The Beauty Of The LaBute New Theater Festival At STLAS Is The Emphasis On “New”

Wendy Greenwood and Rachel Fenton discuss "boyfriends" in Neil LaBute's "The Possible." Photo: John Lamb

Wendy Greenwood and Rachel Fenton discuss “boyfriends” in Neil LaBute’s “The Possible.” Photo: John Lamb

For the second year in a row, famed playwright and screenwriter, Neil LaBute, has hosted a New Theater Festival at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio. This year, as in 2012, he premieres one of his new one-acts and then we’re treated to two full nights of new one-acts by new and emerging artists. Round One is taking place now and we’ve got some pretty nice work showing on stage at the Gaslight Theater.

Mr. LaBute shows why he is the master with a beautifully crafted play that leads off the first week called “The Possible.” STLAS Artistic Director, Milt Zoth, directs this clever little two person play with just the right pace for the cat and mouse game between two young ladies. One has stolen the other one’s boyfriend and soon reveals why she did it. As she builds a convincing case, misfired carnal desires suddenly take on a whole new meaning and the unexpected suddenly becomes “possible.” Two great local actresses take over the stage in Mr. LaBute’s premiere presentation- Wendy Greenwood is the aggressor who uses subtlety and skewed logic to capture her prey while Rachel Fenton plays the innocent (or is she?) milquetoast who eventually begins to see things in a different light.

Justin Ivan Brown and Jackie Manker in Carlos Perez's "Cleansing Acts." Photo: John Lamb

Justin Ivan Brown and Jackie Manker in Carlos Perez’s “Cleansing Acts.” Photo: John Lamb

Kansas City playwright, Carlos Perez, wrote the second one-act of the evening, “Cleansing Acts.” This one’s directed by Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director, Steve Woolf, and features outstanding performances by Justin Ivan Brown, Andra Harkins and Jackie Manker. Brown, as William, is a reclusive young man who still lives with his mother. As the mother, Hawkins is a riot as she continually meddles in his life- even interrupting him in the bathroom as he prepares to get in the bathtub. Expecting his “girlfriend,” the mother balks but doesn’t seem to mind that she’ll be joining him in the bathroom. Despite constant pestering (mother even offering fresh baked cookies), the two manage to discuss and plan what’s on both of their minds before mother returns for her next excuse to interrupt. It’s a pretty stunning piece of work that may show it’s hand a bit too early, but still manages to shock the audience.

Aaron Orion Baker and Tom Lehman in "Pinky Swear" by Tyler Vickers. Photo: John Lamb

Aaron Orion Baker and Tom Lehman in “Pinky Swear” by Tyler Vickers. Photo: John Lamb

After a brief intermission, we have three longer one-acts which opens with Tyler Vickers’ “Pinky Swear.” Mr. Vickers is a Missouri native who currently works in Los Angeles. Told in several scenes presented in reverse order, “Pinky Swear” takes us on a journey of infidelity and mistrust. This one’s directed by the Black Rep’s Linda Kennedy (who returns to her role in the Black Rep production of “The Wiz” later this month in an extended run). Aaron Orion Baker- supposedly tied up in a bag and hoisted above stage as the play opens- has betrayed his friend, played by Tom Lehman, who goes through a manic and often hilarious soliloquy during the first scene. As we trace the story backwards, we see what led to this moment. Once we’re familiar with this approach, it’s a bit long but ultimately satisfying play.

An allegory by Brooklyn playwright and arts

Wendy Greenwood and Suki Peters discuss philosophy in Alexis Clements'  "The Elephant In The Room." Photo: John Lamb

Wendy Greenwood and Suki Peters discuss philosophy in Alexis Clements’ “The Elephant In The Room.” Photo: John Lamb

journalist, Alexis Clements called “The Elephant In The Room” follows. Again directed by Linda Kennedy, it manifests the oft-heard phrase in the form of the wonderful Suki Peters. Her facial expressions, mannerisms and a very pachydermian attitude are a delight. Wendy Greenwood returns as her adversary, confidante or perhaps something else. Managing to command the stage shared with an elephant is a remarkable feat and she is up to it. Perhaps a bit of trimming is needed in this one as well as a lot of the same ground seems to be covered. These two fine actresses, however, keep it interesting throughout.

Nathan Bush in the compelling "Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch" by GD Kimble. Photo: John Lamb

Nathan Bush in the compelling “Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch” by GD Kimble. Photo: John Lamb

Steve Woolf returns to direct the final one-act of this first series in the LaBute New Theater Festival, “Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch” by G.D. Kimble. He’s an actor, playwright and director who has worked all over the country but now resides in New York. It’s played in two scenes, both involving death and a joke about two Irishmen digging a ditch. In the first one, a naked and exposed Nathan Bush awaits the firing squad and manages to wax philosophic as he faces his accusers. In the second scene, Justin Ivan Brown and Aaron Orion Baker return as a man literally digging his own grave and the man who decides his fate. Though both scenes are raw and visceral, the joke of the title seems to make a bizarre statement about finality and perception. Director Woolf manages to squeeze every bit of irony and meaning out of this well written script.

Neil LaBute surrounded by the High School Finalists on the first Saturday of the Festival. Photo: John Lamb

Neil LaBute surrounded by the High School Finalists on the first Saturday of the Festival. Photo: John Lamb

As part of this wonderful month long celebration of the one act play and new works was a high school finalists stage readings of works by high schoolers with local professional actors reading their scripts. Those finalists included Aidan Murphy, Laura Townsend, Annie Kopp, Laurel Button and Amanda Ehrmann.

The clever set and lighting design of Jim Burwinkel let’s all of the plays and scenes within the plays work with a smooth precision. And kudos to Founder and Producing Director of St. Louis Actors’ Studio, William Roth, for putting this massive undertaking together along with his festival selection team: Neil LaBute, Milt Zoth, Wayne Solomon, Bobby Miller, Linda Kennedy, Elizabeth Helman, Edward Scott Ibur, John Pierson and Patrick Huber.

You have one more week-end to see these series of one-acts and then on the 19th, Neil LaBute’s premiere of “The Possible” will play once again with four more new one-act plays by new or established playwrights. Give St. Louis Actors’ Studio a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

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