The New Jewish Theatre takes a kinder, gentler look at impending death with its production of Tuesday's with Morrie, by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, from the book of the same title. Told in short vignettes that recall weekly visits between a professor and his prodigal student, the show mixes the intimacy of friendship rekindled with very real end of life issues and discomforts. Through each visit, another simple lesson of life and death that we too often fail to learn until our time on this planet begins to wane is revealed. 

One night while channel surfing, sports journalist Mitch Albom stumbles upon an episode of Ted Koppel's Nightline that feature's Morrie Schwartz, Albom's nearly forgotten but favorite college professor. Schwartz and Koppel are discussing how Schwartz is dealing with his diagnosis of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and the death sentence that diagnosis indicates. Albom decides to look up his old professor and pay a visit, to say his last goodbyes. That visit leads to another and another, and eventually becomes Albom's regular Tuesday routine. As the audience, we watch with Albom as his mentor's health deteriorates before our eyes. Morrie's mind remains sharp but his body betrays him.

Andrew Michael Neiman is Albom, a man who has overscheduled and overcommitted his time, perhaps in an effort to avoid introspection and dealing with pains he doesn't feel capable of facing. Neiman wears Albom's contradictions and conflict easily, creating a thoroughly believable character that resonates as a busy contemporary professional. Neiman successfully navigates tone and conveys a genuine sense of humility, important during those scenes when the script veers towards self-congratulation.

James Anthony turns in a nuanced and effective performance as the professor, his physical interpretation of the ravages of ALS are beautifully wrought, if at times exceedingly difficult to watch. During the short show, Anthony shows us the many emotions and struggles that come with the realization of impending death, but his demeanor is always upbeat, looking for the humor or silver lining in a situation. 

Cristie Johnston's set design subtly emphasizes the sense of things being "not quite right" that often comes with a diagnosis of ALS, dementia, and other diagnoses associated with aging. The bookshelf isn't quite right, the bed threatens to swallow and entrap Morrie, all the while Albom uncomfortably shifts and fumbles, overcompensating for feeling helpless by bringing food (that goes largely uneaten) to every visit. Michael Sullivan's lights, Sarah Azizo's props, and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes add appropriate touches, creating a sense of time and physicality operating just outside of normalcy. There's nothing remarkable here, but every now and again we're reminded of the serious state of limbo that is the story's reality.

The kind, sweet natured story is soft spoken and almost meditative, and largely succeeds in conveying the lessons Albom learned during his visits over the last few months of his beloved professor's life. The lessons are ones we've heard before, this time personified by a writer who is a bit of a showman, but genuinely kindhearted. Forgiveness, the need for self-reflection, and every small act of kindness are emphasized in the show, as is the importance of touch, of connection, with those we love. 

The New Jewish Theatre delivers a warm and personable version of Tuesday's with Morrie, in performance through October 22, that feels like a long goodbye hug. Director Annamaria Pileggi skillfully guides the talented actors through the intimate exchanges, avoiding over-sentimentality and delivering grounded, sympathetic performances filled with humor. Though the show runs about 15 or 20 minutes longer than it needs to make its point, the story is engaging and ultimately, uplifting. 

 

The light and charming comedy Sweet Revenge, As performed by the Juliusz Slowacki Players Saint Louis 1933, tells a familiar story. Two neighbors argue over their shared property line, threatening to disrupt an entire community and prevent true love from taking its natural course while creating plenty of opportunity for comic shenanigans. Upstream Theater introduces St. Louis audiences to the popular Polish comedy by Aleksander Fredro, with a new translation of the script by the company's artistic director, Philip Boehm, who also directs. 

Though Czesnick and Milczek's feud over the wall separating their property has escalated to the point of physical and legal threats, their children -- Czesnick's niece Klara and Milczek's son Waclaw -- have fallen in love. Naturally, the young lovers haven't yet found the courage to make their affections publicly known, and each fears what will happen if the two men discover their secret. Matters become complicated when Czesnik's friend Papkin and the widow Hanna enter the story. Papkin is enamored with Klara and Milczek strikes an agreement for Hanna to wed his son, even though she is already engaged to Czesnick. Much comic mischief and back and forth scheming eventually lead us to a happy ending.

Whit Richert is kindly gruff and stubborn as Czesnick. His patience may be worn thin by the feud, but his overall demeanor is light, almost giddy, particularly when the prospect of love and romance emerges. His friend Papkin, a boisterous braggart with a coward's love of self-congratulation, played with a flourish by John Bratowski, tries to act as emissary. He bumbles around preening and posing his way through one exaggerated tale after another. John Contini, as Milczek, is stern, calculatingly cunning, and equally as stubborn and obstinate as Czesnick. He moves with certainty and is much less susceptible to laughter and mirth.

Caitlyn Mickey and Pete Winfrey are charming as the young lovers trying their best to avoid detection until they can safely wed. Winfrey is eager but over-cautious, with a tendency towards morose worries, while Mickey may have the quickest wit and keenest perception of them all. Jane Paradise is humorously coquettish, though she too has an angle to play, and Eric J. Conners is sufficiently funny and comically overworked as all the servants and workers.

The pleasant show moves along at a nice pace, with a simple set that allows for quick transitions, but there are moments when it drags with too much exposition and too many rambling tales from Papkin. There's abundant humor in the script, but the retelling becomes tiresome at times, though Boehm does a solid job with both the translation and direction. The story, told in rhyming verse, is clearly conveyed, but may simply be too indulgent towards the original material, as some judicious editing feels appropriate. 

More importantly, the show is bookended with two problematic scenes. Intended to represent the performers as the Julius Slowacki Players St. Louis, 1933, they deliver a message on tolerance that feels suspiciously like historic whitewashing. In these scenes Conners, a black man, is welcomed into the company and then, after the show, the company chooses to support him and not patronize a local establishment that won't allow him to join the rest of the cast. The intention is pure here, but without record of an actual event, it feels disingenuous and inappropriate. 

Sweet Revenge, as performed by the Juliusz Slowacki Players Saint Louis, 1933, is a sweet natured comedy with an enjoyable, if familiar, tale. The talented cast easily captures the emotional ups and downs of the story's quickly shifting plot with engaging performances that are light and filled with comic interplay. Though a bit longer than it needs to be, the Upstream Theater company's production, running through October 22, is quite entertaining.

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre treats audiences to a new version of one of its favorite previous productions, the coming-of-age musical Spring Awakening, by Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik. The book is an adaptation of a German play by Frank Wedekind that warns of the tragic consequences of raising children in ignorance and an adherence to strict religious doctrine. Naturally, the authoritarian approach doesn't allow room for questions or curiosity. The problem, of course, is that humans are naturally curious and full of questions, and teenagers particularly so. Then their hormones kick in.

The company turns out a marvelous production of the musical, adding in a few new twists that work to keep the show fresh while underscoring the relevance, or perhaps prevalence, of the themes in contemporary America. Justin Been directs this smart interpretation with a sure hand, Sam Gaitsch provides engaging, equally fresh choreography, and the cast is uniformly compelling, vocally and in character. The parts come together so well, and the little twists and variations are quite effective, helping the show hit home and its themes linger.

Allison Arana shines as Wendla, innocent and uncertain but with a bold spirit and genuine, pleasing voice. She is convincingly unaware of the changes happening to her body and, though she pleads to know more, her mother seems content to keep her in that state. 

Arana moves with an uneasy grace, her posture and expressions underscoring conflict and new sensations. Riley Dunn counters her as the more worldly and philosophically curious Melchior. All intellectual rebellion and eager energy, he's a natural leader with a mind that challenges the status quo. Dunn walks with a sure and confident stride through the majority of the play, making the moments when he recoils in horror at his feelings, particularly an overwhelming sense of rage and power, all the more effective.

Stephen Henley, Dawn Schmid, and Brigid Buckley are sympathetic and heartbreaking as Moritz, Ilse, and Martha; their truths are painfully real and poignantly expressed. Jackson Buhr and Luke Steingruby ensure the story of their love is touching, with a slow, shy burn that builds in intensity as the teens explore newfound feelings. All the pairings and longings have that same intensity of youth, an urge for exploration and touch that's wonderfully expressed through Been's directorial choices and the ensemble's commitment to storytelling.

Jan Niehoff and Ben Ritchie are by turns comic and cruel as the Adult Woman and Adult Man, and each transitions fluidly between characters. The schoolmaster and headmistress are stern, rigid creatures of habit, and quite comfortable quashing young spirits. The parental figures range from sympathetic to monstrous to the right measure, ensuring the focus stays on the teenagers' stories. Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk complete the ensemble. There are several instances when some of the ensemble overact and need to pull back their performance to match the pace and emotional intensity of the moment. This includes a few scenes when they distract from the story, but the cast is generally well synchronized and connected with the story and each other. 

Robert M. Kapeller's scenic design evokes the feeling of the town with rough hewn boards and wooden chairs that simply but effectively indicate location as well as adding to the rhythm and choreography during several the songs. A single, gorgeous old tree, to which the piano seems connected, adds the suggestion of nature, representing both a place of sanctuary and unknown danger. 

Music director Jennifer Buchheit and the band are scattered along the perimeter of the set, and the piano is used quite effectively, and with seamless switchovers, by the cast and the band. Buchheit directs the score with restraint, finding more levels and effectively employing layering to create a rich tone. The emotional arc of the story is complemented with thoughtful musical interpretations that direct focus to the story context and still allow the exuberance of youth to burst forth, when appropriate. Been and choreographer Gaitsch also make good use of the theater space, with entrances, exits, and several dance sequences moving among the seated patrons. The moves set up the final song well, and while some purists will likely scoff at the shift from past to present, it feels natural and organic in context with the continuing relevance of the material.

As usual, the company takes some risks, and not everyone likes the approach. As an audience member who sees theater frequently, I appreciate the curious and adventurous nature of the company and enjoy the exploration quite a bit. The choices remain true to the story and demeanor of the original, but allow the musical to grow in a way that feels organic and well grounded.

With a substantially new cast and a fresh and inspired approach to key moments, the company once again captures our interest and applause. Director Been, the band, and cast are completely aligned and the pleasing show finds new levels of emotion and expression. Though still beating with a raw and authentic heart, Stray Dog Theatre's production of Spring Awakening, running through October 21, is much more than a revival of a previous success.

 

The fact that William Shakespeare was a gifted and prolific writer is indisputable (whether or not the signature was a nom de plume is another question entirely). The existence of a 1613 play about Cardenio, a less-important figure in Cervantes' Don Quixote, penned by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is also well established. Unfortunately, the script itself is completely lost to history. 

Thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director, Gregory Doran, we now have a newly re-imagined version of the play. St. Louis Shakespeare introduces fans of the Bard to the script in a fanciful retelling that highlights the romantic story with primarily playful escapades and lively wordplay. Cardenio is not without its failings, but the production makes the most of the play, ensuring the light comedy is accessible and entertaining.

The story introduces us to an aging Duke and his two sons, Pedro and Fernando. Pedro is loyal and obedient, a stand up guy anyone would want as a friend. His brother Fernando is a more slippery character, breaking hearts and spending his father's money on expensive horses. In an attempt to understand his youngest son's motivations and plans, the Duke sends a letter to Fernando's friend Cardenio, requesting he come to court immediately. The summons tears Cardenio away from his true love Luscinda at a crucial moment, and the ensuing mischief caused by Fernando nearly costs him her heart. The show has almost too many twists and turns, but a happy ending is eventually secured in the romantic comedy.

Erik Kuhn, a regular with the company, proves the natural choice for the valiant and faithful Cardenio. Earnest and enthusiastic, he expresses himself fully, creating a character that is sympathetic, if at times comically naïve, and bringing good physical presence to the role. Additionally, his interpretation and articulation are noticeably improved, his best grasp of the rhythms and cadence of the dialogue to date. As Luscinda, Shannon Lampkin delightfully counters Kuhn with a heart as pure as the driven snow, a perceptive eye, and a quick wit. She, too, articulates well and shows clear understanding of the story and her character. 

The entire ensemble is capable and well spoken, though there are times when the pace lags considerably and I am, honestly, still uncertain how I feel about the sheep. Kevin O'Brien and Jason J. Little provide solid, engaging support as brothers Pedro and Fernando and both demonstrate a good sense of timing, while Jeff Lovell is upright and full of authority as their father, Duke Ricardo. Lexie Baker is both cleverly appealing and horribly abused as Dorotea, the daughter of a wealthy farmer and conquest of Fernando. Filled with determination and spunk, she's delightful to watch though it is difficult, from a modern perspective, to understand why a rape victim chooses to pursue and moon over her attacker. The fact that Fernando tries a similar tactic not once, but twice with Luscinda is even more troublesome in a contemporary reconstruction.

Matthew Stuckel's scenic design creates the necessary levels and sense of environment while creating visual interest and a sense of place. Michele Friedman Siler tells much about each character and their social standing with her aesthetic palette and artful details, Dona Camilla's jacket is particularly appealing (and something I would totally wear simply for the elegantly distinct embellishment). 

The show is not without its problems, however. Director Northcott's vision is compelling and the majority of the comic touches work, eliciting the intended laughter. However, the production also feels a bit self-indulgent, with too much business slowing already long scenes and jokes, like the aforementioned sheep, that almost but don't quite hit the mark. Those minor points don't distract from the story or comedy, but the strong suggestions of forcibly coerced sex do. Fernando's actions and the lack of any true repentance or punishment are frankly disturbing. The construct appears to be supported by the original text and other writings used to reconstruct Shakespeare and John Fletcher's play. Without the usual historic familiarity, it's decidedly more jarring and noticeable.

St. Louis Shakespeare's production of Cardenio, running through October 15, is an absolutely compelling romantic comedy that folds employing all the Bard's favorite devices. There's plenty of mischief -- most of it cheerful, true love, and, of course, a woman disguised as a man and crucial to the plot. The show is light and pleasing, if a bit lacking in substance, and the company turns out an energetic and entertaining production that genuinely feels like a close cousin to the original canon.

 

 

Twenty-four centuries ago Aristophanes won second place in the Dionysian festival with his comedy, The Birds. The University of Missouri, St. Louis, has revived this old classic in a brand new adaptation by Jamie McKittrick, who also directs this production.

The Greek classics are difficult to render meaningful to modern audiences. The comedies in particular are so full of topical references, political jabs, and pokes at regional (or personal) rivals that today much of the dialogue leaves us in a daze.

In The Birds two middle-aged friends, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, are so frustrated with the trials of life in Athens that they decide to go and live with the birds. In fact, they persuade the birds to build a great city in the air -- Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. There, between the earth and the heavens, the birds will be able to blockade Olympus and prevent earthly prayers from reaching the gods. Thus the gods will be starved into submission, and the birds will reign supreme.

Jamie McKittrick has done yeoman's work to modernize the piece. She has given the characters more accessible names: "Pisthetaerus" becomes "Ty"; "Euelpides" becomes "Yulie"; "Tereus" becomes "Terry." (Tereus had been transformed from a king into a bird because of his sins.)

She makes the production awash in music -- we are treated to almost every pop song in fifty years having a lyric pertaining to birds or chickens or flight. There is some rap. There is much percussion, there is much choral dance. There are appearances by the gods: Iris (the rainbow), Poseidon, and an odd unnamed god of the Triballians. There's a demigod (Heracles) and a titan (Prometheus). A veritable all-star show!

There are fantastic, comic bird puppet/costumes by Felia Davenport. We see a quite goofy peacock, flamingo, chicken and a flock of seagulls -- as well as a jackdaw, crow and a hoopoe. In the original play Tereus, as king of the birds, is nearly naked of feathers due to "severe molting"; Here Terry appears in a bird mask and a bodysuit with common white underpants. 

The set, by Cameron Tesson is spacious and beautiful. The Des Lee Theatre is set up as an "alley stage," where the audience sits on two sides with the acting space in between. Tesson's set is simple, with varied levels of platform -- all in a lovely speckled blue-green with light blue border lines. Stylized trees decorate one end. Stairs lead to a set balcony at one end, and at the other both levels of the architectural balconies are used for scenes involving the gods. It's altogether lovely. Bess Moynihan ably provides excellent lighting to all of these various acting areas.

Cassidy Flynn leads the cast with illimitable energy as Ty. He briskly scampers about the stage. Moreover he sings with considerable ability. One other outstanding singer is Joshua Mayfield as the Peacock. Dre Williams gives us a very strong Terry, though he's burdened with a great beak that masks his nose and mouth -- not a good thing to impose on an actor/singer. Yulie is given a "beak-on-a-stick," like a lorgnette or a masquerade mask. This is a much less encumbering treatment. Dylan Houston is an attractive Yulie, but occasionally rushes his lines; this, with some less-than-perfect diction makes it hard for us to follow just what's happening. Mona Sabau makes a graceful poet in smock, beret and French accent. She also appears as Iris at an upper balcony and lets fall a great beautiful flow of rainbow-colored fabric. In the chorus Kyle Mertens, playing a chicken, is lithe and agile as a cat.

So there is much to charm our eyes in this production, but it lacks two things to make it appealing to a modern audience, accustomed as we are to modern musical comedy:

  1. A coherent story line. This production is fairly true to the structure of Aristophanes' play--the characters, the basic incidents, the intrusion of unwanted visitors, the interludes of choral dance and song. But the adaptation fails to make this a modern piece of theater. There's a sense of scatter-shot events. The bird city is built and in the end the gods submit to Ty's demands, but in between there's just a lot of arbitrary action. Just what is Prometheus doing in this story? And the Poet? And the Inspector? And Iris? And that Triballian god?
  2. Considerably more attention should have been paid to the song and dance. The dances were rather elaborately staged, but there seemed to be no trained dancers in the cast. Similarly much of the "song" was merely lines chanted in time with the music.

The entire cast is energetically committed to the performance. I am grateful to UMSL and to adapter/director Jamie McKittrick for undertaking this project. I had never seen The Birds staged and I was eager to do so. But perhaps it just isn't viable today.

It played at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, October 12 -15.

 

 

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