The St. Louis Actors Studio has opened a strong production of Anton Chekov's Ivanov. Technically it really presses the limits of the Studio's tiny stage, but with a very strong cast we are given a moving glimpse of Chekhov's groping toward a theatrical voice.

Ivanov is the first of Chekhov's major plays. In this Tom Stoppard translation we meet many of what are to become Chekhov's "usual suspects": the idle rural gentry, the "superfluous man," the conscientious and idealistic medical doctor, the innocent ingénue who loves the wrong man, the variously pathetic and comic hangers-on at the estate.

It's an early confirmation of Chekhov's position as the most non-judgmental of all dramatists.

Nikolai Ivanov is at the end of his rope. Five years ago he married (for love as well as for some money) the lovely Jewess, Sarah. Upon her marriage she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Anna -- which caused her parents to disinherit her. So the expected great dowry vanished. Since then things have not gone well. Ivanov is deeply in debt and has no prospects at all. Moreover, Anna is dying of tuberculosis--and Ivanov can't afford to give her a restorative trip to the Crimea.

Ivanov's behavior under this great stress is what caused critics at the time to condemn the play. Whenever he can Ivanov abandons Anna and goes to visit the family of an old college friend, Paul Lebedev. It's a congenial, gossipy household and it includes a young daughter, Sasha, who is infatuated with Ivanov. Ivanov, forever moaning about his great misery and depression, is to most observers simply waiting for his loving wife to die so that he can marry Sasha. Anna's attendant physician, Dr. Lvov, constantly castigates Ivanov for his treatment of his wife. Yet Chekhov refuses to condemn Ivanov. And he seems to mock the righteous and moralistic Dr. Lvov.

About these two characters Chekhov once said: "If the audience will leave the theatre with the conviction that Ivanovs are scoundrels and that Doctors Lvov are great men, then I'll have to give up and fling my pen to the devil."

Strong performances abound. Drew Battles has the huge title role, and he looks every inch Ivanov. It's a fine performance, but Chekhov has filled the role with self-pity, and it's difficult for us not to view Ivanov as a feckless whiner. With a bit more nuance, a bit more subtext -- and, in that relentless flow of words, some pauses to help us sense emotional transitions -- we might more clearly see that though Ivanov is feckless he is not heartless.

But it's a long show, and I know that director Wayne Salomon has a sharp stick to prod his actors into keeping a lively pace -- lest the play run even longer than its two-and-a-half hours.

The cast is filled with familiar, strong, and beloved actors. Anna is played by Julie Layton, who charms us despite her struggles with consumption. She conveys a glowing, tender love for her husband. The eccentric old Count Shabelsky is played by Bobby Miller. With wild Einsteinian white hair and a gravelly voice way in the back of his throat this is another of Miller's iconic alte kaker roles. What a comic wonder! But (a minor quibble): Shabelsky is a Russian count. A time or two, when he's gently teasing Anna, Chekhov has him assume a Yiddish accent. With Miller's very eccentric voice it's never quite clear when Shabelsky is not playing the comic Jew.

David Wasilak brings an exuberant silliness to the role of Borkin, Ivanov's estate manager, who is full of a thousand wacky schemes to make money.

Teresa Doggett makes a true virago of Zinaida, Ivanov's major creditor. When she screams to a servant, "BRING SOME JAM!! GOOSEBERRY, OR SOMETHING!" she's as fierce as the Red Queen crying "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!"

Dr. Lvov is played by Reginald Pierre. Pierre is usually a most graceful actor, but here, though he's emotionally confident--even forceful--he seems almost uncomfortable in his body--almost fidgeting. I was puzzled by this choice.

Alexandra Petrullo brings sweetness and innocence to young Sasha, whose Florence-Nightingale heart sees a challenge in the troubled Ivanov.

To me, the most strikingly successful performance of all is that of B. Weller as Lebedev. I've watched Weller for many years and I've often been impressed by his engaging boyishness. Now, suddenly, Weller is filled with maturity and gravitas -- and subtlety and subtext! And that lovely good humor is still there. Even his make-up is perfect; it shows the slightly florid complexion of the heavy drinker that Lebedev is. Bravo to Mr. Weller!
Other fine performances are given by Cara Barresi, Shannon Nara, Jan Meyer, Clayton Bury and Léerin Campbell (the graceful maid always at hand to refill the vodka).

The beautiful costumes are by the astonishingly capable Teresa Doggett.

Sound design by director Wayne Salomon is a strange assortment of classic jazz, blues and R&B -- music that evokes the wee hours in a smoky bar. Lots of whispering steel brushes--(which to my knowledge had not yet appeared in 19th Century Russia). But the music does convey the melancholy that fills Ivanov.

Patrick Huber gives a striking and curious set. Chekhov uses four different sets -- not something easily done at the Gaslight, with it's tiny stage and no back-stage space. In this play we see a simple deep square room. Walls are of raw planking with (strangely indeed!) thin vertical deep blue fluorescent tubes adorning the walls. I don't understand it, but it works!

All of the furniture for all of the scenes is just there on stage, and is moved as necessary. And as if to crowd the space even further, actors do not leave the stage when they exit a scene; they simply take seats at the rear -- sometimes facing away from the scene being played, sometimes watching it. At times this is a little confusing, and all in all there is a great impediment to traffic; there's hardly space to move. But it does increase the sense of entrapment; these people simply cannot escape.

Ivanov is not great Chekhov, but I am most grateful to the St. Louis Actors Studio for mounting it. It introduces Chekhov's wonderful flair for blending the tragic with the absurd. This is epitomized in moment of hilarity when one after another of the central characters bursts into loud weeping over the wreckage of their lives, while poor Lebedev tries desperately to calm things -- and finally simply screams, "For God's sake SHUT UP!"

The St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Chekhov's Ivanov continues through May 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

 

 

 

It's really more of a pageant and celebration than a play. It's called Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life and it's the fruit of collaboration between Fontbonne University's Bosnian Memory Project and playwright Deanna Jent, a professor in the Find Arts Department and artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre

As you know, St. Louis -- and especially South St. Louis -- has been blessed with massive immigration from Bosnia. In the early 1990's, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the remnant Serbia tried to roll back the clock of history some six hundred years -- to when the Ottoman Empire conquered Bosnia-Herzegovina and brought a forced Islamization.

Now the Balkans have a deep and rich and very troubled history. No less than six civilizations have fought through the centuries over the region called Bosnia. For a vivid look into the sufferings of Bosnia under the Ottomans I highly recommend Nobel laureate Ivo Andrič's novel, The Bridge on the Drina.

From 1992 to 1995 at the hands of the Serbian army many thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered; many thousands fled. Now St. Louis is home to more Bosnian-born people than any city outside Bosnia. And their story has been one of great success. Over the years America has opened its arms to many peoples fleeing the horrors of persecution, of war, of disaster -- from the Pilgrims to the Irish potato famine to this recent genocidal war in the Balkans. And the Bosnian-Americans of St. Louis are proving once again that America truly is the land of opportunity, and that the American Dream is still possible.

The play's first week-end was at the Gribic Banquet Hall, an annex of the beautiful Grbic Restaurant, where the food itself is a glorious celebration of the Bosnian heritage.

The cast of ten portray many characters -- all of whom experienced the traumatic purging of their people from their homeland. We see childhood memories in Bosnia; we see the Starbucks chat of well-assimilated teen-agers in America. We learn of flights to Denmark and to Germany. We see the contrasts among schools: the forced religion classes in Serbia, the demanding standards of German high-schools, the rather easy American schools. We watch the difficulties and rejection encountered by a young Bosnian widow who marries a Serb friend. (My goodness, in Bosnia all the Serbs, Croats and Muslims used to be friendly neighbors!)

Binding these stories together somehow -- dreamily, poetically -- we watch a sort of dance fable. It's the old story of the wolf and the lamb, drawn all the way from Ǽsop. The fable shows that, regardless of all rational arguments, corrupt power will justify itself in devouring the innocent. Here a lamb, Aska, dreams of becoming a ballerina. When she meets the wolf she can only survive by continuously dancing -- it's the Dance for Life. It represents the stalwart, persevering struggle of these desperate immigrants to escape, to find refuge, to settle, to find work, to prosper.

Melissa Gerth does beautiful work as the dancing lamb, supported by the rest of the cast who, donning charming lamb's ears, become a whole baaa-ing flock. The cast includes a mix of Bosnian-Americans and familiar faces of St. Louis actors -- all of whom do fine work. Some of the dialogue is in Bosanski (the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian), but the meaning is always clear. Director Adam Flores manages his ten actors very nicely on a minimalist set by Kyra Bishop.

It's a most heartening and hopeful evening celebrating the Bosnian-American experience. Running just under an hour, Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. April 21-May 1. Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre on Fontbonne University campus.

 

 

I've seen Thornton Wilder's Our Town numerous times. Watching it now is something like the comfort of an old shoe. But I still get a little moist in the eyes when Emily painfully realizes how little of life we appreciate each moment as we live it. I did again at the current Hawthorne Players' production, with an Emily, Jessica Gillard Taylor, who fully realizes her character's turbulent emotions in that postmortem third act.

Wilder's Transcendental thoughts about death and what follows give him a framework for extending his exploration of his characters. Beth Workman's Mrs. Gibbs, Emily's mother-in-law, is still rock solid. And Patrick Brueggen's Simon Stimson, the suicidal alcoholic choir director, still bitterly complains. 

The third act is not the only place that Wilder darkens what could be mistaken for a purely idyllic picture of American small-town life a hundred years ago. The wedding of Emily and George is no simple, happy celebration. Both bride and groom almost flee from the church, terrified by this shedding of youthful innocence. Even Emily's mother, played by Kathy Fugate, who seemed to be having projection problems when I was there, laments to the audience about the cruel ignorance with which her daughter, like she herself once, is facing the complex sexual side of marriage. The brilliant promise of the paperboy played by Elijah Ross will come to naught in the absurd waste of the war in France. Even Emily's little brother will die of a burst appendix on a camping trip. Life is as uncertain in Grovers Corners as it is anywhere. 

But we're not wrong to remember first the comforting images of this American life, the idyllic courtship of Emily and her George, played by Mark A. Neels less convincingly as an adolescent and star athlete than I would have liked, and the affectionate ease in their parents' marriages, with Tom Moore as Dr. Gibbs and John Robertson as Editor Webb. 

Uniting us in the audience with those on the stage is David Gibbs' Stage Manager, assured and reassuring. As the Stage Manager, Gibbs is a natural. 

On the usual bare stage, set designer Tim Grumich has hung flats and platforms against a curtain upstage for a little more visual interest. Tracey Newcomb made enriching costume choices. Bob Veatch's lights isolate some scenes. Stage manager Lori Potts precisely cues the realistic touches of Brian Borgstede's sound design. Director Lori Renna has pulled it all together for another deeply satisfying visit to Our Town

The Hawthorne Players production continues at Florissant Civic Center Theatre through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available online or through the box office at 314-921-5678.

Lee Blessing has written many plays, mostly good ones. We've seen several of them here -- Eleemosynary most recently, Lonesome Hollow, A Walk in the Woods, his best known and, for me, his best. Now we have Great Falls at the West End Players Guild. I like it the least.

I could never quite believe in its two characters. I had the uneasy feeling that the playwright was still trying to get a hold on them. That's unusual for a playwright as experienced as Blessing, though he does like to explore uncharted territory in fresh ways.

But must young women characters in stories today all have been sexually abused by their fathers and raped by two of their classmates? Yes, these things do happen and they are terrible, but when they are used so often, it can be difficult for a playwright to make it seem real and not something easy to reach for to punch up his story. Not that Shannon Lampkin, who plays the young woman just turning 18, doesn't try to make it real. She makes me almost believe in the character, until another too-easy plot twist is introduced and I groan.

She is traveling with her step-father. He's picked her up at her summer job because he says he wants to talk to her, to try to re-establish some connection with her, connections broken when her mother divorced him for his infidelities.

The short talk turns into a weeks-long tour of the northern Rockies from their starting point in Fremont, Nebraska. She accuses him of kidnapping her. But she has a cell phone and even talks to her mother. She could be rescued. Eventually we find out why she isn't, what she wants from the trip.

But I never was sure what he wanted from it. He's obviously a troubled man, searching for something, but what it is and why he thought his step-daughter was where he could find it, I don't know. Again, the character lacked reality for me. Again, the actor playing him, Isaiah DiLorenzo, was trying. His range seemed a little limited, but I'm not sure what more he could dig out of the script.

Tom Kopp is a shrewd and sensitive director. It isn't his fault that it gets tedious sometimes.

Bill Dechand's projections supply context without being distracting on Stephanie Draper's flexible set. Stage manager Valleri Dillard, props wrangler Jackie Aumer and their crew shift scenes efficiently. Susan Kopp's sound design and original song enrich the experience. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave designed the costumes.

Great Falls starts with an odd premise and I was never satisfied by what it did with it.

The production continues at West End Players Guild through Sunday afternoon, April 17, with tickets at 314-667-5686.

 

Productions at the Webster Conservatory are pretty much always fine, and the one that just opened is about as unfailingly fine as any I've seen there in a long time. This is one of the Conservatory's "Capstone" productions, which means it's chosen and directed by a student -- a "thesis production," if you will. Director James Kolditz has chosen a very fine script by British playwright Mike Bartlett and has put together all its aspects quite deftly and artistically. 

But what the heck is the play's title? I read advertisements for "The Cockfight Play," and I was expecting blood and feathers. But no, when the lights went up here we were in the middle of rather conventional squabble between two rather conventional gay lovers in a high-toned flat in London. Is this bait-and-switch? C'mon! Gay plays are so common and cockfight plays so rare; I was disappointed.

But very quickly I was drawn into this story and I realized that it is far more than a conventional "gay play." It is in fact a quite courageous probing into the subject of "sexual identity" and the political tension that now surrounds it.

The actual title of the play is simply Cock, and it won the Olivier "Best New Play" award in London. But when it first played in New York certain timid newspapers (viz. The New York Times) felt that such bluntness might offend its genteel readers, so the Times reviewer invented that euphemistic title.

Handsome young John has been in a relationship with an affluent youngish broker for several years. Ironically John is the only character with a real name even though, as we soon learn, he is actually lacking (or perhaps merely refusing) any identity. His broker/lover is listed merely as "M" -- which I think just stands for "Man." It's a troubled relationship. M, dapper, with an expensive hair-cut and a chicly trimmed beard, is arch and sarcastic. He seems hungry for conflict. He constantly criticizes John for every little thing. It's a low-grade-abusive relationship, and John feels belittled. He feels that he is only M's "trophy."

There is a brief break-up during which John has an affair. With a woman! The woman (listed as "W") is a beautiful divorced class-room assistant. And she's nice. And she falls in love with him. And he with her! Even though he's only ever been attracted to men. They indulge in dreams of white picket fences and babies and family Christmases and grandchildren and all that. It is indeed true love -- at least so far as anyone could ever tell.

So, has she "cured" him? Is he "straight" now? Ah, no, he goes back to his broker -- but without breaking off with the woman. It's not just for all the gourmet food the broker cooks; it's not because John realizes he's "really gay." Nor will he embrace the label "bi-sexual." With all the tranquility and equanimity of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivner" (who unbudgingly and without explanation eternally reiterates "I would prefer not to") John simply refuses to choose one lover or the other.

The broker even draws his father, "F" (Father?), into the fray. He's an iconic blustering but earnest and good hearted British father, and he's learned all the modern politically correct attitudes. He knows that gays are just born that way. He loves his gay son, he love's his son's partner. He urges John not to break up with his son. But he does it in such a "guy" sort of way: he tries to use logic to solve this emotional problem. He argues!

Now I myself abhor labels. I refused to choose Coke or Pepsi. I'm uncomfortable declaring myself a Democrat or Republican. Religion? Nowadays even to mark "None" puts you into some political encampment.

And so I empathize with John. God so filled the world with sexual attractions that I really can't blame John (as everyone around him does) for refusing to abjure half of that world of delights. For refusing to reject half of that world of love. At one point John says: "Why are you telling me that what I sleep with is more important than who I sleep with? Why are you telling me I have to know what I am?"

It's a brave foray into identity politics -- in its broadest sense -- and I'm sure the playwright is getting lots of indignant flack in his e-mail.
The cast is uniformly superb. Jay Stalder as John, Austin Glen Jacobs as the broker, Sigrid Wise as the woman, and Zak Moran as the father all show deep understanding and commitment. They all employ the very most authentic and uniform British accent. They do terrific work.

The simple set, by Jason James, consists of merely six beautiful rectangular shadow-box pillars of different heights. (These are inspired by works of Louise Nevelson). Mr. Kolditz's direction matches that simplicity. Scenes are, as in a cockfight, started with a bell. Between scenes an actor will toss off a sweater, or put on a jacket ore some-such -- requiring a mere few seconds. So everything goes very smoothly and swiftly. It's all exquisitely simple. Once John asks M to undress; without even a mimed hint of disrobing M simply steps onto a low pillar and lets John look at him. Perfect! The scene when John and the woman first have sex is quite excitingly graphic and intimate and real -- but they are separated by a whole stage of space and they are fully clothed. The sex is all in their minds and words. How beautiful!
Lighting by Caleb Taylor and costumes by Erin Reed are effective and appropriate.

It's a very, very good show! Cock (or "The Cockfight Play" or whatever) played at the Webster Conservatory April 8 through 10.

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