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Saturday, April 30, 2016

IVANOV • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nikolai Ivanov, and most of his countrymen, are suffering from numbing boredom. But Ivanov is not only bored as hell, he’s irascible. He disparages just about everyone who crosses his path, he neglects his sick wife in favor of socializing with friends, and he’s up to his nose in debt. St. Louis Actors' Studio closes its ninth season with an excellent production of Anton Chekhov’s first full-length play, written in 1887 and set against the cold, rural Russian countryside. With dreary outlooks spiked with humorous satire, it feels like a prototype for his trademark themes, and there’s a visible gun. So you know what that means.

Drew Battles plays Ivanov with a palpable fatigue -- languishing under a weight of self loathing he can’t figure out. His depression never seems to damper the mood of Borkin though. He manages Ivanov’s mostly barren farms, always coming up with schemes to make money, and Dave Wassilak lends a comically inflated confidence to every plan he hatches. Adding to the humor is Ivanov’s penniless Uncle, Count Shabelsky (Bobby Miller), who lives with Ivanov. In between his grumbling, he’s just about the only one who shows Anna (Julie Layton), Ivanov’s wife of five years, withering from tuberculosis, any compassion. Anna’s doctor, Lvov (Reginald Pierre), is also an Anna advocate. Lvov is disgusted by Ivanov’s treatment of her and exasperated at the very mention of him. While Lvov insists that he is an honest man, Pierre’s cagey portrayal keeps you guessing at his motives, and his patient, keenly portrayed by Layton, is affectingly tragic.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

BRIEFS: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays • That Uppity Theatre Company and Vital VOICE Magazine

That Uppity Theatre Company and Vital VOICE were back again last weekend for "Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBTQ plays,” presenting eight works selected from over 200 nation-wide submissions. Presented by Pearl Vodka and celebrating its 5-year anniversary, the festival’s cornerstone of diverse subject matter has attracted a wider net of St. Louis talent and also widening LGBTQ and racial diversity. The plays were varied in tone, but there was a thread of family, love and acceptance that seemed to run underneath many. Max Friedman, playwright of “The Grind,” directed by Gad Guterman, was the winner of this years’ second annual Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth.

Friday, April 8, 2016

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog’s latest production has every bit the vibe of a rock concert when you walk into the theatre. The band, typically secluded somewhere behind the set, is front and center, warming up before the show. Rob Lippert’s scenic design features TV screens and speakers galore. The bar, usually out in the lobby, is in the house on the floor against the stage, with a pair of Stray Dog alums (the night I went) serving as bartenders. So grab a drink and buckle up -- you’re about to be entertained by the song stylings of Hedwig, a genderqueer rock singer from East Germany, and her band, The Angry Inch.

Hedwig (Michael Baird) is in town for a St. Louis engagement, and during her roughly 90-minute show, we’ll hear about her younger years as Hansel Schmidt, her travels, misadventures, heartbreaks and her surgically fucked-up sex change operation that leaves her with, what Hedwig has titled, an “angry inch” -- her band’s namesake. A cheeky, tortured and fiercely funny Baird is in full command of this diva, carrying the titular headliner on his shoulders, holding the audience, and making the most of John Cameron Mitchell’s improvisational book. At times full of cavorting swagger and at other times slowing heartbreak, Baird physically and vocally handles numbers like, "The Origin of Love,” "Wicked Little Town" and “Midnight Radio” assuredly.

Monday, April 4, 2016

OLD WICKED SONGS • New Jewish Theatre

Jon Marans' Pulitzer Prize-nominated play offers a lot of layers underneath a facade that seems, initially, predictable. Stephen Hoffman is a 25 year old piano prodigy who’s burned out, and though he’s a “superb technician,” he’s lost touch with his passion. He has traveled to Vienna, Austria to study accompaniment with a Professor Schiller, but learns, much to his irritation, that he must first spend three months with Professor Mashkan to study singing.

Why singing? Well, by Schiller’s reckoning, before sitting in front of those black and white keys, an accompanist has to experience the other side of the equation -- the singing part, for a broader understanding of that connection. As portrayed by Will Bonfiglio, Hoffman’s a tense, walled-off young man from the minute he steps into Josef Mashkan’s studio -- flinching at the threat of a hand on his shoulder and impervious to Mashkan’s natural charm. Jerry Vogel is perfectly cast as Professor Mashkan, who feels deeply, musically and otherwise. Intimate, grumbly and funny, with an anti-jewish veneer he displays like a shield, he tries to urge Hoffman to tap into the emotional side of the music -- a probing that peels away the layers of both characters.

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