Sunday, November 17, 2013

PTERODACTYLS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

This 1993 comedy mines the depths of a popular trope -- the dysfunctional family.  But the bite in playwright Nicky Silver's black comedy plunges it into the darkest of places, and it's getting a smart production at St. Louis Actors' Studio.  It starts with a history lesson of sorts presented by Todd Duncan (Nathan Bush).  After laying out an assortment of general misinformation, he talks about the dinosaurs and their extinction.  Then, we get introduced to a new variety of antiques headed for annihilation -- his family.

He has returned to his well-to-do Philadelphia home after five years to inform them that he's contracted AIDS and needs a place to stay.  Todd's sister Emma (Betsy Bowman), plagued with psychosomatic illnesses, is engaged to "Salad City" employee and film geek Tommy (James Slover), after a three week courtship.  When we meet Todd's mother Grace (Penny Kols), she breezes home after shopping in what seems like a whirlwind tour of her own living room.  She maintains the facade of being the matriarch of a relevant family by drinking and planning events.  Her husband Arthur (Whit Reichert), a bank president, appears to have good intentions in his attempt at being a good father, but tends to confuse the memories of his own childhood with that of his childrens'.

Betsy Bowman (Emma Duncan),
James Slover (Tommy McKorckle) and Penny Kols (Grace Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This completely disconnected family is bound together by the fact that everyone is buried under a mountain of denial.  From Todd's uninhibited promiscuity and refusal to believe he's going to die, and the parents' denial of alcoholism, adultery and the disturbingly excessive affection they inflict on their favorite child, to Emma's repression of her abuse.  Even Tommy, folded into the Duncan family mix, denies the fact that though he's engaged to Emma, he's more interested in her brother.  To complete Silver's metaphor with an exclamation point, once Todd comes home he discovers some dinosaur bones buried in the backyard that he decides to reconstruct in the living room.  You wonder what state of decay this slowly vanishing family will be in by the time Todd's dinosaur art project is complete.

Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan) and Whit Reichert (Arthur Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Director Milton Zoth strikes a delicate balance, never losing the play's comedic cadence, even while the material grows bleak.  The cast, strong across the board, is able to elicit laughter with sharp dialogue, whether it's a big belly laugh or an uncomfortable chuckle.  Bush serves as an even-keeled center of the family as Todd.  Though not easy to like, he can appear to be perhaps the most well-adjusted, though he's far from it.  Kols ingrains big-haired, shoulder-pad equipped Grace with a frenetic busyness, trying to lose herself in any project she can find to keep from looking at her life too closely, despite a fondness for her compact mirror.  She gives a highly entertaining performance as a woman on the edge of hysteria.  Reichert's Arthur walks in a constant state of oblivion, floating through his days, insisting that his son likes to be called "Buzz".  At times he seems to almost simmer with desperation, especially near the end.

James Slover (Tommy McKorckle), Penny Kols (Grace Duncan)
and Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Bowman portrays the neurotic and forgetful Emma with comic buoyancy.  Even as she becomes deaf when there are things she can't bear to hear, her comedic moments are underpinned by a deep vein of tragedy.  Slover shines as Tommy, Emma's ticket out of the house, who fits right in with the Duncan clan.  His comic timing is heightened by the sincerity that grounds his character, even though he spends most of the time dressed as the family maid -- dainty uniform and all.  Slover and Bowman play well against each other.  Teresa Doggett is responsible for costuming everyone in 1980's  apparel, with Grace's dated dresses and big hair being a standout, with Patrick Huber  providing scenic and lighting design for the family home, with sound design by Robin Weatherall and props design by Wendy Renée Greenwood.

Pterodactyls is a funny, absurd, unflinching look at an unsustainable American relic that's well worth seeing.  Check it out while you can.


Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
PTERODACTYLS

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Milton Zoth
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through November 24 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Whit Reichert* (Arthur Duncan), Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan), James Slover (Tommy McKorckle), Penny Kols (Grace Duncan and Betsy Bowman (Emma Duncan).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Costume design by Teresa Doggett; props design by Wendy Renée Greenwood; scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Robin Weatherall; fight choreography by Cameron Ulrich; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Monday, November 11, 2013

ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 • Mustard Seed Theatre

This a capella musical documents a true and all too brief period of time during the First World War on Christmas Eve.  At dawn, only months into the war, after hearing and trading carols across the trenches, a German soldier crossed the lines of the Western front into no-man's-land wishing a "Merry Christmas" in native tongues.  Seeing that he was unarmed, British and French soldiers eventually did the same.  They ended up meeting in the middle where they exchanged gifts of puddings and cigarettes, sang songs, played a little soccer, and together buried their dead.

Charlie Barron, Gary Glasgow, Shawn Bowers,
Jason Meyers, Tim Schall, Antonio Rodriguez,
Jeffrey Wright, J. Samuel Davis, Luke Steingruby
and Christopher Hickey.
Photo credit: John Lamb
"All is Calm", originally produced by Cantus vocal ensemble and Theater Latté Da and its artistic director Peter Rothstein, seems more of a musical retelling of history than anything else.  The script is based on the actual letters of men from various regiments, brigades and infantries who lived it.  Along with commentary on the incredible events of that Christmas Eve in 1914, the letters also describe, in vivid detail, the enthusiasm of the young soldiers as they leave for the war, evocative descriptions of their surroundings, the thrill of receiving parcels from home, the devastating loss of friends, and the making of new ones across enemy lines -- if only for a short time.

The songs that range from ballads, traditional folk songs, patriotic songs and Christmas carols include, "Will Ye Go to Flanders?", a Scottish folk song, "Pack up you Troubles", "The Old Barbed Wire", an English traditional song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", a 12th century chant, "Wassail", and over a dozen more.  Twenty-three songs in all are beautifully presented in an intermissionless 60 minutes that fly by.  

Christopher Hickey, Gary Glasgow, Tim Schall,
Jason Meyers, J. Samuel Davis, Luke Steingruby,
Shawn Bowers, Jeffrey Wright, Antonio Rodriguez
and Charlie Barron.
Photo credit: John Lamb
I try not to gush so pointedly over things too much (what?), but with Joe Schoen's musical direction, the pitch-perfect harmonies and meticulously placed ranges of this clarion-voiced group made me have to close my eyes and breathe in deeply after several numbers.  You know what I mean when that happens, right?  Nothing like it.  The ensemble, including Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright, delivers these songs in a manner that is just plain stunning.  It's hard to pick anyone out since these guys make for such a tight ensemble, but Rodriguez deserves a special mention (and the trumpet!  Who knew?) along with Tim Schall.  But again, they were all splendid.

Tim Schall, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers,
Luke Steingruby, Jeffrey Wright and Charlie Barron.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Each member gets an assortment of lines, taking on the role of different soldiers from the letters during the play, and the range of dialects they exhibit were also impressive, with Richard Lewis serving as the dialect coach.  Kyra Bishop's scenic design includes strands of barbed-wire across the stage, boxes, barrels and crates, with the no-man's-land in the middle, and the backdrop view of a muddled, smoky landscape.  Michael Sullivan's lighting design illuminates this background beautifully, providing low suggestive lights, and Jane Sullivan perfectly costumes the men in military garb that unifies them while still differentiating the various ranks.  Deanna Jent's insightful direction is simple enough to let the vocals and stories shine, while drawing clear lines of definition onstage.  Along with the direction, Jent, also the artistic director, made the decision to bring this show to Mustard Seed -- a decision you'll be grateful for.

The soldiers were eventually forced back down into the trenches to re-arm themselves after their actions received strong criticism from high ranking officers.  Nothing like it ever happened again, and WWI ended up claiming the lives of millions. Maybe the weight of those facts is a part of why "All is Calm" is so impactful, along with the humanity that seems inherent during the Holiday season.  And man, those voices…  If the hair on the back of your neck doesn't stand on end, there's something wrong with you.  Ha!  Nah, I'm just kidding.

Kind of...

Go see it.  It's playing until the 24th. 


ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914

By Peter Rothstein
Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach 
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through November 24 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis*, Gary Glasgow*, Christopher Hickey*, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall*, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; music director, Joe Schoen; props manager, Meg Brinkley; dialect coach, Richard Lewis; stage manager, Katie Donnelly.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

FREUD'S LAST SESSION • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Mark St. Germain's 2009 play, inspired by Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr.'s book, The Question of Goddepicts a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud, an atheist, and C. S. Lewis, a former atheist and now devout Christian.  As you can imagine, the play offers a good dose of intellectual banter along with a little humor, including conversations about the concept of God, myth, suffering, sadomasochism and music.  Among other things.

Freud (Barry Mulholland) has invited Lewis (Jim Butz) to his London home to meet him.  Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is curious about how Lewis, a writer and scholar, could compromise his intellect by embracing Christianity.

Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud) and Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
This core question unravels an examination of many topics during the course of their meeting, and though their beliefs are diametrically opposed, they manage to discover common ground and similarities in their formative years as the play unfolds.  It's 1939, and Freud periodically checks the radio as both men listen in to the latest news of the Nazi's invasion of Poland.  Their lively debate is broken up by the occasional air raid sirens that split the air and throw Lewis into a frenzy in search of a gas mask.  The play is also set about three weeks before Freud's death, and though he remains staunch in his arguments, he becomes pitifully debilitated by the increasing pain caused by his oral cancer and the false palate he's forced to wear.

Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
While the dialogue is intriguing, the nature of the play's back-and-forth renders it a low-stakes game with little tension or conflict.  Arguments like this always seem to end at an impasse.  Still, this flaw is overcome by the play's relatively short duration of around 80 minutes, Michael Evan Haney's insightful direction, and the strong performances of Mulholland and Butz, who both wear their characters as comfortably as a tweed blazer.  Freud was pretty obstinate where his opinions were concerned, but Mulholland reveals a fragility in him with not only his failing health, but also when discussing the loss of his family members with brief flares of lightly veiled anger.  Butz gives Lewis an amiable quality, yet still passionately defensive of his beliefs.  While both men hold true to their ideas, they enjoy the verbal sparring, and clearly convey the admiration and respect they have for each other.

Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis)
and Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
Scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack are responsible for the well appointed study of Freud's, adorned with statuettes, masks, and books against dark wood, along with details that hint at the escalating war.  Elizabeth Eisloeffel's costume design gives Lewis a pop of color while keeping Freud more traditional, and James Sale evenly lights the set, inside and out beyond the walls of Freud's study.  Benjamin Marcum's sound design adds nice touches along the way, with the sound of the sirens and the voices on the radio.

This battle of intellectual heavy hitters may not yield a clear "winner", but being able to be a fly on the wall and listen to the contest is a treat.  It's playing at the Rep's Studio Theatre until the 24th.


FREUD'S LAST SESSION

Written by Mark St. Germain
suggested by The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 24 | tickets: $49 - $63
Performances Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud) and Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
Cast:
Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis) and Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud).

Creative:
Scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack; costume design by Elizabeth Eisloeffel; lighting design by James Sale; sound design by Benjamin Marcum; stage manager, Champe Leary.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE WOMAN IN BLACK • Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Stephen Mallatratt's 1987 play was adapted from Susan Hill's book bearing the same name, and it continues Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's "Season of the Monster."  In London where "The Woman in Black" debuted, it still holds the record as the second longest-running non-musical play in the history of the West End, after Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap."  The Chapel's architectural features and intimate theatre space make it a fitting spot for this Victorian-era ghost story that's set in an empty theatre in London.

We begin with Mr. Arthur Kipps (B. Weller) rushing through a passage he's reading from a manuscript.  After being criticized for his horrible delivery, the Actor (Jared Sanz-Agero), steps onto the stage and tries to give Kipps some tips for a better, more emotional performance.  He tells him that if he wishes to perform this piece and keep the attention of the audience, it's going to have to be trimmed down considerably as well.

Jared Sanz-Agero (Actor) and B. Weller (Mr. Kipps).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell of RumZoo Photography
Mr. Kipps has enlisted the help of the actor to assist him with a tale he needs to tell.  His experience during a business trip to an isolated house some 25 years earlier, is one that he hopes to put to rest by reliving it in the retelling, and being rid of it for good.  In an effort to improve Mr. Kipps' performance, they decide to run through the piece.  The actor assures Kipps that the magic of theatre can fill in for the tedious descriptions of this and that, and after being impressed with the effect of pre-recorded sound, Kipps agrees to give it a go.  In the play-within-the-play, the actor portrays the younger Kipps, and Kipps, drawing from his memories, re-enacts a number of characters along the way.

Jared Sanz-Agero (Actor).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell of
RumZoo Photography
Kipps travels to the town of Crythin Gifford to represent the firm he works for at the funeral of a recently deceased client, Mrs. Drablow, and sort through her papers to settle up old business.  She lived alone in a mansion known as the Eel Marsh House that's surrounded by a bog and unreachable when high tide comes in, submerging the one causeway that leads to the house.  Despite suspicious looks from the townsfolk and an unwillingness of just about anyone to take him there, Kipps is determined to finish what he came to do, but his discovery of a child's nursery, the sounds of a phantom pony and trap out in the fog covered marsh, and his encounters with a mysterious apparition of a gaunt woman dressed in black (Shelby Partridge), plus the secrets he learns from old letters of correspondence, fill him, and us, with growing terror.

Weller deftly navigates various roles, blossoming as the mildly boring Mr. Kipps comes to inhabit a variety of local townspeople.  Weller individualizes his characterizations with his posture, the way he sets his face and an assortment of distinctly different dialects.  Sanz-Agero also turns in a fine performance as the confident actor and the younger Mr. Kipps, his expressions filling us with an infectious dread.  They both shoulder the weight of the play wonderfully.  Though Partridge doesn't have any lines, she will spook you out with her random appearances.  She scared me.  Get an aisle seat.  ;)

B. Weller (Mr. Kipps).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell of
RumZoo Photography
Director Rachel Tibbetts keeps the action moving at an engaging clip, makes good use of the space, and turns a few pieces of furniture from Bess Moynihan's scenic design into a pony and trap, a work-desk, or the inside of a train.  Moynihan's set also features creepy sheet covered furniture and her lighting design offers long shadows and spooky silhouettes.  Ellie Schwetye provides the sound design that helps carry much of the story with street noises, horses, and an altogether eerie atmospheric soundscape.  Elizabeth Henning's costume design provides a nice touch and kudos also to dialect coach, Pamela Reckamp.

As the weather gets chillier, this well-executed old-fashioned ghost story, also equipped with a great twist at the end, couldn't come at a better time.  Go see it -- it's playing until the 9th.


THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Written by Susan Hill
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
through November 9 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Jared Sanz-Agero (Actor), B. Weller (Mr. Kipps) and Shelby Partridge (Jennet Humfrye).

Creative:
Scenic and lighting design by Bess Moynihan; sound design by Ellie Schwetye; costume design by Elizabeth Henning; dialect coach, Pamela Reckamp; stage manager, Mollie Amburgey.

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