Monday, July 10, 2017

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL I • St. Louis Actors' Studio

The fifth annual LaBute New Theater Festival has chosen five finalists to debut this year, along with five high school finalists that were presented as stage readings this past Saturday. The festival’s namesake, Tony-nominated playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute, has once again written a play specifically for the festival that will be presented every night of the run. The first of two sets of plays will run until the 16th, and they share a contemporary, political tinge.

LaBute’s Hate Crime gives us a peek into the lives of two lovers plotting a murder to collect on an insurance claim. Greg Hunsaker goes over the details of his planned method with his lover, played by Chauncy Thomas. He intends to make the deed look like a hate crime, and Thomas seems resolved with the plans, even though there's a twist involved.
Greg Hunsaker and Chauncy Thomas.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Hunsaker’s crafting of a murder with the goal of making it look like a hate crime is creepy enough, without Thomas’s hot-and-cold vibe that makes you doubt his own motives in a piece that’s unexpectedly over before you know it.

In Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna by Ron Radice, three guys toting briefcases are on a platform waiting for their train. One, played wonderfully by Ryan Lawson-Maeske, is on his way to a job interview. An insignificant elbow nudge puts him in the middle, literally and figuratively, as the two other guys (Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre) take turns bad-mouthing each other and throwing suspicion on the other’s character. Small trespasses become major breaches of decency in a dual-pronged gaslighting. There’s also quite a bit of briefcase switching going on. Radice’s absurdist play gets a little meandering, but Sickmann and Pierre’s exaggerated performance plays well to the tone of it.

Spencer Sickmann, Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Reggie Pierre.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Sacred Space, by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, begins with two women, Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow, preparing for a Tahara -- a purification ritual to ready a body for Jewish burial. It’s the morning after the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, and the tragedy is troubling the minds of them both. Just as the cleansing begins, a text from one of the shooting victims appears against the wall. They think they’re hallucinating at first, but after the texts are joined by the texts from the mother of the victim, they decide that maybe just this once, they can interrupt the rules of tradition to help more than one soul receive peace. Peppered with humor and well executed by Brown and Furlow, Sacred Space offers an ode to the victims of the shooting that dominated the news just over a year ago.

Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
In Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, drilling down to find the truth in an everyday news story is equal to foreplay. After the initial clumsiness of a first date between two D.C. residents, played by Nancy Bell and Thomas, they decide to try something new and “kinky”. They spend the rest of their date analyzing a breaking headline story. Researching online, making phone calls and listening to the news, they try their best to strip away all the layers of hype to find the truth, as Kelly Schaschl delivers the flurry of newscast soundbites. The idea of truth-seeking as a turn on is an interesting idea, and well played by the cast, but it loses a little steam once the premise is set. Those political threads run most strongly through this one.

Nancy Bell and Chauncy Thomas.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
The directors do skillful work with the scripts they are given, but a couple of the plays seem incomplete, coming off more as a running commentary on the current climate, as the question of whom to believe and what sources to trust has become a slippery business. The second set of one-acts will start July 21 and run through July 30.

Incidentals
• In the past couple of years, some finalists of the festival have enjoyed New York premieres at 59E59 Theaters, an off-Broadway spot in Midtown Manhattan. It’s a great opportunity for the playwrights, and great exposure for St. Louis Actors’ Studio.


LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through July 30 | tickets: $30 - $35
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Hate Crime by Neil LaBute • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Greg Hunsaker

Finalists
Set One (July 7-16):

Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna by Ron Radice, Andover, MA • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Spencer Sickmann
Reggie Pierre
Ryan Lawson-Maeske

Sacred Space by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, Needham, MA  • Directed by Nancy Bell*
Cast
Sophia Brown
Kim Furlow
The Deceased: Kelly Robertson

Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, St. Louis, MO • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Nancy Bell*
Kelly Schaschl
Voice of Friend #1 Lindsey Steinkamp
Voice of Friend #2 Isabella Koster

Finalists
Set Two (July 21 – July 30):

How’s Bruno by Cary Pepper, San Francisco, CA • Directed by Nancy Bell*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Reggie Pierre
Spencer Sickmann

Sin Titulo by Tearrance Chisholm, St. Louis, MO • Directed by Linda Kennedy*
Cast
Patrice Foster
Reggie Pierre
Jaz Tucker

High School Finalists
Saturday Morning Stage Readings (Free admission July 8 @ 11am):
Directed by Edward Ibur

Depths of Hell by Erica O’Brien, Webster Groves High School

Five Things I Wish My Mother Never Told Me by Cicely Henderson, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts

24th December by Ella Schmidt, John Burroughs School

10 Steps to A Good Life by Ella Genovese, Nerinx Hall

Dessert in the Desert by Danielle Goldberg, Parkway High School

Cast
Mara Sudekum
Laurel Button
Max Rodhouse
Dahlia Haddad
Peter Mayer*
Nancy Bell*
Spencer Sickmann

Creative
Stage Manager: Amy J. Paige
Assistant Stage Manager: Phoebe Sklansky
Scenic Designer: Patrick Huber
Lighting Designer: Patrick Huber
Sound Designers: John Pierson, Nancy Bell and Linda Kennedy
Technical Director: Joseph Novak
Costume Designer: Carla Landis Evans
Props Designer: Carla Landis Evans
Light Board Operator: Carla Landis Evans and Sally Liz Evans
Sound/Projection Operator: Amy J. Paige
Master Electrician: Dalton Robison
Stagehands: Kelly Robertson and Phoebe Sklansky
House Manager: Kimberly Sansone

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Grand Center Theatre Crawl • St. Louis Public Radio and Grand Center

The fifth annual Grand Center Theatre Crawl kicked off this past Friday in the Grand Center Arts district. With a map and program of performances in hand, patrons were free to rotate through any one of 19 venues and get access to 24 local theatre groups. With short one-acts starting every thirty minutes, you could see up to six shows each day, starting at 6:30pm Friday and 1pm Saturday. Best of all, it’s free!

It’s impossible to see everything, but here are a handful of things that were on offer.

The Midnight Company • TONIGHT'S SPECIAL by Joe Hanrahan • Directed by Sarah Whitney @ STLPR Learning Studio
with Emily Leidenfrost and Joe Hanrahan

A seasoned waiter working at a highly reputable restaurant tries to warn Rose, a young waitress, about the dangers of the restaurant business. Rose is an aspiring actress who’s been coming to the restaurant since she was a kid and loves the fact that she now works there, but she’s been spending more and more time with the staff, partying till all hours. The waiter’s buck-wild days are behind him, and he doesn’t want to see Rose let her dreams fall by the wayside by carving out habits that may be hard to break. Hanrahan’s story gave each actor the opportunity to shine, with some nice bonding moments over the restaurant’s unique culinary pairings (like Greek tacos or Italian egg rolls).


Theatre Nuevo • THE HISTORY OF MEXICANS IN 10 MINUTES by Alvaro Saar Rios @ Front Steps of the Sheldon
with Anna Skidis Vargas, Jesse Muñoz and Kelvin Urday

Theatre Nuevo’s short, featured in their most recent festival, Acronyms, first takes the audience back to a time when there were no Mexicans. From the Aztecs and the lisping Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, to the birth of the Mestizos and the reclaiming of Mexico from the Spanish Empire, not only was this presentation funny, it was also very informative. Kelvin Urday served as the narrator and Jesse Muñoz and Theatre Nuevo’s artistic director, Anna Skidis Vargas, acted out all of the vignettes. 


Stray Dog Theatre • THE THIRD TIME by Stephen Peirick • Directed by Gary F. Bell @ Grandel Ballroom
with Kevin O'Brien, Maria Bartolotta and Angela Bubash

This play opens with a couple making their third trip to the fertility clinic. The wife decides to stick around for moral support when an “inspiration pile” of magazines and videos sparks an argument between them. While he tries to explain that visual stimulation is just a natural thing for guys, she finds the pornography disgusting, and is disappointed that he can’t just fantasize about her. The couple soon learns that sharing your fantasies with your spouse is not a good idea. Great performances from Kevin O'Brien and Maria Bartolotta as the couple, and Angela Bubash as Nurse Bunny.


Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis • YOU LIED TO ME ABOUT CENTRALIA by John Guare • Directed by Pete Winfrey @ Metropolitan Lobby
with Pete Winfrey and Julia Crump

You Lied to Me about Centralia is based on the short story, Portrait of a Girl in Glass by Tennessee Williams, that evolved into The Glass Menagerie. In Centralia, Jim, the Gentleman Caller, meets his fiancée on a train platform. He’s just come back from the Wingfields’, while Betty went to her Uncle’s house hoping to snag a cash wedding gift for a house she desperately wants. She’s sickened to find him living snugly with a black man named Rainbow who she initially assumes is the help. Though Betty spends her evening in uncomfortable displeasure, Jim has an enlightening dinner with his “limp-wristed” co-worker named Shakespeare and his sister. As Jim longingly recalls the events of his night, you come to realize that he was quite taken with Shakespeare’s sister, and you feel a pang of pity for him -- considering the boxed-in future that awaits him with his bigoted, shallow wife-to-be. Although a familiarity with The Glass Menagerie is helpful, there were wonderful performances from Pete Winfrey and Julia Crump.


Tesseract Theatre • WALTZING BABE VICTORIA by Taylor Gruenloh @ STLPR Community Room
with Ashley Netzhammer, DDare Bionic and Jazmine Wade

In this absurdist piece, a man described as a gentleman from the Naval Academy instructs Victoria, a young dancer, on variations of the waltz. During their practice, they’re circled and shadowed by a witch in a black robe. Periodically, the gentleman reprimands Victoria seemingly for nothing, and calls on the witch to bind her feet, then her hands, knees, and mouth. The more bound she becomes, the more beautiful she is to him. With some references to pop culture and social media sprinkled in, it’s an oddly fascinating piece that you could walk away from with any number of interpretations.

You always wish events like this had a longer run, but it's a unique opportunity to get a taste of several companies. The variety of performances alone make it a must see, so keep an eye out for it next year. Did I mention it was free?

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