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.

ERA’s Moscow! is a drinking-game version of Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters.

Join the Prozorov sisters, and their comrades, in existential crisis – it’s all the fashion these days. May 21-23, 28-30, with Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. CST | Saturdays at 1 pm CST Performances are entirely virtual via Zoom. Pay-what-you-can to reserve your spot and get the link https://www.artful.ly/era

Olga, Irina, and Masha are sisters living in an insignificant town in Russia. They spend a lot of time talking about how all they really want to do is go back to Moscow, where everything is better. The town’s people come and go through the sisters’ house, which they own with their brother, Andrey. Everyone is so emotionally erratic – is it because they’re Russian? Perhaps it’s because they’re drunk. Three Sisters examines the frivolity of privileged life; Moscow! intensifies it with live music, dancing, and vodka. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERA will live-stream its performances of Moscow! and all artists will perform from the safety of their respective isolated locations. Because of the significant change in format, ERA will not charge money for patrons to view the live-streamed performance but asks that those who are capable of making a tax-deductible donation to the company consider giving an amount appropriate to their resources. Free tickets can be ‘purchased’ at our online box office (https://www.artful.ly/era). Purchasing free tickets does NOT require credit card info and exists to deter Zoom bombers. Also, each performance has a limited viewer capacity. 

Visit ERA’s website or social media pages for more information. 

About ERA: 

ERA is an independent, experimental theatre company based in St. Louis, MO. We believe theatre is a collaborative, multidisciplinary, live art. ERA’s mission is to use these elements inherent to theatre’s identity to expand the possibilities for what theatre can be. We root ourselves in the belief that all theatre arts are equal and that innovation stems from experimentation. 

Box Office: https://www.artful.ly/era Website: https://www.eratheatre.org/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eratheatrestl Instagram: @eratheatre Twitter: @ERAtheatre Donation: https://www.artful.ly/era/store/donate 

Moscow! Performing Artists 

Will Bonfiglio…………………Andrei Sergeyevich Prozorov (Andrey)
Lucy Cashion………………..Anfisa 

Maggie Conroy………………Natalia Ivanovna (Natasha)

Carson Cosper………………Irina, Olga, Masha, Natasha, Anfisa (understudy)
Mitch Eagles…………………Baron Nikolaj Lvovich Tuzenbach

Jakob Hultén…………….…..Staff Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony

Ryan Lawson-Maeske……..Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin

Carl Overly, Jr………………..Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin

Alicen Moser…………………Irina Sergeyevna Prozorova

Gabe Taylor…………….……Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin

Joe Taylor……………….…..Ferapont
Rachel Tibbetts……………..Marya Sergeyevna Kulygina (Masha)

Ellie Schwetye………….…..Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova (Olga)


Production Team 

Will Bonfiglio: Producer & House Manager Lucy Cashion: Director, Designer, & Producer Carson Cosper: Production Assistant Miranda Jagels Félix: Stage Manager Emma Hersom: Assistant Stage Manager Keating: Producer, Marketing & Communications Spencer Lawton: Production Assistant Joe Taylor: Music Director & Arranger Gabe Taylor: Production Manager Marcy Wiegert: Costume Designer 


By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
So, how does one find inspiration to play Mother Teresa? Rachel Tibbetts thought of a popular TV sitcom.
In “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Mustard Seed Theatre, she plays Mother Teresa and two other characters – St. Thomas and Loretta.
“Mother Teresa is such a blast. I am approaching her as Mother Teresa meets ‘The Golden Girls,’” she said.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing three characters. I love the challenge of playing with physicality and voice to move from character to the next.”
The irreverent dark comedy explores the afterlife of former apostle Judas, wanting to know if sin or grief or grace will prevail, and runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28, Wednesday through Sunday, with no Friday performance. It is recommended for mature audiences.

The Last Days of Judas IscariotTibbetts is not the only cast member with multiple roles or who switches genders — 27 diverse characters are woven into a courtroom in downtown Purgatory, part of a jury trial to determine if Judas should remain in Hell. After all, who’s to blame/at fault for his notorious place in history, damned for all-time, his lawyer argues.
The historical and Biblical characters are sinners and saints. The play by Stephen Adly Guirgis was originally staged off-Broadway at The Public Theatre in 2005, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Guirgis went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015, for “Between Riverside and Crazy.”
Her longtime friend and colleague Carl Overly Jr. portrays attorney El-Fayoumy.
“Carl and I get to have so much fun on stage together. It’s also very exciting to be included in an ensemble that beautifully reflects our community,” she said.
Adam Flores, resident artist at Fontbonne University, directed the production. Locally, it is the second time a regional company is tackling the show — HotCity Theatre staged it in 2006.
Besides Tibbetts and Overly, the ensemble includes: Courtney Bailey Parker, Rae Davis, Graham Emmons, FeliceSkye, Carmen Garcia, Chelsea Krenning, Jesse Munoz, Ariella Rovinsky, Chandler Spradling, Chris Ware and Eric Dean White.
Active in regional theater for more than 10 years, Tibbetts has become one of St. Louis’ most versatile artists working today.
Little Thing Big Thing with Joe HanrahanIn the past three years alone, Tibbetts has played a nun on the run, a faux vampire, a German matron trying to make sense of the World War II fallout, Athena goddess of war, a spoiled social climber in hell, Lady Macbeth, an exotic secret agent in a Hitchcock movie parody, a Spanish painter and Harvard star-mapper.
She is a founding member of Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, and has been in productions at The Midnight Company, ERA (Equally Represented Arts) Theatre, R-S Theatrics, Tennessee Williams Festival, Young Liars and West End Players Guild.
While she has been able to portray many memorable roles, one of her all-time favorite experiences was this past winter, when she played trailblazing ‘astronomer’ (data entry clerk) Henrietta Swan Leavitt in Laurwn Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky” in the West End Players Guild production.
Silent Sky, with Michelle Hand, Jamie Pitt and Rachel Tibbetts. Photo by John Lamb“I don’t know if a day has gone by since we closed where I haven’t thought about this particular line: ‘Because wonder will always get us there.’ Every aspect of working on ‘Silent Sky’ was truly an experience of wonder – the script, the director, the cast, the production ensemble,” she said.
“My grandmother passed away while working on the show. She was always supportive of me as an artist. My heart hurt, and still does, from her death, but working on the show gifted me healing,” she said.
No Exit. Photo by Joey RumpellShe has dedicated her work this year to “Grams.” And she has kept busy.
Tibbetts doesn’t only act — she directed “Run-On Sentence” for SATE this spring. With Lucy Cashion, she co-directed a new adaptation of “Antigone” at the women’s prison in Vandalia, which was a collaboration between Saint Louis University and Prison Performing Arts.
As a co-producer, she is working on a new translation of “Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus” for SATE, which opens Oct. 31. She co-produced the second annual Aphra Behn Emerging Artists’ Festival with SATE this spring.
She also filmed a movie based on Anton Chekhov’s “Platonov” with ERA Theatre and Sleepy Kitty.
Theater takes up most of her waking life.
After earning a B.A. in theatre from Oklahoma State University, she found an internship opportunity with the Delaware Theatre Company’s education department.
“I had an interest in education as well,” she said, noting that she has worked with Young Audiences of St. Louis and is a graduate of the Community Arts Training Institute at the Regional Arts Commission in 2006-2007.
This year, she marked 13 years with Prison Performing Arts and is currently their Director of Youth Programs.
“It’s very much an honor to create and collaborate with the adult and youth artists in all of our facilities,” she said.
“I have been lucky enough to have always had a job in the arts since college, and I’m very grateful to make my living doing what I love to do,” she said.
Maggie Conroy and Rachel in ERA’s “Trash Macbeth” 2016She moved to St. Louis in 2003. After getting a divorce in 2006, she discovered SATE through her friend Kim. She accompanied her to a training session and met founder Margeau Baue Steinau, and two years later, she met another kindred spirit, founder Ellie Schwetye.
“I am the artist who I am and have had the opportunities I’ve had because of them,” she said.
She considers working with her SATE family “fun, exhilarating and challenging.”
“Ellie and I focus on creating an environment where people can experiment and have fun. It’s also extremely important to us to create a community where everyone – on stage and off – feel like both themselves and their work matter,” she said.
“And I’m really proud of the magic our coven creates – our coven being Ellie, myself, Bess Moynihan and Liz Henning (resident designers),” she said.
Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts accepting award for Best Ensemble – Comedy for “First Impressions” at 2018 St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Photo by Gerry LoveShe and Ellie are the yin and yang.
“Ellie and I work well because we complement each other. We definitely are two different individuals in many ways, and I love that about us. It creates a relationship, both personal and professional, where we can continually grow from working with — and just knowing –each other,” she said.
Because wonder will always get us there.
Here are Rachel’s answers to our Take Ten Questions:
Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
I was obsessed with the movie “Annie” as a little girl. I had the red dress. We owned the record. I would wander around the house singing, “Amaya, Amaya, I love ya Amaya,” because I couldn’t pronounce the word tomorrow. My mom tells me that there are moments where she wanted to get rid of the record because I just wouldn’t stop, but she didn’t, and I am thankful.
My parents always encouraged me to pursue the arts.
They were always taking me to see plays and musicals, but beyond the doors of our homes (my dad was in the Air Force and we moved a lot), I was pretty shy. I finally started taking theatre classes in middle school. It really helped me find my voice and a community. I was lucky to have an incredible drama teacher in high school and she also encouraged me.
2, How would your friends describe you?
Recently, a very dear friend, described me as a love-magnet. I love this. I think they would also describe me as loopy and they know what they mean.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Watching the ‘Real Housewives’ and then gossiping about the Real Housewives with my friends Andrew and Carl, hanging at the Crow’s Nest with Bess.”
What is your current obsession?
“Stranger Things.” I can’t leave Target without purchasing a new t-shirt. I now have a one tee limit anytime I leave there. I love everything about that show because it reminds me of everything I loved about my childhood – “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Ghostbusters.”
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I’m not afraid of spiders. And maybe that I’m 40.”
St. Louis Theater Circle Awards 2018, SATE winners of Best Ensemble – Comedy and Best New Play for “First Impressions”Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“In 2006, I got divorced and I was really searching for something, so a good friend of mine, Kim, invited me to join her for a Monday night training with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Then, I met Margeau. And two years later, I met Ellie. I am the artist who I am and have had the opportunities I’ve had because of them.”
Who do you admire most?
“My mom and dad, Paul and Judy. They are the kindest people I know. And they make me laugh so much.”
What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“To see Kendrick Lamar in concert.”
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Eat cheese and drink margaritas at Mi Ranchito.”
What’s next?
“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” with Mustard Seed Theatre – actor; “Doctor Faustus, or the Modern Prometheus” – co-producer; and “First Impressions” – directing a remount performance at the women’s prison in Vandalia, Mo.
Her parents are moving here in December, so she has that to look forward to, too.
The Cherry Sisters Revisited. Rachel is bottom row, middle.MORE ON RACHEL TIBBETTS
Name: Rachel TibbettsAge: 40Birthplace: Rapid City, South DakotaCurrent location: Where St. Louis City and Maplewood meetFamily: Paul and Jude, my parents, and my fur kids: Lyric, Monroe, and RubyEducation: B.A. in Theatre from Oklahoma State UniversityDay job: Director of Youth Programs for Prison Performing ArtsFirst job: Server at Simple Simon’s Pizza in Enid, Okla.First role: Cobweb in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”Favorite roles/plays: Effie/”The Cherry Sisters,” Every role in “R+J: A Telephone Play,” Horatio in “Remember Me,” Henrietta in “Silent Sky”Dream role/play: I don’t have one.Awards/Honors/Achievements: Best Ensemble in a Comedy for “The 39 Steps” (St. Louis Theater Circle) and SATE won “Best Production of a Comedy for “As You Like It” and Best Ensemble in a Comedy/Best New Play for “First Impressions.”
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Because wonder will always get us there…” –  from Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky”
A song that makes you happy: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, and with modern technology we can listen to it whenever we want.
“Judgment at Nuremburg” with Joe Hanrahan. Photo by Joey Rumpell.