There's a definite gothic eeriness to the tale. There's the subtlest breath of Sam Shepard's ominous tattered rural American dreamscape. There are wisps of poetry -- or what we used to call "elevated language" -- and it's lovely. A new producing group, the Independent Theater Company, presented Scarecrow last weekend. It's brief -- just under an hour -- but it was truly compelling. 

The play is by Don Nigro, one of America's most prolific playwrights, and it is at least seventeen years old. I so admire producers who can look beyond the flood of new "hot" scripts to see forgotten gems worthy of revival. Such is this Scarecrow.

As we enter we see the living room of a neglected old farmhouse. It's a lovely fragmented set; the irregular tops of walls, the great jagged cracks in the plaster give a strong sense of decay -- and of threat. The furniture is wooden, old, full of character. Everything is in gently coordinated earth tones. The walls are strewn with many clocks. There's a small thrust stage below the proscenium which serves for scenes in the corn field. Set designer Andrea Standby has done a wonderful job.

This is the home of Rose and her daughter Callie. As the audience enters Rose is seated, writing -- her book about evil. Out in the "cornfield" a young man slumbers.

Rose, who has not left the house in months, is neurotically protective of -- and dependent on -- her teenage daughter. Callie is desperate to escape and she often manages to meet her secret friend, Nick, the boy in the cornfield. 

In that corn field an ancient (unseen) scarecrow presides.

Callie never knew her father; he's a mere mystery now. But he left Rose with a hatred of men, and she's desperate to imbue her daughter with that dark fear. Sex is bad: "It just makes more wet little things."

Hidden under Rose's bed is a treasure, all the money left them by Rose's mother.

The play has ancient pagan overtones. Nick is like the old Celtic "Green Man," a powerful, dangerous earth and fertility spirit. (And even his name hints at the diabolical.) There is a dark, lovely sense of Eros and Thanatos -- the union of Love and Death. It's all wonderfully pre-modern.

Margeau Baue Steinau does her usual beautiful work as Rose. Vast straggly hair bespeaks decades of neglect. Her Midwest rural dialect is perfect, and she is so convincing in her fearful obsession.  

Ashley Netzhammer plays Callie. She's perhaps a few years older (and healthier) than the ideal Callie, but she brings her beautifully and convincingly to life. Her intimate, erotic moments with Nick are real and explicit, and yet not salacious (or only gently so).

H. E. Robertson plays Nick. The use of initials cannot conceal what the smooth jaw and the treble voice so clearly announce: this is a woman. There are many roles where gender is really immaterial. This is not such a one. Nick must embody the dark tempting threat that male sexuality poses -- has eternally posed -- for women. Were this a larger, richer company -- or if Ms. Robertson had not been so gifted an actor (-ress?) -- I would have been ready to scold the director severely for such casting. But . . .

  • I know that a fledgling company cannot draw scores of auditioners, 
  • I know that there is a chronic shortage of men at auditions, and 
  • I saw that Ms. Robertson is able to truly master the masculine walk, carriage, gestures and attitude. 

She enabled me to easily suspend my disbelief. She is so natural, so real. Bravo! (Brava!?)

Throughout the evening the lighting, by Karen Pierce, was quite beautiful: subtle, sensitive, evocative. Amazing work in this venue which is not overly equipped with lighting gear. 

My hearty congratulations to director Britteny Henry for such careful, beautiful work. She also designed the very effective sound. She's a talent to be watched. 

  

Time is an interesting concept around which to build a show. Its construct is fluid and its possibilities the source of endless imaginative speculation. Circus Flora chooses to embrace this notion in Time Flies, a whimsical story of a tinkerer and his attempts to cross through time and space to save his community.

The story is, naturally, just a thread used to loosely connect the circus acts together across a thoroughly engaging and often breathtaking display of talent. While it is genuinely comic and complete, the connecting thread to the circus acts is also quite thin in many ways (though serving its primary purpose), a slight disappointment for regular attendees. The entertainment, however, is as spectacular as we have come to expect from the company. 

Our narrator Yo-Yo, a gold-threaded harlequin, glibly provides exposition and the occasional wise crack as we are guided through the story of the tinkerer from long ago trying to end a drought that has plagued his community. A mysterious man appears and gives the tinkerer a magic box, stating he will have to wait eighty years for the key to open the box and bring the rain. Realizing he hasn’t that much time, the tinkerer decides to fashion a means to jump to the future and discover the key. Will the tinkerer be able to open the box and save the community? Along his journey, the tinkerer stumbles across a variety of circus acts, as well as meeting his grandson and the beautiful and acrobatic dancer he loves. 

The time shifting transition is one of the most enchanting moments in the circus. An aerialist dangling in the sky seems to command space and time through her gracefully daring extensions and spins. Soon afterwards, the Flying Wallendas thrill us with their death-defying tightrope work, executing pyramids, headstands, bicycle rides, and a variety of turns that elicit audible gasps from the audience. Then come the acrobatics and animal acts, including the St. Louis Arches and a beautiful silver-grey horse that prances, jumps, and steps in an intricately choreographed dance. Trapeze artists fly by and pygmy goats perform clever and amusing tricks. 

The show introduces new performers every season, but longtime attendees will appreciate the year-to-year continuity of the company’s core. Fan-favorites and Circus Flora mainstays Tino, Olinka, Aurelia, Alex, Claire, Alida, and Ysabella of “The Flying Wallendas” anchor the team. Acrobat and trickster extraordinaire Sidney “Iking” Bateman, Andrew Adams, Hovey Burgess, Kyle Driggs, Sasha Harrington, Cassidy Herriott, Heidi Herriott, Adam Kuchler, Cecil MacKinnon (as Yo-Yo the narrator), Jack Marsh, and Andrea Murillo skillfully fill the company. Naturally, the Circus Flora animals join in on the fun with impressive moves of their own.

The company’s protégées the St. Louis Arches join them once again and it is a moment of pure delight to watch how younger members of the audience light up when they see acrobats not much bigger or older than them commanding center stage. This year’s archers include Austin Buhr, Sarah Kuhlman, Chauncey Kroner, Oliver Layher, Malik Leeks, Ollie Lloyd, Finn Mateo McNamee, Sally Sneider, Kyran Walton, and Maya Zuckerman, under the direction of Jessica Hentoff. Many members of the team have grown up under the Circus Flora Big Tent and it’s a joy to see them improve and take leading roles in the act. The company is also joined by the vibrant and captivating aesthetic of The Poemas, with Adrian A., Adrian B., Mariana, and Tommy Chapay, Eric Fernandez, Zach Holmberg, Daniela Prieto, and Martin Rios.

The entire show moves along quickly from act-to-act in an almost overwhelming array of strength, grace, and athleticism. The tinkerer, his grandson, and Yo-Yo are a near constant presence, offering funny jokes and humorous slight of hand as the crew quickly shifts the set for the next act. The band, under musical director Janine Del’Arte and featuring Suzanne Morissette Cruz, Andy Hainz, Abbie Steiling, and Mark Maher, adds atmospheric touches and references the fluidity of time while keeping a steady rhythm for the performers. 

There are a few minor issues with the show however, though none are insurmountable. As mentioned, the story could use more connection to the acts, and children younger than three or four and those with hearing problems may find it a bit difficult to follow along. The issue is compounded by a sound system that is less reliable and static filled at times, making it difficult to hear from the edges of the audience seats. Additionally, the venue is already quite warm, though temperatures have not hit their summer highs. The heat can prove distracting to some; luckily everyone can appreciate the spectacular expertise and audience-engaging demeanor of the performers

Circus Flora is an intimate one-ring circus that offers all the thrills and exhilarating feats of a big circus in an up-close and personal venue. Time Flies celebrates the company’s 31st season with a genuinely engaging and awe-inducing show that captures the imagination of young and old. Families with nut allergies may also want to mark their calendars for the nut-free first night performances each year. Season after season, Circus Flora’s family-friendly entertainment brings St. Louis a sense of the magically fantastic that continually impresses.

 

Bathed in cynicism and varying shades of blue, New Line Theatre's latest musical The Sweet Smell of Success is a stunning throwback to the days of noire cinema. The cautionary tale of power, greed, and the insatiable lust for gossip and publicity that fuels the paparazzi remains relevant to this day. The story is grim, and the life or death approach of the publicists, as smartly conveyed in the opening number, appears too over-the-top to be real. Until we realize that the tragic consequences align all too well with the news.

Sidney Falco, originally Falconi, is a struggling publicist just trying to get a mention in JJ Hunsecker's column. Hunsecker is popular -- with more than sixty million readers, we are often reminded -- and has no qualms about abusing the power of his popularity to stay on top. In a life-altering coincidence, Sidney unwittingly stumbles upon JJ's half-sister Susan and her would be fiancée Dallas, a piano player in a seedy jazz club.

When JJ takes a shine to Sidney, the kid feels he's got it made. Soon he's sporting a new suit and fedora, dining at the best clubs, seeing the top shows, and gathering new clients at every turn. There's a price to be paid for JJ's interest, however. JJ Hunsecker demands loyalty and unquestioned obedience. The fact is underscored in nearly every interaction he has, but none more forcibly and uncomfortably than his relationship with his much younger sister Susan. JJ assigns Sidney the task of helping him watch and control Susan, but she sees through the ruse. The result is a tense triangle whose sharp edges can be lethal.

Zachary Allen Farmer (no relation) is near perfection as the manipulative and controlling JJ Hunsecker, bringing likeability to a man who comfortably slides down the slippery slope. His impressive baritone to tenor range enables him to play on the dark side of character with texture and nuance. Hunsecker is a genuinely power hungry and self important man with little, if any, remaining true moral conscience, yet Farmer employs a light and stylized touch that removes stern moral judgment. 

Matt Pentecost is visibly conflicted as the ambitious to a fault Sidney Falco. His voice is rich and solid, with a heroic resonance, but his choices ensure he remains the anti-hero. As with Farmer and JJ, Pentecost ensures that we like Sidney, and it's always quite clear that Sidney has pangs of guilt regarding the ramifications of his actions. His final rendition of "At the Fountain" is emotionally compelling and satisfyingly expressive. 

Ann Hier and Sean Michael are thoroughly watchable as lovers Susan Hunsecker and Dallas Cochran, their soprano and tenor range sweetly complementary. They light up appropriately in each other's company and their voices are clear, bright, and perfectly tuned. Sarah Porter, as Sidney's girlfriend Rita, captures the audience with a hopeful, bluesy tune, and Kent Coffel, Kimi Short, and the ensemble capably add depth to the atmospheric musical. 

The technical aspects of The Sweet Smell of Success come together as strikingly on point as the cast. Rob Lippert's mid-modern set and lighting design in a blue-shaded palette is complemented by Sarah Porters period style costumes, each one finished with fabulous shoes. Directors Scott Miller, Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter keep the show moving at a brisk pace. The songs are sharp and well executed as are the dances, choreographed by Taylor Pietz, referencing but not replicating the period, and luring us into the sordid story. "The Column," "I Could Get You in JJ," and "Dirt" shine among the ensemble pieces, while "I Cannot Hear the City," "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," and "At the Fountain" work nicely as ballads. 

The script and lyrics are somewhat dated, with abundant sexism and, to a lesser degree, racism dolled out in an offhanded, casual manner. While the assumption that every aspiring starlet is a woman of loose morals flitting from bed-to-bed is tiring, the attitude is relevant to the story. On the other hand, the racial slurs, however slight by some standards, are easily removed without changing the tone or intention of the related lines. Additionally, Carter expertly leads the band through the moody, tense score but some modulation may improve the sound balance on a few of the songs. 

The Sweet Smell of Success, running through June 24, 2017 at the Marcelle Theater, casts unflattering shadows on the underside of fame, but the musical is spectacular theater and visually gorgeous. The story is compelling and captivating, the performances are uniformly strong and harmonically on point, and attention to detail adds the finishing touch on New Line Theatre's entertaining production.

 

 

The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis brings one of the Bard's lesser-known works to life with its thoroughly enchanting production of The Winter's Tale. The story cautions against the perils of misplaced jealousy and distrust through King Leontes, a good man who suffers a very ill timed and misguided lapse in judgment. Despite his best efforts, all hope is not lost. After the king learns his lesson, friends, family, and couples are reunited and much happiness ensues. The show is a tricky pastiche, neither a tragedy nor a full-on romantic comedy, but the company's execution is near flawless and engaging.

Charles Pasternak excels in his role as Leontes, giving the king an essential goodness that makes it even easier to put one's self in his shoes. His voice is clear and resonant, his diction crisp and precise, and his characterizations expressive and broad, but never exaggerated or contrived. These distinctions are important because he's playing outdoors to a large audience, with many likely much less familiar with this play than other Shakespearian works. Pasternak commands and artfully holds attention. He's capably complemented by the rest of the cast, ensuring the play's transitions of time, place, and social standing are clearly distinguished then deftly and smoothly filling their characters with life.

Cherie Corinne Rice is almost ethereal as Hermione, the queen beyond reproach. She glides across the stage, her costume reflecting the light and giving her a radiance that's seconded by her warm, persuasive voice. Chauncy Thomas is by turns deferential, concerned, confused, angry, resolute, and reconciled as Leontes's longtime friend Polixenes. He moves as if directed by astute perception, his fealty to the king mirrored in more subtle ways by other members of the court. His son Florizel, played with stubborn charm by Pete Winfrey, is young, brash, and deeply in love with Perdita, a shepherdess who's actually the daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Though her parentage is unknown, Cassia Thompson effortlessly conveys the girl's innate royalty and an ability to capture attention and admiration. 

As Paulina, Hermione's most trusted handmaid, Rachel Christopher is flat out fierce. Paulina is as clever and articulate as she is loyal, and even the king knows to be careful not to cross her. Christopher grabs the character's strength and integrity and makes its presence known. The large ensemble cast also features Myke Andrews, Carter Eiseman, Gary Glasgow, Anderson Matthews, Andrew Oppmann, Delaney Marie Piggins, Antonio L. Rodriguez, Whit Reichert, Emma Tiemann, Jerry Vogel, and Sigrid Wise in small but memorable roles that add color and interest to the play.

The Winter's Tale moves at a very quick pace, with humorous scenes featuring popular music leading into each act. The device is a smart choice by director Bruce Longworth, providing necessary exposition and introducing the story to audience members. The scenes are also a lot of fun, providing energetic starts to each act while enabling the relaxed crowd time to get settled in for the main show. Another choice that works well within the context of the play is the incorporation of musicians Matt Pace, Brien Seyle, and Emma Tiemann into the story. Pace and Seyle's original music neatly fills the transitions and directs the emotional tone of the play with a traditional, folk dance bounce that feels true to the time and story.

The production accoutrements are, as usual, expertly and pleasingly designed for the large outdoor theater in Shakespeare Glen.  Scott C. Neale's striking set design is glittering and eye-catching in every light, both natural and projected, but still easily transforms just enough to indicate a change of location. The set is enhanced by John Wylie's dreamlike lighting design, Rusty Wandall's cleverly connected sound design, and Dottie Marshall Englis's costumes, which move with the actors beautifully and reinforce period. The cumulative effect is a show that plays out clearly and looks, moves, and sounds lively and interesting even if Elizabethan English isn't instantly familiar to your ear.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis solidifies its position among the rising Shakespeare festivals in the nation with a perceptive interpretation of The Winter's Tale, running through June 25, 2017. Though the plot dangles ideas of magic and morality, the themes it addresses are down-to-earth relatable and Longworth, the cast, musicians, and crew weave together a satisfying tale. The play emphasizes the foibles and inconsistencies of even the most powerful while providing a path to redemption, an uplifting conclusion to the company's vibrant and richly layered production. 

 

The American premiere of The Trial has opened at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This is a very major event in opera. Franz Kafka's nightmare tale of Joseph K, trapped in an enigmatic trial for his life, has fascinated readers since it appeared in 1925. Composer Philip Glass read the novel as a youth and even then he yearned to write an opera based on it. But Glass kept that idea "in his pocket" for sixty years. It was not until he received a commission from the Music Theatre Wales, the Royal Opera, Theatre Magdeburg and the Scottish Opera that Glass was able to fulfill that dream. The London premiere of The Trial opened in 2014.

Philip Glass is arguably the most influential composer of our era. He essentially invented the genre of minimalism -- yet he is so much more than that. (He prefers to describe himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures.") Forty years ago I was puzzled by his boring repetition. One of us (he or I) must have adjusted a bit over the years, because now I have recordings of Philip Glass music that I actually listen to on purpose. You hear his influence everywhere -- in films, in jazz, in popular music, in symphonies. His music is characterized by a murmuring gentle turmoil, a slowly evolving iteration, a continuous flurry of notes that repeat and repeat, but change ever-so subtly. It can be haunting, mesmerizing.

I was eager to see the meeting of this icon of modern music with Franz Kafka, an icon of 1920s expressionism. The mesmerizing Glass and the nightmarish Kafka! What a combination!

The innocent young Josef K is arrested early one morning. The charge? No one will tell him. We follow him for a year as he struggles to understand this bizarre, mysterious, all-powerful court system in which (as everyone knows) he is already guilty. One is reminded of the endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Dickens' Bleak House.

The cast is resplendent with wonderful voices. Now this is, for the singers, very difficult music. No hummable Puccini melodies here. Often the vocal line seems unrelated to -- or even in conflict with -- the orchestral music playing beneath it. But these are Olympic singers; they carry it off beautifully.

Baritone Theo Hoffman does heroic work with the central role of Josef K. His voice is strong and clear, his diction superb, and, as when he is rudely awakened at the start of the show, he can use vibrato to give a startling bleating quality. It's a fine, committed, athletic performance.

Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon play the guards who arrest Josef K. Physically they're a lovely match. With whitened faces and long dark coats they resemble clowns playing Keystone Kops. While one eats Josef's breakfast the other delights in the possibility of absconding with his clean underwear.  (Could this be a Kafka reference to the Roman guards casting dice for Christ's robe?)  In any event Blue and Mellon have remarkable vocal and comic gifts. Joshua Blue is equally convincing as Herr Block, a pathetic victim of lawyers, the law -- and women; he does an amazingly physical scampering joyful exit. Robert Mellon later does beautiful work as a priest who, in the evening's longest "aria," tells a puzzling parable to Josef.

Matthew Lau brings real power to his portrayals of Uncle Albert and the Inspector.

Susannah Biller, an OTSL favorite who showed gentility and nobility in Elixir of Love and Richard the Lionheart, now bares a quite different aspect. She's simply delicious as Fraülein Bürstner (with whom Josef shares a chaste delicate cartoon kiss) and as the limping nymphomaniac maid, Leni (who spends much of her time tumbling on the floor in sexual abandon with whatever male happens to be near).

Sofia Selowsky gives a fine voice and great variety to several smaller roles. Keith Phares makes Huld, the lawyer, the epitome of legalistic power and obfuscation, and Brenton Ryan makes a very dedicated flogger and gives a very bright and lively performance as the artist Titorelli.

The set and lighting, by Simon Banham and Christopher Akerlind respectively, are simple, flexible, agile: a bare gray wall with two doors, a high window and a hidden closet full of strangeness. It well serves the various scenes from the novel: bedrooms, court chambers, shabby attics, a cathedral. Furniture is spindly wrought-iron, and when beds and tables and chairs are randomly stacked up they cast striking shadows not unlike the works of Giacometti or Paul Klée. Throughout the performance actors are dramatically silhouetted against the rear wall, which lends a strong expressionist nightmare feeling. Costumes by Mr. Banham are a nice period blend of realism and cartoon. Great long scraggly beards add a weird touch.

Stage director Michael McCarthy is the founder and artistic director of Music Theatre Wales. He directed the London premiere of the work, and he manages this shape-changing cast and set beautifully. He stresses the dark comedy. Odd people pop in and out like cuckoos in a clock or like jacks-in-the-box -- to idly, gleefully watch the goings on.

Music director Carolyn Kuan leads her musicians most skillfully through this remarkable and complex score. Beautiful sound abounds.

But . . . Despite the wonderful cast, designers and musicians there was something missing. I was captured neither by the mesmeric music nor by the nightmarish story. Somehow the two just didn't bind. There are unaddressed problems:

  • Musically: The vocal line is almost all like recitative. Not lyrics, but dialogue; it's linear. Unlike the orchestral music which repeats and revolves and ponders a moment before subtly moving on, the singers tell their story in a straight line. There are no real melodies, no repeating musical figures, no opportunity to dwell on and return to and reinforce an emotion, a hope, a fear. For the most part the singers' music is barely related to the underlying orchestral score. Both are beautiful -- the nightmare and the mesmerism -- but in a way each distracts from our being engulfed by the other.
  • Dramatically: The libretto is very true to Kafka's novel. It simply tells the story. Had the plot been presented in a more fragmented, perhaps repetitive manner -- a manner that occasionally frustrates our expectations -- it might have been a better servant to Philip Glass.
  • Visually: Kafka's world is one of shabby tenements, airless attics and cluttered streets. If the production were even more grungy and claustrophobic, with even darker, ominous corners it might better portray Josef K's nightmare. 

Be all this as it may, Opera Theatre of St. Louis's fine production of The Trial is a remarkable contribution to modern American opera.  Philip Glass was present to share the thundering applause at the opening performance.

 

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