By C. B. Adams
“Eugene Onegin,” the opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name, inspired another great writer, Anton Chekhov, to write a short story-cum-homage to the opera, “After the Theatre.” In it, Chekhov observed, “There was something beautiful,
touching and romantic about A loving B when B wasn’t interested in A. Onegin was attractive in not loving at all, while Tatyana was enchanting because she loved greatly. Had they loved equally and been happy they might have seemed boring.”

Good point. And, as we all know from yet another member of the Russian literati, Leo Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This is a review of Union Avenue Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin,” not a Russian Lit course. But, as the opera builds to its final act, one must decide whether the lead characters’ unhappiness resonates in a fulfilling way. Do we cheer Tatyana as she finally
spurns Onegin after he ungraciously spurned her two acts earlier?

Do we feel Onegin’s misery and despair at his impending loneliness? Do we cheer his comeuppance? Or do we embrace that tragic ambiguity?

It’s the players more than the libretto that help shape any (or none) of those answers. This year has been an interesting St. Louis opera season for strong women. Opera Theater of St. Louis put forth a tough-gal “Carmen,” sung by Sarah Mesko, and Union Avenue
offered a resilient Tatyana sung by the Russian-born-and-trained Zoya Gramagin, making her Union Avenue debut.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

Even in Act I, when Tatyana is a young and naïve country woman writing a gushy love letter to Onegin, Gramagin used her clear soprano to imbue Tatyana with innocence and undercurrent of strength. This Tatyana was no Cinderella, and this was most evident by Act III when she is now married to a prince. Onegin finally becomes smitten and she spurns him. Of all the characters in this “Onegin,” Gramagin’s Tatyana was the only one who seemed to have truly changed, placing her at the emotional core of this production.

Balancing the youthfulness of Tatyana was baritone Robert Garner as Eugene Onegin. Garner’s voice was rich, emotive and a pleasure to experience, though it was a challenge to identify with his narcissism and dismissiveness. Some “bad guys” you learn to like
(think Walter White in “Breaking Bad”), others you just have to endure. Garner’s Onegin was handsome, rakish and self-centered – qualities that he neither shed nor eschewed.

The only reward for his inability to change seemed to be the lonely life that awaits him. Onegin may have been the last character on stage, but Tatyana had the best last word as she operatically and metaphorically dropped the mic. This being a Russian opera, with libretto by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky no less, it’s appropriate to liken it to a matryoshka doll, with production elements nestled inside production elements.

Tatyana and Onegin may be the protagonists in the story, but they also require equally strong performances from the ensemble, which they certainly had in Union Avenue’s production. In fact, other than Garner’s Tatyana, tenor William Davenport as Lensky provided the
most engaging and relatable performance. His superb voice, especially during the “friendship” aria in Act II, was a highlight, and his ability to reveal Lensky’s character was well matched to Onegin’s shallowness.

Rounding out the solid cast was Melody Wilson as a Tatyana’s younger sister/bestie, Olga, and basso Isaiah Musik-Ayala as Tatyana’s princely husband, Prince Gremin, who delivered a powerful area about her. Also nestled inside this matryoshka was a solid supporting cast and chorus and the always-fine orchestra under the direction of Scott Schoonover.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

Union Avenue’s modestly sized stage provides challenges for large casts – a challenge that stage director Octavio Cardenas successfully surmounted. When the stage was full to the gills, it never felt constricted or distracting, not even during a peasant dance or polonaise, choreographed by Jennifer Medina.

One of the weakest elements of this matryoshka was Patrick Huber’s scenic design that included a series of tall, birch-like trees that worked well in Act II, but less so in later acts. The costumes by Teresa Doggett were superb, but some of the props appeared a bit
tired.

“Eugene Onegin” was a fine way for Union Avenue to return to its home stage after two years in the pandemic hinterlands. And at the conclusion of the performance, with Gramagin’s Tatyana still pleasantly in mind, one might remember of something from
Boris Pasternak in another tragic Russian love story, “Doctor Zhivago,” “If it’s so painful to love and absorb electricity, how much more painful it is to be a woman, to be the electricity, to inspire love.”

Union Avenue Opera presents “Eugene Onegin” July 8, 9, 15, 16 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information,
visit www.unionavenueopera.org

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

By CB Adams
Before the lights dimmed and the 8th annual LaBute New Theater Festival began, this reviewer felt pity instead of anticipation – pity for the nine playwrights who had to endure a two-year, pandemic-induced delay for their works to be fretted and strutted upon the intimate performance space at the Gaslight Theater.

During the festival’s four-week run, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents two sets of five one-act plays selected in 2020 – a Whitman’s Sampler (something for everyone!) of short dramas. Each slate includes “St. Louis,” written by the festival’s founder and namesake, the Tony-nominated, acclaimed writer and director Neil LaBute.

Two years may have felt like an eternity to playwrights and public alike, but the first set of one acts, running from July 8–17, delivers a collectively gratifying experience resonating with relevance to the current zeitgeist.

The first set includes Aren Haun’s “What Else is New,” John Doble’s “Twilight Time,” Willie Johnson’s “Funny Thing,” and Fran Dorf’s
“Time Warp,” as well as LaBute’s “St. Louis.”

Experiencing this evening of one acts is like reading a short-story collection. You might not enjoy every play (not all in the first set are one-hit wonders), but taken together, they are engaging, thought-provoking and satisfying. When soliciting for one acts, the LaBute
Festival seeks plays that feature no more than four characters. They should be crafted specifically to exploit the Gaslight’s intimate, 18-foot square performance space with quick changes in scenery, setting and set moves.

For theater-goers who love plays that focus on the fundamentals of dramaturgy – plot, character and theme – the LaBute Festival is a must-see, based on this first slate.

The plays presented this year are diverse, yet share a common thread, if not a common theme, of human connectedness:

“What Else is New,” set in a diner, involves Bruno (and his suitcase), an unhoused loner (replete with an annoying need for conversation and more tics and twitches than Brad Pitt in the film “12 Monkeys”) and Mark, a disinterested college art student who works the counter. t’s a marvel to watch the two characters circuitously connect.

“Twilight Time,” concerns a chance encounter between Benjamin and Geraldine, two disaffected youths who discover they are both planning their suicides. Though not as humorously death-drenched as “Harold and Maude,” they connect over common political and other opinions and soon make plans to live, perhaps happily ever after.

“Funny Thing” is anything but funny as the four-month relationship between Older Man and Younger Man is stuffed into a blender and set to frappe. The resulting, non-chronological plot makes frequent pivots that are easy to follow, thanks to fine acting and effective lighting changes.

No one dances in “Time Warp,” but, as the song goes, “…With a bit of a mind flip / You’re into the time slip / And nothing can ever be the same…” For those of us who like stories that explore the possibilities presented by punctures in the time- space continuum, “Time Warp” delivers a mind-bending – and ultimately harrowing – tale involving Brian, a Vietnam War army psychiatrist, his wife, Beth, a curiosity shopkeeper, CG Young, and a specter-like painter and fellow soldier, Joey Passarelli. The warping of time and circumstance ensues, though not in a science fiction sort of way.

LaBute’s “St. Louis” (presented in both sets of the festival) could have been titled Stand and Deliver because that’s what this play’s three characters do: they stand and deliver (as does the entire play itself). St. Louis does not concern itself with Ted Drewes, the Arch or any other tourist destinations. There are a few compass- point references to St. Louis, such as the Central West End, but the true location
of this one act is the triangulated world and relationships of the three monologists, She, Her and Him. The climax of the relationship – the connection – among these characters is too good to spoil.

But, climax aside, the most noteworthy achievement is how the story is unfolded by the three characters, each in a pool of
light and each speaking as if to their own offstage interlocutor. Separately, and yet collectively, they stand and deliver their part of a shared, very personal history. Under the deft direction of Spencer Sickmann (himself a seasoned actor), the actors collectively embrace their characters and deliver these short plays with confidence, believability and chemistry.

And, in the case of “Twilight Time,” they surpass the play itself. Mitch Henry Eagles plays triple duty in “What Else is New,” “Funny Thing” and “Time Warp.” All are fine performances, but the standout is as the Younger Man in “Funny Thing.” His character is whiplashed by the on-again/off-again relationship he shares with Older Man and Eagles easily flips between “should I stay” or “should I go?”

Bryn McLaughlin does double duty as Geraldine in “Twilight Time” and She in “St. Louis.” Her performance in the former is the strongest in that play, and in the latter, she’s even better as she projects a strong, confident counterpoint to the bro-ish Him. As Him, Brock
Russell plays a character one loves to hate, or vice versa, and that dichotomy is testament to his ability to fully reveal the complexities of Him.

Eric Dean White demonstrates tremendous range playing the twitchy chatterbox Bruno in “What Else is New” and, a couple of one acts later, as the sensitive psychiatrist and husband in “Time Warp.” The nervous energy he pours into his Bruno is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

In the case of these one acts, to call the sets, lighting and costumes bare bones is a compliment. As in most literary short stories, there’s nothing extraneous and everything must serve a purpose in black-box one acts. In this first slate of plays, that’s exactly what Patrick Huber achieves with the flexible sets and lighting, as does Carla Landis Evans with the costume designs.

Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival runs July 8-17 at at the Gaslight Theater, 358 N Boyle Ave. Set Two runs from July 22–31. Times are 3 p.m. on Sundays and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, www.stlas.org
All photos by Patrick Huber

.Union Avenue Opera announces three new garden concerts taking place this spring.

This summer, Union Avenue Opera will make its highly anticipated return to its home stage within the historic Union Avenue Christian Church at 733 N. Union Blvd, just north of the intersection of Union and Delmar Boulevards.

Known for its commitment to presenting operas in their original language, Union Avenue Opera will offer a three opera festival season opening with Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Eugene Onegin (July 8, 9, 15, 16) which last appeared on the UAO stage in 2003 to great critical acclaim. The season will also see the return of Verdi’s riotous Italian romp Falstaff (July 29, 30, August 5, 6) which the company last produced in 2005. Rounding out the 2022 season will be the UAO debut of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s charming A Little Night Music (August 19, 20, 26, 27).

“Moving back to our home stage after these harrowing two years away is a joyful outcome to the uncertainty we have faced during this pandemic” said UAO Founder and Artistic Director Scott Schoonover. “Our first two productions are personal and audience favorites from our 28 years of producing opera – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Verdi’s Falstaff. These new, vivacious productions welcome back to our stage many returning artists and several debut singers. Director Octavio Cardenas will make his UAO debut with Eugene Onegin bringing his own special brand of visceral, physical directing to the UAO stage. Jon Truitt returns to direct Falstaff (Jon’s favorite
opera) with his proven comedic style, and Maestro Stephen Hargreaves will return to the UAO pit.”

“Our third production is a company and composer debut with Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. I’ve wanted to bring this show to UAO for many years and am so thrilled it is finally happening!” said Schoonover. “Annamaria Pileggi will return to direct this stellar cast headlined by St. Louis’ own Debby Lennon as Desirée. It is a wonderful story with so much memorable music which finishes up a season that certainly offers something for everyone! I know we say often, but this one is truly a season not to be missed – it is chock-full of amazing voices, actors, orchestra and stage technicians eager to get back to great storytelling on the intimate UAO stage.”
Single tickets range from $35 to $55 and are available at unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881. Discounts are available for Seniors (65+), Military/Educator, and Young Audiences (under 18). All performances start at 8:00PM and free parking is available in the lots behind the venue and overflow parking is available on the street. 

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s: EUGENE ONEGIN

July 8, 9, 15, 16 at 8:00PM
Presented in Russian with projected English supertitles
Conducted by Scott Schoonover
Directed by Octavio Cardenas
Libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky and Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky


A cautionary tale of what was, what was not, and what could have been.
Tatyana, a lovesick girl from the countryside, declares her love for Onegin and finds herself spurned by the disenchanted aristocrat. Onegin, indifferent to the feelings of others, disregards Tatyana’s advances to pursue Olga, his friend Lensky’s betrothed. A duel commences and Onegin finds himself victorious albeit deeply tormented. He returns years later to find Tatyana happily married to Prince Gremin. Struck by her beauty, Onegin declares his love
for her only to find himself face to face with the folly of his naïveté. Eugene Onegin is a sophisticated and melancholy masterpiece by one of classical music’s most universally beloved composers. Tchaikovsky’s lush melodies are enhanced by the opera’s unique folk tunes, infectious waltzes, and passion-soaked arias bringing to
life Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel like never before.

Under the baton of Artistic Director Scott Schoonover, Robert Garner (Nabucco, Nabucco) and William Davenport (Hoffmann, Les contes d’Hoffmann) will return to UAO in their role debuts as Onegin and Lensky respectively. No stranger to the role of Tatyana, Zoya Gramagin will make her UAO debut alongside Andrew W. Potter as Prince Gremin. Melody Wilson (Fenena, Nabucco and Mrs. Miller, Doubt) will return as Olga along with local artists Debbie Stinson as Madama Larina, Victoria Carmichael as Filippyevna, Marc Schapman as Triquet, and Benjamin Worley as Zaretsky. This will be acclaimed stage director Octavio Carendas’ UAO directorial debut. Patrick Huber will provide scenic and lighting design with costume design by Teresa Doggett.

Eugene Onegin – Robert Garner
Tatyana – Zoya Gramagin*
Lensky – William Davenport
Olga – Melody Wilson
Filippyevna – Victoria Carmichael
Madame Larina – Debbie Stinson
Prince Gremin – Andrew W. Potter*
Monsieur Triquet – Marc Schapman
Zaretsky – Benjamin Worley

Giuseppe Verdi’s: FALSTAFF

July 29, 30, August 5, 6 at 8:00PM
Presented in Italian with projected English supertitles
Conducted by Stephen Hargreaves
Directed by Jon Truitt
Libretto by Arrigo Boito


Drink. Cheat. Scheme. Repeat. Just don’t get caught unaware
Old, lecherous, and down on his luck, Sir John Falstaff can’t resist the ladies. The fool hatches a plan to reverse his ill-fortune and sets his sights on not one, but two married women. Sharper than they look, Alice and Meg discover the odious Falstaff’s plan to unceremoniously seduce them and trick them out of their fortunes. The women band together and with the help of Nannetta and Dame Quickly, they concoct a scheme to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget and to put him in his place once and for all. Add in a jealous husband, a pair of young lovers, and a touch of the supernatural and what ensues is a sophisticated comedy filled with failed plans and botched disguises. Verdi’s riotous romp Falstaff bubbles with irrepressible wit and charm in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

On the heels of last summer’s company debut, Robert Mellon (Figaro, Il barbiere di Siviglia) will lead the cast of returning artists as Sir John Falstaff. No stranger to the UAO stage Brooklyn Snow (the Heroines, Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Cunegonde, Candide) will be reunited with her Candide co-star, Jesse Darden (Candide) as the two young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton. St. Louis-based husband and wife duo Jacob Lassetter and Karen Kanakis will portray Ford and his wife Alice for the production as Janara Kellerman (Rosina, Il barbiere di Siviglia) returns as Dame Quickly, and Melody Wilson will again be seen on the UAO stage, this time in her role debut as Meg Page. A trio of St. Louis based artists round out the cast with Clark Sturdevant as Bardolfo, Mark Freiman as Pistola, and Anthony Heinemann as Dr. Caius. Stephen Hargreaves conducts while Jon Truitt directs. Lex Van Bloomestein’s set designs and Teresa Doggett’s costume designs will be enhanced by Patrick Huber’s lighting design.

Sir John Falstaff – Robert Mellon
Alice Ford – Karen Kanakis
Ford – Jacob Lassetter
Nanetta – Brooklyn Snow
Fenton – Jesse Darden
Dame Quickly – Janara Kellerman
Meg Page – Melody Wilson
Bardolfo – Clark Sturdevant
Pistola – Mark Freiman
Dr. Caius – Anthony Heinemann

Stephen Sondheim’s: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

August 19, 20, 26, 27 at 8:00PM
Presented in English with projected English supertitles
Conducted by Scott Schoonover
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Suggested by a Film by Ingmar Bergman
Originally Produced and Directed on Broadway by Harold Prince


Lovers reunite, passions reignite, and new romance blossoms in the magic of music on a mid-summer’s night.


A Little Night Music explores the tangled web of affairs centered around the glamorous actress Desirée Armfeldt and the two married men who love her: a lawyer by the name of Frederik Egerman and Count Carl-Magnus Malcom.

Both men—as well as their jealous wives—agree to join Desirée at her family’s estate for a scandalous “Weekend in the Country” under the watchful eyes of the wry family matriarch and harmonizing Greek chorus. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, it is no wonder A Little Night Music won the Tony Award for Best Musical. From the romance of the night waltzes to the hauntingly beautiful “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim’s sweeping score is infused with humor and warmth weaving together musical theatre and operetta seamlessly in this tantalizing tale.

Debby Lennon (Mrs. Mullin, Carousel) returns to the UAO stage to lead this stunning cast as Desirée Armfeldt under the direction of Annamaria Pileggi, and Scott Schoonover conducts. Also returning to the UAO stage are Peter Kendall Clark (Older Thompson, Glory Denied) and Brooklyn Snow, who makes her second appearances of the season, as the newly married Frederick and Anne Egerman. Eric J. McConnell makes his UAO stage debut as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Leann Schuering (Josephine, H.M.S. Pinafore) as his wife Charlotte. Local actor Teresa Doggett, best known for her work as UAO’s costume designer for the past fifteen seasons, makes her UAO stage debut as the matriarch Madame Armfeldt alongside Amy Maude Helfer as the restless maid Petra and Arielle Pedersen as the young Fredrika. A bevy of St. Louis talent round out the cast including James Stevens as Henrik Egerman, Jordan Wolk as the butler Frid, and Grace Yukiko Fisher, Gina Malone, Sarah Price, Joel Rogier, and Philip Touchette as the “Liebeslieders”. C. Otis Sweezey will provide scenic design for A Little Night Music along with costume design by Teresa Doggett and lighting design by Patrick Huber.

Desirée Armfeldt – Debby Lennon
Frederick Egerman – Peter Kendall Clark
Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm – Eric J. McConnell*
Charlotte Malcolm – Leann Schuering
Madame Armfeldt – Teresa Doggett*
Anne Egerman – Brooklyn Snow
Henrik Egerman – James Stevens
Petra – Amy Maude Helfer*
Fredrika – Arielle Pedersen*
Mrs. Nordstrom – Gina Malone
Mrs. Anderssen – Grace Yukiko Fisher
Mrs. Segstrom – Sarah Price*
Mr. Erlanson – Philip Touchette
Mr. Lindquist – Joel Rogier
Frid – Jordan Wolk

A Little Night Music is presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI). All authorized
performance materials are also supplied by MTI. www.mtishows.com
*UAO stage debut

Opera in the Garden
In anticipation of the season, UAO will bring classic opera front and center in its 2022 Opera in the Garden – Garden Concert Series Fundraiser this spring. Launched in 2018, as a House Concert Series, UAO moved the concerts outdoor in the fall of 2020 for the safety of its artists and patrons and were some of the first, live, operatic performances held in St. Louis during the pandemic. Each concert will feature two UAO artists from the upcoming season performing an eclectic and entertaining selection of arias, art songs and musical theatre favorites, and will showcase a scholarship winner from UAO’s 2022 CRESCENDO! program along with a guest instrumentalist from UAO’s talented opera orchestra.

Sunday, May 8 at 5:00PM
Our opening concert will take place on Mother’s Day and headlined by two singing moms – Gina Malone and Danielle Yilmaz – celebrating the day with us with some wonderful music and fun. Guest artists Raven Brooks, soprano, from Blackburn College and UAO principal flutist, Ann Dolan will join pianist Sandra Geary for this perfect Mother’s Day afternoon. The backdrop for our first concert is the beautiful lawn of the 1959 home of CK Siu and Shannon Hart which sits on what used to be the Krause farm in Ladue.

Sunday, May 22 at 5:00PM
Our second concert takes us to the grounds of the former Rand Mansion, now the home of University City mayor, Terry Crow. Artists Sarah Price, Mark Freiman and Nancy Mayo will lead this concert, along with guest soprano, Erica Ancell from Webster University and UAO principal horn player, Nancy Schick, who will team up with Ms. Price and Ms. Mayo for a not-to-be-missed special performance of Schubert’s Auf dem Strom D. 943.

Sunday, June 5 at 5:00PM
The 2022 Garden Concert Series concludes with a return to the beautiful flower-filled garden of the University City home of Richard and Mary Ann Shaw. Grace Yukiko Fisher, Philip Touchette and Nancy Mayo will entertain us with opera and musical theatre fun, and guest artists Madalyn Tomkins, soprano, from Webster University, and Carolina Neves, violinist will round out this beautiful afternoon.

Fundraiser tickets are $50 for individuals or $100 for Patron Seating which includes the best reserved seats and a $50 tax-deductible donation to UAO. Tickets are on sale now at www.unionavenueopera.org and must be ordered in advance (no door sales).

About Union Avenue Opera

UAO was founded in 1994 to bring affordable, professional, original-language opera t St. Louis, a mission the company continues to pursue to this day. UAO is committed to hiring the most talented artists, directors, designers and technicians both locally and from across the United States. UAO provides promising singers the first steppingstone of their professional career. The company celebrated its 25th Anniversary Season in 2019 and offers vibrant and affordable opera experiences in original languages to audiences who reflect the breadth and diversity of the St. Louis region. UAO is a publicly supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered in
Missouri.

Financial assistance for the 2022 Festival Season has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and with support from the Regional Arts Commission

By Lynn Venhaus

Jacqueline Kennedy once famously said: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”

The cold-hearted Iris Banks (Kari Ely) apparently did not agree. She made a choice, to pursue a literary career first, leaving her husband and child. Now grown, her bitter and resentful son Cal (Spencer Sickmann) unexpectedly returns home, but he is not exactly welcomed like the Prodigal Son. And she is closer to “Mommy Dearest” than Mother Earth.

In an intense psychologically complex drama, “Comfort,” a fierce new work by renowned playwright Neil LaBute that is premiering at St. Louis Actors’ Studio (Dec. 3-19), two of our finest stage artists fearlessly tango.

There is much baggage to unpack as mother, now a literary titan – three Pulitzers! — and child, who is still finding his way, reveal their past and present relationship.

These fully dimensional roles are demanding and exhaustive, but brave Ely and Sickmann exhibit their stamina and superior skills at delivering such emotionally layered performances.

Awkward exchanges and pleasantries give way to an uneasy détente (short-lived), stunning disclosures (the hits just keep on coming) and blistering confrontations. They are two people on opposite sides of a great divide, a rift that has grown over time and still an open wound, for no healing was attempted.

At times, the icy Mom, who admitted she had no maternal instinct but attempted the wife-and-motherhood roles set forth in society, seems to thaw.  And son appears to soften his hostility, but those are brief respites from some harsh exchanges as Iris declares she is all about the “truth,” but son reveals he has evidence to the contrary.

The two performers wear their characters’ bravado like a badge of honor – until they don’t. Mom is unapologetic about her distain for literary rivals or for ‘normal’ trappings of family life – but occasionally, her steely demeanor will crack, showing us an inkling of regret.

It’s such a masterful portrayal by Ely, who has tackled her share of uncommon, tough females – including Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Violet in “August Osage County” and Regina in “The Little Foxes,” all on the Gaslight stage.

And a never-better Sickmann plays Cal like a wounded animal, cornered but ready to pounce. Since bursting on the local theater scene about five years ago, he has capably delved into guys with an edge but also showing vulnerability – Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Hal in “Picnic,” press secretary Stephen in “Farragut North” and artist Matt in “The Feast,” among them.

LaBute’s rhythmic dialogue has bite, and the pair show their verbal dexterity in meaty exchanges. Do not underestimate their ruthlessness.

LaBute, a prolific playwright and screenwriter who has made waves since the early 1990s, often writes characters that are schemers or callous, calculating ones who use people for their own advantage. They may not be likable, but they are survivors – and they are fascinating

One of LaBute’s hallmarks is that he will divulge character flaws in such a chilling way as to take a jarring and dramatic turn that changes the temperature in the room. He’s all about the gray area, never specifically black-and-white – and that’s what makes his plays so compelling.

Director Annamaria Pileggi keeps the unsettling narrative moving at a brisk clip, and Patrick Huber’s impressive set design efficiently uses the space to move the action forward. Fine work by Huber as lighting designer, sound designer Robin Weatherall, costume designer Teresa Doggett and fight choreographer Shaun Sheley.

Even with a lengthy run time, you still want to hear what Iris and Cal have to say to each other – and you’ll still be caught off-guard.

STLAS has collaborated with LaBute since 2012, mainly as part of the LaBute New Theater Festival, in which international one-act entries are selected to be part of two line-ups. He is a co-producer and often an active participant.

The previously unproduced plays must be 45 minutes or less, and not have more than four characters. They must be able to be presented in The Gaslight Theatre’s intimate space.The selected works are usually marked by sharp writing and smart acting.

And LaBute writes an original work to premiere every summer, which is included in both slates. A few of them have been dark and disturbing or acerbic, or both.

One of the festival’s components that LaBute is most proud of is the High School Play Competition, encouraging teenage writers to pursue playwrighting. The winning plays are presented as readings.

But this is the first time that LaBute is premiering a new two-act play separate from the annual summer fest.

The fest will return the summer of 2022. In the meantime, theatergoers can marvel at the riveting work by Ely and Sickmann, who bob and weave like pro athletes.

The ironically titled play, “Comfort,” may still be a work in progress, but it provides a bracing vehicle in which to show a delicate balance in a mother-son dynamic.

Spencer Sickmann and Kari Ely

“Comfort” is presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Dec. 3-19. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org.

Proof of Vaccination Must Be Presented and a Mask Must Be Worn While in the Theater.

By Lynn Venhaus
By the numbers: 2 one-act plays, 2 renowned 20th century playwrights, 2 professional actors, a 97-seat black box — with COVID-19 protocols in place — and one professional theater company restarting its 14th season.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. One thing is for certain – the awards magnet St. Louis Actors’ Studio has re-opened with the edgy, gritty dramadies that it specializes in, re-emerging with an acting showcase on stage at The Gaslight Theatre.

After being dark during the public health crisis of 2020 and 2021, pre-vaccine, these early 1959 works by two iconic individual voices, “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee and “The Dumb Waiter” by Harold Pinter, are vivid and evocative some 60 years later

It’s all the ingredients necessary to create a mesmerizing live theatrical experience.

Newcomer Joel Moses announces his arrival in St. Louis with two masterful portraits, holding his own with veteran William Roth, who is also the company’s artistic director. The original 14th season was called “Two to Tango,” and their pas de deux is a master class in duet acting.

William Roth as Peter and Joel Moses as Jerry in “The Zoo Story.” Photo by Patrick Huber

Starting with Edward Albee’s first play, “The Zoo Story,” it’s immediately apparent that we are in for something special. The one-act, written in 1958, is where Albee, a rebellious youth with wealthy adoptive parents, crafted a work by using themes we’d become more familiar with as he explored dark societal issues.

He won three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, and his 1962 masterpiece “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” won the Tony Award. “The Zoo Story” is where it all began, thus creating a sea change in American postwar theater, and won the 1960 Obie Award.

As powerful today as when it first appeared in regional theater (rejected by New York status quo), “The Zoo Story” is about isolation, loneliness, class and economic disparities, dehumanization of marginalized people, and the pitfalls of living in a material world.

All of that is brought to life in finely tuned performances by Roth and Moses as Peter and Jerry. They meet on a park bench in Central Park one sunny Sunday afternoon.

Peter, as is his custom, is reading a book in solitude. A married publisher of some means has two daughters, two cats and two parakeets.

He intrigues Jerry, who engages Peter in conversation. As is immediately obvious, Jerry has issues – lonely, disconnected, desperate, he craves companionship. He has no filter and no boundaries, a lost soul.

It’s apparent who is the have-not in this twosome. Jerry’s façade cracks early, and his behavior becomes increasingly alarming. As unsettled as Peter is, his manners allow him a sense of decorum, until the situation escalates.

What was disturbing back in 1960, when the play was first produced off-Broadway with William Daniels and George Maharis as Peter and Jerry, remains distressing today – but for different reasons. Back then, such unstable behavior hadn’t been normalized by society – it was shocking. Sadly, we can see what’s coming by looking through the rear-view mirror of 2021. This is what happens, Albee says, when people are discarded as worthless by society.

Albee’s trademark biting dialogue is handled with seamless agility by Roth and Moses, under the thoughtful direction of Wayne Salomon.

A legendary local theater artist, Salomon’s skill is expected – and the finesse attended to this production is admirable. He has polished both plays until they gleam, like the genuine gems they are.

The setting benefits from Patrick Huber’s panoramic view of Central Park as a serene oasis in the bustling city – and further illustrates the differences between the two characters.

This sharp, savvy production is , hard-hitting and though-provoking theater as it was intended. It’s exhilarating to experience.

Joel Moses as Gus and William Roth as Ben in “The Dumb Waiter.” Photo by Patrick Huber

After a welcome intermission, as we’re processing the brilliance of the first act, we’re treated to one of Huber’s stunning set changes. How did he do that between shows? It’s a grimy, dingy basement somewhere in England, where two hitmen are awaiting their orders.

This is a fun change-of-pace. Just as absurd as “The Zoo Story,” and also a comedy with dramatic overtones, the British playwright and Nobel Prize-winning Harold Pinter’s early work from 1957 is indicative of his later much-heralded plays, like the menacing “The Birthday Party” and “The Homecoming.”

Moses, in another tour-de-force, is the impatient and somewhat dim-witted Gus, who seems to have grown weary of his routine, monoytonous life waiting for “the call” and killing time on assignment. Without so much as a needed cup of refreshing tea, he’s antsy, bored and hungry.

His companion, Ben, a man resigned to his lot in life, is keenly played by Roth, who becomes aggravated by Gus’ incessant chatter. He’s the teacher to the pupil.

Both actors adopt working-class English accents, and they give out a little information here and there, shaping their characters and how they operate.

They are taken aback when a dumb waiter opens with a slip of paper indicating a food order. The small kitchen’s stove is inoperable, so they can’t even light the kettle for tea. And here orders are coming in with a variety of restaurant dishes listed, expecting to be prepared. A few biscuits, a warm bottle of milk, a stale tea cake and some crisps are all that Gus has brought. They send that up, not knowing what to expect.

The exchange is comical – and involves a whistle and some sort of horn in which to communicate.

Ah, Pinter. A stuffy, claustrophobic setting? Check. Mundane but witty dialogue? Check. Hidden meanings? Check.

The actors get into an appealing rhythm that sadly must end, because well, the play ends. “The Dumb Waiter” leaves you wanting more – dialogue, funny bits, threatening in a mysterious way, and actors having fun — but that is a good thing, not a drawback.

Both plays are humorous, ironic, and suspenseful in their own ways, and it’s interesting to watch the accomplished actors switch gears. Roth and Moses make a dynamic duo – and best of all, this won’t be the end of them working together, at least I hope not.

The two one-acts continue its final weekend, Oct. 1-3, with Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End, 358 N. Boyle Ave. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or you can arrive at the box office within an hour of the show. For more information, visit stlas.org or call 314-458-2978.                                                                                                          ,                                                                                                                                                         

By Lynn Venhaus

Heart-tugging and hopeful, “Tiny Beautiful Things” strikes universal chords as it reverberates through a darkened theater.

Now playing at The Grandel, the deeply personal journeys of people who cared enough to reach out to another human, to make that connection in cyberspace, even when they were confused or desperate or sad or angry, will smack you upside your head, resonate emotionally, and may elicit a few tears and some smiles – if you let it pull you in (and why resist?).

Perhaps listening to four people be vulnerable will prompt the proverbial light bulb to come on, illuminating what’s going on in your life. Or by hearing about others’ experiences, you will be comforted too.

The well-worn themes of love and loss provide perspective in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling self-help book, served up by Nia Vardalos with sprinklings of humor and heaping amounts of compassion. This is not your mom’s yellowed Ann Landers’ clippings.

“Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” was published in 2012, a collection of essays from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. She took it over from her friend, Steve Almond, in 2010. The book also includes essays not previously published.

With a nudge from director Thomas Kail, who was given the book by journalist Marshall Heyman, Vardalos conceived it as a play, mixing in the author’s memoir along with the dating advice and grieving support.

It premiered at The Public Theater in December 2016, starring Vardalos as Sugar and three actors playing various e-mail letter writers, directed by Tony Award-winner and Emmy nominee Kail (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” “Fosse/Verdon”), and a revised version returned the next year.

The story’s framework is simple: The writer dispenses words of wisdom, an understanding achieved after many battles of her own, and because she is willing to expose herself to strangers, they in turn disclose their inner-most thoughts and feelings.

With such candid material to work with, producing artistic director Stellie Siteman and managing director De Kaplan knew it was the right choice for their company, Max and Louie Productions, to return with after a harsh 16 months that has changed us all.

Because we endured a pandemic period filled with isolation and self-reflection about our own lives, being with others post-coronavirus quarantine reinforces what we all know but need to be reminded about: We are not alone.

Even with the best of intentions, this could come across very Hallmark cards-like, reducing sentiments to those home décor signs urging us to “Forgive and Forget” or “Live Laugh Love,” but Vardalos and Strayed are too smart to settle for repeating platitudes, as are the women involved in this production.

Vardalos struck gold writing and starring in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” two decades ago, earning an Oscar nomination in 2003, and Strayed, who was a troubled soul trying to come to terms with her past and present through a 1,100-mile hike in 1995, published that life-changing trek in the 2012 bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Both are grounded women who have achieved success representing their own lives so authentically, which is the foundation here.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga understood the challenges of this piece and did not embellish it with any unnecessary frills. She approached the play in a straightforward and sincere manner, which is affecting and skillfully presented by this veteran cast, anchored with authority by Michelle Hand.

Greg Johnson and Michelle Hand. Photo by Patrick Huber

The creative team’s collaboration is subtle. The minimal scenic design by master of detail Dunsi Dai suits the intent. Ronga moved, with purpose, the actors around furniture that represents their characters’ homes – including a couch, a bed, a desk and a table. Everything appears lived in, with key items placed by props designer Katie Orr, and exudes a comfortable atmosphere, accented by lighting designer extraordinaire Patrick Huber. Costume designer Eileen Engel selected casual outfits appropriate to the roles.

Two large panels rise above – are those windows to the soul? Hmmm…This isn’t supposed to resemble a psychiatrist’s office, and the set intriguingly widens the reach while narrowing the focus.

As letter writers, versatile stage actors Greg Johnston, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Abraham Shaw strike different tones as they reveal what their assorted characters are looking for or what has defined each of their lives.

As the human faces of email exchanges, they present their questions and responses in a natural way, becoming a de facto support system and sounding board. One of Johnston’s characters blurts out WTF several times, amusing the audience with such a declaration. (The play contains some strong language and adult content).

As Sugar, Hand wrestles with confidence and her conscience, showing the growth of Cheryl and depicting the raw honesty for which the writer is known. That draws the other characters in, and us, too.

Writers are often hard to portray, especially typing at a computer, for the work is such an internal process — unless there are major conflicts. With this format, we don’t follow the 80-minute show like regular storytelling — nor does it reach a dramatic conclusion – but is moving nonetheless.

What makes this so touching then? Could it be as plain as seeking meaning while we find our way, holding on to ideals and keeping faith that things will turn out all right? Or it’s OK to say we aren’t OK? Because having lived through the uncertainty and anxiety of a public health crises, something we are still processing, this performance on Friday night seemed as warm as your grandma’s chunky hand-knit afghan and as familiar as a hug from a cherished loved one.

Strayed doesn’t profess to have all the answers, nor does she say she can fix everybody and everything. But by offering examples of her struggles, exposing herself so openly, somehow, we come out of the dark and into the light. It’s that simple, but that profound.

Hand approaches each role so genuinely that you believe whatever situation she is going through, whether she is Tami, the exasperated mother of an autistic son in “Falling” at Mustard Seed Theatre; Toril Grandal, a cook serving her family’s special pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream to world leaders, in “Oslo” at The Rep; or the broken-hearted lesbian artist Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre.

She is best at bringing the humanity out in her characters, real people portraits — (cases in point, Maggie Dalton in St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Breeches!”, who discovers her mettle while her husband is fighting in World War II, St. Louis Theater Circle Best Actress in a Comedy Award 2019; and innocent Rose Mundy, the intellectually challenged sister in “Dancing at Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed).

Anyone with a heart – lonely, heavy, hungry, normal – can relate to the personal stories shared. In a world where empathy seems to be in short supply, this work restores the belief that we get to carry each other, and through that, the broken can be healed.

If you crave the intimacy and insight that live theater can supply, “Tiny Beautiful Things” will reward you.

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Michelle Hand and Abraham Shaw. Photo by Patrick Huber

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is presented without intermission at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in St. Louis, from July 29 to Aug. 8. Performances are at 2 p.m. on Aug. 1 and 8; at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 4 and 5, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6 and 7.

Tickets are on sale at www.metrotix.com or by phone at 314-534-1111 or at the box office an hour before curtain. Socially distanced reserved seating is restricted to groups of 2 and 4 consecutive seats, and booth seating is available for groups of 4 and 6. Masks are required.

Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification. To ensure that they may create safely, present safely, and attend safely, they pledge to Covid-19 safe protocols which patrons are encouraged to view at Max & Louie Productions’ website at www.maxandlouie.com.

Writer-Director Helping Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund

By Lynn Venhaus
Cory Finley first came on my radar with “The Feast,” his original play that was produced by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio in fall 2017. Since then, he has received national acclaim for two films, “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education.” He is definitely one to watch.

Now he is giving back to the small theater company that gave him a shot by being one of the artists trying to help STLAS and others in St. Louis through the Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund. This was started to help these struggling companies pay their bills until they can safely re-open.

The coronavirus pandemic has threatened extinction for millions of small businesses all over the world, including theater companies, who will continue to be hit hard as they might not receive any funding in 2021, and if they do, it would be a small amount.

“The federal government has offered some help, but small professional theaters are not in line for major funding and the existing funding that relies on tax dollars is vanishing,” said William Roth, STLAS Founder and Artistic Director. “We decided to take matters into our own hands with the creation of the Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund and enlisted the help of well-known St. Louisans with careers in the arts.” 

By donating to the Fund, participants are automatically entered into a drawing to win a virtual hangout with Finley or other famous St. Louis artists Sterling K. Brown, Jon Hamm, Sam McMurray, Beau Willimon, or Neil LaBute (longtime friend of the St. Louis Actors’ Studio).

For every $75 donated to www.stlas.org/sustain, the participant’s name is placed into a drawing for 50 chances to win. The more a person donates, the better their chances are for winning. Contest ends Sept. 17 and the winner will be drawn on September 18.  

During the virtual meet-up, the winner will be able to discuss anything of interest with the artist—from acting tips and insights, to fans just wanting to spend a little quality time. Names will be drawn until all artists are spoken for. For official rules and regulations, please visit the FAQ page. Donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.

Finley wanted to get involved because he believes in their work and the mission they’re starting.

“I was lucky enough to have STLAS put on a production of my play ‘The Feast.’ I’m a huge fan of the work they’re doing and I’m very concerned about the health of theater in America generally in pandemic conditions. I think it’s a great initiative to help keep vital institutions alive,” Finley said. 

In a short-take review, I described the play this way: “One act, three actors, five genres, so says director John Pierson, who shrewdly realizes an eerie “Twilight Zone”-type mind game by Cory Finley of Clayton, Mo. The twisty-turny original play, only 65 minutes’ long, benefits from an accomplished trio of actors and Patrick Huber’s customary meticulous set and artful lighting design. Pierson’s crisp direction and keen sound design enhance the mysterious off-kilter quality.”

Pierson, a St. Louis actor, director and teacher, has been at John Burroughs School since 1993 and is chairman of the Theatre, Speech and Dance Department.

Finley, 31, a Burroughs graduate, is based in New York City, where he is a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theater. He received a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for playwrighting, and was the inaugural recipient of the Gurney Playwrights Fund for “The Feast,” which was presented first at The Flea Theater.

Three years ago this month, Finley’s play “The Feast” fit into the vision at The Gaslight Theatre, STLAS’ black-box home.

“STLAS is committed to bringing engaging theatrical experiences to our community of actors, writers, producers, filmmakers and all patrons of the arts; and to provide a strong ensemble environment to foster learning and artistic expression. Through the use of ensemble work, STLAS explore the endless facets and various themes of the human condition by producing existing and original collaborative theatre,” Roth said.

Finley received high praise for the film “Thoroughbreds,” which he adapted from his play and also directed. It was accepted for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and nominated for the Audience Award in the Best of Next! competition. It played at the St. Louis International Film Festival that November. Sold to Focus Features for $5 million, the film opened in theaters in March 2018.

Finley wrote the crime-drama-dark comedy about two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut, who rekindled their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Then they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems — no matter what the cost. The cast included Anna Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, and was the last film of Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident at his home in June 2016. The film is dedicated to him.

Anton Yelchin, Cory Finley, Anya Taylor-Joy. Photo by

Indie Wire described the film as “Heathers meets American Psycho.” Rotten Tomatoes had a score of 86% and the critic consensus was: ” Thoroughbreds juggles genres with panache, delivering a well-written and refreshingly unpredictable entry in the teen thriller genre.”

In 2019, Finley scored a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for “Thoroughbreds.” The annual awards, held since 1984, honor independent filmmakers working with small budgets. For more information on the film, visit www.thoroughbredsmovie.com

Last year, Finley directed “Bad Education,” which was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and sold to HBO for $20 million. HBO aired it April 25 this year (Currently available in HBOMax catalog) and as of Sept. 8, it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is also available for rental or purchase on streaming platforms.

“Bad Education” is nominated for two Emmy Awards — Best Television Movie and Hugh Jackman for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. The Emmy Awards are Sunday, Sept. 20.

The film, based on a true story, focuses on the popular superintendent of New York’s Roslyn school district as well as his staff, friends and relatives who become the prime suspects as the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history unfolds. Former Roslyn student Mike Makowsky wrote the screenplay based on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker.

Finley said he was drawn to the script for several reasons.

“I thought the script had a really unique tone, a complex character at its center, and themes about greed, institutional failure and systemic corruption that spoke to me,” he said.

And working with the cast was a positive experience.

Jackman played Frank Tassone, who was sentenced to 4 to 12 years for the $11.2 million embezzling scheme, and Alison Janney played Pam Gluckin, an assistant superintendent who took part in the scheme.

“I was enormously lucky that my A-list cast all had the work ethic and humility of actors just starting off: particularly Hugh and Alison made my job incredibly easy and were intensely collaborative and open, as well as super-prepared,” Finley said.

He said he is not at liberty to divulge his next project just yet..

How has he been coping with the pandemic in New York?

“My partner is a medical resident who got pulled into the COVID ward right at the height of the pandemic, so I had a very intense view of the worst of it through her. But she’s now back home doing tele-health and things are much more normal,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a job that I can do from home — the writing and prep parts of my job at least — and so I’m far less affected than many New Yorkers have been.”

What has he learned during this time of quarantine?

“It’s a total cliche, but I’ve learned how important a sense of social community is, and how badly we all need it back,” he said.

Cory FInley at Film Independent Spirit Awards. Photo by Kevin Mazur.

Q&A QUESTIONS FOR “TAKE TEN”
1. Why did you choose your profession? 
I always loved creating and managing made-up worlds: first pretend games, then Dungeons and Dragons, then school plays, then  directing film. 

2. How would your friends describe you?
Tall, polite, bad at remembering things, dad jokes, no sense of direction. 

3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
Playing basketball with great enthusiasm and minimal ability. 

4. What is your current obsession? 
Youtube chiropractic adjustment videos. Also, archived Firing Line videos of William F. Buckley debating prominent leftists of the 60s — Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin, Huey Newton. They show at once how far our politics have come and how little our discourse has changed. 

5. Who do you admire most?
In no particular order: Caryl Churchill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lebron James. 

6. What is your favorite thing to do in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area?
Ted Drewes and the Tivoli Theatre.  

More to Know:
Name: Cory Finley
Age: 31
Birthplace: St. Louis, MO (Clayton, specifically)
Current location: Manhattan
Day job: Many years SAT/ACT tutoring
Favorite movies: Brief EncounterThere Will Be Blood

By Andrea BraunContributing Writer

The title of the play is based on Frederick Douglass’ exhorting his followers to “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” This was later in his life, long after he met and became friends with Susan B. Anthony who was already doing just that in her late 20s.

Their friendship would last 45 years and their goals remain the same, though there are bumps in the road: both supported abolition and women’s rights. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light between them because while their causes meshed, their priorities didn’t always do the same. The Agitators now playing at Upstream Theater is an examination of their near-lifelong connection, allowing both of them time to make their points. Perhaps a bit too much time, however, because much of the play seems rather like a lecture. This is is certainly not to say it isn’t mostly well-done, disturbingly timely, and certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.

Douglass (J. Samuel Davis) is close to Anthony’s (Erin Kelley) father, an outspoken abolitionist, and a Quaker. Because of her religion, she tells Douglass early on, even if she could vote, she wouldn’t because Quakers are supposed to be apolitical. Later, she would leave the Society of Friends and change her mind about voting, but when we meet her, the women’s rights question is her priority, along with abolition. Act I begins at the Anthony residence and covers 1849-1869. Act II picks up in 1870 and takes us through 1895.

Playwright Mat Smart has a tough job here: The time
period covered is so long that even though projections help us with what year
it is and where we are, we still get the impression that these two spend a
great deal of time together expressing their views on civil rights. The fact
is, often they would go years without seeing each other, sometimes because they
were busy, other times, because they were angry.

Their longest disagreement was about Douglass’ support
of the 15th Amendments to the Constitution which proposed enfranchisement
of black men but not any women. Unsurprisingly, Anthony takes umbrage at his
support of what she considers a half-measure. She is also angry that Douglass
is accepting financial support from a man she considers a misogynist. This
quarrel leads to their longest period of non-communication.

 He spoke at her
conferences and she appeared at his. Both of them were among the best known
figures of their time. Anthony was the only leader in the 19th
century women’s movement culminating in the meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in
1848. And one should not think that Douglass didn’t support Anthony fully in
her drive for equality; rather, he thought it was too soon and would come when
the time was right. Of course, women got the vote in 1920, long after these
icons were gone.

Photo by ProPhotoSTLAs for any sense of a love story, the affection between the two is palpable, but Douglass was happily married to his wife, Anna (a free black woman who helped him attain his freedom) and after she died, a much younger woman. He also was attractive to women and there is speculation that he had others, but one of them was NOT Susan B. Anthony.

They both wrote books—he a four-volume autobiography; she, in collaboration with other leaders of the movement, a multi-volume treatise on her own beliefs and the causes the women held dear. One good joke is that neither reads the other’s work.

There are more moments of humor that leaven the
proceedings, my favorite being Douglass explaining baseball to Anthony at his
son’s game. It is amusing, until due to a racist incident, it isn’t. They tell
each other bad jokes and engage in teasing banter. At one point, when he is 76
years old, Anthony gives Douglas a pair of ice skates. He is, of course,
nonplussed. But she was a great believer in physical exercise and the moment
demonstrates both their similarities and their differences.

The atmosphere of the play is enhanced by the musical  compositions of and performance by Syrhea
Conaway, a well-known and versatile St. Louis artist. When we first see
Douglass, he is carrying a violin. At several points in the show, he appears to
play his instrument in duets with her that can run the gamut from ethereal to
anger. She uses percussion to round out the sound, and it works beautifully.
The set itself is simple—beams, planks and boxes which get shifted around
often—perhaps rather too often, as it can become distracting. There is a
connection to the story, however, when Anthony tells a story involving a suitor
who wooed her with a warmed plank.

Stage Manager Patrick Huber is responsible for the
lights, as well is the set, and they provide a proper atmosphere, if too dark
at times. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are historically accurate except
for the anachronistic zippers on Anthony’s boots. Lisa Tejero directs, assisted
by Patience Davis. They keep things moving to the extent that it is possible
when there are so very many words for the actors to say, but despite their
efforts, the production still seems static some of the time. The fact that it’s
a running trope that Anthony cannot sit down is, I assume, supposed to give us
the illusion of motion.

If there are better actors than Kelley and Davis to
play these parts, I don’t know who they are. There were a few stumbles at the
beginning, but when the two hit their stride, all was well from a performance
standpoint. I believed them and more important, I think THEY believed them too.

The last public statement Douglass made was at Seneca Falls saying “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people, but when I took up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”

He and Anthony are buried in the same cemetery in Rochester, NY, her home town. Together in death, as in life, one wonders what they might have to say about racism and misogyny in 2019.

“The Agitators” is at Upstream Theater through Oct. 13 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. You may contact upstreamtheater.org

By C.B. AdamsContributing Writer

It is tempting to explore the modern cultural significance of Puccini’s La Bohéme. Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge both owe a debt of gratitude to Puccini’s enduring, powerful, story of callow youths in the full throes of love, lust and loss. Echoes of it are recognizable in films like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, to say nothing of Terms of Endearment, NBC’s Friends or even The Dandy Warhol’s “Bohemian Like You.”

But Puccini’s 1845 bohemian rhapsody is firmly ensconced in the operatic canon, so that discussion would merely detract from Union Avenue Opera’s current production (its third in its 25-year history) of La Bohéme. So, is UAO up to the challenge of this masterwork? If all you seek is a thumbs up or down recommendation, then the answer is a resounding “Yes” and read no further.

But for a few more details, know that UAO’s production
checks all the right boxes for a successful run. Under the stage direction of
Mark Freiman, cast, crew and musicians provide a confident, fresh and energetic
La Bohéme that should delight a first-time operagoer as well as a more seasoned
aficionado. Freiman moves the sometimes large cast, including an ensemble of
raucous children, around the stage with an adroit fluidity that never feels
stagey. Kudos to children’s chorus master, Alice Nelson, for ably herding the
youngsters projecting the exuberance of Muny Kids.

Cree Carrico. Dress rehearsal on July 23, 2019 for Union Avenue Opera’s production of La bohème. Photo by Dan Donovan.Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber boldly uses UAO’s
modest stage with a looming diagonal wall that is cleverly transformed from act
to act. This wall serves as a garret window overlooking a projection of the
Paris skyline in Act 1, to the awninged front of Café Momus (hello, Central
Perk) in Act 2, to a shuttered tavern entrance in Act 3, and finally back to
the first set in Act 4. Such scene-changing was impressive to see, but this also
meant an extra intermission to accomplish the changes – a minor quibble.

La Bohéme is not an opera filled with opportunities for
special effects; those pyrotechnics are mostly left to the arias and duets.
Yet, the chill in Act 3 is made ever more palpable with a gentle, realistic
snowfall. After a quick glance upward to “see how it’s done,” it’s easy to
re-suspend one’s disbelief.

Huber’s choice of lighting is interesting. Act 1’s chilly
garret is bathed in a warm, nostalgic, sepia light (Tuscan sunset, anyone?) in
contrast to the bone-chilling ambient temperature endured by the friends
Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline, Schnaunard, Benoit and, later, Mimi. This contrast
avoids the scene from becoming too Dickensian in its harsh poverty. Afterall,
the poet Rodolfo resorts to burning his manuscript to provide a meager warmth.

Just as with films, music supports the moods and actions of
the production and enhances the performance without calling attention to
itself. From the pit, conductor Elizabeth Hastings leads the small orchestra
(including harp by Megan Stout) to reach the fullness of the score with a
deceptively small cadre of musicians. Good things sometimes do indeed come in
small packages.

Regardless of how much stage time the cast’s 10 members had,
each was fully in command of his or her part – in fine voice and expressing a
relaxed chemistry. The entire ensemble, and especially the main cast, are
excellently clad in period costumes that beautifully display costume designer
Teresa Doggett’s keen eye for details and distinguishing characteristics, such
as Mimi’s bonnet and deathbed muff. There are no “wardrobe malfunctions” in
this successful production, only costumes that contribute flawlessly to the
personality of each character, including the exemplary E. Scott Levin as
Benoit, the landlord, who shines in Act I.

Yulia Lysenko as Mimi and Jesse Donner Dress rehearsal on July 23, 2019 for Union Avenue Opera’s production of La bohème. Photo by Dan DonovanThe heartbeat – and heartbreak – of La Bohéme relies on its
central characters, played in this production by the tenor Jesse Donner as
Rodolfo and soprano Yulia Lysenko (making her UAO stage debut) as Mimi.
Matching male and female performance vocals – during duets as well as arias – is
always a challenge, but the talents of Donner and Lysenko intertwine
beautifully. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born could only dream
of such an effective, equitable pairing.

Puccini’s music with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe
Giacosa balances the relationship of Mimi and Rodolfo with their friends and
fellow starving artists. Andrew Wannigman as Marcello is delightful as the
painter whose eyes are just as expressive as his voice. As the singer Musetta,
Cree Carrico (making her UAO debut) plays Marcello’s love interest with a
broadly appealing, tarty flirtatiousness.

Before Mimi enters Act 1, the bro-ish camaraderie is captured with earnest high energy as Isaiah Musik-Ayala (making his UAO debut) as Colline, a philosopher, and Nicholas Ward as Schaunard, a musician, join Donner and Wannigman in the spartan garret. This production’s “deep bench” of talent extends even to the relatively small part of Parpignol, a toy vendor. As played by Dale Obermark (making his UAO debut) Parpignol is memorable, charming and a highlight of Act 2.

Good opera like all great art is worthy of repeated attention. La Bohéme may be an operatic chestnut, but UAO’s interpretation of this classic lives up to the strong material and will surely withstand the test of time as one of this company’s most noteworthy productions.

Union Avenue Opera presents “La Boheme” July 26, 27 and Aug. 2, 3 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org.