With its effective production of Two Trains Running, Clayton Community Theatre once again demonstrates a commitment to serious scripts and relevant drama. August Wilson's tale of the trials and tribulations of a poor black neighborhood in Pittsburgh is set in 1969, but much of the story feels familiar and current. The capable cast will have you shaking your heads in a knowing way at more than one scene as the show moves crisply and clearly to its satisfying, hopeful resolution.

Memphis Lee owns a small, fading diner in the heart of a depressed Pittsburgh neighborhood that's frequented by a number of local regulars. There's Wolf, a numbers runner using Memphis' pay phone as one of his offices. Holloway, the neighborhood philosopher and historian, has an opinion on everything but just one piece of advice. Hambone, an unsettled man driven to distraction by his demand to be paid a fair price for his labor, forms an uncertain alliance with Sterling, a young, restless man just out of prison and looking for some way to get ahead. Local funeral home director West pops in often, his is the only thriving business in the area. They are all taken care of by Risa, Memphis' lone employee and the one character who is always working, a young woman with troubles of her own.

The diner regulars visit for coffee, beans and cornbread, and the local news. This area of the city is being gentrified and businesses are closing everyday. Memphis has been fighting with the city and the opportunistic West, he demands a fair price for his business and won't sell until he's satisfied. Several of the younger men who stop by are constantly looking for work or money making schemes and the future is looking pretty bleak. But all hope is not lost in Two Trains Running, for Memphis is a man of considerable fortitude and perseverance and he is willing to step through multiple hoops if it will get him a just reward. For a change, this black man won't be cheated by loopholes or a system that feels stacked against his interests. Though he still must leave behind everything he worked for years to establish, he can do so with his head held high.

Archie Coleman is engaging and charismatic as Memphis Lee, his character ever chatty, with a quick temper that flashes hot but is complemented with passions mellowed by time. He is a man of principle willing to stand up for his beliefs. In a time of tumultuous change, he remains constant and committed to his sense of right and wrong. Jazmine K. Wade counters him with quiet consistency as Risa. She is not beyond talking back or sticking up for herself, but she's carefully guarded always skeptical. Risa is a bit of a mystery that's never fully revealed and Wade keeps our interest while providing contextual depth to each storyline. 

Eric Lindsey and Minware Tutu are confident and ambitious as Sterling and Wolf, adding depth to characters too easily played as stereotypes. Don McClendon is perceptive with a dry and cutting wit as Holloway, but there's a visibly caring heart behind his jabs. Jeremy Thomas is sympathetic as Hambone, eliciting compassion from Risa and the audience, and displaying humility and virtue beneath his tattered clothing and unkempt hair. Finally, Jaz Tucker is smooth and particular as funeral director West. Paying as much attention to the mood of the room as he does to hygiene, he strolls around with a sly, knowing smile, much like the fox in the henhouse. Together, the actors create a picture of a community that feels at once familiar and real.

Director Nada Vaughn guides the slow moving show through its pace with a sure hand. Tension slowly mounts and at times it seems that all hope is truly lost, that tragedy is about to befall the characters, but the resolution is surprisingly sweet. There were a few unfocused moments but, generally, the show keeps your interest without being over dramatic and with changes grounded in everyday reality. There are no chase scenes and no major conflicts between the characters, just an accumulation of small acts, callous commentary, and everyday kindness that rises together to provide a satisfying tale.

Two Trains Running, in performance through October 22, is a tenderly rendered peek through the looking glass to a not so distant past, and a solid production by Clayton Community Theatre. The show explores economic opportunity, inequality, and racial discord with a reserved approach that feels so authentic it cannot help but underscore the continuing relevance these issues hold. 

 

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis turns a finely tuned, well-seasoned ear to Shakespeare's enduringly popular tragedy about power, madness, and betrayal among the Danes. The dramatic story, arguably one of the Bard's best, is well known and often performed, though rarely at this length. For the first production of Hamlet in the company's 51-year history, the commitment to story, action, and dialogue is successful, and clearly conveyed from the first moment to Fortinbras' closing eulogy. 

Young Prince Hamlet's father dies suddenly while he is away studying. As soon as his father is buried, it seems to Hamlet, his mother Gertrude quickly marries his uncle Claudio. After an appearance from his father's ghost that's filled with accusations, Hamlet is certain there is indeed "something rotten in the state of Denmark." 

His pursuit of justice is unfortunately hampered at every turn. There's Polonius, a meddling consort to the king sticking his nose into to stir the pot. A couple of schoolmates summonsed by his uncle-turned-stepfather try to distract him merely raise suspicion. A dispute with his longtime friend Laertes (caused in no small part by Claudio) amplifies his woes and, naturally, so does his love for Ophelia. With assistance from the ever-loyal Horatio and a troupe of traveling players, Hamlet is certain the truth will be uncovered.

Jim Poulos immerses himself in the language of the story, his body expressing every emotion and motivation with energetic, purposeful movement. Even when deep in thought or lost in madness, his actions are certain, his intentions clearly defined. Poulos easily handles the language and nuances of the script, and conveys much with a pointed gesture or lift of an eyebrow. His Hamlet is bristling in his quietest moments and his rages often contain witty observations and knowing glances.

Ophelia gets the opportunity to really come to life during her mad scenes and Kim Wong makes the most of these memorable moments. Though I wish she were directed to show more personality and force of will from her first entrance, she moves from obedience to seeming reverie to madness with increasing intensity and a lack of self-awareness that captivates. Robynn Rodriguez is a malleable Gertrude, a woman who seems to lack any voice or agency of her own. She is evocative and genuine in moments when she can reveal her emotion but seems otherwise trapped, more like a pawn than a queen.

Michael James Reed is imposing as Claudio, self-assured but wary with greed and power. He proclaims his every utterance as if tone of voice alone is enough to secure his tenuous grasp on the crown. Christopher Gerson is earnest and pragmatic as Horatio, a more understated approach that keeps the focus on the story at hand. Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Carl Howell, as Laertes follow suit, while Larry Paulsen, as Polonius, is all pomp and circumstance, comically long-winded with a touch of neighborhood gossip. The capable supporting ensemble includes local actors Jerry Vogel, Ben Nordstrom, and Cassandra Lopez as well as a host of less familiar, but no less engaging names.

Mounting a full-length production of Hamlet is a significant undertaking, even for a theater with the resources and experience of The Rep. Director Paul Mason Barnes and scenic designer Michael Ganio work well together, filling the mostly bare, multi-level stage with chases, movement, and a gallery of courtiers observing key scenes that are smartly countered by small, intimate moments in tight focus. The effect is particularly dramatic when complemented by a single, statuesque column and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's stunning lighting. Attention is shifted and mood is altered effectively, while Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes ruffle and furl and snap into place with appropriate drama. Every detail feels designed to emphasize the sound of Hamlet and it works to glorious effect, the show is an absolute treat for the ears.

The articulation and interpretation of Hamlet is strikingly crisp and contextually motivated. Each actor conveys clear understanding of each word's meaning and potential consequences, and the sense of courtly manners is present even in the graveyard. What seems to suffer (during several scenes) is the interplay and contextual relationships between the actors. The story ties together and every piece is well delivered, but it often feels as if each actor is speaking in a bubble that prevents them from knowing others are in the room. Hamlet and Ophelia break through, as does Laertes; and Gertrude embracing her son, cradling and soothing him, is effectively touching, but I would like to see even more character-to-character connection throughout the production.

Barnes clearly understands the show as both literature and drama, and it's evident that a lot of thought was paid to interpretation and meaning during the rehearsal process. The approach ensures that the production is lively and fast-paced without sacrificing any elements of storytelling. While I long for more connection between them, the actors are fully committed and emotionally invested in their stories. The Rep's stirring production of Hamlet, running through November 5, is a thoroughly engrossing dive into the language of Shakespeare with active, beautifully crafted scenes that are likely to have your heart racing.

 

The light and charming comedy Sweet Revenge, As performed by the Juliusz Slowacki Players Saint Louis 1933, tells a familiar story. Two neighbors argue over their shared property line, threatening to disrupt an entire community and prevent true love from taking its natural course while creating plenty of opportunity for comic shenanigans. Upstream Theater introduces St. Louis audiences to the popular Polish comedy by Aleksander Fredro, with a new translation of the script by the company's artistic director, Philip Boehm, who also directs. 

Though Czesnick and Milczek's feud over the wall separating their property has escalated to the point of physical and legal threats, their children -- Czesnick's niece Klara and Milczek's son Waclaw -- have fallen in love. Naturally, the young lovers haven't yet found the courage to make their affections publicly known, and each fears what will happen if the two men discover their secret. Matters become complicated when Czesnik's friend Papkin and the widow Hanna enter the story. Papkin is enamored with Klara and Milczek strikes an agreement for Hanna to wed his son, even though she is already engaged to Czesnick. Much comic mischief and back and forth scheming eventually lead us to a happy ending.

Whit Richert is kindly gruff and stubborn as Czesnick. His patience may be worn thin by the feud, but his overall demeanor is light, almost giddy, particularly when the prospect of love and romance emerges. His friend Papkin, a boisterous braggart with a coward's love of self-congratulation, played with a flourish by John Bratowski, tries to act as emissary. He bumbles around preening and posing his way through one exaggerated tale after another. John Contini, as Milczek, is stern, calculatingly cunning, and equally as stubborn and obstinate as Czesnick. He moves with certainty and is much less susceptible to laughter and mirth.

Caitlyn Mickey and Pete Winfrey are charming as the young lovers trying their best to avoid detection until they can safely wed. Winfrey is eager but over-cautious, with a tendency towards morose worries, while Mickey may have the quickest wit and keenest perception of them all. Jane Paradise is humorously coquettish, though she too has an angle to play, and Eric J. Conners is sufficiently funny and comically overworked as all the servants and workers.

The pleasant show moves along at a nice pace, with a simple set that allows for quick transitions, but there are moments when it drags with too much exposition and too many rambling tales from Papkin. There's abundant humor in the script, but the retelling becomes tiresome at times, though Boehm does a solid job with both the translation and direction. The story, told in rhyming verse, is clearly conveyed, but may simply be too indulgent towards the original material, as some judicious editing feels appropriate. 

More importantly, the show is bookended with two problematic scenes. Intended to represent the performers as the Julius Slowacki Players St. Louis, 1933, they deliver a message on tolerance that feels suspiciously like historic whitewashing. In these scenes Conners, a black man, is welcomed into the company and then, after the show, the company chooses to support him and not patronize a local establishment that won't allow him to join the rest of the cast. The intention is pure here, but without record of an actual event, it feels disingenuous and inappropriate. 

Sweet Revenge, as performed by the Juliusz Slowacki Players Saint Louis, 1933, is a sweet natured comedy with an enjoyable, if familiar, tale. The talented cast easily captures the emotional ups and downs of the story's quickly shifting plot with engaging performances that are light and filled with comic interplay. Though a bit longer than it needs to be, the Upstream Theater company's production, running through October 22, is quite entertaining.

 

 

The New Jewish Theatre takes a kinder, gentler look at impending death with its production of Tuesday's with Morrie, by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, from the book of the same title. Told in short vignettes that recall weekly visits between a professor and his prodigal student, the show mixes the intimacy of friendship rekindled with very real end of life issues and discomforts. Through each visit, another simple lesson of life and death that we too often fail to learn until our time on this planet begins to wane is revealed. 

One night while channel surfing, sports journalist Mitch Albom stumbles upon an episode of Ted Koppel's Nightline that feature's Morrie Schwartz, Albom's nearly forgotten but favorite college professor. Schwartz and Koppel are discussing how Schwartz is dealing with his diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and the death sentence that diagnosis indicates. Albom decides to look up his old professor and pay a visit, to say his last goodbyes. That visit leads to another and another, and eventually becomes Albom's regular Tuesday routine. As the audience, we watch with Albom as his mentor's health deteriorates before our eyes. Morrie's mind remains sharp but his body betrays him.

Andrew Michael Neiman is Albom, a man who has overscheduled and overcommitted his time, perhaps in an effort to avoid introspection and dealing with pains he doesn't feel capable of facing. Neiman wears Albom's contradictions and conflict easily, creating a thoroughly believable character that resonates as a busy contemporary professional. Neiman successfully navigates tone and conveys a genuine sense of humility, important during those scenes when the script veers towards self-congratulation.

James Anthony turns in a nuanced and effective performance as the professor, his physical interpretation of the ravages of ALS are beautifully wrought, if at times exceedingly difficult to watch. During the short show, Anthony shows us the many emotions and struggles that come with the realization of impending death, but his demeanor is always upbeat, looking for the humor or silver lining in a situation. 

Cristie Johnston's set design subtly emphasizes the sense of things being "not quite right" that often comes with a diagnosis of ALS, dementia, and other diagnoses associated with aging. The bookshelf isn't quite right, the bed threatens to swallow and entrap Morrie, all the while Albom uncomfortably shifts and fumbles, overcompensating for feeling helpless by bringing food (that goes largely uneaten) to every visit. Michael Sullivan's lights, Sarah Azizo's props, and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes add appropriate touches, creating a sense of time and physicality operating just outside of normalcy. There's nothing remarkable here, but every now and again we're reminded of the serious state of limbo that is the story's reality.

The kind, sweet natured story is soft spoken and almost meditative, and largely succeeds in conveying the lessons Albom learned during his visits over the last few months of his beloved professor's life. The lessons are ones we've heard before, this time personified by a writer who is a bit of a showman, but genuinely kindhearted. Forgiveness, the need for self-reflection, and every small act of kindness are emphasized in the show, as is the importance of touch, of connection, with those we love. 

The New Jewish Theatre delivers a warm and personable version of Tuesday's with Morrie, in performance through October 22, that feels like a long goodbye hug. Director Annamaria Pileggi skillfully guides the talented actors through the intimate exchanges, avoiding over-sentimentality and delivering grounded, sympathetic performances filled with humor. Though the show runs about 15 or 20 minutes longer than it needs to make its point, the story is engaging and ultimately, uplifting. 

 

The fact that William Shakespeare was a gifted and prolific writer is indisputable (whether or not the signature was a nom de plume is another question entirely). The existence of a 1613 play about Cardenio, a less-important figure in Cervantes' Don Quixote, penned by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is also well established. Unfortunately, the script itself is completely lost to history. 

Thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director, Gregory Doran, we now have a newly re-imagined version of the play. St. Louis Shakespeare introduces fans of the Bard to the script in a fanciful retelling that highlights the romantic story with primarily playful escapades and lively wordplay. Cardenio is not without its failings, but the production makes the most of the play, ensuring the light comedy is accessible and entertaining.

The story introduces us to an aging Duke and his two sons, Pedro and Fernando. Pedro is loyal and obedient, a stand up guy anyone would want as a friend. His brother Fernando is a more slippery character, breaking hearts and spending his father's money on expensive horses. In an attempt to understand his youngest son's motivations and plans, the Duke sends a letter to Fernando's friend Cardenio, requesting he come to court immediately. The summons tears Cardenio away from his true love Luscinda at a crucial moment, and the ensuing mischief caused by Fernando nearly costs him her heart. The show has almost too many twists and turns, but a happy ending is eventually secured in the romantic comedy.

Erik Kuhn, a regular with the company, proves the natural choice for the valiant and faithful Cardenio. Earnest and enthusiastic, he expresses himself fully, creating a character that is sympathetic, if at times comically naïve, and bringing good physical presence to the role. Additionally, his interpretation and articulation are noticeably improved, his best grasp of the rhythms and cadence of the dialogue to date. As Luscinda, Shannon Lampkin delightfully counters Kuhn with a heart as pure as the driven snow, a perceptive eye, and a quick wit. She, too, articulates well and shows clear understanding of the story and her character. 

The entire ensemble is capable and well spoken, though there are times when the pace lags considerably and I am, honestly, still uncertain how I feel about the sheep. Kevin O'Brien and Jason J. Little provide solid, engaging support as brothers Pedro and Fernando and both demonstrate a good sense of timing, while Jeff Lovell is upright and full of authority as their father, Duke Ricardo. Lexie Baker is both cleverly appealing and horribly abused as Dorotea, the daughter of a wealthy farmer and conquest of Fernando. Filled with determination and spunk, she's delightful to watch though it is difficult, from a modern perspective, to understand why a rape victim chooses to pursue and moon over her attacker. The fact that Fernando tries a similar tactic not once, but twice with Luscinda is even more troublesome in a contemporary reconstruction.

Matthew Stuckel's scenic design creates the necessary levels and sense of environment while creating visual interest and a sense of place. Michele Friedman Siler tells much about each character and their social standing with her aesthetic palette and artful details, Dona Camilla's jacket is particularly appealing (and something I would totally wear simply for the elegantly distinct embellishment). 

The show is not without its problems, however. Director Northcott's vision is compelling and the majority of the comic touches work, eliciting the intended laughter. However, the production also feels a bit self-indulgent, with too much business slowing already long scenes and jokes, like the aforementioned sheep, that almost but don't quite hit the mark. Those minor points don't distract from the story or comedy, but the strong suggestions of forcibly coerced sex do. Fernando's actions and the lack of any true repentance or punishment are frankly disturbing. The construct appears to be supported by the original text and other writings used to reconstruct Shakespeare and John Fletcher's play. Without the usual historic familiarity, it's decidedly more jarring and noticeable.

St. Louis Shakespeare's production of Cardenio, running through October 15, is an absolutely compelling romantic comedy that folds employing all the Bard's favorite devices. There's plenty of mischief -- most of it cheerful, true love, and, of course, a woman disguised as a man and crucial to the plot. The show is light and pleasing, if a bit lacking in substance, and the company turns out an energetic and entertaining production that genuinely feels like a close cousin to the original canon.

 

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