One of the most enjoyable aspects of a vibrant performing arts community is the opportunity for patrons to witness art in all stages of its creation. Touring shows at the Fox have usually been through years of development, refinement, and polish by the time they pull into town. In St. Louis, we are fortunate to have several companies that include a slate of original, one-act plays, and one company devoted to producing and promoting local talent. These companies offer us a unique theatrical experience: to be among the first to see a new work.

First Run Theatre shows feature only the work of playwrights from the metropolitan region, and the company collaborates with a number of organizations to solicit new pieces on a recurring basis. The eight original plays presented in the two-act Spectrum 2016 short play festival are all receiving their first full production. The plays run ten to twelve minutes in length and, while several feel more like a well-constructed scene, each presents a complete idea or story. 

Lyndsay Somers Hicks and Sean Michael share the director's chair, taking four plays each, and the large ensemble cast, including familiar and new faces, responds capably to their lead. Malik Shakoor, Tim Callahan, Rae Davis, Jeremy Thomas, Abraham Shaw, and Sofia Murillo created distinct characters that stand out for positive reasons among the ensemble, which also includes Madelyn Boyne, Deborah Bixler, Michelle Dillard, Tiffany Knighten, Jazmine Wade, Joseph Link, Matthew Woolbright, Kate McAllister, Denise Saylor, Gregory Jamison, and Shrini Shaw. 

The acting and directing is crisp, for the most part, although a lack of experience was noted in a few actors who labored and could literally be seen looking for their lines on the ceiling. It has honestly been quite some time since this reviewer noticed those revealing glances, but it is distracting and signals a lack of confidence. Perhaps some extra line rehearsal with the directors can help shore them up by next weekend. Additionally, the pacing and emotional ebb and tide of the short plays appears to click best when the cast is limited and the script narrowly focused and sharply written.

Most Real and The Technicians are the most successful of the shows for me, followed closely by Pride of Dummies. The subjects of these plays are clear, interesting, and relevant. Though Most Real feels like an important scene in a larger piece, the play resonates as contemporary and realistic, with two intriguing characters I want to watch. The Technicians is abundantly humorous, cleverly positing a much deeper philosophical question. It feels complete as a short play and would likely lose significant charm if lengthened. Pride of Dummies would benefit from a less obvious and judgmental title. The sarcasm and bickering among the three "frenemy" characters perfectly delivers the lesson in a complete piece with delightfully snide dialogue.

Fear of Mediocrity is a good piece that may work better -- and linger more powerfully -- if tightened and presented as spoken word. There are times when lead actor Woolbright finds a defined cadence and the energy and interpretation immediately improves. Following this directional lead and eliminating the chorus may create a new, stronger work. Finally, And They Lived Happily Ever After, Placebo Effect, Reunion, and Fartocalypse were quite enjoyable and laugh out loud funny by several turns. Still, those pieces feel like sketch comedy rather than a play. Additionally, I have seen these stories presented before, although Fartocalypse builds with an inventive, hilarious story that's a surprising take on environmental disaster. The sketch is a perfect choice to end the evening.

Playwrights David Hawley, Joe Wegescheide, R. O. Stevenson, Nathan Hinds, Dan Viggers, and Colin McLaughlin demonstrate that they have a firm grip on the art of structuring a play, but some work is needed. Attention to rewrites to remove the clichéd and expected will serve the authors well. The good news is that each story has an interesting perspective and some good detail to hold audience interest, so there isn't a bad start among the selected pieces. The set and technical aspects are purposefully minimal, but the direction and acting are, for the most part, successful in bringing these new works to life.

First Run Theatre and the local artists involved in their productions offer a unique opportunity to see live theater in its nascent form, to be among the first to be moved by a new work. Or not. Not every show will hit all your buttons, but there's plenty to like. Theatergoers who enjoy a deeper dig into the art and craft of storytelling are sure to find a lot to discuss after seeing Spectrum 2016, a short play festival running through November 20, 2016. 

 

If you're in the mood to shake up your theater calendar just before plunging into the holiday season with its many beloved and familiar shows, I encourage you to consider The Immersive Theatre Project by Rebels and Misfits, Hamlet: See What I See.  

My suggestion that you attend another play by Shakespeare may not, on the surface, seem new, fresh or different. But this production -- with nods to participatory theater, French cinema, 80s and 90s art house films, and contemporary deconstructive work -- is anything but staid old Bard. Hamlet: See What I See is an immersive and interpretive experience that invites structured audience participation and requires comfortable shoes. Shakespeare's memorable storytelling and expertly crafted dialogue remains, though it has been pared down to the essential elements. 

King Hamlet has died while young Prince Hamlet was away studying. By the time the Dane returns home, his mother Gertrude has married his Uncle Claudius. The show opens with Claudius' coronation and first speech. Loyal friend Horatio's story and a visit from the ghost of Hamlet's father set the inevitable in motion with poetic certainty. The sudden arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as the unfortunate meddling of Polonius, confirm Hamlet's darkest suspicions and tragedy ensues. 

Brandon Alan Smith is enthralling and passionate as Hamlet. His anger is a slow burn revealed in flashes of increasing in intensity until he explodes with fantastic swordsmanship and destructive poetry. Francesca Ferrari and Reginald Pierre are fabulously amorous and entwined to the bitter end as Gertrude and Claudius. Ferrari is distant, frightened, and fragile while Pierre brings a likable charm and surprising insouciance to Claudius.

The radiant Kelly Hummert, artistic director of the company, is a more self-aware but nonetheless delicate and fatefully injured Ophelia. The always-engaging Sarajane Alverson is both master and puppet as the gullible, pliable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Lee Osorio is a nimble and observant Horatio, his quick reactions and arched eyebrow sympathetic and telling. Christopher Tipp adds compassion in his portrayal of Laertes, bringing a poignant sensitivity to the character. Isaiah DiLorenzo goes with the flow of the court as an earnest, devoted father and servant of the crown. Well intentioned, he fails to see he's complicit with the crimes committed. Rounding out the capable ensemble, Andy Sloey, Andrea Reed, BlaQue Pearl, Leif Newberg, and Tyler Cheatem provide solid supporting performances, entertaining with limber movements and a prophetic chorus.

As guests of the court, the audience moves with the story, though the majority of the action takes place in the main hall. The show even moves outside for the moving burial of Ophelia, and many members of the audience will view the closing swordfight from the balcony, offering a new perspective from which to view the intricately fascinating fight choreography. The technical elements work in concert with the story, guiding the audience from scene to scene and creating beautifully textured imagery in the context of live theater.

Hamlet: See What I See was conceived and produced by a large team that includes Hummert, director Melanie S. Armer, fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, sound designer Chad Raines, lighting designer John Eckert, digital media director Aarti Couture, and St Louis native and nationally renowned fashion designer Emily Brady Koplar.  

Their purpose is to blur the lines between the audience and the show, and this production succeeds spectacularly. From private tours of the castle Elsinore to the immediacy and proximity of the story's action, the audience is fully enveloped by the show. The St. Louis production integrates music and social media into the entertainment, and audience members are encouraged to take and share photos from their experience.

Shakespearean purists will find plenty to criticize in the production. Yet I found the deconstructed script delightfully enigmatic and the forced focus on the visceral impact of the story completely captivating. Though I did not always have clear sight lines at the performance I attended, there were very few moments when I missed a line, and the overall effect of the show is a truly immersive experience.

The acting, the adaptation, and the elaborate style of Barnett's on Washington ensure that The Immersive Theatre Project's, Hamlet: See What I See, in performance each night through November 18, 2016, delivers a provocative experience. Audience members are invited to dress for and attend a cocktail reception one hour prior to the King's coronation, which opens the show. Then, the oft-studied story is told in logical but seemingly fragmented pieces that slowly assemble into the Hamlet most of us know. 

 

At first glance, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's production of Cuddles plays as a macabre love story between Tabby, a young woman in her twenties, and Eve, a 13-year-old vampire and Tabby's little sister. Their relationship is symbiotic by necessity, the little sister has spent her life isolated, hidden from others and sustained by her sister's love and care.

Raised on fairy tales and firm rules governing her behavior, Eve spends her time alone constructing stories grounded in her fanciful interpretation of reality. Confined to a single, dark room, she becomes increasingly clingy and aggressive during Tabby's visits. Rachel Tibbetts is instinctively fiery and erratic; her Eve is brooding, energetic, and unknowingly sexual. Tibbetts gives Eve a curious, inventive edge that is alluring and unsettling, as well as completely true to character.

To counter Eve's changing and often challenging behavior, Tabby enforces strict adherence to the rules, including intensity levels of "cuddles" allowed for physical contact. This action helps Tabby maintain control over Eve's taste for blood, which only Tabby supplies. Tabby's punishments are draconian, alluding to numerous unresolved issues and punishments she more quietly bears. Ellie Schwetye is subtly splendid, reflexively guarded, and cautious as Tabby. Though she comes across as rather cold and impenetrable, her moments of joy burst forth with genuine, delightful surprise. More or less.

There are layers of uncomfortable truth packed between Eve's fanciful construction of her reality and Tabby's casually cavalier conversations with Steve (an unseen character whom Schwetye deftly brings to life), but the audience is left to make the final interpretation. Both Tabby and Eve have been traumatized, but Tabby has the power in this story even as she fights her realization that she may have to make a difficult choice. When the vampire tale is viewed with a psychologically interpretative eye, the story reveals its metaphor with disturbing candor.

There are some unexpectedly graphic moments in a critical scene that propels the show's conclusion. Neither gruesome, violent, nor sexual in nature, the scene may nonetheless startle some audience members. It absolutely serves the story, however, exposing the emerging sub-context, the vampire's truth, and the sister's secrets and pain, and enabling an odd sort of empathy.

Though a few words get swallowed in the rafters, the stage at the Chapel on Alexander artfully suggests a stately old English manor, more than enough castle for two rich young girls. Eve's room is dark, cage like, and lacking in amenities, but there's a suggestion of quality in the details that extends to Eve and Tabby's costumes. Set and lighting designer Bess Moynihan and costume designer Elizabeth Henning are perfectly in tune with Hanrahan's direction and sound design, and dialect coach Pamela Reckamp ensures the lines are delivered with crisp, clear accuracy.

As evidenced by this pensively dark, intensely nuanced and complex production of Joseph Wilde's Cuddles, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble remains among the most artistically and intellectually stimulating theaters in the region, if not the entire Midwest. This may be reason enough for theatergoers to add the company's current production to their calendar. Add in Joe Hanrahan's viciously perceptive direction, Tibbetts and Schwetye's profoundly broken yet mesmerizing performances, and excellent stagecraft, and you get a piece of noir theater that shines with brilliance.

The intriguing script demands attention, suggesting a contemporary feminist metaphor, but leaving room for doubt and the possibility of supernatural forces. Driven by inventive storytelling and a dark subject, Cuddles, running through November 12, 2016, is visually engaging, intellectually challenging theater that thoroughly entertains.

 

 

In Manifest/Destiny, the West End Players Guild delivers a loving portrait of the European immigrant in the United States. Spanning hundreds of years, from the earliest settlements until World War II (or thereabout), the play captures a vast movement with individually distinct stories. Though they left their homelands for many different reasons, they were all seeking a fresh start and better opportunity. 

Playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky has constructed a fast moving script that simultaneously touches on multiple stories, which are cleverly presented by the company's four-actor ensemble in two distinct but connected acts. Though the show is narrowly focused on the historic European experience, it successfully conveys the ideals and aspirations of so many who choose to resettle in this country.

Manifest, the first act of the show, tells how immigrants often struggled before reaching American shores. The act skillfully moves from homeland to ship to Ellis Island and the edges of the country, providing glimpses of desperation and fear as well as joy, strength, and the will to survive. The second act, Destiny, follows the immigrant movement west, across the planes and through mountain passes to the Pacific Ocean. The motivations and longings are the same, but new challenges are faced, adding to whatever burdens they already carry.

There seem to be 100 different characters in the show, making it at times confusing to follow the story lines. Director Steve Callahan finds strong threads --personalities, backgrounds, and motivations -- that reinforce the theme and guide the actors. The story-centric focus helps the audience to slide through the imaginative overlapping of eras as effortlessly as ensemble. Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Ariel Roukaerts, and Zach Venturella, artfully represent Pilgrims and Jews persecuted for their religious beliefs, Europeans from all points fleeing famine and war, and young lovers and risk-takers looking to make their mark on the world.

A number of scenes stand out, including Venturella and Johnson as a young couple ecstatic with the discovery of their love and looking to build a life together. Goldmeier is warmly reflective as a Jew fleeing the pogroms, and Roukaerts is poignant and sympathetic as a confused immigrant who doesn't quite grasp the subtleties of English. Later, Goldmeier and Johnson provoke tears as a couple facing a heartbreaking decision just when they thought they'd arrived, Venturella embodies the good and bad of rugged individualism, and Roukaerts shows the true spirit of the pioneer as a woman seeking justice.

The sparse set and limited use of props, as well as the attention to dialect, aid the story for the most part. There are a few muddy scenes that may be improved by the addition of a more specific costume piece or prop, although more direct lighting may also solve the confusion. Additionally, it would serve the story better if all props were either on the stage or gathered by an actor during a brief exit. I found myself pulled out of the story a few times by obvious prop and costume piece handoffs from stagehands. 

Zelevinsky's script, with its plethora of characters experiencing similar journeys across time, doesn't aid the staging in the respect. Callahan is a sharp director and experienced actor, enhancing his approach to the script. He gives the actors freedom to delve into their characters, but he should push for even more specificity and distinction. For the most part, however, the storytelling works spectacularly well and the performances are captivating and genuine.

Almost everyone who lives in the United States today arrived as immigrants. Perhaps not your generation or your parents or grandparents, but as a nation we are comprised of waves of immigrants. Zelevinsky creates a fluid history using a common experience repeated generation after generation. The show doesn't avoid the heartbreak or disappointment many faced, but still maintains an optimistic tone. 

In the service of transparency, this reviewer feels compelled to mention that I was part of a committee that recommended this script to the company, however I had no part in the casting or production of the show.

Manifest/Destiny, running through November 13, 2016 at West End Players Guild, in the Union Avenue Christian Church, is a delightful homage to the resiliency of spirit. Zelevinsky's story presents the experience with dialogue and emotion that resonates. Director Callahan and the talented ensemble fill the characters with vibrant energy and determination, adding buoyancy to a production that's authentically uplifting. Considering the importance of immigration in our political and cultural dialogue, the show is as relevant as it is enjoyable. 

 

As the first catalogs of Christmas made their way to our recycle bin last, Winter Opera opened an early Christmas present for opera lovers last weekend, October 28 and 30, with a production of Franz Lehár's durable 1905 comic operetta The Merry Widow. As bubbly as champagne and as bright as a Christmas tree, this charming and entertaining show was one of the company’s best.

If you've never seen it either on stage or in one of its many film incarnations, know that the story of The Merry Widow revolves around Hanna, a youngish widow from the fictional Balkan nation of Pontevedro, who became a millionaire when her much older husband died on their wedding night. Living the high life in Paris, she's actively courted by young men with their eyes on the twenty million franc prize, but she secretly yearns for her first love, Count Danilo, who was forbidden to marry her many years ago by his snobbish family.

Now a minor official in the Pontevedrian embassy trying to drown his torch for Hanna in champagne and grisettes at Maxim's, Danilo is ordered by the ambassador, Baron Zeta, to woo Hanna and marry her, thereby keeping her millions from leaving the country. But, of course, Danilo's pride won't let him say those "three little words" to Hanna. You know where this is all going, right?

There's also a subplot concerning Zeta's young wife Valencienne and her brief fling with a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon, as well as a recurring gag about the obsession of the embassy attache, Njegus, with the girls at Maxims. Needless to say, all ends happily with a big party.

First and foremost among this production's many virtues is the uniform strength of its cast. Winter Opera has been somewhat uneven in this regard in previous the past, but this time around everyone is simply perfect, beginning with soprano Kathy Pyeatt, who demonstrated how to “glitter and be gay” (or quote a song title from Candide in the crucial role of Hanna. Her voice was liquid gold all the way to the top of its range, making the popular second act aria “Vilja” a thing of beauty. She’s also a fine actress, always in character even when not in focus.

Tenor Clark Sturdevant was a perfect match for Ms. Pyeatt as Danilo. The role lies a bit low for most tenors and is not infrequently sung by a baritone with a solid head voice, but Mr. Sturdevant sounded entirely comfortable with it. He, too, had solid acting chops, which gave the scenes between him and Ms. Pyeatt a convincing reality.

Among the supporting cast, mezzo Holly Janz stood out as Valencienne. The role is written for a soprano but -- as both her singing here and a quick glance at her biography demonstrated -- Ms. Janz is comfortable with soprano roles as well. Tenor Jack Swanson was an excellent vocal match for her as Rosillon, and their scenes together had real charm.

Baritone Gary Moss was a comically clueless Baron Zeta. I'm not sure why he was the only Pontevedrian with a vaudeville "Balkan" accent, but he certainly made it work for him. Baritone Curtis Shoemake was also a delight as the excessively enthusiastic Njegus.

The chorus is important in Merry Widow, and Chorus Master Nancy Mayo can take pride in how well her forces did their jobs, singling clearly and with impressively precise elocution. It helped that the (uncredited) English translation sounded very natural, often making the English supertitles unnecessary.

Director Dean Anthony clearly has a good eye for what works well on a stage. His blocking always made sense and his pacing was unfailingly right. There's no choreographer credited in the program, but whoever it was (possibly Mr. Anthony himself?) did an excellent job of keeping the real dancers front and center in the second act party scene while providing easily executed steps for the non-dancing singers in big ensemble numbers. The minstrel show-style tambourine number for the male principals in "Girls, Girls, Girls" was also an inspired (and well executed) bit of comedy.

Scott Schoonover did his usually fine job conducing the orchestra in a generally very well played reading of Lehár's unforgettable score. There were a few bits of sloppy brass intonation at the very beginning when I saw the show on Sunday, but otherwise the band sounded quite good. However, I wish Mr. Schoonover hadn't decided to cut the engaging overture.

Scott Loebl's sets were nothing short of beautiful, with a wonderful trompe e'loeil backdrop for the Pontevedrian embassy that looked positively three dimensional. JC Krajicek's lavish and colorful costumes added to the overall visual richness of this production.

Ultimately, the worst thing to be said about Winter Opera's Merry Widow is that there were only two performances of it. If Winter Opera is going to continue producing work of this quality, it really needs longer runs. For more information on the current season, including the annual Holidays on the Hill concerts on December 6 and 7.

Stay Involved on Social Media