Saturday, May 30, 2015

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA • Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare’s sweeping account of the ultimate power couple -- Marcus Antonius of Rome, and Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, is getting a thrilling staging by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, celebrating its 15th season of free Shakespeare in Forest Park. The grand scope of the play is captivating, and under Mike Donahue’s fluent direction, the legendary characters within it are grounded, real and tragically flawed.

Antony (Jay Stratton) is having to be practically dragged from the arms of his lover in Egypt, Cleopatra (Shirine Babb), back to Rome where he is one of a trio of public officers, and his fellow triumvirs have threats from within Rome and threats from abroad to deal with. For his absence from Rome and the resentment it garnered, an attempt to strengthen the relationships among the triumvirs is made when Antony agrees to marry Octavia (Raina K. Houston) the sister of one of the rulers, Octavius Caesar (Charles Pasternak), who has his eye on increasing his own power, eventually declaring war on Cleopatra. The series of events that are set in motion test allegiances, fuel resentments and result in some really unfortunate misjudgments.

Jay Stratton (Mark Antony)
and Shirine Babb (Cleopatra).
Photo credit: J David Levy
The ardent love affair at the center of the play is dynamically driven by Babb’s portrayal of Cleopatra -- as vulnerable in her jealousies and regret as she is glorious in her power, and reckless in her manipulations. Stratton’s Antony, a cocksure ladies' man torn between his responsibilities in Rome and the indulgent pleasures he enjoys in Egypt, is seductively confident in war and romance, but hot-headed in retribution when he thinks Cleopatra has betrayed him. Charles Pasternak’s Octavius Caesar is pompous and belligerent as Antony’s foe, and Conan McCarty is eloquent as Enobarbus, Antony’s right hand with Moses Villarama as Eros, Antony’s devoted and put-upon messenger.

There are also several excellent performances from some of the area’s best, including Gary Glasgow as Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate, Kari Ely as Charmian, one of Cleopatra’s lively handmaidens, Alan Knoll as Cleo’s eunuch consultant, Mardian, and officers Michael James Reed as Agrippa, and Reginald Pierre as Maecenas, both close friends of Caesar.

Photo credit: J David Levy

Scott C. Neale’s scenic design features five golden columns that beautifully reflect John Wylie’s lighting design, calling out the changes in location and mood. With sound design by Rusty Wandall, composer Greg Mackender lends strong vamps in Rome and the slightest hint of Middle Eastern-inspired music when the story is taken to Egypt, with appropriately creepy chords when an omen of music emanating from the ground bodes ill for Antony. The costume design courtesy of Dorothy Marshall Englis handsomely informs the different factions within the play, and there are also great special effects as water cannons spew up huge plumes on either side of the stage during the sea battle of Actium.

With pre-show activities that include a Green Show and terrific performances throughout, along with tasty treats and souvenirs to buy, you’re bound to have a great evening of top-notch theatre. Grab a blanket, a loaded picnic basket, and head to Shakespeare Glen in the park -- it’s playing until the 14th.

Kari Ely (Charmian), Raina K. Houston (Iras),
Shirine Babb (Cleopatra) and Jay Stratton (Mark Antony).
Photo credit: J David Levy

Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Mike Donahue 
Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park
through June 14 | tickets: FREE
Performances nightly at 8pm, except Tuesdays; 6:30pm Green Show

Shirine Babb* (Cleopatra), Kari Ely* (Charmian), Gary Glasgow* (Lepidus, Soothsayer, Clown), Raina K. Houston (Octavia, Iras), Ryan A. Jacobs (Philo, Soldier, Guard), Alan Knoll* (Mardian), Bernell Lassai III (Demetruis, Soldier, Guard), Matt Lytle* (Pompey, Proculeius, Canidius), Conan McCarty* (Enobarbus), Jesse E. Muñoz (Menas, Scarus), Charles Pasternak* (Octavius Caesar), Reginald Pierre (Maecenas), Michael James Reed* (Agrippa), Robert Riordan (Varrius, Gallus, Soldier), Jay Stratton* (Mark Antony) and Moses Villarama* (Eros). 
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Scott C. Neale; costume design by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by John Wylie; sound design by Rusty Wandall; composer, Greg Mackender; voice and text coach, Suzanne Mills; fight choreographer, Paul Dennhardt; stage manager, Emilee Buchheit; assistant stage manager, Lydia Crandall.

Friday, May 15, 2015


With the political hot potato of marriage equality reaching critical mass in the States, NJT closes its 18th season with a Canadian musical that couldn’t be more timely. David Hein and his wife Irene Sankoff’s, “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding”, drew acclaim at the 2009 Toronto Fringe and the 2010 New York Musical Theater Festival, and is inspired by the real-life coming out of Hein's mother, and the teenage years he spent with her and his other mom, Jane.

Claire’s son, David (an appealing guitar-playing Ben Nordstrom), serves as our narrator for the evening, and takes us through the story of his mother’s discovery of true love, and her reconnection with her Jewish roots. After a nasty divorce, Claire (Laura Ackermann), a non-practicing Jew, moves from Nebraska to take a job as a professor of psychology in Ottowa, where she meets and falls in love with Jane (Deborah Sharn), a devoted Wiccan and therapist. Along with the laughs, there’s also a bit of heft slipped into this fluffy musical comedy that catches you off-guard -- like finding some meat under layers of light, savory pastry.

Deborah Sharn (Jane), Pierce Hastings (Young David),
Laura Ackermann (Claire) and Ben Nordstrom (David).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Nordstrom’s easy-going performance guides us through the proceedings, and Ackermann portrays all of the ups and downs of Claire’s journey with heartfelt command. Sharn’s portrayal of Jane also brims with convincing sincerity, including a breakdown of the Wiccan religion in her number, "Wiccan 101." MMLJWW (I gotta shorten that title) is also bolstered by equally strong performances from the ensemble members who take on multiple roles. John Flack is memorable as Claire’s ex-husband, Garth, particularly in his number, “Hot Lesbian Action”, and Pierce Hastings does a fine job as an accepting young David, with Chase Thomaston making wonderful appearances as an airline pilot, a television reporter, and a few women’s roles. Anna Skidis as Michelle, Claire’s lesbian roommate, has a thing or two to come to terms with herself when she’s not volunteering at the cat rescue center, and is great as a Hooters girl in the number, “Don't Take Your Lesbian Moms to Hooters.” Jennifer Theby-Quinn’s comic talents shine as Irene, David’s girlfriend, in numbers like “You Don't Need a Penis” and “Five Mothers”, along with lending some subtle shading and depth to a role that the script doesn’t necessarily allow for, considering Irene's father is a conservative Government official and the nationwide gay marriage vote in Canada is at hand. That all happens a little quickly, but hey, it's a musical comedy.

John Flack, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Anna Skidis,
Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings and Laura Ackermann.
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Margery and Peter Spack’s outstanding scenic design is an explosion of circular, multicolored, psychedelic goodness, with a little raised platform for the band, that under Charlie Mueller’s musical direction sounded great, though they threatened to drown out the voices unless the ensemble was singing together.

Even though some of the more serious issues of gay marriage are handled with a lighter touch, under Edward Coffield's deft direction, it's a fun, open-hearted show with great performances from a top-notch cast. It's playing until the 31st.


Written by David Hein & Irene Sankoff 
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through May 31 | tickets: $36 - $40
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm, Sunday the 31st at 2pm

Deborah Sharn (Jane), Anna Skidis (Michelle)
and Laura Ackermann (Claire).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Ben Nordstrom* (David), Laura Ackermann* (Claire), Deborah Sharn (Jane), John Flack* (Garth, others), Anna Skidis (Michelle, Becki, others), Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Penny, Irene, others), Chase Thomaston (Pilot, Rabbi, others), Pierce Hastings (Young David/others).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design and artist, Margery and Peter Spack; lighting design by James Kolditz; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Amanda Werre; properties design by Jenny Smith; choreography by Liam Johnson; wig consultant, Christie Sifford; music direction by Charlie Mueller, stage manager, Mary Jane Probst, assistant stage manager, Brendan Woods; assistant director, Max Friedman.

Keyboards, Charlie Mueller; guitars, Aaron Doerr, Ben Nordstrom; bass, Adam Anello; percussion, Jason Hatcher.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


Of all the companies in town that go in for unconventional theatre, few come close to pushing the boundaries like Equally Represented Arts does. ERA’s latest offering premieres six new plays within the framework of a game of “telephone,” also known as “Don’t drink the milk.” The R&J of the title refers to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, and in this case, the last scene of this tale of young love serves as the ‘original message.’ A recording of this act was sent to the first playwright who wrote a new play based on what they heard, and each successive playwright used a recording of the previous play as a jumping off point for their work. Cool, right? It is. It’s also a hectic, lively and sometimes disquieting evening of new work by some provocative playwrights (James Ryan Caldwell, Otso Huopaniemi, camila le-bert, John Douglas Weidner, Samara Weiss and Zhu Yi). With blooming love, growing pains and a kind of adolescent tumult at its center, with liberal doses of synchronized movement and dance, ERA, under Lucy Cashion’s direction, provides a bold, intriguing night of vignettes, wonderfully executed by her six-member ensemble — Mollie Amburgey, Cara Barresi, Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles, Carl Overly, Jr. and Rachel Tibbetts.

Carl Overly Jr., Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles,
Rachel Tibbetts, Cara Barresi and Mollie Amburgey.
Photo credit: Katrin Hackenberg
After a relaxed, pre-show start with the actors chatting, roaming around and stretching, they simultaneously begin to quote lines from “Romeo and Juliet”, creating a cool, clamorous din of sound. After that, things kick off with camila le-bert’s, “Rosaline Called”, finding Juliet (Rachel Tibbetts) wondering who this Rosaline is, why she’s calling her boyfriend, Romeo (Mitch Eagles), and the parents (Cara Barresi and Will Bonfiglio) stressing about their kid’s romance, and dating outside of their circles. The tolling of bells, a ringing phone and strobed lights signal the segue into the next play, bringing on Otso Huopaniemi’s, “Still Standing”, where the actors ponder how to write about what they just saw, frantically bouncing ideas off of each other, and is followed by Zhu Yi’s, “The Offended Audience”, where the actors pose as audience members, obliterating the fourth wall and sparring with each other, eventually receiving a phone call from God. “Number 4”, written by John Douglas Weidner, looks at unrequited love with Tibbetts who has hopelessly fallen for the school’s profane, arrogant bad boy, portrayed with gusto by Bonfiglio, while Eagles longs for her affection. The action is narrowed down to Eagles and Tibbetts in “Untitled”, written by Samara Weiss, where the duo compel and repulse each other, tentatively considering a new relationship.

Cara Barresi and Will Bonfiglio.
Photo credit: Katrin Hackenberg
In addition to certain characters taking turns with a swig or two of milk from a glass jug, after each vignette, one player is left out of a game of musical chairs, and the ousted actor retires under a laced sheet. The last play leaves us with Tibbetts as a hesitant bride in James Ryan Caldwell’s, “Two Character Play”, reminiscing about her younger days as she pours through old entries in her diary. Tibbetts turns in an excellent performance and ends the evening on a very strong note.

Well, almost the end. The performances of “R + J: A Telephone Play” are followed by an improvised version of a Shakespeare play, suggested by the audience and performed by the delightfully talented two-man improv group, Bodysnatchers.

Cashion’s minimal scenic design allows lots of room for the ensemble, with nice touches that include telephone receivers and bouquets hanging overhead, and columns of calendars on the wall. Meredith LaBounty provides the costumes, and the music is composed and performed by Charlie Mueller. The plays themselves are a little uneven, but the overall presentation is exciting and well worth seeing. You’ve got until this weekend to check it out!

Mitch Eagles and Rachel Tibbetts.
Photo credit: Katrin Hackenberg

Written by James Ryan Caldwell, Otso Huopaniemi, camila le-bert, John Douglas Weidner, Samara Weiss, Zhu Yi and William Shakespeare
Directed by Lucy Cashion
through May 8 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Wednesdays to Fridays at 8pm

The Wedding Party:
Mollie Amburgey (Actor), Cara Barresi (Actor), Will Bonfiglio (Actor), Mitch Eagles (Actor), Carl Overly, Jr. (Actor) and Rachel Tibbetts (Actor).

Mitch Eagles, Carl Overly Jr.,
Cara Barresi, Mollie Amburgey and Rachel Tibbetts.
Photo credit: Katrin Hackenberg

Scenic and sound design by Lucy Cashion; lighting design by Erik Kuhn; costume design by Meredith LaBounty; hair and make-up by Brooklynn McDade; musical composition and arrangement by Charlie Mueller; stage manager and assistant director, Gabe Taylor.


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