Humans are curious, pernicious animals, incredibly resilient and capable even as their lives spiral in and out of their control. We experience a full range of emotions and can be as profoundly moved by pain as by beauty; but just as often, we hide behind convention and seek comfort and the familiar over the genuine. Playwright Tennessee Williams explores the insistence of human nature in the deeply confessional and occasionally unsettling Small Craft Warnings

Set in Monk's bar, a rundown dive on the coastal shoreline, the story introduces us to a cadre of broken individuals who nonetheless retain the will and fire to connect with others and experience the fullness of life. These are not the lives of the comfortably well off or aspirational working class, but rather the perpetual struggles of people who live on the margins. The crowd at Monk's on this particular night includes high functioning addicts, the displaced, and the underemployed. People you pass by on the street and try not to notice for fear of being asked for a contribution or ending up on the barstool next to them yourself.

Peter Mayer's pleasantly gruff Monk does his best to keep the place up, but he's slowly losing ground and there's a palpable sense of loneliness in his demeanor. He's generous to his customers and perhaps too softhearted to do much more than get by. He moves slowly and deliberately, wanting to keep the peace among his regulars and almost suspicious of newcomers to his little hole in the wall. Mayer gives the barkeep a tender disposition, but he's tough when he needs to be and knows just how to smooth things over with the local police.

Elizabeth Townsend's deeply troubled Leona is the center of the story simply by force of personality. By turns prodding, cruel, and inconsolable, she's on a bender to mark the anniversary of her bother's death and no one escapes her aim. A transient hairdresser, she's also come to the conclusion that she's spent too much time in this town and bar, but she's not leaving until everyone hears what she needs to say. Townsend gives Leona steely determination, acerbic wit, and a "take no prisoners" attitude that is at times abrasive and unkind, but filled with an undercurrent of need. 

Local lothario Bill gets a confidant swagger from Eric Dean White. He's on the prowl, looking for solace and sexual sympathy after a falling out with Leona. Magan Wiles' Violet needs a drink, a meal, and a place to stay. Though she's much abused by Leona, it's clear her own choices have landed her here, all her belongs in the suitcase at her feet and all her hopes in the sympathy of the other regulars. Jared Sanz Agero, as Steve, openly pines for Violet, but is resigned to playing second-fiddle to her whims. John Bratkowski's Quentin and Spencer Milford's Bobby share a different romantic disappointment, one masked in vaguely defined expectations and mistaken pretense. 

Finally, there's Doc, played with the mannerisms and predilections of the playwright by Jeremy Lawrence. The good doctor has lost his license but that doesn't prevent him from administering to the local population, most of whom are too poor to afford reliable care. A man with a deep appreciation for the miracles of birth and death, he continually finds bits of wisdom at the bottom of his shot glass. Together, these companions share the drama that's found on the edges of existence, where a drink may be the only bright spot in a day of struggles.

These are not the most sympathetic of characters, each is full of faults, but their stories resonate with genuine realism. We may not like them. We may look at them and consider ourselves lucky not to be in their position. But deep down, we recognize them. The need for connection, the desire to live life fully, and the contrasting fear of the pain -- these feelings are frequently unpleasant, but absolutely necessary to our existence. The ensemble finds the poetry in Williams' hard luck stories and makes us care what happens even as we thank our lucky stars that these situations are far from our own.

Director Richard Corley skillfully guides the actors, peeling back the carefully constructed masks they wear for the rest of society and revealing heartbreaking truths. Though we only see one side of their personas, we quickly get the sense that some of these characters are more able to blend in than others. It's a subtle demarcation that results in an unstated hierarchy -- one that works to fantastic effect. The rundown dive bar, designed by Dunsai Dai, has a recognizable quality to it; when combined with Michael Sullivan and Michael Perkins' lighting and sound design the result is a space filled with a haunting loneliness and sense of authenticity.

Small Craft Warnings, running through May 14, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, openly questions our will and ability to continue to press on no matter the circumstances. The characters are compelling if not always appealing, and buoyed by excellent performances and strong direction from Corley that brings their stories to life.  The result is a surprisingly intimate and moving production that captivates even if it occasionally makes you cringe. 

 

 

This glorious old play by Garson Kanin was the vehicle that launched Judy Holliday into stardom in 1946. She played that archetypical not-so-dumb blonde, Billie Dawn. (Her reprise of the role in the 1950 movie won her the first Golden Globe.) Born Yesterday was revived in 1989 with Madeline Kahn playing Billie, then again in 2011 with Nina Arianda in the role. (Miss Arianda had wowed the world the previous year in Venus in Fur.) 

So that's some pretty tough competition for anyone taking on the role of Billie. But Heather Sartin carries it off with the same level of sheer perfection that stunned me two summers ago when she played Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Vocally it's as if she were channeling Judy Holliday; the Bronxy, bright, energetic voice of this former show-girl just grabs you and swings you along into the story.

The story takes place in a posh hotel suite in Washington, D.C. Harry Brock, a rough-and-tumble junkyard mogul and multi-millionaire, has come to Washington to make sure that the senator he has bought comes through on some de-regulation that will allow Harry to reap mammoth profits on all the scrap iron cluttering up Europe after the war. Of course Harry brings along his doxy, Billie. Now Billie ain't exactly the most refined of ladies, and in order to polish her up a little so they can mix with the appropriate powerful folks Harry hires a nearby journalist to give her lessons in "couth". Big mistake! Paul Verall, the journalist, helps Billie to understand the newspaper, then books, then art museums, then more books. And there's a dangerous chemistry between these two. Now Billie had always thought that after she had two mink coats there was nothing left to wish for; but now she becomes addicted to thinking! And she's smart! ("Smart"! That's the word that best defines Miss Sartin's whole performance.) 

But Miss Sartin is not alone on the stage. She is wonderfully supported (well, maybe "battled" would be a better word) by Joe O'Connor as Harry Brock. Mr. O'Connor is a native New Jerseyite, and his accent is perfectly reminiscent of all those movie mobsters. Harry has "lived his life at the top of his voice," and Mr. O'Connor lavishly embodies that. What a tour de force! He bullies and bosses with wonderful power. Yet at moments he makes it heart-breakingly clear that he truly loves Billie. 

Now Harry, for complex tax purposes, has made Billie the legal owner of much of his empire. She normally just signs whatever papers he puts in front of her. But what's to happen when the now-enlightened and conscientious Billie realizes that much of that empire is corrupt, immoral, and perhaps illegal? 

The casting of this production is sublime! Mark Neels, a fine actor (and director) plays Paul. Tom Moore plays Ed, Harry's subtly boozy consigliore with just the right touch. Will Shaw, as Senator Hodges, looks every inch the part -- and really makes us believe this demoralized politician.

All in all, director Sam Hack has created a resounding success. Occasionally the pace could have been pumped a bit, but it was a happy evening of most solidly gratifying theatre. I thank the Clayton Community Theatre and its founder Sam Hack for bringing us quality productions of great American plays. I hope that many young theater-lovers will attend Born Yesterday to see what a truly well-made play, splendidly produced, is really like.

 

 

Actor and comedian Amadeo Fusca brings his own anecdotes and raw energy to Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, a surprisingly entertaining one-man show on love, compromise, and the battle of the sexes. Fusca is quick to establish a rapport with the audience and always looking for a new and clever angle, essential traits to keeping material that could easily bore and plod moving at a fast, engaging pace.

The adapted script by Eric Cobble traces the various stages of courtship, but the actor’s stories are personal, seemingly drawn from real life, and dependent on real-world believability. The show, much like the book of the same title by John Gray, aims to help men and women get along better by pointing out common differences in our approach to life and relationships, then providing suggestions for improving said relationships. The book, released in the early 1990s, frankly feels somewhat dated, and the structure makes the show come across more like an entertaining lecture. There are even a couple of video addresses from Gray integrated into the performance. While this lends authority to the title and information, I’d prefer to hear Fusca’s interpretation of the material and leave Mr. Gray to his writing.

An established comedian, Fusca’s ability to connect and interact with the audience, while providing a never-ending stream of semi-embarrassing stories about his courtship of and marriage to his wife Sarah, is fantastic and well honed. He never misses a beat or the opportunity to drop in a quick local reference, showing he’s as aware of the St. Louis Blues’ playoff situation as he is fond of toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake. He engages in glib banter with the audience and circles back to reference them just enough to let you know he was genuinely listening. Fusca shines in the moment, coming across as down to earth and heartfelt. The story gets lively, the laughter a little louder, and the audience becomes invested.

Fusca intersperses information from Gray’s books with the kind of personal stories that evolve into but aren’t quite comedy routines. The longer format, with a more detailed set-up and less bombastic punch line, works quite well in the context of the show, as does Fusca’s spirited approach. Though the framework does give an instant touch point for contemporary audiences, Gray’s tone will likely appeal more to those in their mid-40s and beyond. Whereas the author is stiff and a bit patronizing, Fusca doesn’t hesitate to put himself in his place, owning up to his mistakes with humorous detail. Fusca’s stories and personal experience are critical to the show’s success and his warmth and sense of open, mutual respect helps bridge the book’s generational gap.

As an observer, I find Fusca’s embrace of Gray’s principles interesting. He seems too young to have been influenced by the book’s initial release, and I wonder why he latched on to this particular tome from the era’s preponderance of self-help and do-it-yourself manuals. While there’s plenty of science intoned, the strictly heterosexual, gender traditional structure simply feels out-of-touch with modern romance. The theme proves an easy launch pad for Fusca’s well-crafted storytelling, but honestly, much of the advice that’s shared is common sense and not unique to Gray’s writing. Then again, at least this show isn’t based on “The Rules.” 

Fusca is always on, making friends from front row to back, and letting you know that it’s perfectly ok with him if you laugh out loud at his foibles. Just remember, he’s going to back those up with some common sense tips and practical advice aimed at happier relationships. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus continues through May 7, 2017 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza. Judging from the audience I saw, the subject matter will appeal most to well-established couples. That shouldn’t dissuade you from attending, however. Anyone who’s been in a serious relationship can appreciate the humor in the show, and Fusca’s timing and charisma are worthy of much broader reach.

 

 

The second annual Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis kicks off this weekend and promises to continue its exploration of the celebrated playwright's St. Louis roots, including special exhibits and events focused on his painting and short story work.

As many fans of American theater and literature are aware, playwright Tennessee Williams spent his formative years in St. Louis. Though he couldn't get far enough away, fast enough, the city left an indelible mark on the young man, with an influence that permeated, and provided a setting for, his later work. An important aspect of the festival in St. Louis are the panel lectures, exhibits, and additional activities, many of them free to the public, that provide a sense of the playwright, his philosophy and driving motivations, and his relationship to St. Louis.

This year, the festival launched the Tennessee Williams New Playwright Initiative and will host a reading of winner Jack Ciapciak's Naming the Dog as part of the opening weekend. The second annual "Stella Shouting Contest," an unexpected highlight at last year's festival, is planned for Saturday afternoon and the 1961 movie adaptation of Summer and Smoke, starring Laurence Harvey, Geraldine Page, and Rita Moreno, will be playing in the Public Media Commons throughout the weekend.

Among the highlights of the festival is "Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter," an exhibit of the author's work at the St. Louis University Museum of Art hanging from May 5 through July 30, 2017. The exhibit will be featured in an opening weekend panel discussion at the .ZACK on Saturday, May 6, 2017. A second panel, "Magic of the Other" is planned, as is an exhibit of the photographs of Ride Hamilton featuring eye-catching glimpses of actors, in character, at their entrances and exits from stage. 

Williams is known for his plays, however; and the festival will present seven shows this year, including Williams' original plays Small Craft Warnings and Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? These shows open during the first weekend of the festival and continue through May 21, 2017. "Bertha in Paradise," a musical tribute based on the character introduced in The Rooming House Plays at last year's festival, kicks off the festival on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, and continues through May 14, 2017.

Several performances are scheduled to run only during the opening weekend of the festival. Deseo, a reinterpretation of one of Williams' most celebrated plays with a Cuban perspective, in Spanish with English super-titles, is the festival's first international entry. Students from Theatre Program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will present St. Louis Stories, a compilation of unpublished short stories written by the author and adapted by Tom Mitchell. ensemble 2.0 a dramatic reading based on Francesca Williams' collection of family letters; and a Tennessee Williams Tribute Magic of the Other, featuring scenes, songs, and poetry, are other highlights from the festival's first weekend.

The Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis aims to distinguish itself by offering unique events in addition to the performances and with scholarly panel discussion of the enigmatic writer. A bus tour highlighting significant St. Louis locations that impacted Williams during his formative years and a tribute featuring local performers are also scheduled for opening weekend. Reviews of the festival plays will be posted after the first weekend. Complete information on the festival, ticket purchase, and additional events such as the New Orleans Jazz Brunch can be found on the festival's website.

 

 

Equally Represented Arts presents another thoroughly entertaining and satisfyingly fresh take on a classic script with Twelfth Period (or not another Twelfth Night). The company's reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is set in a late-90s high school teeming with modern problems, and it "totally" works.

The original story sees twins Viola and Sebastian separated during childhood by a violent storm at sea. Each washes up on the shore of a foreign land. Viola decides to dress in her brother's clothes for safety and quickly becomes part of a love triangle between a Duke, a beautiful and wealthy widow, and Viola's assumed persona. The widow's confidante Malvolio also carries a torch for the woman, but she cares for nothing but mourning her father and brother's deaths. Until she meets the disguised Viola. Comic confusion, important lessons in love and perception, and a happy ending ensue.

Spring forward several centuries and pick up your class schedule, which also assigns your grade level, as you enter the doors of Illyria Preparatory Academy at the start of the year. Upbeat music is playing and students pass each other shouting quick greetings as you make your way into the auditorium for Principal Feste's welcome. During the show, which moves around the reasonably accessible school, you'll meet a host of familiar characters that soon entangle themselves in gossip, romantic speculation, and bullying with real consequences. 

If the show feels more "She's the Man" than Shakespeare, it's done with intent, and the actors fully commit to the concept and script, by director Gabe Taylor and dramaturge Katy Keating. Lines from popular movies are liberally sprinkled into the dialogue, seamlessly connecting to the original with perfect timing. These high school students believably argue, scheme, and flirt in both Shakespearian and contemporary English. 

Keating is vulnerable, eager, and sympathetic as Mal Olio, pining over Erin Renée Roberts' sophisticated Olivia. This adaptation is as much about Mal as Sebastian, and Keating is equal parts hopeful and devastated in the surprising role. Roberts gives Olivia stubborn independence, but she's caring, not callous. Andrew Kuhlman as Toby Belch, Francesca Ferrari as Maria, and Tyson Cole as Andrew Aguecheek are part "Mean Girls," part "Varsity Blues," and always in the moment. The characters are recognizable and fun, you almost want to skip class and drink beer with them on the balcony all day, but their youthful excess finds a tragic target.

Amanda Wales effortlessly guides the story with an engaging persona as Sebastian, smartly complimented by an eager Jonah Walker as Dude Orsino. The two have an easy chemistry, and the scene where we learn the fate of the real Sebastian sneaks up on you with surprising force. Eric Kuhn brings the artist's eye as Valentine. Excluding the intentionally over-the-top Dawson moments, the character is introspective and observant, an understated nod to the theme of outside observer that mirrors popular film. Finally, Anna Skidis Vargas is engaging and touching as multiple teachers, and her recitation of the school's motto -- a well-known quotation from the original Twelfth Night -- is appropriately serious and funny.

ERA's clever appropriation of late 1990's pop culture with a popular classic play is not an entirely new concept. ERA hasn't simply created a mash-up, however. They've added important twists of their own, ones that have currency and immediacy with contemporary audiences. For one thing, Sebastian never arrives and Olivia never falls in love. For another, our sympathies are more aligned with the genuine heartbreak Mal, representing the original Malvolio, feels after being tricked and humiliated in front of the student body. The show also ends on a more somber note than the original, as Vargas sings a haunting, a cappella version of Radiohead's "Creep." 

These changes may disappoint some purists. For me, they serve to underscore the continued relevancy of the themes Shakespeare explored. Add the troubling treatment of the original Malvolio into the mix, and the company's adaptation is, while less upbeat, every bit as interesting a story to behold. Audience members are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes, as you will be moving from class to class during the show. 

Equally Represented Arts thoroughly engaging Twelfth Period, running through May 6, 2017 at the Centene Center in the Grand Arts District, is fun and fresh. Comic pop references and hit songs ensure the jump forward in time works in convincing fashion, but most importantly, the adaptation raises valid and pressing questions in a cleverly articulate interpretation that entertains and sparks conversation. 

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