Monday, August 14, 2017

THE COLOR OF AUGUST • Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble continues its "Season of Adaptation" with The Color of August, by Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero. Written in 1988, and translated and adapted for this production by Will Bonfiglio, The Color of August explores a reunion of two artists and old friends that wavers between soft embraces and loud shouting, dependence and conflict. The play features Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts -- actors who have been together in a few two-handers in the past, and there’s an undeniable synergy between them that complements the play. Who will portray which role is determined by a coin toss before each performance. The night I went it was “heads”, and Tibbetts played Maria, a successful artist, with Schwetye playing Laura, her inspiration.

Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Maria and Laura have known each other since childhood and shared an intimate friendship, but eight years have passed since they’ve spoken. Since their estrangement, Maria's artwork has garnered fame, while Laura, who gave up her art some time ago, scrapes by as a model. Laura doesn’t know it yet, but they’re about to meet up again. Using a false name, Maria has booked Laura for a modeling gig, and the air is charged with tension from the moment they see each other. Maria may have accolades and wealth, but she’s desperate for Laura to stay, while Laura meets Maria with cool indifference. Nursing old wounds and trying to maintain leverage, they fluctuate between attraction and aversion, and end up stripping down, literally, splashing each other with paint -- seemingly the only way they can reach a level playing field.

Maria (Rachel Tibbetts) and Laura (Ellie Schwetye).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Director Lucy Cashion, artistic director and founder of Equally Represented Arts, keeps the interaction between the women surprising, and includes her signature use of movement, providing a further extension of the push and pull of a tangled relationship. As Maria, Tibbetts entices and cajoles to be in Laura’s company for as long as she can be, offering her drink after drink after drink. Schwetye’s Laura is agitated when she realizes she’s been duped into a forced reunion, and aloof when she reluctantly agrees to stay awhile. The only other character is “John”, a man mentioned, briefly heard, but not seen. Maggie Genovese and Anne Genovese provide the original paintings, and Bess Moynihan provides the scenic design of a nicely appointed artist's space featuring Maria's latest piece center stage, and a fountain in front of the stage, functioning practically and symbolically.

With a running time of about an hour, it’s a compelling study of an emancipation of sorts -- humorous and bold, that leaves you considering it in the car on the way home. It’s playing at the Chapel until the 19th.

Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell

Written by Paloma Pedrero 
Directed by Lucy Cashion 
through August 19 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm
Pay-What-You-Can performances on Thursdays, August 10 and August 17

(If the coin toss is heads)
Maria: Rachel Tibbetts
Laura: Ellie Schwetye

(If the coin toss is tails)
Maria: Ellie Schwetye
Laura: Rachel Tibbetts

Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and
Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Stage Manager: Kristen Strom
Translator: Will Bonfiglio
Dramaturg: Miranda Jagels FĂ©lix
Scenic Designer: Bess Moynihan
Lighting Designer: Bess Moynihan
Costume Designer: Liz Henning
Sound Designer: Lucy Cashion
Original Paintings: Maggie Genovese, Anne Genovese
Assistant Lighting Designer: Dominick Ehling
Photography: Joey Rumpell
Graphic Designer: Dottie Quick
Box Office Manager: Kristin Rion

Sunday, August 6, 2017

RAGTIME • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog closes out its season with an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s sweeping musical adaptation, Ragtime. Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, it places us at an intersection between the comfortable lives of suburbia, the disadvantaged lives in Harlem, and the enterprising optimism of newly-arrived immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The painful growth of 1900's America is illustrated in Ragtime’s rousing prologue, where we are introduced to the ingredients in this uniquely American stew.

The upper-classes are represented by Mother (Kay Love), the matriarch of a well-to-do family living in New Rochelle, New York, that made their money manufacturing fireworks. Mother embraces everyone she meets with an open heart, and Love portrays her with a genteel determination, delivering a stirring ”Back to Before”. Mother’s husband, Father, in a solid performance by Phil Leveling, is a bit of a throwback -- resistant to the changing landscape of the country.

(upper level) Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee),
Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), Mother (Kay Love),
Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro),
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones)
and (lower level) The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
In Harlem, Ragtime music was catching on, represented by a pianist named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. -- talented and amiable, but defiant in his pursuit of justice. Omega Jones plays him with charisma, style and powerful vocals -- a very impressive performance. Evan Addams, an alumna of the Artists-in-Training program with St. Louis Opera Theatre, makes her Stray Dog debut in a knockout performance as a washerwoman named Sarah, his girlfriend, who is taken in along with her illegitimate child, by Mother. She’s got a gorgeous voice, and adds goose-bump inducing top notes over the big ensemble numbers.

Then there’s Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who sells portrait silhouettes on the streets, struggling to make a decent life for himself and his daughter. Jeffrey M. Wright brings a heartfelt resilience to the role, with a lovely rendition of "Gliding”.

The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Strong performances are also counted in the portrayals of the historical figures of the time who are added to the mix, including a provocative Laura Kyro as political activist Emma Goldman, Angela Bubash as the acclaimed model and chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit, and Terry Lee Watkins, Jr., resolute as educator and civil rights activist, Booker T. Washington. Additionally, there's Chuck Lavazzi as a grumpy Grandfather, and a volunteer fire chief, who has a penchant for the “n” word and an envious disdain for Walker and his fancy new car. Joe Webb and Avery Smith, as The Little Boy and The Little Girl respectively, also turn in great performances.

Mother (Kay Love) and Sarah (Evan Addams).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Justin Been directs Stray Dog’s huge cast of 26 smoothly and smartly, and the staging, along with sharp choreography by Mike Hodges, clarify the boundaries between these groups clearly. There are no weak links among the energetic ensemble, and the band, under the direction of Jennifer Buchheit, does a fine job with the infectious Tony-Award winning score (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens). Eileen Engel provides the show with first-rate costume design, and David Blake’s striking scenic design of symmetrical iron railings handsomely frames the action.

There’s practically nothing to dislike about this production, and the friction between these bedrock groups of America ring with resonance today, but luckily, so does the resolve. The lyrics of Lynn Ahrens sum it all up beautifully:
“The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...

It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it Ragtime...”

Don’t miss it. It’s playing until the 19th.

Incidental thoughts
• If you’re not moved by the end of the first act closer, "Till We Reach That Day”, there may very well be something wrong with you.

Henry Ford (Jason Meyers) and
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones).
Photo credit: John Lamb
• There's a great little number in there that pays tribute to the favorite sport of the day, baseball. The male ensemble is a hoot.


Book by Terrence McNally 
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through August 19 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Additional performances 8pm Wednesday, August 16 and 2pm Saturday, August 19

The Little Boy: Joe Webb
Father: Phil Leveling
Mother: Kay Love
Mother’s Younger Brother: Jon Bee
Grandfather: Chuck Lavazzi
Coalhouse Walker, Jr.: Omega Jones
Sarah: Evan Addams
Booker T. Washington: Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.
Tateh: Jeffrey M. Wright
The Little Girl: Avery Smith
Harry Houdini: Joseph Gutowski
JP Morgan: Gerry Love
Henry Ford: Jason Meyers
Emma Goldman: Laura Kyro
Evelyn Nesbit: Angela Bubash
Sarah’s Friend: Ebony Easter

Jackson Buhr
Jennifer Clodi
Chris Gauss
Melissa Sharon Harris
William Humphrey
Caleb Long
Dorrian Neymour
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Chrissie Watkins

Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Scenic Designer: David Blake
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Choreographer: Mike Hodges
Production Manager: Robert M. Kapeller

The Band
Clarinet: Kelly Austermann
Piano 3: Mike Blackwood
Music Director/Piano 2: Jennifer Buchheit
Violin: Mallory Golden
Piano 1: Chris Petersen
Trumpet: John Reichert
Percussion: Joe Winters


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