“Human Terrain” At Mustard Seed Shows The “Human” Vs. “Humane” Aspects Of War

September 1, 2014
Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in Mustard Seed's "Human Terrain."

Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in Mustard Seed’s “Human Terrain.”

The Human Terrain System is an actual U.S. Army program designed to “improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed.” Easier said than done. It also aims to assist the U.S. government in understanding foreign countries prior to engagements in said region. The powerful play at Mustard Seed Theatre, “Human Terrain,” shows how the concerned people hired to carry out the program often are the only people with the humanity to truly understand those cultures.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer has fictionalized such an encounter set in Fallujah, Iraq during a campaign set in 2007 and 2008. As the play opens, a scientist with a large aeronautics corporation is being questioned as to her actions as an HTS specialist during her time in Iraq. Knowing the language and having an understanding about a much of the culture and beliefs of the area, we flashback to her time there where she has befriended an Iraqi woman. The question comes down to whether she allowed this woman, Adiliah, certain information about imminent dangers to her and her community. In a terse and colorful manner, her interactions with the U.S. military and her friendship with this woman are explored during her time there and the big question of when does military action trump humane response and vice-versa.

Melissa Gerth is emotionally powerful as the scientist, Mabry. Her mix of compassion for the people she thinks she understands and her loyalty to her country becomes a volatile combination. As the interrogator, Kate, Dawn Campbell treads a thin line. She is tough-as-nails but we can see an occasional slight crack in her methodology. A remarkable performance by Wendy Greenwood as Adiliah transforms this play into a stark reality. She is nothing short of incredible in manner and language as she tightropes on the edge of friendship and suspicion.

Melissa Gerth and Antonio Mosley in "Human Terrain" at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Melissa Gerth and Antonio Mosley in “Human Terrain” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

B. Weller also shines as a ramrod Army captain who begrudginly accepts Mabry as a “civilian” counterpart to his command in Fallujah. He also is a stern taskmaster who occasionally displays a weakness for the human terrain program. John Clark and Taylor Campbell turn in nice work as soldiers who show both the compassion and mistrust of Mabry and what she is trying to accomplish. Rounding out the cast is a strong performance from Antonio Mosley as a young Iraqi who plays an integral part as the plot unfolds.

Director Lori Adams has brought a great deal of strength to the script with her compassion for the characters and striking a chord by showing the difference between the Human Terrain System and the humanity being implored by Mabry and probably others of her kind in these war torn countries. She is ably assisted with a great set design by John Stark and equally effective lighting design by Michael Sullivan. Making it a true family affair, Jane Sullivan brings a stark reality with her costumes and Zoe Sullivan has designed a powerful sound design.

Artistic Director Deanna Jent and the cast and crew of “Human Terrain” can be proud of this- their season opener. It bodes well for a season that continues with a replay of last year’s Circle Award winning  a cappella musical, “All Is Calm” in November and two more plays in 2015. Call Mustard Seed Theatre at 314-719-8060 or online at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information. “Human Terrain” plays through September 14th.

Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill” Offers A Small Town Story With Rustic Music

August 22, 2014
Pete Winfrey as Joe and Sam Auch as Percy in "The Spitfire Grill" at Insight. Photo: John Lamb

Pete Winfrey as Joe and Sam Auch as Percy in “The Spitfire Grill” at Insight. Photo: John Lamb

Never been a big fan of country music as a whole but I usually find it more palatable in a musical (Cotton Patch Gospel, Hands On A Hard Body, etc.). “The Spitfire Grill” is a show I’ve been listening to for years and find the home-spun music with some big show aspirations a delightful, tuneful CD to pop in the car on occasion. Insight Theatre Company has finally brought the show itself to my front door and the results are a bit mixed but worth the trip for some outstanding performances even though the story is a bit old fashioned. I have never seen the 1998 film on which the musical is based, but it’s folksy charm as translated to the stage is a bit much.

Perchance Talbot, just call her Percy, comes to the town of Gilliad, Wisconsin after a five year stay in prison. Her criminal background becomes fodder for some of the folks in town as her story unfolds throughout the play. She meets the kindly and helpful sheriff, Joe, who snags her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill- the only eatin’ place in town. She next meets Hannah’s nephew, Caleb and his wife, Shelby along with the town gossip and all-around busy body, Effy. Listed in the program as “The Visitor,” we soon meet the stranger that Hannah leaves a loaf of bread out for every night and he also plays an important role in the story as his background unfolds.

Janet Wells as Hannah, Troy Turnipseed as Caleb and Jenni Ryan as Shelby at Insight's "The Spitfire Grill." Photo: John Lamb

Janet Wells as Hannah, Troy Turnipseed as Caleb and Jenni Ryan as Shelby at Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill.” Photo: John Lamb

Percy has a hard time adjusting and gaining acceptance with the small town folk but she becomes a favorite to everyone except Caleb, who feels she’s influencing his usually pliant wife. She’s gaining independence from the man who used to be a big shot but now only has his wife to boss around. As secrets unfold and Hannah’s plan to “raffle” off the Grill to the most deserving essay (along with a $100 entry fee) on why folks think they deserve to be given the Spitfire, the sporadic musical score gives us some lovely ballads- “The Wide Woods” and “Forest For The Trees” along with the haunting opening number, “A Ring Around The Moon” and the raucous First Act closer, “Shoot The Moon.” How everything is resolved and what happens to the characters, including the Grill itself, makes for a pleasant if not totally absorbing story.

Amy Loui as Effy and Janet Wells as Hannah in "The Spitfire Grill" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Amy Loui as Effy and Janet Wells as Hannah in “The Spitfire Grill” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Sam Auch is a real find in the role of Percy. Her resounding, strong voice and emotional delivery make her a likable character right off the bat. Pete Winfrey also shines as the smitten sheriff and does Jenni Ryan as the long-suffering wife, Shelby. Janet Wells is a hoot as the irascible Hannah and Troy Turnipseed is powerful as the emasculated Caleb. Amy Loui gives us a great performance as the butt-insky, Effy and Paul Balfe rounds out the cast as the infamous “visitor.” Insight’s Artistic Director, Maggie Ryan, directs “The Spitfire Grill” with a deft hand and creates some beautiful stage pictures with the help of a powerful Kyra Bishop set design.

Jenni Ryan as Shelby and Sam Auch as Percy in Insight's "The Spitfire Grill." Photo: John Lamb

Jenni Ryan as Shelby and Sam Auch as Percy in Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill.” Photo: John Lamb

Catherine Kopff handles the musical direction well with a backstage orchestra that features piano, strings and accordion. The Jeff Behm lights are great as are the fine costumes designed by Tracy Newcomb. With music and book by James Valco and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, “The Spitfire Grill” is a delightful diversion and is ably assisted by a strong cast.

If you’re a big fan of the folksy, feel-good story line and the somewhat CW feel of the music, “The Spitfire Grill” is the play for you. Catch it at Insight Theatre Company through August 31st. Contact them at insighttheatrecompany.com for tickets or more information.

The Woman, The Myth, The Monster- All Is Covered In Slightly Askew’s Season Finale

August 22, 2014
Mary converses with her "monster" in SATE's "Mary Shelley Monster Show." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary converses with her “monster” in SATE’s “Mary Shelley Monster Show.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

As their Season of the Monster closes with an original script, “Mary Shelley Monster Show,” Mother Nature added special effects on opening night at SATE as Shelley and her famous creation- Frankenstein’s Monster- conversed while thunder rattled and lightning shone through the stained glass windows of The Chapel. It made for an exciting night as the one-hour one act covered Mary Shelley, her famous husband and the crowd she ran around with as Rachel Tibbetts plays Mary and the versatile Ellie Schwetye plays everyone else.

This was a concept that Tibbetts and Schwetye had been working on for some time and playwright Nick Otten brought it all together giving us glimpses into the unusual world of both Mary and her famous husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hanging out with a gang headed up most notably by another poet, Lord Byron, rumors spread about their supposed risqué behavior while Mary says their most ardent pursuits centered on their famous ghost story contests which eventually resulted in her penning “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” in 1818. “Mary Shelley Monster Show” centers a lot on her continuing intellectual conversations with her creation as she is often surprised by what her imaginary visitor knows and how well he read her innermost thoughts. She had created her monster with an eye on such works that impressed her as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Coleridge’s “The Rime Of  the Ancient Mariner.” In her novel, her creation even reads works by Goethe and others- which made him a well-rounded monster so she should not have been surprised at his knowledge and ability to share cognitive thought.

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in "Mary Shelley Monster Show" at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in “Mary Shelley Monster Show” at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary frequently surprised her famous and not-so-famous contemporaries by her knowledge and depth. Pithy comments such as “a bad translation is worse than bad judgement” never failed to impress her fellow writers and, of course, her monster friend. She also shared frequent conversations with her late mother who she lost when she was only eleven days old. This tragedy also haunted her throughout her life as she felt she was responsible for killing her mother through her own birth.

Rachel Tibbetts is amazing as Mary. Her levels of emotion bring out the roller coaster of feelings she had in everyday life and even in her most quiet moments with her mother and monster conversations. As the monster, Percy, Lord Byron, Mary’s friend and rival, Claire Clairmont, Mary’s mother and a host of others, Ellie Schwetye is remarkable in her versatility. Passing backstage into one exit and immediately entering with just a slight change- a scarf, a shawl, a waistband- she immediately becomes another character. Even onstage changes occasionally occur with just a turn, a slumped shoulder or a stoop at the waist. Her “monster” appears through a scrim backed up by a rear-projecting light that gives her an odd shape and size that she further distorts through body movement. It’s quite a performance. The third, offstage, party is the powerful, booming voice of Carl Overly, Jr. As a portrait painter and interviewer of Mary, he is a striking presence though he doesn’t appear until curtain call. Director Kelley Weber has tied it all together in a package that looks remarkable and sounds as Gothic as Mary Shelley’s works.

Mary talks to her dead mother in SATE's "Mary Shelley Monster Show." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary talks to her dead mother in SATE’s “Mary Shelley Monster Show.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

The clever set design by David Blake consists of three-deep walls of diagonal wooden slats that rise above each other as they move toward backstage. Built in is a large scrim on stage left reserved mainly for the monster appearances and a smaller scrim stage right to accommodate Mary’s mother as she sits on a stool and chats. With Bess Moynihan’s striking lighting design, the effects become even more dramatic. Add the wonderful video design by Michael B. Perkins that travel over the wooden planks, the scrims and on a small easel and you’re treated to a show that is as visually stunning as it is remarkably acted. Ellie Schwetye also provides a wonderful sound design to flesh it all out.

“Mary Shelley Monster Show” is a wonderful, creative piece of theatre. It truly captures the essence of her time and the bizarre life she must have led. SATE, the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, presents it on stage through August 30th. Give them a call at 314-827-5760 or at slightlyoff.org for tickets or more information.

 

“The Liar” Brings An Abundance Of Laughs To St. Louis Shakespeare’s Latest

August 19, 2014

First- it’s great to be back in the reviewing saddle again. After two and a half months, Gail is doing much better despite back surgery, broken ankle, another back fracture and now impending cataract surgery. The thing we must remember is that it is all temporary and she’ll be back at full strength very soon. So, despite missing most of the summer season (all of the Muny, most of Opera Theatre, the LaBute Festival and many, many other wonderful productions on St. Louis stages), I have returned to the job I love- watching theatre and then talking about it.

Maggie Murphy and Nicole Angeli as the ladies who make life miserable for "The Liar" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

Maggie Murphy and Nicole Angeli as the ladies who make life miserable for “The Liar” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

And speaking of that, St. Louis Shakespeare Company has brought us a doozie with David Ives’ “The Liar.” Adapted from 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille’s play, it offers a lot of laughs and the usual amount of mistaken identities, outlandish characters and even some inappropriate yet somehow plausible anachronisms.

The always precise Suki Peters has directed with an eye for detail, comedic savvy and keeping the action moving- which includes adding two young ladies dressed according to the period who help move things off, on and around in a timely fashion. The title character, Dorante, is played with swagger and verve by Jared Sanz Agero. His philosophy appears to be “why tell the truth when a good lie works just as well.” Early in the play he acquires a manservant who is his extreme opposite, Cliton. Played with scrupulous honesty and charm by Ben Ritchie, Cliton tries his best to keep calm amid all the chaos. He even attempts to get lessons from Dorante in the art of lying with little success.

Jared Sanz Agero, John Wolbers and John Foughty spar in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of "The Liar." Photo: Kim Carlson

Jared Sanz Agero, John Wolbers and John Foughty spar in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of “The Liar.” Photo: Kim Carlson

John Foughty, with a bad hair day all around- head and chin- turns in a great performance as the possibly cuckolded Aclippe. He and his pal, Philiste- played with proper foppishness by John Wolbers, try to keep ahead of the silver tongues Dorante but to no avail. Also providing a bounty of laughs is the clueless father of Dorante, Geronte, given an equally befuddled performance by Robert Ashton. Even in the light of obvious contradictory lies, he never sways from the path his son leads him down.

Almost stealing the show are the ladies. Nicole Angeli as the broad minded yet stubborn Clarice and Maggie Murphy as the smitten Lucrece. Though Clarice is the object of Dorante’s affection, he mistakes her for Lucrece- which leads to the mistaken identity plot that always spices up such follies. Rounding out the cast is the marvelous Jamie Pitt as the two servants of Clarice and Lucrece. With the addition of a coat, ruffle and two outlandish versions of the same red wig, she turns from flirtatious Isabelle to stern Sabine- often in a matter of seconds.

Jared Sanz Agero instructs Ben Ritchie on the fine art of lying in "The Liar" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

Jared Sanz Agero instructs Ben Ritchie on the fine art of lying in “The Liar” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

The mix of appropriate and bizarre costumes that seem to fit the piece perfectly are the work of JC Krajicek. Michael Dombek’s set design works well as do the lights of Alex Pack. Jeff Roberts’ sound design is wild and nothing probably heard during the days of Pierre Corneille (chamber music, no doubt).

Catch this delightful comedy through August 24th at The Music Center in University City. St. Louis Shakespeare Company presents “The Liar” by David Ives. Give them a call at 314-361-5664 or contact stlshakespeare.org for tickets or more information.

Stage Door Temporarily Shut Down- Will Return Soon

June 13, 2014

Allen's Alley picMaybe you’re wondering why some of the wonderful shows haven’t been reviewed lately on Stage Door St. Louis. My wife had back surgery two weeks ago and, rather than go through another rehab nightmare like she had two years ago, I’m acting as caregiver so she can recuperate at home. Consequently, I haven’t been to several of the recent openings. I will be making up as many as I can though some have such short runs, I probably won’t be able to include them all.

I did get to sneak in Shakespeare In The Park before it all happened and will be posting that (or those) reviews soon. After reviewing “The Magic Flute” at Opera Theatre, it looks like the rest of the short repertory season may elude my grasp. The Muny opens next week and I hope to get to those as well. She is doing quite well but it really takes full time care and I’ve only been out to the grocery store and a few other necessary short trips as she needs assistance getting in and out of bed, have been fixing our meals, etc.

So, please stay tuned and, if you follow me on FB, I’ll continue to have updates there. In the meantime, keep enjoying the wonderful productions around town and I’ll see you all very soon. Thanks for following Stage Door St. Louis….Steve Allen

“The Magic Flute” Brings Magic From A Movie Sound Stage

May 27, 2014
Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Though a little unorthodox, the opening show of Opera Theatre St. Louis’ summer rep is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”- directed and designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Perhaps the opera most easily open to interpretation, “Flute” is a fairy tale to begin with filled with magical animals, the Queen of the Night and an overall aura of mystery. With my background heavily grounded in traditional American musical theatre, I found the heavy incorporation of dance and the familiar setting of a movie soundstage to be refreshing and unique. A few distractions perhaps, but this opera is so well known and loved that it’s nice to see a fresh look at an old favorite.

Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Tamino is dressed like Gene Kelly in that magnificent dance ballet from “An American In Paris.” The Princess Pamina appears to be a combination of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in “The Wizard Of Oz.” In fact, the entire cast is reminiscent of one- or a blend- of famous characters from film. The Queen of the Night dressed as Greta Garbo or perhaps ready to spout “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” The bird catcher, Papageno looks a lot like W.C. Fields with some Big Bird feathers sprouting from his belly. Add some flying monkeys (or at least they look like they could fly any minute), some Groucho-esque Shriners, the three spirits dressed like the “Triplet” trio from “The Bandwagon,” pink tuxedoed forest creatures and other Hollywood “types” and you’ve got a whole new look at “The Magic Flute.” Even the guys who change the set look like stage hands from the Golden Age of filmdom.

Photo; Ken Howard

Photo; Ken Howard

The dance sequences that accompany some of the arias, duets and even “production” numbers, are often mirrored by “dream” Tamino and “dream” Pamina like the ballet sequence from “Oklahoma!” created by Agnes DeMille. Dressed like our leads, this can be a bit distracting at times but it blends well and gives the opera almost the feel of a musical. When Mr. Mizrahi directed “A Little Night Music” for Opera Theatre a few years ago, he was more in his element. With his interpretation of Mozart, he formed the opera to fit his element. Quite a coup and one that works successfully- even if it doesn’t please all opera purists.

Soprano Claire de Seveigne is exquisite as the Queen of the Night. Her first act entrance where she enters and trails a “miles long” purple train up a flight of stairs is impressive indeed. With members of the chorus unobtrusively guiding the garment, it’s a moment that is worthy of a Hollywood star. Soprano Elizabeth Zharoff is delightful as Pamina and tenor Sean Panikkar is strong as Tamino. The three attendants of the Queen of the Night, Raquel Gonzalez, Summer Hassan and Corrie Stalllings, almost steal the show when they are on. They move and sing as a unit and, again, dressed in magical blue gowns that evoke the Hollywood period.

Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Papageno is superb and proves to be an outstanding actor as well as accomplished singer. Bass Matthew Anchel brings a strong voice to the role of Sarastro and Matthew DiBattista is wonderful as the “blue” Monostatos. Jane Glover thrillingly conducts the St. Louis Symphony orchestra- bringing out every clever nuance from Mozart’s music. Choreographer John Heginbotham manages to incorporate the vision of Mr. Mizrahi’s dance-heavy “Flute” without distracting from the overall quality of the production. And once again, Isaac Mizrahi’s vision with direction, set design and costumes is just overwhelming. His soundstage with scaffolding, a huge wooden rolling door at the back of the stage, the powerful second act temple and the impressive array of costume choices is mind-boggling. And he  keeps the action moving with help from the clever “stage hands” that move scenery in and out like a well-oiled movie set.

“The Magic Flute” may not please everyone, but I found it a fresh interoperation that works on many levels. it plays in repertory with three other operas through June 28th. Contact Opera Theatre St. Louis at 314-961-0644 for tickets or more information.

“The Homecoming” At STLAS Brings A Whole New Meaning To “Pinterest”

May 25, 2014

Homecoming-Poster-303x454Maybe social media isn’t as new as we thought. “Pinterest” is described as a way of collecting things that interest you so they can be shared with others. Well, Harold Pinter defined “pinterest” perfectly in his 1964- long before social media- black comedy, “The Homecoming.” Now St. Louis Actors’ Studio gives us a polished and profound production to close out their current season collectively called “Sins of the Father.”

Max (Peter Mayer) is the head of the household which he shares with his two sons, Joey (Nathan Bush) and Lenny (Charlie Barron) and his brother Sam (Larry Dell). When the third son returns to his British home from America with a wife in tow, the reunion takes several twists and turns as we’re not exactly who is the feline and who is the rodent in this classic tale of cat and mouse.  In typical Pinter fashion, unabashed dialogue and unbelievable situations make this anything but a happy homecoming.

Mayer is perfectly explicit about his feelings for his sons, brother and the new women who comes into their lives. Sporting a sweat-stained t-shirt and commanding his “favorite” chair, he makes no bones about being the patriarch- and the boss- of this unruly household. With broad mood swings and a braggadocio like no other, Mayer nails it. Charlie Barron also turns in a magnificent performance as the cocky Lenny who, as it turns out in a perfect plot twist, owns what amounts to a brothel in an even sleazier part of town. His flirtations with the new wife are epic and then, suddenly, the tables get turned.

Nathan Bush is the classic younger brother who may be a few bricks shy of a load. As an aspiring boxer, it isn’t surprising that he isn’t the quickest to pick up on the situation when the story takes a turn to wife-sharing and prostitution. Bush is delightful as his drop-jaw expression becomes his best character trait. Larry Dell is obviously the milquetoast of the family as he is bossed around by Max all evening long. Despite being the self proclaimed “best chauffeur” in the city, he becomes the cowering sheep even though he tries to stand up to his brother on several occasions.

The gang's all here as St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming."

The gang’s all here as St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.”

Ben Ritchie plays the successful brother, Teddy, who has become a Philosophy professor in the states. He’s the most enigmatic one in the piece as you’re never quite sure if he’s shocked or relieved when his wife, Ruth, shocks the rest of the family with her no-nonsense approach to the mass flirting and come-ons from this degenerate household. Which leads to even bigger surprises when she decides to join Lenny’s retinue of ladies of the evening. Ritchie is perfectly passive and you can’t get a real read on how he feels but he certainly seems to take rather quickly to the idea of her staying behind while he returns to his job across the pond. Holding her own in this “company of men” is Missy Heinemann as Ruth. Her opening salvo- so to speak- makes the audience gasp and then she continues to be the catnip for this home of horny tomcats. What a great performance and well-played.

Esteemed Artistic Director of STLAS, Milt Zoth almost makes this his swan song as he and his wife are heading to San Antonio later this year. He’ll be teaching in that town and don’t be surprised if he starts a new theatre company down South. He’ll be around for the LaBute Festival in July and then he’ll return to direct one more MainStage performance next year. His way around a script is clearly evident in his interpretation of “The Homecoming.” There are several ways to play it as there are so many ways the various characters can react to the bizarre situations Harold Pinter has created in this wonderful piece but Mr. Zoth has taken us on a most fascinating and shocking journey and one that ultimately satisfies.

Patrick Huber’s set design is evocative with cracking plaster and even the faded memories of three pictures on the back wall that have been covered by a not quite large enough mirror. The faded and somewhat dilapidated furniture fits perfectly as well. His lights also pinpoint the  proper feeling and the Carla Landis Evans costumes also show the contrast between the successful brother and his wife and the family left behind. Robin Weatherall’s sound design completes the punctuation on this exquisite production.

If you’re a fan of Harold Pinter (you know who you are), you can’t miss this one. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of his company yet, let “The Homecoming” be your perfect primer for the dark and disturbing world of one of the most renown playwrights ever to set characters to stage. Call St. Louis Actors’ Studio at 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org to order tickets or get more information. “The Homecoming” runs through June 8th.

“The Twilight Zone” Meets The Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre- Result: Sterling Serling

May 14, 2014

mokeyzoneRod Serling may be turning over in his grave. Hopefully it’s with gales of laughter as The Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre has taken two of  his most famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and turned them upside down. “To Serve Man” and “Nightmare At 20.000 Feet” are still effective in re-runs on SyFy marathons but, despite a few chuckles at William Shatner’s acting chops, they don’t evoke the guffaws that these two slightly altered episodes do. Then add a silly visit with the “Superfriends” that appears to be an excuse for quick costume changes, and you’ve got a short but sweet evening of wall to wall laughs.

An offshoot of St. Louis Shakespeare, The Magic Smoking Monkey has been bringing us these quick re-tells of things like “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars” and other classics for some time. Now that they’ve tackled Rod Serling, it opens up a whole library of classics to bring their fresh perspectives. Can you imagine what the little devil fortune telling machine might say in William Shatner’s other classic “Twilight Zone?” How about their take on the scary talking doll that swore to kill Telly Savalas? There’s a treasure trove out there.

Suki Peters, aka Wonder Woman, prepares to look the part as the mighty hordes mass behind her. BTW- nothing to do with the Superfriends segment- except for Suki, of course.

Suki Peters, aka Wonder Woman, prepares to look the part as the mighty hordes mass behind her. BTW- nothing to do with the Superfriends segment- except for Suki, of course.

In “To Serve Man,” the tall alien that speaks without moving his lips (it’s all telepathic, you know) is played in elevator shoes and a large rubber extended brain topper by Ian Hardin. The voice of Maxwell Knocke is heard from behind the stage left curtain as Kanamit speaks from center stage (remember, without moving his lips). The book he holds in this rendition is called “Otay Ervesay Anmay”- or the pig Latin equivalent of the more familiar tome that turns out to be a Betty Crocker knock-off. James Enstall gets it all started by introducing the story in his best Rod Serling.

Other characters in this grizzly tale include Suki Peters as a translator to Alex Ringhausen who plays a series of Ambassadors meeting with the U.N. to figure out if Kanamit is a good guy or bad. He simply does a quick change of hats and horrible accents depending on what country he is representing. Scott Myers is the Secretary General of the U.N. and Betsy Bowman, Jaysen Cryer, Jaiymz Hawkins and Michael Pierce round out the acting corps. Fleshing out the original Rod Serling script, MSM takes us into another dimension as we cross over into “The Monkey Zone.”

In our second feature of the evening, Ian Hardin takes on the iconic role of Bob, the recently released inmate of a mental institution who happens to notice, at 20,000 feet, that there is a gremlin on the wing of the airplane he and his wife are in as they’re flying back home. That rather oddly dressed gremlin is played by Jaiymz Hawkins and the rather overzealous, yet narcoleptic wife of Bob is played by Suki Peters. Betsy Bowman gets to ham it up as the oversexed stewardess while James Enstall once again plays the dapper Rod Serling. Filled with puns and sight gags and even an unexpected side-splitter from “Airplane,” this one really takes the audience for a ride.

monkeylogoThe talented cast then fills out the “One Hour Twilight Zone” with an episode of their Superfriends characters including Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, Lex Luthor, Aquaman and even Julius Caesar, among others. Racing around through time tunnels and making numerous costume changes with sometimes disastrous results, this wasn’t quite as successful as the Twilight Zone episodes. In fact, a third episode might have been more effective. The actors had a great time but this one only brought a few laughs but more confusion than farce.

With direction by Laura Enstall, costumes by Katie Donovan, sound by Josh Cook, sets by Linda Lawson-Mixon, lighting by Jaime Zayas and some nice graphics by Bob Singleton, “The One Hour Twilight Zone: Live!” is a great way to spend an hour and get some laughs and memories of one of the best anthology series’ ever created for television. For sketch comedy at its best, visit the Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre at the Regional Arts Commission through May 17th. Give them a call at 314-361-5664 for tickets or more information.

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” At NJT- Old Jokes But Not So Old Jews

May 10, 2014
The cast of "Old Jews Telling Jokes" hoofs their way through a musical interlude at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The cast of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” hoofs their way through a musical interlude at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Call it nostalgia, call it a history of Jewish humor, but mostly call it time to take off the thinking cap and just enjoy jokes- some old, some new but all very familiar. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” at New Jewish Theatre closes out their season with a little over an hour of non-stop story after story with a Jewish perspective but universal in theme. We can all laugh at ourselves- the battle of the sexes, doctors with an emphasis on hypochondria, family, vacations and every other thing that makes life tragic and funny at the same time. You’ll hear a lot of what you’ve heard in the past (some older than dirt) and a few new ones, surprises and shaggy dog stories and even a song or two.

The ensemble gets their chance to tell their own little personal snippet of what humor has meant to them along the way but mostly it’s rapid-fire joke after joke. There were a lot of guffaws, titters and even a gasp or two throughout the opening night audience. It’s definitely a show for a mature crowd as there is some blue humor along the way but this innocent looking bunch of story tellers rarely shocks because you’re having too much fun just exercising those jaw muscles.

Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein and Bobby Miller in the New Jewish Theatre production of "Old Jews Telling Jokes." Photo: John Lamb

Dave Cooperstein, Craig Neuman and Bobby Miller in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Photo: John Lamb

Leading the way is veteran performer, Bobby Miller. He’s the “old” Jew in the crowd with his over-sized glasses and beat up fishing cap as he delivers a joke in a fashion that would make Henny Youngman, Alan King and even George Burns happy. In fact, chomping on a sentimental cigar all evening long, he has just the right delivery- knowing when a pause is as good as a line and giving us the facial expressions to accompany when necessary. Displaying a less than impressive singing voice, he nonetheless manages to deliver one of the most powerful readings of “Ol’ Man River” we’ve ever seen. Craig Neuman holds forth as the unofficial MC of the evening, starting the opening number that eventually gets everyone introduced at the outset. Whether playing an “old” Jew, a hen-pecked husband or any of the other myriad characters, he is a treat.

Stellie Siteman also displays spot-on delivery and punch line after punch line scores big laughs. The “younger” of the “old” Jews include the always entertaining Johanna Elkana-Hale and the clever Dave Cooperstein. Elkana-Hale makes good use of her outstanding singing voice and just kills it with her innocent delivery of some of the bawdiest lines of the evening. Mr. Cooperstein surprises playing everything from a questionable physician to a talkative policeman to an old lady.

Craig Neuman, Stellie Siteman and Johanna Elkana-Hale breeze through one of the many bits in "Old Jews Telling Jokes" at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman and Johanna Elkana-Hale breeze through one of the many bits in “Old Jews Telling Jokes” at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Director Edward Coffield has pulled together this script relying on the non-stop action knowing that you can’t rest on your laurels. A joke that kills or a joke that fails all pass by in such quick fashion that the audience is on to the next laugh before they’ve stopped to think about their last one. The series of scenes and jokes, created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, are successful because of this rapid fire delivery. Helping matters along is the brilliant set design of Peter and Margery Spack. Utilizing oversized TV’s, radios and other appropriate pieces, they call to mind the way mainstream America met and fell in love with the plethora of Jewish comedians over the years. There’s even a projection screen they created that keeps the audience entertained before the show with jokes and riddles popping up and then it becomes part of the scenery during the play identifying genres from birth to death and even an hilarious bit on film featuring Alan King interacting with his audience. The Nathan Schroeder light design also enhances the production and Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are outstanding.

The Borscht Belt is alive and well at New Jewish Theatre in the guise of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Don’t expect an intellectual evening of riveting theatre, but just sit back, relax and go with the flow. As Gail said at evening’s end, “my mouth hurts.” That’s the kind of night you’ll have. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” plays at NJT through June 1st. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information. Also, call that number or visit newjewishtheatre.org to find out about their new 2014-15 season.

 

 

The Girls Of “Bachelorette” Are Intense- Can You Handle It At SATE?

May 9, 2014
Cara Barresi, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Ellie Schwetye contemplate the infamous wedding dress in "Bachelorette" at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Cara Barresi, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Ellie Schwetye contemplate the infamous wedding dress in “Bachelorette” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

If you’re looking for a “submissive” girl for a new relationship, don’t seek out ANY of the women in Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s new offering, “Bachelorette.” In fact, any young man (or old man, for that matter) is likely to run screaming from The Chapel after the first few moments with this trio of mean girls who are the poster kids for bad behavior. Playwright Leslye Headland’s script is rough with the few moments of tenderness coming from the men (one man in particular) who invade this den of iniquity. Thanks to a dynamite cast, this squirm-worthy production entertains for the slightly over an hour we spend with the girls who aren’t exactly attending a sanctioned bachelorette party.

Wendy Renee Greenwood and Carl Overly, Jr. share a rare quiet moment in SATE's production of "Bachelorette." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Wendy Renee Greenwood and Carl Overly, Jr. share a rare quiet moment in SATE’s production of “Bachelorette.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Although Ellie Schwetye as Regan has been chosen by the bride to be her bridesmaid, the other two girls, Wendy Renee Greenwood as Katie and Cara Barresi as Gena are a bit miffed that they haven’t been chosen to be in her ensemble. They have tagged along with Regan as the bride has given her- and only her- permission to spend the night in her posh NYC hotel room. Let the trashing begin (both literally and figuratively) as she invites the other two girls along. The bride-t0-be, Becky is ripped apart verbally being called everything from fat to unworthy of snagging an impossibly rich husband. Amid booze and coke and later some pills, the three girls reach the ultimate in poor taste when they discover the wedding dress and rip it as two of them try to get into the dress at once.

When the bride, Jamie Fritz, finally arrives, things get even more interesting in "Bachelorette" at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

When the bride, Jamie Fritz, finally arrives, things get even more interesting in “Bachelorette” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Gena takes off to find a tailor while Regan and Katie continue the party including the arrival of two guys Regan has had a few drinks with and foolishly invites to the proceedings. Jared Sanz-Agero as Jeff and Carl Overly, Jr. as Joe arrive on the scene and immediately attempt to get the already vulnerable girls into the sack. A trip to the emergency room ensues and then the arrival of the bride, played with subdued amazement by Jamie Fritz, and she proves to be as mean-spirited as her girlfriends. In fact, Joe is the only one in the play with anything resembling redeeming qualities. With occasional breaks for karaoke, the bulk of the evening is spent in the high rise which soon looks like a disaster area. It’s a hard-edged comedy that makes the movie “Bridesmaids” look like a sophisticated romp.

Jared Sanz-Agero gets cozy with Ellie Schwetye in SATE's "Bachelorette." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Jared Sanz-Agero gets cozy with Ellie Schwetye in SATE’s “Bachelorette.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Director Rachel Tibbets has squeezed every ounce of intensity out of the raucous script. At times it really is hard to watch as the girls rip each other apart as they become increasingly drunk and the mean quotient goes higher and higher. Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbets co-designed the set which puts the audience basically on the staging area of most of the plays at The Chapel while the open area that usually holds the audience becomes the large playing space worthy of the posh hotel room. Bess Moynihan’s lights add to the unusual ambience of the piece and Tracey Newcomb-Margrave is responsible for the “break-away” wedding dress.

Tough and, at times, almost sadistic, “Bachelorette” is fun in a “I want to turn away but I can’t” sort of voyeuristic way. This continues Slightly Askew’s “Season of the Monster” and, as director Rachel Tibbets says in her pre show welcome, this is definitely a look at the human monster in all of us- although hopefully not all of us bring it out in this exaggerated fashion. Catch “Bachelorette” at Slightly Askew Theatre Company through May 17th. Give them a call at 314-827-5760 for tickets or more information.


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