Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE LYONS • Max & Louie Productions

You think you've got a messed up family?  Think again.  Max & Louie Productions closes its 2013 season with a brutally comedic look at one of the most caustic families you're likely to ever meet -- "The Lyons".

The play begins with Ben Lyons (Bobby Miller) lying in a hospital bed dying of cancer while his wife, Rita (Judi Mann), leafs through decorating magazines.  Now that the patriarch of the family is not long for this world, she figures there's no time like the present to think about revamping the living room she's always hated, describing their old sofa as "some washed-out shade of dashed hopes" with a carpet "matted down with resignation".

Judi Mann (Rita Lyons) and Bobby Miller (Ben Lyons).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Ben, understandably cranky and in no danger of enjoying peaceful last days, is sparring back and forth with her when their daughter Lisa (Meghan Maguire) shows up with a plant for Dad, and what seems to be a permanent accessory of emotional scars.  Lisa, a divorced single mom and recovering alcoholic is soon joined by her brother, Curtis (Charlie Barron), whom Ben has never forgiven for, among other things, being gay.  The kids are stunned learn about the severity of their father's illness, but Rita, too busy occupying her time with backgammon, rationalizes that she and their father didn't want to bother them.  Under the circumstances, with the Lyons clan all together at long last, a barrage of barbs, quips and pent up resentments soon start to fly.  As the siblings betray each other's secrets, Rita tries to fix up Lisa with a patient down the hall while telling Curtis that she's never thought much of his work as a writer, and Ben at some point individually tells his loved ones to go fuck themselves.  Yes, the laughs in Nicky Silver's dark comedy come with a bite, but the laughs are abundant nonetheless.

Meghan Maguire (Lisa Lyons), Bobby Miller (Ben Lyons)
and Charlie Barron (Curtis Lyons).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The second act takes a bit of a left turn and focuses on Curtis, who is looking into an apartment with a real estate agent and aspiring actor named Brian (Aaron Orion Baker).  Startling events that hint at the extent of Curtis's emotional impairment land him in the hospital, attended by the same nurse that his father had (Julie Layton).  A visit from Rita and Lisa brings a couple of new surprising little nuggets from Mom, and the play ends up closing with what could be, considering this family, something of an optimistic note.

Mann is excellent as the sarcastic, disparaging linchpin of the family, delivering her casual put-downs with a deadpan sting, and effectively bringing out the depths in Rita that Silver's script allows her in the second act.  Under Wayne Salomon's nimble direction, the same can be said of the rest of this talented cast, who give the members of this dysfunctional family gratifying and unexpected dimension.  Miller lobs out his parting jabs as Ben Lyons with gravelly exasperation, and then softens when reminiscing about his own father, and the Rita that he fell in love with years ago.  Maguire and Barron turn in top-notch performances as Lisa and Curtis.  Maguire is a walking open wound who still wants to get back with her abusive ex-husband, and Barron is a pitiful mess as Curtis, with boyfriends whom nobody ever meets.  Baker delivers strong support as the real estate agent that Curtis has his eye on along with Layton as the no-nonsense nurse who looks after Ben and Curtis.  Scenic designer Justin Barisonek provides the realistically bleak hospital room and the partial wall of an empty apartment, and Maureen Berry provides the lighting design with sound design by Amanda Werre and costumes by Kevin Reed.

Bobby Miller (Ben Lyons) and Julie Layton (Nurse).
Photo credit: John Lamb
There's something perversely pleasing about watching this family tear each other apart that elicits laughter you're almost embarrassed about.  Almost.  Go see it -- it's playing until September 1st at COCA.


Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Wayne Salomon
through September 1 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Judi Mann* (Rita Lyons), Bobby Miller* (Ben Lyons), Meghan Maguire (Lisa Lyons) Charlie Barron (Curtis Lyons) Julie Layton (Nurse) and Aaron Orion Baker* (Brian).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Justin Barisonek; lighting design by Maureen Berry; sound design by Amanda Werre; costume design by Kevin Reed; property design by Peggy Knock; stage manager, Erica Rogers.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

TIME STANDS STILL • Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre continues its season with a thoughtful character study of sorts by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Donald MarguliesA couple of his plays that I've seen before ("Collected Stories" and "Dinner with Friends") seem to drop the audience into the everyday lives of everyday folks who are on the edge of transition, with gratifying observations about how the characters evolve and are changed during the passage of time.  This captivating production is no exception under John Contini's refined direction.

The play starts with James (Chad Morris) attentively escorting Sarah (Jenni Ryan), his partner of eight years, into their Brooklyn loft.  She's a photojournalist returning to the states with a splintered leg, an arm in a sling and shrapnel scars she suffered from a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq.  James, a reporter, was there too, but had a breakdown and left before her accident -- having to go into therapy to work through the horrors he witnessed.

Jenni Ryan (Sarah) and Chad Morris (James).
Photo credit: John Lamb
During their acclimation to each other after being separated for months, both subtly nursing resentment and guilt, they have company.  Sarah's photo editor, Richard (Jerry Vogel), stops by with his new girlfriend, a young, frothy event planner named Mandy (Julia Crump).  The “Welcome Home” and “Get Well Soon” balloons Mandy's brought don't do much to lighten the tension in the room.  She says "Oh, wow" a lot and is a little on the chipper side for Sarah's taste, but it's clear that she cares for Richard, and Richard is truly happy with her, even though Sarah and James kid him about going through a midlife crisis.

Shaken by one of Sarah's photographs, Mandy questions why Sarah would voluntarily make herself a silent accomplice to the suffering of others rather than choosing to do something to help those she photographs, but Sarah insists that her pictures, no matter how unsettling, are helping by raising awareness of the events she documents.  Sarah, whose photographs decorate the apartment, is a pro, and she and James have been living dangerously under a constant threat of death for years.  Her profession has necessitated a detached approach to her work, and her emotional walls are thick -- difficult to break down even in her personal life.  Mandy's question is the catalyst that highlights a growing fissure between Sarah and James, and this gap is agitated by revelations that come to light, and how they choose to deal with the strain that their shell-shock has had on their relationship.

Jenni Ryan (Sarah), Julia Crump (Mandy)
and Jerry Vogel (Richard).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Ryan is excellent as the hardened Sarah, delivering her lines with sarcastic humor, a chilly disconnection, and an impactful account of how she deadens herself to everything outside of her camera's viewfinder.  Morris inhabits James comfortably as a man still healing from his psychological bruises, pursuing different interests and forming new priorities.  Vogel brings Richard to life as a good-natured friend, joyous with his new outlook on the world but ready to intervene when the well-intended Mandy is in danger of making a blunder.  Crump was delightful as Mandy, taking notes for later research about anything pre-90's.  She also convincingly comes into her own in her confrontations with Sarah, James, and even Richard.

Scenic designer Mark Wilson's good-looking, realistically detailed set includes a bedroom area, living room, dining area and kitchen, and features four tall windows adorned with a row of Sarah's black and white photographs.  Kathleen San Roman's lighting design evocatively illuminates the windows and complements the set and action beautifully.  Bryce Dale Allen dotted the production with natural, understated sound design and perfectly fitting transitional music, while Michele Sansone nicely costumed the actors.

Jenni Ryan (Sarah) and Chad Morris (James).
Photo credit: John Lamb
One of the first things I wrote down when I saw this was, "desensitization vs. catharsis" -- a distinction brought up early on, and for me, the question of which is which serves as a springboard for the different roads each character ends up taking.  It's an engaging play, admirably staged, running until the 25th.  Check it out.  There's a cool clip of the Broadway production here.


Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by John Contini
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave.
through August 25 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Jenni Ryan (Sarah), Chad Morris (James), Julia Crump (Mandy) and Jerry Vogel* (Richard).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Mark Wilson; lighting design by Kathleen San Roman; sound design by Bryce Dale Allen; costume design by Michele Sansone; stage manager, Terry Lee.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


There's another new theatre company on the scene, folks -- Theatre Lab, and according to the "About" section provided in the program, the "Lab" part of its title "…indicates that our company likes to experiment.", with intentions of presenting a variety of work chosen by the performers, when the work is ready, and a commitment to a high level of quality.  Well so far, score.  Theatre Lab has come out of the gate with a striking two-hander written by the author of No Country for Old Men, novelist and playwright, Cormac McCarthy.

As the audience files into the Gaslight Theater, the characters, simply noted as "Black" (Robert Mitchell) and "White" (Zachary Allen Farmer), are engaged in a card game onstage.  As their dialogue unravels, we learn that Black has brought White back to his run-down New York City apartment after snatching him from the path of an oncoming passenger train.  Black, an ex-con and devout Christian is cool and relaxed, affably extolling the bible to White, a disillusioned professor, agitated and anxious to leave.  What follows in this intermission-less hour and a half or so, is a bit of a ping-pong match of existential exchanges -- prodding each other for the basis of their opposing beliefs.

Zachary Allen Farmer (White) and Robert Mitchell (Black).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Actually, White doesn't seem to believe in much of anything anymore, but once the professor softens to Black's company after a bite to eat, Black seems to have a chance of dissuading White from any more suicide attempts.  He indulges White with a jailhouse story or two, makes metaphors about trains, fellow travelers on the platform, and destinations, not allowing White to leave his apartment, trying to buy some time.  Eventually, White's growing unease turns the tide with a blistering rant questioning the point of existence with elegantly put points that impress, confuse and rattle Black's stride.

Zachary Allen Farmer (White) and Robert Mitchell (Black).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The banter flows as easily as can be between Farmer and Mitchell under the carefully paced, tightly staged direction of Theatre Lab's founder, Ryan Foizey.  I've seen Farmer in a number of musicals, and it was wonderful to see him in a role like this -- arming White's spirit with a steely gaze -- broken, hard and grim.  I haven't seen Mitchell in enough, and he runs the gamut of straightforward emotions, from the charm in his jovial demeanor to his heartbreak for this stranger he meets.  Excellent portrayals by both actors.  Foizey and David Blake's set was shabby and meager, dressed with a few pieces of furniture, a heavily bolted door frame and a tiny kitchen area, with a hanging backdrop of windows that gave the space a cramped and confined feel.  Tyler Duenow's lighting design is realistic with amber dimly coming through the windows, ominously darkening near the end, and Marcy Wiegert's costume design characterizes both actors nicely.

Zachary Allen Farmer (White)
and Robert Mitchell (Black).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The cold start of the show (no welcoming speech) was refreshing, and the story you're plunged into leaves you with a thrillingly stunning aftershock.  On the night I saw it, no one moved for several moments after the curtain call.  It's like we all had to just sit there, reflect for a minute, and let it sink in a bit.  Go see it.  For real.


Written by Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Ryan Foizey
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through August 17 | tickets: $14
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm

Zachary Allen Farmer (White) and Robert Mitchell (Black).

Scenic design by Ryan Foizey & David Blake; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; costume design by Marcy Wiegert.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

INTO THE WOODS • Ozark Actors Theatre

Road trip!!

OAT's season closer, "Into the Woods", was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.  In Sondheim and Lapine's 1987 Tony award winning morality tale, familiar storybook characters, along with a few new ones, venture into a dark forest for different reasons.  They may be known from children's stories, but these woods -- an allegorical rite of passage of sorts, offer up some hard lessons and somber themes for the group that leave the lot of them changed from when their journey began.

After the opening line, "Once upon a time…", our Narrator (Lanin Thomasma) introduces us to our primary players -- Cinderella (Sabra Sellers), Jack (Michael Detmer) and a Baker and his wife (Blane Pressler and Brittany Proia), whose wishes force them all "into the woods".  Cinderella wants to go to the King's Festival and Jack is ordered by his mother (Laura Light) to head to the market to sell his best friend, the family cow, Milky White (Rebecca Light).

Brittany Proia (Baker's Wife), Blane Pressler (Baker)
and Kelly Campbell (The Witch).
Photo credit: Jason Cannon
The Baker and his wife are childless, and learn from the witch next door that she had placed a curse on the Baker's father years earlier as punishment for special beans he took from her beloved garden.  In order to have a child, the Baker must fetch four things for the witch.  The quest for these things (“The cow as white as milk, The cape as red as blood, The hair as yellow as corn, The slipper as pure as gold”) is what drives the Baker, with his wife following behind, into the woods.  Little Red Ridinghood (Natalie Sannes) is headed through the woods too.  She stops by the Baker's house on the way to her grandmother's, and supplies herself with an ample stockpile of baked goods before she heads off.

Gregory Cuellar (The Wolf) and Natalie Sannes (Little Red).
Photo credit: Jason Cannon
The plot thickens when all of their stories are entwined with additional characters we meet, including two princes (Gregory Cuellar and Benjamin Wegner), a ravenous wolf (Gregory Cuellar), and the imprisoned Rapunzel (Jenna Light), locked in a tower -- put there by the witch who raised Rapunzel as her own.  Before long, Little Red has a run-in with the wolf, who's just about ready for lunch, the Baker and his wife trade some "magic" beans for Jack's cow, Cinderella finds herself uncertain once she draws the eye of one of the handsome princes, and Jack has an adventure with giants once he climbs a beanstalk.  (The plot REALLY thickens.)  Still, everything suggests a "happily ever after" ending when they get what they want by the end of a seemingly complete first act.  But the choices they make bring consequences that come back to bite them in act two, and they end up getting the lessons they deserve, while coming to rely on each other for comfort, and working on their predicaments together.

Gregory Cuellar (Cinderella's Prince),
Benjamin Wegner (Rapunzel's Prince)
and Sabra Sellers (Cinderella).
Photo credit: Jason Cannon
Under the insightful direction of artistic director, Jason Cannon, the cast and crew did a fine job with a challenging show.  Sondheim's intricate lyrics, easy to miss on a first listening, are tough to pull off, but although the skills and vocal talents of the cast were varied, the standouts did a wonderful job with Pressler as the Baker and Proia as the Baker's Wife leading the way.  They both have strong voices and handled the score very nicely while doling out humorously believable husband and wife moments.  Cuellar was marvelous as the wolf, and he and Wegner made for a couple of dashing, funny and over-the-top (in a good way) princes.

The cast of "Into the Woods".
Photo credit: Jason Cannon
Sannes, perfectly cast as Little Red, turned in a charming performance going from a trusting innocent to a knife-wielding pelt-wearer, and Sellers gave the sweet-hearted Cinderella a realistically confused ambivalence, and played up her comedic bits well.  Detmer is a lovably doltish Jack, and Campbell gives The Witch an unpredictably modern quality.  Thomasma helped to ground the show with his portrayal of the Narrator as well as the Mysterious Old Man.  Everyone was costumed handsomely by Laura Cook, and Kevin Shaw's scenic design offered a rich backdrop mural of a deep forest and efficient use of an area house right for the tree that marked the grave of Cinderella's mother and Rapunzel's tower.  He's also responsible for the lighting that spotlights the fast-moving action well and provided an overall eerie tone.  Katie Guzzi's sound design was fine but I wish the orchestra could have been a little beefier to provide more depth to the music, but the score was delivered admirably.

You've got until the 11th to check out a classic that doesn't come around every day.  It's an entertaining trek worth taking.

The cast of "Into the Woods".
Photo credit: Jason Cannon

Book by James Lapine
Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jason Cannon
The Cedar Street Playhouse, 701 North Cedar, Rolla MO, 65401
through August 11 | tickets: $12 - $20
Performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 2 & 7:30pm, Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm

Blane Pressler* (Baker), Brittany Proia* (Baker's Wife), Sabra Sellers* (Cinderella), Kelly Campbell (The Witch), Jeff Williams (Cinderella's Father), Gregory Cuellar (Cinderella's Prince/The Wolf), Rachel Collins (Florinda), Kati Edwards (Lucinda),

Rebecca Light (Milky White), Michael Detmer (Jack)
and Lanin Thomasma (Mysterious Old Man).
Photo credit: Jason Cannon
Susan Holmes (Cinderella's Stepmother), Amy Arthur (Granny/Cinderella's Mother/Voice of the Giant), Michael Detmer (Jack), Laura Light (Jack's Mother), Natalie Sannes (Little Red), Lanin Thomasma (Narrator/Mysterious Old Man), Jenna Light (Rapunzel), Benjamin Wegner (Rapunzel's Prince), Steve Skelton (Steward) and Rebecca Light (Milky White).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic & lighting design by Kevin Shaw; costume designer, Laura Cook; sound design by Katie Guzzi; musical direction by Dave Maglione; stage manager, Jim Welch.

Musical director and piano, Dave Maglione; keyboard, Rebecca Grow; percussion: drums, Marty Munz; percussion: vibraphone, bells, xylophone, Amy Mazzzeo.


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