Archive for April, 2012

“Perestroika” Proves As Powerful As Part I Of “Angels In America” As Stray Dog Completes The Saga

April 24, 2012

Sarajane Alverson as the Angel, visits Ben Watts as Prior during "Angels In America" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo credit: John Lamb

Part I of “Angels In America” is produced more often than Part II and, although the second half could stand alone, it’s much more powerful to have the background of “Millennium Approaches” under your belt. Together they are one hell of a ride and Stray Dog Theatre has given us a ride we won’t soon forget. This is an accomplishment that truly vaults them into another level of theatre in our town.

We visit our old friends during “Perestroika” and, although the political overtones are there, the prevalent story line continues to be love, or the lack thereof, and hope as apocalyptic events appear to take over the world. Is it the return of the plague? How can it be stopped? With words like “AIDS” and “HIV” seeping into our vocabulary, it was a frightening time as people seemed to be dying for no apparent reason.

Prior and Harper continue to have their own special connection referred to as “the threshold of revelation,” but Prior resists being the modern day prophet even though he throws out the line, “I’m a prophet, for God’s sake,” whenever it’s to his advantage. Harper continues to struggle with her drug addiction and flights of fancy while trying to come to grips with the changes in her husband, Joe. He continues to hook up with Prior’s ex, Louis while Roy Cohn takes them both under his wing as his fate comes looming with the inevitability of Prior’s “Angel.”

Ben Watts simply amazes again as the angst-ridden Prior. He and Roy share most of the laughs of Part II though they are of a darker nature. David Wassilak takes on Roy’s persona like he was born to play the part. It’s an astounding performance that culminates in one last trick on his nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg, before his demise. Sarajane Alverson dazzles with her transformation from the “messenger” to the avenging angel who tries to mesmerize Prior.

Rachel Hanks and Stephen Peirick during one of their infrequent tender moments as Harper and Joe in Stray Dog's "Angels In America." Photo credit: John Lamb.

Rachel Hanks is particularly moving in Part II as she moves from her dreams to reality with painstaking results. Stephen Peirick continues his wonderful work as her husband who is struggling with his sexuality as much as he is with his job. Aaron Paul Gotzon delivers another great performance as the troubled Louis and Greg Fenner and Laura Kyro both do yeoman work in multiple roles.

This cast is simply one of the best. As I was discussing the power of the play and cast at the first intermission with a fellow reviewer, we were both amazed that, not only did this cast memorize seven hours of dialogue, they also maintained both their characters and an energy that never faltered though a gut-wrenching set of performances. Kudos to the cast, director Gary F. Bell and a tech and running crew that made this miracle happen.

I’m telling you, folks, if you love quality theatre and want to be knocked out of your seat, don’t miss both parts of “Angels In America.” It’s a considerable commitment as you will spend three and a half hours on Part I and four hours on Part II (both parts have an early starting time of 7:30PM), but it’s worth every minute and you probably will not get the chance to experience both halves of this outstanding play again.

“Angels In America” plays on consecutive week-ends through May 19th at Stray Dog Theatre. Contact them at http://www.straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

 

Advertisements

“The Winter’s Tale” Given An Update At Mustard Seed Theatre

April 19, 2012

William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” is one of his last plays and, though entertaining, seems less sophisticated and complex than some of his better romantic comedies. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see it staged that often. Mustard Seed Theatre has given it a crisp and edgy rendition with an update to what they say is Seattle and Alaska, yet keep the original dialogue referring to Sicilia and Bohemia. As it says in the program, the settings are “imagined,” so the update retains the feel of the original.

Chauncy Thomas as King Leontes in Mustard Seed Theatre's production of "The Winter's Tale."

King Leontes and his pregnant wife, Hermione are entertaining his old friend, Polixenes when the green-eyed monster suddenly takes hold of the king and he plots to poison his friend and has his wife imprisoned and his young son isolated from her.  When Hermione gives issue, the young girl is sent to a remote island and abandoned.  When even the Oracle’s decision that all are innocent and Leontes is mistaken, he still refuses to believe. Hermione then dies before Leontes sees the error of his ways. As seventeen years pass, the young, abandoned Perdita finds the love of her life, Florizel who, of course, is the son of Polixenes. As only Shakespeare can, families are reunited- even the re-animated Hermione and all live happily ever after.

Chanucy Thomas is an excellent, volatile Leontes- even though his jealous anger seems to percolate a bit quickly. Wendy Greenwood is delightful as his charming wife while Richard Strelinger shines as the good friend. Charlie Baron gives a solid performance as Camillo, who conspires to save Polixenes while Ethan Jones and Antonio Rodriguez bring a delightful turn as father and son who discover the abandoned baby girl.

Adam Moskal  and Laurel Elliot are charming as the young lovers and Nancy Lewis is superb as the narrator, Raven and in several other roles. The cast, throughout, is strong and director Deanna Jent has brought us a delightful rendition of this seldom produced Shakespeare play. The wildly inventive set design of Dunsi Dai features a tower of media that turns to become the totem pole when we visit Alaska/Bohemia as well as a narrow paneled background that becomes a projected scene-setting cyclorama.

“The Winter’s Tale” is a charming bit of theatre and plays through April 29th at the Mustard Seed Theatre on the campus of Fontbonne University. Contact Mustard Seed Theatre at 314-719-8060 or at http://www.mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Strong Acting Enhances Play Based On Real Events at Upstream Theater

April 19, 2012

The play is called “Conversations With An Executioner” and, like so many plays at Upstream Theater, it’s based on a true story and adapted by the brilliant Philip Boehm. A strong cast of actors brings to life the story of a former Polish journalist who fought with the Home Army in Poland but was later imprisoned by the Stalinist Polish secret police, believing he was a collaborator with the Third Reich.

J. Samuel Davis, John Bratkowski and Gary Wayne Barker in Upstream Theater's production of "Conversations With An Executioner." Photo credit: Peter Wochniak.

He is forced to share a cell with a former SS General who was responsible for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and who the journalist once attempted to assassinate. The resulting confrontations, along with a third prisoner who at times baits him as well, is the crux of the play and it offers some surprising results. J. Samuel Davis is superb as the beleaguered journalist, Kazimierz Moczarski who makes the best of his physical and emotional torture by committing the stories of the SS General to memory for his eventual memoirs. His almost submissive tenor at times gives way to several outbursts at the impudence of the General.

By contrast, Gary Wayne Barker is the essence of arrogance and a man who feels he is always in control- even when he’s not. His General Jurgen Stroop is the perfect foil to the seemingly meeker temperament of Moczarski. He, of course, denies any participation in the atrocities that occurred during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As the third man in the slow simmering cell, John Bratkowski is almost a sounding board for the other two. His allegiance is clear from his background, but he doesn’t mind fanning the flames of their game of cat-and-mouse.

Robert A. Mitchell rounds out the onstage cast as the prison guard who interrupts and occasionally spies on the volatile trio. He then neatly and succinctly ties up the story at the end. Part of the curtain call and an integral part of the play is Isaac Lifits, who provides provocative and haunting music of the period on the accordion throughout “Conversation With An Executioner.”

Directed by Philip Boehm, the play moves quickly through an almost hour and a half one-act. Scott C. Neale has provided a dingy and realistic set in the round and Steve Carmichael’s lights and Michele Siler’s costumes add to the grittiness. Always unusual and always entertaining, Upstream Theater continues to impress with “Conversations With An Executioner.” See it through April 29th at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Call 314-863-4999 for tickets or more information.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Gives A Glimpse Into Early August Wilson

April 15, 2012

The cast of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," playing at the Black Rep through May 13th. Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein.

Although a tragedy, there’s a lot of humor and some great character development in the Black Rep’s production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Before there was the Pittsburgh Cycle, playwright Wilson drew on his early love of the blues and Bessie Smith in particular to fashion this look at a prima donna and her band as they live life in 1927 America.

The wonderful set design of Tim Case puts you in the mood as soon as you hit your seat at the Grandel Square Theatre. They’ve moved the set forward in front of the proscenium with the recording booth above the on stage studio and the band rehearsal room below the stage level where most of the action takes place. We’re introduced to a hyper Ton Wethington as the studio owner who is warning Ma’s manager, Irvin, played by Chad Morris about Ma’s penchant for being a disruptive influence with a proclivity for being late.

As the band strolls in for rehearsal, we are introduced to Antonio Fargas as Cutler, the leader and trombone player in the group; the arbitrator/piano player, Toledo, played with style by Ron Himes; the man with a past behind his name, Slow Drag, as played by Erik Kilpatrick; and the brash young horn player, Levee, played with a Jamie Fox kind of bravado by Ronald Connor. The play is really about them as their various stories and backgrounds are divulged as the play progresses.

Ron Himes, Erik Kilpatrick and Ronald Connor in the Black Rep's production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein.

Ma Rainey is played to perfection by jaki-terry. She commands the stage with her self-assured resentment and the feeling that the only way is her way. Joining her are Maurice Demus as her stuttering nephew and Evann Jones as the smoking Dussie Mae who stirs the plot. With an overriding theme of distrust, prejudice and an uncaring populace, the lives of these folks- particularly the musicians, unfold in a great acting ensemble.

Ed Smith has done a masterful job with the direction and, despite lacking the punch of his later plays, this is a delightful insight into August Wilson and the great playwright he was about to become. The shocking final scene is a bit abrupt but highly effective.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays at the Black Rep through May 13th. Contact them at 314-534-3807 or at http://www.theblackrep.org for more information.

Ionesco’s “Exit The King” Sets The Stage For Absurdity At West End Players Guild

April 15, 2012

Though not as “absurd” as some of his plays, Ionesco’s “Exit The King” brings some issues to the stage that are thought-provoking and just edgy enough to make us think about the “art” and tragedy of death. With some opening night jitters and dropped lines hampering the flow of the play, the West End Players Guild cast still comes through with flying colors.

Robert Ashton serves us well as King Berenger the First, a four-hundred-plus monarch who is having a bit of difficulty grasping the end of his reign and his life. Though his first wife, Queen Marguerite and his doctor try to convince him of his coming demise, his current wife, Queen Marie, persuades him to think positively and fight the inevitable.

The cast of "Exit The King," currently playing at West End Players Guild.

Nancy Crouse is a rock as Queen Marguerite. In the final scene, in particular, she shines as she prepares the dying King for his final moments. Bridget Barisonek brings mourning to a whole new level with delightful results. As the doctor, David K. Gibbs brings us the most absurd moments in Ionesco’s script as he double-talks and mis-diagnoses his way through the King’s condition.

Reginald Pierre is steady as the unpretentious Guard who must announce everything from “God Save The King” to “The King Has Stumbled.” Rounding out the cast is a sparkling performance by Liana Kopchak who plays a sarcastic domestic and then becomes a weepy nurse during the final scenes. It’s all tied together with the strong direction of Renee Sevier-Monsey who brings out the almost cartoonish characteristics of this cast of misfits.

Without the strength of his “Rhinoceros” or the true absurdity of some of his other plays, “Exit The King” is still a stalwart in the Ionesco playbook. West End Players Guild has added a nice set by Ken Clark and the strong lighting design of Amy Ruprecht. Despite the uneven quality of some of the play on opening night, “Exit The King” should be on your playlist. West End Players Guild will also participate in the first ever St. Louis Fringe Festival June 21-25. And they also announced their next season, which I’ll talk about soon. Catch “Exit The King” through April 22nd. Contact WEPG at http://www.westendplayers.org for tickets or more information.

Stunning “Angels In America” Puts Stray Dog Theatre In Another Dimension

April 15, 2012

As if their two most recent triumphs weren’t enough- the musicals “Tommy” and “Urinetown,” Stray Dog Theatre has entered another realm of quality theatre in our town with their production of “Angels In America.” True, we’ve only seen the first part, but it set such a high standard that I can’t imagine the second part being anything less than outstanding.

Aaron Paul Gotzon and Ben Watts in Stray Dog Theatre's "Angels In America."

Such an ambitious undertaking. We haven’t seen both parts presented since the Fox and the Rep did a co-production several years ago. Stray Dog is at a point in their existence where it made perfect sense. They have a wonderful community of actors, designers and tech people and Artistic Director and show director, Gary F. Bell, has the talent and commitment to tackle such an extraordinary project. The result is a stunning piece of theatre unlike anything we’ve seen on local stages in some time.

“Angels In America” is complex yet simple. It covers the AIDS epidemic when the epidemic first became known by that frightening name. Personally, I lost many friends in the ’70’s who seemed to get pneumonia or some other illness and suddenly died. What was going on? This play centers on the cause and effect of the disease and weaves an intriguing tale around several people who are affected by it. Part one- “Millennium Approaches” is a stand-alone piece in many respects. We meet Louis and Prior, who are deeply affected, Joe and Harper who have other demons which eventually tie into the first couple’s story along with a variety of characters touching all of their lives. As playwright Tony Kushner wrote it, eight actors play a multitude of characters crossing gender and thought to approach this remarkable tale.

Ben Watts simply takes your breath away as the helpless victim of the disease, Prior. His life-long companion, Lou is played with a manic and different but equally helpless quality by Aaron Paul Gotzon. He decides he can’t bear the pain that Prior and he are both going through and abandons him. Meanwhile Prior is dealing with dreams that foreshadow him as a prophet and is visited by ancestors and, in the final, imposing scene, by the infamous Angel.

Joe is a Reagan Republican who plans to move up in the world but is hampered with a pill-popping and hallucinating wife. She is dealing with her own demons while straight-laced Joe tries to cope with her and his emerging feelings of homosexuality. Stephen Peirick appears strong but caves under all of the emotions haunting him. It’s a powerful performance. As his wife, Harper, Rachel Hanks simply shines. Her paranoia and hallucinations- which include Prior and a bizarre travel agent- give her a chance to show her chops as an actress and she really goes with it. She realizes the essence of existence in the marvelous hallucination scene with Prior when she discovers that they are on the “threshold of revelation.”

David Wassilak subtly commands the stage with a bravura performance as slimy lawyer, Roy Cohn. Although infected with the AIDS virus, he tells everyone he has cancer. Laura Kyro is a treat in several roles including Joe’s mother while Greg Fenner gets the most laughs of the evening as the ethereal travel agent and, most notably, as Prior’s ex-lover, Belize. Rounding out the cast is Sarajane Alverson as both an earth-bound angel of mercy and the striking prophetic Angel that visits Prior in the final, overwhelming scene that sets up Part two- “Perestroika.”

As stunning as the actors are, the technical aspects of “Angels In America” dazzle as well. The magnificent Justin Been has created a set design that features odd-shaped mixed media that includes a slab of concrete that appears to reflect the sores associated with the dreaded disease. The dry ice fog and the parting of this incredible background for the climactic scene is simply amazing. Mr. Been also designed the powerful sound design. In a short second intermission chat with director Gary Bell, he revealed that this was not a pre-packaged sound design but gathered together by Justin. What an effect it has on this production. Add to the mix the great lighting design of Tyler Duenow and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes. With a bit of difficulty with some awkward scene changes the only fly in the ointment, “Angels In America” is simply theatre at the apex. You won’t find anything better than this.

Running on consecutive week-ends through May 18th, “Angels In America, Parts I and II,” are worth the commitment. Contact Stray Dog Theatre at http://www.straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.