A Charming And Ambitious “Stones In His Pockets” Hits The WEPG Stage

November 15, 2017
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Jason Meyers and Jared Sanz-Agero in the WEPG production of “Stones In His Pockets” Photo: John Lamb

West End Players Guild has brought us two fine actors playing upwards of 20 characters in the Marie Jones comedy, “Stones In His Pockets.” A movie company has moved into a sleepy village in County Kerry, Ireland and the locals are clamoring to be extras or maybe even get a speaking part in the filming of this romantic comedy. The catch here is that two actors portray all of the characters in a whirlwind of Irish and Hollywood clashes over culture and personalities.

Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers play two locals, Charlie and Jake, who take on other characters from other local eccentrics to producers and even the leading lady. A turn or move upstage and suddenly they’ve created whole new personas with voice inflection, body movement or even a change of a vest, hat or even an expansive toss of a scarf. We may see the same character several times but it all comes back to Charlie and Jake as they comment on everything and everybody.

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Jason Meyers and Jared Sanz-Agero break into an impromptu reel in “Stones In His Pockets” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

We’ve seen both actors in multiple roles on various stages so their characterizations come from the vault of character actors rather than leading men- though they’ve both played a wide range over the years. In addition, Jake has written a screenplay (who hasn’t?) that he hopes he will be able to present to the producer. Mr. Sanz-Agero, in the meantime, has become the leading lady and has somehow become smitten with Charlie. Through a series of intricate maneuvers, he manages to play both characters along with many others. It’s a marvelous series to watch as both actors play back to back to back characters over the range of about two hours in two acts.

Director Steve Callahan has done a masterful job of keeping all of this chaos straight and relevant to the audience. He has layered the tapestry of the Irish countryside in a thick swath of charm and wit. Special notice to dialect coach, Richard Lewis as well. There may have been a slip here and there but I sure didn’t notice as the actors not only maintained accents but various dialects for various characters. It’s a treat to watch and listen to.

The simple Tracy Newcomb set and costumes work perfectly as two hall trees upstage provide a series of hats to denote different characters along the way and everything else is left to the imagination and the magic worked by our two actors. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design complements the scene and Cindy Duggan has provided some rough but charming choreography for our two gentlemen.

I remember when the Rep did this show quite a few years ago and how charming it was. They had the whole front of the stage lined up with shoes that the characters took to for their multitude of characters. Just the simple change of a hat, an upturned collar and a change in voice works perfectly for this WEPG production. The play itself is so delightful it speaks for itself.

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Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers in the West End Players Guild production of “Stones In His Pockets.” Photo: John Lamb

Join the West End Players Guild for a lilting Irish evening of crazy characters baffled and bug-eyed over Hollywood invading their village- and we hope all of the cows are alright as well. See “Stones In His Pockets” through November 19th at WEPG. Give them a call at 314-667-5686 for tickets or more information.

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SATE Brings Us A Polished, Powerful Production Of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice And Men”

November 13, 2017
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Michael Cassidy Flynn, Adam Flores and Carl Overly, Jr. in SATE’s “Of Mice And Men.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Non-traditional casting brings a new look to the classic John Steinbeck play, “Of Mice And Men” at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. A powerfully acted piece, the tale of loneliness and isolation in depression era California couldn’t be more poignant and relevant. For the most part the production works but could have had more impact with a bit of a re-write in one particular scene and a more defined “gender bending” casting choice.

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Natasha Toro, Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores, Courtney Bailey Parker and Omega Jones in “Of Mice And Men” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

George and Lennie have been buddies since their youth and George has found it necessary to protect the slow witted Lennie as they work one migrant farm after another to raise enough money to build their dream of their own farm. As they prepare to start another season of harvest, they run into an unusual bunch of ranch hands who have diverse reactions to their closeness. George continues to tell Lennie to stay quiet as he has a tendency to babble incoherently at times and has a penchant for soft, furry animals and sometimes young women as well. The trouble is, he often “loves” them to death with his power.

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Jack Corey as Boss dresses down Adam Flores as George as Lennie (Carl Overly, Jr.) looks on in SATE’s “Of Mice And Men.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Carl Overly, Jr. is a burly actor who has amazed us in the past but Lennie has become his signature piece. The combination of tenderness, simple mindedness and brute strength comes across so well as we sympathize with his plight but realize that it will only lead to his downfall. Adam Flores strikes a calm but, at times, on edge persona as George. His frustration with the plight of Lennie being the millstone around his neck becomes obvious early on and leads him to his final, desperate act. In this production, Mr. Flores plays George as a Mexican immigrant and Carl’s Lennie is black- quite a twist on traditional 1935 migrant workers but it is very believable.

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Carl Overly, Jr. as Lennie fidgets as Courtney Bailey Parker as Curly’s wife gets a little too close in “Of Mice And Men” at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Jack Corey, absent from the stage for 32 years, makes a delightful return as the Boss. Only a few scenes, but he makes the most of them. Michael Cassidy Flynn does fine work as the detestable Curly who lords over his men with an iron fist. He spends most of his time looking after his philandering wife, played with a saucy demeanor by Courtney Bailey Parker. We’re not used to seeing Joe Hanrahan in a full cast play as he is such a master of the one-man show but he is steady as a rock in the role of Slim- the wise, philosophizing hand who takes a liking to George and Lennie.

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Omega Jones opens the second act as Crooks singing “House Of The Rising Sun” in the SATE production of “Of Mice And Men.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Shane Signorino and Ryan Lawson-Maeske are two other hands on the farm and then Natasha Toro plays one of the boys even though she obviously is not. They put long sideburns on her but she doesn’t change her voice inflection so she’s kind of an odd duck in this swirl of manly workers. I’m not sure if a statement is being made, but it doesn’t really work on any level. Also, Omega Jones plays the role that is usually the only black man in the cast of “Of Mice And Men.” He’s segregated to the stables instead of being allowed to sleep in the bunkhouse with the rest of the ranch hands. So when Lennie confronts him in his room, it seems unusual that his speech about basically, white privilege, is directed at the non-traditional casted Lennie. A nip and tuck of the script might have been called for here. However, Mr. Jones does a phenomenal job and offers an unusual highlight in the play when he opens the second act with a solo of “House Of The Rising Sun” to the accompaniment of Chris Ware on the guitar who offers play-long background music.

 

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Carl Overly, Jr. listens to Natasha Toro during a scene in SATE’s “Of Mice And Men.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Director Jacqueline Thompson has played “Of Mice And Men” true to form in both spirit and execution. It is a beautifully rendered piece of theatre that probably doesn’t get produced enough. What a powerful piece. Bess Moynihan’s set is a clever one with two three sided flats that swing for various locations and her lights enhance the production vividly. Liz Henning’s costumes are perfect for the era and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design is on the mark. Rachel Hanks also gets a nod as dramaturg as she brings distinct characters and voices to each of the ranch hands.

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Joe Hanrahan (foreground) reads to the rest of the ranch hands in the bunkhouse during “Of Mice And Men” at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Steinbeck’s masterpieces- both the short story and the ensuing play- are played out against a background of desperation and loneliness. It is a moving piece of theatre and SATE has given it a wonderful life of it’s own. “Of Mice And Men” plays at the Chapel through November 18th. Give Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble a call at 314-827-5760 for tickets or more information.

 

Studio Season At The Rep Opens With “Heisenberg”- Mixing Quantum Physics And Unexpected Romance

October 31, 2017
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Alex is upset with Georgie who has tracked him down at his butcher shop- Joneal Joplin and Susan Louise O’Connor in “Heisenberg” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Although quantum physics actually has nothing to do directly with the play, “Heisenberg,” the man who came up with the Uncertainty Theory inspired playwright Simon Stephens to create a love story based indirectly on his theory. If that name sounds familiar, Stephens wrote the highly successful opening to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis season in September, “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.”

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Joneal Joplin as Alex and Susan Louise O’Connor as Georgie in the Rep Studio production of “Heisenberg. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

According to program notes and my erudite friend who rode along to the theatre with me Friday night, this bizarre theory has to do with the inability to measure the position and velocity of a particle at the same time due to their unpredictability. My friend added some obscure story about not knowing if a cat was dead until you saw him rise and stretch. Okay, thank heavens we didn’t have to sit through an almost 90 minute one act about that!

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Joneal Joplin as Alex dances with Susan Louise O’Connor’s Georgie in “Heisenberg” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

What we have is an improbable love story between a 75 year old butcher from London and a 42 year old American woman who is a pathological liar. Doesn’t sound like a very likable story but it works thanks to wonderful performances and astute direction. Alex Priest is a butcher who enjoys sitting and watching the folks go by in a busy train station. We meet both characters right after Georgie Burns has “mistakenly” kissed Alex on the neck from behind. Claiming she thought he was her ex husband, she rattles off a tale that is so complicated you know it has to be a lie.

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Susan Louise O’Connor relaxes with Joneal Joplin as Georgie and Alex in the Rep Studio production of “Heisenberg.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Despite his reluctance, the brooding specter of loneliness prompts Alex to engage her in conversation. Over the next few weeks we see their relationship grow in unimaginable ways that even takes them to New Jersey in a most illogical May/December romance that is truly fostered out of a desire for human connection. Playwright Stephens said he used Heisenberg’s theory to let the characters bounce around and carry out their own fate. The result is charming but at times jarring. That’s where two convincing actors take over.

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Joneal Joplin in his 101st performance at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in the Studio Theatre production of “Heisenberg.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Joneal Joplin is performing in his 101st play for the Rep. His easy presence land occasional skepticism is the perfect match for the steady yet curious Alex. He appears to go along with Georgie just to see where things will lead. Susan Louise O’Connor is a force to be reckoned with as Georgie. It’s hard to tell where the line between truth and lies is drawn but her utter spunk and free spirit make her more likable than the actual character should be. Together they are a force of wonder and amazement that turn this improbable situation into a relatively pleasant play. We, as well as the playwright, his characters and Heisenberg are just waiting to see what will happen next.

Rep Artistic Director, Steven Woolf, has captured that spirit of unpredictability in his focus for the play. We find each moment of their lives together more unbelievable but we just can’t turn away. Will their friendship/love affair continue? Do they each have a motive or are they both fascinated with each other? Do we ever get an answer? These and other questions will be answered (or not) as “Heisenberg” floats rather than plays out on the Studio stage.

Peter and Margery Spack have designed an innovative and useful set stretching the length of the Studio space with audience on either side. The actors themselves move the minimum of set pieces around to change the scene and it all works convincingly. Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting design perfectly frames their little world and Marci Franklin’s costumes are appropriate to this decades span of new found friends and lovers.

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Joneal Joplin as Alex and Susan Louise O’Connor as Georgie in “Heisenberg” at the Studio Theatre of the Rep. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

This is perfect fare for the Studio theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Intimate play, intimate setting and raising questions of where the whole thing is going. You can catch “Heisenberg” at the Studio through November 12th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

“Baskerville” At Insight Surrounds Us With A “Huge” Cast Of…Five?

October 20, 2017
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John J. O’Hagan as Sherlock Holmes and Kent Coffel as Dr. Watson in the Insight Theatre Company production of “Baskerville.” Photo: John Lamb

Ken Ludwig is at it again and Insight Theatre Company does a great job with his Sherlock Holmes take-off, “Baskerville: A Sherlock Homes Mystery.” Sherlock and Dr. Watson get to stay in character while the entire rest of the cast- three- have often split second costume and character changes as they dazzle us with the myriad of supporting people they play. It’s dizzying at times.

John J. O’Hagan is the perfect Sherlock with his long, tall features and crisp and determined delivery. He embodies the great detective and throws off the classic lines and erudite pronouncements with all of the aplomb of Basil Rathbone. Kent Coffel plays a dazzled and “harrumphy” Dr. Watson and even gets to score one or two pithy discoveries himself. They make quite a pair and show fearlessness as they pursue the meaning behind the Baskerville hound.

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Ed Reggi, Kent Coffel and Elliot Auch ride to Baskerville in the Insight production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville.” Photo: John Lamb

It’s the mind boggling work of the other three cast members that keeps the show moving at breakneck speed, however. Ladies first as Gwen Wotawa shines as Mrs. Hudson and then morphs into an array of men and women that includes one of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, the mysterious matron of the Baskerville manse and a host of others. Using a change of clothes and a variety of accents, she does yeoman work.

Elliot Auch tackles a sizable host of people as well including the original visitor to 221 Baker Street that piques the interest of Sherlock and Dr. Watson and sets them on their adventure. Rounding out the dynamic trio is Ed Reggi as multiple folk including a cleaning woman and- his main character- the braggart Texan who has dibs on the Baskerville estate.

Director Maggie Ryan- also Artistic Director of Insight- has kept the madhouse to a manageable level as exits as one character and entrances as another become fast and furious as the evening goes on. All the while, the stalwart detective and his trusty sidekick remain at the heart of things.

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Elliot Auch, Ed Reggi and Kent Coffel in “Baskerville” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Luke Shryock has designed an effective set that focuses on the parlor of Holmes with props, benches and so forth fleshing out the many other scenes. Connor Meers has provided nice lighting while Megan Harshaw’s costumes are spot on. Robin Weatherall’s sound design also comes into play and only enhances the goings on.

I’m still not in love with the .Zack space although this is probably the most cumbersome free production I’ve seen there. The sight lines aren’t always great with the two posts blocking some audience views and the entire space is just a bit too awkward and causes some actors to appear a bit perplexed at times.

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John J. O’Hagan, Gwen Wotawa, Elliot Auch and Kent Coffel in “Baskerville” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

“Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” is also not up to some of Ken Ludwig’s standards like “Lend Me A Tenor,” but the secret sauce of three actors playing multiple characters keeps the play rolling and it’s truly worth a night out at the theatre. Contact Insight Theatre Company at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information. “Baskerville” plays through October 29th.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” Brings The Tears As Opener At New Jewish Theatre

October 19, 2017
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Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch gives James Anthony as Morrie a kiss on the forehead for “extra credit” in “Tuesdays With Morrie” at New Jewish Theatre.

No matter how many times you see the Mitch Albom two character play, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the sniffling and outright crying can always be heard at play’s end. This one is no different as New Jewish Theatre opens their new season with a great cast and excellent direction.

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Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch Albom in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Based on his real life and the best selling book of the same name, Mitch Albom, along with collaborator Jeffrey Hatcher, has written a play for the ages. A quick ninety minutes, so much wisdom and love is expressed in such a short time. Morrie Schwartz was Mitch’s professor who he immediately disliked but took his course because of the grading philosophy of Mr. Schwartz. A bond began to form and, although Mitch promised he would keep in touch with his friend, his change of career allowed sixteen years to pass before he got back in touch due to an interview Morrie did with “60 Minutes.”

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Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch visits Morrie, played by James Anthony for the last time in “Tuesdays With Morrie” at New Jewish Theatre.

Through a rekindling of the friendship, Mitch soon found that his new career didn’t matter as much as his weekly visit with Morrie, who had developed ALS- Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Though he had risen to the top of the sportswriting business, he found his trips to the World Series, basketball finals and everything in between became something he could schluff off to his cohort if it interfered with his regular Tuesdays (the day his classes always met) with his dying friend.

Andrew Michael Neiman handles the role of Mitch Albom with aplomb. Showing his nasty and negative side both while in college and later in life, he is able to learn life lessons all over again with the pithy remarks from his old professor. Lines like “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” and “the most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in,” form a basis for living a decent and respectful life that has eluded Mitch along the way. That transition that Mr. Neiman makes as Mitch is wondrous to behold.

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Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch talks with Morrie, played by James Anthony during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Veteran actor who we haven’t seen in a while, James Anthony, delivers a gentle yet strong performance. His quiet and understanding attitude belies the life lessons he is almost “spoon feeding” Mitch. His agony with this debilitating disease is truly remarkable from the early stages to the eventual bed ridden angst he feels as he continues to lift Mitch’s spirits- even in death. The two together are just phenomenal as the professor continues to school his pupil on much more than the sociology degree Mitch eventually earned.

Director Anna Pileggi uses a deft hand in telling this tearjerker of a story. She never lets things get too far out of hand and manages to get these two actors to reveal their strengths and weaknesses along the way. Christie Johnston’s set design features a slightly askew bookcase as a backdrop for the professor’s study- perhaps a tribute to the way he taught and the life he led. A turntable changes that study into a hospital bed for Morrie’s final, sage advice. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the proceedings and the costumes designed by Michele Friedman Siler are perfection.

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Andrew Michael Neiman as Mitch consoles James Anthony as Morrie in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

This is a play that we’ve seen a few times in the past and it never fails to bring the desired result- a definite hanky moment. But along the way we learn so much about life, love and the way to successfully approach both. “Tuesdays With Morrie” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through October 22nd. See two fine actors wring every bit of emotion from a more than willing audience. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

“Hamlet” A Wild And Unusual Ride At The Rep

October 16, 2017
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Michael James Reed as Claudius and Jim Poulos as Hamlet in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Less melancholy Dane and more merry prankster is how Hamlet’s madness comes across in the first time ever production of Shakespeare’s classic at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. It works beautifully despite the initial shock of schtick instead of wild-eyed crazy thanks to the talents of Jim Poulos as Hamlet and a strong supporting cast.

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Christopher Gerson as Horatio and Jim Poulos as Hamlet over a fallen Laertes in “Hamlet” at the Rep. Photo: Peter Wochniak

It all starts with a vision and Rep stalwart director, Paul Mason Barnes who has directed Shakespeare and others on the Rep stage including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the innovative New Orleans production of “The Comedy of Errors,” decided to make this “Hamlet” the story of an Everyman surrounded by characters from every walk of life. No distinctions carved in stone but a mix of traditional and nontraditional in both viewpoint and presentation.

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Jim Poulos as Hamlet with Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu as his buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

First- the cast. Jim Poulos is a most unusual Hamlet but one that works well and spreads less gloom and more madness than any interpretation we’ve ever seen. From doing bicycling type exercises to stalking and taunting and even mimicking those around him, he pulls it off with a great dose of angst and anger mixed in. Carrying on like that for the almost three hour production must be exhausting but what an incredible performance.

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Robyn Rodriguez as Queen Gertrude pleas with Jim Poulos as Hamlet in the Rep production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

As Claudius, the new king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle and man behind the demise of Hamlet’s father, Michael James Reed turns in another brilliant character. He commands the stage even when Hamlet is chiding and rebuking him. The Queen- Hamlet’s mother- is a coy and somewhat confused but often befuddled Robynn Rodriquez. Her “showdown” with Hamlet is a gut-wrenching scene.

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Kim Wong as Ophelia talks to Larry Paulsen as her father, Polonius in “Hamlet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Larry Paulsen gives an almost contemporary touch to Polonius. Like an addled Jim Anderson from “Father Knows Best,” he is concerned with his children- a delightful and powerful Kim Wong as Ophelia and a strong Carl Howell as Laertes- but is trying to sort out his fealty to Claudius while watching the slow decline into madness by Hamlet.

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Alas, poor Yorick with Jim Poulson as Hamlet in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Christopher Gerson is a more sedate Horatio while our friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are handled well by Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu. The stern and pompous Fortinbras is given a more traditional touch by Jeffrey Cummings. A superb ensemble highlights the proceedings including the various soldiers, servants, handmaidens, gravediggers and, of course, the wonderful “players” who produce the play with added touches by Hamlet to trip up the usurper king.

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Jim Poulos as Hamlet and Carl Howell as Laertes with Ben Nordstrom in the background fence with tragic results in “Hamlet” at the Rep. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The design team continues the vision of director Barnes with the eclectic costumes from Dorothy Marshall Englis that span the eras to help make this “Everyman” concept work within the parameters of this production. The spare but impressive set design by Michael Ganio opens the play to provide several acting areas but letting the words of Shakespeare dominate the proceedings. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lights provide the proper mood as does the Barry G. Funderburg effective sound design. A special nod to fight director Paul Dennhardt as director Paul Mason Barnes has broken with tradition again bringing a “mask and vest” sword fight with points until the final, tragic moment and then choosing a more sweeping method of dealing with the (spoiler alert) deaths at play’s end.

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“The play’s the thing…” as the ensemble watch a “recreation” of the death of Hamlet’s father in the Rep production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Trimmed to a more comfortable two acts featuring about an hour and a half or so each, the Rep’s “Hamlet” is an entertaining ride that will surprise you with a feel like no other production you’ve seen. The tragedy is still there but the spirit of the play has taken a sharp turn providing lighter moments and unusual staging. “Hamlet” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through November 5th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

Polish Playwright And Iconic Local Landmark Meet In “Sweet Revenge” At Upstream Theater

October 10, 2017
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The cast during a dress rehearsal of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater with Director Philip Boehm. Photo: Patrick Huber

Aleksander Fredo may have been the Moliere or Sheridan of 19th Century Poland as he was one of the best known comedic playwrights of the early 1800’s. With a few lapses for political and social reasons, he wrote and produced some of the best Polish theatre of the time. In this translation of one of his best, “Zemsta” or “Sweet Revenge,” Artistic Director of Upstream Theater, Philip Boehm has also directed a talented cast and added a bit of local color as well. In a wonderful piece in the program, my one time colleague at Maryville University, Tom Bratkowsi, explains that the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society established itself in 1909 at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church in St. Louis to continue Polish artistic endeavors for those who had escaped oppression to America.

As a paean to those St. Louis players (the society was disbanded in 1959) Boehm has presented Fredo’s play as if done by this group of amateur actors. It’s a real treat as we’re transported back to 1933 St. Louis and, in turn, to 1834 Poland. To begin, the curtain (a replica of that original curtain at the church) starts to rise slowly as music begins. A few in the audience start to rise and then the whole crowd is on their feet realizing that the Polish National Anthem is being played. The curious cast begins to peek beneath the curtain as it rises to see how the “house” is and then the play begins.

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The iconic curtain for “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

A play in verse, “Sweet Revenge” is a lot like a drawing room comedy featuring feuding neighbors who find the walls that divide them can symbolically tear down those inner walls to come to some understanding. The first act features one neighbor, Czesnik, who can’t decide if he should pursue the young Klara or chase the elderly but well to do Hanna. Whit Reichert is perfect as the often bumbling Czesnik who finds fault with just about everyone in both his household and those of his neighbors. Witty dialogue and sharp physical comedy are right up Reichert’s alley and he plays this pompous and often bombastic character with style and humor.

Like the Fred Astaire to Mr. Reichert’s Gene Kelly, John Contini brings another side of the humor to Czesnik’s neighbor, Milczek. Ramrod straight with a devious mind, he punctuates every line with a sarcastic twist. As a braggadocio soldier, Papkin, who enhances his accomplishments, John Bratkowski (yes, Tom’s brother), swashes and buckles his way through each outrageous story that we soon find out are nothing but- dare I say it?- “fake” news. It is a brilliant performance that never wavers.

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Whit Reichert dictates as John Bratkowski and Eric J. Conners frantically take it all down in the Upstream Theater production of “Sweet Revenge.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Jane Paradise is the widow Hanna who courts both neighbors in an effort to secure another rich husband. Her feminine wiles ooze through to both men as she floats from one to the other. As the other apple of Czesnik’s hopeful love life, Klara, Caitlin Mickey is a charmer who only has eyes for Milczek’s son, Waclaw, played with wily charm and youthful candor by Pete Winfrey. Strong on physical comedy as well, his body and facial expressions speak volumes for what’s in his character’s mind. Combined with Ms. Mickey, they are a truly inspired comedic stage couple.

Rounding out the cast is yeoman work from Eric J. Conners in multiple roles as majordomo to Czesnik, a cook in his service and as a mason building the infamous wall. He manages to rise to the occasion with a change of costume, posture and voice inflection to give vibrant life to each. Director Philip Boehm has brought a deliciously clever, broad, comedic and slightly slapstick presentation of this Polish masterpiece to the stage. It works so well and reminds you every now and then that these are “amateur” actors performing out of love for the work. And he is to be commended on translating a Polish play in verse into a play in verse in English- not an easy accomplishment.

Patrick Huber’s set design is perfect with a backdrop that transitions from each household with ease and minimal set pieces that the actors, of course, move for themselves. Laura Hanson’s costumes are spot on from the ragged royalty of the neighbors to the buffoonery of Papkin. Steve Carmichael’s lights enhance the whole proceedings while staying in the vein of the performance.

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The brilliant cast of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

Clever and unexpected, “Sweet Revenge” is a real treat. It plays at Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Theatre and you can go to upsteamtheater@sbcglobal.net for tickets or more information.

 

“Spring Awakening” Oozes Angst And High Spirits In A Second Run At Stray Dog

October 6, 2017
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Riley Dunn as Melchior and Stephen Henley as Moritz are properly scolded by schoolmaster Ben Ritchie in “Spring Awakening” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

It was only five years ago when Stray Dog Theatre first produced “Spring Awakening” and somehow they knew we needed another dose of teen anger and angst. This is a beautiful production that reaches the audience literally and figuratively as the cast spends some quality time with the folks enjoying the show.

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Allison Arana as Wendla and Riley Dunn as Melchior in Stray Dog’s production of “Spring Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

This time around Riley Dunn and Allison Arana play the young lovers in the 19th century German village which tries to suppress raging hormones without much success. School master and administrator and parents try to throw water on the fires burning inside these youth but they only succeed in making things worse with often tragic consequences. Mr. Dunn as Melchior is often ramrod straight in demeanor but soon succumbs to his passion for Allison Arana as Wendla. Both have exquisite voices and shine in their duets, especially the second act paean, “Whispering.”

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The ladies of “Spring Awakening” during the opening number at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Stephen Henley is a superb Moritz who struggles to keep up with his studies and the abuse of his father. Again, these young actor/singers at Stray Dog are impressive- a few performing for the first time at the Abbey. Dawn Schmid is Ilse and her haunting duet with Moritz, “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” is a highlight of the night. Ben Ritchie, local actor/bon vivant, steps up as all the grown up male characters including the harsh task master of a school teacher and playing multiple fathers of several of the young folk. On the other side, Jan Niehoff does a great job as the multiple older women in the production.

Rounding out the cast of young men and women are Luke Steingruby, Annie Heartney, Jacob Schalk, Jackson Buhr, Angela Bubash, Tristan Davis, Bridgid Buckley and Kevin Corpuz. This is truly an ensemble as each member gets a chance to shine and their group numbers are thrilling and spectacular to watch.

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The schoolboys of the Stray Dog Theatre production of “Spring Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

Justin Been has directed with the raw power of this show blasting through on stage. He pulls no punches as this energetic cast showcases his sincere attachment to “Spring Awakening.” Choreographer Sam Gaitsch follows suit with some strong, vital numbers that work well on the small stage and rock both stage and the aisles with foot stomping and often forceful music.

Robert M. Kapeller’s set design is a powerful statement itself incorporating the abiding message of “nature” with a tree that appears to have a piano growing out of it and a small platform on stage right to accommodate a cello player. The rest of Jennifer Buchheit’s band is scattered across the back of the stage and they really make this score sound brilliant. From hard rock to soft, beautiful ballads, it is a delight to hear as well as see. Tyler Duenow’s lights are a masterpiece including hanging bare bulbs giving a festive and youthful flavor to the proceedings. Eileen Engel’s costumes also evoke the time period perfectly and then lead into a more contemporary finale with the dramatic closing number, “The Song Of Purple Summer.” You might find a few similarities to “Hair” and the evocative “Age Of Aquarius” with lots of touchy-feely in the audience as, even through death and betrayal, love must win out.

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The cast of “Spring Awakening” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

This is a truly outstanding production of this haunting piece of musical theatre- raw emotion followed by serene, almost introspective beauty. You might recall moments about your own turning of age and the difficulties and trauma that inevitably turned to moments of pure bliss. “Spring Awakening” is often hard to watch but it screams of, not only growing up in 19th century Germany, but growing up anywhere, anytime, any place. It plays at Stray Dog Theatre through October 21st. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information. You may want to see this one at least twice!

 

 

 

“Lizzie” Slashes Its Way Across The New Line Stage With Powerful Performances

October 2, 2017
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Marcy Wiegert as Emma and Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie in the New Line production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Lizzie Borden has been a legend since childhood for many of us. The opening and closing of New Line’s latest off the wall musical, “Lizzie,” features that macabre nursery rhyme-like chant, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks…”- also made famous in the bizarre folk music icon which states “You can’t chop your mother up in Massachusetts.” Now, four wonderful performances by four stunning ladies brings that story to life.

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Anna Skidis Vargas holds the axe as the title character in “Lizzie” at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

It’s no doubt that Lizzie was the O.J. Simpson of her time (1892) because, despite overwhelming evidence, she was acquitted. The writing team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner focus on Lizzie being guilty and acting as she did because of sexual and mental abuse from her father and stepmother. Along with her sister Emma, they had been cut out the will and the pressure finally got to Lizzie and, by an axe, hatchet or some other implement, carried out her dastardly deed.

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Larissa White as Alice and Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie in the New Line production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Anna Skidis Vargas leads the way as a robust and manic Lizzie. Starting with the bizarre and haunting song, “This Is Not Love,” she sets the tone for the evening and then follows up with a resounding duet with next door neighbor, Alice, furthering the conflict with “Gotta Get Out Of Here.” There’s very little dialogue as the music drives this show with a marvelous rock beat.

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Marcy Wiegert rocks out as Emma Borden in “Lizzie” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

As Alice, another New Line favorite, Larissa White, brings a touch of innocence into this over the top story line. Although some folks in 1892 thought Lizzie might have been involved in a Lesbian relationship with the maid, Bridget, this version ties that in with Alice. Despite her love for Lizzie, she rats on her because she feels Lizzie has done something awful. In a cast filled with New Line powerful women, Kimi Short comes up as a doozy of a maid, Bridget Sullivan. As loony as the Borden sisters, she feels she had been slighted by the family- they still call her by the name of their previous maid.

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Anna Skidis Vargas and Marcy Wiegert as the Borden sisters in New Line’s production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Rounding out the cast is a stellar performance by Marcy Wiegert as Lizzie’s sister, Emma. With ramrod confidence and that fabulous shock of green hair, she simply kills the music with a Janis Joplin flair. Her second act duet with Lizzie (mainly her performance, though) of “WTF Now, Lizzie” (I cleaned that up a bit), is one of the brightest performances in musical moments on stage in our town.

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Larissa White rocks a ballad in “Lizzie” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Director Mike Dowdy-Windsor focuses solely on the tenacity of these women and the pulsing rock themes of the musical. They move about stage in half theatrical  performance/half concert mode. It’s killer direction with strong choreography aspects throughout. The rambling set design of Rob Lippert is right on the mark and his lighting design captures the essence of both the story line and the anachronistic feel of the production. Sarah Porter’s costumes also hold that out of date feel but perfectly exquisite in this setting.

The New Line band never sounded better with some unusual choices that gives the proper feel to the piece. Sarah Nelson leads the way and, with the band stretched around the backstage area and in plain sight more than ever, a few distractions ensue. The percussionist, Clancy Newell seemed to be the busiest man in town with everything from drums to cymbals to guiro and a lot more. And the cello is a distinct choice that really enriches the chaotic score. However, Miss Emily Trista Lane is a bit of a distraction with her 21st Century beauty in sharp contrast to the 19th Century fury and outlandish characters on stage just a step away from her.

Once again Scott Miller has brought a show I’ve been listening to for a while onto the stage. Perhaps I should give him a short (or long) list of shows I’d like to see in the future that I’ve enjoyed on CD over the years. Shows that no one else in town is ever likely to produce.

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Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie, Kimi Short as Bridget and Marcy Wiegert as Emma in New Line’s “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

“Lizzie” is more than a musical, it’s an event of epic proportions. These four women simply hew their way through a rock-perfect score and strike fear, terror and a bit of humor through the audience. This one is a no-brainer- you must see it and savor it. “Lizzie” plays at New Line at the Marcelle Theater through October 21st. Contact them at 314-534-1111 or at newlinetheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Weird, Wild And Wonderful- “The Feast” Opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio Eleventh Season

September 25, 2017
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Spencer Sickmann watches as Jennifer Theby-Quinn admires his masterpiece in “The Feast” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Bringing bathroom humor to a whole new level, “The Feast” offers a psychological study with outrageous humor and it’s all happening at St. Louis Actors’ Studio featuring- what else- three superb actors. And it’s written by a local young man, Cory Finley, who is a graduate of John Burroughs High School (answering the ultimate St. Louis query).

In the span of 70 minutes we see a young couple on the verge of a break up, a series of men who enter their lives- all looking very much like the same man- and a mental break down of gargantuan proportions. At the center of it all is an on stage toilet that appears to be talking to someone in grunts, groans and guttural cries for help- or maybe something else.

Spencer Sickmann is Matt- a struggling artist who is on the brink of madness due to the noises from his toilet who then eventually explores the “underworld” secrets that the toilet seems to draw him into. His girlfriend, Anna, is the wonderful Jennifer Theby-Quinn who may be fed up with his obsession or perhaps driving him further into it. Both actors have very expressive faces that convey a wide range of emotions. Mr. Sickmann combines the good (but neurotic) looks of Jake Gyllenhaal with the rubber-faced look of the old comedian Charlie Callas. Ms. Theby-Quinn is delightful even as she delivers the shocking news that she’s had an affair. The two are like oil and water that somehow combine to make a satisfying comedic/battling couple.

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Ryan Scott Foizey as the plumber and Spencer Sickmann as Matt have an interesting encounter during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Feast.” Photo: Patrick Huber

The broad humor of Ryan Scott Foizey has never been more lethal than playing the role of “The Man.” He is, indeed, several men. Playing a plumber who finds nothing unusual about the toilet and then Matt’s psychiatrist who drops hints that he is well aware of the underworld secrets of the toilet people who Matt has seen- then quickly changes his tune. Are we privy to Matt’s madness at this point or is the doctor playing tricks? Next he becomes Matt’s best friend who also slips into a scenario of how the underworld are at odds with Matt because he has painted a masterpiece that exposes their “secret life. And finally he becomes the man, Connor,  with whom Anna is having the affair. It’s a remarkable performance as you recognize Mr. Foizey- but you truly believe he, with a change of glasses and costumes, becomes the embodiment of each character.

This whole, wild world draws you in with the brilliant direction of John Pierson- himself chair of the Theatre, Speech and Dance department of the playwright’s alma mater. With a great eye for the absurd combined with the ability to make the strange world seem oh, so normal. He has brought outstanding performances from all three actors who all share the same tongue-in-cheek, wide-eyed believability.

Patrick Huber’s set and lights are perfect showing off the Brooklyn apartment and turning the focal point toilet into an almost ominous fourth character with lights and the glorious sounds it emits thanks to John Pierson’s scary yet funny creaks and groans. Carla Landis Evans has designed the perfect costumes including Matt’s opening wardrobe featuring a rose, silk robe, the business chic of Anna and then the transition of The Man’s four major characters.

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Spencer Sickmann as Matt contemplates his life and his toilet during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Feast.” Photo: Patrick Huber

“The Feast” is a laugh out loud script that features an even funnier finale which may surprise. The twists and turns lead you to the ending which may be interpreted in several different ways. I thought it was obvious when I first thought about it and then I found myself thinking of several other scenarios. Let’s face it, you’re gonna love “The Feast.” It plays at St. Louis Actors’ Studio at Gaslight on Boyle through October 8th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for more information and how to get season tickets.