The name "Borgia" still carries with it the lingering scent of intrigue, conspiracy, assassins, poisonings, vengeance, corruption, the relentless drive for power . . . as well as the glorious flourishing of the Italian Renaissance. Winter Opera, in collaboration with Washington University, has presented a very fine world premiere of Borgia Infami, an ambitious and largely successful opera by Harold Blumenfeld (music) and Charles Kondek (libretto). Blumenfeld, who died in 2014, was a professor of music at Washington University for some thirty years. Now we have a chance to see his final work.

A Spanish family, the Borgias rose to great power in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The paterfamilias, Alfons, became Pope Calixtus III. His son, Rodrigo, was Pope Alexander VI. This opera deals with the most infamous members of the family: Rodrigo, his son Cesare (the prince whom Machiavelli famously advised) and Cesare's sister, Lucrezia (of poison ring fame). In addition there's a rather mysterious member of the family -- born secretly in the Papal Palace and called the Infans Romanus or, in this work, "Narciso."

Now, modern scholars tend to exonerate Lucrezia from being the diabolical poisoner that her enemies have portrayed for 400 years. But let's face it, that diabolical Lucrezia makes much better opera. Donizetti knew that, as shown in his 1833 opera about her. Victor Hugo displayed the same sensibility in his hyper-melodramatic tragedy which appeared in the same year. In this new opera, Borgia Infami, Lucrezia is tainted with those same old sins -- a little incest and the poisoning of a whole dinner party -- including (inadvertently) her own beloved bastard son. 

As has become standard practice with Winter Opera the voices and all technical aspects of the production are superb. And this production takes full advantage of the beautifully equipped Edison Theatre at Wash U. 

On stage we see a hall in a great museum in Rome. Three grand Renaissance paintings serve as background to all the scenes: On our left is Cesare Borgia, the epitome of the powerful prince; at the center we see a portrayal of the coronation of Pope Alexander VI; and to the right is a portrait of the beautiful Lucrezia. These paintings are most beautifully done. Moreover they are on scrims, so that from time to time, with a subtle change of light, we see the subject of a painting coming to life behind the transparent gauze. 

A tour guide is leading a group of American ladies through the exhibit and telling them the tale of the Borgias. We shift easily back and forth in time to see the tale enacted. The guide, by simply slipping on a doublet, becomes Narciso, the bastard son who is searching for his mother.

Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Anderson sings a most beautiful Lucrezia, and as an actress she powerfully conveys the fierce emotions of this embattled woman. Her "vengeance" aria is filled with blazing hatred, and her anguish at realizing she has poisoned her son is heart-breaking.

Rodrigo, the Pope, is sung by baritone Jacob Lassetter. He brings fine vocal power and great dignity to this prince of the Church.

Cesare Borgia is sung by Andrew Potter. With a wonderfully strong bass voice and a tall, commanding physical presence he is quite perfect for this role.

Tenor Anthony Heineman does excellent work as Savanarola, an enemy of the Borgias. (He is burned at the stake before our very eyes.) 

Among the many fine voices in this production I must single out tenor John Kaneklides for special praise. He sings the double role of the tour guide and Narciso. Kaneklides has a remarkably strong and clear voice, and his diction is astonishingly perfect. No need to glance at the supertitles when this man is singing.

Supporting roles are filled with corresponding strength. Zachary Devin, Jason Mallory, Joel Rogier, and Robert McNichols, Jr., play the Borgia enemies who die at Lucrezia's hand. (This, by the way, is the second "Lucezia" opera in which Mr. McNichols has appeared; last year he was the comic Chucho in Gateway Opera's little zarzuela about a different Lucrezia.)

The American tourists are commendably sung by Karen Kanakis, Leann Schuering and Victoria Menke.

A delightful children's chorus skips and breezes onto the scene from time to time, playing and teasing to brighten things just when it's most needed. They are Caroline Danforth, Quinn DiMartini, Julia Joseph, Ruby Krajicek, Madison Ruggeri and Brooke Tatum.

The music is a lovely mix of rather modern and distinctly classical. It's all serious, yet accessible. There are lovely duets and trios, and a beautiful sextet (or rather a quartet contending with a duet). There are quite luscious passages of almost Gregorian chant in Latin.

Charles Kondek gives us really fine lyrics--easy, natural, often witty, sometimes erudite. But there is, I think, something lacking in the plot of this opera. It's very difficult to present a drama with three central characters. We see Cesare hiring the assassination of his brother Giovanni (Juan) so that he can assume Giovanni's military honors. We see Rodrigo eager to establish an hereditary papacy. We see Lucrezia drawn into the intrigue, loving (and perhaps even lusting after) her bastard son. But there is little of a true dramatic arc to the story--one motive ineluctably driving the action.

The program indicates that this production is a "reduction" of the original. Certainly a dramatist (or composer) must be able to cut parts of his precious work to make it producible. A great artist must be able to cut really good parts. Perhaps the element I'm missing in this opera lies on the cutting room floor.

Gina Galati, whom we usually see singing an aria, is the stage director of this production and she does splendid work. Scott Schoonover again does fine work as conductor of this excellent orchestra. Scott Loebl designed the set, J.C. Krajicek costumed the production, and Natali Arco designed lighting; all have done quite beautiful work.

Borgia Infami played at the Edison Theatre at Washington University September 30 to October 1, 2017.

 

St. Louis Actors' Studio opens their 11th season with a bold, intense production of St. Louis native Cory Finley's The Feast. The taut drama delves into our perception of reality, releasing deep fears that linger in the corners to come to light. Part psychological thriller, part personal madness, the show successfully builds tension by planting as much doubt in the audience's collective mind as it does the lead character's. 

Matt, a struggling artist, lives in an older apartment with his girlfriend Anna. The two live in different worlds, and Anna is feeling unnoticed and underappreciated by her increasingly distracted boyfriend. The strain, though initially undefined, is apparent from the opening scene, though Matt is unaware and consumed to distraction by the building's plumbing. In fact, Matt says he hears voices emanating from the bathroom toilet. Unbeknownst to him, Anna has called the plumber over to investigate their pipes. When the plumber first arrives, an embarrassed Matt downplays the incident -- until the plumber describes, in intimate detail, much more than what Matt told Anna. Or does he?

With the exception of Anna, everyone Matt encounters -- his therapist, a coworker of Anna's, his agent, even the plumber -- seems to know about the voices coming from the pipes and what Matt must do in response. As Matt describes his encounters, as he seems to get confirmation from the men he speaks with, his body tenses, his actions become more sporadic and intense, and his mental faculties at once more focused and less coherent. Are these conversations real or is Matt losing his sanity? Does Anna believe Matt, will she leave him, or does she have other, more nefarious ideas of her own? It is often difficult to discern the truth in The Feast, and frankly, that's part of the show's enjoyment.

Spencer Sickmann captivates as Matt, delving into layers of intellect, desire, inspiration, and insanity with realistic human inconsistency. He fully inhabits the change in Matt and his posture, mannerisms, and ticks evolve as the artist loses himself in his experience. Sickmann's Matt is not to be pitied, but there's a certain innocence, a genuine gullibility behind his confusion that is both disarming and a little disturbing. Are his worst fears also his deepest desires, as expressed through his most significant painting to date?

Jennifer Theby-Quinn is grounded in practical realism as Anna, it's easy to believe that everything's going to be ok, as long as she's around, even if perhaps that's not the truth. Her character is, in many ways, the most realistic, but there's an uncertainty, an air of duplicity that hints at potential danger. Is she helping Matt or contributing to his descent into madness? Is she manipulating Matt in some way or bravely standing by his side and trying to help him survive an experience she doesn't understand? Theby-Quinn creates a character so invested and believable that we only need to hear her voice in the dark to feel the fear and see the scene unfold.

Ryan Foizey is impressively versatile as The Man, effectively creating multiple characters with unique perspectives, expressions, and body language, and the three actors work off each other with naturally and believably. He glibly transitions not only from character to character, but from everyday dialogue to the more sinister and suggestive commands and insinuations of Matt's imagination. Foizey is fluid and seamless in these moments, effectively questioning Matt and drawing the audience in to the confusion.

Director John Pierson steers a talented cast down the path to insanity with a sure hand that resists overplaying the situation. The actors respond with nuanced, integrated performances and believable characters. Matt is clearly losing his grip on reality, but we can still relate to him. Anna is caring and concerned, but we can't fully trust her. The Man always speaks with confidence, but it's impossible to discern the truth from his tone. Even in the most surreal or untethered moments, the characters have a compelling authenticity and react in believable, if discomforting, ways. 

The show is precisely constructed and flows at an easy, natural pace while consistently building tension and the dialogue is crisp and purposeful, but the resolution leaves me a bit unsatisfied. The scene in the dark, with just Anna's voice, is so powerful and frighteningly real that it delivers the most potent punch of the show, in my opinion. To me, the concluding scene that follows, while startling, feels too calculated and contrived considering the shocking surprise it intends to deliver. Some audience members will certainly disagree and will likely find the ending twist to provide just the right jolt and scare they desire.

Playwright Cory Finley successfully mixes several genres in his sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and always intriguing script, and the three actors are thoroughly committed and absolutely believable. Though I wasn't too surprised by the twists, I was quite entertained by the way The Feast, running through October 8, 2017, unfolds.

 

 

Tesseract Theatre sprinkles manic pixie dust and twinkle lights over the traditional "happily ever after" in their production of Meredith Dayna Levy's Coupler. The contemporary love story is told through trips on the last car of London's Northern Line train, a surprising but not unrealistic location for modern love to bloom. The story about growing up and embracing your current reality is warm and filled with possibility, even as it covers ground as familiar as that beneath the train's tracks.  

Christopher, a struggling writer, is riding on the metro one day when a chance encounter with the seductively playful Sadie sends his fantasy life into overdrive. She's smart, attractive, and the two instantly click, but their affair is brief. Lasting only until Sadie's stop arrives, it's just long enough for her to plant a lingering kiss on Christopher. The kind that leaves an indelible memory. Inspired by the brief flirtation, Christopher pens a best selling novel and continues riding the Northern Line looking for his dream girl. His obsession with Sadie, whom he knows only as Tinkerbelle, threatens his chance at a long-term relationship with Emily, as does her own encounter with the mysteriously charismatic Glenn. Can these two millennials move beyond their attachment to an ephemeral ideal and find love in the real world? If the Northern Line has any say in the matter, they will -- eventually.

Andrew Rea gives Christopher an earnest, easy-going nature with just a hint of playboy swagger. There's an unaffected quality to his mannerisms and a literary bent to his flirtation that Rea effortlessly inhabits. Anna Hecht's Emily matches Christopher with wit, curiosity, and unrestrained radiance. She feels more approachable and real than Christopher's dream girl, with a relaxed, relatable quality that instantly finds the path through Christopher's intentional distance. As so often happens in life, the more they talk, the more they find they have in common and the more interested they become. Each puts up barriers to the other however, and even the Northern Line becomes a bit peeved at the snail's pace progression of their obvious affection. 

 

Amanda Brasher is filled with mischief and dry comments as the voice of the Northern Line, and her deadpan jibes and encouraging prods provide a delightful, if sometimes snarky, play-by-play. Rachel Bailey and Darrious Varner are just beyond reach as Sadie and Glenn. Almost too beguiling to be true they leave a sparkling trail of "what if" in their wake. Bre Love and Annalise Webb add a more grounded perspective to the situation, nudging Christopher and Emily along to the requisite happy ending. Love provides the voice of reality the lead characters need to change and, as Varner's sister, Love's boss, and Rea's publisher, Webb realizes she needs to make some changes of her own while also providing the piece of the puzzle that resolves manic pixie Sadie. Finally, director Katie Palazzola and Bridget McDonald add texture and some inspired realism as train busking singer-songwriters.  

The show is split into multiple scenes and the story spans a period of several years, necessitating Brasher, as the Northern Line, to interject time references. A few scenes and transitions move a bit too slow, even with the buskers performing during crossovers. And while I enjoy the clever songs and pleasant harmonies, I feel the device is used too frequently in the short show. Cutting a few songs may improve the overall pacing as well. The concept and story work well, however, and I appreciate how interconnected all the characters are as well as the fact that the audience understands this connection better than any of the individual characters. While Coupler doesn't break new ground in the love story genre, an engaging, contemporary setting and interesting though unremarkable characters give the story fresh appeal and possibility.

The tiny set, a collaboration between Jackie Chambers, Brittanie Gunn, Taylor Gruenloh, and Kevin J. Bowman, artfully suggests a car on a busy metro train, with blinking twinkle lights that mimic the precise timing and movement of a carefully scheduled timetable. While the simplicity of the set and lighting initially remind us that Tesseract Theatre works with a tight budget, they are surprisingly effective in creating the feel, cadence of travelers, and urgency of a busy metro system. The imaginative staging and an invitation from stage manager Bradley Rohlf for self-selecting patrons to ride the train enable audience members to jump on board and go with the story's flow.  

Tesseract Theatre's production of Coupler, running through September 24, 2017, entertains with inventive staging, clear direction by Katie Palazzola, and a talented and authentically appealing cast. The genre and format may be old, but the characters and location are contemporary and vibrantly plausible, ensuring an enjoyable retelling with a few whimsical twists and that ever-present pixie dust.

 

As the weather outside cools, activity in local theaters in just heating up! Welcome to this week's KDHX In Performance feature, where we preview a rock 'n' roll take on an American legend and a long ago political conversation that feels eerily relevant today. As usual, there's lots of theater to choose from in St. Louis this weekend, ensuring you've got plenty of reasons to go see a play. 

In the sweltering heat of August 1892, Lizzie Borden's parents were brutally murdered in their New Jersey home, and Lizzie was targeted as the prime suspect. Her sensational trial was followed from coast-to-coast and her story quickly became legend. New Line Theatre amps up the gothic rage with the St. Louis premier of Lizzie, a rock opera running through October 28, 2017 that's loud, rude, and a bit nasty. The show is blistering and powerful, filled with a punk rock ethos and riot-girl rage as well as an outstanding cast featuring Anna Skidis, Kimi Short, Larissa White, and Marcy Ann Wiegert. 

"I knew I would be playing Lizzie for a long time," Skidis mentions when asked about the show. "But the process has still been a bit of a whirlwind. The musical is challenging for an actor, but riveting. Mike Windsor-Dowdy is a marvelous director; he asks all of the right questions while leaving a lot of room for personal exploration. And sharing the stage with Marcy, Larissa, and Kimi is an absolute privilege." 

Skidis notes that preparing for the show has been exhausting and exhilarating. Her last show overlapped with Lizzie, causing her to lose a week's rehearsal, "And yet, I don't think I've ever been as prepared for a show," she continues. It's a good thing, too, as the titular character, Skidis is in most of the numbers. "I've done a ludicrous amount of research, and I think I have listened to every podcast about Lizzie Borden in existence," she pauses for effect. "I might be the only person ever to think that she probably didn't do it, but in the show..." Well, you'll just need to plan to attend to see how the rock opera unfolds.

The West End Players' Guild opens their 107th season (yes, you read that correctly!) with Lee Blessing's acclaimed play A Walk in the Woods, in performance through October 8, 2017. Director Renee Sevier-Monsey marvels at the wide-ranging topics in the Pulitzer and Tony award nominated play. "The men discuss everything," she observes, "from the seduction of being a superpower to orange ties." The deceptively friendly setting leads to important questions examining the tenuous relationship between superpowers, the human side of the arms race, and the hope that negotiations for peace will at last succeed. 

The impact and relevance of the conversation is powerful, and its currency is not lost on the director. "Botvinnik (the Russian) is discussing whether it's even possible to formulate an agreement and says 'all of them are getting nuclear weapons... once we only had to be rational in English and Russian. Now we must do it in Hebrew, Hindi, Afrikaans,'" she observes. "And I always finish it up with AND KOREAN in my head. Because that's the conversation we are having about North Korea. Right now."  

Continuing this weekend: 

St. Louis Actors' Studio taps into insanity and fear with the taut, psychologically probing The Feast, in performance through October 8, 2017. The funny and sometimes disturbing play traces the impact on Matt and Anna's relationship when the sewers under their apartment begin speaking. Is Matt losing his mind or is his nightmare coming to life? 

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 musical theater.

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.

 

 

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. 

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