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Monday, 26 August 2013 01:13

‘Complicated Lives’ – warm humor and a classic twist

Written by Tina Farmer
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‘Complicated Lives’ – warm humor and a classic twist
straydogtheatre.org / Stephen Peirick

Stray Dog Theatre's New Works Laboratory presents an opportunity to participate in the development of new plays, and its free performances offer St. Louisan's a unique look at the creative process. The collaboration between playwright, actors and audience serves the company and the theater community well and I applaud Stray Dog Theatre for its commitment.

This year, four short plays by Stephen Peirick were produced under the title "Complicated Lives." Peirick is also familiar to audiences as an actor, turning in a number of memorable performances with several St. Louis theater companies.

His observational abilities and quick wit serve him well as a storyteller, no matter the medium. Having attended productions of both his short and full-length plays, as well as directing one of his shorts for the inaugural St. Louis Fringe Festival, I have enjoyed watching Stephen sharpen his editing eye and focus.

The four plays of "Complicated Lives" each offer a different, wholly contemporary, look at how we communicate love and navigate relationships. Peirick directed the New Works Laboratory production capably, although I would have preferred a different director, to bring in an additional observational perspective.

"On Solid Ground" -- The first play of the evening is full of energy and hope, although it addresses subjects as serious as growing older, death and keeping memories and cherished love alive, even after death. The story moves quickly and is filled with humorous references to balance the deeper subjects, and the production has a nice, solid feel to it.Mom Adele (Nancy Crouse) and daughter Meredith (Katie Puglisi) have an easy back-and-forth familiarity to their conversation and jump instructor Ritchie (Eric Dean White) complements the two, creating a sympathetic bond with Adele. Meredith's character could be a little less stereotypically career-focused and businesslike, but it's hard to decide whether it is Meredith's character as written or the direction that gives me pause.

"The Dock" -- The second play is set at a wedding reception, on a dock just outside the festivities. The idea of getting older, and the constancy of both change and the presence of memory, are thoughtfully explored and delivered with a pleasing mix of humor and sincerity.

During the question and answer period, I asked Peirick if he thought any of the plays presented could be expanded to a longer, multi-act play; I was thinking of this piece. This story and the characters in this play are quite strong, and I want to know more about them. To see more Donna (Jan Meyer) and to find out whether April (Betsy Bowman) and Marty (Antonio Rodriguez) would spark something with their obvious chemistry. I felt this piece, maybe an extended version of it, could be a single act in a bigger story.

Meyer's Donna is witty, feisty and wise without feeling the least bit old or pedantic. Rodriguez is stubborn but charming and uncertain, even in his most heartfelt moments, the perfect counterpoint to his newly married 30-something friend. Bowman is equally charming and occasionally vulnerable, her April providing both a mirror and a counterpoint to Rodriguez' Marty. From a technical standpoint, I'd like to see this play performed with more staging; part of me wants to see the twinkling lights and hear the party sounds in the background.

"Tangled Mess" -- The end of a relationship, whatever the cause for the breakup, is frequently a messy and tangled affair. Peirick's third play runs with that idea, literally, with a resolution that occurs during the detangling of a cancer survivor's wig. There's a lot of hurt in the play, and the script took care to show more than one side of that hurt.

Peirick writes strong characters, and the two women in this play, Carrie (Kate Frisina-White) and Sabrina (Nancy Nigh), are each so distinct, and rooted to their perspective, that there seems no common ground. Somehow the two manage to navigate through a difficult, and unexpected, encounter and the script allows each character a release without judging either one. This enables Frisina-White and Nigh to really explore the sub-context and emotional levels of their character, eventually resolving into an ending filled with unexpected tenderness.

"Peeping" -- The final show of the night offered a surprising twist to the ending, ensuring the audience left the theater all abuzz. The show itself is tightly wound, with the script purposefully dropping subtle clues that are only fully recognized after the play's end. In fact, the most obvious clue of all is simply the character Maggie's (Colleen Backer) growing discomfort, which is very nicely controlled by Backer.
Maggie's husband is not yet home from an out-of-town trip and she thinks she has seen a man hanging around and peeping into her window, so she has asked her friend Ava (Sarajane Alverson) to come and keep her company. Whereas Maggie is fretful and nervous, Ava seems almost delighted at the prospect of a "peeper" in the neighborhood. Alverson's Ava is a bit more of a free spirit than the reserved Maggie, and Alverson quickly fills the space with her character's big, open personality.

The story's unexpected twist isn't revealed until the very last minute or two, when the alleged peeper (Eric Dean White) steps into the room, and the surprise works quite well.

"Complicated Lives" opening performance, Thursday August 22, played to a very nice house. With Peirick's well-honed social media and promotional savvy, I am sure the following two performances, Friday the 23rd and Saturday the 24th will be similarly well attended. To learn more about Stray Dog Theatre, their season and mission, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

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