St. Louis theatergoers with a taste for twisted tales and things that go bump in the night have new cause to rejoice. With a smartly efficient approach and technical support, Theatre Lab helps bring Theatre Macabre's vision of horror-story-based theater to life. The company's inaugural production The Lieutenant of Inishmore is full-on horror and hilarity, delivered with a wink, a nod, and a pint or four of stage blood. Plus, the story is every bit as interesting as it is comically horrific.

The show is set during the active years of the IRA's campaign against Britain for control of Ireland. Padraic, an IRA lieutenant, takes to torture with the same eloquent style as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, only funnier. He's so bent and violent, however, that even the IRA questions his methods. The organization is particularly riled by his anti-drug behavior. After all, they're making money hand over fist from kickbacks and protection fees. As a result, Padraic is being pursued by three former acquaintances that unwisely choose to use his cat and "one true friend," Thomas, to lure him home and into their trap. 

Padraic's father Donny, who's just as afraid of the man as anyone, and neighbor Davey try to make the best of the situation, but Donny eventually has to call Padraic and let him know something's wrong with Thomas. Donny interrupts Padraic in the midst of torturing a captured prisoner, saving the prisoner's life and causing Padraic to hurry home. Mairead, Davey's 16-year-old sister who happens to love the IRA, Padraic, and her own cat with equal devotion, eagerly pursues him. The resulting mix-ups and gruesome violence that follow Padraic's homecoming is hilariously funny and, in some deeply wrong way, absolutely satisfying. Even Mairead's ascendance, as menacing as it may be, will keep audiences laughing.

Charlie Barron and Larissa White are fiendishly fabulous as Padraic and Mairead. Their romance is quirky and their personalities violently exaggerated, ensuring the two are also completely engrossing. Barron creates numerous contradictions in Padraic and, in a way that's creepily believable, effortlessly shifts from one extreme emotion or reaction to the next. White is enthusiastically trigger happy, and a sharp shooter to boot. What Mairead may lack in finesse and feminine wiles she makes up for with eagerness and accuracy; White embraces the character's inconsistencies with gleeful abandon.

Chuck Brinkley, as Donny, and Mark Saunders, as Davey, are convincingly daft and slow on the uptake and comically illogical, but with a genuine likability. They are the accidental witnesses and nosy neighbors who know more than they should. Brinkley and Saunders find levels in these bumbling characters that keep us almost as interested in them as we are in Baron and White. Chuck Winning, Brock Russell, and Jake Blonstein blunder effectively as Padraic's IRA buddies, their verbal and physical humor reminiscent of "The Three Stooges." It's clear they too have good reason to fear Padraic's wrath. It's equally clear that they don't quite fully appreciate the finer qualities of Barron's sharply wrought mania. Finally, Jackson Harned is among the most cooperative and sympathetic drug dealers and torture victims you will ever meet.

The simple set, designed by Eric Kuhn, is realistically normal and hard scrapple, allowing for the addition of increasingly interesting props and set pieces. A seesaw, multiple cats (both stuffed and real), a number of dead bodies, and several bloody effects, designed by Valleri Dillard, demonstrate that Theatre Macabre has a clear vision and well-defined expectations for the live horror theater they intend to produce. Lighting designers Tony Anselmo and Kevin Bowman, sound designer Ted Drury, and costume designer Sarah Porter turn in solid work that enhances the story and humor.

Theatre Lab and Theatre Macabre team together well, ensuring the production, directed with efficiency by Nick Kelly, moves at a quick pace. The effects are perfectly timed and executed, and the humor shines darkly in the night. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, running through June 25, 2017, may not surprise you, per se, but if you enjoy horror and comedy, this show is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. The situations are just plausible enough and the violence is over-the-top gleeful, ensuring that lovers of macabre stories and horror films will likely have a devilishly delightful time. 

 

Theatre Nuevo, a relatively young company on the block, continues to provoke audiences with its thoughtful exploration of what it means to be fully human. The six short plays introduce us to a variety of real people who are often relegated to labels filled with preconceived notions and prejudice. Each of the shows features well-developed scripts and actors fully invested in their scenes, creating an enjoyable evening of entertainment that may also lead to self-examination. I find this type of prodding from the company beneficial and entertaining, as well as fitting into the old adage that art is sometimes designed to make you uncomfortable, or at least more aware.

The six plays include:

A Comfortable Fit by Stephen Peirick, directed by Adam Flores, a short play that takes a closer look at what it really means to embrace and accept your identity. The beauty here is that the twists are not surprising, but still fresh and revelatory. The comedy-infused script, set in a shoe store, is funny and perceptive and features Julianne Bennett (Gwen), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Jennifer), and Omega Jones (Charlie).

Cleopatra Under Water by Georgina Escobar, directed by Natasha Toro, allows audiences to sit in on a girls' night out that's filled with insights on navigating the world as a woman. We may not all be so perceptive, but the situation is instantly familiar to anyone who has faced a night out as a single adult. Issues of contemporary feminism and the nature of friendship punctuate the quick clever script featuring Grace Langford (Becky), Erin Renée Roberts (Arlene), and Elizabeth Van Pelt (Charity).

La Reception by Carlos-Manuel, directed by Robert Ayllón, is a touching wedding story that feels instantly familiar to anyone who has felt the fear of rejection from family and close friends.  Told in a mix of English and Spanish, the story is easy to follow and engaging. The couple may be gay and Latinx, adding personal relevance and intimacy, but their story is universal in nature and features Isabel Garcia (Sonia), Jesse Muñoz (Raul), and Kelvin Urday (Enrique).

Ofélio by Joshua Inocéncio, directed by Rahamses Galvan, is the most intense and disturbing play of the evening, and it hits hard at the subject of sexual consent. Without getting preachy or judgmental, the show nonetheless takes a pointed look at important issues. Too many people share stories familiar enough to Ofélio's for it not to hit a nerve or two, and the actors, Tyson Cole (Grad Student), Kevin Corpuz (Ofélio), and Grace Langford (Doctor), approach the subject matter with sensitive honesty.

The Bullshit by Gregory Fenner, directed by Anna Skidis Vargas, is a searing script that unabashedly points out inconsistencies in the way people are treated based on looks or ethnicity. The short play drives its points home hard, but without anger, and the actress treated dismissively may at times surprise you with her reactions. The smart show features Chrissie Watkins (Jennifer), Clayton Bury (Simon), Tyson Cole (Morgan), Evan Fornachon (Robert), and Erin Renée Roberts (ASM)

The History of Mexicans in 10 Minutes by Alvaro Saar Rios, directed by Elizabeth Van Pelt, is as comically light as it is genuinely informative. In a quick ten minutes we learn that in the beginning there were no Mexicans. The factual assertion leads to a delightful compressed education delivered with enthusiasm and spirit by Rahamses Galvan (Player 1), Anna Skidis Vargas (Player 2), and Kelvin Urday (Narrator). The information is interesting, entertaining, and you may learn a thing or two just from listening.

Acronyms, like labels, badges, and icons, can be useful in their ability to quickly convey a concept or define shared understanding. Applied too liberally or used as a means of generalizing people -- particularly those you don't personally know or interact with -- is a dangerous and disingenuous practice. Theatre Nuevo mines this slippery slope in Acronyms, an evening of short plays running through June 17, 2017, that provide plenty of art for thought. The direction and performances are compelling, presenting realistic situations and authentic dialogue sharpened for the stage, and the scripts are satisfyingly compact and focused.

 

The Midnight Company has gained a reputation for finding and bringing to life the stories of interestingly offbeat characters in odd and unfamiliar situations. Such is the case with Title and Deed, a story about a man seemingly trapped at an airport. The short show, presented without intermission, is curiously lulling and siren-like in its pull.

Will Eno's "monologue for a slightly foreign man" is a warm, wandering journey that gently reminds the audience we are all just passing through this earthly plane. That life is best when you love and allow your self to be loved. That you should fell free to wander aimlessly, but don't stay away too long. Trepidation, determination, and fascination share space in the chatty man's rambling talk. Sometimes actor Joe Hanrahan falters as he searches for a world, other times he becomes so passionate he loses control of the subject matter. Or so it would seem. No matter the detour, he consistently finds his way back to the moment. 

Under the direction of frequent collaborative partner Sarah Whitney, Hanrahan lures us in by creating a curious and complex character with a compelling, if not always clearly purposed, story. With intricate and detailed threads weaving in and out of focus, Eno and Hanrahan seem in perfect consort. They practically hypnotize the audience with language, accent, timing, and pauses. Those pauses of Hanrahan are well timed and deftly played. Whether searching for a word, a memory, or to have a short chat with an audience member, they are gloriously rich in sub-context and innuendo.

Hanrahan ambles on to the stage carrying a small bag and looking around with a somewhat confused expression. He greets the audience as if he half expected us to be waiting for him, but is nonetheless surprised. In a rambling one-hour monologue we learn quite a bit about the man, his mother and father, his loves, and the mistakes he's made in life.  Occasionally stumbling over his word choice and our customs, it's clear the man isn't from "here;" without saying so directly, he even suggests he's not from this planet or plane. What's not clear is whether the man has been sent here on a mission or if he's just passing through on a visit. 

The sparse set, designed by Bess Moynihan, takes advantage of the "seamless wall" at Avatar Studios to blur the horizon, an effect that reinforces the sense of being nowhere specific, but somewhere in between. As the monologue continues, the minimal lighting design slowly begins to further blend the floor and wall. Is it possible that we're all in limbo? Is Hanrahan the angel of death? Or have I just been sitting around the airport waiting for my flight for so long that the world, punctuated by Hanrahan's gentle, rhythmic voice, is hazy. You may feel a part of the time and place without precisely knowing when or where.

Hanrahan's personification ensures we're thoroughly interested in the man's story even if we never quite understand why, and there's a sort of comfortable confusion to his demeanor that instantly engenders sympathy. He describes customs of his homeland -- like reverse weddings and terrible Saturdays -- that pointedly fail to align with our day-to-day realities, all the while espousing that there is no finer state than loving and being loved, an idea that leaves most of the audience nodding in agreement. His most important point however maybe his caution that we "don't get too lost, for too long." 

Title and Deed, running through June 24, perfectly pairs playwright Eno's fabulous wordplay with Hanrahan's gift for interpretation and personification. The Midnight Company once again delivers thoughtful, intimate theater that entertains and provokes. Though we may never fully realize the character's primary purpose, his story is delivered with simple eloquence that strikes me as vaguely important and definitely worth further thought. 

 

 

 

The MUNY opens its 99th season with a spectacular production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic rock take on the last days of Jesus. The songs are driving, memorable, and serve the storytelling exceptionally well. The performances, featuring Constantine Maroulis as Judas Iscariot, Bryce Ryness as Jesus of Nazareth, and an incomparable Ciara Renée as Mary Magdalene, are phenomenal. Emotionally driven and resonant, they easily read from the front of the stage to the back of the house without feeling overplayed. In short, the musical is a spectacular, crowd-pleasing open to a celebratory season.

Jesus Christ Superstar traces the growing popularity of Jesus, his persecution by the Caiaphas, Annas and other priests, his meeting with King Herod, and his eventual arrest, trial, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate with help from Judas. The action covers a compressed period, keeping the focus tight while allowing for contextual incorporation of many of Jesus' teachings and parables. We're introduced to Judas as he first begins to question why he's following Jesus; to Mary Magdalene when Jesus saves her from stoning; to Simon Zealotes and the Pharisees when each challenges Jesus; and to Peter and the other apostles at the last supper, with each introduction complementing the accompanying lesson. Even Pontius Pilate is first introduced when he wakes from a puzzling dream about Jesus.

Though the show is about Jesus, the story is a twisted and intense triangle, as personified in the battle for Jesus approval and attention between Judas and Mary Magdalene. The plot structure is a constant tug of war with Jesus the serving as the rope, and the struggle to please everyone takes a noticeable and physical toll on him. Ryness, Maroulis, and Renée squeeze every ounce of passion, belief, and drama from the conflict, the sub-context reading as clearly as the biblical storyline. Their voices are clear and well intoned, and director Gordon Greenberg keeps the action and actors moving with equal purpose. You may have seen Jesus Christ Superstar before but it's rarely been played with such commitment to character and motivation.

Under the direction of Colin Welford, the orchestra starts the show with a ringing call to prayer that seamlessly transitions to the tense rock score. Maroulis quickly jumps in with the opening song "Heaven on Their Minds" which deftly incorporates the athletic modern choreography of Jon Rua. This sense of synchronicity continues throughout the show, directing focus. Even the ballads, though quiet and often poignant, are delivered with a sense of urgency, as if everyone on stage can feel the tension building with each step that Jesus takes.

Maroulis has a fabulous rock baritone voice with Broadway finesse, a trait also apparent in Ryness' Jesus, while Renée is perfection from the first note of "Everything's All Right" on. Her gentle, heartfelt "I Don't Know how to Love Him" is at once intimately small and close, but emotionally expansive, and the audience zeros in on the corner of the stage in almost reverent silence. Other musical highlights include the guitar intro and accompanying howl of Maroulis on "Damned for All Time," and Ryness takes on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane."

The Vegas-styled "King Herod's Song," featuring Christopher Sieber, and "Hosanna," "The Last Supper," and the titular "Superstar" are highlights from the ensemble. Nicholas Ward, Mykal Kilgore, Andrew Chappelle, and Ben Davis stand out among the supporting roles, and dance captain Brianna Mercado leads an impressively precise core. Frankly, every song is memorable and exceptionally performed keeping the energy and audience response high. 

The scenic design, by Paul Tate dePoo III and costumes by Tristan Raines artfully blend periods to support the visual and thematic approach. Jesus and his followers are in more traditional garb, while the Romans and Pharisees wear drab uniforms, some with red insignia embossed armbands. The landscape combines ancient stone structures with barbed wire and scaffolding as well as a massive video wall that shows just how closely Jesus is being watched. The lighting design by Nathan W. Scheuer, sound design by John Shivers and David Partridge, and aforementioned video design by Greg Emetaz complete the spectacular storytelling.

Having said that, I have a few minor quibbles with some of the choices made in this production. Jesus collapsing repeatedly into the arms of various followers, as if literally drained by the crowds' demands or other pressures, feels overdone. Perhaps at one key moment it may add dramatic punctuation, as is it weakens a strong, resolute, and aware Jesus, which seems unnecessary. Additionally, the suggestion of resurrection at the end of the show reads like an emotional device, diminishing the thematic intent of Jesus Christ Superstar. I so enjoy the production, the angle and storytelling, and the genuinely connected, exceptionally voiced, and fully engaged performances of Maroulis, Ryness, and Renée, I want the show to end with the same clear focus.

A majestic rock 'n' roll take on a familiar yet compelling story, Jesus Christ Superstar, running through June 19, 2017 at the MUNY in Forest Park, is arguably Rice and Webber's penultimate work. Strong direction from Greenberg and outstanding performances by Maroulis, Ryness, Renée, and the ensemble ensure the story resonates for audiences new and old.

 

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and St. Louis-based playwright Stephen Peirick team up to present the world premier of Monsters, a twisted tale of a dysfunctional couple, their siblings, and a hastily planned murder that twists and turns in gleefully scripted chaos. The contemporary show, set in an unfinished basement somewhere in St. Louis, is clever, funny, and oddly plausible. Solid direction and a talented cast ensure the company makes the most of the witty plot in a thoroughly engaging production.

Monsters focuses on brothers Jeremy and Davis and their desperate, last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating diner they inherited from their father. The plan? A murder for hire carried out at the request of two aging members of the St. Louis mafia. The brothers don't actually know the intended victim, but their regulars have given them enough details to convince them to act and make them feel confident they can succeed. There's also the lure of the $200,000 payout once the deed is done. The plan goes awry when Davis's wife Andi, who is supposed to be at work, discovers Jeremy standing over a bound and gagged Carl in her basement. Andi's sister Piper shows up with her laundry, Davis finally shows up, and comedy ensues. 

Sarajane Alverson, as the sharp-tongued Andi, is nobody's fool. She eventually takes charge of the situation making it clear she's accustomed to cleaning up after her husband and brother-in-law. Alverson is all sighs, eye rolls, and exasperation until she learns of the handsome payout; then she's willing to be swayed. She has a secret of her own, that she's been hesitant to share with anyone except her sister Piper, which further complicates an already tangled situation. 

Kevin O'Brien is simple-minded and childish as Jeremy, but in a good-natured way that makes his character easy to forgive (at least most of the time). He seems a little slow at times, but we soon realize that's likely just his nature. He's a bit spoiled and clearly accustomed to being told what to do, so he doesn't bother wasting time thinking for himself. O'Brien brings naiveté and innocence to the part and the character's convoluted logic trips easily off his tongue, almost convincing us that he's making perfect sense.

Eileen Engel and Jeremy Goldmeier, as Piper and Davis, respectfully, fully realize their character quirks in engaging performances. Engel gives Piper a bit of an edge to animate the character in ways that ensure the at times sarcastically funny part isn't overlooked or thrown away. Goldmeier does a similarly strong job with Davis, who is clearly smarter than his recent actions may indicate, and there's a wonderfully warm rekindling of Davis and Andi's love that's completely unexpected and welcome. Finally, Michael A. Wells is expressive and appropriately nervous in a comic turn as the intended victim, Carl. The gag in his mouth keeps him silent most of the play, but his flailing arms and wide eyed headshakes speak volumes, ensuring audience members generally realize his key lines long before he speaks.

Justin Been provides the stage design, a realistic looking unfinished basement that would fit in to almost any city neighborhood. Director Bell adds casual contemporary costumes, and Tyler Duenow creates an effective lighting design, pulling the show together nicely and giving things a comfortable look and feel. The matter of fact setting serves to further heighten the comic tension. You've likely been in a basement like this one before unless you're like Andi, who generally avoids such things do to their inherent creepiness and propensity to harbor monsters. This attention to detail is understated but important: by the show's end you may wonder whether you haven't seen a few monsters.

Peirick writes fabulous, funny dialogue with a well-developed plot that falls just this side of believable, making the show a comic treat. However, the one-act play still feels about twenty or so minutes too long. Some judicious editing to remove redundancy and a second look at Piper and Andi's birth control discussion scene, which feels heavy and out of place as currently written, may take this good show to the next level. 

In its current version, Monsters, running through June 24, is already a thoroughly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny tale with some surprisingly relatable moments. Mistakes and secrets are revealed as each member of the cast attempts to rationalize the current situation, and Carl's impending demise, while also negotiating a comically dysfunctional family dynamic. Though some editing would undoubtedly improve the show, Stray Dog Theatre has a solid hit with this genuinely appealing and funny comedy.

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