The State of St. Louis Theater | Andrea Braun

bestof therestI’ve decided on a Baker’s Dozen of “Bests” for 2013 as befits the year, and as always, these are subjective, in that they all affected me in some way and reinforced my love for the art of theater.

 

Fly 500

Fly at Repertoy Theatre of St. Louis

Despite the welcome addition of three new companies to the theater community this year (Tesseract, the Theatre Lab Project, and Encore!), we still miss others that have closed their doors in the recent past  (the Orange Girls, Muddy Waters, Echo, the NonProphets, Avalon, and Black Cat with its Piwacket soon to follow). I’m not saying that 2013 wasn’t a strong year for theater, but it didn’t seem as impressive to me as 2012, when making this list was really hard to do. I’ve decided on a Baker’s Dozen of “Bests” for 2013 as befits the year, and as always, these are subjective, in that they all affected me in some way and reinforced my love for the art of theater.

Please note: I did not see everything that opened this past year, so I don’t have some “bests” that others have cited. For example, I saw nothing at the Muny and missed a few that are making more than one list, such as Café Chanson at the always impressive Upstream Theatre. Further, I confined the list to productions by St. Louis companies only, so while I saw some good work at the Fox Theatre throughout its season, none of its shows are in my “bests.” So, here they are in alphabetical order, with a few honorable mentions at the end.

All Is Calm at Mustard Seed Theatre, written by Peter Rothstein | This title came first on the list by happenstance, and for me, it would win “best of 2013” if I were putting them in that order, but there’s also another issue here. I don’t think this is a play OR a musical; rather, I see it as a “theatrical event.” It was originally arranged as a concert, but has been developed as a full, costumed production with a set, lights, costumes, and sound effects. Dressing it up doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t many conventional aspects of a musical here. But it is wonderful, in the strictest sense of the word “wonder.” Ten of St. Louis’s best male singers combine their voices to tell the story of one magical Christmas Eve in 1914 when the English and German troops just stopped fighting, walking out of the trenches and onto the battlefield to talk, play games, and most of all, sing together. I’m getting a little choked up just remembering it. Directed by Deanna Jent.

Charley’s Aunt at ACT Inc., written by Brandon Thomas | This company puts on a couple of plays in the summer, which are mostly classics (some are just old). Often these aren’t that interesting to contemporary audiences, and they tend to be quite long for contemporary attention spans, so I was surprised and delighted at how much I liked Charley’s Aunt. The actors were all well-cast and committed to the material, and I saw some new talent such as Jack Dryden and Ian Brinkley who impressed me, and some old pros in top form, too, including Richard Lewis, Jesse Russell, Tim Grumich, and Jane Sullivan. Funny, graceful, and only a little bit creaky, I liked it a lot. Directed by Emily Robinson.

The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree at Stray Dog Theatre, written by William Gibson | Yes, that William Gibson, author of The Miracle Worker, writes about another miracle in this 1975 delight that was first performed 20 years after the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Asked by his church to create a Christmas play, he came up with a production that both told the traditional story of the Nativity and subverted it at the same time. We have here a feminist Mary, a suspicious, hot-headed Joseph, a clumsy angel, Magi and heathen brothers played by the same actors, and a big cast, most of who also sing very well. Despite the title, there are no carols slaughtered in this show. The music is lovely and traditional. Some scenes run on too long, but not many, and the excellent troupe is topped by Colleen M. Backer, Stephen Peirick, John Reidy, and Joseph Corey Henke as awkward angel. It’s both very funny along the way and uplifting at the end. Directed by Gary F. Bell.

Waiting for Godot at St. Louis Actor’s Studio, written by Samuel Beckett | STLAS has had a fine year, and you will see more than one of its productions on this list. But this show is first among equals. Gary Barker and Terry Meaddows are simply perfect as Vladimir and Estragon, the two whose job it is to wait. And wait some more. But they do it so very well. Their nonsensical conversations are underlain with profound observations about the nature of humankind and the meaning (or lack of same) of life. After being visited by Greg Johnston leading Aaron Orion Baker on a leash, the interactions among the four become increasingly weird, but in that “only in the theater” way that causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up signaling that you are seeing something special. I’ve seen this play many times, but this is the one I’d been “waiting for.” Directed by Bobby Miller.

Conviction at the New Jewish Theatre, written by Ami Dayan and others | I’ve never cared much for one-person shows. I think they can be a bit clumsy and unconvincing—unless of course, the “one person” happens to be Hal Holbrook. That said, two of them appear on my list this year. Conviction is based on the life and death of a Spanish priest in the 15th century, Andrés González, played by Ami Dayan, who translated both the novel and play into English. This is the first-person account of a Catholic priest who falls in love with a Jewish woman. We hear most of it as the priest confesses it to his own mentor, Juan de Salamanca, not realizing that the seal of the confessional is broken and that he will soon be required to pay the ultimate price for his “crimes” against the church. The story has both historical and contemporary relevance, and I was barely breathing by the end. Directed by Ami Dayan.

Fly at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan | This is an amazing, immersive look at the storied Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. They were an all-black unit who defied conventional “wisdom” about the capabilities of their race and excelled in both training and the execution of missions. Framed by the Obama inauguration and narrated by one of the airmen as an old man, the cast is comprised of stunning visuals and actors who interpret the material in such a way that we feel an amalgam of emotions ranging from thrilled to guilty to proud to moved to tears by the end. Directed by Ricardo Khan.

Hannah Senesh at the New Jewish Theatre, written by David Schecter | Based on the diaries of the title character, this is the other one-person show that made my list, and it’s even at the same theater as Conviction. While there are some aspects of Anne Frank obvious here, Hannah Senesh’s story is quite different from that famous text. Shanara Gabrille plays Hannah and Hannah’s mother, with the mother framing the story. In watching Hannah, aging from 13 to 23 when she was executed for treason by her homeland of Hungary, we are mesmerized by her courage. Perhaps she is also foolhardy, but she is compelling and keeps us on her side throughout. The strongest part of this play is Gabrielle. For me, this was the performance of the year. Directed by Kat Singleton.

King Lear at the Actor’s Studio of St. Louis, written by William Shakespeare | This time, Bobby Miller is in the cast as Lear’s Fool in an extraordinary interpretation of the role. But the stage belongs to John Contini as Lear any time he’s in the picture. The whole cast is strong right down to the smallest part, and the play has been condensed to eliminate some characters, such as Lear’s sons-in-law, but I didn’t really miss them. Meghan McGuire and Missy Heinemann play the evil Goneril and Regan, with Jessica Laney as the misunderstood Cordelia make a formidable trio. William Roth, Justin Ivan Brown, and Rusty Gunther are strong as the Gloucesters, whose story is prominent in the play. Well done all around. Directed by Milt Zoth.

My Fair Lady at Stages St. Louis, written by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe | I’m even surprising myself by including this overly long musical chestnut in the “best” list, but in the capable hands of the folks at Stages, it became something wonderful. The music is, of course, sublime, and while I’ve always objected to the misogynistic treatment accorded Eliza by Henry Higgins, Pamela Brumley’s Eliza gives as good as she gets, and by casting the younger-than-usual David Guilmet at Higgins, he seems a bit less horrid. They are marvelous singers and receive strong support from Stages stalwarts John Flack, Zoe Vonder Haar, and Kari Ely. Simply ‘loverly.’ Directed by Michael Hamilton.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia at the Actor’s Studio of St. Louis, written by Edward Albee } Now it’s a hat trick for STLAS with the shocking story of an ordinary man, Martin (played by John Pierson), who falls in romantic love with a goat he calls Sylvia. His wife, Stevie, gives Nancy Bell the best role she’s had since she arrived in St. Louis, and she grabs on and runs with it. We have lost some good actors to the bright lights and big cities recently, including Justin Ivan Brown mentioned in the next entry, but with Bell (and Shanara Gabrielle) as relatively recent additions to our community, I’m satisfied with the tradeoff. Pierson is excellent, but Bell’s performance is so finely calibrated that when she finally does break down and there is blood, we are somehow shocked, even though we’ve seen this coming all along. Great work. Directed by Wayne Salomon.

The Whipping Man at the Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, written by Matthew Lopez | One stormy night, a young Caleb DeLeon limps into his ruined ancestral home. Only family retainer John is there and he has to amputate the scion’s leg. What makes this Southern family and their slaves different from other Southern families and theirs is that they are Jews. The DeLeons’ religion, uncommon but not unknown in the Antebellum South, was adopted by their human property. Another thing that makes this date different from all other dates is that it is April 14, 1865, the eve of the assassination of the President. “Father Abraham,” a title fraught with meaning, is bestowed on the martyred Lincoln by Simon when he returns from town the following day with the news. Justin Ivan Brown, Ron Himes and Ronald L. Connor are pitch-perfect as the cast of this fascinating play. Directed by Ed Smith.

Topdog/Underdog at—guess where?—St. Louis Actor’s Studio, written by Suzan Lori-Parks | This isn’t the strongest play of the year, but it’s arguably the most powerful. Great performances highlight this two-hander with Reginald Pierre as Lincoln and Chauncy Thomas as Booth—ironic names, since they are black. They are also brothers. Lincoln used to be a small time but successful petty criminal, a three-card monte dealer, who worked the streets. But he stopped and got a sort of legitimate job at an arcade playing Abe Lincoln, whom patrons pay to shoot, all day, every day. His younger sibling, Booth, has is a chronic screw-up who hopes to become as adept at the cards as his brother. They are living together at the moment because Lincoln’s wife threw him out. Tension builds throughout to an explosive climax. Directed by Elizabeth Helman.

Venus in Fur at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, written by David Ives | The Studio Theatre at the Rep has long been home to exciting and contemporary works, and “Venus in Fur” is one of its best presentations in recent memory. A playwright/director is casting his play one stormy night and is just about to pack it in when a young woman comes in. As the story progresses, the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred, as does the relationship between the two strangers. Layer upon layer unfolds with humor and eroticism to a thought-provoking conclusion. Beautifully acted by Jay Stratton and Sarah Nedwick. Directed by Seth Gordon.

So that’s my 13 for 2013. Other productions that came very close to inclusion are, in no particular order, A Iliad at Upstream Theatre; Freud’s Last Session at the Repertory of St. Louis Studio Theatre; Opus by the West End Players’ Guild; Our Town at Insight Theatre; Parade by R-S Theatrics; Jackie and Me by Metro Theatre Company; The Sunset Limited at Theatre Lab; and Maple and Vine at HotCity Theatre Company.

Finally, here’s an easy resolution for 2014 that doesn’t require breaking any bad habits, but developing a good one instead: GO SEE A PLAY! | Andrea Braun

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