Archive for January, 2012

“Way To Heaven” Adds A New Twist To The Holocaust

January 28, 2012

As if the horrors of the Holocaust aren’t tragic enough, Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga (translated by David Johnston) takes a little-known incident and turns it into an even more devious plot to hide those horrors. His haunting play, “Way To Heaven,” makes for a stunning evening of thought-provoking viewing at the New Jewish Theatre’s latest effort.

Jason Cannon and Terry Meddows in the powerful "Way To Heaven" at New Jewish Theatre.

Based on a true-life encounter by a Swiss representative of the Red Cross when he visited Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1944, the play takes his thoughts and turns it into the opening monologue in “Way To Heaven.” This stunning moment leads us into a series of scenes that unfold into a horrific plot to deceive the public on the atrocities that went on in these camps.

Veteran actor Jerry Vogel mesmerizes as the Red Cross representative describing the idyllic setting of the camp which is shown as an ideal village where the Jews are able to live their lives in harmony with the German officers- sharing their philosophies and religious beliefs on a mutual level of understanding. After the rep is gone, the people start repeating their “scenes” as other people enter and take over the “roles” repeating the same lines and often starting over the “scenes” in frustration. Like some  absurd episode of “The Twilight Zone,” we soon begin to understand what is going on.

A rock-steady portrayal of the elderly Jewish “statesman” by Terry Meddows is the lynch-pin of this disturbing sham of this perfect village. His disgust for what he and his fellow prisoners are forced to do make him numb in his hope for a better life in their predicament. Jason Cannon is downright eerie as he continues to push for this “performance” as commanded by his superiors. These two actors dominate the stage for the better part of the play and together make a powerful pair.

Scott McMaster and Julie Layton in "Way To Heaven" at New Jewish Theatre.

The entire cast works beautifully in this ensemble “play within a play,” if you will. Elizabeth Teeter stuns as she plays with her make-shift doll and goes into a trance-like state. As young as she is, she seems to realize the horror of what they all are going through. Scott McMaster shines as a young man pretending to aspire to making a better life for himself and his fiance- first played by Julie Layton who decides to make a break from the camp- then by Shaina Schrooten as the first young lady has obviously sealed her fate “offstage.”

A series of five young men interchange as, among other things, boys playing with a top. All of the “characters” must rehearse their “lines” and movements over and over again as this ethereal scene continues for what we must conclude is a procession of people making sure the “checks and balances” of this camp remain intact and the blissful life of the “village” continues.

Director Doug Finlayson keeps us on the edge of our seats with his masterful work, aided by the stunning set design of John Stark and the other-worldly lighting design by Michael Sullivan. It’s a total package that disturbs, haunts and provokes. Don’t miss “Way To Heaven” at the New Jewish Theatre through February 12th. Call the box office at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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Mamet’s “Oleanna” Leads Off Hot City Theatre’s New Season

January 22, 2012

Solid performances and strong direction make “Oleanna” a winner as Hot City Theatre begins another season. This David Mamet script has been praised and vilified in the past but at least it raises some interesting questions.

Rachel Fenton and John Pierson star in David Mamet's "Oleanna" at Hot City Theatre through February 5th.

Despite the herky-jerky quality of Mamet’s dialogue throughout a lot of the script, the issues raised in this three-scene one-act are startling at first, then thought-provoking as the evening comes to a very unexpected and unsettling finale. What appears to be vindictive actions by a young student by accusing her professor of sexual harassment and later rape, may have more far-reaching implications on the behavior of the faculty-student relationship.

What most people would perceive as an innocent dialogue during the first scene of “Oleanna” as the male professor attempts to reassure his female student that she will not fail his course, takes on a more ominous tone as we hear her accusations during the second scene and then explode during the provocative final showdown. The professor is fighting for his tenure, his wife, his new home, the prestige of his book and, quite literally, his life. What has the student to lose? That becomes the underlying question during this academic game of cat and mouse.

Two stellar performances punctuate Mamet’s script. John Pierson is rock-solid as John, the perplexed professor. His utterance of the words that opened the play as said by the student, “I don’t understand,” are compelling as we see a complete reversal of roles toward play’s end. One of the most promising young actresses on St. Louis stages today is Rachel Fenton. She proves once again, as the young college student, that she’s got real talent in the diverse roles she’s tackled in the last several months. As Carol, she shows a wide range as she moves from mousy to devious in the blink of an eye. Is there a hidden agenda in her actions? That’s what moves her performance beyond the ordinary.

Director Annamaria Pileggi captures the right amount of tension and leaves us trying to answer the myriad of questions that this David Mamet script produces. The nice Lex Van Blommestein set design adds to the drama as do the lights of Mark Wilson. The raucous sounds of the Norwegian folk song, “Oleanna,” as performed by the great Theodore Bikel and Geula Gill ring through the house before the curtain and during scene changes to remind us of the futility of dreaming big dreams that are built on sand.

Catch the stellar production of Mamet’s “Oleanna” through February 4th at Hot City Theatre at the Kranzberg Art Center. Call 314-289-4063 or visit them at http://www.hotcitytheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Steady Performances Make “A Steady Rain” A Worthy Attraction at Rep Studio

January 22, 2012

Giving us a Freudian “Good Cop-Bad Cop” scenario, “A Steady Rain” is a gritty portrayal of two life-long friends who followed the same path to become Chicago policemen and now face a moral dilemma that threatens their job and their friendship. Thanks to two marvelous performances and a down-to-earth job of directing, it becomes a gripping evening of theatre at the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Michael James Reed and Joey Collins in the Rep Studio production of "A Steady Rain." photo credit: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Denny and Joey have had a life of good kid, bad kid and it has extended into their professional careers. With Internal Affairs looking into an incident involving their conduct in a recent case, the two go over their lives and the decisions they’ve each made leading up to their present situation. Through a series of monologues and dialogues, we see their souls laid bare. All the while, the sound of the steady rain washing over Chicago becomes a metaphor for their lives.

Joey Collins is Denny, the brash product of the Italian South Chicago neighborhood he grew up in. His tales of befriending the low life thieves, pimps and prostitutes (one in particular) of the area become a microcosm of his life and attitude. Mr. Collins’ performance is top notch as his bravado never lets up until the inevitable end of the story. The foreshadowing appears early in the script as dialogue referring to the incident in question leads us to believe only one outcome is inevitable.

Michael James Reed plays the more sedate Irish cop. His powerful portrayal of Joey brings, not only a strong contrast in their friendship, but in their demeanor as well. With his underlying passion for Denny’s married life and for his wife in particular, it becomes a struggle psychologically in both their professional and personal lives.

Although the Keith Huff script is only a bit more powerful than a solid episode of “Law & Order,” these two actors and the strong stage pictures brought about by the Rep’s Artistic Director, Steven Woolf, make it compelling theatre. Robert Mark Morgan’s squalid interrogation room setting and the marvelous lighting design (at times putting both men in the “hot seat”)  of Peter E. Sargent, just add to the grittiness.

“A Steady Rain” is the perfect piece for the Studio Theatre. Two characters, soul-baring conflict and outstanding production values from actors to director to technical staff. Catch it through February 5th at the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Call the box office at 314-968-4925 for ticket.

Supernatural Plot Twists Enhance WEPG’s “The Seafarer”

January 10, 2012

Conor McPherson is known for his rough and tumble dialogue and shameless characters. In the West End Players Guild production of his “The Seafarer,” he doesn’t disappoint. Strong language and five bawdy men make this play “for mature audiences only,” but some surprising plot twists make it a worthwhile effort for most theatregoers.

The cast of West End Players Guild production of "The Seafarer."

Robert Ashton brings Richard to boisterous life as, being recently blinded, struggles to adapt and begins having thoughts of meeting his maker. He calls on his brother, Sharky to help him navigate the house that was left him by their parents and help with the daily things in life. Matt Hanify plays the enigmatic Sharky with a nice mixture of bravado and servitude. Waking up with them on Christmas Eve morning is Ivan- evidently a frequent houseguest. Charles Heuvelman plays him with a nervous, almost manic attitude that works well in the context of his character.

Enter John Reidy as Nicky, a full-of-himself dandy who is married to Sharky’s ex-wife, who brings tensions to the house and to the second act poker game that becomes more than just a friendly game. The reason for this turn of events in the game is Nicky’s friend, Mr. Lockheart- played with a menacing demeanor by Barry Hyatt. He’s a bit more than he seems as he confronts Sharky with some sins of his past and we soon learn that Mr. Lockheart transcends his mortal appearance.

Director Steve Callahan brings the whole business to life with some nifty staging in the small theatre space at WEPG. The only problem is his attempt to bring an Irish brogue to the five-man cast. With some inconsistencies and some downright break-downs in the accents, it is at times disconcerting. Add to that a few missed cues (something that is always a chance with live theatre), and you’ve got some unnecessary distractions. That being said, it’s still a nice effort and it’s good to see McPherson’s work on stage again.

Mark Wilson’s set design is also quite effective on the tiny stage and Colleen Heneghan’s costumes work well as do the lights of  Renee Sevier-Monsey and the often hilarious sound effects of director Callahan.

“The Seafarer” is a salty look at five men and their unusual way of spending Christmas Eve one blustery night north of Dublin. You can see it through January 15th at West End Players Guild. Visit them at http://www.westendplayers.org for more information.

“Sunday In The Park With George” Is Truly A Stunner- A Musical Miracle That Explodes On Stage

January 8, 2012

The wonder that is Stephen Sondheim is on display in its purest form at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and their New Year’s present to our town, “Sunday In The Park With George.” Visually and vocally, it is in a class by itself and the stage pictures that emerge one after the other keep you mesmerized while listening to an excellent cast bring that soaring score to life.

Ron Bohmer and Erin Davie in "Sunday In The Park With George." photo credit: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Ron Bohmer, a graduate of the Webster Conservatory Theatre Arts, returns to the Rep stage with a magnificent portrayal of artist George Seurat and then his fictitious great grandson, George. His strong voice brings the Sondheim music and lyrics to life and his performance as the driven artist is right on the mark. Erin Davie also gives a beautiful portrayal of his neglected girlfriend- here referred to as “Dot,” and then her daughter Marie.

Countless others- a cast of nineteen- work as a unit under the superb direction of Rep favorite, Rob Ruggiero. He not only creates gorgeous stage pictures, he creates tension with and within the characters as he holds true to Seraut’s fascination with pointillism and creating form, color, light, unity, harmony and multiple other aspects to bring his paintings vividly to life. Although more ridiculed than respected in his own lifetime, his method and particularly his masterpiece, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” have become the template for an art form renowned throughout the world.

The cast of "Sunday In The Park With George." photo credit: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Sunday In The Park With George” still has a problematic second act and I believe it’s due to the fact that the show was originally written as a long, one-act musical. How can you improve on the moving first act finale where the historic painting comes dramatically to life with the characters you’ve met throughout the show? With a fictitious story about the great grandson and his struggles to find himself as an artist in a more contemporary medium amid an artistic scene more focused on commercialism, it falls flat compared to the majesty of the opening act.

The only problem with losing the second act, however, is you lose the power of Sondheim’s “Putting It Together,” “Children and Art” and the haunting, “Move On.” So, though most composer/lyricists would be envious of such a second act, it never has worked well within the context of the entire show. The strong script of James Lapine continues to work wonders, though, with the delightful parry and thrust of the characters in Act One and the strong, although sadder, messages brought forth in the second.

Local and Rep favorites dazzle on stage along with members of the current students in Webster’s distinguished conservatory. Zoe Vonder Haar and Kari Ely are precious as George’s mother and her nurse. Whit Reichert and Rebecca Watson score an obnoxious American couple and Chris Hietikko shines as George’s patron and rival in the art world. The entire cast is superb as they blend like a well-oiled unit to move about the canvas- each one bringing a personality and a life to characters that we will never see the same way again should we be lucky enough to see the actual painting, how hanging in the Art Institute in Chicago, or reproduced in any of the multiple art books and other venues it has popped up in throughout the years.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Ron Bohmer and Erin Davie in the Rep's "Sunday In The Park With George." Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

And, of course, we would be remiss without crediting the spectacular technical team that brought this masterpiece to the stage including scenic designer Adrian W. Jones, lighting designer John Lasiter and the costumes of Alejo Vietti. A nod as well to musical director F. Wade Russo for bringing the amazing Sondheim score to life and choreographer Ralph Perkins who, together with director Rob Ruggiero, gave us such magnificent moments- almost snapshot by snapshot- on stage.

Suffice to say, you do not want to miss “Sunday In The Park With George.” Easily one of the most visually stunning plays ever on the Rep stage and perhaps one of the best things you’ll see on stage in St. Louis for 2012. Hey, it’s early, but it’s also going to be hard to beat this one. Catch Sondheim’s masterpiece on the stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through January 29th. Call the box office at 314-968-4925 for the hottest ticket in town or visit http://www.repstl.org

Two Classic Actors In A Classic Play As The Black Rep Presents “On Golden Pond”

January 8, 2012

The 2012 season of the Black Rep opens with the bittersweet comedy, “On Golden Pond” and we’re treated to two of the best actors in St. Louis playing the unforgettable couple, Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy. This lovely valentine comes a month early, but we’ll take it.

Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy star in the Black Rep's "On Golden Pond." photo credit: Stewart Goldstein

The gorgeous Jim Burwinkel set gets us in the mood right away- depicting the lovely, quaint summer cottage of Norman and Ethel Thayer in Maine. With roof beams reaching into the audience and a strong sense of detail, it’s a masterpiece in and of itself. Fortunately, we also have these two marvelous actors to flesh out the story. Ron Himes is the Artistic Director of the Black Rep and it’s always a treat when we get to see him on stage as well. He gives the cantankerous Norman heart and humor. And Linda Kennedy simply shines as the ever-loving and understanding wife.

Kathi Bently is solid as the Thayer’s daughter who has had a life time of trying to live up to what she thinks her father needs her to be. Chauncy Thomas is strong as her boyfriend who comes with a certain amount of baggage in the form of his son, Billy Ray, Jr. The street-smart kid is given a great performance by youngster Chris Cross. And rounding out the cast is Aaron Baker, the mailman who has long had a crush on the young daughter. His aggravating laugh soon turns into a wonderful character trait that simply adds to the charm of “On Golden Pond.”

Ron Himes and Chris Cross in the Black Rep's "On Golden Pond." photo credit: Stewart Goldstein

Director Lorna Littleway has squeezed every bit of nostalgia out of this play and, though often slow, it sparkles with the vibrancy of life and life re-newed as Norman recaptures the youth that somehow escaped him with his daughter as he bonds with young Billy Ray. It’s quite a nice little escape and a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours with people you really grow to like.

“On Golden Pond,” the Ernest Thompson salute to growing old gracefully, plays at the Black Rep at the Grandel Square Theatre through February 5th. Give them a call at 314-534-3810 or visit http://www.theblackrep.org for more information.