LaBute Festival Rides High Again At St. Louis Actors’ Studio In Part I

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Nancy Bell and Chauncy Thomas discuss politics in “Percentage America” at the LaBute New Theater Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Fifth year and the LaBute New Theater Festival is just as feisty as ever. Once again, renowned playwright Neil LaBute attended opening night of the first of two sets of programs for the festival and has written the opening play especially for the program. St. Louis Actors’ Studio will once again carry these plays to New York in January but we get to see them in their first productions.

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Chauncy Thomas and Greg Hunsaker eat a little, plot a little during “Hate Crimes” by Neil LaBute at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio LaBute New Theater Festival. Photo: Patrick Huber

Playwrights across the country submit scripts of their one act plays and a committee cuts them down to the plays to be presented here. This year, five new voices will be heard as well as Mr. LaBute’s new offering. His latest is “Hate Crime” and is directed by STLAS veteran actor and director, John Pierson. Chauncy Thomas and Greg Hunsaker play lovers who are plotting some very serious business. Both actors are intense and perform the often rambling script while leaving us on the edge of our seats. As a matter of fact, on opening night, the audience was most likely expecting another scene until you realize what really happened- don’t want to give it away, but you get enough hints throughout the telling dialogue leading up to the somewhat abrupt ending.

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Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre all wait for a train that may not come in “Waiting For Erie Lackawanna” at the LaBute New Theater Festival at STLAS. Photo: Patrick Huber

John Pierson directs the second offering of the evening as well, the witty script by Ron Radice called “Waiting For Erie Lackawanna.” A mix of “Waiting For Godot” and “No Exit,” three men wait on a platform for the Erie Lackawanna train but, as one person points out, that train hasn’t run for over twenty years. Absurdist dialogue at times and a nifty switch and double switch of their identical briefcases make for an entertaining piece as Spencer Sickmann does his best John Cleese with sudden outbursts of shouting and foot stomping at seemingly inappropriate times. Reggie Pierre offers the voice of authority and Ryan Lawson-Maeske brings a befuddled and bewildered dupe to their taunting game.

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Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow get more than they bargained for in “Sacred Space” at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio LaBute New Theater Festival. Photo: Patrick Huber

After intermission, Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow bring us a somber piece written by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich. As the two ladies prepare for a Jewish cleansing of the dead ceremony, text messages start popping up all around them. In “Sacred Space,” we are given an other-worldly tribute to those cut down in their prime in the Orlando night club shooting. Nancy Bell directs with a keen eye, evoking a few laughs but concentrating on the profound reading of the names.

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Kelly Schaschl, Chauncy Thomas and Nancy Bell in “Percentage America” at the LaBute New Theater Festival presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Finally, Nancy Bell takes the stage herself as half of an arranged date hooking up with Chauncy Thomas in “Percentage America.” After the nervous exchanging of truths and half truths cutting through both of their “resumes,” we’re offered a political satire focusing directly on the Trump administration and the follies surrounding it. Kelly Schaschl is relegated to a stage right seat and she offers commentary throughout as various newscasters and even a young victim of a Rose Garden “misunderstanding” in a very provocative and telling look at politics and lies as perpetrated by our current president. John Pierson directs and the clever and thought provoking script is by local playwright and playwright in residence at Washington University, Carter W. Lewis. A very good way to end the evening of one-acts with humor and, as we look at the world now, a not-so outlandish satire.

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The cast of this year’s LaBute New Theater Festival gather for a curtain call at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

The first set of one acts runs through July 16th with a second set running from July 21st to the 30th. Always entertaining, always eye-opening. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

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