Earlier this month, we caught the conclusion to this year’s Ignite! festival, presented by the Rep. The play Teenage Dick was read. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III, only set in a contemporary American high school. Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, second only to Hamlet, so some liberties would be expected when you are shoehorning the original five-act drama into a one-act comedy-drama. The titular character, Richard (Gregg Mozgala), is running for class president, although it might as well be king and he really is being a dick about it. Mr. Mozgala has cerebral palsy, which he uses to help define his character’s ambition. Two other students are also candidates in this election. There is Eddie (Nick Dillenburg), the incumbent, football hero, etc. As Richard’s antagonist, I believe that he is a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Edward IV. The other candidate, Clarissa (Liesl Allen Yeager), I couldn’t place in the original work. She reminded me most of Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick from the movie Election. Other characters include Buck (Shannon DeVido), who represents the Duke of Buckingham and uses a motorized wheelchair. A major theme of this play is to portray people with disabilities as real people, who are not defined solely by their disability. Anne (Tiffany Villarin) or Lady Anne is the play’s love interest. She was dating Eddie, but is wooed by Richard and they attend the Senior Prom together. The only other character is Elizabeth (Nikiya Mathis) or Queen Elizabeth. She plays the faculty advisor to the student council. Teenage Dick was billed as part comedy, but the laughs are rather sparse. What laughs there are, are delivered by Elizabeth. Whenever one of the student characters break the rules, Elizabeth is heard to yell, “Take them to the Tower!” Her best line occurs during the student president’s debate, which is being live streamed on Twitter. When things eventually get out of hand and the Twitterati commence their snarking, Elizabeth calls out, “Twitter is no place for sarcasm!” The Rep’s next main stage season still has one as yet unannounced spot in January. It will be interesting to see, if one of the three Ignite! featured plays snag that vacancy.
Corazón Eterno (Always in My Heart) by playwright Caridad Svich is the middle play in this year’s Ignite! festival at the Rep. This festival involves the reading of new, still developing plays before a live audience. We have been regularly attending Ignite! since its inception. This year the festival has moved from the Opera Theater rehearsal hall to the Rep’s Studio Theater, the black box, where the chairs are more comfortable. Svich’s play is a story of unrequited love. As the title implies, it has a Latin American setting and it also uses language reminiscent of Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Its story is as old as Romeo & Juliet and features two star-crossed lovers separated by their families. The twist here is that the two protagonists are both named Julia and their love is the romantic love between two women.
After each reading Seth Gordon, the Ignite! artistic director comes out and quizzes the audience, asking us what aspect of the play was most memorable. I’ve always felt that this Q&A was primarily for the playwright’s benefit, giving them additional feedback on their work. I mentioned that these plays are still at a stage of considerable flux and this is especially true for this play here. I was surprised to learn while researching this post that Corazón Eterno had been performed this February in the Twin Cities. The Pioneer Press gave it a nice review, but also divulged a storyline that was significantly different. Three of the actors appeared on both stages: Mariana Fernandez, Lisa Suarez and Sasha Andreev still play Julia, Clemencia and Michael respectively. Julia still had an overbearing father, but then the other Julia (Keira Keeley) was called Julio and was played by a man. Holy gender-bending, Batman!
I’ll leave you with the following unrelated YouTube link. It shows the band Fever High playing their song “Looks Good on Paper”. It features some rather snappy bubblegum and is my nominee for this summer’s earwig.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all met and played together in an impromptu jam session, which Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet.” Sam had rolled tape that afternoon, from which several albums have ensued. The quartet had primarily played old gospel songs, because those were the ones that they all knew. Last night, we enjoyed the musical version of this story at the Rep. In this version of Million Dollar Quartet gospel is paid its due, with songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley”, but the main event is all rock and roll. With twenty-two tunes in the show, there are way too many to enumerate here.
It is the intervals that make this play much more than an Elvis impersonation. The spaces between the songs, where we are given a glimpse at how these legends worked and interacted. That Christmas was a turbulent time for Phillips and Sun. Cash’s contract was up for renewal and RCA was trying to acquire Phillips’ services to help manage Presley. Sam had only a year before sold the rights to Elvis for $40,000, to keep Sun afloat. RCA’s initial response to that offer had been, “We can buy the World Series for less than that.” Acting as MC, Phillips rises above this squabbling sea of virtuosos and rides the rising tide to historical vindication, but not before a host of some mighty fine tunes are performed. At the end of the second act, each member of the quartet ‘solos’ with one of their signature songs: “Hound Dog” for Elvis, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” for Cash, “See you Later Alligator” for Perkins and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for Lewis. The last two are played out as encores, hyping the rock concert feel of the show. The crowd was on its feet well before the lights came up and it was announced that Elvis had left the building.
Last Friday night, Anne and I went to go see All My Sons, this month’s play at the Rep. We have been attending the Rep as season ticket holders for decades now. Invariably their January offering is the most enlightening, but least entertaining of all their offerings. Playwright Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is no exception. Exiting the theater, after the show, I overheard a young woman tell her friend, “That was depressing.” True, but maybe not as bad as another Miller play, The Crucible. Miller wrote All My Sons in 1947 after his first play The Man Who Had All the Luck failed, lasting only for four shows. While preparing All My Sons, Miller promised himself that if it failed too, he would seek another line of work. Fortunately, it was a success and ran for almost a year. The play is based upon a true story. During WW II the Wright aircraft company of Ohio was implicated in selling defective aircraft engine parts. Then Senator Harry Truman led an investigation of the scandal that led to the conviction of three Air Force inspectors that were involved in the crime.
All My Sons was both a critical and commercial success, but was also plagued by political controversy. Its criticism of the American dream, was one reason why Miller was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, while America was in the grip of a communist hysteria. The stage director Elia Kazan was a former Communist Party member and shared many of Miller’s left-wing views. Their friendship was destroyed when she gave names of suspected communists to Joe McCarthy’s committee.
All of this lurid back story, belies the idyllic opening of the play. In its entirety the play is set on a single Sunday, in the backyard of a home in some nameless suburb. A storm had passed the night before and downed a tree, but the morning has dawned bright and clear. Slowly at first, but with an increasing pace things begin to unwind and the cracks in the foundation of this American household begin to show. By the time of the play’s climactic ending its shaken American dream comes crashing down like an avalanche of bricks.
At the beginning, I might have been a little harsh on Mr. Miller. The play’s dialog is first rate and in its time, it might have been bold enough to rock the corridors of power, but today its scandal seems more like yesterday’s news. In real life no exec from Wright ever went to jail, just the men who were their go-between. There was no justice then. The rich went to trial, while the poor went to jail. It is just all so depressing to think about.
4 ghosts, 2 acts, A Christmas Carol, this was our nostalgic Friday evening at the Rep, which is celebrating its 50th season. Our favorite and the hardest working actor in Saint Louis, Joneal Joplin, had his 100th Rep performance with this venue. It has been 35 years since the Rep last did A Christmas Carol, which predates our tenure with this company. Still, they did once do Carol, a delightful spoof of the original play and small theater in general. It was funny, new and original, which A Christmas Carol was not. Not that this retelling of Dickens classic Yuletide morality tale was without its charms. The production values were top-notch as always. I enjoyed the excellent sets and costumes. The first act dragged a bit and Anne even got a coffee at intermission, but the drumbeat of traditional carols must have worked its magic. Because by the end of the play, I had found my Christmas spirit again. So, a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Ferguson, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, two years after these names were first in the news, they still sting the ears. Until the Flood just finished its run at the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Written by and starring Dael Orlandersmith, this one-woman, one-act play is both short and intense. Ms. Orlandersmith portrays a host of Saint Louisans, black and white, young and old, male and female. Each new voice adds another viewpoint to the events of two summers ago, when long simmering problems came to a boil and thrust Saint Louis into the unwanted glare of the national spotlight. In the intervening two years some good has come out of that summer’s tragedy, the Black Lives Matter movement was born and has gone national, federally mandated local municipal reform has corrected some of the most egregious inequities that helped to precipitate the troubles in Ferguson and this play that reminds us once again, less we forget, of our community’s feelings of both outrage and shame about the events in Ferguson.
Another day, another play, well really another evening, this time it was at the Rep and the evening’s show was the Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies. This offering is the Rep’s season opener in what is director Steve Woolf and his company’s 50th anniversary season. A hearty job well done is in order for everyone involved. Anne and I have been going to the Rep through most this fifty year run and have enjoyed almost all of their offerings. This particular play is quite the extravaganza, befitting its rather prestigious role. It boasts a large cast, a beautiful set and many stunning costumes. Another special shoutout is in order for Joneal Joplin, the hardest working actor in Saint Louis. The play’s story is:
The story concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies”, a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), that played in that theatre between the world wars. It focuses on two couples, Buddy & Sally and Benjamin & Phyllis, who are attending the reunion. Sally and Phyllis were showgirls in the Follies. Both couples are deeply unhappy with their marriages. Buddy, a traveling salesman, is having an affair with a girl on the road; Sally is still as much in love with Ben as she was years ago; and Ben is so self-absorbed that Phyllis feels emotionally abandoned. Several of the former showgirls perform their old numbers, sometimes accompanied by the ghosts of their former selves.