling of control -- when she's behind the wheel, driving.  Trapped within her suburban Maryland family, L'il Bit revels in these driving lessons with her Uncle, but as she approaches the legal age of 18, and she's receiving letters from Uncle Peck (also anxiously counting down the days till her 18th birthday -- when he hopes to fully seduce her),  L'il Bit truly takes control, and puts an end to their trysts.

B. Weller (Uncle Peck)
and Laurie McConnell (L'il Bit).
Photo credit: Jerry McAdams
L'il Bit and Uncle Peck are both "black sheeps" of the family in some regard -- feeling like they don't quite fit in.  During the course of the evening, we also hear from L'il Bit's family, the Greek chorus, sometimes playing multiple roles, who flesh out the particulars of L'il Bit's home life.  There's her Aunt Mary, Peck's wife (Kimberly D. Sansone), who suspects something is going on but chooses to ignore it, and would just like her husband back.  Her mom (Kimberly D. Sansone), comically fills us in on the ABC's of social drinking for women, (wish I'd had that lesson...) and L'il Bit's grandmother (Denise Saylor), who is set on telling L'il Bit that sex hurts like hell -- unless you're married, along with L'il Bit's grandfather (Michael Brightman), who serves as the chauvinistic male who expects sex how he wants it, when he wants it.

Laurie McConnell navigates the duties as narrator and participant with great skill, and B. Weller's Uncle Peck was understated but surprisingly heart-breaking.  The Greek chorus was also quite cohesive, and Milt Zoth's skillful and savvy direction evokes the most out of this play.  Thoughtful projections by Michael B. Perkins add to the subtext, and the costumes (Theresa Loebl) and set (Cristie Johnston) were simple but quite effective.  Jim Wulfsong's low and provocative lighting along with sound design by Jerry McAdams, also play a part in this show's success.

Michael Brightman (Male Chorus),
Denise Saylor (Female Chorus),
Kimberly D. Sansone (Female Chorus),
Laurie McConnell (L'il Bit)
and B. Weller (Uncle Peck).
Photo credit: Jerry McAdams
Again, as disturbing as it may sound, this play is also very funny.  It's worth checking out.  Just buckle up…


HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Milt Zoth
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through November 20 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Laurie McConnell* (L'il Bit), B. Weller (Uncle Peck), Michael Brightman (Male Chorus), Kimberly D. Sansone (Female Chorus) and Denise Saylor (Female Chorus).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Jim Wulfsong; costume design by Theresa Loebl; sound design by Jerry McAdams; choreography by Cindy Duggan; projections by Michael B. Perkins; stage manager, Lydia Crandall.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES • R-S Theatrics

The latest play on offer from R-S Theatrics, written by Rajiv Joseph, looks at the relationship of Kayleen (Christina Rios) and Doug (Mark Kelley) over the course of 30 years.  These two are… well… damaged.  Physically and emotionally.  Doug is a thrill seeking daredevil who wears his scars like badges of honor.  Depressed self-hater, Kayleen, suffers from stomach upsets, and sometimes cuts herself.  They first meet in the nurse's office at age 8 after Doug has ridden his bike off the roof of the school, cracking his head open, and Kayleen is having a stomach ache.  Their inquiries about each other's outside and inside wounds ring true to what an 8 year old would say -- "does it hurt" or "can I touch it?", but as they grow older, this self-destructive behavior seems to be what keeps bringing them together.

Scenes between Kayleen and Doug, not always in chronological order, begin with slates that describe their ages and current injuries like, "8 - Face Split Open" or "23 - Eye Blown Out".  Costume changes and wound applications are carried out in full view of the audience and musically accompanied by Ravel's "Bolero".  That was neat.  "Bolero" seemed quite appropriate,  seeing as how these two spend most of the time doing this odd little dance together through the course of the evening.  The costume changes took a little while on occasion, but these intervals detached you a bit from the action, and the reminder that we were watching a play was, for me anyway, rather soothing.  Although Doug always seems more upset about the fact that his relationship with Kayleen has remained platonic for so long, there's obviously a bizarre little connection between them both.  Their love hurts...  

Christina Rios (Kayleen) and Mark Kelley (Doug).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Mark Kelley's Doug is brimming with nervous energy throughout, and watching him play ages from 8 to 38 was a treat.  Christina Rios's Kayleen is like a quietly bleeding open wound, and her more heartfelt moments with Doug are affective and touching.  It's a different kind of romance, that's for sure, but worth checking out.

This weekend coming up is the last weekend to see this play -- it closes on the 6th.


GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES

Written by Rajiv Joseph
Co-Directed by Randy Stinebaker & Christina Rios
Crestwood ArtSpace, 214 Crestwood Court
November 6 | tickets: $12 cash only
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Christina Rios (Kayleen) and Mark Kelley (Doug).

Creative:
Props master, Meg Brinkley, stage manager/board operator, Sydney Frasure.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

So, while everyone else in St. Louis was watching the World Series (Yay, Cards!), I was in an acting class -- room #107 at the Shirley Community Center in Shirley, Vermont.  This is the setting for Annie Baker's clever and funny off-Broadway play that premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2009, and won 2010 Obie Awards for Best New American Play, Performance, Ensemble and Direction.

Marty (Lynne Wintersteller) is holding a six-week course in creative drama.  Her four students include her enthusiastic husband James (John Ottavino), Lauren (Charlotte Mae Jusino), a brooding 16 year old, Theresa (Kate Middleton), a perky actress newly transplanted from New York City, and newly out of a toxic relationship, and Schultz (Danny McCarthy), a recently divorced carpenter.  On some level, all of these people are trying to connect in some way.  Now, in the program notes by Gillian McNally, it's pointed out that creative drama is defined as "an improvisational, non-exhibitional, process-centered form of drama in which participants are guided by a leader to imagine, enact and reflect upon human experience."  What better framework could there be to learn about these five people and watch them in turn discover each other?  Under Stuart Carden’s evenly-paced, invisible direction, it works pretty well.

John Ottavino (James), Danny McCarthy (Schultz),
Kate Middleton (Theresa), Charlotte Mae Jusino (Lauren)
and Lynne Wintersteller (Marty).
© Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
There's really no plot to speak of.  The story unfurls through a series of vignettes – mostly comprised of acting exercises.  These exercises include everything from reenacting childhood memories of a stuffed snake, a tree, a bed and baseball glove, to carrying out conversations only using the words “goulash” and “ak-mak”, to telling each others’ stories.  Through these exercises, and the conversations in between, layers of each character are peeled away.  We learn a little about their lives, we get to see relationships form and dissolve and hear sad truths told.

Inside the Rep's cozy 125 seat studio theatre, Jack Magaw's set is impeccable -- a convincing replica of a small dance studio complete with a mirrored wall in the back.  These mirrors make it possible to catch all of the subtleties in the performances (all of them excellent) as well as the reflection of the audience.  This, along with the easy pacing, heightens the voyeuristic feeling of the play.  The costumes by Garth Dunbar were spot-on, and interstitial sound design by Rusty Wandall and lighting by Mark Wilson, came together to create a very realistic setting.  Lynne Wintersteller as Marty, the hippie leader of the proceedings, provided poignant revelations, along with her husband James (John Ottavino), perhaps one of the more over-eager students in her class.  Kate Middleton and Danny McCarthy as Theresa and Schultz were also pitch-perfect in their roles, and watching their characters learn about each other proves to be a real treat sometimes -- sometimes not so much.  Charlotte Mae Jusino was wonderful as Lauren -- not really fitting in anywhere, but desperate to land a role in her high school production of WEST SIDE STORY.  The play doesn't tell you how the lives of these people will unfold, but it gives you just enough leeway to imagine on your own -- and you can't help but wish them the best. 

Check it out!!  It'll be at the Rep's studio theatre until the 13th.


Danny McCarthy (Schultz), Kate Middleton (Theresa),
John Ottavino (James), Lynne Wintersteller (Marty)
and Charlotte Mae Jusino (Lauren).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Stuart Carden
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 13 | tickets: $45 - $58
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Cast:
Charlotte Mae Jusino (Lauren), Danny McCarthy (Schultz), Kate Middleton (Theresa), John Ottavino (James) and Lynne Wintersteller (Marty).

Creative:
Set design by Jack Magaw; costume design by Garth Dunbar; lighting design by Mark Wilson; sound design by Rusty Wandall; stage manager, Champe Leary.

Friday, October 21, 2011

GOD OF CARNAGE • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

All of us have, at some point, had one of those, "Man, what an effed up evening that was!  What the hell just happened?" kind of experiences.  This play is kinda like that.  Written by Yasmina Reza and translated from French by Christopher Hampton, it opened on Broadway in 2009, scoring Tony Awards for best play, best actress and best direction.

The Raleighs are getting together at the Brooklyn home of the Novak's because the Novak's son has had two teeth knocked out as a result of a playground fight with the Raleigh's kid.  <-- Yes, really long sentence.  Alan Raleigh (Anthony Marble) is a lawyer, constantly interrupting the proceedings with cell phone calls about a drug he's representing that has recently been found to cause some bothersome side-effects.  His wife Annette (Susan Louise O'Connor) deals in wealth management.  Veronica Novak (Eva Kaminsky) is writing a book about Darfur, and her husband Michael Novak (Triney Sandoval) sells domestic hardware.  They meet each other with the best of intentions, but with the help of ample amounts of rum, these four upper-middle class adults jettison their civilized guises to expose their untamed and wickedly universal selves underneath.

Susan Louise O'Connor (Annette Raleigh),
Anthony Marble (Alan Raleigh), Eva Kaminsky (Veronica Novak)
and Triney Sandoval (Michael Novak).
©Photo by Sandy Underwood
Couples gang up against couples, the women gang up against the men, common ground is stumbled upon and then immediately abandoned, and the neanderthal in all is revealed.  During the course of the afternoon, discussions about African culture, social responsibility, molars and clafouti give way to tantrums, taunting, ranting and puking.  It's quite engrossing watching the day devolve.

The shrewd direction of Edward Stern keeps the action at a perfect pace, although a couple of the performances sometimes seemed a little "zero to sixty" too fast.  The marvelous set by Narelle Sissons is inviting and upscale, and the lighting design by Kirk Bookman & Steve O’Shea, along with costume design by Gordon DeVinney, set a perfect note on which to start off the festivities.  All of the performances were strong.  Anthony Marble as Alan Raleigh was reserved enough in the beginning, that by the time he lets loose, it's very funny and rewarding.  Susan Louise O'Connor as his wife, Annette Raleigh, does a complete 180 during the course of the play -- starting off seemingly very meek, but ending up anything but by the end.  Triney Sandoval as Michael Novak was the perfect "guy's guy", and it was great fun watching Eva Kaminsky's Veronica Novak have a major meltdown right in front of you.

Susan Louise O'Connor (Annette Raleigh)
and Eva Kaminsky (Veronica Novak).
©Photo by Sandy Underwood
Now, before I conclude, can I just bitch about a couple of audience members for a minute?  Please and thank you.

So, in my infamous Theatre Etiquette post (okay, not really infamous), I made a comment about how it's okay to laugh during a show because of the fact that I find so many audiences here completely unresponsive.  Well, there's that, and then there's the other end of that -- like the woman seated to my left, who broke out into uncontrollable hee-haws five minutes into the play.  Okay so here's the deal -- if you're truly moved to respond during a show, great!  I love that.  I also totally get nervous laughter.  Lord knows I've let out my fair share of nervous or inappropriate laughter during a show.  But then there's that, "before the ball's even hit, I'm gonna guffaw at the windup of the pitch, so everyone will know how clever I am."  *sigh*  I've got clever for you -- relax, shut your pie hole, get engaged and quit trying to pretend you're engaged.  K?  You know the type -- don't even.  Then there's the guy sitting to my buddy's right.  An approximately 237 year old man who felt compelled to say, "Uh oh", or, "Here we go", every eight minutes.  That, or he repeatedly explained the physical action going on onstage to his wife.  Yeah dude.  We saw that too.  STFU.  I can't help it you don't have verbal interaction with your wife at home.  Please don't choose to have it at the theatre during a performance.  I'm sorry.  It's hard for me to let this stuff go.  I was so looking forward to moving away from these "noisemakers" at intermission, only to sadly discover there was no intermission.  Again -- I don't want to judge how anyone responds to a show.  It's all so subjective.  And although I clearly am judging, whatever.  We all know these people.

Anthony Marble (Alan Raleigh),Triney Sandoval (Michael Novak),
Susan Louise O'Connor (Annette Raleigh)
and Eva Kaminsky (Veronica Novak).
©Photo by Sandy Underwood
Anyhoo, GOD OF CARNAGE is very entertaining in its revelations, and sincere in the responsive chords it plucks.  If you've ever wanted to be a fly on the wall of one of those, "What the hell just happened?" kind of days, then check it out.  It will be at the Rep till November 6th!  And don't be afraid to "shush" someone if you have to.  :)


GOD OF CARNAGE

Written by Yasmina Reza; Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Edward Stern
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 6 | tickets: $19 - $72
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, selected Wednesdays at 1:30pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Eva Kaminsky (Veronica Novak), Anthony Marble (Alan Raleigh), Susan Louise O'Connor (Annette Raleigh) and Triney Sandoval (Michael Novak).

Creative:
Scenic design by Narelle Sissons; costume design by Gordon DeVinney; co-lighting design by Kirk Bookman & Steve O’Shea; stage manager, Glenn Dunn.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

NUTS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ooo, I love a good courtroom drama.  And there's a fine one going on right now at the Gaslight Theater, kicking off St. Louis Actors’ Studio's season.  Possibly best known for its 1987 film adaptation starring Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss, Tom Topor's NUTS… you know what I mean… opened as a play off-off Broadway in 1979 and transferred to Broadway the next year.  The play all takes place inside a courtroom in New York's Bellevue Hospital, and although the play itself can seem a bit static at times, the dynamic performances from the high-caliber cast within it are anything but.  It’s three acts with two intermissions, but once the first act gets going, the rest of the show flies by.

The play begins on the day of Claudia Faith Draper's sanity hearing (a compelling Lara Buck).  She's a high-priced call girl who has been indicted for manslaughter.  She claims she killed one of her clients in self-defense, but the state is trying to have her declared mentally unfit to stand trial.  The state's witness, her arrogant psychiatrist Dr. Rosenthal (Steve Callahan), has determined that Claudia is a paranoid schizophrenic and should be hospitalized for her own good, and for the good of the state.  Her mother and stepfather, Rose and Arthur Kirk (Donna Weinsting & John Contini), fearing that the details of Claudia's profession would be exposed in an embarrassing public trial, side with the state.  Claudia insists that she's completely sane, and is equipped with an explicit understanding of the law.  She knows that if she is denied the right to stand trial, because of the way New York's "Mental Hygiene Law" works, she could possibly be committed for up to 17 years.  Claudia is going up against the system, and even though she has the help of her public defender, Aaron Levinsky (William Roth), she seems pretty much on her own.

Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), John Contini* (Arthur Kirk),
Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch), Rachel Visocan (The Recorder),
Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal), Lara Buck* (Caludia Faith Draper),
Keith Thompson (Officer Harry Haggerty),
Alan McClintock (Franklin Macmillan)
and William Roth (Aaron Levinsky).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Dr. Rosenthal is the first to take the stand, and Claudia’s erratic behavior during his testimony really doesn’t help her case much.  She antagonizes him through much of it, insisting that the medicine they have her on is poisoning her, and that she's got a legitimate reason to be paranoid.  Steve Callahan's Rosenthal is sufficiently smug and pompous as the state's witness, and his ideas about what constitutes mental stability and individual rights are truly a little frightening.

The second act brings Claudia's mother and stepfather to the stand, and Donna Weinsting and John Contini both ramp up the proceedings with incredibly layered performances.  It’s obvious their relationship with Claudia is a strained one, and Rose glances at her daughter across the room as if she is looking at a stranger, not able to determine when things went wrong, and wondering what happened to her little girl.  The self-important Arthur Kirk, the kind of man who thinks marriage is a "deal", starts off steady, but once Claudia's attorney suggests that their relationship was perhaps closer than it should have been, he begins to unravel on the stand.  Arthur ends up looking pretty pathetic with his checkbook out, trying to buy his way out of the indiscretions he's revealed.

We finally get to hear from Claudia in the final act, and Lara Buck gets to let loose with a perfectly delivered monologue.  She talks about her parents, her failed marriage, and how she's been able to make a living for herself since her divorce.  Her parents listen, horrified, as Claudia rattles off all of the services she provides, but it's clear that while she's outspoken and doesn't mince her words, she may very well be one of the sanest people in the room.

Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal),
William Roth (Aaron Levinsky), Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch),
Rachel Visocan (The Recorder) and John Contini* (Arthur Kirk).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In addition to the remarkable performances from Buck, Weinsting, Contini and Callahan, William Roth does a good job as Aaron Levinsky, building steam as the hearing unfolds.  Alan McClintock's prosecuting attorney, Franklin Macmillan, starts off quite sure of himself, but finds this case might not be as cut-and-dry as he expected.  Bob Harvey's Judge Murdoch presides over the hearing with a quiet authority, and the cast is rounded out by Keith Thompson as Officer Haggerty, and Rachel Visocan as the court recorder.  These two don't get to say much, with the exception of a brief epilogue delivered by the court recorder.  The handsome and sizable courtroom set, designed by Cristie Johnson with lighting by Sean M. Savoie, miraculously doesn't make the Gaslight's small stage seem cramped at all.

All nine of the players are onstage the whole time, and under Milt Zoth's excellent direction, watching all of the reactions to the happenings in the room, was fascinating.  Everyone is distinctively engaged throughout -- the same way you'll be if you check out this show.  This is one you don't want to miss.


NUTS

Written by Tom Topor
Directed by Milt Zoth
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through October 23 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Keith Thompson (Officer Harry Haggerty), William Roth (Aaron Levinsky), Alan McClintock (Franklin Macmillan), Donna Weinsting (Rose Kirk), John Contini* (Arthur Kirk), Steve Callahan (Dr. Rosenthal), Rachel Visocan (The Recorder), Bob Harvey (Judge Murdoch) and Lara Buck* (Claudia Faith Draper).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Costume design by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek; scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Sean M. Savoie; sound design by Robin Weatherall; stage manager, Amy Paige.

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