The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of To Kill A Mockingbird is vibrant and engrossing, serving both the story and the times, past and current. Packed with an eloquent but forceful message on equality, dignity, and respect, the show is a memory play that feels at home in contemporary America. Harper Lee's seminal story on race and justice, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, has not lost any relevance or impact since its original publication. 

Now a grown woman and long since moved away from her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout in her younger days, revisits her upbringing in a mostly segregated but intertwined southern town. Her father Atticus, the local barrister, has taken on the defense of Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of the rape of a young white woman. 

The year is 1935, and the small town is struggling to survive the Great Depression. Before we get to the heart of the trial, however, we meet Scout, her brother Jem, their new friend Dill, and Calpurnia, the tireless black woman who works for the Finch family and takes care of the children when their father is working. The times are tough and money is short, no doubt adding to the tension in the racially charged trial. The decision is a nearly foregone conclusion, but Atticus gives the case his all. 

The Rep's production of To Kill A Mockingbird captures all the tension and social commentary of the story and adds down-to-earth authenticity that enhances the overall impact. Lenne Klingaman narrates with a wistful, loving tone as the adult Jean Louise Finch. Jonathan Gillard Daly is genuine as Atticus. Calm but resolute, with a slight drawl and a habit of extending his words just long enough to ensure everyone is paying attention. 

Kaylee Ryan sparkles as the vivacious and curious Scout, filling the stage with a confidant, buoyant presence and infectious energy. She's aptly countered by Ronan Ryan as her protective brother Jem, Charlie Mathis as the impishly mischievous Dill, and Tanesha Gary as the thoughtful, observant, and loving Calpurnia. The young actors carry the bulk of the visual storytelling as well as much of the dialogue, particularly in the first act. Their performances are emotionally connected, filled with genuine expression and reaction, and properly nuanced, enabling them to deliver their lines with just the right tone.

The strong supporting cast contributes much of the texture and turmoil of the show. Amy Loui, Jerry Vogel, and Christopher Harris are memorable for their kindness and lack of guile. Alan Knoll and Rachel Fenton are convincing as Bob and Mayella Ewell. Their prejudice and distrust is nurtured by ignorance and poverty, and Fenton is sympathetically conflicted in her portrayal. Kimmie Kidd and Terrell Donnell Sledge may break your heart with their painfully nuanced and restrained interpretations of Helen and Tom Robinson. The two bring gravitas and clarity to the clearly innocent man and his appropriately distraught young wife. The ensemble and community add considerably to the production, evoking a visceral response to the story and artfully guiding the show's transitions with stirring gospel songs.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the focus on the storytelling and the emphasis on authentic, relatable characters. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons complements the approach, wisely constructing a minimal set that emphasizes the memory play's characters and lessons. Having the actors move and group flowers on the stage is another smart choice, suggesting the passing of time and season as well as shifting the emotional tone from scene to scene. Devon Painter's costumes are period appropriate, neither hiding nor exaggerating the social customs and tough times of the period. Composer and music director Michael Keck and lighting designer Michael Klaers provide the finishing touches to a show that moves with energy and purpose.

As an audience, we experience the town's deep-seeded attitudes and outspoken prejudice through the eyes of Scout and her companions, helping to soften the deeply troubling story and its emotional impact. The community provides comfort and hope through its resilience and quiet acknowledgement of even the smallest steps forward. The message of the show, and the history of prejudice that has often resulted in miscarriage of justice, cannot be understated -- these themes are still urgent and deserving of our attention. The production doesn't grandstand or beat a drum loudly to make its point, however, and the result is powerful and memorable.

Moving and effective, To Kill A Mockingbird, running through March 5, 2017 at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is still, and unfortunately, all too relevant a story nearly 85 years after the period in which it is set. Strong, grounded performances, with well-articulated sub-context and moving transitions directed by Brainin, create an artful and compelling production. 

 

When I hear mention of a new work from playwright Neil LaBute a number of thoughts cross my mind: dramatic tension, provocation, psychological twists, bristling dialogue. Romantic comedy would not, however, be part of this list. This fact alone may entice some theatergoers to check out his new play The Way We Get By. After all, I can't be the only one who enjoys LaBute's work even when he ruffles my feathers. As is usual with the prolific playwright and director, we soon discover he's given us much more to chew on than meets the eye. 

St. Louis Actors' Studio's surprisingly charming production introduces us to Doug and Beth, two adults in their mid to late twenties who hooked up last night. At the open, Doug stumbles into the living area from the bedroom, unsure of his surroundings and, frankly, what he should do next. Beth soon joins him and we learn that the two have known each other for some time. In fact, Beth recalls most of Doug's numerous ex-girlfriends. But, for what we learn are very good reasons, they've never dated or hooked up before.

The story, which at first seems just another "morning after" romantic comedy, takes a few somewhat surprising but plausible twists as Doug and Beth work to express their long-held feelings. More importantly, they have to decide how and whether they want to move forward as a couple. The extended discussion is by turns comic, sexy, awkward, uncomfortable, and ultimately, hopeful. 

Sophia Brown, as Beth, and Andrew Rea, as Doug, are well matched as the young couple, and the tension between the two is believable and compelling. Brown is flirtatious and empowered, both confident and conflicted by her ability to attract a sexual partner. Rea is clearly a bit of a playboy, but shows his insecurity by revealing that he is interested in much more than a one-night stand with Beth. What makes the show so enjoyable, in fact, is the common desire to consider a relationship that they share but are equally frightened to state.

Beth and Doug are genuinely likeable characters: good looking, intelligent, interesting, and well adjusted. They're not too clichéd, relatable, and recognizable; plus they're caught in a very clever and mostly unexplored conundrum that's rife with comedic possibility. As importantly, the situation they are working through shares the hallmarks of all romances that start under an auspicious star yet refuse to hide in the shadows. 

The actors roam through their conflicting feelings with logically illogical precision, allowing their movements, posture, and emotions to react in the moment. LaBute has scripted the show in a way that allows flexibility in interpretation, and director Nancy Bell finds focus points in the sub-context and intention behind each line. She and the actors cleverly mete out each new piece of information: a pillow fight turns nearly romantic until history and possibility cross paths; a kiss leads to foreplay and then social conventions prompt questions of their own. LaBute's ability to construct situations and explore them through dialogue is deftly countered by Brown and Rea's commitment to following the path.  

All that enjoyable exploration aside, the script is, frankly, about twenty minutes too long, most of that filled with half-stated thoughts, stuttered hesitations, and the repetition of ideas. Though the dialogue is witty and well crafted and the story arc completed with a hopeful touch, it's not LaBute's best effort. Luckily, star-making performances by Brown and Rea ensure that even those extra twenty minutes are thoroughly entertaining. The two have strong chemistry on-stage and imbue their characters with believable motivation and emotion. They manage to find meaning and intent in awkward reactions, half-spoken phrases, and uncertain pauses, a credit to director Bell and the two actors.

St. Louis Actors' Studio has a close, collaborative relationship with Neil LaBute and the venture consistently produces worthwhile results. Both the playwright and the company are comfortable broaching uncomfortable subjects and possibilities with a shared commitment to "seeing where this goes." The results are always entertaining and sometimes spectacular and the company's current production adds to the successful pairing.

The Way We Get By, running through February 26, 2017 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is not without its cringe-worthy moments and there are a few scenes where you may feel like prodding the actors to get on with it already. But it's a compelling contemporary romantic comedy with enough twists and turns to mark it as a LaBute show and captivating performances to keep you entertained. 

  

Fast paced and witty, Something Rotten is musical history with a generous dollop of irreverent rewriting thrown in. The musical is imaginative and funny in a referential way, pulling in quips and styles from Elizabethan to contemporary. The not unfamiliar premise is given numerous whimsical twists, carrying the audience through the hilarious plotline, involving a musical about breakfast foods, all the way to a quirky happily ever after. 

Nick and Nigel Bottom lead a small troupe of actors in Elizabethan England, but like everyone else, their fortune fades as Shakespeare's fame grows. Nick does his best to generate fresh ideas and Nigel is a gifted writer, still Shakespeare is always a step ahead. The brothers have just lost their sponsor and are desperately looking for financial backing. Nigel is constantly sharing his work and ideas with Shakespeare, who may or may not be stealing them, and Nick just learned his wife Bea is pregnant. As with any company worth its salt, desperate times call for a bold new show!

Something Rotten is filled with puns, visual humor, and clever cultural references. The script unabashedly pulls from Shakespeare; reframing the stories, using sonnets and monologues for song lyrics, and creating characters with names, attitudes, and mannerisms that match the Bard's descriptions. The show also borrows from American musical theater and dance, the old classics to the recent past, as well as jokes about style and technique. There's even a soothsayer who can clearly see the future. And the future is musical. Naturally, there's a love story, in this case, between Nigel and Portia, the local Puritan minister's daughter. 

Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti are a winning combination as the brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, each enthusiastically dives into their role and there's a natural connection between the two that speaks of long friendship with a touch of brotherly competition. The two also use their physical differences and abilities to humorous effect in moments that happen so fluidly they're easy to miss.

McClure's voice is solid and earthy, and his character is very caught up in the here and now. He's an idea man so boggled by life's pressures that he doesn't rely on his own good instincts. Grisetti has a wider range, vocally, and a pleasing, buoyant tone. His Nigel is less confident than McClure's Nick, and comically accustomed to tagging along in the shadows, whether Shakespeare's or his brother's. Grisetti is wonderfully surprised by his budding romance and his transformation is charmingly apparent from head to toe.

Maggie Lakis is wonderfully varied as Bea, and Autumn Hurlbert hits all the right notes as the minister's rebellious, poetry loving daughter. Nick Rashad Burroughs brings a welcoming tone and beaming smile as the minstrel; Scott Cote is uptight with flare as Brother Jeremiah; Jeff Brooks is endearingly infatuated with the theater as Shylock; and Blake Hammond is a hoot and a half as Nostradamus' nephew Thomas an eccentrically adept medium. 

Then there's Adam Pascal, who gives Shakespeare a rock star turn with the bad boy costumes to match. His costumes alone draw attention, dazzlingly metallic and detailed with excessive collars and codpieces. Pascal adds telling glances, dripping innuendo, and sneering attitude to the mix, along with a penchant for self-promotion and artistic appropriation.

The resulting show is laugh out loud funny, dazzling with brilliant Busby Berkeley touches, and thoroughly charming from curtain to final bow. Casey Nicholaw directs with confidence, creating a clear sense of story that's filled with interesting detail and movement. Scenic designer Scott Pask and Costumer designer Gregg Barnes skillfully add color, detail, and interest to the fast moving show. The catchy musical numbers are delivered in well plotted vocal arrangements by Phil Reno, musical arrangements by Glen Kelly, and orchestration by Larry Hochman, and exuberant choreography from Nicholaw.

Fans of Shakespeare who admire his quick wit and legacy will undoubtedly find Something Rotten a clever, intelligent, and satisfying comedy. Fans of musicals will appreciate the amusing lyrics and whimsical references to multiple periods and styles. And history buffs and conspiracy theorists alike will laugh knowingly at the jibes and references scattered throughout the music, book, and lyrics, a thoroughly entertaining first effort from brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

To put things simply, Something Rotten, running through February 19, 2017 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre is a delightful treat. The show is intentionally light and loose with historical details, which it more than compensates for with engaging, tuneful performances and lively dances drenched in comedy, serving up a satisfying morsel for nearly every taste. 

 

 

West End Players' Guild affirms their commitment to producing character-driven theater in a small place with a heart-warming production of Kevin Kling's The Ice Fishing Play. Warm and affectionate, the show is likely to invoke tears from the more sentimental members of the audience. And that's ok, because the story has a simple charm and sincerity as deep as a Minnesota lake. 

The good natured, reflective show introduces audiences to Ron Huber, a Minnesota native with a penchant for life out of doors. He's particularly fond of winter days spent ice fishing near a dam adjacent to the resort property he and his wife Irene own and manage. Business has been down for a while, the fish stopped biting years ago, and the property has only stayed afloat because Irene rebranded the place as an artist getaway. 

Ron is convinced that there's a monster fish hanging out at the bottom of the lake, however, and apparently he's decided not to leave his shack until he catches it. After Ron discovers his truck has sunk through the thin, ice he taciturnly opens another beer and returns to fishing with renewed determination. Settling in to the drone of the local radio station's frequent snowstorm updates and school closings, his reverie is interrupted by knocks on the shack's door. A couple of door-to-door members of a local religious group, his brother Duff, and Junior Swansen, proprietor of the town's bait shop stop in for a visit, even his wife Irene checks in on him from time to time.

The show moves quickly, though at a languid pace, and Colin Nichols, as Ron, has a good instinct for the character's rhythm and personality. Quick to laugh and slow to take offense, he fondly recalls bygone days and significant events in his life, a clue that this fishing trip is different than any other he has taken. Nichols is welcoming and gracious, inviting the audience into his story with a jovial skepticism that captures the script's spirit.

Colleen Backer is completely Minnesotan and adorably devoted as Ron's wife Irene. She maintains the strongest accent among the cast and, more importantly, develops Irene into a complex and interesting character. Backer captures the posture and mannerisms of a solid midwestern girl, but emphasizes Irene's vivid imagination and lively spirit.

Scott De Broux nicely complements Nichols as his older brother Duff. Their conversations have an authentic back-and-forth with a genuine sense of brotherly affection. Moses Weathers is amiable and engaging as Junior, while Shannon Lampkin and Michael Pierce nearly steal their scenes with self-absorbed devotion and a touch of sexual tension. Under the sure direction of Adam Grun, the actors are thoroughly comfortable with each other, contributing humorous moments with nicely defined characters. 

The Ice Fishing Play, a story of a man stranded in his shack on a frozen lake and thinking about his lifelong friends and wife, is sweet and rather straightforward. Still, the conclusion sneaks up on you. I think it's because this is a story of affirmation, not loss. A celebration of the relationships, romantic and otherwise, that make a person's life full. Kling's purposefully rambling script is filled with homespun eloquence and colloquialism that transcend the region, and Grun and the cast succeed in creating an authentic connection with the material.

There are a few issues with the production, including problems capturing and sustaining the Minnesota accent, actors speaking upstage, and minor mistakes with cues, but the production values are by and large well done. The fishing shack, designed by Zachary Cary with props by Scott De Broux, looks great and fills the space nicely. Every element, even the decorative ones, has a purpose. 

Tracey Newcomb-Margrave does a nice job with the costume, particularly Irene's aprons. The sound design by J.D. Wade, including humorous radio voice over work by Mark Abels and Michael Monsey, sets a relaxed, upbeat tone for the show, which while funny isn't exactly a full-on comedy. Finally Nathan Schroeder's light design finishes off the technical touches and, though I don't understand why, the spotlights in the fishing holes really add something.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to state that I was a member of the committee reviewing scripts for West End Players Guild, but had no part in the casting, direction, or production of the show. I am a fan of the script and found the company's production succeeded in interpreting the heartwarming story. The Ice Fishing Play, running through Sunday, February 19, 2017 at West End Players Guild, is a lovely, tender reflection on life, loss, and enduring love. 

 

Stray Dog Theatre takes a deep dive into the classics and restores a once scandalous treasure with a provocative and stylish interpretation of A Doll's House. Henrik Ibsen's perceptive Victorian-era piece, adapted by Frank McGuinness, introduces us to Nora and Torvald Helmer, their household, and friends. Torvald will soon begin his new position, providing a significant social and financial boost, and the affectionate couple is n the mood to celebrate. 

Nora lives her life with a joyful, playful approach, spending her money freely and blissfully ignorant of the day-to-day realities of running her household. She has hired help, three clever and well-behaved children, and an indulgent husband who dotes on his "little songbird." Though it appears she hasn't a care in the world, a secret, shared only with her childhood friend Kristine and the man to whom she's in debt, casts an increasingly dark and foreboding shadow over her happiness.

Ever the chameleon, Nicole Angeli loses herself in the role of Nora to spectacular effect. She flits and flitters with natural charm, but there are a dozen nearly imperceptible reactions that quickly cross her face before she settles on the appropriate reaction. It is a deliciously nuanced touch that illuminates the character's emerging sense of self, but also reveals fissures that eventually shatter her carefully constructed facade. Angeli realizes Nora's emerging identity and necessary change with devastating conviction in a mesmerizing, commanding performance.

Angeli and the excellent supporting cast are completely in tune with director Gary F. Bell, and the result is compelling and authentic. John N. Reidy sighs and pines for his friends' happiness as Dr. Rank. Stephen Peirick is both off-putting and sympathetic as Krogstad, a man seeking a second chance but desperate enough to threaten Nora. Rachel Hanks is wise to the ways of the world and a bit weary as Kristine. Her life has not been as easy as Nora's, but Hanks resists any inclination to be bitter and her character is instrumental in Nora's evolution. Melanie Kozak, Simon Desilets, Joe Webb, and Tina Renard capably round out the cast as the Helmer's household staff and children.

Ben Ritchie as Torvald, Nora's unconsciously dismissive and controlling husband, provides the perfect foil and antagonist for Angeli's Nora. The two actors know and trust each other completely, enabling them to give over to Bell's direction and the unrelenting deconstruction of their characters that Ibsen so brilliantly scripts. Usually praised for restraint, Ritchie is the one who loses control by tightening his grasp, and Angeli responds with exquisite poise and venom. Though painful, the impact is neither cruel nor hateful, but by turns raw, brutally honest, and deeply exuberant, a release rather than an explosion.

I am a fan of Ibsen's work, but find I am almost always disappointed in staged productions. With A Doll's House, the direction is usually heavy-handed and melodramatic, creating a production that overlooks the important unpacking of theme and character. Luckily, Stray Dog Theatre avoids these traps in their thoroughly engaging, smartly entertaining production. 

As usual, Stray Dog Theatre elevates its space with visually clever scenic design by Robert J. Lippert, costumes by Eileen Engel, lighting by Tyler Duenow, and sound by Justin Been. The costumes reflect the elaborate style of Victorian wealth, the men are dapper and Nora and Kristine more refined and elegant with every change. Spectacular architectural details -- an elevated, ornate peaked ceiling and curved walls -- suggest a gilded cage in which Torvald's lovely bird is confined, emphasizing the intentional sub-context with an inspired flourish. 

The actors are eloquent and graceful, even in the most awkward situations, yet Angeli and Hanks characters are clearly balancing on an edge, vibrating with tension and barely contained rage. Not a violent, destructive rage, but anger with the status quo and a burning desire, a need really, that compels them to seek value and meaning beyond wife and mother. Bell's direction is his best work yet, he and the actors create an emotional ebb and flow that effortlessly transitions and builds tension. Though the themes are not as shocking as they once were, and sometimes inspire laughter, self-dominion and the role of women remain relevant for contemporary audiences. 

Stray Dog Theatre's well-crafted production of A Doll's House, running through February 18, is a period piece resonant with metaphor and emerging feminist autonomy. The company captures the persuasive language of Ibsen as well as his sense of detail and control in a visually pleasing, emotionally satisfying production in which Nicole Angeli makes the most of her ability to transform into her character.

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