Thursday, February 23, 2012

AUTOBAHN • Soundstage Productions/R-S Theatrics

A girl on her way home from rehab, an inappropriate trip to a cabin in the woods, and a series of pre-interpretations that turn "make-out" point into "break-up" point and then back again -- these are some of the situations explored in Neil LaBute's 2003 collection of seven brief one-act, two-characters plays, and it's getting a fittingly intimate production by Soundstage Productions/R-S Theatrics.  (<-- Sorry.  Longest sentence ever.)

While these vignettes are unrelated, they all take a look at relationship dynamics, and take place in the front seat of a car.  The additional common denominator is the fact that they are also language-oriented.  David Mamet is one of LaBute's favorite playwrights, and in like fashion, connotations and perceptions of meaning are examined and the "here's the dark underbelly" of things are uncovered.
Funny - Ellie Schwetye and Jan Mantovani
While the plays feature a conversational rhythm, some of them are more of an exchange, and some of them are monologues.  Most start mid-conversation, and the depths and details, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, are hidden under these layers that become exposed, bit by bit.  The reactions of the "less vocal one" play a large part in each presentation.
"Funny" is a monologue featuring a chatty teen-ager on her way home from rehab, who informs her mom that she still may not be completely off the junk, so buckle up (Ellie Schwetye and Jan Mantovani).  "All Apologies" is another monologue with a guy trying to dig himself out of the hole he has created when he called his wife a four-letter word in public (Phil Leveling and Betsy Bowman).  In both cases, the body language of Jan Mantovani as the mom in "Funny" and the wife, Betsy Bowman in "All Apologies", add much to the scenes.  "Long Division" has two buddies out to reclaim a gaming system from an ex-girlfriend (Phil Leveling and Jared Sanz-Agero).  "Autobahn" (Ellie Schwetye and Jared Sanz-Agero) has to do with a wife having to rationalize the fact that she and her husband have just had to return their foster child.
Bench Seat - Betsy Bowman and Phil Leveling
On the more dialogue-driven side, we've got "Bench Seat" -- one of the best for me -- that features a couple (Betsy Bowman and Phil Leveling) and their very different intentions concerning a drive to a scenic point in town.  "Road Trip" (Caroline Kidwell and Mark Abels) has a high-school teacher taking one of his students to a remote spot "to play house".  Ew...  "Merge" (Jan Mantovani and Mark Abels), another favorite, shows us a wife explaining to her frustrated husband the fragmented memories of her recent indiscretions during a business trip.
The more vocal ones in these pairs are all wonderful, and again, the reactions and body languages of the less vocal ones are equally impressive.  The formula that LaBute employs can become a little predictable, but the provocative starkness of the set (Mark Kelley & Brian Peters) along with the performances, keep you engaged throughout.
Only one more weekend to check this one out!
Road Trip - Caroline Kidwell
and Mark Abels
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by GP Hunsaker, Nick Moramarco, Landon Shaw and Randy Stinebaker 
Crestwood ArtSpace, 214 Crestwood Court
through February 26 | tickets: $15
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm
Funny - Ellie Schwetye and Jan Mantovani
Bench Seat - Betsy Bowman and Phil Leveling
Road Trip - Caroline Kidwell and Mark Abels
Long Division - Phil Leveling and Jared Sanz-Agero
Merge - Jan Mantovani and Mark Abels
All Apologies - Phil Leveling and Betsy Bowman
Autobahn - Ellie Schwetye and Jared Sanz-Agero
Scenic design by Mark Kelley & Brian Peters; lighting design by Mark Kelley;
sound design by Mark Kelley.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


First of all, get a ticket.  This hilarious show, superbly co-directed by Justin Been and Gary F. Bell, lampoons everything from political corruption, the legal system and bureaucracy, to the musical form itself, while constantly obliterating the fourth wall.  Speaking of the fourth wall, there's this thing called "Brechtian theatre".  It's a term that used to intimidate the hell out of me, but not anymore.  Thanks to a conversation with a buddy of mine, I learned that, in a nutshell, Bertolt Brecht, a poet and playwright who played a huge part in developing what's called "epic theatre", didn't want the audience to get too caught up in the story by constantly reminding us that we were watching a piece of theatre.  He "intended to provoke rational thought rather than to create illusion."  Little did I realize that this works brilliantly in comedic satire.  Hello, Urinetown: The Musical!  
Thanks to a devastating 20 year drought, a town has had to suffer no private toilets in an effort to conserve water.  Public amenities are controlled by the corporation UGC, or "Urine Good Company".  These toilets are scattered throughout the city, and there is a fee to pee.  The big guy kicking the shit… no pun intended… out of the little guy.  Sound familiar?  Sure it does!
(l to r, top) Ryan Cooper, Sabra Sellers, Jeffrey M. Wright, C. E. Fifer,
and Deborah Sharn as Penelope Pennywise.
(l to r, bottom) Anna Skidis, Lindsey Jones, and Berklea Going as Little Sally.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The show begins with our narrator, Officer Lockstock (Keith Thompson), and Little Sally (Berklea Going) letting us in on what's about to happen in their opening number, "Too Much Exposition" (<-- Brecht  :)).  At "Public Amenity #9", the nastiest toilet in the worst part of town, Penelope Pennywise (Deborah Sharn), is in charge with her trusty, good-hearted assistant, Bobby Strong (Antonio Rodriguez).  Bobby's dad, Joseph “Old Man” Strong (Ryan Cooper), in a line of those waiting to empty themselves, can't hold it any longer, so he breaks the law and takes a piss in a non-authorized space.  He's then hauled off to Urinetown, a place shrouded in mystery, where law-breakers of the pee rules are taken, never to be seen again.
(l to r) Deborah Sharn, Keith Thompson, J. T. Ricroft,
Christopher R. Brenner, and Jennifer M. Theby.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Meanwhile, the CEO of Urine Good Company, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher R. Brenner), is considering a toilet fee hike with Senator Fipp (Michael Brightman) whom he has firmly in his pocket.  In the middle of their conversation, we're introduced to Cladwell's beautiful daughter Hope (Jennifer M. Theby), just home from college and beaming with optimism about... well... the world in general.  Hope ends up falling for Bobby once they meet, although this poop-station fee hike drives Bobby to take a stand against Hope's family's mega-corporation.  A rebellion against UGC ensues for the right to "pee for free" and Hope ends up being taken hostage by the rebels.
"Act One Finale"
Photo credit: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre, as usual, makes excellent use of Tower Grove Abbey's space, and the entire cast of this show is first-rate.  It's clear that everyone took their roles and ran with them, and they sounded great together.  A few noteworthy numbers include "Mr. Cladwell", "Cop Song", "Run Freedom Run" and "Snuff That Girl".  It's hard to pick any standouts because it's a strong ensemble, but I'll try.  Deborah Sharn delivers a wonderful performance as the hard-nosed Penelope Pennywise, Keith Thompson is an engaging Officer Lockstock, Antonio Rodriguez is the perfect hero as Bobby Strong, and Berklea Going as Little Sally is absolutely fantastic.  Then there's Jennifer M. Theby as Hope Cladwell.  Love.  She plays her part with so much sincerity in the midst of absurdity that you can't help being completely drawn in by her performance.  She's also got great comic timing and solid vocals.
Also kudos to Justin Barisonek's multi-leveled set, Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's costumes, and Tyler Duenow's lighting, and sound.  The music is pre-recorded, but not over-powering, and it was nice that the actors didn't have mics -- they really didn't need them for the most part.  There was also some sweet choreography by J.T. Ricroft -- who sports a hilariously ridiculous hairpiece as Cladwell's right hand man, Mr. McQueen.
This production shouldn't be missed.  I mean, the two main cops are named Officers "Lockstock" and "Barrel" for cryin' out loud.  How can you not love that?  Go see it.  Seriously.
Book/lyrics by Greg Kotis 
Music/lyrics by Mark Hollman 
Co-Directed by Justin Been and Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through February 25 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Final Saturday, February 18 at 2pm and 8pm
*Added performances will be at 8pm on Friday, February 24, and Saturday, February 25
Antonio Rodriguez (Bobby Strong), Jennifer M. Theby (Hope Cladwell), Christopher R. Brenner (Caldwell B. Cladwell), Keith Thompson (Officer Lockstock), Berklea Going (Little Sally), Deborah Sharn (Penelope Pennywise), Josh Douglas (Officer Barrel), Michael Brightman (Senator Fipp), J.T. Ricroft (Mr. McQueen), Ryan Cooper (Joseph “Old Man” Strong/Hot Blades Harry), Lindsey Jones (Josephine “Ma” Strong), Anna Skidis (Little Becky Two-Shoes), Jessica Tilghman (Mrs. Millennium), Jeffrey M. Wright (Tiny Tom/Doctor Billeaux), Sabra Sellers (Soupy Sue) and C.E. Fifer (Billy Boy Bill).
Scenic design by Justin Barisonek; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; vocal direction by Chris Petersen; choreography by J.T. Ricroft; stage manager, Justin Been.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

WAY TO HEAVEN • New Jewish Theatre

"Himmelweg", translated from German, means "Way to Heaven".  In the context of this absorbing play by Juan Mayorga, it means the sound of the train, and the way to the gas chambers.  The third show of The New Jewish Theatre's 15th season is based on real occurrences, and it is arresting.

In the 1940's, there was a concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where scenes from everyday life were orchestrated by the Nazis for the appearance of normalcy for a group of Red Cross inspectors.  It's within this settlement that our Red Cross representative (Jerry Vogel) found himself years ago.  During a good bit of the first act, he talks about the time when he went to visit that community in the woods, and how something about the place seemed oddly fabricated, although there was a school, a synagogue, a theatre -- all of the trappings of relative comfort.  He also talks about his regrets about what he couldn't, or refused to see back then.

Scott McMaster (Young Man) and
Julie Layton (Young Woman 1).
Photo credit: John Lamb

The next scene shows us what the inspector saw.  After the sounding of a loud whistle, we watch manufactured deception depicting "normal life" in the settlement -- boys spinning a top, a couple arguing, a young girl teaching her doll to swim.  And then again, boys spinning a top, a couple arguing, a young girl teaching her doll to swim.  As much as the participants in this fabrication are urged to improve their performances each time, and focus on their words and gestures, they are too distracted by the sound of the daily train, and the atrocities they are all too familiar with.

The second act shows us the "behind the scenes".  The Commandant (Jason Cannon) has forced one of the prisoners, Gershom Gottfried (Terry Meddows), into helping him stage these scenarios.  Gottfried is often reminded that as long as he's engaged in this farce, he and the other "actors" are not on one of those trains.
Jason Cannon (Commandant) and
Terry Meddows (Gershom Gottfried).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The execution of this chilling production was first-rate.  Doug Finlayson's direction was flawless.  There are excellent performances by Jerry Vogel, our Red Cross Representative, who holds our attention as he sets the stage in the beginning.  Also Jason Cannon, the pompous and intimidating Commandant, whose menace ripples just under the surface, despite his spouting about Spinoza and talk of unity.  Terry Meddows as Gottfried, despising what he's being forced to do but unable to do anything else, was incredibly nuanced.  Wonderful performance.  Also fine performances from the ensemble, including Julie Layton, Scott McMaster and Shaina Schrooten.  Whether they are trying to "get their lines down", or going over new scenes and players, the weight of the group's fate is never far.  Also great work from the kids, especially an impressive Elizabeth Teeter.  John Stark's scenic elements were marvelous and a little surreal, with parts of the set being supported by books, and leaves with typed writing on them, never letting us forget that there is duplicity going on in this little village.  And horror.  Michael Sullivan's lighting was dark and evocative and Robin Weatherall's sound design was subtle, but haunting.  The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler were also spot on.

This play is completely engrossing.  Go see it.  The end.

Drew Redington, Elizabeth Teeter, Leo Ramsey
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by Juan Mayorga, translated by David Johnston
Directed by Doug Finlayson 
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through February 12 | tickets: $35.30 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Jerry Vogel* (Red Cross Representative), Jason Cannon* (Commandant), Terry Meddows (Gershom Gottfried), Julie Layton (Young Woman 1), Scott McMaster (Young Man), Shaina Schrooten (Young Woman 2), Children: Parker Donovan, Matthew Howard, Braden Phillips, Leo Ramsey, Drew Redington and Elizabeth Teeter.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; scenic design by John Stark; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; sound design by Robin Weatherall; dramaturg, Gad Guterman; stage manager, Lorraine LiCavoli.


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