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.

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