Archive for January, 2017

Murky Landscape Of The Mind As “The Year Of The Bicycle” Premieres At Upstream

January 31, 2017
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Magan Wiles as Amelia and Eric J. Conners as Andile in the Upstream Theater production of “The Year Of The Bicycle.” Photo:ProPhotoSTL.com

Upstream Theater is normally one of the most rich and challenging companies in town with translations from playwrights from other countries (usually translated by Artistic Director Philip Boehm) or classic American pieces. With “The Year Of The Bicycle” by playwright and actor Joanna Ruth Evans, the short one-act is just a bit too confusing at times as it doesn’t always jump logically from past to present. Described as a shared mental landscape of the two characters, it often gets a bit too murky as they journey through twenty years of real and perhaps imagined life.

At one point they talk about imagining themselves in the sky looking down at themselves and then in the world looking up at themselves in the sky. Perhaps an indication that they have departed this earth together or is it merely this murky landscape that they somehow share over the years? Maybe it’s an unanswered question in the script for us to ponder.

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Magan Wiles and Eric J. Conners in “The Year Of The Bicycle” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Magan Wiles is a white South African girl named Amelia who we first meet at age 8. Eric J. Conners is Andile, a black youngster from the neighborhood who is Amelia’s best (and probably his only) friend. Sharing soccer, bicycles and even a made up baby brother made out of scraps of cloth, their imagination takes the place of any other real playthings. Emulating Amelia Earhart, she even takes Andile on a “plane ride” using the wheel of a bicycle. Andile, in the meantime, continually uses a ball of red yarn to mark out spaces on the oblong set that features eight thin poles to indicate their world.

Both actors keep us enthralled- if confused at times- particularly during the unabashed thrill of eight year olds at play. Tragedy and change mark their grown up selves but we’re never quite sure if it all takes place twenty years in the future or various times throughout that twenty years. A lot of the dialogue is stilted and dream-like which just adds to the perplexing story.

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Magan Wiles and Eric J. Conners during a special moment in the Upstream Theater production of “The Year Of The Bicycle.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Philip Boehm directs with an eye for broad moves and abandon during the sequences featuring them as children but a more reserved and, at times, slow motion movement during their later years. Although this help delineate between their time together, the whole mental landscape situation doesn’t come off as obvious enough. David A. N. Jackson serves as the “soundscape,” a random but effective set of mostly percussive instruments. As in most Upstream productions, this becomes an outstanding “extra player” in the cast that adds a lot to the proceedings.

Michael Heil’s set design is intriguing as the audience sits on both sides of the long rectangles and the random objects denoting the bicycle and a rolling table that serves quite a few purposes are fine in the scheme of things. Tony Anselmo’s lights are superb and the costumes of Laura Hanson fit the two characters well as they travel through time.

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Magan Wiles “flies” the plane and Eric J. Conners is along for the ride in “The Year Of The Bicycle” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

With a running time of just over an hour, it’s just about enough time to try to wrap your mind around just what is going on. The idea is fascinating but I think the script needs a bit of work to clear up some of the conceptual thoughts and bring things into focus. “The Year Of The Bicycle” plays at Upstream Theater through February 12th. Contact them at http://www.upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information.

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Multi-Layered “Intimate Apparel” Is A Beautiful Moment In Time At New Jewish

January 28, 2017
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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

With layers rich in text and sub-text, Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” takes the stage at The New Jewish Theatre and a strong cast and direction make it a heart-wrenching evening that will leave you breathless, crying and with strong feelings for all of the characters she has created.

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Linda Kennedy as Mrs. Dickson and Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Nottage has based her lead character, Esther, on her grandmother. A seamstress in 1905 New York, she has struggled for years while saving up her money to open a beauty parlor for black patrons. She sees the girls in her rooming house meet and marry while, at 35, she still has hope to make that dream come true for her, but it doesn’t appear likely. Until a friend who has ventured South hooks her up with a “pen pal” who is helping to build the Panama Canal. After a whirlwind courtship, she agrees to marry him sight unseen- even though she is illiterate and has been assisted in her correspondence by one of her rich, white clients as well as her friend who is a lady of the evening.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Chauncy Thomas as George in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Things take an unexpected twist as the second act turns from euphoria and innocence to a much darker story. As the tale unfolds, you connect with all of the people in her life, including the Jewish fabric store owner who seems infatuated with her. Perhaps one of the most telling notes in the play is the use of overhead kirons that announce each scene- at the end of the first act and the second as well, a flash indicates a photo is taken and both the marriage picture and a photo of her return to her sewing are described as “unidentified couple” and “unidentified seamstress.” So, as involved as we are in all the stories that open up to us, history reveals their anonymity.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Andrea Purnell as Mayme in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Vivid performances highlight the show starting with a fragile and touching turn by Jacqueline Thompson as Esther. Like a delicate flower, she sways to please whoever enters her life until circumstances change her and, eventually, bring her a new resolve. Chauncy Thomas has returned to the St. Louis scene after having success on the East Coast and brings an epic portrayal of George- the Barbados native who woos and wins Esther sight unseen. He masterfully tackles the changing and challenging moods of the character and maintains a most difficult dialect as well.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther gets advice from Julie Layton as Mrs. Van Buren in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

One of the grande dames of local theatre, Linda Kennedy, gives richness and texture to the nosy landlady, Mrs. Dickson with those special touches in both movement and voice inflection that define any character she plays. Andrea Purnell brings that hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold vulnerability to her role as Mayme and Julie Layton is perfectly proper as Esther’s rich client, Mrs. Van Buren. Both ladies- at opposite ends of the economic and social spectrum- come to the assistance of and then play a major part in Esther’s enormous change of circumstances during the course of the play.

Jim Butz rounds out the cast as the Jewish fabric store owner, Mr. Marks. His shy, almost stilted flirtation with Esther is obvious as he can sense her moods and feels true concern for what he knows must be going on in her life. His subtle performance includes two similar moments as Esther leaves his shop and he is stopped in his tracks trying to wonder what has happened after their near moments of intimacy. His stance and the expression on his face both times say so much as the scene fades to black.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther admires the fabric shown to her by Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the delicate and seasoned touch of Gary Wayne Barker as director of “Intimate Apparel.” The audience can really detect the director’s hand in this play as it moves from moment to moment, crisis to crisis with tension and raw emotion. An outstanding scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack also complements the story as the stage is divided into several playing areas with curtains that either move from side to side or up and down- thus keeping the theme of Esther’s profession of sewing intimate apparel for ladies of wealth. It gives the whole play a feeling of intimacy as you’re focused on small areas of the stage at a time with a centerpiece of a bedroom that serves as various truly intimate areas as needed.

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Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in his shop during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Sean Savoie’s lighting design adds to that intimacy as do the several wonderful costume pieces of Michele Friedman Siler as they speak with a refinement to Esther’s profession. This play is remarkable in both the broad scope of the story and the intimate moments that surround the characters. Lynn Nottage has crafted a beautiful piece that speaks to generations and cultures over the years. Call the New Jewish Theatre at 314-442-3283 and see this wonderfully evocative story, “Intimate Apparel,” playing through February 12th.

 

 

Tension Builds At A Slow But Steady Pace In Classic American Drama “All My Sons” At The Rep

January 10, 2017
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Mairin Lee (center) tries to intermediate between Zac Hoogendyk and Patrick Ball in “All My Sons” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Arthur Miller’s powerful masterpiece, “All My Sons,” doesn’t get as much attention of some of his more popular dramas, but director Seth Gordon makes sure everyone gets their share of “ah-ha” moments and outright gasps as the tense family story comes to a revealing and somewhat shocking close. It’s a master class on the dramatic school of playwrights from the 40’s, 50’s and into the 60’s as the story and characters build until the tension becomes almost too much to bear. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis delivers again as they show why they handle these plays almost better than anyone else.

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Margaret Daly as Kate slaps John Woodson as Joe during the Repertory Theatre St. Louis production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

In fact, the exposition as the play starts almost lulls you to sleep as neighbors are introduced and a bit of the background story slowly unfolds on stage. But once things get going, it’s a series of ebb and flow that resembles a game of Jenga as one secret is revealed after another until the final, tragic moments fall on the characters as well as the audience.

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Patrick Ball as Chris and Mairin Lee as Anne in “All My Sons” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

At the heart of the story, set in 1947, is Joe Keller, a factory owner who, with his partner built airplane parts during the war effort. Although his partner took the fall for faulty products that resulted in the death of 21 pilots, there has always been whispers and doubt about Joe’s involvement in the tragedy. As the play opens, John Woodson makes Joe an affable and outgoing father who enjoys bantering with the neighbors and relishing his family, although one of his sons died as a result of those mistakes in the factory. His performance is a powerful one as he keeps an effortless front while he is constantly reminded of what he might have done to his son as well as his partner.

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Margaret Daly as Kate talks to Mairin Lee as Anne during a quiet moment in the Rep production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

His loyal but delusional wife, Kate, is give a stellar performance by Margaret Daly. She lives every day with the hope that the missing son, Larry, will walk through the door and prove everyone wrong- that he was shot down and killed. Additionally, she harbors the nagging doubt of Joe’s involvement in the cover up of the defective parts. Rounding out the family is the surviving son, Chris, and Patrick Ball infuses him with emotional and unwavering élan.

Chris has decided that he should pursue the love of Larry’s life, Ann- who also is the daughter of Joe’s partner who is now incarcerated-  and Chris invites her to the house with the sole purpose of asking to marry her. Mairin Lee is delightful as the equally eager Ann who has pined for Chris and is more than willing to accept his proposal. Joe agrees but Kate still holds onto the hope that Larry will return and is reluctant to give her consent. Enter Ann’s brother George who initially is furious that Ann has once again gotten involved again with the Keller family. Zac Hoogendyk tackles the most complex character of the piece with a master’s touch. His range of emotions from hatred to nostalgia to passive aggressive is remarkable to behold. It’s an outstanding performance in a play filled with characters of nuance and a full range of depth.

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Margaret Daly as Kate tries to ease the tension with Zac Hoogendyk as George in “All My Sons” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Jim Ireland and Amy Hohn play neighbors as do Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Emily Kunkel while Ana McAlister rounds out the cast. They all at turns show their loyalty to the Keller family while all eventually expressing doubt as to the outright innocence of Joe in all of the scandal involving his factory. They represent an interesting character study themselves as they pass through the family garden with their own baggage as their feelings and beliefs finally pour forth.

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Patrick Ball as Chris tries to stop his father, Joe, played by John Woodson in the Rep production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael Ganio has designed an intriguing set where the main playing area if a very realistic portrayal of a backyard oasis while a very stylized house hovers over the background. His choice of an upper level bursting through the corners of the house points out Kate’s obsession with her dead son as racks and racks of his clothes dominate in a line that is lit by the outstanding lighting design of Peter E. Sargent occasionally throughout the play. Myrna Colley-Lee has provided excellent period costumes and Rusty Wandall’s sound design is perfect for the setting.

As I mentioned at the top, Associate Artistic Director of the Rep, Seth Gordon, has fashioned a wonderful moment-by-moment reveal that suits the pace of “All My Sons” perfectly. Everyone arrives at various conclusions like a flower slowly blossoming- both to the characters on stage and the audience alike. It’s a rare, classic interpretation of this great American tragedy.

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John Woodson “holds court” with Patrick Ball and Mairin Lee in “All My Sons” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through January 29th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 to see an exquisite take on a classic of the American theatre.