Confederates by Dominque Morisseau

The Saint Louis run of Confederates ends this weekend. This play by Dominique Morisseau is divided across time. Half set during the Civil War, half nowadays. The play’s set reinforces this divide, with flooring cut to a depth, like the earth has been rent asunder between these two halves. Sara, a southern slave turned Harriet Tubman like a Union spy, and Sandra, a tenured professor at a modern-day private university, are having parallel experiences of institutional racism, though they live 150 years apart. Confederates jumps back-and-forth in time to show us these two Black women and explore the bonds of racial and gender bias that still hold us all captive even now. Sara and Sandra are both fixed in and each anchor their respective times, but they are also accompanied by a trio of other actors who do double duty, playing different yet analogous characters in each time period. An antebellum photograph of an African-American slave women, bare breasted, suckling a white child is the impetus for this story. In modern times, Sandra finds a crudely photoshopped version of it, with her face tacked on to it, on her office door. At the ending, during a northern abolitionist meeting, a now free Sara takes the original photo from beneath her dress and proclaims the slave women as her mother, before defiantly baring her own breast to the audience. The house lights then darkened, to be soon replaced by annoying and heavy-handed spotlights trained upon the audience.

Covid seating practices were still evident, sort of, I guess. The galleries, the cheap seats, where we normally sit, were all closed. The audience had been crammed together in the orchestra section of the theater. All except for the front row, which was taped off. We ended up seated next to a pair of women who were somewhat miffed at having been pushed back one row, from their usual front row seats. Our leap from the back, next to them, did not aid their disposition. The Rep had instituted similar seating during the pandemic once before, but in that play the cast freely circulated among the audience, and we all wore masks. At first, I thought that this was the case here, but that was not it. In the end, I figured that it was some lame Covid procedure, designed simply to protect the cast from the audience and piss off some audience members, but who knows?

We saw this play’s first Midwest production. A year ago, Confederates was opening off-Broadway. Supplanting another Morisseau production, Skeleton Crew, the finale in her three-play cycle, the Detroit Project. It will be performing in town next month. Going into Confederates, I did not know anything about it and I did not have great expectations either. The Rep usually confines its more Avant guard, less mainstream elements of its season to its February offerings. Reserving the more plum calendar slots for shows that will have broader appeal, like their next play, Murder on the Orient Express. A production sure to reap the big box-office bucks that their many season subscribers from doctor-lawyer-land will surely provide. But, as a local reviewer proclaimed, Confederates was the show of the season. In order to accommodate that show’s larger house, I am sure that for Murder, we will be relegated back to our usual cheap seats. Denying us the same intimacy and live theater experience that we got this week.

Side by Side

We attended the Rep last night. The show was Side by Side by Sondheim—A Musical Entertainment. This 4+ actor review (5 if you include the MC) showcased Steven Sondheim’s works across his long and storied career. Sometimes the songs performed were with both his music and lyrics, but sometimes they only had his lyrics and a collaborator’s music. Some of the 28 songs performed were memorable favorites, but sometimes they were rather obscure. The first song was Comedy Tonight the famous opening tune from A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum. Interestingly, it was not the original opening number. That honor originally fell to Love is in the Air, which is much less up tempo. The musical was bombing until the switch.

The MC would introduce the songs a few at a time, grouping them using some common thread. The pictured actors would then perform the works, singing and dancing them to the accompaniment of two piano players. The actors went through frequent costume changes, from one song to another, often with rather risqué attire. Once the MC speaking about the show Gypsy mused that “once burlesque was both small and intimate. Now it is performed on a broad stage out in the open, and we call it musical theater.”

At intermission two rather hoity-toity couples at the end of our row left the theater in disgust. Maybe it was the risqué costumes or some of the songs sung, like Can That Boy Foxtrot, where the word foxtrot is enunciated in a manner that suggested the F-word. Categorized as one of those obscure Sondheim tunes, it was written for Follies, but was cut from that show in Boston, in its run up to Broadway. Even since the time of Steven Woolf as artistic director of the Rep, there has been pushback from some about some of the artistic choices made. Last night’s performance was held at COCA, which is outside the purview of the sisters of Loretto. One of the hoity-toity people said that he thought that the performance was “cheap.” Maybe it was not a comment about production values, like I thought at the time, but rather a comment on its lewdness.

Private Lives

High Society—Champagne + Cigarettes Photo by Louise Lyshøj on Unsplash

Dinner and a show last night—Our dinner was at Salt + Smoke, a BBQ joint in the Loop that was packed with WashU students, making me feel old by comparison. The show was Noël Coward’s Private Lives, which was performed at COCA (Center of Creative Arts), a smaller, more intimate venue than the Rep’s usual forum, the Loretto-Hilton Theater. The demographics of the Rep’s audience was such that I now felt young by comparison.

Coward’s 1930s Private Lives stars four roles. The leads are characters Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, who were divorced and then meet again, on the adjoining balconies of their adjacent suites, for the first time since their bitter divorce, on the first night of their respective honeymoons, with their new spouses. Awkward! Elyot has married Sibyl Chase, a younger and somewhat flighty woman. While Amanda is now hitched to Victor Prynne, a rather dour and humorless man. Amanda and Elyot are the first to realize their new predicament and without telling them why, implore their respective amours to immediately flee to Paris from the Riviera resort that they have all only just arrived at, but to no avail. Faced with the seemingly unreasonable demands of their new spouses, separately both Sibyl and Victor leave the scene. This leaves Elyot and Amanda alone, first to squabble, then to commiserate, reminisce and eventually reconcile. Realizing that they are both still in love and realizing that neither of their new spouses know anything about these recent events, they both decide to sneak out together and flee to Paris, end Act One.

After intermission, Act Two opens in Amanda’s Paris flat, where we find Elyot and Amanda romancing together in bedroom attire. Elyot and Amanda invent the safety phrase “Solomon Isaacs”, to stop their arguments from getting out of hand. They kiss passionately, but the harmony cannot last, while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, neither can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. Their ongoing argument escalates to a point of fury, as Amanda breaks a record over Elyot’s head, and he retaliates by slapping her face. They seem to be trapped in a repeating cycle of love and hate as their private passions and jealousies consume them. At the end of the second act and the height of their biggest fight, Sibyl and Victor walk in.

In the Thirties the second act was frequently deemed too sexual and was often censored. By today’s standards the scene seemed rather tame, but there was still enough going on to adequately suggest otherwise. It also begged the question, did the Rep have to put on this production at COCA, because the Rep’s regular landladys, the Sisters of Loretto, still found it to be too unseemly?

I will not spoil the play’s ending, except to say that Coward has found a more satisfying way to end this play, than the only logical conclusion to Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship, one of them killing the other. A valid criticism of Private Lives is that Coward has found a way to make domestic violence funny.

Author Noël Coward as Elyot Chase and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Prynne in a 1930 stage production of Coward’s Private Lives

Coward wrote Private Lives feverishly in four days, while he was recuperating in China. He planned on performing the part of Elyot and reached out by cable to Gertrude Lawrence to play the part of Amanda. He sent her the script, to which she wired back, “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” Coward wired back curtly that the only thing that needed to be fixed was her performance. An echo of their character’s on-stage tension, but also a misunderstanding. Lawrence was referring to a scheduling issue that she had. By the time Coward had returned to London, she had cleared her schedule.

House of Joy

Taj Mahal by Julian Yu on Unsplash

Last night, Anne and I began this year’s fall theater season, with dinner and a show. We went to see the Rep’s House of Joy. Before the show, we had dinner at Cyrano’s, which has had a long and checkered tenure throughout our residence in Saint Louis. In our first year living here, while we were away on our honeymoon, it moved into where our favorite pizzeria had been, after its building had burnt. Then in the nineties there was that infamous “extra whip cream” incident. We’ll say no more about that here. Ever since then, Cyrano’s has remained in the regular rotation of dining establishments prefacing the Rep. Our visitations there, like with a lot of other things, kind of fell of the map, because of the pandemic. So, last night I was surprised to learn that Cyrano’s is now owned by Sugarfire, my favorite go to spot for BBQ.

Not to worry though, because Cyrano’s still features their signature ice cream desserts (with extra whip cream), as demonstrated nicely when a nearby family of three ordered the flambee for two. Prepared tableside, as her parents watched on, the little girl was enraptured by the spectacle, although the flames did startle her, but her eyes remained steadfast in happy anticipation. By the time that the dessert was finally served, she had the full attention of the entire restaurant.

Joy has a ghost story, a love story, political intrigue, fantasy, bawdy jokes, fight sequences and an assassination. This play is set in some unnamed emperor’s harem, during the 300-year rule of the Mughal Empire of what is now India. The Mughal’s are famous for the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world and also a tomb for some dead emperor’s favorite wife. I had the good fortune to visit this place, when I was about the age of the little girl from Cyrano’s, in the fifties. It was an experience that was also enrapturing.

The play opens with a street urchin, who had recently beaten a man to death. She’s approached by the steward of the house, about becoming a harem guard, an all-female cloister where the empire’s royal women live. She agrees and discovers that this magical house will let women enter but not leave and won’t let men enter at all, except the emperor, who we never see. The only other person who is free to come and go as they wish is the steward, who is “both boy and girl”. Aside from the steward and the house, which is a character unto itself, the rest of the cast are all women.

To cover the gambit of outlined stories, the play regularly veers from one direction to another, leading to a convoluted plot. Also, our seating was quite different than normal, adding to the weirdness of the experience. We were in the second row, center. Where we normally sit, rows back, was closed off to seating. Still, the house last night was so small that not even half of the available seats were filled. Sitting where we were the action occurred all around us and often felt up close and personal. All-in-all the play was an unusual experience and we have been going to the Rep for over thirty years. So, that is saying something. What? I am still coming to grips with that.

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

Last night, we concluded this year’s theater season. There were barely a handful of shows seen this season and social distancing seating limits the size of the house to about half of its full capacity, but at least we had a season this year, which more than can be said for the year before. We went to the Rep to see The 39 Steps, a comedy that is one part Alfred Hitchcock and one part Monty Python. This play had originally scheduled to be performed in February, but the Omicron outbreak delayed its opening. Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version of The 39 Steps was one of his first films in a catalog that eventually grew to be over fifty films. The plot of this film follows a man, Richard Hannay, who first becomes aware of an espionage conspiracy called the 39 Steps, is framed for murder and then chased by both the police and enemy spies all over Britain, before returning to the theater where it first began. The play that we saw loosely follows the same plot, except that Hannay is always accompanied through his travails by unending series of pratfalls, slapstick humor and jokes that allude to many of the other Hitchcock movies. There are only four actors in this play, one plays Hannay, an actress plays the three love interests in the show and two other actors play the other 140-plus characters that appear in the show. The show was a delightful lighthearted diversion that capped this Covid truncated season.

Stick Fly

New Sweater from Anne – Inner Circle Pattern

We went to the theater last night and saw the play, Stick Fly. Now, this wasn’t the play that we had originally gotten tickets for, covid forced The Rep to substitute plays and this wasn’t the first time that we had tickets for this particular play. We exchanged tickets once to get socially distanced seating and then we exchanged the tickets again, to avoid having to drive in last week’s ice storm. The third time was a charm though. Yesterday, Saint Louis set a new record high temperature of 82 ºF. Because of the heat, I was on the fence about wearing the pictured new sweater that Anne had just finished knitting but decided to go for it and was glad that I did. Vaccine cards in hand and wearing the required KN95 masks we presented ourselves for entry at The Reps new Coca venue. Even though our thrice exchanged tickets put us in the very last orchestra row, the theater is small enough that that was not a problem.

Stick Fly is a six-actor play (Covid don’t you know), set in the present day, during the summer on Martha’s Vineyard. The story told is of the DeVay family an upper-middle class black family that has owned land on the Vineyard since the days of slavery. The original family member on the Vineyard wasn’t a slave, but a slaver, a note which foreshadows some of the moral issues that are brought to light during the play’s two-hour turbulent running time. The first couple to arrive for summer vacation are the family’s younger son Kent, and his new fiancée Taylor, who is nervous about meeting her future in-laws. They are greeted by Cheryl the eighteen-year-old daughter of the family’s long-time housekeeper and herself an unofficial DeVay family member. Next to arrive are the older brother Flip and his white girlfriend, Kimber. Finally, Joe, the family patriarch arrives, rounding out the cast. Not cast are Cheryl’s mother, the housekeeper, who is sick and Mrs. DeVay, whose absence is mysterious.

The play gets its title through Taylor. She is an entomologist who is studying the house fly. Flies move so fast that they cannot easily be photographed. In order to facilitate this photography, flies are superglued to little sticks thus immobilized, their reactions can be recorded as objects are moved towards them.

Sparks start to fly almost immediately between Cheryl and Taylor, but their fire is nothing compared to the conflagration between Taylor and Kimber. Also, it is immediately apparent that Taylor has a past with Flip the older brother. Their father Joe pours gasoline on this already volatile situation with his near constant belittling and humiliation of his two sons. Finally, not to be out done, Cheryl first learns her own secret, which is the most explosive of them all, when her mother calls her with the news. By the end of the first act, the audience is left with the most cringeworthy of soap operas to watch be resolved. As soap opry as it may be, Stick Fly is no daytime TV. Undergirding the above outlaid collection of puny human foibles are discussions of race, sex and class.