Lee Blessing has written many plays, mostly good ones. We've seen several of them here -- Eleemosynary most recently, Lonesome Hollow, A Walk in the Woods, his best known and, for me, his best. Now we have Great Falls at the West End Players Guild. I like it the least.
I could never quite believe in its two characters. I had the uneasy feeling that the playwright was still trying to get a hold on them. That's unusual for a playwright as experienced as Blessing, though he does like to explore uncharted territory in fresh ways.
But must young women characters in stories today all have been sexually abused by their fathers and raped by two of their classmates? Yes, these things do happen and they are terrible, but when they are used so often, it can be difficult for a playwright to make it seem real and not something easy to reach for to punch up his story. Not that Shannon Lampkin, who plays the young woman just turning 18, doesn't try to make it real. She makes me almost believe in the character, until another too-easy plot twist is introduced and I groan.
She is traveling with her step-father. He's picked her up at her summer job because he says he wants to talk to her, to try to re-establish some connection with her, connections broken when her mother divorced him for his infidelities.
The short talk turns into a weeks-long tour of the northern Rockies from their starting point in Fremont, Nebraska. She accuses him of kidnapping her. But she has a cell phone and even talks to her mother. She could be rescued. Eventually we find out why she isn't, what she wants from the trip.
But I never was sure what he wanted from it. He's obviously a troubled man, searching for something, but what it is and why he thought his step-daughter was where he could find it, I don't know. Again, the character lacked reality for me. Again, the actor playing him, Isaiah DiLorenzo, was trying. His range seemed a little limited, but I'm not sure what more he could dig out of the script.
Tom Kopp is a shrewd and sensitive director. It isn't his fault that it gets tedious sometimes.
Bill Dechand's projections supply context without being distracting on Stephanie Draper's flexible set. Stage manager Valleri Dillard, props wrangler Jackie Aumer and their crew shift scenes efficiently. Susan Kopp's sound design and original song enrich the experience. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave designed the costumes.
Great Falls starts with an odd premise and I was never satisfied by what it did with it.
The production continues at West End Players Guild through Sunday afternoon, April 17, with tickets at 314-667-5686.
I've seen Thornton Wilder's Our Town numerous times. Watching it now is something like the comfort of an old shoe. But I still get a little moist in the eyes when Emily painfully realizes how little of life we appreciate each moment as we live it. I did again at the current Hawthorne Players' production, with an Emily, Jessica Gillard Taylor, who fully realizes her character's turbulent emotions in that postmortem third act.
Wilder's Transcendental thoughts about death and what follows give him a framework for extending his exploration of his characters. Beth Workman's Mrs. Gibbs, Emily's mother-in-law, is still rock solid. And Patrick Brueggen's Simon Stimson, the suicidal alcoholic choir director, still bitterly complains.
The third act is not the only place that Wilder darkens what could be mistaken for a purely idyllic picture of American small-town life a hundred years ago. The wedding of Emily and George is no simple, happy celebration. Both bride and groom almost flee from the church, terrified by this shedding of youthful innocence. Even Emily's mother, played by Kathy Fugate, who seemed to be having projection problems when I was there, laments to the audience about the cruel ignorance with which her daughter, like she herself once, is facing the complex sexual side of marriage. The brilliant promise of the paperboy played by Elijah Ross will come to naught in the absurd waste of the war in France. Even Emily's little brother will die of a burst appendix on a camping trip. Life is as uncertain in Grovers Corners as it is anywhere.
But we're not wrong to remember first the comforting images of this American life, the idyllic courtship of Emily and her George, played by Mark A. Neels less convincingly as an adolescent and star athlete than I would have liked, and the affectionate ease in their parents' marriages, with Tom Moore as Dr. Gibbs and John Robertson as Editor Webb.
Uniting us in the audience with those on the stage is David Gibbs' Stage Manager, assured and reassuring. As the Stage Manager, Gibbs is a natural.
On the usual bare stage, set designer Tim Grumich has hung flats and platforms against a curtain upstage for a little more visual interest. Tracey Newcomb made enriching costume choices. Bob Veatch's lights isolate some scenes. Stage manager Lori Potts precisely cues the realistic touches of Brian Borgstede's sound design. Director Lori Renna has pulled it all together for another deeply satisfying visit to Our Town.
The Hawthorne Players production continues at Florissant Civic Center Theatre through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available online or through the box office at 314-921-5678.
"Briefs," the fifth annual festival of short LGBTQ plays, celebrates a rich diversity of characters, stories, and talent with eight short, life affirming plays. Each year, the selection and order of stories suggests a loose theme; for me the overriding message this year was all about the comfort, protection, support, and courage we find through love.
Additionally, and perhaps as importantly, there is a universal quality to this theme. We all love, we all have conflict; we've kept secrets, ran away, been heartbroken, and made drastic life changes to be true to our self. But there are also relationships we hold dear to our heart which neither time, distance, nor sexuality can tear from us. At least, that's how it appears to this reviewer. This year, "Briefs" explored the facets of relationships from the LGBTQ perspective and found inherently human, perfectly imperfect, and beautifully flawed stories.
The stories, though not always light, are warm, filled with affection and every expression of love, from flirtation to lust to commitment and from familial to deep, abiding friendship. The short scripts were uniformly well written, with fully developed, nuanced characters and unexpected moments, with several moving me to tears of laughter and/or empathy.
"Baby Black Jesus," by Vincent Terrell Durham, directed by Jacqueline Thompson
Richard (Carl Overly) and Darryl (Darian Michael Garey) are happily committed to their long-term relationship. There's just one little issue, Richard still hasn't come out to his rather religious mother, leaving Darryl feeling ambivalent about attending another family Christmas as Richard's "best friend."
The truth in this story ensures anyone who's kept a relationship secret from a parent can relate to the situation. The humor, raw and honest, and obvious love is what makes us care. The established bond between Overly's and Garey's characters gives depth to the story, and the actors fully embrace their parts. The result is an uplifting short that reinforces the positive change love can bring.
"When Miss Lydia Hinkley Gives a Bird the Bird," by James Still, directed by Pamela Reckamp
There's a whole lot of feisty in this story about a turn-of-the-twentieth-century women's group dedicated to education, elucidation, and self improvement. Lydia (Laura Singleton) objects to a suggestion that married women be allowed to join the group. She is by turns flustered, angered, jealous, and seductive when she learns that the request has been made on behalf of Della Mann (Nicole Angeli), as she has recently become engaged.
The mannerisms and affectations of cultured society and salon clubs are expertly played off by a proper Donna Weinsting, a daft but eager Rachel Tibbets, and a prudish but easily aroused Maggie Wininger. But it is the veiled love story between Angeli, the newly betrothed, and Singleton, the jilted lover -- breathtakingly expressed by Singleton in a single, spellbinding recitation based on Henry Gray's book of anatomical drawings -- that captures our attention.
"The Grind," by Max Friedman, directed by Gad Guterman
A junior in the directing program at Webster Conservatory of the Arts, Friedman is the winner of the second Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ Allied Youth. His short deals with dating and hooking up, an issue singles almost anywhere can relate to, no matter their sexuality, race, or age. And while the script doesn't break new ground, it clearly brings a fresh perspective to an age-old problem.
Michael (Jared Campbell) is a college senior and Chris (Kai Klose) is a freshman in a small college town who have met up thanks to the dating app Grindr. Even those unfamiliar with the world of online dating can easily tell that are not looking for the same thing tonight. Cambell's Michael is more experienced and accustomed to hooking up, though he admits he doesn't find it very satisfying on reflection. Klose's Chris is a bit shy, and he longs to meet someone he can have a relationship with, not just a one-night stand. Campbell is persistent, Klose is resolute, and the story ends on a positive note.
"I Knew It," by Scott C. Sickles, directed by Matthew R. Kerns
Sickles' play is a devastatingly funny, wickedly frank retelling of an actual rumor about two aging rock stars. Told by their current wives, brought emphatically to life by the always spot-on Lavonne Byers and matched in pace and intensity by Shannon Nara, the tale is acerbic, hilarious, and refreshingly real.
Byers' character, Francesca Strange, comes home late one night, walking in just as Nara's Jodilyn Riggs comes stumbling, dazed and half-dressed, out of Strange's bedroom. After unleashing a string of expletive-laden assumptions, Strange marches into her bedroom preparing a second tongue lashing for her husband. She quickly emerges and pours several glasses of whisky, two of which she presses Riggs to drink before refilling. Together they discuss life as the wife of a famous rock star, and how long their two husbands have loved each other. Ultimately, this is a story of love and acceptance that may present a new challenge to some people's firmly set notions of marriage. But it is what it is, and Strange has embraced the love she has. Now it's Riggs turn to decide.
"When Oprah Says Goodbye," by Dan Berkowitz, directed by Fannie Belle-Lebby
This tender play touches on friendship betrayed and rediscovered, as well as on the realities of aging, losing touch, and finding forgiveness. That's a lot of theme to pack into a short, one-act play, but Berkowitz has crafted a concise, clever story that says volumes without saying too much.
Rose (Thomasina Clarke) is a long-time resident at a nursing home informed that she's about to receive a new roommate, Julia (Peggy Calvin). When nurse's aid Anne (Sarah McKenny) brings her in, we discover Julia is Rose's former best friend; they had a falling out after Julia and Rose's then girlfriend fell in love. Over the course of an afternoon, the two women find a way to settle their differences and rekindle a friendship deeply missed. Clarke and McKenny bring a wide range of emotion to their roles without losing control. Clarke is stubborn where McKenny is patient, and it is a pleasure, in terms of dialogue and performance, to watch their story unfold.
"Runaway," by Charles Zito, directed by Christopher Limber
Parenting is hard. Being a teenager, particularly a recently out gay teenager, is hard. Keeping secrets from your family is hard, even if you think you've succeeded. We are reminded of these simple truths in a poignant, hopeful play by Zito that uses a light, but heartfelt, touch to encourage patience and love.
Tommy (Pierce Hastings) has run away to his Uncle Tony's (Rich Scharf) house because his mom, Rose (Jenny Smith), won't let his boyfriend spend the night. Uncle Tony is also gay, though he thinks he's fooled his family and they think he's straight (they don't). The dialogue is funny, at times laugh out loud funny, and filled with well crafted arguments and cutting replies that heighten but nonetheless mirror reality. Hastings, Scharf, and Smith have a good connection, there's an easy pace to their repartee that's not too rushed, but keeps the story building.
"A Comfortable Fit," written and directed by Stephen Peirick
Peirick once again shows an instinctive knack for writing clever, perceptive dialogue in this short about a transitioned transgender father and his daughter. While shoe shopping, Gwen (Kim Furlow) bristles when daughter Jennifer (Emily Baker) refers to her by name rather than calling her dad. She then stumbles over her own size 11-1/2 feet when she tries to fix her daughter up with the salesman Charlie (Casey Boland), who flatly announces he "couldn't be more gay."
It's a lovely moment that encapsulates the essential humanity of the characters, and is made better by the well-balanced performances of Furlow, Baker, and Boland. Furlow and Baker are comfortable together and there's an authenticity to their bond that enables the humor and tone of the show to evolve organically. The result is both uplifting and endearing.
"The Adventures Of..." written by Kathleen Warnock, directed by Ryan Scott Foizey
Inspiration, self-awareness, and the feeling of recognition can come from so many influences in our lives, not the least of which is our own imagination. Creative homosexuals look to fit in, and to find themselves reflected in stories just like everybody else does. Warnock's whimsical and irreverently comic script breathes fresh life into a young lesbian's story of discovery.
Maggie (Sarah Porter) is a college student and budding cartoonist / writer retelling the adventures of her favorite TV action-adventure duo: Prince Kal (Todd Schaefer) and Zoron (Brian Claussen), his ever faithful and resourceful protector. To the delight of the audience, Schaefer and Claussen are comically suggestive, with exaggerated expressions and gestures for emphasis. In contrast, Porter is captivating, delightful, and genuine, with a free spirit and inventive nature. She effuses possibility and confidence with every phrase, ending the evening with a smile.
In addition to the actors and directors, the largely volunteer crew, which includes producers Joan Lipkin and Darin Slyman, production manager and video designer Michael Perkins, and house manager Kate Warden, are to be commended for adding stage craft and technical enhancements to the large ballroom. Though the overall feel of the evening is loose and friendly, the cast and crew put together a relatively tight show with a good pace and satisfying arc.
The Vital Voice, Missouri's premier magazine for the LGBTQ community and its allies, along with Joan Lipkin's That Uppity Theater Company, present the fifth annual festival of short LGBTQ plays, which was once again sold out or near capacity for every performance. The attendance and enthusiasm for "Briefs" shows that there is an audience eager to hear and share these stories. Visit the Vital Voice for more information and news on the LGBTQ and ally community and activities, including next year's production of "Briefs."
Productions at the Webster Conservatory are pretty much always fine, and the one that just opened is about as unfailingly fine as any I've seen there in a long time. This is one of the Conservatory's "Capstone" productions, which means it's chosen and directed by a student -- a "thesis production," if you will. Director James Kolditz has chosen a very fine script by British playwright Mike Bartlett and has put together all its aspects quite deftly and artistically.
But what the heck is the play's title? I read advertisements for "The Cockfight Play," and I was expecting blood and feathers. But no, when the lights went up here we were in the middle of rather conventional squabble between two rather conventional gay lovers in a high-toned flat in London. Is this bait-and-switch? C'mon! Gay plays are so common and cockfight plays so rare; I was disappointed.
But very quickly I was drawn into this story and I realized that it is far more than a conventional "gay play." It is in fact a quite courageous probing into the subject of "sexual identity" and the political tension that now surrounds it.
The actual title of the play is simply Cock, and it won the Olivier "Best New Play" award in London. But when it first played in New York certain timid newspapers (viz. The New York Times) felt that such bluntness might offend its genteel readers, so the Times reviewer invented that euphemistic title.
Handsome young John has been in a relationship with an affluent youngish broker for several years. Ironically John is the only character with a real name even though, as we soon learn, he is actually lacking (or perhaps merely refusing) any identity. His broker/lover is listed merely as "M" -- which I think just stands for "Man." It's a troubled relationship. M, dapper, with an expensive hair-cut and a chicly trimmed beard, is arch and sarcastic. He seems hungry for conflict. He constantly criticizes John for every little thing. It's a low-grade-abusive relationship, and John feels belittled. He feels that he is only M's "trophy."
There is a brief break-up during which John has an affair. With a woman! The woman (listed as "W") is a beautiful divorced class-room assistant. And she's nice. And she falls in love with him. And he with her! Even though he's only ever been attracted to men. They indulge in dreams of white picket fences and babies and family Christmases and grandchildren and all that. It is indeed true love -- at least so far as anyone could ever tell.
So, has she "cured" him? Is he "straight" now? Ah, no, he goes back to his broker -- but without breaking off with the woman. It's not just for all the gourmet food the broker cooks; it's not because John realizes he's "really gay." Nor will he embrace the label "bi-sexual." With all the tranquility and equanimity of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivner" (who unbudgingly and without explanation eternally reiterates "I would prefer not to") John simply refuses to choose one lover or the other.
The broker even draws his father, "F" (Father?), into the fray. He's an iconic blustering but earnest and good hearted British father, and he's learned all the modern politically correct attitudes. He knows that gays are just born that way. He loves his gay son, he love's his son's partner. He urges John not to break up with his son. But he does it in such a "guy" sort of way: he tries to use logic to solve this emotional problem. He argues!
Now I myself abhor labels. I refused to choose Coke or Pepsi. I'm uncomfortable declaring myself a Democrat or Republican. Religion? Nowadays even to mark "None" puts you into some political encampment.
And so I empathize with John. God so filled the world with sexual attractions that I really can't blame John (as everyone around him does) for refusing to abjure half of that world of delights. For refusing to reject half of that world of love. At one point John says: "Why are you telling me that what I sleep with is more important than who I sleep with? Why are you telling me I have to know what I am?"
It's a brave foray into identity politics -- in its broadest sense -- and I'm sure the playwright is getting lots of indignant flack in his e-mail.
The cast is uniformly superb. Jay Stalder as John, Austin Glen Jacobs as the broker, Sigrid Wise as the woman, and Zak Moran as the father all show deep understanding and commitment. They all employ the very most authentic and uniform British accent. They do terrific work.
The simple set, by Jason James, consists of merely six beautiful rectangular shadow-box pillars of different heights. (These are inspired by works of Louise Nevelson). Mr. Kolditz's direction matches that simplicity. Scenes are, as in a cockfight, started with a bell. Between scenes an actor will toss off a sweater, or put on a jacket ore some-such -- requiring a mere few seconds. So everything goes very smoothly and swiftly. It's all exquisitely simple. Once John asks M to undress; without even a mimed hint of disrobing M simply steps onto a low pillar and lets John look at him. Perfect! The scene when John and the woman first have sex is quite excitingly graphic and intimate and real -- but they are separated by a whole stage of space and they are fully clothed. The sex is all in their minds and words. How beautiful!
Lighting by Caleb Taylor and costumes by Erin Reed are effective and appropriate.
It's a very, very good show! Cock (or "The Cockfight Play" or whatever) played at the Webster Conservatory April 8 through 10.
Idris Goodwin's skillfully structured How We Got On, set somewhere in 1988 suburbia, eloquently delivers more than just the history of rap music. The play is also a story about teens caught in "the middle" who found something in rap music that compelled them to create their own stories. In the University of Missouri St. Louis production directed by Jacqueline Thompson, it is clear that "the middle" can be many things: a place, a time, a state of mind.
The roots of rap music run deep, crossing continents from Africa to the Americas and infusing myriad cultures into a cacophony of sound and lyrics. The music that we recognize today as rap traces to more contemporary ties, as it moved into popular culture during the late 1980s. Hank, played with eager enthusiasm and a brainy approach by Andre Williams, is a black teen living comfortably in the suburbs who finds a means of expression through the rhymes and rhythms of rap. His parents, and many of the kids at his school, look down on rap, but Hank is obsessed. When a teacher allows him to create a rap composition for an assignment, he fully commits.
He soon meets Julian, a student at a nearby school who's also a fan, played with a false swagger and on-point interpretation by Rob White. Hank and Julian agree to battle, but Hank is no match for Julian's well practiced rhymes. The two eventually work together, and are soon joined by Luann, a wealthy student at Hank's school with the ability to freestyle, played with impressive flow and verbal agility by Nicole Keithly. Their story is interspersed with commentary from Alexandria Johnson as Selector, providing narration and exposition while spinning tunes.
Selector gives a brief history on the musical and literary roots of rap before introducing us to the technical advances that made scratching, self-production, and beat creation widely accessible. The students work on their lyrics, figure out beat boxing, looping, and delays, and vocally demonstrate the rhythms and melodies they can create with the new technology. The embodiment of the recorder, the use of space, and the music selections work together to create an immersive exploration of an idea and an art form, told through three teens' self discovery.
Attention to detail and period, the sure hand of director Jacqueline Thompson, and the commitment to character by the four actors is apparent from start to finish. Williams is inquisitive and methodical, but passionate about his music, and he's sometimes a little shy and awkward. White plays cool and tough, but he's uncertain, confused, and struggling to please his father. Keithly effortlessly captures the spirit and language of an 80's teen girl, and her fearless approach is infectious and empowering.
There is a positivity to the show that's energetic and hopeful, with a few moments of pure bliss for added effect. These include Hank's retelling of the moment when he and his father find a connection through poetry; Hank and Luann on the water tower trying to release joy in rhymes; and the moment when Julian re-enacts his father finally acknowledging his son's interest and talent. Though I find the script overall less powerful and effective than other Goodwin plays, the show is musically engaging, entertaining, and informative. The University of Missouri St. Louis student cast creates compelling, interesting characters, and successfully delivers an enjoyable evening of rap and storytelling.