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Tuesday, 23 July 2013 00:55

Not pulling any punches: round two of the 'LaBute New Theater Festival' hits the mark

Written by Tina Farmer
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"Kink" by Joshua Thomas. L-R: Nathan Bush, Laura Sexauer
"Kink" by Joshua Thomas. L-R: Nathan Bush, Laura Sexauer stlas.org / John Lamb

The St. Louis Actors' Studio certainly doesn't lack ambition, as evidenced by the decision to devote a full month to a slate of new, unproven works. The first part of the festival set the tone with assertive, contemporary shows that bristled with tension and energy. The company's production of the second series of new short plays fully demonstrates that commitment to previously untested material and ideas as well as emerging playwrights.

The juried show features known and unknown playwrights, including several with ties to the St. Louis theater community. While this weekend featured less nudity, the themes explored seemed, in many ways, more taboo subjects. Closing the inaugural New Theater Festival, the five shows examine emotional connection and relationships from a thoroughly modern perspective, to the point of presenting a few situations that were beyond the scope of our collective consciousness even a decade ago but now feel as real, and commonplace, as reality TV.

"Blood Brothers," by Rachel Fenton, highlights this new sensibility with its modern take on celebrity / fan obsession. Socially awkward and a bit of a loser, or at least a guy who never sees things break his way, park ranger Hank is obsessed with his favorite TV show. So, the play posits, just how should he react to seeing his favorite character, recently killed off of the show, running through the park on a regular basis?

David Wassilak's Hank is pitiful, certainly, but in a way that elicits sympathy; we understand his longing for something that feels real, his sense of being disconnected. Wassilak paces the moments between his words with precision, emphasizing the frantic and struggling to maintain control. Paul Cooper's TV star says volumes through his body language and facial expressions even before he opens his mouth. His first reaction is slick and establishes a likeable, if self-serving, intelligence in the character. When he finally speaks his mind, he reveals an unexpected thoughtfulness.

The script shows welcome restraint and a lack of hyperbole, even in Hank's admiration of his hero. Wassilak and Cooper play well off each other, displaying a deft touch when exploring the nuances of their characters. Director Wayne Solomon also shows a sure hand, allowing each actor some interpretive flexibility without straying too far from the action.

Neil LaBute's "The Possible" is the only show performed in both parts of the festival, and I found that the show held up well with multiple viewings. Both Rachel Fenton and Wendy Greenwood delivered strong, subtle performances and explored their characters a little deeper, to good effect. Fenton allowed her character to be more vulnerable and Greenwood's performance was less controlled, more emotionally raw and compelling.

"Cut," by Daniel Damiano, takes a look at life behind bars, but it seemed to me that this was a scene from a longer piece, rather than a complete play. The inmate barber and his tough client have a nice, familiar feel to them, we instantly understand the relationship between the wise master and the powerful young student. Unfortunately, the majority of the script is spent establishing, or perhaps reiterating, this familiar theme. When we finally learn something unique to this story, it's quickly glossed over and we arrive at the play's end. This left me with the feeling of a piece in development.

I can see hints of an interesting storyline or two, but the play feels incomplete in its current form. Wassilak and Tom Lehmann turned in solid performances. It was easy to listen to them talk and get completely lost in their rapport, like eavesdropping on a conversation because you can feel it's going somewhere interesting. Unfortunately, that interesting place never really develops, although I wanted to learn more about each character, which may actually be a good thing for the playwright to keep in mind.

"Kink," by Joshua Thomas, opened the second half of the performance with a humorous look at sexual satisfaction. The "kink" described in the title is highly subjective, leading to a good number of funny lines and situations which were pushed and pulled to the fullest. The author would be pleased, I think, at the ways in which the actors and director Milton Zoth brought the script to life. The level of commitment to the absurdity of the moment in each scene was commendable, genuinely funny and touchingly authentic.

The relationship between the two characters seems somewhat surface level, but there were other moments in which each revealed details that demonstrated a degree of intimacy and knowledge. This was a bit confusing during some of the transitions from one situation to another, and it made me wonder it this was an attempt to establish the passage of time or an inconsistency to be resolved.

The dialogue and situations explored were genuinely funny and well balanced by the crafty approach of Laura Sexauer as Francesca and bookish demeanor of Nathan Bush as Simon. The characters' shared enthusiasm adds to the charm of the situation, while their imperfections and awkward back and forth, as they work to negotiate a satisfactory happy ending, results in many laugh out loud moments. Finally, though it seemed improbable, the quirky chemistry between the characters ended the play on a lingering, hopeful note.

"Present Tense," by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, is the final piece in the festival, and presents an inventive take on anticipation as sexual stimulation. At the same time, the play examines both the potential futility and unbearable intrigue of an electronically driven relationship. Is an electronic affair, even one coupled with an in-the-flesh tryst, as meaningful, or threatening, as one's day-to-day relationships? At the same time, can an affair be sustained, or a relationship built, via electronic devices? It's a new twist to an age-old question, certainly, but the same truth is at its core, it's simply the medium that's once again changed.

Fenton and Aaron Orion Baker developed palpable tension as the two adults engaged in a long distance affair. The purposefully narrow spaces between them are almost visible with bristling energy. The tension is only heightened when that space is replaced by the electronic devices through which they engage in their affair. It's an inspired choice, and Solomon's direction, really more like choreography, highlights this distance, increasing each actor's longing, creating an effective counterpoint to the action.

St. Louis Actors' Studio production of the "LaBute New Theater Festival" part 2 runs through July 28th at the Gaslight Theater. For more information, visit www.stlas.org.

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