Like a bespoke garment, Lynn Nottage's period drama Intimate Apparel is a masterfully tailored piece of theater, its construction precise and its flourishes expertly applied. New Jewish Theatre's excellent production brings this lovely, personal story to life with hope, heartbreak, and perseverance.

Set in 1905, the bittersweet romance touches on race, religion, and era. Esther is an African-American seamstress living in a boarding house run by the persistently meddling matchmaker Mrs. Dickson. She spends her days at her sewing machine, fashioning intimate garments for women, visiting with her friend Mayme, and occasionally venturing into Mr. Marks' fabric store for supplies. 

Marks, a kindly Jewish gentleman, appreciates Esther and sees beauty and grace in her that others miss. The two have a genuine romantic connection, but their racial and religious differences, as well as the period, keep them from reaching out to each other. Their discussions about fabric and thread and Marks' missing button are sensual and filled with unspoken longing. The interplay between the actors, particularly the touches both near and accidental, is delicate and tenuous; a beautiful juxtaposition to the way the rest of the world views the two characters.

Other girls marry and move out from under Mrs. Dickson's roof and watch, but the 35 year-old Esther seems a permanent fixture. That is, until she begins a correspondence George, a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal with Esther's childhood friend. The two develop strong feelings during their exchange, though Esther, who cannot read or write, gets help penning her letters from her fashion forward white client, Mrs. Van Buren. An eventual proposal, offered before the two meet in person, surprises everyone almost as much as Esther's acceptance, but the resulting marriage is not the fairytale ending she imagined.

Jacqueline Thompson is absolutely captivating as Esther, easily and expressively handling the character's many facets, and allowing us to feel her life in the moment. Her character is generally reserved, but when she flashes her true feelings she brings a passion that's firmly rooted in her core. Thompson's scenes with Mayme, a vibrant and at times brilliantly animated Andrea Purnell, show two very different women bonding and laughing. They remain true to each other even through disappointment, anger, and pain.

Jim Butz is awkwardly kind and hesitant as Mr. Marks, his eyes filled with genuine emotion when he looks at Esther. A man as devoted to his faith as he is to the artistry and beauty of fabric and the clothier's craft, Butz matches Thompson in temperament and both share a quiet depth. His reactions are at times nearly imperceptible, yet perfectly measured and drawn.

The supporting cast includes the always-compelling Linda Kennedy, as a regal and commanding Mrs. Dickson. She's kindhearted in her way, but a savvy businesswoman to the core. Chauncy Thomas, as George, is by turns charming, charismatic, and brutal. Julie Layton, as Mrs. Van Buren, keeps a few surprises hidden under gilded corsets that are a touch risqué for her status, while Purnell cajoles, convinces, and rationalizes with panache as Mayme. The ensemble finds layers of interest in their characters, creating a satisfying and intriguing, if sometimes heartbreaking, story. 

Director Gary Wayne Barker guides Intimate Apparel with a solid concept and a firm grasp of the style, attitudes, and customs of the period. While Esther and Mr. Marks differences are not necessarily announced, there is no question that their attraction, with its inherent religious and racial realities, will never be openly acknowledged. Barker manages the tension precisely, ensuring the audience cares about both Esther and Marks while feeling emotionally satisfied by the romance.

The set, props, costumes, sound, and lighting are decadent icing on this multilayered confection set in the Gilded Age. Scenic co-designer and change artist Peter Spack, along with co-designer and props master Margery Spack, transform the space into a stunning collection of ornate jewelry boxes, each opening and closing to reveal their story. The corsets and costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, convey much about each character and the era. Finally, lighting designer Sean Savoie, sound designer Amanda Were, and dialect coach Landon Tate Boyle ensure that every detail has just the right sparkle, tone, and affectation.

Like a couture dress made from luxurious fabrics, the show is a finely wrought production. There's a certain opulence that even the more reticent Esther and Mr. Marks subtly embody, and the delightful supporting ensemble each have an opportunity to shine. The New Jewish Theatre's production of Intimate Apparel, running through February 12, 2017, delivers a richly adorned, nostalgically romantic, and touching story. 

 

 

Kimchee & Chitlins playwright and director Elizabeth Wong, whose former career was in television news, is a believer in the power of comedy. She chooses to use her humor to tackle serious subjects, and is influenced by writers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Huston and the films To Kill a Mockingbird and Rashomon. As an artist of color, she is also looking for topics that interest her, employing humor to both disarm and inform audiences. As she puts it, " I am interested in things that bring us closer to our own humanity, and also what keeps us from following our better angels . . . but I do this exploration usually through the comedic prism." 

An invitation from Solid Lines Productions to direct her play as a visiting artist offered the opportunity for Wong to work directly with an ensemble and make a positive impact on the city and company. Wong purposefully showcases the talent, versatility, comic chops, and star quality of actors of color in her work, increasing notice and opportunities. Solid Lines Productions' commitment to producing works by and about people of color in a professional setting is part of what drew her to St. Louis.

"It's amazing to me that Solid Lines, founded by a white guy with cojones and vision, is trying to bring new stories and theatrical voices not often heard to St. Louis. What a gift to the city," Wong observes when asked what attracted her to this project. She was also impressed by the fact that such a young company (this is the company's third year) was committed to bringing in a visiting artist of color. "In this current climate, in which our own government is sending the message that the arts and culture don't matter, and in particular that storytelling and developing artists of color don't matter, Solid Lines is on the front lines," she explains. "Making art continues to be a strong form of resistance."

Kimchee & Chitlins tells how a young, Chinese-American TV reporter was able to land her dream anchor job. The play is a "before I was famous" story, focusing on the character's growth as a cub reporter reluctantly exploring racial tension between minorities in America. Wong got the idea while watching coverage of an incident between Blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles. She noticed that none of the reporters were speaking with the local Korean community and, as a boycott escalated, wondered what went wrong. Did the media contribute to the strife through its coverage and, more troubling, how bad could this get? 

In developing the script, Wong took a long look at race and her profession and realized she was dealing with a lot of relevant issues, or as she says: "a lot of 'isms' . . . racism . . . sexism . . . stupid'ism . . . Oh wait, I just invented a new word!" She wondered whether contemporary newsgathering techniques and priorities distort issues and become part of the story. To Wong, this is a particularly important topic in an age of alternative news and false equivalencies that challenge long-held journalistic principles. 

Shannon Nara, a member of the company's Executive Creative Council, is thrilled with the collaborative experience and Wong's residency. "I'm passionate about using theatre to reach audiences and work together with our community to help change the direction of social justice issues we currently face," she says. "Theatre is a powerful way to connect with people of all ages and our team has the drive to help facilitate positive change and dialogue. I am incredibly proud to work with and be part of this extraordinary team." 

Wong hasn't been stuck in the theater her entire stay, however. She's happily explored a wide variety of our city's amenities and is pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy of St. Louis, in particular our arts, history, and food choices. When prompted, Wong quickly notes that Lulu's Local Eatery (on South Grand) has the "Best Vegan food, better than in Los Angeles. In fact," she adds, "I think St. Louis has a wide variety of good food -- you lack for nothing." She also appreciates the local craft beer scene and, naturally, she's planning to visit City Museum before she leaves. 

Solid Lines Productions is inviting audience members and the public to a talk back with the playwright after Friday night's performance of Kimchee & Chitlins, in performance at the CS Huh Auditorium in the Center for Global Citizenship on the Saint Louis University campus February 3 & 4, 2017, and tickets are still available. You can find out more information about Ms. Wong's show, and the company's season on their Facebook page and website. 

  

Hell is many things to many people. To most of us Hell can be some unavoidable situation in this life: to my wife, driving across Italy without a GPS was Hell; so is turning left onto Manchester at rush hour. To those of a religious bent Hell involves an after-life. Dante's Hell had nine descending circles of torment; the Buddhist Hell has eight hot and eight cold horrible "Narakas"; the Mayan Xibalba was a subterranean city with many houses full of trials and tests. 

Great playwrights have shown us Hell: To Sartre, Hell was other people as in No Exit; to Bernard Shaw, as in Don Juan in Hell, it was comfort and boredom without intellectual stimulation. 

Theatre Nuevo is a smart young company now in its third season. They are presenting their version of Hell at the Chapel. This is a "devised" piece -- meaning it was developed as a collaborative effort among performers, designers, director, composer, and choreographer. The result is something of a scattershot. There are buckets of bright comedy and a number of strange, crisply executed dance vignettes. There is beautiful dramatic use of silhouette. There is much music and song. There are compelling moments of real human suffering. 

The overall evening (a brief hour and a quarter) has a sense of randomness. But within that semi-chaos there are three central stories that do indeed have a sort of story arc:

  • A young man (Kevin Corpuz) suffers deep depression. Common youthful social anxieties are terrifyingly amplified, the inane chat of his work colleagues becomes insufferable, his loneliness is abysmal and eternal. That sounds so ordinary and cliché, but the writing of these monologues is so perceptive and so real that it gave me the deepest sense of empathy for a depressive person that I've ever had. 
  • A young black Muslim woman (La'Brie Jones) lies in a hospital bed. She's dying of some lingering unspecified ailment. All she wants is someone to be close, to hold her hand, but so many things about her mark her as "other" -- someone not to be approached. She'd had one deep love, one comfort -- another girl, also a patient at the hospital. The telling of this love ("Oh, we weren't lesbians or anything") and the mourning of its loss is quiet and beautiful and true.
  • A young woman (Amanda Wales) spent her childhood protecting her younger sister from their alcoholic father. We see her as an adult (and an alcoholic). With great, kind, drunken beauty she mourns their lives. And she mourns her father who loved her -- and whom (despite all) she loved -- and forgives. It's heart-breaking.

These small tales are told with warmth and stark honesty and with wonderfully mature compassion.

Elizabeth van Pelt and Rahamses Galvan spice up the evening as a couple of demons who spend their time orienting new arrivals or dreaming up new torments or running a "Wheel of Torture" game show. Both are full of devilish energy. Miss Pelt makes a sexy, scampering imp, and Galvan is wonderfully agile -- even when he suddenly appears in the most remarkable fat-suit I ever saw.

Marcy Wiegert gets credit for the delightful costumes and Geoffrey Alexander did excellent work as choreographer. The set, by Max Viau, is simply a great black-board on the floor and three gray boxes-- all covered in hundreds of hand-written messages from the denizens of Hell. (When you arrive allow yourself time to read some of these treasures.) The Chapel has limited technical resources, but Gabe Taylor makes the most of them in his very effective lighting and sound.

Charlie Mueller wrote the music and leads a fine small on-stage band: piano, guitar, percussion and cello. Vocals are by Marshall Jennings. Lovely work, all.

The hard acoustics at the Chapel are not kind. They make some of the song lyrics difficult to follow. For the dialogue this difficulty is aggravated by the seating of audience on both sides of a long central playing area. Thus for nearly half the time a speaking actor has his back to half the audience. Not ideal. 

But this is a minor flaw in an evening that is for the most part inventive, engaging and often moving.

Theatre Nuevo's Hell plays at the Chapel through January 29.

 

The Fox Theatre's new production of An American in Paris brings the music of the Gershwin brothers to life in a breathtakingly beautiful production that is light on dialogue, but rich in dance and storytelling. The romance is a sensory experience mixing music, art, color, dance, and story into an ethereal work of beauty. Set in the romantic post-World War II Paris, the storyline speaks to the pains, secrets, and optimism of the period. 

The show opens at the end of the war. Service member Jerry Mulligan, an artist by avocation, wanders the streets of Paris, sketching the celebration. He crosses paths with a beautiful young woman several times, and eventually assists her after she is knocked over by an excited crowd. She quickly flits away as Mulligan stumbles into a club, where he meets Adam Hochberg. Another American GI, Hochberg chose to stay in Paris to pursue a career as a composer. To support himself, he is also working with Henri Baurel, a French aristocrat and aspiring singer who was secretly a member of the Resistance. 

The three are soon close friends and Hochberg finds work as an accompanist and music director for a small but well respected ballet company. Mulligan's mysterious muse arrives late to audition for the ballet and turns to leave, but he encourages her to join in and she easily impresses. Soon it becomes clear that all three men are in love with the graceful dancer Lise Dassin. 

Shortly thereafter, American heiress and patron Milo Davenport arrives and takes a fancy to the four artists, pledging money to produce an original work featuring Dassin, with Hochberg's score and Mulligan's set designs. Davenport takes a particular liking to Mulligan, complicating his pursuit of Dassin. The book, a new treatment by Craig Lucas, handles this triangle kindly, resulting in friendship for the three and minimizing the stereotypical bickering over the leading man prevalent during the era.

The new musical, inspired by the 1951 movie starring Gene Kelly, is visually compelling. Evoking the history of the American theatrical dance tradition, An American in Paris stretches beyond the year of the film and elegantly incorporates ballet, modern, jazz, and isolation work. George and Ira Gershwin's music and lyrics create an aural playground and the reworked script makes the most of the thin storyline while clearly emphasizing dance. 

Sara Esty, as Dassin, and Garen Scribner, as Mulligan, are mesmerizing. Esty is lithe, graceful, and beguiling, she seems to float across the stage. Scribner references the inimitable Gene Kelly with masterful dancing, including precise turns and exceptional body control. He brings an easy charm to his character, while Esty flits and flutters just out of reach as they dance and converse. The two move impeccably well together, and their dancing is powerful without losing any subtlety or finesse.

Etai Benson, as Hochberg, Nick Spangler, as Baurel, and Emily Ferranti, as Davenport, are amiable and playful in fully realized supporting roles. Gayton Scott is delightfully acerbic without a hint of bitterness as Madame Baurel, while Don Noble stands out as Esty's ballet partner. The dances and stage pieces transition seamlessly from scene to scene and style to style, resulting in a show that carries the audience along for nearly three hours without any loss of enthusiasm. 

Director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon takes an imaginative approach to the show's big moments, combining dances and steps from many eras into fantastically captivating numbers. Additionally, musical director and arranger Rob Fisher and Wheeldon work in perfect synchronicity, blending all the elements into a satisfying story. Behind Esty and Scribner, dance Captain Christopher M. Howard leads the ensemble as they skillfully slide from story to song and dance and from one stylistic reference to another. Bob Crowley's costumes and sets provide the final touch, framing the story and dances with lush, colorful details.

An American in Paris, running through January 29, 2017 at the fabulous Fox Theatre, is a theatrical gem polished to a new shine. The sweetly optimistic story, set to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, is perfectly complemented by incredible choreography and a shift from Art Deco to a Modern palette that culminates in the breathtaking title piece, with near flawless dancing, orchestration and execution. 

 

The road not taken; where does it lead? If this or that tiny aspect of my life changed, what would the result be? That's the question at the heart of British playwright Nick Payne's ingenious but less than compelling comedy/drama Constellations, getting its local premiere at the Rep Studio through February 5.

It's not exactly a new question, of course. It's the basic premise behind theatrical vehicles as diverse as the 2014 musical If/Then and the 1921 play If by Lord Dunsany, to say nothing of numerous films and science fiction novels. Mr. Payne's take on it is somewhat innovative, though, in that he puts it in the context of the quantum physics concept of the "multiverse" -- the idea that there is an effectively infinite number of different universes in which every possible permutation of every possible human decision and/or physical event exists.

So there's a universe in which I started writing this review at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, but there's another in which I started earlier or later, or never wrote it at all because I was hit by a truck on the way back from the theater. And yet another in which I never wrote it because I'm a world-famous actor and I get reviews instead of giving them. And so on.

In Constellations, the case for the multiverse is first made by Marianne, a cosmologist who links up (or doesn't) with beekeeper Roland at a cookout. The script gives us a half-dozen different variations of the scene, all slightly altered in tone and text, and then spins out permutations of the relationship between the two characters. Breakups and infidelity are involved, and marriage might be. There's also an illness for Marianne that is, in all but one version, fatal. Essentially, the play boils down to a handful of scenes repeated with variations so minor that they might as well be identical.

It's a clever and unorthodox structure. It's also the play's greatest weakness. 

In an essay quoted in director Steve Woolf's program notes, Dr. Liliane Campos -- a professor of Performing Arts, Literary Theory and English Literature at the Sorbonne -- notes that in Constellations, Mr. Payne "creates a space for the spectator's active gaze, inviting us to group his fragments together and to find new meanings in the constellation they produce." Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of those fragments means that the characters never are allowed to take on any real depth, so there's not that much meaning to work with. In the final analysis, Constellations feels like an intricate piece of dramaturgical clockwork, fascinating to watch but not very engaging, somewhat like Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, but without the intellectual or dramatic depth.

Fortunately, the Rep has a wonderfully talented pair of actors to carry the burden of what strikes me as a very challenging script from the performer's point of view. As Marianne and Roland, Ellen Adair and Eric Gilde (who are married in real life) navigate all the twists, turns, and switchbacks of Mr. Payne's multiverse with impressive skill. The often-subtle differences among the scenes require performers with good ears for verbal nuance and a finely tuned feel of body language, which Ms. Adair and Mr. Gilde have in abundance.

The director's job calls for a similar level of subtlety, and Steve Woolf is up to that challenge as well. His well-considered blocking and pacing serve Mr. Payne's script very well and make the best possible case for it.

Constellations strikes me as a good idea that needs some work. Personally, I would have appreciated fewer scenes with more depth, so I could get to know the characters better. As the play stands now, it's hard to summon up much empathy. I would also have welcomed a more thorough exploration of the intellectual concepts behind the show. As it is, they're thrown out in the early scenes and never mentioned again.

It's always good to see new works, of course, and the Rep studio has an enviable track record of bringing worthwhile new scripts to the attention of local audiences. Performances of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Constellations continue through February 5 in the studio theatre of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

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