By Lynn Venhaus

A triumph in the ‘new normal’ was a sight for weary eyes when Stray Dog Theatre boldly went where no one else has in regional professional theater to produce an intimate, absorbing “Lobby Hero” by Kenneth Lonergan.

With live theater being one of the harshest casualties of the pandemic, watching any kind of online production has been such a welcome respite from the world’s troubles. I have enjoyed all the creative attempts to produce art, from clever Zoom plays to a mash-up of archival footage and musical acts, to radio plays and staged readings. I admire the efforts that artists are willing to take, to make art accessible through digital media. As someone who is leery of crowds during the public health crisis, being able to stay connected to people I admire for their willingness to take risks and see what happens has been a great joy. After all, theater fans cannot live on “Hamilton” replays alone on Disney Plus.

So, after shutting their doors for the remainder of the 2020 season in May, Stray Dog Theatre came up with an unconventional plan to take the four actors already cast in the drama, put them into innovative pods for their safety, space them apart at the Tower Grove Abbey, record it and make a video link available through a service. It sounded exciting because we could see it after all – and without crowd restrictions or safety worries.

The play had been scheduled for June and was one of my most anticipated shows of the season (big Lonergan fan). For the new venture, free reservations could be made to see it July 27 – 31 and people were given 72 hours in which to view it, but the cut-off was 11:59 p.m. on the last night. This audio-visual recording was made possible through arrangements with Dramatists Play Service and the playwright, and donations could be accepted. Everything was seamless – reservation confirmed, link emailed, quick connection, and then, magic happened.

The play takes place in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building. Four people’s lives intersect through their work – two security guards and two police officers on the night shift, and then are drawn into a murder investigation. These three men and one woman have distinct personalities that emerge, ordinary people who must confront moral dilemmas and ethical behavior through conflicts with each other. Lonergan is so good at revealing layers and the late-night conversations have a genuine intimacy.

Lobby Hero at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by Justin Been

What a finely tuned quartet the performers were: Jeremy Goldmeier as Jeff, a hapless regular joe, just trying to find his way in the world but usually unlucky in life; Abraham Shaw as William, Jeff’s strict supervisor, frustrated by the failure that surrounds him – his knucklehead employee and his troublemaker brother (unseen), when all he is trying to do is succeed; Stephen Peirick as Bill, an obnoxious married police officer who abuses his power and thinks he deserves respect as a big shot; and Eileen Engel as Dawn, a rookie officer enamored with Bill but also trying to prove that she fits in to a macho man’s world.

They each have various degrees of ambition, and that is transparent. Their feelings will become apparent as they talk to each other, from initially shooting the breeze to thornier statements as details of a murder unfold. A nurse with three young children has been brutally raped and killed by a group of thugs. William’s brother is a suspect. How far will he go to protect him? Talkative and lonely, Jeff has taken a shine to Dawn, but she is enamored with Bill, until evidence of sexual misconduct is revealed. Dawn’s only been on the force for three months and has a lot to learn.

It was if I was sitting in a pew, the four well-rehearsed actors seamless in conveying multi-dimensional characters. The smart, sharp ensemble delivered dialogue-dense exchanges that went from casual to probing, puzzling to skeptical, pleasant to peeved. Loyalties swiftly shifted. Director and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell escalated the growing tensions well and shrewdly moved the players around. The fade technique worked well as exits.

With its relevance to today’s social issues, you would not realize it was a generation removed, written in 2000. And Goldmeier – in what might be his best work – makes us see every tic of his turmoil. He wants to do the right thing – but is he capable? He is intimidated by blustery Bill, who likes to throw his weight around, and wants desperately to please his boss. When William confides in Jeff, they seem to become friends.

The actors worked so well together, building the emotional energy Bell was seeking. Peirick plays well against type, being an entitled jerk, while Engel holds her own with the guys, talking tough with a torrent of profanity. She’s tiny but mighty in navigating her way in an obvious man’s world.

And, like so many key turning points, it comes down to secrets and lies. In 1808, Sir Walter Scott wrote “oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” and it still holds true today. Stories unravel, truths unfold, betrayals sever relationships and life gets rather messy for each of the four. They learn the hard way that there are consequences to actions.

Justin Been has proven he is quite a visionary and his remarkable technical skills were on display again. As associate artistic director and production manager, he added imaginative touches, through music and modern graphics. He evoked the location with black-and-white scenes of New York City. He and Bell had come up with the pod idea, executed by set designer Josh Smith.

 “Lobby Hero” was produced off-Broadway in 2001, after Lonergan had been Oscar-nominated for the screenplay to “You Can Count on Me.” Lonergan would finally make it to Broadway in 2014 with “This Is Our Youth,” a Steppenwolf revival of his 1996 play starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. I was fortunate to see it at the Cort Theatre then, a memorable experience. Lonergan has a knack for creating vivid roles through conversations, and the gifted actors didn’t miss a beat in crafting familiar, relatable characters. After winning the Oscar for his “Manchester by the Sea” original screenplay in 2016, Lonergan oversaw a remount of  “Lobby Hero” in March 2018 at the newly renovated Hayes Theatre on Broadway, starring Michael Cera as awkward Jeff and Brian Tyree Henry as stern William (both Tony Award nominees), Chris Evans (yes, Captain America) as the compromised police officer Bill and Bel Powley as feisty Dawn.

Stray Dog hopes to be back with their season in February 2021, if all is safe to do so. They may even return virtually with another innovative project. “Lobby Hero” was a perfect choice to stage the inventive way they did.

If you need information, contact them directly by email at [email protected] or by phone at (314) 865-1995.

Stray Dog Theatre (SDT) will stream “on demand” Lobby Hero through most web browsers between 12:01 a.m. on July 27 and 11:59 p.m. on July 31, 2020. Participation is limited to the first 750 reservations, and will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Please note: While you have the freedom to use your reservation at any point during the dates listed above, you will only have 72- hours to finish viewing the production once you begin streaming. Reservations and viewings for Lobby Hero are free, and available beginning at 12 noon on Saturday, July 18, 2020 by visiting, www.straydogtheatre.org. In this time of COVID-19, SDT understands how important having accessible art is for audiences and artists alike.

Jeremy Goldmeier in “Lobby Hero.” Photo by Justin Been

While SDT’s production of Lobby Hero is complimentary, a donation would be gratefully appreciated. Lobby Hero Synopsis: Loyalties are strained to the breaking point when a hapless security guard is drawn into a local murder investigation; a conscience-stricken supervisor is called to bear witness against his troubled brother; and a naive rookie cop must stand up to her formidable male partner. Truth becomes elusive and justice proves costly.

Stray Dog Theatre Artistic Director Gary F. Bell directs the cast featuring Eileen Engel, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick, and Abraham Shaw. By partnering with Surfcode and utilizing their platform PlayPlay.tv, audiences will be able to enjoy Lobby Hero, which was recorded live, on the SDT stage, in real-time, with each actor inside an individual custom built acting booth. Rehearsals for this production were held in compliance with both state and local ordinances, including temperature checks, required face coverings and social distancing.

This Audio & Video recording was produced by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service and Kenneth Lonergan. All rights reserved. This performance is authorized for non-commercial use only. By accepting the Audio & Video recording, you agree not to authorize or permit the Audio & Video recording to be copied, distributed, broadcast, telecast or otherwise exploited, in whole or in part, in any media now known or hereafter developed.

WARNING: Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution or exhibition of copyrighted motion pictures, Audio & Videotapes or Audio & Videodiscs. Criminal copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI and may constitute a felony with a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000.00 fine.

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer“Last night I had the strangest dream I ever had before. I dreamed that men had all agreed to put an end to war.” –Chad Mitchell Trio
Entering Kyra Bishop’s set feels much like walking onto a battlefield. It is dark and dreary, no color to speak of, just browns and grays all around. There are rolls of copper wire, downed trees, and a backdrop so primitive it is held up by rope. Then, in the distance a man is singing a traditional Scottish ballad, “Will ye go to Flanders?” Gradually other voices join him and nine soldiers enter. It is 1914 at Christmas, and these guys are already tired of the fighting and their voices reflect that sense of weariness, of hopelessness.
But what they also demonstrate is a remarkable ability to sing solo, in ensembles or all together. This is the fourth production of “All Is Calm”  that Mustard Seed has mounted since its premiere in 2012, the third one I’ve seen, and the strongest yet.

The ensemble changes, though five of the cast members have appeared in the show at least a couple of other times. What is remarkable is that whoever is in front of us is fully believable, invested in the roles, and able to bring off every single number in the show from the sublime to the silly.
I couldn’t single out any cast members because they were all so good; here they are in alphabetical order: Kent Coffel, Anthony Heinmann, Christopher Hickey, Greg Lhamon, Gerry Love, Michael Lowe, Sean Michael, Abraham Shaw, Jeff Wright
The center of the story is a real event. On a memorable night in the first year of World War I, the British and Irish and the Germans stopped fighting. Just like that. They had been in mortal combat for days, perhaps weeks, and while they don’t exactly beat their swords into plowshares, they spend a night burying their dead together, playing soccer with each other, decorating a tiny Christmas tree, and most of all, singing the holiday songs of their cultures.
Besides song, the men recite quotations from soldiers’ letters, from the Pope and Winston Churchill, and most moving, two of the so-called “War Poets,” Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. These young men created a body of literature about the war experience, and there is nothing romantic about it, nothing “sweet and right” about dying for one’s country, as Owen expresses in his ironically  titled “Dulce et Decorum est,” about a slow and horrible death from mustard gas. All these statements give the audience a sense of how the troops from the lowliest private to the prime minister were feeling about the job at hand. So, why did they do it?
Because they were called to duty. Because patriotism motivates both sides in war. And, probably not least because they could be hanged for treason if they ran away. But there is also a sense of real camaraderie here, not only on one’s own side, but among all the men—perhaps more accurately boys—who have been called to kill the other side who look just like them. The Royal Family is 100 percent German, for example. They just changed their names from Saxe, Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. Done and dusted. It wasn’t so easy for the young men who had to take sides, however.
Lighting design is a character too. Generally, the lighting designer does the job by not being particularly notable, but here, the light literally brings life, especially in the Christmas tree scene wherein “Silent Night” begins in a minor key when the tree comes out, then as the lights gradually go up, the song becomes harmonic. Credit goes to Michael Sullivan.
Jane Sullivan and Zoe Sullivan handle costumes and sound respectively and with their usual expertise. Director Deanna Jent and Musical Director Joe Schoen keep everything moving, and in its fifth production, the show works like a well-oiled machine.
“All Is Calm” is by Peter Rothstein, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Its history is fascinating, having had its public debut on Minnesota Public Radio. Jent notes that: “While not shying away from the horrors of war, it presents a moment of hope that seems to have been transformative for the men involved in the event.”
In only six years since All Is Calm was first presented, our country seems to have gone to war with itself. May the peace among a group of people whose immediate “job” is to kill the “enemy,” serve as an example of the way we might all treat each other and perhaps even someday agree “to put an end to war.”
“All Is Calm” will run through Dec. 16 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre. Details are available at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.
 
 
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A compelling plea for compassion and understanding, Kurt Weill’s mighty “Lost in the Stars” will break your heart and uplift your spirit in Union Avenue Opera’s stirring production.
This ambitious vibrant opera features more than 50 performers, many new to the art form, and that provides some of St. Louis’ finest dramatic artists with an opportunity to stretch their acting muscles. Under Shaun Patrick Tubbs’ fluid direction, they seamlessly blend into Weill’s powerful operatic retelling of “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is set in South Africa during the 1940s era of apartheid, a time of great racial and economic divide. Adapted the following year into the opera “Lost in the Stars,” Weill wrote his last score, and famed historical playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote both the book and lyrics.

This hard-hitting work resonates today, demonstrating a need for humanity in a time of intolerance, misunderstanding and prejudice.
Rev. Stephen Kumalo (Kenneth Overton) travels to Johannesburg, and hopes to locate his son, Absalom (Myke Andrews), whom he hasn’t seen for a year. At the railroad station, he talks to Arthur Jarvis (Stephen Peirick), a white lawyer who is a benefactor of the church and believes in treating all people the same. He is with his disapproving father, wealthy plantation owner James Jarvis (Tim Schall), whose bigotry runs deep.
While Absalom is out on parole for a crime and is living with Irina (Krysty Swann), pregnant with their child, he is convinced to be part of a burglary with two others. It’s at the Jarvis plantation, but Arthur walks in and is shot by Absalom, who got flustered and scared. A legal scheme is hatched for acquittal but Absalom will have none of it, he confesses and while honorable, will be sentenced to death.
The Reverend can’t save his son, and the elder Jarvis has lost a son too. Eventually some common ground can be achieved. But it’s a hard road, and old ways must be forgotten to forge a new understanding.
In an emotional powder-keg of a role, Kenneth Overton soars with his potent baritone and poignant renditions of every number.  He pulls everyone’s heartstrings tight and has the ability to take your breath away and reduce you to tears. His showstopping “Lost in the Stars” delivery to close Act I is haunting and will remain one of my favorite and best moments of Union Avenue Opera’s 24th season.
He anchored an outstanding youthful ensemble displaying a notable energy and passion. Speaking roles included Jeanitta Perkins as Grace Kumalo, Stephen’s wife and Absalom’s mother; Reginald Pierre as Stephen’s lawyer brother John; Carl Overly Jr. as burglar Matthew Kumalo, Abraham Shaw as burglar Johannes Pafuri and Chuck Lavazzi as parole officer Mark Eland. Their mastery of their Afrikaner accents and their projection was noteworthy.
Tim Schall and Stephen Peirick excelled in their roles as the Jarvis father and son on opposite ends of their beliefs.
Myke Andrews, who was impressive in The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” and Metro Theatre Company’s “Bud, Not Buddy,” turned in his best work yet as Absalom. He is stunning, maneuvering a wide range of emotions with conviction. His ‘goodbye’ scene will rip your heart and have you reaching for tissues, along with soprano Kristy Swann as Irina, showcasing a warm rich voice.
Rising star Melody Wilson has a fetching turn as Linda and Roderick George sang the Leader role with authority.
Young Charlie Mathis, so impressive as Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at The Rep, was at home here as Arthur Jarvis’ young son, Edward, as was Sherrod Murff as Alex, Stephen Kumalo’s nephew. Sherrod delivers a sweet solo song at a time where a break from all the intense melodrama was welcome.
Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducted the orchestra with crisp precision, emphasizing the cultural context in a meaningful way. And the orchestra was quite robust.
The creative team also contributed key elements to the overall period feel of the production. James W. Clapper’s lighting design was eloquent, and his “stars” lighting a few at a time was just beautiful. Teresa Doggett’s costume design nailed the time and place, as did Roger Speidel’s minimal set design that doubled as multiple interiors with ease.
“Lost in the Stars” delivers a forceful message with not only an urgency but with kindness. It remains a timeless work of historical significance that needs to be seen now.
“Lost in the Stars” is presented by Union Avenue Opera for four performances Aug. 17, 18, 24 and 25 at the Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit ww.unionavenueopera.org.

Photos by John Lamb