Friday, June 17, 2011

THE VISIT • Stray Dog Theatre

After seeing this play, I could hardly wait to rush home and google Tragicomedy.  This 1956 play in three acts by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt presents some pretty absurd ideas, but getting sucked into how irrational ideas eventually become rationalized during the course of a story like this is chilling, but uncomfortably familiar at the same time.
As the play begins, the town of Güllen is gathered at the train station planning a grand welcoming for Claire Zachanassian (a commanding Julie Layton).  She's a billionaire home town girl who has scheduled a visit to her old stomping grounds.  With the loss of the town's industries, Güllen is drowning in its own poverty, and they hope that Claire might throw some bank their way.  Anton Schill (R. Travis Estes), who runs the general store, has been assigned the task of buttering her up.  She arrives early and catches the townsfolk off-guard.  After a blustery welcome by the Burgomaster (Jan Niehoff), Claire announces her intentions -- she is willing to offer 1 billion marks, half to the town and half to the citizens, in exchange for the life of one of the most popular guys in town.  That's right -- Anton Schill.  See, Anton and Claire were sweethearts back in the day, but Anton got her pregnant when she was 17.  Claire lost a paternity suit against Anton and turned to prostitution for awhile to get by after being forced out of town, so Claire's looking for some revenge.  I mean uh, justice.  The town is appalled and rejects her offer, but Claire asserts that she'll wait.

Bob Harvey (Bobby), R. Travis Estes (Anton Schill),
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian),
Kevin Boehm (Pedro) and Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster).
Photo by John Lamb 
Claire, dressed in bright red from head to toe with matching fiery red hair, travels with quite an entourage.  In addition to husband number eight, Pedro, and Bobby the butler (an ex-magistrate now in her service), there's also a black panther, Kobby and Lobby (a couple of bizarre blind eunuchs, who long ago committed perjury in Claire's paternity suit -- now also in her service), a couple of muscular guys who cart her around in a sedan chair, and a coffin.

After awhile, Anton notices that folks are buying some pretty expensive items at his store, and they all request that their purchases be put on credit.  The citizens, day by day, are changing.  They're sporting new shoes and buying expensive cigars -- all on credit.  As Claire's influence on the town becomes more and more apparent, Anton becomes less and less sure of his safety.  The local police and the Burgomaster dismiss Anton's concerns about Claire's threat on his life, and the priest is more consumed with admiring the brand new church bell.  Once the town has run up enough debt to choke a horse, The Doctor and The Teacher go to Claire and ask for her assistance.  They urge her to forget her quest for revenge, I mean, justice, and invest in the town instead.  When Claire informs them that she practically already owns the town, the last two hold-outs for Güllen's humanity are swayed.

Stephen Peirick (The Station Master),
Shane P. Mullen (The Policeman),
Colleen M. Backer (Frau Burgomaster),
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian),
C.E. Fifer (The Conductor)
and Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster).
Photo by Dan Donovan
It's a little unnerving to see how far people are willing to go for a buck, but under the bold and skillful direction of Gary F. Bell, it's hard not to get caught up in this dark tale of greed, revenge and corruption.  Julie Layton as Claire Zachanassian is compelling -- sinister and a little frightening.  R. Travis Estes is engaging as the doomed Anton Schill.  He comes off as the most human with the most to lose, yet powerless to alter his own future.  This was a talented cast all-around with strong performances by Jan Niehoff as The Burgomaster, Sarajane Alverson as The Teacher and Stephen Peirick as The Station Master.  The peculiar tone of the play is consistent throughout.  From the unusual movements of the cast, to Alexandra Quigley's fanciful costumes and Sarah Orloski's stylized makeup.  Tensions are heightened with Tyler Duenow's wonderful lighting and Justin Been's imaginative sound design.

If you're up for a little Theatre of the Absurd, this production is definitely worth checking out.


Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Adapted by Maurice Valency
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through June 25 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian)
and R. Travis Estes (Anton Schill).
Photo by John Lamb
Julie Layton (Claire Zachanassian), R. Travis Estes* (Anton Schill), Bob Harvey (Bobby), Kevin Boehm (Pedro), Eric White (Max/Athlete/Reporter), C. Blaine Adams (Mike/Athlete/Camera Man), Jan Niehoff (The Burgomaster), Ryan Glosemeyer (The Pastor), Sarajane Alverson (The Teacher), Melissa Harris (The Doctor/The Fourth Man), Shane P. Mullen (The Policeman / The Second Man), Katie Puglisi (The Painter/The Photographer/The Radio Reporter), Stephen Peirick (The Station Master/The First Man), Jenni Ryan (Frau Schill/The First Woman), C.E. Fifer (The Son/The Conductor/Kobby/The Truck Driver), Olivia Light (The Daughter/Lobby) and Colleen M. Backer (Frau Burgomaster/Second Woman/Third Man).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Jay V. Hall; scenic artist, Teresa Dennis; sound and projection design by Justin Been; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; makeup/hair design by Sarah Orloski; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; dramaturg, Janet Howe; stage manager, Justin Been.

Monday, June 13, 2011


In celebration of the big winner tonight…  Oh…  last night…  I felt compelled to post another song from THE BOOK OF MORMON -- the opening number called "Hello!".  Congratulations to all of the Tony Award nominees and winners!

Yay, theatre!!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

WAR HORSE • Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Well, here on the day of the 65th Annual Tony Awards, I've finally gotten around to posting about this show -- my favorite from this past NYC trip.

I rarely cry at the theatre.  It's happened twice -- once during WICKED's "For Good" (I was seeing it with my best friend so… you know…) and then once during the first 10 minutes of  THE LION KING because it was just so visually beautiful.  But during WAR HORSE?  I cried like a little bitch.

This play with music was adapted from a children's book of the same name that was written by Michael Morpurgo.  There's also a Steven Spielberg film in the works.  Admittedly, the book for this play has received some criticism for its simplicity, but whatever.  The real draw of this production is the life-sized horse puppets (along with a very animated little puppet goose) developed from the creative talents of the Handspring Puppet Company.  Kind of like AVENUE Q, after awhile you don't even see the puppeteers.  The team of 3 or 4 operating the horses disappear, and you're looking at a horse on stage.  The twitching ears, head shaking, the subtle movements of the front legs and hooves, the flutter of the tail, that spark in the eyes -- theatre magic, baby…

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich-The New York Times
A foal is purchased by Albert's financially irresponsible father, Ted (Boris McGiver).  Albert (Seth Numrich) is charged with taking on all of the responsibilities of raising this horse, whom he names Joey.  The audience is then sucked in with scenes of Albert and Joey forming a connection, and as anyone who has a pet knows, developing a form of communication with each other.  Albert creates a way of making Joey rear up on his hind legs.  It takes awhile for Joey and Albert to get this trick down, but once it's cemented, they use this move (with the help of Paule Constable's brilliant lighting) to beautifully transition from Joey the colt, to Joey, the majestic full-sized steed, and that moment alone evokes spontaneous applause.  After a couple of years, this dirt-poor family decides that Joey needs to earn his keep, so Albert trains Joey to plow.

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
Then, World War I comes.  Albert's drunken gambling father looks for a way to earn a few more bucks and sells Joey into the army to the horror of his wife, Rose (Alyssa Breshnahan) and Albert.  At this point in the play, Joey traipses up one of the aisles of the theatre.  Chills…  So now poor Joey, separated from Albert, is subjected to an unfamiliar setting, gunshots and war.  The tragedy of this show is the fact that when the calvary entered the Great War, tanks, barbed wire and machine guns had been introduced.  Calvary horses were as much a casualty as soldiers with about 8 million horses losing their lives.  Yeah.  Tissues, anyone?

Joey soldiers on and makes friends of his own -- namely a veteran war horse named Topthorn -- a gloriously sleek dark mount of one of the top officers.  Once Albert finds out that the officer riding Joey has been killed (some very dramatic action where the officer is blown off of Joey in slow motion), Albert lies about his age and enters the army in an effort to find his horse.  Albert and Joey are both left with their share of scars -- literally and figuratively.

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
The puppeteers provide the sounds of the horses -- everything from whinnying to that gentle snorting sound that they make.  The set (Rae Smith) was very simple with a backdrop of what looks like a torn piece of paper.  Images are projected onto this to beef up what's going on onstage to gorgeous effect, and incredibly striking lighting by Paule Constable reminds you of how much of an impact good lighting can make.  I can't say enough about the Handspring Puppet Company and their accomplishment of bringing some pieces of wire, leather and fabric to life.  The music by Adrian Sutton and songs by John Tams are just enough to add a little atmosphere, and evoke tears.  I sincerely hope this play wins everything it's nominated for.  It was truly an astounding production that left me teary eyed and deeply moved.  If you're in NYC and you see this show, and you don't tear up, there is something wrong with you.  Ha!  Just kidding.


Here's a trailer for the show!

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th St. New York, NY
open run  | tickets: $75 - $125
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, Sundays at 3pm

Photo credit - Paul Kolnik
Seth Numrich (Albert), Stephen James Anthony (Ensemble, Baby Joey), Zach Appelman (Ensemble, Sgt. Fine), Alyssa Breshnahan (Ensemble, Rose Narracott), Richard Crawford (Ensemble, Sgt. Thunder), Sanjit De Silva (Ensemble, Taff), Matt Doyle (Ensemble, Billy Narracott, Understudy Albert), Austin Durant (Ensemble, Chapman Carter), Joby Earle (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Joel Reuben Ganz (Ensemble, Topthorn), Ariel Heller (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Peter Hermann (Ensemble, Friedrich Muller), Alex Hoeffler (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Brian Lee Huynh (Ensemble, Captain Stewart), Jeslyn Kelly (Ensemble, Joey), Ian Lassiter (Ensemble), Tom Lee (Ensemble, Topthorn), Jonathan Christopher MacMillan (Ensemble, Topthorn), Jonathan David Martin (Ensemble, Joey), Boris McGiver (Ensemble, Ted Narracott), Prentice Onayemi (Ensemble, Joey), Bhavesh Patel (Ensemble, Bone), David Pegram (Ensemble, David Taylor, Baby Joey), Katy Pfaffl (Ensemble, Song Woman), Stephen Plunkett (Ensemble, Nicholls), Leenya Rideout (Ensemble, Baby Joey), Liam Robinson (Ensemble, Song Man), Jude Sandy (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Hannah Sloat (Ensemble, Understudy Emilie), T. Ryder Smith (Ensemble, Arthur Narracott), Zach Villa - Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn), Elliot Villar (Ensemble, Klausen), Cat Walleck (Ensemble, Paulette), Enrico D. Wey (Ensemble, Joey, Topthorn) and Madeline Yen (Ensemble, Emilie).

Sets, costumes and drawings by Rae Smith; puppet design, fabrication and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; lighting design by Paule Constable; director of movement and horse sequences, Toby Sedgwick; animation and projections by 59 Productions; music by Adrian Sutton; songs by John Tams; sound design by Christopher Shutt; music director, Greg Pliska; associate puppetry director, Mervyn Millar; stage manager, Rick Steiger.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

THE IMMIGRANT • New Jewish Theatre

Not all Jews who escaped the pervasive violence in Russia ended up in Manhattan's Lower East side.  About 10,000 ended up in Galveston, Texas through a resettlement program called the Galveston Movement.  The New Jewish Theatre closes its season with THE IMMIGRANT, directed by Edward Coffield, a play that serves as a tribute to the playwright's grandparents, Haskell and Leah Harelik and their migration to Hamilton, Texas.

The set (Josh Smith) draws you in -- a warm, rustic cedar paneled framing and a thrust stage.  In addition to the title being projected onto the back of the set, the play begins with projections that set up the story that include real photos from the Harelik family album as well as photos from the harrowing journey to America.  

Michelle Hand (Leah) and Robert Thibaut (Haskell).
Photo credit: John Lamb
When Haskell (Robert Thibaut) finally arrives in the small town of Hamilton, barely able to speak any English, he's forced to try to scratch out a living selling bananas to the locals.  One of the locals, a devout Baptist named Ima Perry (Peggy Billo), wants to try to help this poor guy, but her husband Milton (Gary Wayne Barker), the local banker, is a little leery.  She eventually wears Milton down, telling him that they "should behave like Christians", and he agrees to let Haskell stay with them for a few days.  Once Ima finds out that Haskell is Jewish -- the only one in town -- she starts to cool to the idea, but her husband insists that a deal's a deal, so Haskell takes a room upstairs.  While Haskell secretly sends money home and writes to his wife back in Russia, Milton takes an interest in trying to help Haskell's business grow, and with a little financial help, Haskell goes from selling bananas to selling vegetables to opening a small goods store.  After some time, he's joined by his wife Leah (Michelle Hand), to the Perrys' surprise.  It takes her longer to settle in to her new environment, and she's fearful about the fact that Haskell has allowed some of their Jewish traditions to slip.  Haskell becomes more successful and they move out of the Perrys' house and into the attic above the store.  Leah still feels like a fish out of water, yet their friendship with the Perrys continues to grow, although it does so with a little awkwardness every now and then.  They still manage to uncover similarities between them and a kind of understanding, especially among the women.  When Leah is pregnant with the first of three children, there's a nice scene between her and Ima where they discover their shared belief in superstition when they both simultaneously throw salt over their shoulders.

Peggy Billo (Ima), Robert Thibaut (Haskell),
Michelle Hand (Leah) and Gary Wayne Barker (Milton).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Several years go by before an argument arises during the Hareliks' Sabbath dinner.  It stems from Haskell and Milton's opposing views about whether or not the United States should join allied forces against Hitler.  There's a reason they say don't talk politics at the dinner table…

Here's where the play gets a little uneven for me.  For one thing, it seems as though it's the Perrys first time over to the Hareliks' for Sabbath dinner, even after years of friendship.  Also, the ensuing blow-up seems to kind of come out of nowhere.  I can understand political views remaining largely unknown until the subject is forced, but still.  Maybe it goes to show that although people can, and do develop relationships despite obvious differences, perhaps there are some cultural differences that just can't quite be bridged in Hamilton Texas, "Where the world ends at the city limits…"  Anyway, the rift leaves a scar on the friendship of the men, although the play ends on a hopeful note.

Robert Thibaut (Haskell),
in back Gary Wayne Barker (Milton) and
Peggy Billo (Ima).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Strong and sincere performances from the Perrys -- Ima, a very funny Peggy Billo, and Milton, a stoic Gary Wayne Barker.  Robert Thibaut gives Haskell a ton of heart and is very likable, and it was satisfying to watch the development of Michelle Hand's Leah during the play.  They all inhabit their characters beautifully.  Josh Smith's set and lighting create an inviting tone, and the costumes by Michele Siler nicely informed the characters.  Great job by the dialect and Yiddish coaches too, Nancy Bell and Thelma Edelstein respectively.  It's going on at the New Jewish Theatre until the 19th.


Written by Mark Harelik
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through June 19 | tickets: $32 - $34
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm 

Robert Thibaut (Haskell), Michelle Hand (Leah), Gary Wayne Barker* (Milton) and Peggy Billo* (Ima).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Josh Smith; lighting design by Josh Smith; sound design by Josh Limpert; costume design by Michele Siler; wigs by Tara McCarthy; projection coordinator, Mark Wilson & Tyler Linke; dialect coach, Nancy Bell; Yiddish coach, Thelma Edelstein; dramaturg, Andrea Braun; stage manager: Champe Leary*.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

BARE • New Line Theatre

Some themes are universal.  The high school years tend to expose many of these coming-of-age themes -- especially at a co-ed Catholic Boarding School -- where you might happen to be gay.  With about 33 songs and very little dialogue, BARE (or alternatively, BARE:  A POP OPERA) is truly a pop opera.  When this show was first presented in 2000, there were some comparisons to RENT, but I think I liked this one better.
The kids are getting ready to put on the school play, ROMEO AND JULIET.  Within this framework, we see the struggles of Jason and Peter's attraction to each other -- Peter willing to be "out", and Jason, trying to stay "in".
This show pretty thoroughly defines familiar high school archetypes, including Jason (a convincing Jacob Golliher), the popular hunky jock heartthrob, who is secretly carrying on with Peter, (a starry-eyed Mike Dowdy).  Jason's sister Nadia (an impressive Charlotte Byrd), is the overweight kid "with such a pretty face" and her nemesis and roommate Ivy (Terrie Carolan) is popular with the fellas -- an eventual victim of her own "hot girl" reputation.  Ivy, cast as Juliet in the school play, has a thing for Jason (can't blame her) who has been cast as Romeo.  Meanwhile, Matt (Jonathan Foster) is hot for Ivy (can't blame him, either).  When he catches Jason and Peter having a moment, he keeps it in his head -- for the time being.  Things reach a boiling point with Peter and his feelings about Jason, so he consults the priest (solid New Line fave Zachary Allen Farmer) for comfort and direction, but typically, Peter is advised to just try not to think about it.  The cat is eventually let out of the bag, along with some other developments, and the ending takes you by surprise.
The cast of New Line Theatre's "BARE."
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
I was immediately struck with how good this ensemble sounded together.  Great voices, namely Mike Dowdy as Peter and Charlotte Byrd, who knocks it out of the park as Nadia.  Byrd also has a nice turn at the cello.  Nikki Glenn adds a humorous spark as Sr. Chantelle, and has some very nice moments -- particularly as one of the few people who is on Peter's side.  Alison Helmer also gives a sincere performance as Peter's mom, wanting to be there for him but horrified at the realization that her son is gay.  Rahamses Galvan as Lucas, the school drug dealer, also does a fine job in his big number, "Wonderland".  The entire cast displays that New Line energy that director Scott Miller always seems to draw out, and the New Line band sounded great.  The contemporary score for this show has a lot of interesting music -- unpredictable and surprising melodies that made me want to buy the recording, and the cast and band handled it all beautifully.  The costumes by Thom Crain and lighting by Kenneth Zinkl were perfect and the set by Todd Schaefer is simple, efficient and draws you in, with a lit cross tilted towards the audience.
Jonathan Foster (Matt), Terrie Carolan (Ivy), Jacob Golliher (Jason),
Mike Dowdy (Peter) and Charlotte Byrd (Nadia)
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Check it out for some great music and memorable performances.
Written by Jon Hartmere, Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo
Book by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr.
Music by Damon Intrabartolo
Directed by Scott Miller
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through June 25 | tickets: $10 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm 
Jacob Golliher (as Jason), Mike Dowdy (Peter), Terrie Carolan (Ivy), Charlotte Byrd (Nadia), Jonathan Foster (Matt), Rahamses Galvan (Lucas), Nyssa Duchow (Diane), Zachary Allen Farmer (Priest), Nikki Glenn (Sr. Chantelle), Alison Helmer (Claire), Chance Kilgour (Zack), Andréa Kimberling (Kyra), Sarah Porter (Rory), John Michael Rotello (Alan), and Michelle Sauer (Tanya).
Costume design by Thom Crain; scenic design by Todd Schaefer; lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl; dance captain, Michelle Sauer; stage manager, Trisha Bakula.
The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Justin Smolik; lead guitar/flute, D. Mike Bauer; rhythm guitar, Aaron Doerr; bass, Dave Hall; percussion, Clancy Newell; keyboard, Sue Goldford.


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