Sunday, January 26, 2014

SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS • COCA

"Swallows and Amazons" is being presented as part of a new "COCA Presents" series that focuses on producing more of the Center of Creative Arts' own family-friendly theatre in St. Louis with local talent.  Based on a series of books first published in 1930 by Arthur Ransome and adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, "Swallows" is getting its American premiere right here in town.

When an older Ms. Walker (Taylor Pietz) picks up a feather duster, her memories take her, and us, back to her childhood with her siblings where their playtime adventures on a boat called the Swallow were only limited by their own imaginations.
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
The Walker kids, or the "Swallows" -- Titty (Julia Schweizer), Roger (Michael Harp), John (Braden Phillips) and Susan (Sarah Koo), head off for a night of camping on an island in the lake.  They soon meet the "Amazons" -- Blackett sisters Nancy (Shannon Walsh) and Peggy (Maria Knasel).  These two "tribes" join together to evade pirates, battle barbarians and weather thunderstorms.  It was easy to get caught up in the action -- at one point the audience members were given sheets of paper, or "ammunition", to crumple up and throw at the enemy during the "Battle of Houseboat Bay".

Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Directors Alec Wild and Shanara Gabrielle had some wonderfully talented kids to work with who all gave strong performances, along with support from the adults (Pietz, Pete Winfrey and Steve Isom).  The design elements are as imaginative as the kids' exploits, with sheets and ribbons to represent water, and scenic design by Robert Morgan that evoked the image of the ribs of a ship.  Spot on costume design by Garth Dunbar, Maureen Berry's effective lighting design and an almost constant supply of evocative sound design contributed seamlessly to a fun theatre experience for the kids and the adults.  (You should have seen me hurl that paper!)

Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
This play with music had a short run with one more performance today, but if it's any indication of what this COCA Presents series has in store, there will be many more great things to look forward to.


SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS

Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, based on the book by Arthur Ransome
Songs by Neil Hannon
Directed by Alec Wild and Shanara Gabrielle
through January 26 | tickets: $10 - $14
Performances Saturday at 2pm & 5pm, Sunday at 1pm

Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Cast:
Taylor Pietz (Mom/Old Titty), Pete Winfrey (Mr. Jackson/Policeman/Father), Julia Schweizer (Titty Walker), Michael Harp (Roger Walker), Braden Phillips (John Walker), Sarah Koo (Susan Walker), Steve Isom* (Captain Flint/James Turner), Shannon Walsh (Nancy Blackett), Maria Knasel* (Peggy Blackett) and Reagan Kate Austin (Ensemble/Polly).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Music direction by Neal Richardson; scenic design by Robert Morgan; costume design by Garth Dunbar; lighting design by Maureen Berry; puppet artisan, Maria Ojascastro; props design by Jenny Smith; movement direction by Jef Awada; stage manager, Sarah Luedloff.

Musicians:
Cello, Ethan Edwards; keyboard/percussion/guitar, Steve James Neale; keyboard, Neal Richardson.

Monday, January 20, 2014

THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Arthur Miller is considered one of America's greatest playwrights, giving us "All My Sons", "Death of a Salesman", "An Enemy of the People", "The Crucible", "A View from the Bridge" and "The Price", among many others.  He wrote this play when he was in his seventies, and while the central character of his 1991 comedic drama, Lyman Felt, is a charming, sexually robust, wealthy insurance executive in his fifties, he's also a racist, selfish, arrogant douchebag.  After waking up in a hospital bed, nearly dead from crashing his car on an icy mountain road, Lyman is terrified to hear the news that a "Mrs. Felt" is in the waiting room.  Oh, did I mention? -- he's also a bigamist with currently two possible Mrs. Felts.  That's the premise that kicks off this strong production from St. Louis Actors' Studio that fits nicely within its "Sins of the Father" season.

Lyman (John Pierson) has been living the high-life for quite some time, but his bigamy is laid bare when Theodora (Amy Loui), his conventional, steadfast wife of over thirty years (ahem, long fur coat) meets Leah (Julie Layton), his younger, racier, trophy wife of nine years (ahem, slightly shorter "less expensive" looking fur coat), in the waiting room of Clearhaven Memorial Hospital in Elmira, New York.
John Pierson (Lyman), Julie Layton (Leah),
Taylor Steward (Bessie),
Eric Dean White (Tom) and Amy Loui (Theo).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Along with the inevitable bedside confrontations with each wife, Lyman's heavily medicated mind gives us non-linear flashbacks where we learn how he has been splitting his time between Theo and their daughter Bessie (Taylor Steward) in New York City, and Elmira NY, where he married the saucy work associate he couldn't resist, sowing his wild oats and fathering a son.  The initial vows he made to Leah to divorce his first wife fell by the wayside once Lyman's indulgence urged him to take a crack at having it all, bold enough to even take Leah to New York City right under the nose of Theo and their daughter.  While the wives adjust to what's been going on for so long, the truth also shocks Lyman's longtime friend and lawyer Tom, (Eric Dean White), who tries to keep the bad press that's been generated at bay.  Being a man who believes that "the first rule of life is betrayal", Lyman's self-justifications throughout are predictably, grossly, and comedically boundless.  He's a man incapable of connecting his actions to the emotional harm he's done to the ones he claims to love most, even believing he can actually convince at least one of his wives to take him back.

Julie Layton (Leah), John Pierson (Lyman)
and Amy Loui (Theo).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This play may not reach to the probing depths of "Death of a Salesman" or "The Crucible", but director Bobby Miller and assistant director, Aaron Orion Baker elevate it, keeping the momentum going and striking a good balance among their talented cast.  Insights into the "why" of what Lyman did don't drill too far past his magnificent sense of entitlement, but Pierson is able to make this rather unlikable character interesting to watch.  His bombast is so fully committed that there are times when his convictions almost demand admiration.  As messed up as that is.  Loui and Layton also give fully realized characterizations of the wives.  Loui's Theo is just detached enough to be able to fail to recognize any signs, but gets rewardingly fierce in the second act.  Layton's Leah is optimistically carefree enough to take Lyman at his word, but absolutely heartbroken when she learns that he never got divorced.  White does a good job with the role of Tom, not quite able to wrap his mind around his friend's actions, along with Steward as the unforgiving Bessie and Fannie Lebby as Lyman's nurse, who gets the biggest laugh in the show.

Cristie Johnston's simple scenic design uses different levels of platforms for specific locations with Bess Moynihan's lighting design highlighting the movement of the shifting action on stage and providing thick shadows for Lyman's hospital bed.  Bobby Miller also handles the sound design duties capably, with musical interludes of "You are so beautiful" and "You Made Me Love You", with Teresa Doggett providing the costume design that subtly informs the players.

Check it out for some strong performances, and the chance to see one of Arthur Miller's lesser known plays.  It's onstage until the 2nd.


John Pierson (Lyman) and Fannie Lebby (Nurse).
Photo credit: John Lamb
THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bobby Miller
Asst. Director, Aaron Orion Baker
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through February 2 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
John Pierson* (Lyman), Amy Loui* (Theo) Julie Layton (Leah), Taylor Steward (Bessie), Eric Dean White (Tom) and Fannie Lebby (Nurse).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; lighting design by Bess Moynihan; costume design by Teresa Doggett; sound design by Bobby Miller; props design by Carla Evans; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

OPUS • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

While members of a string quartet may enjoy more autonomy than members of an orchestra, the strong opinions of an intimate group of talented musicians is a ready mixture for conflict.  Michael Hollinger, a violist-turned-playwright, takes a look at the inner-workings of the fictional "Lazara Quartet" in his 2006 play, "Opus", currently receiving a slick production at the Rep.

During a brief introduction to the original members of the quartet -- violinists, Elliot (Joseph O'Neil) and Alan (Greg Jackson), violist Dorian (Matthew Boston) and cellist Carl (Chris Hietikko), the love for the music and their instruments rings true, and their predicament of losing Dorian who has recently disappeared, becomes apparent.  We begin as Grace (Rachael Jenison), an incredibly talented young violist, auditions for Dorian's spot and impresses the group with her sight-reading.  She is offered the job on the spot, but is also considering a job as principal viola at the Pittsburgh Symphony.  She ends up taking the job in the quartet, opting not to be a "slave to the baton",  and though she's excited for the unique opportunity, she's also a little anxious about joining this group -- aware of the notoriously contentious dynamics within quartets in general, and this one in particular.  With a televised appearance at the White House coming up in less than a week, rehearsals begin immediately and it's crucial that Grace learn the music, and gain her footing within the Lazara Quartet quickly.

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot), Chris Hietikko (Carl)
and Greg Jackson (Alan).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The backstory of the ensemble is sketched in with flashbacks, shedding light on the acquisition of the exquisite18th century Pietro Lazara violin and viola that the group was named after, as well as Dorian's departure, allusions to his "history with chemicals", and his relationship with Elliot, the overbearing first violinist and leader of the group.  Grace is given a warm welcome by the divorced, likable but road-weary Alan, who is warned to keep his relationship professional with the young newcomer.  Carl, a family man with a health history of his own, balances Elliot's rougher edges with a tendency towards congenial mediation, until he's pushed.

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot), Greg Jackson (Alan),
Rachael Jenison (Grace) and Chris Hietikko (Carl).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
They decide to perform Beethoven's notably challenging 40 minute Opus 131 -- a piece the ensemble tried, unsuccessfully, to record years earlier.  The pressure of the piece and the growing tension within the group culminates on their big night at the White House.  The evenly paced tempo of the play is shifted into high-gear near the end, and Hollinger 's climax proves to be explosive, if not a little overwrought.

The actors, with the help from members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Eva Kozma, Shannon Farrell Williams and Bjorn Ranheim), mimic their playing adequately (I played the violin for about a year, so…  It’s tricky) and Brendon Fox's direction highlights the consuming love these people have for their art while the personalities of the individual members are clearly drawn.


Matthew Boston (Dorian).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Boston's Dorian, the temperamental musical genius, simmered with unpredictability and O'Neil was equally intense as Elliot.  Hietikko and Jackson provided nice breaks from the angst in the more good-natured roles of Carl and Alan.  Jenison navigates the terrain within her new family carefully as Grace, and is comfortably believable in her role, despite a huge wig that ages her.

James Kronzer's scenic design evokes a concert space vibe with beechwood walls featuring sliding panels that accommodate various locations.  Kronzer and Naf Wayne's projection design provided images of richly beautiful stringed instruments and sheet music, adding some nice eye-candy during the transitions.  Rusty Wandall's sound design engages as it underscores, panning through the house, or standing in as the sound of the musicians "playing", with nice touches also from lighting and costume design, provided by Patricia Collins and Holly Poe Durbin, respectively.

Chris Hietikko (Carl), James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot),
Rachael Jenison (Grace) and Greg Jackson (Alan).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Rep's production is an interesting look into the unique lives of ensemble musicians, and it's a handsome one worth checking out.  It's playing until the 2nd.

OPUS

Written by Michael Hollinger 
Directed by Brendon Fox
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through February 2 | tickets: $20.00 - $76.00
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, selected Wednesdays at 1:30pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

James Joseph O'Neil (Elliot) and Rachael Jenison (Grace).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Cast:
Matthew Boston* (Dorian), Chris Hietikko* (Carl), Greg Jackson* (Alan), Rachael Jenison* (Grace) and James Joseph O'Neil* (Elliot).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by James Kronzer; costume design by Holly Poe Durbin; lighting design by Patricia Collins; sound design by Rusty Wandall; projection design by James Kronzer and Naf Wayne; consulting musicians, Eva Kozma, Shannon Farrell Williams and Bjorn Ranheim; stage manager, Champe Leary; assistant stage manager, Tony Dearing.

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