“I’m determined to do it–and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof–is there? Time goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it.” – Maggie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams

“The last eight seasons HAVE gone by so fast – it is hard to believe how much we have grown,” explains Carrie Houk, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ Executive Artistic Director. “This year we happily return to our home – Grand Center.  In addition to bringing you the play you have all been waiting for, we celebrate Grand Center Theatre District with a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants!  As Mrs. O’Fallon exclaims in The Magic Tower – “You show people!  Always putting on an act!” That’s what we do and we cannot wait to share our wares with you.”

This year’s TWStL will give center stage to Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by award-winning Michael Wilson at The Grandel Theatre in Grand Center August 8-18.

“I am thrilled to return to St Louis – the city which had such a profound impact on the life and work of Tennessee Williams – for its 9th Annual eponymous Festival to direct its centerpiece production, an all-new revival of his Pulitzer Prize winning and arguably most popular play, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. “ – Wilson, Director

Michael Wilson is an American stage and screen director working extensively on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and at the nation’s leading resident theaters. He made his screen directorial debut with the 2014 Lifetime/Ostar television film adaptation of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, which was nominated for two 2014 Emmy Awards and six 2015 NAACP/Image Awards. On Broadway, Wilson directed the 2013 Tony Award-winning revival of The Trip to Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson.

Other Broadway productions include the 2012 Tony nominated revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (starring James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen); the Tony nominated Best Plays Dividing the Estate; and Enchanted April. Internationally, he directed both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America for the 1995 Venice Biennale. He directed the acclaimed Los Angeles premiere of the musical Grey Gardens: starring Betty Buckley and Rachel York for CTG/Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center.

This Pulitzer Prize winning drama follows the story of the Pollitts, a wealthy southern family whose history of greed and deception looms overhead as the imminent death of the family’s patriarch approaches. Siblings and spouses go head-to-head to secure the Pollitt fortune, weaving an overwhelming web of mistruths.

Post-show commentary will be conducted by Resident Scholar, Tom Mitchell, on Sunday Aug. 12 and Thursday Aug. 15.

“Life Upon the Wicked Stage / Celebrating Grand Center Theatre District – Then and Now” will be the focus for three one-act plays with music directed by former St. Louisan Brian Hohlfeld:

  • “In Our Profession”
  • “The Magic Tower”
  • “The Fat Man’s Wife”

Almost 100 years ago, what we now call Grand Center in St. Louis was the place to go for entertainment. Vaudeville was struggling but still popular…double-features (with live acts in between) played all day at The Fabulous Fox and Missouri theaters…music poured from dance halls and clubs…and the hotels were packed with the touring casts of last year’s Broadway’s hits.

Young Tom Williams soaked it all up.

In celebration of the history and the continuing charm of Grand Center, TWStL will present “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” taking place upstairs at The Curtain Call Lounge just steps from the bustling streets and locations where much of the action takes place.

“Like the rest of the theatre-going public, Tom was intrigued by what went on backstage, a world he would soon become familiar with, and imagined what the lives of the nomadic show-folk must be like. He brings them to life with affection and bemusement in these one-acts all set in the 1930s and portrays the ups and downs of a career in show-biz. In these early plays, Williams, still finding his voice, is clearly influenced by the plots and styles of the movies he would have seen on this very street, bringing the experience full circle,” explains Houk.

The theatrical but intimate setting of the Curtain Call is perfect for a program about show-biz. Like a “mini-jukebox musical,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” features songs from the period to evoke the era of Vaudeville and the type of entertainment Tom would have encountered in his Grand Avenue outings long, long ago…

Director Hohlfeld has been writing for feature films and television animation for over 35 years, with projects at Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, Tri- Star, Columbia, Disney, and Hasbro Studios. As a producer and writer, he has been nominated for four Daytime Emmy Awards and twice for a Humanitas Award, winning once for the Disney Jr. show he created My Friends Tigger and Pooh.

Hohlfeld started his career in St. Louis as an actor and playwright with the Theatre Project Company and the St. Louis Rep. For the St. Louis Tennessee Williams Festival, he directed the memorable on-site production of The Glass Menagerie as well as several one-acts onstage and as part of the radio series “Something Spoken,” in collaboration with Classic 107.3.

The following panels – which will further shed light upon the themes of the Festival – will take place at The Grandel.

  • Secrets of Tennessee’s Stage Directions
  • The Wicked Stage: 1930s Theatre and Performances in St Louis
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Revision upon Revision

Other Festival events include:

  • Reading of “Stella for Star” an adaptation of the first award-winning story by the young Tom

Williams curated by TWSTL Scholar Tom Mitchell

  • A Walking Tour: Grand Center Theatre District, Then and Now… led by Mitchell
  • Late Night Open Mic “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”

“Festival audiences are in-store for our best programming ever!” exclaims Board Chair Ted Wight.  “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Tennessee William’s most popular plays that will delight the audience with intriguing theater.”

Tickets are on sale through Metrotix. Additional information and Festival event details can be found at twstl.org.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 2018 won seven awards from the St Louis Theater Circle.

About the Festival

In 2014, award-winning producer, casting director, actor, and educator Carrie Houk produced Williams’ Stairs to the Roof with such success that the ongoing annual Festival was established. The Festival, which aims to enrich the cultural life of St. Louis by producing an annual theater festival and other artistic events that celebrate the artistry and life of Tennessee Williams, was named the Arts Startup of the Year Award by the Arts and Education Council at the 2019 St. Louis Arts Awards. In its eight iterations since 2016, the Festival has attracted thousands to its readings, panel discussions, concerts, exhibitions, and productions, has reached hundreds of young people through its educational programming, and has garnered 13 awards from the St. Louis Theater Circle and was recently nominated for a  St. Louis Theater Circle awards for Outstanding Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role for 2023’s Suddenly Last Summer.

Tennessee Williams and Anna Magnani on a Roman holiday filming “The Rose Tattoo”

About Tennessee Williams

Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in 1911 in Mississippi, Williams moved to St. Louis at age seven, when his father was made an executive with the International Shoe Company (where the City Museum and the Last Hotel are now located). He lived here for more than two decades, attending Washington University, working at the International Shoe Company, and producing his first plays at local theaters. He credited his sometimes-difficult experiences in St. Louis for the deeply felt poetic essence that permeates his artistry. When asked later in life when he left St. Louis, he replied, “I never really left.” Most people are familiar with the famous works that have garnered multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and Academy Awards, such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. He also wrote hundreds of additional plays, stories, essays, and poems, many of which are only now seeing the light of day as his estate permits greater access. He is today considered by many leading authorities to be one of America’s greatest playwrights.

By Lynn Venhaus

The manufactured mayhem of “Twisters” may check off all the boxes for an entertaining summer blockbuster, but its unremarkable storyline neutralizes the visually stunning weather-induced shock and awe.

While the film showcases state-of-the-art modern technology, both in digital effects and severe weather tracking tools, this retread doesn’t feel new or fresh, but rather repetitive in its brutal storm depictions.

After all, dealing with dangerous weather patterns has become a routine part of real life in the Midwest in the 21st century. Case in point: our current summer.

So, what distinguishes this from a Weather Channel special report? This second go-round, loosely based on the 1996 disaster epic “Twister,” is super-sized in fury and look, and the mostly rural setting feels like a theme park meets “The Amazing Race,” stoking frantic chase scenes on a grander scale.

Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Kate Cooper, a retired tornado-chaser and brainiac meteorologist who is persuaded to return to Oklahoma to work with a new team and new technologies during a once-in-a-generational series of terrifying storm systems. She encounters swaggering social-media star Tyler Owens (Glen Powell) heading a team of hotshots. Will sparks fly or fizzle, and will they save anyone but themselves?

Debris flies, and people are flung like the Wicked Witch of the East. The visual effects and stunt work are impeccable, and a collapsing water tower, explosions at a massive oil refinery, and destruction of a movie theater exemplify the ‘go-big’ playbook.

The alarming sudden onset of extreme weather is emphasized in multiple scenes, such as a carnival atmosphere turning deadly with little warning. Interestingly though, the phrase “climate change” is never uttered but looms large in our minds.

Simply stated, no, this ‘sequel’ is not as good as the 1996 original, which endeared itself to countless millennials for its ground-breaking digital effects (a flying cow!) and its revered lightning-rod cast of Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lois Smith, Jamie Gertz, Alan Ruck and other familiar ‘90s faces at a far more cinematically adventurous time.

In retrospect, the first one wasn’t anything more than a popcorn-type thrill ride, and cheesy at that, but there remains great affection for this ragtag group of adrenaline junkies because they were a fun bunch to watch – and were doing something different. Adding to the poignancy is that beloved Paxton and Hoffman are no longer alive.

The twist? The monster wasn’t a colossus like a T. Rex or Godzilla, but Mother Nature – and just as scary.

The original’s daredevil director was Jan de Bont, fresh from making the riveting action film “Speed” in 1994. Its tech-talk-rekindles-romantic-sparks screenplay was written by Michael Crichton and his then-wife Anne-Marie Martin. He was on a roll after his “Jurassic Park” novel was adapted by Steven Spielberg in 1993. (Spielberg is executive producer of both “Twister” and “Twisters,” by the way.)

While one can wonder why a sequel pops up 28 years later, this “Twisters” is similar because characters are based on fired-up storm chasers and Oklahoma is again the Tornado Alley center of dangerous activity. Oh, an apparatus named Dorothy is in both.

This time, the project is helmed by Lee Isaac Chung, a surprising choice after his 2020 gentle, intimate semi-autobiographical film “Minari,” but he does know how to tug heartstrings. He competently handles the powerful dustups on the Plains and the propulsive action but is saddled with a formulaic script.

After scoring big with the epic “The Revenant” screenplay, Mark L. Smith penned the George Clooney duds “The Boys on the Boat” and “The Midnight Sky.” He is unsurprising here, both in action and interpersonal relationships, from a story by Joseph Kosinski, director of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

(I mean, really, a skittish fish-out-of-water British journalist tagging along with a crew of quirky influencers? That’s a tired character.)

Wisely, though, the lead role is a whip-smart female scientist, who is introduced as a bright-eyed college student brimming with brilliant ideas, an uncanny knack at sizing up impending storm shifts, and a fearless save-the-world bravado. Yay for STEM girls!

The film’s best scene is a harrowing account of her spirited team’s encounter with an F5 tornado that she misread as an F1 earlier as they tried out her theory on dissipating its strength. That tragic result set the tone for the obstacles ahead.

Her life’s plans altered, it’s five years later, and she is a meteorologist- analyst for the National Weather Service in New York City, sad-eyed and deflated.

Old friend and fellow guilt-ridden survivor Javi (Anthony Ramos) pleads with her to join his corporate-funded team back home. It’s the height of a troubling storm season, and he’s trying to implement new radar hardware he devised.

With some trepidation and heavy emotional baggage, Kate returns, although she can’t forecast that this time she’ll renew her life’s purpose. You do root for her success.

Edgar-Jones, an appealing actress best known for “Where the Crawdads Sing,” and BAFTA-nominated for the TV show “Normal People” opposite Paul Mescal, shows off spunk and verve with a very obnoxious guy getting under her skin and in her way. That would be newly anointed heartthrob Powell.

Spoiler alert: They’ve met their match, but they don’t know it yet.

Charming It-guy Powell knows his lane, and fits the modern image of a smiling happy-go-lucky movie star. He doesn’t stray from the formula that got him to headline status. Cowboy scientist? Sure, why not? Throw in rodeo background and computer skills.

He is at his most annoying early on as a You Tube sensation, showboating as a “Tornado Wrangler” and leading a motley crew of fame-obsessed whooping and hollering trackers.

The real serious scientists ‘tsk-tsk’ the reckless hobbyists, and the city girl vs. the celebrity clown showdown is on, with lots of zingers being fired.

Turns out he isn’t what he appears to be, and neither is anyone else – although you might feel deja vu. Future “Superman” David Corenswet looks like a no-nonsense guy as Javi’s wingman Scott — and a lot like Elwes’ Dr. Jonas Miller. Brandon Perea is trying to be kookier as the videographer Boone than Hoffman’s Dusty. As Kate’s mom Cathy, Maura Tierney assumes the Aunt Meg role played by Smith.

As the competition intensifies between the groups, battle lines become blurred as the focus shifts to helping devastated victims. Sasha Lane is a kind drone operator, Lily. Katy O’Brian and Tunde Adebimpe are part of hotdoggers’ squad.

Powell’s cockiness conveniently melts away as a more compassionate do-gooder emerges. At this point, is anybody paying attention to the science theories or personal motives as trucks bearing heavy equipment speed through country roads while a who’s who of country music blares above the sirens?

Impressive artisans excel on an enormous canvas – cinematographer Dan Mischel, whose credits include the Star Wars’ reboots “The Force Awakens” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, production designer Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. and composer Benjamin Wallfisch.

Noteworthy is a cameo by James Paxton, the late Bill Paxton’s son. His father will be forever remembered as TV weatherman Bill Harding and he plays an aggravated customer complaining just before cyclone chaos is about to erupt.

Early work by Daryl McCormack as Kate’s boyfriend Jeb, and Kiernan Shipka and Nik Dodani as pals Addy and Praveen is also memorable.

A special shout-out to Waterloo, Ill.’s own Alexandra Kay, a country singer who is featured on the Jelly Roll song “Leave the Light On,” which is a part of the soundtrack including such heavy hitters as Lainey Wilson, Zach Bryan, Luke Combs and others.

“Twisters” will satisfy audiences who want to be swept away like retro summer blockbusters once achieved, without the pesky environmental messages and science lessons. However, those looking for more than imitation, with some discernible gumption, will have to be content with a pleasant-enough engaging cast and fear-inducing stormy weather.

“Twisters” is a 2024 action-adventure directed by Lee Isaac Chung and starring Glen Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos, Maura Tierney, David Corenswet, Brandon Perea, Sasha Lane, Tunde Adebimpe, Katy O’Brian and Harry Hadon-Patton. It is rated PG-13 for intense action and peril, some language and injury images, and run time is 2 hours and 2 minutes. It opened in theatres July 19. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Lynn Venhaus

Supple vocal work stands out in Tesseract’s latest premiere, “My Heart Says Go,” a hip-hop-meets-pop musical well-suited for the company’s enthusiasm in mounting energetic ensembles.

But inconsistent sound quality, a louder-decibel pre-recorded music track overpowering the singers, and a cliché-riddled script hampered its impact.

Always dynamic Kevin Corpuz anchors this one-act musical as Indigo, a conflicted first-generation college student who quits to pursue his dream of making music. He is often a ball of fire on stage, i.e. “The Who’s Tommy,” “Godspell,” “Be More Chill,” “Urinetown,” “In the Heights,” and “Altar Boyz,” and this role is tailor-made to his strengths.

Indigo’s hard-working immigrant father (Kelvin Urday) thinks he’s made a grievous error. Despite that friction, Indigo moves to L.A., and meets a couple of people whom he thinks will help him reach his singer-songwriter goals.

Indigo quickly connects with Clara (Sarah Wilkinson), a struggling talented fashion designer who has a troubled relationship with her alcoholic mother (Loren Boudreau).

Sarah Wilkinson matches Corpuz in spirit and inner light. Their buoyancy, particularly in their emphatic movements, is tangible.

Clayton Humburg, Kevin Corpuz, Sarah Wilkinson. Photo by Florence Flick.

Bright spots are “What Does My Heart Say?” and “The Place Where Dreams Come True”; “Don’t Give Up” is a rousing finale.

Another vibrant portrayal is by Clayton Humburg as a lively rapper named Timmy, a guy brimming with positivity who assumes the role as Indigo’s biggest cheerleader.

While he doesn’t look that much older than Corpuz, Urday is touching as the concerned single father Eliseo, and the two bring out the emotions of a close dad-son bond in several heartfelt scenes and vocals (“Father vs. Son,” “Heat of the Moment” and “Foot Down”). Urday’s musical numbers are beautifully delivered, as is customary.

Victoria Pines is a soulful vocalist as a train conductor, and some sort of conduit to the characters. Her part, however, is underdeveloped and unclear how she connects to these people long after they rode the train. She shines in “Find Your Voice.”

The book is the weakest element of this show, and really drags down the overall experience. The characters are merely archetypes, and if the main characters weren’t live-wire performers, this would be painfully humdrum.

The book, written by Matthew Hawkins, overflows with triteness. How many times are aspiring artists used in hopes-and-dreams scenarios? This isn’t all that original, and nothing we haven’t seen before. Follow your passion, overcome obstacles, believe in yourself, blah blah blah. Must be compelling to sustain interest and empathy, and because of the cast’s talent, it is..

Dreams are such a theatrical staple that the brilliant satire “The Musical of Musicals” has a song called – what else? — “Follow Your Dream.”

Hey, having dreams fuels our fires, and any chance to remind people to persist following their heart is well-intentioned. But freshness is the key for endearment.

Wilkinson, Loren Goudreau. Photo by Florence Flick.

For an example, the addict mom is an unnecessary subplot, and you can predict her story arc the minute she enters. Both Pines’ conductor and Kevin Hester’s grungy recording studio engineer seem like they are characters in another show. Hester’s a fine vocalist, but he mumbled his speaking lines and barely spoke above a whisper, so his dialogue was hard to hear.

While everyone is earnest, the ensemble doesn’t seem to be well-defined either. They are a bouncy group, nevertheless – Khristian Duncan, David Gregory, Laura Schulze, and Goudreau are spry in song and dance.

Milo Garlich was out because of illness Sunday, so choreographer Maggie Nold stepped in, and didn’t miss a beat.

Grace Langford aces a brief role as a heart doctor supervising Indigo in med school.

The performers’ passion carries this show across the 90-minute finish line, as well as the music direction by Larry D. Pry and Nold’s choreography.

The sunny coupling of Wilkinson and Corpuz is natural, as they were last seen together as Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince in New Jewish Theatre’s award-winning “Into the Woods” in November, and so was Pines as Jack’s Mom. Pry was the musical director of that show. Obviously, that’s a winning combination.

Other than the disappointing script, a major problem stemmed from the technical elements. The garbled sound was challenging, with echoes and reverbs marring vocals, and most of the time the recorded music overpowered the vocalists. Sound designer Ryan Day is familiar with The Marcelle, so I am not sure why there were so many issues.

The blocking where characters had scenes far back made it even harder to engage, because the sound was such a mixed bag. The lighting overall was inconsistent and shadowy, and again, another experienced Marcelle technician, Matt Stuckel, oversaw the design. The neon lights on the back wall, however, were a nifty touch.

Director Brittanie Gunn relied on simple staging to focus on the characters’ journeys. By using the entirety of The Marcelle stage, it seemed at times too cavernous for such a small musical. Nevertheless, she maintained a zippy pace, with smooth entrances and snappy group placings.

The score of this show is based on the personal experience of Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans, who switched from pre-med to the film, television and theater department as a student at University of Notre Dame. After graduation, he received a fellowship, continued pursuing his ideas, and the school served as his incubator.

No one doubts his ardor or sincerity. The musical premiered in 2023 and has become a viral sensation. I imagine that’s largely on the strength of the musical being a celebratory anthem because the story should be further workshopped, and characters more fleshed out.

Kelvin Urday, Kevin Corpuz. Photo by Florence Flick.

One of the show’s highlights is the costume design by Abby Pastorello, who either found or made embroidered denim jackets and shirts to give a unique flair to Clara’s original designs. Those outfits were a bright addition to an otherwise scruffy group wearing band T-shirts and casual attire. In contrast were fashionista Clara’s well-put together looks, especially a bedazzled black leather ensemble that Wilkinson rocked.

This show has a shaggy charm, not unlike Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early one-act endeavor “21 Chump Street,” but on the off-the-charts inspiring meter, it lags behind “tick, tick…Boom!” “Dreamgirls,” “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical,” and many others as a whole package.

Of course, this is on a much smaller scale, and targeted to tug at your heart strings. It is a labor of love for all involved.

In recent years, Tesseract has taken more risks with musical premieres, such as “The Mad Ones,” “Ordinary Days,” and the upcoming original “Cascade’s Fire,” and tackled big shoes with “Kinky Boots” and “The Last Five Years.” Their ambitious drive is refreshing.

Hopefully, the technical director Kevin Sallwasser can get the glitches worked out this week before the show returns. The production already has a first-rate cast that it showcases fervently.

(As an aside, many a show presented in the smaller Grand Center venues has been known to have sound issues, aka at The .Zack and The Grandel. If these venues encourage stage productions, doesn’t it behoove the facilities’ powers-at-be to upgrade sound technology? We critics are beginning to sound like broken records.)

Victoria Pines as the Conductor, surrounded by the ensemble. Photo by Florence Flick.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “My Heart Says Go” July 11 – July 21, as part of its Summer Festival of New Musicals at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center. Performances are July 11-13 and July 20 at 8 p.m., and July 14-21 at 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.tesseracttheatre.com

By Lynn Venhaus

The playwright Harold Pinter made a long and distinguished career out of confounding people with odd plays featuring weird situations, convoluted dialogue, and peculiar characters. “Old Times,” written in 1971, is his freaky, flaky waltz down memory lane that never resolves anything but builds unnerving tension. It is one of his more divisive dramas.

When Roundabout Theatre Company was in rehearsals preparing for a revival in 1984, actor Anthony Hopkins asked Pinter to explain the play’s ending. He famously responded: “I don’t know. Just do it.”

OK, then. When the playwright intends to leave us hanging, it may be hard for a theatergoer to decipher, and there are plenty of theories about what really happened in this show. The point is caring enough to be satisfied with your highly personal observation.

This play is already a tall order for even the most accomplished artists, and unfortunately, is more frustrating than fulfilling in The Midnight Company’s latest presentation.

Director Sarah Lynne Holt has framed Pinter’s familiar enclosed space setting in a stripped-down theater-in-the-round style at The Chapel, where the audience is squished into a wedge of chairs where your view of the three actors may be limited.

That’s a detriment to absorbing the highly stylized delivery of the three actors where every non sequitur, riddle, pause and selected memory is supposedly fraught with meaning. And the sound isn’t consistent either, which makes it even harder to understand the disjointed patter.

The staging is clumsy, and while I realize it’s a low-budget production, the serving of tea is awkward, and the pouring of brandy into cordial glasses, not snifters, is puzzling.

Kelly Howe, Joe Hanrahan and Colleen Backer. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

Individually engaging performers — Colleen Backer as Kate, Kelly Howe as Anna, and Joe Hanrahan as Deeley, aren’t meant to be a cohesive trio, and their distance only raises more questions, as intended.

On the surface, it appears that a husband, Deeley, and a wife, Kate, are visited by her old friend and former roommate, Anna, from their carefree single days. They live remotely by the sea while she lives in Sicily but once lived in London. Kate and Anna haven’t seen each other in 20 years.

Well, that’s the story that they seem to be sticking with, and from the start, you can tell something is off kilter. Reality is blurred and recollections are tested in a most bizarre reconnection.

Vague on purpose, Howe hints that Anna has a swinger past and can still seduce, trying to be coquettish with both Kate and her husband.

The married couple don’t find that odd, nor do they appear to be what they seem. So, what kind of a charade is exactly going on?

While Backer and Howe are two evocative actresses — and it’s important to see their facial expressions if you can position yourself to do so, even their suggestive glances and knowing looks can’t convince us of any sexual heat between each other and Deeley.

And Deeley comes across as kind of pervy with his unfiltered accounts of sexual desire, conquests and previous hook-ups with these and other women. Is Hanrahan purposely playing him as creepy? We do discover his lounge lizard past.

The characters are all supposed to be in their 40s, and clearly, Hanrahan is not, even though he doesn’t look his age.

But one aspect that supposedly distinguishes other productions is sexual tension, as in the 2015 Broadway revival starring Clive Owen, Eve Best and Kelly Reilly, where critics repeatedly mentioned it. The heat is not evident here.

While that is an elusive quality, that addition could have been crucial to the audience buying into this scenario.

The women affect British accents while Hanrahan avoided it, so that’s another point that may bother you.

Pinter teases that there is something darker afoot. But the information is slim about their quirky characters the more the play goes on. Kate, who barely speaks, finally blurts out that she remembers her roommate being dead. Say what?

They may all be alive or dead, they all might be figments of someone’s imagination, and the way they reminisce about the past may be total fiction. Emotions are guarded and the characters don’t say what they mean. You wanted Pinteresque, and you got it.

If you are fascinated by his maddening style of doling out clues and pieces of information that may or may not wind up germane to the story, then you’ll invest the time to solve the puzzle.

If you are irritated by his overuse of pauses, or if you lack the patience to be convinced of anything not spelled out, then this material will let you down. It’s all in your perceptions.

Hailed as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, and is famous for “The Birthday Party,” “The Homecoming,” “Betrayal” and “The Caretaker.” He died at age 78 in 2008.

He tended to concentrate on isolation, fear and troubled personal relationships, creating an elliptical dialogue. He also liked to confuse time and space. Frequent descriptions of his work – unpredictable, unspecific, and combative – are apt.

Another choice is that Holt does little to guide the audience in a certain way, preferring to keep everyone guessing and debating afterwards instead. But according to the press release, she didn’t want to make it easy for people to agree on what happened.

The Emperor’s New Clothes or brilliant 20th century mind at work? You say subtle, I say pretentious.

I don’t find this material a good fit for the strengths of the award-winning veteran performers. They can, and have done, so much better. I usually enjoy watching them on stage, but Pinter’s obtuseness can only carry a show so far, especially when you feel disengaged.

The clock is ticking, and the play lasts 1 hour and 35 minutes with one intermission. Fatigue sets in when you realize they aren’t really saying much – and won’t.

I am pretty sure no two people who see “Old Times” will agree on interpretations, and then again, there’s no one right answer.

The trick is caring. The murkiness is troubling, and if you are OK without a satisfactory resolution, that’s your prerogative.

The Midnight Company presents “Old Times” July 11-27 at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees July 14 and 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be reserved at MetroTix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

By Lynn Venhaus
A walrus and a manatee walk into a polar bear’s bar that’s a comical rant. There is trouble in paradise between Adam, Eve, God and Satan. A mother and a daughter square off, a coach and a parent exchange words, and a married couple share their rocky heart-tugging journey.

A range from savvy farce to poignant drama, this year’s 10th annual LaBute New Theater Festival’s line-up stresses shared humanity in five strong complete-thought one-act plays that press different emotional buttons.

Every year since 2013 – when live theater could be presented, St. Louis Actors’ Studio has collaborated with playwright, screenwriter and film and theater director Neil LaBute to support new works from across the country.

LaBute not only lends his name, but he is part of a 10-member panel that selects the plays from a vast number of submissions, often emerging voices. The company provides the resources for local presentations.

In years’ past, selections have included some edgier and esoteric works, but this current slate is as relatable as it is affecting – and still in a thought-provoking way.

However, typical topics like politics, the state of the world or a dystopian future are not on this roster.

It may not be intentional, but I detected a unifying theme between the five — wrestling with demons and doubts, and addressing elephants in the room, all in compelling contemporary presentations. After all, there is more commonality than differences among us, as the arts frequently point out.

Lorelei Frank, Greg Hunsaker and Tyler Crandall in “Grief & Woe.” Photo by Patrick Huber.

All five are particularly suited for The Gaslight Theatre’s black box stage intimacy, and in keeping with the festival’s rules, plays can only have up to four characters.

LaBute contributes a world premiere one-act every year. This year’s original presents a view askew of sports at young levels. Although not specified, I surmised it was a summer squad aka “Little Leagues” or those between school leagues, like American Legion and ‘select’ teams.

Called “Who’s on First?”, this uncomfortable exchange between a baseball coach and the parent of a player whose skills are lacking is entirely plausible.

A rueful commentary on how we got here, LaBute’s razor-sharp rhythmic dialogue is superbly delivered by Chuck Winning as the coach (Abbott!) and Anthony Wininger (Costello!) as the father.

As they painstakingly reveal motivations, they re-affirm the present-day stakes matter-of-factly. The scene, which opens the second act after a 15-minute intermission, takes place in a dugout, and is shrewdly directed by Kristi Gunther, the current production manager at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

She and Spencer Sickmann, a veteran performer who took a couple years off for a personal-life break, has returned to tag-team directing this program.

Previously, he had acted in two earlier new theater festivals, and in leading roles in LaBute’s “Comfort,” St. Louis native Beau Willimon’s “Farragut North,” and St. Louisan Cory Finley’s “The Feast,” among others.

Hunsaker, Anthony Wininger and Crandall. Photo by Patrick Huber.

Gunther assuredly guided two conflict pieces – a wacky one that escalated, called “Walrus,” and a somber two-hander that came to a resolution, in “Cage.”

Sickmann perceptively helmed the opening kick-off, a bracing battle of the sexes featuring a fractured relationship between the first man and first wife, Adam and Eve. Quick-witted dialogue by playwright Paul Bowman of New Albany, Ind., makes “Grief & Woe” an interestingly observed relationship study, interrupted by God’s rules and Lucifer’s interference.

The Garden of Eden resembles a battleground like “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.” The not-so-happy bickering couple is tested by a seductive, slithery serpent, ‘just call me Lou,’ played slyly by Winning, affecting a devil-may-care attitude and dominating the stage.

A benevolent but exasperated “Mr. G” is humorously fleshed out by Greg Hunsaker as a cross between a Borscht Belt comedian – think “Your Show of Shows” sketch – and a ‘60s sitcom boss.

It’s a clever albeit lighthearted scenario, with impressive new-to-Gaslight-stage Tyler Crandall as an inattentive Adam and Lorelei Frank as a frustrated Eve

The festival is usually modestly presented, with simple, functional staging by set designer Patrick Huber, who also astutely augments each scene as lighting designer. With distinctive outfits and props, production values are elevated this year by costume designer Abby Pastorello’s outstanding choices and Emma Glose’s props.

Pastorello’s slick attire for Winning as “Lou” is a sensational assortment of pieces including a shiny carnival barker’s jacket, brocade vest, lime green shoes and a gold-plated leaf barrette for his deceptive wig.

To easily alter appearances of actors comically portraying North Pole wildlife in the act-one closer, “Walrus,” she chose whimsical noses, ears and ‘hands’ so that it’s obvious Wininger is an obnoxious blowhard walrus, Crandall is the more agreeable, timid manatee and Hunsaker is the no-nonsense proprietor of the drinking establishment where they regale each other with tales of life in arctic waters.

Gunther directed as if they could be super-fans knocking back a drink in a Chicago sports bar, and the trio has fun with the goofy premise. The cagey play was written by Brandt Adams of Brooklyn, N.Y.

A complicated relationship between a mother and daughter is depicted in an argumentative “Cage” by Barbara Blatner of New York. The pair, deftly played by Jane Paradise (Bobby) and Frank (George), must consider the other person’s pain and come to an understanding.

Using the miserable girl bringing home a wild snake as a pet, it’s a metaphor about the things that hold us back and move us forward, and the women strike the right tone.

Hunsaker and Jane Paradise. Photo by Patrick Huber.

In one of the saddest and hardest-hitting one-acts ever presented, “Love in the Time of Nothing” chronicles a marriage from courtship through loss, as a couple grapples with the husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Playwright Jayne Hannah of North Providence, R.I., accurately reflects the rollercoaster life after a dementia diagnosis changes everything for a husband in his 50s and a wife in her 40s.

If you have family experience with this disease, you will recognize all the symptoms, treatments, roadblocks, and the heartbreaking decline of a once-vibrant mind and the unrelenting burden placed on caretakers.

Hunsaker, as David, and Paradise, as Julieanna, masterfully interpret Hannah’s literate and lyrical prose, conveying the ecstasy and agony of a serious commitment.

These parts are demanding of the actors, and their proficiency makes an impact. This one lingers, and it was a wise choice for the finale. Sickmann presents both the hope of good times and the tragic realization of never-ending sad times with inevitable anguish.

This year’s festival is smoothly executed, intellectually nourishing and engaging in unexpected ways. The best part, besides being a splendid showcase for high-caliber performers, is that it surprises with its empathy.

The needle drops are particularly affecting, so kudos to whoever selected the music. Pastorello also effectively managed wigs, hair and makeup.

Special shout-outs to stage manager Amy J. Paige and her assistant Collin Brinkley for their unflagging efforts to keeping the pace from sagging, and their ninja staff for quick set changes.

To celebrate a decade of this fruitful collaboration, STLAS has published a book, “Unlikely Japan and Other Plays: Ten One-Acts from Ten Years of the LaBute New Theater Festival,” that features ten pieces by LaBute that were created and staged exclusively by STLAS at The Gaslight, 59E59 Street and Davenport Theaters.

The book is currently available on Amazon and can be ordered directly from St. Louis Actors’ Studio. It is also available at the box office during this show’s run.

Frank and Paradise. Photo by Patrick Huber.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents the 10th annual LaBute New Theater Festival July 12 to 28, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sundays for July 18-21 and July 25-28, but only Friday-Sunday July 12-14 at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.stlas.org

General admission tickets are available via Ticketmaster or at the theater box office one hour before show time. For more information, visit stlas.org or email help@stlas.org.

A playwright reception will be held on July 19 to celebrate the artists’ work, giving patrons an opportunity to learn and understand the stories they’ve just digested.

By Lynn Venhaus

When the Muny teams up with visionary director John Tartaglia, they create a magical world, and it always takes us to a happy place.

Enamored by only a few chords of “The Little Mermaid” score’s breezy calypso music, the luscious blue green turquoise palette of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer’s dazzling seascape and video designer Katherine Freer’s vibrant underwater kingdom teeming with marine life, and we’re eager to dive into this glistening fairy tale fantasia.

With his track record of infusing shows with whimsy and wonder, one expects Tartaglia to achieve new heights for the Muny’s third presentation of Disney’s cherished musical – and wow does he.

Imaginatively staged and seamlessly incorporating all the wizardry available – including innovative use of puppetry from revered Puppet Kitchen International, with designs by Eric Wright, and stunning aerials by ZFX, Hans Christian Andersen’s fish-out-of-water romance enchants in exciting new ways.

If you took away the bells and whistles, this Douglas Wright book adaptation of the Dane’s 1837 short story would still tug on your heartstrings, because stripped down, it is ultimately about families giving each other the greatest gifts –roots and wings.

Rich Pisarkiewicz (left) and Michael Maliakel in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Headstrong Ariel has an insatiable wanderlust, as does Prince Eric, whose zest for adventure pulls him away from his birthright. They disobey to chart their own course, and that comes with risks. She rescues him from drowning, and that remarkable visualization involving flying apparatus is thrilling.

All Disney princes and princesses yearn – and these restless royals must triumph. (And Michael Maliakel knows about being a hero — he played “Aladdin” for three years on Broadway.) The handsome heir is bewitched by the mermaid’s beautiful voice, and the spunky teen falls hard for a forbidden but enticing human world.

With their appealing ardor, Savy Brown and Maliakel are adorable as the made-for-each-other pair. Both have lush voices, and they convey their longing through his fervent renditions of “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer” and her luxe delivery of the iconic “Part of Your World” plus the engaging opener “The World Above.”

The classic true love’s kiss trope is significant because it will break dastardly Ursula the Sea Witch’s curse, so that Ariel can keep her voice and become human. And there isn’t a more intoxicating love song than “Kiss the Girl,” especially with the moonlit romantic mood achieved in the second act.

Ever since lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote the game-changing music for the 1989 animated film, generally regarded as the property that resuscitated Disney’s reputation and ushered in the studio’s creative renaissance of the 1990s, “The Little Mermaid” has endured as a beloved pop culture fixture.

Books, videos, merchandise, the stage musical in 2007, and a live-action remake film in 2023 continue to entertain fans around the world.

From left: Adam Fane, Nicole Parker and Kennedy Kanagawa in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presented this wildly popular Disney title in 2011 and 2017, and costume designer Robin L. McGee is back from the latter’s creative team seven years later to put a fresh spin on a wide range of colorful outfits.

In a pivotal scene, an iridescent seafoam green dress makes Ariel even more radiant, and in a sixth-time collaboration with Puppet Kitchen International, Ursula’s octopus tentacles (real guys inside) remain a marvel in motion.

Tartaglia has opted for the villain to be more cartoonish rather than menacing, and newcomer Nicole Parker is campy, wears garish makeup, and alternates between exaggerated cackling and screeching as the slinky wicked witch.

Gearing it towards a younger audience, the director made it less dark, although “Poor Unfortunate Souls” makes her intentions clear, and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” alongside her henchmen, oozes spite.

Her electric eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam, are also softened. Kennedy Kanagawa and Adam Fane are nimble in their slithery headdresses and eerie in their numbers, especially “Sweet Child.”

The three standout comical characters — confidante fish Flounder, silly seagull Scuttle and skittish sidekick Sebastian the crab – ingratiated themselves quickly with the audience.

From left: Leia Rhiannon Yogi, Jen Cody and Savy Jackson in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Leia Rhiannon Yogi is a cheerful Flounder, demonstrating her dexterity with the bright-hued puppet, while the sublime Fergie L. Philippe, so memorable as Emmett in “Legally Blonde” two summers ago, steals every scene he is in as the lovable calypso-singing crustacean.

He joyously leads the vivacious super-sized spectacle, “Under the Sea,” complete with swirling sea creatures including jellyfish, swimming turtles and Pufferfish. The Oscar-winning Best Song is arguably the show’s best number on the gigantic stage.

Muny fan favorites Jen Cody, Ben Davis and Christopher Sieber each bring their own distinct interpretation to their integral supporting roles.

A limber comedienne, Cody does backflips and handsprings as firecracker Scuttle, mangling English and denoting her crisp comic timing. She blithely leads a rollicking “Positoovity” and “Positaggity.” She has previously delighted audiences as the grandma in “The Addams Family,” Elizabeth in “Young Frankenstein” and stripper Tessie Tura in “Gypsy,” among other amusing roles.

Natural leading man Davis, last seen in his virtuoso St. Louis Theater Circle Award-winning performance as “Sweeney Todd,” is an imposing regal – and buff – King Triton, who must put aside his prejudices and doubts for his daughter’s happiness.

He brings necessary gravitas to the role, although the glow-in-the-dark scepter seems cumbersome at times. His rich baritone is such a pleasure, and he imbues his song “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” with real emotional heft. The reprise with the quartet of Ariel, Eric, Sebastian and Triton is quite lovely.

Christopher Sieber in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Emily Santel

Christopher Sieber, who was a terrific Daddy Warbucks in the charming “Annie” directed by Tartaglia in 2018, has fun being over-the-top as the fussy French Chef Louis in his signature number “Les Poissons.”

The actor has been nominated for the Tony Award twice, as the original Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical” (Fun fact: Tartaglia was Pinocchio) and Sir Dennis Galahad in “Spamalot” (More fun facts: Ben Davis played Galahad in the 2013 Muny production, and both Sieber and Davis were in the Muny’s 2017 “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with Sieber as King Herod and Davis Pontius Pilate).

Versatile veteran actor Rich Pisarkiewicz gets an opportunity to shine in a role well-suited to his talents – Prince Eric’s loyal guardian Grimsby. He is in his 44th season at the Muny, and this is his 87th show.

Some of the creative team worked with Tartaglia on last year’s extraordinary “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” including McGee, Beyersdorfer, lighting designer Jason Lyons, wig designer Ashley Rae Callahan, sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge, and ebullient choreographer Patrick O’Neill. His movements reflect people moving as if in water.

Tartaglia’s background includes puppetry with Jim Henson on “Sesame Street,” and is back working on “Fraggle Rock” on Disney Plus these days. His artistry is obvious, and this joins his other unique Muny productions “Mary Poppins,” “Matilda,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Tarzan” in recent years as examples of his unmistakable playfulness and indomitable spirit. He kept the tempo lively and brisk.

Savy Jackson and Ben Davis in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Music Director Michael Horsley’s elegance is noteworthy too. The hummable tunes and featured personalities keep us interested, easily earning smiles on a summer night from lots of families in attendance.

The creative artists’ inspired flourishes refreshed this chestnut, with the most striking aspect the constantly moving aquatic tableau – Beyersdorfer’s neon-splashed set, Freer’s mesmerizing video, Lyons’ sumptuous illuminations, McGee’s striking looks, Wright’s original puppets, O’Neill’s dance steps and the belief that the whole team could produce the impossible.

Everyone involved brought the best parts of themselves to this project, and its splendor shines brightly.

The Muny presents “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” July 8 through July 16 nightly at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. The runtime is nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available at muny.org, by calling MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 or in person at the Muny Box Office, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Fergie L. Philippe and Jen Cody in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus

A stylish nostalgic romantic comedy-drama that vividly recalls the high-stakes of America’s Space Race with the Russians, “Fly Me to the Moon” is a rare summer movie that is as charming as it is smart.

Specifically set during NASA’s bold Apollo 11 drive, director Greg Berlanti meticulously recreates the historic mission, while focusing on two very different points of view in a light-hearted way.

It’s a pivotal time in 1969. Marketing maven Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson), who was brought in to fix NASA’s public image, wreaks havoc on launch director Cole Davis’s (Channing Tatum) singular, serious focus – the already difficult task of putting a man on the moon. When the White House deems the mission too important to fail, Jones is directed to stage a fake moon landing as backup.

Those of us alive then know what really happened on July 20, 1969, when an estimated 650 million people tuned in to the three broadcast networks to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon (94% of all Americans watching television!).

It’s presented in thrilling footage here, and to watch CBS’s most-watched Walter Cronkite react again brought a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat. I hope the movie has broader appeal than just us NASA nerds and Baby Boomers who paid attention to every exciting detail when the astronauts were like rock stars, but it really hits our sweet spot.

(My second-grade teacher hauled in a TV so we could watch John Glenn’s Friendship 7 launch into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962). The constants in the 1960s news cycle were the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, and the space race, which inspired people to dream the impossible at a time of great turbulence.

Rose Gilroy’s clever script, with story by Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein, smartly builds tension. A subplot that shifts the stakes pokes fun at the fake staging rumor that caught fire like so many conspiracy theories of the 1970s — and there’s even a couple Stanley Kubrick jokes, as he was linked to have filmed the hoax.

Only the twist here is that then-President Nixon is so worried about America’s image in the world if the mission fails that he directs a super-secret Project Artemis as a back-up plan. His shady government operative, Moe Berkus, is played by Woody Harrelson as an unflappable enforcer. Given Tricky Dick’s reputation, this fraud scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Adding plenty of heat are Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson in an opposites-attract romance that feels like an homage to the 1960s flirty wholesome fun comedies that often starred Doris Day, Natalie Wood, James Garner and Rock Hudson.

Tatum is well-suited to play Cole Davis, a decorated pilot turned dedicated NASA launch director, with a heart-tugging backstory, and Johansson blithely embodies a slick marketing specialist tasked with getting America moonstruck. She’s a throwback to the “Mad Men” advertising heyday depiction, with some baggage of her own as well.

You can either be cynical about the retro cliches or embrace its old-fashioned breeziness. The performers are engaging, and their glibness produces sparks.

The captivating vintage vibe, down to the Tang promotions, sunshiny Florida setting, and pocket-protector engineer outfits, is presented with flair by production designer Shane Valentino, art director Lauren Rosenbloom, and costume designer Mary Zophres. Her kicky selections for Johansson are particularly fetching, and some of her choices for Tatum make him look like Captain Kirk.

They immerse you into a bygone time and place in much the same way as Tom Hanks’ feel-good ‘60s rock band comedy “That Thing You Do!” did in 1996. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s score elevates the atmosphere, and his needle drops of ‘60s hits and moon-themed songs enhance this experience.

The chipper supporting cast includes Ray Romano as Henry Smalls, a NASA stalwart who is closest to Cole, Lisa Garcia as Kelly’s assistant, and Noah Robbins and Donald Elise Watkins as dorky but enterprising engineers.

Jim Rash steals his scenes as a very flamboyant and temperamental director brought in for the deception footage. And Johansson’s real-life husband Colin Jost makes an appearance as one of the senators who needs convincing for funding.

The movie honors the 400,000 NASA workers who helped make going to the moon a reality. Sure, the movie could have been a tad shorter, but it touched upon everything it needed to combine the true story with the comedic fictional account.

This crowd-pleaser takes flight evoking an era where, despite a divided union, we could come together as Americans and celebrate our best and brightest, the dreams we could achieve. I don’t recall a more patriotic moment in my life in the late 20th century, with the 1980 USA hockey team “Miracle on Ice” a close second.

Fueled by magnetic star power, “Fly Me to the Moon” is a delightful summer trifle with a surprising emotional center.

“Fly Me to the Moon” is a 2024 comedy-drama directed by Greg Berlanti and starring Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ray Romano, Jim Rash, Lisa Garcia, and Woody Harrelson. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language, and smoking, and the run time is 2 hours, 12 minutes. It opened in theatres July 12. Lynn’s Grade: A

By Lynn Venhaus

“To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” –Thomas Campbell.

On this day 23 years ago, we said our final goodbye to our mother, who was three weeks from turning 71.

I know you flew on angels’ wings, Mom, and I know you made your mark on Earth – Rosemary Zierrath Zipfel, July 28, 1930 – July 7, 2001, while you were here. I hope to always be reminded of your sunny optimism in the face of great adversity

To watch someone die from lung cancer is a horrible thing, and we had been with her at Barnes for a month. We knew we had to let go, she wasn’t ever coming back to be that sweet, smiling, devoted woman who had an incredible heart and work ethic, who sacrificed a lot for her five children.

And with Julie, Mike, Matt, Mary Clare and I in the room, she opened her eyes, smiled at us, and died.

She had been unresponsive for days, and on July 4, the chaplain said gather your family. So we scrambled to get that in motion while all around us were fireworks and celebrations.

Losing anyone is tough, but losing your anchor, your rock, your family center, is a very tough transition.

They called her age group the Greatest Generation. And she was! Rosie the Riveter in the flesh. She was born on the hottest day of 1930 during the Great Depression, the firstborn daughter of Lorraine C. and Eleanor Taylor Zierrath in East St. Louis, Ill. It was 108 degrees.

Mom, expecting Julie, flanked by her parents, sister Judy and princess me, in Indiana 1957.

Among her greatest attributes, besides being a devoted big sister to brother Charlie and sister Judy, was her belief that family was everything. She was there for everybody. She never knew a stranger.

I was born after my parents’ biggest heartbreak, their first baby, a daughter Claire, died three days after birth in Kodiak, Alaska. My dad was stationed there in the U.S. Navy, Mom said they never even saw her — doctor said it was for the best. She was born with a tumor on her spine. Can you imagine, being 22-23 years old, losing your child, and being so far away from your loved ones? This was 1953.

When my dad was discharged, they moved back to where their parents lived, in Belleville, Ill. Due to my dad’s business work, we moved around soon after I was born in 1954, to Nashville, Tenn., Muskegon, Mich., Richmond, Ind., and Dayton, Ohio, all before I was 5. Julie and Mike were born in Indiana. Matt and Mary Clare would arrive after we moved back to Belleville in 1960.

My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, and we moved in with my maternal grandparents. Rose was a single mom when that was scarce, especially in a Catholic family. What courage! Besides helping take care of my siblings, I withdrew into books, movies and music — they became my salvation.

The Zipfel kids with Mom — Mike, Mary, Mom, Julie, Lynn and Matt, 1985.

I am sure as a nerdy bookworm growing up I exasperated her – I know I did. She was always trying to get me outside when I just wanted to finish my Nancy Drew book after a quick bike ride. My brothers spent their summer days on a neighbor’s sandlot while we girls helped with chores. She signed me up for two weeks at a stay-over summer camp in the Shawnee National Forest, without asking, and all three times were disasters. (You think I exaggerate? Family lore insists not).

And then I was this awkward, overly dramatic teenager who found my tribe going to speech meets and play practice while everyone else in the fam was playing on sports teams. She accepted me when I know she didn’t understand me, her oldest that she relied on to help with her four other kids.

But she was the one who guided me into journalism. She thought that best suited my skills, and told my teacher. “Your Mom says you want to be a journalist,” the nun told me. I was 13, it was 1968, and the world was literally on fire – upheaval and cataclysmic events. That is when I discovered my nose for news. That was my direction. Thanks, Mom.

Without my Mom’s encouragement, it wouldn’t have sparked an interest so early. That was a male-dominated field, and she was nonplussed ” “You can do it.”

I have written about her many, many times – her bravery, her compassion, her thoughtfulness, and her resilience.

And she firmly believed we girls could do anything we put our minds to. You want to go to college? We will make that happen. I was the first person to graduate from college in my family. All of my siblings earned degrees, with her support.

So supportive to everyone, she always made you feel better. It would have been easy to listen to naysayers, and take no for an answer, but that was not Rose. She didn’t give up until she was forced to, and she would not let that defeat her. There were times when I am sure she wanted to throw a pity party for herself, but she just kept going.

We lost a lot that Saturday 23 years ago. But we gained perspective on what it means to have had a spectacular role model, how to live an exemplary life, and that you can indeed live on in the hearts you leave behind.

Mom with grandsons Tommy Davis, Charlie Venhaus and Tim Venhaus, circa 1990.

Lord, I miss her laugh.

I miss picking up the phone and saying hey.

I miss celebrating special occasions with her.

I miss asking her advice. “How do you get past heartache and setbacks and overcoming self-doubts and trauma?”

I can still hear her soothing words ringing in my head. And yes, most of the time she was right! Moms always know the right thing to say.

She was nice and polite — but she was tough as nails. Do not dismiss or condescend or patronize. Test her at your peril.

She summoned the strength of suffragettes, and the wisdom of someone who learned from all the hard knocks that tried to take her down, and to survive and thrive against all odds. The world seems to want to beat you down, but she would rather help people up and they helped her.

To watch her in motion was to marvel at her abilities – How she kept finding joy in the small pleasures of life, and how she never stopped.

She always found something to smile about, and I will never forget that, Mom.

Daughters Lynn, Julie and Mary, with Mom, at Mary’s bridal shower in 1987.

She loved movies. My fondest childhood memories are staying up late with her on Saturday nights and watching classic black-and-white films.

She let me stay up to watch the Oscars in 1963. I was 8. It was on Monday nights back then. She never missed this telecast. Of course I fell asleep before it was over but I remember how glamorous it all was, and Gregory Peck winning for To Kill a Mockingbird. There must have been a commercial for Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which came out around then, because I remember being terrified when I saw the school kids running and birds attacking them!

Here’s to you, Mom, for sharing your love of the cinema with me and taking us to the Skyview Drive-In on warm summer nights – because with 5 kids, that’s how we could afford movies in those days!

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her sense of family. She believed that we were mightier together, and forged a strong bond so that we could tackle our struggles together, and enjoy each other. Not that we were the model of one big happy family because, like all families, there were rough patches. But, she allowed us to be individuals and appreciated our differences. Nevertheless, we were one for all and all for one. Family First.

Anyone who was ever at our house growing up — 9 people in a tiny frame house on Belleville’s west end — knows how boisterous and lively the place was.

Mom and BFF Donna Finch.

She loved to grab her coffee and cigarettes, and shoot the breeze. She and her best bud Donna Finch, a neighbor, would sit on the screened-in porch and call it the best Saturday night.

Love and miss you always. I know I stand on the shoulders of giants, you and grandma included.

I hope my knuckle-headed brothers and my Timmy are good company for you in “The Good Place.” And Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Shirley are telling funny stories.

Your memory will continue to bless us all. Thank you for being such an unforgettable spirit. You live in all of us.

Mom, holding Julie and pregnant with Mike, and her mom, aka “Mims,” and me.

Cover photo: Mom, center, with some teenage friends.

By Lynn Venhaus

It really is a yard sale and a play rolled into one kooky experience. A Masha! Masha! Masha! mash-up of absurd comedy and history, “Romanov Family Yard Sale” is another unconventional offering from ERA (Equally Represented Arts) Theatre, always pushing whatever envelope they think needs a prod.

All tchotchkes must go so that these survivors, pushed out of power during the Russian Revolution, can flee abroad. Explained as a “purgation play told in three demonstrations,” we travel back in time to July 1919.

These chapters identify the quirky focus: “Capeetalism,” “The Church of the Great Babooshka,” and “Independence Day.” Life, as they knew it, is over, and their future is scary, given the recent past and unmoored present.

This takes place exactly one year after the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, was executed, along with his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their children – grand duchesses Anastasia, Maria, Olga and Tatiana, and only son Alexei, a hemophiliac.

Their distant cousins want to escape to the U.S., with hopes of American filmmakers publicizing their plight. Chrissy Watkins, as very serious Dody, and John Wolbers, as a determined Kirk, arrive with their video cameras, and receive an enthusiastic royal welcome.

This part is fictionalized, but the House of Romanov really ruled imperial Russia from 1613 to 1917, until forced to abdicate and placed under house arrest by those Lenin-led Bolsheviks. That’s when the Iron Curtain came down as the Communist Party took over.

The play’s setting is in a former Tsar-sponsored theater wrecked by those revolutionaries. The loyalists warn us not to sit in a red chair, or we may be shot.

Frustrated by their predicament, they express themselves as people clinging to their old way of life. But they are also protective of each other, like families are.

You might feel like you are entering a reality TV zone. Prior to the performance, tables and racks are laden with goods that are later made available in the lobby. And the cast is already in character, hawking their wares and advising on what to do.

They are really pushing the ‘Baby Beans,” aka plush toy animals that look like the Beanie Babies popularized in the 1990s. There is no such Beanie Baby Bubble Burst in their world.

Ellie Schwetye as Little Yelena.

Using convincing thick Russian accents, aided by dialect coach Keating, an all-in repertory of regular ERA interpreters and other veterans dance, prance, bicker and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” like they are putting on a pageant for their wannabe home in exile.

As part of this eccentric ensemble, they offer us bread, vodka shots, and Anastasia’s hand in marriage while trying to purge all their possessions.

They will collect tickets, and people do walk out with stuff (they even have a basket of plastic bags to carry purchases). Need a VHS copy of “Waterworld” or a well-worn romance novel?

It is not a prerequisite to brush up on Russian history to understand the story, but if you recall a basic outline, and recognize a Faberge egg, you’ll find Courtney Bailey’s clever original play even more amusing. And while the acting is mostly for laughs, their characters’ despair does peek through.

Adam Flores offers a touch of poignancy as bereaved Cousin Alexi, waltzing with his deceased wife, Cousin Katrina (a skeleton often guided by Bailey)..

Lucy Cashion, director and ERA mastermind, is adept at making classic literature structures fresh with unique twists and divergent perspectives.

She keeps the characters swirling so the action is swift, although a tad chaotic at times with 15 people on stage. Resourceful, she also designed the set and the sound and was the video editor.

She last tackled Russia in a Chekhov-inspired “Moscow” drinking game and one-act play produced for the St. Louis Fringe Festival in 2015, and again as a whimsical red-soaked Zoom play fundraiser in 2020.

Bailey, who wrote the imaginative “Bronte Sister House Party” for SATE in 2022, Best New Play Award from the St. Louis Theater Circle, has created another fertile playground for her latest effort.

Last year, the pair humorously combined the John Hughes Brat Pack comedy “The Breakfast Club” with a Bertold Brecht pastiche – and nod to Cold War spies in an East German political satire called “The Brechtfast Club.”

Inspired by Southern yard sales and pop culture touchstones, whip-smart Bailey has inserted references to the 1975 “Grey Gardens” documentary through very funny portrayals by Rachel Tibbetts as Big Yelena and Ellie Schwetye as Little Yelena, a perfect pairing.

She also credits the 1997 Dreamworks animated feature “Anastasia,” the “Independence Day” blockbuster movie from 1996, and Episode #822 of NPR’s “This American Life.” And apparently, Kate Bush’s 1980 song (also misspelled title) “Babooshka” was an influence.

Alicen Moser as Pigbat and Cassidy Flynn as Rasputin.

The spry large cast, some of whom were in “The Brechtfast Club” and The Midnight Company’s recent “Spirits to Enforce” that Cashion directed, includes characters you might recognize from their historical significance.

For instance, always hilarious Cassidy Flynn is Rasputin. He makes a dramatic entrance, in a stringy raven-haired wig with a shock of a silver streak, and black garb, as the controversial figure – charlatan or mystic, visionary and faith healer?

His sidekick, Pigbat, is played in disguise by Alicen Moser. I did not fully understand that character’s purpose, possibly only to add sight gags as she flaps her white Russian wings?

Ashwini Arora has fun toying with the public mystery of princess Anastasia – who may be dead or may be an imposter, or who might actually have escaped. That tale has been the subject of movies, plays and musicals, so the ERA collaborators incorporate the legend and surrounding confusion.

Three strong actresses play sisters named Masha like they are part of the Brady Bunch (of course!) – Celeste Gardner, Kristen Strom, and Maggie Conroy are engaging maidens, who can be kinda bitchy too, moving in unison.

They are outfitted in distinctive peasant garb, which displays the fine handiwork of costume designer Marcy Wiegert.

Exaggerating stereotypes, Miranda Jagels Felix is a hunched over and very worried Aunt Babooshka, wearing the traditional kerchief tied under the chin, and deep-voiced Anthony Kramer looks like a member of the politburo with a tweedy jacket and a thick mustache (that had trouble staying on) as Uncle Boris. He is obsessed with eggs, a running joke.

Multi-hyphenate Joe Taylor is this production’s Most Valuable Player, as he not only composed an interesting original cinematic-like score, but also plays the keyboard, and performed as “A Choir of Raccoons.”

He was the cinematographer for a black-and-white old-timey film called “The Last of the Romanovs” that is played at the conclusion. And added AV technician and music director to his chores, too.

As much as I enjoy watching this collective perform, and I consider their “Trash Macbeth” in 2016 one of the all-time treasures in local theatre, this play is too stretched out and would work better condensed into one act, not two.

A little nipping and tucking would heighten the ‘oomph’ that it achieves intermittently. As funny as Flynn is onstage, and the devilish Rasputin is in his wheelhouse, the middle “Church of the Great Babooshka” segment slumped when it went off on religious tangents, especially the communion.

Admittedly, the wedding ceremony, and plucking a game groom from the audience, was confidently handled, and the revelry was fun. Time for a daffy dance break!

The audience seemed to lean in to all the goofiness that ensues, even if it wasn’t always clear what was happening in this universe that teetered between fantasy and reality.

When you have that much assembled talent, it’s hard to find everyone a moment or two to shine, but they sure had a blast together as a tight-knit unit. These are swell collaborators who make the tiny but mighty ERA standout in the local landscape.

The show is co-produced by Cashion, Felix, Will Bonfiglio, and Spencer Lawton, who also effectively stage-managed. They are fully committed to surprising patrons and making sure their presentations offer something different.

Crisp work by Emma Glose as tech director and Denisse Chavez as lighting designer is also notable.

With their avant-garde experimental nature, inventive ERA always sparks ideas, and they gather the talent to pull off even the most peculiar material. No matter what, they are conversation starters.

ERA Theatre Presents “Romanov Family Yard Sale” from July 4 through July 20, Thursdays through Sundays, at 8 p.m. at the Kranzberg Arts Center (Blackbox theatre), 501 Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63104. It is recommended for audiences age 21+. For more information, visit www.eratheatre.org, For tickets, metrotix.com.

By Lynn Venhaus

Slashy and trashy, “MaXXXine” falls short of the thrills that made Ti West’s “X” and “Pearl” superior horror films in 2022.

The time is 1985 and the place is TinselTown. Adult film star Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), flush with success from the porn video biz, finally gets her big break in a horror movie. But the fame she craves can be snuffed out quickly because a mysterious killer stalks Hollywood starlets, and she wants to find out who is trying to thwart her crossover career by revealing her sinister past.

Despite West’s flair for retro genre pieces, this third installment starring Mia Goth lacks a compelling and cohesive story. For someone who pushes horror movies forward with an unmistakable style, this doesn’t offer anything fresh and feels forced.

Sure, there’s more money, more star power, excessive blood and gore, and heaps of chutzpah – but homages to schlocky 1980s horror movies can only sustain West’s sprawling plot so far.

It’s too large of a canvas to get invested in any of the ‘decent’ characters, although the elegant and statuesque Elizabeth Debicki adds class as a ruthless female director trying to make her mark in a misogynous industry.

Not only is it the weakest in the trilogy, but do we want to continue beyond the final frame? As it turns out, the big reveal is lame, and its sanctimonious angle took a long time limping to its ridiculous conclusion even for an hour and 44-minute runtime.

Moses Sumney as Leon, Maxine’s best friend.

Of course, with horror movies, logic goes out the window. Oh sure, purposely strut down a creepy pitch-black alley and walk into a dark mansion for the first time where you know nobody, and it sure doesn’t sound like a party is going on!

We experience the all-too-familiar tropes, but we have plot threads that leave us hanging, and there should have been a more satisfying turn, especially with all of West’s bag of tricks.

The self-righteous morality police have always been squeaky wheels, and seem like an easy, predictable target. Oh, religious zealots are offended by Hollywood smut?

The buddy cop dynamic of Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan was sadly under-used, the very real Night Stalker serial killer slayings wound up to be a red herring, and Maxine’s friends and colleagues were picked off in alarming fashion without much reason to care.

With Goth, you have a fascinating leading lady – a cold-blooded narcissistic sociopath that is so focused on fame that her moves are jaw-dropping (and ultimately made me too queasy to root for her success or redemption or comeuppance). Yay to cruelly chopping off man parts and crushing skulls?

Mia Goth as Maxine Minx

The violence is gruesome – and to be fair, there were ‘eyes-closed’ moments in the first two, too, but it was horrifyingly presented. (I know it’s a horror movie, duh, but sometimes restraint is more effective.)

To see such deviant behavior from a young girl so sick and twisted in “X” and “Pearl,” you wanted to know how she got that way. Here it seems like a contest – how sleazy and disgusting can we get? And did anyone else get a “Scream 3” vibe as well as throwbacks to Brian DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double”?

In this installment, preacher’s daughter Maxine is just as self-absorbed and demented as she was before, a continuation of her character’s evil nature, a la “The Bad Seed” and Damian in “The Omen.” There is nothing new to add. If you’re making her into a Scream Queen, then shouldn’t it be scarier?

Nevertheless, West has surrounded his muse with a fine cast of characters. Kevin Bacon chews the scenery as a scummy private detective from Louisiana that underestimates what a disturbing lethal weapon she is. Giancarlo Esposito, in a goofy toupee, is hilariously over-the-top as her bulldog agent-lawyer.

The use of cocaine, such a part of hedonistic Hollywood, is omnipresent, but there are no consequences? Everyone who succumbed back then finally had to pay the piper, but we don’t get anywhere near that cause-and-effect.

While being very entrenched into that ‘80s mindset, the film’s intention does resemble the current ‘I wanna be a star’ social media influencer and celebrity culture obsessions.

In the West universe, there is no such thing as “be careful what you wish for,” only rewards, which makes Maxine even more terrifying. In “X,” she survived a Texas-chainsaw type massacre in the ‘70s, and “Pearl” was a grotesque backstory of a hyper-sexed homicidal maniac.

However, West being a master at atmosphere, his setting much of the action on a Hollywood backlot, specifically the Universal Studios tour – that ‘Psycho’ house! – is fabulous eye candy, thanks to production designer Jason Kisvarday (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”).

Kevin Bacon as Louisiana private detective.

And the seedy Hollywood Boulevard scenario from that period is realistic, especially embodied by Moses Sumney’s Leon, who works at a video store.

Perhaps it’s a little too on-the-nose, as is the soundtrack’s use of “Bette Davis Eyes.” However, the soundtrack is one of the more pleasant notes here, and so is composer Tyler Blake’s eerie score.

West’s skillful use of visual styles is another strong suit, collaborating with his “X” and “Pearl” cinematographer Eliot Rockett, and he edited the film too. And his wit is undeniable – clever use of comic relief, particularly pop culture jabs of the day.

I never thought of West as someone who played it safe. He offers this Bette Davis quote at the start: “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.”

OK, point taken. Let’s move on. I think this story has run its course.

“MaXXXine” is a 2024 horror film directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Kevin Bacon, Giancarlo Esposito, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Monaghan, Moses Sumney, Halsey, Lily Collins, and Simon Prast. It is rated R for strong violence, gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use, and has a 1 hour, 44-minute runtime. It opened in theatres July 5. Lynn’s Grade: C-.