The New Jewish Theater closes their nineteenth season with a rousing, spirited production of Yentl, a play with music, that's a deeply satisfying, joyful expression of faith, humanity, and theater. The acting direction, music, and stage craft come together in perfect harmony to tell the tale of a young Jewish girl with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Along the way, we get a glimpse of of changing times and thought, an infusion of rock 'n' roll rebellion and a genuinely touching love triangle.

Set in Poland during the late nineteenth century, Yentl, the only child of Reb Todrus and his late wife, is decidedly not a typical girl. She has a longing for knowledge and is driven to study the books and laws of Judaism, a trait her father has successfully nurtured but not controlled.

There's an irony to her studies, however, as the rules she's learning strictly forbid her gender from this education. Both Yentl and her father are torn by this. But their's is a faithful house and her father stresses that Yentl must give up her studies when she finds a husband. Her aging father is desperate for Yentl to marry, but when she refuses every suitor he and the local matchmaker present, she soon finds herself orphaned with a small dowry and no prospects.

In a moment of clarity, foreshadowed by the moving opening scene, Yentl dons one of her father's old suits, assumes a masculine identity and the name Anchil, and sets out to find a school. She soon meets Avigdor, a handsome student from a poor family, who invites Anchil to join him in his studies in Bechev. The small town is quite supportive of its local school and welcomes the students into their homes where Anchil soon meets Hadass, Avigdor's true love and one-time fiancé.

Shanara Gabrielle turns in a spectacular performance as Yentl, easily handling the transitions from young woman to curious scholar. Her voice is strong and her character clearly defined and defiant. Gabrielle fully inhabits the character's dichotomy and the resulting intellectual exuberance and sexual confusion, showing passion and considerable emotional range as she navigates through the consequences of Yentl's choices.

Gabrielle is matched in intensity and enthusiasm by a charismatic Andrew Michael Neiman as the vibrant, scholarly Avigdor and by a radiant Taylor Steward as the lovely and kind Hadass. The chemistry between the three is electric, infusing the production with a sense of light and hope even as Yentl's path becomes clouded and uncertain. The three actors show absolute trust in the relationship, which drives the show forward with authenticity and considerable tension.

The ensemble is strong as well, with each of the supporting actors playing multiple roles featuring Terry Meddows, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Peggy Billo, Amy Loui, Will Bonfiglio, Brendan Ochs, Luke Steingruby, and Jack Zanger. The actors add considerable depth and texture to the story and songs. Meddows is sympathetic as Yentl's father, Theby-Quinn charms as Avigdor's alternate to Hadass. Loui, Billo, Bonfiglio, Ochs, and Zanger successfully fill in missing exposition and add color and depth to the musical chorus, while Steingruby impresses, contrasting Gabrielle's earthy voice with a number of small, piercingly pure solos.

Gabrielle handles the singing well, infusing the rock numbers with energy and fire that's mirrored by the ensemble cast. The choregraphy is a pleasing mix of modern steps and traditional folk dances that, as with the music, works thematically though it breaks all conventions of period. The small band fills the space nicely under the direction of Charles Mueller. He and Coffield keep the story focused, the characters realistically varied and the show a satisfying experience.

Our assumptions about gender identification, while not central to the story's message, are nudged by Yentl's choices, and her comfort living her life as a man and scholar may touch some nerves. The script and performance doesn't examine these questions deeply, however, but they are not completely ignored. While Yentl's choices are accepted at face value for the sake of the story, the responses of the characters -- and the fact that those in the know chose to maintain her secret -- bear reflection.

Yentl, a play with music running through June 5, 2016 at the New Jewish Theatre, is a well-crafted story with a subject that's relevant to current gender politics, but it resonates as compassionately and unambiguously human at heart.

 

This May, theater lovers in St. Louis have the opportunity to celebrate one of their own during the first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. Running May 11 through May 16, 2016, the event showcases the life and prolific work of one of our great American playwrights with a mix of theater, exhibits, scholarly lectures and intimate conversations. In addition to numerous performances by local theater companies and actors, offerings include a basic primer on the author, multiple perspectives on the significance and meaning of Williams' work, and an in-depth examination of two of his most familiar characters, and whether they appear in two different plays.

The festival is the culmination of years of effort and organization by veteran theatrical actor, casting director, producer and coach, Carrie Houk. Last year, Houk headed the team that produced the critically praised, highly successful run of another lesser-known Williams' play, Stairs to the Roof. Drawing upon that success and her extensive contacts in both theater and academics, as well as her participation and attendance at Williams festivals in other cities, she determined the time was ripe for a Williams festival in his hometown. 

Born in Mississippi, Williams spent his formative years in St. Louis, attending Soldan High School, the University of Missouri in Columbia, and Washington University before making his escape from Missouri. Though it's well documented that he couldn't wait to leave the city, it is equally clear from his work that the city never quite left him. It is this deep connection -- and the persistence of St. Louis in his work and themes -- that inspired Houk to found a festival honoring Williams work in the city that informed his early writing and continued to influence him long after he moved away. 

Joe Hanrahan, artistic director of The Midnight Company, producers of The Two Character Play, welcomes the opportunity to celebrate the author and bring his evocative, affecting plays to life for a new generation of audiences. "The Festival is important because not only is it resurrecting for St. Louis the work of a world-class artist whose formative artistic years were spent here, but delivering it in a way - with a range of work and styles - that will offer a meaningful glimpse into the man and what he did." With an understanding that their play is less familiar, the company spent time studying the author and his work to ensure that the show would be relevant and interesting to a contemporary audience. 

The festival, championed by Houk and a supportive board, intends to be a mix of accessible culture. The weekend includes both familiar and less frequently performed plays, provocative storytelling, and informative academic perspectives, satisfying the festival's aim to both entertain and inform. The inaugural edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, a five-day event, is themed "the St. Louis years." The event promises to offer a different tone and content than the festivals celebrating Williams in New Orleans and Provincetown, MA. As Houk notes, "Williams probably needed to leave St. Louis to flourish, but the city was part of his very fiber and his experiences here laid the foundation for his creative output"; the St. Louis festival acknowledges both his familiarity with and desire to leave the city.

A mix of local and national talent was invited to participate in the inaugural event, a tradition Houk hopes will spark interest and keep the St. Louis festival unique and attractive to Williams fans and theater goers from around the country. Philip Boehm, director of Upstream Theater's festival production The Glass Menagerie, says his company was thrilled by the opportunity to be involved, because "the festival invokes a time when theater was very much part of the social fabric -- and challenges us to find new ways to engage contemporary audiences. By celebrating the works of Tennessee Williams it encourages us to honor poetic imagination in the arts." (For more on this impressive production, see Steve Callahan's KDHX review.)

Special festival events include a bus tour of Williams' St. Louis haunts, performances at the venue where Williams performed as part of the Mummers theatrical troupe, and a special art exhibit. A highlight of this year's event is sure to be an evening with celebrated actress Olympia Dukakis, whose moving interpretations of Williams' work have wowed audiences for decades, Thursday May 12 at the Sun Theater in the Grand Center Arts District. In addition, Houk and the board have also arranged for dedicated parking on the lot just west of Grand on Washington Avenue for all events.

With the first annual festival about to kick off, Houk is already turning her attention to next year. The festival has received an invitation to participate in the Provincetown, MA festival, and Houk is already dreaming of locations she'd like to see Williams plays performed in future years, such as the Jewel Box in Forest Park. Considering Williams' deep connection to St. Louis, one might, in fact, wonder why it has taken so long for this city to celebrate one of its most renown and prolific talents. 

For a complete listing of festival events and times, or to make reservations, please visit the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

 

 

Now you usually know that you're inside a farce when you keep seeing doors everywhere. Well, that's just not the case with KTK's production of Laughing Stock which runs through May 8. It's a pretty hilarious look at a struggling New England summer stock company. They're trying to put together three plays for the 67th season of this old barn theater. On stage there's nary a door in sight. But one young actor feels that a door is so essential to his entrance that he's willing to actually carry a door on stage when he enters.

It is indeed a farce, and it's become deservedly popular among small companies and community theatres. The large cast includes all the classic theatrical archetypes. Gordon, the artistic director, must produce three plays--to be performed in repertory. First there's Charley's Aunt -- a sure-fire crowd pleaser, yes? (Wanna bet?) Then there's Gordon's own new adaption of Dracula (but it's got to be pronounced "Dra-KOOHL"). Finally, why not do King Lear? Well, the reason is that our major donor thinks Lear is too depressing, so let's do something brighter. How about Hamlet? (And, by the way, this donor would really like to see us do The Sound of Music.)

We see auditions in a shabby rented room in New York--its wallpaper pathetically peeling. There are eager youngsters--Tyler, full of pretentious actor jargon, and the slightly sluttish ingénue, Mary. There's Vernon, embittered from a thirty-year stagnant career. There are the dear old veterans, Richfield and Daisy. There's Jack, who has real talent, but will be going to law school in the fall. Karma and Brauna are clueless interns. And plunked into this swirl of personalities we have guest director Susannah. She's never been on stage herself, but she's fresh from an Ivy League drama school, bursting with pretentious and wildly experimental ideas. (Charley's Aunt mustn't be funny! It's a serious exploration into the problem of gender identity! The tea scene? Let's all improvise as animals around a water-hole!) But Susannah can't be fired; she's the daughter of the best friend of our big donor.

And then the staff: there's business-manager Craig with his big rule-book and his obsession for economy in pencils, there's Henry, the nerdy, overworked, under-budgeted designer/techie. And there's Sarah, Gordon's assistant director. This practical lady observes all the mayhem patiently, amusedly, and with the occasional wry sardonic remark. And, by the way, she is Gordon's ex-wife.

Director Don Krull has assembled a first-rate cast. There are many fine performances. Just for the record, the players are:

Gordon Page -- Bill Ellis
Sarah McKay -- Jane Abling
Jack Morris -- Michael McClelland
Richfield Hawksley -- Larry D. Quiggins
Susannah Huntsman -- Kathy Doerr
Tyler Taylor -- Patrick Wells
Mary Pierre -- Amie Bossi
Vernon Volker -- Ray Shea
Daisy Coates -- Marilyn Bass-Hayes
Craig Conlin -- Doug Landholt
Henry Mills Brian -- McCalpin
Karma Schneider -- Amy Price
Brauna Oaks -- Katie Schares

Comedy abounds. The rehearsal of Charley's Aunt is the epitome of silliness. The performance of Dracul is a catastrophe. Everything goes wrong! It's rather in the vein of the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges--and it's a riot. (And the glowing-eyed mechanical bat that flits back and forth across the stage is utterly adorable!)

The performance of Hamlet is rather more restrained--a gentler sort of farce. And in the end we have moments of rather sweet sentiment -- and a warm, happy ending.

The set, by Earl Miller is nicely convincing and admirably flexible--with a beautiful great moon for Dracul. The excellent costumes are by Kathy Doerr and Marie Moore. Chris O'Donovan did the fine (and rather tricky) lighting.

So Laughing Stock at KTK is a most enjoyable evening. It's one flaw is a pervasive slackness in pace. Farce must pile the laughs on top of one another; things have to move fast. Here there was more the sense of a joke . . . and then another joke . . . and then another joke. Too many tiny pauses between or within lines all add up to a three-hour evening, and this is simply too long for a farce. In the Hamlet performance the actors deliver their lines as if the only important thing is to make . . . every . . . syll-able . . . of . . . these . . . sa-cred . . . words . . . per-fect-ly . . . clear. The many scene changes also interrupt the flow; they are really well choreographed, but simply not quite fast enough.

Nevertheless, you'll have a fun and laugh-filled time at KTK's Laughing Stock. It plays at the Southampton Presbyterian Church through May 8.

The "Tale as Old as Time," was again at The Fabulous Fox in recent days for a return, return, return, return engagement. But, if Disney’s 'Beauty and the Beast' continues to be as sparkling and entertaining an experience, it can come back again, again, again.

Upstream Theater, under the direction of Philip Boehm, is my favorite company in town. Since 2005 they have been our only company to concentrate on world theater. They've brought us twenty-one U.S. premieres plus another eleven rarely-produced plays -- almost all from foreign sources. Yes, an occasional classic -- an Oedipus, an Antigone, a Blood Wedding -- but those, too, are rarely produced. Only once before, I think, has Upstream offered a work by a famous American playwright; that was The Hairy Ape -- certainly one of O'Neill's least produced plays.

What in the world were they doing when they announced a season including a play that is one of the most familiar of all pieces ever to bless the American stage? The Glass Menagerie is without doubt a very great play. It is perhaps the very greatest of all American plays. But it's been done everywhere! It is so far outside Upstream's charter!?

But theater is to make you think. This production is extraordinary. It is certainly not a Glass Menagerie that you have ever seen before. Director Philip Boehm has taken risks. (Brave? Foolhardy?) In some aspects this production is unsuccessful, but overall it is most memorable. My wife and I talked about it late into the night. And the next morning we woke up talking about it -- talking, thinking, analyzing, evaluating all that this production offered. So, no two ways about it, this production was -- overall -- very successful theater. And it impressed us all the more with the beauty of Tennessee Williams' work.

First of all, in this production Amanda (the mother) and Tom (her son) are black. Linda Kennedy and J. Samuel Davis are familiar veterans on St. Louis stages; they've both done superb work for years. I would suggest that here, in Glass Menagerie, these two are exhibiting their "personal best."

But I am not one to whom race can be meaningless in theater. Every actor carries in his face a rich cargo of ethnicity. There are, of course, many roles and plays in which race is quite immaterial. Williams, however, sets Glass Menagerie very specifically in St. Louis in 1937 or 1938 -- a time and place when race was far from inconsequential. Kennedy and Davis -- in voice and manner -- portray the Wingfields as a very typical -- almost essential -- black lower-middle-class family. I was amazed at how totally at home Tennessee Williams' dialogue seemed to be in these black voices. It was almost as if he had written the play for a black family. Credit for this is surely due to the actors.

But there are those textual references -- Amanda's initiation into the D.A.R., and her reminiscences of her youth: "All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants."

These almost antebellum dreams may indeed be mere fantasies of Amanda -- but they are not black fantasies. We all know what "antebellum" meant to black America.

And then there is the white daughter. Laura is played by the lovely blonde and alabaster-skinned Sydney Frasure. She speaks with a voice quite unlike that of her mother and brother. What are we to make of this? I guess we must simply ignore the differences

Miss Frasure is, in real life, wheel-chair-bound and has some manual limitations. Maneuvering the antique wheel-chair around the small stage at the Kranzberg poses significant logistical problems -- not all of which are comfortably resolved, and when Jim, the "gentleman caller," dances with Laura it is indeed problematical. But when Jim's easy sweet kindness lifts Laura out of her intense shyness the utter radiance shining from Miss Frasure's beautiful face makes us forget all of those difficulties. Jim's hesitant kiss gives Laura a later lifetime of sweet memory.

In a striking, unusual, and wonderfully effective device Mr. Davis (and Mr. Boehm) give us a Tom who is remembering from a very old age. In all of his "narrator" passages Tom is seen as an old, old man. He moves with a walker--and with that slightly-vacant wide-eyed gaze of the ancient. Davis, who must be in his 50's, so convincingly portrays the movements and posture of the aged! At these moments, when Davis is looking directly at you in the audience, he is utterly captivating! You cannot look away! And then, magically, when he steps into a family scene he instantly becomes young. It's quite wonderful.

Linda Kennedy gives us an Amanda full of life and vitality and often a warm, happy heart. In her strivings with her son she shows "sass" and "attitude." This Amanda is unquestionably sane -- not even neurotic. She's merely a mother who simply cannot stop talking and poking and prying into the lives of her children. She's irritating, yes, but she's surely not an unfamiliar, let alone a contemptible, mother. In her interaction with her children there is indeed frustration, but ever-so clearly there is also great love.

This is what I felt so strongly -- in contrast to so many productions of "Glass Menagerie." I felt the strong love between mother and son. And I've never, never felt such a strong and tender love between Tom and his sister Laura as when Davis and Miss Frasure nuzzle their heads together over the desk in this production.
The Gentleman Caller, Jim, is a role a little too nice to be true. He's just so full of Dale Carnegie and "positive thought." Jason Contini does him great justice. (Though I think that a moustache robs him of a bit of his very desirable innocence.)

So: How does the lively warmth of this family effect the drama? Does the real vitality of this Amanda diminish the tragedy of her abandonment? Tom, in the script is younger than Laura, but in this production he is clearly older. Is his abandonment of this slight, deeply dependent Laura in any way forgivable? Here we see Tom as a very old man remembering; he has clearly reached the end of his life journey. Should not Tom, perhaps, be still journeying? Seeking? Certainly Tennessee Williams was in quest till the very end.

The beautifully detailed set is by Michael Heil. It's properly shabby, and filled with muted earth tones. A striking image of a fire-escape serves as backdrop. Claudia Horn is responsible for all the perfect, period properties.

The evening is supported by lovely live piano music by Joe Dreyer -- gentle old parlor ballads as if from Laura's phonograph, light and crystalline -- or livelier dance tunes from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street.

The Upstream production of The Glass Menagerie will leave you wondering about many things. But that's good! Do see it. It's well worth your time.
It continues Thursdays through Sundays through May 15th at the Kranzberg Arts Center

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