Theatre Reviews
Photo by Joey Rumpell courtesy of SATE

By Steve Callahan

That adventurous group, the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, takes on the Bard—and both are clear winners! "This Palpable Gross Play" (yes, that’s the title) opened at The Chapel, just south of Washington University, and it was an evening of sheer delight.

Take one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies, add a wide variety of spices and aromatics, toss it in the food processor and press the “Riot” button and—hey presto!—you have this wildly amusing thing. It is an adaptation of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" done by Ellie Schwetye (with the help of Lucy Cashion and Jimmy Bernatowicz). Under their care—under their assault—it becomes a kaleidoscope of fun. The production is directed by the deeply imaginative Ms. Cashion, whose work first appeared on the Chapel stage nine years ago in her remarkable Make Hamlet. Their talents here are a blessed combination.

Shakespeare’s tale takes place in an enchanted wood near Athens, as the world prepares for the wedding of Theseus and his conquered Amazon bride, Hippolyta. Two pairs of lovers chase and flee through the woods. Hermia, Lysander, Helen, and Demetrius form a very peculiar romantic quadrangle, where adorations shift and reshift under magic charms.

And—(now for something entirely different)—a group of “rude mechanicals” are rehearsing a romantic tragedy ("Pyramus and Thisbe")—as entertainment for the wedding.

All this under the gaze of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the færies (who are having some marital squabbles). Puck, the sprite, flits about doing his marvelous mischief.

The cast at SATE is to die for! Ross Rubright is Puck. He’s not the usual small, impish actor. No, he’s tall and, graceful, and in his formal tails and precisely correct stiff “boiled shirt”, he is quite fatally handsome. Rubright has a splendid voice and diction, and a smile that he should patent. At the top of the show he gives us something with which anyone who has ever auditioned for a play is familiar: two contrasting monologues. First, he gives a speech that Shakespeare wrote for Puck, and then a TV commercial for Lunesta (or es-zopiclone), a sedative-hypnotic used to treat insomnia—especially in the elderly. Such irony! Now Shakespeare himself is usually a very effective cure for insomnia. His gorgeous poetic rhythms mesmerize us—and (especially in the elderly) tend to put us to sleep.

But no sleeping here! It’s all exciting, energetic magic.

The rude mechanicals steal this show, led by Kristen Strom—bright and articulate as Peter Quince. Beautifully comic performances are given by Kayla Ailee Bush, Joshua Mayfield, and Anthony Kramer Moser. These folks double as the four confused lovers. Andre Eslamian is a delightful Bottom—eager and assertive (if slightly muffled when he dons the rubber ass’s head). Victoria Thomas and Spencer Lawton are elegant and superior as Titania and Oberon. And, just for kicks, it is Oberon who falls in love with Bottom-the-Ass.

Having seen the audition process spoofed with Puck’s contrasting monologues, we go on to watch delicious satirical shots at rehearsals, acting and directing. We see casting where the actors line up with their headshots covering their faces, we hear some of the cryptic demands that directors sometimes make on their actors: “You’re giving blue energy; I want red energy”, “do everything differently”, “do it fast, like more than ever in your life you have to pee!” These poor “mechanicals” are at first bumblingly quite innocent of any knowledge of the art of acting. But when Puck wafts a cloud of glowing Lunesta over them they go to sleep—and when they wake they have magically become fine, sensitive, and articulate actors.

Ms. Cashion’s careful choreography of this active, complex performance is brilliant. Costumer Liz Henning, lighting designer Erik Kuhn, and properties designer Rachel Tibbets all do fine, professional work. Joe Taylor designed (and/or composed) the beautiful sound—much of which reflects a sort of “Palm Court” retro-romanticism.

All in all it’s a very fine production by SATE. It plays at The Chapel through September second. Don’t miss it.

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