“Blackbird” Takes On New Perspective With St. Louis Actors’ Studio Production

February 13, 2018
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Elizabeth Birkenmeier confronts John Pierson in “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

The only other time I saw David Harrower’s play, “Blackbird” was in the mid 2000’s at the Studio Theatre of the Rep. It was difficult to watch then and it has only become more difficult all these years later. In recent months the molestation of women and under age women (and men, for that matter) has lost all credibility for the accused- and rightly so. As we watch an older man try to rationalize his victimization of a 12 year old girl when he was 40 or so, there is no sympathy left.

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John Pierson and Elizabeth Birkenmeier in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “Blackbird.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Una has found her abuser after many years and decides to visit Ray (now calling himself Peter) at his place of business. The next 80 minutes are painful to sit through and, unlike seeing the play the first time, there is no way to even begin to look at the situation from both perspectives. It is particularly telling when the audience sees what has happened to Una over the years and her mind set from the eyes of a child who thought she was “in love.”

Veteran actor and director John Pierson tackles the difficult role of Ray. He tries to make a plausible argument but you keep coming back to the fact that this girl was 12 years old when he became obsessed with her. The audience can perhaps feel his anguish but then you realize- she was 12 years old. Though convicted, he served a few years and was able to move away and map out a whole new life for himself including a new wife and family. It’s a remarkable performance from Mr. Pierson knowing that he truly is the villain in this piece.

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John Pierson leans in to make a point to Elizabeth Birkenmeier during “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

The unusual thing about the performance of Elizabeth Birkenmeier as Una is her ability to stand her ground yet show some vulnerability for her abuser. She was labeled everything from precocious to a slut over the years as she sank into a life of loveless sex and extreme despair. The final, surprising moments are testament to how deeply she was wounded and affected by his actions.

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John Pierson agonizes as Elizabeth Birkenmeier describes her life during the St. Louis Actor’s Studio production of “Blackbird.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Annamaria Pileggi has directed with sympathy and a much needed cry for help. “Blackbird” is not an easy show to stomach and the vivid language and descriptions of the “affair” are really hard to take. Gasps from the audience are, I’m sure, a regular part of the play as they were when I saw it. Despite that, it’s a play that needs to be seen- more now than ever. With Larry Naser-style pedophiles still out there in the world and the ties to the even bigger movement of “Me Too,” this is probably more relevant today than it was in 2005 when it was first written.

A third cast member, Sienna Hahn, does a fine job as well and Patrick Huber’s set becomes another character between the stark look of an industrial break room and the metaphor of the messy state of that room with old lunch styrofoam containers and soda cans strewn about. Mr. Huber’s lighting design also helps create the loneliness of the work place while Teresa Doggett’s costumes highlight the contrasts with Ray’s business attire emphasizing his elderly demeanor (particularly the tie stretched out over his paunch) and Una’s buttoned up style showing no skin except her face.

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Elizabeth Birkenmeier hides from the rage of John Pierson in “Blackbird” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

“Blackbird” has returned just in time to reflect the world that is changing today. It plays through February 25th at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

 

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Enigmatic “The Humans” At The Rep- This Ain’t Your Arthur Miller Family Drama

February 12, 2018
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Brian Dykstra, Lauren Marcus and Fajer Kaisi in a scene from “The Humans” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

After the first week-end of the Tony winning drama, “The Humans,” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis- the final moments have been the buzzword among those who’ve seen it. What did it mean? What the hell just happened? In a play fraught with symbolism, it was just another piece in fitting together this unusual family drama.

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The Blake clan assemble for Thanksgiving in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “The Humans.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Loud, disturbing noises punctuate the new new ground floor apartment of newly engaged Brigid Blake and Richard Saad. Passed off as a Chinese lady in the apartment above who is into weights- no one really believes it- on stage or in the audience. Not unlike the jarring factory whistle in “Sweeney Todd,” it’s a constant reminder that we’re in for a bumpy Thanksgiving night. Add other assorted noises blamed on someone using the laundry room and the frequent blackouts in certain rooms of the spacious apartment and you get the feeling that these are perhaps metaphors for this functioning dysfunctional family.

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Lauen Marcus and Fajer Kaisi prepare the peppermint pig during “The Humans” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Lauren Marcus and Fajer Kaisi are the young couple who, despite a calm demeanor, have some tensions brewing in their life and trepidation on how the evening is headed. Brian Dykstra is the patriarch of the Blake clan, Erik. He’s the one who is perhaps holding the biggest secret which leads to the big reveal and the perplexing final moments of “The Humans.” Carol Schultz is his long suffering yet occasionally snippy wife, Deirdre, Kathleen Wise is their other daughter, Aimee, who has gone through a recent break up and the cast is completed with a stunning performance from Darrie Lawrence as Erik’s mother, “Momo,” who is mostly confined to a wheelchair.

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Brian Dykstra and Darrie Lawrence in a moment from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “The Humans.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Rep Artistic Director, Steven Woolf, has directed with a masterful touch in bringing out the nuances in the troubled family while maintaining the spirit of a classic family drama. The terrific dialogue over dialogue, in one sequence in particular, on the two level set is remarkable. An almost casual conversation between Erik and Richard over Erik’s bizarre dreams may lead, in part, to the unusual finale that everyone is fixated on. Does it reference his allusion to a tunnel or is it a sign of something more dire?

The Gianni Downs double decker set is a marvel. Even the vast spaces seem almost too confined for this small family. Rob Denton’s lights play a significant role and Rusty Wandall’s sound design adds the ominous touch. Dorothy Marshall Englis has fashioned a wonderful costume design. The Stephen Karam script is nothing if not fascinating. Far from traditional, it sometimes smacks you in the face with symbolic overtones and at other times revels in the spoken word of a truly great script. Nothing appears to be just what it seems and we’re constantly reminded of how much the building has become another character. In an interview in the program, Karam talks about fears- mainly following the 9-11 crisis. So fears of the outside world and fears within the family all take shape as we unravel the humanity of “The Humans.”

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The cast of “The Humans” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“The Humans” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through March 4th. You may love it, you may hat it- but you’ll find it fascinating and will undoubtedly join the discussion about the final sequence. Give the Rep a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

Biology, Theories And Two Strong Women Guide Us Through “The How And The Why” At New Jewish Theatre

January 30, 2018
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Sophia Brown and Amy Loui begin to feel each other out during “The How And The Why” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Evolutionary biology is not my idea of a strong subject for a play. Nor are lengthy discussions about menstruation. But somehow two remarkable actresses and one strong director bring Sarah Treem’s unusual one-act to satisfying fruition with the New Jewish production of “The How And The Why.”

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Progess is made between Amy Loui and Sophia Brown in the New Jewish Theatre production of “The How And The Why.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Amy Loui is an established professor and researcher, Zelda Kahn, who has studied women’s biological make up and written several theories- including The Grandmother Hypothesis- which has turned the world of science on its ear. Into her office walks graduate student Rachel Hardeman played by Sophia Brown. It looks like a mentoring moment but things take a bizarre turn and we learn more about the emotional connection between these two strong willed ladies.

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Amy Loui pleads with Sophia Brown in the New Jewish Theatre production of “The How And The Why.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Despite some lofty theories and loftier language being thrown around, we get the basic hint of why the inevitable clash of ideologies erupt into pain, passion and pathos. At a local bar the bonding and healing begins and we become privy to even more exacting secrets that have helped shape these two women.

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Amy Loui and Sophia Brown in a scene from “The How And The Why” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Local playwright, actress and director Nancy Bell has directed these two wonderful actresses into a taut, if somewhat wordy script. Even ladies of such renown on local stages as Amy Loui and Sophia Brown found it just a bit tongue-tying at times to spout the scientific jargon as the 90 minute one act compounded the action. Thank goodness Nancy Bell was able to put the emphasis on the humanity of the ladies and their unique situation rather than focusing too much on the biological inferences.

Peter and Margery Spack have outdone themselves with a very realistic set design showcasing the professor’s office in Cambridge and then a local dive in Boston. All of it is surrounded by a Calder-esque set of mobiles depicting the night sky, perhaps biological symbols as well, on both sides of the center-focused thrust stage. Michael Sullivan’s lights perfectly match both locations and the Felia Davenport costumes are marvelous helping to showcase the difference between the two women.

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Amy Loui and Sophia Brown discover their differences during the New Jewish Theatre production of “The How And The Why.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

“The How And The Why” could stand a bit of trimming despite the nifty cat and mouse game the two play throughout. But the excellent performances and strong direction make it a worthy addition to this young 2018 theatre season. Catch it at the New Jewish Theatre through February 11th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

 

 

The Black Rep Knocks It Out Of The Park With “Fences”

January 11, 2018

fence-ronContinuing their second go round of the August Wilson complete play collection, The Black Rep has scored a big one with this incarnation of “Fences.” Led by two stalwart actors and a brilliant ensemble backing them up, this is a strong start to the 2018 theatre season.

Ron Himes is the Artistic Director of The Black Rep and an actor of great renown in our area as well. His portrayal of the flawed and bitter Troy Maxson is flawless as we see every heartbreak, disappointment and stubborn pride associated with one of the greatest characters ever created- right up there with Willy Loman. As a power-hitting ballplayer (37 home runs last season), he is facing the infamous color barrier that had held black players out of the big leagues. “Fences” takes place between 1957 and 1964 as Troy has just missed his chance to join Jackie Robinson and the other black players who were becoming common now in American ballparks. As he says, “life is a fastball on the outside corner,” something that should have made him a natural for the game but instead has led to years of “what might have happened.”

As Rose, his wife, Linda Kennedy also turns in a masterful performance. Her second act speech about the suffering she has gone through by sticking with him through all of his bravado and bitterness comes off the stage and strikes the audience right in the kisser. It’s a memorable moment that can’t be forgotten. Also, returning to town from his new home in New Orleans is Robert Alan Mitchell as Troy’s friend from the factory, Jim Bono. He gives a strong performance in a role that seems to be low key compared to the vast power of Troy, but settles in as the voice of reason.

fence-logoRichard Agnew is very convincing as Gabriel, the mentally impaired brother of Troy who has a metal plate in his head. His rambling and repetitive speeches speak well of Troy’s effect on everyone as he constantly asks, “why is Troy mad at me?” Troy, in fact, is very protective of his brother but his constant bitterness takes the biggest toll on Gabriel. Steven Maurice is fine as Troy and Roses’ oldest son, Lyons who is also intimidated by his father who constantly relates Lyons’ fate to the fate he has met- not realizing that times are changing. Brian McKinley is the youngest son, Cory, who also can do nothing to please his father. Rounding out the cast is little Lena Sanaa Williams as Raynell who does a great job as Troy’s illegitimate daughter.

Director Lorna Littleway pulls Wilson’s masterpiece a notch above as she wrenches every ounce of passion from the script and shines a light on the power and majesty of this superbly crafted play. Jim Burwinkel’s rustic set is perfect for the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 50’s Pennsylvania and the Joseph Clapper lighting design enhances the ¬†proceedings. The Marissa Perry costume design is right on the mark Kareem Deanes’ sound provides a dramatic effect to the evening.

fence-longshotA complex and involved script takes on an honest and nuanced portrayal thanks to the inspired team at The Black Rep. August Wilson’s “Fences” plays through January 21st and it’s a play you won’t want to miss. Give them a call at 314-534-3807 for tickets or more information.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” Brings 50’s And 60’s Pop To The Repertory Theatre Of St. Louis

January 7, 2018
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The girls play a dating game in “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Eric Woolsey

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is similar to “Forever Plaid” but with the ladies taking charge (oh, and they aren’t dead like the guys in “FP”). Centering on a senior prom in 1958, Act I shows four girls from Springfield High who get thrown into the entertainment portion because the guys from the school who were supposed to entertain go cancelled due to a certain infraction from one their group. Then, in Act II we revisit the scene for the ten year reunion in 1968. All the while we’re treated to hit after hit of these two decades from the pop charts.

My wife and I discussed after the show- which came first, the music choice or the plot? We concur a little bit of each as some of the songs fit into the story line of the four girls making up the “Wonderettes”- some fittingly, some funny. Anyway, it’s a “marvelous” way to spend an evening in the theatre.

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The Wonderettes pose under their sign during the opening “Mr. Sandman” number in the Rep production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

The four girls are about as different as you can get from each other. Chiara Trentalange is the boyfriend stealer, Cindy Lou (or Cynthia, as she becomes in her more sophisticated personage ten years later). She couldn’t be more overt when she describes her man stealing ability sighting her “Lucky Lips.” In the second act, she is repentant and remorseful as we learn how she reformed in the ten year hiatus. This leads to some rather silly intros to songs like “Son Of A Preacher Man” and “Leader Of The Pack” (obviously the plot and characters driven by the song choices here).

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A wonderful take on “Allegheny Moon” during “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Eric Woolsey

The object of her indiscretions is Betty Jean with a delightful performance by Iris Beaumier. Her broken heart comes in the form of “Lipstick On Your Collar” in the first act and then another tragic romance in the second act leads to “That’s When The Tears Start” and “It’s My Party.”

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The girls get the crowd going during the Repertory Theatre production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Morgan Kirner really gets the party moving as Missy. Her first act crooning of Calamity Janes’ “Secret Love” becomes a plaintiff wail and then we get the audience into the action when she pulls “Mr. Lee” from the crowd as the teacher she’s got a crush on. This leads to a pretty good performance by a befuddled older man as he sits while they sing “Born Too Late” and “Teacher’s Pet.” In the second act, it’s revealed that they got married so the poor guy has to make another stage appearance. The audience loved it.

Finally we have Leanne Smith as Suzy- sort of the Suzy Homemaker type who then makes her grand entrance in the second act pregnant. Don’t worry, these aren’t really spoilers- it’s just that kind of show. She has fun with “Stupid Cupid” in the first act and then gets to lead a medley of songs in the second act ending with the Aretha Franklin anthem, “Respect. ”

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Suzy leads the girls in a second act number set in 1968 in the Rep’s production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Melissa Rain Anderson has directed with a tongue-in-cheek whimsy and her choreography captures the magic and mystery of both decades and their differing styles. The Adam Koch set design evokes the usual vain attempt of transforming a gym to a prom theme- you can almost swell the sweat from the last basketball game played there. Peter E. Sargent’s lights empower the surroundings and the Dorothy Marshall Englis costumes bring back memories of can-can skirts and then go-go boots.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” was created and written by Roger Bean and music director Joshua Zecher-Ross and his band have captured the mood of the 50’s and 60’s with the bounce and the ballads all coming through like a blast from the past. These four girls take to the music like fish to water. Individually they shine- collectively, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

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The girls are encircled with red ribbon and hearts during their Marvelous Dreams Medley during “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at the Rep. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Don’t come for anything heavy- just brush off 2017 with a gentler and more mindful era. Just like opening night, the audiences will be singing along (just not too loudly), tapping their toes and bobbing their heads throughout the run of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” Join the happy crowd at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through January 28th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

Enigmatic “Remnant” Brings Imaginary World To Frightening Life At Mustard Seed

December 11, 2017
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Ryan Lawson-Maeske looks down as Katy Keating and Marissa Grice discuss the planning of Christ Mas in “Remnant” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Mustard Seed Theatre is opening their eleventh season just as they did their first back in 2007- with Ron Reed’s dystopian universe in “Remnant.” Although a native of Vancouver, Mr. Reed’s futuristic play is set in the more familiar surroundings of St. Louis. In fact, Artistic Director and director of “Remnant,” Deanna Jent has set the production in her own theatre in a world that has been all but obliterated by a plague 75 years ago.

A scrappy family- the Wilkin clan- has settled into the Fontbonne theatre space protecting their territory with weapons and an elaborate entry system which requires a series of “secret codes” to enter. Set designer Kristin Cassidy and props master Meg Brinkley have gathered a lot of pieces that earmark family holdings from the recent past and have scattered them throughout the rambling set. It’s a wonderful world to enter as you take your seat and wait for the play to start.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske is the patriarch of the clan, Barlow Sho’r. He opens the show practicing his skills in preparation of any assault on their property. He takes command but has hesitant moments as a Loner eventually invades their home in the form of a scary Adam Flores. His handle of Loner is appropriate as he comes loaded to take over with a curved knife that is attached permanently to his wrist. As the evening moves forward, however, we find he truly is alone and soon begins to cherish the family unit that he has stumbled upon.

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Michelle Hand pours “punching” for Marissa Grice as Ryan Lawson-Maeske looks on in Mustard Seed Theatre presents “Remnant.” Photo: John Lamb

In this strange tale of the future the people have developed a new version of the language that was once spoken- sort of a pigeon English that makes it hard to concentrate at the start of the play. Whether the audience gets used to it or the script falls more into conventional tone, you soon begin to understand it and follow along just fine. They have just discovered the holiday of what they call Christ Mas and they settle in to enjoy Christ Mas eve before the intruder arrives.

Marissa Grice is Barlow’s “significant other,” for lack of a better title- Delmar Nu1. A mix of kindness and caution go into her dealings with the Loner and the temper of Barlow. Katy Keating is solid as Barlow’s sister, Annagail Bookr while Michelle Hand as Kristn Taler is the elder of the group and hands down what wisdom she remembers in relating a series of tales about the Christ Mas. Her ritual and deft telling of the story is wonderful.

Michael Sullivan’s lights enhance the expansive staging area relying mainly on overhanging par lights. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are effective in portraying a future that has gone to a mixed bag of the past to recreate the clans’ style.

“Remnant” raises a lot of questions about the fear of a future that has recently been wiped clean by a devastating plague. Is everyone not in your clan an enemy? Is it safe to travel too far from your “space?” And what about the traditions like Christmas and a Supreme Being? Are they real and should you try to reconstruct the life that existed before? There is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed to really latch onto some of the concepts provided in the script but it is a fascinating look into the future and should start a lot of post play discussion.

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Michelle Hand delivers a story as Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Marissa Grice look on in “Remnant” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“Remnant” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre on the Fontbonne campus through December 23rd. Contact Mustard Seed at 314-719-8060 or at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Deft Direction And Great Cast Moves “The Flick” Along Nicely At R-S Theatrics

December 11, 2017

At times while watching the latest from R-S Theatrics, “The Flick,” I felt it could have been a “No Exit” moment. Were these characters in some sort of purgatory waiting for hell? Or is it just three people looking for love and meaning in their rather humdrum lives? Despite the slow pace of an already long play (about 2 and a half hours), you can’t help but get caught up in their conversation as they toil away at a decrepit movie theatre.

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Jennelle Gilreath, Jaz Tucker and Chuck Winning in “The Flick” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

We meet Sam as he is breaking in a new employee, Avery, who we discover is a whiz at playing “Six Degrees” as he connects one star to another that Sam arbitrarily hands him. In between they are sweeping up spilled popcorn and giving each other a version of their life so far and what they hope to do in the future. Sam doesn’t seem to have any goals except to move up in the chain of command and someday run the projector. That lofty job is already being handled by Rose who Sam is smitten with and Avery reluctantly becomes involved with for, shall we call it, a “one night stand?”

Chuck Winning gives Sam a sad sack on the verge of extreme anger persona. He is a likable character despite his jealous and suspicious ways. We feel for his desperation and the unrequited love he endures even after he opens his heart to Rose. A great, nuanced performance. As his mentor and enigmatic loner, Jaz Tucker becomes an unwitting foil in Sam’s romantic missteps. We don’t really get a strong handle on his depth, but Mr. Tucker makes Avery a sympathetic character despite his somewhat upbeat demeanor.

Jennelle Gilreath is a breath of fresh air as Rose. Her green hair tossing and her heart on her sleeve attitude gives us a portrayal of wild abandon that gives her the freedom to act on her whims and the world better watch out. Rounding out the cast is Tyson Cole as a sleeping man in the theatre rousted out by the cleaning crew and then later as Skylar- the new man on the clean up crew.

Joe Hanrahan directs with a slow, deliberate place to emphasize the awkwardness and lack of social skills in the characters. It works well but extends the evening even further in a slow and often rambling piece. As secrets and personalities are revealed, we learn a lot in this “slice of life” comedy. “The Flick” might fall into the dramedy category owing to the obvious desperation of these somewhat abandoned souls, but there’s enough spirit and determination and some great laughs along with heart to make it more uplifting than it first looks.

Keller Ryan has taken advantage of the seats in the Kranzberg Black Box to mold his basic movie theatre structure and it works well even though I almost thought

about sitting on the set when I first entered the theatre. The strewn popcorn and the fact that everyone else in the audience was seated facing these seats led me to a seat next to the director and another reviewer. Brittanie Gunn’s lighting design gives the set a real feel and the costumes of Sarah Porter are inspired nicely by actual movie theatre garb.

To paraphrase a famous movie trailer cliche, “in a world where long one acts have been reigning supreme,” it’s nice to get lost in a favorite pastime- the movies- and watch a play unfold with full character development and a somewhat unexpected ending.

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Chuck Winning reads over Jennelle Gilreath’s shoulder as Jaz Tucker cleans up in the background during the R-S Theatrics production of “The Flick.” Photo: Michael Young

Playwright Annie Baker has given us a lot out of almost nothing. Catch “The Flick” as presented by R-S Theatrics through December 23rd. Give them a call at 314-252-8812 for tickets or more information.

 

Outlandish “A Behanding In Spokane” Brings Dark Humor To Actors’ Studio

December 7, 2017
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Jerry Vogel as Carmichael makes a point while Leerin Campbell and Michael Lowe look on in “A Behanding In Spokane” at STLAS. Photo: Patrick Huber

Playwright Martin McDonagh has shocked us in the past with some pretty rough Irish inspired dark comedies and now he brings that same irreverent humor to a story set in America. “A Behanding In Spokane” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio offers an outlandish premise that can’t help but pull the audience into this bizarre world of oddly familiar characters.

Carmichael lost his hand to “hillbillies” 47 years ago in Spokane who, after the incident involving a train, cruelly waved goodbye to him with his own hand as they left him bleeding by the railroad tracks. Though giving up the need for revenge after all these years, he is still obsessed with finding that hand. Two drug dealers who aren’t exactly rocket scientists decide to try to scam him by offering a “hand” to collect his five hundred dollar reward. Add a overly happy and suspicious receptionist at the Indiana hotel where the score is to go down and you’ve got the makings of a typical McDonagh farce.

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Leerin Campbell as Marilyn gives her favorite salute as Michael Lowe as Toby contemplates their fate during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presentation of “A Behanding In Spokane.” Photo: Patrick Huber

With an exasperated demeanor, Jerry Vogel gives a strong performance as the frustrated Carmichael. From keeping one drug dealer locked in the closet while the young girl goes to fetch the hand to his banter with the receptionist, he delivers a darkly comic portrayal that Tarantino would be proud of. Michael Lowe is the bewildered Toby who, as the play opens, we think has been shot for scratching on the closet door to get out. As it turns out, Carmichael merely fired a “warning” shot past his head. What we soon find out is that Toby is not the brightest bulb in the pack and, even when his girlfriend berates him for not standing up for Carmichael’s frequent use of the “n” word, he shrugs it off.

Leerin Campbell as Marilyn is the smarter of the two low life criminals- but not by much. Her performance is grand as she even flips everyone off including the audience after the curtain call. When the two are handcuffed to the radiator by Carmichael before he goes off to investigate their further allegations, their shoe throwing bit to dislodge a gas can with a burning candle in it is a riot. Do they realize that if they knock that can over, they will all blow up a lot quicker? And then their discovery in Carmichael’s suitcase brings the dark humor to an even darker level.

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Jerry Vogel as Carmichael talks to his mom on the phone after he has just handcuffed Michael Lowe as Toby to the radiator in “A Behanding In Spokane” at STLAS. Photo: Patrick Huber

Rounding out the cast is a marvelous performance by William Roth, Artistic Director of STLAS. The dimwitted Mervyn holds down the front desk but is dressed like the Phillip Morris bellboy in the old cigarette commercials. His permanent shit-eating grin and his lethal curiosity would earn him a bullet in the head from a less tolerant villain than Carmichael. It’s almost as if Carmichael finds him too amusing to shoot.

Wayne Salomon has directed with a great insight into the absurdity of the play and the situations McDonagh has created. Dark as they are, the laughs come freely and often. Reminiscent of a David Mamet script, cursing is a way of life for all of the characters except Mervyn. Like many of his other scripts, including “The Lieutenant Of Inishmore,” the ridiculous becomes sublime. Patrick Huber has done yeoman work once again with a tight, believable set design and a strong lighting design. Carla Landis Evans provides the right touch with costuming from the punk look of Marilyn to the hilarious bellboy look of Mervyn. The only complaint might be the ragged job of wrapping Mr. Vogel’s hand to make it look like a stump. You could see his knuckles looming through the bandages.

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Jerry Vogel as Carmichael can’t figure what to make of William Roth as the dimwitted desk clerk in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “A Behanding in Spokane.” Photo: Patrick Huber

“A Behanding In Spokane” is not for everyone but if you like your comedy broad and darkly absurd, it’s for you. I felt ashamed at times laughing at some of the scandalous going’s on but you just can’t help it. It plays at St. Louis Actors’ Studio through December 17th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

“A Jewish Joke” At New Jewish Is Another Look At McCarthyism

December 5, 2017

A one man show starring the co-author is the latest at New Jewish Theatre. “A Jewish Joke” by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson stars Mr. Johnson as the fictitious Bernie Lutz- a comedy writer from the early 50’s who soon gets swept up in the Red Scare. His fate and that whole world of McCarthyism appears to be one of the many problems sweeping the country again in the malevolence of our current administration. So the play is relevant on many levels- both as history and as history perhaps repeating itself.

Since Phil Johnson co-wrote the play it seemed odd that he had a lot of problems on opening night including some technical snafu’s that appeared to throw off his timing. Bernie has several projects in the works including those for the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and NBC. Over the course of this 90 minute one act, he takes and makes about 30 to 40 phone calls and the old problem of picking up a phone that still rings became the first in a line of anticipation of such a faux pas happening again and seemed to cause some trepidation on his part about when to pick up the ringing phone.

We know he’s a comedy writer but the premise of the play has him grabbing jokes out of his files whenever he gets nervous or frustrated and reading them aloud to himself? and thus to the audience. His timing was really off on a few of them- even though most are chestnuts from the period and many we’ve heard over the years. One other problem with the play is the appearance of a non-existent cat that he feeds and talks to. Since it has little to do with the plot- why introduce or, if you do, have him walk slightly off stage to do this little bit of business.

Director David Ellenstein keeps the pace moving and you can see the growing concern on Bernie’s face as he continues to take increasingly stressful phone calls about his involvement in the Communist party. So there is drama and we do have concern for his character knowing how these atrocities were carried out before Senator Joseph McCarthy was finally brought down with the stunning Senate speech- “After all of this time, Senator, have you no sense of decency?” Words that are ringing in our ears today.

No credit for the simple set but it is functional as a small office for a 1950’s comedy writer and Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design is equally effective. Peter Herman’s costuming for Mr. Johnson is fine and to the point.

This is a transplant from the Roustabouts Theatre Company in San Diego where it won a lot of awards. “A Jewish Joke” will no doubt overcome some of the problems it encountered on opening night and should be a satisfying entry into the many projects already out there about this period in history. Perhaps a look at “Trumbo” about the effects of McCarthyism on screenwriter Dalton Trumbo might be something you might want to see or the truly inspired “The Front” by Woody Allen.

jewishA little side note, a few of us were discussing the play at another play in our town and several ladies in front of us piped up and said they didn’t enjoy this play last time at New Jewish and probably wouldn’t go see it again. We finally discovered they were mixing it up with a delightful comedy they produced a few years back, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” We encouraged them to see this one as it is something completely different. “A Jewish Joke” plays at New Jewish Theatre through December 10th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley” Is A New Christmas Tradition At The Rep

December 2, 2017
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Jane, Mary, Lydia and Elizabeth- the Bennet sisters- gather for “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A relatively new play, “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley,” may have a rather cumbersome title but the joy and warmth it displays makes it a treat that we could welcome for seasons to come. In the true spirit of Jane Austen, we meet the Bennet sisters two years after Elizabeth has married Mr. Darcy and this time we’re focused on Mary, the awkward and bookish middle sister.

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Miles G. Jackson as Arthur- the awkward center of attention at “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Written by two scholars of Austen’s work and big fans as well- Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon- they have infused this new work with witty dialogue, a feeling for the elegance of Regency England and a joie de vive that runs through the tough times and the revelations during a Christmas at the Darcy home. A winning cast brings the intelligence of Austen (and thus her characters) to brilliant life.

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Justine Salata as Mary as she contemplates her future during the Rep production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pembelry.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Justine Salata leads the way as Mary Bennet. Her lack of social skills is evident as she is content with her books and an occasional go at the pianoforte. She is not so much aloof as she is set in her ways and Ms. Salata does a masterful job of making her endearing despite her nature. Her sister Elizabeth is given a spirited portrayal by Harveen Sandhu as she tries to be peacemaker among the four sisters who each have distinct personalities and peculiarities. As her husband, Mr. Darcy, Rhett Guter displays a commanding presence and is a genial host to all of the guests- invited and not.

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Harveen Sandhu as Elizabeth and Kim Wong as a pregnant Jane in a scene from “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Another sister, Jane, is the sweet and understanding one- and also the pregnant one. Kim Wong gives her a mild temper and a giving heart. Her husband, Charles Bingley, is the best friend of Mr. Darcy and Peterson Townsend infuses him with a love of life and a true purpose. The last sister is Lydia and Austen Danielle Bohmer brings forth all of the flirtatious glamour of her character. Although wed (unhappily), she cannot resist a come on to another one of Mr. Darcy’s guests, Lord Arthur de Bourgh.

Miles G. Jackson delivers a brilliant performance as the awkward and bookish Arthur (guess who he winds up with?). There is an instant connection between he and Mary that neither seems to notice at first but from his shy demeanor and his tentative steps (literally), he soon wins over the audience with his good looks to his ungraceful and continual bowing to the ladies and gentlemen at the Christmas celebration. His uncomfortable handling of Lydia’s advances can only be compounded by the entrance of Victoria Frings as his (unknowingly to him) intended, Anne.

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Victoria Frings as Anne casts another disparaging look at the Christmas tree in the Rep’s production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Arthur has inherited the de Bourgh estate but Anne has inherited most of the money. She claims that her mother had always intended for she and Arthur to marry so she could live out her days at the estate. Mistaken missives and unresolved misunderstandings soon give way to another happy ending for the Bennet sisters and, for that matter, everyone involved- even the yet again jilted Anne who, at one point, had thought she had been betrothed to Mr. Darcy. Rounding out the cast are silent butlers and maids who make the small scene changes seem natural- Max Bahneman, Johnny Briseno and Molly Burris.

Jen Thompson has directed this masterpiece with another keen eye toward Jane Austen and the manners and mores of the time. It’s wonderful that the sisters reunite in this production which adds to the feeling of the season. Wilson Chin has designed a magnificent set that simply shimmers of the holidays including the much maligned “Christmas tree” that had not quite become the popular sign of the season that it has become since then. The Philip S. Rosenberg lighting design also bathes the set in festive style while David Toser’s costumes (several changes for every character) speaks volumes for the period.

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Harveen Sandhu as Elizabeth and Rhett Guter as Mr. Darcy in “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

This is definitely the show for this holiday season. It sparkles and crackles with hearty laughs, just the right amount of tension (even though you know things will work out alright), a few tears and a loving and hearty message for everyone at this time of year. Run to the Rep- see “Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley” now through Christmas eve. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.