St. Louis Actors Studio puts the drama in dramedy with its production of Tracy Letts' unsettling story about life, death, and family secrets. August: Osage County is ripe with an abundance of dark humor and more than the normal surprises. The dysfunctional Weston family constantly scratches at wounds that never really heal and fight battles that can't be won. The three-act show is intense, unrelenting, and impossibly compelling -- even when the story makes you cringe, you absolutely want to know what will happen next.

Matriarch Violet Weston has called her daughters and sister to the family's Oklahoma homestead after husband Bev, in a small but effective turn by Larry Dell, disappears. Professor Barbara, librarian Ivy, and dreamer Karen do not have a close relationship, a fact emphasized repeatedly during the family emergency. Violet's sister, Mattie Fay, tries to be supportive in her own way, but she's harsh at times, a lesser evil to Violet's viciously mean-spirited candor. Barbara's husband and daughter, Mattie Fay's husband and grown son, and Karen's sleazy fiancée, as well as the newly hired housekeeper Johnna and local sheriff, have all come along for this bumpy, uncertain ride.

The remarkable Kari Ely gives Violet a steely grip, caustic wit, and unrestrained temperament. She commands and demands attention, whether slurring and falling off a chair in a stupor, or attacking her daughters with "the truth." Delivering her lines with a sniper's accuracy, she breaks down every character she encounters with a venomous tongue. Ely is not afraid of being unlikeable; her natural charisma fights this in a way that simply increases the turmoil. You want to see Vi change, soften just a bit; and at times you think you see a gentler side of her, but it's just another of Vi's calculated manipulations.

Meghan Baker, as daughter Barbara, matches her blow for blow, but she doesn't have Violet's tenacity. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, saying as much with a resigned shrug or pointed look, Emily Baker, as Ivy, is quiet but filled with steely resolve that can't be broken, her desperately fleeting expressions telling much. Always observant and seemingly obedient, she displays a fiercely protective nature when threatened. Rachel Fenton flits about brightly as Karen, appropriately self-absorbed, blind to her own truths, and out-of-touch with the emotions of the rest of the family in a performance that speaks volumes about the character's coping mechanisms. 

The women get sterling support from the men in their lives: Dell, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, and Drew Battles. Dell is drunk but sharp in his opening scene, ensuring Meaghan Baker's mirroring of his movements at the end of the play resonates loudly, one of many small but brilliant moments orchestrated by the sure hand of director Wayne Solomon. Wassilak, as Barbara's husband Bill, plays a man trying to do the right thing but losing patience and making it clear he'd rather be somewhere else. Peirick is awkward, clumsy, and endearingly sweet natured as Little Charles, Mattie Fay's much beleaguered son. He beams with genuine happiness in his scenes with Emily Baker, and stumbles and blushes when anyone else pays him attention. Battles slithers through the show, suggesting a man constantly on the prowl for his next amusement and accustomed to breaking rules without consequence, in a way that makes your skin crawl. 

Bridget Basa is convincingly uninterested in the family drama as Barbara and Bill's daughter. Kim Furlow and William Roth squabble lovingly as sister Matty Fay and her husband Charles, and the two have a powerful moment when Charles finally stands up to Mattie Fay's brow beating. Wendy Renee Farmer and GP Hunsaker are effective in smaller supporting roles, and Farmer's consolation of Ely as the curtain falls is surprisingly tender. The ensemble crowds the stage in a way that expertly reflects and intensifies the inherent tension in the darkly comic tragedy creating a captivating, at times horrifying, story that deeply unsettles and satisfies. 

The stage, by Patrick Huber, is a marvel in and of itself, and its compact, densely constructed three-story frame ensures the cast is uncomfortably close, yet frequently just out of reach. Dalton Robison's lights and Carla Landis' costumes and props and just the right ambiance and details to keep the scenes, spaces, and characters crisp and clear, not always easy to do with so many characters in such tight quarters.

The family dynamic is almost always compelling material, even more so when it's dangerously explosive. Letts captures that tension, and the related necessary releases of pressure, in a way that commands your attention. St. Louis Actors Studio's production of August: Osage County, running through April 30, 2017 is fantastically prickly and exceptionally well acted, creating a powerful evening of satisfying drama.

 

 

Wash U's Performing Arts Department has revived Gossip, a 1977 comic spoof by Canada's prolific George F. Walker. And I'm not exactly sure why. 

Gossip deals with the murder of Jane "The Bitch" Nelson -- a particularly obnoxious celebrity. She is poisoned at a very tony art exhibition and falls dead into a tire swing -- one of the objets d'art on display. (In some productions her body remains there throughout the play.) 

Well, who dunnit?

T.M. Power is a serious, hard-hitting political reporter and when his boss, Baxter, assigns him to investigate the case he at first refuses; this assignment into the world of scandal and gossip is beneath him. But Baxter insists and Power begins his investigation. In a dozen or more brief scenes in six different locations, Power meets the following bizarre members of the glitterati and their hangers-on:

  • Peter Bellum, a self-inflated acting coach, played by Daniel Washelesky
  • Anna, a young and sexy aspiring actress who will do quite anything for a buck, played by Nina Punyamurthy.
  • Brigot Nelson, an avant-garde poet (and sister to the dead Jane), played by Jacque Randolph.
  • Allan, Brigot's abjectly obedient servant, played by Dwayne McCowan. He is eager to obey every time she cries "Kill him!" (in the tone of the Red Queen crying "Off with his head!") 
  • Margaret, Power's deranged ex-sweet-heart, played by Carly Rosenbaum. She is madly in love with her own brother (a powerful and corrupt senator), but needs for Power to be in love with her.
  • Norman and Sam Lewis, lawyer brothers (twins?) who seem to do everything in synch, even smoking and sex. They're played by Jake Wallack and Brandon Krisko.
  • Susan Long, a very high-class hooker, played by Marley Rosetree.

All of these folks are sheer cartoons, and the plot is simply beyond comprehension. But that's not important, because we're not intended to comprehend. This is not a mystery, it's a spoof of all those noire murder mysteries. As with the enormously popular TV series Poirot and Midsomer Murders, the play ends with all the suspects gathered in the drawing room (or wherever) as the detective gives an expository monologue detailing the motives and actions and, finally, identifying the killer. The detective somehow magically knows all this. (Those "little gray cells" must be amazingly powerful.)

In Gossip, as T.M. Power delivers this final monologue, it is simply impossible to follow the Byzantine convolutions of murders, disguises, non-existent characters, mysterious things that may or may not have happened in Argentina, the discovery of a mystical tribe of tiny people, dreams of Utopia, hidden motives, and people who are not dead after all. And, actually, Power really never has found the killer of Jane "The Bitch".

Goofy? Well, yes! 

But why revive this play? Now, I believe that America's worship of celebrity -- our obsession with the manufacture, merchandizing and monetizing of celebrity -- is one of our greatest problems. But this play is not a satire on celebrity-worship. No, it is merely a spoof of that noire mystery genre with all its prickly hard-boiled dialogue and its Hollywood character types. As a spoof it could have been quite funny. (There were frequent laughs but there should have been many more.) To be a spoof it requires a far brisker pace. It requires a vaudeville pace. That final monologue should be just as presto as a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. To hell with making each word understood; we should be swept away in the vast silliness of it all. In this production the pace is too often leisurely, the acting too naturalistic. The show should have been maybe twenty minutes shorter. As it is I'm afraid I must say that it often sags into tedium. 

It's not just the acting that slowed things down. The set, by Lindsay Eisold, is very, very beautiful: simple, spare, elegant, all golds and tans with a sort of monochrome-Mondrian pattern on the floor. The minimalist art exhibition in the first scene is stunning: clean, bright, clear. Wonderful work. There's not a lot of furniture -- some benches, a desk or two, a table, a bed -- but for this play to work as a fast-paced spoof there's just too much. Scene changes are swift, but still the time needed for the shifting of even those few pieces of furniture slows things down. The cinematic style -- many short scenes -- is better served with perhaps just pools of light.

Director William Whitaker wisely chose to do the play in three-quarter round, with the audience on the stage. This intimacy is really helpful if the audience is to follow really fast-paced dialogue. But, alas, there was very little fast-paced dialogue.

So, despite yeoman's work by the entire cast, a failure in pace and acting style scuttles this revival of Gossip. It played at Wash U's Edison Theatre April 20 through 23.

 

 

You're a normal middle-class minion working in a boring office job, too tired to hope, too lazy to kill yourself, drinking a little too much. And suddenly people start turning into rhinoceros. (Or is it rhinoceroses? Actually either is correct.) 

The Webster Conservatory presented a lively, thought-provoking and very wild production of Eugène Ionesco's 1960 play, Rhinoceros. The French-Romanian Ionesco was one of the founding fathers of what has been called the "Theatre of the Absurd."

Poor Berenger! He just doesn't fit in. He's in love with Daisy, his office receptionist, but he hasn't the nerve to approach her. His best friend, Jean, constantly berates him for his slovenliness and his drinking. He's in trouble for always being late for work. Then . . . a rhinoceros thunders through the town square! Then another!! Can it be?

One of his office colleagues has, it seems, turned into a rhino. More and more people are being afflicted with "rhinoceritis"! Now the city is full of the awful beasts! Everybody's doing it! Everybody's joining the herd.

Ionesco was a young intellectual in Romania and saw his friends being drawn into the infamous bloodily nationalistic sect, the Iron Guard. He was a mature writer living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. His play, Rhinoceros, is a stiletto-sharp parody of mankind's innate herd instinct. We so need to join a tribe! We so readily fall in with the trending political fashion, be it on the left or on the right, no matter how irrational it may be, no matter what hideous moral beasts it may turn us into. One by one Berenger's friends yield to the urge to be like everybody else: a rhinoceros. They join the group with the most powerful, vital energy, no matter how destructive. 

I commend director Max Friedman for choosing this play for his thesis project. It has such resonance after the recent political campaign, which resembled less an exercise in democracy than a trampling herd of monstrous beasts bent on destruction.

The set by Star Turner at first seemed a little under-decorated: a street scene, a sidewalk café, pale gray walls adorned with a few flowering vines from Michael's discount bin. But then we find that the walls are for projections -- strange, indeterminate moving images -- perhaps large animals. And the set is wonderfully flexible, serving, as it does, for other scenes: an office, Berenger's flat, Jean's flat.

The entire cast does excellent work. Their energy and pace sweep us along. Ian Erbe plays Berenger. Now Berenger is really something of a schlemiel, a downtrodden drudge, until his final stalwart stance defending humanist values. Mr. Erbe is a bit too much of a leading man type to totally convince us. (Gene Wilder played the role in the 1974 film.) But Erbe carries it off. 

The dapper Jean was played in the film by Zero Mostel. In this Conservatory production the role is played by the gifted Annie Barbour. I would say that the lean and leggy Miss Barbour is perhaps the very antithesis of Zero Mostel. Who could be more different? I think there must be a clause in her contract stipulating that she be allowed to wear those long, Hollywood glamour slacks as she did in The Miser. However, the fact that she may be the only person in St. Louis who can effectively wear such things does not mean that they are appropriate for every role. And to see, through a scrim, the lovely Miss Barbour in her skivvies in a very strange, bloody rhino-transformation orgy is rather far from Ionesco's intention -- and also from Mostel's transformation, which used no makeup, no prosthetics, just Mostel. (Well, I guess he is a bit more like a rhino to begin with.) 

I know that in educational productions there are many reasons to cast a woman in a man's role, but here, I think, it's hard to buy into the gender swap. (A minor point: With the gender-swap why was "Jean" pronounced as the very American "Gene" rather than the properly French "Jeanne"?)

Molly McCaskill, dressed like a buttercup, gives a lovely and lively Daisy. Supporting players, Beavan Waller, Wyatt McCall, Bek Stanley, Sigrid Wise, Michele Yamin, Max Bahneman, and Corbyn Sprayberry all do fine work.

Costumes by Marie Green are bright and often beautiful. But there is far too much sense of vaudeville or clown-show: goofy hats, huge bow ties, a Harpo wig, clashing colors and patterns. There's far too much cartoon. Ionesco presents common, dreary middle-class people. Berenger is a pathetic, gray nonentity. Even the "Logician" (whose logic is quite mad) must be seen as a normal café intellectual. We must see ourselves in these people. Otherwise the parody of herd behavior doesn't bite. 

There is a complex and impressive sound plot by Sasha Gonzales. The many rhino heads are realistic and yet just a little abstract. Lovely work. And the moment when the trumpeting of the rhinos becomes almost a chorale is strange and moving.

Ionesco himself must bear blame for one flaw: the play is simply too long. He makes his various points repeatedly. The play's three acts (here presented as two) could very nicely be reduced by some twenty minutes.

Ionesco's Rhinoceros played at he Webster Conservatory April 7 through 9, 2017.

 

 

"The Hotch." It's the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition at Washington University, and it's open to all Wash U students. The 2016 winner is a beautiful play by Andie Berry. It's called Son of Soil. As winner of the competition the play received a full (and very fine) production in the Hotchner studio theatre. The actors are all students, and they are supported by some of our very best professionals in directing and design.

The play is set in a strange and vague sort of American dystopia. It's in the near future -- or ninety years in the past -- or perhaps right now. It's set in a small town which, one feels, should be in the South--but, no, it's in Ohio. A little town called Peak. 

Peak is a town which resonates with the Nina Simone song, "Strange Fruit." The trees in the town's orchard strain under the weight of young black men. 

We meet three black women--mothers all, and friends: Ruth and Sage and Patricia.

  • Ruth, the central character, has just lost a son to lynching. 
  • We soon learn that Patricia's daughter, Nia, is pregnant with the lynched boy's child. 
  • Sage had sent her son "away with his father" to save him, but now he has returned, a grown man, and he's working for the Police Department, which Sage cannot forgive. She disowns him.

The town is doom for young blacks. We find that Nia has never been to church because years ago the churches were all burnt down "when they became targets". The custom is, when a youth is lynched, to give the noose to the mother to hang by her door as a sort of "Gold Star Mother" sign. After the lynching the black community burns down that particular tree in the orchard. 

As the play progresses we learn, in subtle tiny bits, of a pact that these (and other?) black women made long ago: rather than let their children be killed by whites they would throw their babies into the river. And they did. (More or less).

But playwright Andie Berry chooses not to explore this dystopic scene in detail. Instead we follow the strains and conflicts of the three women and their children as they face the immediate challenges of the pregnancy and the son-become-cop--and of the attentions of two white men: 

  • Young Kyle is a white schoolmate of the pregnant Nia, and he's quite in love with her. 
  • Haverford is a white preacher who had been building a church by hand, but now is dismantling it; he's long been smitten with Ruth.

The cast is very strong. Michell Miller is superb as Ruth. Her lovely voice carries an authentic warm southern sound. She holds our hearts as she blends her mourning for her son with her nurturant compassion for young Nia. 

Sage is played by Ebby Offord, who gives her wonderful power. Patricia is level-headed and somehow more modern and practical than her friends; she is beautifully played by Tiffany Powell. Angela Alexander plays the daughter Nia and makes her both strong and vulnerable.

Zack Schultz gives us a loving but troubled Haverford. Alex Felder plays Noah, the policeman son, and clearly shows his pain and frustration in his efforts to reconcile with his mother. Noah Weiner adds the brightest touch of comedy as Kyle; his animated adolescent awkwardness when he brings a pie to the family after the lynching is most endearing.

The remarkable set is by Yin Li, a senior architecture student. We see the kitchen, a bedroom and the front stoop of Ruth's home -- different levels, no walls. Thus far it's a conventional modern stage design. But draping over the entire house is a tangle of what look like massive intertwined mangrove roots. They look so very real! They convey a sense of swamp, of net, of entanglement. It is a quite unforgettable image. 

The play's scenes occur in several different locations--Ruth's home, Patricia's home, the police station, and (I think) Sage's home. So it's just a tad confusing to use one set, with almost no changes. Also the script suffers a little from that common affliction of young modern playwrights--the proliferation of many short scenes in various locations. It's a cinematic impulse. But under the skilled hand of director Annamaria Pileggi these considerations constitute no major problem.

The play is lyrical, sometimes touching the poetic. (A few speeches have just a tinge of "purple.") In the opening moments the entire cast participates in a kind of choral reading standing still as statues. There is lovely inclusion of music; at one point Ms. Miller sings a kind of Spiritual: "There's a man goin' 'round takin' names." It's deeply moving.

Often, during scene breaks, we hear running water: the river that carried away those babies.

Son of Soil is not a didactic play. It's not even a protest play in the normal sense. Some things in it are merely sketched: the details and extent of the lynching culture, the fate of the churches, the origin and the abandoning of the baby-drowning pact, the history of the relationship between Haverford and Ruth. But sometimes a brief touch, a hint can pique our interest and can be dramatically very effective. It's a thought-provoking play. How do the motives and social effects of abortion compare to the mothers drowning their babies? 

Overall Son of Soil by Andie Berry is a very fine piece of theater. It played at the Hotchner Studio Theater at Washington University March 30 through April 2, 2017.

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre leaps with enthusiasm into a dark and comically exaggerated London to tell the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Gleefully discordant and filled with strong performances, anchored by outstanding leads from Jon Hey and Lavonne Byers, the tragically comic musical is fantastic and fun. Director Justin Been and music director Chris Petersen team to create a thoroughly entertaining production. Each note, every line and lyric, and every member of the cast in this rousing, enthusiastically murderous production asks, with a wink and a nod, "How about a tasty meat pie?"

Sweeney Todd is a noir version of a morality tale in which a mistreated young barber reinvents himself when, 15 years later, he returns home seeking revenge. Saved from certain death at sea after a daring escape, Todd is befriended by Anthony, a naïve young sailor who saves his life and nurses him to health. Looking for an adventure of his own, Anthony accompanies Todd to London. He soon becomes inextricably tied to Todd's devious plot. Todd also rekindles his association with Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a necessity if he is to extract vengeance on the men who stole his happiness, Judge Turpin and his lackey Beadle Bamford.

The show, like the story itself, is layered with complexity and filled with twists and turns. A mix of lucky coincidence and carefully constructed plans, as well as a deliciously devilish solution for disposing of criminal evidence, allow Todd to execute his plan. Seemingly successful, Todd too late realizes the errors of his way. Though Todd's story is tragedy, his long lost daughter Johanna and Anthony offer a ray of hope. Cleverly contrived, the lyrics, songs and twisting story, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, are vocally and physically demanding and delivered at a breakneck speed under the confident, sometimes sly, hand of director Been.

Hey is likeably fiendish as Todd, with a rich, earthy voice that's so pleasant to hear, you almost feel guilty for enjoying his performance this much. Consumed with anger Hey is brutal and determined, so much so that he can't see what he's missing most. Byers is crafty, conniving and humorously coquettish as Mrs. Nellie Lovett, reveling in her role and controlling her voice to good effect. The two play off each other well, both are expressive and show expert comic timing, generously supporting each other vocally and in scene, habits prevalent throughout the capable cast. 

Eileen Engel and Cole Gutmann are well matched as young lovers Johanna and Anthony, with clear, pure tones and lingering sighs in perfect harmony. Their characters are typically melodramatic, but Engel and Gutmann give the lovers a touch of longing that sympathetically suits their story. Connor Johnson once again shows natural talent and dramatic instinct as Tobias Ragg. His voice is pleasing and strong, and he innocently represents the audience perspective and shock with an appealing sensibility. Kay Love, Gerry Love, Mike Wells, Tyler Cheatem, and the ensemble of Angela Bubash, Ted Drury, Laura Megan Deveney, Kimmie Kidd, Stephanie Merritt, Kevin O'Brien, Belinda Quimby, and Benjamin Sevilla create thoughtful, spirited supporting characters and embrace the lovely dissonance of the score to near perfection.

Vocally and stylistically, this show is a fantastic representation of Sondheim. The tricky lyrical runs and layered, minor harmonies combine with an imaginatively macabre but compelling story and blend to near perfection in Stray Dog's engrossing production. Music director Petersen seems to revel in the productions lively interplay, and the effect is striking. The show moves seamlessly and Rob Lippert's multilevel set design once again makes excellent use of the company's space, while Ryan Moore's costume design and Sarajane Alverson's dramaturgy add important details and nuances. Tyler Duenow's lighting design stands out, effectively setting mood, focusing attention, and increasing the tension as the story unfolds.

Audiences curious about the work and significance of Sondheim will want to see this show, as it's a spectacular production. Casual fans will likely delight in the story, vocal gymnastics, and comic excess of the darkly persuasive and thoroughly entertaining Sweeney Todd. With performances at Stray Dog Theatre through April 22, 2017 selling out at a brisk pace, you need to make your reservations soon if you want to catch the devilishly delightful "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" in the act.    

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