By Lynn Venhaus

The rapacious 12th Century Plantagenet Family behaves as badly as the modern-day Roys of Manhattan and The Duttons of Montana, a rogues’ gallery of royal connivers in “The Lion in Winter.”

That’s one of the many reasons why The Midnight Company’s bracing production is fun – and riveting – to watch because sparks fly, and flames are fanned in a master class exercise in acting.

Director Tom Kopp has lit a fuse under his finely tuned ensemble so that they burn bright, crackling with big birthright energy while delivering virtuosic performances: Joe Hanrahan, Lavonne Byers, Joel Moses, John Wolbers, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Michael Pierce and Shannon Campbell.

As the formidable ensemble tackles each aristocratic character like a predator setting a trap for his prey, they often strike a playful, comedic tone but mainly heighten the drama’s intensity because their massive ambitions collide in a winner-takes-all battle. The prize: inheriting the crown of King Henry II of England.

Multi-hyphenate award winner Joe Hanrahan plays mega-manipulator Henry with a smirk and a gleeful vitality, emphasizing his skills at being a disrupter and poster boy for “It’s Good to Be King.” He met his match with his older ‘bride,’ Eleanor, the richest and shrewdest woman in the world who bore him four sons, but they sure don’t care much for them, except as pawns in their epic face-offs.

James Goldman’s 1966 play is set at a contentious Christmastime in 1183 in a castle in Chinon, France, on land still owned by the British ruler. The classic dysfunctional family is hanging festive holly, but they are far from jolly.

That’s to be expected, with the mom – who tried to overthrow the king awhile back — about to return to prison, where she’s been kept by her husband for 10 years, and then dear old domineering dad put the three bad-tempered sons in the dungeon. His firstborn has died. Sounds – and looks like – a holiday in hell.

The wannabe kings. Photo by Joey Rumpell

With anger and resentment thick in the air and mulled wine flowing, swords are brandished and emotions erupt as conflicts ensue. You can see the wheels turning in their cunning little heads. Kopp has briskly staged the posturing, maneuvering, embracing, and shouting so that we’re kept off-guard and suspicious.

The group is tangled in one–upmanship, some more obvious than others – but it’s apparent the amount of trust and respect among the actors that allows them to have a field day with the material and each other.

One of the grand dames of St Louis regional theatre, Lavonne Byers ascends to her lofty perch as the crafty and regal queen – and in a savvy display, she doesn’t telegraph what she’s doing until it’s done, so smooth in the takeovers.

The two-time St. Louis Theater Circle winner and frequent nominee devours anyone in her path as the legendary Eleanor of Aquitane, the role that won Katharine Hepburn her third of four Academy Awards in the 1968 movie version.

As the mom-and-pop puppetmasters, Hanrahan and Byers are spirited in doing the Tango Queen as they dance around – and this battling couple actually loves one another. But as to which of their three chips off the old block will take over the kingdom is quite a game of chess.

Richard, the warrior, as in “The Lionhearted,” won’t be denied, but neither will the pre-Renaissance Machiavellian Geoffrey, bitter about being passed over, and they both are out of favor because the youngest, an immature buffoonish John, is daddy’s favorite. (Maybe because they both behave like petulant children.)

The terrific trio of Joel Moses as the steely soldier Richard, John Wolbers as sly schemer Geoffrey, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske as spoiled brat John lock into their characters seamlessly.

I’m not concerned about their characters’ ages – Richard, 26; Geoffrey, 25; and John, 16, and you don’t have to be either – it’s called acting, and they’re very good at creating full-bodied portrayals. When you have actors not usually known for playing villains in amoral roles, it’s delectable. (Also, smart choice to not have English accents).

The French kids. Photo by Joey Rumpell

Then complicating things are those testy French folks staying there, unpleasant attitudes flaring up – the young King Philip, 18, who’s been in charge for three years, and his sister, Alais, 23, who besides being a princess is supposed to be engaged to Richard but is Henry’s very young mistress. That’s another soap opera, but she may be the most ruthless of all.

Alais has been in the castle for a long time, pretty much raised by Eleanor. Strange bedfellows indeed. Shannon Campbell and Michael Pierce are strong in those roles, setting themselves apart from those high-maintenance Plantagenets but still crafty. After all, the new king is itching to go to war with England.

The creative team has delivered a vibrant staging, with stage manager Karen Pierce keeping the action from sagging. With a well-appointed set design by Brad Slavik, well-lit by lighting designer Tony Anselmo, and vintage props collected by Miriam Whatley, the look is a pleasant replica of nooks in a drafty castle. Costume designer Liz Henning demonstrates her considerable gifts outfitting the royals in impressive fabrics, textures, embroidery and finery.

A special touch is original music composed by Susan Elaine Kopp that gives it an authentic cultural  “welcome to the almost Renaissance” sound.

If you like diving into history, you may enjoy finding out who succeeded Henry. Spoiler alert: the tall fighting man. But that should be its own sequel.

The Midnight Company’s invigorating production makes the past become an absorbing power play by movers and shakers that leaps off dusty pages of an Encyclopedia Brittanica. Long live the kings in a not-to-be-missed show.

The Midnight Company presents “The Lion in Winter” from Oct. 5 to Oct. 21, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays on Oct. 8 and 15 at the .Zack Theatre,

Mom and Pop. Photo by Joey Rumpell

For 2019-2020, West End Players Guild offers an exciting menu of plays never or rarely seen in St. Louis, including a world premiere commissioned exclusively for WEPG. 

            September 27-October 6, 2019:  Bill Cain’s Equivocation is a Shakespearean tale of intrigue starring the Bard himself.  The King offers Shakespeare a commission he can’t refuse, to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament.  Shakespeare discovers it is a perilous assignment, as he learns that the King’s version of the story does not quite square with the facts.  Shakespeare is torn between the between the truth and the Crown.  Can he walk this tightrope without losing his head (literally)?  Tom Kopp directs. 

            December 6-15, 2019:  It’s the world premiere of Vladimir Zelevinsky’s The Cricket on the Hearth, an adaptation of the Charles Dickens story, commissioned and written especially for WEPG.  Steve Callahan directs this tale of unlikely but undying love, a holiday heart-warmer that will both entertain and move you. 

            February 21-March 1:  Sharon’s husband and son are gone and her big Iowa house feels very lonely.  Maybe a roommate will help.  Enter Robyn, who turns out to be someone quite different than she appears to be.  Sean Belt directs Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, a very funny show about standing up to life and daring to do something totally new.  It’s a lesson in life and a quirky “buddy comedy” all rolled up in one.     

            April 17-26, 2020:  What if you could go back in time and change the one moment that reshaped your life forever?  What if you could see a lost love of 40 years ago just one more time, to learn how her life turned out?  Would you?  Steven Dietz’s bittersweet Bloomsday poses the questions – the answers are for you to discover. Jessa Knust makes her WEPG directing debut.     

            Season tickets for the upcoming season go on sale May 1st online at Individual show tickets will go on sale in August.  All shows are at the theatre in the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard in the Central West End.  Actors, take note:  Auditions for Season 109 will begin in June. Watch for further announcements and check for more information at 

            West End Players Guild is the region’s oldest continuously-operated theatre company, presenting “big theatre in a small space” since 1911. 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Something so simple yet so profound, “Every Brilliant Thing” harnesses the euphoria of a fresh outlook, the childlike wonder of a new discovery and the bittersweet touchstones of love, loss and laughter.
This bracing 65-minute monologue mixes comedy and tragedy into a potent aperitif, for this timeless message is especially poignant this holiday season.
The narrator is the adult daughter of a mother whose chronic depression altered her emotional development and life perspective. She was 7 when her mother first attempted suicide.
In the intimate setting of the Kranzberg Arts Center black box theater, Nancy Nigh takes us on the narrator’s heart-wrenching and humorous personal journey through the lens of her own creative balm.

It started as a child’s sunny list of life’s very best offerings to cheer up her despondent mom — 1. Ice cream, 2. Water fights, 3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV, 4. The color yellow, and so on. Then turned into a lifeline, a burden and a security blanket during adolescence, college, marriage, bumpy roads and eventually, peace and acceptance.
The list is as broad as 11. Bed and 1006. Surprises – who can argue, right? – and as specific as 2390. People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care and 1654. Christopher Walken’s voice.
The list eventually grew to a million, with entries as clever as 123321. Palindromes, as funny as 7. People falling over, as adorable as 575. Piglets, as pleasurable as 9997. Being cooked for, and as nostalgic as 315. The smell of an old book.
It’s quite a feat. And compulsive list-makers can identify, as well as people who feel helpless when they can’t protect, control or prevent family members from harm.
Alone surrounded by the audience, Nigh is crucial to the mood. To make us comfortable, she must be both vulnerable and strong, relaxed yet firm.
After all, the rollercoaster ride of emotions will affect us in a deeply personal way – and she must be a safety net. And vice versa — we’re hers.
Audience interaction and participation are essential elements that keep the one-woman show unpredictable and improvisational.
The one-act play was first produced in England, at the 2013 Ludlum Fringe Festival, and started out as a short story called “Sleevenotes” by Duncan McMillan. For the stage, he involved comedian Jonny Donahue, who was filmed for the 2016 HBO presentation.
The play’s specialness is its authentic lived-in quality, mixing the merry and the morose in such a way to connect us all.
Free of any artifice, Nigh guides us without missing a beat. The narrator is not merely reciting a litany of her favorite things, therefore we tag along through key turning points in her life.
The narrator becomes the director, telling a few people what to say and where to move. Some are just called on to read list entries. Nigh does so effortlessly, with an easy charm.
She also conveys the narrator’s bravery, for the hardest things to talk about are things we should talk about – and this play allows us to, for catharsis can come out of crushing sadness. She has earned this accomplishment.
Director Tom Kopp keeps Nigh on the move, so she’s not for long in any one corner. The staging is in the storytelling. Taking part is very natural – not awkward or embarrassing, or cringe-inducing.
A nice touch is how important music is to the people in the story, from her father’s influential record collection to the sublime sounds of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.”
McMillan’s descriptive writing has woven in research about clinical depression, and the shadow of suicide lingers. As heart-wrenching as it is humorous, the play has an ebb and flow, not unlike the song ‘Sunrise, Sunset.”
Yet it never feels less than real, and there is no sugar-coating. If it triggers anything, an usher lets you know beforehand that it’s OK to leave for a bit.
In an uplifting and inspiring way, the play urges us to celebrate the small pleasures of life. Now. Don’t wait for moments – let them in, be open to them.
How can you not smile at 521. The word plinth, or 536. Winning something?
“Every Brilliant Thing” is a comforting and joyous reminder of the random moments that make a life.
Above all, this R-S Theatrics’ presentation stresses kindness. Above all, kindness. We know that this play hits too close to home for so many. We all want to say things may not always be brilliant, but they do get better – before it’s too late. The program includes information on CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, resources, crisis hotline numbers and tips.
R-S Theatrics presents “Every Brilliant Thing” Nov. 16 – Dec. 2, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. in the Kranzberg Black Box, 501 N. Grand Blvd. For tickets, visit. or call 314-252-8812.