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.

Corn

Corn

We here in Saint Louis are under another winter storm warning, with lots of ice. We were planning on going to the theater tonight, but have decided to postpone that event, a play called Stick Fly. Fortunately, The Rep allowed us to do this even at this last moment. We’ll go next week, when the weather is forecasted to be warmer and drier. Other than that, we are consumed with the Ukraine news, which is terrible news. I hope that Ukraine survives.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

We went to the theater last night. The house was packed, no social distancing to be found, although everyone was masked and vaxxed. Omicron be damned. Before the show, I had been skeptical about the night’s performance, A Christmas Carol, an old saw that I have already seen way too many of times and in so many different ways, but I left pleasantly surprised by the night’s spectacle. Spiced up with a light show, music and dance and sky-high production values, it made for an enjoyable evening.

This 19th-century Dickensian tale is credited with codifying what we now take for the modern holiday of Christmas. Born in Victorian times where many of our current Christmas traditions were invented. Traditions such as the decorating of evergreens, mistletoe, the exchanging of gifts and the singing of holiday specific songs. Wednesday night, we attended the Garden Glow holiday lights show. As part of that show, we toured Henry Shaw’s country home. As an aside, I learned during this tour that after his death, Shaw’s city home had been moved to the garden’s ground and reassembled nearby his country home. It is now an office building. The country home was built in 1840 and for the show its interior was festooned with authentic Victorian era Christmas decorations. The play’s physical sets were pretty minimalistic, relying more upon the accompanying light show than much furniture. I think that is was my recent memory of Shaw’s house that helped to dress out the play’s sets.

Ghost of Jacob Marley

Dreaming Zenzile

Club Rep

Masked and vaxxed, we returned to Webster’s Loretto-Hilton Theater for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Our vaccination cards and IDs were both checked before entry to the building was permitted. Social distancing seating meant that the two seats to our left and right and in front and behind us were all empty. The seating for this show was considerably more congested than what we experienced last spring with the play, Mlima’s Tale, which was running at about 10% to 20% of house capacity. Still, operating at about half capacity the house was not full. It was a Thursday night after all. No refreshments were for sale. The regular paper program had been replaced with a PDF file that we scanned to our phones. The HVAC system was not running in the auditorium, causing a visible mist to form up near the ceiling. Another Covid precaution or a by product of the temperate weather? A lot has changed as the house lights dimmed and we sat, waiting to watch Dreaming Zenzile.

Zenzile is the African name for the woman known to the world as Miriam Makeba and regaled as Mama Africa. Dreaming Zenzile is the story of this South African activist-singer, told in retrospect as she performs on stage during her final concert, where she died immediately after leaving the stage. This play was originally scheduled to be performed in March of 2020 and was in technical rehearsal then, but has taken a year-and-a-half to finally reach the stage. This musical that is not a musical, doubles as a biography. Created by Somi Kakoma who also portrays Makeba on stage, Dreaming Zenzile tells the story of this woman’s life, from her childhood in apartheid South Africa, until her death on the world’s stage. Musical high notes are punctuated with the many tragic events that occurred throughout her life. Singing brought her the world’s attention, which she used to fight apartheid in her homeland and for civil rights in the US.

With this year’s Mlima’s Tale and Dreaming Zenzile, The Reps new Artistic Director Hana Sharif is definitely signaling a new direction for the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Anne and I have been attending The Rep for much of Steven Woolf’s 33-year tutelage, who Sharif succeeded as artistic director in 2019. I was saddened to learn of Woolf’s passing this last July. Two plays are too small a sample size to form an opinion yet about Sharif’s artistic vision. I need to gather more data, which means we will continue to attend The Rep.

White Powders

Where Diatomaceous Earth Comes From

Diatoms are single-celled alga which have a cell wall of silica. Many kinds are planktonic, and extensive fossil deposits have been found. When we were in the Garden this week, at the home gardening center, I noticed that many of the plants had been dusted with a fine white powder. I asked a gardener if it was an insecticide? In a sense is was and it wasn’t. It was diatomaceous earth.

Composed from the bones of millions of microscopic diatoms that over the millennia had built up into a sedimentary layer, diatomaceous earth is sold as a natural alternative to chemical insecticide. Its sharp silica bones act as an irritant to insects, getting into their exoskeleton’s joints and tearing them up. It is less dangerous to humans than conventional insecticides, but care in its handling must still be taken. It is much safer to the environment than most insecticides.

In the play that we saw this week, Mlima’s Tale, the actor portraying the elephant Mlima, first smears his torso and face with white powder, evoking the ritual body painting of African tribes. This powder has a way of transferring itself, as an emblem of complicity, as each player playing a link in the chain that is the illegal ivory trade, is marked with a white powdered handprint on their bodies. In this instance the white powder was likely talc, but I wonder if the choice of its white color was supposed to be evocative of powdered ivory. Powder created when the ivory tusks are carved into objects d’art, their final form.