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.

The fourth annual Tennessee Williams Festival will celebrate the great American playwright with 10 days of plays, panel discussions and parties in the Grand Arts Center, set for May 9-19.“A Night of the Iguana”The steamy and startling Iguana is one of the most richly textured and dramatically satisfying plays written by Williams. Reverend Shannon has lost his flock, his religion, and has—at the very least— misplaced his sanity and sense of decency. He takes refuge at a rundown resort owned by the lusty and busty Maxine, where they are joined by the beautifully refined but repressed Hannah, and Nonno, her nonagenarian grandfather. These two may be scam artists, but they are artists all the same; as such, they offer some brief hope of redemption.

At the Grandel Theatre, 3160 Grandel Square

Bryan Batt

“Dear Mr. Williams” starts May 10Conceived, written, and performed by Bryan Batt, SAG Award winner (“Mad Men”) and Drama Desk Award nominee (Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard, Cats); directed by Michael Wilson, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award winner (The Orphans’ Home Cycle). The tumultuous—and sometimes treacherous—journey from adolescence to adulthood is one we all must take, but Batt’s one-man tour de force proves that it’s oh so much more fascinating and fun with Tennessee Williams as your guide.

At The Curtain Call Lounge, 527 Grand Blvd.

Kelly Weber, Ellie Schwetye, Julie Layton“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” Opens May 11Four eccentric and unforgettable women fry chicken, plan a picnic to Creve Coeur Lake, and cope with loneliness and lost dreams in an efficiency apartment on Enright Avenue in the Central West End circa the mid-1930s.

Williams gives us more laughs than usual, but no less poetry or poignancy.

At the Grandel Theatre, 3160 Grandel Square

Panels are part of TWF“Conversations with Tennessee” May 11Three panels address aspects of the author’s life and work. Each will begin with a brief performance of material from Tennessee Williams’s letters, journals, or other writing, followed by a discussion between artists and scholars. Moderated by Tom Mitchell, panelists will include Melissa Wolfe, Gregory Carr, Jesse Munoz, David Kaplan, Tim Ocel, Sophia Brown, and Henry Schvey.

At The Dark Room, 3160 Grandel Square

Ken Page

“Tennessee Williams Tribute 2019” May 12Join us as we celebrate the culmination of the opening weekend of the Tennessee Williams Festival. In poetry, prose, and song, this tribute reading reveals Williams’ take on those who are “waiting for something to happen” and those for whom “everything has happened already”.

Ken Page hosts an entertaining evening presented by a collection of Festival artists, curated by noted Williams scholar, Tom Mitchell. Stay after the performance to mix with other Festival goers and artists, as The Dark Room hosts us for drinks and light hors d’ oeuvres.

At The Dark Room, 3160 Grandel Square

Tennesee’s gravesite in Calvary Cemetery

Bus Tour May 19Retrace the roots of Tennesse Williams’ formative years. From attending high school at Soldan and University City High, to studying at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Washington University, to working downtown and exploring the city’s rich cultural institutions – Tennessee Williams’ classic works were influenced by his coming of age in St. Louis. Hosted with immense wit and charm by Williams enthusiasts, Brian Welch and Dan McGuire

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.twstl.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Plays with substantial women roles were spotlighted at the seventh annual St.
Louis Theater Circle Awards March 25, with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’
musical production of “Evita” and a homegrown “A Streetcar Named Desire” from
the third annual Tennessee Williams Festival each receiving seven awards.

Both iconic female-lead shows had received the most
nominations, 11 apiece, when the Circle announced them in January. The awards
recognized outstanding work locally produced by regional professional companies
during the calendar year 2018.

Nominees Kari Ely and Michelle Hand in “Into the Breeches!”The comedy “Into the Breeches!”, the first play in Shakespeare
Festival St. Louis’ new program, “In the Works,” won four awards. The world
premiere was in January 2018, with its first St. Louis performances in
September. The comedy from Chicago playwright George Brant is about a
fictitious theater group in 1942, and with the men away at war, the director’s
wife sets out to produce an all-female version of “Henry V.” It had roles for
six women and two men. In addition to awards for ensemble, director Nancy Bell
and best production, Michelle Hand won best actress.

The Circle, which includes veteran area theater critics, annually recognizes outstanding work in comedies, dramas and musicals, and with two opera categories.

Each of the 33 categories featured five nominees, with 23 local companies cited for 54 shows, and 120 artists receiving nods, including 10 with two apiece.

This year, there were three ties: sound design in a play, costume design in a musical and musical ensemble.

Evita won seven awards from the Circle“Evita,” the vibrant Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, earned awards for musical direction (Charlie Alterman), choreography (Gustavo Zajac and Mariana Parma), set design (Luke Canterella), lighting (John Lasiter), director (Rob Ruggiero, his third), ensemble and production of a musical.

The landmark “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written in 1947 by the great American playwright Tennessee Williams, who spent his formative years in St. Louis, earned honors for Sophia Brown as Outstanding Actress – for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the emotionally needy and mental fragile faded beauty Blanche Dubois, sound design (original music by Henry Palkes and sound by Amanda Werre), lighting design (Sean M. Savoie), set design (James Wolk), direction (Tim Ocel), ensemble and production of a drama.

The 18 other awards went to separate shows, with both The
Black Rep and The Muny winning three apiece, and The Rep adding two more for earning
the most, nine.

Jeff Cummings and Katy Keating in “Life Sucks.” Photo by ProPhotoSTLIn comedy, Katy Keating won for Supporting Actress as feisty but unrequited lovesick Sonia in New Jewish Theatre’s “Life Sucks,” a ‘sort of’ adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by Aaron Posner. She was also part of the award-winning ensemble of “Into the Breeches!”.

Isaiah Di Lorenzo in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo by Ron James.Isaiah Di Lorenzo won Supporting Actor as The Player, the leader of the Tragedians, in St. Louis Shakespeare’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” He also was in the award-winning ensemble of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Will Bonfiglio as Mary Dale in “Red Scare on Sunset.” Photo by Justin Been. Will Bonfiglio won his second Outstanding Actor Award, as film star Mary Dale in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Red Scare on Sunset.” He was honored in 2017 for the one-man show, “Buyer & Cellar,” also at Stray Dog.

For costume designs, Lou Bird won for The Rep’s “Born Yesterday” vintage wardrobe in the play category and there was a tie in the musical category between Leon Dobkowski, who won for The Muny’s colorful “The Wiz,” and Darryl Harris for the elegant “Crowns: A Gospel Musical” at The Black Rep.

There was another tie in sound design in a play – besides “Streetcar,” Rusty Wandall won for Lucas Hnath’s contemporary “The Humans” at The Rep.

Laurie McConnell, left, as Birdie Hubbard in “The Little Foxes.” Photo by Patrick HuberIn drama, Laurie McConnell won Supporting Actress as forlorn
Birdie Hubbard in St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of Lillian Hellman’s “The
Little Foxes.” She won in 2017 for Supporting Actress in a Musical, for her portrayal
of Joanne in “Company” at Insight Theatre Company.

Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas. Photo by Ann AuerbachEric Dean White, a previous nominee, won Supporting Actor for playing the slick, smooth, haughty and conniving Satan in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Ron Himes in “Fences”

Another previous nominee and winner, Ron Himes won Outstanding Actor as bitter garbage collector Troy in August Wilson’s “Fences at The Black Rep last winter. In 2014, The Black Rep won best ensemble and production for “The Whipping Man.”

The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” best new playThe Black Rep also won Best New Play for Nikkole Salter’s “Torn
Asunder,” which dramatized true stories of newly emancipated African Americans
trying to overcome the vestiges of slavery so they could reconnect with their
families.

Joy Boland won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of the imposing villainess sea witch in Variety Theater’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”

Beth Leavel as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Photo by Philip Hamer.For their powerhouse musical performances, Corbin Bleu won Outstanding Actor as the fleet-footed matinee idol Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain” and Beth Leavel was honored as the controlling stage parent Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” both at The Muny.

Corbin Bleu in “Singin’ in the Rain” at The Muny. Photo by Phil Hamer.Leavel had been nominated three times before (“Hello Dolly!” “Oklahoma!” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” all at the Muny. She is currently performing on Broadway in a St. Louis-produced original musical, “The Prom.”

Stephanie Merritt and Kent Coffel in “The Light in the Piazza” Kent Coffel won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for his performance as well-meaning haberdasher Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s father, in “The Light in the Piazza,” presented by R-S Theatrics in its St. Louis regional premiere.

Anything Goes at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter LindbergTying with “Evita” for musical ensemble was New Line Theatre’s vivacious “Anything Goes.”

It was a three-peat for Ruggiero, who won for directing “Evita,” and had previously been honored for The Rep’s productions of “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

“Regina” at OTSL was Outstanding Opera ProductionIn the opera categories, Opera Theatre of St. Louis was honored
for both Outstanding Achievement in Opera, which was given to director Patricia
Racette for “La Traviata,” and the Mark Blitzstein adaptation of “The Little Foxes”
— “Regina,” as Outstanding Production of an Opera.
Three special awards were bestowed:  To the
Muny for a century of performances celebrated during its centennial season of
2018; to Kathleen Sitzer, founder and long-time artistic director of the New
Jewish Theatre, for lifetime achievement; and to Steven Woolf, Augustin
artistic director of The Rep for more than 30 years, also for lifetime
achievement.

Sitzer retired after New Jewish Theatre’s 2017-18 season, while Woolf will retire after The Rep’s 2018-19 season this spring. Organized in 2012, the St. Louis Theater Circle includes founding members Steve Allen of stagedoorstl.com, Mark Bretz of the Ladue News, Robert A. Cohn of the St. Louis Jewish Light, Chris Gibson of Broadway World, Gerry Kowarsky of HEC-TV’s “Two on the Aisle,” Chuck Lavazzi of KDHX, Judith Newmark, now of judyacttwo.com, Ann Pollack of stlouiseats.typepad.com, Lynn Venhaus, now of St. Louis Limelight magazine, Bob Wilcox of HEC-TV’s Two on the Aisle, and Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tina Farmer of KDHX and Michelle Kenyon of snoopstheatrethoughts.com. Eleanor Mullin is the administrator.

Those who helped produce the show at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University included Andrea Torrence and Peggy Holly, who put together the slide show; awards assistance Hannah Daines, stage manager Alycia Martin and assistant stage manager Delaney Dunster, voice-over announcer Colin Nichols and box office assistants Kimberly Sansone and Harry Ginsburg.

Renowned local musician Joe Dreyer was the accompanist and Deborah Sharn performed an opening number.

Special thanks to Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, Price Waterhouse Cooper LLC, who tabulate the Circle ballots, and to the awards certificate calligrapher Susan Zenner.

Contact the Circle by email: [email protected] and like us on Facebook.

Evita at The RepInto the Breeches! at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

“La Traviata” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis