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Monday, 08 July 2013 17:42

Kicking LaBute – St. Louis Actors' Studio delivers a knock out evening of new shows

Written by Tina Farmer
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Kicking LaBute – St. Louis Actors' Studio delivers a knock out evening of new shows
stlas.org

The St. Louis Actors' Studio kicks off its inaugural "LaBute New Theater Festival," part one, with five well-written, well-performed new works that pack a punch. Each piece features contemporary persons in contemporary settings exploring the fine art of living, and the selection committee is to be commended on their choices.

"The Possible," a world premier by multi-faceted author Neil LaBute, opens the show. It's a tale of seduction, hesitation and victory that's also a humorous, realistic look at the all too purposefully vague definitions we assign to our selves. Just like life, the play is frustrating at times, occasionally exasperating and aggressively forthright by intention, a powerful combination.

Director Milton Zoth does a nice job of building and relieving tension and, even though we can see the end point from early on in the story, he manages to maintain a sense of uncertainty. There's an undeniable sexual tension in the script that actors Rachel Fenton and Wendy Greenwood embrace, with Fenton the hesitant, stubbornly reluctant ingénue and Greenwood her determined, bisexual - well, she "doesn't do labels" -- pursuer. The two actresses avoid slipping into stereotypes and do seem magnetically drawn to one another; this balance keeps the performance lively and taut and interesting.

"Cleansing Acts," written by Carlos Perez and directed with a sure, unwavering hand by Steve Woolf, is as darkly humorous and deeply sweet as it is thought provoking. The script never judges, though it might raise an eyebrow every now and then, as the story reflects on loss, as well as feeling lost and hopeless, with bittersweet tenderness.

Justin Ivan Brown, Andra Hawkins and Jackie Manker all deliver painfully honest, touchingly funny and lingering performances that resonate with an irrepressible lure, expertly mirroring the play's sub context. Brown's relationships with each actress are built around convenient deceptions; yet he delivers an achingly raw, desperate performance. Hawkins and Manker also manage to delve into the truth behind their carefully guarded facades.

"Pinky Swear," by popular St. Louis actor turned west coast actor/author Tyler Vickers, is an intriguing and delightfully puzzling out-of-order nod to 40's detective movies and the popularity of the slightly nerdy hero. There's also an uncomfortable, ugly truth in its uncertainty that director Linda Kennedy successfully squeezes right to its breaking point.

Intelligent choices, emotional vulnerability and those nerdish tendencies ensure the audience likes and responds to Tom Lehman's performance, even though the opening scene has got to give you pause about this guy. Aaron Orion Baker kept me guessing, and fully involved, with his updated riff on the gumshoe detective -- private or police style. The crisp, patterned dialogue was both interesting and evocative, and Kennedy kept things moving at a brisk pace. Finally, the number of quick scenes gave the show the feel of a classic detective movie, with the red and white checked tablecloth icing on the cake.

"The Elephant in the Room" deeply affected me with its examination of worth and self-worth. The insidiously insightful script by Alexis Clements was brought to life with exuberance, fear and promise by a fully committed Suki Peters and a brutal self-evaluation that burned with a fire to excel on her own terms by Greenwood.

Directed by Kennedy with subtle grace, this show sneaks up on you, and the pun of the title has a significance that builds as each character wrestles with upcoming events of personal significance. Peters is funny in the way that a Shakespearian fool is -- unabashedly honest and with an intelligent, and possibly reckless, abandon. Greenwood offers an introspective contrast; the intense anger in her builds slowly but is critical to her character. She doesn't explode, she digs deeper and finds a steely center of resolve.

"Two Irishmen Are Digging a Grave," by GD Kimble, provides a fitting complementary bookend to LaBute's play. The audience knows the end game from the opening moment of both scenes, and, still, director Woolf plays with us, ensuring the piece is at once successfully frenetic and chillingly calm, letting the actors and action pause just a moment before delivering each critical blow.

The naked truth is, literally, staring right at the audience in Nathan Bush's intense, brutal performance, the choice to direct his monologue to the audience as if they were his captors may be initially disarming, but it's also quite effective. Ensemble members Brown and Baker join Bush in delivering impressive, stripped-to-the-bone performances and develop incredible tension from the opening line to the parting shot.

The inventive, flexible-wall set by Jim Burwinkel and well-choreographed set changes by stage manager Amy J. Paige and her crew were nearly flawless, an impressive feat considering the number of plays and scenes. The lighting, on the other hand, always seems to be a trouble spot at this small venue; it's so frustrating to have an actor's head in the shadows when watching an otherwise exceptional performance.

An additional aspect of the "LaBute New Theater Festival" that deserves mention is the competition aspect and, in particular, the high school playwright competition, which culminated in a staged reading of five new works by young artists on Saturday, July 6, 2013. It is difficult enough for adult playwrights to find an opportunity to see their works performed and their talents promoted. Developing and encouraging young artists is critical to the continuation of art, and St. Louis Actors' Studio is to be commended for their foresight and commitment. I know I am already planning to attend next year's festival and the staged readings.

It should be noted that the show does contain some nudity, as well as adult themes and situations. The Festival continues through July 28th, with part one closing Sunday July 14th. For more information: stlas.org.

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