Theatergoers looking for an alternative to holiday stories can't get much further away than Mamet, with his love for expletives and stories of downtrodden people living on the fringes of society and, sometimes, sanity. In many ways, his characters illustrate just how fragile the American dream is for millions of its citizens. American Buffalo at St. Louis Actors' Studio embraces this premise with a gritty, raw production that pushes all the right buttons. Though not entirely hopeless or bereft of light, the story is a dark tale of petty crime and life lived under the radar.

Donny is a perpetually down-on-his luck proprietor of a rundown resale shop and the host of a regular card games among his friends, including Teach, a small time thief and opportunist. Young Bobby is a hopelessly lost junkie, desperate to please Donny and be cut in on a heist. He struggles to keep his thoughts and actions clear, but has told Donny that their latest mark, a coin collector, has left with a suitcase, indicating the time for a robbery has arrived. When Teach learns of their plans, he wants to be cut in -- and to cut Bobby out. The friendship between the three is based more on mutual need than trust or likability, though Donny and Bobby clearly care deeply about each other and with good reason.

Though straightforward in its plot, the story is more character study than action, and director John Contini taps into the nervous energy until suspicions, petty squabbles, and distrust permeate the air. Teach presses Donny to get rid of Bobby and instead call on their poker buddy for assistance. Bobby initially tries to win Teach over, but is soon shirking away from the man's overbearing personality. Donny is irritable and irritated, particularly by the way Teach so easily manipulates him, though he can't quite articulate the thought. He also wants to get "his" American Buffalo nickel back, a pitfall of running a small time resale shop and not knowing the value of all the items he displays.

Peter Mayer, as Donny, is querulous and defensive, but always protective of Bobby. He fits his environment perfectly, with an unshaven, tattooed exterior and old biker clothes that mask the tenderness he feels towards Bobby and complement his gruff, defensive conversational style. The relationship between the two irritates Teach, and William Roth brings an intensity and ambition to the character that spills forth in biting comments and insinuations. He talks with the continuous patter of a con man, throwing out opinions as if they were fact and obfuscating challenges to his authority and intelligence with long rambling diatribes. As Bobby, Leo Ramsey shows both the character's nervous, drug-fueled energy as well as his vulnerability. Gaunt from addiction and jumpy by nature, Bobby becomes more agitated when Teach is in the room, though he often ends up skulking out. Ramsey finds meaning in all of Bobby's ticks and addled thoughts.

The characters are wrought from pain, hard work and little reward; and their stories and dreams for a big score are as heartbreaking as they are relevant. The show moves at a fast clip that makes the most of Mamet's deftly illogical logic and crisp, expletive-filled dialogue. The characters aren't particularly likable and their plans result in frustration more than release, but it's hard to take your eyes off them because you just know hell is going to break loose at some point. The tension starts building from Teach's entrance, doesn't let up, and is only partially resolved by the conclusion -- though this device feels entirely appropriate to the story. 

John Contini directs this gut-wrenching show with a soundtrack straight from the mid-70s that fits the tone and energy of the show. The play's action is enhanced with fight choreography by Shaun Sheley and lighting by Dalton Robison that suggests a dim, gloomy room. The resale shop, an important element that's almost a character itself, is fabulously cluttered and interesting. Carla Landis Evans, as costumer and props design, along with set designer Cristie Johnson have outdone themselves, creating the rundown establishment bursting with junk. 

But you'll forget all of that in just a few minutes as you're swept into the story and the intricate battles of wit, will, and false hope. American Buffalo is not a pretty story, but the performances are compelling, beautifully executed, and heartbreakingly real. The show, running through December 18, 2016 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is laden with social sub-context and while it won't leave you humming holiday tunes, it is definitely powerfully effective theater.

 

Though absolutely a work of fiction, it is so easy to buy into the delightfully fanciful and imaginative Buyer and Cellar that you may forget it's just a story. Stray Dog Theatre embraces the concept of the one-man show, by Jonathan Tolins, and director Gary F. Bell and actor Will Bonfiglio commit 110% to the character and the play's oddly realistic premise. The result is a delicious little bon-bon of a show that is sure to brighten your spirits. 

Alex Moore, played with convincing charm and a dollop of sass by Bonfiglio, is an under-employed actor with experience in retail and on Disney's Main Street, a surreal mix of costumed characters and tchotchke-filled storefronts. These qualifications make him uniquely suited to serve as the sole proprietor in a very exclusive European-style shopping mall, which just happens to be located underneath the barn on Barbra Streisand's estate. 

The "mall" is, in actuality, a series of faux storefronts created to house and display the star's various collections, with a few specialty shops featuring extra goodies like frozen yogurt and gift-wrapping. Streisand's many collections range from her favorite costumes to themed categories of gifts she's been given to items she's purchased over the years for her own gift-giving. Alex spends his days carefully cleaning, rearranging, and caring for the shops while he waits for a tinkling bell, signaling that his lone customer is coming to browse. 

Some of the best moments in the show are Alex's clever conversations and price negotiations with Barbra after she shows a particular interest in one of the dolls on display. Alex quickly makes up a detailed backstory for the doll that is melodramatic and touchingly hilarious. Bonfiglio convincingly plays both characters while providing increasingly humorous commentary. Tolins story is written in a way that reveals more and more of the actor's personality as the story continues, and Bell and Bonfiglio make smart choices at every turn, creating a real sense of intimacy between the actor and audience. 

Bonfiglio exudes warmth and friendliness as he invites the audience in, glibly transitioning from one story or impression to another, and we see Alex's life play out. The effect is naturally conversational and genuine. Though the stage is bare with the exception of a few well-appointed pieces of white furniture, excellent use of imagery, including favorite photos of the star, help us enter Alex's world. 

The show is a convincing and imaginative extension of reality, for Streisand has in fact created a replica mall for her collections as described in Tolins script and the singer/actress's 2010 book. Her self-penned and photographed tome includes lengthy and storied detail about how she designed her property. Some selections from the book are read verbatim, and again it is Alex's deliciously irreverent but never mean-spirited commentary that keeps our interest. Bonfiglio is absolutely and charmingly mesmerizing, infusing his character with joie de vivre in a performance that's filled with insight, nuance, and the perfect mix of fawning and gossip. 

Scenic designer Rob Lippert, lighting designer Tyler Duenow, and sound designer Justin Been are clearly in sync with director Bell's vision for the show. Together they create just the right balance of fact and fiction. In particular, selected images from Streisand's book, projected on the back of the stage, provide anecdotal evidence to corroborate Alex's story while maintaining the artifice of theater.  

Fans of Streisand will love the little personal bits strewn throughout, but Buyer and Cellar, running through December 17, 2016 at Stray Dog Theatre, is more a celebration of an actor plying his skill with grace and humor than it is a star tribute. Sweet natured and performed with a deft, loving touch by Bonfiglio, the show is an engaging little confection that's a perfect theatrical treat. 

 

Tesseract Theatre's current production, artistic director Taylor Gruenloh's Adverse Effects walks through an emotional minefield as it seeks the truth behind a family's tragic loss. The engrossing show examines current medical and pharmaceutical practices regarding the study and approval of new drugs, and it's not always an easy play to watch. Luckily, a script that builds compassion and tension equally, with character-focused direction and solid performances, ensures a thoroughly engaging production.

The story centers on Phil and Jessica, a couple who tragically lost their only child, a daughter, to suicide. Both parents believe that a medication prescribed for allergies triggered her actions, but they are nearly destitute after spending all they had trying to prove their case. The relationship is strained, but there's genuine love and a commitment to get through this together between the two, and Carl Overly, Jr. and Musa Gurnis bring the pair compassionately to life.

Jessica's brother Richard, a believably unaware and easily swayed research scientist portrayed by Phil Leveling, helps the family when he can by giving them some of the money he earns when he agrees to add his name as co-author on a medical research study. The dubious documentation is actually authored by Alyssa, a comely writer working for a medical education company backed by the pharmaceutical industry, portrayed with appropriately shaky conviction by Julianne King. Unfortunately her boss, a manipulative and rationalizing Taleesha Caturah, views a lack of enforceable culpability as permission to engage in questionable practices.

Phil refuses to give up and finally convinces Maurice, a local reporter tired of covering high school sports, to take an interest in Phil's story even though his editor cautions against it. Though driven in part by boredom, the writer, in an intelligent performance by Maurice Walters II filled with curious energy, is doggedly inquisitive once convinced he's found a story. In the well-developed plot twist, the reporter's queries and desire to find the truth lead him to Richard. Maurice's story gets picked up and a real investigation is finally launched, leading his boss Ed, played with a gruff likeability by Don McClendon, to promote him--a positive secondary plot that, though clichéd, adds much needed lift to the story.

The show is deep and thought provoking, and director Brittanie Gunn serves the script well by focusing on character development and motivation. Gunn and her cast dive in, showing the many facets of their characters and responding with varied nuance and pain. Phil and Jessica are consumed with grief, and we see the full range of logic and emotion in which it is expressed. Richard has fallen hard for Alyssa and he naively allows himself to be all too easily led down a path he instinctively questions. Maurice is simply looking for a story he cares enough about to write. 

There are, however, a few problems with the show. First, the script is very dense and not all audiences will want to commit to the journey, though the destination is quite emotionally satisfying and cathartic. Secondly, the show is comprised of multiple short scenes, particularly the first act, presenting a staging challenge. The multiple transitions slow the show at times and a few of the actors got off to a slow start that lingered. The second act completely redeems the first, however, as the action, conflict, and pace are effectively managed and executed.

Adverse Effects is an incredibly relevant story, and well researched, and you shouldn't let the medical theme or personal tragedy scare you away. At it's heart, this modern twist on a morality tale touches more deeply on love and the lengths we will go to trying to protect and honor those we love than it does science. Overly and Gurnis are effectively sympathetic and imperfect, and each finds numerous levels to express their emotion and frustration, while Walters, Leveling, King, Caturah, and McClendon provide convincing support.

Tesseract Theatre's Adverse Effects, running through December 11, focuses on contemporary issues in a thoughtful way. I wish the transitions between scenes could have been reduced through set design. However, each scene is necessary in setting up the powerful, and likely tear inducing, second act, which moves along perfectly and with increasing tension. 

  

Charles Dickens' classic Victorian England springs vibrantly to life in the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' faithful production of A Christmas Carol. The story of the Christmas redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is filled with wonder, spectacle, and a bit of fear, as well as the addition of traditional carols. Though this is the first production of the beloved holiday tale in 35 years, it is clear that the cast and crew at the Rep hasn't forgotten how to add all the trimmings and ribbons to this lovely seasonal treat.

Scrooge, a miserly old businessman who thinks holiday celebrations and charity are simply clever ploys to make him part with his money, greets the coming of Christmas with a bah-humbug and dismissive flick of his wrist. His faithful employee Bob Cratchit somehow maintains a cheerful, hopeful disposition in the face of his employer's scorn and penny-pinching, but it's clear he and his large family are barely making ends meet. Even Scrooge's only relative, his gregarious nephew Fred, is scolded for the mere extravagance of inviting his uncle to a Christmas feast.

Scrooge is in a bad way and his only hope is a drastic change. The ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley appears to warn him, but Scrooge scoffs at his caution. As a result, three fantastic ghosts visit the curmudgeonly man. Each ghost guides Scrooge through the journey of his life: past, present, and future, recalling important moments that led to his current disposition. Director Steven Woolf and the spectacular cast get the story just right, and the crew steps it up a notch with intricately detailed costumes and mechanics for each of the ghosts. 

John Rensenhouse deftly moves from querulous and cantankerous to giddy as a schoolboy in his portrayal of Scrooge, and the large ensemble wonderfully complements him. Michael James Reed is sympathetic and likeable as Cratchit, and Amy Loui and Owen Hanford are equally compelling as Mrs. Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Ben Nordstrom is cheerful and kind as nephew Fred, while Joneal Joplin, Jacqueline Thompson, Jerry Vogel, and Landon Tate Boyle are by turns awe-inspiring and frightening as the ghosts.

The supporting ensemble features a plethora of renowned St. Louis' actors, including Chris Tipp, Jack Zanger, Peggy Billo, Alan Knoll, Donna Weinsting, and 13 members of the Muny Kids. The troupe moves fluidly and in-concert, and they add considerably to the choreography and carols, as well as the street scenes. There are a few questionable British accents heard here and there, but the ensemble succeeds in adding texture, movement, and a real sense of a picture postcard Victorian England to the show.

Technically speaking, the Rep pulls out all the stops once again to artistically render the fantastic tale. Music director Jeffrey Carter successfully weaves traditional English carols in and out of the storyline, with pleasant harmonies and familiar arrangements. Scenic Designer Robert Mark Morgan establishes the idea of a city filled with harsh economic realities by showing us the expanse of Scrooge's business, and swiftly moved furniture pieces set location and scene without slowing the show's quick pace. Clever stagecraft creates a number of inventive and magical moments that are sure to make you gasp and smile. 

The mechanics involving the ghosts entrances and exits are truly captivating, and occasionally a little creepy, adding to the dramatic tension. Lighting designer Rob Denton, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and movement supervisor Ellen Isom are assisted by On the FLY Productions, resulting in wonderfully effective and creative scenes. The costumes, by designer Dorothy Marshall Englis, are gorgeously constructed, with rich materials and textures, though some of the original story's focus on the poor and less fortunate feels slightly diminished by their uniform luxury.

The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is among the most beloved of holiday stories, and The Rep's production delivers the spectacle of the story in a standout revival that's a welcome theatrical treat. For holiday entertainment that's sure to delight all but the youngest members of the family, who may find some of the ghosts too frightening, you simply can't beat A Christmas Carol, running through December 24, 2016, with multiple matinees and special performances scheduled.

 

 

 

 

  

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre leaps into the holiday season at light speed with their uproarious parody The Making of the Star Wars Holiday Special! The company takes on the famously bad show with exaggerated comedy, plenty of 1970s television references, and spectacularly clumsy impressions played for comic effect. 

By 1978, the Star Wars franchise had already earned blockbuster status and all-time favorite mentions. What better way to extend the popular franchise than to create an action filled holiday adventure story with a message about love, family, and acceptance? Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch was hired and he created quite a story. The tale sees the surprisingly loveable and popular Chewbacca trying to make it home to celebrate "Life Day," a Wookie celebration reminiscent of Christmas, with subtle references to other religions and tolerance thrown in. Han Solo is taking him home, and naturally the two encounter alien challenges and battles between the rebel forces and storm troopers. Just as naturally, Luke Skywalker, Leia, CP30, and R2D2 come to the aid of their friends. Frenemy Lando Calrissian may or may not make an appearance.

The show is schmaltzy, clichéd, and confusing in plot. There's also the added challenge of a lead character who can't communicate much without benefit of translation, due to his limited vocabulary, in a human sense, and hirsute exterior. The special was, frankly, a disaster. More focused on star cameos than story, it only aired once and, as young fans of the franchise, my brothers and I eagerly tuned in. I can assure you it was bad. Perfect source material for a Magic Smoking Monkey show!

As our host, John Fisher is spot on and nearly flawless in his impression of the eccentric writer Bruce Vilanch, with great mannerisms and snark. He guides the audience through the show and shares "previously unaired footage" from the TV special, which is naturally among the funniest and bawdiest bits. The thin as a negligee on a supermodel story flits through the outtakes, commentary, cameo star turns, and occasional song with gleeful abandon. And, although there are no listed age restrictions, a lot of the humor is risqué or caustically sharp in nature. I'm sure Vilanch would approve, but parents of children younger than 15 or so may not.

Jim Ousley and Ron Strawbridge, primarily as Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, anchor the storyline with an abundance of charisma. Whether winking and flirting with the crowd, delivering laughably cheesy dialogue, or seductively slinking across the stage in drag, the two are eminently watchable. Each member of the ensemble plays multiple roles and every one of them has several laugh out loud funny moments. Hunter Fredrick, Brie Howard, Amy Kelly, Rob McLemore, Shannon Nara, and Duncan Philips have some of the best supporting bits, and Tyson Blanquart is a strikingly good Art Carney. Nick Kelly, Scott McDonald, and Jason Puff capably and humorously round out the ensemble.

Though much of the audience and actors are far too young to have seen the special, 70s television is alive and thriving on a number of stations. The audience certainly seems to get it, and the impressions of the prior era stars are broad and funny enough to convey the character, personality and style parodied. As with most Magic Smoking Monkey productions, knowledge of the genre, and in this case the era, helps but is not necessary to enjoy watching genuinely talented actors poke a little fun. 

Donna Northcott directs the show with an appropriately casual approach, ensuring the characters are well defined and the marks are hit, but otherwise awarding free reign. The company's original adaptations maintain a sense of comically controlled chaos, a commitment to farce and innuendo, and a healthy dose of pop culture references including other prominent entertainment franchises. In short, the show is a great choice for light, laughter filled entertainment with plenty of fresh references and skewering wit.

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, the quirky offshoot of St. Louis Shakespeare, celebrates the ridiculous and absurd in our culture. And, let's be honest, there's an abundance of material to choose from around the holidays. The Making of The Star Wars Holiday Special!, a "behind the scenes" look at the spectacular failure of the television special, running through December 10, 2016, is high-octane fun for the holidays. 

 

 

 

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