By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Nonsense and beauty have close connections,” Edward Morgan Forster once wrote.
Playwright Scott Sickles took that phrase as the title of his splendid play,
which the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis helped develop. And oh, what a
starting place it is.

“Nonsense and Beauty,” Sickles’ timeless tale of love and
forgiveness, is set in a very different era where same-sex relationships were mostly
hidden, and famous British author E. M. Forster is caught up in the nonsense
and beauty of a long affair with a man 23 years his junior – who will marry a
woman during this conflicted period.

Not your garden-variety real-life love story, as it
unfolds, we discover a believable love triangle with likable people – no
villains, wrapped in a very complicated forbidden relationship between two complex
men, while on the sidelines, there’s the unrequited love of a dear friend who desires
more. Additionally, there’s the unconditional love of a mother, although a prickly
and miserable woman.

In lesser hands, this would be a turgid soap opera with
starched collars. And while the poignant play unleashes an emotional
rollercoaster, it’s contained in an elegantly rendered production that is
exquisitely acted and sharply directed.
Staged crisply by Seth Gordon downstairs in the Studio Theatre, that intimate
space and the in-the-round format suits the play well. My fondness for the
characters grew with each scene, as their connections with each other were
conveyed so well.

Forster, known to his close friends as Morgan and gay, was
the celebrated novelist (“Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “Where Angels
Fear to Tread,” “A Passage to India”), a prolific essayist and 16-time nominee
for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Considered a humanist, the stuffy conventions of the
upper-class British society he lived and worked in were a source of material
for him, as he could not live life out loud in such a universal state of
repression. After all, homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom until

He was an intelligent man of impeccable manners, and
Jeffrey Hayenga excels as showing us his wordly refined side, but also his
yearnings and longing for a life he could only imagine. Hayenga’s absorbing
performance is tender and touching.

After he met London policeman Bob Buckingham, a jolly old
chap of no discernable stature, at the Cambridge-Oxford boat race in 1930, they
began a risky on-and-off relationship that would span 40 years.

TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2019 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Nonsense and Beauty” as the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Their friendship was tested when Bob courted and married smart
and feisty May, a no-nonsense nurse who did not follow up any possible
suspicions about the men spending ‘alone’ time together. She stayed in the
dark, whether it was of her own choosing or she just didn’t go there in her

Forster was a major presence in their family’s lives.
Nobody meant to hurt each other, but oh, what aching and pain endured.

An engaging pair together, Robbie Simpson as Bob and Lori Vega as May displayed genuine sparks as their relationship grows into matrimony and parenthood. Nevertheless, how confusing for all — neither Bob nor Morgan could quit each other, so therefore, their friendship survived through the ups and downs of their lives.

TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2019 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Nonsense and Beauty” as the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Another constant was longtime friend, the distinguished
writer J.R. Ackerley, wondrously portrayed by John Feltch. He brings more to
the urbane and glib character than tossing off bon mots and smirking about the
confines of society. He pined for more with Morgan, but that was not to be. He
befriends May, something neither expected, and his wit well-serves the

Feltch, so good in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in
2015 (and St. Louis Theater Circle nominee), has a regal stature and is an
erudite sounding board throughout the show. In the movie, his character would
have been played by Clifton Webb or Vincent Price – or even James Mason.

As E.M. Forster’s battle-ax of a widowed mother, Lily, Donna
Weinsting astutely captures the grand dame’s controlling and cantankerous ways.

The entire ensemble is finely calibrated to show the fragility,
disappointment and deep love between the characters. The play’s bittersweet
nature is imparted in multiple ways.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s minimal set, enhanced by his eloquent lighting design, allows smooth flow of the characters in conversation. Bembridge won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for “The Royale.” Felia K. Davenport’s costumes defined the periods succinctly, and Rusty Wandall’s sound design provided nifty vintage touches. Leiber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” was a wise choice to open and close the show.

Gordon, The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director, had nurtured
this project even before he further developed it as part of The Rep’s 2018
Ignite! Festival of New Plays, which he started after coming to the Rep. He
directed its first major public reading in 1996 at the Carnegie Mellon Showcase
of New Plays.

This is the sixth play from “Ignite!” to become a full-fledged
production, and this world premiere is a dandy – a lovingly crafted work of
substance, that means something, where the attention to detail is strong, and
the approach thoughtful.

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “Nonsense and Beauty” March 8 – 24 in
the Emerson Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road. For tickets or more information,
visit Box Office phone is

By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor A brilliantly staged and acted “District Merchants” raises timely questions on oppression in a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s 420-year-old “Merchant of Venice.”

Playwright Aaron Posner’s 2016 comedy-drama tweaks the characters,
and sets them in the post-Civil War reconstruction era of 1870, in the nation’s
burgeoning capital, Washington D.C. Scenes also take place in Belmont, Mass.

It was a time of transition – out of ruins came renewal. But
it wasn’t fast or smooth. Posner has us confront the fact that old habits die
hard, change isn’t easy, and our tribes continue to define us, so is all the
uneasy historical issues and disastrous conflicts really in our past? The
clashes could be viewed as somewhat contemporary.

In this New Jewish Theatre production, butting heads are a Jewish immigrant moneylender, Shylock, and black businessman Antoine, shrewdly played by Gary Wayne Barker and J. Samuel Davis respectively, in skillfully calibrated performances.

Antoine has borrowed money from Shylock, but because of a
series of events not his doing, must default. Will he be required to hand over
a “pound of flesh,” as demanded by the loaner? A trial will ensue, but there
will be fireworks in and out of the courtroom regarding power, race, position,
family and loyalty.

The incredibly dynamic duo of Barker and Davis, longtime
local mainstays, spars so convincingly and with such verve that you hang on to
every word and nuance. Their timing is so impeccable that the audience broke
into applause after a couple explosive scenes.

Their triumphant pairing is potent – arguably career best
— but the supporting characters, involved in several thorny romantic subplots,
are exceptional as well.

The noteworthy ensemble has created memorable characters
that also mesh as a unit – even with the conflicts. They project a vibrancy,
with much thought into their role’s development.

Courtney Bailey Parker and Rae Davis. Photo by Eric WoolseySteadfast Courtney Bailey Parker is a strong Portia, who
dresses like a man to audit law classes at Harvard and is striving to define
her role as a smart woman in 19th century America.

She pairs well with love interest Benjamin, a black man
passing for white, and their courtship has a larger context. Rob White is solid
as an agent of change.

Standing out is Rae Davis as Portia’s servant Nessa, and she has stood out in two other plays she was in last year (“Cold,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”), her first in regional St. Louis theater. She has a delightful way with dialogue, as does the sublime Karl Hawkins, who is dandy as Shylock’s servant Lancelot.

Karl Hawkins as Lancelot in “District Merchants.” Photo by Eric WoolseyHawkins charms in every scene, as does Paul Edwards as
Finn, an Irish produce salesman who takes a shine to Shylock’s sheltered
daughter Jessica. At first, his brogue was wobbly, but he grew better, and his
winning personality was enough to endear.

As delicate Jessica who transforms with determination, Alicen
Moser understands the frustration of being a powerful and overprotective father’s
only child. When she rebels, she does it in a big way that nearly destroys her
The relationships are complicated, but this cast pulsates under Jacqueline
Thompson’s perceptive direction.

Thompson has directed this show with such vigor that each
character has a distinct understanding of the material, and with her innovative
touches, has achieved a masterpiece.
She has astutely woven each character into this tapestry, and moves them around
the stage, the striking multi-level set by David Blake, and into the audience
with such purpose —  a flow that keeps
us riveted.

It does not matter if you have never seen Shakespeare’s
most controversial play. “District Merchants” flips it to assure that we see
the maligned, marginal groups in a different perspective – people of faith, of
color, of origin. We look at mercy in a fresh way.

Posner’s unflinching dialogue about stereotypes is tough
stuff, pitting Jews against gentiles, blacks vs. whites, and Irish vs. other
ethnic groups.

Billed as an “uneasy comedy,” you wouldn’t ever regard such
thought-provoking material that tackles racism, bigotry and xenophobia as a
laugh-riot, but there are surprising comic bits that struck a chord with the
audience, a spoonful of sugar if you will. After all, Shakespeare did consider
“Merchant of Venice” one of his comedies.

But mostly, the humor derives from the spoken thoughts and
feelings of the characters, who want basically what everyone wants and how they
tell their story. Because of the caliber of this cast, we are quickly drawn
into this period, and become emotionally invested as well.

Posner’s work appears to be a winner with New Jewish
Theatre. “Life Sucks!,” his comical adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” was
a delightful presentation last spring, and nominated for multiple St. Louis
Theatre Circle Awards (coming up March 25).

This must-see production has raised the bar – and will be a
measuring stick for this year’s offerings, especially with such a harmonious

A work of stunning achievement all the way around – with
beautifully accented lighting by Sean Savoie, richly detailed period costumes
by Felia Davenport and sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

 “District Merchants” is presented by New Jewish Theatre from Jan. 24 – Feb. 10 on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Wool Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, Creve Coeur. For tickets, visit