Tuesday, May 28, 2013

AN ILIAD • Upstream Theater

Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare adapted An Iliad from Homer's epic poem, The Iliad, but the director's notes mention that the two shouldn't be confused.  In this powerful production from Upstream Theater, and under Patrick Siler's excellent direction, the retelling of this ancient story of the Trojan War is told with a contemporary voice that mourns the losses, cheers the heroics, curses the gods and wonders if man will ever evolve beyond the cycle of ruthless, bloody conflict.
  
After walking down the aisle and up onto the stage, The Poet (a remarkable Jerry Vogel) puts down his suitcase, opens a wooden box, takes out a couple of candles and incense, and asks for inspiration from the Muses, and his accompanying musician (Farshid Soltanshahi), to give him the strength to tell his tale.  He says he's been telling it for ages.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
"What makes men fight with such rage?", he asks.  According to him, the gods do.  Whether for sport or spite, only the gods could be responsible for a decade long war that started because someone's wife was kidnapped.  Our storyteller, who occasionally steps in to vividly play the roles of various characters, begins to give us his account of the legendary stories of the Greek warrior Achilles and his magnificent shield, Hector the Trojan prince, Paris, Helen, and the fickle gods and goddesses who intervene to protect the favored and hinder the unfavored.  Though the poem has been greatly whittled down, lines from the original text are scattered here and there, but our Poet narrates the stories within a modern context, conversational in tone, and with a deeply personal perspective.  He compares bone-weary troops and their steadfast refusal to give up after years of hopeless battle, to standing in a supermarket line for 20 minutes, even when a new register opens up.  You've waited this long, if you switch lines now you will have just wasted your time.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Pouring himself shots throughout, The Poet's descriptions of everything from the vision of hundreds of Greek ships filled with countless young men, to the grief stricken Priam and his quest for the body of his son, draw contemporary parallels often pointing to the seemingly inevitable inclination of men towards rage, whether on a battlefield, or behind the wheel of a car.  At one point, The Poet recites significant battles from Troy up to the current conflicts of Iraq and Syria.  It's a dizzying list, and The Poet drenches the names of each of these wars in heartbreak.  He admits to us that every time he sings this song, he hopes it’s the last time.

Vogel is exceptional as The Poet.  During the course of the 90 or so minutes (with no intermission), he relates intimately to the audience, roaming down the aisles, sometimes posing questions to us, making eye-contact with us, yet he fills the climatic moments of the story with fury, the descriptions of littered battlefields with sadness, and the beauty of Troy before the war with reverence -- fluidly and without any pretension.  Patrick Huber's scenic design was minimal and effective with a desk and chair, blackboard, a box, and wall hangings depicting battle scenes from the war.  Joseph W. Clapper's dynamic lighting design was beautiful and ominous, dramatically shifting in color and intensity with the mood, and the wonderful accompanying music by Soltanshahi also contributed a great deal, adding a dramatic underscore to the telling.

Jerry Vogel (The Poet).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Whether you're familiar with "The Iliad" or not, The Poet's story is one worth hearing, with questions worth pondering, in a production worth seeing.  It's playing until the 9th.


AN ILIAD

Adapted by Lisa Peterson & Denis O'Hare
Translated by Robert Fagles
Directed by Patrick Siler
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through June 9 | tickets: $20 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, final Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Jerry Vogel* (The Poet).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Patrick Huber; lighting design by Joseph W. Clapper; costume design by Katie Donovan; stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

Composer and musician, Farshid Soltanshahi.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

MRS. MANNERLY • Max & Louie Productions

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's two-actor, one-act play was inspired by memories of an etiquette class he took as a child.  You get a taste of that right off the top during the pre-show announcement as Mrs. Mannerly advises us to mind our P’s and Q’s.

The play centers around Jeffrey (Charlie Ingram) reliving his time spent with Helen Anderson Kirk, better known as, "Mrs. Mannerly" (Donna Weinsting) in 1967.  For over thirty years she'd been running her locally acclaimed classes to try and restore some sense of decorum to the young residents of Steubenville, Ohio.  Jeffrey was never the athletic type.  He says that while other kids had play clothes, he had "reading clothes".  He loved "Ironside", "F-Troop" and wanted to be Bert Parks, and he was also innately polite.  He was admitted into Mrs. Mannerly’s manners class and while he may not have been thrilled about it at first, he was hungry for an opportunity to engage in anything where he could excel.  In addition to playing an adult and 10 year old Jeffrey, Ingram also portrays his fellow classmates -- ass-kissing Charles, runny-nosed Ralph, and two female students, Jaime and Kim.  In these classes, held in a second floor gym of the YMCA, Emily Post's etiquette book was the bible, good posture was a must, and any student who said "what" instead of, "I beg your pardon" was fined 25 cents.  The language of the kids does stray off into the profane, especially when imitating their families' typical dinner conversation.  Though she may be devoted to the development of social graces, Mrs. Mannerly also manages to elicit laughter with her unexpectedly salty one-liners.

Charlie Ingram (Jeffrey) and
Donna Weinsting (Mrs. Mannerly).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Once Jeffrey's competitive impulse starts to kick in, and his fellow students are either kicked out or drop out of the class one by one, he becomes determined to be the first student ever to score a perfect 100% on his final exam, and he and Mrs. Mannerly form a unique friendship.  He also learns that Mrs. Mannerly is not without her secrets -- there's more under the surface than she lets on.  Once young Master Jeffrey catches Mrs. Mannerly in a lie about her past, he becomes bent on discovering why she denies her mysterious time spent in Chicago before she came to Steubenville.  Everything culminates at the exam, where Jeffrey must not only answer all 100 questions correctly, execute a perfect table setting and walk with a book on his head, he also finds himself with some choices to weigh.

Charlie Ingram (Jeffrey) and
Donna Weinsting (Mrs. Mannerly).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In addition to playing Jeffrey and the students, Ingram also plays Patsy, a nineteen year old whom Mrs. Mannerly has picked to be his partner in the dance portion of the exam, and Mr. Krosky of the Thespian Society, a theatre queen who helps Jeffrey uncover a little information about Mrs. Mannerly.  Ingram gives each of his aptly defined characters enough distinction to be able to keep track of everyone easily, and makes the most of their individual quirks.  Weinsting's Mrs. Mannerly can be strict and imposing, but reveals herself more in her funny moments, particularly when she winds up with Master Jeffrey at the hotel bar where she spends many of her evenings.  She's a somewhat sympathetic character, and Weinsting is able to touch on all of those bases with her usual flair, although a few line flubs from both actors on opening night threatened to be too distracting.  Maureen Berry's lights shifted between the narration and the flashbacks and the costumes were designed by Sara Wiegard with scenic design by Christopher M. Waller.

Whether you miss the diminishing art of civility or not, under David Hemsley Caldwell's direction and the chemistry that Ingram and Weinsting provide, this play will give you plenty of laughs.


MRS. MANNERLY

Written by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by David Hemsley Caldwell 
through June 2 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Donna Weinsting (Mrs. Mannerly) and Charlie Ingram (Jeffrey).

Creative:
Lighting design by Maureen Berry; costume design by Sara Wiegard; sound design by Amanda Werre; scenic design by Christopher M. Waller; stage manager, Holly Marie Hunter.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TALKING HEADS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Talking Heads was originally a series of several monologues, written by British playwright Alan Bennett, for the BBC beginning in 1988.  The series was adapted for the stage in 1991 and premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex, England.  The selected monologues for this engrossing presentation by STLAS include, "Nights in the Gardens of Spain", "A Chip in the Sugar", and "Bed Among the Lentils".  This trio of monologues, while laced with humor, also share common threads of repression and isolation.

"Nights in the Gardens of Spain" features Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Rosemary, a gardening enthusiast who immediately sucks us in as she relates the events surrounding a shooting that took place in her quiet suburb.  The murderer was her neighbor, Fran, who shot her abusive husband.  Stuck in a passionless marriage with a man who ignores her, Rosemary becomes friends with Fran, and confides in us the story of Fran's trial, conviction, and prison time, where she visited her as often as she could.  While Rosemary's husband's primary concern is his determination to move them both to Spain, Rosemary and Fran's friendship deepens, and Rosemary learns more about the truth of Fran's marriage, as well as the proclivities of her own husband.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend (Rosemary).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"A Chip in the Sugar", introduces us to Graham Whittaker (Alan Knoll), a middle-aged bachelor with some mental health issues who is living with and dependent upon his forgetful elderly mother.  His comfortable cohabitation is threatened when his mom runs into an old flame called Mr. Frank Turnbull.  Graham dislikes him immediately.  When Mr. Turnbull starts taking Graham's mother out on dates, and eventually proposes marriage, suggesting that Graham move out into a hostel, Graham is completely inconsolable.  His devotion to his mom is sincere, but without her to fuss over, and no distractions to keep him from examining his own longings, Graham is adrift, until he finds out a little dirt about Mr. Turnbull that returns his world back to normal.

Alan Knoll (Graham Whittaker).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In the last act of the evening, Susan (Glynis Bell) lets us in on life as a vicar's wife in "Bed Among the Lentils".  She resents being referred to as "Mrs. Vicar", and the associated duties that come along with the title.  She's also annoyed with the female busybodies of the church who fawn over her husband.  She calls them, "the fan club".  But she does like her sherry.  Her debt at the local market drives her to an off-licence shop to buy her alcohol run by a young beautiful Asian man called Ramesh.  He's married, but his wife is not permitted to join him in England because she is under 16.  Well, Susan finds solace in more than just the sherry she purchases from him -- she also finds it in his bed, where she finally experiences passion and physical pleasure.

Glynis Bell (Susan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Bennett's portraits are keenly drawn.  Narratives about the everyday slowly get peeled away to reveal each character's damage.  Although there is a definite pattern to the monologues, director, Lana Pepper (also responsible for the straightforward costume design), picked a nice combination for the evening.  They play out on an uncomplicated and unobtrusive set, courtesy of Cristie Johnston, with low, evocative lighting by Jonathan Zelezniak.  These monologues fit well in the intimate space of the Gaslight Theater, but for the actors, who are well up to the task, there's nowhere to hide.

As Rosemary, Townsend alternates from the highs of a growing friendship to the lows of her discoveries and a stinging indifference by the end to great affect.  Even as Knoll makes us laugh at Graham's arrogant attitudes toward this "common" intruder who challenges his relationship with his mom, there is also a desolation in his face that tugs at you.  Bell probably has the most humor to be had from her piece, and she mines every nugget of it, though her story is also one of despair and longing.

It's a wonderfully satisfying night of theatre with excellent performances that shouldn't be missed.  This special two week engagement is only playing until the 26th.


TALKING HEADS

Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Lana Pepper
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through May 26 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Elizabeth Ann Townsend* (Rosemary), Alan Knoll* (Graham Whittaker) and Glynis Bell* (Susan).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak; costume design by Lana Pepper; sound design by Milton Zoth; stage manager, Sarah Lynne Holt.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

SHLEMIEL THE FIRST • New Jewish Theatre

NJT's final show of its season is unique.  It's a musical adaptation of Isaac B. Singer's Chelm stories -- traditional, typically self-deprecating Jewish folk tales that involve foolish wisdom, where problems are solved the long way around with ill-conceived logic.  In Shlemiel the First, these tales are set to the tuneful, spirited, instantly recognizable klezmer music of Eastern European Jews.

Naturally, the story takes place in Chelm, a town believed to be occupied by fools.  It begins with Shlemiel (Terry Meddows) dozing away, while his wife, Tryna Ritza (Emily Baker), tries to wake him up.  She's got to get a move on to get out and sell her radishes, which brings in more for the family than Shlemiel's job as a beadle does.  In a number called, "We're Talking Chelm", the six wise men of the town (well, three people and three sock-puppets played by Mike Dowdy, Anna Skidis and Keith Thompson) exalt their brand of wisdom, while being guided by their leader, Gronam Ox (Todd Schaefer).  There's also Gronam's wife, Yenta Pesha (Johanna Elkana-Hale), who bemoans the fact that her blintzes aren't doing it for him anymore in a great turn by Elkana-Hale called, “Yenta’s Blintzes”.  Gronam has the idea, with the help of his wise men, to send Shlemiel out into the countryside to spread word of his esteem.  Mrs. Shlemiel comes to realize that she will miss him while he's gone, as will his children, Gittel and Mottel (Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy), but determined, and armed with his trusty dreidel, (adorned on one end with a radish), Shlemiel heads off.

Anna Skidis, Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox),
Johanna Elkana-Hale (Yenta Pesha) and Keith Thompson.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Along the way he meets Rascal (Antonio Rodriguez), who easily tricks him for one of Shlemiel's latkes, and then robs him.  More mischief from Rascal leads Shlemiel in the wrong direction back towards his home, but Shlemiel thinks he's traveling onward.  Once he returns to Chelm, he is convinced that there must be 2 Chelms.  His family thinks he's nuts, but his wife, so happy to see him back safely, welcomes him warmly.  Now Shlemiel is REALLY convinced he's in some alternate Chelm.  He feels horribly guilty for his attraction to this "Mrs. Shlemiel number 2", but before things get straightened out, things that had become lost are regained, and Shlemiel rediscovers himself, providing plenty of silliness along the way.

Terry Meddows (Shlemiel) and
Antonio Rodriguez (Rascal).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This play stretches credibility no doubt, and as opposed to reading Singer's tales, seeing them onstage further magnifies the absurdity, but this challenge is met head-on by the cast and crew.  Edward Coffield's keen direction makes for a lively, albeit far-fetched romp that's brimming with a top-notch cast who all display great comic timing.  Meddows, with an innocent expression and a good voice, is appealing in the title role of the dimwitted Shlemiel.  Baker as his wife, most likely the smartest person in town, plays a level-headed but amusing Mrs. Shlemiel,  grounded and sincere in her frustration with, and love for her husband.  Elkana-Hale's got a powerful voice and is very funny as Yenta Pesha, Gronam's wife, and Schaefer practically steals the show as Gronam, playing the most foolish with energetic flair.  Rodriguez, in addition to occasionally playing a wise man, is a charming and wily Rascal, and Pietz and Dowdy turn in entertaining performances as the kids, as well the local womenfolk -- where Dowdy is absolutely hilarious.  He also plays one of the wise men, along with Thompson and Skidis -- who gets to show off her vocal prowess in the second act.

Antonio Rodriguez, Terry Meddows (Shlemiel)
and Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Margery and Peter Spack's rustic, storybook set makes a brilliant impression right as you walk in.  It exists on a platform of horizontal books, with a map and an arrow pointing to Chelm.  There are also books scattered vertically through the set with titles like, "Tales of Chelm", A Tale of 2 Chelms", and even "Game of Chelms".  Ha!  The musicians are perched in a neat little platform alongside the action, and there are a couple of set pieces in the back that rotate when Shlemiel is on his travels.  Michele Friedman Siler provides the wonderful costume design, with lighting design provided by Kimberly Klearman.  Under the musical direction of Henry Palkes, the quartet hits the traditional klezmer-styled music of Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek on the head.  The proceedings are also punched up with JT Ricroft's clever choreography.

It's playing at the New Jewish Theatre until the 9th.


SHLEMIEL THE FIRST

Written by Robert Brustein adapted from Isaac B. Singer
Lyrics by Arnold Weinstein 
Music by Hankus Netsky with additional music by Zalmen Mlotek
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through June 9 | tickets: $35.00 - $39.00
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Cast:
Terry Meddows* (Shlemiel), Emily Baker (Mrs. Shlemiel), Todd Schaefer (Gronam Ox), Johanna Elkana-Hale (Yenta Pesha), Taylor Pietz (Gittel/other citizens of Chelm), Mike Dowdy (Mottel/Sender/other citizens of Chelm), Antonio Rodriguez (Tippish/Rascal/other citizens of Chelm), Anna Skidis (Dopey/Zeinvel/other citizens of Chelm) and Keith Thompson (Moishe/Mendel/other citizens of Chelm).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Margery and Peter Spack; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; choreography by JT Ricroft; dance captain, Taylor Pietz; stage manager, Kate Koch.

Musicians:
Music director, Henry Palkes; violin, Alyssa Avery; clarinet, Dana Hotle; Bass, Adam Anello.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

MAPLE AND VINE • HotCity Theatre

Contemporary life can be smothering sometimes, right?  With many of us spending our days tethered to our cellphones and laptops, wouldn't it be nice to live during a time where we weren't bombarded with constant stimulation?  Or would it?  HotCity explores these possibilities in its current offering, Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine.

It's night as the lights come up on Katha (Shanara Gabrielle) and Ryu's (Alan C. David) NYC apartment.  Katha can't sleep.  Not only do they have noisy, inconsiderate neighbors, but Katha can't seem to get work out of her head.  She's completely burned out at her publishing job, and the everyday grind is complicated by the fact that she's having a difficult time dealing with a miscarriage she suffered six months earlier.  Her husband makes a nice living as a plastic surgeon, but Ryu's long hours at work have become unfulfilling for him as well.  One day, after impulsively quitting her job, Katha meets a man named Dean (Chad Morris).  He's unassumingly debonair in his suit, tie and hat, and has a friendliness about him that strikes Katha as a little unusual.

Shanara Gabrielle (Katha) and Alan C. David (Ryu).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Dean, after an inquiry about directions and a small bit of conversation, feels comfortable enough to tell her about a place where she and her husband could live in a simpler time, free of the digital overloads of the 21st century.  He, along with his wife Ellen (Michelle Hand), who looks like she's stepped right out of an episode of "Ozzie and Harriet", are members of a group of reenactors, you might say.  The "Society of Dynamic Obsolescence".  This group painstakingly re-enact life from 1955, and Dean is a recruiter.  They have pamphlets and everything!

Chad Morris (Dean) and Michelle Hand (Ellen).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
After a bit of coaxing, Katha convinces Ryu to give this gated community a shot and take Dean up on the trial period.  With guidance from Ellen, Katha (now called "Kathy") rids herself of anything post 1955.  Bye-bye poly-blends. And Grey Goose vodka.  And sushi and lattes.  It's Salisbury steak, crab puffs and Sanka time!  Even though Kathy and Ryu do feel the need to set up a code word to say to each other when they have to talk about the world outside, Kathy takes to her life as a homemaker wholeheartedly.  She's empowered by the simple pleasures of making chicken stock on her own and keeping a nice house.  Ryu has a harder time settling into his new job assembling boxes under the supervision of his bigoted boss, Roger (Robby Suozzi).  Life in the 50's couldn't be easy for a Japanese American, and Ryu and Kathy couldn't avoid awkward glances as a "mixed race" couple during those times.  The fact that certain attitudes, regardless of the era, contain the same complications and taboos come to light as the play unfolds.  We learn that Dean and Roger have their own skeletons, and Ellen has become quite adept at hiding her own personal pains.

Shanara Gabrielle (Katha), Michelle Hand (Ellen),
Chad Morris (Dean) and Alan C. David (Ryu).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Under Doug Finlayson's attentive direction, this play entertains and leaves you with things to think and talk about on the way home.  Gabrielle is magnetic as the frustrated exec. turned homemaker and Morris is the epitome of "dapper" as the impossibly neat Dean.  Hand delivers a delicately layered Ellen, and David capably handles his role as Ryu.  Suozzi turns in great performances as Roger, and Katha's ladder climbing co-worker, Omar.

Creative sound effects (Rusty Wandall) and lighting (Michael Sullivan) added to the surreal quality of the dream scenes, and the costumes (JC Krajicek) were great fun.  The set (Sean Savoie) nicely accommodates a contemporary minimal apartment, an office, and retro 1950's surroundings.  HotCity, by the way, is auctioning off a few of the vintage furniture!  You get more information about that in your program.

Check it out!  It's playing until the 18th.


Shanara Gabrielle (Katha) and Alan C. David (Ryu).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
MAPLE AND VINE

Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through May 18 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Shanara Gabrielle* (Katha), Alan C. David (Ryu), Michelle Hand (Ellen/Jenna), Chad Morris (Dean) and Robby Suozzi (Roger/Omar).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Sean Savoie; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; sound design by Rusty Wandall; costume design by JC Krajicek; dramaturg, Gad Guterman; stage manager, Richard Agnew.

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