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

Your first clue that we’re not in Missouri anymore is the palm trees jutting out from a swanky home’s backyard pool and patio right here in St. Louis’ own Forest Park.

That au-currant set design by Regina Garcia tips us off that we’re being transported to the vibrant cultural confluence that is a Latin-infused coastal town, aka Illyria (nod to Miami), where romance, music and festive fun are priorities.

Funny, flamboyant, and even frivolous at times, “Twelfth Night” is given a fresh spin by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival that is ideally suited for the outdoor month-long production at Shakespeare Glen.

Considered William Shakespeare’s “greatest comedy,” it’s certainly one of his most accessible – and director Lisa Portes has set it in a modern celebrity-filled metropolis, creating vivid characters and a glitzy vibe.

Portes, who heads the MFA directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, framed it as an exile story. Her father came over to America from Cuba when he was 15, during the Cuban Revolution.

It’s a tale of young Viola (Gabriela Saker) who is rescued after being shipwrecked, and she believes her twin brother Sebastian (Avi Roque) has succumbed to a tragic fate, lost at sea.

Ryan Garbayo as Malvolio who flips for Olivia. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

After separation, each has reinvented themselves, trying to find their way in a strange new world. Disguising herself as a male, “Cesario,” so she can work for soccer celeb Orsino, Viola discovers love at first sight with the affluent jock, now her boss – and is thrust into a poolside whirlwind journey.

For the most part, a crackerjack ensemble weaves a merry tale of mistaken identities with aplomb.

Scene-stealers Ricki Franklin, funny as the loud party girl Dame Toby (a gender switch from Sir Toby Belcher), and Cassidy Flynn, reminiscent of comic actor Charlie Day in his chaotic antics as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, are standouts. As the obnoxious ringleaders of revelry, they elicit shrieks of laughter from the engaged crowd.

Unfortunately, the cast was uneven early in the run (on June 2), and there are a few trouble spots (chalk it up to the demands of a large outdoor show?). Orsino is supposed to be a robust figure, yet Felipe Carrasco, who physically looked the part, seemed rather nondescript in the role.

Feste, the fool, is usually wacky on stage, and Esteban Andres Cruz is daffy in demeanor, but the downfall here was that they were flat and offkey singing some of the Latin-infused melodies, including a pitchy duet with Viola. However, they projected a flashy personality in the costumes designed by Danielle Nieves.

Nevertheless, the instrumental rhythms arranged by Music Director David Molina, including traditional Latin songs with contagious beats, was superbly performed by band leader Phil Gomez and Clave Sol (Gomez on piano, Tung on bass, Thor Anderson on Congas and Herman Semidey on timbales and percussion). Molina was the sound designer as well.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

With such a glamorous setting, of course Nieves’ costumes would reflect a hot and hip attitude, and none more so than Jasmine Cheri Rush, who looks and moves like Beyonce.

Her comical outfitting of a lovesick Malvolio (a delightful Ryan Garbayo) is one of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Alisha Espinosa as Maria, Adam Flores as Fabian, and Christina Rios as Captain offer fine support as Olivia’s team (Rios also returns as a priest), while Adam Poss plays Valentine and Femi Aiyesgbusi is Curio, two of Orsino’s attendants. Poss also plays Antonio, who falls in love with Sebastian after rescuing him.

The coupling – Antonio loves Sebastian, Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia, Malvolio loves Olivia, and Olivia loves Roderigo (aka Sebastian) – gets very complicated with the mistaken identities and unrequited love (which, if seem familiar, are plot threads copied from Shakespeare for centuries). It might be helpful to read the large graphics board set up on the grounds to explain the players and what happens.

Olivia and Viola aka “Cesario”

As Shakespeare once wrote in another play, all’s well that ends well, and love is love – and indeed will eventually triumph in certain cases.

The sleek designs – John Wylie’s cool lighting really makes the set pop – amplify the culture and community for a most pleasant summer evening.

The expressed joie de vivre makes this one of the liveliest Shakespeare in Forest Park productions in tone and tempo, and its heartfelt message about acceptance and identity a hopeful takeaway.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival presents the comedy “Twelfth Night” Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. except on Mondays, from May 31 to June 25, in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. (Across from the Art Museum). The grounds open at 6:30 p.m., and the show is 2 hours, 30 minutes, with an intermission. For more information, www.stlshakes.org.


Orsino and bodyguard. Photo by Phillip Hamer.