Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and St. Louis-based playwright Stephen Peirick team up to present the world premier of Monsters, a twisted tale of a dysfunctional couple, their siblings, and a hastily planned murder that twists and turns in gleefully scripted chaos. The contemporary show, set in an unfinished basement somewhere in St. Louis, is clever, funny, and oddly plausible. Solid direction and a talented cast ensure the company makes the most of the witty plot in a thoroughly engaging production.

Monsters focuses on brothers Jeremy and Davis and their desperate, last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating diner they inherited from their father. The plan? A murder for hire carried out at the request of two aging members of the St. Louis mafia. The brothers don't actually know the intended victim, but their regulars have given them enough details to convince them to act and make them feel confident they can succeed. There's also the lure of the $200,000 payout once the deed is done. The plan goes awry when Davis's wife Andi, who is supposed to be at work, discovers Jeremy standing over a bound and gagged Carl in her basement. Andi's sister Piper shows up with her laundry, Davis finally shows up, and comedy ensues. 

Sarajane Alverson, as the sharp-tongued Andi, is nobody's fool. She eventually takes charge of the situation making it clear she's accustomed to cleaning up after her husband and brother-in-law. Alverson is all sighs, eye rolls, and exasperation until she learns of the handsome payout; then she's willing to be swayed. She has a secret of her own, that she's been hesitant to share with anyone except her sister Piper, which further complicates an already tangled situation. 

Kevin O'Brien is simple-minded and childish as Jeremy, but in a good-natured way that makes his character easy to forgive (at least most of the time). He seems a little slow at times, but we soon realize that's likely just his nature. He's a bit spoiled and clearly accustomed to being told what to do, so he doesn't bother wasting time thinking for himself. O'Brien brings naiveté and innocence to the part and the character's convoluted logic trips easily off his tongue, almost convincing us that he's making perfect sense.

Eileen Engel and Jeremy Goldmeier, as Piper and Davis, respectfully, fully realize their character quirks in engaging performances. Engel gives Piper a bit of an edge to animate the character in ways that ensure the at times sarcastically funny part isn't overlooked or thrown away. Goldmeier does a similarly strong job with Davis, who is clearly smarter than his recent actions may indicate, and there's a wonderfully warm rekindling of Davis and Andi's love that's completely unexpected and welcome. Finally, Michael A. Wells is expressive and appropriately nervous in a comic turn as the intended victim, Carl. The gag in his mouth keeps him silent most of the play, but his flailing arms and wide eyed headshakes speak volumes, ensuring audience members generally realize his key lines long before he speaks.

Justin Been provides the stage design, a realistic looking unfinished basement that would fit in to almost any city neighborhood. Director Bell adds casual contemporary costumes, and Tyler Duenow creates an effective lighting design, pulling the show together nicely and giving things a comfortable look and feel. The matter of fact setting serves to further heighten the comic tension. You've likely been in a basement like this one before unless you're like Andi, who generally avoids such things do to their inherent creepiness and propensity to harbor monsters. This attention to detail is understated but important: by the show's end you may wonder whether you haven't seen a few monsters.

Peirick writes fabulous, funny dialogue with a well-developed plot that falls just this side of believable, making the show a comic treat. However, the one-act play still feels about twenty or so minutes too long. Some judicious editing to remove redundancy and a second look at Piper and Andi's birth control discussion scene, which feels heavy and out of place as currently written, may take this good show to the next level. 

In its current version, Monsters, running through June 24, is already a thoroughly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny tale with some surprisingly relatable moments. Mistakes and secrets are revealed as each member of the cast attempts to rationalize the current situation, and Carl's impending demise, while also negotiating a comically dysfunctional family dynamic. Though some editing would undoubtedly improve the show, Stray Dog Theatre has a solid hit with this genuinely appealing and funny comedy.

 

The Old Testament tale of Jacob's son Joseph has fascinated generations and inspired many interpretations. The best-known version of the story is undoubtedly Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical take Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Stages St. Louis opens their season with an energetic production of the popular show that dances and dazzles its way to success.

The favorite of twelve sons, the prophetic Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but survives and becomes the closest advisor to Egypt's Pharaoh. Many years later, when his brothers come to beg Pharaoh for help, Joseph recognizes them though they seem not to know him. Without hesitation, at least in this version, Joseph forgives and reconciles with the family in a story filled with drama, action, and strong moral themes.

Kirsten Scott is engaging and warm as our narrator. Scott's voice cuts through the ensemble with clarity and precision, helping those unfamiliar with the story keep track. Her singing is rich and pleasant, and she brings just the right touch of showmanship to the part. Her smile insinuates there's much more to come as she sets up each scene and transition with a gesture, flick of the wrist, or snap of her fingers. She occasionally interacts with the ensemble, but for the most part keeps herself distant, clearly in storytelling rather than character mode.

Jeff Sears gives Joseph a carefree attitude that's more reminiscent of a west coast surfer dude than a biblical hero. His voice is warm, with a soft rock timbre that suits the music and arrangements while highlighting his range. In a clever bit of writing that captures contemporary stereotypes, Joseph is blissfully unaware of his brothers' jealousy or the dangers he faces and Sears seems genuinely unaffected. Charming and effusive, he remains steadfastly positive in the face of every challenge, a choice that works to good effect in Stages breezy production. 

Scott and Sears are joined by a strong ensemble, ensuring very few off notes and solid harmonies. Steve Isom, Brent Michael DiRoma, Molly Tines, Jeremiah Ginn, Brad Frenette, and Jason Eno stand out in supporting roles, easily mastering the many musical styles present in the show. Stephen Bourneuf skillfully directs and choreographs the show, with musical direction from Lisa Campbell Albert, scenic design by James Wolk, lighting by Sean M. Savoie, and delightfully campy costumes by Brad Musgrove.

Stages production of the popular show is fast paced, flashy, and fun. Light exposition leads us through the story, but most of the telling is done via song and dance. The numbers are lively and well executed, touching on a variety of popular musical styles. Clever anachronisms, such as a "FedEx" delivery guy on a scooter, a debit card machine, a smart phone, and a hip-shaking, scene-stealing Pharaoh who's clearly channeling Elvis Presley, add fresh comedy to the show without distracting from the storytelling. 

Unfortunately, however, this production feels disconnected. The transitions are serviceable but they don't propel the story forward and the actors, from the leads through the chorus members, at times act as if they are the only one on stage. Simply put the cast hasn't yet come together; the energy is a little lacking, and the tempo a touch uneven, with a tendency to rush through the numbers. Hopefully, the show will find its footing and coalesce during its run. As of now, the overall result is a feeling that the show is quite good, but not quite there.

Additionally, there are so many different musical styles and featured solos incorporated that the show feels a bit like a musical revue and the story gets lost. It's almost as if Rice and Webber couldn't decide on their approach so they included a musical reference to every popular style at the time the show was penned. The "trying to please everybody" approach really muddies up the storytelling in this case. Though all the songs are good and well performed, they simply don't flow together and, honestly, there's not a single piece that stands out. 

Still, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, running through July 2, 2017, remains a good story with a humorous approach, pleasantly catchy tunes, and entertaining choreography. Though Bourneuf may have done more to ensure a clear through line, the failings of the show are easily traced to the disjointed and overstuffed book and score, and Stages St. Louis has plenty to be proud of in their clever and entertaining production.

 

  

Time is an interesting concept around which to build a show. Its construct is fluid and its possibilities the source of endless imaginative speculation. Circus Flora chooses to embrace this notion in Time Flies, a whimsical story of a tinkerer and his attempts to cross through time and space to save his community.

The story is, naturally, just a thread used to loosely connect the circus acts together across a thoroughly engaging and often breathtaking display of talent. While it is genuinely comic and complete, the connecting thread to the circus acts is also quite thin in many ways (though serving its primary purpose), a slight disappointment for regular attendees. The entertainment, however, is as spectacular as we have come to expect from the company. 

Our narrator Yo-Yo, a gold-threaded harlequin, glibly provides exposition and the occasional wise crack as we are guided through the story of the tinkerer from long ago trying to end a drought that has plagued his community. A mysterious man appears and gives the tinkerer a magic box, stating he will have to wait eighty years for the key to open the box and bring the rain. Realizing he hasn’t that much time, the tinkerer decides to fashion a means to jump to the future and discover the key. Will the tinkerer be able to open the box and save the community? Along his journey, the tinkerer stumbles across a variety of circus acts, as well as meeting his grandson and the beautiful and acrobatic dancer he loves. 

The time shifting transition is one of the most enchanting moments in the circus. An aerialist dangling in the sky seems to command space and time through her gracefully daring extensions and spins. Soon afterwards, the Flying Wallendas thrill us with their death-defying tightrope work, executing pyramids, headstands, bicycle rides, and a variety of turns that elicit audible gasps from the audience. Then come the acrobatics and animal acts, including the St. Louis Arches and a beautiful silver-grey horse that prances, jumps, and steps in an intricately choreographed dance. Trapeze artists fly by and pygmy goats perform clever and amusing tricks. 

The show introduces new performers every season, but longtime attendees will appreciate the year-to-year continuity of the company’s core. Fan-favorites and Circus Flora mainstays Tino, Olinka, Aurelia, Alex, Claire, Alida, and Ysabella of “The Flying Wallendas” anchor the team. Acrobat and trickster extraordinaire Sidney “Iking” Bateman, Andrew Adams, Hovey Burgess, Kyle Driggs, Sasha Harrington, Cassidy Herriott, Heidi Herriott, Adam Kuchler, Cecil MacKinnon (as Yo-Yo the narrator), Jack Marsh, and Andrea Murillo skillfully fill the company. Naturally, the Circus Flora animals join in on the fun with impressive moves of their own.

The company’s protégées the St. Louis Arches join them once again and it is a moment of pure delight to watch how younger members of the audience light up when they see acrobats not much bigger or older than them commanding center stage. This year’s archers include Austin Buhr, Sarah Kuhlman, Chauncey Kroner, Oliver Layher, Malik Leeks, Ollie Lloyd, Finn Mateo McNamee, Sally Sneider, Kyran Walton, and Maya Zuckerman, under the direction of Jessica Hentoff. Many members of the team have grown up under the Circus Flora Big Tent and it’s a joy to see them improve and take leading roles in the act. The company is also joined by the vibrant and captivating aesthetic of The Poemas, with Adrian A., Adrian B., Mariana, and Tommy Chapay, Eric Fernandez, Zach Holmberg, Daniela Prieto, and Martin Rios.

The entire show moves along quickly from act-to-act in an almost overwhelming array of strength, grace, and athleticism. The tinkerer, his grandson, and Yo-Yo are a near constant presence, offering funny jokes and humorous slight of hand as the crew quickly shifts the set for the next act. The band, under musical director Janine Del’Arte and featuring Suzanne Morissette Cruz, Andy Hainz, Abbie Steiling, and Mark Maher, adds atmospheric touches and references the fluidity of time while keeping a steady rhythm for the performers. 

There are a few minor issues with the show however, though none are insurmountable. As mentioned, the story could use more connection to the acts, and children younger than three or four and those with hearing problems may find it a bit difficult to follow along. The issue is compounded by a sound system that is less reliable and static filled at times, making it difficult to hear from the edges of the audience seats. Additionally, the venue is already quite warm, though temperatures have not hit their summer highs. The heat can prove distracting to some; luckily everyone can appreciate the spectacular expertise and audience-engaging demeanor of the performers

Circus Flora is an intimate one-ring circus that offers all the thrills and exhilarating feats of a big circus in an up-close and personal venue. Time Flies celebrates the company’s 31st season with a genuinely engaging and awe-inducing show that captures the imagination of young and old. Families with nut allergies may also want to mark their calendars for the nut-free first night performances each year. Season after season, Circus Flora’s family-friendly entertainment brings St. Louis a sense of the magically fantastic that continually impresses.

There's a definite gothic eeriness to the tale. There's the subtlest breath of Sam Shepard's ominous tattered rural American dreamscape. There are wisps of poetry -- or what we used to call "elevated language" -- and it's lovely. A new producing group, the Independent Theater Company, presented Scarecrow last weekend. It's brief -- just under an hour -- but it was truly compelling. 

The play is by Don Nigro, one of America's most prolific playwrights, and it is at least seventeen years old. I so admire producers who can look beyond the flood of new "hot" scripts to see forgotten gems worthy of revival. Such is this Scarecrow.

As we enter we see the living room of a neglected old farmhouse. It's a lovely fragmented set; the irregular tops of walls, the great jagged cracks in the plaster give a strong sense of decay -- and of threat. The furniture is wooden, old, full of character. Everything is in gently coordinated earth tones. The walls are strewn with many clocks. There's a small thrust stage below the proscenium which serves for scenes in the corn field. Set designer Andrea Standby has done a wonderful job.

This is the home of Rose and her daughter Callie. As the audience enters Rose is seated, writing -- her book about evil. Out in the "cornfield" a young man slumbers.

Rose, who has not left the house in months, is neurotically protective of -- and dependent on -- her teenage daughter. Callie is desperate to escape and she often manages to meet her secret friend, Nick, the boy in the cornfield. 

In that corn field an ancient (unseen) scarecrow presides.

Callie never knew her father; he's a mere mystery now. But he left Rose with a hatred of men, and she's desperate to imbue her daughter with that dark fear. Sex is bad: "It just makes more wet little things."

Hidden under Rose's bed is a treasure, all the money left them by Rose's mother.

The play has ancient pagan overtones. Nick is like the old Celtic "Green Man," a powerful, dangerous earth and fertility spirit. (And even his name hints at the diabolical.) There is a dark, lovely sense of Eros and Thanatos -- the union of Love and Death. It's all wonderfully pre-modern.

Margeau Baue Steinau does her usual beautiful work as Rose. Vast straggly hair bespeaks decades of neglect. Her Midwest rural dialect is perfect, and she is so convincing in her fearful obsession.  

Ashley Netzhammer plays Callie. She's perhaps a few years older (and healthier) than the ideal Callie, but she brings her beautifully and convincingly to life. Her intimate, erotic moments with Nick are real and explicit, and yet not salacious (or only gently so).

H. E. Robertson plays Nick. The use of initials cannot conceal what the smooth jaw and the treble voice so clearly announce: this is a woman. There are many roles where gender is really immaterial. This is not such a one. Nick must embody the dark tempting threat that male sexuality poses -- has eternally posed -- for women. Were this a larger, richer company -- or if Ms. Robertson had not been so gifted an actor (-ress?) -- I would have been ready to scold the director severely for such casting. But . . .

  • I know that a fledgling company cannot draw scores of auditioners, 
  • I know that there is a chronic shortage of men at auditions, and 
  • I saw that Ms. Robertson is able to truly master the masculine walk, carriage, gestures and attitude. 

She enabled me to easily suspend my disbelief. She is so natural, so real. Bravo! (Brava!?)

Throughout the evening the lighting, by Karen Pierce, was quite beautiful: subtle, sensitive, evocative. Amazing work in this venue which is not overly equipped with lighting gear. 

My hearty congratulations to director Britteny Henry for such careful, beautiful work. She also designed the very effective sound. She's a talent to be watched. 

 

The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis brings one of the Bard's lesser-known works to life with its thoroughly enchanting production of The Winter's Tale. The story cautions against the perils of misplaced jealousy and distrust through King Leontes, a good man who suffers a very ill timed and misguided lapse in judgment. Despite his best efforts, all hope is not lost. After the king learns his lesson, friends, family, and couples are reunited and much happiness ensues. The show is a tricky pastiche, neither a tragedy nor a full-on romantic comedy, but the company's execution is near flawless and engaging.

Charles Pasternak excels in his role as Leontes, giving the king an essential goodness that makes it even easier to put one's self in his shoes. His voice is clear and resonant, his diction crisp and precise, and his characterizations expressive and broad, but never exaggerated or contrived. These distinctions are important because he's playing outdoors to a large audience, with many likely much less familiar with this play than other Shakespearian works. Pasternak commands and artfully holds attention. He's capably complemented by the rest of the cast, ensuring the play's transitions of time, place, and social standing are clearly distinguished then deftly and smoothly filling their characters with life.

Cherie Corinne Rice is almost ethereal as Hermione, the queen beyond reproach. She glides across the stage, her costume reflecting the light and giving her a radiance that's seconded by her warm, persuasive voice. Chauncy Thomas is by turns deferential, concerned, confused, angry, resolute, and reconciled as Leontes's longtime friend Polixenes. He moves as if directed by astute perception, his fealty to the king mirrored in more subtle ways by other members of the court. His son Florizel, played with stubborn charm by Pete Winfrey, is young, brash, and deeply in love with Perdita, a shepherdess who's actually the daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Though her parentage is unknown, Cassia Thompson effortlessly conveys the girl's innate royalty and an ability to capture attention and admiration. 

As Paulina, Hermione's most trusted handmaid, Rachel Christopher is flat out fierce. Paulina is as clever and articulate as she is loyal, and even the king knows to be careful not to cross her. Christopher grabs the character's strength and integrity and makes its presence known. The large ensemble cast also features Myke Andrews, Carter Eiseman, Gary Glasgow, Anderson Matthews, Andrew Oppmann, Delaney Marie Piggins, Antonio L. Rodriguez, Whit Reichert, Emma Tiemann, Jerry Vogel, and Sigrid Wise in small but memorable roles that add color and interest to the play.

The Winter's Tale moves at a very quick pace, with humorous scenes featuring popular music leading into each act. The device is a smart choice by director Bruce Longworth, providing necessary exposition and introducing the story to audience members. The scenes are also a lot of fun, providing energetic starts to each act while enabling the relaxed crowd time to get settled in for the main show. Another choice that works well within the context of the play is the incorporation of musicians Matt Pace, Brien Seyle, and Emma Tiemann into the story. Pace and Seyle's original music neatly fills the transitions and directs the emotional tone of the play with a traditional, folk dance bounce that feels true to the time and story.

The production accoutrements are, as usual, expertly and pleasingly designed for the large outdoor theater in Shakespeare Glen.  Scott C. Neale's striking set design is glittering and eye-catching in every light, both natural and projected, but still easily transforms just enough to indicate a change of location. The set is enhanced by John Wylie's dreamlike lighting design, Rusty Wandall's cleverly connected sound design, and Dottie Marshall Englis's costumes, which move with the actors beautifully and reinforce period. The cumulative effect is a show that plays out clearly and looks, moves, and sounds lively and interesting even if Elizabethan English isn't instantly familiar to your ear.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis solidifies its position among the rising Shakespeare festivals in the nation with a perceptive interpretation of The Winter's Tale, running through June 25, 2017. Though the plot dangles ideas of magic and morality, the themes it addresses are down-to-earth relatable and Longworth, the cast, musicians, and crew weave together a satisfying tale. The play emphasizes the foibles and inconsistencies of even the most powerful while providing a path to redemption, an uplifting conclusion to the company's vibrant and richly layered production. 

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