Friday, December 21, 2012

TALLEY'S FOLLY • New Jewish Theatre

Talley's Folly, written in 1979 by Lanford Wilson, takes a look at the reunion of an unlikely couple -- a Jewish accountant and a small town girl from Lebanon, Missouri.

It's 1944, and Matt Friedman (Shaun Sheley) has travelled from St. Louis to Lebanon, MO to seek out Sally Talley (Meghan Maguire) -- a woman with whom he had had a little Summertime dalliance with a year before.  Matt charmingly begins the play, addressing the audience and setting the stage for us.  The story itself is relatively simple.  In the process of reconnecting with each other and overcoming the prejudices of the 40's, and their own vulnerable isolation, we learn about Matt and his determination to see Sally again along with his family's painful past.  An initially chilly Sally also eventually reveals her past as the intended wife in a financially honorable match, and how that unfortunately went down in flames.  They also talk about the boathouse, where all of the action takes place and where they first  met (beautiful scenic design provided by Jason Coale and evocatively shifting lights courtesy of Nathan Schroeder).

Meghan Maguire (Sally)
and Shaun Sheley (Matt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This is a poignant little "I'll show you my insides if you show me yours" kind of one-act, and under Deanna Jent's smooth direction, the leads, Sheley and Maguire, bear genuinely real emotions during this 93 minute or so two-hander.  Both are captivating throughout.  In addition to Coale's scenic design and Schroeder's lighting design, the costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and sound by Robin Weatherall do their part in contributing enriching elements to the play.

While this play assumes a leisurely pace, you're easily invited to participate as a fly on the wall, witnessing a relatively brief but emotionally revealing encounter that sheds rewarding moments.  Only one more weekend!


TALLEY'S FOLLY

Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Deanna Jent
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through December 23 | tickets: $35.50 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Shaun Sheley (Matt) and Meghan Maguire (Sally).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Meghan Maguire (Sally) and Shaun Sheley* (Matt)
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Jason Coale; lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Robin Weatherall; dialect coach; Richard Lewis; stage manager, Eric Nathan Brady.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

STUPEFY! THE 90 MINUTE HARRY POTTER • Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

If you've never heard of Harry Potter, you may need to get out more.  Suffice it to say that the series of Harry Potter books and the resulting eight films have become a cultural icon.  So naturally, leave it to Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, that's brought us hilariously condensed versions of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, to now present Stupefy!  The 90 Minute Harry Potter.  That's right.  All eight films condensed and accelerated to a riotous pace.

Our crew of Harry Potter leads -- Harry Potter (Michael Pierce), the boy wizard, the studious Hermione Granger (Betsy Bowman), and our awkward gingy sidekick Ron Weasley (Jaysen Cryer) were marvelous.  And all of the additional cast of characters were there, too -- everyone from Hagrid (Andrew Kuhlman) and Snape (Rob Suozzi), to "He Who Must Not be Named" (John Foughty) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Sarah Porter).

Photo credit: Brian Peters
The more familiar you are with the series of books and/or films, the more jokes you'll be in on, but under the ingenious direction of Suki Peters, and all of the additional cultural references that are included, it's a guaranteed good time whether you're a Harry Potter fanatic or not.

The projections courtesy of Juan Schwartz are brilliant -- from the talking portraits to the retro video-game screen that announces a Horcrux has been destroyed.  Seriously -- you just have to see it for yourself.  Oh, and Harry's Patronus!  Hilarious!  (I've read all of the books and seen all of the films so...  yeah.  What?!)  Schwartz is also responsible for the scenic design with a neat backdrop of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and lots of room for the sizable cast to romp around in, on and under.  Jaime Zayas provides the lighting design, Jeffrey Roberts contributes great sound design and Katie Donovan provides the vast array of spot-on costumes.

Magic Smoking Monkey has built up quite a following, so get your tickets quickly -- the rest of the run is sold out, but there is a wait list you can get on for Friday and Saturday by emailing a request to boxoffice@stlshakespeare.org.  They've also added a performance for this Thursday the 13th at 7:30pm.

You'll have a lot of laughs, and a very good time.  It looks like the cast is having a great time, too.  Keep in mind that the 7:30pm performance is "family friendly." The late show is recommended for audiences 16 and over.  Go see it!


STUPEFY!  THE 90 MINUTE HARRY POTTER

Adapted by Jaysen Cryer 
Directed by Suki Peters
Emerson Black Box Theatre at Lindenwood University, 2300 West Clay
through December 15 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm & 10:30pm *Added performance on Thursday the 13th at 7:30pm

Cast:
Michael Pierce (Harry Potter), Betsy Bowman (Hermione Granger), Jaysen Cryer (Ron Weasley), and featuring Blaine Adams (George and others), Robert Ashton (Dumbledore and others), James Enstall (every freakin' dark arts professor, except Snape), Roger Erb (Draco and others), John Foughty (Voldemort and others), Max Knocke (Neville and others), Andrew Kuhlman (Hagrid and others), Carl Overly (Fred and others), Jamie Pitt (McGonagall and others), Sarah Porter (Bellatrix and others), Rob Suozzi (Snape and others) and Tasha Zebrowski (Ginny and others).  Morgan Hatfield & Jaiymz Hawkins - creature operators and others.

Creative:
Projection & scenic design by Juan Schwartz; sound design by Jeffrey Roberts; costume design by Katie Donovan; lighting design by Jaime Zayas; projection operator, Bob Singleton; stage manager, Maggy Bort.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

THE FOREIGNER • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Larry Shue's 1984 play is a charming, funny, feel-good affair, perfect for the holiday season, and it's currently getting a splendid production at the Rep, under Edward Stern's spot-on direction.

Everything takes place at Betty Meeks's fishing lodge in small town Georgia.  Englishman Charlie Baker (John Scherer) needs a little time away from the grind of his life.  His wife is ill and hospitalized back home, and in addition to nursing her, he's tired of his job as a proofreader for science-fiction magazines, so his buddy "Froggy" (Brent Langdon) has taken him to the lodge for a little rest and relaxation.  Froggy, an ammunitions expert in the military, has become good friends with Betty, the owner of the lodge, and this getaway has become one of Froggy's favorite places.  The thing is though, Charlie is painfully shy and rather uninteresting.  His wife once described him as being "shatteringly boring".  Ouch!!  She's not the most faithful wife in the world, but Charlie still loves her.  He's also terrified of conversation, so in order to try to spare his friend of the possible horrors that interaction might bring, Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is from another country and doesn't understand English.  He figures that way, everyone will leave him alone.

John Scherer (Charlie Baker).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Even though Charlie becomes even more stressed out when he finds out about Froggy's ploy, once he's placed in the uncomfortable position of being discovered after overhearing a conversation not meant for his ears, he decides it would be easier to play along.  Betty also wants in on a little adventure, and she considers this "foreign" visitor's stay exciting.  Betty's got enough on her mind, anyway.  Her lodge is in danger of being condemned by Owen Musser (Jay Smith), the local property inspector.  In addition to Betty, also staying at the lodge are Rev. David Marshall Lee (Matthew Carlson) and his wealthy fiancée Catherine (Winslow Corbett), and her rather dimwitted brother Ellard (Casey Predovic).

Carol Schultz (Betty Meeks) and John Scherer (Charlie Baker).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Charlie's self-imposed silence makes him, much to his fascination, privy to more than anyone suspects, while he also unintentionally becomes the center of attention.  Catherine confides in him, Betty delights in his "foreignness", and Ellard "teaches him English".  Charlie also discovers the agenda of the bad guys, Owen and the Reverend, and must figure out a way to thwart their plans without giving himself away.  Things get a bit more serious when Charlie becomes a target of the Ku Klux Klan.  You know, they don't take to foreigners too well.  Charlie makes quite a transformation during the course of the play, and watching him develop a fondness for some and get the upper-hand on others, is very rewarding.

John Scherer (Charlie Baker) and Casey Predovic (Ellard Simms).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Scherer does an excellent job as Charlie Baker, starting off meek and mild, and then blossoming as the play unfolds.  Watching Predovic grow into his own as the dense but endearing Ellard Simms is also a treat.  Ellard and Charlie have quite a few very funny scenes together, including one as they mimic each other at the breakfast table -- their first hilarious foray into communicating with each other.  Langdon as Charlie's good friend Froggy does a fine job as well as Schultz as the enthusiastic Betty Meeks.  The villains, Carlson's Reverend David and Smith's pro-Klan Owen Musser, inhabit their nasty roles well enough to incur "boos" at the curtain.  John Ezell's  two-story set is homey and beautifully detailed, and is complemented by Peter E. Sargent's lights, Rusty Wandall's sound, and Dorothy Marshall Englis's costumes.

It's a fun romp, with a heartwarming message of friendship and acceptance.  It's playing on the mainstage until the 23rd.


Carol Schultz (Betty Meeks), Casey Predovic (Ellard Simms),
John Scherer (Charlie Baker) and Winslow Corbett (Catherine Simms).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
THE FOREIGNER

Written by Larry Shue 
Directed by Edward Stern
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through December 23 | tickets: $19.50 - $79.00
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:
Brent Langdon ("Froggy" LeSueur), John Scherer (Charlie Baker), Carol Schultz (Betty Meeks), Matthew Carlson (Rev. David Marshall Lee), Winslow Corbett (Catherine Simms), Jay Smith (Owen Musser) and Casey Predovic (Ellard Simms).

Creative:
Scenic design by John Ezell; costume design by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by Peter E. Sargent; sound design by Rusty Wandall; stage manager, Glenn Dunn.

Monday, December 3, 2012

THE DIVINE SISTER • HotCity Theatre

Many of the plays written by Charles Busch are well known for their inclination toward high camp, in which he is frequently featured in drag playing the leading lady.  The Divine Sister was no exception when it debuted off-Broadway in 2010.  In HotCity Theatre's uproarious production, John Flack splendidly takes on the role of Mother Superior.  Under Marty Stanberry's keen direction and a superb supporting cast, this peek behind cloister walls will provide you with plenty of rollicking over-the-topness, including send-ups of everything from Doubt and Agnes of God to The Sound of Music and “The Da Vinci Code”.

Set in 1960's Pittsburgh, Mother Superior is looking to raise some funds so she can modernize St. Veronica's convent school, with the help of Sister Acacius (Kirsten Wylder), the convent's brash wrestling coach.  Don't take this to mean that the Mother Superior is "modern".  She acknowledges the fact that she is living in a time of great social change, but she is determined to do everything she can to stop it!  She is also trying to manage (while Sister Acacius is trying to tolerate) one of the new postulates, Sister Agnes (Alyssa Ward), who's convinced she's "the chosen one", hearing divine voices, witnessing visions, and apparently possessing the power to heal.  St. Veronica's is also hosting the visiting Sister Walburga (Lavonne Byers) from Germany.

Alyssa Ward (Sister Agnes), Lavonne Byers (Sister Walburga)
and Kirsten Wylder (Sister Acacius).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
The additional cast of characters include Mrs. Levinson (Susie Wall), a wealthy neighboring atheist, and Jeremy (Chopper Leifheit), a former reporter looking to make a documentary about the miracle-working Sister Agnes.  He knew, and loved, Mother Superior back in the day when she was known as Susan Appleyard, a rival reporter at the time.  Just about everyone in the show has a past, and the revelations that come out one by one thicken the plot with the most entertaining turn of events.  I can't even tell you.  You just have to see it for yourself.

The whole cast is gifted with strong comic chops, and Flack leads the way, shining as Mother Superior.  As good as Byers is as the stern Sister Walburga, she's even better as the convent's cleaning woman, Mrs. MacDuffie.  Is there any accent she can't do?  Wylder doesn't hold back as the hilariously boisterous Sister Acacius, nor does Alyssa Ward as the  delightfully odd Sister Agnes.  Wonderful performances also by Chopper Leifheit as Jeremy and the creepy Brother Venerius, and Susie Wall as Mrs. Levinson and little Timmy, a young boy who is athletically inept.  James Holborow's set is simple but effective and Maureen Berry's lighting design complements the production, along with Jane Sullivan's costumes.  Patrick Burks adds much to the proceedings with his clever sound design, especially when the melodramatic underscores kick in.

Lavonne Byers (Sister Walburga), Chopper Leifheit (Jeremy),
John Flack (Mother Superior), Kirsten Wylder (Sister Acacius)
and Alyssa Ward (Sister Agnes).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
The Divine Sister is filled to the brim with irreverent piety and parody, that by the way, is best suited for adult audiences.  You'll have a blast.  Check it out.  It's playing until the 15th.


THE DIVINE SISTER

Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Marty Stanberry
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through December 15 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
John Flack* (Mother Superior), Alyssa Ward (Sister Agnes), Kirsten Wylder (Sister Acacius), Lavonne Byers (Sister Walburga/Mrs. MacDuffie), Susie Wall* (Mrs. Levinson/Timmy) and Chopper Leifheit* (Jeremy/Brother Venerius).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Lighting design by Maureen Berry; sound design by Patrick Burks; scenic design by James Holborow; costume design by Jane Sullivan.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

IMAGINARY JESUS • Mustard Seed Theatre

The source material for this play, a novel written in 2010 by Matt Mikalatos, has been adapted for the stage by Mustard Seed's artistic director and director of this play, Deanna Jent, and it's currently receiving its premiere.  During the play, our protagonist, Matt (like the author, Matt), tries to hunt down his "imaginary" Jesus -- a Jesus of his own creation, and find the real one.

We start with our narrator Matt (Chad Morris), who oversees all of the action, letting us in on what is going on inside the head of "the character Matt" (Robert Thibaut).  Matt's having lunch with Jesus (Justin Ivan Brown) at their favorite vegan cafe in Portland, when Saint Peter, or Pete (J. Samuel Davis), shows up and challenges the imaginary Jesus's authenticity.  After a brief scrap with the Savior, Pete goes on to explain to Matt that there are a myriad of imaginary Jesuses out there, and the one that had been Matt's invisible companion for awhile was a fake.

Here the journey begins.  After reliving a few moments of Matt's younger days when he worked at a comic book store, Pete takes Matt to ancient Judea, where they meet up with Daisy (Michelle Hand), a talking donkey, who joins the adventure and advises along the way.  Yes.  A talking donkey.

(Foreground)  Robert Thibaut (Matt),
Justin Ivan Brown (Imaginary Jesus) and ensemble members.
Photo credit: John Lamb
I think it's fair to say that many Christians imagine a Jesus of their own making who conforms to who they would want Jesus to be, and several of these possible characterizations are met during the play.  There's a Hippie Jesus, a Free Will Jesus, a Biker Jesus, an 8-ball Jesus, a King James Jesus, a Political Jesus, and then some.  They're all a part of a Secret Society of imaginary Jesues (or Jesi) who get together to tout their own special qualities.  The play is filled with very funny moments with these Jesuses, but there are some serious moments as well, taken straight from Mikalatos' life experiences.  The tragedy that's revealed serves as the motivational center of the play, and we see how Matt's faith has been shaken.  The second act moves much more slowly, and Matt's meetings become more sobering -- everything from an allegorical exchange with Barack Obama (Kyle Powell) to a somber encounter with the Virgin Mary (Amy Loui).  Although theological ideas are explored more seriously, by this time, the originality of the premise begins to wear a little thin, and the resolution at the end comes off a little too easily.

Kyle Powell, Ben Ritchie (Portland Jesus),
Chad Morris (Narrator Matt) and Robert Thibaut (Matt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Still, Jent's adaptation produces a lot of laughs and her cast all perform wonderfully beginning with the two Matts.  Thibaut efficiently handles the role of Matt, and Morris makes a smooth Narrator Matt, watching the action play out along with the audience.  Justin Ivan Brown is a charming Imaginary Jesus and J. Samuel Davis brings his characteristic skills as Pete.  Watching Hand take on the role as Daisy the talking donkey is priceless.  She handles the role with ease, whether she's doling out wise advice or chewing on a phone cord.  Nicole Angeli turns in an adept performance as Sandy, an ex-hooker who assists Matt along the way, and Julie Venegoni gives a great performance as Krista, Matt's wife -- sincere in the serious scenes, and particularly annoyed when she learns that the President is coming by for dinner and nobody's cleaned the bathroom.  Speaking of the President, Kyle Powell does a mighty fine Barack Obama impersonation.  The ensemble is rounded out with Roger Erb, Daniel Lanier, Ben Ritchie, Zoe Sullivan, Aaron Orion Baker, Vanessa Waggoner, Leslie Wobbe, Jaime Zayas and Amy Loui.

Julie Venegoni (Krista) and Robert Thibaut (Matt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Dunsi Dai's flexible set includes these big triangular shaped pieces that can be moved to accommodate various settings, and Michael Sullivan's lighting design beautifully highlights the action, and sets the mood.  Michael Perkins' sound design also adds much to the play, along with JC Kracijek's considerable number of great costumes.

While the second act could stand a little trimming, Imaginary Jesus will give you plenty of entertainment, and it's playing at Mustard Seed until December 2nd.


IMAGINARY JESUS

Written by Matt Mikalatos
Adapted and directed by Deanna Jent 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through December 2 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Chad Morris (Narrator Matt), Robert Thibaut (Matt), Justin Ivan Brown (Imaginary Jesus), J. Samuel Davis* (Pete), Michelle Hand (Daisy), Nicole Angeli (Sandy), Julie Venegoni (Krista) along with ensemble members, Roger Erb, Daniel Lanier, Amy Loui*, Kyle Powell, Ben Ritchie, Zoe Sullivan, Aaron Orion Baker*, Vanessa Waggoner, Leslie Wobbe and Jaime Zayas.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by JC Kracijek; sound design by Michael Perkins; stage manager, Jean Lang; assistant stage managers, Angela Doerr & London Reynolds.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

THIS WIDE NIGHT • West End Players Guild

Chloë Moss based her 2010 play on research she did while volunteering at Cookham Wood prison in Kent, England, but in This Wide Night, prison time is only briefly mentioned -- it doesn't focus on prison life.  Instead, it looks at not only how time spent in prison has affected the friendship of two former cell-mates -- Marie (Rachel Hanks) and Lorraine (Jane Abling), but also how it's rendered life on the outside just as formidable a challenge as life on the inside.  Continuing the West End Players' 102nd season, this play, directed under the sure hand of Sean Ruprecht-Belt, has more than meets the eye.

The play begins in Marie's dreary studio apartment in London.  She has been out for awhile, but still not at all acclimated to her freedom.  She only really gets out to go to her night-shift job at a pub.  One evening there's a knock on her door, and she skittishly answers to find Lorraine.  Lorraine is middle-aged and fresh out of prison after serving a 12 year sentence, and in the midst of getting her bearings, Marie's flat is one of her first visits.

Jane Abling (Lorraine) and Rachel Hanks (Marie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
These two have been out of touch since their cell-time stint together, and there's an immediate uneasiness between them.  Lorraine is eventually invited in, but their conversation is dotted with awkward pauses and fits and starts.  Their adjustment to life out of prison has rendered the closeness they once shared as cell-mates muddled and disoriented.  Over the course of about a week where Lorraine hasn't really moved in as much as just hung around, they continue to attract and repel each other as the memories of their time together in prison, where every moment of their day is dictated to them, are mixed with a sobering sense of missing it, along with their dashed hopes, and the constant struggle to try to maintain their equilibrium.

Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine)
Photo credit: John Lamb
Hanks and Abling do a remarkable job infusing these characters with cautious cheer, quiet panic, desperation and compassion -- relaying just as much in what isn't said, as in what is said.  Their dialects are convincing, particularly Abling, who wears hers quite comfortably.  These two performances are bolstered by the contributions of Tim Grumich's detailed scenic design, Chuck Lavazzi's sound design, and Tony Anselmo's lighting design.  The pairing of the sound of rain and the shadows that rain can produce was haunting and effective.  Lisa Haselhorst's costume design also subtly informed both characters.

I remember reading about this play when it opened off-Broadway, and it's always a treat when a local company takes on a show like this one.  Check it out.  It's playing for one more weekend.


THIS WIDE NIGHT

Written by Chloë Moss
Directed by Sean Ruprecht-Belt
Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
through November 18 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine)
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine).

Creative:
Scenic design by Tim Grumich; lighting design by Tony Anselmo; sound design by Chuck Lavazzi; costume design by Lisa Haselhorst; stage manager, Carrie Phinney.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CLYBOURNE PARK • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Anytime anyone says in a voice laced with anxiety, "Did you see the family moving in next door?", you always have an idea of where it's gonna go, right?  You know what I'm talking about.  White flight, gentrification, redlining -- they all have one thing in common -- race and housing.  This is the topic that dominates Bruce Norris' Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play, now receiving a searing production at the Rep's Studio Theatre.  Written in 2010, it's an extension of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, picking up where it left off.

In the first act, it's 1959 and Bev (Nancy Bell) and Russ (Mark Anderson Phillips) are packing up the house preparing for their move out of Clybourne Park, a middle-class Chicago neighborhood.  The act starts slowly, but lays down clean strokes introducing one of the central families.  They eventually get a visit from Jim, their local priest (Eric Gilde), who is gently pushed by Bev to have a talk with Russ.  The reason remains a bit of a mystery for now, but Jim doesn't get too far, anyway.  Then a Rotary Club associate, and head of the neighborhood association, Karl (Michael James Reed) and his pregnant wife Betsy (Shanara Gabrielle) drop by.  Karl is agitated because he has learned that the buyers for Russ and Bev's house are a black family.  He's concerned that this will bring the property values down, and after a failed effort to get them to move somewhere else, he visits Russ and Bev to try to get them to back out of the sale.  Russ and Bev weren't aware of the race of the family buying the house, and they don't really care too much.  However, Karl's frustration escalates.

Tanesha Gary (Francine) and Nancy Bell (Bev).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
At one point Francine (Tanesha Gary), Russ and Bev's African-American maid, and her husband Albert (Chauncy Thomas), are pulled into the fray as Karl tries to get them to admit that their sort would be more comfortable living amongst "their own kind", where they could "buy the kinds of foods that they like".  Karl's kind of an asshole, and he ignites a bomb with a timer, and as Bev frets, Karl rants, Francine and Albert squirm, and Karl's wife Betsy, who happens to be deaf, attempts to follow, Russ finally reaches his limit and throws Karl and Betsy out of the house along with some choice words.  Russ has no interest in living in a neighborhood that could be so unfeeling towards his son, Kenneth (Gilde), after he returned from the war in Korea, and Russ and Bev are ready to move on to a different neighborhood, away from some painful memories associated with the house.

Michael James Reed (Karl), Chauncy Thomas (Albert),
Nancy Bell (Bev), Shanara Gabrielle (Betsy),
Tanesha Gary (Francine) and Eric Gilde (Jim).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Act two begins in the same house, fifty years later, where the same actors play different characters.  Clybourne Park has since become an all-black neighborhood, and there's a new white couple preparing to move in.  This couple, Steve and  Lindsey (Reed and Gabrielle), are planning to demolish the old house and build a huge one.  They're going over some neighborhood building codes concerning elevation limits with a lawyer, Kathy (Bell), an owners association representative, Tom (Gilde), and a couple from the neighborhood committee -- Lena (Gary) and her husband Kevin (Thomas).  Lena happens to be the great-niece of the woman who bought the house years earlier.  Not only does she have a personal connection to the house, she's also concerned that the new couple's plans to build a bigger house will compromise the character of the neighborhood.  Once Lena expresses her concerns, the gloves eventually come off as the meeting humorously but brutishly devolves into hostility and racists jokes.  The play concludes with a chilling, if not a little disconnected trip back to the house in 1959 that took many audience members by surprise, as well as audibly taking their breath away.

Tanesha Gary (Lena), Chauncy Thomas (Kevin),
Mark Anderson Phillips (Dan), Shanara Gabrielle (Lindsey)
and Michael James Reed (Steve).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Under Timothy Near's impeccable direction, the performances of the cast were splendid across the board.  Although act two shows just about everyone in their worst light, Michael James Reed as Karl in act one and Steve in act two serves up a biting performance, brimming with self-justification and thinly veiled indignation.  Bell overflows with nervous energy as Bev, and Phillips is brooding as Russ in act one, and a comical workman in act two.  Gary and Thomas turn in pitch-perfect performances in act one, quietly suffering slights and indignities, and the more out-spoken act two couple.  Gabrielle is excellent as Betsy in act one and Lindsey in act two, and Gilde plays his roles solidly.

Scott C. Neale's impressive set undergoes a marvelous transformation between acts from comfy middle-class bungalow to run-down eye-sore.  The set is complimented by Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design and Tom Haverkamp's sound design, and Lou Bird's distinctive costume design rings true for both time periods.

This play proves that all of the social graces in the world can't cover up the fearful and hostile nature of these characters once the veneer starts to crack.  Its relevancy is sobering, but definitely worth checking out.


CLYBOURNE PARK

Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Timothy Near
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 18 | tickets: $47 - $60
Performances Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, Selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Cast:
Mark Anderson Phillips* (Russ/Dan), Nancy Bell* (Bev/Kathy), Tanesha Gary* (Francine/Lena), Eric Gilde* (Jim/Tom/Kenneth), Chauncy Thomas* (Albert/Kevin), Michael James Reed* (Karl/Steve) and Shanara Gabrielle* (Betsy/Lindsey).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenice design by Scott C. Neale; costume design by Lou Bird; lighting design by Ann G. Wrightson; sound design by Tom Haverkamp; stage manager, Champe Leary.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

GOOD • St. Louis Actors' Studio

C.P. Taylor's 1981 play is tough to categorize.  Some consider it a play.  Others, a play with music, and some consider it a musical comedy, but the subject matter is anything but light.  It takes a look at how the Nazi party is able to gain a foothold in Germany, filtered through the eyes of one man -- John Halder.  It has also already closed its run, but served as an intriguing introduction to St. Louis Actors' Studio's sixth season entitled, "Kings, Queens and Pawns".  John Halder, by the way, is a pawn…

Larry Dell (Maurice), Rachel Fenton (Anne),
Troy Turnipseed (Bouller/Eichmann), David Wassilak (Major),
Paul Cooper (Doctor), Ben Ritchie (Hitler),
B. Weller (John Halder), Missy Miller (Sister),
April Strelinger (Helen) and Teresa Doggett (Mother).
Photo credit: John Lamb
John Halder (B. Weller), is a mild-mannered professor of literature living with his wife and children in Frankfurt, Germany.  His wife Helen (April Strelinger) is so self-absorbed she can barely bring herself to do any housework, so John ends up doing most of the cooking and cleaning.  He also looks after his elderly Mother (Teresa Doggett) who is slipping further and further into dementia.  As trying as taking care of his mom can be, he does what he can, and on the surface seems like a "good" man -- he certainly thinks so anyway.  One of his only friends is Maurice (Larry Dell), a Jewish psychiatrist, who advises Halder about his "bad case of the bands".  See, Halder has this habit of setting the more influential moments in his life to music -- his own personal soundtrack, resulting in moments where people in his head literally burst into song.  It's deep that bizarreness.  It distracted me to no end when I saw it, but later it struck me as kind of brilliant.  While snapping you out of the action, it brings the major issues home.  Very Brechtian.  To me anyway.  Although, like I've expressed before, thinking too much about Brecht makes my head hurt...  Halder says at one point, "I do everything other people do - but I don't feel it's real."  This oddity seems to buffer the events in his life -- makes them unreal, and all the more unsettling.

When the Socialist party shows an interest in one of his novels about euthanasia (cough, cough, MOTHER, cough), he finds himself with a growing group of friends and a few rungs higher on the social ladder.  He also eventually leaves his wife for Anne (Rachel Fenton), a young student who is smitten with him.  Halder's steadily growing involvement with the Nazi party is infuriating and frustrating to Maurice, who is scared for his own life.  In the wave gaining momentum in 1930's Germany, being Jewish is not a good thing to be, but Halder blindly rationalizes his actions, insisting that this is just a passing fad.  It's chilling to see this man's ascent into the ranks of the SS, taking the path of least resistance to become an integral part of the horrors that were underway, ending up at the gates of Auschwitz in the stunning last scene.

B. Weller (John Halder).
Photo credit: John Lamb
B. Weller does a masterful job portraying the incredibly naive and weak but well-meaning Halder, managing to get the audience to identify with the real antihero of the story.  Teresa Doggett turns in a wrenching performance as Halder's mother, and April Strelinger and Rachel Fenton round out the rest of the women in Halder's life as his wife and mistress.  Larry Dell presents a powerful Maurice, the only voice of reason in the play, and David Wassilak makes for a quietly intimidating Nazi officer.  It can seem hard to maneuver on the small stage at the Gaslight Theatre, but under Milton Zoth's admirable direction, all 10 actors remain onstage throughout without seeming too crowded.  Creative contributions include scenic design and lighting design by Patrick Huber and Cristie Johnston, costumes by Felia Katherine Davenport, sound design by Robin Weatherall and choreography by Cindy Duggan.


GOOD

Written by C.P. Taylor
Directed by Milton Zoth 
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
Run complete | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
B. Weller (John Halder), Larry Dell (Maurice), David Wassilak (Major/Freddie), April Strelinger* (Helen), Teresa Doggett (Mother), Missy Miller (Sister/Elizabeth), Troy Turnipseed (Bouller/Eichmann), Rachel Fenton (Anne), Ben Ritchie (Bok/Hitler) and Paul Cooper (Doctor/Dispatcher).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; costume design by Felia Katherine Davenport; sound design by Robin Weatherall; choreography by Cindy Duggan; scenic design by Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Keyboards, Tim Hearn.

Monday, October 15, 2012

LOST IN YONKERS • New Jewish Theatre

Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play is considered by many to be one of his best, and it's currently receiving a wonderfully heartfelt production opening the 16th season at the NJT.

As the show begins, 15 and 13 year old brothers, Jay (Robert Love) and Arty (Leo B. Ramsey), are uncomfortably waiting in their Grandma's stuffy New York apartment.  Grandma Kurnitz (Nancy Lewis) is an elderly widow living above her candy store.  She's a German immigrant who has seen a lot of, and been the victim of, much turbulence and grief, and she has come out the other side thick-skinned and hard-boiled.  She doesn't suffer the weak gladly, and this includes her children.  In fact, it seems Grandma doesn't really do anything "gladly".  One of her daughters, Bella (Kelley Weber), lives with her and helps run the store.  Bella is childlike and easily distracted, constantly under the stern thumb of her mother, yet she's also buoyant, resilient and longing for connection with anyone outside of their Yonkers apartment.  Her older brother Eddie (Gary Glasgow) has dropped by with his two boys trailing behind.  Eddie needs a place for them to stay while he hits the southern road to sell scrap metal, trying to pay off the debt he accrued from a loan shark when his late wife was in the hospital.  The boys, still grieving, are terrified at the prospect of staying more than an hour at Grandma's apartment, much less several months, but their father is left with no choice, and Grandma begrudgingly takes them in.

Gary Glasgow (Eddie), Nancy Lewis (Grandma Kurnitz),
Robert Love (Jay), Kelley Weber (Bella) and Leo B. Ramsey (Arty)
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
The boy's adjustment to about a year spent with Grandma -- and her cane, along with their often comedic observations about their injured family, is positioned as the focus of the play, but the interactions between Grandma Kurnitz and Bella, complete opposites, is where the dramatic center seems to truly rest.  Their relationship is intriguing to watch, but also a little heartbreaking.  Along the way we also meet Eddie and Bella's brother Louie (Michael Scott Rash), a colorful character who works with the mob, and another sister Gert (Sigrid Sutter) -- so fearful of her mother than she can barely make it through a sentence without losing her breath.

Robert Love (Jay), Michael Scott Rash (Louie)
and Leo B. Ramsey (Arty)
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Under Doug Finlayson's solid direction, all of the performances ring true in this play.  Love as the older brother Jay makes his professional debut in this production, and he turns in a skilled performance.  Ramsey also turns in a fully inhabited performance as the younger, jumpier brother, Arty.  They're both easy to like and it's comfortable to view the action from their perspectives.  Grandma Kurnitz is like that older relative you were always petrified of, and Lewis delivers just that from her first appearance.  But she also shows you a bit of vulnerable sunlight that leaks through, as it's obvious how much she cares for her grandchildren.  Even though poor Bella isn't quite all there, she is incredibly endearing nonetheless, particularly due to the genuine performance of Kelley Weber.  Her's is a very rewarding character to watch.  Michael Scott Rash's Louie thrills the boys with his secreted goings-on, but also manages to impart some lessons for them as well.  Sigrid Sutter as Gert is only in one scene, but she gives you a little more insight into the affect Grandma has had on the family, along with providing a bit of comic relief.  The set courtesy of Justin Barisonek along with lights and costumes by Michael Sullivan and Michele Friedman Siler all contribute beautifully to this top-notch production.

It's a great play.  So basically, get Lost!  In Yonkers...  It's playing until the 21st.


Nancy Lewis (Grandma Kurnitz)
and Kelley Weber (Bella)
              Photo credit: Peter Wochniak

LOST IN YONKERS

Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through October 21 | tickets: $35.50 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Cast:
Nancy Lewis (Grandma Kurnitz), Robert Love (Jay), Leo B. Ramsey (Arty), Gary Glasgow* (Eddie), Kelley Weber (Bella), Michael Scott Rash (Louie) and Sigrid Sutter (Gert).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Justin Barisonek; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; scenic artist, Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Kate Koch.

Monday, October 8, 2012

SPRING AWAKENING • Stray Dog Theatre

Navigating those prickly adolescent years can be a real bitch, and bruises can be hard to avoid -- psychological or otherwise.  These perennial rocky roads are explored in Stray Dog Theatre's 10th season opener, Spring Awakening, and it's completely absorbing.  The original material, Frank Wedekind's play written in 1891, was banned in Germany for its content that includes abortion, suicide, homosexuality, rape and child abuse.  The musical adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2006 and won eight Tony Awards, and Stray Dog's production illustrates that the volatility often encountered in the transition from childhood to adulthood doesn't change that much -- regardless of what century you're in.

Set in a provincial 1890's German town, mothers resist telling their daughters about where babies come from, boys are weighed down by the pressure to succeed in their studies and the guilt of wet dreams, and girls are kicked out of their houses because they are being abused by their fathers.  This musical examines sexual awakening without being crude, tempering the heavy subject matter with humor, an authentic approach to those anxiety laden teenage years, and then sets it all to an incredible score courtesy of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.  Spring Awakening makes an even more powerful impression inside the intimate space of Tower Grove Abbey.

(front, l to r) Keith Thompson, Ryan Foizey, Zach Wachter,
C. E. Fifer. (back, l to r) Evan Fornachon,
Anthony Christopher Milfelt and Paul Cereghino.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Melissa Southmayd turns in a wonderful performance as the naive Wendla, full of curiosity who has yet to feel anything.  She kicks the show off beautifully with "Mama Who Bore Me".  Her soon to be boyfriend Melchior, very well played by a strong voiced Zach Wachter, questions everything from his faith to his elders.  His best friend Moritz is plagued by his dreams and has also been left completely in the dark by his parents when it comes to the birds and the bees.  Melchior ends up writing a little essay (with illustrations) to try to shed a little light on the nuts and bolts of sex for Moritz, who has no one else to go to.  As Moritz, the most angst-ridden of all, Ryan Foizey makes an impressive turn in "The Bitch of Living" and "Don't Do Sadness".

(l to r) Meadow Nguy, Melissa Southmayd, Natalie Sannes
and Sabra Sellers.
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's hard for me to pick out one or two people in the rest of the cast because this score provides the opportunity for many to have their moment to shine.  But I'll try.  Anna Skidis is Ilse -- homeless after being kicked out, when not spending time at an artists colony.  Skidis does a beautiful job with "Blue Wind" and adds a strong voice to the ensemble, and Meadow Nguy as Martha delivers a compelling "The Dark I Know Well".  C.E. Fifer adds much to the ensemble, along with Paul Cereghino, and the rest of the actors all sound brilliant together -- a cast full of solid voices.  The adult roles are played by Jan Niehoff and Keith Thompson, painting most grown-ups as repressed, stern and sometimes a little evil.  They both play their parts perfectly, often contributing to the torment in the lives of the kids.

(l to r) Zach Wachter (Melchior Gabor)
and Ryan Foizey (Moritz Stiefel).
Photo credit: John Lamb
David Blake's raked set has low platforms with a few steps leading up on either side, and when coupled with Justin Been's sure-handed direction, along with J.T. Ricroft's choreography, these elements all come together to create some beautiful tableaus.  Tyler Duenow's lighting adds to the dreamy atmosphere of the numbers, with over a dozen lights hanging above the band, perched above the action.  I admit I got really excited when I saw strings up there, and they sounded marvelous with Chris Petersen conducting.  A rock score with violas?!  Love.  Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's costumes also fit perfectly into the mix and subtly distinguish the characters.

C. E. Fifer, Evan Fornachon,
Zach Wachter (Melchior Gabor),
Paul Cereghino and Anthony Christopher Milfelt.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Stray Dog has certainly been on a roll lately, and this latest offering is sure to give you a memorable night of theatre.  Because of the adult content, leave the kids at home, but whatever you do, don't miss this musical.  I'm not kidding.


SPRING AWAKENING

Book/lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through October 20 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, final Saturday performances are at 2pm and 8pm

Cast:
Melissa Southmayd (Wendla Bergman), Zach Wachter (Melchior Gabor), Ryan Foizey (Moritz Stiefel), Anna Skidis (Ilse Neumann), Meadow Nguy (Martha Bessell), Sabra Sellers (Thea Robel), Natalie K. Sannes (Anna), Paul Cereghino (Hänschen Rilow/Rupert), Evan Fornachon (Ernst Robel/Reinhold), C. E. Fifer (Georg Zirschnitz/Dieter), Anthony Christopher Milfelt (Otto Lämmermeier/Ulbrecht), Jan Niehoff (Adult Female Roles) and Keith Thompson, (Adult Male Roles)

Creative:
Scenic design by David Blake; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; sound design by Au Nguy; choreographer, J.T. Ricroft; stage manager, Justin Been.

The Band:
Conductor/keyboard, Chris Petersen; bass, Colin Lovett; percussion, Bob McMahon; guitar, Adam Rugo; cello, Bijhou Berni; viola, Michael Blackwood (except 10/5 & 10/6); viola, Joseph R. Gutowski (10/5 & 10/6 only); violin, Steve Frisbee.

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