Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ALL IN THE TIMING • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Playwright David Ives plays fast and loose with the concepts of time and language in his zesty collection of six one-act comedies. You have an idea of what you're getting into when you see Patrick Huber’s set adorned with scenic artist, Cristie Johnston's Salvador Dalí-like melting clock on the floor of the Gaslight's stage, backed by a blue sky with clouds. Fasten your seat belts, please.

The first play, "Sure Thing", opens with strangers meeting in a cafe. As Bill (Ben Ritchie) tries an opening line on Betty (Emily Baker), to no avail, the ringing of an offstage bell reboots their conversation over and over.  "Is this chair taken?" -- "Yes" turns into "Is this chair taken?" -- "No, but I'm expecting somebody in a minute" -- and they make their way through blunders, pretension and disinterest, posing questions and answers in different ways, until a romantic spark is finally ignited, with Ritchie and Baker's performances turning on a dime.

Michelle Hand (Kafka), Shaun Sheley (Milton)
and Ben Ritchie (Swift).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Words, Words, Words" features three monkeys, Swift (Ritchie), Milton (Shaun Sheley) and Kafka (Michelle Hand), caged in a lab with three typewriters and a tire swing. An unseen Dr. Rosenbaum is testing something called the "The Infinite Monkey Theorem" -- basically an idea that a monkey with a typewriter can, in time, produce Hamlet. In between beating their chests and eating bananas, Milton manages to type out the first lines of Paradise Lost, Kafka bangs out twenty lines of the letter "K" before giving in to writer's block, and Swift's main concern is breaking out of their cage. Even though they're all dressed in circus clothes, there's a self-awareness of their plight which makes it all the more amusing -- touching on commonly shared feelings recognizable to anyone who's ever had to sit down at a keyboard or a blank piece of paper.

In "The Universal Language", a bashful young woman with a stutter named Dawn (Baker) enrolls in a class for a language called "Unamunda" -- a fake language made up by the instructor, Don (Sheley). After a $500 commitment for the class and some clumsy starts and stops, both connect over a language of nonsense. There's actually a translation of it! The dexterity in which Sheley and Baker translate this babble into something that even the audience begins to understand after a while is impressive.

Ben Ritchie (Baker), Emily Baker (Woman #1),
Michelle Hand (Woman #2) and Shaun Sheley (Philip Glass).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" opens with… well… Philip Glass buying a loaf of bread. When he's recognized by one of the two women in the bakery (Baker and Hand), they, along with the baker (Ritchie) and Philip Glass (Sheley), embark on a musical parody in the style of the titular minimalist composer with the repetition of a few words of dialogue, working in some synchronized movements. It's as fascinating as it is absurd, and delivered with deadpan perfection by the cast. You really have to see this one in person.

In "The Philadelphia", Mark (Ritchie) meets his buddy Al (Sheley) at a local diner after having a very bad day. Seems he can't get anything he wants and feels like he's in the Twilight Zone, until Al explains that Mark is actually in "a Philadelphia" -- a black hole of sorts where you have to get what you want by asking for the opposite. This is soon proven true when Mark orders a meal from the snippy waitress (Baker, in a hilarious wig and cat eye glasses), who assures him that his situation isn't so bad. She was in “a Cleveland" once, where nothing could be worse.

Shaun Sheley (Trotsky), Ben Ritchie (Ramon)
and Michelle Hand (Mrs. Trotsky).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Variations On The Death of Trotsky" starts on the last day of the Russian revolutionary's life after having a mountain climber's axe buried in his skull. It's true that the blow to Leon Trotsky's head failed to kill him instantly, but here, Sheley as Trotsky suffers from a major time lag while his wife (Hand), with the advantage of an encyclopedia, along with his killer, Ramon (Ritchie), assure him -- yep, you're a goner.

These plays are like a forced-perceptive funhouse of theatre, where timing plays as much a part as language and connection, skillfully directed by Elizabeth Helman. This talented cast of four deliver the comedy with precision, and bring out the "under the surface" messages that underscore each piece. Huber's scenic and lighting design complement the action with props and costumes by Carla Landis Evans, and sound design by Helman.

These surreal comedies, laced with a streak of the intellectual, are serious fun, and an exciting start to St. Louis Actors' Studio's eighth season called "The Best Medicine". It'll be at the Gaslight until October 5th. Check it out.


ALL IN THE TIMING

Written by David Ives
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through October 5 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie, and Shaun Sheley*
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Elizabeth Helman; costume & props design by Carla Landis Evans; scenic painting by Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Friday, September 19, 2014

PURLIE • The Black Rep

Ossie Davis’s Tony Award winning musical debuted in 1970, and is based on the play, “Purlie Victorious", that he wrote in 1961. The Black Rep gives this uplifting show about freedom and tenacity a rousing production.

We start at the funeral of Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee (Jim Anthony), the late, cocky, bull-whip wielding owner of a cotton plantation in rural Georgia. Purlie Victorious (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) is conducting the service, and though everyone's convinced the Cap'n is probably frying in hell right about now, Purlie and the congregation that toiled under his service, are giving him a fine send-off in the gospel-flavored opening number, "Walk Him Up the Stairs". From here, we're taken back to Purlie's quest to buy back the local church his father started, Big Bethel, from the hands of Cotchipee. There's a $500 inheritance that's due to Purlie's deceased Cousin Bea, so he plans to fool Ol' Cap'n into handing over the money to an impersonator, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Alicia Revé). Lutiebelle is straight out of Alabama and as country as a chicken coop, but willing to do anything to help out Purlie, whom she becomes very fond of. Purlie also enlists the help of his brother Gitlow (J. Samuel Davis) and Gitlow's wife Missy (Kimmie Kidd) to pull off the scheme, with Cotchipee's own son Charlie (Greg Matzker) playing his part in the plot.

Roston shines as Purlie, injecting his scenes with the passion of a man in the pulpit, and Revé's wide-eyed Lutiebelle has several wonderfully comedic moments, and it's charming to see her character become a closer part of the family. Davis brings his share of comedy to the role of the "Uncle Tom"ish Gitlow, and Kidd toes the line as his sensible wife, Missy. They've all got great voices. Anthony makes a good bad guy in the role of the racist Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, with strong support from Linda Kennedy as the sassy Idella, and Matzker as the open-hearted Charlie. 

Dunsi Dai's scenic design uses movable set pieces to represent Big Bethel, Purlie's home and Ol' Cap'n's Commissary, lit by Katie San Roman with costumes by Jennifer (J.C.) Krajicek. The band, though threatening to drown out the performers on occasion, is solid under the musical direction of Charles Creath.

The musical is set “not too long ago", yet Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, and Charlie sports jeans with peace signs on them. It's oddly dated, but even though some of the transitions between scenes are a little sluggish, under the direction of Ron Himes, "Purlie" strikes familiar chords. It's at the Edison Theatre until the 21st.


PURLIE

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell
Lyrics by Peter Udell
Music by Gary Geld
Directed by Ron Himes
Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
through September 21 | tickets: $35 - $45
Performances Thursday at 7pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Jim Anthony* (Ol' Cap'n), J. Samuel Davis* (Gitlow), Linda Kennedy* (Idella), Kimmie Kidd (Missy), Greg Matzker (Charlie), Alicia Revé (Lutiebelle), Kelvin Roston, Jr.* (Purlie), Scheronda (Ronnie) Gregory, Church Soloist, Ensemble: Heather Beal, SirGabe Ryan Cunningham, Benisha Dorris, Billy Flood, Matthew Galbreath, Herman Gordon, Ryan King Johnson, Jennifer Kelley, Christian Kelly, Samantha Madison and Jaden Smith.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsai Dai; lighting design by Katie San Roman; sound design by Chris Baker; costume design by Jennifer (J.C.) Krajicek, choreographer, Heather Beal; musical director, Charles Creath; stage manager, Tracy D. Holliway-Wiggins.

Musicians:
Keyboard, Charles Creath; bass, William Ranier; guitar, Dennis Brock; trumpet, Anthony Wiggins; saxophone, Jeff Anderson; drums, Stan Hale.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE NORMAL HEART • HotCityTheatre

It's been nearly thirty years since Larry Kramer's autobiographical play about the early brutal days of the HIV-AIDS crisis debuted off-Broadway, but this smoldering indictment of the failure of bureaucrats to acknowledge the epidemic, the silence of the press, and the apathy of the gay community has lost none of its muscle in HotCity's potent current production.

The play hinges on Ned Weeks (John Flack), an outspoken writer and activist at heart who serves as the proxy for Kramer, who co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982. Ned wrangles a group of his friends together to form a support organization to get out as much information as they can about this savage disease that was claiming the lives of gay men at a staggering rate. While Ned's confrontational approach frustrates his friends, Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers) is one of the first in his corner. She's the victim of another virus -- polio, and is among the first doctors to try to treat men in NYC showing early symptoms of a disease with no name. Ned's brother Ben (Greg Johnston), a rich lawyer, helps him get the organization off the ground, but the long-held tensions between these two start to show once Ned asks his brother for public backing from his firm. While Ned struggles with his brother and the members of his group, and the New York Times continues to bury the story at the back of the paper, and the public officials continue to vilify those who have lost their lives to the disease, Ned meets and falls for Felix (Eric Dean White), a closeted New York Times fashion and style reporter, who eventually notices a purple lesion on his foot.

Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks) and John Flack (Ned Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
In the mid-eighties, "The Normal Heart" came right on the heels of the AIDS crisis, but with over 1 million men and women currently living with HIV-AIDS, and an estimated 56,000 new infections each year, the play is as relevant today as it was over a quarter of a century ago. Kramer's play is by nature compelling, but its power is heightened by the chemistry and vigor of its able cast -- directed fluidly by Marty Stanberry. Leading the pack is Flack as the unstoppable Ned Weeks. Flack moderates all of the fiery rage of a man railing against silence with the insecurities he reveals in his scenes with White beautifully, and truly leaves it all on the stage. As Dr. Brookner, Byers isn't on stage for that many scenes, but when she is, her passion matches Flack's -- particularly during a scene where she is refused funds for medical research. White's easy-going Felix Turner is a great balance for the compulsive Ned, and Johnston's Ben Weeks shows a genuine, albeit conditional, love for his brother.

Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner)
and Stephen Peirick (Examining Doctor)
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Tim Schall's Mickey, who works for the health department, Ben Watts's Tommy, a hospital administrator and self-professed "Southern bitch", and Reginald Pierre's Bruce, a closeted vice-president at Citibank who is elected president of the group, all work together wonderfully, and make the most of their moments -- punctuating the play with little explosions and revelations. Stephen Peirick and Paul Cereghino round out the cast in strong multiple roles. The creative elements are kept to a minimum -- a nearly bare stage flanked by rust-colored pillars (Sean Savoie), with projections and sound by Patrick Burks, and costumes by JC Krajicek.

The play is not without its laughs, but it's grueling. It's also a must see. There's a VIP night on the 18th, with a pre-show reception, a special performance by the Gateway Men’s Chorus, and a post-performance discussion with the actors and director. A portion of that evening's proceeds will benefit Doorways, a non-profit interfaith organization that provides housing and related supportive services to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.


Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner),
Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), John Flack (Ned Weeks)
and Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
THE NORMAL HEART

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through September 27 | tickets: $20 - $25 (VIP September 18th, $50)
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
John Flack* (Ned Weeks), Tim Schall* (Mickey Marcus), Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner), Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks), Reginald Pierre (Bruce Niles), Ben Watts (Tommy Boatwright), Paul Cereghino (Craig/Hiram Keebler/Grady/Orderly) and Stephen Peirick (David/Examining Doctor/Orderly).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Sean Savoie; sound & projection design by Patrick Burks; costume design by JC Krajicek; properties by Meg Brinkley; stage manager, Richard B. Agnew.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

FIRST LADY SUITE • R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics has never been a company to shy away from unconventional material, and its current St. Louis premiere production is no exception. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa dismantles four iconic First Ladies of the United States, along with their friends and associates, in four imaginative, if not bizarre vignettes. LaChiusa, a self-professed "first lady-ologist", riffs off of nuggets of truth and rumor found in each of the first ladies featured (Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt), and adds a rhythmically tricky and melodically atypical score that the cast can sink their teeth into, in an off-the-wall chamber musical that's anything but standard musical theatre fare. Love.

After a prologue with past first ladies flanking the current one, "Over Texas" starts with Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly) aboard Air Force One, missing her cat and bemoaning the demands of being personal secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) to a politely listening Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love), the secretary to JFK. While exhausted and trapped in her service to Kennedy, Mary is giddy about having tea on the president's plane, and hopeful at the prospect of one day getting to ride in the motorcade.
Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher)
and Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Jacqueline interrupts, absentmindedly wondering where her famous hat and gloves are. After continuing the comedic vibe Donnelly sets up so well, the mood darkens as the image-obsessed Kennedy anticipates the endless blocks of smiling and waving she'll soon face in Dallas in that fateful motorcade with an uneasy dread. Donnelly handles the score well and mines the comedy in her performance, and Rios subtly exposes the depths of Kennedy's fears and frustrations. Belinda Quimby makes a few hilarious appearances as a disconnected Lady Bird Johnson along with Nathan Hinds as a political aide.

Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower)
and Jeanitta Perkins (Marian Anderson).
Photo credit: Gerry Love
In "Where's Mamie?", it's 1957, and Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt, the artist formerly known as Beth Wickenhauser) is annoyed because she's been left alone on her birthday. African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins), makes a surreal appearance in Mamie's imagination to warn her of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas and the approaching civil rights riots to come if the President doesn't step in. So, she and Mamie take a trip back in time to forewarn the unfaithful President-to-be (Nathan Hinds), currently in the army, about what's on the horizon. What?!? Yeah. I mentioned this musical is offbeat, right? Van Pelt, in her pink bow and slippers, lends her comedic talents as a flashy one moment, deadpan the next Mamie, and Perkins controls her challenging singing duties well, with support by Hinds, and Quimby as Ike's chauffeur.

Nathan Hinds (Bess Truman)
and Christina Rios (Margaret Truman).
Photo credit: Michael Young
"Olio", the shortest and most comedic piece that comes after intermission, puts Bess Truman's daughter Margaret (Rios) front and center during a vocal recital, trying to carry on as her mother (Hinds in heels) sits behind her, bringing on a series of hilarious scene stealing. Rios sings the part beautifully, while Hinds throws out under-the-breath insults like any horrific stage mother would.

"Eleanor Sleeps Here", the last and most fully sketched scenario, takes place on another plane, but it's the plane of Amelia Earhart (Quimby), having a night flight over Washington DC with Eleanor Roosevelt (Love) and her close friend, journalist Lorena Hickok (Rachel Hanks). Three lesbians, amiright? Anyhoo, this story is really about "Hick" and her devotion to Eleanor, and what she gave up to be in this first lady's inner circle. Stationed at the back of the plane, later venturing onto the wing, she becomes jealous of Roosevelt's growing friendship with Earhart. While Eleanor is personified with amplified comedy, beautifully sung by Love, Hanks, also with a lovely voice, goes from romantic to jealous to angry and then full circle again, with strong support by Quimby as Earhart.

Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Kay Love (Eleanor Roosevelt)
and Belinda Quimby (Amelia Earhart).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Director Shualee Cook strikes a good balance between absurd comedy and emotional twinges. Kyra Bishop's scenic design features the Presidential Seal adorning the floor of the stage with a screen for projections, and just a few pieces of furniture. Amy Harrison puts a suitable combination together for the costumes, Mark Kelley's sound design seems sparse but works well, and Nathan Schroeder's lighting design follows the action nicely with music director Nick Moramarco and Leah Luciano lending musical support on piano.

Now, are you going to walk out of the theatre with a headful of hummable tunes? No. This musical is not for everyone. But the ambitious material, though it drags in some spots along the way, hides a few surprising depths within its fanciful folds, for me proving to be a unique, freshly progressive musical theatre experience. It's playing at the Ivory Theatre until the 14th.


FIRST LADY SUITE

Book/lyrics/music by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook 
Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave.
through September 14 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher), Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln/Eleanor Roosevelt), Jeanitta Perkins (Current First Lady/Marian Anderson), Belinda Quimby (Ladybird Johnson/Chauffeur/Amelia Earhart), Christina Rios (Jaqueline Kennedy/Margaret Truman), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower) and Nathan Hinds (Presidential Aide/Bess Truman/Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower).

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Amy Harrison; sound design by Mark Kelley; stage manager, Nikki Lott.

Musicians:
Piano 1/music director, Nick Moramarco; piano 2, Leah Luciano.

Monday, September 1, 2014

HUMAN TERRAIN • Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed kicks off its season with a world-premiere by Jennifer Blackmer that focuses on an anthropologist embedded with a military unit in Iraq. The story is fictional, but the program is real. Established in 2006, a United States Army program called The Human Terrain System employs social sciences personnel to provide the military with some understanding of the local culture.

Mabry (Melissa Gerth) is the anthropologist -- a new PhD and skilled linguist, who spent her time in the army under the command of hard-nosed Captain Alford (B. Weller) -- sometimes at odds with her purpose, but well-intentioned. Along with ordering her to wear a sidearm for her own protection, he assigns a young soldier named Detty (Taylor Campbell) to accompany her as an armed escort. Both of these mandates make her job of winning the hearts and minds of the locals more challenging, but Mabry manages to do some good, and meets and forms a tentative friendship with Adiliah (Wendy Greenwood), an Iraqi woman. All of this is played out in flashback. When the play opens, Mabry finds herself in a small room, worn out and confused, and back in the States being questioned by a DA named Kate (Dawn Campbell) about a bombing in Fallujah, and her allegiance is questioned.

Melissa Gerth (Mabrey) and B. Weller (Captain).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Blackmer's play keeps you engaged and curious up until the end, and considering the switches that happen between the past and present, Lori Adams's direction keeps the action running smoothly. Gerth also has to turn on a dime as Mabry, and once the action starts to ramp up, so does her performance that ends strongly. The Captain, hardened by what he sees and deals with, is tempered reliably by Weller, and Greenwood's wonderful portrayal of Adiliah is grounded and filled with honesty. Her conversations with Mabry, letting us in on some of Adiliah's story and point of view, provided some of the most interesting moments of the play. Dawn Campbell is smug and no-nonsense as Kate, and Taylor Campbell also does good work as Detty, a kid out of the heartland with dreams of his own, while John Clark plays Harrison, another young soldier who has seen all he cares to. Antonio Mosley rounds out the cast and does well as Kemal, a young Iraqi boy Mabry and the soldiers meet.

Wendy Greenwood (Adiliah) and Melissa Gerth (Mabrey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
John Stark's clever scenic design features long panels along the sides of the stage painted with sand and sky with a small room that's rolled upstage or downstage. Michael Sullivan's lighting design, Jane Sullivan's costumes and Zoe Sullivan's sound design effectively bring the play to life.

The very last scene threatens to drain impact from the previous one, but still -- it's a tricky balancing act Mabry's in, and this play provides an intriguing look at this overlooked aspect of wartime, sure to give you some food for thought after the show.


HUMAN TERRAIN

Written by Jennifer Blackmer
Directed by Lori Adams 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through September 14 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Melissa Gerth (Mabrey), Antonio Mosley (Kemal)
and B. Weller (Captain).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Melissa Gerth (Mabry), Dawn Campbell (Kate), Wendy Greenwood (Adiliah), B. Weller (Captain Alford), John Clark (Harrison), Taylor Campbell (Detty) and Antonio Mosley (Kemal).

Creative:
Scenic design by John Stark; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by Jane Sullivan; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; movement and combat design by Shaun Sheley; weapons training, Devin Servais; props design by Meg Brinkley; language and cultural advisors, Laila Abdo and Ahmed Abuhaimed; stage manager, Tanya Tweedy.

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