Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE SPITFIRE GRILL • Insight Theatre Company

Insight continues its season with a musical based on the 1996 film of the same name -- a folksy, simple little tale of hope, set in rural Wisconsin.

Newly released from prison, Percy (full name, Perchance and played by Sam Auch) is drawn to the small fictional town of Gilead after seeing a photo of their Autumn colors in a magazine. The local Sheriff is Percy's parole officer, a bachelor named Joe Sutter (Pete Winfrey), and he wonders why anyone would want to come to this depressed, broke little town. Gilead may be picturesque in photos, but it's pretty dreary when you live there. The Sheriff helps her get a job at the one restaurant in town, the Spitfire Grill, where Percy meets its surly owner, widow Hannah Ferguson (Janet Wells) who, getting on in years, reluctantly agrees to take Percy on to help out at the diner. Hannah's been trying to sell the grill for years, but there haven't been any takers. Percy and her new buddy Shelby (Jenni Ryan) come up with an idea about raffling off the grill to the person who can write the best essay on why they'd like to own it, which annoys the local busybody, Effy the postmistress, (Amy Loui) and Shelby's asshole husband, Caleb (Troy Turnipseed), once the hundreds of letters start to roll in. A few secrets of the residents come to light over the course of the show, and the musical ends sweetly, though predictably, as the content of these letters, full of hope and heartbreak, spur the townsfolk to reexamine their own outlooks on life.

Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe)
and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Maggie Ryan directs with an even pace, and Auch maintains a strong, understated and reliable center as Percy, and her character's growing relationship with Winfrey's sincerely appealing Sheriff works nicely. Along with Jenni Ryan's amiable and put-upon Shelby, these three, with clear voices, handle James Valcq's score with the most skill. Loui adds a welcome comedic spark to Effy, the nosy town gossip, and Turnipseed is convincing in the domineering role of Caleb who has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Wells is good as the stern Hannah, who harbors her own secrets, and Paul Balfe rounds out the cast as "the visitor". Some standout out numbers include Auch's "A Ring Around the Moon" that opens the show, "Ice and Snow", and the act one closer "Shoot the Moon". The orchestra under Catherine Kopff's musical direction is solid and Kyra Bishop's beautifully authentic scenic design is lit by Jeff Behm, with costume design by Tracy Newcomb and sweet but subtle sound design by Kyle Meadors.

Pete Winfrey (Sheriff Joe Sutter)
and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott).
Photo credit: John Lamb
You've got until tomorrow to check out this unpretentious, homespun musical. As musicals go, "The Spitfire Grill" may be a little on the hokey side, but about halfway through, you almost can't help but find yourself settling into this cozy, slice-of-life story.


THE SPITFIRE GRILL

Book/lyrics by Fred Alley
Music/ book by James Valcq
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave.
through August 31 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson), Troy Turnipseed (Caleb Thorpe)
and Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Sam Auch (Percy Talbott), Janet Wells* (Hannah Ferguson), Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe), Troy Turnipseed (Caleb Thorpe), Pete Winfrey (Sheriff Joe Sutter), Amy Loui* (Effy Krayneck) and Paul Balfe (The Visitor).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Jeff Behm; sound design by Kyle Meadors; costume design by Tracy Newcomb; musical direction by Catherine Kopff; properties by Jacob Wilson; stage manager, Roger Tackette.

Amy Loui (Effy Krayneck)
and Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Orchestra:
Conductor/piano, Catherine Kopff; guitar/mandolin, D. Mike Bauer; cello, Marcia Mann; accordion, Mary Ann Schulte; violin, Adrian Walker.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

MARY SHELLEY MONSTER SHOW • Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Mother Nature's thunderstorms contributed nicely to the mood of Slightly Askew's opening night of "Mary Shelley Monster Show", an original play conceived by SATE's artistic director Rachel Tibbetts, managing director Ellie Schwetye, and written by local playwright Nick Otten.

In 2011, Schwetye and Tibbetts hatched an idea to create a two-woman piece around Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster after watching the National Theatre of London’s production of “Frankenstein” that was being screened at the Tivoli. Driven by a mutual interest in the story, they had a meeting with Otten, associate director for Clayton High School’s theater program, resulting in a narrowing of the focus to the true creator of Frankenstein’s monster -- the novel’s author, Mary Shelley.

Rachel Tibbetts (Mary Shelley)
and Ellie Schwetye (Percy Bysshe Shelley) 
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
During the course of a portrait sitting, the banter between Shelley (Rachel Tibbetts) and her unseen painter (Carl Overly, Jr.) sheds light on Shelley's life and her group of intriguing friends and family -- progressive thinkers, Romantic poets and philosophers. The fascinating origin of her most famous novel is also included, along with dream-like conversations with the unnamed creature of her imagination, where the increasingly probing monster questions his existence, and the relationship between them.

Mary Shelley initially published "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" anonymously in 1818. When her name appeared on the second edition, her initial acclaim was met, by some, with rejection. Under Kelley Weber's direction, Tibbetts’s thoughtfully straightforward portrayal of Mary Shelley shows a glimmer of fiery strength next to softer moments of insecurity, and pairs well with Schwetye, who covers everyone else. From Mary’s future husband, poet Percy Shelley and the spectral visits of her late mother Mary Wollstonecraft, to her saucy stepsister Claire and the notorious Lord Byron, and of course, the shadowy distorted figure of the monster itself, Schwetye, with small variations in Elizabeth Henning's costumes, delivers a clear distinction across almost a dozen characters with shifts in posture and tone. Overly remains offstage but lends his rich voice to the painter Richard Rothwell, who initiates Mary's reflections.

Ellie Schwetye (Monster)
and Rachel Tibbetts (Mary Shelley), 
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
The creative elements of the show are no less impressive. Starting with a quick-fire barrage of Frankenstein images, from the classic to more pop culture, the video design by Michael B. Perkins is projected artfully onto David Blake's stunning set of arch-like shapes that imitate the Chapel where the show is performed. These projections remain a strong complementary presence throughout, helping to establish locations and inform a variety of characters. Bess Moynihan's lighting design and Schwetye's sound design round out the technical contributions to lovely effect.

This hour-long one-act, an engaging examination of creature, creation and creator, also includes some interesting history, and will hold your attention from the time you walk in to the last moments. Don't miss this last show of SATE's "Season of the Monster".


Ellie Schwetye (Mary Wollstonecraft)
and Rachel Tibbetts (Mary Shelley).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
MARY SHELLEY MONSTER SHOW

Written by Nick Otten
Conceived by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts
Directed by Kelley Weber
through August 30 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm

Cast:
Rachel Tibbetts (Mary Shelley), Ellie Schwetye (Mother/Monster and Others) and Carl Overly, Jr. (Painter).

Photo credit: David Blake and Annie Genovese 
Creative:
Scenic design by David Blake; lighting design by Bess Moynihan; video design by Michael B. Perkins; costume design by Elizabeth Henning; sound design by Ellie Schwetye; dramaturge, Kelley Weber; stage manager, Kristin Rion.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

FOUR SUGARS • Stray Dog Theatre New Works Laboratory

A quick shout out to a strong production playing at Tower Grove Abbey. Stray Dog's annual New Works Laboratory is presenting local playwright and actor, Stephen Peirick's latest full-length play, "Four Sugars". Two things -- one, it's only got one more performance, and two, it's free with an opportunity to donate what you'd like. With Peirick's works having been produced in several states from Oregon to Massachusetts, the chance to see a new play in the workshop stage is a treat, and the opportunity to offer feedback after the show with Peirick and the cast is an added bonus.

The play centers around roommates Alyse (Sarajane Alverson) and her gay buddy Travis (Jonathan Elkins), who have been married for three years so Alyse can become a U.S. citizen. The parallels of their evolving relationships outside of their marriage of convenience couldn't be more different. Travis has just met Shawn (Mitch Eagles), a hook-up with potential, while Alyse's three year relationship with Ryan (Aaron Dodd) is producing more commotion than anything else. These altercations are an annoyance to their apartment neighbor, Phil (Jason Meyers).

Sarajane Alverson (Alyse), Aaron Dodd (Ryan),
Jonathan Elkins (Travis), Jason Meyers (Phil)
and Mitch Eagles (Shawn). 
Photo credit: John Lamb
The developments between these individuals nicely balance sharp comedy with a more sober coming-of-age tale of sorts, showcasing Peirick's ear for dialogue, with rapid-fire exchanges and clever juxtapositions in conversation. With Peirick's tight direction, the universally strong cast members make the most of their characters' moments of growth, and play off of each other with great timing. Ken Clark's full set, Peirick and Justin Been's sound design and Tyler Duenow's lights bolster the play -- making it one that will hopefully grace many stages in the future.

Aaron Dodd (Ryan)
and Sarajane Alverson (Alyse).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Check it out if you can! If not, keep an eye out for next year's New Works Laboratory at Stray Dog.

I mentioned it's free, right?


FOUR SUGARS

Written by Stephen Peirick
Directed by Stephen Peirick
Assistant directors, Jeff Kargus and Katie Puglisi
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through August 23 | FREE with RSVP
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Jonathan Elkins (Travis), Sarajane Alverson (Alyse), Mitch Eagles (Shawn), Aaron Dodd (Ryan) and Jason Meyers (Phil).

Jonathan Elkins (Travis) and Mitch Eagles (Shawn).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Creative:
Costume design by Stephen Peirick; scenic design by Ken Clark; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; sound design by Stephen Peirick and Justin Been; stage manager, Justin Been.

Monday, August 4, 2014

QUILLS • Max & Louie Productions

Playwright Doug Wright, whose works include "I Am My Own Wife", "Grey Gardens" and "Hands on a Hardbody", offered audiences a fictionalized depiction of the Marquis de Sade's last years in Charenton, an asylum for the insane outside of Paris, in his 1995 debut of "Quills". It's true that Sade -- his name coining the term "sadism", spent over 2 dozen years of his life in prison for literary works deemed too carnal, violent, blasphemous and politically subversive. Wright's play takes Sade's unrelenting creative spirit as inspiration to look deeper into morality and censorship -- all framed inside a salaciously insightful comedy with sharp dialogue, masterfully directed here by Brooke Edwards -- with robust performances and stylish creative contributions.

David Wassilak (Dr. Royer-Collard)
and Stacie Knock (Renée Pélagie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Dr. Royer-Collard (David Wassilak), the newly assigned chief administrator at the asylum, is determined to raise the standards at Charenton, and the Marquis (Ted Gregory) is proving to be a challenge. Despite being imprisoned there, the Marquis has managed to continue to produce a prolific amount of material from within its walls. Sade's wife, Renée Pélagie (Stacie Knock), wants to shut him down, too. She's tired of being subjected to ridicule and scorn (a hilarious list) from the Parisian elite for her husband's depravity. The asylum director, Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez), welcomes the challenge of the Marquis. Though he's just as disgusted by his pornography, he prefers the therapeutic practices of music and painting to the doctor's preference for thumbscrews and the rack. Pélagie and the doctor strike common ground, and he agrees to quiet Sade's quill, while she agrees to provide funds for the asylum, though Royer-Collard takes a share of these funds to appease his unfaithful wife by building her a magnificent chateau.

Ted Gregory (The Marquis de Sade).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Undaunted by de Coulmier's attempt to keep him from writing, Sade's scandalous stories continue to trickle out to the public. They're being distributed by a young laundress named Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), who likes to read the stories to her blind mother, and trades kisses for pages with Sade. His will to create continues even after de Coulmier strips his cell bare, and their sparring on issues of "morality as a convenience" eventually forces de Coulmier to take more drastic measures at the doctor's request.

David Wassilak (Dr. Royer-Collard)
and Caitlin Mickey (Madeleine Leclerc).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Gregory's dynamic Marquis de Sade recites his dark debauchery with unabashed glee and hurls a variety of terms of endearment to his captors with an increasing bitterness. Great performance. Knock's raspy-voiced melodramatics as Renée Pélagie set the comedic tone of the play, giving life to Wright's marvelous passages. Rodriguez changes the most during the course of "Quills" as the genial but conflicted Abbe de Coulmier, becoming caught up in Sade's savage tales himself. His lively exchanges with Gregory are among the most intriguing. Wassilak's self-serving Dr. Royer-Collard is arrogant, but desperate to keep his wife happy, and Charlie Barron adds a nice dash of comic relief as the foppish architect Monsieur Prouix, along with his role as one of the resident lunatics. Mickey also charms, pulling her weight in dual roles as the innocent Madeleine and the doctor's philandering wife, Madame Royer-Collard.

Dunsi Dai's scenic design of dark concrete is appropriately sparse and nicely appointed, and from the harpsichord music that greets you to the sounds of the inmates relaying Sade's latest work, Amanda Werre's sound design is subtle but effective. Maureen Berry's lighting design includes a projection of lines of manuscript and follows the action with low pools of light, and Cyndi Lohrmann's costume design informs the characters handsomely.

Antonio Rodriguez (Abbe de Coulmier)
and David Wassilak (Dr. Royer-Collard).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This St. Louis premiere illustrates how the issues involving creative freedoms and the shifting parameters of morality are as relevant today as they were in the 1800's with a well-executed production, sure to entertain to its eerily absurd payoff. It's running at the JCC until the 17th. Don't miss this one.


QUILLS

Written by Doug Wright
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through August 17 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Ted Gregory* (The Marquis de Sade), Antonio Rodriguez (Abbe de Coulmier), David Wassilak (Dr. Royer-Collard), Stacie Knock (Renée Pélagie), Caitlin Mickey (Madeleine Leclerc/Madame Royer-Collard) and Charlie Barron (Monsieur Prouix/A Lunatic).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; costume design by Cyndi Lohrmann; lighting design by Maureen Berry; sound design by Amanda Werre; props design by Jenny Smith; dialect coach, Lisa Easton Silverberg; stage manager, Emily Clinger.

Friday, August 1, 2014

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

Part two of the LaBute New Theater Festival, featuring the remaining three finalists, kicked off this past Friday, with Neil LaBute in town for the festivities. This week's crop of plays seemed more polished that last week's, but all of the plays lay out a variety of styles that make this festival a bracing one. You can read about the first group here.

John Doble's "Coffee House, Greenwich Village" takes the awkward first moments of a blind date towards an increasingly menacing trajectory between a couple who met through a magazine ad. Nathan Bush is convincing as a nervously compliant Jack with Ellie Schwetye's Pamela remaining clearly and effectively in charge. Paul Cereghino is deadpan funny as the obnoxious waiter who serves up plenty of snark. Director John Pierson maintains the tone of this dangerous game of "I see that, and raise you this..." perfectly.

Left to Right - Nathan Bush (Jack),
Paul Cereghino (Waiter) and Ellie Schwetye (Pamela).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"The Thing with Feathers", written by Susan Steadman and also directed by John Pierson, takes place in a hospital where a teacher and lover of poetry sits shackled and cuffed to a chair -- arrested after a scuffle he got involved in after defending a gay friend at a bar. He strikes up a conversation with a petulant teen who's roaming the halls, recuperating from a gunshot wound. A brief but responsive chord is struck between these two, and Chopper Leifheit's sensitive portrayal of Aaron was nicely matched with the aloofly veiled curiosity of Mara, well-performed by Caroline Adams.

JJ Strong's comedy "Comeback Special" was a standout for me, and features Leifheit as Elvis Presley in a meeting with Elvis fan, Bonnie (Schwetye), and her boyfriend Jesse (Cereghino). Elvis is "stuck", roaming a floor of his old digs, and meets Bonnie and Jesse after they dare to slip past the velvet ropes at Graceland. Leifheit  gives an engagingly winning performance as Elvis and Schwetye's fan-fueled zeal is well matched with Cereghino's cynical Jesse, yearning to complete their cross-country trip to New Orleans but softening in light of "The King's" predicament, and willing to lend a hand for a proper sendoff.

Left to Right - Caroline Adams (Mara), Chopper Leifeit (Aaron)
and GP Hunsaker (Police).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's neat when you get the opportunity to see a play twice. The overall picture is the same but you catch different hues in the performances, and that was the case with LaBute's “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, that's been running every night of the festival. None of the growing intensity is lost between a meeting between Kip (Reginald Pierre) and Bill (William Roth), but there are new, subtle shades in the performances to appreciate.

Left to Right - Chopper Leifheit (Elvis)  Ellie Schwetye (Bonnie)
and Paul Cereghino (Jesse).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Any festival of new plays will differ -- and while you may like some more than others, the chance to see an offering of new works is always exciting. I'm gonna suggest that you go ahead and make a note on your calendars for next year's festival -- I'm already looking forward to it. You've got until Sunday at the Gaslight Theater to check it out.


LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL II

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” by Neil LaBute • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Reginald Pierre (Kip) and William Roth (Bill).

Finalists (July 11 - 20):

"Rubbas" by Steve Karp, New York, NY • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Reginald Pierre (Tom), B. Weller (Senator) and Emily Baker (Ms. Goldman).

"Little Moscow" by Aleks Merilo, Brooklyn, NY • Directed by Chris Limber
Cast: GP Hunsaker (Tailor).

"I Want to Show You Something" by Jan Henson Dow, Bluffton, SC • Directed by Chris Limber
Cast: Emily Baker (Mrs. Spencer) and Chopper Leifheit* (Dr. Fisher).

"Blue Lagoon" by Thomas Pierce, Seattle, WA • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: B. Weller (Russell) and Jenny Smith (Alice).

Left to Right - Reginald Pierre (Kip), William Roth (Bill).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Finalists (July 25 - August 3):

"Coffee House, Greenwich Village" by John Doble, New York, NY • Directed by John Pierson
Cast: Paul Cereghino (Waiter), Ellie Schwetye (Pamela) and Nathan Bush (Jack).

"The Thing with Feathers" by Susan Steadman, Wilmington, NC • Directed by John Pierson
Cast: Chopper Leifheit* (Aaron), Caroline Adams (Mara) and GP Hunsaker (Police).

"Comeback Special" by JJ Strong, Los Angeles, CA • Directed by Tom Martin
Cast: Paul Cereghino (Jesse), Ellie Schwetye (Bonnie) and Chopper Leifheit* (Elvis).

High School Finalists - Stage Readings • Directed by Aaron Orion Baker (July 26 at 11 am):

"Prosaic Beatings" by Jared Ray McSwain, Stockbridge, GA
Cast: Terry Meddows* (Hal) and Michelle Hand (Audrey).

"Pisces" by Aidan Murphy, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, IL
Cast: Pete Winfrey (Madison) and Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Waverly).

"The Hushed Machine" by Amelia Himebaugh, Lindbergh High School, St. Louis, MO
Cast: Nancy Lewis (Ethel), Terry Meddows* (David), Michelle Hand (Michelle) and Pete Winfrey (Andrew).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through August 3 | tickets$25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Creative:
Scenic design by Patrick Huber; lighting design by Bess Moynihan; sound design by Milton Zoth, Chris Limber, Tom Martin and John Pierson; costume and props design by Carla Landis Evans; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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