By Lynn Venhaus
A daffy delight, “Spirits to Enforce” is a close encounter of the strange kind even in the make-believe world of theater.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the eccentric work of The Midnight Company and visionary writer-director Lucy Cashion who specializes in the unconventional. Only this time, they are vessels for playwright Mickle Maher’s quirky concept.

Maher, a favorite of Midnight Company’s creative director Joe Hanrahan, has infused his absurd comedic caper with comic book stylings mixed with William Shakespeare characters.

Maher, co-founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, his producing home for more than 30 years, is known for creating paradoxical works, often involving classic literature. Both Midnight Company, Cashion, and their assembled team are at home in this very original and unusual world.

The result is as wacky and clever as the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup,” one of comedian Bob Newhart’s early telephone routines, the whimsical “The LEGO Batman Movie,” and the surreal comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre (popular in the ‘60s- ‘70s).

It definitely has an improvisational troupe vibe, but director Cashion has masterfully choreographed it like a dance/show choir/cheerleading competition where they are going for the gold.

And that care is exhilarating – and special. It’s apparent that this dozen worked incredibly hard on their precise movements and seamless execution. The kooky ensemble is a marvel of impeccable timing, crisp delivery, and a robust take-no-prisoners approach to their roles.

Twelve characters sit at a very long table, like at a telethon phone bank (pre-GoFundMe, Google it), and are tasked with raising money for a superheroes production of “The Tempest.” This is to save Fathom Town from Professor Cannibal and his band of evildoers.

While sitting in close proximity, they appear to be singular in purpose – their crimefighting mission. As a community, they are desperate to drum up support for this benefit performance, and their urgency and frustration are on full display. They project the manic energy and anxiety of an all-nighter when cramming for a college final.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

The story is that they have finally imprisoned their arch nemesis, Professor Cannibal, and are keeping the city safe from fanged, venomous, ambulatory whales (go with it – anything can happen in those multiverses and ‘snaps,’ you know).

“The Tempest” is a tale of shipwreck and magic, explored on an enchanting island setting, with themes of  betrayal, revenge, and family, so that adds another layer of interesting texture to the production.

These Fathom City Enforcers are in a secret submarine, and the set-up, particularly with old-timey landline phones with extra-long cords, allows much physical humor to take place while they are skillfully weaving in hilariously constructed dialogue to be heard over the din.

The finely-tuned cast includes some of the most eternally gifted performers in local theater – and their names are followed by their secret identity, superhero identity and character in “The Tempest”: Will Bonfiglio, three-time St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner for comedic performances, as Emorie Lawson/Ariel; Rachel Tibbetts, also a Theater Circle Award winner, as Susan Tanner/Memory Lass/Miranda; Cassidy Flynn as Randell James/The Tune/Ferdinand; Miranda Jagels Felix as Donna Adams/The Silhouette/All Masque Characters; Alicen Moser as Cecily Gray/The Page/Prospero; Spencer Lawton as Dale Clark/The Intoxicator/Stephano; and Joe Hanrahan as Wayne Simon/The Untangler/Caliban.

They are joined by (fairly) newbies Ash Arora as Rebecca Lloyd/The Ocean/Gonzalo; Kayla Bush as Diana Blake/The Bad Map/Trinculo; Joey Taylor as Brad Allen/The Snow Heavy Branch; Ross Rubright as Craig Cale/The Pleaser/Antonio and Celeste Gardner as Oliver Kendall/Fragrance Fellow/Sebastian.

They all mesh in perfect harmony, jagged as it is to depict the stakes of saving the world from nefarious villains while they carry on phone conversations. Their agility with each other is a joy to witness.

The creative team is a league of its own too – costume designers Liz Henning and Eric Widner (the logo!), lighting designer Jayson Lawshee, and music by Joey Taylor. It’s all dandy work – and with the simple Batcave-like set, really adds to the atmosphere. All the office-type props provide the sight gags, too.

Stage Manager Jimmy Bernatowicz and assistant stage manager Morgan Schindler keep the flow brisk. It is presented without an intermission.

The Midnight Company has produced Maher’s “It Is Magic” and ‘The Hunchback Variations,” and their partnership is an enriching artistic endeavor.

Cashion’s superpowers, to create such an entertaining and enthralling show, are on full display here. And her merry band of good guys deliver — they are heroes for more than a day.

Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The Midnight Company presents “Spirits to Enforce” Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through May 18 at The Kranzberg Black Box theatre in Grand Center. Ticket information is available at www.metrotix.com or for more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

By Lynn Venhaus
Life and death. Lost and found. Weddings and funerals. The big picture and small moments. Cindy Lou Johnson’s “The Years” mulls it all over, and a pliant cast grasps their roles astutely in a bittersweet production from The Midnight Company.

A family comedy-drama written in 1994 and presented in St. Louis some years ago by the Orthwein Theatre Company, its universal themes again connecting in the intimate space of The Chapel. Joe Hanrahan directed the current show, and the latter.

The two-act framework, at first, seems like a familiar scenario: preparing for a small wedding with chaos all around two sets of cousins. Is any family spared drama on special occasions? Not in my experience – but we’re one of those who puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional, so the turmoil is relatable.

And this family is indeed ‘off-center.’ “The Years” is resolute in accepting the quirky, with characters going through different phases of understanding through a 20-year period. As the two sisters Andrea and Eloise, Alicen Moser and Summer Baer suffer both in silence and then out loud. They are fine, delicate actresses who excel at their craft.

Alicen Moser. Summer Baer. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

Their flakier cousins Isabella and Andrew are counted on to get things done, and Ashley Bauman and Joey File are terrific in comic relief as bossy, neurotic older sister Isabella and slacker, yet contemplative, younger brother Andrew. Newcomer File is the show’s breakout star, and one to watch.

It’s Andrea’s wedding day, but she is delayed by an inconvenient mugging that’s left her visibly bruised and emotionally battered. Meanwhile, her sister Eloise has problems of her own. They are both fragile, anyway, as they deal with their mother’s suicide soon after their father’s death.

They move on after that turbulent day, and 13 years pass. It’s time for another family wedding, and the cousins come together after struggling through the unpredictability of life. The last act takes place three years later, and this is where it stretched credibility, but it had me up to that troubling end, which didn’t feel like a ‘wrap up.’

The confident cast makes the most of a jagged little play, for they are a finely calibrated ensemble, smooth in their deliveries and comfortable on stage with each other.

In particular, the four cousins are convincing in projecting their shared bonds. While their lives intermingle, we get snippets of their characters through the skills of the performers – because the character backstories are slim.

Rounding out the cast, Michael Pierce and Joseph Garner may seem like interlopers, but their roles are anything but random. In only one scene, Pierce is assured as Eloise’s husband Jeff and Garner, a powerful presence in recent stage appearances, is a conflicted stranger Bartholomew, a lost soul that re-emerges throughout the play. He is prone to giving advice after life-altering events: “My life didn’t change – I changed my life.”

Hanrahan, a master storyteller on his own, has a knack for connecting people through art. A creative dynamo during the coronavirus public health crisis, he pivoted with original material, and keeps challenging himself and his casts with intriguing projects – well-known or new.

An experienced fight choreographer, Pierce (“Twelfth Night” by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and “Murder on the Orient Express” at The Rep) set up authentic confrontations.

Competent design work was handled by Brad Slavik on set, Miriam Whatley on props, and Tony Enselmo on lights. Liz Henning’s costume designs are always outstanding

While not profound, “The Years” is a thoughtful reflection on connection, curveballs in life, and how our lives are impacted in roundabout ways, and ever more relevant after a global pandemic shutdown.

Summer Baer and Michael Pierce. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The Midnight Company presents Cindy Lou Johnson’s “The Years” from July 13 to July 29 at The Chapel Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on July 16 and 23. Tickets are on sale at metrotix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

The Midnight Company’s 2023 season continues with extended performances of “Just One Look” July 19, Aug. 16 and 30 at Blue Strawberry; “You Made Me Love You” July 26, Aug. 2 and 9 at Blue Strawberry; “Humans of St. Louis” at the St. Louis Fringe Festival Aug. 15-21, and “The Lion In Winter” Oct. 5-21 at the .Zack.

The Midnight Company will present Cindy Lou Johnson’s THE YEARS, running July 13-29 at The Chapel.  Performances will be Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees July 16 and 23. 

Tickets, $20 for Thursdays and $25 for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, will be on sale at MetroTix.com on Monday, June 12. The show will be directed by Midnight’s Artistic Director, Joe Hanrahan.

The play opens on a tumultuous day for two sets of cousins:  Andrea and Eloise, and Isabelle and Andrew.  It is Andrea’s wedding day, and she and her sister Eloise, are dealing with the recent death of their father, which was soon followed by their mother’s suicide.  On the day of her wedding, Andrea has gone into work to help someone, and returning home is mugged. Meanwhile Eloise has just learned of her husband’s betrayal and the end of their marriage.   They make it through that turbulent day.  And as the story continues, thirteen years pass, and all of the cousins are forced to deal with the vagaries of life and death that the years deliver.

Joe Hanrahan directed this script some years ago for The Orthwein Theatre Company, and Gerry Kowarsky, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called that production of THE YEARS “…an exceptional work.  Many plays deal with the pain of family relationships, but few have as much insight, pathos and humor as THE YEARS.”  And Phyllis Thorpe, for Intermission, a theatre publication at the time, called it “…a beautiful play.  Those who saw it will cherish it for a long, long time.”  In its premiere New York production, Broadway World cited an “…amazing script,” that resulted in “…a poignant play.”

Hanrahan said, “THE YEARS is a delicate, haunting, unusual play.  It deals with situations everyone faces in life, and so we’re able to quickly connect and feel  deeply for these characters.  I’m so looking forward to working with it once more.  And so lucky to have such a great cast to tell this story.”

The Midnight production features Summer Baer and Alicen Moser as sisters Eloise and Andrea.  For Midnight, Summer was seen in last year’s RODNEY’S WIFE.  And recently she’s appeared in PROOF for Moonstone,  THE BIRTHDAY PARTY for Albion, and currently GLORIA: A LIFE at New Jewish Theatre.  Alicen, Artistic Director for Poor Monsters, just directed THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY for Midnight, and previously appeared in the Company’s Beatle play at the St. Louis Fringe Festival, THE EVEREST GAME.  She’s currently appearing in ERA’s THE BRECHTFAST CLUB.  

Ashley Bauman and Joey File will play their cousins, Isabelle and Andrew.  Ashley has appeared in AS YOU LIKE IT for SIUE, A LATE SUMMER NIGHT’S STROLL for St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and DR. FAUSTUS: THE MODERN PROMETHEUS for SATE.  Joey was also in the cast of AS YOU LIKE IT, and has also been seen in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and RENT at SIUE.

Michael Pierce will portray Jeffrey, husband to Eloise.  Michael, who will also serve as Fight Director for the play, has been seen in the Aphra Behn Festival for SATE, and LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR for New Jewish.  He also served as Fight Director for St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TWELFTH NIGHT and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS for The Rep.  And Joseph Garner will portray Bartholomew, a stranger who becomes involved in the cousins’ lives.  Garner appeared in Midnight’s ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCE, was seen in THE CHRISTIANS at West End and currently in CLASH OF THE TITANS for Cherokee Street Theater.

Hanrahan recently appeared in Midnight’s THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY.  He wrote and directed the Linda Ronstadt show, JUST ONE LOOK, currently playing in extended performances at The Blue Strawberry, and is writing and directing the upcoming Judy Garland show, YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU, coming in late July there.  Hanrahan was nominated by The St. Louis Theatre Circle as Outstanding Director for last year’s RODNEY’S WIFE from Midnight.

Mason Hunt will be Stage Manager for the show,  Brad Slavik is designing the set, Tony Anselmo the lights, and Elizabeth Henning costumes.  Miriam Whatley will handle props.

Photos Todd Davis.  Alicen Moser (black eye/wedding dress)  Summer Baer (wedding veil/smile)

The Midnight Company’s 2023 season continues with:
Extended Performances of the JUST ONE LOOK July 19, August 16 & 30 at Blue Strawberry
YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU July 26, August 2 & 9 at Blue Strawberry
HUMANS OF ST. LOUIS at The St. Louis Fringe Festival  August 15-21
and
THE LION IN WINTER at the .ZACK  October 5-21

Kelly Howe in “Just One Look”

more at MidnightCompany.com

By Lynn Venhaus

As we head into Pride Month, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” couldn’t be timelier, especially in this unfortunate age of intolerance.

This passion project from The Midnight Company stars an empathetic Joe Hanrahan in multiple roles and is deftly directed by Alicen Moser.

A one-man show, written by Celeste Lecesne, is based on their young adult novel, and illuminates a very personal struggle about acceptance.

Lecesne has gone by he/they since 2020, and is best known for winning an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1995, for “Trevor.” In 1998, they co-founded and launched The Trevor Project, which is a 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ+ youth.

The 2015 narrative fictional play is structured as a police procedural, with a detective seeking answers about a missing teen in a small-town on the Jersey Shore. A hard-hitting story that draws inspiration from such horrific true incidents as high school student Jadin Bell in Portland, Ore., who committed suicide after gay-shaming, and college student Matthew Shepard who was attacked and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, among other anti-gay hate crimes.

The playwright, who described Leonard as a luminous force of nature who encountered evil and whose magic wasn’t truly felt until he disappeared, shines a compassionate spotlight on this character you feel that you know.

Unapologetically flamboyant, theatrical, and true to himself, the 14-year-old chatterbox looked and acted as he pleased, just being himself. He planned to dress up as Lady Gaga on Halloween.

Bullied for being who he was, Leonard did win some people over. Details emerge about what a colorful presence he was, and how that light dimmed in the people’s lives who loved him.

Joe Hanrahan .Photo by Joey Rumpell

Besides the inevitable pensive sadness that permeates the one-act, there is also a glimmer of hope about progress and brings more focus on the never-ending mission to understand those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning – and anyone who beats to a different drummer.

Over the course of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Leonard looms larger than life, although he is not physically present. We feel him. We see him through the people who knew him, which Hanrahan effectively presents.

Besides playing the primary character — police detective Chuck DeSoto, Hanrahan takes on the characters Chuck interviews – Ellen Hertle, a hair salon owner who cared for Leonard after his mother died, and her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe Hertle, who report him missing; Buddy Howard, who ran the drama and dance school where Leonard took classes; Gloria Salzano, who saw a platform sneaker floating in the lake next to her home; Marion Tochterman, Otto Beckerman, suspect Tyler Lembeck; and Chuck’s boss, Marty Branahan.

Trevor didn’t tell people he was gay, they just assumed, although he liked to remain a mystery. That didn’t stop name-calling. And he attempted suicide.

As Chuck discovers clues and puts together details of a brutal murder, it’s hard not to be moved by the melancholy, but also discover how this boy touched lives, and eventually made a difference in how people saw others.

The minimalist drama, with stage manager Linda Menard placing props on sparse furnishings and production support from Kevin Bowman, features expressive lighting design by Tony Anselmo in the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre.

Although Leonard isn’t a real person, you leave feeling like you know every character. Hanrahan, who often presents one-man shows, makes the people relatable.

The show’s message reflects Shakespeare’s line from “Hamlet”: “To thine own self be true,” and it’s always good to reinforce that, no matter how one identifies themselves. And to bring more attention to The Trevor Project – hotline is 1-866-488-7386.

Hanrahan, himself a force of nature, has dedicated this show to the Absolute Brightness of Travis Hanrahan, his son who died at age 27 in 2017.

Photos by Joey Rumpell

The Midnight Company presents “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” from May 4-20, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., in the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N Grand Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63103. For more information, visit www.MidnightCompany.com

The Midnight Company will present the solo show THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY, by Celeste Lecesne.  May 4-20 at The Kranzberg Black Box Theatre.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm.  Tickets ($25 for Friday/Saturday and $20 for Thursday) will go on sale April 10 at MetroTix.com.  Alicen Moser directs.

Joe Hanrahan, Midnight’s Artistic Director, portrays a detective and other characters in a small New Jersey town as he unravels the story of Leonard Pelkey, a tenaciously optimistic and flamboyant fourteen-year-old boy who goes missing.  A luminous force of nature whose magic is only truly felt once he is gone, Leonard becomes an unexpected inspiration as the town’s citizens question how they live, who they love, and what they leave behind.

Celeste (formerly James) Lecesne has written several books, including the novel ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS, which gave birth to the play, as well as the play and book, WORD OF MOUTH, which gave birth to the short film, TREVOR.

The New York Times said ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS “…leaves you beaming with joy…a superlative solo show…Mr. Lecesne is a writer of wit and great observational skills, who here unfolds a dark tale that shimmers with needling suspense you associate with best police procedurals…Perhaps most remarkably, he’s the rare artist who doesn’t shy away from sentimentality…you may find yourself choking back a tear or two.”

The New York Post called the show “…moving…Lecesne delivers a message of acceptance without being preachy.  Intimate and affectionate, ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS is about the difference one person can make-and perhaps, with any luck, one show.”

And the Los Angeles Times said ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS “…shines with humanity…an affecting and entertaining testament to the beauty of a world in which difference is celebrated rather than denigrated.”

Joe Hanrahan as Detective Chuck DeSoto, photo by Todd Davis

Hanrahan has performed a number of solo shows, including several each by Eric Bogosian, Conor McPherson, Will Eno and Daniel MacIvor, as well as portraying Harry Truman in GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY and in his own script, the Theatre Circle nominated NOW PLAYING THIRD BASE FOR THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS…BOND, JAMES BOND.  His play about Linda Ronstadt, JUST ONE LOOK, continues with extended performances this April at The Blue Strawberry, and coming in 2023, he will direct THE YEARS in July, write/direct the Judy Garland show YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU at The Blue Strawberry in late July, co-adapt and direct HUMANS OF ST. LOUIS from the book at The St. Louis Fringe in August, and perform in THE LION IN WINTER in October.

Director Alicen Moser is one of the artistic leaders of the theatre group, Poor Monsters, and she’s performed as an actress for many St. Louis groups, including Midnight when she appeared as George Harrison in Hanrahan’s Beatle play, THE EVEREST GAME, at the 2017 St. Louis Fringe Festival.

Linda Menard will stage manage, Tony Anselmo will design the lighting, and Kevin Bowman provides production support.

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In 1995, Celeste Lecesne wrote the screenplay for the short film, TREVOR, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.  Inspired by that film, in 1998 Lecesne co-founded and launched The Trevor Project, the first nationwide 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, including phone, in-person and additional online life-affirming resources.  If someone you might know is feeling helpless or suicidal, trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, or by texting 678678.  More information is available at thetrevorproject.org.
The Midnight Company will be working to spread the awareness of The Trevor Project during the run of THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY.
More at MidnightCompany.com

ERA’s album will premiere at the Album Release and Listening Party at Off Broadway on
June 3, 2021 at 8 p.m.
Equally Represented Arts (ERA) presents “SHE”
ALBUM RELEASE & LISTENING PARTY INFORMATION
Thursday, June 3, 2021
Doors open at 7 p.m.
Radio play begins at 8 p.m.
at Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Ave, St. Louis, MO 63118

Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door or in advance at offbroadwaystl.com
Off Broadway will have capacity limits and employ safety precautions as outlined on their
website and social media channels.

DIGITAL ALBUM PURCHASE INFORMATION
SHE will be released as an album for digital purchase via bandcamp at eratheatre.bandcamp.com.
Album price will be $10.

ABOUT SHE
SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE’s also the star of the
broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government
camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the
ground.
Tonight, however, SHE’s realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But
SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the
broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her
and she will not let them down.

COLLABORATORS
Written by Nancy Bell. Music composed by Joe Taylor. Lyrics by Nancy Bell.
Director: Lucy Cashion
Stage Manager: Miranda Jagels Félix
Assistant Stage Manager & Intern: Spencer Lawton
Production Managers: Will Bonfiglio, Lucy Cashion, & Joe Taylor
Artwork: Martin Brief
Marketing: Keating
Pre-Mixing: Joe Taylor
Mixing & Mastering: David Beeman
with
Nancy Bell………………SHE
Will Bonfiglio……………Nils (the brother)
Gabe Taylor…………….Fritz (the production manager)
Alicen Moser……………GIRL (the wandering spirit of SHE as a child)
Mitch Eagles…………….Michel (the loyal one)
Joe Taylor……………….George (the music director)
Anthony Kramer………..Max (the back-up vocalist) & P.A. Voice
Additional Vocals: Taylor Tveten
Piano: Audrey Morris & Joe Taylor
Bass: Andy Hainz
Percussion: Dustin Sholtes
Saxophone & Clarinet: Matt McKeever
Violin & Guitar: Kevin Buckley
Trumpet: Ryan Torpea
Accordion: Jessica Adkins
Foley: Lucy Cashion & Joe Taylor

Recorded by Joe Taylor at Kid Scientist Studios & David Beeman at Native Sound Recording on
Cherokee Street, St. Louis, USA

With public support from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

About ERA
Equally Represented Arts (ERA) is an experimental theatre company based in St. Louis,
Missouri.
Theatre is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary, live art form. ERA’s mission is to use the elements
unique to theatre’s identity to expand the possibilities for what that art form can be and challenge
our community’s expectations for meaning in theatre, art, and the world. We root ourselves in the
belief that all theatre’s components are equal and that innovation stems from experimentation.
We are an ensemble company. We make our work collectively and consider all artists involved in
a project equally essential to that project. We believe that actors are creative artists. Our process
for each production is unique to that production.
For more information, please visit eratheatre.org

By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor A brilliantly staged and acted “District Merchants” raises timely questions on oppression in a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s 420-year-old “Merchant of Venice.”

Playwright Aaron Posner’s 2016 comedy-drama tweaks the characters,
and sets them in the post-Civil War reconstruction era of 1870, in the nation’s
burgeoning capital, Washington D.C. Scenes also take place in Belmont, Mass.

It was a time of transition – out of ruins came renewal. But
it wasn’t fast or smooth. Posner has us confront the fact that old habits die
hard, change isn’t easy, and our tribes continue to define us, so is all the
uneasy historical issues and disastrous conflicts really in our past? The
clashes could be viewed as somewhat contemporary.

In this New Jewish Theatre production, butting heads are a Jewish immigrant moneylender, Shylock, and black businessman Antoine, shrewdly played by Gary Wayne Barker and J. Samuel Davis respectively, in skillfully calibrated performances.

Antoine has borrowed money from Shylock, but because of a
series of events not his doing, must default. Will he be required to hand over
a “pound of flesh,” as demanded by the loaner? A trial will ensue, but there
will be fireworks in and out of the courtroom regarding power, race, position,
family and loyalty.

The incredibly dynamic duo of Barker and Davis, longtime
local mainstays, spars so convincingly and with such verve that you hang on to
every word and nuance. Their timing is so impeccable that the audience broke
into applause after a couple explosive scenes.

Their triumphant pairing is potent – arguably career best
— but the supporting characters, involved in several thorny romantic subplots,
are exceptional as well.

The noteworthy ensemble has created memorable characters
that also mesh as a unit – even with the conflicts. They project a vibrancy,
with much thought into their role’s development.

Courtney Bailey Parker and Rae Davis. Photo by Eric WoolseySteadfast Courtney Bailey Parker is a strong Portia, who
dresses like a man to audit law classes at Harvard and is striving to define
her role as a smart woman in 19th century America.

She pairs well with love interest Benjamin, a black man
passing for white, and their courtship has a larger context. Rob White is solid
as an agent of change.

Standing out is Rae Davis as Portia’s servant Nessa, and she has stood out in two other plays she was in last year (“Cold,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”), her first in regional St. Louis theater. She has a delightful way with dialogue, as does the sublime Karl Hawkins, who is dandy as Shylock’s servant Lancelot.

Karl Hawkins as Lancelot in “District Merchants.” Photo by Eric WoolseyHawkins charms in every scene, as does Paul Edwards as
Finn, an Irish produce salesman who takes a shine to Shylock’s sheltered
daughter Jessica. At first, his brogue was wobbly, but he grew better, and his
winning personality was enough to endear.

As delicate Jessica who transforms with determination, Alicen
Moser understands the frustration of being a powerful and overprotective father’s
only child. When she rebels, she does it in a big way that nearly destroys her
father.
The relationships are complicated, but this cast pulsates under Jacqueline
Thompson’s perceptive direction.

Thompson has directed this show with such vigor that each
character has a distinct understanding of the material, and with her innovative
touches, has achieved a masterpiece.
She has astutely woven each character into this tapestry, and moves them around
the stage, the striking multi-level set by David Blake, and into the audience
with such purpose —  a flow that keeps
us riveted.

It does not matter if you have never seen Shakespeare’s
most controversial play. “District Merchants” flips it to assure that we see
the maligned, marginal groups in a different perspective – people of faith, of
color, of origin. We look at mercy in a fresh way.

Posner’s unflinching dialogue about stereotypes is tough
stuff, pitting Jews against gentiles, blacks vs. whites, and Irish vs. other
ethnic groups.

Billed as an “uneasy comedy,” you wouldn’t ever regard such
thought-provoking material that tackles racism, bigotry and xenophobia as a
laugh-riot, but there are surprising comic bits that struck a chord with the
audience, a spoonful of sugar if you will. After all, Shakespeare did consider
“Merchant of Venice” one of his comedies.

But mostly, the humor derives from the spoken thoughts and
feelings of the characters, who want basically what everyone wants and how they
tell their story. Because of the caliber of this cast, we are quickly drawn
into this period, and become emotionally invested as well.

Posner’s work appears to be a winner with New Jewish
Theatre. “Life Sucks!,” his comical adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” was
a delightful presentation last spring, and nominated for multiple St. Louis
Theatre Circle Awards (coming up March 25).

This must-see production has raised the bar – and will be a
measuring stick for this year’s offerings, especially with such a harmonious
ensemble.

A work of stunning achievement all the way around – with
beautifully accented lighting by Sean Savoie, richly detailed period costumes
by Felia Davenport and sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

 “District Merchants” is presented by New Jewish Theatre from Jan. 24 – Feb. 10 on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Wool Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, Creve Coeur. For tickets, visit www.newjewishtheatre.org