Friday, February 27, 2015

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? • St. Louis Actors' Studio

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," one of playwright Edward Albee's most notable works, premiered in 1962 and picked up five Tony Awards. The play was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1963, but the subject matter (a corrosive marriage, filled to the brim with booze, naughty language and sex) was controversial for its time, resulting in an overrule of the awards committee, and no prize for drama awarded that year. Typically, what may have been scandalous in the 60's seems tame to modern audiences, but the ability of Albee's play to still stun speaks to its potency. Under John Contini's shrewd direction and a rock solid cast, none of that potency is lost at St. Louis Actors' Studio's production. So, yeah. Get a ticket and buckle up.

We begin with George (William Roth) and Martha (Kari Ely) returning home from a college faculty party late at night, where George is an associate professor of history, when Martha tells him that she's invited a young couple over for a nightcap. George complains that it's way too late for guests, but Martha's father, the president of the college, insisted that they be nice to the couple. These first minutes of the first act contain laughs and jabs shared and launched between this couple of 23 years, and lay down the general brush strokes of their marriage, with Martha landing harsh insults at every turn, and George parrying every incoming attack with seemingly tepid counters.

William Roth (George), Betsy Bowman (Honey),
Kari Ely (Martha) and Michael Amoroso (Nick).
Photo credit: STLAS
Shortly after their guests, Nick (Michael Amoroso), a handsome biology professor -- new to the college, and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman) show up, the games George and Martha play become more interesting and intense, because now there are two new players. Nick and Honey are caught in the crossfire of the brutal rituals George and Martha have learned to practice, and after a truly staggering amount of alcohol, bold flirtation, allusions to a mysterious son, and uneasy interaction, Nick finds himself on the defense, and poor Honey finds herself in the bathroom, out of her depth and praying to the porcelain god, sweetly but obviously not able to keep up with the happenings.

William Roth (George) and Kari Ely (Martha).
Photo credit: STLAS
Though George gets his jabs in during the course of the night, it isn't until near dawn when he chooses to shatter the myth that gives weight to one of the only things he and Martha share, playing his last card in this battle royale. After a wrenching night (for the actors as well as the audience), George and Martha are left alone, tending to the bruises they've inflicted, with an unexpected, but true love for each other.

Ely's Martha, frustrated at her husband's lack of fight -- always pushing his limits, cuts with the precision of a surgeon, but Ely is able to show a vulnerable glint that surprises, and makes your heart ache by the end. Roth, as the rather schlubby George, catches you off-guard when he comes on, and after his abuse, makes you root for him (in a somewhat subversive way). Amoroso turns in a great performance as Nick, an up-and-coming professor who seems confident enough to adjust to whatever he encounters early in the play, but sympathetically buckles under the weight, as Martha's unrelenting come-ons persist and the punches of a more mature colleague ropes him into a night he never bargained for. Bowman provides not only a slice of comic relief, but also a skillful representation of a victim, genuinely wounded, whose personal information has been spilled during the course of the night. Patrick Huber makes his usual magic, making his wood paneled, jumbled set at the Gaslight's space seem bigger than it is, also lighting the action, with Teresa Doggett's costumes, Contini's sound design and Carla Landis Evans providing the property design.

Kari Ely (Martha) and William Roth (George).
Photo credit: STLAS
Don't think you can pass this play up because you've seen the film. The opportunity to see it onstage is worth every penny. Don't miss it. Only a few performances left.


WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through March 1 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Kari Ely* (Martha), William Roth* (George), Betsy Bowman (Honey) and Michael Amoroso (Nick).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by John Contini; costume design by Teresa Doggett; wig design by Will Vicari; props design by Carla Landis Evans; fight choreographer, Shaun Sheley; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

STICK FLY • The Black Rep

The Black Rep continues its 38th season with Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly", a family drama with a bit of a twist. The two Levay sons, Kent and Flip, are bringing their significant others over for a weekend at their summer home on Martha's Vineyard. Like most residents on Martha's Vineyard, the Levays are wealthy, but unlike most residents, they're also black.

The patriarch of the family is Joe (Erik Kilpatrick), a neurosurgeon, who would have enough money on his own, but has married into more money through his wife's family, who's owned a shipping business that reaches back to slavery times. He shows up later, but first to arrive is Kent, (Chauncy Thomas) the youngest, with his fiancée, Taylor (Sharisa Whatley). He's a writer who is on the verge, after many career stops and starts, of becoming a full-fledged novelist, and Taylor is an entomologist. Her father was a distinguished academic, so Taylor grew up with prestige, but she didn't grow up with money -- estranged from her father, and overwhelmed by prospect of marrying into this affluent family. Flip (Reginald Pierre) is a plastic surgeon, who is bringing his girlfriend Kimber (Meghan Maguire), also highly educated, and white. Added to the mix is 18 year old Cheryl (Rhyan Robinson), university-bound, who is currently filling in for the duties of her mother, the Levay's ailing maid. The mother of the family, Michelle Levay, is mysteriously absent, and despite needling from the sons, Joe remains silent about her whereabouts. The advantages of money and education can't be enough to propel you past some things -- particularly race, and Diamond's script offers a heaping helping of soapy dynamics, family secrets and bombshells.

Thomas and Pierre display an easy chemistry as brothers, and Whatley and Maguire do great work as the studious Taylor and the slightly reserved Kimber. Kilpatrick comes across as a powerful father, still able to control his grown sons, and Robinson has some great moments as the entertaining but mature Cheryl -- letting the lightly veiled derision occasionally thrown her way roll off of her back. Colt Frank's scenic design makes wonderful use of Emerson's generously intimate performance space, with lighting provided by Jim Burwinkel, costumes by Ali Turns, and atmospheric sounds of the seashore provided by Robin Weatherall. Director Lorna Littleway moves the action along nicely, though Diamond's script seems exposition heavy during the first act. Still, "Stick Fly" is worth checking out and spending a provocative weekend with the Levays.


STICK FLY

Written by Lydia Diamond
Directed by Lorna Littleway
Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University
through February 22 | tickets: $35 - $45
Performances Thursday at 7pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Sharisa Whatley* (Taylor), Chauncy Thomas* (Kent "Spoon"), Rhyan Robinson (Cheryl), Reginald Pierre (Flip), Erik Kilpatrick* (Joe Levay) and Meghan Maguire (Kimber).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Colt Frank; lighting design by Jim Burwinkel; sound design by Robin Weatherall; costume design by Ali Turns; dramaturge, Diamond Skinner; stage manager, James Anthony.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

GOD OF CARNAGE • Stray Dog Theatre

It's funny how a day of good intentions can go down the crapper so quickly sometimes, isn't it? That's the kind of day the Novaks and the Raleighs are having in Stray Dog's current production, Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage." A mini-brawl between the parents' kids sets the stage for a civilized meeting of adults that turns into a rum-soaked night where the pretense of decorum goes bye-bye.

Alan and Annette Raleigh (Stephen Peirick and Michelle Hand) are visiting the posh Brooklyn apartment of Michael and Veronica Novak (Michael Juncal and Sarajane Alverson). Benjamin, the Raleigh's kid, hit the Novak's kid, Henry, in the face with a stick, knocking two of his teeth out, and now the parents are getting together to discuss the incident. The already strained conversation about how to deal with the fallout between their children gives way to offerings of fancy French desserts and comparisons about the qualities of neighborhood parks, then soon bends to tirades, vomiting, and the innocent destruction of tulips. On the face of it, there's not much to this play, but the premise sets up a downward spiral of events that plays to that little slice in all of us that likes seeing things blow up.

(l to r) Michelle Hand (Annette), Stephen Peirick (Alan),
Michael Juncal (Michael) and Sarajane Alverson (Veronica).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Veronica Novak, a high-minded writer -- intensely interested in Darfur and a firm believer in the "soothing power of culture", is played with a haughty chill by Alverson, and her husband Michael, more of a regular guy who sells domestic hardware, is brought to life by Juncal, with charming appeal. His natural style and mannerisms remind me of the late, great James Gandolfini, who played the role on Broadway. Alan Raleigh is a lawyer tied to his constantly ringing cell phone. He's representing a drug company whose product leaves people bumping into furniture, and Peirick plays him with a fitting tone of arrogance. Alan's wife Annette, played with long-suffering reserve by Hand, is a wealth manager, who calmly withstands her husband's behavior until she erupts in a hilarious fit of discontent. The explosions seemed a tad cautious on opening night, but the performances, under Gary F. Bell's direction, provide a satisfying amount of voyeuristic, "fly-on-the-wall" pleasure.

(l to r) Sarajane Alverson (Veronica), Michael Juncal (Michael),
Stephen Peirick (Alan) and Michelle Hand (Annette).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Rob Lippert brings his usual touch to the scenic design, creating a stylish apartment that speaks to the taste of its owners, and is nicely lit by Tyler Duenow, with Bell providing the costume design.

This 90 minute one-act makes for an entertaining study in people behaving badly -- well worth the price of admission. It's at Tower Grove Abbey until the 21st. Check it out!


GOD OF CARNAGE

(l to r) Sarajane Alverson (Veronica), Stephen Peirick (Alan),
Michael Juncal (Michael) and Michelle Hand (Annette).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton 
Directed by Gary F. Bell 
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through February 21 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday, February 21 at 2pm

Cast:
Sarajane Alverson (Veronica), Michael Juncal (Michael), Michelle Hand (Annette) and Stephen Peirick (Alan).

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

BASHIR LAZHAR • Upstream Theater

Évelyne de la Chenelière's "Bashir Lazhar" is the story of a French-Algerian political refugee living in Montreal. This play, essentially a monologue, was beefed up and adapted into a film in 2011 and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The stage play is an intimate affair, performed small-scale with a sparse set at the Kranzberg's black box, but J. Samuel Davis breathes a world of life into the character of Bashir Lazhar -- this immigrant trying to navigate his surroundings in the wake of a civil war, in a superb solo performance full of resilience, heartache and humor.

The play opens with Bashir nervously preparing to greet his classroom of sixth graders. The students have tragically lost their previous teacher, Martine Lachance, and Bashir has taken the job as her substitute. He's got a way with his students -- encouraging but tough, trying to help them cope with the loss of Lachance, and prepare them for the world and the violence within it, because he, along with his students, have been through harrowing times. His story unfolds slowly through a series of scenes that jump back and forth in time. Bashir bonds with the kids, talks to colleagues, breaks the school regulations with his unorthodox teaching style, and has mournful conversations with himself and flashback conversations with his family as they try to escape the Algerian Civil War.

J. Samuel Davis (Bashir Lazhar)
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Playwright de la Chenelière's script is full of lyrical passages and revelations that dole out the story bit by bit, but can be tough to put together until later in the play. Under Philip Boehm's direction, Davis carries us through the eighty or so minutes with an impressive range, keeping our attention throughout and stringing together his scenes with heartfelt emotion. Cristie Johnston's scenic design includes a couple of pieces of furniture and a locker, with lighting design by Steve Carmichael, and Farshid Soltanshahi's music that guides us through changes in place and time.

J. Samuel Davis (Bashir Lazhar)
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
This local premiere, well worth checking out, is at the Kranzberg until the 15th.


BASHIR LAZHAR

Written by Évelyne de la Chenelière, translated by Morwyn Brebner
Directed by Philip Boehm 
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through February 15 | tickets: $20 - $30
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
J. Samuel Davis* (Bashir Lazhar), Aliyah Taliaferro - 1/30 - 2/1, Eden Harris - 2/5 - 2/8, Avery Smith - 2/12 - 2/15 (Girl).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Cristie Johnston; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; lighting design by Steve Carmichael; music by Farshid Soltanshahi; properties design by Claudia Horn; stage manager, Patrick Siler.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

SAFE HOUSE • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Keith Josef Adkins’ “Safe House” is set in 1843 and centers on two brothers -- Addison (Daniel Morgan Shelley) and Frank Pedigrew (Will Cobbs) who live with their Aunt Dorcas (Kelly Taffe) in Kentucky. They're African Americans who were born free. In 1840's Kentucky, there was a big distinction to be made between freed slaves, and African Americans who were born free, but this play provides a thought-provoking look at what that freedom truly affords and how that freedom is viewed.

Addison's is the first face we see. He's an ambitious, hard-working cobbler who supports his family selling his wares from door to door with affable charm -- his "free papers" always at the ready. He's got dreams of opening up his own shop in the Pedigrew home, but they are just about to finish up a couple of years under house arrest for harboring and assisting runaway slaves. His quick-tempered brother Frank and Aunt Dorcas are less concerned with obeying the rules, though they know their privileges can be snatched away for the smallest violation.
Will Cobbs (Frank) and Daniel Morgan Shelley (Addison).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Aunt Dorcas still finds it hard to resist the urge to help neighboring slaves across the Ohio River to the North, and then on to Liberia -- a country settled by American freed slaves. Frank has dreams of his own that don't involve toeing the line, and he tires of his brother constantly bringing him to heel. While Addison is busy working to produce the highest quality shoes to impress the right people, things get complicated when it becomes obvious that the habits of Frank and Aunt Dorcas are hard to break. The Pedigrews also have to contend with daily visits from Bracken (Michael Sean McGuinness), a white sheriff's deputy in servitude himself to a degree, who was childhood chums with Dorcas (a friendship that sweetly hints at something more).
Michael Sean McGuinness (Bracken),
Daniel Morgan Shelley (Addison) and Will Cobbs (Frank).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
He enjoys coming by for a drop of rum or a slice of pie, but is charged with keeping a close eye on the family until their punishment is up, with tension that builds to a moment that elicits gasps from the audience.

Melissa Maxwell's direction keeps the story moving at a well paced clip, and the creative team contribute beautiful scenic, sound, lighting and costume design. The uniformly strong cast is rounded out by Cassia Thompson as Roxie, a runaway slave, and Raina Houston as Clarissa, a free woman of color whom Addison and Frank have their eyes on.

Daniel Morgan Shelley (Addison) and Kelly Taffe (Dorcas).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
You can check it out at the Rep studio theatre until the 8th.


SAFE HOUSE 

Written by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Melissa Maxwell
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through February 8 | tickets: $50 - $65
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays to Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Cast:
Will Cobbs (Frank), Raina Houston (Clarissa), Michael Sean McGuinness (Bracken), Daniel Morgan Shelley (Addison), Kelly Taffe (Dorcas) and Cassia Thompson (Roxie).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack; costume design by Myrna Colley-Lee; lighting design by Mark Wilson; composer and sound design by Scott O’Brien; stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

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