Hawthorne Players lights up the community theater boards with a thoroughly enjoyable production of the popular musical The Spitfire Grill that clearly places the emphasis on hope, forgiveness, and personal change. The adaptation of the movie makes some important story changes to create a more uplifting and crowd-pleasing ending, and the solid cast effectively creates fully flawed, authentic characters.

Recently released from prison Percy arrives in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin looking to make a fresh start on life. The local sheriff is initially suspicious of her motives and Percy is guarded and wary by nature and as a means of self-preservation. After the sheriff decides she's here in earnest, he helps her get a job and a place to stay at the local diner, run by Hannah Ferguson, a widow with pain and secrets of her own. Hannah's nephew and his wife, as well as the nosy town gossip and a mysterious visitor who hides in the shadows near the diner, all figure prominently in Percy's story of redemption and finding a place to call home.

Stefanie Kluba handles the role of Percy with spunk and just the right attitude. Her voice is clear and strong, particularly in her mid-range, and she brings a genuine sense of vulnerability and distrust to the role. Colin Dowd is shyly romantic, but filled with good intentions and surprising attraction as the sheriff. He and Kluba have several really pleasant duets and their romance develops with a slow, measured pace that suits the show. 

Melanie Kozak is a delight as the mousy Shelby and the moment she comes out of her shell and finally speaks up for herself to Danny Brown's Caleb is quite satisfying. Brown finds the change in Caleb, and his character becomes considerably more sympathetic after his world is rocked a few times. Kathy Fugate, Trish Nelke, and Robert Doyle round out the cast, adding texture and a real sense of community to the sometimes overly simplistic story. The cast has strong voices and the songs are, for the most part, quite enjoyable. With such a small cast every voice matters, and while there were a couple of off notes and a few particularly taxing runs the ensemble handles the material and its context well.

Director Ken Clark has a solid vision for the show, and he finds several levels of emotional depth in the straightforward tale, though overall the characters are a bit flat and underdeveloped. This seems likely attributed to the source material, though Clark could have pushed his cast to probe their motivations a bit further. Clark's set is a delight; it really captures the sense of a small diner nestled in the trees of a small town. Eric Wennlund provides a gorgeous lighting design, the seasonal changes of the trees behind the diner are particularly pleasing, and Amanda Jackson does good work with the sound and balance. Speaking of sound, it is genuinely gratifying to hear a live band, with musical direction by Ike Eichenberger, emanating from the orchestra pit at the front of the stage.

The Spitfire Grill, running through November 12, 2017, is a fabulous choice for a community theater company like Hawthorne Players. The songs are pleasant, but not overly taxing, with an emphasis on storytelling. There's little need for complicated choreography or multiple set changes, but the ensemble capably makes use of the space they're given. While more attention to character connection and motivation is recommended, Clark directs the show with clear vision and an emphasis on community, ensuring an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying musical.



Few writers have been able to shake a cocktail of mental instability and the paranormal quite as deftly as Shirley Jackson, who died far too early at 48 in 1965. Her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has long set the standard for the genre of psychological horror and left its mark on later writers, notably Stephen King. Since publication, two film versions of the novel have been crafted, and F. Andrew Leslie created a stage version which is currently in production at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves, continuing on November 9-12, directed by Betsy Gasoske.

The plot is simple: Three guests -- unstable Eleanor, played by Tori Stukins; the alluring Theodora, interpreted by Alexis Peterson; heir to the property young Luke Anderson, portrayed by Christian Davis--are invited by psychic investigator Dr. Montague, played by Tim Paeltz, to spend a week in an allegedly haunted house in an isolated corner of New England. During their stay, the guests are tormented not just by the alleged ghosts, but also by Jadienne Nolan Davidson in the role of the officious housekeeper Mrs. Dudley, and, later, by Lindsay Morrison-Jahr as the annoying and petulant would-be investigator Mrs. Montague, along with her obsequious assistant, Terry TenBroek in the role of Arthur Parker, a pertinacious headmaster of a private boys' school. What follows is both theatre of the mind and -- perhaps -- of reality as the house and its occupants experience crashes and booms, spectral touching, cold spots and spirit writing on the walls.

The stage version of Jackson's play has been criticized by some as being long on words and short on action. The confines of a small stage make it difficult to portray the vastness of a Victorian mansion, as the movie versions did. For those reasons, any production of the play might benefit from rapid dialogue and exchanges between the actors. This production seemed just a bit slow-paced, yet Betsy Gasoske assembled a good ensemble cast that seemed to work well together and performed with professionalism. Every actor spoke with clear and excellent diction and inflection, and the production was food for the mind as well as the eyes. Lindsay Morrison-Jahr, in the person of Mrs. Montague, managed to enliven the second act of the play with her faster-moving crisp retorts, and the other actors responded in kind, driving the play to a dramatic climax.  

It was clear that everyone involved in the production had rehearsed well and all maintained a good command of their lines. It was also clear that Gasoske, assisted by Pepi Parshall, had studied the play thoroughly and tirelessly, giving their level best to every detail of the set and the movements onstage. This is a play that does not rely on lavish design and overwhelming display; that is left to the viewer, but it requires a solid production to do so.

Now in its 91st year, the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is clearly a labor of love from everyone involved with its productions and ongoing work. Attention to a few basic details might polish their image even more. For instance, when informal talks are presented by theatre staff prior to performance, it might help if they used a small microphone and waited for audience members to be fully seated (thereby avoiding the atmospheric but annoying creaks from the wooden chairs and floors that drowned out the speakers beforehand).  

However, it must also be noted that the Guild should be very proud of their beautifully written programs, their on-target sound system for recorded music, and their fine control of lighting and temperature. (And offering light refreshments during intermission doesn't hurt, either!) This production is well worth seeing, and the Guild should be very proud of its many contributions to maintain and support community theatre.

The best things about the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis studio production of the 2015 comedy/drama Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (whose wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened the Rep's mainstage season) are the parts that are, as they say in the restaurant biz, locally sourced. That includes the stellar performances by Joneal Joplin and Susan Louise O'Connor, the thoughtful direction by Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf, and the subtle but effective sound design by Rusty Wandall. 

The worst thing about it, unfortunately, is the script. Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it was performed by Mary Louise Parker and author/actor Denis Arndt, Heisenberg chronicles the developing relationship between Alex Priest, a quiet London butcher in his mid-seventies with an comprehensive love of music, and Georgie Burns, a forty-ish transplanted American with a flexible notion of truth. 

They first meet in a railway station where Georgie has just kissed Alex on the back of the neck, claiming that she mistook him for her late husband. It's a bizarre story and, as it turns out, a wholly fictitious one, along with most of the autobiography that emerges from her long comic monologue. As written, Georgie is manic, self-obsessed, and chronically dishonest--basically the sort of person most of us would cross the street to avoid. And yet Alex not only becomes emotionally involved very quickly but, even more improbably, joins her in a quixotic quest to reconnect with her adult son, who has fled to America and has forcefully severed all ties to her.

The relationship between the two feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and the play itself feels like a seriocomic sketch that has gotten too big for its britches. That might be because, as Emmeline McCabe reports in her program note, the playwright made no attempt to plot out the script in advance but instead "was inspired by the idea of not knowing where something is or where it is going"--a very free interpretation of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle which gives the show its title. The result is a play that lacks any real dramatic shape and feels unfinished.

For me, ultimately, the rewards of this production came from watching two very talented actors create a credible relationship out of this material. Mr. Joplin's beautifully understated Alex is a subtle masterpiece, shaping a warm and sympathetic human being. Early on, Georgie accurately describes Alex as "not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it." Watching him emerge from the cocoon of that routine is immensely gratifying.

Ms. O'Connor is just as impressive, rattling off Georgie's gargantuan line load in a way that makes it look as though she's riffing on the spot, and finding moments of vulnerability and even humanity in what is, for the most part, a pretty annoying character. Georgie talks a lot but reveals very little of herself; Ms. O'Connor givers her more depth than the playwright does.

Peter and Margery Spack's simple rectangular set divides the black box space in half, with the audience lined up facing each other on the long sides of the rectangle. The arrangement could have created sight line issues, but Mr. Woolf's blocking takes that into account, and his pacing keeps the show moving while still allowing room for it to breathe. This is, in short, a production that gives the script every possible advantage.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Heisenberg continues through November 12 in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For me, the strong acting and direction didn't compensate for the weakness of the material, but your mileage may vary.


YoungLiars take on William Shakespeare's violent, vengeful Titus Andronicus, the cleverly titled and smartly staged Titus Androgynous, gives the play, often cited as among Shakespeare's worst, a surprisingly effective comic turn. Instead of overwhelming, overwrought grief, we find exaggerated characters, pointedly over-the-top violence, and genuinely unexpected humor. Of particular interest is the word play that's revealed. There are layered puns, double entendres, purposeful mispronunciations, and a plethora of innuendo that easily support the interpretation when the show is pared down to focus on its comic possibilities.

The story itself is rather straightforward, if gruesome. Roman general Titus has defeated the Goths and taken their queen, Tamora, and her sons captive, sacrificing one as tribute to the gods. Tamora's bloody and exacting revenge begins the moment the newly appointed Roman emperor, Saturnanus (intended sic), chooses her as his empress.  

Tamora's sons kill the emperor's brother and brutally attack Titus' daughter Lavinia. Implicated by a forged note and bag of gold planted by Tamora's lover Aaron, two of Titus' sons are executed for the murder. When Titus discovers the truth, he kills the sons and serves them, baked in meat pies, to their mother. By the end of the show, almost everyone is dead.  

The play is packed with rage, destruction, gore, and, when presented as a tragedy, grief. As comedy, however, the incessant bloodletting fits in well with the exaggerated emotions and villainy -- gleeful excess delivered with a sinister sneer. Director Chuck Harper, costumer Maggie Conroy, and composer Paul Cereghino are absolutely synchronized in their approach and the effect is thoroughly entertaining. There's a coarse, b-movie look to David Blake's set design and Ben Lewis' lights that underscores the highly visual comic approach. This is not high drama, but some scholars, citing a general preference for graphic violence among the Globe's patrons, contend that the original play wasn't, either. Titus Androgynous is laugh out loud funny even when it's a little uncomfortable, and fantastically enjoyable, too.

Conroy, as Tamora, Jonah Walker, as Titus Androgynous, Isaiah de Lorenzo, as Saturnanus, and Erin Renee Roberts, as Aaron the Moore, are the center of this psychotically murderous tale. Cereghino, as musician and Clown, is our guide and narrator through the quickly shifting violence. Conroy and Roberts are ravenous and Machiavellian, and countered by an equally fierce Walker; their energy is stereotypically and unrepentantly masculine. de Lorenzo walks like a dancer, with an air of authority and a hint of sexual ambiguity, and Cereghino provides a delightfully constant stream of chatter, commentary, and wit that's sometimes Gracie Allen, sometimes Lou Costello, and all court jester.

Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Amanda Wales, Rachel Tibbets, Jeff Skoblow, Michael Ferguson, and the enthusiastically mischievous Katy Keating capably support the leads, with the majority of the ensemble taking on a variety of roles. Wales, Schwetye, and Keating play all the sons and Eagles and Tibbets are extra sweet as the true lovers. Skoblow is quite funny, with a sly, "Did you see what I just did? Don't tell." manner, while Ferguson's reticence indicates a (perhaps feigned) preference to stay behind his drum kit. Dressed as a London schoolboy, Keating's character is devilishly captivating. A maniacal hybrid, she's part 'Lord of the Flies' meets 'Clockwork Orange' and part sassy stewardess, with a demeanor that implies "coffee, tea, or bloody murder?"  

The twisted take employs highly mannered and stylized movements and Edwardian undergarments, specifically corsets and bloomers as the base for all costumes. Clever musical interludes speed the exposition while humorously pointing out the ridiculous nature of the original script. Malapropisms applied to character names result in sophomoric puns and there's a sense of early vaudeville, perhaps due to Michael Ferguson's expressive drumming and the accelerated pacing of the show. The resulting mash-up is darkly funny, excessively violent, and quietly androgynous, an interesting choice that may disappoint some audience members but seems ironically ambiguous from my perspective.

Titus Androgynous, running through November 11, 2017, works surprisingly well as comedy. The witty adaptation reveals unexpected jibes, puns, and excess in the pared down source that give the show an energetic boost. The comedy is completely engaging, and Cereghino's clever songs deliver the bulk of the exposition with as much humor and excess as the script. Fans of the Bard, and anyone in the mood for comedy and horror expertly blended, won't want to miss YoungLiar's unique take on the oft-maligned play.



It's Halloween weekend in St. Louis and there's plenty of haunting goings on. Why not start your festivities by seeing a play or musical? As a bonus, your costume will likely be welcomed and complimented! This week's In Performance spotlights both the "bad" -- a battle of will with tragic consequences all around -- and the "good," a sweetly personal story about an unexpected friendship that begins while waiting for the train. 

YoungLiars, a thoughtfully ambitious and energetic company headed by Maggie Conroy and Chuck Harper, amps ups the blood letting and body parts with Titus Androgynous, a comic interpretation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus that's supported by a number of critical scholars and writers. The story of the Roman general's defeat of the Goths and subsequent bitterly personal feud with the scheming Goth queen Tamora is not considered among Shakespeare's best; but it is his bloodiest, stuffed with continuous action and deviantly vicious revenge. A notable curiosity, this is the third recent retelling of the rousing but infrequently performed tale in St. Louis this season. 

It is logical and possible to interpret the show as parody "perhaps directed towards contemporary Christopher Marlowe as well as the period preference for theatrical blood and guts," Harper offers. "Viewed as comedy, the script is filled with double entendres and puns that create thematic shifts in perspective. We looked at the script from that angle and found farce." Under Harper's direction, the comedy is constant and bloody, nearly 10 quarts of stage blood are used each show. The adaptation, also by Harper, includes several new songs by Paul Cereghino that push the exposition and compress the timeline. YoungLiars Titus Androgynous: A Comic Spectacle runs through November 11, at the Centene Center for the Arts.

I ask you in all mock seriousness, what better Halloween weekend choice can horror fans have?

Steven Woolf directs Susan Louise O'Connor and Joneal Joplin in the surprisingly intimate and heartwarming Heisenberg. Georgie, an odd and impulsive woman, briefly engages Alex, an older gentleman also waiting at the London train station. She's brash and crass and outspoken, he's of a more subdued ilk. The unexpected start to their relationship turns to conversation, and the two being an awkward friendship.

The one-act show opens the St. Louis Repertory Studio Theatre's season, spinning two very disparate people into a shared orbit and exploring each character's quirks and personality. The two discover they have much in common even as they question the connection they feel. Running through November 12, Heisenberg is life affirming and uplifting, a nice reminder to "stop and smell the roses" and other extraordinary moments in our daily life. 

Continuing this weekend: 

If you're in the mood for murderous stories and haunting tales, you'll want to catch the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' first ever production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, running through November 5th. Arguably one of the Bard's greatest plays, the dark story tells of lust, murder, and revenge among Danish royalty.

Insight Theater Company brings Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion Dr. Watson to life in Tony award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig's comic mystery Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, running through October 29. John O'Hagan and Ken Coffield are extra clever, amiable, and delightfully engaging, while Elliot Auch, Ed Reggi and Gwen Wotawa create a wonderful ensemble, with each showing theatrical flexibility and sharp comic timing in multiple roles. 



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