Fun Home, the musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel's 2006 "family tragicomic" of the same name, is something of an odd fit for the Fox Theatre, where a national tour of the show is playing through November 27.

It is, to begin with, a small-cast show originally designed for a much smaller theatre. Even with a false proscenium that reduces the width of the stage by around a third, Fun Home feels dwarfed by the Fox's immensity. That creates a distancing effect that somewhat blunts the emotional force of the show, especially in the tragic and ultimately cathartic final scenes.

The story is also somewhat out of the Fox's usual Broadway hit mainstream. Like Ms. Bechdel's original graphic novel, Fun Home leaps forward and backward in time to tell the story of how she and her two siblings helped out at the small town funeral home (the "fun home" of the title) run by her father, Bruce, who was also the local high school English teacher.

In both the novel and the musical, Bruce emerges as a deeply conflicted and tragic character. He loves Alison but finds it hard to say so. He has male lovers outside of his marriage, but never fully comes to grips with his identity as a gay man. As a song heard early in the show, "He Wants," tells us, the Bechdel "fun home" revolves around what Bruce wants, and yet even he is not always clear what those wants are.

This is not, in short, your usual musical extravaganza. It's closer to a tragic opera, but with redemption for narrator Alison at the end.

Composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie; Caroline, or Change) and playwright Lisa Kron (2.5 Minute Ride; Well) have, in any case, done an impressive job of translating Ms. Bechdel's work to the stage.

Ms. Kron's book handles the original material's leaps backward and forwards in time by presenting us with three versions of Alison Bechdel: Alison, age 43, writing her book; Medium Alison, a bookish age 19 discovering her lesbian sexual identity at Oberlin College; and Small Alison, age nine or thereabouts, trying (and often failing) to get her father's attention and affection while chafing at his insistence that she confirm to a "girly" role that, even at her age, she recognizes as alien. It's an ingenious device that allows us to see adult Alison remembering her life and sometimes even taking part in it, as in the song "Telephone Wires," in which she recalls that final, unsuccessful attempt to form a real emotional connection with her father before his untimely death when he was struck by a truck on a busy highway -- an incident that might or might not have been suicide.

For her part Ms. Tesori has put together a score which, while not generating any memorable melodies, nevertheless succeeds at the more important task of revealing and illustrating character. As New York Magazine theatre critic Jesse Green points out in the notes for the Fun Home cast album, Ms. Tesori "abjures traditional song forms, opting instead for yearning fragments and bits of refrains that clump like cells into musicalized scenes: a smart parallel to the way Bechdel builds pages from individual panels." My first inclination was to dismiss the results as so much contemporary musical-theatre yard goods, but hearing the score again on the cast recording brought me around to Mr. Green's point of view.

An excellent ensemble cast brings this all to life, led by Robert Petkoff as Bruce. His character is complex and could easily come across as unpleasant, but Mr. Petkoff does not neglect the character's softer side, giving him real depth. Kate Shindle displays the same depth as the adult Alison, making the character's difficult emotional journey all too real.

Susan Moniz is heartbreakingly real as Bruce's long-suffering wife Helen, bearing up under the unbearable burden of her husband's conflicted soul and finally pouring out her disappointment in the song "Days and Days":

Days and days and days, that's how it happens

Days and days and days

Made of lunches and car rides and shirts and socks

And grades and piano and no one clocks

The day you disappear

Abby Corrigan gets the enthusiastic vulnerability of Middle Alison just right and Alessandra Baldacchino is utterly engaging as Small Alison. There's fine work here as well by Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador as Young Alison's brothers John and Christian, Karen Eilbacher as Joan (a.k.a. "Jo"), who is responsible for Middle Alison's sexual awakening, and Robert Hager in multiple roles.

The fact that Fun Home uses a small band playing on a raised platform in back of the stage instead of an orchestra pit helps make the sound clearer than it sometimes is at the Fox, as does the fact that there are almost no ensemble numbers at all. Individual voices invariably come through more cleanly over the amplification system. Sam Gold's direction pulls everything together flawlessly.

Fun Home may not be a great musical, but it is certainly an important one, especially in light of the dark strains of resentment let loose in the recent Presidential campaign. It reminds us that families can be difficult and that love is not always easy regardless of anyone's sexuality. Being human can just be hard sometimes, and we all need (as the old song goes) to "try a little tenderness."

Fun Home plays at the Fox in Grand Center through November 27. Note that the show runs around one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, and that evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.

 


Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a fascinating and deeply intelligent play. St. Louis University and director Lucy Cashion are giving it an elegant, beautiful production (playing through November 20). Conceive, if you can, a historical whodunnit where sex is blended with mathematics, the struggle between the rational and the Romantic eras is reenacted, and where Lord Byron, landscape architecture, and the second law of thermodynamics are central themes. 

Arcadia is not for lazy audiences. The wit is sometimes subtle and quick, the language at times demanding. If you've no idea what the Age of Enlightenment or the Romantic Movement was, if you've never heard of Byron, if you've no concept of scientific inquiry -- then perhaps you should stay at home. But if you like to think, then careful attention to Arcadia will be bountifully repaid. In some ways it's like Shakespeare: it's worth reading before you see it; it's worth seeing several times. It is so rich that you'll keep getting more and more. But stay alert; eat lightly before you come -- and prepare to listen fast. This is my favorite modern play.

What does it mean to be the inheritors of rich scientific and artistic legacies? What does it mean to be human in a doomed universe? Listen! Watch!

The play is set in an English country estate and shifts fluidly between 1809 and the present. Lucy Cashion has startled us in recent years with some wonderfully inventive avant-garde productions; here she shows an equally skillful hand in a rather more conventional mode. The set by designer Dan Giedeman is simplicity itself: one long, long beautiful oak table, a few chairs, an antique music stand. Far at the back against a softly-lit cyclorama sit the entire cast of twelve, frozen in natural poses -- as if in an aquatint. A piano, off-stage in most productions, here sits in an upstage corner.  The characters step into the scenes as they flow, afterward retiring to their chairs at the rear. The entire production is suffused with a spare, graceful beauty. Lou Bird does lovely work with costumes -- especially for the nineteenth-century characters. 

In 1809 we meet Thomasina Coverly (daughter of the estate, thirteen) and her tutor young Septimus Hodge. Marilyn Arnold is quite perfect as the ingenuous Thomasina, the lovely adolescent mathematical prodigy who discovers fractal mathematics -- the geometry of nature -- a hundred and sixty years before Benoit Mandelbrot. Miss Arnold is filled with light grace. She conveys a convincing keen innocent curiosity about everything from why we can't un-stir the jam in our rice pudding to "What is carnal embrace?"

  • Ryan Lawson-Maeske gives a strong performance as Septimus. He masters the tutor's quick defensive wit and his arrogance-veiled-in-irony.
    Other good performances are given by:
  • Ross Rubright as Chater, the absurd and often-cuckolded dreadful poet,
  • Blake Howard as Noakes, the very arty landscape architect who is converting the estate's gardens from the Classical to the Romantic style. In his flowing coat and broad hat he is particularly evocative of that period and profession.
  • Alyssa Still as Lady Croom, mistress of the estate. Miss Still edges Lady Croom just a bit too much toward the nose-in-the-air snob -- a type found more in the nouveau riche than in an ancient noble family. This is an intelligent, if modestly educated woman. She is, after all, Thomasina's mother.
  • Quincy Shenk gives us a very nicely military Captain Brice.
  • Evan Garber makes the patient butler Jellaby rather endearing.

And now the modern-day characters:

  • Parvuna Sulaiman gives an outstanding performance as Hanna, the garden historian. She brings a beautiful face and voice to the role, and brims with intelligence, subtlety and a sharp wit.
  • Andy O'Brien plays Bernard, the insufferable Byron scholar. He flourishes his intellect like a saber. Very good work indeed.
  • Alex Fyles is most impressive in the role of Val, older son to the estate. It's such an utterly natural, confident performance. His sheer excitement about science and mathematics makes one long and difficult scene really work.
  • Sarah Richardson plays Chloe, daughter to the estate, with bright energy.
  • Michael Lanham plays the fifteen-year-old Coverly son -- in both eras. He gives us an articulate, confidant Augustus (1809). Gus (modern) has been mute since the age of five. This and his terror of loud noises and conflict would seem to place Gus somewhere on the autism spectrum. Lanham does good work with both lads. Moreover (unless my eyes deceived me) it is he who plays the very lovely piano passages -- including some Chopin -- that support the play throughout. Fine work!

Good acting abounds. There was, I think, only one significant lack: I missed a sense of tenderness from Septimus toward Thomasina. He is brusque, even intellectually combative with others in the play, but this will not do with Thomasina. There is a magic in this girl of which Septimus is fully aware. His proper formality as her tutor must not quite successfully mask his occasional flush of awe as she leads his mind into remarkable territories. And a tenderness is needed to support the final scene where, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Thomasina yearns for more than a tutor's sort of love.

There are, count them, five studies under way in this play. They are in:

  1. the history of gardens, where Hanna delves into the Sidley archives on the trail of a mysterious hermit,
  2. the history of literature, where Bernard so desperately hopes he's discovered a Byron scandal,
  3. the behavior of grouse populations, where Val's computer simulations are drawn from the estate's old "game books," and
  4. the mathematics of nature, where Thomasina's genius outshines them all.

What's the fifth study? Well, it overarches the others and is undertaken by just about everybody. It's the study of just what the heck is "carnal knowledge" and how does it effect the pursuit of truth.

Arcadia, under Lucy Cashion's gifted direction, yields a most satisfying evening. It examines the various paths to truth -- the artistic, the scientific, the intuitive. And it celebrates that wonderful trait which distinguishes genus homo sapiens from all others -- not just our hunger for knowledge, but that primal joy in the pursuit of knowledge, that dance of the intellect. We live in a world subject to the second law of thermodynamics: i. e., despite local eddies of order, in the long run disorder increases. We will ultimately arrive at the "heat death" of the universe, when everything is cosmologically "luke warm" and time ceases. What are we to do? "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning," says Septimus, "we will be alone on an empty shore." "Then," says Thomasina, "we will dance."   

 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a vibrant performing arts community is the opportunity for patrons to witness art in all stages of its creation. Touring shows at the Fox have usually been through years of development, refinement, and polish by the time they pull into town. In St. Louis, we are fortunate to have several companies that include a slate of original, one-act plays, and one company devoted to producing and promoting local talent. These companies offer us a unique theatrical experience: to be among the first to see a new work.

First Run Theatre shows feature only the work of playwrights from the metropolitan region, and the company collaborates with a number of organizations to solicit new pieces on a recurring basis. The eight original plays presented in the two-act Spectrum 2016 short play festival are all receiving their first full production. The plays run ten to twelve minutes in length and, while several feel more like a well-constructed scene, each presents a complete idea or story. 

Lyndsay Somers Hicks and Sean Michael share the director's chair, taking four plays each, and the large ensemble cast, including familiar and new faces, responds capably to their lead. Malik Shakoor, Tim Callahan, Rae Davis, Jeremy Thomas, Abraham Shaw, and Sofia Murillo created distinct characters that stand out for positive reasons among the ensemble, which also includes Madelyn Boyne, Deborah Bixler, Michelle Dillard, Tiffany Knighten, Jazmine Wade, Joseph Link, Matthew Woolbright, Kate McAllister, Denise Saylor, Gregory Jamison, and Shrini Shaw. 

The acting and directing is crisp, for the most part, although a lack of experience was noted in a few actors who labored and could literally be seen looking for their lines on the ceiling. It has honestly been quite some time since this reviewer noticed those revealing glances, but it is distracting and signals a lack of confidence. Perhaps some extra line rehearsal with the directors can help shore them up by next weekend. Additionally, the pacing and emotional ebb and tide of the short plays appears to click best when the cast is limited and the script narrowly focused and sharply written.

Most Real and The Technicians are the most successful of the shows for me, followed closely by Pride of Dummies. The subjects of these plays are clear, interesting, and relevant. Though Most Real feels like an important scene in a larger piece, the play resonates as contemporary and realistic, with two intriguing characters I want to watch. The Technicians is abundantly humorous, cleverly positing a much deeper philosophical question. It feels complete as a short play and would likely lose significant charm if lengthened. Pride of Dummies would benefit from a less obvious and judgmental title. The sarcasm and bickering among the three "frenemy" characters perfectly delivers the lesson in a complete piece with delightfully snide dialogue.

Fear of Mediocrity is a good piece that may work better -- and linger more powerfully -- if tightened and presented as spoken word. There are times when lead actor Woolbright finds a defined cadence and the energy and interpretation immediately improves. Following this directional lead and eliminating the chorus may create a new, stronger work. Finally, And They Lived Happily Ever After, Placebo Effect, Reunion, and Fartocalypse were quite enjoyable and laugh out loud funny by several turns. Still, those pieces feel like sketch comedy rather than a play. Additionally, I have seen these stories presented before, although Fartocalypse builds with an inventive, hilarious story that's a surprising take on environmental disaster. The sketch is a perfect choice to end the evening.

Playwrights David Hawley, Joe Wegescheide, R. O. Stevenson, Nathan Hinds, Dan Viggers, and Colin McLaughlin demonstrate that they have a firm grip on the art of structuring a play, but some work is needed. Attention to rewrites to remove the clichéd and expected will serve the authors well. The good news is that each story has an interesting perspective and some good detail to hold audience interest, so there isn't a bad start among the selected pieces. The set and technical aspects are purposefully minimal, but the direction and acting are, for the most part, successful in bringing these new works to life.

First Run Theatre and the local artists involved in their productions offer a unique opportunity to see live theater in its nascent form, to be among the first to be moved by a new work. Or not. Not every show will hit all your buttons, but there's plenty to like. Theatergoers who enjoy a deeper dig into the art and craft of storytelling are sure to find a lot to discuss after seeing Spectrum 2016, a short play festival running through November 20, 2016. 


I've always said that college theatre gives you the very best bang for your theater buck, and once again Webster Conservatory has resoundingly proved me right. Their production of Macbeth is superb. Actors, designers, builders, craftsmen and crew are all students. Director Bruce Longworth has brilliantly led them into the creation of a remarkable and exciting evening.

We find ourselves awed by four great rough-hewn megaliths standing behind an ancient stone circle. Designer Robbie Ashurst approaches genius in the use of these scenic elements. By themselves they ache of ancient Britain. At first they are subtly decorated by narrow vertical drizzles of runes -- not unlike the droppings of some evil bird. But when a shift of lighting brings out hints of primitive faces on the stones -- as the runes evaporate -- the magic of these stones begins. As we venture into this dark evening these great stones, from time to time, glow with projections: the graceful text of Macbeth's letter to his wife, the noble faces of the future kings descendant from Banquo. When the tragic confusion of the elements is at its highest we are given a huge blood-tinged solar eclipse! Most impressive!

Lighting, by Josh Murphy, and sound by Marion Ayers are equally excellent. The opening battlefield scene surmounts the difficulty of presenting convincing swordplay by being staged in slow motion, with a kind of stop-action use of strobe lights. There are great storms and lightning, there's lovely -- and sometimes ominous -- music. Magically the black sky is filled with a thousand candles. But all the impressive technical aspects never quite cross that line that marks the boundary between a play about people and a play about high-tech effects. It's all very fine work.

Costumer Lauren Rismiller clothes these ancient Scots in beautifully appropriate garb. It's mostly in dark and earthy tones, but Lady Macbeth's striking red gown somehow fits well into the scheme. (And actress Sigrid Wise takes great advantage of that gown's potential for dramatic movement.)

This is a very classic production of Macbeth. No "concept," no shifting of time or place. Yes, several roles written for men are given to women, but this is quite appropriate in a training environment like the Conservatory, which has obligations not only to the audience but to the students as well. There just ain't that many roles for women in Shakespeare. (Many of England's great actresses cut their teeth in men's roles in girls-school productions of Shakespeare; Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, and Glenda Jackson is soon to appear as King Lear.) In this Macbeth, Malcolm, the king's son, is played by Austen Danielle Bohmer. She does a beautiful job. A woman in this role offers no difficulty, as Malcolm is indeed a beardless youth. The nobleman Lennox is also played by a woman -- Natalie Walker.  Tall and with a wonderfully expressive face she's full of masculine ardor and she moves to battle with the most commanding stride of anyone on stage.

The three witches do lovely wicked work, with strange incantations and a very strange sort of dance. Their brewing of the "toil and trouble" involves their pouring nasty buckets full of red, green and black slime down a grating in the floor -- a nice directorial touch. But despite their weirdness and rags they still appeared as attractive young women. I wanted a bit more grotesqueness -- a bit of hagginess, a hint of beard.

What a charming twist it was, when the murderers are brought in to talk with Macbeth, to have one of them almost giddy with awe at the fittings of this royal room. In another delicious bit director Longworth puts the prophesies not into the witches' mouths but into Macbeth's -- with actor Myke Andrews mouthing the words to recordings of other voices. Spooky!

Matthew Brent Luyber (who played the delightful Stephano in last year's Tempest) gives a gem of a comic performance as the drunken porter. He's a hoot! And all of the student actors do excellent work. There's not a weak spot in the entire cast. And, as usual, the diction is splendid.

Now, as to the tragic lord and lady. Both Myke Andrews and Sigrid Wise do excellent work. And this gave rise to a tiny marital discord: my wife raved about Andrews, his diction, his deep understanding of the lines. Well, yes, that's all true. But I thought that Miss Wise was just a pinch more fine. Similar owning of lines, similar fine diction, but with a gift for graceful, powerful dramatic movement. Her "unsex me here" speech was spine-chilling, and she gives us a shocking moment when she is clearly going mad.

All in all it's another very fine production. It's Macbeth at the Webster Conservatory. It plays through November 20.


 

If you're in the mood to shake up your theater calendar just before plunging into the holiday season with its many beloved and familiar shows, I encourage you to consider The Immersive Theatre Project by Rebels and Misfits, Hamlet: See What I See.  

My suggestion that you attend another play by Shakespeare may not, on the surface, seem new, fresh or different. But this production -- with nods to participatory theater, French cinema, 80s and 90s art house films, and contemporary deconstructive work -- is anything but staid old Bard. Hamlet: See What I See is an immersive and interpretive experience that invites structured audience participation and requires comfortable shoes. Shakespeare's memorable storytelling and expertly crafted dialogue remains, though it has been pared down to the essential elements. 

King Hamlet has died while young Prince Hamlet was away studying. By the time the Dane returns home, his mother Gertrude has married his Uncle Claudius. The show opens with Claudius' coronation and first speech. Loyal friend Horatio's story and a visit from the ghost of Hamlet's father set the inevitable in motion with poetic certainty. The sudden arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as the unfortunate meddling of Polonius, confirm Hamlet's darkest suspicions and tragedy ensues. 

Brandon Alan Smith is enthralling and passionate as Hamlet. His anger is a slow burn revealed in flashes of increasing in intensity until he explodes with fantastic swordsmanship and destructive poetry. Francesca Ferrari and Reginald Pierre are fabulously amorous and entwined to the bitter end as Gertrude and Claudius. Ferrari is distant, frightened, and fragile while Pierre brings a likable charm and surprising insouciance to Claudius.

The radiant Kelly Hummert, artistic director of the company, is a more self-aware but nonetheless delicate and fatefully injured Ophelia. The always-engaging Sarajane Alverson is both master and puppet as the gullible, pliable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Lee Osorio is a nimble and observant Horatio, his quick reactions and arched eyebrow sympathetic and telling. Christopher Tipp adds compassion in his portrayal of Laertes, bringing a poignant sensitivity to the character. Isaiah DiLorenzo goes with the flow of the court as an earnest, devoted father and servant of the crown. Well intentioned, he fails to see he's complicit with the crimes committed. Rounding out the capable ensemble, Andy Sloey, Andrea Reed, BlaQue Pearl, Leif Newberg, and Tyler Cheatem provide solid supporting performances, entertaining with limber movements and a prophetic chorus.

As guests of the court, the audience moves with the story, though the majority of the action takes place in the main hall. The show even moves outside for the moving burial of Ophelia, and many members of the audience will view the closing swordfight from the balcony, offering a new perspective from which to view the intricately fascinating fight choreography. The technical elements work in concert with the story, guiding the audience from scene to scene and creating beautifully textured imagery in the context of live theater.

Hamlet: See What I See was conceived and produced by a large team that includes Hummert, director Melanie S. Armer, fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, sound designer Chad Raines, lighting designer John Eckert, digital media director Aarti Couture, and St Louis native and nationally renowned fashion designer Emily Brady Koplar.  

Their purpose is to blur the lines between the audience and the show, and this production succeeds spectacularly. From private tours of the castle Elsinore to the immediacy and proximity of the story's action, the audience is fully enveloped by the show. The St. Louis production integrates music and social media into the entertainment, and audience members are encouraged to take and share photos from their experience.

Shakespearean purists will find plenty to criticize in the production. Yet I found the deconstructed script delightfully enigmatic and the forced focus on the visceral impact of the story completely captivating. Though I did not always have clear sight lines at the performance I attended, there were very few moments when I missed a line, and the overall effect of the show is a truly immersive experience.

The acting, the adaptation, and the elaborate style of Barnett's on Washington ensure that The Immersive Theatre Project's, Hamlet: See What I See, in performance each night through November 18, 2016, delivers a provocative experience. Audience members are invited to dress for and attend a cocktail reception one hour prior to the King's coronation, which opens the show. Then, the oft-studied story is told in logical but seemingly fragmented pieces that slowly assemble into the Hamlet most of us know. 

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