Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ALL IN THE TIMING • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Playwright David Ives plays fast and loose with the concepts of time and language in his zesty collection of six one-act comedies. You have an idea of what you're getting into when you see Patrick Huber’s set adorned with scenic artist, Cristie Johnston's Salvador Dalí-like melting clock on the floor of the Gaslight's stage, backed by a blue sky with clouds. Fasten your seat belts, please.

The first play, "Sure Thing", opens with strangers meeting in a cafe. As Bill (Ben Ritchie) tries an opening line on Betty (Emily Baker), to no avail, the ringing of an offstage bell reboots their conversation over and over.  "Is this chair taken?" -- "Yes" turns into "Is this chair taken?" -- "No, but I'm expecting somebody in a minute" -- and they make their way through blunders, pretension and disinterest, posing questions and answers in different ways, until a romantic spark is finally ignited, with Ritchie and Baker's performances turning on a dime.

Michelle Hand (Kafka), Shaun Sheley (Milton)
and Ben Ritchie (Swift).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Words, Words, Words" features three monkeys, Swift (Ritchie), Milton (Shaun Sheley) and Kafka (Michelle Hand), caged in a lab with three typewriters and a tire swing. An unseen Dr. Rosenbaum is testing something called the "The Infinite Monkey Theorem" -- basically an idea that a monkey with a typewriter can, in time, produce Hamlet. In between beating their chests and eating bananas, Milton manages to type out the first lines of Paradise Lost, Kafka bangs out twenty lines of the letter "K" before giving in to writer's block, and Swift's main concern is breaking out of their cage. Even though they're all dressed in circus clothes, there's a self-awareness of their plight which makes it all the more amusing -- touching on commonly shared feelings recognizable to anyone who's ever had to sit down at a keyboard or a blank piece of paper.

In "The Universal Language", a bashful young woman with a stutter named Dawn (Baker) enrolls in a class for a language called "Unamunda" -- a fake language made up by the instructor, Don (Sheley). After a $500 commitment for the class and some clumsy starts and stops, both connect over a language of nonsense. There's actually a translation of it! The dexterity in which Sheley and Baker translate this babble into something that even the audience begins to understand after a while is impressive.

Ben Ritchie (Baker), Emily Baker (Woman #1),
Michelle Hand (Woman #2) and Shaun Sheley (Philip Glass).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" opens with… well… Philip Glass buying a loaf of bread. When he's recognized by one of the two women in the bakery (Baker and Hand), they, along with the baker (Ritchie) and Philip Glass (Sheley), embark on a musical parody in the style of the titular minimalist composer with the repetition of a few words of dialogue, working in some synchronized movements. It's as fascinating as it is absurd, and delivered with deadpan perfection by the cast. You really have to see this one in person.

In "The Philadelphia", Mark (Ritchie) meets his buddy Al (Sheley) at a local diner after having a very bad day. Seems he can't get anything he wants and feels like he's in the Twilight Zone, until Al explains that Mark is actually in "a Philadelphia" -- a black hole of sorts where you have to get what you want by asking for the opposite. This is soon proven true when Mark orders a meal from the snippy waitress (Baker, in a hilarious wig and cat eye glasses), who assures him that his situation isn't so bad. She was in “a Cleveland" once, where nothing could be worse.

Shaun Sheley (Trotsky), Ben Ritchie (Ramon)
and Michelle Hand (Mrs. Trotsky).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Variations On The Death of Trotsky" starts on the last day of the Russian revolutionary's life after having a mountain climber's axe buried in his skull. It's true that the blow to Leon Trotsky's head failed to kill him instantly, but here, Sheley as Trotsky suffers from a major time lag while his wife (Hand), with the advantage of an encyclopedia, along with his killer, Ramon (Ritchie), assure him -- yep, you're a goner.

These plays are like a forced-perceptive funhouse of theatre, where timing plays as much a part as language and connection, skillfully directed by Elizabeth Helman. This talented cast of four deliver the comedy with precision, and bring out the "under the surface" messages that underscore each piece. Huber's scenic and lighting design complement the action with props and costumes by Carla Landis Evans, and sound design by Helman.

These surreal comedies, laced with a streak of the intellectual, are serious fun, and an exciting start to St. Louis Actors' Studio's eighth season called "The Best Medicine". It'll be at the Gaslight until October 5th. Check it out.


Written by David Ives
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through October 5 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie, and Shaun Sheley*
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic & lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Elizabeth Helman; costume & props design by Carla Landis Evans; scenic painting by Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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