By Lynn Venhaus

Several visionary local artists proved that fortune does favor the bold through their efforts to present a gift to a theater-starved community.

This precious lifeline was “Mute: A Play for Zoom” on Sunday, April 5. We experienced an original 5-person 30-minute play on the internet with a hundred other people that Sunday night, boldly going where no one had gone before.

This absurdist apocalyptic academic farce was a burst of creativity and a jolt of connectivity like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.

A maiden voyage by playwright Nancy Bell, director Lucy Cashion and production manager Spencer Lawton explored our strange new world of making art during a quarantine. It starts out as a video conference call among colleagues at a university. For these academics, there is confusion, and eventually fire – and a hamster.

A recording of last week’s live Zoom performance was shown during a Facebook Watch Party April 12. It is now on Vimeo for all to see: https://vimeo.com/405178212?fbclid=IwAR2hkRVBGu78QK8rLQWmb6pY-e7fynRixVlGxky1vvhWNxyN3kKY8PrCP0s

How it all came together was truly remarkable — ignited a spark, a surge of energy that took us out of our stay-at-home melancholia and made us appreciate authentic art and true talent.

It was like I was on a new adventure without leaving my couch.

The five-person cast included several lauded veterans and standout newcomers as colleagues. St. Louis Theater Circle Award winners Michelle Hand (a very nervous Maria), Michael James Reed (agitated Trent), Keating (trying to hang on Fiona) and Sophia Brown (mysterious Lila and Man Ray) performed with their customary immersion into character as well as Delaney Piggins, so good at New Jewish Theatre’s “I Now Pronounce,” as confused Heather and Jakob Hulten as assistant Dustin trying to herd the cats and keep normalcy.

They all connected in a believable way, providing distinctive portraits in a very short amount of time as what the new normal is quickly erodes into a disturbing situation. Reed mastered delivery of a barrage of new vocabulary among his monologues, unleashing a torrent of new words among his distain for the circumstances. He did it with a complete command of the twisty dialogue.

Worried about technical difficulties, it actually went off without a hitch, and ended abruptly according the script. Just be patient. Zoom is a terrific tool for bringing us all together, and the technical gurus behind this production did a fantastic job.

I have always been grateful we have the brilliance of Nancy Bell as a playwright and an actress and the visionary viewpoint of Lucy Cashion, who is never deterred by convention or obstacles, and noticed them right away as I began reviewing more regional professional theater in 2012.

And “Mute: A Play for Zoom” confirms how lucky we are to have them producing art in St. Louis.

This is just a thrilling testament to the possibilities of how to create art in unconventional ways under difficult circumstances.

While this view is indeed apocalyptic, the way it was executed was also life-affirming and uplifting in a bracing way – and to be able to appreciate how we can still connect through storytelling was indeed a lovely surprise gift.

Bravo to everyone involved.

Here is what the cast bios said on their event page:

CAST

Delaney Piggins [Heather] is a St. Louis Actor/Playwright/Producer, who is excited to do her first “pants optional” play.

Jakob Hultén [Dustin] is a SLU senior graduating with a BA in Theatre and History.

Michelle Hand [Maria] is an STL born and bred professional actor who, in her twenty years at work, has never quite done something like this.

Sophia Brown [Lila/Man Ray] is thrilled to be joining Mute! She is a local theatre artist, most recently seen with the Imaginary Theatre Company.

Keating [Fiona] is a kick-ass theatre artist who is madly in love with STL, co-artistic director of Poor Monsters.

Michael James Reed [Trent] used to enjoy doing a play or two. He now spends good portions of his day in a cardigan and Crocks.

They took a risk and it paid off.

Note: MUTE: A play for Zoom WATCH PARTY this Sunday, APRIL 12th at 7PM. DETAILS TBA. https://facebook.com/events/s/mute-a-play-for-zoom-watch-par/159436718663052/?ti=icl

Join us for the watch party!!! Here’s the page where you can get all the details coming soon.

In 1999, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble began as Off Center Theatre, a community theatre group. Then in January 2001, the company began to pay artistic and technical staff, making the switch to becoming a non-Equity professional theatre company. In this capacity, Off Center presented 15 productions from 2001 to 2005.

Founding Artistic Director, Margeau Baue Steinau, took over directorship of the company in 2005, shortly after which, in 2006, Steinau and other local artists formed Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE), under the umbrella of Off Center Theatre.

To mark the year 2020, SATE is looking back on productions from its history. We are re-visiting plays that were popular with audiences at the time and deserve another production. Given the growth of the company over the past 20 years, HINDSIGHT IS 20/20.

The SEASON OF HINDSIGHT will include the following productions:

  • Aphra Behn Festival, SATE’s annual festival founded in 2017, highlighting woman directors and designers (March 6-8, 2020)
  • Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, originally produced in 2009, examining the paradoxical lives of women in the workforce and at home, directed by Rachel Tibbetts (Aug. 12-29, 2020)
  • Classic Mystery Game adapted and directed by Keating, originally produced in 2019, investigating Western society in 2020 through the lens of the 1985 movie, CLUE (Oct. 28-Nov. 21, 2020)

To kick off the SEASON OF HINDSIGHT, SATE will present its annual
Aphra Behn Festival

March 6-8 (Friday-Sunday), 8:00pm
Centene Center for the Arts, 3547 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103.Tickets: $15 though Brown Paper Tickets or at the door.
(314) 827-5760, [email protected] or slightlyoff.org for more information.