It's Halloween weekend in St. Louis and there's plenty of haunting goings on. Why not start your festivities by seeing a play or musical? As a bonus, your costume will likely be welcomed and complimented! This week's In Performance spotlights both the "bad" -- a battle of will with tragic consequences all around -- and the "good," a sweetly personal story about an unexpected friendship that begins while waiting for the train. 

YoungLiars, a thoughtfully ambitious and energetic company headed by Maggie Conroy and Chuck Harper, amps ups the blood letting and body parts with Titus Androgynous, a comic interpretation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus that's supported by a number of critical scholars and writers. The story of the Roman general's defeat of the Goths and subsequent bitterly personal feud with the scheming Goth queen Tamora is not considered among Shakespeare's best; but it is his bloodiest, stuffed with continuous action and deviantly vicious revenge. A notable curiosity, this is the third recent retelling of the rousing but infrequently performed tale in St. Louis this season. 

It is logical and possible to interpret the show as parody "perhaps directed towards contemporary Christopher Marlowe as well as the period preference for theatrical blood and guts," Harper offers. "Viewed as comedy, the script is filled with double entendres and puns that create thematic shifts in perspective. We looked at the script from that angle and found farce." Under Harper's direction, the comedy is constant and bloody, nearly 10 quarts of stage blood are used each show. The adaptation, also by Harper, includes several new songs by Paul Cereghino that push the exposition and compress the timeline. YoungLiars Titus Androgynous: A Comic Spectacle runs through November 11, at the Centene Center for the Arts.

I ask you in all mock seriousness, what better Halloween weekend choice can horror fans have?

Steven Woolf directs Susan Louise O'Connor and Joneal Joplin in the surprisingly intimate and heartwarming Heisenberg. Georgie, an odd and impulsive woman, briefly engages Alex, an older gentleman also waiting at the London train station. She's brash and crass and outspoken, he's of a more subdued ilk. The unexpected start to their relationship turns to conversation, and the two being an awkward friendship.

The one-act show opens the St. Louis Repertory Studio Theatre's season, spinning two very disparate people into a shared orbit and exploring each character's quirks and personality. The two discover they have much in common even as they question the connection they feel. Running through November 12, Heisenberg is life affirming and uplifting, a nice reminder to "stop and smell the roses" and other extraordinary moments in our daily life. 

Continuing this weekend: 

If you're in the mood for murderous stories and haunting tales, you'll want to catch the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' first ever production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, running through November 5th. Arguably one of the Bard's greatest plays, the dark story tells of lust, murder, and revenge among Danish royalty.

Insight Theater Company brings Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion Dr. Watson to life in Tony award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig's comic mystery Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, running through October 29. John O'Hagan and Ken Coffield are extra clever, amiable, and delightfully engaging, while Elliot Auch, Ed Reggi and Gwen Wotawa create a wonderful ensemble, with each showing theatrical flexibility and sharp comic timing in multiple roles. 

 

 

 

Though there are none of the usual openings in this week's KDHX In Performance feature, there's still news to share! Two exiting performing arts events are happening this weekend only, and there are a lot of "not to be missed" shows closing soon. Check the listings and reviews, then make sure you don't miss out. And, as always, remember to visit the KDHX Calendar for the complete list of music, arts, and events happening around town. 

The fifth annual Compass Improv Festival takes place this weekend at the Improv Shop (in its new location in the Grove). The festival includes seven scheduled performances and you're guaranteed a new show every time. You won't know what you're going to see when you walk in, but that's ok. The actors don't know either. The three-day Compass Improv Festival celebrates performance and the art of "yes and..." an approach that's as important to improv as iambic pentameter is to Shakespeare. Maybe even more so. 

The name "Compass" harkens back to the 1950s, when the Compass Players introduced this new form of acting to audiences in both Chicago and St. Louis. When the company settled in Chicago it changed its name to (the now iconic) Second City. Andy Sloey, who trained at Second City and is the Improv Shop's general manager, notes that the scene in St. Louis is strong, with about 300 participating artists in the area. Kevin Hahn, who moved to St. Louis a year a go and is producing the festival, agrees. You can see for yourself at the Fifth Annual Compass Improv Festival, with shows at the Improv Shop in the Grove, October 19 -- 20. If you really enjoy the festival, check out the shop's classes for adults at every level from beginners to seasoned artists.

Variety, the children's charity of St. Louis, presents its annual all-abilities welcome Variety Children's Theatre production Thursday, October 19 through Sunday, October 22. For its ninth production, the cast goes "off to see the Wizard" with the colorful, musical adventure The Wizard of Oz. As is the standard for the company's productions, a group of talented kids with special needs are featured in the show, accompanied by a full orchestra and local professional actors, artists, and crew. 

The Variety Children's Theatre brings the beloved story of Dorothy and her spunky dog Toto to life in a heartwarming production. We join along as they take a trip "over the rainbow" and into a world filled with new friends and important lessons. The show's positive, "yes, I can" attitude and uplifting tone will make you smile as surely as the memorable songs will keep you humming all the way home. Variety's production of [The Wizard of Oz is on stage at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus, with six performances scheduled over four days.

Continuing this weekend: 

If you're in the mood for murderous stories and haunting tales, you'll want to catch the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' first ever production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, running through November 5. Arguably one of the Bard's greatest plays, the dark story tells of lust, murder, and revenge among Danish royalty.

Get into the Halloween spirit in a bold but comic way with Emery Entertainment's production of Evil Dead the Musical, running through October 22 at the Grandel Theater. The fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek musical, based on the popular movie franchise, delivers all the cheesy puns and blood-spattered mess of the films and there's seating in the "splatter zone" for the most adventurous theatergoers.

Take Two Productions presents its interpretation of the popular musical Next to Normal. The contemporary story effectively explores how a typical suburban family copes with the ups, downs, and crises of living with someone suffering from mental illness. The quirky, memorable musical, in performance through October 21, is raw and realistic at times, but never without heart or a caring. Even in its darkest moments, there's a thin ray of light and a hopeful perspective lurking.

Insight Theater Company brings Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion Dr. Watson to life in Tony award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig's comic mystery Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, running through October 29. John O'Hagan and Ken Coffield are extra clever, amiable, and delightfully engaging, while Elliot Auch, Ed Reggi and Gwen Wotawa create a wonderful ensemble, with each showing theatrical flexibility and sharp comic timing in multiple roles. 

Clayton Community Theatre continues with their run of August Wilson's Two Trains Running, a beautifully reconstructed snapshot of life in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, circa 1969. Jobs are scarce and gentrification is taking over, pushing out the neighborhood's poor and working class residents. As they struggle to hang on, the group of regulars at Memphis Lee's diner takes refuge from a weary world, grab coffee and a bite to eat, and find solace in familiar company.

Stray Dog Theatre presents Spring Awakening, a bold coming of age tale set among a deeply private religious community. Directed by Justin Been, and delivered with a rebellious rock and roll score, the story follows a group of friends through the trials of adolescence. The musical, running through October 21, features adult themes and subject matter and is intended for mature audiences.

Upstream Theater presents Sweet Revenge, a sympathetic satire in performance through October 22, at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Considered the "finest Polish comedy ever written," the story, directed by Philip Boehm, is told from the perspective of an amateur St. Louis Polish immigrant theater troupe in the 1930s. 

Tuesdays with Morrie is an adaptation of Mitch Albom's memoir about reconnecting with his professor, mentor and friend and saying goodbye. What begins as a one-off visit turns into weekly lessons on life in the New Jewish Theatre's production of the heartwarming story continuing through October 22. 

New Line Theatre amps up the gothic rage with the St. Louis premier of Lizzie, a rock opera running through October 21, that's loud, rude, and a bit nasty. The show is blistering and powerful, filled with a punk rock ethos and riot grrrl rage as well as an outstanding cast featuring Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Larissa White, and Marcy Ann Wiegert. 

 

With its effective production of Two Trains Running, Clayton Community Theatre once again demonstrates a commitment to serious scripts and relevant drama. August Wilson's tale of the trials and tribulations of a poor black neighborhood in Pittsburgh is set in 1969, but much of the story feels familiar and current. The capable cast will have you shaking your heads in a knowing way at more than one scene as the show moves crisply and clearly to its satisfying, hopeful resolution.

Memphis Lee owns a small, fading diner in the heart of a depressed Pittsburgh neighborhood that's frequented by a number of local regulars. There's Wolf, a numbers runner using Memphis' pay phone as one of his offices. Holloway, the neighborhood philosopher and historian, has an opinion on everything but just one piece of advice. Hambone, an unsettled man driven to distraction by his demand to be paid a fair price for his labor, forms an uncertain alliance with Sterling, a young, restless man just out of prison and looking for some way to get ahead. Local funeral home director West pops in often, his is the only thriving business in the area. They are all taken care of by Risa, Memphis' lone employee and the one character who is always working, a young woman with troubles of her own.

The diner regulars visit for coffee, beans and cornbread, and the local news. This area of the city is being gentrified and businesses are closing everyday. Memphis has been fighting with the city and the opportunistic West, he demands a fair price for his business and won't sell until he's satisfied. Several of the younger men who stop by are constantly looking for work or money making schemes and the future is looking pretty bleak. But all hope is not lost in Two Trains Running, for Memphis is a man of considerable fortitude and perseverance and he is willing to step through multiple hoops if it will get him a just reward. For a change, this black man won't be cheated by loopholes or a system that feels stacked against his interests. Though he still must leave behind everything he worked for years to establish, he can do so with his head held high.

Archie Coleman is engaging and charismatic as Memphis Lee, his character ever chatty, with a quick temper that flashes hot but is complemented with passions mellowed by time. He is a man of principle willing to stand up for his beliefs. In a time of tumultuous change, he remains constant and committed to his sense of right and wrong. Jazmine K. Wade counters him with quiet consistency as Risa. She is not beyond talking back or sticking up for herself, but she's carefully guarded always skeptical. Risa is a bit of a mystery that's never fully revealed and Wade keeps our interest while providing contextual depth to each storyline. 

Eric Lindsey and Minware Tutu are confident and ambitious as Sterling and Wolf, adding depth to characters too easily played as stereotypes. Don McClendon is perceptive with a dry and cutting wit as Holloway, but there's a visibly caring heart behind his jabs. Jeremy Thomas is sympathetic as Hambone, eliciting compassion from Risa and the audience, and displaying humility and virtue beneath his tattered clothing and unkempt hair. Finally, Jaz Tucker is smooth and particular as funeral director West. Paying as much attention to the mood of the room as he does to hygiene, he strolls around with a sly, knowing smile, much like the fox in the henhouse. Together, the actors create a picture of a community that feels at once familiar and real.

Director Nada Vaughn guides the slow moving show through its pace with a sure hand. Tension slowly mounts and at times it seems that all hope is truly lost, that tragedy is about to befall the characters, but the resolution is surprisingly sweet. There were a few unfocused moments but, generally, the show keeps your interest without being over dramatic and with changes grounded in everyday reality. There are no chase scenes and no major conflicts between the characters, just an accumulation of small acts, callous commentary, and everyday kindness that rises together to provide a satisfying tale.

Two Trains Running, in performance through October 22, is a tenderly rendered peek through the looking glass to a not so distant past, and a solid production by Clayton Community Theatre. The show explores economic opportunity, inequality, and racial discord with a reserved approach that feels so authentic it cannot help but underscore the continuing relevance these issues hold. 

It's that time of year again -- time to carve pumpkins, tell scary stories, and jump at thing that go bump in the night! If you're a fan of gory movies and spooky stories looking to add a little musical comedy to your repertoire, Evil Dead the Musical, presented by Emery Entertainment, is a perfect addition to your Halloween celebrations. Inspired by the movie franchise, the musical is a laugh-out-loud, blood-splattered romp that spoofs teen slasher flicks and Broadway with the same barely controlled chainsaw.

Five teens plan to spend their spring break in a secluded cabin in the woods. At the cabin they find an ancient book of spells and a tape recording of the spells, which, naturally, the teens play back. Evil forces are unleashed, body parts are lost, and much blood is spilled before the forces can be corralled, saving humanity. The furiously funny musical gets a few welcome pop culture updates in the company's production, but the story retains its familiar excess and the songs their catchy, pop-infused style.

The quick moving show is as humorously campy as it is horror-story messy, and the capable ensemble works their characters' stereotypical ticks and exaggerations. Trent Mills is quick-witted and inventive as Ash, all while throwing knowing glances to the audience. He's a likable hero, not too smart, but no dummy and quite resourceful. Mills does a great job of telegraphing both humor and punctuation through his frequent interactions with the crowd. Not quite breaking the fourth wall, but testing its strength. The effect works well, particularly when the majority of the audience is well aware of the story. 

Saphire Demitro is appropriately snarky and ungainly as kid sister Cheryl, and she's the only one with the instinct to flee. After her transformation to evil, she speaks in bad puns, comic asides, and gleeful curses. Amelia Hironaka is bouncy and likeable as Linda, a role usually played by Michelle Nash. Hironaka is all game, and there was no hesitation or lack of commitment to her portrayal.  

Christopher Fulton is a typical insensitive guy as Scott, while Merritt Crews, does double duty as Shelly and the professor's daughter, each a pin-up girl fantasy-like caricature of stereotypical movie females. Andy Ingram is endearingly brow beaten as Ed and quippy with attitude as the Moose, Jonathan Shaboo is country quirky as Jake, complete with a farmer's tan and Kevin Smith demeanor. Finally, Mark Willett lends his voice and a hand as Fake Shemp and the Spirit of Knowby. 

The ensemble is clearly comfortable with each other, giving the entire show a playful tone that perfectly aligns with the story and songs. Christopher Bond directs with a sensibility that doesn't know the words "too much," pushing the cast to emphasize the comic potential of every scene, costume piece, and prop. Stacey Renee Maroske uses traditional and contemporary moves in her choreography, adding Beyonce-influenced steps in one spot and a 'Dirty Dancing' life in another. What really helps to take the show over the top, however, are well timed and executed stage effects, puppetry, and animatronics. These additions add much to the visual humor and capriciously enhance the chaotic fun that begins the moment the teens cross the bridge and entire the woods. 

Evil Dead the Musical, running through October 22, is not highbrow theater, and the show, liberally drenched in stage blood, is probably not for everyone, but its appeal extends well beyond fans of the franchise. The story is hilarious take on teen horror flicks, the characters are engaging if a bit shallow, and the production is played entirely for laughs. Yes, the songs and jokes are at times sophomoric, but they're easily recognized motifs executed with smart timing and tone. If you enjoy the blood, gore, and guts of the Halloween season as much as you like a good laugh, you'll want to catch this fun production. And if you're really into the spirit of things, make your reservation in the splatter zone.

 

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis turns a finely tuned, well-seasoned ear to Shakespeare's enduringly popular tragedy about power, madness, and betrayal among the Danes. The dramatic story, arguably one of the Bard's best, is well known and often performed, though rarely at this length. For the first production of Hamlet in the company's 51-year history, the commitment to story, action, and dialogue is successful, and clearly conveyed from the first moment to Fortinbras' closing eulogy. 

Young Prince Hamlet's father dies suddenly while he is away studying. As soon as his father is buried, it seems to Hamlet, his mother Gertrude quickly marries his uncle Claudio. After an appearance from his father's ghost that's filled with accusations, Hamlet is certain there is indeed "something rotten in the state of Denmark." 

His pursuit of justice is unfortunately hampered at every turn. There's Polonius, a meddling consort to the king sticking his nose into to stir the pot. A couple of schoolmates summonsed by his uncle-turned-stepfather try to distract him merely raise suspicion. A dispute with his longtime friend Laertes (caused in no small part by Claudio) amplifies his woes and, naturally, so does his love for Ophelia. With assistance from the ever-loyal Horatio and a troupe of traveling players, Hamlet is certain the truth will be uncovered.

Jim Poulos immerses himself in the language of the story, his body expressing every emotion and motivation with energetic, purposeful movement. Even when deep in thought or lost in madness, his actions are certain, his intentions clearly defined. Poulos easily handles the language and nuances of the script, and conveys much with a pointed gesture or lift of an eyebrow. His Hamlet is bristling in his quietest moments and his rages often contain witty observations and knowing glances.

Ophelia gets the opportunity to really come to life during her mad scenes and Kim Wong makes the most of these memorable moments. Though I wish she were directed to show more personality and force of will from her first entrance, she moves from obedience to seeming reverie to madness with increasing intensity and a lack of self-awareness that captivates. Robynn Rodriguez is a malleable Gertrude, a woman who seems to lack any voice or agency of her own. She is evocative and genuine in moments when she can reveal her emotion but seems otherwise trapped, more like a pawn than a queen.

Michael James Reed is imposing as Claudio, self-assured but wary with greed and power. He proclaims his every utterance as if tone of voice alone is enough to secure his tenuous grasp on the crown. Christopher Gerson is earnest and pragmatic as Horatio, a more understated approach that keeps the focus on the story at hand. Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Carl Howell, as Laertes follow suit, while Larry Paulsen, as Polonius, is all pomp and circumstance, comically long-winded with a touch of neighborhood gossip. The capable supporting ensemble includes local actors Jerry Vogel, Ben Nordstrom, and Cassandra Lopez as well as a host of less familiar, but no less engaging names.

Mounting a full-length production of Hamlet is a significant undertaking, even for a theater with the resources and experience of The Rep. Director Paul Mason Barnes and scenic designer Michael Ganio work well together, filling the mostly bare, multi-level stage with chases, movement, and a gallery of courtiers observing key scenes that are smartly countered by small, intimate moments in tight focus. The effect is particularly dramatic when complemented by a single, statuesque column and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's stunning lighting. Attention is shifted and mood is altered effectively, while Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes ruffle and furl and snap into place with appropriate drama. Every detail feels designed to emphasize the sound of Hamlet and it works to glorious effect, the show is an absolute treat for the ears.

The articulation and interpretation of Hamlet is strikingly crisp and contextually motivated. Each actor conveys clear understanding of each word's meaning and potential consequences, and the sense of courtly manners is present even in the graveyard. What seems to suffer (during several scenes) is the interplay and contextual relationships between the actors. The story ties together and every piece is well delivered, but it often feels as if each actor is speaking in a bubble that prevents them from knowing others are in the room. Hamlet and Ophelia break through, as does Laertes; and Gertrude embracing her son, cradling and soothing him, is effectively touching, but I would like to see even more character-to-character connection throughout the production.

Barnes clearly understands the show as both literature and drama, and it's evident that a lot of thought was paid to interpretation and meaning during the rehearsal process. The approach ensures that the production is lively and fast-paced without sacrificing any elements of storytelling. While I long for more connection between them, the actors are fully committed and emotionally invested in their stories. The Rep's stirring production of Hamlet, running through November 5, is a thoroughly engrossing dive into the language of Shakespeare with active, beautifully crafted scenes that are likely to have your heart racing.

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