Fall has swept in to St. Louis bringing cold nights and a distinct lack of outdoor activities. That makes now the perfect time to stay warm in the theater. This week's In Performance feature previews two shows constructed around a friendship between two men. In each story the men face tough economies and scarce jobs, but their resulting tales are strikingly different and uniquely appealing.
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble brings John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to life in an interpretation that shifts the perspective forward to reflect contemporary America. The production took off after actor Carl Overly, Jr. dreamed that he was Lennie and Adam Flores was George in a staging of the play. SATE producers Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbets immediately recognized the prophetic nature of Overly's vision, and then recruited director Jacqueline Thompson to shape and guide the show.
Steinbeck's haunting story introduces us to George and Lennie, two farm workers who dream of a life far away from fields filled with migrant labor. Though they come from different backgrounds and possess very different skills and abilities, the two form a close friendship, with George doing his best to keep the sometimes difficult Lennie calm and out of trouble. Their bond is tested when events lead them down an ominous, slippery slope.
For their production, the team re-imagined the show to more accurately portray contemporary migrant workers. Thompson notes "exploring new given circumstances as it relates to color-ism, identity, and each character's hidden truths gives every artist working on this production a different approach to the story" while remaining true to the integrity of the classic. Flores, Overly, Jr., and the rest of the cast eagerly embraced the approach.
"The blood, sweat, and tears that planted the seeds of this country have always been diverse," Flores notes. "In today's climate it's essential that varying backgrounds examine the things that are integral to our American consciousness," he continues. The greatness we associate with the past "is now embodied by populations very different than those most often portrayed as 'heroes' on stage, and that's the real beauty of this particular production."
First published in 1937 as a novella, the realistic modern cast provides a fresh point of view on a subject that remains relevant. While some may be startled by the diversity, the eloquence and tragic beauty of the tale is just as powerful, effecting, and resonant. "Although Lennie meets an untimely end," Overly offers, "his last moments are of hope and happiness, which is something I think we all should strive to have in our everyday lives." Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's Of Mice and Men runs Wednesdays through Saturdays, through November 18.
The West End Players Guild takes a more humorous tack in its presentation of male friendship with the Irish comedy Stones in His Pocket. A Hollywood film company has taken over a tiny village in Ireland's County Kerry to make The Quiet Valley, an "Irish romance" in the mode of The Quiet Man. The audience follows extras Jake and Charlie as they submit to, mock, and sometimes rebel against Hollywood and the egos involved in the production. As director Steve Callahan enthuses, the play set in the 1990s "is an absolute gem of a show" and features "strong performances by Jason Meyers and Jared Sanz-Agero, who play a combined 13 roles!"
Because the two play all the roles, Meyers notes that one key challenge is shifting characters on the spot. "There's no time to get into the right head space or say a key phrase to get the speech pattern down," he notes. "It all has to happen inside my head in full view of the audience in the blink of an eye." Meyers and Sanz-Agero found the rehearsal process to be mentally and physically taxing -- one of the toughest shows they've ever done -- but well worth the effort.
Callahan was immediately drawn to Marie Jones' script and is delighted to be directing. "The old epics were sung by a one bard alone, and they were gripping stories," Callahan artfully offers in summation. "Stones in His Pockets so convinces me that a tale can be wonderfully enacted by only two actors. The utterly simple theatricality of this play allows us to see deeply and truly into the very real people in this small Irish world." See for yourself through November 19, at West End Players Guild.
Continuing this weekend:
YoungLiars amps ups the blood letting and body parts with Titus Androgynous, a comic interpretation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, running through November 11, at the Centene Center for the Arts. The story tells of the Roman general's defeat of the Goths and subsequent bitterly personal feud with the scheming Goth queen Tamora. Under Chuck Harper's direction, with songs by Paul Cereghino that push the exposition and compress the timeline, the farce is constant and bloody good.
Steven Woolf directs Susan Louise O'Connor and Joneal Joplin in the surprisingly intimate and heartwarming Heisenberg, in performance at the Rep Studio through November 12. Georgie, an odd and impulsive woman, briefly engages Alex, an older gentleman. She's brash and crass and outspoken, he's of a more subdued ilk. The unexpected start to their relationship turns to conversation, and the two being an awkward friendship that blossoms into something odd but authentic.
As always, check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events!
Hawthorne Players lights up the community theater boards with a thoroughly enjoyable production of the popular musical The Spitfire Grill that clearly places the emphasis on hope, forgiveness, and personal change. The adaptation of the movie makes some important story changes to create a more uplifting and crowd-pleasing ending, and the solid cast effectively creates fully flawed, authentic characters.
Recently released from prison Percy arrives in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin looking to make a fresh start on life. The local sheriff is initially suspicious of her motives and Percy is guarded and wary by nature and as a means of self-preservation. After the sheriff decides she's here in earnest, he helps her get a job and a place to stay at the local diner, run by Hannah Ferguson, a widow with pain and secrets of her own. Hannah's nephew and his wife, as well as the nosy town gossip and a mysterious visitor who hides in the shadows near the diner, all figure prominently in Percy's story of redemption and finding a place to call home.
Stefanie Kluba handles the role of Percy with spunk and just the right attitude. Her voice is clear and strong, particularly in her mid-range, and she brings a genuine sense of vulnerability and distrust to the role. Colin Dowd is shyly romantic, but filled with good intentions and surprising attraction as the sheriff. He and Kluba have several really pleasant duets and their romance develops with a slow, measured pace that suits the show.
Melanie Kozak is a delight as the mousy Shelby and the moment she comes out of her shell and finally speaks up for herself to Danny Brown's Caleb is quite satisfying. Brown finds the change in Caleb, and his character becomes considerably more sympathetic after his world is rocked a few times. Kathy Fugate, Trish Nelke, and Robert Doyle round out the cast, adding texture and a real sense of community to the sometimes overly simplistic story. The cast has strong voices and the songs are, for the most part, quite enjoyable. With such a small cast every voice matters, and while there were a couple of off notes and a few particularly taxing runs the ensemble handles the material and its context well.
Director Ken Clark has a solid vision for the show, and he finds several levels of emotional depth in the straightforward tale, though overall the characters are a bit flat and underdeveloped. This seems likely attributed to the source material, though Clark could have pushed his cast to probe their motivations a bit further. Clark's set is a delight; it really captures the sense of a small diner nestled in the trees of a small town. Eric Wennlund provides a gorgeous lighting design, the seasonal changes of the trees behind the diner are particularly pleasing, and Amanda Jackson does good work with the sound and balance. Speaking of sound, it is genuinely gratifying to hear a live band, with musical direction by Ike Eichenberger, emanating from the orchestra pit at the front of the stage.
The Spitfire Grill, running through November 12, 2017, is a fabulous choice for a community theater company like Hawthorne Players. The songs are pleasant, but not overly taxing, with an emphasis on storytelling. There's little need for complicated choreography or multiple set changes, but the ensemble capably makes use of the space they're given. While more attention to character connection and motivation is recommended, Clark directs the show with clear vision and an emphasis on community, ensuring an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying musical.
YoungLiars take on William Shakespeare's violent, vengeful Titus Andronicus, the cleverly titled and smartly staged Titus Androgynous, gives the play, often cited as among Shakespeare's worst, a surprisingly effective comic turn. Instead of overwhelming, overwrought grief, we find exaggerated characters, pointedly over-the-top violence, and genuinely unexpected humor. Of particular interest is the word play that's revealed. There are layered puns, double entendres, purposeful mispronunciations, and a plethora of innuendo that easily support the interpretation when the show is pared down to focus on its comic possibilities.
The story itself is rather straightforward, if gruesome. Roman general Titus has defeated the Goths and taken their queen, Tamora, and her sons captive, sacrificing one as tribute to the gods. Tamora's bloody and exacting revenge begins the moment the newly appointed Roman emperor, Saturnanus (intended sic), chooses her as his empress.
Tamora's sons kill the emperor's brother and brutally attack Titus' daughter Lavinia. Implicated by a forged note and bag of gold planted by Tamora's lover Aaron, two of Titus' sons are executed for the murder. When Titus discovers the truth, he kills the sons and serves them, baked in meat pies, to their mother. By the end of the show, almost everyone is dead.
The play is packed with rage, destruction, gore, and, when presented as a tragedy, grief. As comedy, however, the incessant bloodletting fits in well with the exaggerated emotions and villainy -- gleeful excess delivered with a sinister sneer. Director Chuck Harper, costumer Maggie Conroy, and composer Paul Cereghino are absolutely synchronized in their approach and the effect is thoroughly entertaining. There's a coarse, b-movie look to David Blake's set design and Ben Lewis' lights that underscores the highly visual comic approach. This is not high drama, but some scholars, citing a general preference for graphic violence among the Globe's patrons, contend that the original play wasn't, either. Titus Androgynous is laugh out loud funny even when it's a little uncomfortable, and fantastically enjoyable, too.
Conroy, as Tamora, Jonah Walker, as Titus Androgynous, Isaiah de Lorenzo, as Saturnanus, and Erin Renee Roberts, as Aaron the Moore, are the center of this psychotically murderous tale. Cereghino, as musician and Clown, is our guide and narrator through the quickly shifting violence. Conroy and Roberts are ravenous and Machiavellian, and countered by an equally fierce Walker; their energy is stereotypically and unrepentantly masculine. de Lorenzo walks like a dancer, with an air of authority and a hint of sexual ambiguity, and Cereghino provides a delightfully constant stream of chatter, commentary, and wit that's sometimes Gracie Allen, sometimes Lou Costello, and all court jester.
Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Amanda Wales, Rachel Tibbets, Jeff Skoblow, Michael Ferguson, and the enthusiastically mischievous Katy Keating capably support the leads, with the majority of the ensemble taking on a variety of roles. Wales, Schwetye, and Keating play all the sons and Eagles and Tibbets are extra sweet as the true lovers. Skoblow is quite funny, with a sly, "Did you see what I just did? Don't tell." manner, while Ferguson's reticence indicates a (perhaps feigned) preference to stay behind his drum kit. Dressed as a London schoolboy, Keating's character is devilishly captivating. A maniacal hybrid, she's part 'Lord of the Flies' meets 'Clockwork Orange' and part sassy stewardess, with a demeanor that implies "coffee, tea, or bloody murder?"
The twisted take employs highly mannered and stylized movements and Edwardian undergarments, specifically corsets and bloomers as the base for all costumes. Clever musical interludes speed the exposition while humorously pointing out the ridiculous nature of the original script. Malapropisms applied to character names result in sophomoric puns and there's a sense of early vaudeville, perhaps due to Michael Ferguson's expressive drumming and the accelerated pacing of the show. The resulting mash-up is darkly funny, excessively violent, and quietly androgynous, an interesting choice that may disappoint some audience members but seems ironically ambiguous from my perspective.
Titus Androgynous, running through November 11, 2017, works surprisingly well as comedy. The witty adaptation reveals unexpected jibes, puns, and excess in the pared down source that give the show an energetic boost. The comedy is completely engaging, and Cereghino's clever songs deliver the bulk of the exposition with as much humor and excess as the script. Fans of the Bard, and anyone in the mood for comedy and horror expertly blended, won't want to miss YoungLiar's unique take on the oft-maligned play.
Few writers have been able to shake a cocktail of mental instability and the paranormal quite as deftly as Shirley Jackson, who died far too early at 48 in 1965. Her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, has long set the standard for the genre of psychological horror and left its mark on later writers, notably Stephen King. Since publication, two film versions of the novel have been crafted, and F. Andrew Leslie created a stage version which is currently in production at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves, continuing on November 9-12, directed by Betsy Gasoske.
The plot is simple: Three guests -- unstable Eleanor, played by Tori Stukins; the alluring Theodora, interpreted by Alexis Peterson; heir to the property young Luke Anderson, portrayed by Christian Davis--are invited by psychic investigator Dr. Montague, played by Tim Paeltz, to spend a week in an allegedly haunted house in an isolated corner of New England. During their stay, the guests are tormented not just by the alleged ghosts, but also by Jadienne Nolan Davidson in the role of the officious housekeeper Mrs. Dudley, and, later, by Lindsay Morrison-Jahr as the annoying and petulant would-be investigator Mrs. Montague, along with her obsequious assistant, Terry TenBroek in the role of Arthur Parker, a pertinacious headmaster of a private boys' school. What follows is both theatre of the mind and -- perhaps -- of reality as the house and its occupants experience crashes and booms, spectral touching, cold spots and spirit writing on the walls.
The stage version of Jackson's play has been criticized by some as being long on words and short on action. The confines of a small stage make it difficult to portray the vastness of a Victorian mansion, as the movie versions did. For those reasons, any production of the play might benefit from rapid dialogue and exchanges between the actors. This production seemed just a bit slow-paced, yet Betsy Gasoske assembled a good ensemble cast that seemed to work well together and performed with professionalism. Every actor spoke with clear and excellent diction and inflection, and the production was food for the mind as well as the eyes. Lindsay Morrison-Jahr, in the person of Mrs. Montague, managed to enliven the second act of the play with her faster-moving crisp retorts, and the other actors responded in kind, driving the play to a dramatic climax.
It was clear that everyone involved in the production had rehearsed well and all maintained a good command of their lines. It was also clear that Gasoske, assisted by Pepi Parshall, had studied the play thoroughly and tirelessly, giving their level best to every detail of the set and the movements onstage. This is a play that does not rely on lavish design and overwhelming display; that is left to the viewer, but it requires a solid production to do so.
Now in its 91st year, the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is clearly a labor of love from everyone involved with its productions and ongoing work. Attention to a few basic details might polish their image even more. For instance, when informal talks are presented by theatre staff prior to performance, it might help if they used a small microphone and waited for audience members to be fully seated (thereby avoiding the atmospheric but annoying creaks from the wooden chairs and floors that drowned out the speakers beforehand).
However, it must also be noted that the Guild should be very proud of their beautifully written programs, their on-target sound system for recorded music, and their fine control of lighting and temperature. (And offering light refreshments during intermission doesn't hurt, either!) This production is well worth seeing, and the Guild should be very proud of its many contributions to maintain and support community theatre.
The best things about the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis studio production of the 2015 comedy/drama Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (whose wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened the Rep's mainstage season) are the parts that are, as they say in the restaurant biz, locally sourced. That includes the stellar performances by Joneal Joplin and Susan Louise O'Connor, the thoughtful direction by Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf, and the subtle but effective sound design by Rusty Wandall.
The worst thing about it, unfortunately, is the script. Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it was performed by Mary Louise Parker and author/actor Denis Arndt, Heisenberg chronicles the developing relationship between Alex Priest, a quiet London butcher in his mid-seventies with an comprehensive love of music, and Georgie Burns, a forty-ish transplanted American with a flexible notion of truth.
They first meet in a railway station where Georgie has just kissed Alex on the back of the neck, claiming that she mistook him for her late husband. It's a bizarre story and, as it turns out, a wholly fictitious one, along with most of the autobiography that emerges from her long comic monologue. As written, Georgie is manic, self-obsessed, and chronically dishonest--basically the sort of person most of us would cross the street to avoid. And yet Alex not only becomes emotionally involved very quickly but, even more improbably, joins her in a quixotic quest to reconnect with her adult son, who has fled to America and has forcefully severed all ties to her.
The relationship between the two feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and the play itself feels like a seriocomic sketch that has gotten too big for its britches. That might be because, as Emmeline McCabe reports in her program note, the playwright made no attempt to plot out the script in advance but instead "was inspired by the idea of not knowing where something is or where it is going"--a very free interpretation of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle which gives the show its title. The result is a play that lacks any real dramatic shape and feels unfinished.
For me, ultimately, the rewards of this production came from watching two very talented actors create a credible relationship out of this material. Mr. Joplin's beautifully understated Alex is a subtle masterpiece, shaping a warm and sympathetic human being. Early on, Georgie accurately describes Alex as "not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it." Watching him emerge from the cocoon of that routine is immensely gratifying.
Ms. O'Connor is just as impressive, rattling off Georgie's gargantuan line load in a way that makes it look as though she's riffing on the spot, and finding moments of vulnerability and even humanity in what is, for the most part, a pretty annoying character. Georgie talks a lot but reveals very little of herself; Ms. O'Connor givers her more depth than the playwright does.
Peter and Margery Spack's simple rectangular set divides the black box space in half, with the audience lined up facing each other on the long sides of the rectangle. The arrangement could have created sight line issues, but Mr. Woolf's blocking takes that into account, and his pacing keeps the show moving while still allowing room for it to breathe. This is, in short, a production that gives the script every possible advantage.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Heisenberg continues through November 12 in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For me, the strong acting and direction didn't compensate for the weakness of the material, but your mileage may vary.