Tesseract Theatre Company is dedicated to producing new and in development shows in St. Louis. From a thematic standpoint, they frequently choose scripts that tackle big issues facing our society, whether economic, political, racial, environmental, or personal. The shows boldly address subjects that may cause disagreement, but the company generally and purposefully avoids soapboxing or advocating from the stage. Instead, they find personal ways to tell bigger stories, with the intention that the stories lead to conversation and dialogue, rather than arguments.
Their current show, Am I Black Enough Yet?, by Clinton Johnston is a collection of short vignettes and monologues that openly questions and explores the idea of "being black." The show starts with the members of the cast conferring honorary blackness on the members of the audience, with those members who already identify as black awarded "uber black, like Shaft" status and asked to help guide the newly black through the experience. The idea appears to be to make everyone feel welcome and in on the subject matter, and it basically works. Audience members seem to relax and look around for a moment, acknowledging and greeting the other patrons -- something you don't always see in the theater.
The capable ensemble, anchored by Sherard E. Curry and Darrious Varner and featuring Anna Drehmer, Erisha Tyus, and Nathan Maul, deliver strong and varied performances and easily handle the sharply written script. The style of the pieces ranges from spoken word poetry to conversational monologues and short, scripted scenes touching on a wide range of topics. In fact, perhaps the greatest lesson of the show is simply that "being black" isn't defined by a single set of criteria, interests or behaviors. Just like being a member of any group doesn't necessarily define everything that you are.
The twelve or so scenes presented are independently and collectively interesting, and there's abundant humor woven throughout. If anything, the show tends to focus on finding the humorous moments, perhaps as a way of trying to make a connection or relieve any uncertainties the audience may feel. Each story is well written, making it difficult to pick favorite scenes, though a few stand out in ways that linger well past the curtain. Varner's cadence and intonation in the scene about two black girls on the bus is masterfully lyrical, but grounded in reality. Curry brings the sense of time and pain to his portrayal of a great black musician hesitant to accept an honor from an organization that won't accept his full self.
Drehmer gives a chilling performance as a teacher facing bigotry in her classroom, patiently answering questions until she almost snaps. But does she tacitly agree with the student she's addressing, or are her final words the sign of resignation and defeat? Tyus shares a few jokes she learned; it starts light, then the impact of her words and emotional sub-context reveals so much more. She's also strong in a number of group scenes, including a strangely wonderful piece about a break up with Maul and Curry that is a bit twisted, but funny. A scene with Drehmer, Maul, and Curry in a small town in Minnesota is absurd, yet totally believable, as is the wonderful short piece on "guilty pleasures," a topic on which we can all relate. One of the final pieces, about the writer and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, ends the evening on a warm and satisfying note, because we all should have heroes that look like us.
Director Bre Love shows strong insight to the material, and she's made some great choices with her actors and the pacing and flow of the show. The actors are compelling throughout, and the stories that include history and personal choices are particularly engaging and filled with dramatic tension. While several of the short scenes feel complete and finished, there are a number of stories that I would enjoy seeing expanded into a full play.
Am I Black Enough Yet?, in performance through September 18, 2016, was the first show Tesseract Theatre produced, and is getting a rare reprisal this fall. Still relevant, the entertaining show is the perfect choice to revisit as the company prepares for its next chapter, in the new .Zack Arts Incubator.
R-S Theatrics current production, Love? Actually..., is most decidedly not a Broadway musical style interpretation of the popular British romantic comedy from 2003, though both shows are thoroughly entertaining. To be fair, both are also focused on the struggles present in the quest for romantic satisfaction. But where the movie is a sweet trifle filled with happily ever after and covered in sprinkles, the company's Love? Actually... takes a revealing peek into all the ways the utterly human concept of love can miss its mark.
Director Christina Rios and musical director Leah Luciano have put together an evening of completely engaging entertainment that looks at love from the failed perspective. The production is a three-act musical, with independent but related parts, beginning with a clever five-song cabaret. The second act moves to Steven Serpa's effectively sentimental opera Thyrsis & Amaranth, and the third act brings the evening to a close with Lin-Manuel Miranda's catchy and provocative 21 Chump Street.
This Love? Actually... explores the painful stories -- the missed connections, the failed chance to say I'm sorry, the fights, the breakups, the regrets, the love that goes unrequited or unspoken -- that reveal the depth of longing and commitment. Just like love itself, the audience is both surprised and intrigued by the unexpected unfolding of the first act performances. Five randomly selected patrons are invited to the stage to select the two solos, two duets, and group numbers to be performed during the cabaret from three separate bowls. The performance I attended included solos from Phil Leveling and Kelvin Urday, duets from Lindsay Gingrich and Sarajane Alverson and Urday and Natasha Toro, and an exciting group number by Miranda.
The songs are a mix of show tunes and popular music, and I appreciated the variety as much as the interpretations. All the performances are emotionally connected, well phrased, and vocally solid, my only objection to the first act is proximity. It is difficult to see the expressions and physical interpretation of the songs when the performers are standing right on the edge of the stage, I noticed several other patrons stretching to see as well.
The second act, Thyrsis & Amaranth, is a powerfully emotional contemporary opera in English that features the spectacular and mesmerizing voices of Gingrich and Eileen Engel in the title roles. In the garden after a wedding ceremony, Gingrich longs to express her feelings for Engel while Engel fancifully imagines herself the bride and center of attention at a ceremony of her own. The two friends chat about love and, just as Gingrich is about to reveal her heart, Engel crushes her by confessing the object of her love and affection. The wedding reception dumb show continues in the background as the two women tackle a number of difficult operatic runs like seasoned pros, creating the pleasant sensation that we are eavesdropping on the most elegantly delivered tête-à-tête.
Urday shines in the third act as a high school senior with good grades and a clear path to college and a better future who gets sidetracked by his infatuation with the new girl in class. He falls for Toro's character, who just happens to be an undercover cop with an overzealous commitment to making a difference in the War on Drugs, even when it harms someone else. Toro counters Urday nicely with her vocals, and she convincingly conveys her character's passion for her cause in a way that deftly foreshadows the story's conclusion. Though a bit thin in spots, the songs and story in 21 Chump Street showcase Miranda's style, wry observational wit, and trajectory and are nicely voiced by the talented cast.
In addition to the ensemble members featured above, Kevin L. Corpuz and Omega Jones added their talents to the production but didn't get their name pulled for the cabaret, while production manager Colleen Backer entertained with a cameo appearance and humorous monologue. Taylor Pietz assisted with smart choreography that made effective use of the tight space, while Keller Ryan, Nathan Schroeder, Amy Harrison, and Mark Kelley added nice touches with the set, lighting, costume, and sound design.
The music is the play in R-S Theatrics tasty sampler of three short acts exploring the darker angles of our unceasing infatuation with love and romance. Love? Actually... running through September 18, 2016, is perhaps the most satisfying and enjoyable musical about the downside of love you'll ever see, and definitely worth the visit to the re-opened Westport Playhouse.
Mustard Seed Theatre opens its season with the acclaimed story detailing the lasting effects of the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from internment during the Holocaust. To fully appreciate Kindertransport, a deeply personal story that walks audiences through the effort made to save Jewish children from Hitler's, it's beneficial understand certain details of this historical event.
In nineteen thirty eight, during the prelude to World War II, there were a series of violent raids against Jews known as "Kristallnacht." Thousands were beaten and killed in the streets, and at least 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. In response to the devastating events and continued persecution and segregation, thousands of Jewish children were sent by their parents to foster homes and hostiles in Britain over the next two years.
The children traveled by themselves and were thrust into a new country, with a foreign language and customs to learn as they waited for their parents to join them. Many of the children were sent to urban areas that were soon under attack. They were once again subject to nightly bombings reminiscent of the events that drove them from their home and parents, or once again sent from their British foster families to country camps and hostiles, their guardians hoping to protect them from further violence. Some of the children's parents survived the war, but many more did not.
Because of the program, many young Jewish lives were saved, and history generally looks favorably on the effort. When considered from the perspective of the young children, however, the optimistic picture is a little less clear. Diane Samuels' moving and effective Kindertransport tells their story through the eyes of nine-year-old Eva Schlesinger.
Initially, Eva is inconsolable and can't understand why her mother and father are sending her away. She arrives in England frightened, nervous, and unable to string together more than a few English words. Though her foster mother Lil Miller is kind and does her best to understand Eva's fears, she remains haunted, desperate to reunite with her parents and to avoid the evil shadow trying to destroy her. Eventually, Eva grows familiar with her new surroundings, her heritage and religious rituals get buried deep in her psyche, and she changes her name to Evelyn.
Hannah Ryan impresses as the young Eva, fully inhabiting her character from age nine through seventeen. She transforms from a bubbly girl to a timid and overwhelmed refugee, and then to a poised and wise young woman. Her performance moved me to tears at times, and I was impressed by the emotional range and control she displayed. Several scenes, including when she first leaves her mother, when Lil tries to send her away from the city during the air raids, and her final scene with her mother, are saturated with heartbreaking vulnerability.
The combination of the sure hand of director Deanna Jent, as well as smart choices by the actress, ensure the full range and complexity of the girl and her experience is clearly, and sympathetically, shown.
Ryan is expertly reflected in Michelle Hand's portrayal of the older Evelyn. Hand smartly pushes each of the character quirks and insecurities shown by Ryan to logical traits and psychological manifestations. Today we would likely refer to this as PTSD. Evelyn had no way of internalizing and resolving her feelings so she repressed them, though they make their presence known through her behavior. Hand is deeply conflicted, and emotionally overwhelmed by her parents' abandonment of her. Without undue angst, she shows us the scars that will not heal.
The two anchor the show with conviction and commitment and are wonderfully supported by the rest of the cast. Kelley Weber is affecting and torn as Eva's German mother, the natural bond between the actresses a benefit to their on-stage relationship. Kirsten DeBroux is moving as the foster mom Lil, warm and tender, she seems to feel Eva's pain deeply, even as she tries to comfort and reassure the child.
Katy Keating is vibrant and filled with questions as Evelyn's headstrong daughter. She's clearly her mother and grandmother's child, but with well-formed opinions and a lingering desire to really connect with her mom. Finally, Brian J. Rolf does a solid job as various minor characters, ensuring he's supporting and moving the story forward. The actors are complemented by Kyra Bishop's gorgeously designed attic set, with flattering and appropriate light, sound, costumes, and props by Michael Sullivan, Zoe Sullivan, Jane Sullivan, and Meg Brinkley. Attention to period detail was evident in the costuming and props in particular.
Kindertransport is not a play without hope, but it is a play in which every hope, every successful move forward, comes at a painful price. Mustard Seed Theatre's production, running through September 4, 2016, features an outstanding cast and thoughtful, deeply provocative direction. The themes resonate in a time when so many racial, religious, and ethnic boundaries threaten to forever divide us, ensuring this performance and subject will likely to tug at your heartstrings and linger with you well after the curtain.
Donna Northcott, St. Louis Shakespeare's founding director, and at the helm for their latest production, has always had a fondness for farce. When armed with a witty, rhyming script and a standout cast that's ready for any challenge, she's an unstoppable force. As a result, The Heir Apparent is a fabulously good time even when the audience generally knows that a happy ending is certain. The fast-paced, spirited production delivers constant laughs through interpretation and innuendo, physical comedy, the controlled chaos of a chase scene, and a couple impromptu but well-executed dance numbers.
Lisette and Crispin are servants to the aged and wealthy Geronte and his young, fashionable nephew Eraste. Eraste is in love with Isabelle, but her mother, Madame Argent, will only allow her to marry a moneyed man. She doesn't entirely object to Eraste, and would happily give her daughter's hand if he were to inherit his uncle's wealth. A lawyer has been summonsed to document the will, but there are concerns over the claims of some distant cousins and uncle's quickly failing health. Geronte's sudden and impetuous desire to marry Isabella himself significantly complicates the proceedings.
The tangled plots and loosely tied knots of the story arc are easily followed, and often anticipated, but that doesn't diminish the fun or the sense of the ridiculous that infuses this show. As servants Lisette and Crispin, Britteny Henry and Isaiah DiLorenzo are affectionate and amiable, and each excels in playing off the other and the rest of the ensemble. Their movements and reactions always well timed and with the appropriate exaggeration for comic effect. The relationship between the two is not only believable, it's fun to watch them flirt and plot and plan. Both actors have great physical control, and can handle the quick pace and intricate movements with ease, adding fluidity that makes the comedy seem spontaneously generated.
Scott McDonald and Jeanitta Perkins sparkle like expensive costume jewelry as the young lovers Eraste and Isabelle. McDonald brings just the right amount of flounce and petulance to his character, while Perkins' reactions and hesitation show just a touch of wealthy Valley girl amongst her good manners and poise. The two marvelously translate contemporary teen attitudes to their 18th century characters, one of many touches that help the show feel current and fresh.
Margeau Steinau is by turns delightfully dismissive and obsequious as Madame Argante, and her arched eyebrows and extended gestures are as delightfully sharp as her character's calculating moves. Shane Signorino is a dirty, earthy old man, and Anthony Winninger is so committed to his character's description that it simply works, humorously and effectively. In short, the ensemble truly captures the spirit and joie de vie of Norhtcott's farcical vision and the result is terrifically enjoyable.
Farce by its very nature relies on contrived situations, exaggerated behaviors and reactions, and heightened emotions. The story and characters are generally transparent, oftentimes down to their name, romance and courtship are almost always parts of the equation, and generation gaps are frequently poked to humorous effect. The rogues are charming and flirtatious, with trickery employed in the service of a positive outcome for the appealing pranksters and opportune servants alike.
Northcott and the cast succeed in ensuring The Heir Apparent feels fresh and witty by emphasizing not just comic timing, but the rhythm and cadence of playwright David Ives sharply observant, rhyming dialogue. The characters are well-articulated types, with pointed gestures and intonation, and they all play delightfully off each other. There's abundant room for interpretation and sub-context in the script, and the actors maximize their opportunities with innuendo and double entendre, and the show often reaches levels of controlled chaos that are both visually entertaining and laugh out loud funny.
Both the costumes, by Michelle Siler, and set design, by Chuck Winning, are appropriately fancy and elaborate, and the lighting design, by James Spurlock, enhances the sparkle of the metallic threads, fancy brocade, and jewels. From a technical standpoint, my only point of contention is that I wish the double doors center stage were a bit more embellished to emphasize and frame the scene.
Farce can be tricky to perform. If the delivery is too slow or the timing of reactions lags, the show falls flat. If the show moves too fast, or there's too much mugging or set-up for punch lines, it feels forced and loses its appeal. Director Northcott and the talented cast have no problem avoiding those traps, however, paying attention to the details that elevate good farce to an art. As a result, St. Louis Shakespeare's The Heir Apparent, running through September 4, 2016, is a fast moving, laughter inducing farce with spectacularly engaging performances.
Union Avenue Opera is bringing its season to an impressive close with the local premiere of Doubt, a not entirely successful musical adaptation by composer Douglas J. Cuomo and playwright John Patrick Shanley of the latter's 2004 play Doubt: A Parable and its 2008 film version.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Shanley's play is a masterful examination of the dangers of both moral certainty and ethical blindness. Set in a working-class Catholic church in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt chronicles the conflict between Father Brendan Flynn, a young progressive priest who has embraced the humanism of Vatican II, with Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an old school, steel-ruler-discipline nun. They are at odds not only with how strictly the church school should be run but also with what Sister Aloysius believes is Father Flynn's sexual abuse of young Donald Miller, the school's first black student. Caught between these two implacable foes is the young and idealistic Sister James, who respects both of them and who, unlike Sister Aloysius, is plagued with doubt.
In the opera all of these themes remain intact. But what was originally a taut, ninety-minute one act has been expanded into a full-length work running nearly two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission. Scenes have been added in the classrooms and the church and the original four-character cast has been expanded to include adult and children's choirs. As a result, the work loses a bit of dramatic steam in places and some of the additional scenes--most notably those set in the classroom--sometimes feel more like filler than anything else.
Other additions, though, work exceptionally well. The powerful choral number that opens the work, for example, allows us to hear individual members of the congregation reacting to Father Flynn's parable on the unifying nature of doubt. The choral setting of Flynn's second act sermon on the evil of gossip is equally effective.
So on the whole, Doubt makes for a very compelling theatrical experience. And for that, Union Avenue's exemplary production can take a great deal of the credit.
As Sister Aloysius, local favorite Christine Brewer once again displays the vocal power and dramatic conviction that have characterized her work on local opera and concert stages for many years. The character must come across as a formidable figure who is nevertheless capable of compassion, and Ms. Brewer's portrayal is perfect on both counts.
Equally impressive is UAO veteran Elise Quagliata as the conflicted Sister James. She's a talented singer seems equally comfortable with both the standard repertoire and newer works. As she did in UAO's Dead Man Walking back in 2011, Ms. Quagliata demonstrates that her clear and fluid mezzo voice comes paired with solid acting skills.
Making his UAO debut, baritone Wes Mason makes Father Flynn a very credible and complex character. Is he villain, victim, or a bit of both? Shanley leaves the question hanging, and Mr. Mason's nuanced performance keeps the balance intact.
As Mrs. Miller, whose son Donald is at the center of the controversy, mezzo Melody Wilson turns in one of the most remarkable performances of the evening. The role is a small but vital one, and the scene in which Sister Aloysius tells her what she thinks she knows of the relationship between Donald and Father Flynn is an emotional high point of both the play and the opera. Mr. Cuomo has written an unforgivingly long a cappella passage for her towards the end of the scene that requires remarkable vocal control, and she delivers it beautifully. On opening night, her exit prompted spontaneous applause, despite the fact that Mr. Cuomo's seamless score tends to discourage that.
Speaking of Mr. Cuomo's music, its jazzy and astringent sounds neatly underscore the prose of Mr. Shanley's text, although there are times when it feels out of synch with the emotions expressed in that text. Mr. Cuomo also displays what felt to me like an excessive fondness for drawing out individual words with long, melismatic vocal passages that seem to serve no particular dramatic purpose. Overall, though, it's a good match for the naturalistic inflections of Mr. Shanley's dialog.
It also sounds like a challenge to play, so conductor Scott Schoonover deserves high praise for leading the orchestra through such a seamless reading of it. The balance between the signers and the orchestra was quite good, which can be a very tricky business in the sanctuary of the Union Avenue Christian Church. And under his direction the Union Avenue chorus has never sounded better.
Kyra Bishop's set, with its massive crucifix set at a drunken angle, mirrors the opera's subtext of faith in crisis, and the bare branches poking up through the floor remind us of the bitter New York winter. Jeff Behm's lighting enhances the atmosphere. Teresa Doggett's costumes are, as always, right on target.
Director Tim Ocel adds yet another triumph to his work for UAO, with smart and fluid staging that keeps the dramatic momentum going while always making the dramatic focus clear. He is, for my money, the best opera director in town.
While I don't think setting Doubt to music enhances it in any way, it still makes for pretty potent theatre and is well worth your time, especially if you haven't been exposed to either the play or the film already. It raises issues about the risks of moral certainty that are, if anything, more relevant now than they were when the play was first written. And there is no doubt that Union Avenue's production is a singular accomplishment.
Closing performances Union Avenue Opera's Doubt are Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27, at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. Note that parking can be an issue at the church, so an early arrival is a good idea.