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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing this weekend: 

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

Unsuspecting Susan, continuing through September 30, 2017, is a humorous, sometimes haunting look at motherhood from the newest company on the block, Inevitable Theatre Company. The chatty show, starring St. Louis' favorite Donna Weinsting, takes a surprising turn when the divorcees world is shattered by news about her son.

STAGES St. Louis wraps up their season with the always crowd-pleasing South Pacific, continuing through October 8, 2017. The musical set in World War II is filled with engaging performances and memorable songs that helped solidify Rodgers and Hammerstein's work as the upper echelon of classic American musical theater.

Inventive staging and choreography add to the transformative The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in performance through October 1, 2017 at the Rep. Intellectually brilliant, socially awkward, and living with autism, 15-year old Christopher is determined to discover the truth about Wellington the dog. He learns much more than he expected, and audiences may as well. 

The sweet natured, musically pleasing Church Basement Ladies continues its run at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through October 1, 2017. The life-affirming show is a genuine slice of mid-American apple pie. And, as always, remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

A. E. Hotchner, now ninety-seven, is quite a guy. This Washington University graduate has been a novelist, playwright, journalist, editor, biographer and screen-writer. He's known everybody -- from Tennessee Williams (whom he beat out in a playwriting contest) to Hemingway (his buddy for years) to Paul Newman (his neighbor, with whom he founded the "Newman's Own" brand) At Wash U Hotchner has endowed the exciting playwriting festival that bears his name.

This contest is open each year to all Wash U student playwrights. Several contending scripts are selected for a twelve-day "workshopping" and rehearsal with a professional dramaturg. Every other year one of the winners from the previous two Hotchner festivals is given a full production.

I just had a very exciting couple of days attending the staged readings of this year's winners: Superboy by Chisara Achilefu, Desperate Times by Danny Marshall, and Raindropped by Scott Greenberg. The experience gave me great hope for the future of American theater. The readings were done in the Hotchner Studio Theatre by student actors working under faculty directors. For each performance the house was packed and abuzz with the infectious enthusiasm of youth. Discussions after each performance were led by Richard J. Roberts, long-time dramaturg at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Playwright-in-residence Carter Lewis co-ordinated the festival and introduced each performance.

Super Boy, by Chisara Achilefu, examines the related problems of grief and guilt. We meet young Emily, a high-school student, whose friend Joey has committed suicide. Her parents insist she undergo some psychological therapy to help her deal with this trauma. The playwright slowly and subtly lets us learn that the therapist, Dr. Coulson, is dealing with problems of her own.

Joey is a bright kid, but very eccentric. Every day since grade school he has worn a Superman cape to school—“because it gives him power.” He is thus the object of much mockery, if not bullying. Despite this, Joey and Emily become friends because of their common love of fantasy books and films. This friendship results in strains on Emily’s relationship with her regular boy-friend, Daniel. To salvage her relationship with Daniel she betrays Joey. 

Annie Butler as Emily, Noah Weiner as Joey, and Victor Mendez as Daniel all give very convincing performances as these high-school kids. All are nuanced and multi-dimensional. In their hands, and with the mature guidance of the playwright, they present no good-guy or bad-guy, but real young people confronting difficult problems. Ebby Offord gives the analyst complexity and subtlety. Andrea Urice directs.

In Super Boy I was reminded of two other plays where therapists find their own personal demons entwining with the troubles of their patients: Peter Schaffer’s Equus and John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God. Both of these plays leave us with uncomfortable questions. But in Super Boy Ms. Achilefu gives us a wise and optimistic resolution of the burdens of grief and guilt. Laying blame (or embracing it) is fruitless; embracing joyous memories is balm indeed. 

Desperate Times, by Danny Marshall, is hilarious! This play is almost a spoof on David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross—but it’s much better than Mamet’s play. Mamet shows us real-estate salesmen who are willing to cut each other’s throat for a sale. Danny Marshall gives us used-car salespeople tempted to do the same thing. Both plays shower us with a tsunami of foul language; but with Mamet we’re supposed to take all this seriously, and Mamet insults us by assuming that with all that obscenity we’ll think it’s “really hot stuff”. Marshall, on the other hand makes a wonderful comedy out of it all. And I totally buy it. (There is much wildly inventive invective, all done in convincing "New Joisey" accents.)

Pat, Lisa and Troy are under immense pressure to maximize their sales. The winner will become the new manager when the boss retires. Pat is a family man. Lisa and Troy have a history of sleeping with their customers to facilitate sales. Each unites with each to sabotage the third. A final surprise twist brings all their hopes crashing down -- but with the faint possibility that these lives just might lose some of their sleaze.

Jordan Dubin, Anna McConnell and Noah Weiner do splendid work as these significantly sleazy sales personnel, under the direction of the dramaturg, Richard Roberts. 

Raindropped, by Scott Greenberg, presents a party of young friends at a "destination" wedding in the Maldives. The “Bride and Bride” are Liz and Beth. The Best Man is Liz’s ex-lover, Elliot. The Maid of Honor is Liz’s sister, Jess (who had once slept with Elliot when he and Liz were a couple). Weird enough yet?

Elliot is still in love with Liz, but tries to behave and be a "good Best Man." But he’s troubled by guilt because his brother is back in the States dying of lung cancer and Elliot knows that he should be back there with him.

There are many scenes, secret-agent dreams, rainstorms, bonfires, a pretty standard wedding reception speech, hallucinations, some bad puns, shootings, bashing with a Bible, a lost (then found) wedding ring, and a guilt-laying dying brother who coughs à la Camille. The play has a blend of the flavors of romantic sit-com, soap opera and spy/action film -- all lightly and gracefully handled. 

The mostly-college audience responded throughout with eager laughter and giggles. Of all the exciting actions happening on the stage the most utterly shocking to several in the audience was when our hero threw his smart-phone into the ocean!!! (OMG!!!) 

The cast does excellent work. Lucas Marschke plays Elliot, Helen Fox is Liz, Natalie Thurman is Liz’s sister Jess, Hanna Dains is Beth, and Nathan Lamp plays the dying brother. Lamp also brings a special odd charm to a mysterious Man, who keeps popping up. 

Am I just too old-fashioned? I think that the play’s apparent assumption that gender is utterly irrelevant nowadays let some real dramatic possibilities slip by. We are, let’s face it, a gendered species, and in that fact lies considerable drama—and certainly much comedy.

In all three plays Daniel Washelesky does excellent work as narrator, reading the scene descriptions and stage directions.

Bon voyage, young playwrights. Bon chance! Break a leg! Have fun on your bright adventure.

 

 

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis taps into the essence and meaning of death in the evocative and insistent 10 Blocks on the Camino Real. An examination of the moments between life and death set on a temptation-laden street known as the Camino Real, the 10-scene short play is filled with vibrant characters and engrossing stories. With its local sponsorship of the National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity, USA collaboration, the festival continues to demonstrate measured, purposeful growth. 

American playwright Tennessee Williams penned the exploration, but his ideas about the transition from this life, as interpreted by the National Drama Company of Ghana under the direction of David Kaplan, clearly translate across cultures. Folktales, dancing, and songs from Ghana, plus traditional drumming by Awador Godwin, interweave almost seamlessly with the stories. The street cleaners, with their hauntingly mysterious masks and rituals, resonate with fears that nearly everyone feels at some point in their life.

The short scenes are all connected and primarily viewed through the perspective of the legendary Kilroy, a champion boxer with an abnormally large and occasionally sentimental heart. Isaac Fiagbor ensures Kilroy is sympathetic and likeable, an everyman who is not perfect but has nonetheless led a good life. As the Proprietor of the local hotel and restaurant, Mawuli Semevo is an amiable and inviting narrator -- until you wear out your welcome and it's time to go. The two serve as the audience's guide through a strange but not unfamiliar setting, poised precipitously between life and death.

As we travel each block, additional characters interact with Kilroy and the Proprietor while adding their story to the colorful tapestry. Esther Ado-Scott is the clever and scheming Gypsy and Joycelyn Delali the beautiful and beguilingly genuine Esmeralda. Abena Takyi and Emmanuel Ghartey are the sophisticated lovers Marguerite and Casanova, and Eli Kwesi Foli is the stern and piercing Madrecita Baron de Charlus and an officer. Yaa Ocloo, Eldad Wontumi, and Benjamin Adzika are the street cleaners and other characters.

In many ways, Williams' script feels like a series of loosely connected sketches, a sort of rumination on the moments between our death and realization of such by the self. More simply put, 10 Blocks on the Casino Real is imaginative speculation proposing an answer to "What comes next?" The National Theatre of Ghana demonstrates, with deep appreciation for the original text, the universal nature of the question. What makes the show so very affecting is how easily we can connect and understand the stories, even in moments when we don't know the words or recognize the language of the telling. 

Kaplan directs from a deep knowledge of the material, and it is clear that the company shares his passion and scholarship. The show moves as seamlessly from block to block as it does from English to the more African and French-influenced language of Ghana. Fiagbor is thoroughly engaged and engaging, at times his reactions are so in the moment you feel your own heart beating with his, and his scenes with Delali have unexpected charm and the painfully reckless abandon of new love. The surprising authenticity of their feelings is countered by the stylistic and superficial interaction between Takyi and Ghartey, creating a pleasant tension. Godwin keeps the show moving at a brisk pace with the constant, but varying rhythm of his drums and he and Semevo occasionally engage in a call and response that would be recognizable in many American houses of worship. 

The National Theatre of Ghana and Artcentricity collaboration was presented at various locations throughout the city the weekend of September 8-11, 2017. In addition to offering free shows for the general public, several of the performances were attended by students from area schools. A question and answer period was held after each of these performances and many of the students noted that they were surprised by how easy it was to understand the play and feel connected to the themes the show explores.  

Fans of the playwright are encouraged to follow the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis to stay informed. The company, which will produce its third Festival next spring, is to be commended for bringing the thoroughly captivating 10 Blocks on the Camino Real to St. Louis audiences. 

 

The Inevitable Theatre Company makes its St. Louis debut with the regional premier of Stewart Permutt's Unsuspecting Susan, a show that starts chatty, conversational, and seemingly aimless but is filled with worries, heartache, and perspective. The show is warm and inviting, but don't get too comfortable, because you can sense there's change coming. 

The title character, Susan Chester, played by St. Louis favorite Donna Weinsting with her usual mix of humor, common sense, and relate-ability, is a recent divorcee and the doting mother of her adult son Simon. Comfortably affluent, Susan fills her days with chores like gardening and getting together to visit and gossip with her girlfriends. Though she may have been through some rough times, Susan's current life seems pleasant and relatively free of worry.

With a friendly but conspiratorial tone, Weinsting lets us know who's on the in (her best friend Elaine, even though she's going through a tough bit herself right now) and who's on the out (neighbor Jill, who seems to be drinking more often than not and has trouble managing her sons). We also learn much more about Simon, his troublesome upbringing, and newfound roommate and apartment in the city. Susan worries quite a bit about Simon, and there's clearly something troubling her, though she tries valiantly to brush it off. 

That is until the police knock upon her door in the middle of the night and DC Karen, played with the appropriate mix of authority and sympathy by Christina Sittser, informs Susan that her son is deceased and the primary suspect in a recent terrorist bombing. The news tears Susan apart in numerous ways. First, there's the loss of her beloved son. Then the questions and interrogation by the police -- rooting through her house and confiscating every bit of potential evidence. Finally, Susan learns who her real friends are, and whom she can count on for company and comfort as she stumbles through her own feelings and questions.

From the moment the police officer knocks on the door forward, Unsuspecting Susan is taut and moves along at a motivated pace. Weinsting is genuinely convincing and engaging as Susan. She capably and sympathetically wears her conflicted emotions and concerns on her sleeve, even as she pours herself another drink and ponders the changing nature of her friendships. As the story unfolds, her recollections and observations become crystal clear, her questions and fears sharply defined. A conversation that started out as familiar chatter turns dark and deeply introspective.

Unfortunately, the show leading up to this point moves at too slow and measured of a pace; I nearly lost interest in the story. It is also difficult to ascertain if the lengthy pauses and measured movements are planned or a result of nerves. Weinsting generally comes across as assured and confident in her character, but there was a definite sense of uncertainty during the first twenty or so minutes of this show. Though director Robert Neblett undoubtedly constructed the pace to lull us in, it is almost too languid, the hesitant moments just a bit too long. Fortunately, when the pace picks up is does so with clarity and purpose as well as new found energy. 

The perspective of the perpetrator's family seldom receives as much attention as the criminal or the victims and their families. Unsuspecting Susan, running through September 30, 2017, provides a window into this experience in an intimate, personal play. Effective and nicely portrayed by Weinsting, if a bit slow out of the gate, the show draws you in then knocks you back a peg as it explores a different aspect of terroristic acts. Inevitable Theatre Company can be proud of their initial offering, and I look forward to the company's next show.

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