Saturday, February 22, 2014

LOVERS • West End Players Guild

Brian Friel's 1967 play takes a look at the prospects of love with two different couples. There's one young couple anticipating their future, and one older couple, navigating the realities of theirs.

After being greeted by jaunty Irish tunes courtesy of Jessie Evans on the accordion and Sean Belt on the guitar, things kick off with the first act, titled "Winners", featuring two teenagers preparing for their final exams. Mag (Betsy Bowman) and her boyfriend, Joe (John Lampe), aren't able to return to their school because of Mag's unplanned pregnancy. Joe has just secured their new home, overlooking the neighborhood slaughterhouse, so while Mag chatters on about her passionately fancied future with Joe, (and about a million other things), the bookish, academic Joe tries to settle into his studies so he can better his chances of providing a reasonable living for his new family.


John Lampe (Joe) and Betsy Bowman (Mag).
Photo credit: John Lamb
At intervals, their day on the hilltop that overlooks the town of Ballymore is interrupted when the lights come up on two narrators named "Man" (Steve Callahan) and "Woman" (Kristy Wehrle). They matter-of-factly read from scripts that provide a little backstory about the respective households of these youngsters, and the events of the couple's future -- engaging, and sobering.

The second act, titled "Losers", introduces Andy (Colin Nichols) and Hanna (Theresa Masters). Andy, who opens the act telling us what he "should have done", is daydreaming through a pair of binoculars in the backyard -- a pastime he's become fond of lately. Andy and Hanna found each other later in life, but they've always had Hanna's bedridden mother Mrs. Wilson (Suzanne Greenwald) and her friend Cissy (Liz Hopefl) to contend with. Courtship proves a challenge when there's constant bell-ringing coming from upstairs, along with regular "mini masses" for praying to Saint Philomena to attend. While this act is not without its own gravity, it provides some much needed levity, in spite of the gray cloud that's displayed on the set -- opposed to the first act's bright sun.

Theresa Masters (Hanna Wilson-Tracey)
and Colin Nichols (Andy Tracey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Both acts threaten to go overlong at times, but under Jan Meyer's proficient direction, the cast and creatives provide an engaging evening of Irish melancholy. Bowman is saddled with the toughest challenge, but she pulls off Mag's almost nonstop prattling with endearing assurance. Lampe's Joe is more subdued, naturally. I mean, he can barely get a word in! But his boyish enthusiasm is charming and plays nicely off of Mag, with Callahan and Wehrle serving as trustworthy narrators. Nichols and Masters as Andy and Hanna convince as they struggle to court each other despite the demands from the bell. Greenwald, the ringer of that bell, along with Hopefl as her partner in prayer, give humorously authentic performances as Mrs. Wilson and Cissy. Destiny Graham's set includes the modest hilltop for the first act, and the living area and the upstairs bedroom for the second, all complemented by Renee Sevier-Monsey's costumes, Rebeca Davidson's props and Tony Anselmo's lighting design.

Theresa Masters (Hanna Wilson-Tracey),
Suzanne Greenwald (Mrs. Wilson), Liz Hopefl (Cissy Cassidy)
and Colin Nichols (Andy Tracey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It wouldn't be fair to give too many plot details for either act, but while the play itself is a little uneven, it includes its share of bright spots with solid performances throughout. Plus, I love hearing an Irish brogue. It's only up till this weekend. 


LOVERS

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Jan Meyer
Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
through February 23 | tickets: $20
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

John Lampe (Joe) and Betsy Bowman (Mag).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
John Lampe (Joe), Betsy Bowman (Mag),  Steve Callahan (Man), Kristy Wehrle (Woman), Colin Nichols (Andy Tracey), Theresa Masters (Hanna Wilson-Tracey), Suzanne Greenwald (Mrs. Wilson) and Liz Hopefl (Cissy Cassidy).

Creative:
Scenic design by Destiny Graham; lighting design by Tony Anselmo; costume design by Renee Sevier-Monsey; props design by Rebeca Davidson; stage manager, Danny Austin.

Musicians:
Button accordion, Jessie Evans; guitar, Sean Belt.

Monday, February 10, 2014

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog's production of Douglas Carter Beane's Tony-award winning, sharp-tongued comedy about the closeted foibles of the showbiz industry, is the perfect thing to knock off the chill of this frosty St. Louis winter.

Diane (Sarajane Alverson), is a Hollywood agent whose ambition is only matched possibly by her problem solving abilities. As she reels us in immediately with a monologue that acclimates us to a Hollywood headspace and introduces us to her most promising client, we learn that rising star, Mitchell Green (Bradley J. Behrmann), is on the brink of cash cow potential. Diane's eyes are firmly fixed on purchasing the film rights of a hot new play -- the perfect star vehicle for Mitchell. The one thing that threatens to derail Diane's plans is Mitchell's "recurring case of homosexuality". Even though she's a lesbian herself, when she finds him and a young hustler he initially ordered in a drunken stupor named Alex (Paul Cereghino) together, she is determined to keep this as far from the press as possible, lest Mitchell lose his potential matinee idol status, and her upward mobility vanishes in a poof of smoke. Mitchell enjoys his time with Alex, though he's not ready to come to grips with his sexuality, and neither is Alex for that matter. Alex has a "sometimes" girlfriend named Ellen (Paige Hackworth) whose chatter when we first meet her makes it clear that she truly deserves her own Bravo reality show.

Paul Cereghino (Alex)
and Bradley J. Behrmann (Mitchell Green).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Just as the relationship between Alex and Mitchell grows and threatens to turn into something substantial, further developments come along that put the golden goose at risk.

Gary F. Bell's direction keeps the pace high and the laughs coming through Beane's rhythmic, rapid-fire dialogue. Before any role had been cast, when I first read that Stray Dog was going to stage this play I immediately thought, "Cool. Okay so Sarajane Alverson, right?" Sure enough, she shines brightly as Diane. Yes, Diane gets the best lines, but Alverson makes those lines pay off, bringing Beane's words to life, crackling and snapping with wit and style. Behrmann's Mitchell plays well off of his scheming agent, particularly during a scene where they're meeting with the playwright, and he's heartfelt coming to terms with himself, while Cereghino's Alex has his own issues to face, and is convincingly sincere in his scenes with Mitchell.

Bradley J. Behrmann (Mitchell Green)
and Sarajane Alverson (Diane).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Hackworth settles into her role as Ellen a little later on, but rounds out the cast nicely. Rob Lippert's scenic design makes good use of the space, putting a big ole bed front and center with panels and multi-leveled platforms on either side that highlight the monologues. There's also original artwork featured on the walls by Gary L. Karasek that will be available for purchase after the show's run. Tyler Duenow's lights direct our attention to the action nicely, with costumes by Gary F. Bell.

A lot has changed since Beane wrote this play in 2006. Several states have legalized gay marriage and many stars have come out of the closet to cheers instead of jeers, but homosexuality is still taboo, and the crispness of this play has lost none of its oomph over the past several years. The title is taken from the nursery rhyme, "Hey Diddle Diddle", but the play is adults only. So leave the kids at home and check it out for some great laughs. It's playing until the 22nd.


Sarajane Alverson (Diane)
and Paige Hackworth (Ellen).
Photo credit: John Lamb
THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED

Written by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through February 22 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturday, February 22 at 2pm

Cast:
Sarajane Alverson (Diane), Bradley J. Behrmann (Mitchell), Paul Cereghino (Alex) and Paige Hackworth (Ellen).

Creative:
Scenic design by Rob Lippert; costume design by Gary F. Bell; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; property design by Gary F. Bell, Justin Been and Jay V. Hall; stage manager, Justin Been.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

FORGET ME NOT • Upstream Theater

Artistic director Philip Boehm has carved out a unique niche for Upstream Theater, finding and producing moving and thought-provoking plays from all over the world. This eloquently potent U.S. debut is no exception, and was greeted with a sold-out house on opening night.

Child migration, the appalling practice of rounding up children and shipping them off to different regions, was undertaken by several countries for varying bureaucratic motivations for decades. These kids where often told that they were orphans when they were not, and led to believe that they were going to start promising new lives with loving families, but in reality faced harsh conditions in brutal work camps.

Jerry Vogel (Gerry).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Gerry (Jerry Vogel) was transported from his working-class home in England to Australia when he was four years old, and has hardly any recollection of life with his single mother Mary (Donna Weinsting). He's now a fifty-something year old widower, and his shaken identity and unstable roots have left him with psychological bruises, social ineptness, and a serious drinking problem. His devoted daughter Sally (Maggie Conroy) struggles to understand him and forgive his hurtful behavior, having to resort to locking him up in the house during the day when she's at work. She hopes that Mark (Terry Meddows), a social worker from a family restoration organization, can help reunite Gerry with his mother in Liverpool. Mary hasn't had an easy time of it either. Still living in the same house for most of her life, she clings to the hope that her boy, then called George, taken without her consent, has been given a good life with a good family.

Philip Boehm directs this play perfectly, though playwright Tom Holloway's already forceful drama throws the audience off-balance with heart-breaking twists in the second act. Still, the cast, each achieving the full depths of their roles, make this play very, very moving. I began to harbor a secret crush on Vogel when I last saw him in Upstream's "An Iliad", and he is once again remarkable here as Gerry.
Jerry Vogel (Gerry) and Donna Weinsting (Mary).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
A product of an environment where the needs and welfare of the children were ignored, Vogel is as volatile as he is sympathetically pitiful -- uncomfortably awkward in the initial meetings with Mary, becoming overwhelmed with the choice of which chair to sit in, and contentious and threatening in his interactions with the social worker -- able to convey volumes without saying a word. Weinsting is outstanding in the role of Mary. She provides welcome laughs laced with a lingering sadness in her scenes with Mark, and is affecting in the disconnectedly anxious, lopsided memories she shares with Gerry. Conroy takes her father to task when we first meet her, but genuinely softens with the hope that he'll be able to be made whole again.  Meddows rounds out the cast in a small but fully portrayed Mark. Despite the challenges, he's as devoted to trying to help his client as Gerry's own daughter is.

Jerry Vogel (Gerry) and Maggie Conroy (Sally).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Michael Heil's scenic design includes only a few pieces of furniture against a black and white photo backdrop of children with suitcases, wearing expressions on their faces that suggest an apprehensive excitement. Christopher Limber's sound design punctuates throughout and Steve Carmichael's subtle lighting design and Bonnie Kruger's costume design contribute nicely.

This show will give you plenty to discuss on the way home.  Or not.  Actually, it's just as well I went to the show alone -- I was a little too stunned to say much afterwards anyway. Go see it.  


Jerry Vogel (Gerry) and Terry Meddows (Mark).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
FORGET ME NOT

Written by Tom Holloway
Directed by Philip Boehm
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through February 16 | tickets: $20 - $30
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, February 16 3pm only

Cast:
Donna Weinsting* (Mary), Jerry Vogel (Gerry), Maggie Conroy* (Sally) and Terry Meddows (Mark).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Michael Heil; costume design by Bonnie Kruger; lighting design by Steve Carmichael; sound design by Christopher Limber; prop design by Claudia Mink Horn; stage manager, Patrick Siler.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

THE WHIPPING MAN • New Jewish Theatre

Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" is currently playing at the New Jewish Theatre, and after a solid production at the Black Rep last year, we're lucky enough to have another opportunity to see this engrossing play in an equally strong showing.

It's 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, and in the midst of a thunderstorm, Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce) hobbles into his family home. The mansion has been picked almost clean and suffered heavy damage from the war, and after Caleb collapses on the floor, suffering from a wound to his leg, he finds himself facing the business end of a shotgun. The man on the other end is Simon (J. Samuel Davis), a former slave of Caleb's family, but now a free man, and they are happy to see each other. Simon has stayed behind to wait for his wife and daughter to return. They, along with Caleb's father, have gone to safer locations to wait out the post Civil War chaos, and once they are reunited Simon plans to build a house with the money his former master has promised him. A closer inspection of Caleb's week-old gunshot wound makes it clear to Simon that Caleb's leg will have to be amputated before the gangrene that has set in becomes too advanced.

Gregg Fenner (John), Austin Pierce (Caleb)
and J. Samuel Davis (Simon).
Photo credit: John Lamb
They're soon joined by John (Gregg Fenner), another former slave for the family who's been scavenging for goods in neighboring vacant houses. John was a childhood friend of Caleb's, but there's not much time for re-evaluating the relationship between the young master and his former slaves -- Caleb staunchly refuses to go to the hospital, so it's up to John and Simon to get Caleb as drunk as possible and amputate that leg. After the makeshift surgery is performed (to nice effect), John and Simon spend some time catching up with each other, and once Caleb regains consciousness, the underlying tension between these three hint at secrets and resentments that are exposed to us little by little. John and Simon worship in the Jewish faith of their masters, and John points out that as far as he can tell, Passover is approaching. The observance of the Jews' liberation from Egypt coinciding with the newfound freedom of Simon and John from slavery are affecting without being sentimental or corny, during a Passover seder that's prepared from the scraps they can find.

Director Doug Finlayson extracts the most out of every moment of every scene, with the help of a strong cast. Fenner as John is buoyant and sly, and has one of the most powerful scenes in his revelations about "the whipping man" of the title. Pierce turns in a sincere performance as Caleb, and will make you squirm during the well-staged amputation. Davis is compelling throughout as the older and wiser Simon, grateful and reverent while he's presiding over the seder, touching when he remembers meeting Abraham Lincoln weeks before he is assassinated, and abrasive in his harsh confrontations with the young men. John C. Stark provides a lovely set of this once grand old mansion with Michael Sullivan's lighting design, that ranges from heavy flashes of lightning to the subtle glow of lamp light. Robin Weatherall accentuates the evening with stormy sound design and Michele Friedman Siler's costume design and Lauren Probst's props round out the creative design beautifully.

Gregg Fenner (John), J. Samuel Davis (Simon)
and Austin Pierce (Caleb).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's easy to not realize that thousands of Jews fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, not to mention the fact that there were many African-American Jews in the South. Lopez ties these facts together in a thought-provoking script that displays how these men are affected by the times they're living in, and if you've seen this play once, it's worth seeing again. It's up until the 16th.


THE WHIPPING MAN

Written by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Finlayson 
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through February 16 | tickets: $35 - $39
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm, Sunday the 16th at 2pm

Cast:
J. Samuel Davis* (Simon), Gregg Fenner (John) and Austin Pierce (Caleb).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by John C. Stark; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Robin Weatherall; property design by Lauren Probst; dialect coach, Joanna Battles; stage manager, Mary Jane Probst.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

THE OTHER PLACE • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

After a world-premiere off-Broadway in 2011 and a well-received Broadway run a couple of years later, playwright Sharr White's smartly constructed drama settles into the Rep's studio space -- an engrossing production that straps the audience in for a gripping tour of a free-fall.  My fave...

Juliana Smithton (Kate Levy) is a medical research scientist who now spends her time representing a neurological drug she helped develop. We join her as she is pitching this drug at a convention in St. Thomas. She is poised and a little cocky, but during her presentation, she is distracted by a young girl in a yellow bikini among the audience. Juliana is thrown off. Thrown off to the point where her self-possessed, assured demeanor dissolves into confusion.

Kate Levy (Juliana).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Her recollections of this presentation and the "episode" that followed are peppered among other scenes that involve testy interactions with an alienated oncologist husband (R. Ward Duffy), tense conversations with her former colleague and now son-in-law (Clark Scott Carmichael), and contentious exchanges with a neurologist (Amelia McClain). There are also scenes from "the other place", a family house on Cape Cod that was sold ten years earlier -- but this old retreat, and what happened within its walls, has a hold on Juliana's psyche that she can't explain -- an increasingly unfocused mental state that keeps the audience, as well as Juliana, a little off-balance.

Amelia McClain (the woman) and Kate Levy (Juliana).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Levy's powerful performance as Juliana anchors this show. She spans a huge range of emotions, smoothly moving through abrupt scene changes that give us everything from a beautifully painful description of the "1,000 cuts" with her physician, to heart-breaking images of a headstrong, intelligent scientist, slowly losing her grip. Strong support is provided by Duffy as Juliana's sincere and frustrated husband, Carmichael and McClain who both play various roles. Rob Ruggiero's sure-handed direction keeps the pace taut and perfectly paced.

Ward Duffy (Ian) Kate Levy (Juliana).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella's scenic design features a wall of tightly tiled pieces of wood that become disconnected, providing a nice conceptual visual tie with the play, with William Cusick and Naftali Wayne's projection design that thoughtfully adds to the play without distracting, along with John Lasiter's subtle lighting design and Fitz Patton's slick sound design.

It's a solidly packed production worth seeing for yourself.  It's at the Rep until the 9th.


Amelia McClain (the woman), Kate Levy (Juliana)
and Ward Duffy (Ian).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
THE OTHER PLACE

Written by Sharr White 
Directed by Rob Ruggiero 
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through February 9 | tickets: $49 - $63
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays to Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Cast:
Clark Scott Carmichael* (the man), R. Ward Duffy* (Ian), Kate Levy* (Juliana) and Amelia McClain* (the woman).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella; costume deign by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by John Lasiter; sound design by Fitz Patton; projection design by William Cusick and Naftali Wayne; stage manager, Emilee Buchheit.

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