Archive for September, 2015

“Seminar” Brings Egos And Conflicts As STLAS Opens “Mind Games,” Season Nine

September 23, 2015
Nathan Bush, Taylor Pietz, Alicia Smith, Jason Contini and John Pierson discuss their works in STLAS's production of "Seminar." Photo: John Lamb

Nathan Bush, Taylor Pietz, Alicia Smith, Jason Contini and John Pierson discuss their works in STLAS’s production of “Seminar.” Photo: John Lamb

Egos clash as five vibrant but very different personalities explode on the St. Louis Actors’ Studio stage as Season Nine opens with a fiery script from Theresa Rebeck. Four aspiring writers sign up for a private seminar with a noted novelist. They’ve been warned that his approach is somewhat unorthodox and it doesn’t take long for egos to be bruised and bad behavior to surface- from all five characters. Though all of them are petty and disagreeable in their own ways, the wonderful actors and brilliant direction guide this script into a “must see” production.

Jason Contini and John Pierson confront each other in "Seminar" at St. Louis Actors' Studio.

Jason Contini and John Pierson confront each other in “Seminar” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

That brilliant direction is the result of veteran Elizabeth Helman. She squeezes likability out of people you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with let alone week after week of whining, complaining and backbiting. The actors make their characters interesting and that’s the key to overcoming discontent with them- even eventually admiring them for one reason or another. Leonard, the literary lion who leads the group, is given a bitter-edged performance by John Pierson. He assaults all of them, damning them with faint praise while dashing their hopes and dreams. Some have tough skin, others don’t. Pierson’s calculated barbs are a sheer delight and we begin to like him despite his zealous poison pen approach to their work.

Taylor Pietz, John Contini and Alicia Smith compare notes during the STLAS production of "Seminar."

Taylor Pietz, John Contini and Alicia Smith compare notes during the STLAS production of “Seminar.”

As the play opens, we are treated to a pompous story from Douglas about his time at the Saratoga Springs writer’s colony, Yaddo. He gushes about the surroundings in shimmering platitudes as he tries to impress Izzy- the young and beautiful girl he’s infatuated with in the group. Describing the buildings as floating in this ethereal setting, he comes off as a horse’s patoot. But Douglas comes from a literary family and he already has several publications interested in his work including the New Yorker.

Nathan Bush (seated) endures the wrath of John Pierson in "Seminar" at STLAS.

Nathan Bush (seated) endures the wrath of John Pierson in “Seminar” at STLAS.

Nathan Bush is marvelously preppy as Douglas. You can’t help admire him despite his exalted estimation of himself. He, in a way, is the most vulnerable of the group and the most hurt my the criticism- even though he manages to hide his disappointment. Alicia Smith is the sexy Izzy who manages to make a play for all of the men involved in the seminar. Her work gets the first good word from Leonard and we all assume his praise has an ulterior motive. Although her mugging seems a bit forced at times, Ms. Smith fits the role perfectly and manages to bring a charm to her alluring literary “style.”

Jason Contini and Taylor Pietz discuss writing and relationships during "Seminar" at St. Louis Actors' Studio.

Jason Contini and Taylor Pietz discuss writing and relationships during “Seminar” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Taylor Pietz, as Kate, gets the brunt of his blows as Leonard shoots her out of the water, dismissing her work as juvenile tripe. She gets back at him- and the rest of the seminar participants- with a literary trick that surprises us all. Her vulnerability seems to take the form of appearing to not give a damn if she is a success as a writer or not. Jason Contini rounds out the “Seminar” cast as the moody and unpredictable Martin. Reticent at first, we finally hear the appraisal of his work in the second act and it sparks an unexpected firestorm that brings secrets and lies to the forefront that affects all of them.

The writer's hold their breathes as Leonard reviews yet another work in progress at STLAS's production of "Seminar."

The writer’s hold their breathes as Leonard reviews yet another work in progress at STLAS’s production of “Seminar.”

Theresa Rebeck’s script is a solid one but it feels that it wouldn’t be as effective without a capable cast. The characters are at times too trite and full of themselves. Thanks to director Elizabeth Helman and her fine cast, it becomes a great way to spend a couple of hours in the theatre. Add the spare but effective set of Patrick Huber, enhanced by the dominating quartet of stark paintings, it has the feel of a literary seminar and, of course, when we find out that Kate’s family owns this Upper West Side Manhattan apartment for the rent controlled price of $800 a month, it almost turns this story into a fantasy (like something Douglas might tell to a wide-eyed young girl he’s trying to impress).

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 7.24.16 AMExcellent work from the rest of the crew including the Patrick Huber lighting design, the costumes of Carla Landis Evans and Elizabeth Helman’s sound design.

It’s odd how a play that isn’t that profound can have a lasting effect thanks to a wonderfully crafted production. “Seminar” plays at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre through October 4th. Contact them at http://www.stlas.org for tickets or more information.

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“All The Way” Opens Rep Season With A Dynamic Look At History And Histrionics

September 14, 2015
Brian Dykstra as LBJ in the Rep production of "All The Way." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Brian Dykstra as LBJ in the Rep production of “All The Way.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“All The Way With LBJ” was the battle cry that carried Lyndon Baines Johnson to his elected presidency after his embittered “forced” term after the death of John F. Kennedy. Playwright Robert Schenkkan delivers a taut, mostly factual account of the stormy ride to Civil Rights legislation that became a hallmark of the former VP suddenly turned president and his baptism of fire. Using the first part of LBJ’s famous campaign slogan may bring to mind another kind of play as I noted when I casually told a grocery clerk who asked what I was doing that evening. “Going to see a play at the Rep called ‘All The Way,'” I replied. “Is that some kind of a racy story?” she asked. “More of a story about race,” I told her.

Avery Glymph as Martin Luther King and Brian Dykstra as LBJ in "All The Way" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Avery Glymph as Martin Luther King and Brian Dykstra as LBJ in “All The Way” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Having lived through the actual events, I remembered certain moments as they unfolded on stage. However, I was in high school at the time and was probably more interested in the completion of the Arch- which was going on at the same time as the upheaval in the country. Funny thing is, the Arch is still going strong and, unfortunately, so are the battles for Civil Rights in the country. Fifty years and not a lot has changed. This provocative tale, however, gives us a swift kick of reality about what was achieved and how quickly the major thrust of the Civil Rights Act has eroded into another generation of division and hate.

LBJ surrounded by his supporters as he signs the Civil Rights Act into legislation during the Rep's production of "All The Way." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

LBJ surrounded by his supporters as he signs the Civil Rights Act into legislation during the Rep’s production of “All The Way.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

We are introduced to all of the major players after the death of Kennedy as Lyndon Johnson assumes the presidency. Brian Dykstra, like most of the cast of the play, has a similar build to the real person he is portraying but his mannerisms and voice convey the true man rather than sharing the facial features of the distinctive look of the man who was hated by many in both houses of Congress but, unlike today, had the bluster and the threats to make things go his way. Kurt Zischke also shares a similarity to the man who would become LBJ’s running mate in 1964, Hubert Humphrey. Michael James Reed also is powerful as his right-hand man, Walter Jenkins.

LBJ talks to Fannie Lou Hamer (Myxolydia Tyler) during a tense moment in "All The Way" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

LBJ talks to Fannie Lou Hamer (Myxolydia Tyler) during a tense moment in “All The Way” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Avery Glymph is a charismatic Martin Luther King and Ron Himes shines as the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. A lot of local and Rep favorites fill the stage as 19 actors portray a multitude of figures of the time. Jerry Vogel, Anderson Matthews, Gary Wayne Barker, J. Samuel Davis, Alan Knoll and others lead the way in both major and minor roles. The ladies are strong in this production as well including Bernadette Quigley as Lady Bird and others, Elizabeth Meadows Rousse playing multiple roles including Muriel Humphrey and Myxolydia Tyler as both Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer who had a major influence on turning around the impetus for Civil Rights legislation.

Brian Dykstra as LBJ emphasizes a point to Kurt Zischke as Hubert Humphrey in the Rep's "All The Way." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Brian Dykstra as LBJ emphasizes a point to Kurt Zischke as Hubert Humphrey in the Rep’s “All The Way.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Knowing what we know today, Robert Vincent Smith gives a sly portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover and John Leonard Thompson is a bold Robert McNamara, among others. Rounding out the cast are excellent performances from Richard Prioleau, Stephen D’Ambrose, John Shaver and J. Cameron Barnett.

Rep Artistic Director, Steven Woolf, has directed “All The Way” with a strong sense of the wheeling and dealing that goes on to make the country run and the “dog with a bone” mentality of LBJ. Woolf weaves a tale that unfolds on stage like living history. Although the dramatization of the events don’t include a lot of the actual events that took place, Woolf assured me after the play that, even with the salty language we hear in “All The Way,” the real president didn’t hold back. He was a profane and blunt personality who didn’t mind the cajoles and threats that were necessary to do what was right for the country at the time.

The Humphrey's and the Johnson's celebrate their victory in the 1964 presidential race in "All The Way" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Humphrey’s and the Johnson’s celebrate their victory in the 1964 presidential race in “All The Way” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The design team once again shines at this Rep opening. The James Kronzer set design is stunning in its simplicity and effectiveness. Video panels hanging above the backstage give us the necessary feel of where we are at the time as well as ┬áproviding that newsreel feel when speeches and news stories are presented. Dorothy Marshall Englis’ costumes are right on the mark and Rob Denton’s lights provide the proper mood. The presidential desk becomes the focal point of most of the action, even when it’s relegated to an upstage, out of the way, mode. No Oval Office rug or other fluff, just desk, chairs and the odd prop to convey what we’re all familiar with.

It’s always amazing to recall history that you’ve lived through. Those “oh, yeah, I remember that” moments to the realization that what you’ve lived through is profound and, at times, exasperating. From the simplest of incidents like LBJ’s famous pulling his dogs up by their ears to the work surrounding the most significant of his legislation, “All The Way” is a reminder of what got us here. This moving and significant work will be playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through October 4th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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