The Black Rep opens their 41st season with a pointed comedy that takes a close look at an important contemporary issue -- one that no one seems willing to talk about but that affects so many: Alzheimer's. Dementia. Parents that need parenting by their children. The sense of loss, confusion, and anger an aging parent experiences as they feel themselves slipping. 

The holidays have arrived in West Philly and, at the Shealy home, that means it's time to put up the tree, start the meal preparations, and get the house ready for the return of the adult children and grandson Jason. Those tasks have become more difficult since mom Dotty's diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Eldest daughter Shelly is doing her best to take care of her mom, son Jason, and younger sister Averie, who is currently living in her basement, and she's about to break. Middle child Donnie lives with his husband in New York and rarely visits. This holiday season, Shelly needs to impress upon her brother and sister how much help mom really needs. Dotty has also been trying to explain to her kids what she's going through. With the help of her caregiver Fidel, she's arranged a special "present" for her kids that's received with unexpected results.

Thomasina Clarke is engrossing as Dotty, and she expertly travels the fine line between present and lost with humor and intelligence. Though she realizes her mental clarity is failing, Dotty is resistant to help and determined to remain independent as long as possible. Clarke moves seamlessly between the character's sudden mental lapses and mood swings, creating a woman as sympathetic as she is funny. 

Jacqueline Thompson, Chauncy Thomas, and Heather Beal are near perfection as her children, with each standing out for different reasons. Thompson is compassion overwhelmed, but with an edge of insecurity. Doing her best to maintain often leaves the impression she's trying to make all the decisions. Thomas dotes on his mother but stays far enough away to avoid the day-to-day realities. He's dealing with problems of his own and the comfort of distance allows him to deny the severity of his mother's decline. Finally, Beal is not nearly as self-absorbed or uninformed as her fame-seeking, media-savvy, gum-popping attitude may lead you to believe. She effortlessly infuses Averie with street and book smarts as well as comedy.

Courtney Brown is hilarious and warm-hearted as Jackie, a neighborhood friend with troubles of her own and a lingering flame for Donnie. Paul Edwards is at times prickly but ultimately tenderhearted and completely in-love with Donnie and his family. Finally, Ryan Lawson-Maeske shines in an understated way as Fidel, a man with a seemingly instinctive understanding of Dotty and unending patience.

Ron Himes directs the show with compassion and finesse as well as a keen sense of comedy, mining every line for every layer of meaning. The cast responds marvelously, keeping pace with the constantly shifting tone and building tension. Dunsi Dai offers a realistic set that's lived in but well appointed, quickly communicating the family's comfortably middle class status. The other technical elements -- costumes by Gregory J. Horton, lighting by Joseph W. Clapper, properties by Kate Slovinski, and sound by Kareem Deanes -- effectively create the appropriate environment for the relatable, occasionally nostalgic, and always tenderhearted and hilarious show.

The health of our aging population is a serious concern in contemporary America and, generally speaking, it isn't a very funny subject. Thankfully, playwright and actor Colman Domingo and the Black Rep succeed, fabulously, in finding that humor in DOT. The production plays up its humor while still relaying the debilitating progression of dementia and the very real needs of supporting aging family members. Focused direction from Himes, and a cast as committed to comedy as they are to emotion and context, ensure this engrossing play resonates on multiple levels. 

Though laugh out loud funny, DOT is unrelentingly honest at its core and, in many ways, quite frightening. None of us want our parents to suffer from dementia; none of us want to be the caregiver, to parent our parent. But the situation is reality for so many of us. With tempo and mood changes that might give you whiplash, DOT, running through September 24, 2017 at The Black Rep, acknowledges the uncomfortable truths of the consistently funny script. The show may hit home for many audience members, but it does so in a way that reminds us of the love and family at the center of the story. 

 

One of the most important gifts of live theater is its ability to transport audiences to a new world or a new way of viewing our current world. In rare moments, theater allows us to enter into the mind and experience of another person so thoroughly that we cannot help but embrace their story. Such is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The thoughtful adventure succeeds with an ensemble cast that commits fully to the concept and stagecraft that is at once complementary and imaginative.

A precocious boy with mathematical genius, 15-year-old Christopher is also autistic. He dislikes being touched, gets overwhelmed by too much stimulation, and has trouble communicating and connecting with others. His parents love him very much and do their best to help him succeed, which takes a toll on their relationship, though Christopher doesn't see that. Neither does the audience. This genuinely surprising revelation is part of the brilliance and sense of magic that permeates the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' beautifully staged production.

The story tells how Christopher stumbles upon a dog violently killed in the middle of the night and sleuths out the killer. That's not all Christopher discovers through his investigation, he also learns some hard truths about his mother and father, as well as some surprising abilities of his own. He even manages to befriend an elderly lady in need of company. Though the show unfolds in a rather straightforward manner, the protagonist and his perspective are anything but typical. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and the cast faithfully translate Simon Stephens' script, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, to take us into Christopher's worldview. 

A school principal admonishes us to silence our mobile devices and open any hard candies in a stern but firm voice. A flurry of noise and activity surrounds us as the ensemble takes the stage with the enthusiasm of kindergarteners playing dress up. An English children's song plays loudly in the background but, as the song plays on, the melody is heard in reverse, not quite making sense but still recognizable. Christopher enters into this room and is instantly overwhelmed, until the voice of his teacher Siobhan cuts clearly and calmly through the cacophony. Our heart rate calms at the sound of her voice and we can once again focus; Christopher has a similar reaction. 

Nick LaMedica is thoroughly captivating as Christopher. His movements, tone, and expression perfectly translating the internal challenge, the dichotomy of emotional effort and intellectual ease that is Christopher's reality. Jimmy Kieffer and Amy Blackman are heartbreakingly genuine as Christopher's parents, and Kieffer gives a stunningly sympathetic portrayal of a father in a crisis of his own without ever stealing focus. Kathleen Wise is kind and nurturing as Siobhan, the way only the most patient and inspired of teachers can be. The remaining ensemble members seamlessly weave between multiple characters, enhancing the sense of otherworldly through carefully choreographed exchanges.

Dodge does much to transform the show into an adventure as experience felt through Christopher's perspective. The expansive set, designed by Narelle Sissons, is split into two levels, one seeming to represent "reality" and the other mirroring the cognitive brilliance of Christopher's mind. The two occasionally connect, but they never quite merge. The sound design by David Bullard, lighting design by Matthew Richards, and even the costumes by Leon Wiebers emphasize Christopher's state of mind. Purposeful choreography and movement by Milgrom Dodge has clear intention and is visually compelling, and the show has a life force that is energetic, sometimes startling, and curious, much like Christopher himself. 

The award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in performance at the Rep through October 1, 2017, is a spectacular theater experience. From the opening moment to the gently affective conclusion, we experience the story through Christopher's eyes. Rich with detail and smartly crafted dialogue, his story is heartwarming and life affirming. The cast is so in tune, their actions and dialogue so connected and motivated, jumping in to the experience with them feels as natural as taking your seat. 

 

The sixth iteration of the St Lou Fringe Festival saw some significant changes that largely work to enhance the quality and variety of acts performing during the two-weekend festival, which ran August 17 through August 26, 2017. A mix of curated art, the festival includes also lottery-awarded shows, invited artists, and three headline acts. From an audience standpoint, the Fringe looks much the same, only better.

During its run, audiences have the opportunity to see about thirty shows, if they can fit that many into their busy late summer schedule, that are created or produced specifically for the Fringe and are of generally good quality. Following are my reviews of the festival's award-wining shows; additional show reviews and a headline act review are also available.

Matt Marcum's Pollock: A Frequency Parable, winner of the festival's Artistic Interpretation award, perfectly embodies the exploration of art and performance that defines Fringe theater. The show is a nearly immersive experience that envelopes the audience, stimulating multiple senses. Visually and audibly stunning, Marcum brings Jackson Pollock's art and philosophy to life by combining mediums. Video of the artist at work and quotations from Pollock reflecting his approach and motivation are accompanied by rave-like lighting effects as well as original music enhanced by live vocal jazz. The result of Marcum's multi-sensory show is truly modern art in its purest, most active form -- built on principle, influenced by perception, and derivative of nothing. The effect is mesmerizing and wholly original.

Time for Change is a political history play written and directed by Future of the Fringe award winner Tony Marr, Jr. that challenges each of us to learn from the past and work together to create a better future for all Americans. The show opens with the kidnapping and murder of Emmitt Till, tracing efforts to achieve justice and truly equal opportunity through multiple historic references, and concludes with the death of Trayvon Martin, with a closing call to conscious action. Strong performances and a well-focused script ensure the show is as engaging as it is thought provoking.

Darrious Varner and Jaz Tucker, performing as Same Difference, were winners of the Spirit of the Fringe award for their hip hop cabaret Stop Being Weird. A mix of personal stories, original melodies, and verbal hip hop, the upbeat show deals with self-acceptance. The artists display genuine insight and lyrical prowess, but will benefit by adding monitors and ensuring they can hear themselves. The performance space was always pushing capacity and everyone left the show with a smile, a testament to the power of positive self-expression. It's also likely that their song "Wild and Free," which had audience members dancing with the duo the performance I attended, will remain a popular Festival theme.

One-man band Willie Carlisle is a convincing and entertaining musical storyteller with an almost magical ability to personify the characters in Their Ain't No More: Death of a Folksinger, winner of the festival's Outstanding National Act award. In a moving show filled with surprising emotional depth and substance, Carlisle expertly guides audiences through the story arc. Employing well-crafted songs in a folksy style that's capable of rocking a room, Carlisle takes us on an unexpected adventure complete with on-stage costume changes, sing-alongs, and down-to-earth humor as well as a story that's unexpectedly heartfelt and may even cause a tear or two.

The St Lou Fringe Festival Lifetime Achievement award was presented to Joe Hanrahan of Midnight Co., acknowledging his years as both a patron and artist. He returns with a new piece The Everest Game, which he wrote, directed, and stars in, along with several up-and-coming St. Louis actors, including Colleen Backer as Judy Diamond, a BBC reporter with an in to the Beatles who turns out to be a delightfully witty sidekick. The fresh take on a time-traveling show introduces us to Gus, a regular guy with a passion for the music of the Beatles. Buoyed by a belief that one more album could change the future, the story plays with history and, in an inspired choice, features women in the roles of the Fab Four, as well as a Yoko Ono who finally gets the chance to be a fan girl. The conceit works surprisingly well and the show is thoroughly entertaining, though it may be a better choice to have the actors lip-sync to Beatles recordings in future productions.

Elizabeth Townsend, the festival's 2016 FringeMeister, returns to Fringe with the deeply personal and surprisingly visceral On the Exhale. The one-woman show follows the reactions of a mother to her son's death at Sandy Hook. The short play reveals some surprising choices that probe not only the incident and its aftermath, but also our national preoccupation with gun ownership. Though a work of fiction, the show is based in fact and realistically imagines the turmoil and choices of a grieving parent. The story is at times difficult to watch, as it pricks at all sides of the issue, but Townsend's personable, sympathetic performance somehow convinces you to listen and feel. The play is discomforting; different scenes will likely trigger very different responses from each audience member -- and therein lies its true power.

The final award of the night, the 2017 FringeMeister award, went to Taylor Gruenloh, writer, director, and producer of Tesseract Theatre's Hot for T-Rex. Incredibly funny, definitely edgy, and vaguely murderous, the script is a fabulous representation of Fringe theater. Brittanie Gunn turns in a convincing and moving performance as a woman who writes soft-core fantasy pornography and can no longer remain silent to her critics. Armed with her education, self-respect, a body bag, and a few weapons of choice, she methodically tracks down, drugs, and holds her most vicious critics accountable for their words. Criticism of the story or genre doesn't affect the writer; it's the personal attacks and assumptions as well as poor grammar that set her to a rage. Genuinely funny, the production also makes clever use of the lighting design, creating a sense that the audience is seeing Gunn through the hostage's perspective. The language is as raw as the character's emotions, but it's equally humorous and slyly perceptive.

 

Welcome to fall and this week's KDHX In Performance feature, where we preview new shows from two of St. Louis most prestigious and successful companies, The Black Rep and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (aka the Rep). After last year's milestone seasons, both companies return with contemporary shows that touch on topics and issues many in the audience may face.

The Black Rep opens its 41st season with Colman Domingo's DOT, in performance through September 24, 2017. The show looks at Alzheimer's and dementia, and the impact and strain that can be put on a family when an older parent's health is failing before their eyes. Despite its serious subject matter, the comedy is engaging, with a story that's heartfelt, warm, and funny.

The holidays are always a wild time at the Shealey house in West Philly, but this year the stakes are much higher in the smartly scripted play with laugh out loud humor and warp-speed shifts. Matriarch Dotty Shealey and her three grown children have gathered to celebrate, but Dotty's memory is failing and the siblings are struggling with how to best provide the care she needs. The three must work together to make their way through aging, midlife crisis, and the need to balance caring for their selves and their mother. The situation is realistic and current; and Ron Himes has been following the play since its Humana Festival debut. 

The actor who originated the role of Dotty has worked with The Black Rep several times, Himes notes. She called Himes to tell him about the show, stressing that he needed to read the script.  Already a fan of actor and playwright Domingo, Himes was immediately interested. He's also "genuinely impressed by the great work the cast is doing," and the way the show is coming together. "We have four actors (out of a cast of seven) making their Black Rep debut in this show," he adds with pride. Himes also feels the show is an exciting choice to open the 41st season. "This is a contemporary play about a family coming together. It is sharp, perceptive, and filled with bone-dry humor," Himes emphasizes. "You will be laughing, but the subject is a stressful reality for many." You can be among the first to see the warm and funny DOT at The Black Rep in the Edison Theater at Washington University, beginning September 6, 2017.

The Rep opens its 51st season the same night with the 2015 Tony award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Simon Stephens, running through October 1, 2017.  The imaginative show introduces Christopher, a 15-year old wiz kid who struggles with the interactions of day-to-day life. The production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, uses choreography and an intentional emphasis on movement to create an innovative experience for theatre goers that "puts them in Christopher's shoes." 

The show is personal and, as Milgrom Dodge explains, "There's two distinct mysteries to solve: the mystery of 'Who killed Wellington?' and the truth about a family of three who navigate the challenging cards life has dealt them. The protagonist, Christopher, is exceptionally smart and, though he lacks the ability and understanding of emotions and empathy," she notes, "he is determined to solve both mysteries." 

From a staging standpoint, The Rep's production will look -- and feel -- decidedly different from the Broadway and London shows. An intentional choice of the artistic team, it is designed to "give [the play] a location, and create these relationships between Christopher and others," she enthuses. The audience is presented with "Christopher's worldview," and Milgrom Dodge is genuinely anticipating the reaction to the focus on movement and a more immersive theater experience. 

The Rep is the first regional theater to tackle The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and you can be among the first in St. Louis to see the buzz-worthy show.

Continuing this weekend: With the change of season comes a change in companies. Multiple productions took their final bows last weekend to full houses and appreciative audiences. However, the sweet-natured, musically pleasing Church Basement Ladies continues its run at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through October 1, 2017. The life-affirming show is a genuine slice of mid-American apple pie. Several other companies have shows opening in the coming weeks, so check this space again next week for new listings and continuing shows. And, as always, remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

 

One of the biggest changes at the sixth annual St Lou Fringe Festival, which ran in the Grand Center Arts District from August 17 through August 26, 2017, is the addition of headline acts. The three shows were selected by the Fringe artistic staff based on their applicability to the philosophy of producing and promoting works that push or explore theater in unexpected ways. Two of the shows originated with St. Louis companies ERA and Ashleyliane Dance. The third hails from Northern California and is headed to New York City. All three generated considerable buzz leading up to the festival. The three headline shows are reviewed below; reviews of St Lou Fringe Festival award winning productions as well as the other shows produced are also available.

A Song for Vanya is a surprising musical interpretation of Chekov's Uncle Vanya presented in two acts. The moody show is provocative and interesting, with a sense of longing that hangs heavy in the air; and the score is almost operatic. Strong performances and pointed direction emphasize the desperation inherent in the story, though work is needed to better deliver the necessary emotional hills and valleys. Simplification of the layering of songs is also recommended. The effect is brilliant in moments like the close of the first act, but becomes tiring when over-used. 

Vanya and his niece Sonya are the caretakers of the family's income-producing country property. Along with Vanya's mother, their servants, and family friend Telegin, they live a life of relative isolation and peaceful if at times difficult days. Dr. Astrov, the town's physician and Vanya's closet peer, as well as the object of Sonya's affection, visits regularly. His visits are even more frequent since the professor and his glamorous young wife Yelena came to stay on the property. Anger, lust, and jealousy ignite numerous quarrels, hope fades, and yet, somehow, after the tension is released in a spectacular outburst, everyone persists.

The leading women in the show, Jeanitta Perkins, as Sonya, Alicia Reve Like, as Yelena, and Selena Steed, as the Nanny, provide the acting and vocal experience needed to give the show a solid foundation. Perkins is lovelorn over Astrov and lonely for a friend, Like is weary of country life and the attention of the other men in the house, and Steed is constant, kind, and steady as the loyal and reliable nanny. Gheremi Clay is a young Vanya, bringing more fire and energy to the part than typical, and it works well in this production, particularly when countered by Abraham Shaw's smartly affected gravitas as the Professor. The main problem I have with the show is the script. There's simply not enough emotional or plot variation to create the necessary highs and lows that enable tension to build, and the adaptation feels like it's left holes where more exposition should be. 

ERA presents Snow White, a deconstruction of the fairy tale that emphasizes the character archetypes and psychology over plot. The approach may be a bit disconcerting to some audience members, but the journey is both oddly satisfying and cognitively confusing in a way that works like a surrealistic painting. There's much to the play that's recognizable even though the completed picture is not necessarily what's expected. 

The assembled cast is engaging and quite talented. Julia Crump, Will Bonfiglio, and Maggie Conroy create well-defined interpretations of Snow White, the Prince, and the Stepmother. When each is acting from a different spot on the large stage, it's difficult to choose whom to watch. Katy Keating is increasingly absurd and effectively overdramatic as the narrator and Snow White's mother and, while all seven men living with and attending to Snow White are engaging, Reginald Pierre, Pete Winfrey, and Mitch Eagles stand out. The choices made regarding the spectre in the mirror are subtly brilliant, and the Stepmother's obsession with youth, beauty, and pleasing the mirrored man offer a cutting observation of femininity. Snow White's reticence and uncertainty rings with a contemporary tone that's seemingly underscored by her sexual dissatisfaction. While the preparation of the fruit salad is hilarious, even that effort fails to satisfy her. 

The play winds along with a sense of reckless purpose that clearly delights in tearing down the familiar, I simply wish the parts would enhance the whole to greater effect. Recognizable threads from a more traditional Snow White are scattered amongst a multiplicity of source material, and the director provides two letters to the audience. The first contains instructions on how to think of and approach watching the production. The second is a letter from the Stepmother that is, as we're informed, intended to be purposefully annoying. And therein lies the apparent weakness of ERA's Snow White. We are too often told rather than shown and the effect is draining, no matter how interesting and captivating the coterie of characters may be.

Ashleyliane Dance Company of St. Louis mesmerized late night audiences with Evolution -- Excerpts from "RISE." The uplifting performance is filled powerful, graceful dances in an ensemble that's both confidently diverse and expertly in sync. Under the direction of Ashley L. Tate, the numbers reflect the influence of Kathryn Dunham and Alvin Ailey, but also the energy of hip hop, the precision of a Broadway Chorus line, and the unbounded enthusiasm of a high school dance squad. Exquisite extensions and pointed turns seamlessly burst into shoulder rolls, stomps, and jumps without missing a step or skipping a beat, ensuring the show is filled with a sense of purposeful joy and possibility. 

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