Imagine a play about people who are desperately bored, eking out an existence on an estate in remotest rural nineteenth-century Russia. How does one keep the play itself from being boring? Well, first choose Anton Chekhov as your playwright. Usually that's enough. Uncle Vanya has been fascinating audiences for a hundred and twenty years. But the young Rebel and Misfits company goes a step further by gathering a truly sterling cast of some of St. Louis' very best actors:

  • Andrew Neiman is Vanya, the middle-aged bachelor who manages the estate. 
  • Francesca Ferrari is Sonya, Vanya's niece and tireless helpmeet.
  • Peter Mayer is Prof. Serebryakov who was married to Vanya's late sister.
  • Sophia Brown is Yelena, the professor's gorgeous young second wife.
  • Jim Butz is Dr. Astrov, a handsome charismatic neighbor.
  • Suzanne Greenwald is Vanya's mother, addicted to feminist pamphlets.
  • Donna Weinsting is Marina, the kindly old family nurse.
  • Kent Coffel is Telegin, an impoverished neighbor -- a "hanger-on."

These are all truly fine actors and should, by themselves, guarantee a memorable evening of theater. But director Kelly Hummert has chosen to add one final trick to keep the audience alert and involved: it's what she calls "immersive theatre." The play is performed in an elegant home in wealthy Ladue -- on the patio, in the living room, the breakfast room, the study. Teas are served as we, the guests, gather. The actors (in character) are present at this gathering. When the play begins the actors move among the guests, occasionally addressing lines to them. The audience is led from place to place as the scenes require. Russian-themed drinks are served at intermission. All in all there is the air of a cocktail party.

This "immersive" gimmick is a very mixed blessing, as we shall see.

Vanya and Sonya have slaved for years to send money to support the professor in his work. Now they realize that the professor has done nothing worthwhile at all. Moreover, the professor, having retired, plans to live on the estate -- at their expense. Many plays center on a romantic triangle. Well here there develops a sad sort of romantic pentagon. Vanya is not only resentful toward the professor but he's simply mad for the beautiful Yelena, the professor's wife. She, though married, is strongly attracted to Dr. Astrov. But poor Sonya has been in love with Astrov for years! Astrov is mildly fond of Sonya, but really he considers her as just part of the furniture of the estate. That's Chekhov. Everybody is always in love with the wrong person.

Two performances shine brilliantly. Jim Butz is utterly, profoundly real as Astrov. The immersive format lets us see in intimate detail the workings of this astonishing actor. 

And Sophia Brown quite transforms the play. Now in the script Yelena more than once describes herself as shy. In most productions she is buttoned to the neck in Victorian elegance -- her emotions repressed. Here we see the lovely miss Brown with hair that might pass as Victorian (in slight disarray), but with skirts slit to the hip. This anachronism is easily forgiven because it allows for the very natural and unashamedly sexual display of her beautiful legs. This woman excites! Her volatile and multi-layered performance makes it clear why Yelena so disrupts this stiflingly staid household. In the most poignant moments she can burst into a wonderfully infectious giggle. She is, as Vanya says, a mermaid; she entices men to crash their lives onto the rocks.

Andrew Neiman gives a vigorous and agonized portrayal of Vanya. Neiman is always a careful, focused, graceful actor. It's a fine performance but, oddly, to me he seemed perhaps a touch too vigorous and too graceful -- and maybe a bit too young and full of vitality -- for this tired and dispirited man. 

Sonya is such a stoic. Francesca Ferrri quietly captures Sonya's strength and the desperation of her love for Astrov. This lady listens so intensely!

Peter Mayer is powerful as Professor Serebryakov. In the intimate scene between him and Yelena I sensed a real chemistry between them that I've never found in any of the various other productions I've seen.

Donna Weinsting is quite perfection in the role of Marina, the old nurse -- cheerfully dismissing her own aches and pains in her loving care for this family.

Suzanne Greenwald is brightly cranky as Vanya's mother, who still dotes on the worthless professor. And Kent Coffel is endearing and pathetic as Telegin -- and at certain moments he plays lovely background guitar. 

So far as acting is concerned it's an excellent production, but there's a down-side to "immersive theatre.". In most plays the "constellation of characters" is important. Whether the scene is a monologue or a duo or a stageful of people, the corresponding solitude -- or intimacy -- or the busy crowd -- is a powerful element of the scene and is essential to its success. This is the social configuration in which these people play out their emotions. To place Uncle Vanya in the middle of a cocktail-party is a disservice to the play, to the actors, and to the audience. Not only is Chekhov's constellation of characters totally destroyed, not only is the movement of the players severely restricted, but the occasional addressing of lines to individuals in the audience seems to invite audience participation. More than once audience members called out what they felt were witty remarks. This format reduces a work by one of the world's greatest playwrights to the level of those embarrassing participatory murder mysteries that one still finds being performed in the odd mansion. 

And in one scene the immersive environment was presumptuous enough to take on a speaking role. In the breakfast room the nearby refrigerator joined in. It was one of those new devices that are too clever by half, and it started beeping. Poor Jim Butz heroically stayed in character as he tried (unsuccessfully) to deal with it.

So I say hurrah for lots of superlatively fine acting, but a bas to "immersive theatre." 

 

On a weekly basis, KDHX's In Performance series highlights some of the most anticipated shows coming to a stage near you. We hope this helps you plan your night out and encourages you to "go see a play" or other live, local art. And remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

Rebel and Misfits presents the second installment of their immersive theatre project series, Uncle Vanya: Valiantly Accepting Next Year's Agony, at a private residence in Ladue through September 3, 2017. The show is intentionally aware, surrounding and filling the performance venue with a sense of immediacy while still adhering to the principles of live, story-driven theater. As production and company artistic director Kelly Hummert explains, "Immersive theatre is the closest and most intimate way to engage a theatre-goer. Taking theatre off of a stage and setting it in a realistic atmosphere dropkicks your audience into the lives of the characters whose stories we are telling. I believe it's not a trend," she continues, "but rather a more personal journey for both actors and spectators. Once you connect with them in an immersive setting, you share the same stakes. And in that magical moment, our lives are suspended."

Chekov's tense and emotionally driven play delves into each character's motivations, fears, and inconsolable loneliness and lays them bare at the audience's feet. "Like Shakespeare says, 'waste time and time doth waste you,'" Hummert explains. "I think that is the heart and soul of each of these characters, and it is certainly the world they are imprisoned in. My hope is that in telling this story in a simple, honest way, my audience will have a new outlook on their lives." The four act show reveals mounting tension between Vanya and Sonya, caretakers of the family estate, and Sonya's father and his new, young wife, Yelena.  Cocktails are consumed and barbs exchanged, leading to a not altogether surprising yet still startling conflict. Tickets are not available at the door, and verification of age may be requested. 

If you're interested in a show with a bit more action, St. Louis Shakespeare presents the infrequently produced Titus Andronicus at the Ivory Theater August 25 through September 3, 2017. One of the Bard's earliest plays, the show is by far his bloodiest, beginning with the sacrifice of the ambitious Tamora's son. Tamora is matched in bloodlust by the increasingly mad Titus in a vengeful, desperately relentless show filled with characters both cunning and cruel. The result is an intense battle of will filled with violence and biting dialogue that creates bloody good theater.

Director Tom Kopp has embraced the bloodletting with strategic intention and little mercy, and he gives numerous props to the commitment of his actors. "I've had a delightful time working with this cast and tremendous crew, including my wife, Susan, who composed an original score for the production," he enthuses. In addition to captivating work from company artistic director Suki Peters, as Tamora, and Chad Little, as Titus, "there are terrific performances by Britteny Henry as Lavinia, Darrious Varner as Aaron, Ted Drury and Michael Pierce as Tamora's sons Demetrius and Chiron, Chris LaBanca as Titus' brother Marcus, Roger Erb as the newly crowned emperor Saturninus, and Erik Kuhn as Lucius."

Continuing this weekend: The St. Lou Fringe Festival wraps up with a full schedule of shows, including your last chance to see headline acts A Song for Vanya, Snow White, and Evolution as well as attention-grabbing shows like On the Exhale, Hot for T-Rex, and Meatball Séance, through August 26, with a closing party at the Grandel Theatre on Saturday night. The powerful musical In the Heights continues at R-S Theatrics through September 3, with an additional performance added on Thursday, August 24. Though most performances are sold out, standby reservations may be available. Finally, Union Avenue Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel continues through August 26.

 

 

The Union Avenue Opera has opened a delightful production of Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. You'll never hear this work performed by a more glorious collection of voices.

It is of course taken from the folk-tale collected by the brothers Grimm. Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, asked her brother to write music for some songs she had written for her children for Christmas. He graciously complied. Four songs grew into sixteen and eventually to this complete opera, which opened in 1893. It is still popular -- especially at Christmas, but it's welcome any time. 

Shining at the center of this Union Avenue production are Emma Sorenson as Hänsel and Julie Tabash Kelsheimer as Gretel. What a marvelous pair! Both have remarkably clear, strong and pure voices. Miss Kelsheimer's small frame conceals an amazing vocal power, and Miss Sorenson matches her. There's a famous duet in Act Two when the two children, lost in the woods, sing their evening prayer. This is one of the most serenely beautiful duets in all of opera, and these two voices, rising and twining in it, are unforgettably gorgeous.

The two make charming children, joyfully playing and dancing despite their hunger. Miss Sorenson sports a wonderfully tousled, boyish mop of hair -- and a ravishing smile, while Miss Kelsheimer -- almost a wisp of a girl -- is innocence itself.

Others in the cast do splendid work. Meghan Kassanders makes the children's mother desperate, angry and (on those powerful high notes) a little frightening; the family is near starvation and she catches the children playing instead of working. Jacob Lassetter, the father, does fine, hearty work. He's had a good day selling his brooms and (after a pint or three at the pub) he brings home a bag of lovely food!    

Now, unlike the Grimm brothers' version, the parents do not intentionally lose their children in the woods; they merely allow them to wander off. Nevertheless, the kids get lost and find that the Ilsenstein Forest is magical indeed. When they are weary and ready for bed a strange little man appears -- the Sandman. He sprinkles his dust and helps them to sleep. This role is beautifully sung by Emily Moses. When the misty morning arrives our children awake to meet the Dew Fairy. Gina Malone, a local favorite of ours, does lovely work in this role.

Curiously the Sandman is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and has the Little Tramp's distinctive toddley walk. The Dew Fairy (the score calls him "Dewman") is quite glaringly not a man at all. Miss Malone appears in this role in a scanty, glittery costume that is straight out of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

And the Witch! Melisa Bonetti blesses this role with remarkable comic gifts, both vocal and physical. She can shift timbre instantly and has a deliciously witchy cackle.

There is a charming children's chorus and quite a glorious finale. And from scene to scene strange mossy forest creatures handle shifts of scenery with all the swift agile grace of orangutans.

Kostis Protopapas conducts the fine orchestra. Special praise must go to French Hornist Nancy Schick; she opens the overture with an impeccable foreshadowing of the evening prayer theme.

Stage director Karen Coe Miller manages the scenes beautifully. Set designer Cameron Tesson and lighting designer Joseph Clapper give us a lovely fairy-tale world. 

The folk tale collected by the Grimms has echoes of the great famine of the 14th century. Costumes in this production seem to be not from the 14th century but from Depression-era America -- a strange choice. This time-shift is supported by the presence of Charlie Chaplin and a Ziegfeld girl. Americans then were indeed facing starvation. Now Teresa Doggett, as usual, does great work with the costumes but to show us Hänsel and his father in denim somehow destroys the fairy-tale feeling. This is not The Grapes of Wrath; it's Hänsel und Gretel. (I suppose that lederhosen might further impede our ability to believe that Miss Sorenson is a boy.) 

In any event Hänsel und Gretel at the Union Avenue Opera is a beautiful and very charming evening of opera. 

Lin Manuel Miranda is best known for his runaway hit musical, Hamilton. But his first show, the hip-hop musical In the Heights, was also a huge success, garnering a 2008 Tony for Best Musical Score and a 2009 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album among other awards. These awards are well-deserved. Miranda crafted a thoughtful, moving score with witty, digestible lyrics. Every word serves to move the story along, nothing is superfluous. 

The show reveals the lives of Latino immigrants and their children in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. There, the neighborhood's matriarch, Abuela Claudia, watches over everyone, including Usnavi, a young man who lost his parents recently and struggles to keep his father's bodega open. The show spins around Abuela and Usnavi, their love for each other and their neighbors, their struggle to find home when they're living in a concrete jungle but dreaming of the tropical countries of their past. If only those countries offered the same economic opportunities as the United States. 

The show's opening night was plagued with technical difficulties: the band drowned out two-thirds of the cast's lyrics and lines, and the mics and lights consistently came on ten to fifteen seconds late. This is RS Theatrics first foray into the new .ZACK space, so technical director Keller Ryan will presumably have these issues under control for the rest of the run. 

Despite these problems, the cast persevered. The ensemble fell into their roles as residents of Washington Heights with ease, and their vocals were on point. Anna Skidis Vargas and Gabriela Diaz play the show's comedic relief duo, and they were enchanting together on stage, their voices blending perfectly. Marshall Jennings as Benny convincingly made the character his own; his dance moves were charming, his voice angelic, and his smile adorable. He made it perfectly clear why Cassandra Lopez's Nina fell in love with him, and Lopez had the audience falling in love with her voice during her solo, "Breathe." Jesse Muñoz embodied Usnavi: he can't dance, he is self-effacing, and Muñoz showed the shift his character makes from the dreamy young man of the start of the show to the self-assured business owner of the end. Kevin Corpus garnered the most laughs with his intensely youthful portrayal of Usnavi's cousin, Sonny. 

The star of the show is Carmen Garcia, who plays Abuela Claudia. Director Christina Rios showed her directing chops best in a scene where Abuela remembers her childhood and the move to America from Cuba. It is a haunting reminder of the sacrifices people make when they uproot their families for a chance at a better home in a new place. The show is worth seeing just to experience this moment of theatrical art. 

RS Theatrics' In the Heights plays at .ZACK through September 3. 

 

With so much theater and performing arts in and around St. Louis every month, it can be difficult to keep up! On a weekly basis, KDHX's new In Performance feature will highlight some of the most anticipated shows coming to a stage near you. We hope this helps you plan your night out and encourages you to "go see a play" or other live, local art. And remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

The sixth annual St. Lou Fringe Festival opens in the Grand Center Arts District with a free public performance on Thursday, August 17, 2017, and continues through August 26, 2017. The revamped festival introduces three headline acts, shows curated by the festival artistic staff and produced by invited artists with previous Fringe experience, lottery-awarded shows, and the $1 DIY Fringe stage. All shows are original works created for the festival or new St. Louis premiers, helping St. Lou Fringe achieve its mission of providing a platform and promoting new artistic expression in a cross-cultural and openly diverse festival.

Two of the three headline shows include a first for St. Lou Fringe: two-act plays. Executive director Matthew R. Kerns explains that this addition is part of the Fringe's plan to intentionally grow by promoting works on the cusp of breaking out. "St. Louis is a thriving arts city, with audiences that actively support culture and artistic endeavors in all mediums," he explains. "With the headline acts, we're promoting our city as a 'test kitchen' for the development of new theater. In addition, we are actively seeking feedback from our audiences." As always, the Fringe offers a wide variety of original and experimental pieces that last less than an hour. 

The St. Lou Fringe Festival offers a number of ticketing packages, allowing audience members to see as many or as few shows as they can fit in their schedule during the Festival's two-week run. With more than 30 producing companies and individuals, and over 100 scheduled performances, theater lovers and curious audiences can easily find something of interest. "A Song for Vanya," "Snow White," and "Evolution" are the three headline shows and will be presented in the beautifully restored Grandel Theatre. Your ticket purchase to the national and local headline shows also includes a complementary pass to another festival show.

Other shows attracting early buzz include a one-woman show from Elizabeth Townsend, last year's Fringe favorite; an original work by St. Louis actor and producer Joe Hanrahan; "Inconceivable," featuring some of the most unique puppets you've likely ever seen; two Zombie shows; "The Bard's Women," "Dead Gothic Society," "Same Difference," and the offbeat "Meatball Séance." Visit the St. Lou Fringe website for descriptions of all the shows, as well as a schedule of events and information on the popular Fringe Family Day, a free or voluntary donation event in Strauss Park with performances, interactive art stations, and a parade.

Ahead of next spring's St. Louis premier of Hamilton, R-S Theatrics opens their production of the highly anticipated In the Heights this weekend, with shows continuing through September 3, 2017. The musical, set in Washington Heights, a Latinx neighborhood in the middle of the cultural diversity of New York, is a story of community and personal discovery. It's also the Tony award-winning show that introduced the world to the talents and genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Based on Miranda's upbringing, the musical tackles some of America's toughest issues -- immigration and prejudice. Usnavi, a bodega owner, narrates the story from his perspective, but the themes transcend race without ignoring its impact. As director Christina Rios recently noted, this is "a story about you . . . that time you disappointed your parents, that time you didn't really know where you belong." Riveting and filled with exceptional songwriting, In the Heights is about overcoming your fears and challenges, and finding your place in the world.

Union Avenue Opera also opens their production of Hansel and Gretel this weekend. The operatic take on the well-known children's show continues through August 26, 2017.

Continuing this weekend: Ragtime, an effective and well-received musical about race, immigration, and the American Dream, at Stray Dog Theatre through August 19; Out On Broadway, New Line Theatre's original cabaret revue celebrating music and gay pride, through August 19; and SATE's moody, evocative, and deeply sensual production of The Color of August through August 19. 

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