Archive for February, 2016

“Gidion’s Knot”At STLAS Brings Tragedy, Anger And Emotions To The Forefront

February 16, 2016
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Laurie McConnell as Heather and Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Corryn in “Gidion’s Knot” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

A tragedy surrounding the suicide of a 5th grader tries to get at the core of what happened and who’s to blame in a searing 70-minute drama that unfolds at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. “Gidion’s Knot” forces a nervous teacher to confront the boy’s mother as she shows up unexpectedly to find out just what went wrong to lead her son to this heinous act.

After a bit of embarrassing shuffling and hesitant restraint, the teacher, Heather, tries to explain why she did not expect the mother to show up for the scheduled parent/teacher night as this tragedy happened soon after the meeting had been set up. The mother, Corryn, is looking for some sort of closure from this part of her son’s life and seeks answers to his demeanor, friendships and work habits at the school. It’s as awkward for the audience as it is for Heather as she tries to calmly relate as much information as she can to a mother who is both reflective and aggressive as the meeting plays out. The title is a play on the old Gordian Knot myth about trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable. The son, Gidion, becomes that knot that can’t be untied- we probably can never explain his actions.

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Laurie McConnell and Elizabeth Ann Townsend in the STLAS production of “Gidion’s Knot.” Photo: John Lamb

Laurie McConnell is nothing short of brilliant as the teacher as she tries to remain collected as the badgering and often accusatory demeanor of the mother. You can see the pain on her face and in her body language as this is probably the most difficult encounter she’s ever experienced in her short two year teaching career. As the mother, Elizabeth Ann Townsend also shines as she digs into her son’s life and schoolwork. Her unexpected reaction to a horrific story her son has written (which she insists Heather read aloud to her) is chilling to the audience but apparently cathartic for her.

There is no easy way to resolve the dilemma in such a situation- the only thing the mother can do is delve into her son’s life at school and try to make some sense of it all. Heather becomes almost a buffer to her pain after she experiences the initial discomfort but soon gets into a rhythm of trying, as best she can, to allieve some of the mother’s pain and find some common ground to accept the tragedy.

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Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Laurie McConnell in “Gidion’s Knot” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Director Lee Anne Mathews has tackled the difficult script with sensitivity and a subdued confrontational approach. It works well in easing the audience into this slippery subject matter and gives the proper amount of tension on stage. Playwright Johanna Adams has fashioned a difficult script that opens a lot of conversation about a problem that is all too often ignored- the high suicide rate among younger people. Christie Johnston’s set design is a wonderful representation of a 5th grade classroom and Dalton Robison’s lights are simple and functional. Carla Landis Evans has brought a solid contrast to the character’s differences through her costumes.

This has been a tough week-end of theatre with the volatile “Disgraced” at the Rep and then this absorbing but disturbing “Gidion’s Knot” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Catch
“Gidion’s Knot” at STLAS through February 28th.

 

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Powerful Drama, “Disgraced,” Is Contemporary Story That Seethes, Simmers Then Explodes

February 15, 2016

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has brought us another recent hit and Pulitzer Prize winner (2013) with “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar. Over the course of a year in this 90-minute masterpiece, the playwright wrings us through a series of emotions, highs and lows and some frank observations about race, religion and relationships in today’s fragile world.

Amir and Emily live in a high rise apartment in New York’s Upper East Side. Both are successful- he a businessman, she an artist. Although he won’t admit it, Amir has tried to shake off his Indian/Pakistani background and, quite frankly, has succeeded. But he is upset that his superiors have suddenly taken an interest in his background now that he is perhaps up for a promotion. Emily is successful and has a gallery owner who is quite interested in her work- most of it influenced by Muslim inspired art."Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar directed by Seth Gordon presented by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at The Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts of Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri on Feb 9, 2016.As a constant reminder of his ancestry, Amir’s nephew, Hussein, lives nearby and also has taken pains to keep his history in the past, adopting the name Abe. He asks his uncle to assist a friend of his who probably has some terrorist background. He declines but assures Abe that he will attend the trial. The result of the well-publicized trial is his company’s interest in a background check into his past.

Meanwhile the Jewish gallery owner, Isaac and his wife, Jory, a black woman who is also up for promotion in Amir’s firm bring their own troubles to the table. And that table includes a marvelous dinner sequence that implodes in shouting and hate mongering that leads to disaster on several levels. That’s as far as we can go on the premise without spoiler alerts, but the volatility is some of the most powerful and realistic we’ve seen on stage in some time.

John Pasha is a force to content with as Amir. His poise and manner makes him the focal point during most of the evening. As Emily, Leigh Williams is delightful. Her confidence is just as poised and you truly believe she can handle any situation. Fahim Hamid plays the disgruntled Abe with just the right touch of confusion and anger.

Jonathan C. Kaplan is Isaac and he manages to stand toe-to-toe with Amir when push comes to shove. And finally, Rachel Christopher is rock solid as Jory. She holds a lot of secrets as well but she is as strong willed as the rest of the folks. These diverse and alpha personalities make for great theatre when questions arise and subtle and not so subtle mud-slinging takes the forefront. The entire cast makes everything so believable and natural that you’re often taken aback, fearing you’re intruding on their personal lives.

Seth Gordon has directed this powerhouse with a masterful hand. He finds the peaks and valleys and is able to bring out the abundant amount of humor that is in the play as well as the viscousness and unexpected moments that dot this masterwork. The Kevin Depinet set design is a wonder to behold. It reeks of opulence and the New York skyline is dramatic and adds to the feeling of power and riches. Ann G. Wrightson’s lights also highlight the successful feel of the place and Dorothy Marshall Englis has crafted the perfect costume design to go along with the theme of the play.

“Disgraced” will not be an easy play for many to see. It brings up the current tenor in so many conversations and feelings in the world today and the depiction of savage outbursts through both dialogue and action may leave you weak-kneed. But this is important theatre at the highest level. You will not want to miss it if you are a fan of realistic drama with superb direction and outstanding performances. “Disgraced” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 6th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

“Eleemosynary” Tugs At The Heart Strings At Mustard Seed Theatre

February 11, 2016
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Nancy Lewis as Dorothea and Austen Danielle Bohmer as Echo in Mustard Seed’s “Eleemosynary.” Photo: John Lamb

Not sure how many times local theaters have produced Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary” but I’ve seen it several times over the years. The current presentation at Mustard Seed Theatre is definitely one of the best. Three powerful actresses manage to energize us, empower us and tug at the old heart strings.

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Kelley Weber as Artemis and Nancy Lewis as Dorothea in “Eleemosynary” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“Eleemosynary” is not an easy play to explain- or pronounce, for that matter. Daughter, mother and grandmother manage to live their lives together and apart. Dorothea, the grandmother, is the eccentric member of the family who, as the show opens, is filming her daughter attempting to fly with one of grandma’s latest inventions- a huge set of wings. When the daughter, Artemis, has her own daughter, Echo, she entrusts her upbringing to Dorothea. Artemis is a restless soul and, in true Auntie Mame fashion, Dorothea makes Echo’s life an adventure.

One of the finest actresses we have in town, Nancy Lewis, tackles the role of Dorothea with relish. With a mix of sarcasm, unflappability and wonderment, she wins the audience over from the start. A long time Mustard Seed actress, Kelley Weber brings a nuance to the enigmatic Artemis. We never fully understand her willingness to give up Echo and her seeming aversion to closeness, but she makes Artemis a fascinating character.

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Three generations- Dorothea, Artemis and Echo in Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of “Eleemosynary.” Photo: John Lamb

Rounding out the cast is Austen Danielle Bohmer as the young Echo. A spelling champion, she tells us of winning her most recent bee with the show’s title- eleemosynary. She is an energetic and bright young actress who brings a lot of Dorothea’s wonderment to the role. This is a remarkable cast who each shine individually but work as a cohesive and tight unit. The audience hangs on every line and movement in this 90-minute spellbinder.

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Austen Danielle Bohmer and Nancy Lewis with the infamous “wings” behind them in “Eleemosynary” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Doug Finlayson has directed the show with that flair for bringing the best out of each player and moves the play along at a crisp clip. Kyra Bishop’s set design is a flowing mass of levels and blocks that make transitions from one place to another easy and fully understandable. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the set and action while Jane Sullivan’s costumes add just the right touch.

Artistic Director Deanna Jent and the whole gang at Mustard Seed should be proud of this one. A dynamite cast performing a touching play with heart and soul. Catch “Eleemosynary” at Mustard Seed Theatre through February 21st. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information.

Strong Cast Overcomes Sleep-Inducing Mystery At Stray Dog

February 10, 2016
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Sarajane Alverson (standing} and Jeff Kargus talk freely as Angela Bubash pretends to be passed out on the couch in Stray Dog’s “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight.” Photo: John Lamb

There’s nothing like a good mystery. Last season Stray Dog Theatre gave us one of the best- Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” This year, not so much. A cliche-ridden, slow moving mystery called “I’ll Be Back By Midnight” gets bogged down almost immediately with the premise and then slogs through two acts with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I won’t give anything away, but it’s a disappointment when you’re sitting there trying to figure out who the killer is and…well, go see for yourself. And I do recommend the production despite the somewhat sophomoric script because of the stellar cast that brings life to this production.

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Angela Bubash as Jan and Jeff Kargus as Greg talk things over during “I’ll Be Back By Midnight” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Angela Bubash as Jan is pouring her heart into this role of the tortured wife who is skittish after spending some time in a psychiatrist’s care. She is properly remorseful and agitated that her husband has brought her to this remote house to try to calm her nerves. It really is a great performance considering some of the trite lines and the emotions she goes through in her time alone on stage facing demons of one sort or another. As her husband Greg, Jeff Kargus brings the right touch of care and malevelonce to the role that puts him at the top of everyone’s suspect list from the start.

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Jeff Kargus, Sarajane Alverson and Angela Bubash talk as Chekov’s famous “shotgun” is off the wall during Stray Dog’s “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight.” Photo: John Lamb

Sarajane Alverson could entertain us by, sorry for my cliche, reading us the phone book. Playing Greg’s overbearing sister Laura, she brings a sweet, sarcastic tone to the woman who obviously has never liked his choice for a wife. She figuratively twists the knife every time she has the chance. Rounding out the unusually small cast for a mystery is a wonderful performance by Mark Abels as the quirky next door neighbor who loves sharing the lurid past of the house to Jan. Drinking them out of Jack Daniels, he has a homespun flavor but is he homicidal as well?

Director Justin Been has attempted to wring every ounce of suspense from this somewhat juvenile script. I kept thinking how nice it would be if he had chosen something a bit more realistic and frightening like the classic “Night Watch.” The tech end of the show doesn’t help matters either with a rather flat and monotonous set by the usually inventive Rob Lippert and the lighting design of Tyler Duenow who forgets to backlight the outside of the house so when someone says, “It’s broad daylight out there,” it really is. Eileen Engel’s costumes are very good.

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Sarajane Alverson, Jeff Kargus and Mark Abels in “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

If you’re really a fan of the mystery play, you may be able to get into this one, but I couldn’t get in step with the excitement that a truly suspenseful play is supposed to create. Peter Colley’s “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” just doesn’t hold up to the genre. As I said, go for the mystery but stay for the delightful performances. This fine group of actors manage to create interest where there is little to be had. “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” plays through February 20th at Stray Dog Theatre. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

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The Bard Goes Bluegrass In An Abbreviated “As You Like It” At SATE

February 9, 2016
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The cast and musicians of SATE’s “As You Like It” rock the Ozarks. Photo: Joey Rumpell

In a clever and charming adaptation by director Ellie Schwetye, Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” takes on a country flavor- the Ozarks in 1929 to be exact- and the results are satisfying. It all takes place in the latest production from Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE). Running only a little over 90 minutes, it takes a lot of liberties with the original script but you can’t help but like Orlando, Rosalind and the rest of the gang with a hillbilly twang and a lot of musical twang to accompany them.

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Mollie Amburgy as Phebe and Chris Ware as Silvius in “As You Like It” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

With a lot of gender-bending and bringing back that style that was so popular with Broadway musicals a while back- actors playing instruments on stage- this works much better than some of those musicals did. In fact, a few clunkers along the way help add to the charm of this production. Jason Scroggins is musical director and composed some of the music and even takes a turn at acting in the role of Forester. The wild and wooly Rachel Hanks tackles a couple of roles and blasts a mean trumpet. She even gets to perform the musicalized version of Shakespeare’s famous “Seven Stages” soliloquy.

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Orlando (Kevin Minor), Oliver (Will Bonfiglio) and Celia (Katie Donnelly) in SATE’s “As You Like It.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Will Bonfiglio and Katie Donnelly come closest to matching Shakespeare’s original intent of a classical reading of their characters but all of the actors bring us a combination of Homeric and home-spun. Kevin Minor is a dashing Orlando and Cara Barresi is a delightful Rosalind. Alyssa Ward takes on a “pants” role as does Rachel Tibbetts. The wonderful Mollie Amburgey returns to town to handle the Ozark belter as Phebe and Chris Ware, Alyssa Ward and Tonya Darabcsek round out the cast- most of whom play multiple roles throughout.

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Rachel Hanks and Kevin Minor in the Ozark adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Bess Moynihan brings us an outstanding lighting design and doubles up with director Ellie Schwetye on the clever set design. Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are the flavor of the period. This is a pleasant and unexpected treat- the shortest version of “As You Like It” you’re ever likely to see but one that will keep you entertained and your toes tapping. You’ve only got through February 13th to see it, so make plans now to visit Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) to join in the fun.

Ghosts Of The Past And Present Haunt In Upstream Theatre’s “Shining City”

February 2, 2016
Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.

Jerry Vogel as John and Christopher Harris as Ian in Upstream Theatre’s “Shining City.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Lives are peeled open as therapist and patient both have secrets to reveal in the latest at Upstream Theatre- Conor McPherson’s “Shining City.” Confession is good for the soul they say and with a therapist who is an ex-priest, one profession is much the same as the other. Before this one’s over, however, we get to see into both men’s past and present and begin to wonder who needs therapy the most.

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Christopher Harris tries to console Em Piro during the production of “Shining City” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Christopher Harris plays Ian, the therapist, with a bit of nervousness as the play opens as he is obviously new to this but his years in the confessional prove invaluable as he gives John, played by Jerry Vogel, what he really needs- an ear to bend. Although Harris goes through a series of expressions and meaningful body language, he does what a good therapist should- he listens. With a few key words and starts of sentences that he leaves hanging, he manages to draw the story out of John.

Meanwhile, Vogel shows why he is one of the premiere actors on our local stages. His hesitation and broken sentences build a story that is scary and sometimes borders on the creepy. His wife was killed in a car accident some time ago and he is still blaming himself and even reveals that he has seen her- plain as day- in their house. He tells a bizarre tale and mixes pacing- both in speech and movement- to an art. Quite a powerful performance.

Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.

Pete Winfrey as Laurence agrees to some wine from Christopher Harris as Ian in “Shining City” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

We also meet Ian’s girlfriend, Neasa, played with frustration and angst by Em Piro. When she learns of his plans for their future, she becomes unhinged. Then the secrets of the therapist unravel even further when we find he has brought a young male prostitute to his office claiming this is the first time he’s done anything like this. Pete Winfrey plays Laurence with a hesitation that belies his experience in such matters.

All of the characters in some way are looking for love and redemption, but the real story centers on Ian and John. Their relationship is a strange one and, once we’ve learned of Ian’s peccadilloes, we can see how alike they may really be. In fact, when John claims he’s cured and even brings Ian a gift to thank him, we eventually see in the final, chilling sequence how the sins and guilt of one may have been transferred to the other.

Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.Shining City presented by Upstream Theatre at Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis, MO on Jan 28, 2016.

Jerry Vogel as John tries to express his feelings to Christopher Harris as Ian during Upstream Theatre’s “Shining City.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Toni Dorfman has directed with a keen eye for character development and the actors have picked up on these traits as well. Set in the small office of the therapist in Dublin during several months in the early 2000’s, we get the gritty feel of both place and persons thanks to the Michael Heil set design and the costumes of Bonnie Kruger. The Steve Carmichael lights add to the mood as well. As always, the musical accompaniment of Farshid Soltanshahi enhances the onstage action.

This often enigmatic but always fascinating play, “Shining City,” plays at Upstream Theatre through February 14th.

 

 

“Underneath The Lintel”At New Jewish Theatre Wraps A Mystery Inside Of A Myth Inside Of A Metaphysical Journey

February 1, 2016
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Glynis Bell as the Librarian, guides us through her journey of discovery in “Under The Lintel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

When I was growing up my mother always had one version or another of a houseplant she called a Wandering Jew. Later I became familiar with the mythological character known as the Wandering Jew. Now, in the latest production at New Jewish Theatre, I meet that character again as a Librarian takes us on her quest for a figure she feels may be that famous character that pops up again and again in stories around the globe.

A long, stark classroom setting greets the audience as they enter for “Under The Lintel.” The nervous and somewhat rattled Librarian enters and is disappointed that a larger crowd has not gathered for her lecture as she could only afford to rent the space for one night. Glynis Bell is one of a handful of actresses in our town who could have piqued our interest in this character and the strange story she has to tell. She weaves the facts as she knows them along with her suitcase full of “scraps” that support her sometimes unbelievable story.

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Slides help identify where the Librarian (Glynis Bell) leads us in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Under The Lintel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It seems she came across a returned library book that was 113 years overdue- a copy of Baedeker’s Travel Guide. That led her on a journey across several countries in search of this ethereal person and why he (or someone in his family, more than likely) returned this book after all of these years. A dry cleaning ticket used as a bookmark started her on this magical mystery tour and we are treated to each stop and adventure along the way. She feels it may have been this mythical Wandering Jew character- was he real?

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Glynis Bell as the Librarian in “Under The Lintel” at NJT gets excited as the next phase of her mystery becomes apparent. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Through her story telling, off the subject tangents along the way and the eventual outcome of her bizarre search, Bell manages to captivate us and charm us with her tenacity and her metaphysical journey of inner peace and contentment. For that appears to be what drives her with such reckless abandon. The 90 minute or so Glen Berger script meanders a bit and might have been helped by a bit of a cut here or there, but the audience gets so wrapped up in the story that it truly moves- both in pacing and in emotional quality.

Accompanying her from time to time is Will Soll playing a mandolin-like instrument that helps move us from country to country. He blithely strolls just outside the playing space and sometimes just as an off-stage musical accompaniment to the Librarian’s musings. It’s an effective addition to this haunting play.

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Glynis Bell as the Librarian shares another item from her “scraps” that lead her in search of the person who returned a 113 year old overdue book during “Under The Lintel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Lana Pepper has directed with style and a deft hand for bringing out the somewhat prudish qualities of the Librarian while still capturing the enthusiasm she has for what turns out to be her life’s journey. Kyra Bishop has given us that austere room which fits the production perfectly and Michael Sullivan’s lights add just the right touch.

“Under The Lintel” is a quiet and reflective piece of work that fits beautifully into the scheme of this season at the New Jewish Theatre. After the raucous and riotous flavor of “Bad Jews,” “Under The Lintel” is a refreshing change of pace. This touching and poignant production of “Under The Lintel” plays at NJT through February 13th.