Sunday, September 1, 2013

COMPLICATED LIVES: AN EVENING OF SHORT PLAYS • Stray Dog Theatre | WHAMMY! THE SEVEN SECRETS TO A SANE SELF • HotCity Theatre

I saw a couple of cool theatre things in August that have ended, but wanted to give a little shout-out to, so let's start with…

COMPLICATED LIVES: AN EVENING OF SHORT PLAYS

Stray Dog Theatre annually hosts a New Works Laboratory where new plays are workshopped, with free performances and encouragement to participate in a talk-back after the show with the playwright and cast.  It's a neat opportunity to be in on the creative process as these pieces-in-progress ready for further development.  This year, four short plays by St. Louis actor and playwright, Stephen Peirick, were featured in a presentation called "Complicated Lives".

Katie Puglisi (Meredith).
Photo credit: Stephen Peirick
The first of the four was "On Solid Ground", and begins with Meredith (Katie Puglisi) meeting her mom Adele (Nancy Crouse) for dinner, or so she thinks -- celebrating what would have been her parents' 40th wedding anniversary.  For the past four years since Adele's husband's death, mother and daughter have carried on this tradition with a night out, but Meredith has been lured not to a restaurant, but to an airport, by her mom, who has more adventurous plans in mind.  Crouse's character was the more laid-back of the two, but convinces when she explains how a discovered bucket list has now given her a new sense of loving responsibility, now that her husband is gone.  Puglisi's Meredith is more rigid and reserved, but finally comes around to loosening up a bit in a moment of bonding between her character and Adele that was sweetly poignant.  Crouse and Puglisi played well off of each other, along with Eric Dean White as Richie, a flight instructor who works at the airport.  This play had the least amount of heft with not as much going on under the surface, but served as a nice start to the evening with good performances.

Antonio Rodriguez (Marty), Betsy Bowman (April)
and Jan Meyer (Donna).
Photo credit: Stephen Peirick
“The Dock” finds Donna (Jan Meyer) sneaking out of her son's wedding for a few minutes to have a cigarette.  She notices Marty (Antonio Rodriguez) is there too, a childhood friend of her son's.  After he admonishes her about smoking, they have an interesting little conversation.  Marty, facing his thirties and attending his best friend's wedding, is at one of those junctions where you look back at your life fondly and somewhat remorsefully, and wonder about the future warily.  After Donna imparts a little seasoned knowledge about growing older, she goes back inside to join the reception and April (Betsy Bowman), another long-time friend of Marty's comes out on the dock with a half-empty bottle of wine.  In the drawn-out conversation that follows, they examine their lives and share past mistakes -- things they didn't know about each other.  It comes off as a realistic account of their experiences, but is rambling in fashion.  It would be cool to see how April and Marty end up, given the spark between them that seems to take them off-guard, but I also wanted to see more of Donna at some point as well.  It's dialogue heavy, but rings true with good performances from Meyer, Rodriguez and Bowman.

Kate Frisina-White (Carrie) and Nancy Nigh (Sabrina).
Photo credit: Stephen Peirick
“Tangled Mess" kicks off the second act with Carrie (Kate Frisina-White), a hair stylist, returning to the home she once shared with her ex-girlfriend Sabrina (Nancy Nigh), an attorney.  She's coming back for the blender she says she owns, but Sabrina is startled and surprised to learn that Carrie kept a spare key.  We learn that Carrie initiated their break-up, leaving Sabrina to face chemotherapy alone.  Sabrina, wearing a synthetic wig, is angry and hurt, but gives the impression that she misses Carrie as much as Carrie misses her.  Details about their relationship are revealed bit by bit, and after they both share their sides of the story, seeing them end on hopeful terms is rewarding.  Convincing performances from Frisina-White, the more butch of the two, regretful and caring, while Nigh is timid as the slightly aloof, sympathetic Sabrina.  For me it was a sobering commentary about the courage and selflessness it takes to stand by one you love when they are suffering, no matter how painful it may be to you.

Sarajane Alverson (Ava) and Colleen M. Backer (Maggie).
Photo credit: Stephen Peirick
The last piece, “Peeping", has Ava (Sarajane Alverson) visiting her friend Maggie (Colleen M. Backer), who is rattled after being the object of a peeping tom.  Ava, the "Lavern" to Maggie's "Shirley", tries to get her to calm down while waiting for Maggie's husband to come home by passing the time with stories of her past sexual exploits, even though Ava happens to be married.  Maggie seems ill at ease with all of this talk, but once she reveals a thing or two about herself, the tension in the play quickly mounts to a surprising twist at the end.  Alverson and Backer work well together comically, much like they did in Peirick's "Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs", and this was probably my favorite.  White makes a brief appearance in this play at the very end as an expected (by Maggie) and unexpected (by Ava) guest.

It was a great night of theatre with an enlightening talk-back.  I've always enjoyed Peirick's plays in the past, and "Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs" earned him a St. Louis Theater Circle nomination for Outstanding New Play last year, while his short plays have received productions or staged readings in nine states, with "Tangled" being a Winner at the 2013 New Plays from the Heartland in Normal, Il.

Kudos to him, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Cast:
Sarajane Alverson, Colleen M. Backer, Betsy Bowman, Nancy Crouse, Kate Frisina-White, Jan Meyer, Nancy Nigh, Katie Puglisi, Antonio Rodriguez and Eric Dean White.

Creative:
Props and costume design by Keaton Treece; scenic design by Stephen Peirick; stage manager, lighting and sound design by Justin Been.


(Front row) Anna Skidis, Chuck Harper, Maggie Conroy,
(Second row) Mikey Butane Thomas, Greg Fenner, and
(Top) Jeffrey Skoblow.
Photo credit: Valerie Goldston
Next up is…
WHAMMY! THE SEVEN SECRETS TO A SANE SELF • HotCity Theatre

I missed "Whammy!" the first time it came around as part of HotCity's 2011 season.  I had the opportunity to catch it when two benefit performances were presented earlier in August, after the production was invited to participate in the New York International Fringe Festival.  I'm glad I saw it.  There were precious few selections from outside the New York area, so it's pretty cool that "Whammy!" made the cut.

Mikey Butane Thomas, Anna Skidis,
Greg Fenner, Maggie Conroy and Chuck Harper. 
Photo credit: Valerie Goldston
Its creator, Chuck Harper, Associate Director of HotCity Theatre and Asst. Professor of Performance at SIUE, wondered what would happen if you took a wry look at the “self help” business through the lens of Stanley Kramer’s 1964 comic film It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  He ended up with a daring physical theatre piece where five people, “The Quimbies”, are willing to do whatever it takes to improve their lives, deal with their issues and assimilate as normally as they can.  They do this with the help of each other, and Dr. G. -- seemingly there to oversee their endeavors.  He guides them, and us, through the "seven secrets to a sane self" in a series of structured improvisation (this ensemble was not without a copious supply of energy), and seems disheartened with what he sees one moment, and caught up in the shenanigans himself the next.  The play as a whole allows for a wide margin of interpretation, but the "movement activities" of the group, fascinating in themselves to watch, are grounded in a familiar humanity, regardless of how surreal.  Watching the successes and failures of these individuals (sometimes with folding chairs), their interactions with each other (sometimes with rope), all while working their way through issues ranging from sexual addiction to suicide, disclosed through compelling monologues, is like the trippiest group therapy session you could imagine.

Maggie Conroy, Mikey Butane Thomas, Chuck Harper,
Jeffrey Skoblow, Anna Skidis and Greg Fenner.
Photo credit: Valerie Goldston

Is it your typical theatre fare?  Not at all.  But is it engaging?  Well, with a robust selection of music, soundscapes and enthusiastic performances by the cast, I thought so.  It's kind of hard to describe, which is why I'm excited to have a promotional clip for the show here and also included below, featuring the original production and cast (Julie Venegoni, Kate Frisina-White, Mikey Butane Thomas, Chuck Harper, Greg Fenner and Maggie Conroy).  After the initial staging, the show was tweaked a bit with a couple of new actors -- Anna Skidis as one of the Quimbies and Jeffrey Skoblow as Dr. G.

"Whammy!" was well-received in NYC and you can read the NYTheatre.com review by clicking here.  Harper says of the experience, “The Fringe was a gas.  Our audiences were great and the reception was better than I hoped for.  We got back on Sunday night, exhausted, but the best kind of exhausted".

Yay for them!  Here's the clip--



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