Archive for May, 2016

Unusual Venues, Outstanding Acting Drive The Inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival

May 22, 2016

tennA week long celebration (with some extensions) proved that, despite his bad memories of our town, nobody likes Tennessee Williams better than St. Louis. The bulk of his writing happened when he lived here and now Carrie Houk led the way in organizing the celebration of his work. It all started with “The Glass Menagerie” as presented by Upstream Theatre I already reviewed in a piece on Stage Door St. Louis.

Also mentioned in a post on FB earlier that the few things I saw during the Festival gave me an eerie feeling. This whole week seemed to awaken the ghost of Tennessee. I felt his presence in all three plays I saw and I’m not usually one to get these feelings or conjure up spirits. There was an odd familiarity in “Menagerie” that gave me a feeling of deja vu about the whole post war era that Williams manifested in this work- even though it was before my time. “The Two-Character Play” was performed in a staging area at the Wednesday Club where Tennessee saw many of his plays performed for the very first time. Hence the weird feeling I felt while watching that production. And finally, seeing a series of short plays lumped under the title, “The St. Louis Rooming House Plays,” really gave me some serious chills up my spine. Performed at the Stockton House, the audience travelled from room to room and stood in the small spaces almost nose-to-nose with the actors. Again, a presence that was reminiscent of the actual people Tennessee based these people on or perhaps Mr. Williams himself. It was a thrilling sensation but one that truly gave me pause as I watched various actors bring these characters to life.

tenn-2characterYou could not ask for a better pairing in a two character play than Joe Hanrahan and Micelle Hand- two of our cities’ most celebrated actors. Mr. Hanrahan’s Midnight Company delivered the play with direction by Sarah Whitney. As a brother and sister acting team, they are on the road in one podunk town after another. Performing a play written by the brother, Felice, it involves a fictional brother and sister who are trapped by fear or circumstance in a crumbling Southern mansion dealing with the fact that their father murdered their mother and then killed himself. But are Clare and Felice the real brother and sister and performing their play after being driven to insanity by these turn of events? Are they real at all? Are we watching the ghosts of Clare and Felice or perhaps watching two characters who have come to life and living their own personal hell? It’s a fascinating study and one that lets these two fine actors show their strength. It is mesmerizing.

tenn-ben“The St. Louis Rooming House Plays” are even more ethereal and haunting. The audience is broken into four different groups and we each start and end with different plays. This makes for an interesting effect as the “ghosts” of these characters filter through from one room as you’re watching another play. The order I saw them in featured “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches” first with Peter Mayer as a beleaguered traveling salesman who is followed into his boarding house room by a bellhop that is playing a saxophone and using it to communicate. Visited by a colleague, played by Jared Sanz-Ajero, they discuss the sales business until the bellhop returns with his horn and now sporting a pair of wings. Case closed. But as we travelled to other rooms, the sound of that saxophone followed us as the other “guests” watched the play.

tenn-goldie“In Our Profession” was next for us as we saw Ben Nordstrom and Julie Layton sparring with each other as she obviously was looking for someone to settle down with and just happened to bark up the wrong tree as we can see when Christian Chambers entered the room. Next we had a sombre take on death and a last grasp of hope as Anita Jackson, as Bertha, mourned her existence while “taking up valuable space” in the rooming house and waiting for her knight in armor to return and rescue her. Donna Weinsting was a nice blend of kind and cruel while Maggie Winiger tried her best to appease Bertha.

tenn-juliacrumpFinally we entered the world of “The Pink Bedroom” as Julia Crump primps and preens, awaiting her gentleman caller in the guise of Eric Dean White. Things don’t go as planned as she eventually breaks up with him and tells him to go back to his wife while she reveals a secret hiding in the closet. Brian Hohlfeld directed this one while David Kaplan directed the other one-acts. It’s all tied together with an opening musical interlude and a short play as a “filler” while we’re waiting to proceed to one of the other rooms. Whether it’s the close proximity of actors to audience or the uneasy feeling of this old house that probably saw a lot of similar exchanges throughout the years, this series of plays was exciting yet chilling.

Congratulations to Carrie Houk, her staff, her volunteers and the amazing number of speakers, presenters, actors and directors who contributed to this amazing body of work. I just wish I could have experienced more but I’m in an unusual situation with a recuperating wife and I feel fortunate to have experienced what I did in this jam-packed week of Tennessee Williams overload. Look forward to next year. Thank you all.

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A Gentle “Yentl”Brings New Jewish Theatre To A Close For The Season

May 17, 2016
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Shanara Gabrielle as Yentl/Anchel and Andrew Michael Neiman as Avigdor in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Yentl.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

A boisterous cast leads the way as “Yentl” closes out the 19th season at New Jewish Theatre. We must be gentle with this “Yentl,” however as it is still a work in progress. Jill Sobule, who wrote the music, came to town to work with the cast and evidently worked a few new numbers into this production and maybe threw a few out. For the most part, the score is a pleasant one but probably still needs a bit of work. The ballads are most successful including the haunting “Tomorrow Is Breaking My Heart” and the closing number, “I Am Not Alone.”

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Taylor Steward as Hadass and Shanara Gabrielle as Yentl in “Yentl” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

The cast is a standout as Shanara Gabrielle leads the way as Yentl and, when she takes on the persona of a man to study the Talmud, Anchel. She brings a genuine enthusiasm to the part and you really believe that this is what she wants more than anything else the world can offer her. As her comrade and soon-t0-be “boyfriend,” Avigdor, Andrew Michael Neiman brings a strong, manly presence to his role. When Avigdor is stymied in his pursuit of Hadass, played with a sweet innocence by Taylor Steward, he convinces Anchel to propose- a more suitable marriage according to her parents.

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Women of the town gather to assist Hadass in her wedding plans during “Yentl” at The New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Jennifer Theby-Quinn is delightful as the grumpy shopkeeper who finds Avigdor completely unacceptable as a clerk or a husband. Terry Meddows tackles several roles with vigor and panache including Yentl’s father, father to Hadass and others. Amy Loui also shines in multiple roles as does Peggy Billo. A strong male chorus make up the rest of the cast, mainly as townspeople. They include Will Bonfiglio, Luke Steingruby, Brendan Ochs and Jack Zanger. The entire cast works hard and, despite a few near misses on the small stage opening night, they pulled off great moments like the wedding sequence making a crowded situation look easy and effortless.

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A musical moment during “Yentl” as presented at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Super director Edward Coffield has pulled the show together with an eye to detail and keeping excitement in a play that could easily drag on with the only conflict being Yentl’s attempt to keep her identity a secret. The book is by Leah Napolin with assistance from the original short story author, Isaac Bashevis Singer. He, by the way, was not fond of the Barbra Streisand treatment of his material in her film version. I also noticed one moment that was ripe for a comic song treatment when two tailors attempted to fit Yentl for her/his wedding garb and she kept fending them off lest they discover her shortcomings.

Charlie Mueller handled the small band with style and the remarkable choreography is handled by Ellen Isom. Peter and Margery Spack designed the clever and functional set that incorporated several houses, the brief scene in the shop and other sites encompassing several towns around 1800’s Poland. Seth Jackson’s lighting design is just right and Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are perfect.

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Shanara Gabrielle in the title role of “Yentl” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

“Yentl” still needs some work but it is a wonderful evening of theatre as it appears right now on the stage at New Jewish Theatre. It even pays homage to its bigger brother, “Fiddler On The Roof,” when you see the town of Anatevka highlighted on a signpost during one of the opening scenes. It plays through June 5th at the New Jewish Theatre. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information on “Yentl” or their exciting 20th season beginning in October.

 

The Play’s The Thing As Upstream Mixes It Up For “The Glass Menagerie”

May 6, 2016
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Linda Kennedy as Amanda and J. Samuel Davis as Tom in Upstream’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Color blind casting for Upstream Theatre’s Tennessee Williams’ classic “The Glass Menagerie” doesn’t affect the outcome as an outstanding cast leads us to the same powerful conclusions for the Wingfield family and the infamous “Gentleman Caller.” A few directorial changes neither help nor harm the script either- just give us a little bit different perspective.

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Linda Kennedy’s Amanda consoles her daughter Laura (Sydney Frasure) in “The Glass Menagerie” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Director (Artistic Director of Upstream) Philip Boehm actually gives us a fairly straightforward production. He makes the Narrator Tom an older man rather than a young man reflecting on his life with his somewhat delusional mother and crippled sister, but that does nothing more than bring a few more tears to the eye in the finale. Also, his sister Laura, still suffering from the affects of pleurosis, is in a wheelchair for the entire play rather than moving around on crutches as in most standard productions. Other than that, you soon forget that mother and son are black while sister and the gentleman caller are white. Good acting crosses all color barriers.

One of our local treasures, Linda Kennedy, is nothing short of spectacular as Amanda Wingfield. Reminiscing about her days of seventeen beaus at once clamoring for her attention and the glamour of her privileged upbringing, she brings a flair of the dramatic to everything she does and says. Sashaying in her old gown (that still fits) or retelling stories about the charms of the South, she simply dazzles in the role. Her outbursts of anger mixed with this gentility are a marked contrast that she carries off with style.

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J.Samuel Davis as Tom the Narrator in Upstream Theatre’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

J. Samuel Davis (this year’s winner of a Circle Award for work at Upstream) also does remarkable work as Tom- both the son and the narrator. His older self hobbles on stage with a walker as he “remembers” (it is “the memory play,” after all) about his time in St. Louis with his family. So we must always keep in perspective that these are his remembrances as he struggles at a factory job while dreaming of becoming a writer. Having a poor example of a father, he struggles with the notion of leaving both women who are depended on him for both income and support while realizing that the road his father took of skipping out on family is not the honorable one. This leads him to becoming the most tragic figure in the piece.

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Jason Contini as Jim marvels at the glass unicorn of Sydney Frasure’s Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

As Laura, Sydney Frasure has captured the essence of the shy, almost unapproachable young girl. With her amazing gestures and telling speech, she manages to act the heck out of this role while in a wheelchair for the entire evening. And Jason Contini almost steals the acting props with his wonderful performance of Jim, the gentleman caller. He is tough and tender as his extended scene with Laura is one of the most touching moments we’ve seen on stage all year. Even in rejection (he explains he has a fiancĂ©), he manages to come across as tender and caring.

The Michael Heil set design is effective and “handicapped” friendly for Laura’s wheelchair and makes every seat a good seat in this small black box theatre. Steve Carmichael’s lights are perfect and Laura Hanson’s costumes are equally wonderful- down to the faded glory of Amanda’s ball gown and the period look of the rest of the cast. Philip Boehm’s direction is crisp and powerful keeping the ebb and flow of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece.

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J. Samuel Davis as the Narrator (Tom) in the foreground as Linda Kennedy as Amanda and Sydney Frasure as Laura sit in the background. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

“The Glass Menagerie” is the official kick-off to the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis which encompasses plays, lecture and other programs throughout the middle of May. This Upstream Theatre production of “The Glass Menagerie” is a worthy entry into the festival which focuses mainly on women in his plays. Give Upstream Theatre a call at 314-863-4999 for tickets or more information.