One of the great pleasures of the novels of Charles Dickens is the often comical way in which he arranges for characters from very disparate walks of life to be connected, often by wildly improbable coincidences. In Steven Dietz's new comedy, This Random World, the veteran comic playwright stands that convention on its head.

In Dietz's anti-Dickensian story, characters who are already related to each other, however tangentially, repeatedly miss making connections as a result of coincidences that are as unlikely and comical as anything the great British novelist ever dreamed up.

As the play opens, Scottie -- in her 70s and ailing, but still energetic -- is preparing for a trip to the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto with her assistant and general dogsbody Bernadette. Bernadette convinces Scottie to send Bernadette's younger sister Rhonda instead, but events conspire to force a last-minute cancellation on Scottie's part, sending Rhonda to Japan on her own. Meanwhile, Scottie's daughter Beth, who believes her mother to be a shut-in, has taken off on an adventurous and expensive trip of her own to Nepal where, because of a missed connection, she is thrown together with Gary, a new-agey life coach and the ex-boyfriend of the outrageously neurotic Claire, who is the ex-girlfriend of Scottie's son Tim.

As for Tim, he's a failed writer and computer hacker whose already off-track life is sent into a genuine tailspin when his prank hack of a mortuary's server results in the publication of his own fictional obituary. His attempts to explain to Rhonda -- who just happens to work at said mortuary -- that he is actually alive prove to be as funny as they are frustrating.

I could have used the word "coincidentally" a lot in those last two paragraphs but you get the idea. As the characters' lives spin merrily out of control, the connections that might get them back on track are repeatedly missed in absurdly unlikely ways. In one scene, for example, Bernadette just happens to leave her cell phone behind in a hospital waiting room at exactly the point when Beth, who just happens to have lost her cell, is calling from a pay phone to find out what's going on with Scottie. As the phone rings, Tim just happens to walk in. He answers it just as Beth impatiently hangs up.

Apparently, the phone just happens not to have voice mail.

Not all of the missed connections are funny, of course. Dietz is too smart a playwright not to throw in a few scenes that are genuinely touching. And those scenes work because, with the possible exception of the absurdly unhappy Claire, his characters are all well drawn and believable.

The actors do well by these characters. Brenda Withers's Beth is as confident as Nate Miller's Tim is lost and perennially baffled. Beth Dixon is an appealingly feisty Scottie, nicely contrasting with Shirine Babb's patient Bernadette. Todd Lawson's Gary is perfectly clueless and Deonna Bouye's Rhonda is hilariously motor-mouthed. Dietz has made the role of Claire fairly one dimensional, but Renata Friedman makes her interesting nevertheless.

Dietz's script calls for a set that suggests "a world that is warm, mysterious and evocative" and designer Daniel Zimmerman has certainly delivered that. Director Meredith McDonough keeps the action focused and smoothly flowing among the play's many scenes.

This Random World is essentially a one-joke play, but the variations on that joke are so ingenious that it never goes stale or wears out its welcome, remaining thoroughly entertaining right up to the surprising final scene. Given its relatively simple technical demands, I'd expect it to start appearing on other regional stages in the coming years; it certainly deserves to be seen.

This Random World runs through Sunday, April 10 at the Bingham Theatre at the Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays

 

Dramatizing contemporary political events is a risky proposition. A story "ripped from the headlines" can have immediate impact but fade quickly as the latest outrage takes center stage. Fortunately, Hansol Jung's gripping drama Cardboard Piano manages to balance that sense of immediacy with a contemplation of deeper issues.

It's New Year's Eve, 1999, and in a church in Northern Uganda Chris, the daughter of an American missionary, and Adiel, a local teenage girl, are preparing to welcome the new millennium with a secret wedding ceremony. Their celebration is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Pika, a child soldier in the infamous Lord's Resistance Army fleeing the brutal commander who has cut off the boy's ear for failing to carry out a sadistic command.

Chris and Adiel patch his wounds, but as subsequent events demonstrate, the damage to his soul runs much deeper. As the first act comes to a violent close, it seems that the play has nowhere to go, but when the second act opens in the same church ten years later, it's clear that Ms. Jung's concerns go beyond a simple contemplation of the horrors of war.

As Paul, the church's Ugandan pastor, rehearses a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan with his wife Ruth, the scene looks peaceful enough. (The Biblical resonance of the names will prove significant.) But as in the first act, that peace is shattered by the appearance of a third party -- Chris, now an adult and hoping to bury her late father's ashes in the church garden. Her arrival sets in motion a series of dramatic explosions that strike at the heart of Christian concepts of mercy and forgiveness.

Interviewed in the program book, Ms. Jung notes that "religion can do two opposite things. It can destroy, hurt, and be an instigator of violence, but it can also be the only thing capable of controlling that violence. . . . I am a Christian, but I've always interrogated what that means. That really influenced the writing of this play." Forgiveness, as the subsequent action of the play suggests, is not an easy thing to truly grant -- and may not always be justified.

Cardboard Piano uses the same cast for both acts, with the performers playing the roles of Adiel, Pika's commander, and Pika appearing in the second act as, respectively, Ruth, Paul, and Francis, a gay teenager who is leaving town to escape the rabid homophobia of the town's populace. That adds interesting resonance to the characters and gives the actors an opportunity to demonstrate their impressive range.

As Paul and Pika's commander, Michael Luwoye has perhaps the biggest challenge, since the roles are so radically different. He meets it brilliantly, creating two sharply contrasting and credible characters. Nike Kadri also makes Adiel and Ruth different enough to make suspension of disbelief easy, as does Jamar Williams as Pika and Francis. Briana Pozner very effectively differentiates the teenaged and adult versions of Chris with subtle and consistent changes in vocal inflection and body language, assisted by Ms. Jung's smartly crafted dialog.

Director Leigh Silverman guides this all with a sure hand and Scenic Designer William Boles's set makes creative use of the Jory Theatre's intimate black box space.

As our own domestic political process plays out the conflict between a version of Christianity based on mercy and compassion vs. one based on anger and judgment, the issues in Cardboard Piano feel both immediate and timeless. I'd be surprised if this play didn't have a life after Humana.

Cardboard Piano runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays


When Hedwig brings her Angry Inch band to St. Louis, you better get ready for a punk rock throwback that's still a force to be reckoned with. This is the premise, feel, and atmosphere Stray Dog Theatre has created for their production of John Cameron Mitchell's angry ode to the downtrodden working class, running through April 16, 2016 and directed by Justin Been. This is Hedwig's story and uniquely hers, but she shares kinship with musicians, artists, and rebels -- transgender, queer, and straight -- who have stories they are compelled to tell. Fame be damned.

Hedwig, played with deteriorating confidence and swagger in a breakout performance by Michael Baird, is a hard-rocking girl who's lived a hard life. Born a boy in East Berlin, she is now a divorced cold war bride, victim of a botched sex-change operation, and spurned lover of a new famous rock star. A rock star who happens to be performing this night at Busch Stadium and may be the "other half" she needs to feel complete.

The audience is witness to a performance by Hedwig, her band The Angry Inch, and Yitzhak, her opening act, lead back-up singer, and current husband. To accommodate the show, Tower Grove Abbey, the company's home theater, has been transformed into a seedy club, with a bar at the foot of the stage. The bar is open throughout the performance, and privileged patrons in the front row have tables and wait service.

Baird is fearless in his performance -- scaling scaffolding, chugging liquor, stomping around in platform heels, and engaging the audience in casual banter. His performance feels very in the moment, with alcohol loosening Hedwig's tongue and self control. He embraces the physicality of Hedwig, brazenly strutting, climbing, dancing, and being the diva without forgetting to show every vulnerability and emotion she's feeling.

Anna Skidis Vargas, as Yitzhak, is a bit shy, a bit mischievous, and completely sympathetic. Even when Yitzhak is at wits end over Hedwig's behavior, he shows he still feels genuine affection and concern for her. The band is similarly in tune with and accustomed to Hedwig's onstage antics. They occasionally engage in friendly sparring with Hedwig, particularly guitarist Khryzhtoff who gleefully taunts and flirts back.

Hedwig's story is revealed between drinks and songs, kicking things off with the rousing "Tear Me Down," a high-energy, hard rocking number that stirs the audience. "The Origin of Love" mixes projected video, song, and storytelling to tell of Hedwig's youth, setting this strange heroine's journey in motion. "Sugar Daddy" has a honky-tonk ska feel that changes the pace as Hedwig changes countries, and is followed by the eponymous "Angry Inch," complete with rock anthem smoke effects and an audience sing along.

All the songs, from "Wig in a Box" to the "Long Grift" and "Hedwig's Lament" to the bittersweet, feel good "Midnight Radio," compliment the story and Hedwig's descent from struggling artist to fading uncertainty. The band and Skidis Vargas provide excellent backing, and though the arrangements suit Baird's voice and strengths, Skidis Vargas filling in the spaces between and betwixt the notes is a brilliant combination that takes the show to another level. The remaining song, "Wicked Little Town," is an infectious, slightly sinister pop treat that deserves the transformative encore that completes the story arc.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, running through April 16, 2016, is part rock show, part confessional, and all character study. Baird turns in a knockout performance as Hedwig and all her rock star personalities, and his rapport with the crowd is certain to get bawdier, edgier, and more Hedwig as the show continues. So much so, I suspect, that I rather wish I had a ticket to the closing performance. Baird is supported in superb fashion by Skidis Vargas and the band, with music direction by keyboardist Chris Peterson, a fiery A.J. Lane on guitar, M. Kuba on bass and vocals and Bob McMahon on drums, with everyone providing vocals.

Performances at Stray Dog Theatre have been selling out, so check for tickets and availability soon. If you're ready for an unflinching look at a flawed character told to post-cold war punk rock soundtrack, get yourself a seat for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

 

One admirable quality of young children and sentient teddy bears is the ability to accept things at face value first, and then ask questions. While this approach lends itself towards confusion and tension around the grayer shades of life, it can also bring fresh perspective and unexpected clarity.

Such is the story of Helvetica, a woman born to kind, nurturing parents whose past, present, and future self are introduced to us by Myron, her faithful and adventurous teddy bear companion. Helvetica should have had a charmed childhood, but her mother took her own life when Helvetica was young and she was left with faint memories and a patient father. Helvetica and her parents expressed themselves in stories, leading to the present and future Helvetica's career as a beloved children's author.

Or at least, we presume that's how Helvetica and her parents talked, as this is a memory play and a time-traveling teddy bear with the inquisitive nature of a bright child is our guide. Luckily for us, the device works well and the play is largely successful: a gentle romp through the life of a woman who found much success in the stories she told, even when her own life did not paint so rosy a picture. Death, loneliness and separation are recurrent themes in the story, but they are not given a heavy hand. They're woven in between flights of fancy and memories revisited in lingering detail.

Frankly, I can't recall a teddy bear speaking with such a guileless philosophical bent since a certain Pooh bear and I like the approach. Myron doesn't dig too deeply at the why, but wonders about how it feels and what happens next. These are the same questions a young child might ask when faced with divorce, loss, suicide, and mortality. Kelvin Urday turns in perhaps his strongest performance to date as the stuffed sage, and his cheerful nature and costume reinforce his central characteristics.

Urday finds his balance in an insightfully child-like interpretation, never becoming too cloy or veering into childish or caricature. Julianne King and Andrew Rea turn in solid performances as the mother and father, as well as a number of other supporting roles. Her mother is tender and sad, and her father, in particular, is endearingly kindhearted. There's also nice tension between Helvetica and her husband, Maurice Walters II.

The children's stories Helvetica writes reveal sparkling bits of familiar detail, and show Helvetica weaving her experiences and make-believe play into her life's passion. These stories are worthy of expansion, but Urday's Myron sprinkles them throughout the narrative like little gifts, pausing just a moment to ensure we recognize the significance. The timing and touch are light, slight, but present just long enough to punctuate the moment.

As the teddy bear's life long best friend, Urday is complemented by Ahsley Netzhammer, Katie Palazzola, and Michelle Dillard as Helvetica Past, Helvetica Present, and Helvetica Future, respectively. Though the three do not resemble each other, they achieve similarity in movement and expression at times, with natural variance as accords each age. Director Brittanie Gunn and the actors are to be credited for the connection they have, although attention to detail could be pushed further. The show would benefit with more emotional, physical, and visual connection between the three; while each actress is individually compelling and complete, they do not quite read as the same character.

Urday must also be careful he doesn't get too cute as the run continues, adhering to the restraint he maintained, with a few exceptions, on opening night. Additionally, a little editing may tighten the script and keep the story focused. One scene in particular, during which time Myron was hidden away in the attic, felt unnecessary in the retelling of Helvetica's story, though it was nice to see her and her dad together in her adulthood. On a more positive note, I appreciate the technical improvement the company is showing, the lights and sound were welcome elements that added to this production.

Helvetica, running through Sunday, April 10 at Tesseract Theatre, is a sweetly whimsical memory play. It could be a play about anyone's life, but it is a story about an imaginative girl who maintained her sense of wonder and possibility throughout a long, interesting life. Perhaps, it is also the story of the clever teddy bear who helped her find, and keep, and then discover again, the joy of her own imagination.

 

I know and like such Caryl Churchill plays such as Cloud Nine and A Number and Top Girls and Serious Money. I like the way that they deal with serious topics in imaginative and unusual theatrical ways. They amuse and they stimulate thought. They amuse by stimulating thought. What more could you want in the theatre?

But I have my doubts about one of her latest plays, Love and Information (2012), currently being performed under Andrea Urice's direction by a cast of fourteen students in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University. Love and Information presents over 50 scenes in 90 minutes.

I say "scenes" but they're really more like brief blackout sketches. Some are only a couple of sentences long. Some may go on for two or three minutes. They are epigrammatic. They pack wit and pathos into their brief life on the stage. Some are funny, more are ironic, some sad.

They do make the point that many of their characters, like many people today, are awash in a flood of information coming at us in all directions. But that's hardly an original observation. And they do sometimes suggest that our ability to connect with others -- to love even -- as in the title, can be negatively affected by all these distractions. Again, that's hardly an original observation.

I did enjoy these vignettes. But they flew by too quickly for me to develop any sympathy or identification with one of the characters and thereby to find any deeper feeling and meaning in what was happening.

Director Urice, scenic designer Monica Green, lighting designer Dominick Ehling, costume designer Sallie Durbin, sound designer Sean M. Savoie, and props designer Katherine McPhail made ingenious and enlightening additions to the bare-bones script that playwright Churchill handed them. And the cast, Schuyler Atkins, Charley Cotton, Alex Felder, Krista Galleberg, Scott Greenberg, Adam Harris, Juliette Hourani, Helen Li, Danny Marshall, Ebby Offord, Carly Rosenbaum, Noah Weiner, Cameron Wen, and Julia Zasso, made each character live for its brief moment on the stage. But it's a much leaner diet that I have come to expect from Churchill.

The production continues at Washington University through April 10 with afternoon and evening performances. Tickets may be purchased through the box office at 314-935-6543 or online through Vendini.

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