By Lynn Venhaus

One person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure when a feisty lost soul rescues a beat-up acoustic guitar from a dumpster in modern-day Dublin. In yet another charmer from Irish writer-director John Carney, “Flora and Son” achieves harmony for its scruffy characters through the transformative power of music.

Flora (Eve Hewson), a single mom who is at war with her son, Max (Oren Kinlan), thinks the guitar would be a good hobby/diversion for him, as he close to being sent to a juvenile detention center. With the help of an L.A. musician/guitar teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), she finds a path to self-discovery.

With its intentional aim to tug on our hearts and evoke honest laughter through ordinary people’s daily lives, Carney hits his target. It may not be as profound an example as his previous films, “Once,” “Begin Again” and “Sing Street,” but each well-drawn character finds purpose, changes subtly, and reinforces the magic of music as a universal language.

Carney’s affection for music to soothe our souls is vividly brought to life as Flora takes guitar lessons from Jeff, and in those Zoom calls, the connection they share through technology is palpable.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jeff

Both the appealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, himself a musician, and charismatic Eve Hewson, an actress known for “Bad Sisters” and “The Knick,” have pleasant enough untrained voices, singing from the heart. This is not a grandiose moment like Lady Gaga singing in “A Star is Born” – this is a quieter, more realistic portrayal. They are not destined for greatness, but to them, music is the gift that keeps on giving.

Oren Kinlan is also convincing as the sullen teenager whose interests lie in dubstep and hip-hop. He and his mother are perpetually scowling at the world, so their collaborations make them a bit more tolerant of each other, achieving some well-needed bonding.

Both their relationships with Max’s unreliable father Ian are complicated. A grown-up kid himself, Ian’s claim to fame is that he was in a band good enough to once open for Snow Patrol, an Irish-Scottish indie rock band who had mainstream success in the early 2000s.

Jack Reynor, who gained attention as the rock-loving older brother Brendan in Carney’s 2016 “Sing Street,” is effective here as someone who needs to figure out his life.

Hewson, whose father is U2 frontman Bono, heretofore hasn’t performed music, but has been working steadily in films and television for a decade. She was Tom Hanks’ daughter in “Bridge of Spies” and James Gandolfini’s daughter in “Enough Said,” among others. But this is her moment to shine.

Eve Hewson as Flora

Being able to show range with this gift of a character, she is a revelation as the tart-tongued, blunt Flora, who is definitely not a candidate for Mother of the Year nor is she striving to be. She’s utterly engaging as an immature woman dealing with life’s setbacks in a more self-destructive way, desperately in need of some direction.

The song the quartet perform together, “High Life,” written by Flora and her son about motherhood, is a catchy earworm that will remain in your head after the movie’s over. It’s the song, written by the writer-director and Gary Clark, a Scottish music producer, that is being submitted to the Oscars for Best Song awards consideration. Carney and Clark wrote the original tunes for the soundtrack.

(Carney’s films have a decent track record in this category – “Falling Slowly,” written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of “Once,” won Best Song in 2007, and “Lost Stars,” sung by Adam Levine in “Begin Again,” was nominated in 2014.)

You’ll want to listen during the credits to Gordon-Levitt’s character Jeff’s song he wrote about Flora.

The movie is set in the Dublin neighborhoods that tourists may not see, and the dialogue is salty.. A word of warning: the Irish dialect is sometimes difficult to decipher, so close captioning is advised for streaming.

Shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Flora and Son” was enthusiastically received and has been tagged a crowd-pleaser ever since.

This affecting tale runs 1 hour, 34 minutes, and is designed to make you smile. It’s delightful to experience with others, who understand the joy that music sparks, and it has enough humorous moments that people responded to its heartfelt message.

“Flora and Son” is a 2023 comedy-drama written and directed by John Carney and starring Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Oren Kinlan and Jack Reynor. It is rated R for language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use, and runs 1 hour, 34 minutes. It opens in select theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+ Sept. 29. Lynn’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus
Describing himself as “the ultimate middle child,” nationally touring comedian Rafe Williams, who now lives in St. Louis, will step out of the studio to headline three nights at The Funny Bone in Westport Plaza this week, Sept. 28-30. He can be seen on a new comedy special launching on You Tube Sept. 27.

The comedy club’s Westport location has shows set for Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Saturday at 9:30 p.m. — the 7 p.m. show is sold out.

Originally from DuQuoin, Ill., where he said his first job was “Picking beans, raisin’ Hell, and bailin’ hay,” he is now part of The Rizzuto Show on The Point (105.7 FM),.the no. 1 morning radio program in St. Louis. He joined Ruzzuto, Moon Valjean, King Scott and Lern weekday mornings from 6 to 10 a.m. last year, They dish on pop culture, sports, current events and celebrities with their distinct viewpoints.

He has appeared on “Live from Zanies” for Circle TV on NBC’s Peacock as well as the breakout Youtube series “Stand Up on the Spot” with Jeremiah Watkins. His appearance on Netflix is a Joke Radio’s “Are You Still Listening” and his album “Young Grandpa” by 800 Pound Gorilla Records have been featured on multiple Sirius XM channels.

Among his festival invites: Netflix is a Joke Festival, High Plains Comedy Festival, Asheville Comedy Festival, the Del Close Marathon 21 in Los Angeles, Laughing Skull Comedy Festival, as well as headlining the 2021 Flyover Comedy Festival.

An accomplished sketch performer and improviser, he has performed several times on the popular Improv4Humans podcast with Matt Besser and was invited to perform in the Del Close Marathon in NYC and LA. He is also a guest host who can be heard regularly on the Slop City podcast.

He has toured with a diverse lineup of today’s top comics like Gary Gulman, Beth Stelling, Dan Soder, Kyle Kinane, and Chelcie Lynn (AKA Trailer Trash Tammy).

Rafe on tour. Website photo.

1. What is special about your latest project? 

It is my debut comedy special and it is lining up nicely with a new foray into morning radio and launching of sister You Tube series.

2. Why did you choose your profession? 

Making people laugh and giving a joyous reprieve from the slog of everyday life seemed as noble an endeavor as any.  Also, I am an attention whore.

3. How would your friends describe you? 

Extremely sweet and easy-going in nature and a brutal taskmaster somehow simultaneously.

4. How do you like to spend your spare time? 

What SPARE time!???? I enjoy exploring National Parks and having adventures when I can.

5. What is your current obsession? 

Bringing a Taco John’s to St. Louis and writing a movie about professional bull riding.

6. What would people be surprised to find out about you? 

I posed for Playgirl.

 7. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life? 

7/11/11 – Gave up addictions and pulled head out of ass and got sober.

8. Who do you admire most? 

Father, son and the holy ghost. Wait no, that ain’t me that’s Don McLean.  Mark Twain. The original stand-up comic.  Also Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.  

9. What is at the top of your bucket list? 

3-way tie between getting on Willie Nelson’s Tour bus, Sliding across the hood of the General Lee, climbing thru window and peeling out, and writing a Country Music Power Anthem to get played on radio.

10. What is your favorite thing to do in your hometown?

Drive around and find nostalgia, joy and forgiveness for a place I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a kid.

11. What’s next? 

Hopefully touring and growing stand-up audience, having a blast on the radio, and building an audience that enjoys what I do.

12 Favorite jobs/roles/plays or work in your medium? 

The “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” model intrigues me — “Make cool stuff with your friends and let audience find you.”

13. Dream job or role?
Plus-sized Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”

14. Favorite quote/words to live by?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs. – Mark Twain

“Sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt.” – Guy Clark

“Treat life like a Harley, Lay your nuts up on the tank and ride.” – Very drunk guy I met  in an alley one time

15. A song that makes you happy?
“You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” – Jackie Wilson

For more information, visit his website:

By Lynn Venhaus

Featuring an indelible performance by Naima Randolph as the traumatized Catharine Holly in an impeccably staged “Suddenly Last Summer,” this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ centerpiece created a vivid atmospheric contemplation on mental health, homophobia, and the truth.

These topics often associated with the playwright are still thought-provoking in contemporary times, some 66 years after he wrote it in New York City and first presented off-Broadway in 1958 as a 90-minute one-act, double-billed with “Something Unspoken.”

One of Williams’ most haunting and lyrical works, “Suddenly Last Summer” is best known for the melodramatic 1959 movie starring three future legends –Elizabeth Taylor as Cathy and Katherine Hepburn as Violent Venable, both Oscar-nominated for their performances, and Montgomery Clift as Dr. “Sugar,” and those shadows loom large.

The screenplay, a Williams’ collaboration with Gore Vidal, differs from the play in opening it up to show scenes at the beach, and other scenes, characters, and subplots were added. This being through a ‘50s lens, they had to remove explicit references to homosexuality. It’s a different world today in terms of taboos, although people still use each other, and issues raised persist.

Lisa Terejo by Suzy Gorman

However dated the material, director Tim Ocel doesn’t downplay the inferences. He is a master at interpreting Williams’ artistry, making it relatable for a modern audience.

Along with producer Carrie Houk, a master caster and the festival’s executive producer, he has put together a powerhouse ensemble, who brings to life many dark elements of human nature – including greed, deception, delusion, desire, desperation, and dominance.

Just as he did in a stunning “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2018 and meticulous “The Night of the Iguana” in 2019, both at The Grandel, Ocel’s retelling is fresh and visionary, emphasizing the horror of a tragic death that is framed like a fascinating murder mystery and gripping courtroom drama.

Oh, what a tangled web we find the Venable family in when they reinforce lies over truth. At the domineering matriarch’s mansion in the affluent Garden District of New Orleans in 1936, brain surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz, aka “Dr. Sugar,” is summoned there to review her niece’s case.

Through her wealth, the bitter Violet hopes to keep Cathy institutionalized and have a lobotomy performed, so that a scandalous family secret won’t be exposed. She has kept her in a private mental asylum since she returned from Europe.

Violet’s cherished son, Sebastian, a closeted gay poet, has been brutally killed while on vacation in Spain, accompanied by his cousin instead of Mommie dearest. The circumstances are unclear, and no one believes Cathy’s horrific account. Locked away against her will, she has been further victimized by her treatment. Now, she can not only reveal the ugly truth but be spared more damage.

Randolph is spellbinding as she recounts the details of a summer holiday at Cabeza de Lobo to those assembled, led by an always stellar Bradley Tejeda as Dr. Sugar, who skillfully guides the proceedings as he gently probes a vulnerable and broken Cathy.

Cathy knows she is being manipulated, and after being injected with a truth serum, weaves a riveting account of being a decoy to attract young boys for the predatory Sebastian’s exploitation. She was used just like they were, but instead of earning sympathy, she’s trying to be suppressed by everyone.

Photo by Suzy Gorman

Dr. Sugar’s not entirely convinced Cathy is insane, but at stake is a large donation to his psychiatric research from Mrs. Venable.

Tejeda, brilliant as Tom in 2021’s outdoor “The Glass Menagerie” and comical as Alvaro in last year’s “The Rose Tattoo,” is cool and calm in a crisp white suit, fully aware of the evil in the Venable’s jungle-garden, where his interrogation takes place.

Lisa Tejero deftly commands the stage as the controlling Mama Bear who makes her late husband’s family feel small in her presence, ready to pounce on those she considers duplicitous and weak. She will do whatever it takes to preserve her son’s legacy, even if it is fiction.

Clad in black and using a cane as a scepter, Tejero displays cunning in all interactions, as well as impatience and aggravation when things don’t go her way. She also conveys selfishness, an appalling lack of civility as a socialite and less-than-gracious hostess.

Cathy’s mother and brother, Mrs. Holly and George, eager to not have anything interfere with the $100,000 inheritance bequeathed by Sebastian in his will, are trying not to act anxious, but their true colors emerge. Rengin Altay as the fretful in-law, and Harrison Farmer, as her ambitious son, comfortably service Williams’ script in these stock characters.

In other supporting roles are Bethany Barr as Violet’s accommodating assistant Miss Foxhill, and Ieshah Edwards as the not-so-compassionate Sister Felicity.

Of course, Williams would name characters Venable and Felicity, as he mines his life for a sad exploration of horrible human behavior.

Photo by Suzy Gorman

The production team has enhanced the Southern gothic moods, with captivating lighting design by Matthew McCarthy, evocative set design by James Wolk, and polished period costume design by Dottie Marshall Englis. Henry Palkes’ original music score, this third for TWSTL, adds so much texture to these productions.

What is missing in Williams’ play is the protagonist, and it is up to the cast to flesh out Sebastian, and all his contradictions, through the filters of his mother and cousin. The actors conjure up graphic images through their ability to craft a portrait through language.

Many of Williams’ tortured soul characters face moral dilemmas, either as prey or predator, to survive in an unforgiving world. Randolph’s unnerving portrait of a victim shatters the norms, which is what Williams so often does.

While her performance leaves a lasting impression, that’s not the only memorable aspect. The nuance and craft have left their mark on this eighth annual festival, which continually surprises with new ways and different angles to Williams’ storytelling.

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis presents “Suddenly Last Summer” Sept. 7 – 17, with Thursday through Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. in the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA, University City. For more information, visit

Photos by Suzy Gorman

Bradley Tejeda by Suzy Gorman

By Lynn Venhaus

To see the transformative power of music first-hand, just be in an audience for Stages St. Louis’ production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” because you will watch as a crowd of adults become kids again.

On Dec. 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis gathered at Sun Studios in Memphis, all at different stages of their careers, and jammed the night away – for the first and only time.

The man who gave them their start, Sam Phillips, deservedly known as “The Father of Rock ‘n Roll,” narrates this twist-of-fate tale, a true David vs. Goliath industry narrative featuring the star power of four future legends.

As impresario Phillips, Jeff Cummings is well-suited to play the country boy mogul with savvy instincts on hit-making, conveying equal parts passion and pride.

The cast’s remarkable full-throttle energy, showmanship, and musicality turned the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center’s Ross Family Theatre into a freewheeling and fun house party where the ready-to-rock crowd blissed out to the enduring rhythm of roots rock ‘n roll. The company, all seasoned professionals, many veterans of this show, looked like they were having so much fun performing together.

Perhaps I can speak for my fellow Boomers, as I felt we were transported back to sock hops, Teen Towns and listening to our transistor radios with earphones before bedtime. And couldn’t resist the urge to toe-tap and clap along, for the hits just kept on coming: “Hound Dog,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Who Do You Love,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “I Walk the Line” among them.

Brady Wease as brash Jerry Lee Lewis. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

But it’s not merely a blast from the past — rather, a vivacious retelling of magical music moments in pop culture history. Music Director and Conductor David Sonneborn, who also plays the drums as session musician W.S. “Fluke” Holland, has splendidly brought out the best in everyone.

The joint was jumping, and it was a thrill to be a part of such a joyful celebration. There was a whole lotta shakin’ going on during the coda/extended curtain call, with the crowd on their feet for most of it — and singing along to “See You Later Alligator.”

Director Keith Andrews, who also choreographed Edward La Cardo as an unstoppable Elvis, marvelously captured the lightning-in-a-bottle aspect of four rock ‘n roll influencers for a perfect show, lovingly crafted and crisply performed by an ensemble who achieves synchronicity together but also stands out individually. It’s his sixth time directing this show, and his command of the material is evident.

This jukebox musical displays the heart, humor and overflowing talent of these scrappy guys who came from humble Southern beginnings, carved a place in history for themselves and put Sun Studios on the map.

Carl Perkins, who hadn’t been able to follow up “Blue Suede Shoes” with another hit, has a simmering resentment towards Elvis, for his performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other grievances. He has a chip on his shoulder and a festering attitude, which Jeremy Sevelovitz carefully projects.

Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins. Phillip Hamer Photography.

Carl’s brother, Jay, is one of the session musicians, and Chuck Zayas knows how to slap that bass, having been a founding cast member, and has been rockin’ out for more than 30 years in bands and on stage.

The story begins with the premise that rockabilly specialist Carl Perkins is there to record some new music with a brash piano player from Louisiana – Jerry Lee Lewis, whose swagger and desire to be the center of attention rubs him the wrong way. Brady Wease’s bravado blazes the stage as a boyish “The Killer” and his prowess pounding the keys is fun to watch.

With his deep voice and confident demeanor, Scott Moreau’s ease as Johnny Cash is noteworthy. He has played this role more than 1,000 times, and that experience shows. His way with the guitar, and impressive vocals are riveting. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is one of the standouts, and his gospel influences are emphasized.

La Cardo embodies the young energetic Elvis, now a movie star too, who would prefer solid career advice rather than a chorus of ‘yes’ men. In this show, he brings a girlfriend along, and Shelby Ringdahl fits right in as Dyanne, belting out “I Hear You Knockin” and delivering a sultry “Fever.” At the real session, Elvis brought Marilyn Evans, now Riehl, who was a dancer.

Besides the smokin’ hot beats, there is drama in between songs dealing with show biz and their personal relationships, just to create conflicts and tension.

The show’s original concept by Floyd Mutrix was solid gold, and it premiered in Florida in 2006.  A regional Chicago production was mounted in 2008, starting at the Goodman, then moving over to the Apollo, where it celebrated its 2,500th performance six years later. The show closed in 2016, ranking as the third-longest running show in Chicago theater history.

Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash. Phillip Hamer Photography.

Nominated for three Tony Awards — for Best Musical, Book by Colin Escott and Mutrux, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor, which was won by Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis, the show opened on Broadway in April 2010 and closed in June 2011, after having played 489 performances and 34 previews,

I first saw this on its national tour in 2013 at the Fox Theatre, and then The Rep staged a slick, exuberant production in 2017. While both were enjoyable and executed well, the Stages one seems the most spirited, with an extra oomph of pizzazz and far more nuance.

Not only is this ensemble aces, percolating on all cylinders, but the creative team has showcased its mastery – scenic designer Adam Koch for a vintage studio interior, costume designer Brad Musgrove – of course the quartet are in colorful sequined blazers for the grand finale!, the exceptional expertise of lighting designer Sean M. Savoie, and clear sound designed by Beef Gratz.

The vibrancy of the production is unforgettable, and you surely will sing a happy tune while leaving the building.

Jeff Cummings as Sam Phillips. Phillip Hamer Photography

“Stages St. Louis presents “Million Dollar Quartet” from Sept. 8 to Oct. 8 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. For more information:

The iconic photo of Dec. 4, 1956. It hangs on the wall of Sun Records in Memphis (worth the tour!).

By Lynn Venhaus

“Sitting in Bars with Cake” may not be an original idea, using baking skills as a romance magnet, but it’s an appealing, sweet premise that unfolds as a deeper-than-you-realized emotional ode to friendship.

Best friends since their childhood in Phoenix, outgoing Corinne (Odessa A’zion) and shy Jane (Yara Shahidi) are in their 20s, living in Los Angeles and navigating their career paths. They join a group of girlfriends every weekend to experience the local nightlife.

One such evening, Jane brings the chocolate cake that she baked for Corinne’s birthday into a bar, and the beautifully decorated cake entices guys, who are craving a piece. Aha! Corinne comes up with an idea of bringing Jane’s cakes to bars around town to get Jane out of her comfort zone and she can meet more people. The goal: 50 cakes in a year. And what a life-changing year it is.

At first, the movie is fun and breezy, capturing the energy of 20-somethings navigating their place in the world. Then, it veers into heartfelt and sincere as it deals with a life-altering diagnosis.

Audrey Shulman penned the screenplay based on true events with her BFF Chrissy. What started as a blog in 2013 turned into a published 2015 cookbook about looking for Mr. Right by using a specific way to a man’s heart.

She recounted her year spent baking, ‘cake-barring,’ and offering slices of creative dessert in “Sitting in Bars with Cake: Lessons and Recipes from One Year of Trying to Bake My Way to a Boyfriend” that included 35 inventive recipes.

Each made-from-scratch cake was paired with a short essay and a tongue-in-cheek lesson about meeting guys, with such chapters: Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Fruity, and Savory. The guys ran the gamut from tech bros and cowboys to hipster nerds and bikers.

In the movie, cakes range from classics like Pumpkin Pie and Carrot Cakes to adventurous Chinese Prune, Licorice and Leather, Pina Colada Cocktail and a cherry-flavored CBD infused cake, all supervised by culinary producer and food stylist Megan Potthoff, a former pastry chef – and they are works of art. She’s worked on “Master Chef” and “Iron Chef,” among other TV and movie projects. If your mouth doesn’t water, you have the willpower of steel.

Chinese Prune Cake

 For the movie adaptation, Shulman shifts the dating focus as secondary to the very human bond between the roommates. How Generation Z finds their way in becoming the people they want to be is a major aspect of the story, and a good one to endear the characters.

This is a terrific cast, with Yara Shahidi as plain Jane and Odessa A’zion as live-wire Corinne believable as besties going through a year of life changes. Both rising stars after these strong and warm performances, they project a palpable bond. Shahidi, who played Zoey on “black-ish” and was Tinkerbell in the Disney “Peter and Wendy” reboot, pairs well with A’zion and her work crush Owen (Rish Shah). She works as a mailroom clerk, but she’s in her happy place baking, and needs to own up to her lack of desire to attend law school, her parent’s dream for her.

A’zion, most known for the 2020 “Hellraiser” remake, conveys resilience and her character’s commitment to not losing her indomitable spirit. She’s the fun-seeker, the goofball belting out “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” at karaoke, waking up her roomie to order fries on a late-night food run, and eager to shake things up in general. In short, the life of the party.

The supporting cast is also aces, with Bette Midler as Corinne’s uber-hip music industry boss Benita, Ron Livingston and Martha Keller as Corinne’s doting parents Fred and Martha, and Navid Negahban and Adina Porter as Jane’s driven parents Isaac and Tasha.

Director Trish Sie, of “Pitch Perfect 3,” keys into the quirkiness of Los Angeles nightlife – a drag show at a roller rink? — and an uncommon office setting with various personalities making their presence known.

Production Designer Tracy Dishmann includes clever graphics to announce each cake, and captures well the girls’ apartment and all the hangouts.

With inevitable comparisons to “Julie and Julia” and “Beaches,” this drama-soaked comedy – not really a rom-com –  showcases how friends support each other through sickness and health, ups and downs, and why the value of those relationships is priceless.

“Sitting in Bars with Cake” is a 2023 drama-comedy directed by Trish Sie and starring Yari Shahidi, Bette Midler, Ron Livingston, Martha Kelly, Navid Negahban, Adina Porter,and Rish Shah. It is rated PG-13 for strong language, some drug use, sexual references, and thematic elements and has a runtime of 2 hours, 1 minute. It started streaming on Amazon Prime Sept. 8. Lynn’s Grade: B

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

By Lynn Venhaus
Morose performances, a murky plot with muddled twists, messy filmmaking choices, and with its dark, gloomy look, the dubious “The Good Mother” is a colossal waste of time.

Director Miles Joris-Pevrafitte and co-screenwriter Madison Harrison, both from Albany, New York, have set this thriller in their hometown, attempting to make a gritty mystery encased in a seedy drug-dealing scenario.

Only it’s a frustrating watch, as they fumble at every opportunity to tell a cohesive story. However, cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby uses several interesting camera angles of buildings in town — which do nothing to advance the plot — when she isn’t blurring interiors.

The junkie son of journalist Marissa Bennings is murdered, and she tries to solve the crime with his pregnant girlfriend Paige (Olivia Cooke) and her police officer son Toby (Jack Reynor). Set in Albany, New York, in 2016, as they go deeper into the seedy drug world, the truth they confront includes a dark secret.

With its pedestrian procedural plot shrouded in dim shots with shadowy hard-to-see details, the co-screenwriters are baffling because it seems like they do not want to disclose tidbits that would illuminate what really happened. Confusing and conflicting actions occur as this unoriginal story plods along like the dullest episode of “CSI” ever.

Olivia Cooke

Doors are not locked, consequences are avoided, and people come and go without much purpose. This is such a slight, dissatisfying story that one would hope the quality of the cast would elevate material, but the inertia you feel is real. Why should we care about these people?

The only character that resonates emotionally is a grieving mom honestly spilling her guts at an Al-Anon meeting.

The director wastes the talents of two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, who plays an unpleasant hard-shelled newspaper editor who drinks too much and goes through life on autopilot. She is grieving the loss of a significant other and estrangement of her once star-athlete son, who became an addict, starting with painkillers as an injured youth. And what is with the wobbly accent?

Swank decides passivity and a glum, pouty look – a crank dealing with a daily massive hangover – is the way to capture this grieving woman. (And no way could someone who drinks and smokes like that run as far and as fast as she does in a chase scene).

Jack Reynor and Olivia Cooke are mostly believable in their roles but have a confrontation on basement stairs that stretches all credibility. Reynor, as Toby, has a pregnant wife – Gina, played by Dilone – whose character is underdeveloped and unconvincing in resolutions.

The bone-headed decisions take their toll, and 90 minutes is both too long and not enough. Midway, we still really don’t have a sense of what is really going on, as the writers-director think relying on collage-like memories will fill in the blanks for us. And what is with setting it in 2016?

Jack Reynor, Hilary Swank

Hopper Penn, the son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, is a blip as dead son Michael’s best friend, a strung-out Ducky who is in big trouble, a major piece of the puzzle, and an unreliable narrator. But untangling this never happens.

Joris-Peyrafitte is a jack of all trades, composing the cool-kids score that seems out of sync with the atmosphere, and editing the film with Damian Rodriguez besides writing and directing. Maybe he wore too many hats but writing a lucid screenplay would seem to be the priority.

The final scene is ludicrous and leaves many loose plot threads hanging. Feeling cheated, I wanted to throw something at the screen. The lack of engagement is a serious problem that couldn’t be overcome in this ill-conceived and implausible film.

“The Good Mother” is a 2023 crime drama-thriller directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and starring Hilary Swank, Olivia Cooke, Jack Reynor, Hopper Penn, Dilone, and Norm Lewis. It is not rated and runtime is 1 hour, 29 minutes. It opens in theaters Sept. 1. Lynn’s Grade: F.

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Jack Reynor, Olivia Cooke

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

Photo by Joey Rumpell.

By Lynn Venhaus
Congratulations to the local filmmakers who put their time, energy, money and creativity into making a local movie — 91 films were accepted this year! And a record number of women — 22 females directed movies! All these reasons to cheer.

Sunday night (July 30) was the 23rd Annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase Awards closing party, and this year, it was at Cinema St. Louis’ forever home, the Hi-Pointe Theatre.

Artistic Director Chris Clark, now in his 23rd year, announced the 14 films that move on to the 32nd Annual St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 9-19, which is quite an honor: They are:

Gorilla Tactics
  1. The Box, directed by Doveed Linder
  2. The Candy Crucible, directed by Micah Deeken
  3. Captcha, directed by Andy Compton
  4. clusterluck, directed by Cami Thomas
  5. Eliza, directed by Delisa Richardson and Dan Steadman
  6. Fortune Cookie, directed by Fu Yang
  7. Gorilla Tactics, directed by Michael Long
  8. The Highland Incident, directed by Zia Nizami
  9. Honorable, directed by Zachary Scott Clark and Mariah Richardson
  10. Nova, directed by Gabe Sheets
  11. Pretty Boy, directed by Kevin Coleman-Cohen
  12. The Queue, directed by Michael Rich
  13. These Flowers Were for You, directed by Taylor Yocom
  14. Up for Air, directed by Chase Norman

The SLIFF schedule will be released in early fall. The festival will showcase various films across multiple venues throughout the St. Louis area, including the Alamo Drafthouse and CSL’s new home, the Hi-Pointe Theatre. The festival will offer more than 250 films, including documentary and narrative features and short film programs from the widest possible range of storytellers, representing multiple countries featuring more than 25 native languages.  

For this year’s St. Louis Filmmakers’ Showcase, 20 juried awards were given out in narrative, and also 10 in documentary and experimental. (See article recap in News:

Want to give a shout-out to all, and those in attendance after being part of 17 programs over two weekends, truly inspiring.

Michael Rich

To see people thrilled about their achievements being recognized, to peg certain folks as artists to keep your eyes on, and to meet some of the filmmakers is always fun. (How such a nice person as Michael Rich can make such terrifying, dark films — his “The Queue” won horror this year, and he’s won in the past. (Side note, his film will be part of Franki Cambeletta’s Haunted Garage Horror Film Festival Oct. 5-7 at the Hi-Pointe, so will “The Candy Crucible.”).

And to follow success of people I met when I was an adjunct journalism/media instructor at STLCC-Forest Park in ’09 and see them produce passion projects — Kevin Coleman-Cohen and Mariah Richardson, is exciting.

CSL established the categories — a solid list, and last year, I lobbied for ensemble to be added (recognized more in recent years in film awards, and St. Louis Film Critics Association added it in ’22). This year, other jurors and I felt that with the increase in horror/thriller films, we needed that genre category.

Since 2009, I have served on the narrative jury a number of times,  not every year, and certainly not the four times my late son Tim Venhaus’ comedies made the cut, but a considerable amount. I am always eager to see what local folks are up to, and I can attest the quality has grown by leaps and bounds.

This year, the quality of original music was quite exceptional – a longer list of worthy nominees.

(In my opinion, the four biggest things, negatively, are: sound and lighting, quality of acting and the follow-through —  how to end a story. I, too, have seen Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and freeze-framing the final shot isn’t always the way to go. My latest pet peeve is how fake the fake blood looks, some far better than others, but I digress.)

We are here to celebrate film and the joy involved in community.

Through the whole festival, you see a sense of community — of collaboration, of coming together to produce an original work, emphasis on original. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and how they choose to tell it is a journey unto itself.

Winners Delisa Richardson, Mia Bible, Zachary Scott Clark, Kazia Steele. Photo Provided.

Movie-making is very hard work, and if you’ve spent long hours on a movie shoot, you know it’s something to admire – stamina, resourcefulness, ability to be flexible, and the long hours trying to capture the right angle or light.

Plus it takes courage. And tapping the right people for the job.

In recent years, some actors I know through covering regional theater are in front of a camera, and that’s a fun component – seeing a new side to them. Don McClendon, you must be the champ of most films in a year. David Wassilak, living in your mom’s basement in “The Box”? Eric Dean White, I can’t unsee your image as a creep in “Finch”! Paul Cereghino, you didn’t really kill that baby chick, did you? And is that Alan Knoll as a prison warden in “Penitentia”?

This year I was introduced to Zachary Scott Clark as Boy Willie in Encore’s “The Piano Lesson,” and to see him become Muhammed Ali in “Honorable” was impressive (how intimidating to play a historical figure!), and likewise, improv comedic actor Ryan Myers in “Captcha” — is he or is he not a robot?

And to discover new talent — Kazia Steele in “Eliza,” Ramone Boyd in “Pretty Boy” and the musicians in “Somewhere in Old Missouri,” among others. And see how hard Tanner Richard Craft works making movies that say something.

Or seeing people you know as actors, Delisa Richardson, move behind the scenes as a writer and director, in “Eliza.”

Tanner Richard Craft in “Processing”

Through promoting the local arts scene, and Cinema St. Louis’ programs, I enjoy meeting these people who are letting their voices be heard, collaborating with others on a labor of love, and have a distinct point of view.

Sadly, some very good films become also-rans. Not everyone can get a trophy, and we always have a healthy discussion on why certain films receive recognition, and others don’t. We don’t name the runners-up. But we do admire many efforts that don’t make that cut — “Cheated!” was a clever original musical told in a few minutes! Attorney Ed Herman spoke the truth in the comically entertaining animated short “Ed V Bathrooms.”

Spencer Davis Milford

And some actors are quite good in films that are in the conversation but just don’t get the top vote. (Brock Russell and Spencer Davis Milford, we enjoyed you guys in the offbeat black comedy “Food Poisoning” — who knew funny and cannibalism could be in the same sentence? Likewise, two outstanding females in “Broken Vessels” — Alicia Blasingame and Cathy Vu, the dynamic duo of Chrissie Watkins and Joe Hanrahan in “Patient #47,” Rusty Schwimmer in “Penetentia,” and the list is long.

I particularly enjoy seeing different shot selection — local parks, neighborhoods, cool historic homes, use of rivers, high schools, colleges. After all, this is “St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.” Filmmakers from here who’ve moved can shoot where they are, like L.A., but it’s really fun to see different parts of the ‘Lou, or Illinois, with fresh eyes. Hmmm, that diner is in St. Charles? Is that bar in south city? In “Pretty Boy,” Kevin Coleman-Cohen used ‘underground’ downtown areas that were fascinating.

A film can be 3 minutes, like “Up for Air,” and make its point effectively, or it can be a half-hour, like “Honorable,” and deliver a sense of time and place eloquently. We know they didn’t fly to Ghana, but you understood the setting.

A nondescript apartment became a prison for someone in a mental health crisis in “Where Monsters Lurk.” And Gabe Sheets used a vintage Chevy Nova to tell a transgender teen’s story in “Nova.”

And for Fu Yang’s brilliant stop-motion animation “Fortune Cookie,” the amount of thought and effort is remarkable (won animation/experimental and best narrative under 20 minutes). The backstory told by many directors in their notes is key to understanding all that is involved.

So, the best of the best moves on, while excellent efforts may not get the SLIFF spotlight, but I hope can be seen in other ways. A film has to be seen, and felt. And sometimes, that filmmaker will come back stronger the next year.

Andy Compton, Ryan Myers, Larry Claudin and composer Austin McCutcheon. Photo provided.

I look forward to see what Andy Compton is up to next, and hope to see some shorts turned into features for ambitious filmmakers. (Scott Wisdom’s “No Rest for the Wicked” perhaps).

The narrative jury watched 59 films this year. Chris gave us a good lead time, and our panel would text each other about certain ones, sometimes we’d go back and watch one a second time to evaluate. The due diligence that I witnessed in fellow jurors Alex McPherson and Cate Marquis is a commitment we willingly take on, because it’s important.

I know the doc committee feels the same way — Carl “The Intern” Middleman, my podcast colleague, watched his slate before he left for a fishing trip to Canada. So did Aisha Sultan, whose family went on an overseas trip, back to discuss the winners. Gayle Gallagher was on hand Sunday night to talk about their decisions.

Now I need to watch the docs I missed, particularly Zia Nizami’s “The Highland Incident.” Zia is a former Belleville News-Democrat photographer that I have known for years, and I was covering metro-east news when the UFO incident was reported in 2001. It will be part of SLIFF.

Hope to see you film fans and dreamers at SLIFF in November.

And kudos to all the folks at Cinema St. Louis who work so very hard to make this annual event happen. Thanks, Bree Maniscalco, Brian Spath and of course, fearless AD Chris Clark.

The Candy Crucible. Not a Superhero or Disney Princess in sight.

Cover photo of winners Mia Bible and Zachary Scott Clark at the Hi-Pointe, July 30. Photo used with permission.

By Lynn Venhaus
With its big heart and lofty ambitions, Tesseract Theatre Company has performed its first big splashy musical in St. Louis, and “Kinky Boots” is a chef’s kiss of a show, a celebration of possibilities and a tour-de-force performance by Tielere Cheatem as Simon/Lola.

Cheatem, a standout local performer and St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner, as housekeeper Jacob in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles” in 2019, has always had a ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality on stage, but as Lola, they are magnificent.

Cheatem makes the role that won Billy Porter a Tony Award their own and seizes that stage in authentic diva mode, with a ferocity and a passion that is remarkable to behold. It’s a fully realized, multi-layered performance.

Overcoming obstacles is the ebullient show’s theme, along with acceptance and tolerance, so it is understandable that moving to a larger space than they are used to, The Grandel Theatre, would present its own challenges. Opening night Aug. 17 was marred by sound problems, but Gruenloh said they have worked to solve those issues.

Tesseract’s previous small-scale musicals, “Ordinary Days” in November 2022 and “The Last Five Years” in February 2023, were performed at the .Zack Theatre. Tesseract’s “Kinky Boots” is also the second regional production after the Muny’s premiere in 2019.

Cheatem has a sweet chemistry with co-lead Kelvin Urday as Charlie Price, who inherited a failing shoe factory from his dad. They are a palpable pairing, and when they duet to “Not My Father’s Son,” their harmony tugs at the heartstrings.

In fact, the ballads about parental expectations and other relationships are memorable – Lola’s tearful “Hold Me in Your Heart” and Charlie’s “Soul of a Man.”

Aaron Tucker Jr. as Harry in “Take What You Got.” Photo by Taylor Gruenloh.

Urday displays confidence in his characterization of Charlie, who reluctantly took over the fourth-generation family business, Price & Son, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the weight of his father’s legacy leads him to much soul-searching. His earnest delivery of his “Step One” solo is also noteworthy.

Inspired by the life force that is the eccentric Lola, whose drag attire includes unsteady stilettos, the factory begins a niche business model, and those glittery sturdy “kinky boots” are made well to meet the needs of flamboyant performers-in-drag.

The musical “Kinky Boots” is based on a 2005 British film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simon/Lola and Joel Edgerton as Charlie, which was based on a true story and a BBC documentary, and premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, catching the eye of some Broadway producers.

Thus began its journey to the stage. It premiered on Broadway in 2013, the adaptation by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by first-timer Cyndi Lauper, the Grammy-winning pop icon, who won a Tony for the score, which is an infectious mix of club music and heartfelt ballads. The musical won six Tonys, including best musical, from a season-high 13 nominations.

It also won London’s Olivier Award for Best Musical and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre album. It ran for six years and 1,400 performances until April 7, 2019.

The Tesseract ensemble includes some seasoned veterans, like versatile Marshall Jennings as the intimidating and homophobic foreman Don, dynamic Carrie Wenos as sassy line worker Trish, Loren Goudreau in her local debut as amiable worker Pat, who are all seamless. Kent Coffel, ‘an iron man’ in local theater this summer, is a good fit as Charlie’s proud hard-working dad and briefly seen as manager George.

Kaitlin Gant announces her presence as factory worker Lauren who fancies Charlie. Her standout number is the humorous “The History of Wrong Guys.”

Strong singer Chelsie Johnston, recently seen in “Nine” at New Line, has the thankless role as Charlie’s posh girlfriend Nicola, who is a status conscious social climber and meant to not be likable.

And there are some new-to-St. Louis performers, so to feel their joy is inspiring. They look like they are so happy to be on that stage, relatable in that ‘work family’ way, and emphasizing the message “You can change the world if you change your mind.”

Lindsey Grojean, Sarah Lueken, David Pisoni, Tori Ray, Corinna Redford, Michelle Sauer, Josie Schnelten and Aaron Tucker Jr. are a merry bunch as the factory ensemble. Tucker is stellar giving advice as Charlie’s childhood pal in a spirited “Take What You Got” and Redford is hilarious as the stage manager in Milan.

Lola and The Angels. Photo by Taylor Gruenloh

Splendid are The Angels – Lola’s six drag queen back-up singers at the seedy nightclub where they perform a cabaret act, notable with their in-your-face bravado. The always outstanding Mike Hodges and Jordan Woods, also local choreographers, as well as the ever-radiant Dylan Stanley, with their effervescent energy are matched by flashy newbies Todd Garten, Ronnie Wingbermuehle, and Nick Zobrist. They sparkle in “Land of Lola” and “Sex is in the Heel.”

Asher Woodward and Mark Ambrose Hill are impressive as the young Charlie and Lola respectively.

The cast brings the fun out in the cheery Act 1 finale “Everybody Say Yeah,” and is ecstatic in the up-on-your-feet anthem closer “Raise You Up/Just Be,” which is a marvelous way to spread hope in a universal message.

Taylor Gruenloh, who directed this musical first at the Missouri University Science & Technology in the spring, where he is an assistant professor in theatre, has honored the uplifting nature of the book, focusing on humanity – and made the humor zing. He knows how to get laughs, too, and deftly works in physical comedy.

He also ensured that the British accents were spot on – hurray!

“In This Corner.” Photo by Taylor Gruenloh

He shares the same affection for the material as celebrated music director Nicolas Valdez and experienced choreographer Maggie Nold, with Michelle Sauer the dance captain.

However, Valdez is not conducting a 12-piece orchestra but using recorded tracks from the publisher Music Theatre International that includes orchestrations and arrangements by Stephen Oremus for the performances. Charlie Heil was a music supervisor.

Zachary Phelps’ costume designs are stunning, and to learn that he’s a 19-year-old college student makes it even more astonishing. He also was the makeup assistant. The well-fitted wigs were designed by Sarah Gene Dowling and the wig supervisor was Analyse Thropic.

Technical director Kevin Salwasser and sound designer/supervisor Phillip Evans had to master the issues at the Grandel, as did lighting designer Max Demski.

Scenic designer Taylor Gruenloh created a believable and modest set, with a working conveyor belt, and was able to keep the action flowing. He also kept the focus on the performers.

On one level, it’s a feel-good dance party. Yet, Tesseract’s production is another exclamation point on the need for inclusion and individuality. And that is “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World.”

You may fall head-over-high-heels with this cast and crew, and you could be singing “Raise You Up” at the jubilant curtain call, which should empower everyone to “Feed your fire,” and perhaps like me, leave dancing in the aisles.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “Kinky Boots” Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 17-27, at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis. Tickets are available at Questions can be sent to Tesseract Theatre at

Dylan Stanley, one of the Angels. Photo by Taylor Gruenloh.

By Lynn Venhaus
Known as “The Iron Lady of Israel,” Golda Meir was a shrewd, smart, intuitive and empathetic leader during a tumultuous time. The film “Golda” focuses on three horrific weeks when her country was in serious jeopardy, and the decisions she made then.

During her term as prime minister from 1969 to 1974, Meir not only had to deal with the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria in 1973, but also the tragic deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics in 1972.

Set during the tense 19 days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Meir (Helen Mirren) must navigate overwhelming odds, a skeptical cabinet, and a complex relationship with the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber). Millions of lives are in the balance.

In a cloud of cigarette smoke, Mirren is transformed into the Ukrainian-born head of state, who lived in the U.S. in her younger days, and became a prominent activist and politician after moving to Palestine with her husband in 1917. She was one of two women who signed Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

Meir is a fascinating historical figure, but you won’t find out her backstory or much information about her life other than the period the movie focuses on, which is detrimental to its appeal. But Mirren depicts her revered toughness without being showy.

The 78-year-old actress is practically unrecognizable, with an expert job done by Karen Hartley on hair and make-up design and Suzi Battersby on prosthetic design. Hunched over, defiantly chain-smoking (up to and after her cancer treatments), and walking in comfortable orthopedic shoes, Mirren assumes the persona as a courageous, maternal grandmother.

She’s not the only Oscar winner to tackle playing Golda. In her final role, Ingrid Bergman won an Emmy for the 1982 TV-movie “A Woman Called Golda,” and Anne Bancroft played the role in William Gibson’s play on Broadway.

With its focus on the maneuverings in The War Room, we only hear the terrified cries of soldiers in combat, and don’t see that action up close and personal. That’s director Guy Nattiv’s choice, but the film feels remote and stodgy without war scenes.

He specifically uses cigarettes and the act of smoking as part of the storytelling, and overflowing ashtrays are meant to signify passage of time. But the billowing smoke becomes distracting, and its heavy use debatable.

Nattiv may have intended his film to be more like a thriller, but its serious-mindedness turns it dull at times. He and his wife, Jaime Ray Newman, won an Academy Award in 2019 for their short film “Skin,” which looks at a reformed neo-Nazi and racism.

Screenwriter Nicholas Martin, who wrote the 2016 movie starring Meryl Streep as socialite singer “Florence Foster Jenkins,” concentrates on the complex Meir’s total commitment to her country. He chronicles Israel’s course of action during the crushing losses, makes it personal, and touches upon the career-ending controversy by showing the Agranat Commission investigating Meir regarding the high number of casualties: 2,656 dead soldiers and 7,251 injured; 294 prisoners of war had been captured by the enemy

Nattiv uses archival footage sparingly to give us the bare minimum of facts.

In a brief but pivotal role, Liev Schreiber portrays U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as an ally helping to negotiate peace, but with steely resolve, Meir gets the support and assistance she wants in a face-to-face meeting at her modest home.

Camille Cotton is memorable as compassionate longtime personal assistant Lou Kaddar.

Rami Heuberer is Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who was blamed for the unpreparedness of the Israeli Army, decimated by invading Syrians and Egyptians, and this ended his career as well.

The supporting cast includes other advisors – Lior Ashkenazi as Chief of Staff David “Dado” Elazar and Ohad Knoller as Field General Ariel Sharon (a future prime minister), as they hash out strategies.

The string-heavy score by Dascha Dauenhauer underscores the high stakes and the human toll. And this story takes place in the early ‘70s, so the sound design by Niv Adiri to make it sound authentic is noteworthy.

Meir died in 1978, at age 80, from lymphoma. She lived long enough to witness the infamous Camp David Accords that led to a peace treaty signed by Israel’s Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with President Jimmy Carter.

While Mirren’s performance as a major historical figure is praise-worthy, the film is a missed-opportunity drama. In theory, it should have been more captivating, and in execution, much more dramatic and gripping.

“Golda” is a 2023 biographical historical drama directed by Guy Nattiv and starring Helen Mirren, Liev Schreiber, Camille Cotton, Zed Josef, Lior Ashkenazi, Ohad Knoller, and Rami Heuberer. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material and pervasive smoking and the runtime is 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opens in theatres Aug. 25. Lynn’s Grade: C+.

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Helen Mirren as Golda