The second annual Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis kicks off this weekend and promises to continue its exploration of the celebrated playwright's St. Louis roots, including special exhibits and events focused on his painting and short story work.
As many fans of American theater and literature are aware, playwright Tennessee Williams spent his formative years in St. Louis. Though he couldn't get far enough away, fast enough, the city left an indelible mark on the young man, with an influence that permeated, and provided a setting for, his later work. An important aspect of the festival in St. Louis are the panel lectures, exhibits, and additional activities, many of them free to the public, that provide a sense of the playwright, his philosophy and driving motivations, and his relationship to St. Louis.
This year, the festival launched the Tennessee Williams New Playwright Initiative and will host a reading of winner Jack Ciapciak's Naming the Dog as part of the opening weekend. The second annual "Stella Shouting Contest," an unexpected highlight at last year's festival, is planned for Saturday afternoon and the 1961 movie adaptation of Summer and Smoke, starring Laurence Harvey, Geraldine Page, and Rita Moreno, will be playing in the Public Media Commons throughout the weekend.
Among the highlights of the festival is "Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter," an exhibit of the author's work at the St. Louis University Museum of Art hanging from May 5 through July 30, 2017. The exhibit will be featured in an opening weekend panel discussion at the .ZACK on Saturday, May 6, 2017. A second panel, "Magic of the Other" is planned, as is an exhibit of the photographs of Ride Hamilton featuring eye-catching glimpses of actors, in character, at their entrances and exits from stage.
Williams is known for his plays, however; and the festival will present seven shows this year, including Williams' original plays Small Craft Warnings and Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? These shows open during the first weekend of the festival and continue through May 21, 2017. "Bertha in Paradise," a musical tribute based on the character introduced in The Rooming House Plays at last year's festival, kicks off the festival on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, and continues through May 14, 2017.
Several performances are scheduled to run only during the opening weekend of the festival. Deseo, a reinterpretation of one of Williams' most celebrated plays with a Cuban perspective, in Spanish with English super-titles, is the festival's first international entry. Students from Theatre Program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will present St. Louis Stories, a compilation of unpublished short stories written by the author and adapted by Tom Mitchell. ensemble 2.0 a dramatic reading based on Francesca Williams' collection of family letters; and a Tennessee Williams Tribute Magic of the Other, featuring scenes, songs, and poetry, are other highlights from the festival's first weekend.
The Tennessee Williams Festival -- St. Louis aims to distinguish itself by offering unique events in addition to the performances and with scholarly panel discussion of the enigmatic writer. A bus tour highlighting significant St. Louis locations that impacted Williams during his formative years and a tribute featuring local performers are also scheduled for opening weekend. Reviews of the festival plays will be posted after the first weekend. Complete information on the festival, ticket purchase, and additional events such as the New Orleans Jazz Brunch can be found on the festival's website.
Actor and comedian Amadeo Fusca brings his own anecdotes and raw energy to Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, a surprisingly entertaining one-man show on love, compromise, and the battle of the sexes. Fusca is quick to establish a rapport with the audience and always looking for a new and clever angle, essential traits to keeping material that could easily bore and plod moving at a fast, engaging pace.
The adapted script by Eric Cobble traces the various stages of courtship, but the actor’s stories are personal, seemingly drawn from real life, and dependent on real-world believability. The show, much like the book of the same title by John Gray, aims to help men and women get along better by pointing out common differences in our approach to life and relationships, then providing suggestions for improving said relationships. The book, released in the early 1990s, frankly feels somewhat dated, and the structure makes the show come across more like an entertaining lecture. There are even a couple of video addresses from Gray integrated into the performance. While this lends authority to the title and information, I’d prefer to hear Fusca’s interpretation of the material and leave Mr. Gray to his writing.
An established comedian, Fusca’s ability to connect and interact with the audience, while providing a never-ending stream of semi-embarrassing stories about his courtship of and marriage to his wife Sarah, is fantastic and well honed. He never misses a beat or the opportunity to drop in a quick local reference, showing he’s as aware of the St. Louis Blues’ playoff situation as he is fond of toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake. He engages in glib banter with the audience and circles back to reference them just enough to let you know he was genuinely listening. Fusca shines in the moment, coming across as down to earth and heartfelt. The story gets lively, the laughter a little louder, and the audience becomes invested.
Fusca intersperses information from Gray’s books with the kind of personal stories that evolve into but aren’t quite comedy routines. The longer format, with a more detailed set-up and less bombastic punch line, works quite well in the context of the show, as does Fusca’s spirited approach. Though the framework does give an instant touch point for contemporary audiences, Gray’s tone will likely appeal more to those in their mid-40s and beyond. Whereas the author is stiff and a bit patronizing, Fusca doesn’t hesitate to put himself in his place, owning up to his mistakes with humorous detail. Fusca’s stories and personal experience are critical to the show’s success and his warmth and sense of open, mutual respect helps bridge the book’s generational gap.
As an observer, I find Fusca’s embrace of Gray’s principles interesting. He seems too young to have been influenced by the book’s initial release, and I wonder why he latched on to this particular tome from the era’s preponderance of self-help and do-it-yourself manuals. While there’s plenty of science intoned, the strictly heterosexual, gender traditional structure simply feels out-of-touch with modern romance. The theme proves an easy launch pad for Fusca’s well-crafted storytelling, but honestly, much of the advice that’s shared is common sense and not unique to Gray’s writing. Then again, at least this show isn’t based on “The Rules.”
Fusca is always on, making friends from front row to back, and letting you know that it’s perfectly ok with him if you laugh out loud at his foibles. Just remember, he’s going to back those up with some common sense tips and practical advice aimed at happier relationships. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus continues through May 7, 2017 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza. Judging from the audience I saw, the subject matter will appeal most to well-established couples. That shouldn’t dissuade you from attending, however. Anyone who’s been in a serious relationship can appreciate the humor in the show, and Fusca’s timing and charisma are worthy of much broader reach.
For sheer spectacle and artistic excellence, I can't think of many shows I'd rather see than Broadway's take on the beloved animated film Disney's The Lion King. And while the musical is based on and takes its storyline from the original movie, the stage production is its own fantastic journey -- one that honors the original story and the African savanna where it is set.
The "Circle of Life" is the story at the center of this thoroughly engaging tale. Rafiki the monkey and Zazu the dodo guide the audience through the story, each in their own fashion. As the leader of his pride, Mufasa, the acknowledged king, is respected and admired by the animals that share his kingdom, which stretches as far as your eyes can see. Naturally, the birth of his son Simba sees all the creatures from far and wide gathering to celebrate. Everyone, it seems, is excited to meet the princely young lion cub. Well, almost everyone. Scar, Mufasa's younger brother, would prefer he were the king and, with clearly devious intention, he schemes and plots his ascendance.
Frightened by the untimely death of his father, the gullible Simba heeds Scar's advice and runs away from the pride. Scar jumps at the opportunity and, thinking Simba has died as well, installs himself as king. Somewhere on the other side of the jungle, however, Timon, the meerkat, and his companion Pumbaa, the warthog, have rescued Simba and are helping him survive and mature. Though it was never his intention, a chance meeting with the lioness Nala, his childhood friend, leads Simba to realize his destiny and return home.
Mukelisiwe Goba is enchanting as Rafiki, introducing the story in a language filled with clicks, smiles, and body language. The scene completes the imaginative opening sequence and transitions us from spectacle to story. Gerald Ramsey's Mufasa is strong and stern, a fair king who's able to enjoy frequent playful outbursts with his son. His death, while dramatic, is presented with a kind touch. You may shed a stray tear or two during the show, and this is one of those moments. Tony Freeman is humorous in voice and body movements as Zazu the Dodo, the eyes and ears of the kingdom, and Sophia Stephens, as Sarabi, Nick Cordileone, as Timon, and Ben Lipitz, as Pumbaa provide outstanding, often comic, support.
The all-important test of maturation and ability is the battle between Simba and his uncle Scar for the crown and the heart of Nala. Mark Campbell is particular, petulant, preening, and always plotting as Scar, the coordination of his exaggerated pointing, stretching, and turning with his mask is marvelous to watch. Dashaun Young counters with a Simba that is bold, street smart, and muscularly graceful, while Devin Graves and Jordan Wilson provide a younger reflection of Simba that's believably similar in tone and movement. Nia Holloway gives Nala a decidedly fierce and independent attitude, with athletic movements that are fluid and connected. Grier Burke and Meilani Cisneros demonstrate the same stubborn attitude and curious nature as young Nala.
Disney's The Lion King musical is a unique theatrical experience for the opening parade of animals alone. The staging re-imagines the well-known story with African rhythms, culture, and language, fitting changes that enhance the show. The songs, originally composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, receive new arrangements and adaptations by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer that more seamlessly blend with the African influences. Modern dance choreography by Garth Fagan fully articulates and emulates the graceful movements of wild animals; the dances are acrobatic and bursting with expression. Finally, exquisite puppetry captivates and delights. Birds fly, giraffes lope, gazelles leap, and elephants march across the dessert plains with expert synchronicity and form.
The set design, lighting, and costumes expertly capture the colors, textures, and sense of the African plains, and the actors truly disappear into their characters. The combination of choreography, costume and make-up, and actor is, for the most part, phenomenal; though I wish Timon the meerkat was better integrated. That was, however, my only serious quibble in an otherwise fabulous production.
The resulting show is filled with a sense of awe that lingers well beyond the curtain. Suitable for all but the youngest and most sensitive family members, the production fills the fabulous Fox Theatre with color, light, sound, and action. Many characters enter, speak, and exit throughout the theater, an unusual but effectively immersive touch. Disney's The Lion King, running through May 7, 2017, is a singularly unforgettable experience. The music is engaging and entertaining, the story told with a deft touch, and the animals vibrate with joie de vivre in a magical, memorable production.
Equally Represented Arts presents another thoroughly entertaining and satisfyingly fresh take on a classic script with Twelfth Period (or not another Twelfth Night). The company's reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is set in a late-90s high school teeming with modern problems, and it "totally" works.
The original story sees twins Viola and Sebastian separated during childhood by a violent storm at sea. Each washes up on the shore of a foreign land. Viola decides to dress in her brother's clothes for safety and quickly becomes part of a love triangle between a Duke, a beautiful and wealthy widow, and Viola's assumed persona. The widow's confidante Malvolio also carries a torch for the woman, but she cares for nothing but mourning her father and brother's deaths. Until she meets the disguised Viola. Comic confusion, important lessons in love and perception, and a happy ending ensue.
Spring forward several centuries and pick up your class schedule, which also assigns your grade level, as you enter the doors of Illyria Preparatory Academy at the start of the year. Upbeat music is playing and students pass each other shouting quick greetings as you make your way into the auditorium for Principal Feste's welcome. During the show, which moves around the reasonably accessible school, you'll meet a host of familiar characters that soon entangle themselves in gossip, romantic speculation, and bullying with real consequences.
If the show feels more "She's the Man" than Shakespeare, it's done with intent, and the actors fully commit to the concept and script, by director Gabe Taylor and dramaturge Katy Keating. Lines from popular movies are liberally sprinkled into the dialogue, seamlessly connecting to the original with perfect timing. These high school students believably argue, scheme, and flirt in both Shakespearian and contemporary English.
Keating is vulnerable, eager, and sympathetic as Mal Olio, pining over Erin Renée Roberts' sophisticated Olivia. This adaptation is as much about Mal as Sebastian, and Keating is equal parts hopeful and devastated in the surprising role. Roberts gives Olivia stubborn independence, but she's caring, not callous. Andrew Kuhlman as Toby Belch, Francesca Ferrari as Maria, and Tyson Cole as Andrew Aguecheek are part "Mean Girls," part "Varsity Blues," and always in the moment. The characters are recognizable and fun, you almost want to skip class and drink beer with them on the balcony all day, but their youthful excess finds a tragic target.
Amanda Wales effortlessly guides the story with an engaging persona as Sebastian, smartly complimented by an eager Jonah Walker as Dude Orsino. The two have an easy chemistry, and the scene where we learn the fate of the real Sebastian sneaks up on you with surprising force. Eric Kuhn brings the artist's eye as Valentine. Excluding the intentionally over-the-top Dawson moments, the character is introspective and observant, an understated nod to the theme of outside observer that mirrors popular film. Finally, Anna Skidis Vargas is engaging and touching as multiple teachers, and her recitation of the school's motto -- a well-known quotation from the original Twelfth Night -- is appropriately serious and funny.
ERA's clever appropriation of late 1990's pop culture with a popular classic play is not an entirely new concept. ERA hasn't simply created a mash-up, however. They've added important twists of their own, ones that have currency and immediacy with contemporary audiences. For one thing, Sebastian never arrives and Olivia never falls in love. For another, our sympathies are more aligned with the genuine heartbreak Mal, representing the original Malvolio, feels after being tricked and humiliated in front of the student body. The show also ends on a more somber note than the original, as Vargas sings a haunting, a cappella version of Radiohead's "Creep."
These changes may disappoint some purists. For me, they serve to underscore the continued relevancy of the themes Shakespeare explored. Add the troubling treatment of the original Malvolio into the mix, and the company's adaptation is, while less upbeat, every bit as interesting a story to behold. Audience members are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes, as you will be moving from class to class during the show.
Equally Represented Arts thoroughly engaging Twelfth Period, running through May 6, 2017 at the Centene Center in the Grand Arts District, is fun and fresh. Comic pop references and hit songs ensure the jump forward in time works in convincing fashion, but most importantly, the adaptation raises valid and pressing questions in a cleverly articulate interpretation that entertains and sparks conversation.
Memory is a tricky thing. Life altering events take on exaggerated significance over the years, while the important, everyday pleasures and small moments fade from view. Mustard Seed Theatre's warm and comforting interpretation of Dancing at Lughnasa embraces those little moments and memories. Using the everyday as a setting, the show creates a warm tapestry of love and life in a rapidly changing world.
Set in Donegal County, Ireland in 1936, when global tensions were mounting but local concerns kept the looming war far away, Brian Friel's tender memory play revisits an important summer in young Michael, our narrator's, life. A significant turning point for his family, Michael's unmarried mother, Christina, and her four sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, and Rose are eagerly anticipating their missionary brother Jack's return from Africa.
The economy is tough, so they all live together in a small country cottage, scraping to get by as best they can. Jack has embraced the local beliefs of the leper community he served and, fittingly, returns shortly before the feast of Lughnasa, a pre-Christian harvest celebration still locally celebrated. Devoutly religious sister Kate has concerns about him, as well as her family's survival. Michael's father, Gerry, a wayward traveling salesman, unexpectedly pops in throughout the summer, adding stress to an already full house.
As young Michael and narrator, Jim Butz exudes the reverence and innocence Friel has so expertly captured in his script. There's an unaffected lilt to Michael's voice that's present throughout the story, and Butz complements it with a wistful dreaminess in posture and expression as he voices his younger self. Butz and director Gary Barker ensure Michael never enters the scene with his family, but the actor is physically, emotionally, and mentally present in each moment.
Butz gets splendid and affectionate support from a fabulous cast, helping the show traverse its ups and downs with a gentle but realistic tone. Jennifer Theby Quinn brings radiance to Christina's every breath, in moments of joy and sorrow. Her scenes with Richard Strelinger, Michael's father, sparkle with affection and emotion, a striking contrast to the hard working, matter-of-fact demeanor that takes over when he's away. Amy Loui gives Kate a sharp but not unkind edge. She's clearly upset by her brother's changes, and constantly worrying about how the family will get by. Kelly Weber shares her burden, but remains exuberant and playful as Maggie, working to stretch the food and keep spirits high. She's clearly the "man" of the house, and constantly reminds everyone how much she'd like a real man around to help her out.
Leslie Wobbe is kind, patient, and sensibly nurturing to all as Agnes. Her voice gentle and soothing and her hands constantly working, trying to contribute and keep the peace. Michelle Hand brings a deft but perfectly accentuated touch to simple Rose, underplaying the girl's troubles then bursting into joyful activity for a song on the radio or funny story that reveals all. Finally, Gary Glasgow is lit with fire and longing as Father Jack, while Strelinger brings rakish charm and a more base fire to his likeable turn as Michael's unreliable father.
The tone of the story is bittersweet -- both the home situation and the world will change radically over the coming decade. But Friel's rhapsodic dialogue and pristine clarity in the moment helps us to ignore, if not entirely forget, the inevitable. Butz skillfully guides us through these transitions as Michael and the result is a gentle lullaby of a show, dreamy and dotted with small, personal details that sparkle like distant stars.
The fabulously detailed set, by Kyra Bishop, feels welcoming if sparse, expertly capturing the look of both the time and the family's struggles to survive. Jane Sullivan's cleverly appropriate costumes, Michael Sullivan's sunny lighting, and Zoe Sullivan's sound, including the wonderful "wireless" radio, add icing on this multi-tiered confection.
Though tested by troubled times, Dancing at Lughnasa offers a tirelessly hopeful light, which, while dulled through years of harsh circumstances and sacrifice, shines bright. The show, running through April 30, 2017 at Mustard Seed Theatre on the Fontbonne University campus, is a poignant tale that dances and skips through serious subject matter, leaving the audience with a wistful, nostalgic warmth.