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

Whether you have a family that always puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional or is going through a temporary rough patch, you will find something relatable in Lila Rose Kaplan’s crowd-pleasing comedy-drama “We All Fall Down.”

Nowhere is an extended family’s quirkiness more apparent that at a holiday gathering, and this setting is a Passover seder with the Jewish but non-practicing Steins coming together.
 
The territory navigated is both familiar and foreign. When the playwright’s wit, director Rebekah Scallet’s finesse, and the cast’s crisp comic timing percolate on all cylinders, it’s splendid.

Yet, there is a busyness that comes across as somewhat annoying. The seven characters are all pre-occupied, with the parents and two grown adult children overstuffed with personality peculiarities, and the three guests underdeveloped. Perhaps some trimming would have made it feel less congested.

While the resolution is heartfelt, it doesn’t feel as genuine or as earned as it could be, for the relationships are complicated, and the revelations feel rushed.

As we all know, often when people try too hard to make a celebration joyful, it fails to meet expectations because of uncooperative moving parts.

Add befuddlement as to why this festival is happening now when it’s never been a big deal, which adds a layer – and everyone is in various degrees of a tizzy.

While psychologist and family therapist mom Linda (Mindy Shaw), history professor dad (Alan Knoll), yoga instructor daughter Ariel (Hailey Medrano), feminist activist-educator daughter Sammi (Bridgette Bassa), sarcastic aunt Nan (Jenni Ryan), a sweet but sensitive friend Bev (Bethany Barr) and an efficient assistant Ester (Taijha Silas) are preparing for this specific meal with their own ‘to-do’ lists, wackiness ensues, and universal truths give way.

Mindy Shaw, Hailey Medrano. Photo by Jon GItchoff.

In Judaism, Passover commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, sparing the first-born of the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus. There are specific rituals handed down through generations, and Kaplan deftly explains traditions to those of us not in the know.

Those of other faiths can identify with their own heritage’s touchstones while the evergreen themes of people growing older, and children growing up strike chords.

The ensemble meshes well, conveying all the stress, resentments and aggravations that a holiday represents, but also their unique family dynamic and relationships. As in real life, a delicate balance between mothers, fathers, daughters and sisters is always shifting.

Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

Knoll, whose performances are always lived in and first-rate, has shaded Saul with convincing layers, coming across at first as good-natured but concealing a troubled soul.

His memory is fading, and he’s confused, disconnected, and not understanding what’s happening, although he’s trying to cling tight to his routines.

His patterns are being interrupted by all the hubbub, and glimpses of what’s happening begin to be noticed by the others when they start paying attention. Most everyone is in their own little bubble and must eventually find the compassion they need at this moment. Frustrated, he won’t admit or can’t come to terms with his cognitive decline.

Alan Knoll, Bridgette Bassa, with Jenni Ryan in background. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

Those who’ve witnessed a loved one lose parts of themselves through Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can recognize the symptoms that Kaplan astutely presents.

A flustered, frantic melodramatic wife and mother, Linda is played as a demanding perfectionist with nervous energy by the lissome and facile Mindy Shaw.  

This bossy control freak and bestselling author has a hidden agenda that keeps everyone guessing as to why she’s going to all this trouble. She’s a little kooky dressing up in costumes and flitting about.

Her two daughters, with secrets of their own, are focused on their problems and not why their dad may have retired early, why he’s drinking so much, or why mom’s making the signature dishes for what an old neighbor describes as “Jewish Easter.”

As adult daughters, Bassa and Medrano affect a realistic sibling rivalry and dissatisfaction with their current paths. Intelligent and limber performers, Bassa and Medrano bounce off each other like women with a history, and their rhythm is naturalistic.

There is an undercurrent of tension that may be connected to their mother’s book “Mothering Difficult Children”,” which is a hoot.” (What a great title!).

Ryan plays Saul’s outspoken sister, Aunt Nan, a part that seems straight out of sitcom land, as does Barr’s Bev, an empty nester who once lived across the street.

Silas has a nice turn as Linda’s graduate assistant who is tasked with singing “The Four Questions,” and does so beautifully.

Taijha Silas as Ester. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The two-story suburban home setting designed by Andrea Ball is a marvel of functionality and comfort. The kitchen is stocked with all the necessary ingredients and tools to make Kugel and matzo balls, and the girls’ childhood bedroom becomes an oasis (as does a bathroom).

The technical design work is as admirable as ever, with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design and Michelle Friedman Siler’s costume design both stellar components. Cecille “Cece” Entz’ prop work is noteworthy — an appealing mix of years of clutter.

Ellie Schwetye’s sound design is always significant, and this time her mix tape choices are interesting — especially the specific “War of 1812 Overture” that’s in the script.

Kaplan crafted this play with heart. Originally produced in 2020 in Boston, this presentation is the regional premiere in St. Louis. She has a flair for tackling issues from a woman’s point of view, which is refreshing. However, the tone shifts several times, which happens when the material is both a comedy and a drama.

Scallet, also the artistic director, has helmed this show in a light-hearted way, even though the theme is heavy – parents must be taken care of even when you can’t take care of yourself

She and the playwright met years ago when Scallet was directing Kaplan’s play “Catching Flight,” which was part of a new play development program, and became friends.

The main takeaway is that traditions should be appreciated and familial love is the foundation of life. Whatever our families are going through, we can lean on each other for comfort and strength. All families deal with loss, lose their way, and re-emerge with new customs, yet never forgetting those who have passed.

Memories are made, and passed on through generations — simple yet profound.

Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The New Jewish Theatre presents “We All Fall Down” from May 30 to June 16 at the JCCA’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis. The play is 95 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8.p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $27- $58. Tickets are available by phone at 314.442.3283 or online at newjewishtheatre.org.

Special Note: Scallet will host two additional talkbacks with show audiences on Saturday, June 14 following the 4 p.m. performance, and on Thursday, June 6, following the 7:30 p.m. performance.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

By Lynn Venhaus

Think of it as ‘80s performance art meets a ‘60s Be-In. An experimental “happening” play, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” by Nassim Soleimanpour, is being presented by the Black Mirror Theatre Company for a brief four-performance run just to do something different.

And unique it is – interactive with the audience and performed without a set, director, or rehearsals. A different actor reads the script cold – for the first and last time – at each performance, and their name goes on a list so that they can never perform it again.

If it sounds fringy, it appeared at the St. Louis Fringe Festival in 2021.

When he was 29, Soleimanpour was forbidden to leave his country, Iran. He can’t leave because he is a conscientious objector who has refused to take part in mandatory military service. Barred from travel, he turned his isolation into an absurdist theatrical experience that brings actor and audience together through uncharted terrain.

But above all, it’s his voice, coming through different actors.

On opening night, Jarek Templeton was the actor who opened the script that had been sealed in a manila envelope and given to him by producer Michelle Zielinski. He then read the pages in a folder as instructed. He immediately took control and guided audience members on what they had to do, and he performed the actions the playwright requested.

Because of its unusual structure, the focus is on how the performer handles the on-the-fly aspect and tapping into the innovative playwrighting. The audience was game – applauding and participating when called upon.

On Friday, Evan Turek will be the actor, Dorothy LaBounty on Saturday, and Ellie Schwetye on Sunday.

Part comedy, part drama, the playwright is involved in each production – he communicates with notes to the people involved in putting on the show. They were told 48 hours before the show to have water on stage, and two glasses.

It may start out light-hearted, or a bit daffy, but included are some serious topics to mull over. Because of its spontaneity, the less you know going in, the better.

The Black Mirror’s earnest commitment to creating interesting theater took a leap forward with this intriguing concept.

The Black Mirror Theatre Company presents “White Rabbit/Red Rabbit” on association with Aurora Nova Productions and Boat Rocker Entertainment Nov. 2-5 p.m. at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis, MO 63105. For more information, visit blackmirrortheatre.org

More information is also available” https//www.facebook.com/WhiteRabbitRedRabbit

Jarek Templeton, Michelle Zielinski after first performance. Photo by Lynn Venhaus.

By Lynn Venhaus

With full moon magic this week, step into the unique and absurd world created by the imaginative minds at SATE ensemble theatre for “This Palpable Gross Play: A Kind-of Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It’s Shakespeare flipped inside out, an end-of-summer trifle that follows SATE’s award-winning “Bronte Sister House Party” last year and Equally Represented Arts (aka ERA) with their thoroughly clever “The Residents of Craigslist.”

This ensemble is an appealing, adroit, and gifted group that is fully committed to appearing as if they are self-absorbed, clueless, temperamental, needy, and incompetent actors as the Mechanicals, in addition to feuding royals, and mismatched lovers.

The Mechanicals. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The innovative Lucy Cashion, in a class all by herself, directs here with a touch of whimsy and a focus on the quirky. She is particularly good at dissecting classics and putting her own spin on them, such as “Trash Macbeth” in 2016 for ERA (St. Louis Theater Circle Award for directing) and “Oedipus Apparatus” for SATE in 2017.

She teams up here with the multi-hyphenate Ellie Schwetye, a distinctive writer also good at different takes on Jane Austen (“First Impressions,” St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best New Play in 2018), who has adapted this version of Shakespeare’s beloved 16th century comedy.

Normally, the play starts with royal wedding planning, gets sidetracked with love potions and mixed-up pairings, and features a troupe of inept actors rehearsing a play as the special occasion entertainment. Instead of being the side hustle, the Mechanicals have the spotlight, and they shine in all their peculiar glory.

So, dive into their world, not knowing where you will go. You may think you know this play, but here, they’re steering the ship into uncharted, yet kinda familiar, waters. And that’s the fun of it.

The Mechanicals are referred to as skilled manual laborers, and others look down on them. But for this amateur troupe, there’s no way to go but up. Kayla Ailee Bush is bellows-mender Francis Flute, Andre Eslamian is weaver Nick Bottom, Anthony Kramer Moser is joiner Snug, Joshua Mayfield is tinker Tom Snout, Ross Rubright is tailor Robin Starveling, and Kristen Strom is carpenter Peter Quince, the director. Strom’s presiding over the circus as if she’s Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre.

Victoria Thomas and Ross Rubright. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

Moser is very funny getting into his lion role, and with the others, their idiosyncrasies emerge as they develop the characters for the tragic love story of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” set in Babylon. Andre Eslamian plays Bottom as an insufferable know-it-all. Joshua Mayfield’s Tom Snout is perturbed about how he’s moved around, and so is Kayla Ailee Bush’s Francis Flute. (The sextet is so bad, the audience thinks it’s a comedy). Master thespians, you know.

Well, they may be delusional, but they are giving it their all as they prepare to mount the play-within-a-play, hopeful of entertaining at Theseus and Hippolyta’s royal wedding. Of course, they question their parts, bicker with castmates and Quince, trying to get the attention they need and ‘deserve.’  

Now, in context, we don’t see Theseus and Hippolyta here, but they are the toast of the town, as he is the Duke of Athens and she is the Queen of the Amazons.

I digress.

Puck/Robin Starveling (Ross Rubright), Titania (Victoria Thomas) and Oberon (Spencer Lawton) are outfitted to look like old-timey movie stars of the silent era, extras in “The Great Gatsby,” or maybe Puck is the bartender in “The Shining.”

They have an aristocratic air, and wear Liz Henning’s gorgeous period attire beautifully. As the king and queen of the fairies, Titania and Oberon are estranged and feuding, and Thomas and Lawton make that obvious, as if they are reciting lines in a Noel Coward play.

In another flip, Oberon falls in love with Bottom, who’s now costumed as a donkey. Hee-haw! Eslamian and Lawton display deft physical comedy skills during this turn of events.

Oberon and Bottom. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

Dapper in tails, Ross Rubright introduces himself as Robin Starveling as he welcomes the audience. The tall Rubright is visually striking, and then he begins his contrasting monologues, as if auditioning, and reads a commercial for Lunesta, a prescription sleep aid, including a long list of side effects. It sets the mischievous mood beautifully.

Rubright may not be sprite-size, but as Puck, he smoothly moves around creating dazed and confused mayhem with his lantern, wafting potion, and magic powers.

That iconic butterfly logo will be referred to several times and its shimmering wings used in another ‘wow’ vision from Henning.

Now the star-crossed lovers make an appearance too, as the cast doubles roles: Hermia (Bush), Lysander (Moser), Helena (Strom), and Dementrius (Mayfield). In Shakespeare’s original, Hermia is in love with Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius, who is in love with her, but Helena is in love with him. It’s complicated.

The creative team is first-rate, too, with Erik Kuhn’s atmospheric lighting design noteworthy. Joe Taylor’s original music score is a delightful throwback to such ‘30s styles as “Moonlight Serenade” and Cole Porter.

 Cashion and Schwetye collaborated on the scenic design – a summer house’s study where Titania and Oberon are ensconced, and use front space for the woodland where rehearsals are staged. Jimmy Bernatowicz, the stage manager, and Rachel Tibbetts, the co-producer, also contributed to the overall experience.

The Mechanicals. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The play has a fantasy quality reminiscent of the 1935 movie, which is mesmerizing in its depiction of the glistening fairies frolicking in the forest created through rudimentary visual effects back then. (The casting is memorable too – James Cagney is Nick Bottom and Mickey Rooney is Puck!)

“This Palpable Gross Play” is tantalizing with its witty take on illusions and theme of metamorphosis. The folly is fun, thanks to the harmonious cast and crew’s efforts. Adventurous theatergoers can applaud their good fortune at seeing a fresh interpretation of an enduring classic.

Note: The script of “This Palpable Gross Play” will also receive productions with Clayton High School and with Prison Performing Arts.

SATE is presenting “This Palpable Gross Play: A Kind-of Midsummer Night’s Dream” Aug. 16 through Sept. 2, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. It is 90 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased through Eventbrite. For more information, visit www.satestl.org.

Photo by Joey Rumpell.

SATE presents the Seventh Annual Aphra Behn Festival, May 5-7, 2023, at Fontbonne University. Performances are at 8:00 PM on Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6. Performance on Sunday, May 7 at 4:00 PM.

When established in 2017, a goal of the Aphra Behn Festival was to give women interested in directing and writing for theatre an opportunity to get more experience, try out ideas, experiment, and hone their craft. SATE now looks to make the Festival a more inclusive space for transgender and non-binary artists, as well.

The Aphra Behn Festival is named for the fascinating poet, translator, and spy, Aphra Behn, who is widely considered to be the first English woman to make her living as a playwright. SATE produced a play about her, Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, in February 2015 and collaborated with Prison Performing Arts to adapt Behn’s play, The Rover, for the artists at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia to perform. The Rover was also the text shared by the directors in the 2020 Festival. SATE feels very much a part of Aphra’s legacy.

This year’s list of ingredients for plays to be submitted in the 2023 Festival challenged the writers to re-tell, adapt, or respond to one of the plays on Hedgepig Theatre Ensemble’s Expand the Canon list (www.expandthecanon.com) SATE hosted readings of all three “Re-Told” plays on February 19, March 19, and April 30.

2023 Festival Plays

Bold Stroke for a Villain by Summer Baer
Directed by Emma Glose
Inspired by Hannah Cowley’s Bold Stroke for a Husband
Performed by Gabrielle LynnJaelyn HawkinsGreta Johnson
Welcome to purgatory! Victoria, condemned to an eternity of reflection, attempts to call into the void to someone she wronged but gets Elle Woulds instead.

Lieblingstante, by Aurora Behlke
Directed by Kayla Ailee Bush
Based off The Uncle by Princess Amalie of Saxony
Performed by Maida DippelMichael Pierce, and Leslie Wobbe
Julius introduces his girlfriend to his aunt Claudia. Who knows where the conversation may go after one or two (or four) glasses of wine.

reANIMA by Aly Kantor
Directed by Britney N. Daniels
A speculative subversion of Amelia Rosselli’s Anima
Performed by Keating and Taylor Kelly
Cricket totaled her meat vessel at a party—but not to worry! Her best friend has an industry hookup and made her a brand new one with all the bells and whistles she could ever want (and a few she’s slightly reluctant about). Now everything can get back to normal…right?

PRODUCTION ENSEMBLE
Stage Manager: Spencer Lawton
Costume Design: Liz Henning
Lighting Design: Michael Sullivan
Graphic Design: Dottie Quick
Photography: Joel Rumpell
Set/Props Design: Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Sound Design: Emma Glose, Ellie Schwetye
Intimacy Coordinator: Rachel Tibbetts

By Lynn Venhaus
With his childlike wonder, boundless energy, warm smile, and ability to never know a stranger, Will Bonfiglio uses his talent for good in the uplifting one-person show, “Every Brilliant Thing,” now playing at the New Jewish Theatre.

Running one tidy hour, this humorous and touching personal reflection on life and loss can be interpreted many ways.

What started as a performance piece and installation art project around a decade ago grew into a Facebook group where people listed their own “brilliant things,” and productions have been mounted all over the U.S.

The one-act play was first produced in England, at the 2013 Ludlum Fringe Festival, and started out as a short story called “Sleevenotes” by Duncan McMillan. For the stage, he involved comedian Jonny Donahue, who was filmed for the 2016 HBO presentation.

Bonfiglio plays Sam, the adult son of a mother whose chronic depression altered his emotional development and life perspective.

What do you do when you are six years old, and your mother is in the hospital for attempting suicide? The lead character started a list of everything beautiful and wondrous about the world. He/she left it on their mother’s pillow. And thus, began life-long list-making giving us hope about what makes life worth living.

In this production, Bonfiglio engages by relating the challenges of life. Through the identifiable list, he finds light amid depression’s darkness.

  1. Ice cream.  2. Water fights 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.  4. The color yellow

The list is as broad as 11. Bed and 1006. Surprises, and as specific as 2390. People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care, and 1654. Christopher Walken’s voice.

The list eventually grew to a million, with entries as clever as 123321. Palindromes, as funny as 7. People falling over, as adorable as 575. Piglets, as pleasurable as 9997. Being cooked for, and as nostalgic as 315. The smell of an old book.

That list turned into a lifeline during adolescence, college, marriage, and bumpy roads, eventually leading to peace and acceptance.

Bonfiglio plays Sam as vulnerable yet strong, resonating as someone who feels helpless when they can’t protect, control, or prevent family members from harm.

He has re-teamed with director Ellie Schwetye after working on “Fully Committed” in 2019, which earned him his third St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Leading Performer in a Comedy, Male or Nonbinary Role. He previously won for “Buyer and Cellar” and “Red Scare on Sunset,” both at Stray Dog Theatre.

They have both worked together in SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble), where Schwetye is a producer, and ERA (Equally Represented Arts)., among other companies.

They are both expert collaborators. In this project, their ability to focus on joy through communal storytelling and create community reaffirms the power of theater.

 Essential elements include audience interaction and participation, which makes the show unpredictable and improvisational. Bonfiglio tells a few people what to say and where to move in a charming way, while others just are called on to read a lead entry. (If you do not want to participate, no one will force you).

Schwetye keeps Bonfiglio on the move to all corners of the stage.

The technical elements are also superb, with Bess Moynihan’s outstanding lighting design and scenery work with the list items hanging in different hand-written notes making the message simple yet profound.

Schwetye is also an award-winning sound designer, and because of her expertise selecting music, that helps make the music influential to the people in the story.

This play is more than a litany of favorite things, but a journey through turning points in life, which makes it special.

One of its life-affirming aspects is to not wait for moments, but let them in and be open to them.

Bonfiglio never feels less than real. And his kindness projects an openness to the event, for the hardest things to talk about are things we should talk about – and this play allows us to, for catharsis can come out of crushing sadness. Sam has earned this accomplishment.

There is information about mental health in the program, and this team knows of its importance. This production touches our lives in an interesting way — complex, but manifests beauty.

It is that understanding that you feel. And I am grateful.

The New Jewish Theatre presents “Every Brilliant Thing” March 16 – April 2 at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, Tickets are available by phone at 314-442-3283 or online at www.newjewishtheatre.org.

By Lynn Venhaus
Playwright Lucas Hnath doesn’t ever flinch, and neither does his lead character, Pastor Paul in “The Christians,” an examination of faith and influence in a 21st century megachurch.

In an innovative move, the West End Players Guild is presenting this thought-provoking drama in the Union Avenue Christian Church, not their usual stage in the basement.

It’s just one of director Ellie Schwetye’s smart moves, and the setting adds an authenticity for this examination of faith and doctrine.

It’s not a typical megachurch plot, where there is often reason to deride piety. The characters are sincere, which makes it more powerful.

Pastor Paul has discarded his church’s traditional fundamentalist Christianity in favor of a more inclusive and universal Christianity. When he announces to his congregation that he has come to doubt a core belief – well, this does not go over well.

He thinks other religions have valid points. Oh, the horror. This rocks everyone to their core. Chaos will ensue.

Ten years ago, his church was a modest storefront, but now it houses thousands, with all sorts of amenities. It’s paid for, and all seems to be going well. How does one man unite a church – and then, suddenly, divide it? Can internal politics tear down things built up with love?

As Pastor Paul, Joel Moses digs deep, showing us his pain over his flock’s revulsion, and how those closest to him turn on him. He’s aghast, for while he expected this sermon to be controversial, the reaction stuns him. Their foundation – and relationships – will crumble before our very eyes.

As this unsettling drama unfolds, the cast is pitch-perfect, making sure each character is not black-or-white, but many shades of grey. Each has a crisis of faith, and this creates thought-provoking content. And interesting confrontations as they all seem at different crossroads.

Joseph Garner is impressive as the associate pastor Joshua, who must stay true to his values. Rachel Hanks is strong as Pastor Paul’s faithful wife Elizabeth — but begins to doubt so much about their relationship and work. And then loyal parishioner Jenny, played by a fiery Chrissie Watkins, must speak her truth. Michael Byrd has a small role as Elder Jay.

Hnath, a favorite of West End Players Guild, first produced “The Christians” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 2014. It premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2015, and then had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwholf Theatre Company in 2016. He is the son of a minister.

Among its accolades – “The Christians” was nominated for two 2016 Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play, and then nominated for the 2016 Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play. It won the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play

This production is a St. Louis premiere, and is one of the strongest dramas of the year.

West End Players Guild presents Lucas Hnath’s The Christians Dec. 2-11 at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information: westendplayers.org.

Photos by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhau

The truth is out there, “The X Files” told us during 11 seasons on television. For believers of any paranormal or extra-terrestrial phenomena, some sort of proof helps build a convincing case. “Anomalous Experience” earnestly scratches the surface but is only a piece of an ever-evolving puzzle for truth-seekers.

Inspired by true events, Joe Hanrahan’s original play is a serious-minded drama taking a clinical approach as a public lecture by a psychiatrist who has endured ridicule about his studies into alien abductions and features two patients sharing their experiences.

The Midnight Company’s world premiere production opens its 25th season and runs at the .Zack May 5 – 21.

A key component of science fiction during the last half of the 20th century – the so-called ‘Atomic Age’ — has been stories centered on aliens, whether Unidentified Flying Objects, abductions, or exploratory visits from extra-terrestrials.

But now, with the government acknowledging UFOs and recent sightings of unknown aircraft by military pilots, which are being investigated (even if Area 51 folklore remains shrouded in mystery), tales this century are more accepted and not viewed as merely the rantings of kooks.

However, a heavy dose of skepticism exists about alien abductions. That’s the focus of actor-playwright Hanrahan, who based his character on a real professor who forged ahead in his research despite the nay-sayers.

Joe Hanrahan. Photo by Joey Rumpell

Hanrahan won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award in March for his original play “Tinsel Town,” which is three showbiz vignettes taking place over a 24-hour period in Los Angeles, presented in 2021, and was nominated for his nostalgic one-man show “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond…James Bond.”  This is a different direction, and he has meticulously researched the subject to present it in a matter of fact, not preachy or fearful, way.

The sobering material touches on such familiar cases as Roswell, N.M., and goes back to ancient times (Chariots of the Gods) through production designer Kevin Bowman’s impressive slide show.

Given Midnight’s penchant for small character studies, the show is simply yet effectively staged, with Kevin Bowman’s minimal set.

Director Morgan Maul-Smith strips it down to maintain an air of gravitas through the actors – Hanrahan as James Collins and Joseph Garner and Payton Gillam as the two patients Scott and Virginia who believe they were abducted by aliens.

Anxious and apprehensive about their reception, but steadfast in their beliefs that something profound happened to them, Virginia and Scott share their harrowing experiences and re-enact hypnotic regression in a natural progression. 

Photo by Joey Rumpell

Both performers are engaging in conversations with Hanrahan, and Garner looks directly at the audience with his compelling experience. He is particularly haunting in his graphic descriptions of a breeding incident, and his struggles to cope with what has taken place. Gillam is effective in her recount of how her life changed, including her marriage.

That eerie uncertainty is carried through Ellie Schwetye’s masterful sound design and Tony Anselmo’s lighting design.

After their recount, it’s anti-climactic when the 80-minute play ends, because we don’t go farther in their lives. It would be interesting to see how their lives changed in the years since their encounters, if they felt they were being observed or studied.

This uncommon tale benefits from the strong actors, but the play is more sensible than sensational – just in case you were looking for escalating melodrama and shifting behaviors. As we’ve become accustomed to in fictional narratives on aliens, this is just the beginning.

“Anomalous Experience” is a thought-provoking look into unexplained abnormal events that make for a modern ghost story, although light on thrills and chills.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

The Midnight Company presents “Anomalous Experience” May 5 – 21, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., although the final show is Saturday, May 21 at 8 p.m., at the .Zack, 3224 Locust in the Grand Center Arts District of St. Louis. For tickets, visit www.metrotix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

The .Zack is a Kranzberg Arts Foundation space. Follow the COVID-19 guidelines currently in place. Masks are currently optional for patrons.

By Lynn Venhaus

The intoxicating mystique of Los Angeles, with its star-making machinery and as the Dream Factory capital in Hollywood, has enticed starry-eyed people to flock there for at least a century.

Inevitably, some become disillusioned and compare the unnatural and phony atmosphere to the shiny synthetic Christmas tree decoration, thus the derogatory L.A. nickname. — “Tinsel Town.”

This is also the title of local playwright Joe Hanrahan’s witty collection of three short one-acts that are an insightful and humorous view of the deals, players, sights and sounds of La-La Land. They say write what you know, and Hanrahan has cleverly captured the rhythms of the industry as a ‘company town’ in the land of swimming pools and movie stars.

Hanrahan, artistic director of The Midnight Company, is producing these original works Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre.

The show presents three relatable scenarios that take place in a 24-hour period: “Late Lunch on Melrose,” “Just Off Sunset” and “Shoot in Santa Monica.”

This amusing glimpse is directed by Rachel Tibbetts, and she brightly capitalizes on the obvious chemistry between Hanrahan and the multi-faceted Ellie Schwetye. The duet work in sync, playing off each other seamlessly, which takes trust and displays their comfort with each other on stage.

The trio are true collaborators and have worked together in different capacities over the years. It’s fun to watch people who mutually respect each other have fun telling stories in tandem.

Aided by Michael B. Musgrave-Perkins’ stellar videography capturing the glitz, glamour, and gorgeous weather – and palm trees! — we have a keen sense of time (present) and recognizable places on a small, economical set.

An outdoor café is the setting for a “Late Lunch on Melrose” between a talent agent (Hanrahan) and his most famous client, a narcissistic actress (Schwetye) who is unhappy about the lack of work – and is no longer the flavor of the month. It’s 1:30 p.m., and the drama queen is impatient. The pair adjust their temperaments, between air kisses, depending on who has the edge as they sip martinis.

That’s the start of a tiny plot thread that will smartly unify all three parts, with the second, “Just Off Sunset,” taking place at 12:15 a.m. in an alley behind a nightclub where a once-hot rock singer (Schwetye) is trying to rejuvenate her career but is frustrated. She bonds with a grizzled session musician who’s seen it all, who has some tips for her, and she’s grateful for the feedback and advice.

The first act mimics L.A.’s notorious wheeling and dealing for laughs, no matter how disingenuous, and the characters are exaggerated to suit standard images we have in our minds – and is more caricature than sincere, but that’s the point.

The second one really percolates with the speech patterns of experienced, world-weary musicians, and the two performers seem authentic as they discussed their working lives.

Ellie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan in “Shoot in Santa Monica.” Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The final act, “Shoot in Santa Monica,” is broader comedy and hits the nail on the head about selling out for commercial blockbusters just so you can do the smaller projects for love of the craft. Sound familiar? A stage actor from England (Hanrahan) is making his first movie and is anxious and overwhelmed. But at the urging of the director (Schwetye), he will muster his courage to deliver a speech about vanquishing their nemesis – space vampires. Not saying the lines exactly as written, it may sound like one of Winston Churchill’s addresses during World War II, but who’s gonna figure it out, right?

The time is 12:40 p.m. the next day. With a simple outfit change, Hanrahan conveys an actor in military garb acting in front of a ‘green screen,’ and his character must inspire the crowd. In a world where evil lurks in the fictional form of ridiculous monsters – and CGI-heavy movies that could be written by chimps – they know it’s sci-fi crap, but hey, that’s entertainment!

Hanrahan has a flair for writing about the behind-the-scenes drama — and comedy — of showbiz, and the two-person exchanges are sharp. He acknowledges a ‘new normal’ because of the pandemic and adds those challenges to the script.

The performers capably navigate these characters in a natural, appealing way, and it’s a pleasant experience escaping a tumultuous winter as an armchair traveler whisk away to Southern California. From Melrose to the Sunset Strip to Santa Monica, we see three facets of a process that’s fertile grounds for comic human exploration.

In these post-vaccinated pandemic times, Hanrahan, a brilliant storyteller, has used his talents to keep active on stage, earlier presenting two interesting one-man shows – his original crowd-pleasing nostalgic account of his childhood in the mid-60s, “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond, James Bond,” which he developed from a one-act first presented at the St. Louis Fringe Festival, in July, and then “Here Lies Henry,” with a book by Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor and directed by Schwetye, about an odd personality telling us his life story – which may or may not be true because of his penchant for alternative facts.

He has kept very busy — also performing in the five-person ensemble “It Is Magic,” by one of his favorite playwrights, Mickle Maher, that comically mashes up “Macbeth” and “The Three Little Pigs” by a community theater with some very colorful characters and was directed by Suki Peters in the fall.

For this year’s St. Louis Theatre Showcase (instead of the Grand Center Theatre Crawl), he presented an earlier penned one-act, “Tonight’s Special.”

The Midnight Company will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year – and it’s quite an achievement because he has skillfully used available resources to present humorous and thought-provoking works.

For this latest production, he has brought the two accomplished professional actresses and directors along for the journey. Tibbetts, the current artistic director of the Prison Performing Arts group, and Schwetye, are leaders of SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble), a highly regarded creative troupe.

Hanrahan first worked with Tibbetts when he recruited her to direct “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll,” and their association has since included his acting in SATE’s “One Flea Spare,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Doctor Faustus,” and last year’s Aphra Behn Festival.

And she has acted in Midnight’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “A Model for Matisse,” which Schwetye directed, who also helmed Midnight’s Irish thriller “Little Thing Big Thing,” featuring Tibbetts and Hanrahan. He directed both of them in SATE’s vampire drama, “Cuddles,” during the 2016-2017 season

Schwety also directs for other groups – next up in 2022 is “Every Brilliant Thing” for New Jewish Theatre.

This fruitful collaboration in “Tinsel Town” is an example of a dream team hitting all the beats well.

ffEllie Schwetye and Joe Hanrahan in “Just Off Sunset.” Photo by Joey Rumpell.

The Midnight Company presents “Tinsel Town” Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust, St. Louis. For tickets, visit MetroTix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com.

Photos by Joey Rumpell

By Lynn Venhaus
Oh the irony. Henry, who is an off-kilter sort, likes to sing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when his life is anything but – or at least appears that way. That sets the tone for “Here Lies Henry,” a kooky one-man show that opened by The Midnight Company at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s blackbox theatre last weekend.

Part jester, part blowhard, Henry’s personality is central to his act, a freeform stream of conscience where he wonders aloud why there are yellow fire trucks and repeats his schtick with some twists. He wants to tell you something that you don’t already know. He can rant but he’d rather get a laugh. Did he really say that? Did he commit any of the crimes he takes credit for?

Henry is an entertainer created by the fertile mind of quirky Daniel MacIvor, a Canadian playwright, actor and screenwriter. MacIvor specializes in solo pieces, just like Joe Hanrahan, a St. Louis theater veteran, who acts, directs, writes and produces. He adds the peculiar and curious Henry to his repertoire of uncommon characters.

Hanrahan likes choosing works that aren’t part of the mainstream, and as The Midnight Company’s latest one-man show, the first since the coronavirus public health restrictions lifted, it’s a good fit.

Hanrahan has previously performed MacIvor’s other works, “Cul-de-Sac” and “House,” and understands the rhythm the playwright attains in this 1995 work.

As he tackles love and death, Hanrahan displays Henry’s awkwardness, his impish penchant for odd jokes and puns, and builds more confidence as he weaves tall tales. Henry might be “not quite right,” but will we know?

Director Ellie Schwetye, who has worked with Hanrahan multiple times, is also familiar with the off-center and the screwball. There is an ease to the presentation, maintaining a mood where you don’t quite know what’s happening or where it will go, but you’re willing to take the ride.

That uncertainty is the chief tone throughout – as Henry, who admits he lies, embellishes stories about his parents and life. Is he serious? Is this a TED talk? Or is this a comedy club’s open-mic night? It has that feel of a guy telling big whoppers at a bar – but you can’t ignore him here as he is compelled to get on your good side.

As always, Hanrahan is entertaining in his unconventional, idiosyncratic way. “Here Lies Henry” doesn’t necessarily answer the Big Questions, but you’ll have fun with the asking.

Technically, the show flows smoothly, with Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Kevin Bowman’s production design. Anselmo designed lighting for Midnight Company’s past works, “Popcorn Falls” and “A Model for Matisse.”

“Here Lies Henry” is an interesting look at one man’s point of view. The play is presented without intermission and runs 70 minutes.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

“Here Lies Henry” will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, from June 10 to June 26, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, June 27, at the Kranzberg Black Box. For tickets, visit MetroTix.com or MidnightCompany.com. Call 314-487-5305 for more information.