Performance art. It can be a tricky theater to wrap your ahead around, but I encourage audiences to give it a try. I find I respond most viscerally when the performance is by a gifted storyteller, one able to easily express and emotionally connect with their character and crowd.

In Broken Bone Bathtub, Siobhan O'Loughlin succeeds spectacularly by taking a very intimate act and showing us the universal connection. During a bicycling accident, O'Loughlin suffered a serious fracture to her left wrist and fingers, requiring a cast for many weeks. Comfortably living on her own, and fiercely independent, her life is thrown into turmoil by the fact that she could really use some help. One of her solutions is to ask friends to borrow their bathtub and maybe a hand or two.

O'Loughlin weaves moments of her past, political events, and her difficulties coping with her broken wrist with information gathered from the audience in a truly interactive performance. O'Loughlin shows us her struggles in the intimacy of a "very small theater," and by this I mean various bathrooms in the St. Louis area. By inviting us into her space, she creates a fully immersive theatrical experience, where the audience influences but does not change the story. In this way, Broken Bone Bathtub plays out like a conversation, perfectly unraveling and reforming each night around her deftly constructed story arc.

I left the show with a warm, bubbly glow, but soon found myself revisiting exchanges, recalling O'Loughlin's stories and the human connection she sought. As importantly, I found myself wanting to be more consciously kind: to be genuinely helpful without judgment, to look for commonalities over differences, to empathize with need and, in particular, to remember the healing power of touch.

Productions of all sizes can be absolutely transformative and I found O'Loughlin's show to be intimately so. Uppity Theatre and The Drama Club's Broken Bone Bathtub will be presented at various locations in St. Louis, including the Lemp Mansion, through June 26.

 

Tesseract Theatre is known in St. Louis as a small company, bravely pushing the envelope by presenting new plays. The company’s work includes regional and national premieres, as well as production of pre-premiere and pre-publication scripts. Their purpose and mission provides many benefits to our community, not the least of which is the opportunity to see plays that may make us uncomfortable, which are written and portrayed with the clear intention to do so.

Such is the case with Mitzi’s Abortion, a play that examines multiple, but still not all, perspectives in the case of a woman facing an unpleasant choice in the late term of her pregnancy. The playwright eases the audiences’ minds somewhat by ensuring the choice Mitzi faces is due to a fatal condition, but the many voices represented challenge the idea that there are absolute answers to all of the dilemmas we face.

Mitzi and Chuck are a couple in their early twenties. He’s enlisted in the army, she’s a student and sandwich maker at a popular sub franchise, and the audience learns they are pregnant in the opening scene. Though they are young and Mitzi is conflicted about starting a family right now, this is a happy time, all-in-all. They are soon married and living in a small apartment near the base.

Shortly thereafter, Chuck is sent to Iraq for his first tour of duty and Mitzi is left at home. Luckily, she has a supportive family, close friends, and two visitors from history – the theologian Thomas Aquinas and Scottish midwife Reckless Mary – to assist her through her heartbreaking journey. There are a lot of layers to this play, as playwright Elizabeth Heffron summarizes two thousand years of Christian thought and medical science in ninety minutes. The breadth of thought included creates logistical and contextual challenges, but the cast and director Taylor Gruenloh fully commit to the story and characters.

Mikayla Scharfy portrays Mitzi with deep hesitation and surprising conviction. She’s complemented by Cole Jacobs as Chuck, a man clearly eager to become a father, but ill-equipped to handle the challenge. Robert Michael Hanson is quite entertaining as Thomas Aquinas. Bre Love is a passionate, flirtatious, and endearingly caring Reckless Mary, and Katie Palazzola brings a sharp, yet sympathetic, approach to her role as the lecturing expert. Kelvin Urday and Erisha Tyus entertain as Mitzi’s best friends, though it’s disappointing that their characters are at times so stereotypically drawn. Finally, Christopher Null, as Dr. Block, and Cara Artman and Alexander L. Hylton, as Mitzi’s mother and step-dad, turn in solid performances.

The ensemble cast delivers a clear story, but the show lacks emotional depth and substance overall. This is most present in Scharfy’s performance, which falls short of the emotional variety and expression she typically brings to her characters. This shortcoming also clouds some of the smaller performances, and there are a number of scenes that feel unnecessary to moving the story forward. The most notable are the song and dance scene and the flirtation between the doctor and Reckless Mary. This is possibly the fault of a short script trying to pack in too much context or too many viewpoints, but while I appreciated the script and performances, I left the theater feeling there was something missing.

Abortion is a hot button topic, and there are a plethora of opinions and facts that influence a woman’s or a couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. Current politics and legislation surrounding abortion rights underscore the need for stories and plays like Heffron’s, and though I feel the script could use some tightening and the characters more distinct emotional journeys, I applaud the playwright and company for presenting a memorable exploration of the subject.

Though not for all audiences, Tesseract Theatre’s Mitzi’s Abortion is provocative entertainment, with solid performances and thoughtful direction by Taylor Gruenloh. Most importantly, the show nudges audiences to give more thought to important questions surrounding abortion and especially to consider the gray areas in which too many seek clear-cut answers.

 

The New Jewish Theater closes their nineteenth season with a rousing, spirited production of Yentl, a play with music, that's a deeply satisfying, joyful expression of faith, humanity, and theater. The acting direction, music, and stage craft come together in perfect harmony to tell the tale of a young Jewish girl with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Along the way, we get a glimpse of of changing times and thought, an infusion of rock 'n' roll rebellion and a genuinely touching love triangle.

Set in Poland during the late nineteenth century, Yentl, the only child of Reb Todrus and his late wife, is decidedly not a typical girl. She has a longing for knowledge and is driven to study the books and laws of Judaism, a trait her father has successfully nurtured but not controlled.

There's an irony to her studies, however, as the rules she's learning strictly forbid her gender from this education. Both Yentl and her father are torn by this. But their's is a faithful house and her father stresses that Yentl must give up her studies when she finds a husband. Her aging father is desperate for Yentl to marry, but when she refuses every suitor he and the local matchmaker present, she soon finds herself orphaned with a small dowry and no prospects.

In a moment of clarity, foreshadowed by the moving opening scene, Yentl dons one of her father's old suits, assumes a masculine identity and the name Anchil, and sets out to find a school. She soon meets Avigdor, a handsome student from a poor family, who invites Anchil to join him in his studies in Bechev. The small town is quite supportive of its local school and welcomes the students into their homes where Anchil soon meets Hadass, Avigdor's true love and one-time fiancé.

Shanara Gabrielle turns in a spectacular performance as Yentl, easily handling the transitions from young woman to curious scholar. Her voice is strong and her character clearly defined and defiant. Gabrielle fully inhabits the character's dichotomy and the resulting intellectual exuberance and sexual confusion, showing passion and considerable emotional range as she navigates through the consequences of Yentl's choices.

Gabrielle is matched in intensity and enthusiasm by a charismatic Andrew Michael Neiman as the vibrant, scholarly Avigdor and by a radiant Taylor Steward as the lovely and kind Hadass. The chemistry between the three is electric, infusing the production with a sense of light and hope even as Yentl's path becomes clouded and uncertain. The three actors show absolute trust in the relationship, which drives the show forward with authenticity and considerable tension.

The ensemble is strong as well, with each of the supporting actors playing multiple roles featuring Terry Meddows, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Peggy Billo, Amy Loui, Will Bonfiglio, Brendan Ochs, Luke Steingruby, and Jack Zanger. The actors add considerable depth and texture to the story and songs. Meddows is sympathetic as Yentl's father, Theby-Quinn charms as Avigdor's alternate to Hadass. Loui, Billo, Bonfiglio, Ochs, and Zanger successfully fill in missing exposition and add color and depth to the musical chorus, while Steingruby impresses, contrasting Gabrielle's earthy voice with a number of small, piercingly pure solos.

Gabrielle handles the singing well, infusing the rock numbers with energy and fire that's mirrored by the ensemble cast. The choregraphy is a pleasing mix of modern steps and traditional folk dances that, as with the music, works thematically though it breaks all conventions of period. The small band fills the space nicely under the direction of Charles Mueller. He and Coffield keep the story focused, the characters realistically varied and the show a satisfying experience.

Our assumptions about gender identification, while not central to the story's message, are nudged by Yentl's choices, and her comfort living her life as a man and scholar may touch some nerves. The script and performance doesn't examine these questions deeply, however, but they are not completely ignored. While Yentl's choices are accepted at face value for the sake of the story, the responses of the characters -- and the fact that those in the know chose to maintain her secret -- bear reflection.

Yentl, a play with music running through June 5, 2016 at the New Jewish Theatre, is a well-crafted story with a subject that's relevant to current gender politics, but it resonates as compassionately and unambiguously human at heart.

 

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis focused its inaugural year on the playwright's years in St. Louis, including numerous productions set here or inspired by characters from his life in the city. The Two Character Play is a wonderfully layered, brilliantly acted exploration of family relationships and slipping reality. What makes the play so interesting and unusual is that it features new characters from playwright Williams who somehow feel intimately familiar to fans of his work. 

Playwright Felice and his sister and leading lady Clare are stuck in a theater in the middle of the boondocks after being abandoned by their manager and the rest of the company. The other actors have labeled the two insane, and by the end of the show's quick two acts, some audience members may be inclined to agree with them. Undaunted, Felice pushes on, convincing his sister to perform The Two Character Play

The play within the play is a dark, twisted tale of southern siblings clinging to their crumbling mansion after witnessing the murder-suicide of their parents. It is not clear whether fear, misguided allegiance or simple insanity causes the two to remain in the house despite the fact that they are out of food and all utilities have been cut off. As it turns out, Felice and Claire's offstage story is nearly as convoluted and confusing as the show they're desperately trying to remember and perform.

The production slides effortlessly between the actors and the play, blurring the line with dialogue, action, and intention that seems to somehow fit both situations. Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand are brilliantly lucid and phenomenally confused; their relationship deeply intertwined and absolutely dependent. It is incredibly difficult to accurately portray characters with tenuous grips on reality, but Hand and Hanrahan turn in masterful, seamless performances that reek with authenticity. As with some manifestations of mental imbalance, it is not always easy to follow the character's thought progression and the actors convey this without over-exaggeration or caricature.

Hand reveals multiple connected but distinct personalities as Clare, complete with physical tells and affectations. Hanrahan's Felice appears more consistently in the moment, but his tendency towards violence and forgetfulness belie the effort his sanity requires. The essence and motivation of each character, though difficult to parse, is well-articulated with thoughtful, sharp-eyed direction by Sarah Whitney. Together, she and the actors suggest the burden and blessing of kinship, as complimented by Williams' dense, lyrical dialogue.

It has been postulated that the brother and sister in The Two Character Play may in fact represent a new iteration and different circumstances for two of Williams' most beloved characters, Tom and Laura from The Glass Menagerie. There are distinct correlations that can be drawn between them, and it is clear that both women share traits reflective of Williams' sister Rose. I'll leave the scholars to debate the connection. For me, this show is a powerhouse exploration of tragically and irrevocably flawed characters who somehow find the will and fortitude to push on. Sanity can be fleeting when survival is not assured, and the play probes these dark corners in compelling, disturbingly poignant scenes.

Mark Wilson creates an appropriately tattered and somewhat unreliable set, complete with rudimentary stagecraft and wonderfully nuanced lighting, while stage manager Liz Henning ensures the production keeps moving. The combined results are deeply effective and unsettling, the mood of the show settles in like a sad realization hanging over everyone's head that no one wants to voice. Similar to Waiting for Godot, the show is infused with uncertainty and indecision that inexplicably binds the characters to each other and to their present situation. The impact is palpable, from the moment the curtain opens to the final bows, as the audience is drawn into the sibling's tale and compelled to care, to root them on even while we remain uncertain as to the purpose.

Originally produced for the inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, The Two Character Play will enjoy an extended run Fridays and Saturdays May 27 through June 4 at Winter Opera's space at 2322 Marconi as the Midnight Company further embraces the experimental, tangential nature of the play. With powerful, convincing performances and perceptive direction, Hand and Hanrahan have created a stunning, sometimes unsettling, show that deftly explores insanity, aging and our persistent need for love and companionship.

 

This May, theater lovers in St. Louis have the opportunity to celebrate one of their own during the first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. Running May 11 through May 16, 2016, the event showcases the life and prolific work of one of our great American playwrights with a mix of theater, exhibits, scholarly lectures and intimate conversations. In addition to numerous performances by local theater companies and actors, offerings include a basic primer on the author, multiple perspectives on the significance and meaning of Williams' work, and an in-depth examination of two of his most familiar characters, and whether they appear in two different plays.

The festival is the culmination of years of effort and organization by veteran theatrical actor, casting director, producer and coach, Carrie Houk. Last year, Houk headed the team that produced the critically praised, highly successful run of another lesser-known Williams' play, Stairs to the Roof. Drawing upon that success and her extensive contacts in both theater and academics, as well as her participation and attendance at Williams festivals in other cities, she determined the time was ripe for a Williams festival in his hometown. 

Born in Mississippi, Williams spent his formative years in St. Louis, attending Soldan High School, the University of Missouri in Columbia, and Washington University before making his escape from Missouri. Though it's well documented that he couldn't wait to leave the city, it is equally clear from his work that the city never quite left him. It is this deep connection -- and the persistence of St. Louis in his work and themes -- that inspired Houk to found a festival honoring Williams work in the city that informed his early writing and continued to influence him long after he moved away. 

Joe Hanrahan, artistic director of The Midnight Company, producers of The Two Character Play, welcomes the opportunity to celebrate the author and bring his evocative, affecting plays to life for a new generation of audiences. "The Festival is important because not only is it resurrecting for St. Louis the work of a world-class artist whose formative artistic years were spent here, but delivering it in a way - with a range of work and styles - that will offer a meaningful glimpse into the man and what he did." With an understanding that their play is less familiar, the company spent time studying the author and his work to ensure that the show would be relevant and interesting to a contemporary audience. 

The festival, championed by Houk and a supportive board, intends to be a mix of accessible culture. The weekend includes both familiar and less frequently performed plays, provocative storytelling, and informative academic perspectives, satisfying the festival's aim to both entertain and inform. The inaugural edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, a five-day event, is themed "the St. Louis years." The event promises to offer a different tone and content than the festivals celebrating Williams in New Orleans and Provincetown, MA. As Houk notes, "Williams probably needed to leave St. Louis to flourish, but the city was part of his very fiber and his experiences here laid the foundation for his creative output"; the St. Louis festival acknowledges both his familiarity with and desire to leave the city.

A mix of local and national talent was invited to participate in the inaugural event, a tradition Houk hopes will spark interest and keep the St. Louis festival unique and attractive to Williams fans and theater goers from around the country. Philip Boehm, director of Upstream Theater's festival production The Glass Menagerie, says his company was thrilled by the opportunity to be involved, because "the festival invokes a time when theater was very much part of the social fabric -- and challenges us to find new ways to engage contemporary audiences. By celebrating the works of Tennessee Williams it encourages us to honor poetic imagination in the arts." (For more on this impressive production, see Steve Callahan's KDHX review.)

Special festival events include a bus tour of Williams' St. Louis haunts, performances at the venue where Williams performed as part of the Mummers theatrical troupe, and a special art exhibit. A highlight of this year's event is sure to be an evening with celebrated actress Olympia Dukakis, whose moving interpretations of Williams' work have wowed audiences for decades, Thursday May 12 at the Sun Theater in the Grand Center Arts District. In addition, Houk and the board have also arranged for dedicated parking on the lot just west of Grand on Washington Avenue for all events.

With the first annual festival about to kick off, Houk is already turning her attention to next year. The festival has received an invitation to participate in the Provincetown, MA festival, and Houk is already dreaming of locations she'd like to see Williams plays performed in future years, such as the Jewel Box in Forest Park. Considering Williams' deep connection to St. Louis, one might, in fact, wonder why it has taken so long for this city to celebrate one of its most renown and prolific talents. 

For a complete listing of festival events and times, or to make reservations, please visit the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

 

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