By Lynn Venhaus
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Hold on to your pearls, for “Triassic Parq: The Musical” is a raunchy romp of an offbeat musical comedy.

A parody of the film and novel “Jurassic Park,” the blockbuster 1993 science-fiction action thriller by Steven Spielberg adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, this is flipped for the dinosaurs’ point of view.

Talk about a chaos theory. Bedlam ensues when one of the genetically engineered female dinosaurs turns male – spontaneously. It’s not nice when you fool Mother Nature – but it sure is naughty.

Goofy and gutsy as can be, the Stray Dog production features a winning cast that gives it their all, in belting out power ballads and selling daffy up-tempo numbers, with light-hearted choreography by Mike Hodges. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast work so hard with material that’s this absurd and thin.

Tristan Davis is the Velociraptor of Innocence, all swaggering rocker in “Get Out,’ while Michael Wells is the evangelist-like Velociraptor of Faith, reveling in the campiness of “Morning Assembly” and “Hello, Little Goat” – exhibiting strong, soaring vocals after not being on the stage since “Guys and Dolls” in the Before Times.

Laurell Stephenson is spirited in dual roles — as the skeptical Velociraptor of Science and then having fun interacting with the audience as a character named Morgan Freeman – that was actually played by the deep-voiced Oscar winner once upon a time. He/she disappears quickly after a hilarious set-up.

The fearless pair of punk rocker grrrls stand out as the Tyrannosaurus Rexes – a frisky Dawn Schmid as T-Rex 1/Kaitlyn and ballsy Rachel Bailey as the dial-it-to-11 confused T-Rex 2. They unleash their attraction in “Love Me As a Friend.”

The spunky ensemble accepts the wild-ride aspect and overcomes what the silly show lacks in sustainability.

This playful cast of six starts out with high energy in “Welcome to Triassic Parq” – and continues full-throttle to win over the eager crowd in 14 songs while dishing out a lot of sexual innuendo. It would seem like zany schoolkids’ antics were it not for the quality of the vocals – like a John Mulaney Broadway musical parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

Photos by John Lamb

But this is an actual musical that played off-Broadway in 2012 after winning best overall musical production at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. The music and lyrics are by Marshall Pailet, with co-lyricists Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo, and all three combined on the book.

Songs include lyrics about penises for shock value – “Dick Fix,” riffing on John Williams’ symphonic score “We Are Dinosaurs,” and outlandish “Mama.”

The band is led by Pianosaurus Leah Schultz (and music director0, with Adam Rugo the Guitaratops and Joe Winters the Drumadon.

Director Justin Been goes for the gusto, keeping things zippy and nonsensical, aiming to achieve a real crowd-pleaser, especially for a generation who grew up with the “Jurassic Park” movie trilogy and returned for the franchise offshoot “Jurassic World.”

The original won three tech Academy Awards, while the two even more preposterous sequels in 1997 and 2001 stretched the boundaries of logic, even for sci-fi/fantasy. A reboot called “Jurassic World” in 2015 was followed by a sequel in 2018, with the latest, “Dominion,” set to open June 10.

But in the one-act musical, performed without an intermission, you do not need that much familiarity with the 30-year-old source material, for the emphasis is on spoofing religion, sex, and identity. The prehistoric setting is purely for laughs.

Eileen Engel designed functional costumes with a touch of whimsy to convey the gender-bending.

Scenic designer Josh Smith worked magic in his scaled-down version of the Isla Nublar theme park on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, stunning without benefit of computer-generated imagery or visual effects.

The technical efforts add considerably to the overall presentation, including lighting by Tyler Duenow and outstanding sound work.

Stray Dog has always had a penchant for producing quirky plays –such as the “Evil Dead” musical, Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party,” and “Red Scare on Sunset,” as a different direction between more serious explorations. So the strange, slight “Triassic Parq” is well-suited to be in between “Good People” and “The Normal Heart” this 2022 season.

Whether or not you are fascinated by dinosaurs is immaterial. This is not meant to be anything more than saucy merriment, so lower expectations and accept the vulgarity (or not – this is intended for “mature” adult audiences, as in rated R).

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Triassic Parq: The Musical” from April 15 through 30, with performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Stray Dog Theatre (SDT) will present Triassic Parq: The Musical at the Tower Grove Abbey, opening on Thursday, April 14 and running through Saturday, April 30, 2022. Trisassic Parq features music by Marshall Pailet, with book and lyrics by Marshall Pailet, Bruce Norbitz and Steve Wargo and is intended for mature audiences. Presented by special arrangement with Broadway Licensing.

Triassic Parq Synopsis: Religion, identity, sex… and raptors! Triassic Parq is a raucous retelling of that famous dinosaur-themed film, this time seen from the dino’s point of view. Chaos is unleashed on their not-so-prehistoric world when one dinosaur in a clan of females spontaneously turns male!

Directed by SDT Associate Artistic Director Justin Been, with music direction by Leah Schultz, and choreography by Michael Hodges. The cast includes: Tristan Davis, Michael Wells, Laurell Stevenson, Dawn Schmid, Rachel Bailey, and Bryce Miller.

April 14-30, 2022: Show times are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. Additional performances on Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m., and Wednesday, April 27 at 8 p.m.

Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, Saint Louis, MO 63104. Gated Parking.

Tickets: Adults $30 / Seniors (65+) & Students $25 (Cash/Checks/All Major Credit Cards)

Information and Ticket Reservations: Call (314) 865‐1995. Visit www.StrayDogTheatre.org. Secure online ticketing!

Community Outreach: In keeping with its mission of community outreach, non‐perishable food is collected at each performance and donated to Food Outreach, Inc. www.FoodOutreach.org

By Lynn Venhaus

Our turfs and our tribes. It’s what defines us.

Well, we like to think that, but maybe it’s our choices that shape us. David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” a brilliant examination of class, good fortune, and the struggles of those left behind, is getting a stimulating treatment at Stray Dog Theatre.

Talk about a conversation starter! With a superb cast led by the incomparable Lavonne Byers, the gritty “Good People” bluntly spells out the wide divide between the haves and have-nots, and not just financially, but in word, thoughts, and deeds.

Margie Walsh is a Southie, for she lives in South Boston’s Lower End, a primarily working-class Irish American neighborhood where the playwright grew up. So, he wrote with deep understanding and connection.

Byers conveys Margie’s toughness and anxiety, with an undercurrent of desperation that she tries not to show. Her weapon is sarcasm. Hardened by a hardscrabble life, she has fought, clawed, and scratched in a dog-eat-dog world. Stubborn and proud, sometimes she has made life more difficult for herself because she will not rely on anyone, but she is loyal to a fault.

After high school, she became a caretaker. It’s a lifetime ago, and that’s when her dreams died, if she had any. As the single working mother of a developmentally disabled adult daughter, she plugs away at minimum-wage jobs. After being late too many times waiting for her daughter’s sitter to show up, she is fired from working as a cashier at the dollar store.

Friends and neighbors gather at the church hall for Bingo in hopes of winning the jackpot and to socialize. Stephanie Merritt is amusing as ballsy Jean, mouthy but well-meaning; Liz Mischel is defensive as the indifferent landlady Dottie, who is also Joyce’s unreliable sitter; and Stephen Henley projects a sweetness as the decent, practical Stevie, her compassionate ex-manager.

The Southie accent is a difficult one, so the dialect work is to be commended, because it’s evident that the ensemble worked on getting it right.

Stephen Peirick and Lavonne Byers. Photo by John Lamb.

About to be evicted, Margie is hanging by a thread. She is not “lace curtain Irish.” Jean knows she needs a break and mentions that she ran into Margie’s old high school flame, Mike, now a doctor. Why doesn’t she ask him for a job, or his help in finding one?

“Mikey” is now a fertility specialist, and he lives with his elegant African American wife Kate and their daughter in Chestnut Hill, an affluent village six miles from downtown Boston. He doesn’t have any office openings. Caught off-guard by the visit 30 years after he last saw her, he prefers not to be reminded of his rough-and-tumble upbringing. She forces an invitation to his wife’s party. Maybe someone else can help with employment.

It’s cancelled, their daughter is sick, but Margie thinks he is blowing her off, and shows up anyway at the door, and Kate mistakes her for the caterer.

Stephen Peirick is Mike, now “Michael,” and Laurell Stevenson is Kate, who live comfortably, although see a couples’ therapist. Their nouveau riche lifestyle is worlds apart from his humble formative years in South Boston. Humble, he’s not.

There is more to the story, but it’s best the audience discover the developments on their own. Just know that pleasant social graces disappear when a confrontation gets ugly. Initial warmth gives way to a chilling coldness.

Under Gary F. Bell’s savvy direction, the trio nimbly escalates emotions that lead to a cruel climax. Peirick, not often playing a jerk, indicates “Michael” is increasingly uncomfortable to be confronted with his past with Margie’s presence.

With her customary confidence, Byers shows how Margie, while agitating, has more integrity in her pinkie finger than the arrogant Michael does. Although Kate is civil at first, and a liberal, she lives in a bubble. And who is ‘self-made’ here, anyway?

Bell heightens the tension while emphasizing “the sides,” and the actors maintain the on-edge feeling throughout the second act, especially in their body language.

At first unassuming but then richly textured, “Good People” is an outstanding production that accentuates that character matters. Your opinion may shift about who is ‘good people.’

Margie, with a hard “g,” clings to her dignity, hoping for a fresh new start, but realizing the dead end is likely where she will stay. She is at once hard to figure out but also completely recognizable.

Scenic designer Josh Smith’s economical set takes a back seat to the human drama unfolding, although there are certain props that are meaningful, such as googly-eyed bright pink bunnies that Dottie makes as her side hustle, and a very expensive vase in Dillon’s upscale home.

Justin Been’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design are first-rate.

Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for “Rabbit Hole,” draws his characters well, especially women, for Frances McDormand won a Tony for Lead Actress as Margie in “Good People” in 2011 and Cynthia Nixon won as Becca in “Rabbit Hole.”

In the 11 years since the play was produced on Broadway, the gulf seems wider, and the play, which was excellently produced at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in January 2013, seems more pertinent than ever about struggles in hard times.

This is a cast that meets the challenge, and Stray Dog meets the moment in a tautly constructed drama of uncomfortable truths.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stephenson, Stephen Peirick. Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting “Good People” Feb. 10-26 at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 20, in the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63104. For tickets or more information, visit. www.straydogtheatre.org

Special guidelines are in place for the health and safety of guests, actors and staff: Masks are required of all guests, regardless of vaccination status. They still encourage physical distancing throughout the theater. They recommend, but do not require, that all guests be vaccinated.

By Lynn Venhaus

If you are seeking a sugar-coated Hallmark Christmas movie, “Who’s Holiday” is not that kind of warm-and-fuzzy. Nevertheless, the amusing one-woman show is an engaging cup o’ cheer – unless your heart is two sizes too small.

If you are familiar with past holiday season productions at Stray Dog Theatre, then you are aware of their penchant for a non-traditional offering, and this suits that M.O.

The R-rated merriment runs Dec. 2 – 18, Thursday through Sunday, with a Sunday matinee Dec. 12, at the Tower Grove Abbey – only all performances are sold out, but one can get on their in-person waiting list before each show. –

An irreverent, bawdy post-childhood spin on Dr. Suess’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a festive communal experience, which could get you in the mood for the holidays – especially when you sing along to an evergreen sentimental song.

Laced with adult humor, this sweet and salty 2017 work by Matthew Lombardo is a natural vehicle for spirited comic actress Sarah Polizzi, who portrays the grown-up Cindy Lou Who. The character is both naughty and nice, and the effervescent performer revels in that aspect.  

Cindy Lou was the adorable 2-year-old Who caught the famous green ogre stealing all the Christmas presents, the Christmas tree and the feast because he did not want anyone to enjoy the holiday. To carry out his nefarious deed, he was dressed as Santa Claus and his dog Max accompanied him. That did not deter the Whos from celebrating, however.

The grouchy Grinch became Dr. Seuss’ legendary storybook villain in 1957, and then immortalized in an animated TV special in 1966, narrated by Boris Karloff. In the years since, it has been adapted several times, including a live-action film starring Jim Carrey that came out in 2000, then a musical followed in 2007, and then a computer-animated feature with Benedict Cumberbatch in 2018 and a live television musical adaptation starring Matthew Morrison last year.

So, it helps to have some sort of working knowledge of the Dr. Seuss book and his first villain.

No longer an innocent, Cindy has returned to living on Mount Crumpit, north of Whoville, and ostracized by her people. Her fall from grace included an illicit romance with the big green beast, teen pregnancy, drug addiction and a prison term. Does not sound very jolly, does it?

So, she engages the audience in cocktails and conversation while sharing her shocking tale of woe.

Despite her hard times, the irrepressible Cindy Lou shows an indomitable spirit – with a beaming smile and a cheery demeanor, although she can get as sour as that grumpy guy – and get a little testy with the neighborhood hooligans. She is ready to put the sordid past behind her and start anew. In a convivial mood, she has invited guests over. But no one shows, much to her dismay. What’s a Party Girl to do? She just wants to have fun.

Polizzi also has the difficult task of speaking in rhyme, the kind that Dr. Seuss was known for in his 60 books, without it sounding sing-song-y, and she accomplishes that.

In a one-person play, the solo character always has a heavy weight to carry an entire show, but it’s only an hour – and she feeds off the audience’s energy with ad libs and being as sparkly as the festive vintage set.

Scenic designer Josh Smith festooned Cindy Lou’s tiny trailer with enough colored lights and kitschy seasonal decorations to make the yuletide bright – and it is delicious eye candy, with lighting designer Tyler Duenow’s effective touches.

Megan Bates’ playful costume design is simple but fetching – retro housewife turned into a livelier vixen.

The twisted tale benefits from Artistic Director Gary F. Bell’s light-hearted direction and it is a very smooth, well-rehearsed production. And Justin Been’s sound design always elevates a show – and his music choices are very smart.

Playwright Lombardo isn’t mean-spirited, just having fun with a parody that’s not unlike a Hollywood child actor’s downfall that makes tabloid fodder – only he exaggerates it to cartoonish proportions.

This isn’t his first production in St. Louis – he wrote the intense heavy drama “High,” which ran as a world premiere-pre-Broadway tryout at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2010 and starred Kathleen Turner as a nun who was an addiction counselor.

“Who’s Holiday” has both a peppery girls-gone-wild vibe and an affectionate nostalgia for Christmases past. It is certain to leave you feeling merry and bright.

Photos by John Lamb

“Who’s Holiday” is a solo show that runs slightly more than an hour and is presented Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 12. The show is sold out, but you may get on a waitlist at the door each performance and must be there in person. Call 314-865-1995 for more information. Visit the website www.straydogtheatre.org

Those with tickets should be aware that seats will only be held until 10 minutes prior to curtain.

Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status, at all times while inside the theater and while in the lobby unless actively drinking. They still maintain social distancing throughout the theater. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated.

By Lynn Venhaus

Three actors deliver brilliantly nuanced performances in “Blue/Orange,” a multi-layered satirical comedy-drama that focuses on madness, health care and race within a framework of frustrating bureaucracy and power struggles.

William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie, and Jason Meyers turn in some of their best work by grasping every shifting thought, trigger and changing attitude in conversations that blur lines on mental health.

The discourse is hefty and the roles demanding, for the characters are opaque. Allegiances switch as reasoning seems plausible – but one can’t ever be certain in these fiery exchanges.

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting this intellectually stimulating material as its first indoor show inside the Tower Grove Abbey, their longtime home, in 2021. With a contemporary focus that is more tragic than comic, that tone suits the production’s interpretation of this thorny material.

Shrewdly written by British playwright Joe Penhall, known primarily for several “fringe” works, and set in a UK institution, the play, first staged by the National Theatre in 2000, went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, with Bill Nighy, as Robert, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher, nominated for several acting awards.

(More fun facts: Andrew Lincoln played Bruce and the three moved on to the London West End in 2001. The next year, the show opened off-Broadway, with Harold Perrineau Jr. as Christopher, and an acclaimed British revival in 2016 starred Daniel Kaluuya as the patient.)

Stray Dog has wisely decided to forego British accents, so that we are not distracted from the dense amount of dialogue that rapidly volleys back and forth.

The day before Christopher (William Humphrey) is supposed to be discharged from a psychiatric ward, his doctor (Jason Meyers) begins to have reservations that he shouldn’t be released. He shares his concerns with a senior colleague (Ben Ritchie).

Practically jumping for joy as the hyper Christopher, Humphrey is gleefully ready to go – and already packed. He still insists his father is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada Oumee and sees the pulp inside an orange as blue. In his mind, is this real or delusional? Thus begins a bureaucratic battle.

As the now confused patient becomes increasingly agitated, is he having an acute psychotic episode or is he being unduly provoked? What must happen to prevent him from leaving?

Christopher was diagnosed with a borderline personality order, and on day 28 at the London National Health Service mental hospital, he is due for release – unless a diagnosis changes.

As Dr. Bruce Flaherty, Meyers sees red flags and makes a convincing case that Christopher could be a paranoid schizophrenic. His superior, Dr. Robert Smith, doesn’t detect it. Exuding authority and clinical acumen. Ritchie recites reasons why psychiatry can fail black men like Christopher. After all, Dr. Smith is writing a book – interesting! – on the cultural and ethnocentrism factors that come into play in these situations.

Perhaps drum beating and seeing himself as a “white savior,” the imperious Robert thinks Christopher should return to his neighborhood for the cultural support – even though he lives alone and doesn’t know that many people. Sure, his behavior is odd, but is it cause for alarm?

Smith is worried that if Christopher stays longer, he could get worse and thus begin a never-ending cycle — or is that more of a reflection on the lack of beds and prevalent bottom-line thinking?

Christopher would really like to return to Africa, where he says he has a job, but will settle for his diverse London borough neighborhood if it means his freedom. And there is a probable threat of being attacked by racist thugs, so his fear seems real, but is it indicative of instability – and is pompous Robert being patronizing?

England’s cultural population includes Caribbean and African expatriates, and there are statistics that more black people, percentage wise, are in mental and penal institutions.

And what exactly causes seemingly stable Bruce’s third-act meltdown – and earlier blurting out the “N” word, which could fill an entire act with discussion. This really complicates the narrative, not just exposing an ugly prejudice and stereotypical thinking.

However, the roots of the problems are in the eye of the beholder. As the two professionals argue, drawing Christopher, pawn-like, into a tug of war of damaging rhetoric – clearly emotional scars are being inflicted.

Is this in any way beneficial and do the doctors think this will advance their careers?  

Penhall’s incendiary words, written more than two decades ago, seems as urgent now as they were relevant then. This is a living, breathing work that changes direction throughout its two acts, and the verbal dexterity required is admirable.

In a bracing portrayal, Humphrey straddles the line of helpless vulnerability and angry advocate for getting his life back on track. Both instinctive, Ritchie and Meyers convincingly earn and lose their characters’ credibility.

Associate Artistic Director Justin Been deftly moves the actors around so that we are caught off-guard as characters reveal their positions, transferring the ‘edge’ around – and the performers never get ahead of the script, not tipping their hand about what’s next.

The cast has smartly constructed their roles. It’s an exemplary showcase of control, and lack of, as perceptions differ and speeches flow.

“Blue/Orange” could have easily turned preachy but keeps its intensity, although the second act gets weighed down somewhat with repetitive opinions. And while it’s not predictable, the ending may not satisfy those who have become invested in Christopher’s well-being.

Besides directing, Been also designed the claustrophobic set and the sound, and both he and Artistic Director Gary F. Bell gathered the props. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow maintained the setting’s institutional glare.

The hell that is the ever-present boondoggle for those suffering from mental illness shows no sign of improvement in today’s uncertain world. As this riveting production demonstrates, it’s a difficult subject to ponder, and “Blue/Orange” daringly takes a stand.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey and Ben Ritchie in “Blue/Orange.” Photo by John Lamb.

“Blue/Orange” is presented Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 7-9, 14-16 and 21-23 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 17, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104.

Limited tickets are available because of physical distancing throughout the theater. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org, or call 314-865-1995.

Safety precautions because of the COVID-19 public health crisis are in place for guests, actors, and staff. Masks are required to be worn by all guests, regardless of vaccination status. Stray Dog Theatre recommends, but does not require, that all guests be vaccinated. The up-to-date guidelines can be found on their website.

By Lynn Venhaus
At times, friendship is not always the perfect ‘blendship.’ Case in point: “Art,” a razor-sharp comedy currently being staged outdoors by Stray Dog Theatre through Aug. 21.

A friendship that spans 15 years is strained over a piece of modern art – an expensive, pretentious painting that art snob Serge (Ben Ritchie) has purchased to show off his privilege and to gain status.

The judgmental Marc (Stephen Peirick), who is domineering, snarky and self-righteous, takes one look and is aghast at this presumably “white” canvas.

With his “Are you serious?” reaction, Marc doesn’t hold back his horror, bluntly calling the vanity purchase a “piece of (expletive deleted),” even if Serge paid 200,000 francs for it.

Serge vehemently disagrees. He points out there is texture. It is, after all, by an artist of some note.

Later, they pull their more sensitive friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier) into taking sides, and he, not wanting to rock the boat, offers a “maybe it has merit” viewpoint. Now he is caught in the middle between two alpha dogs.

Yvan’s comments push Marc’s buttons even further, calling into question the conciliatory one’s intellectual acumen – and life choices – because he might see some artistic significance.  

Yvan is a poorer, put-upon chap about to be married, whose life seems to always be stuck in second gear. Anxious about the wedding, keeping both families’ happy, getting acclimated to a new job – it all seems too much for him, and then the two pals draw him into their tiff.  

Serge is a dermatologist, Marc an aeronautical engineer and Yvan, well, he’s not really one with a ‘career’ – he just started working for his future father-in-law in the stationery business.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick and Jeremy Goldmeier in “Art” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by John Lamb.

The subjective debate turns into ugly confrontations that devolve into personal attacks, questioning the meaning of friendship and the definition of art. Their opinions – perhaps over-sharing but doubling down on how they feel – cause immediate fractures. Can respect and trust be restored or will the fallout be too much to overcome?

The dialogue is intricate and brings out each character’s distinctive personalities. As mud is flung, the play still retains some good zingers after 27 years.

All Stray Dog regulars, Peirick, Ritchie and Goldmeier settle into a rhythm that reflects their ease of working with each other.

This clever and humorous work by Yasmina Reza, a master at delving into contemporary foibles and a sharp observer of human behavior, was written in 1994.

Christopher Hampton translated it into English. He won an Oscar this past April for adapting another French playwright, Florian Zeller, into a screenplay for the British film, “The Father.”

“Art” opened on Broadway in 1998 after successful runs in Paris and London, winning the Tony Award for Best Play. It starred Alan Alda (Marc), Victor Garber (Serge) and Alfred Molina (Yvan, Tony nominee).

Reza also wrote “God of Carnage,” which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2009. That show was produced by Stray Dog Theatre in 2015 and featured Peirick.

Re-emerging after a 16-month coronavirus public health crisis, Stray Dog Theatre has chosen well to begin producing shows again for a live audience.

In a wise stroke during these pandemic times, Artistic Director Gary F. Bell moved the production outside at their usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. On the lawn is limited, socially distanced seating, and masks are required (city mandate).

The bare-bones outdoor stage, with scenic design by Josh Smith, features two couches to represent the flats of Serge and Yvan – and of course, artwork, relying on its trio of accomplished actors to focus the action on their nimble wordplay.  

Longtime lighting designer Tyler Duenow handled those duties and Justin Been, associate artistic director, provided his usual stellar sound design with acumen for appropriately selected music

The dialogue is challenging, and the actors must shift tones, delivery and their body language while staying true to the characters, no easy feat. The trio hit their stride – despite after such a long absence from the stage – and retain the play’s acid bite.

Goldmeier is splendid at portraying a sad sack trying to avoid confrontation and scrutiny. It’s obviously not his day, week, month or even year. His emotional fragility and near-meltdown are played for laughs, and Goldmeier adroitly handles the mood swings – and his complicated monologues.

Peirick conveys the tightly wound traits of Marc, while Ritchie delivers a nuanced portrait of a sophisticate, holding his ground about his beliefs and acquisitions.

Marc will go on to question everything – including choice of restaurant for dinner — mostly in a sarcastic, irritated tone. It’s clear that Serge thinks he is intellectually superior to his friends, and more cultured, while Yvan has valued their companionship, especially in light of his messier life.

Keenly in tune with the material and his actors’ capabilities, Bell has smoothly directed the show.

“Art” is a provocateur, questioning our thoughts on art, relationships and modern society. It’s a refreshing conversation starter for anyone craving intellectual stimulation and presented in a safe setting for an evening of entertainment.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie in “Art.” Photo by John Lamb.

“Art” runs about 90 minutes without intermission. The Stray Dog Theatre presentation is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Aug. 5-21, with an additional performance on Sunday, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m., outdoors on the lawn at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. The seating pods of 2 and 4, for only 40 guests, will be filled from front to back, in guest arrival order, starting a half hour before curtain.  For tickets or more information: straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

All staff and crew will be wearing masks. Actors will not be wearing masks but are required to be vaccinated to work at Stray Dog Theatre. All guests, vaccinated or not, are asked to wear masks now that a city mandate is in effect.

FYI – Four of the remaining seven shows are sold out.

Artistic Director Gary F. Bell has announced that Stray Dog Theatre plans to return to live performances in late summer and get back to a full season in 2022.

“It has been so very long since we’ve been able to see you in person at the Tower Grove Abbey. I want to start off by thanking you all for supporting SDT’s Digital Series during this unusual time. Today, I am so happy to announce that Stray Dog Theatre has an exciting and vibrant plan for returning to live theatre! We have missed you all so much, and are beyond thrilled to share with you all of our wonderful upcoming offerings,” he said.

Stray Dog is starting with a 2021 Limited Series, which includes three plays in the last half of the year: ‘ART’ by Yasmina Reza, with adaptation by Christopher Hampton, premiering in August 2021; “Blue/Orange” by Joe Penhall in October 2021; “Who’s Holiday” by Matthew Lombardo in December 2021.

“A whole new season will premiere in 2022 and will offer a complete season of 6 plays and musicals just like in the past. We’re excited to announce more about this soon,” Bell said.

A new website will go live on July 1. Prior to July, you can purchase tickets for any of the 2021 Limited Series by calling the box office at (314) 865-1995.

“As always, all of us at Stray Dog Theatre are thinking of you and your safety as we plan our 2021 Limited Series and the brand new 2022 Season. We’re ready when you are!” Bell said.

TICKETS & SHOW GUIDELINES FOR THE 2021 LIMITED SERIES



As a return celebration, the 2021 Limited Series tickets will be $25 per person/per show* and are available by calling the box office at (314) 865-1995. Starting July 1, 2021, you may also purchase tickets by visiting www.straydogtheatre.org.

During the 2021 Limited Series, seating may be limited and offered in “pods” of 2 or 4 which will be physically distanced for maximum safety. If you have any questions please contact us at the box office at (314) 865-1995.

For your safety and ours, all actors, tech crew, and Stray Dog Theatre employees have been vaccinated.

We will be following all local and federal safety guidelines during each production.

*Season Subscriptions are not available for the 2021 Limited Series but will return for our 2022 Season. Ticket prices will return to normal for the 2022 Season.

ART

by Yasmina Rezawith adaptation by Christopher Hampton

Marc, Serge, and Yvan have been the best of friends for years. When Serge buys a very expensive piece of art, the intellectual and emotional arguments that ensue become less theoretical and more personal and threaten to destroy their friendships.

‘ART‘ will be presented under the stars on our gorgeous Tower Grove Abbey lawn.

8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays August 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21.Additional performance Sunday, August 15 at 8PM. 

Blue/Orange

Blue/Orange
by Joe Penhall
The day before Christopher is due to be discharged from a psychiatric ward, his doctor has reservations and raises his concerns with a senior colleague. Blue/Orange is an incendiary tale of race, madness, and a Darwinian power struggle at the heart of a dying National Health Service.
BLUE/ORANGE will be presented inside the historic Tower Grove Abbey.
8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays October 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23.Additional performance Sunday, October 17 at 2 PM.

Who’s Holiday

by Matthew Lombardo
You saw her last when she was just two
Celebrate the holidays with Cindy Lou Who
Pull up a seat and fill up your cup
‘Cause your favorite little Who is all grown up
A wildly funny and heartfelt adults-only comedy that explores the twisted tales after that fateful night when a certain Grinch tried to steal Christmas. For Mature Audiences.
WHO’S HOLIDAY will be presented inside the historic Tower Grove Abbey.
8PM Thursdays thru Saturdays December 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18.Additional performance Sunday, December 12 at 2 PM.

Article originally appeared in Arts For Life’s Feb. 18 newsletter. Article written by Kim Klick and Lynn Venhaus

After working as a professional actor and singer for more than 30 years in Las Vegas, including performing opera at the Venetian Hotel on the Strip, Kimmie decided to move back to her hometown.

To leave her comfort zone and start over at 45 years old was daunting.

“More than a few people thought I must have been crazy!” she said.

But she knew it was time for a change and she did have support.

She was hired to work at Nordstrom Department Stores and found an apartment in Valley Park.

“I thought I’d be satisfied with all of that, but I wasn’t. Frankly, I was quite miserable. I was lonely, broke and terribly homesick! Most of all, I missed performing.”

However, things slowly fell into place. She not only found her way into the St. Louis theatre scene but reconnected with childhood friends, settled down here and married Gregg Booker. They grew up in the same neighborhood, and found each other on Facebook.

She started researching St. Louis theater companies, sending out letters and headshots, hoping to be acknowledged, but no response.

One day in 2012, she came across an audition for an upcoming production of August Wilson’s “Fences” at Hawthorne Players.

“I hadn’t even heard of August Wilson! Can you believe that? Someone like me, who has done theatre her entire life, had not heard of August Wilson?”

She showed up, prepared but “terrified.”

“A little-known fact about me is that I had never done a ‘straight play’ before! I had always done musical theatre. So, to put myself in a position where I had to just ACT, well, it was unchartered territory for me, to say the least!”

She was offered the part of Rose, the long-suffering wife who is married to the lead character, Troy.

Kimmie Kidd-Booker in “Fences” at the Hawthorne Players. Photo by Larry Marsh

“It’s one of the most important, historical, emotional, heartfelt roles to exist in American Theatre. I thought, ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’” she said.
She did not need to fret.

“This was one of the best and most fulfilling theater experiences of my career,” she said.

For the record, August Wilson was not only an African American playwright, but also was an amazingly talented award-winning playwright who died too soon at the age of 60, Kidd-Booker explained.

“Fences” is part of Wilson’s celebrated “Pittsburgh Cycle,” sometimes called “The Century Cycle,” in which he wrote 10 plays, each set in a certain decade of the 20th century.

Set in the 1957, it is the sixth play of the cycle, premiered in 1985, and like the others, explores the evolving African American experience and among other themes, examines race relations.

Troy is a Negro Baseball League player who now works as a garbageman – but can’t be a driver (yet). His bitterness is apparent and affects his family – wife Rose and sons Lyons and Cory, and disabled brother Gabriel.

“Fences” won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
“I am honored and privileged to say I performed in an August Wilson play! Being in an August Wilson play was both thrilling and terrifying. The context is historic and genuine and dramatic. His words are thoughtful and compelling and emotional,” she said.

 While “Fences” is her only August Wilson play to date, she said she is optimistic that moving forward, there will be more opportunities to educate, perform, explore and share the African American experience with everyone.

“Black History Month is just a drop in the bucket. But it is certainly a start. My hope moving forward is that we can continue to gain an understanding of each other and continue a dialogue and put fears to rest. We have many differences, but we must continue to be reminded that we are more alike than we’d like to think,” Kimmie said.

Before she debuted in “Fences,” after a year here, she was considering returning to Las Vegas.

But once she started rehearsals with the cast and crew, then bonding with everyone, she decided to stay.

“My love for theatre kept me here in St. Louis. As I began to meet other theatre people and make more and more theatre connections, I knew that this is where I belonged. These are my People!” she said.

As Eliza Haycraft in the original musical “Madam”

Kimmie recently became part of the AFL Board of Directors. She has won two Best Performance Awards for Best Featured Actress as Glinda in “The Wiz” at Hawthorne Players in 2014 and as Estonia Dulworth in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at the Kirkwood Theatre Guild in 2019.

She was nominated as Best Actress in a Featured Role as Sister Mary Hubert in “Nunsense” at Hawthorne Players in 2015 and as The Witch in “Into the Woods” at Curtain’s Up Theater in 2018.

Among her roles in regional professional theater, she played Tom Robinson’s wife in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, as Lady Bird in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Spellbound: A Musical Fable”and in the ensemble of “Sweeney Todd,” as “Aunt Missy” in The Black Rep’s “Purlie” and as Evangeline Harcourt in “Anything Goes” at New Line Theatre. In January 2020, she starred as brothel owner and philanthropist Eliza Haycraft in the original musical, “Madam.”

About August Wilson

August Wilson

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Penn., on April 27, 1945. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was of African American heritage. His father, Frederick Kittel, was a German immigrant.

As a child, Kittel attended St. Richard’s Parochial School. When his parents divorced, he, his mother and his siblings moved from the poor Bedford Avenue area of Pittsburgh to the mostly white neighborhood of Oakland. After facing the relentless bigotry of his classmates at Central Catholic High School, he transferred to Connelly Vocational High School, and later to Gladstone High School.

When he was 15 years old, Wilson pursued an independent education at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where he would earn his high school diploma.

Following his father’s death in 1965, a 20-year-old Wilson adopted the pen name “August Wilson” — reportedly an homage to his mother — and declared himself a poet. In 1968, Wilson and a friend, Rob Penny, co-founded the Black Horizon Theater.

Wilson remained primarily focused on making it as a poet — largely to no avail — until moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978.

Wilson wrote his first notable play in 1979,” Jitney,” for which he earned a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwright Center.

The following year, his new play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was accepted at the Eugene O’Neill Playwright’s Conference. The year 1982 was particularly fruitful for Wilson, as it marked his introduction to Lloyd Richards, who went on to direct Wilson’s first six Broadway plays.

“Joe Turner,” the second part of the cycle, opened on Broadway in 1988.He took home another Pulitzer Prize in 1990, this time for The Piano Lesson, following its Broadway premiere.

Wilson died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005, in Seattle. His new play, “Radio Golf,” had opened in Los Angeles just a few months earlier.

Information from www.biography.com is included here.

Mrs. Harcourt in “Anything Goes” at New Line Theatre 2018

By Lynn Venhaus

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

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

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

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

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

Lobby Hero at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo by Justin Been

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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