The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis taps into the essence and meaning of death in the evocative and insistent 10 Blocks on the Camino Real. An examination of the moments between life and death set on a temptation-laden street known as the Camino Real, the 10-scene short play is filled with vibrant characters and engrossing stories. With its local sponsorship of the National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity, USA collaboration, the festival continues to demonstrate measured, purposeful growth. 

American playwright Tennessee Williams penned the exploration, but his ideas about the transition from this life, as interpreted by the National Drama Company of Ghana under the direction of David Kaplan, clearly translate across cultures. Folktales, dancing, and songs from Ghana, plus traditional drumming by Awador Godwin, interweave almost seamlessly with the stories. The street cleaners, with their hauntingly mysterious masks and rituals, resonate with fears that nearly everyone feels at some point in their life.

The short scenes are all connected and primarily viewed through the perspective of the legendary Kilroy, a champion boxer with an abnormally large and occasionally sentimental heart. Isaac Fiagbor ensures Kilroy is sympathetic and likeable, an everyman who is not perfect but has nonetheless led a good life. As the Proprietor of the local hotel and restaurant, Mawuli Semevo is an amiable and inviting narrator -- until you wear out your welcome and it's time to go. The two serve as the audience's guide through a strange but not unfamiliar setting, poised precipitously between life and death.

As we travel each block, additional characters interact with Kilroy and the Proprietor while adding their story to the colorful tapestry. Esther Ado-Scott is the clever and scheming Gypsy and Joycelyn Delali the beautiful and beguilingly genuine Esmeralda. Abena Takyi and Emmanuel Ghartey are the sophisticated lovers Marguerite and Casanova, and Eli Kwesi Foli is the stern and piercing Madrecita Baron de Charlus and an officer. Yaa Ocloo, Eldad Wontumi, and Benjamin Adzika are the street cleaners and other characters.

In many ways, Williams' script feels like a series of loosely connected sketches, a sort of rumination on the moments between our death and realization of such by the self. More simply put, 10 Blocks on the Casino Real is imaginative speculation proposing an answer to "What comes next?" The National Theatre of Ghana demonstrates, with deep appreciation for the original text, the universal nature of the question. What makes the show so very affecting is how easily we can connect and understand the stories, even in moments when we don't know the words or recognize the language of the telling. 

Kaplan directs from a deep knowledge of the material, and it is clear that the company shares his passion and scholarship. The show moves as seamlessly from block to block as it does from English to the more African and French-influenced language of Ghana. Fiagbor is thoroughly engaged and engaging, at times his reactions are so in the moment you feel your own heart beating with his, and his scenes with Delali have unexpected charm and the painfully reckless abandon of new love. The surprising authenticity of their feelings is countered by the stylistic and superficial interaction between Takyi and Ghartey, creating a pleasant tension. Godwin keeps the show moving at a brisk pace with the constant, but varying rhythm of his drums and he and Semevo occasionally engage in a call and response that would be recognizable in many American houses of worship. 

The National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity collaboration was presented at various locations throughout the city the weekend of September 8-11, 2017. In addition to offering free shows for the general public, several of the performances were attended by students from area schools. A question and answer period was held after each of these performances and many of the students noted that they were surprised by how easy it was to understand the play and feel connected to the themes the show explores.  

Fans of the playwright are encouraged to follow the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis to stay informed. The company, which will produce its third Festival next spring, is to be commended for bringing the thoroughly captivating 10 Blocks on the Camino Real to St. Louis audiences. 

 

A. E. Hotchner, now ninety-seven, is quite a guy. This Washington University graduate has been a novelist, playwright, journalist, editor, biographer and screen-writer. He's known everybody -- from Tennessee Williams (whom he beat out in a playwriting contest) to Hemingway (his buddy for years) to Paul Newman (his neighbor, with whom he founded the "Newman's Own" brand) At Wash U Hotchner has endowed the exciting playwriting festival that bears his name.

This contest is open each year to all Wash U student playwrights. Several contending scripts are selected for a twelve-day "workshopping" and rehearsal with a professional dramaturg. Every other year one of the winners from the previous two Hotchner festivals is given a full production.

I just had a very exciting couple of days attending the staged readings of this year's winners: Superboy by Chisara Achilefu, Desperate Times by Danny Marshall, and Raindropped by Scott Greenberg. The experience gave me great hope for the future of American theater. The readings were done in the Hotchner Studio Theatre by student actors working under faculty directors. For each performance the house was packed and abuzz with the infectious enthusiasm of youth. Discussions after each performance were led by Richard J. Roberts, long-time dramaturg at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Playwright-in-residence Carter Lewis co-ordinated the festival and introduced each performance.

Super Boy, by Chisara Achilefu, examines the related problems of grief and guilt. We meet young Emily, a high-school student, whose friend Joey has committed suicide. Her parents insist she undergo some psychological therapy to help her deal with this trauma. The playwright slowly and subtly lets us learn that the therapist, Dr. Coulson, is dealing with problems of her own.

Joey is a bright kid, but very eccentric. Every day since grade school he has worn a Superman cape to school—“because it gives him power.” He is thus the object of much mockery, if not bullying. Despite this, Joey and Emily become friends because of their common love of fantasy books and films. This friendship results in strains on Emily’s relationship with her regular boy-friend, Daniel. To salvage her relationship with Daniel she betrays Joey. 

Annie Butler as Emily, Noah Weiner as Joey, and Victor Mendez as Daniel all give very convincing performances as these high-school kids. All are nuanced and multi-dimensional. In their hands, and with the mature guidance of the playwright, they present no good-guy or bad-guy, but real young people confronting difficult problems. Ebby Offord gives the analyst complexity and subtlety. Andrea Urice directs.

In Super Boy I was reminded of two other plays where therapists find their own personal demons entwining with the troubles of their patients: Peter Schaffer’s Equus and John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God. Both of these plays leave us with uncomfortable questions. But in Super Boy Ms. Achilefu gives us a wise and optimistic resolution of the burdens of grief and guilt. Laying blame (or embracing it) is fruitless; embracing joyous memories is balm indeed. 

Desperate Times, by Danny Marshall, is hilarious! This play is almost a spoof on David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross—but it’s much better than Mamet’s play. Mamet shows us real-estate salesmen who are willing to cut each other’s throat for a sale. Danny Marshall gives us used-car salespeople tempted to do the same thing. Both plays shower us with a tsunami of foul language; but with Mamet we’re supposed to take all this seriously, and Mamet insults us by assuming that with all that obscenity we’ll think it’s “really hot stuff”. Marshall, on the other hand makes a wonderful comedy out of it all. And I totally buy it. (There is much wildly inventive invective, all done in convincing "New Joisey" accents.)

Pat, Lisa and Troy are under immense pressure to maximize their sales. The winner will become the new manager when the boss retires. Pat is a family man. Lisa and Troy have a history of sleeping with their customers to facilitate sales. Each unites with each to sabotage the third. A final surprise twist brings all their hopes crashing down -- but with the faint possibility that these lives just might lose some of their sleaze.

Jordan Dubin, Anna McConnell and Noah Weiner do splendid work as these significantly sleazy sales personnel, under the direction of the dramaturg, Richard Roberts. 

Raindropped, by Scott Greenberg, presents a party of young friends at a "destination" wedding in the Maldives. The “Bride and Bride” are Liz and Beth. The Best Man is Liz’s ex-lover, Elliot. The Maid of Honor is Liz’s sister, Jess (who had once slept with Elliot when he and Liz were a couple). Weird enough yet?

Elliot is still in love with Liz, but tries to behave and be a "good Best Man." But he’s troubled by guilt because his brother is back in the States dying of lung cancer and Elliot knows that he should be back there with him.

There are many scenes, secret-agent dreams, rainstorms, bonfires, a pretty standard wedding reception speech, hallucinations, some bad puns, shootings, bashing with a Bible, a lost (then found) wedding ring, and a guilt-laying dying brother who coughs à la Camille. The play has a blend of the flavors of romantic sit-com, soap opera and spy/action film -- all lightly and gracefully handled. 

The mostly-college audience responded throughout with eager laughter and giggles. Of all the exciting actions happening on the stage the most utterly shocking to several in the audience was when our hero threw his smart-phone into the ocean!!! (OMG!!!) 

The cast does excellent work. Lucas Marschke plays Elliot, Helen Fox is Liz, Natalie Thurman is Liz’s sister Jess, Hanna Dains is Beth, and Nathan Lamp plays the dying brother. Lamp also brings a special odd charm to a mysterious Man, who keeps popping up. 

Am I just too old-fashioned? I think that the play’s apparent assumption that gender is utterly irrelevant nowadays let some real dramatic possibilities slip by. We are, let’s face it, a gendered species, and in that fact lies considerable drama—and certainly much comedy.

In all three plays Daniel Washelesky does excellent work as narrator, reading the scene descriptions and stage directions.

Bon voyage, young playwrights. Bon chance! Break a leg! Have fun on your bright adventure.

 

 

STAGES St. Louis closes out their season with the crowd-pleasing favorite South Pacific. The musical, set during World War Two introduces audiences to a crew stationed on an island in the South Pacific region, away from the main battlefields of the War, but providing support, information, and care to soldiers. Engaging performances and a light as a feather tone enable the show to impart some serious lessons about accepting others and getting along.

Ensign Nellie Forbush, our leading lady, a nurse stationed on the island and played with aplomb and spunk by Leah Berry, has recently met and fallen in love with Emile de Becque, a native Frenchman who has lived on the island for years, played by Michael Halling. Their romance is told not only against the backdrop of the war, but also the lore of the islands, particularly the legendary Bali Ha'i, described as a paradise just a short boat ride away from the base. These are the islands where sailors and soldiers go to relax, to recover from injuries, or to find comfort and friendship from the locals. 

Without stating so overtly, the affair between the nurse and businessman stands in contrast to the usually temporary liaisons between local, brown skinned women and the predominantly white American forces. An often-overlooked aspect of the musical is how the show successfully interjects questions about racism and segregation in a way that fits, contextually, with the plot. In order to find love and happiness, both Ensign Forbush and Lieutenant Joseph Cable, played with an all-American appeal by Matthew Hydzik, must acknowledge and overcome the casual racism of their upbringing. 

Berry is effusive and always optimistic as Forbush, with a beguiling charm that almost excuses some of her behavior, and her voice capably handles the score and range of the character. Halling is a bit mysterious as the Frenchman, with a voice that smoothes over all misgivings the moment he begins to sing. Hydzik gives Cable range and emotional depth. His scenes with Sydney Jones, as Liat, Bloody Mary's daughter and the object of Cable's conflicted affection, move from heartwarming to heartbreaking. 

The supporting cast is as impressive as the leads. Joanne Javien is conniving and commanding as Bloody Mary, her rendition of "Bali Ha'i" is at once alluring and haunting. Spencer Jones and Elle Wesley are charming as de Becque's children, their opening "Dites-Moi" perfectly sets the tone and temperament of the show. Mark Diconzo delights as Luther Billis, whether he's clowning around with the guys or mooning over Nurse Forbush. Myles McHale, Chris Tipp, John Flack, Steve Isom, and Kari Ely are among the standouts in an all-round capable cast.

One of the other notable elements of the musical that is often forgotten is that not everyone gets a happily ever after. The sense of loss of life, as well as the cost of war in lives and dollars, is referenced frequently throughout the show. And prejudices that remain today are emphasized by the relationship between Cable and Liat. The company stages their liaison in a gentle, strictly PG love scene, but the follow up scenes, when Bloody Mary tries to negotiate a marriage, when Cable wrestles with very real feelings he's been taught to reject, and when Liat has her heart broken, are poignant moments that deserve to linger. Even the way Forbush struggles with her feelings for de Becque and his children feels current and worth reflection.

Filled with memorable songs and motivated conflict, the plot moves along well, though I wish some of the pacing were picked up. There are times when the show seems to slow down unnecessarily. I also expected more from the choreography and execution of the songs. The stage, light, sound, and costume design all suit the show, with costumes that nicely reflect the period and occasionally add to the humor. The familiar and well-known songs are nicely turned, but feel a bit lacking in excitement and emotional connection, and there are times when it feels the cast is "going through the routine."

All in all, however, this production of South Pacific, running through October 8, 2017, is a fine rendition of classic American musical entertainment. The cast and crew at STAGES bring the story and themes to life, guaranteeing a pleasant evening. There just seems to be a little something lacking.

 

The Inevitable Theatre Company makes its St. Louis debut with the regional premier of Stewart Permutt's Unsuspecting Susan, a show that starts chatty, conversational, and seemingly aimless but is filled with worries, heartache, and perspective. The show is warm and inviting, but don't get too comfortable, because you can sense there's change coming. 

The title character, Susan Chester, played by St. Louis favorite Donna Weinsting with her usual mix of humor, common sense, and relate-ability, is a recent divorcee and the doting mother of her adult son Simon. Comfortably affluent, Susan fills her days with chores like gardening and getting together to visit and gossip with her girlfriends. Though she may have been through some rough times, Susan's current life seems pleasant and relatively free of worry.

With a friendly but conspiratorial tone, Weinsting lets us know who's on the in (her best friend Elaine, even though she's going through a tough bit herself right now) and who's on the out (neighbor Jill, who seems to be drinking more often than not and has trouble managing her sons). We also learn much more about Simon, his troublesome upbringing, and newfound roommate and apartment in the city. Susan worries quite a bit about Simon, and there's clearly something troubling her, though she tries valiantly to brush it off. 

That is until the police knock upon her door in the middle of the night and DC Karen, played with the appropriate mix of authority and sympathy by Christina Sittser, informs Susan that her son is deceased and the primary suspect in a recent terrorist bombing. The news tears Susan apart in numerous ways. First, there's the loss of her beloved son. Then the questions and interrogation by the police -- rooting through her house and confiscating every bit of potential evidence. Finally, Susan learns who her real friends are, and whom she can count on for company and comfort as she stumbles through her own feelings and questions.

From the moment the police officer knocks on the door forward, Unsuspecting Susan is taut and moves along at a motivated pace. Weinsting is genuinely convincing and engaging as Susan. She capably and sympathetically wears her conflicted emotions and concerns on her sleeve, even as she pours herself another drink and ponders the changing nature of her friendships. As the story unfolds, her recollections and observations become crystal clear, her questions and fears sharply defined. A conversation that started out as familiar chatter turns dark and deeply introspective.

Unfortunately, the show leading up to this point moves at too slow and measured of a pace; I nearly lost interest in the story. It is also difficult to ascertain if the lengthy pauses and measured movements are planned or a result of nerves. Weinsting generally comes across as assured and confident in her character, but there was a definite sense of uncertainty during the first twenty or so minutes of this show. Though director Robert Neblett undoubtedly constructed the pace to lull us in, it is almost too languid, the hesitant moments just a bit too long. Fortunately, when the pace picks up is does so with clarity and purpose as well as new found energy. 

The perspective of the perpetrator's family seldom receives as much attention as the criminal or the victims and their families. Unsuspecting Susan, running through September 30, 2017, provides a window into this experience in an intimate, personal play. Effective and nicely portrayed by Weinsting, if a bit slow out of the gate, the show draws you in then knocks you back a peg as it explores a different aspect of terroristic acts. Inevitable Theatre Company can be proud of their initial offering, and I look forward to the company's next show.

 

Avoid the heat this weekend by spending some time in a local theater! Welcome to this week's KDHX In Performance feature, previewing The Feast, by St. Louis native Cory Finley. There are also numerous shows continuing their run this week, ensuring a performance of interest for nearly everyone.

St. Louis Actors' Studio kicks off its eleventh season with the taut, twisting, and psychologically probing The Feast, in performance through October 8, 2017. The 2014 play, which premiered at the Flea Theater under the title Sunk, traces the impact on Matt and Anna's relationship when the sewers under their apartment open up and begin speaking. Matt's art is getting darker, strangers seem to know his fate -- storm clouds are clearly gathering directly over the apartment. Mixing traditional and mythological themes with modern realities, the show is a study of character, situation, and fear that questions our perceptions of reality as it takes multiple turns along the path to its conclusion. 

Finley, a John Burroughs School graduate, is an established playwright and the writer and director of Thoroughbred, an official 2017 Sundance Film Festival NEXT program selection. In The Feast, he smartly mixes the comic and disturbing, sometimes in surprisingly creepy ways, while creating interesting, complex situations grounded in our everyday relationships and interactions. The three-person show under the direction of John Pierson features Spencer Sickmann, Jennifer Theby Quinn, and Ryan Foizey. 

The company is offering two opportunities for audiences to see the show and meet the playwright. Finley will be in attendance for the opening night performance, Friday, September 22, and will join the director and cast for a post-show reception at the West End Grill and Pub. On Sunday, September 24, the play's director John Pierson will lead a talk back with the author and cast following the 3pm performance. Audiences are invited to attend either of these events at no additional charge.

Continuing this weekend: Tesseract Theatre presents Coupler a story set in motion on an urban train. The charming play, running through September 24, 2017, follows the twists and turns in the lives of the riders of the last train on London's Northern Line. Elements of magic, mystery, and a little pixie dust are thrown in as the six passengers learn to connect, listen, and work with each other. 

Unsuspecting Susan, continuing through September 30, 2017, is a humorous, sometimes haunting look at motherhood from the newest company on the block, Inevitable Theatre Company. The chatty show, starring St. Louis' favorite Donna Weinsting takes a surprising turn when the divorcees world is shattered by news about her son.

STAGES St. Louis wraps up their season with the always crowd-pleasing South Pacific, continuing through October 8, 2017. The musical set in World War II is filled with engaging performances and memorable songs that helped solidify Rodgers and Hammerstein's work as the upper echelon of classic American theater.

A heartwarming look at contemporary families and aging, the hilarious and insightful DOT continues through September 24, 2017 at The Black Rep. The Shealy Holiday celebration gets real, and really funny, as siblings Shelly, Donnie, and Averie learn to cope with their mother's dementia. 

Inventive staging and choreography add to the transformative The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in performance through October 1, 2017 at the Rep. Intellectually brilliant, socially awkward, and living with autism, 15-year old Christopher is determined to discover the truth about Wellington the dog. He learns much more than he expected, and audiences may as well. 

The sweet natured, musically pleasing Church Basement Ladies continues its run at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through October 1, 2017. The life-affirming show is a genuine slice of mid-American apple pie. And, as always, remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

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