Thursday, July 11, 2013

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL I • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Tony-nominated playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute's plays include, "In the Company of Men", "The Shape of Things", "Fat Pig", "reasons to be pretty" and "Reasons to Be Happy", that just closed off-Broadway.  His film credits include "Nurse Betty", "The Wicker Man", and "Death at a Funeral".  His body of work is often characterized as misanthropic, but with a style that is relatable, carrying weight in his words and unflinching honesty -- he calls it like he sees it. 

William Roth, founder and producing director for the St. Louis Actors' Studio, initially connected with LaBute when STLAS staged “The Shape of Things" in 2010 followed by a collection of his short plays called "Just Desserts" the next year.  LaBute agreed to lend his name to a festival of premiere one-acts -- The LaBute New Theater Festival, and submissions were accepted last October, with eight finalists and five high school finalists selected.  The festival kicked off this past Friday at the Gaslight Theater with the first four finalists.  These will run from the 5th to the 14th.  The second set of four will run from the 19th to the 28th.  The high school finalists were presented as readings on July 6th.  Submissions for next year's festival will be accepted from October 1 - December 31, 2013.

Wendy Greenwood (Two) and Rachel Fenton (One).
Photo credit: John Lamb

LaBute's "The Possible" was written especially for the festival and will be included at every performance.  It's a cat and mouse game featuring Rachel Fenton (One) and Wendy Greenwood (Two).  Greenwood's character  has just told Fenton that she has seduced her boyfriend.  She didn't do it to be with him though.  She did it to get to Fenton.  Straight and in love with her boyfriend, Fenton's objections are calmly discounted by an assured and confident Greenwood.  She's presumably bisexual, but not really into labels -- just Fenton.  Under Milton Zoth's direction, their back-and-forth harbors a frankness that makes a predictable end intriguing, and it starts the evening off nicely.

Justin Ivan Brown (William) and Jackie Manker (Star).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Cleansing Acts", written by Carlos Perez and directed by Steve Woolf, introduce us to William (Justin Ivan Brown) and his mom, Maxine (Andra Hawkins).  She's making cookies for a girl she thinks is her son's girlfriend.  Really, Star (Jackie Manker) is an unhappy hooker paying a visit to a disconnected William.  They're both at the end of their ropes, looking for a way out of their lives, and while William soaks in the bathtub they share with each other their individual damage.  Manker slowly allows Star's vulnerability to bubble up to the surface, and Brown's emptiness as William is touching and real.  These two win you over, making you want to root for them, as they look for a little solace with each other for a time.

Tom Lehman (Jeremy) and Aaron Orion Baker (Dave).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Pinky Swear" by Tyler Vickers starts with Jeremy (Tom Lehman) talking to a duffel bag hanging from a hook, and ends with Jeremy talking to his buddy Dave (Aaron Orion Baker) about some infidelity concerns he has with his wife.  Dave is happy to advise Jeremy, too agitated to think clearly, about how to rationally approach the situation, and Jeremy is grateful for it.  "Pinky Swear", directed by Linda Kennedy, plays out in reverse order making the episodic developments more interesting, with strong performances by Lehman and Baker.

Wendy Greenwood (Georgi) and Suki Peters (Elephant).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"The Elephant in the Room", written by Alexis Clements, features Suki Peters as, well, the elephant in the room, and Wendy Greenwood as Georgi, an artist.  While they talk to each other about their history together, appraisals are made along the way -- about each other and themselves.  Greenwood and Peters turn in engaging performances, but as promising as the road seemed, for me the anticlimax rendered the journey a little aimless.

In GD Kimble's "Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch", two men try to find a little levity in the face of imminent demise.  The first man, Haggerty (Nathan Bush), is naked, battered, bruised, and defending his life before us -- his captors, before his execution, and Bush delivers a strong performance, making you hang on his every word.  You get the feeling that the second man, Doyle (Justin Ivan Brown), is digging more than just a ditch.  Trying unsuccessfully to distract his interrogator, Evans (Aaron Orion Baker), from the business that's got to be done, his approach is different from the first guy who tells the joke, but no less compelling.

Nathan Bush (Haggerty).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Jim Burwinkel's scenic design accommodated all of the plays with a pair of swivel walls and a few set pieces.  He also lit the plays, with Robin Weatherall providing the sound design and Carla Landis Evans providing the costume design.

It's a varied night of one-acts, offering a nice range of interesting plays with the first set wrapping up this weekend, and the second set starting on the 19th.


LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

"The Possible" by Neil LaBute • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Rachel Fenton (One) and Wendy Greenwood (Two).

Finalists (July 5 - 14):

"Cleansing Acts" by Carlos Perez, Kansas City • Directed by Steve Woolf
Cast: Justin Ivan Brown (William), Andra Hawkins (Maxine) and Jackie Manker (Star).

"Pinky Swear" by Tyler Vickers, Los Angeles, California • Directed by Linda Kennedy
Cast: Tom Lehman (Jeremy) and Aaron Orion Baker (Dave).

"The Elephant in the Room" by Alexis Clements, Brooklyn, New York • Directed by Linda Kennedy
Cast: Wendy Greenwood (Georgi) and Suki Peters (Elephant).

"Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch" by GD Kimble, Bronx, New York • Directed by Steve Woolf
Cast: Nathan Bush (Haggerty), Justin Ivan Brown (Doyle) and Aaron Orion Baker (Evans).

Finalists (July 19 - 28):

"Blood Brothers" by Rachel Fenton, St. Louis • Directed by Wayne Solomon
Cast: Paul Cooper (Young Man), David Wassilak (Hank) and Aaron Orion Baker (Radio).

"Cut" by Daniel Damiano, New York, New York • Directed by Steve Woolf
Cast: David Wassilak (Jerry) and Tom Lehman (Raymond).

"Kink" by Joshua Thomas, St. Louis • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Laura Sexauer (Francesca), Nathan Bush (Simon).

"Present Tense" by Peter Grandbois, Granville, Ohio, and Nancy Bell, St. Louis • Directed by Wayne Salomon
Cast: Aaron Orion Baker (Walter) and Rachel Fenton (Debra).


High School Finalists (July 6):

"The Summit of the Gods" by Aidan Murphy, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, Illinois
Cast: Nancy Bell* (Vishnu), Joshua Thomas (Jesus), Rusty Gunther (Flying Spaghetti Monster), Wendy Greenwood (Satan), Bobby Miller* (Jehova), Betsy Bowman (Internet) and Milton Zoth (Narrator).

"Imagination" by Laura Townsend, Clayton High School, St. Louis
Cast: Betsy Bowman (The girl), Bobby Miller* (Demon) and Nancy Bell* (Narrator).

"Stand Up to Bullying" by Annie Kopp, Ladue High School, St. Louis
Cast: Annie Kopp and Wendy Greenwood.

"Little Star in the Sky" by Laurel Button, Mary Institute–Country Day School, St. Louis
Cast: Wendy Greenwood (Sophie), Rusty Gunther (Mark), Bobby Miller* (Narrator) and Joshua Thomas (Soldier).

"Wordless" by Amanda Ehrmann, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, Illinois
Cast: Rusty Gunther (Lane), Betsy Bowman (Delaney), Nancy Bell* (Louise) Joshua Thomas (Aaron) and Bobby Miller* (Narrator).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through July 28 | tickets: $25 - $30 ($50 for opening weekend)
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Creative:
Scenic and lighting design by Jim Burwinkel; sound design by Robin Weatherall; costume design by Carla Landis Evans; dialect coach, Sigrid Sutter, stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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