St. Louis University has opened a strong production of The Merchant of Venice. This play, of course, features that most controversial of Shakespeare's characters -- Shylock, the moneylending Jew of Venice who demands his "pound of flesh" in payment from the luckless Antonio. 

What sort of play is this? To Shakespeare and his audience it was a comedy. After all there are women disguised as men, there are no fewer than three marriages and there's not a death at all! And yet we are early-on seduced into sympathy with the supposed villain of the piece. With the famous "Have we not eyes" speech Shakespeare commands our sympathy for Shylock. At the play's climactic courtroom scene we are deeply moved by the anguish of Shylock when the revenge for which he lusts suddenly (and really through trickery) becomes humiliating defeat. He is not only crushed, but he is mocked by these Christians who so blithely banter about "mercy".

This SLU production at the Marcelle Theatre is presented in an "alley" format, with audience on both sides of the performance space. Designer Jim Burwinkel gives us an attractively spare set with at one end the entrance to Shylock's home and at the other a kind of bridge that also serves as the courtroom dais. At center is a small sort of wishing-well.

In the very brisk opening we find ourselves in modern Venice at Carnival time. Players in festive masks roister about. Costumer Lou Bird gives the cast a high-fashion, GQ sort of style -- the men in snugly-fitted stylish jackets, tight pants, snappy hats, no socks. Sometimes this works but sometimes not;  Bassanio, for instance, has pant-legs and sleeves just a bit too short -- giving the impression of a growing adolescent boy. And in the courtroom scene the two ladies-disguised-as-men wear proper conservative business suits, but on their feet we see clunky tan almost-boots in which no classy Italian lawyer would be caught dead. But overall the costumes are stylish and bright and work well in this time-shifted concept.

Director Gary Wayne Barker draws fine performances from his student cast. I've seen most of these actors on stage in the past few seasons. One of the delightful things about attending university theater is watching young talent grow and fledge its wings in contrasting roles. 

Antonio, who co-signs the ill-fated loan from Shylock, is played beautifully by Dylan Norris;  he shows the same simple honesty and ownership of lines that he gave us as the Sherriff in Bus Stop three years ago. He is quite believably stoic as he bares his bosom to yield his pound of flesh to Shylock's knife.

Blake Howard plays Bassanio on whose behalf the loan was taken out. There's a charming sincere innocence in Howard's performance. Lean and long-limbed -- and with a little too much wrist and ankle showing -- he carries just a hint of Pinocchio -- or of Pee-wee Herman. A lovely job.

But the play really belongs to Shylock and Portia.

Zack Bakouris takes on the challenging role of Shylock and he shines in it. Shylock has moments of great melodramatic rage, and it seems almost cruel to deny an actor the flowing robes which would serve so well in such tirades. But Bakouris, though constrained to a simple business suit, carries it off well. 

Katie Schoenfeld does excellent work as Portia, smartly navigating the courtroom scene and having much fun in the missing-rings trick that she and Nerissa play on their husbands. 

Jakob Hulten fills Gratiano with sprightly energy; he's so physically articulate. Sarah Richardson gives Nerissa intelligence and charm. Carlee Cosper is a beautiful and sympathetic Jessica (Shylock's eloping daughter). Jimmy Bernatowicz does lovely comic work as the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo. Other supporting roles are ably played by Quincy Shenk, Haley Dirkes-Jacks, Molly Meyer, Rebecca Maneikis, Andre Eslamian, Caleb Vetter and Laurel Button.

Diction is generally fine and there is never any doubt that actors really understand their lines. Yet, as in almost all productions of Shakespeare, sometimes an actor allows himself to be simply  text-driven. Too often, once astride that trotting meter, an actor drops the reins and lets it carry him smoothly, thoughtlessly to the end of a speech. No breaking the meter; no tiny pauses to show the birth of a word, or to emphasize a word; no little hesitations or varyings of pace to show that the actor really means the words he's saying. Some attention to breaking this grip of the meter might have helped Shylock find more variety in his fury -- something to contrast with the shouted anger -- or helped Portia find more real poetry in her "quality of mercy" speech.

Why Shylock?

In Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which preceded The Merchant of Venice by a few years, Barabas, the title character, is an irredeemably evil bloodthirsty monster.  Barabas, like Shylock, would have been played by an actor wearing a red wig and beard and a grotesquely hooked false nose.  Such caricatures were common on the Elizabethan stage. They were not drawn from life;  Shakespeare might never have seen a Jew, since Edward the First had expelled them from England some three hundred years before. No, such portrayals grew from an ancient animosity.

The Jew, since the middle ages, had been seen by Christians as alien, suspect, and always a ready scapegoat. Horrid rumors swirled around the Jews for centuries: as late as 1946 forty Jews in Poland were killed because they were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood in making matzo. Why such continuing vilification?

Throughout history hatred and conflict have been the inseparable running-dogs of at least the monotheistic religions. The birth of Christianity saw centuries washed with internecine blood in obscure theological quarrels about the nature of the Trinity. Today we have but to look at the Middle-East or Northern Ireland to become painfully aware that such conflict has not lessened with the so-called "advance" of civilization. But today, as in ancient times, religion is really a false flag under which nationalistic or tribal entities rally their forces in economic and geopolitical struggles. 

The emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire to render his subjects more tractable. The kings of Europe, drawing their divine right to rule from a Christian God, had good reason to establish Christianity as their official religion. In such lands it is no wonder that the Jew became pariah.

But there is one more important historical fact which underlies the ancient resentment of Christians toward Jews: Jews were the moneylenders--the only moneylenders. Christians were forbidden by their religion to lend money at interest (as are Moslems to this day). The Jews, by default, took on this function. Just as in India, where the lowest castes perform certain shameful but necessary civic services, the Jews became "untouchable". And who among us does not hate his moneylender?

The charming play "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" won a Jeff Award in Chicago for Best New Play, and playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon absolutely deserve the distinction. The Rep's director Jenn Thompson deserves a distinction as well for her fabulous re-telling. 

The story is a sequel to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," but it stands on its own. Audiences unfamiliar with the story's characters will get to know them all in the first few scenes. 

The protagonist Mary Bennet, deftly presented by Justine Salata, is a nerd. Obsessed with learning new things, maps, and practicing the piano, she is lonely and upset that she's been forced into the role of caretaker of her parents as she is the only unmarried sister. Not that she is uncaring: Mary is full of love. She just wants to choose when to show it. 

Her match is met in Arthur de Bourgh, another socially-awkward lifelong student. Miles G. Jackson presents Arthur as a gangly, cautious man, and his full physical comedy is brilliant and hilarious. Both these characters have some extreme peculiarities, so much so that they lean towards unrealistic, but through Salata and Jackson's lenses, the audience is convinced these people exist and that they are clearly meant only for one another. 

If this sounds like just another sappy love story, don't worry: it isn't. Well, it is, but it's so much more than that. The rest of the cast dances around the two with wit and joy, mic-dropping punchlines at the perfect moments. 

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, played by Rhett Guter and Harveen Sandhu, and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley by Peterson Townsend and Kim Wong, make lovely pairs who complement each other as if they are, in fact, married couples who have shared their lives for years. Austen Danielle Bohmer's Lydia Wickham is annoyingly immature, just as she should be, and Victoria Frings' Anne de Bourgh is so severe her teeth might crack from all the jaw-clenching.

The bromance between the men is charming, but it is the intricate relationship among the sisters that speaks the loudest. Anyone with siblings knows the love and frustration they bring, and authors Gunderson and Melcon show us to ourselves through the Bennet sisters at Christmas. 

The players move each other through Wilson Chin's open, lavish set. Each character's choices profoundly affects the others, yet they all seem comically unaware of their power over one another, how their words and actions can give wounds or give joy. While an entertaining, fast-paced, hilarious ride, "Miss Bennet" is also a sweet reminder to love one another -- especially over the Christmas holiday. 

"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly" brings its Christmas spirit to audiences at the Rep through December 24th. For more information visit repstl.org

 

Patience Davis in Independent Theater Company's 'Random'

Independent Theater Company’s current production, Random, by debbie tucker green, is an effectively personal and emotional one-woman show that examines the impact of random violence. In the show, we’re introduced to an immigrant family living in London. The father and mother are hard-working, honest people, but they are not entirely familiar or comfortable in their new environment. The sister and her younger brother have adjusted quickly, the traces of their homeland are less apparent and they move freely and with confidence from home to school, work, and everywhere in between.

Mother and sister arise with their alarms, albeit a bit slowly, while brother rolls over, ignoring both the clock and his mother’s encouragement that he get going. Brother and sister squabble over phone chargers and data use, but it’s clear that this is a regular conversation, more habit than anger or emotion. The father is a quiet man, he takes his time to respond while mother stays busy making breakfast, planning dinner, and ensuring her children are fed and out of the house on time. This is just another morning but, by late that afternoon, after one of the children is brutally murdered in a random knife attack, the day and the family will never be the same.

Patience Davis quickly establishes not only the four family members, but also the sense of their normal routine. The mother and daughter have a bright tone, and similar but different rhythms, mother’s voice is more heavily accented, her shoulders and head stooped a little forward after a lifetime of service. The daughter is energetic, a little impatient and quick to dismiss her brother and coworkers’ follies, she moves with certainty, her head high and her shoulders back. The father doesn’t say much, but his presence and authority is felt, while the brother is a typical teenage boy. He wants to sleep, doesn’t need his mother’s reminders, and pushes boundaries whenever he can, including showing up to school late. He walks with a bit of a swagger, thrusting his hands in his pockets and cocking his head to one side.

Random opens with the sensibility and pacing of a normal day then almost imperceptibly but definitively shifts, creating the sense of time suspended that seems to envelope tragedy. Questions are repeated, details forgotten and then remembered and questioned once again. Davis skillfully and purposefully transitions between the characters, creating a barely noticed beat as she adjusts her posture and lowers or raises the zipper of her jacket to signify the various family members. Her conceit works well without slowing the story, though there are a few transitions where it took an extra moment for the audience to discern the character change. This happens primarily at the top of the show, once each family member is introduced it’s easier to follow the changes.

The parents have always warned the children to be careful and mind the police. Father admonishes them to never shame the family by having the police show up at the house, while mother advises, “never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.” When the police do knock at the family’s front door, the parents are hesitant to answer, slowing the delivery of the heartbreaking truth until the remaining child can get home. The shock to the entire family is palpable, even when conveyed by a single actor the emotions and disbelief hitting one family member then the next. Father and child go to identify the dead sibling; mother stays home then incessantly asks if the others are certain it was her child they saw.

Director Britteny Henry ensures Davis remains focused and her characters individual and distinct. Together, the two vary the emotional pacing, replicating the natural ebb and flow between disbelief and grief that so often accompanies unexpected tragedy. As with most one-person plays, a simple set is the perfect complement to a story that depends on the actor’s ability to transform herself into multiple persons. Davis successfully expresses the unique reaction of each family member to the heinous crime, sympathetically communicating the ripples of pain and despair that a single random act of violence spreads.

Unfortunately, the Independent Theater Company’s production of Random received just two public performances, closing on November 18. The script is compelling and relevant, particularly in a melting pot city that sees its fair share of violent and random crime, like St. Louis. Davis turns in a strong performance, filled with ticks and nuance that bring the family to life, and Henry directs with clear vision, ensuring that the company and its future productions will remain on this critic’s radar.

 

Harveen Sandhu and Rhett Aren Guter in ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ at The Rep. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

This week’s In Performance kicks off the holiday theater season with new takes on familiar stories and a couple of shows that offer humorous alternatives to traditional holiday themes. No matter which way our crazy St. Louis weather goes, there’s fabulous live entertainment in performance in around the city, ensuring now is a perfect time to go see a play or musical!

How do you approach one of literature’s most beloved characters when the story you’re telling is entirely new? That’s the conundrum Harveen Sandhu had to resolve in order to play Elizabeth Bennet in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis holiday production Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, in performance through December 24. “Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is one of the most powerful romances in the western canon,” Sandhu notes with admiration, “and Elizabeth is the personification of a radically new woman, one who values her self and wants to marry for love. Playing her is pretty cool, honestly.”

The Rep’s regional premier of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, is an inventive piece of fan fiction that imagines Austen’s most beloved characters celebrating the holiday season at the home of the now married Elizabeth Bennet and her beloved Mr. Darcy. The show is a continuation of Elizabeth’s story with a romantic focus on her sister, Mary. Bookish and well educated, Mary is poised and articulate, but resigned to never finding love. Elizabeth cautions her to be open to possibility and the story takes flight.

Though not penned by Austen, “The script delightfully captures the style and intention of her voice,” Sandhu enthuses. “The witty banter and musicality of the language are distinctively Austen, as is the mix of chivalry and courtship with revolutionary ideas about feminine intellect and autonomy.” Heady matters indeed, but The Rep delivers them with a touch that’s light, infectious, and a bit darling. For their production, the company also “took the authors’ encouragement to embrace diverse casting,” Sandhu mentions, “because Jane Austen is for everyone. As a woman of color who has loved Austen for so long, I really believe The Rep has invoked the spirit of Austen for contemporary audiences.”

The cast of Stray Dog Theatre’s Steel Magnolias was faced with a similar challenge --how do you take something familiar and infuse it with spirit contemporary audiences will respond to? Director Gary F. Bell has always been attracted to stories that feature a strong feminine perspective and he and the cast found that the love between a mother and a daughter and the friendships of women resonate just as deeply today as when the drama was first written. “Unlike the movie, the play features an all-female cast,” Bell notes. “So, we decided to focus on the women, their strength and resilience as well as their inherent kindness and whip smart humor.”

Eileen Engel, who plays Shelby in the show, also appreciates the depth of the characters. “There’s so many layers to each character,” she observes. “Many of the early rehearsals were simply about peeling those layers back, discovering all the truths of our characters, and,” she adds with a laugh, “learning how to style hair.” Engel also has a friend experiencing kidney failure, and she genuinely appreciates how the script captures that aspect of the story. Though tragic in many ways, the focus on enduring love and the support that comes through our families, friendships, and community gives the show a warm, hopeful tone that lingers.

“Shelby is so positive, despite her failing health,” Engel explains. “She loves unconditionally, she is determined to live fully, and she desperately wants a child. Her mother desperately wants her child to live. Unless you’ve experienced illness like this, it’s difficult understand what they’re going through, but this play is so well written that you really feel the pain and joy in Shelby’s situation.” As Bell sees it, Steel Magnolias, running through December 17 at Stray Dog Theatre, “is based in truth, not ‘based on a true story;’ and there’s a world of difference in the approach.”

Instead of munching on stale movie popcorn watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you can catch the work of the wickedly perceptive Martin McDonagh at St. Louis Actors Studio. A Behanding in Spokane, the first play set in the U.S. by the Irish writer and director, is a darkly funny story. The play introduces us to Carmichael, a man who’s been searching for his missing hand for nearly 50 years, a hapless couple of weed dealers with a hand to sell, and a hesitant desk clerk. Jerry Vogel anchors the cast, which also features William Roth, Léerin Campbell, and Michael Lowe.

Wayne Salomon directs the fast-moving play and says he has always appreciated McDonagh’s language and style, particularly the way he weaves his narrative. “As with life, reality and our perceptions can simultaneously conflict and harmonize,” Salomon wryly observes. “The characters are interesting and complex, but there’s a familiarity there. And the language – McDonagh’s dialogue has a lyric sensibility filled with sharp edges that reverberate with a lot of truth and genuine humor.” Salomon saw the premier of this play, featuring Christopher Walken, and is excited to introduce A Behanding in Spokane, running through December 17 at St. Louis Actors Studio, to St. Louis audiences.

For tears of laughter and a funny take on a thoroughly unpleasant moment in U.S. history, you’ll want to catch A Jewish Joke. The one-man show, written by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman and starring Johnson, introduces us to everyman Bernie Lutz, a screenwriter who learns his name is on Joseph McCarthy’s infamous blacklist.  Lutz is “a funny, sloppy but fairly successful guy who’s made it through his whole life without having to ever make any really tough personal decisions,” Jordan explains. “We meet him at the moment when he has to make that decision. And, as he does, he finally steps into his own real character -- a (reluctant) hero.” And nearly everyone can relate to that.

A Jewish Joke, in performance at The New Jewish Theatre through December 10, lovingly plays tribute to comedians and their ability to maintain their sense of humor in the worst of times. While we all may not feel a close connection to the humor of famed Jewish comics like Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, and Joan Rivers, the show owes much to their legacy and is a testament to resilience of humanity and the power of a good punch line.

Continuing this weekend:

In addition to the local professional shows opening this weekend, the Fabulous Fox theatre presents the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, continuing through December 10. The poignant story of culture and friendship gets a gorgeous interpretation, with bold, vibrant colors and intricate set pieces that add visual interest as they slide in and out of place. Naturally, your favorite songs receive excellent renditions, and the integration of traditional Thai dance, masks, and costumes is particularly artful.

As always, check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events!

When I walked into Washington U's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre and looked at Michael Carovillano's set, I thought, "Kiss" must be a play about the differences between art and life, between a theatre set and a real room. Because the walls of the room on the stage were obviously stage flats. The edges where the flats met had not been hidden, nor were they painted to give them a realistic texture. 

They do represent the apartment in Syria of a young woman, Hadeel, who is waiting for three of her friends. Youssif surprises Hadeel by showing up first and early. He's the best friend of Hadeel's boyfriend Ahmed. His girlfriend, Bana, is also coming. Youssif surprises Hadeel not only by coming early but by starting to romance her, telling her how much he loves her, he wants to marry her, spend his life with her. She rejects his advances, tells him no no no, then suddenly says yes yes yes. 

But when Ahmed arrives and proposes to Hadeel, she accepts him. And when Bana arrives, in an unpleasant mood, she reveals that she and Ahmed slept together. 

Then it gets very melodramatic. 

And the play ends, and the characters turn into the actors who played them. They assemble for a video conference that has been scheduled with the playwright. The woman on the screen, who turns out not to be the playwright but her sister because the playwright is dead, tells them that they've gotten the play all wrong because they do not understand what is happening in Syria's civil war, what that has done to people and their lives with bombs falling on them and poison gas spreading. 

The cast decides to try it again. The words are the same, the way they are performed is different. Now they know the reason for Hadeel's contradictory behavior and for the rest of the illogical, chaotic responses. The performance does not get melodramatic. 

So Kiss is a play about the difference between art and life. We have to know the life art is depicting to depict it accurately. Or -- the play doesn't say this -- can the play create its own reality? 

In his notes, the director, William Whitaker, who has done a terrific job with the cast and the production, sees it from the point of view of the actors, those who are making the art. He quotes Samuel Beckett's "Worstword Ho," "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 

That's what we see the cast do. Anna McConnell makes Hadeel's confusions, certainties, indecisions, and decisions completely believable. Scott Greenberg's Youssif is very intense. You keep your eyes on him, and you're a little afraid of him. Austin Moulder's Ahmed is quieter, a little reserved, nervous and uneasy about proposing. Nathalie Thurman's Bana seems to have some resentment lurking in her. Costume designer Erica Frank has given Bana a hijab, the Islamic head covering; Hadeel does not wear one; her clothes are Western, Bana's traditional. 

The playwright's sister, played by Sabrina Sayed in the video, speaks mostly in Arabic; Tyler Parker is her translator. Waiting for the translation of the answers to their questions gives a dramatic little touch of suspense to the actors' conversation with the sister. 

Ricardo Solis did the lighting, Sam Jamison the sound, Benjamin Lewis the projections. Sarah Azizo was the stage manager, Nathan Lamp the dramaturg. 

I rely on William Whitaker to find interesting plays and to do them well. He has not disappointed with "Kiss."

 

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