Monday, May 30, 2011

SLEEP NO MORE • The McKittrick Hotel

I'm not really sure where to even start with this one.

SLEEP NO MORE is currently being presented in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea by Punchdrunk, a British theatre company.  Their audiences don't sit and watch -- they roam.  Punchdrunk deals in the realm of site specific productions, and after running this show abroad, they've brought their latest to the Big Apple.  Even their website is cool.

Punchdrunk has claimed a couple of downtown warehouses and transformed them into a truly immersive theatre going experience.  This presentation combines the story of MACBETH, a little Alfred Hitchcock thrown in, and as far as I can tell (by googling the names from the program), the Paisley witches, supposed Scotland witches tried in Paisley, Renfrewshire, in 1697.  Who knows what else might have been in there that I missed. 
What follows is bound to contain spoilers galore, but everyone's experience with this show is bound to be different.

As you enter The McKittrick Hotel everything goes pitch black.  You eventually check your bags, receive a special playing card, and are ushered into this bar area where you can hang for a few minutes and have a drink.  Once the Master of Ceremonies calls your card number, you're escorted into an elevator, but not before you receive a mask that you're instructed to put on and keep on through the entire experience.  And no talking.  The mask really adds to the feeling of walking through someone else's head trip.  Once you're let off of the elevator, it's just kind of like, "Okay.  GO!"  However, you are advised that "Fortune favors the bold."  Oooo…

Sweet Shop Photo credit- Sara Krulwich-The New York Times
I lost count of how many rooms I visited, but I'd guess there were easily over 40.  You are basically left free to wander around in these impeccably decorated spaces.  There's a witches apothecary, a ballroom, a banquet room, a hospital room, bedrooms, writing rooms, living rooms, a forest and a cemetery.  And then some.  They are all dimly lit and quite creepy.  There are at least 5 floors to the place, and at least one of them is set up like a "main street".  You explore, examine objects, rifle through suitcases, look through books (a lot of old yellow paged psychology books abound) and try to catch characters in action.  And if you stumble across the Sweet Shop on the "street level", help yourself to some candy!

Sophie Bortolussi as Lady Macbeth and Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth.
In the masks are audience members.
Photo credit- Sara Krulwich-The New York Times 
Once you find a character, you can choose to follow their track, or wander off to another area.  One of the scenes I caught was between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  I assume this because they were in a bathtub and Lady Macbeth was washing blood from Macbeth.  And yes, there is male and female nudity.  The dialogue between the characters is pretty sparse, but if you pick out any of the lines, it's clear there's some Shakespeare going on.  I followed Lady Macbeth around for awhile and watched her interact with many of the characters as well as a young woman writing a letter and then packing a suitcase.  Then there was a woman (One of the Scotland witches maybe?) mixing a potion that she later gives to Lady Macduff in the ballroom where all of the characters are dancing together.  Whaaaaat?  At one point as I was walking around, one of the witches bumped me and brushed past so I anxiously followed her up a couple flights of stairs to be derailed by another character who led me back down a few flights through a closed doorway revealing a brilliantly lit chapel styled stained glass display, and then down another flight of stairs to the small quarters of a tomb where the body of a man was laid out on a platform with a backlit cross at the back of the room.  He becomes reanimated, and the female character (honestly not sure who), interacted with this man in a wordless intriguing back-and-forth.  SERIOUSLY?!  I was sweating like a pig but loving every minute.

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich-The New York Times
The whole thing seems to be intricately staged to an audio track that I'm guessing is about an hour long.  Everything is timed.  During one scene that involved Macduff and a pregnant Lady Macduff struggling, their movements were mesmerizing.  They were obviously carefully choreographed, but dreamlike -- in perfect unison with the music that was playing, and careful to accommodate the onlookers.  The music was sometimes like a 1930's jazz type feel, sometimes a little electronica, and sometimes a spooky droning, and according to what I've read, some of it was lifted from Hitchcock films.  When I explored the "outside" area of the cemetery, the temperature got cooler and the music faded, replaced with the sounds of crickets and thunder.

If you choose to stick with one of the various characters, you eventually wind up in the banquet hall.  Here, the characters assemble for what is an obvious scene from MACBETH.  The speed of their movements alternates between normal and slow motion, again, in perfect time with the music, and then we see the bloodied ghost of Banquo.  Here, all of the action goes slo-mo.  I'm telling you, it's the most awesome thing I've ever seen.  This feeling of being exhausted because you've been chasing characters up and down stairs, wearing the mask, and not knowing what will be around the next corner -- GENIUS!

Photo credit: Alick Crossley
That was my experience, for the most part.  Everyone walks away with something different.  This show hasn't been broadly advertised -- it's getting business through word of mouth, and has quietly extended through September.  The very nature of it makes you want to go back and see it again.  Truly unique.  If you're going to be in NYC before September (unless they extend again) bring some comfortable shoes and see this.  For real.


SLEEP NO MORE

Written by Emursive
Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle
The McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th St. New York, NY
through September 5 | tickets: $75 - $85
Performance Monday to Saturday; Entry times at 7pm, 7:15pm, 7:30pm, 7:45pm, 8pm, 11:00pm. 11:15pm, 11:30pm, 11:45pm & 11:59pm

Photo credit: Alick Crossley
Cast:
Phil Atkins (Duncan), Kelly Bartnik (Catherine Campbell), Sophie Bortolussi (Lady Macbeth), Nicholas Bruder (Macbeth), Ching-I Chang (Sexy Witch), Hope T. Davis (Bald Witch),John Sorensen-Jolink (Macduff), Stephanie Eaton (Nurse Shaw), Gabriel Forestieri (J. Fulton), Jeffery Lyon (Banquo), Careena Melia (Hecate), Jordan Morley (Boy Witch), Matthew Oaks (Porter), Rob Najarian (Malcolm), Alli Ross (Lady Macduff), Paul Singh (Speakeasy Barman), Tori Sparks (Agnes Naismith) and Lucy York (Matron).

Creative:
Design by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns; choreography by Ms. Doyle; sound desisgn by Stephen Dobbie; lighting design by Mr. Barrett and Euan Maybank; costume design by David Israel Reynoso; production manager, Bradley Thompson.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

THE BOOK OF MORMON • Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Okay, so there are gonna be some naughty words in here.

Nominated for about a dozen Tonys, this is one of those shows that I felt like I just had to check out.  Thank goodness I got a ticket before the Tony nominations came out.  Probably saved a few bucks. (Broadwaybox.com -- some sweet savings here…)  Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, best known for their animated series "South Park", this show follows two Mormon Elders and their missionary trip to Uganda.

At intermission a couple of incredibly well preserved New Yorkers behind me complained about the irreverence of this show.  Seriously?  You're seeing a musical comedy written by the "South Park" guys called THE BOOK OF MORMON.  With songs like "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream", "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (that translates into something that I don't even want to jot down here), and a dictator called "Butt-fucking naked" (I'm not kidding), if you don't know what you're getting into when you walk in, you're in for a night of unashamed blasphemy.  If you're up for it, you're gonna see a very entertaining musical.

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannels, and Josh Gad
Photo by Joan Marcus
The show starts with what I like to call a "doorbell fugue" titled, "Hello".  It pokes fun at the familiar scenario of a Mormon (or various other religious factions for that matter) ringing your doorbell and offering you a chance to go straight to heaven -- if only you'll read this free book.  Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA?  It'll change your life.  Honestly!  No?  Okay, have fun in hell then!

The Elders are getting paired up for their two year assignments where they will "spread the word".  Will it be Norway, France or Japan?  No.  Our two Elders, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) get Uganda!  Yay?  No.  In a country like Uganda, where there's female circumcision, AIDS, gang wars and a running joke about a guy with maggots in his scrotum, these two white boys are in for some shit.  Needless to say, this wacky set-up provides the musical's jumping off point, complete with a LION KING styled welcoming (there's a fair amount of pastiche during the show).  Elder Price is an ambitious young Mormon who is determined to make a difference and stand out in the Army of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter Day Saints).  His mission companion, Elder Cunningham is a joyful misfit with a penchant for lying.  When our Elders arrive, they find themselves quite out of their depth, and learn that the village lives in fear of a local warlord, whose name I said earlier, and don't care to mention again…  

Nikki M. James, Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad
and MORMON Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The challenges seem insurmountable to Price, who abandons the mission, and pays for this sin by reflecting on his past transgressions in a number I really enjoyed called, "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream".  Ingrained guilt is a bitch.  Cunningham is left to man up and convince these Ugandans to buy in to the Mormon religion and agree to be baptized, or the mission will fail.  Cunningham doesn't really fully understand much of the Mormon doctrine, so he fills in the blanks with a little science fiction and some of his made-up stories.  In the end though, he does convince the villagers to become baptized.  When the Mission President comes to check on their progress and congratulate them on their accomplishments, the locals present a pageant of all that they have learned from Elder Cunningham.  Uh oh.  The Mission President is appalled, and although the Elders are sent packing, Price and Cunningham learn that the villagers understand that most religions are more metaphor that literal truth anyway.  Granted, things are tied up in relatively predictable ways.  For such an irreverent musical though, it follows traditional musical conventions pretty closely.  Is it still a fun ride?  I thought so. 

Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells
Photo by Joan Marcus
The sets by Scott Pask and costumes by Ann Roth are bright and colorful, and the big production numbers executed by this  tight ensemble pack a punch.  Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad perfectly embody that "buddy flick" dynamic and Nikki M. James as Nabulungi, (Elder Cunningham's love interest), gives a sincere performance with no winking, and has a beautiful voice.

Sometimes the vulgarity of the humor was a little much for even me (and that's saying a lot).  For this reason, I can't really see this puppy touring -- in St. Louis anyway, but it's something new that people are attracted to right now and apparently, the Tony nominators are eating it up too, so who knows?  Even though I really wanted to see this, I was skeptical about whether or not I would like it.  I like edgy, but I usually don't go in for blatantly making fun of someone's religious beliefs.  But when you think about the doctrines of practically all of the religions, there's typically a little absurdity in there somewhere.  This show just puts the doctrines of the Mormon faith under a microscope.  And then sets it all to music.  Everyone wants to laugh at something we have been told to have great reverence for sometimes, right?  If you're in the Big Apple, check it out.  Jesus will forgive you.

I'm sorry -- I can't resist.  Here's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream".  I'm oddly addicted to it at the moment…
Enjoy!




THE BOOK OF MORMON

Book/music/lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St. New York, NY
open run | tickets: $69 - $142
Performances Tuesday to Thursday 7pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Wednesdays & Saturdays at 2pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham), Andrew Rannells (Elder Price), Nikki M. James (Nabulungi), Rory O’Malley (Moroni), Brian Tyree Henry (General) and Michael Potts (Mafala Hatimbi).

Creative:
Scenic Design by Scott Pask; costume design by Ann Roth; lighting design by Brian MacDevitt; sound design by Brian Ronan; hair design by Josh Marquette.

Friday, May 27, 2011

THE NORMAL HEART • Golden Theatre

This powerful 1985 off-Broadway play about the early days of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in NYC is receiving a striking Broadway revival at the Golden Theatre.  THE NORMAL HEART follows a group of men who form an organization in an effort to bring attention to this baffling disease that is rapidly claiming the lives of gay men.  The group's leader and main agitator is Ned Weeks (based on the playwright, Larry Kramer), an outspoken writer whose in-your-face tactics often rubbed others the wrong way, but were necessary during this time when many even in the gay community were pretty ambivalent about what was happening.

It's explosive, contentious, urgent and the weight of it makes your heart race.  The stark set was the first thing that stood out to me.  At first glance, it looks like plain white bricks, but upon closer inspection you can see embossed phrases like, "How come nobody is paying any attention to 'it'", "Everything, everything is too little too late", and "blood transfusions".  Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe's direction does try to make the most of the welcome humor in the show, but for the most part, it's pretty grueling.

Ellen Barkin (Dr. Emma Brookner)
and Joe Mantello (Ned Weeks)
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The play begins outside the waiting room of Dr. Emma Brookner (an amazing Ellen Barkin).  This paraplegic physician has been treating gay men for a disease that no one has a name for yet, but it leaves these men with no immune system, and her cases are multiplying daily.  One of her patients leaves her office saying that he's case number 28.  And that 16 of them are dead.  Emma is frustrated and angry about the lack of attention this outbreak is getting from the media, Mayor Ed Koch, the medical profession as well as the gay population.  She finds an ally when she meets Ned Weeks (a piercing Joe Mantello), whom she pleads with to use his influence and try to get the point across in the community that until more is understood about the disease, men needed to stop having sex.  Although this "solution" seems pretty unrealistic to Ned, he gets together a group of friends, several very different individuals, and forms an organization to try to raise money and make a political impact by shining a light on this epidemic.  Problem is, many of these members are closeted, and can't afford to be in the spotlight, and Ned's often abrasive strategy eventually alienates him from the group he began.  It might be hard to like Ned if it weren't for his passionate desire to effect change, and the more endearing insecurities that he reveals in scenes with his partner, Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey), a closeted style writer for the New York Times.
Cast of THE NORMAL HEART
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Joe Mantello hasn't been on the stage since 1994, but he brings the perfect amount of rage and nervous energy to Ned.  Hard to imagine anyone else in that role.  Ellen Barkin was remarkable in her Broadway debut.  Her intensity is just under the surface the whole time, but she has a key scene where she furiously erupts at a government doctor that elicited an almost involuntary sustained applause from the audience.  Mark Harelik as Ben Weeks shows a sincere compassion and love for his brother, even though that love is conditional.  John Benjamin Hickey's Felix is charming and believable as Ned's partner, and once he finds out he has contracted the disease, watching his decline is devastating.  Jim Parsons as "Southern bitch" Tommy, provides some gladly received comic relief.  He's a younger member of the organization but often the voice of reason when the infighting begins.  Lee Pace as the handsome Bruce Niles does a nice job brimming with conflict as a devoted advocate, but a closeted banker.  Patrick Breen's Mickey, a city health employee and a staunch defender of sexual promiscuity, has some heated exchanges with Ned and together, all of these characters nicely represent the spectrum of opinions about the AIDS crisis within the gay community.  Not one weak link in this ensemble.  The faces of ALL of them at the curtain call -- stunning.  There were no smiles.  It looked like they had all just had the shit kicked out of them.  
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
David Weiner's dramatic lighting along with David Van Tieghem's pulse-pounding music between scenes made a frightening impact, and the projections (Batwin + Robin Productions) of the ever increasing numbers of those who have been lost were staggering by the end of the play.  Letters are passed out afterwards to the audience, written by Kramer, that lay out in astounding numbers the toll this disease is still taking around the world, and how efforts to fight it are still too little too late.  This play may leave you shattered, but if it moves people to act, and remember things that shouldn't be forgotten, that's a good thing.


THE NORMAL HEART

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe
Golden Theater, 252 West 45th St. New York, NY
through July 10 | tickets: $26.50 - $116.50 
Performances Tuesdays & Sundays at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Ellen Barkin (Dr. Emma Brookner), Patrick Breen (Mickey Marcus), Mark Harelik (Ben Weeks), John Benjamin Hickey (Felix Turner), Luke MacFarlane (Craig Donner/Grady), Joe Mantello (Ned Weeks), Lee Pace (Bruce Niles), Jim Parsons (Tommy Boatwright), Richard Topol (Hiram Keebler/Examining Doctor) and Wayne Alan Wilcox (David).

Creative:
Scenic design by David Rockwell; costumes by Martin Pakledinaz; lighting by David Weiner; projections by Batwin + Robin Productions; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; technical supervisor, Peter Fulbright; production stage manager, Karen Armstrong.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK • Second Stage Theatre


I love New York.  Particularly the area of Manhattan that falls within 7th and 9th Avenues between 40th and 54th, roughly.  Theatre District, baby!  That's why I've been coming here for the last 6 or so years and I'm grateful for the ability to do it.  That being said, this latest play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Lynn Nottage, was first up on the list.

Inspired by the struggles of actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, MEET VERA STARK takes a look at film industry racism, but it does so in some fairly hilarious and unexpected ways.  With many black actresses of 1930's Hollywood being confined to playing the maid or the nanny, Nottage follows her fictitious title character's climb up the Hollywood food chain to modest celebrity through to the 1970's.

Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
As the curtain rises on a plush living room, there's an absurdly melodramatic scene going on between Gloria Mitchell, (Stephanie J. Block) and her maid, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan).  After a few minutes, you become aware of the fact that Gloria is desperately trying to prepare for a screen test, and Vera is helping her with her lines.  See, there's this Southern epic film in the works called, "The Belle of New Orleans", and Gloria, a film star known as "America's Little Sweetie Pie", is determined to land the title role, lest her stardom quickly fade out.  Vera, her real-life maid, learns that there's also a juicy part that would be perfect for her own aspirations, if only the self-absorbed Gloria would put in a good word.  These two were childhood friends, and although the mistress/maid dynamic is never far from the surface, their honest back-and-forth with each other makes it obvious they are really very close -- there's a kinship there.  A kinship that's hinted at in that first scene.

Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Lottie)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Vera spills the beans about the film to one of her roommates, Lottie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), who used to be in the old Broadway revues.  Lottie had to "eat her way" into roles as a "healthy" mammy type, but becomes hopeful about her own prospects for a piece of this pie.  Old New Orleans?  With cotton picking and slaves?  Slaves with lines?!?  She's in.  Then there's the other roommate Anne Mae (Karen Olivo), a light-skinned black actress who is bent on passing herself off as Brazilian to try to catch a break.

The definition of farce happens when Gloria throws a dinner party.  The attendees include Vera, of course, but also Lottie, as some additional hired help, the big time studio producer Fredrick Slasvick (David Garrison), director Maximillian Von Oster (Kevin Isola), with Anne Mae, still pretending to be from South America as his date, and Leroy Barksdale (Daniel Breaker), a jazz musician with a little thing for Vera.  While Gloria is taking huge swigs of gin to try to keep it together, the director explains that he wants realism in his film, and as he describes the tragic negro plight he envisions, Vera and Lottie's shoulders become slumped, their speech pattern shifts, and they carry out an impromptu audition right there in Gloria's living room.  This is an incredibly funny scene -- hard to know where to look, because everyone's reaction to this development is so comical.

Karen Olivo (Anna Mae) and David Garrison (Slasvick/Brad).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
The second act takes a more serious (but still funny) look at stereotypes in popular culture beginning with a showing of the last few minutes of the realized film, "The Belle of New Orleans", complete with appearances by Gloria, Vera, Lottie and Anne Mae.  Very clever, but as we realize that this film showing is part of a 2003 panel discussion on Vera Stark, her disappearance from the scene and African-American film history, the play starts to drag a little.  This panel discussion also includes a re-created segment from a popular talk show from the 70's in which Vera and Gloria are guests.  The panel consists of an intellectual film geek, a lesbian slam poet, and a college professor.  While these scenes take a closer look into the life of Vera and issues of racism, although it's cool, it's also a little uneven to me.  The first act is so screwball comedy that the attempt to answer deeper questions with these three academic types, "playing and pausing" the last television interview with Vera -- it didn't quite gel.  But, whatever.  I'm in New York dude, and I still loved it.

Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell)
and Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark).
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Can I talk about Broadway Crush #1, Stephanie J. Block for a minute?  Please and thank you.

I've seen her in a few things now, everything from WICKED (which she should have opened in NYC but I won't get into that right now…) to the rather unfortunate PIRATE QUEEN to 9 TO 5 and even CATS at the Muny.  It was wonderful to see her finally show off her comedic chops.  She was great in this role and it was hard to take your eyes off of her.  Okay, my eyes.  She does overly dramatic diva really well.  And yes,  I talked with her after the show.  I'll get to that in a minute.

The real star of the show though was Sanaa Lathan in the title role.  Watching her go from a spunky ambitious actress in the first act to a contemptuous drunken shadow of her former self in the second was a marvel.  The rest of the cast was top-notch, especially Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Lottie.  The set transformations were smooth and kept that "Hollywood vibe" thing alive with beautiful lighting (Jeff Croiter) and costumes (ESosa).

Daniel Breaker (Herb Forrester)
Photo by Joan Marcus
All rights reserved by secondstagenyc
Random stuff:
For those who have asked (I'm not making this up, somebody really asked me…) no, I did not stage-door for signatures for my Playbill nor did I take any pictures and here's why:  If you read my post about seeing WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, you know I was sitting like 3 or 4 seats down from Stephanie J. and we chatted a bit during intermission.  I was delighted that we could have a "Hey, we're here seeing the same show" type of conversation where I didn't look stupid or anything.  Honestly, I couldn't bring myself to ask her for an autograph after something like that, right?  Now, did I wait to talk to her after the show?  Uh, have we met?  Yes I did, and I'm proud to say she remembered me again and touched my arm several times.  She's really enjoying this show too -- happy to get the chance to be really hammy in a play (that will sadly end on the 31st) even though she's kind of known as a belter.  She's so gracious…  …and beautiful... ... What was I saying? 
Oh yeah, and Quentin Tarantino was in the audience, too.  That was kinda cool.


BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK

Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jo Bonney
Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd St. New York, NY
through May 31 | tickets: $75
Performances Wednesdays, Saturdays, at 2pm & 8pm, Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays, Fridays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Stephanie J. Block (Gloria Mitchell), Daniel Breaker (Leroy Barksdale/Herb Forrester), David Garrison (Fredrick Slasvick/Brad Donovan), Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Lottie/Carmen Levy-Green), Kevin Isola (Maximillian Von Oster/Peter Rhys-Davies), Sanaa Lathan (Vera Stark) and Karen Olivo (Anne Mae/Afua Assata Ejobo).

Creative:
Scenic design by Neil Patel; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by John Gromada; film by Tony Gerber; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; projections by Shawn Sagady; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

SUICIDE, INCORPORATED • R-S Theatrics

So, let's say you've found yourself at the end of your rope and suicide is seemingly your only option.  Well, nobody wants to leave behind a punk-ass note right?  You want to leave a suicide note of import.  A thorough explanation of your distress.  Something your loved ones will remember.  Enter Suicide, Incorporated.

Artistic director Randy Stinebaker discovered this play in Chicago where it premiered at the Gift Theatre.  Playwright Andrew Hinderaker, who wrote this play in memory of a friend, invited Randy to see it, then granted permission for RS Theatrics to present it as the first fully staged reading outside Chicago.  Lucky for us.

(L to R) Mark Saunders (Perry), Mark Kelley (Jason),
Aaron Dodd (Tommy), B. Weller (Scott),
(Front) Kevin Stroup (James) and Charlie Barron (Norm).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Scott (B. Weller), founder and CEO of Legacy Letters, has done his research.  He's learned that 80% of suicides involve men, and he intends to mine this fact with his new company, complete with "Spring Specials" and "Platinum Packages".  His intent is to provide professionally written suicide notes for those who want to leave an impression and may be a little unwilling to ask for help.  Already on board is Perry (Mark Saunders).  He's a loyal employee with a penchant for Shakespeare, who is Scott's willing yes man.  The day starts with an interview with Jason (Mark Kelley), a promising ex-employee of Hallmark who is grilled to make sure he's not a crackpot and serious about the job.  When Jason gets his first client, Norm (Charlie Barron), we learn about Jason's hidden agenda, and the reasons behind it.  Although this play begins with an outrageous premise, the heartbreaking truths of people in desperate situations are examined in unexpected ways.

It's neat when you're introduced to this implausible notion at the beginning of a play and you get sucked in with laughter, but then, without you even realizing it, you're totally invested, and before you know it, there are sniffles heard in the audience.  The show takes place inside the cozy confines of Soundstage Productions -- a black-box space with a capacity of around 50, where the action is in your face.  Like Off-Off-Broadway.  Love…

The success of SUICIDE, INCORPORATED is largely due to the incredibly sincere performances of these actors.  B. Weller as Scott, the brains behind the operation, is absolutely hilarious, along with Mark Saunders as Perry, his put-upon but eager assistant.  Mark Kelley's Jason has some significant scenes and is completely amazing in every one of them.  The timing that these guys have in their scenes in the office together was dead-on.  Charlie Barron's scenes as Norm are just as impressive, particularly when he relays the details of the break-up with his wife.  Great work also by Aaron Dodd as Tommy and Kevin Stroup as James.  Much of the credit must also go to the direction of Randy Stinebaker and Christina Rios, who accomplish a seamless balance between a high pace, and an "on the edge of your seat" tensity.

There are some surprises in this play that I will not disclose here, but it's more than worth the price of admission, and a powerful presentation that will stay with you for awhile.  Check it out!


SUICIDE, INCORPORATED

Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Co-Directed by Randy Stinebaker and Christina Rios
Crestwood ArtSpace, 214 Crestwood Court
through May 22 | tickets: $10
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
B. Weller (Scott), Mark Kelley (Jason), Mark Saunders (Perry), Aaron Dodd (Tommy), Charlie Barron (Norm) and Kevin Stroup (James).

Creative:
Technical direction by Jim Meady.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS • Max & Louie Productions

Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer, better know as Ann Landers, took over the Chicago Sun-Times's 'Ask Ann Landers' column in 1955 after the death of its creator, Ruth Crowley.  During the next 47 years, readers across the country wrote to Ann with questions about everything from sex and marriage, to how to properly hang toilet paper.  Questions you may not feel comfortable discussing with your priest, friends, or even your spouse could be shared with Ann Landers.  Lederer also weighed in on the more complex issues of the day, including politics, abortion and homosexuality.  She became a media celebrity, yet still answered every letter herself, as long as it had a return address, and her column was enjoyed by millions along with their morning cup of coffee.  This 2006 one-woman show, written by David Rambo, and fluently directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, is set in 1975 and was based on Lederer's letters and life stories.

As the lights come up and we drop in for a late night visit with Eppie (a spot-on Stellie Siteman), she's sporting a red pantsuit and a bouffant to touch high heaven.  She's hesitantly approaching, then backing away from her typewriter.  See, there's some work she's been putting off -- described by her to be the "most difficult column of her career."  What better way to procrastinate than to engage with a few of her readers?  Eppie jumps at the chance and reads to us from some of her favorite letters (she's planning on putting together a book).  These first few letters she reads include some of her lighter fare -- a woman who wonders whether or not it's okay to do housework naked (I vote yes), and a woman whose husband embarrasses her by dressing up like Tarzan and dropping down from a tree onto unsuspecting guests.  These early moments draw us in, and Siteman's liveliness is hard to resist.  Eppie tells us that she's never claimed to be an expert on anything, but that she does have one hell of a Rolodex.  Her musings are interrupted a couple of times with phone calls from her family.  These opportunities are used to share a little of her history with us, including the antagonistic relationship with her twin sister and rival, Pauline, "Popo", who wrote the "Dear Abby" column.  We also learn about her marriage to Jules Lederer, and the daughter she adored, Margo.

Stellie Siteman (Ann)
Photo credit: Lisa Mandel
After an intermission for us, a bubble bath for her, and more anecdotes about (among other things) her appearance on television to discuss "Deep Throat" and a visit to Vietnam, she realizes that she can't put off the task at hand any longer, and forces herself to finish the column she's been dreading.  After dispensing advice to the lovelorn, and expressing her belief that husbands and wives must try to soldier on in the face of hard times, she's compelled to tell her readers that her marriage of 36 years has come to an end.  Her husband Jules had fallen in love with a younger woman some three years earlier.  We never really find out any more than that, only that she feels an obligation to her readers to admit that her own marriage has fallen apart.

Stellie Siteman really nails Ann Landers, down to that Chicago dialect, and she achieves a nice balance between blunt straightforwardness and good humor.  She's really fun to watch.  Christopher M. Waller's smartly designed set provides her with plenty of room to prance back and forth, and the lighting by Glenn Dunn seems to follow her moods and reminiscences.

Now, the play never really digs too deeply into the life of Eppie Lederer, her divorce, or her feud with her sister.  These details are just kind of bypassed, but it's still an engaging portrait.  If you're up for a nostalgic little charmer, this is the one.


THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS

Written by David Rambo
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
through May 22 | tickets: $30 - $35  
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, final Sunday performance at 7pm

Cast:
Stellie Siteman (Ann Landers).

Creative:
Scenic design by Christopher M. Waller; lighting design by Glenn Dunn; sound design by Rusty Wandall; First Act suit by Paula Johnson; wig stylist, Mary Peat of Jaleh Coiffures; stage manager, Eric Nathan Brady.

Monday, May 9, 2011

INTELLIGENT LIFE • HotCity Theatre

It's really been an extraterrestrial kind of week!

You guys remember Fox and Scully right?  That is, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the incredibly popular Fox network series, "The X-Files".  Well, much like that show, this play, written by Lauren Dusek Albonico, on the surface looks at the possibility of extraterrestrial life with a little subtext of religion and issues of blind faith thrown in.  This is the first professional production of this play that was a finalist in HotCity's GreenHouse New Plays Festival.

A basement "office" serves as headquarters for a motley crew of Utah alien chasers.  There's Robin (Aarya Sara Locker) -- a dedicated believer, Beau (Scott Schneider) -- her slacker ex-boyfriend, and Gary (Kevin Beyer) -- a recovering alcoholic who has been kicked out of his house, along for the ride.  They all think they may have just hit the mother lode.  Enter Aethan (Parker S. Donovan), a highly intelligent boy who has run away from home.  Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Beau and Gary kidnap this kid, convinced at the time that Aethan is not of this world.  They soon learn that he's not an alien, just a highly intelligent boy with a knack for telekinesis and his own version of pig latin.  These special qualities are more than enough to convince Robin that this kid is the real deal -- a bona fide alien.  The reality of the situation is kept from Robin though, and we're given a peek at just how far people are willing to extend a non-truth, and how little it takes for believers to believe.  Things get more complicated when the disappearance of Aethan hits the news.

Kevin Beyer (Gary), Parker S. Donovan (Aethan)
and Scott Schneider (Beau).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Each character has a little "this is who I am" monologue couched within short scenes that give you the feel of a documentary filming.  This includes Emily Fisher's Jessie -- Beau's current girlfriend.  She's a waitress at Hooters, but possibly the most sensible of the group.  These moments are kinda cool.  They fill you in on everyone's background, and the feel that they're filming segments for a reality show or documentary of some kind was a neat touch I thought.  The ending catches you by surprise -- an unexpected twist that gives the whole thing a touch of seriousness.

Under Annamaria Pileggi's well paced direction, the performances were first-rate across the board, and Alan McClintock as the local cop gives a very amusing pre-show announcement.  The basement set (C. Otis Sweezey) was nicely detailed down to the Star Wars poster on the wall.  The lighting and costumes (Michael Sullivan and Jane Sullivan) served the story well, and the incidental music (Matthew Koch) between scenes was perfect.

Is it alien month or something?!  Between this show and DARK MATTERS, if I see any weird lights outside my window, I swear I'm gonna head straight for the basement, dude.


Emily Fisher (Jessie), Kevin Beyer (Gary),
Parker S. Donovan (Aethan) and Scott Schneider (Beau).
Photo credit: John Lamb
INTELLIGENT LIFE

Written by Lauren Dusek Albonico
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through May 14 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Emily Fisher (Jessie), Kevin Beyer (Gary), Alan McClintock (Terrence), Aarya Sara Locker * (Robin), Scott Schneider (Beau), and Parker S. Donovan (Aethan).
*Member Actors' Equity Association


Creative:
Scenic design by C. Otis Sweezey; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Matthew Koch; stage manager, Kate Koch.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

DARK MATTERS • Stray Dog Theatre

How far can "willing suspension of disbelief" take you?  Well, if you see Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's DARK MATTERS at Stray Dog (directed by Justin Been), trust me.  You will find out.

In the mountains of rural Virginia, where the Clearys moved about six months earlier from Washington D.C., Mom has gone missing.  Bridget Cleary (Sarah Cannon) hasn't returned home after going to get groceries, and her husband Michael (David Wassilak) and son Jeremy (Tyler Whiteman) are starting to freak out a little.  Bridget, a writer and amateur astronomer, has been known to wander off into the night to stargaze, but never before it gets dark, and now it's been a couple of days.  The local Sheriff (John Reidy) seems eager to help, and informs Michael that his wife has been seen, but the news of where she's been seen introduces another set of possibilities and questions for her husband.  Okay, I'll just tell you -- she's been seen at this local dive bar, and according to someone who works there, she's also been seen walking off with truckers into the parking lot, or to nearby motels.  There are some family details concerning Dad that also come to the surface after the Sheriff does a little poking around for clues, but they don't do much as far as advancing the story, and just seem to confuse the plot.

David Wassilak (Michael Cleary),
Tyler Whiteman (Jeremy Cleary),
and Sarah Cannon (Bridget Cleary).
Photo by John Lamb
Near the end of the first act, Bridget returns, and her explanation of where she's been and what she's learned stretch credibility for her family.  It honestly stretched credibility for me, too.  She recounts stories of a long-standing relationship with beings from another universe, and this dive bar has been their meeting place of choice.  So, is Bridget hooking up with random truckers, or extraterrestrials?  Is Bridget really who she seems to be at all?  It's some major "Twilight Zone" stuff going on here folks.

We also find out that these little green men have some major plans for her son that involve populating another planet in some other galaxy…  I know right?!  Let's just say that just when you think things can't get any more incredible, they do.  

Sarah Cannon as Bridget Cleary was a stand-out in this bizarre play once she appears near the end of the first act.  Tyler Whiteman does a nice job as Jeremy, introducing some of the scenes with little monologues.  David Wassilak's Michael Cleary was sufficiently hard to read and "just under the surface" menacing, and John Reidy does a great job as Sheriff Benjamin Egan.

The space at Stray Dog was perfect for this, and Justin Been's sound design pretty effectively conveys that "X-Files" type feel along with Tyler Duenow's dim and creepy lighting.  Justin Been's set was very nice too with an alternating sunlit or moonlit window at the back of the stage.  The pacing in the first act is a little slow, but once it picks up in the second act, things get more interesting.  Things don't really make any more sense mind you, but they do get more interesting.  It's not a play where you walk away with any answers really.  Just lots and lots of questions.  


DARK MATTERS

Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through May 21 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Sarah Cannon (Bridget Cleary), John Reidy (Benjamin Egan), David Wassilak (Michael Cleary) and Tyler Whiteman (Jeremy Cleary).

Creative:
Costume design by Gary F. Bell; scenic design by Justin Been; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; sound design by Justin Been; stage manager, Kevin Boehm.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

AGNES OF GOD • Avalon Theatre Company

I had only seen the movie version of this play, so when I found out that Avalon was doing it, I couldn't wait to see it.

Okay, so you've got this young nun, Sister Agnes, who's been found passed out in her room at the convent with a dead baby in a wastepaper basket.  And lots of blood.  Psychiatrist Doctor Livingstone is called in to try to figure out whether Sister Agnes is mentally fit enough to stand trial for manslaughter.  The convent's Mother Superior seems to know more than she's willing to admit, but is fiercely protective of Sister Agnes, and insists that Agnes claims to have no memory of what's happened.  Mother Miriam Ruth also believes that the conception of the baby may have been the result of something miraculous.  Well, the cynical Doctor isn't buying it.  Flashbacks of the past events are replayed with a simple turning of a chair, and through scenes with the Doctor directly addressing the audience, we learn about her own issues with the Catholic Church.  We also find out about the turbulent past of Mother Miriam Ruth and Sister Agnes.

Erin Kelley (Dr. Martha Livingstone), Sabra Sellers (Sister Agnes)
and Linda Kennedy (Mother Miriam Ruth).
Photo by Steve Krieckhaus
It's intense, and under John Contini's tight direction, has some amazing performances.  Sabra Sellers (Sister Agnes) is an open-faced ethereal innocent, whose "big scenes" were remarkable.  Loved her.  She really laid it all out there.  Erin Kelley as Doctor Livingstone has quite a journey during the course of the play, and her performance is compelling.  The more heated scenes between the Doctor and Mother Miriam Ruth were sometimes very powerful, but sometimes a little uneven.  Understand -- Mother Superior is trying to protect Sister Agnes and the Doctor intends to fully interrogate her, even willing to hypnotize Sister Agnes if that's what it takes.  This results in some rapid fire back-and-forth between these two.  Linda Kennedy as Mother Miriam Ruth was convincing as a woman desperately trying to protect Sister Agnes, but Kennedy's usual flair didn't somehow work here.  Kennedy is one of St. Louis's best, but I gotta say, with her being the Mother Superior of a convent and all, her portrayal was a little too "street" for me, although it did inject this drama with a good amount of humor.  But still, the performances of all three actors were very impressive.  Nice to see a play with such great roles for women.

The costumes by Lisa Drewel and special effects by Craig McCallister were wonderful, along with dramatic lighting by John Burkley.  The set was simple, but that's all it needed to be and kept you focused.

There are more questions raised in this drama than are answered, but I love that, because it gives you something to walk out of the theatre thinking about.  Certain secrets of all three women are exposed, and issues of the Catholic doctrine are examined, as well as the horrible brutalization of children, and whether or not, in this cynical world of ours, we would know a miracle if it hit us in the face.  And there's a little stigmata, too.  It's worth checking out.


AGNES OF GOD

Written by John Pielmeier
Directed by John Contini
ArtSpace at Crestwood Court, Watson Road and Old Sappington Road
through May 8 | tickets: $20 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Erin Kelley* (Doctor Livingstone), Linda Kennedy* (Mother Miriam Ruth) and Sabra Sellers (Sister Agnes).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by John Contini; lighting design by John Burkley; costume design by Lisa Drewel; special effects by Craig McCallister.

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