Young Liars Theatre presents an intriguing interpretation of Franz Kafka's unfinished Der Bau, adapted by Jeff Skoblow, that's a little creepy and a touch fatalistic, but nonetheless completely captivating. The unfinished story tells of a man who has painstakingly built his own underground bunker. A sprawling set of rooms connected by long passages, he stores provisions and his belongings in some, but many are empty spaces with no specific purpose or need.

The man, portrayed with manic sensitivity by Skoblow, never shares his name, yet he speaks conversationally to the room. Initially, he delights in describing how carefully he planned and carved his home from the stone. He describes the entrance, laughing at how cleverly it is hidden in plain site. He describes, with detail and pride, the personal sacrifices he made to create his burrow, and it's here we start to understand his psyche. He goes to great length detailing how he trained field mice, small fry as he calls them, to dig multiple tunnels for ventilation, then gleefully reveals that he controls the population by trapping and eating many of them.

Slowly, the man shifts from rational and proud to paranoid, hyper-vigilant, and suspicious. He worries about his enemies above ground, plots how he will guard and protect his home, becoming increasingly hesitant to leave. Outside his burrow, he never wanders far, lest someone encroach on his home. When he returns, he is apologetic, fearing he has neglected his hovel to the point of offense. 

Once clear-headed and direct, his speech now wanders, jumping from worry to anger to conspiratorial with an eager nod of agreement to the darkness. The effect is chilling and convincingly authentic, particularly in the close space of his bunker. Suddenly, the room seems smaller, the indeterminate noises he references grow louder, and his fear and anxiety is so real you might catch a bit of nerves just listening. At one point, Skoblow circles the room slowly, looking into the eyes in the unseen darkness, a chilling moment made more effective by the careful, slow movements of the actor.

There's a philosophy and curious bent that drives some men to question themselves past reason and sanity. Skoblow understands this spot well, and he dances back and forth over the edge, a portrait of well-reasoned and thoughtful insanity. He and director Chuck Harper find the moments in Kafka's story and extend them to create a show that is insidiously frightening. Just as the man does not know the source of the noise, it is often what we don't know that frightens us the most.

The burrow itself seems a character in the play, and the company has done an excellent job personifying the space. The scenic environment, designed by Kristin Cassidy, is detailed and enveloping, the walls looks realistically like natural stone, and there's just the right amount of dust, dripping water, and detritus to complement the story. The lighting, by James Wulfsong, is particularly well plotted and executed, drawing attention and, along with Adam Frick's deft sound design, increasing the tension as Skoblow's character intensifies. The creative team respects the story and its unfinished nature, yet still provides a complete and satisfactory arc that is significantly improved by the environment.

Young Liars unsettling and entertaining Burrow, in performance through November 5, 2016, is a perfect choice for theatergoers who enjoy suspense and a light fright every now again. Well-performed and intimate, the house is smaller than normal so you'll want to make your reservations early. 

 

 

Emlyn Williams' Night Must Fall is an interesting play, though the plot is a bit thin, and it gets a thoroughly satisfying turn in the Clayton Community Theatre's current production. Set in 1935, we are introduced to the household of Mrs. Bramson, a dowager with a niece and staff devoted to her care and attention. They live a rather routine and staid life, though things are turned upside down as their quiet home is overtaken by the investigation of a murder. 

Mrs. Bramson is a feisty old girl, but not without heart, quickly forgiving her maid Dora for breaking several pieces of China after she learns the girl is pregnant. Mrs. Bramson demands to meet Dan, Dora's paramour, presumably so she can persuade him to marry the girl. Instead she finds herself quickly taken in by his charms. Niece Olivia is immediately wary but also intrigued, much to the dismay of her suitor Hubert. 

The entire household is upset by the arrival of the police and discovery of a murdered woman's body near the house. The remainder of the play bounces back and forth between Mrs. Bramson's infatuation with Dan, Olivia's dogged suspicions, and the local inspector's attempts to solve the murder. The plot is nicely layered but still quite easy to figure out and not too scary, ensuring the show is audience friendly. 

Liz Hopefl delights as Mrs. Bramson, showing a range of whiny, petulant behaviors, yet somehow remaining humorous and likeable. Hopefl finds multiple levels and variation of character, ensuring Mrs. Bramson is sympathetic rather than grating. She's countered by Mark A. Neels, as Dan, and Mica Tharp as niece Olivia Grayne. Both Neels and Tharp turn in solid performances but would benefit by adding more dimension and emotional connection to their roles. They do a nice job capturing the essentials, incorporating more nuance and emotional levels will help them grow.

Neels' Dan pulls of the charming part of the con quite well, but his alter ego lacks personality and is not entirely convincing, contrasted, nor distinct. His transitions into and out of his killer persona, the odd movements and affectations, muddy his character and come without a defined trigger.

Similarly, Tharp's Olivia is smart and skeptical, so much so that her sympathies towards Dan, particularly when she covers for him, appear confused and uncertain. The two actors need to mine their chemistry and pay more attention to timing. An attraction between the characters is present; Tharp simply needs more clarity and purpose to help convey Olivia's motivation for her actions.

Mary Klein, Beth Kuppinger, Brad Kinzel, Crystal Franke, and Karl Bockemeier capably fill the remaining roles, although there are times when their characters are less focused and present in the scene.  There were also a number of seemingly comic moments that don't come across as well as they can, though it's clear director Nada Vaughn intended such. 

Performing with an accent is another struggle for many actors. Though the actors in Night Must Fall all start out with relatively strong accents, the majority of the cast slips in and out of voice, and several characters lose their accents completely during the second act. Attention to detail and consistency is key to elevating performance quality. Director Vaughn and the company generally succeed with their roles, however, ensuring the show is entertaining and fun.

In St. Louis, one needn't look far to see why community theater is such a vital part of our performing arts history and tradition. These organizations not only provide a creative outlet for a number of non-professionals to contribute their creativity, they also offer up-and-coming actors, directors, and designers an opportunity to add to their skills and experience. With Clayton Community Theater, you get a great mix of talent and a strong, enthusiastic group of volunteers committed to producing enjoyable shows.

Entertaining, though a bit light on the suspense, Night Must Fall runs through October 30, 2016 at the Clayton Community Theatre, which makes its home at the Washington University Annex on Clayton Road. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre sashays into its sixteenth season with a bawdy, over-the-top (in the best way) production of The Rocky Horror Show. The show is pure fun, a counter-culture and audience-participation approved celebration of B-movies and flashy songs. The musical, delivered with a nod and a wink to a knowing audience, celebrates sexual liberation with hyper-charged 1970's style and diva-esque attitude. What makes this particular production stand out is quality vocals and an attention to detail at every turn.

Set in 1969, the light as a feather story takes place in a time before cell phones or roadside service -- important devices to the thin plot. The newly engaged Brad and Janet take a spontaneous road trip to share the happy news with their former professor. This uncharacteristic jump into the unknown turns out to be a life-changing moment, in a most comic and theatrically sexy way. After getting a flat tire in the rain, they decide to seek refuge in the ominous manor down the road and, as they say, "time meant nothing, never will again."

Kevin O'Brien and Heather Matthews are simply peachy as the young lovers, but they're completely overshadowed, in a good way, by their host and his entourage. Nothing in their conservative upbringing has prepared them for the sensually eccentric Dr. Frank 'N' Furter, a vivacious and teasing Michael Juncal, and his band of merry phantoms and devotees. 

A self-proclaimed "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania," he's accompanied by Corey Fraine's sinister, sneering Riff-Raff, Maria Bartolotta's crazed, lustful Magenta, Sara Rae Womack's wide-eyed and star-struck Columbia, and an entourage of Phantoms. Over the night, the good doctor gives Brad and Janet a liberal dose of the excitement they've been missing. The dichotomy creates a saucy conflict that only science fiction and a drag floorshow can resolve.

The focus is on the fun in this rendition of The Rocky Horror Show, there's more than a touch of camp in the tone and gestures, but the quality of the singing takes the production up a notch. Visually, it took me about three seconds to adjust to Juncal's bald Frank 'N' Furter, but vocally he is near perfection, with growls, purrs, and just the right amount of contemporary sass to own the character. 

O'Brien and Matthews harmonize well, and each has a strong voice with a warm tone. Fraine hisses and snarls in key, while Bartolotta and Womack once again show great range and control, and Womack turns in a nice bit of tap as well. Michael A. Wells pulls double duty as Dr. Scott and Eddie, a full-throated rock 'n' roll rebel. Gerry Love is a humorous narrator with a penchant for evidence, and the ensemble is rounded out with leading quality vocalists and performers including Angela Bubash, Sarah Polizzi, and Tim Kaniecki, who really needs a role where he can show off his considerable dancing chops. Finally, Luke Steingruby's Rocky is practically flawless, with an angelic voice, Charles Atlas muscles, blond hair, and a tan.

The production is enhanced by the company's continued commitment to make the most of their space, equipment, and budget. The fantastic, multi-story set by Rob Lippert has multiple, intricately detailed levels that help with the storytelling. Clever choreography by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner references the original and takes full advantage of the venue while adding a few fresh twists. Tyler Duenow's lighting recreates numerous effects and adds dramatic tone, which is amplified by Chris Peterson's musical direction. 

Eileen Engel's costumes are creatively true to the original vision and wonderfully flexible, with one glaring exception. Magenta's primary costume is unfortunately frumpy and out-of-character, even with the lovely décolletage accent. Bartolotta is exceptionally talented and she makes strong choices as an actor, the costume stands out as incongruous with the role. 

The company gets so much, so much more than right, however, and there's a palpable joie de vie in the enthusiastic cast that instantly captures and draws the audience into the fun. Plus, singing along and shouting out familiar retorts is encouraged. The impact of the choices is surprisingly fresh and satisfying, particularly for a show whose characters are so specifically ingrained in pop culture.

Intentionally immersive from the moment the Usherette greets you in the lobby to the sing-and-dance along curtain call, The Rocky Horror Show, in performance at Stray Dog Theatre through October 29, 2016, is a sweet little treat you'll be happy to indulge. If you want to join in on the fun you'll need to get your tickets asap, as many performances are already sold out.

 

 

 

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis' world premier of Until the Flood is a poignant, forceful, and often times unsettling one-woman show. Each part explores the repercussions of the death of Mike Brown in our community, though the evening news demonstrates time and again that St. Louis is not a required setting. 

Writer and performer Dael Orlandersmith, under the even-handed direction of Neel Keller, constructs a memory play in which the main characters are missing. It is important that art constructs a response to the continuing racial, economic, and socio-political struggles that we face, that artists speak, feel, and create in response to the now. By showing us the varying perspectives of an audience to history, Orlandersmith gives voice to the stories of the bystanders and participants. 

Through eight sharply drawn characters and a moving spoken word closing, Orlandersmith challenges easy assumptions while making the case for continued conversation. As an actor, she is thoroughly engaging, with a clear purpose and focused action. Her characters are distinct and teeming with authenticity, though at times they wander towards pointedly generalized.

We are introduced to an elderly black woman who has experienced change, and continuing racism. With a warm, caring tone she patiently explains her perspective, acknowledging that she has been subjected to racist remarks from whites and blacks alike. An older white gentleman, his conservatism announced the moment he mentions Missour-ah, demonstrates stereotypical attitudes, before admitting that he is conflicted and confused.

A white man in his 30s refutes privilege because lots of white people are poor and face challenges. His persona is tough and carelessly racist, though Orlandersmith chooses barely contained restraint. He is poetically countered by two black, male teens, both as sharp and observant as they are aware. The three have similar economic and educational backgrounds, but their stories, like their lives, are strikingly different even as their goals and hopes may align. 

There's also Reuben Little, a barber in his 60s, who just wants genuinely equal opportunity, to feel that there's a fair playing field; Connie Hamm, a white teacher who minimizes other's experience by always leading the conversation back to herself; and Edna Lewis, a universalist minister looking to reconcile those seeking peace and understanding with those pushing hatred and violence.

The characters are dense, not always sympathetic, and not easily pigeonholed. Orlandersmith draws us in with convincing portrayals, and a voice that whispers, entreats, and cajoles us to listen to the context behind each story. Her subject matter and construction challenges us to see people and not simply issues, and director Keller ensures we remain focused, guiding us from story to story. 

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata, lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, and projection design by Nicholas Hussong create the necessary ambiance for storytelling and guide us from monologue to monologue. Kaye Voyce's costumes are smartly effective, creating a neutral base on which Orlandersmith can layer jackets, hats, scarves, and other accessories to quickly transition from character to character. The most spectacular stagecraft is reserved for the spoken word conclusion. While several passages get the tears flowing, the enveloping effect of these last few minutes is all-consuming resulting in the welcome release of a flood of tears.

Until the Flood captures your attention and prods you with challenging questions delivered in the off-the-cuff style of conversation. Orlandersmith states that she is looking for truth, not the truth, through her interviews and the development of this evocative one-woman show, and she has delivered a production that thoughtfully pushes continued conversation. Moments are likely to linger in your mind, yet the show feels somewhat incomplete and unfinished. The stories feel unconnected in many ways, and the spoken word piece doesn't quite tie the threads together. Perhaps this is because there is still so much work to be done if we are to achieve racial, social, and economic justice in our communities.

Until the Flood, in performance through November 6, 2016, was commissioned by the Rep in response to the death of Mike Brown and community unrest that followed. This relevant peace speaks volumes on race relations and issues that remain prevalent today. Orlandersmith has created stories that deserve to be seen and listened to broadly, the topics and questions reach far beyond St. Louis. 

 


Upstream Theater's well-scripted and contained world premier of Maya Arad Yasur's one act play Suspended, is a powerfully moving story of the immigrant experience. We are introduced to Benjamin, a recent immigrant to the United States, played by Phillip C. Dixon, and Isaac, another immigrant from the same country, played by Reginald Pierre. The premise seems simple enough, Isaac has hired Benjamin to work with him; but nothing about this story is as simple, or straightforward, as it seems.

To begin with, the work is as a window washer, suspended well above the city streets, always on the outside looking in as they work their way from floor to floor. Isaac and Bennie, as Isaac calls him, were close friends in their home country, torn apart by war and rebel gangs that kidnapped and indoctrinated young men, turning them into boy soldiers. The fact that both men escaped only to reunite again, hanging side-by-side and suspended from the roof of a skyscraper, may be much more than coincidence. But that is for the actors to work out.

Linda Kennedy provides focused direction, and Dixon and Pierre turn in strong performances that compel the audience to pay close attention, watching every movement and listening for every nuance. There's much said through tone and intensity, but also in the smaller, quiet moments, and the brief flashes when the men's deep friendship re-emerges are genuinely uplifting. The two men have an easy chemistry, and it's easy to feel genuine friendship and concern in their relationship, important elements if the two are to survive working with each other.

The script tackles a myriad of topics as the men slowly and rhythmically traverse the outside of the building, repeating the same washing movements over and over. There's a lovely cadence to their movements and voices, and a general attention to the job at hand, which is getting to the top of the roof by dark.

As they talk, the fact that they are working such a precarious job seems less surprising, even when Benjamin accidentally looks down and experiences vertigo so bad that Isaac must grab and steady him. They have feared and fought for their lives so many times before, keeping steady and balanced must seem easy compared to dodging bullets, bombs, and soldiers. Still, it's realistic and lends authenticity later in the show.

Pierre's Isaac has lived in America for several years, while Benjamin is a recent arrival, leading to differences in perspective that are significant but not insurmountable. Dixon gives Bennie the wide-eyed appreciation of a new immigrant, but he shows restraint and a touch of skepticism. Pierre seems more acclimated to his new country, and determined to make a success, even as he feels he will never be fully accepted. The actors and director Kennedy ensure each man's tone and external actions reflect the turmoil he is still working through, successfully communicating their conflict and aspirations.

Questions about the past keep cropping up, though Isaac forcefully states that he doesn't want to discuss it, that the only way to succeed in America is to forget and focus on the future. But Bennie is haunted by a night during which his life was threatened and his sister impregnated by a soldier. He believes Isaac is the only one who can help him understand what happened. Each man is forced to deal with the trauma of the past, as well as to confront his feelings about the other man -- a man who now has the power to send him plunging to his death. Even in the safe space of a theater, the effect is chilling and the tension real.

The set, lighting, and sound, by Cristie Johnston, Tony Anselmo, and Dan Strickland, respectively, do an excellent job of bringing the audience into the scene. The perspective, the weather, and passing of time are well-executed effects that add much to the story. I do question the frequent use of a freeze in the action throughout the show. Though it punctuates some important moments, the device is also used randomly, causing a bit of confusion over intention and the intended time frame. Additionally, a little more attention to the physical action of the men's occupation, the illusion of moving up and down or across the window, will add to the show's immediacy.

Upstream Theater's provocative and layered Suspended runs through October 23, 2016, at the Kranzberg Center of the Arts. There's more than the history of childhood between these two men, and audience members may find themselves on the edge of their seat, filled with emotion, and waiting to plunge into the story with these two talented actors.

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