It is a fantasy. It is a dream. It is a nightmare. It is a revelation. But is it Shakespeare?
The brilliantly imaginative Lucy Cashion and her Equally Represented Arts company have done it again. After their recent exciting riffs on Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet they are serving up a strange and compelling piece called Trash Macbeth. In a remarkable, surrealistic way -- in a flurry of strange bits and pieces -- this adaptation seizes the fiery core of Shakespeare's play and drives it like a stake into the hearts of a 21st Century audience. This is far more than a director merely transposing the play into some other time and locale and hoping that we find some resonances. Miss Cashion puts the play through a meat-grinder, gives it spice and piquancy with juicy cuts from Emily Post, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the Book of Revelation, commercial television and, it would seem, Betty Crocker.
She sets the play in a world of trash which is generated by overconsumption which is driven by incessant merchandizing which is driven by greed which relies on and exploits human weakness. She sets the play in America in the early 1950s. But this world bears the same resemblance to the real 50s America as Alice's "Wonderland" bears to the real Victorian England. And (most surprising indeed) we find that the moral tensions, the ambition, the workings of guilt and fear that lie at the heart of Macbeth are underscored and amplified by all those commercial forces preying on the insecurities of Americans who desperately seek the happiness and success that all those shiningly advertised products are promising them.
Shakespeare's plot is solidly still present, but you must be quite familiar with it before attending Trash Macbeth.
The tale is told by six actors:
Mitch Eagles and Rachel Tibbets as the Macbeths, etc.
Karl Overly and Maggie Conroy as the Macduffs, etc.
Nic Tayborn as Banquo, etc.
Ellie Schwetye as Emily Post, etc.
We enter the theatre space and are graciously greeted by our hosts. A long dinner table fills the center of the hall. We are all guests at a royal banquet. Some of us sit with the cast at the table, others along the walls. Men in the cast wear formal black suits with a small bit of colorful trash worn as a boutonnière. The women wear strange cocktail-ish dresses; they're in a 50s style, but they're made of trash. Lady Macbeth, for instance, has a bodice composed of ads for Brillo.
There is quite wonderful music throughout supporting every moment -- everything from soft simple jazz to strange haunting rhythms, from an ominous drone to a TV game show organ. Joe Taylor, the composer, plays keyboard; Philip Zahnd is on drums.
The three witches can see the future. Like the Norns from Norse mythology they spin, measure and cut the thread of Fate. Moreover they keep score; at either side of the stage are posted "to-do" lists -- lists of those people to be killed. At each murder a witch crosses off a name. This underscores the inevitability that is so essential to tragedy.
From time to time great lengths of string are draped across the stage, eventually embodying the vast web of Fate in which Macbeth is entrapped.
The prim voice of Emily Post repeatedly interrupts to instruct us in how to host the perfect dinner party, or the precise way to light and hold a cigarette. Throughout we are assaulted by deluges of advertising jingles and mottoes. ("This execution is brought to you by ***DIAL SOAP***.") At the end this all combines into a cacophony of advice to the despairing Macbeth. Once, at the end of a card trick, the deck of cards is sprayed into the air -- a subliminal echo of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. When Macbeth appears after a murder his hands are filled with finely shredded paper, which drips over the audience as he passes -- like spatters of blood -- like drops of guilt. There is dance. There is also a great deal of inspired humor.
The entire performance is a kind of ritual.
The murder of Lady Macduff and her children is particularly powerful. It's heart-breaking. There is a frighteningly violent chase and struggle between the pregnant lady and her killers. As her spirit departs she passively recites a commercial message; I won't give it away, but it wrenchingly expresses corporate America's utter disdain for all things sacred -- even beautiful married love -- just as Macbeth's greed for power holds even innocent human life in disdain.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a TV game show -- like Macbeth's ancient Scotland, a place of wildly unrealistic and undeserved expectations. The characters, in their drab little self-introductions, reveal subtle and deep insight into themselves.
Director Lucy Cashion, with the assistance of Will Bonfiglio as dramaturg, have created a most remarkable evening of theatre. Weird and effective costumes are by Meredith
LaBounty. The design by Kristin Cassidy makes perfect use of the space. The very effective lighting is by Erik Kuhn.
I loved it. You might just hate it. But it will give you something to think and talk about.
Superb young talent takes the stage in Webster Conservatory's fine production of The Pajama Game.
This classic American musical first appeared in 1954. It is set in a pajama factory where a strike threatens the burgeoning romance between "Babe," head of the union grievance committee, and her ambitious young supervisor, Sid.
The premiere production was directed by the legendary George Abbott with Jerome Robbins. (Abbott also co-wrote the book.) The production won Tonys for "Best Musical," for Bob Fosse's choreography and for Carol Haney's featured performance as Gladys, the sexy secretary.
An interesting footnote to this production illustrates the fulfillment of that eternal dream of young actresses: during the run Miss Haney actually broke her ankle, giving her understudy her first chance to be in the spotlight. That understudy was the young Shirley MacLaine. (Ironically, in her childhood, as a ballet student, Miss MacLaine had herself broken her ankle during a performance, but she just tightened her laces and danced the role to the end; only then was an ambulance called.)
The Pajama Game is indeed a "well-made musical," in the sense that it has all the tried-and-true ingredients. You put 'em all in, turn the crank, and, "Hey presto!" out comes a successful musical. We have the main romance and the secondary comic romance. In each case we have boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. We have the requisite big production numbers, the romantic numbers, the comic novelty numbers. That George Abbott really knew what he was doing! He was famous for being a "play doctor" -- often being brought in to tweak a script and make it work.
Well, Mr. Abbott had plenty of time to doctor this show. He directed a revival in 1973 (with Hal Linden as Sid), and he was working on revisions of the second act a week-and-a-half before his death in 1995 -- at the age of 107! But still the book is a little creaky, a little artificial, a little slim on development of character and relationships -- even more so than the usual musical. There are some terrific songs -- "The Pajama Game," "Hey There," "Steam Heat," "Hernando's Hideaway," "There Once Was a Man" -- but as if in a throwback to the earliest days of American musicals, some songs seem just "stuck on," having really no relevance to the story. (Where does "Steam Heat" come from anyway? But it's a helluva number.)
Anyhow . . .
The Conservatory students who enact this tale delight the audience. Several in the cast merit special praise. I was particularly impressed with Ryan Jacobs, who plays Sid. He's blessed with a remarkably fine voice. He has a power and purity of tone that extend easily and undiminished into his very highest range. A soaring tenor indeed!
Jeannie Moffitt is quite perfect as Babe. Her lovely, true voice and her sweetheart face make us nicely surprised when we see her adamant commitment to her fellow workers. Her duet, "Small Talk," with Sid is very, very beautiful.
Austen Bohmer is a bombshell as Gladys. This is a gem of a funny, sexy role, and Miss Bohmer steals the show more than once. Perky, crisp and trim she is most justifiably the show's featured dancer. She masters the articulate sexuality of this Fosse-esque choreography. At the company picnic, in a terribly cute tangerine sun-suit, she is utterly irresistible. And what a sense of comedy!
Robert Riordan is cast a bit against type as "Hinesy," Gladys' fella. Riordan is a handsome leading-man type. Hinesy is really written for a character comic -- a vaudevillian. (Eddie Foy, Jr., a real vaudevillian, played the role in the first production; Cab Calloway played it in the '73 revival.) But Mr. Riordan rises beautifully to the challenge. He's a barrel of laughs in the comic numbers "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" and "Think of the Time I'll Save."
The entire cast does splendid work.
Director Tim Ocel, choreographer Lara Teeter and musical director Larry Pry have led these students into a highly professional performance.
The designers of the production (all students) do wonderful work. Brooke Henderson's costumes are charmingly period -- even to the Bermuda shorts business suit of the boss. Sets by Luke Shryock are excellent -- and quickly, fluidly shifted. The brick factory building is so convincing! Lights by Jeffrey Behm and sound by Collin Ronsonette beautifully support the production.
The Pajama Game played at the Webster Conservatory from April 20 through April 24.
The St. Louis Actors Studio has opened a strong production of Anton Chekov's Ivanov. Technically it really presses the limits of the Studio's tiny stage, but with a very strong cast we are given a moving glimpse of Chekhov's groping toward a theatrical voice.
Ivanov is the first of Chekhov's major plays. In this Tom Stoppard translation we meet many of what are to become Chekhov's "usual suspects": the idle rural gentry, the "superfluous man," the conscientious and idealistic medical doctor, the innocent ingénue who loves the wrong man, the variously pathetic and comic hangers-on at the estate.
It's an early confirmation of Chekhov's position as the most non-judgmental of all dramatists.
Nikolai Ivanov is at the end of his rope. Five years ago he married (for love as well as for some money) the lovely Jewess, Sarah. Upon her marriage she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Anna -- which caused her parents to disinherit her. So the expected great dowry vanished. Since then things have not gone well. Ivanov is deeply in debt and has no prospects at all. Moreover, Anna is dying of tuberculosis--and Ivanov can't afford to give her a restorative trip to the Crimea.
Ivanov's behavior under this great stress is what caused critics at the time to condemn the play. Whenever he can Ivanov abandons Anna and goes to visit the family of an old college friend, Paul Lebedev. It's a congenial, gossipy household and it includes a young daughter, Sasha, who is infatuated with Ivanov. Ivanov, forever moaning about his great misery and depression, is to most observers simply waiting for his loving wife to die so that he can marry Sasha. Anna's attendant physician, Dr. Lvov, constantly castigates Ivanov for his treatment of his wife. Yet Chekhov refuses to condemn Ivanov. And he seems to mock the righteous and moralistic Dr. Lvov.
About these two characters Chekhov once said: "If the audience will leave the theatre with the conviction that Ivanovs are scoundrels and that Doctors Lvov are great men, then I'll have to give up and fling my pen to the devil."
Strong performances abound. Drew Battles has the huge title role, and he looks every inch Ivanov. It's a fine performance, but Chekhov has filled the role with self-pity, and it's difficult for us not to view Ivanov as a feckless whiner. With a bit more nuance, a bit more subtext -- and, in that relentless flow of words, some pauses to help us sense emotional transitions -- we might more clearly see that though Ivanov is feckless he is not heartless.
But it's a long show, and I know that director Wayne Salomon has a sharp stick to prod his actors into keeping a lively pace -- lest the play run even longer than its two-and-a-half hours.
The cast is filled with familiar, strong, and beloved actors. Anna is played by Julie Layton, who charms us despite her struggles with consumption. She conveys a glowing, tender love for her husband. The eccentric old Count Shabelsky is played by Bobby Miller. With wild Einsteinian white hair and a gravelly voice way in the back of his throat this is another of Miller's iconic alte kaker roles. What a comic wonder! But (a minor quibble): Shabelsky is a Russian count. A time or two, when he's gently teasing Anna, Chekhov has him assume a Yiddish accent. With Miller's very eccentric voice it's never quite clear when Shabelsky is not playing the comic Jew.
David Wasilak brings an exuberant silliness to the role of Borkin, Ivanov's estate manager, who is full of a thousand wacky schemes to make money.
Teresa Doggett makes a true virago of Zinaida, Ivanov's major creditor. When she screams to a servant, "BRING SOME JAM!! GOOSEBERRY, OR SOMETHING!" she's as fierce as the Red Queen crying "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!"
Dr. Lvov is played by Reginald Pierre. Pierre is usually a most graceful actor, but here, though he's emotionally confident--even forceful--he seems almost uncomfortable in his body--almost fidgeting. I was puzzled by this choice.
Alexandra Petrullo brings sweetness and innocence to young Sasha, whose Florence-Nightingale heart sees a challenge in the troubled Ivanov.
To me, the most strikingly successful performance of all is that of B. Weller as Lebedev. I've watched Weller for many years and I've often been impressed by his engaging boyishness. Now, suddenly, Weller is filled with maturity and gravitas -- and subtlety and subtext! And that lovely good humor is still there. Even his make-up is perfect; it shows the slightly florid complexion of the heavy drinker that Lebedev is. Bravo to Mr. Weller!
Other fine performances are given by Cara Barresi, Shannon Nara, Jan Meyer, Clayton Bury and Léerin Campbell (the graceful maid always at hand to refill the vodka).
The beautiful costumes are by the astonishingly capable Teresa Doggett.
Sound design by director Wayne Salomon is a strange assortment of classic jazz, blues and R&B -- music that evokes the wee hours in a smoky bar. Lots of whispering steel brushes--(which to my knowledge had not yet appeared in 19th Century Russia). But the music does convey the melancholy that fills Ivanov.
Patrick Huber gives a striking and curious set. Chekhov uses four different sets -- not something easily done at the Gaslight, with it's tiny stage and no back-stage space. In this play we see a simple deep square room. Walls are of raw planking with (strangely indeed!) thin vertical deep blue fluorescent tubes adorning the walls. I don't understand it, but it works!
All of the furniture for all of the scenes is just there on stage, and is moved as necessary. And as if to crowd the space even further, actors do not leave the stage when they exit a scene; they simply take seats at the rear -- sometimes facing away from the scene being played, sometimes watching it. At times this is a little confusing, and all in all there is a great impediment to traffic; there's hardly space to move. But it does increase the sense of entrapment; these people simply cannot escape.
Ivanov is not great Chekhov, but I am most grateful to the St. Louis Actors Studio for mounting it. It introduces Chekhov's wonderful flair for blending the tragic with the absurd. This is epitomized in moment of hilarity when one after another of the central characters bursts into loud weeping over the wreckage of their lives, while poor Lebedev tries desperately to calm things -- and finally simply screams, "For God's sake SHUT UP!"
E.L. Doctorow's sprawling 1975 novel Ragtime, focusing on fictional families and famous personages in America near the turn of the 20th century, became a Broadway musical in 1998. It garnered Tony awards that year for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Featured Actress (Audra McDonald). A touring company of Ragtime - The Musical recently visited St. Louis' Peabody Opera House for a two-night engagement.
Adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally (Book), Stephen Flaherty (Music), and Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics), the potent mix of fictional characters and real historical people, and powerful songs, can make for a stirring experience, although in this particular production, the result was a little less stirring than it might have been.
Three family story lines set the stage in New York City from 1906 to 1914: ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Chris Sams) and Sarah (Leslie Jackson), two Black residents of Harlem; Father (Troy Bruchwalski), Mother (Kate Turner, excellent voice), Mother's Younger Brother (Donald Coggin), and son Edgar (Colin Myers), a well-off family from New Rochelle; Tateh (Matthew Curiano) and his daughter (Cara Myers), Latvian immigrants coming to find a better life in America. The meeting and mixing of these disparate story lines, combined with actual historical figures such as vaudeville performers Harry Houdini (Mark Alpert) and Evelyn Nesbit (Jillian Van Niel), carmaker Henry Ford (John Anker Bow), educator Booker T. Washington (Jeffrey Johnson II), industrialist J.P. Morgan (Todd Berkich), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Sandy Zwier), flesh out the two-and-a-half-hour production. Issues that lend gravitas to the story are the rise of women's rights, racial conflict, the plight of immigrants, and the rise of the American movie industry.
In general, Ragtime - The Musical was well done. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge kept things moving, pace-wise and choreography-wise. The costumes were colorful and the lighting suited the various moods well. However, minor issues kept the production from hitting it out of the ballpark (apt because one of the numbers involves Baseball!). The set is minimalist, with simple projections on the background cyc curtain to establish place, but the two-piece set of stairs, moved into various configurations, became tiresome to see after a while. The sound board operator was late on a number of microphone cues, causing lost dialog and lyrics. One character's physical gyrations at times made an already difficult-to-understand accent even more difficult to understand. And it's a good thing I knew all the lyrics going in because the words of several musical numbers, whether because of the sound system, or the actors' failure to enunciate, were difficult to discern. That's a shame because it's a great score.
Minor points, perhaps, but even minor points do add up. Nonetheless, I felt fortunate to have seen Ragtime live once again.
It's really more of a pageant and celebration than a play. It's called Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life and it's the fruit of collaboration between Fontbonne University's Bosnian Memory Project and playwright Deanna Jent, a professor in the Find Arts Department and artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre.
As you know, St. Louis -- and especially South St. Louis -- has been blessed with massive immigration from Bosnia. In the early 1990's, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the remnant Serbia tried to roll back the clock of history some six hundred years -- to when the Ottoman Empire conquered Bosnia-Herzegovina and brought a forced Islamization.
Now the Balkans have a deep and rich and very troubled history. No less than six civilizations have fought through the centuries over the region called Bosnia. For a vivid look into the sufferings of Bosnia under the Ottomans I highly recommend Nobel laureate Ivo Andrič's novel, The Bridge on the Drina.
From 1992 to 1995 at the hands of the Serbian army many thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered; many thousands fled. Now St. Louis is home to more Bosnian-born people than any city outside Bosnia. And their story has been one of great success. Over the years America has opened its arms to many peoples fleeing the horrors of persecution, of war, of disaster -- from the Pilgrims to the Irish potato famine to this recent genocidal war in the Balkans. And the Bosnian-Americans of St. Louis are proving once again that America truly is the land of opportunity, and that the American Dream is still possible.
The play's first week-end was at the Gribic Banquet Hall, an annex of the beautiful Grbic Restaurant, where the food itself is a glorious celebration of the Bosnian heritage.
The cast of ten portray many characters -- all of whom experienced the traumatic purging of their people from their homeland. We see childhood memories in Bosnia; we see the Starbucks chat of well-assimilated teen-agers in America. We learn of flights to Denmark and to Germany. We see the contrasts among schools: the forced religion classes in Serbia, the demanding standards of German high-schools, the rather easy American schools. We watch the difficulties and rejection encountered by a young Bosnian widow who marries a Serb friend. (My goodness, in Bosnia all the Serbs, Croats and Muslims used to be friendly neighbors!)
Binding these stories together somehow -- dreamily, poetically -- we watch a sort of dance fable. It's the old story of the wolf and the lamb, drawn all the way from Ǽsop. The fable shows that, regardless of all rational arguments, corrupt power will justify itself in devouring the innocent. Here a lamb, Aska, dreams of becoming a ballerina. When she meets the wolf she can only survive by continuously dancing -- it's the Dance for Life. It represents the stalwart, persevering struggle of these desperate immigrants to escape, to find refuge, to settle, to find work, to prosper.
Melissa Gerth does beautiful work as the dancing lamb, supported by the rest of the cast who, donning charming lamb's ears, become a whole baaa-ing flock. The cast includes a mix of Bosnian-Americans and familiar faces of St. Louis actors -- all of whom do fine work. Some of the dialogue is in Bosanski (the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian), but the meaning is always clear. Director Adam Flores manages his ten actors very nicely on a minimalist set by Kyra Bishop.
It's a most heartening and hopeful evening celebrating the Bosnian-American experience. Running just under an hour, Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. April 21-May 1. Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre on Fontbonne University campus.