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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joey Rumpell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joey Rumpell.

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

By Lynn Venhaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lynn Venhaus

Several visionary local artists proved that fortune does favor the bold through their efforts to present a gift to a theater-starved community.

This precious lifeline was “Mute: A Play for Zoom” on Sunday, April 5. We experienced an original 5-person 30-minute play on the internet with a hundred other people that Sunday night, boldly going where no one had gone before.

This absurdist apocalyptic academic farce was a burst of creativity and a jolt of connectivity like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.

A maiden voyage by playwright Nancy Bell, director Lucy Cashion and production manager Spencer Lawton explored our strange new world of making art during a quarantine. It starts out as a video conference call among colleagues at a university. For these academics, there is confusion, and eventually fire – and a hamster.

A recording of last week’s live Zoom performance was shown during a Facebook Watch Party April 12. It is now on Vimeo for all to see: https://vimeo.com/405178212?fbclid=IwAR2hkRVBGu78QK8rLQWmb6pY-e7fynRixVlGxky1vvhWNxyN3kKY8PrCP0s

How it all came together was truly remarkable — ignited a spark, a surge of energy that took us out of our stay-at-home melancholia and made us appreciate authentic art and true talent.

It was like I was on a new adventure without leaving my couch.

The five-person cast included several lauded veterans and standout newcomers as colleagues. St. Louis Theater Circle Award winners Michelle Hand (a very nervous Maria), Michael James Reed (agitated Trent), Keating (trying to hang on Fiona) and Sophia Brown (mysterious Lila and Man Ray) performed with their customary immersion into character as well as Delaney Piggins, so good at New Jewish Theatre’s “I Now Pronounce,” as confused Heather and Jakob Hulten as assistant Dustin trying to herd the cats and keep normalcy.

They all connected in a believable way, providing distinctive portraits in a very short amount of time as what the new normal is quickly erodes into a disturbing situation. Reed mastered delivery of a barrage of new vocabulary among his monologues, unleashing a torrent of new words among his distain for the circumstances. He did it with a complete command of the twisty dialogue.

Worried about technical difficulties, it actually went off without a hitch, and ended abruptly according the script. Just be patient. Zoom is a terrific tool for bringing us all together, and the technical gurus behind this production did a fantastic job.

I have always been grateful we have the brilliance of Nancy Bell as a playwright and an actress and the visionary viewpoint of Lucy Cashion, who is never deterred by convention or obstacles, and noticed them right away as I began reviewing more regional professional theater in 2012.

And “Mute: A Play for Zoom” confirms how lucky we are to have them producing art in St. Louis.

This is just a thrilling testament to the possibilities of how to create art in unconventional ways under difficult circumstances.

While this view is indeed apocalyptic, the way it was executed was also life-affirming and uplifting in a bracing way – and to be able to appreciate how we can still connect through storytelling was indeed a lovely surprise gift.

Bravo to everyone involved.

Here is what the cast bios said on their event page:

CAST

Delaney Piggins [Heather] is a St. Louis Actor/Playwright/Producer, who is excited to do her first “pants optional” play.

Jakob Hultén [Dustin] is a SLU senior graduating with a BA in Theatre and History.

Michelle Hand [Maria] is an STL born and bred professional actor who, in her twenty years at work, has never quite done something like this.

Sophia Brown [Lila/Man Ray] is thrilled to be joining Mute! She is a local theatre artist, most recently seen with the Imaginary Theatre Company.

Keating [Fiona] is a kick-ass theatre artist who is madly in love with STL, co-artistic director of Poor Monsters.

Michael James Reed [Trent] used to enjoy doing a play or two. He now spends good portions of his day in a cardigan and Crocks.

They took a risk and it paid off.

Note: MUTE: A play for Zoom WATCH PARTY this Sunday, APRIL 12th at 7PM. DETAILS TBA. https://facebook.com/events/s/mute-a-play-for-zoom-watch-par/159436718663052/?ti=icl

Join us for the watch party!!! Here’s the page where you can get all the details coming soon.