Archive for February, 2014

The Valentine Cabaret Becomes A Major Part of Dramatic License Productions

February 18, 2014
Sabra Sellers, Jeremy Sims, Taylor Pietz and Jeffrey Pruett belt out a number at DLP's "A Valentine Cabaret." Photo: Gerry Love

Sabra Sellers, Jeremy Sims, Taylor Pietz and Jeffrey Pruett belt out a number at DLP’s “A Valentine Cabaret.” Photo: Gerry Love

No matter what theatre is on their season schedule at Dramatic License, you can always count on two wonderful productions year after year- the Valentine Cabaret and the Holiday Cabaret. This year, “A Valentine Cabaret- Love Songs Of Broadway” offers four outstanding actor/singers and a wide range of great music from the Broadway stage.

Unfortunately, I don’t always get to attend the cabaret series because it coincides with regular theatre openings and they usually only run one week-end (although a few have been extended because it’s a very popular series). I’m glad I had some free time this Valentine’s week-end because this was a dynamite show with polished performances a clever storytelling- mainly through the songs themselves. With beauty and a talent that just won’t quit, Taylor Pietz delivers charm and undeniable stage presence whether in solos, duets or ensemble action. She soars in the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” paean, “Gimme, Gimme” and then shares one of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen on stage when she accompanies herself on piano with the “King and I” standard, “Something Wonderful.”

The delightful Sabra Sellers was evidently a last-minute replacement but she didn’t flinch a bit as she fit right in and got into the spirit of things in clever ensemble pieces like the first act finisher, “Let’s Not Talk About Anything But Love” and her touching solo turn with “A Quiet Thing” from “Flora The Red Menace.” She got raves last year for her star turn as Gypsy Rose Lee in “Gypsy” at Stray Dog Theatre and I’m still impressed with how well she can belt a tune.

Taylor Pietz, Sabra Sellers, Jeffrey Pruett and Jeremy Sims bring us the "Mama Mia!" wedding scene at "A Valentine Cabaret at Dramatic License. Photo: Gerry Love

Taylor Pietz, Sabra Sellers, Jeffrey Pruett and Jeremy Sims bring us the “Mama Mia!” wedding scene at “A Valentine Cabaret” at Dramatic License. Photo: Gerry Love

The boys are equally impressive with Jeffrey Pruett returning to the DLP stage and blowing us away with “Being Alive” from “Company” and surprising us with his second act opener as the “bride” from “Mama Mia” in their rendition of “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” Which is just a bit ironic since he played Michael in the Dramatic License production of the Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt show, “I Do! I Do!”

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Sims- a smooth baritone with a permanent twinkle in his eyes. He and Jeffrey blow the roof off Chesterfield Mall with their rendition of “Lily’s Eyes” from “The Secret Garden” and then wows us in the “Rent ” finale of the “Valentine Cabaret” with “I’ll Cover You.” As I told Kim Furlow, DLP’s Artistic Director, as I was exiting the theatre, I want to see them stage “The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd” so I can hear Jeremy sing “Feelin’ Good.”

Through several set backs such as last minute replacements of a couple of artists and some other behind the scenes shenanigans, Dramatic License has provided another outstanding edition of their “Valentine Cabaret.” With Zachary Stefaniak’s wonderful direction and choreography and this talented group of performers, it’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. By the way, the next Dramatic License theatre production is scheduled very soon- “Shirley Valentine” (sort of a sequel to the Valentine Cabaret, I guess), opens February 27th starring the very talented Teresa Doggett. Give them a call at 636-821-1746 for tickets to “Shirley Valentine” and to get information on the rest of their season.

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Like An Old Friend, “Lovers-Winners and Losers” Sweeps In With Nostalgia And Poignancy At West End Players Guild

February 17, 2014
John Lampe as Joe and Betsy Bowman as Mag share a moment of bliss in the first Act of "Lovers: Winners and Losers" at WEPG. Photo: John Lamb

John Lampe as Joe and Betsy Bowman as Mag share a moment of bliss in the first Act of “Lovers: Winners and Losers” at WEPG. Photo: John Lamb

Although best known for his 1990 success with “Dancing At Lughnasa,” Brian Friel’s earlier comedy, “Lovers” is given a very good performance at West End Players Guild. This play was one of the first I saw when my interest in theatre was peaking and it made a very deep impression on me back in the late to mid ’60’s. Friel’s juxtaposition of joyous youth with heartfelt tragedy in the “winners” one-act still has a strong impact on the audience. Combined with the uproarious mischief of “losers” after intermission, one wonders why “Lovers” had been missing from local stages for so long.

On a hillock in Ireland, placed in front of the regular stage at WEPG, we meet Mag or Margaret Mary Enright as she bicycles in and hides from her boyfriend, Joe Brennan. These two high schoolers plan to marry (out of necessity as much as love) when their final exams are over in a week or so. The irrepressible Betsy Bowman is perfect as the lovely Irish colleen with her lush, red hair and red-cheeked face that always seems to be smiling. Joe is played with boyish charm by John Lampe. He’s a serious student who has come to the overlook with intentions of studying for the tests while Mag is more interested in planning the wedding, what to name the baby and anything else that will distract her from her books. As the play goes on, they share harsh words, make up and generally do what teen-agers in love so often do.

Theresa Masters urges Colin Nichols to recite "Elegy In A Country Churchyard" in the second act of Brian Friel's "Lovers" at WEPG. Photo: John Lamb

Theresa Masters urges Colin Nichols to recite “Elegy In A Country Churchyard” in the second act of Brian Friel’s “Lovers” at WEPG. Photo: John Lamb

While this happy young couple while away a sunny day in June, two narrators are above them stage left and fill out the story that completes this beautiful setting and the spirited couple who are obviously meant for each other. Steve Callahan and Kristy Wehrle delight with their strong Irish brogues and jolt us into reality as we slip back and forth between the lovers and the narrative that completes their story. It’s a lovely story that takes us on a journey that shows us one of those “you never know” moments shocking in its outcome as it is revealed bit by bit alongside a perfect, idyllic moment captured in time.

The second act belongs to Colin Nichols as Andy. He is courting Hanna but must contend with her bed-ridden mother who is constantly praying to Saint Philomena and ringing a bell from her upstairs bedroom whenever silence creeps in on the lovers downstairs. In fact, Andy has come up with a solution as he decides to recite the only poem he knows, Thomas Grey’s “Elegy In A Country Churchyard” every time he and Hanna get “busy.” He narrates the one-act as well as portrays the roguish imp and decides he will marry Hannah and take her away from this prison that she’s confined to. Continually bird watching in the garden, he will put down his binoculars and talk to the audience about his dilemma, his plans and even the deus ex machina he believes has fallen into his lap.

Suzanne Greenwald scolds Colin Nichols as Liz Hopefl looks on in WEPG's production of "Lovers." Photo: John Lamb

Suzanne Greenwald scolds Colin Nichols as Liz Hopefl looks on in WEPG’s production of “Lovers.” Photo: John Lamb

Theresa Masters is convincing as Hanna as she appears to be fed up with her care taking as well but changes her tune when push comes to shove. The near-hysterical mother is given a pleasantly over the top performance by Suzanne Greenwald. Her need for the rosary nightly at ten and forcing those concerned to kneel around her bed is perfectly played. Adding to the blend is Liz Hopefl as a long-suffering friend of Hanna’s mother, Cissy. In addition, we’re entertained with pre-show and intermission music as well as lead-ins to the plays by Jessie Evans on the button accordion and Sean Belt on the guitar. It adds authenticity and puts everyone in a good mood for the play.

Director Jan Meyer has brought every moment of insight, tragedy and pure bedlam out of Brian Friel’s script. Working on the clever set design of Destiny Graham, the play seems larger than life. Tony Anselmo’s lights add to the mix and the appropriate costuming of Renee Sevier-Monsey also brings joy to the proceedings.

Nostalgia for me and a great play that happily will allow others to see this rarely seen masterpiece. Brian Friel’s “Lovers: Winners and Losers” plays at West End Players Guild through February 23rd. Contact them at westendplayers.org for tickets or more information.

Strong Performances And Riveting Story Propels “Other Desert Cities” At Rep

February 17, 2014
Celeste Ciulla, Dee Hoty and Anderson Matthews in "Other Desert Cities" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Celeste Ciulla, Dee Hoty and Anderson Matthews in “Other Desert Cities” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The intriguing script for “Other Desert Cities” won playwright Jon Robin Baitz the Outer Critics Circle Award in 2011 and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as well. It’s a family melodrama at heart but filled with a lot of humor as clashing political philosophies and family secrets are laid bare. With a highly charged cast and excellent direction, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis shows us why the play received the accolades.

Recovering from a mental breakdown and with a new book under her belt, daughter Brooke returns to her family’s Palm Springs home to break the news to her parents that the book is more of a memoir than the novel she originally intended. Celeste Ciulla is a spitfire as Brooke and appears truly surprised when the galleys of her book are not welcomed with open arms by her mother, father and best buddy brother. Her defense mechanism goes into high gear until she finally breaks her parents (and her Aunt Silda’s) long held silence on the truth of the main focus of her story. Set in 2004 (and in 2010 in the final, short scene), the play rings true on so many levels.

Dee Hoty and Glynis Bell in the Rep's "Other Desert Cities." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Dee Hoty and Glynis Bell in the Rep’s “Other Desert Cities.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The wonderful Dee Hoty returns to the Rep stage (loved her and the brilliant Lanford Wilson play, “Book Of Days” that premiered at the Rep back in 1999) as the mother, Polly. Her glib and devil-may-care attitude changes quickly when she realizes the family will be thrown- like Christians to the lions- to public scrutiny. Ms. Hoty is a hoot as the Southern California matron whether bouncing around the inspired Michael Ganio set in tennis togs or caftans. She truly makes everything look so effortless as her demeanor makes a quick 180 with brilliant results. As the father, Lyman, Anderson Matthews also brings a superb performance to the forefront. Casually understanding even after the revelation of the book comes to light, his outrage finally comes to a boiling point as he reveals the reality of the circumstances behind the heart of Brooke’s story.

Alex Hanna does a great job as Brooke’s vacillating brother, Trip. Although he’s idolized her and comes to her defense early in the play, he seems to weigh the consequences of her action and, in a dynamic confrontation, tells her she may be wrong and hurtfully so. Rounding out this marvelous cast is the always brilliant Glynis Bell as Polly’s sister, Silda. Wisecracking and always just a bit mysterious, she holds a significant piece of the puzzle that is this family and their secrets. Political differences clash between the young and old which adds to the powerful dynamic of “Other Desert Cities” as well as the lifestyles obviously split between the laid back California leisure and the more hectic pace of Brooke’s east coast preference. It all leads to the significance of her “tell all” and how the facts behind her story may sway her decision to publish or not.

Alex Hanna and Celeste Ciulla in "Other Desert Cities" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Alex Hanna and Celeste Ciulla in “Other Desert Cities” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The sweeping lines of the already mentioned Michael Ganio set featuring a built-in look to the furniture and a massive fireplace dominating the sleek, trendy look of the Palm Springs beach house almost becomes a character unto itself. Phil Monet’s lighting design enhances the feel of the play and the smart David Kay Mickelsen costume design further points out the differences that follow the family dynamic. Steven Woolf’s direction is impeccable. He shows a keen eye for the ebb and flow of Baitz’s script and moves his actors around almost like chess pieces in a tug-of-war for decency and truth.

“Other Desert Cities” is a wonderful, enthralling piece of theatre that will captivate you and raise some serious after-theatre conversation. It plays on the MainStage of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 9th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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THE OTHER PLACE:

Since I was laid up for 16 days with the flu or whatever illness befell me, I did not get to see the Studio production at the Rep, “The Other Place,” until the final week-end of its run. This was a haunting play dealing with mental instability- perhaps dementia, perhaps something  else but it was a chance for Kate Levy to bring us a gut-wrenching performance as a scientist and drug rep for a drug designed to combat the very thing she is dealing with. With able support from R. Ward Duffy, Amelia McClain and Clark Scott Carmichael, this Sharr White script is moving and sometimes hard to watch as we delve into a disturbed mind as we try to separate fact from delusion.

With Roots Based On True Events, “Gee’s Bend” Brings Us A Simple Story Sweetly Told At Mustard Seed

February 11, 2014
Marty K. Casey, Jacqueline L. Thompson and Alicia Reve Like discuss their lives in the opening of "Gee's Bend" at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Marty K. Casey, Jacqueline L. Thompson and Alicia Reve Like discuss their lives in the opening of “Gee’s Bend” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The latest offering at Mustard Seed Theatre is the Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder stage adaptation of actual events about the small, all black community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama with a history that dates back to 1816. Spanning over 50 years, we meet two of the families who worked the land and, to keep their families warm, made quilts which later became museum pieces that were heralded as true American Folk Art.

“Gee’s Bend” opens in 1939 as Mother Alice sits making one of her many quilts as her daughters, Sadie and Nella talk about life, loves and their hopes for the future. Marty K. Casey is the picture of a worldly-wise woman who tries to keep her daughters’ heads in the proper place. Jacqueline L. Thompson is the older and more sensible of the two daughters, Sadie, who tries to follow in her mother’s footsteps- even learning the ancient tradition of quilt-making. Alicia Reve Like, on the other hand, is a young lady with her head in the clouds as Nella. Her aspirations are much loftier and feels there is not need to learn any of the old ways but plans to find a man who will provide.

Reginald Pierre and Jacqueline L. Thompson share a moment in Mustard Seed's production of "Gee's Bend." Photo: John Lamb

Reginald Pierre and Jacqueline L. Thompson share a moment in Mustard Seed’s production of “Gee’s Bend.” Photo: John Lamb

The “man” for Sadie comes along in the person of Macon- a strong performance by Reginald Pierre. He tells her of his plans to build a big house for the two of them and the children they’ll have to help fill it up. As we skip ahead to the ’60’s we find Sadie a bit disillusioned as, although Macon is still a good provider, he is rigid in his grip on the past. When Sadie prefers to be more progressive- even to the point of marching in the famous Selma, Alabama protest with less than successful results. Macon gets furious and even takes to beating her to sway her to his way of thinking.

After tragedy and life continuing on in the small community, we jump into the ’90’s to see Sadie and Nella as they prepare to visit New York to see the quilt exhibition at the Whitney Museum- many of their quilts will be displayed hanging on walls like paintings. Enter Sadie’s daughter Asia, played by a now younger Marty K. Casey who tries to upset the apple cart by announcing her intentions to leave Gee’s Bend. A proud and evolving history comes full circle as love and respect have held this family together and will continue to do so even as the years and inevitable progress goes on.

Jacqueline L. Thompson and Marty K. Casey work on a quilt together in "Gee's Bend" at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Jacqueline L. Thompson and Marty K. Casey work on a quilt together in “Gee’s Bend” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Director Deanna Jent has focused on the simple telling of this tale and the sweet, family oriented story behind the play. Despite the heartbreak and tragedy that hits the family, they will always love each other and that’s enough to get them all through any crisis that comes up. The Kyra Bishop set design is splendid in its simplicity as well while Bess Moynihan’s lights add strength to the story. Jane Sullivan’s costume design is perfect and the Patricia Duffin sound design blends beautifully into the play.

Fifty-plus years told over an hour and a half is beautiful to behold. “Gee’s Bend” is a strong story simply told and is certainly worthy of a look see. It plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through February 23rd. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 or at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Hollywood Satire, “The Little Dog Laughed,” Hits The Mark At Stray Dog Theatre

February 7, 2014
Bradley J. Behrmann and Sarajane Alverson in an hilarious "imaginary" meeting with a playwright in Stray Dog's "The Little Dog Laughed." Photo: John Lamb

Bradley J. Behrmann and Sarajane Alverson in an hilarious “imaginary” meeting with a playwright in Stray Dog’s “The Little Dog Laughed.” Photo: John Lamb

When a Hollywood agent tries to keep her major client, a leading man, from “lapsing” into homosexuality, it makes for some great laughs in  Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy about a cut-throat business and those who know how to play it. Nominated for a Tony in 2007, if anything, “The Little Dog Laughed” may have lost some its luster in the ensuing years just because of an ever increasing liberal slant on stars and their sexual preferences. The example that comes immediately to mind is Matthew Bomer from “White Collar” and “Magic Mike.” Despite coming out last year, ask any girl and the mere mention of his name still sends them into a romantic swoon. But, although the stigma isn’t as crushing as it once was, the play still has relevance and it’s loaded with plenty of laughs and a plausible outcome that may feel like a cop out to some.

In the Stray Dog production, Sarajane Alverson is nothing short of brilliant as the vicious, conniving agent, Diane, who will go to any length to get a hot property for her client and then try to keep his peccadillo’s from sinking the chances for the play to become a box office hit for that client, Mitchell Green. From her opening monologue to the confrontations between Mitchell, his new lover and even an imaginary playwright, she oozes a tenacity worthy of a bulldog holding onto a bone.

Bradley J. Behrmann as Mitchell and Paul Cereghino as Alex in "The Little Dog Laughed" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Bradley J. Behrmann as Mitchell and Paul Cereghino as Alex in “The Little Dog Laughed” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Bradley J. Behrmann plays Mitchell as a man who appears to think more of his libido than his career. In a day, not long ago, when every matinee idol had a reputation to uphold off the screen as well as on, any hint of “deviant” behavior would not be allowed. It was an art form back in early Hollywood when the studios even arranged marriages like that of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester to keep up appearances of propriety while the stars pursued their other interests on the side and away from the public. But Behrmann’s Mitchell doesn’t seem to be concerned with propriety, just with trying to decide whether or not his feelings are just a passing fancy or the real thing. It’s a strong performance because of his honesty with himself.

In the meantime, he has “ordered up” a gentleman to join him for the evening in his hotel room while in New York and the service sends over Alex (calling himself Bryan- with a “y” to mask his real identity). Paul Cereghino’s Alex has issues of his own as he is hustling to make money but really has a girlfriend which brings up even more complications later on when both men decide they like each other despite not even consummating the deal that first evening. Cereghino’s charm and apparent struggles with his character’s feelings make for a very honest and believable performance.

That girlfriend, Ellen, is an equally charming Paige Hackworth. Her almost senseless rambling as we first meet her makes for a perfect contrast to the bossy, non-stop diatribes of Diane. She is delightful as she struggles with the apparent change in Alex’s demeanor and another little fly in the ointment of their relationship that becomes the turning point for everyone involved as Diane “comes to the rescue.”

Paul Cereghino as Alex and Paige Hackworth as Ellen in Stray Dog's "The Little Dog Laughed." Photo: John Lamb

Paul Cereghino as Alex and Paige Hackworth as Ellen in Stray Dog’s “The Little Dog Laughed.” Photo: John Lamb

Director Gary F. Bell has pulled out all the stops in this production bringing every laugh and every underlying theme out in the open. Both souls and bodies are laid bare (which makes it a very adult comedy) as we explore “what price fame?” along with a duffel bag full of other emotions criss-crossing the stage. Rob Lippert’s clever set design creatively takes care of the multiple locales of the play with the focus on the always existent double bed up center. Tyler Duenow’s lights also help establish the various settings while Gary F. Bell’s costumes offer a wide range of highly appropriate choices for the ladies while sticking with the basics for the men.

This is a very funny play and this talented cast pulls things off beautifully. They manage to create solid emotional moments as well as the hilarious banter that is at the heart of “The Little Dog Laughed.” Despite the obvious flaws of an ever-changing social landscape that I mentioned at the outset, the audience can easily look at this as a “period” piece (even if that period is 2007). But I don’t think anyone will have trouble picking up the rhythm and flow of this wonderful script and the marvelous cast as they bounce along with that rhythm on waves of laughter. “The Little Dog Laughed” plays at Stray Dog Theatre through February 22nd. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 or contact them at straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

A Wild “Ride Down Mount Morgan” Keeps The Streak Going For The Year Of The Actor

February 5, 2014
John Pierson in bed is surrounded by those involved in his sham of a life- Julie Layton, Eric Dean White, Taylor Steward and Amy Loui. Photo: John Lamb

John Pierson in bed is surrounded by those involved in his sham of a life- Julie Layton, Eric Dean White, Taylor Steward and Amy Loui. Photo: John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio continues the powerful acting performances that have dominated 2014 thus far on local stages. Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” is one of his later works- written in 1991- but it has a style and wit not usually associated with most of his  heavier plays but truly holds up against some of those better dramatic works. With Bobby Miller at the helm directing and some delectable acting performances, it can also hold up against some of the best works STLAS has done.

John Pierson is provocative as Lyman- a man who tries in vain to make bigamy a legitimate lifestyle. An automobile accident he ‘s involved in while driving down the treacherous Mount Morgan one rainy night puts him in the hospital where his nine year lie finally catches up to him. The question later comes up as to whether he may have deliberately tried to commit suicide to get out of the mess he has put himself in. His wife Theo- given a wonderful mix of sexiness and rigidity by Amy Loui- visits along with their daughter, Bessie. Young Taylor Steward gives a delightful performance as Bessie as she obviously will never forgive her father for his indiscretions but allows us to see her adoration for him in flashbacks, particularly in a trip the three make to Africa. While at the hospital, they run into Leah who introduces herself to them as Lyman’s current wife. It seems he married her nine years ago and she has always thought he had divorced Theo. Julie Layton shines as the equally upset “new” wife which doesn’t keep Lyman from trying to explain the rationale behind his decisions.  As he says, he loves them both equally, so what’s the problem? As Theo responds at some point in the play, “Why does anyone stay together when they realize who they’re with?”

Fannie Lebby soothes the forehead of John Pierson in "The Ride Down Mount Morgan" at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

Fannie Lebby soothes the forehead of John Pierson in “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

Add to the mix Lyman’s friend, lawyer Tom, given a deft and charming yet totally exasperated performance by Eric Dean White and the hysterical turn by Fannie Lebby as Lyman’s nurse who acts as the casual observer and commentator on the bizarre goings on and you’ve got a delightful comedy of manners- or lack thereof. Director as well as sound designer, Bobby Miller has brought out all of the charm and wit of this outrageous and unusual piece from the master of drama, Arthur Miller.

The multi-level set design of Cristie Johnston works extremely well as it involves the hospital bed along with various other locations including the flashbacks in all of their lives. Bess Moynihan’s superb lighting design enhances the proceedings as well and Teresa Doggett’s costumes are perfect showing off the class of the ladies who have led a very good lifestyle with Lyman as their husband.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio continues to do great work as exhibited by their 18 nominations from the St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards for last year’s efforts. Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” is just a whole lot of fun.

 

Upstream Theatre’s “Forget Me Not” Is Hard To Forget

February 4, 2014
Jerry Vogel and Donna Weinsting in a particularly moving scene from the second act of "Forget Me Not" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Jerry Vogel and Donna Weinsting in a particularly moving scene from the second act of “Forget Me Not” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Like most plays at Upstream Theatre, Tom Holloway’s “Forget Me Not” presents the audience with issues that are new, often shocking and offers interesting challenges and more than one plot twist that will take your breath away. Add four premiere performances and outstanding direction and you’ve got a typical night at the theatre- Upstream style.

A little known fact (actually unknown to me) involves the migration of more than 3,000 small children from several countries- particularly Britain- to Australia during the post war years and up until the 1960’s. They came from families who were broken, troubled or who the government deemed were not able to take care of the young people- some as old as three or four. The children were told that the parents were dead and they were going to a better life. The parents were told that the children would be much better off and may even return some day. Of course, none of this was true and the children were forced to work on farms under miserable conditions. “Forget Me Not” is a story of one of these children, Gerry, who is now in his sixties and who we see as the play opens visiting his real mother in England.

Jerry Vogel and Maggie Conroy in a scene from Upstream's "Forget Me Not." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Jerry Vogel and Maggie Conroy in a scene from Upstream’s “Forget Me Not.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Both mother and son are nervous and use halting speech as they try to communicate and cross the years- neither really sure of what the other thinks of this unusual reunion. Gerry is at times angry, at times hesitant but obviously curious. The mother, Mary, isn’t sure how to approach her long-lost son even though she has always celebrated his birthday without him and tries to be tender in her remembrances of their short time together. He, of course, can’t remember a thing. Jerry Vogel turns in another masterful performance as the uneasy Gerry. His dialogue with his mother, his daughter and even the government rep who is trying to reunite him with his mother all follow the same pattern of hesitation and distrust that has become a part of his disordered life in Australia. His eyes, which Mary describes as “still sparkling” as when he was a child in reality show more confusion and a wanting for the life that he has been cheated out of.

As Mary, Donna Weinsting shows her broad range as an actress as she tackles a much meatier role than we’ve seen in the mostly comedic roles she has tackled this past year. It’s a truly powerful and heart-wrenching portrayal but still leaves her with plenty of laughs to break up the rather heavy story. As the daughter, Sally, Maggie Conroy also delivers a top-notch performance. Years of trying to harness her fathers’ mood swings shows in her face and body movements as she never knows when the volcano might blow. Rounding out the cast is the versatile Terry Meddows as Mark- a mild mannered agent who is trying to arrange Gerry’s visit back to England now that he has learned the truth that his mother is not really dead. His straight-laced but emphatic nature offers a great contrast to Gerry’s bombastic tendencies.

Jerry Vogel and Terry Meddows confront each other in "Forget Me Not" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Jerry Vogel and Terry Meddows confront each other in “Forget Me Not” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The second act offers a severe plot twist that holds true to the jumps in time we’ve been taking during the first act. But this one is a real game-changer and offers even more depth to this already tragic story based on these tragic real-life events that stirred Australian playwright Tom Holloway to write so lovingly and desperately about it. Upstream’s Artistic Director, Philip Boehm has directed with a keen eye to the often static yet meaningful dialogue that infuse all of the characters with this erratic blend of desperation and hope.

The spare Michael Heil scene design is perfect as the stage often looks too crowded for these people who are really thrown together unexpectedly and are often uncomfortable with the near lack of personal space. His dominant black and white photo of four happy children carrying their suitcases becomes the backdrop where an open door suddenly appears as the main entrance and exit for the various settings of the play. Along with a series of black and white photos encircling the base of the small stage, it gives us a good sense of the expectations that soon become dashed by reality. The fact that props appear in one scene and are left, seemingly unforgotten in the next scene also speaks volumes about the story. The Steve Carmichael lighting design and Christopher Limber’s sound also offer haunting undertones to the play.

Terry Meddows and Donna Weinsting in Upstream's "Forget Me Not." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Terry Meddows and Donna Weinsting in Upstream’s “Forget Me Not.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

“Forget Me Not” proves to be an unforgettable experience. The four superb actors resonate the stories of the thousands of children who were displaced and, in most cases, lost forever. It’s haunting theatre and that second act surprise can’t help but make it an even more meaningful production. “Forget Me Not” plays at the Upstream Theatre in the Kranzberg Arts Center through February 9th. Contact them at 314-863-4999 or at upstream theater.org for tickets or more information.

“The Whipping Man” Arrives Again- This Time At New Jewish Theatre With Provocative Results

February 3, 2014
J. Samuel Davis prepares to remove the rotting leg of Austin Pierce as Gregory Fenner holds on. Photo: John Lamb

J. Samuel Davis prepares to remove the rotting leg of Austin Pierce as Gregory Fenner holds on. Photo: John Lamb

The excellent Matthew Lopez drama- “The Whipping Man”- had a very successful run at the Black Rep last year. It’s resurfaced this year at New Jewish Theatre and the results are much the same. Although a totally new cast and new director, it still packs a wallop and, with a slightly different interpretation, still impresses. Set on three significant days immediately after the Civil War, three lives intersect including the son of a plantation owner and two of the former family slaves who are now free men. With the house in shambles after the fighting in and around Richmond, these three men find some solace in the past but some uneasiness about the future as they all hold secrets that must eventually come out.

Director Doug Finlayson takes a slightly lighter approach but by no means cuts into the devastation that surrounds these three tragic characters. Caleb (a powerful performance by Austin Pierce) enters and collapses in the main room of the former opulent mansion. Simon, played with a fine mix of strength and tenderness by J. Samuel Davis, confronts him until he realizes it his old masters’ son who has obviously been wounded in the war. What Caleb describes as a “scratch” turns out to be a bullet hole that has degenerated into gangrene. Enter, in disguise, Caleb’s old slave and playmate, John, who had left the household but now returns having become a “procurer” of certain objects from the surrounding crumbling homes. Gregory Fenner gives a masterful performance as he takes his new role as “gentleman thief” a bit too seriously.

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis and Austin Pierce celebrate their improvised Seder meal at the New Jewish Theatre production of "The Whipping Man." Photo: John Lamb

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis and Austin Pierce celebrate their improvised Seder meal at the New Jewish Theatre production of “The Whipping Man.” Photo: John Lamb

The dates that coincide to make this an even more moving piece are April 13th to 15th, 1865. The war is over, Passover begins and President Lincoln is assassinated. Caleb’s family is Jewish and, as was the practice, many of the slaves who served them took up the family religion. So both Simon and John are devout while Caleb has lost his taste for religion along with much of his innocence in the war. What follows is Simon’s insistence that Caleb’s leg must come off in order for him to live, a scramble for items necessary for a proper Seder meal and then the blow- to Simon in particular- that the president has been killed. While these significant events are taking place, there are many family matters that have been hidden from each of the characters that eventually come out and provide an even more devastating tenor to the threesome. It’s a story of caring, hope and animosity that clash as they all realize the world has changed and they must all change with it.

Gregory Fenner as John and Austin Pierce as Caleb salute in the devastating final scene in "The Whipping Man" at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Gregory Fenner as John and Austin Pierce as Caleb salute in the devastating final scene in “The Whipping Man” at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

John C. Stark has provided an exquisite scenic design with the war-ravaged mansion showing signs of fire and looting while Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the elements with a somewhat dim but powerful scheme that provides emphasis to the story with the added burst of lighting that seems even more emphatic with the dimly lit room. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes also are spot on and the Robin Weatherall sound design brings the proper mood with the almost non-stop rain that fades in and out during the play.

It’s been fascinating to be able to compare the two productions so close together. They are both powerful thanks to the wonderfully crafted script but the nuances in interpretation make them slightly different- not better or worse- just different. But “The Whipping Man” is a play that deserves a wider audience anyway to bring this unusual and deeply moving story to as many as possible. The New Jewish Theatre production runs through February 16th. Call the box office at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards Nominees!

February 1, 2014

theater circle logo 2013-01-19 at 7.03.59 AMThe St. Louis Theatre Circle has announced the list of nominees for the St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards to be presented on March 17th. Quite a diverse group is represented with 20 local theatres in the running for at least one award. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis once again leads the pack with a total of 26 nods with St. Louis Actors’ Studio and the Muny each coming in with 18 nominations each. We’re very excited with the quality of candidates this year as our initial ballots showed a wide range of talent that eventually got pared down to our requirement of 5 choices in each category. The ceremony announcing the award recipients will take place on St. Patrick’s Day at COCA. Tickets will be $15 with a buffet available for an additional fee and, of course, a cocktail hour with a cash bar.

Several new faces have shown up on the nominations and some “regulars” as well. It’s a true cross-section of what makes St. Louis theatre great and the reviewers (a few new faces here, too) are very pleased with the wide spectrum of talent and productions. To see a complete list of nominees and more information on the event itself, got to the St. Louis Theatre Circle FB site. Congratulations to all!