By Lynn Venhaus

A strong ensemble cast acts naturally in an unnatural setting in “Locked Ward,” a world premiere mystery-drama by Chicago-based playwright Amy Crider.

Now in its 19th season specializing in producing new works, First Run Theatre effectively realizes Crider’s play, which was inspired by her own journey with bipolar disorder, with sensitivity and compassion.

Crider’s care and concern regarding her characters, which were based on people she met while hospitalized in 1993, is obvious. And director Phil Gill follows through by ensuring a human face has been placed on the internal and external conflicts.

Crider has been on effective medication since 1994, and has been almost entirely in remission ever since, she wrote in the program notes. Her large body of work includes the topic of mental illness, and reflects not only her personal experience, but her desire to educate and make people aware of disorders.

“Locked Ward” is first and foremost a passion project, and it succeeds on its earnestness. While it has humorous elements to lighten interaction, it is serious in its intentions. Do not think of this as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” light.

As Crider does, Gill strives to address the stigma hanging over those living with mental illness. And that is an important aspect of this presentation. In his program notes, he said he hopes it “encourages you all as our audience to see through the labels and instead see the humans that exist” behind the diagnosis.

While it could be heavy-handed in conveying the playwright’s noble intentions, First Run does not lecture, but lets the actors believably develop their familiar characters. The cast makes sure we feel their connections while shading the disparate personalities in an identifiable way.

In life, Crider may crusade, but on the page, she doesn’t preach. She has incorporated information within the framework of a murder mystery, which is a surprising component.

The story takes place in 2003 in a psychiatric ward. When the body of a nurse is found on the floor in the ‘locked ward,’ patients become amateur sleuths, united in their shock and grief. That helps them bond, but also shows their limits as their own personal issues come to the forefront.

For instance, the sweet Eleanor, affectingly portrayed by Uche Ijei, has a manic episode while the group is preparing dinner. Her escalating paranoia puts others at risk when she wields a knife (used to cut vegetables) and must be put in restraints. They smoothly diffuse the situation.

Because the actors demonstrate skill in bringing their characters to life, we get to know them beyond their ‘types’ throughout the two acts.

Duncan Phillips is impressive as Franklin, the rigid obsessive-compulsive whose daily routine of “Star Trek” episodes and the evening news is disrupted when the floor’s television set is removed. You know that character. Smart, sincere, and awkward, Phillips grabs onto solving the mystery like a lifeboat.

In a heartfelt performance, Ethan Isaac is Glen, a troubled ex-cop dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who must work through a tragedy. He also provides investigative know-how as the group ascertains how their floor nurse died.

Jalani “Tamia” Hale is sympathetic as Jill, whose memory is erased with her electric shock therapy. She is heartbreaking as she walks around in a zombie-like state sometimes and has grown an unrealistic attachment to the doctor treating her.

As Vladimir, a rebel-rousing dissident who doesn’t play by the rules, Stephen Thompson maintains a convincing Russian accent. An intelligent guy that sometimes condescends, Vlad’s hostility softens as he works together with the group on a common cause.

Treating these patients is Dr. Blumenthal, and Jaz Tucker keeps us guessing about this guy – is he trustworthy or is he hiding secrets? He does a good job giving the benevolent doctor some layers.

Because of COVID-19, Lillie Weber could not play the health care professional Linda, who takes over from the ‘victim’ the patients were attached to. But stage manager Gwynneth Rausch capably filled in. Because they must adjust anyway to an ‘outsider,’ her insertion worked well as a latecomer, not missing a beat. She also provided some context to the deceased nurse’s private life.

Scenic designer Brad Slavik’s use of weathered second-hand furniture and distinct institutional props fitting such a locale’s layout adds to the production’s lived-in quality. Tony Anselmo’s lighting design enhances the moods and the characters’ emotional states, and technical director Jenn Ciavarella’s sound design is efficient and fluid.

The play is well-staged in the Kranzberg black box theatre so that each character has their moment to shine.

Without simple solutions, the play zigs when you think it will zag, so you are kept somewhat off-guard, avoiding predictability.

While the conclusion seems anticlimactic, and the path towards the resolution gets a little clunky in its exposition, the ensemble’s likability smooths the rough edges.

Overall, the actors’ grow as they share their stories, bridging some of the hurdles perceived in mental health.

Crider does not offer quick fixes, and it would be irresponsible to do so anyway. Because of the way the character’s progress, in the end, the message lands on how much more insight we need on mental illness.

Through First Run, this fiction can be a starting point to learn more.

The St. Louis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which serves St. Louis city and county plus the counties of St. Charles, Lincoln, Warren and Jefferson, has provided the company with resources that they have placed in the lobby of the Kranzberg Arts Center. NAMI is an organization of families, friends and individuals whose lives have been affected by mental illness

Crider has also written a mystery novel about her experience with mental illness, “Disorder,” which is available from bookstores, Kindle, and audio.

Crider wrote the play, “Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust,” that the Midnight Company presented here in May 2019.

You can follow her career, including winning the Tennessee Williams One Act Play contest, on www.amycrider.com.

Jaz Tucker, Ethan Isaac

First Run Theatre presents “Locked Ward” Aug. 12-14 and 19-21 at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis. For tickets and information, visit www.firstruntheatre.org.

By Lynn Venhaus

“Attention must be paid.”

In Fly North Theatrical’s hard-hitting “Assassins,” as the vainglorious actor John Wilkes Booth, a mesmerizing Jordan Wolk reminds us of those words, which were written by Arthur Miller in “Death of a Salesman” in 1949. With that, he connects these two commentaries on the American Dream.

This show, bending time and space, plunges us into a nightmare that we vividly recall but one, as the company makes clear, is no longer in the far-distant past.

Such is the unnerving grip of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical, with book by John Weidman, based on a concept by Charles Gilbert Jr., as it delves into the twisted minds and violent motives of infamous criminals – four murderers and five would-be killers of U.S. presidents.

Weidman’s loose narrative features these footnotes in American history meeting, interacting, and inspiring each other in set pieces. He acknowledges the strange brew of celebrity culture colliding with deranged misfits, and Far North presents it with a raw, painful intimacy in the .Zack space.

This is Fly North’s first foray into presenting a classic landmark after offering original works in St Louis since 2017 (“The Gringo,” “Madam,” “Forgottonia.”)

The collaborative duo, music director and founder Colin Healy and director Bradley Rohlf, are at the helm, leading a creative team and cast that zealously dives into the deep end, uncompromising on the musical’s dark and disturbing nature. Its perspective is fresh, voices virtuoso and focus laser-like with minimal staging.

Lighting Designer Tony Anselmo’s work is outstanding, establishing an eerie mood through shadows and light. Costume designer Eileen Engel outfitted each character with period appropriate outfits, Healy created the sound design to add historical texture and Rohlf handled the projection design to enhance the visuals. Brian McKinley is the assistant director.

The .Zack has had some sound/microphone issues since it opened, and continues, in various degrees with an array of productions, but usually it affects musicals more than straight plays. In “Assassins,” some of the more intricate vocals are difficult to discern, but the singers project and enunciate with a lot of effort to overcome those moments, but it still happens. There is always this feeling, when you attend a show there, of “let’s hope the sound is OK.”

Thirty-two years after its off-Broadway premiere, this bold, ambitious, and revolutionary musical continues to haunt in a different way. It is one of those seminal works of the American theater, although at the time considered one of Sondheim’s least accessible. Interpretations change through the years, uniquely tapping into current political climates and realities.

The ensemble includes the mentally unstable killers of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, and would-be murderers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford (two!) and Ronald Reagan.

Basically, mostly losers who wanted desperately to be winners, these are the little guys tired of being oppressed by the rich and powerful, railing against injustice. Or they’re just extremists on the fringe, American psychos craving attention.

In the jaundiced group number, “There’s Another National Anthem,” Sondheim wrote “For those who never win” — The ensemble sings: “No one listens.” and “Where’s my prize?”

As the Proprietor entices the group to fame and glory, sweet-voiced Eileen Engel sells the devastating “Everybody’s Got the Right” like a QVC barker — but no doubt would administer death penalty lethal injections or place a hangman’s noose with a big smile.

The seeds are planted for disaffected and alienated souls, and their insatiable need to be someone. The song, also used in the finale, is almost sinister in context by the end of the 100-minute one-act.

“Look at me!” “Attention must be paid!” (see also @prescon2022, which prepares future leaders, because #EverybodysGotTheRight to be president).

Healy and Rohlf were forced to delay their plans for this musical several times because of the coronavirus pandemic. But perhaps it couldn’t be a timelier presentation.

With razor-sharp cynicism, the clever, whip-smart creative team has produced a fully immersed take, transforming the .Zack into Prescon 2022 – you must get there early (half-hour before) to take part in “Tinfoil Hat Origami,” “Q, no A, with Marjorie Taylor Greene,” “White Collar Crime and How to Get Away With It” and “Tips and Tricks For a Perfect Rose Garden,” sponsored by Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

The run started during the Independence Day holiday weekend, at an unsettling time when political divisions are at a fever-pitch with nasty midterm campaigns heating up a summer of primaries, hearings, and mass shootings.

Of course, the musical was ahead of its time when the original off-Broadway production premiered at the Playwrights Horizons, and while still controversial, the acclaimed 2004 Roundabout revival on Broadway won five Tony Awards and a stripped down version was mounted off-Broadway by John Doyle in late 2021.

Rohlf’s re-imagining of the original carnival framing, a fairground shooting gallery, is a bull’s eye with the convention panel and recreation of vignettes, as narrated by The Balladeer, a riveting Stephen Henley, projecting melancholy and despair in a measured tone. He is the play’s soul.

As in other productions, The Balladeer performer transitions to play a conflicted Lee Harvey Oswald, and Henley imbues JFK’s assassin with a soul-crushing sadness. He is goaded into the deed by Booth, cunning in his persuasion while Oswald wrestles with his demons.

Sensitive to the issues of gun violence, Fly North uses mostly toy guns, but gunfire is used for the Kennedy assassination.

And it is jarring, and powerful, most effective in that one use, and leads up to the evocative and moving “November 22, 1963,” and “Something Just Broke,” which features Americans’ personal accounts from that day of infamy. The impact reverberated for years, as historians tell us, and anyone alive that day can recount in universal details about hearing the news and what it meant.

Such is the indelible Dealey Plaza in Dallas. And the Ford Theatre in Washington D.C., Bayfront Park in Miami, and parades, motorcades, and wherever death changed the course of history.

 “Assassins” is not just the JFK-Oswald Special, nor is it all about Booth, but Lincoln’s assassin is a major catalyst. As written by Weidman, the Confederate sympathizer is embodied more dimensionally in Wolk’s fiery orations, starting with “The Ballad of Booth.”

On the evening of April 14, 1865, Booth entered the Ford Theatre’s presidential box, where Lincoln was watching the comedy “Our American Cousin,” in the third act, and shot him in the back of the head with a .44-caliber derringer. Lincoln died the next morning. Booth escaped with another conspirator, David Herold, and they fled to a barn in Virginia, where they were finally cornered. Herold gave himself up, but Booth refused to surrender and was fatally shot by a police officer. He died on April 26, at age 26.

The show features other characters we may not know much about beyond their names. The bizarre cases of two women, who both attempted to shoot President Gerald Ford within three weeks of each other in California in 1975, are played for laughs — only they are not in on the joke.. While dark, the ineptness and the looney-tunes perception of Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and accountant-turned-hothead Sara Jane Moore is further enhanced by the manic performances of Avery Lux and Kimmie Kidd-Booker.

Lux portrays the brainwashed cultist believing Manson is the son of God and savior of the world as a woman not tethered to any reality while Kidd-Booker depicts easily agitated Moore as a loose cannon. Weidman has used creative liberties here in teaming up the unstable women.

Fromme was first, and the Manson Family mainstay, on Sept. 5, 1975, in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, was hoping to talk to President Ford about the redwoods. Armed with a Colt semi-automatic pistol that had four rounds, she aimed at Ford but there was no bullet in the magazine chamber and was immediately apprehended by Secret Service. She was 26 and received life imprisonment, paroled in 2009 after serving 34 years.

Moore, 45, had 113 rounds of ammunition when she fired a single bullet at President Ford, who was about 40 feet away, and uninjured, while she was in a crowd across the street from the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Moore later admitted to radical political views and expressed regret. She served 32 years of a life sentence and was released on parole in 2007, at age 77.

As one of the three would-be assassins not killed, Jaymeson Hintz portrays John Hinckley Jr. as a pathetic mentally ill young man who had an unhealthy obsession with actress Jodie Foster, then a student at Yale. At age 25, in Washington D.C., he shot President Reagan . on March 30, 1981. With a .22 caliber revolver, he also  wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy. Press Secretary James Brady was left permanently disabled in the shooting.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent over three decades in psychiatric care. He is now released.

His duet with Fromme, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is one of Sondheim’s most heart-breaking ballads.

As the meeker but fixated marksman, Hintz holds his own on stage with the showier roles. He nails Hinckley’s schizoid personality disorder, among other diagnoses. Hintz also has some fun acting as bumbling President Ford.

This musical is not constructed to be a documentary, so the historical figures are shaped by their known backstory but in a more snapshot-type way than a History Channel recap.

Attorney Charles J. Guiteau is portrayed by Bradley Rolen as a delusional gasbag whose increasingly grandiose ramblings are dismissed as nonsense. He considered himself a “Stalwart,” the “Old Guard” faction of the Republican party, supporting Chester A. Arthur, then vice president. He purchased a gun he “thought would look good in a museum,” and followed President James A. Garfield several times, losing his nerve until destiny happened at a train station.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, as the 20th leader of our country departed for New Jersey, Guiteau shot him twice with a revolver. Garfield had only been president for three months when he died Sept. 19, from complications attributed to his doctors, and Guiteau was executed by hanging the next June. He was 40.

“The Ballad of Guiteau” and the chilling “The Gun Song” are part of his repertoire – “pull the trigger, change the world.”

After his second inauguration, the 25th president, William McKinley, another Ohioan, embarked on a six-week tour of the nation. Stopping in Buffalo, New York, to greet people at the Pan-American Exposition Hall’s Temple of Music on Sept. 6, 1901, disgruntled factory worker Leon Czolgosz concealed a handgun in a handkerchief.

The young laborer had become disillusioned by the country’s economic and social turmoil, later involved with a radical socialist group and influenced by anarchist Emma Goldman. Speaking with a Polish accent, Eli Borwick channels that anger and frustration in his powder-keg reactions.

When Czolgosz made it to the front of the line, he shot McKinley twice in the abdomen at close range. The president died a week later. Caught in the act, Czolgosz was quickly tried, convicted, and executed in an electric chair seven weeks later. He was 28.

Borwick’s bombast suits the character, particularly in his songs “The Gun Song” and “The Ballad of Czolgosz.”

As troubled Italian immigrant Guiseppe Zangara, Ryan Townsend conveys the bricklayer’s severe abdominal pain, which in his autopsy was attributed to adhesions on his gallbladder, but he had never received relief in life, even after an appendectomy.

Zangara attempted to kill president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt during a night speech in Miami, 17 days before his inauguration, on Feb. 15, 1933. He shot a .32 caliber pistol five times but missed Roosevelt, striking four others.

Without remorse, when taken to the Dade County Courthouse, he said: “I kill kings and presidents first and next all capitalists.”

He was charged with their attempted murders, but when a victim, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, died 19 days later from peritonitis, Zangara was upgraded to a first-degree murder charge and sentenced to death. He was electrocuted in the Florida State Prison’s electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky,” at age 32.  

Townsend uses a thick accent that sometimes makes it hard to understand his rants. He’s part of “How I Saved Roosevelt” and group numbers, displaying a strong voice.

One of the more amusing portrayals is Sarah Lantsberger as Sam Byck, who really thought he would be a hero if he hijacked a plane and flew it into the White House in hopes of killing the much-despised Nixon. On Feb. 22, 1974, he put his plan into motion – trying to hijack a plane flying out of the Baltimore/Washington International Airport, but during the bungled incident, he killed a policeman and a pilot. He was then shot by another policeman and turned the gun on himself, death by suicide.

In two scenes, Byck is shown taping his diatribes, one to Leonard Bernstein (?!) – which can get very meta, connecting Sondheim’s contributions to “West Side Story”, and another to Nixon. Lantsberger commits to earnestly delivering his grievances. She also portrays Emma Goldman in scenes with Borwick..

Of note are Trey Marlette as a Secret Service agent and Layla Mason as Billy, Sara Jane Moore’s son that she brings along to the crime scene.

The vocals are exceptional, and the 11-piece band smoothly covers the complexities of Sondheim’s score that mixes tones and genres. Ryan Hinman, keyboards, Nicki Evans keyboards, Adam Lugo guitar, Teddy Luecke bass, Des Jones percussion, Lucille Mankovich reeds, Linda Branham Rice reeds, John Gerdes horn, Ron Foster trumpet, Joe Akers trumpet, and Adam Levin trombone, led by conductor Healy, are superb.

The ever-inventive Sondheim, whose brilliance encompassed writing lyrics of irony, emotional pain, humanity’s foibles and hunger for connection, has penned some of his most perturbing ones on our inalienable rights here. And now, after his passing in November, his words resonate from beyond the grave. “Made me wonder who we are” — “Something Just Broke.”

With the political chaos of the past decade and continued death threats against our political leaders and public servants, we have yet to fully comprehend the “Twilight Zone”-like reality that is life in 2022. After all, seditionists and malcontents tried to thwart democracy and nearly hung the vice president last year.

And after this show opened, a 22-year-old loner — who legally obtained five guns despite the ‘red flag laws,’ ripped a community apart from a rooftop as it was celebrating our 246th Independence Day.

This cogent “Assassins” certainly gives one pause about the current state of the union — If it doesn’t raise the hair on your arms, you are not paying attention.

After all, “Attention must be paid”!

Stephen Henley as The Balladeer, using his cellphone to pull up information on the assassins. Photo by John Gramlich.


Fly North Theatricals presents “Assassins” from July 1 through July 23, with a special July 4 show at 4 p.m. for $17.76. Other performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. July 7-9, July 14-16 and July 21-23, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. July 3, 10, and 17 at the .Zack building,  It runs 100 minutes and is presented in one act without an intermission. The show contains strong language, use of a racial slur as well as the use of prop firearms in the house in proximity to audience members. For more details, refer to the content warnings – which contains spoilers. For tickets, visit www.MetroTix.com and for more information, visit the website, www.flynorththeatricals.com

By Lynn Venhau

The truth is out there, “The X Files” told us during 11 seasons on television. For believers of any paranormal or extra-terrestrial phenomena, some sort of proof helps build a convincing case. “Anomalous Experience” earnestly scratches the surface but is only a piece of an ever-evolving puzzle for truth-seekers.

Inspired by true events, Joe Hanrahan’s original play is a serious-minded drama taking a clinical approach as a public lecture by a psychiatrist who has endured ridicule about his studies into alien abductions and features two patients sharing their experiences.

The Midnight Company’s world premiere production opens its 25th season and runs at the .Zack May 5 – 21.

A key component of science fiction during the last half of the 20th century – the so-called ‘Atomic Age’ — has been stories centered on aliens, whether Unidentified Flying Objects, abductions, or exploratory visits from extra-terrestrials.

But now, with the government acknowledging UFOs and recent sightings of unknown aircraft by military pilots, which are being investigated (even if Area 51 folklore remains shrouded in mystery), tales this century are more accepted and not viewed as merely the rantings of kooks.

However, a heavy dose of skepticism exists about alien abductions. That’s the focus of actor-playwright Hanrahan, who based his character on a real professor who forged ahead in his research despite the nay-sayers.

Joe Hanrahan. Photo by Joey Rumpell

Hanrahan won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award in March for his original play “Tinsel Town,” which is three showbiz vignettes taking place over a 24-hour period in Los Angeles, presented in 2021, and was nominated for his nostalgic one-man show “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond…James Bond.”  This is a different direction, and he has meticulously researched the subject to present it in a matter of fact, not preachy or fearful, way.

The sobering material touches on such familiar cases as Roswell, N.M., and goes back to ancient times (Chariots of the Gods) through production designer Kevin Bowman’s impressive slide show.

Given Midnight’s penchant for small character studies, the show is simply yet effectively staged, with Kevin Bowman’s minimal set.

Director Morgan Maul-Smith strips it down to maintain an air of gravitas through the actors – Hanrahan as James Collins and Joseph Garner and Payton Gillam as the two patients Scott and Virginia who believe they were abducted by aliens.

Anxious and apprehensive about their reception, but steadfast in their beliefs that something profound happened to them, Virginia and Scott share their harrowing experiences and re-enact hypnotic regression in a natural progression. 

Photo by Joey Rumpell

Both performers are engaging in conversations with Hanrahan, and Garner looks directly at the audience with his compelling experience. He is particularly haunting in his graphic descriptions of a breeding incident, and his struggles to cope with what has taken place. Gillam is effective in her recount of how her life changed, including her marriage.

That eerie uncertainty is carried through Ellie Schwetye’s masterful sound design and Tony Anselmo’s lighting design.

After their recount, it’s anti-climactic when the 80-minute play ends, because we don’t go farther in their lives. It would be interesting to see how their lives changed in the years since their encounters, if they felt they were being observed or studied.

This uncommon tale benefits from the strong actors, but the play is more sensible than sensational – just in case you were looking for escalating melodrama and shifting behaviors. As we’ve become accustomed to in fictional narratives on aliens, this is just the beginning.

“Anomalous Experience” is a thought-provoking look into unexplained abnormal events that make for a modern ghost story, although light on thrills and chills.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

The Midnight Company presents “Anomalous Experience” May 5 – 21, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., although the final show is Saturday, May 21 at 8 p.m., at the .Zack, 3224 Locust in the Grand Center Arts District of St. Louis. For tickets, visit www.metrotix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

The .Zack is a Kranzberg Arts Foundation space. Follow the COVID-19 guidelines currently in place. Masks are currently optional for patrons.

By Lynn Venhaus

Two oil-and-water grown brothers, Valene and Coleman Connor, constantly bicker and fight like two Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots – but real physical and psychological damage takes place in “The Lonesome West.”

That’s a calling card of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose works, often involving dysfunction, are mostly bleak, dark, and if a pitch-black comedy, outrageously funny.

Such is the case in West End Players Guild’s hardscrabble production, running through May 8, of McDonagh’s 1997 play, part of his Connemara trilogy (Tony winner “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara” being the others). It was Tony nominated for Best Play in 1999, when it transferred to Broadway.

The middle-aged brothers escalate violence over the most mundane things – such as bags of Taytos’ ‘crisps’ (chips). Think “The Odd Couple,” only more gruesome and foul-mouthed.

While McDonagh’s contemporary play is not as well-constructed as Sam Shepard’s “True West” about two battling brothers that at times, resembles a Looney Tunes’ roadrunner and coyote cartoon, the material is suitable for an acting showcase.

And WEPG rises to the challenges, with strong production values and outstanding performances.

It’s just that hurling insults gets tedious, and the story has no where to go after two and a half hours.

The amount of physicality required of Jeff Kargus as Valene and Jason Meyers as Coleman is enormous, and they are ferocious onstage, with a toughness and single-mindedness that is stunning.

Their agility in movement is matched by their full immersion into the Irish dialect, which is superb all throughout the two-act drama-comedy.

The remarkable dexterity Kargus and Meyers display as these difficult characters indicates much dedication to getting all aspects right. One must note the superb work of fight director and weapons supervisor Michael Monsey for his intense choreography.

Kargus, never better, has long passages of dialogue to deliver as the more sympathetic and dutiful brother, as Meyers’s Coleman is maniacal, likely a psychopath, has shot his father and will likely kill again – and no one would be surprised if Valene was his target.

Shades of Cain and Abel, and that is not a joke. Both are examples of arrested development, but Connor is a one-note character compared to Valene. As the hot-head, Meyers outbursts of rage quickly build in a matter of seconds, but he is not always convincing in depicting menace. He’s downright cruel about his brother’s religious figurines – and you’ll find out about the dog soon enough.

Valene isn’t entirely innocent, for they have antagonized and done horrible things to each other over the years. Kargus does a fine job conveying his character’s peculiarities perfectly, including a fascination with the old ABC western “Alias Smith and Jones,” which ran for three seasons from 1971-73, patterned after the wildly popular film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Apparently, it made a huge impact on Valene as a youth (or maybe home video).

The reason it is brought up in conversation is part of a bigger discussion on suicide, and whether the individual goes to heaven or hell. The Catholic Church believes those who kill themselves do not ascend to heaven, although there is some debate.

When a rash of suicides in the small town take place, people talk. Which leads to the old TV show discussion, because actor Peter Duel, 31, died of a self-inflicted gunshot after the first season.

That’s only one of the stream-of-conscience discussions in the shabby abode where the brothers live in the rural town of Leenane, in County Galway, where there is a shocking underbelly of mayhem and far too many strange-circumstances fatalities.

Scenic designer Brad Slavik has fashioned a very specific kitchen-living room combo with splendid detail while Frank Goudsmit’s props establish how the brothers live in an old farmhouse.

Tony Anselmo’s lighting design reflects the different moods and a more unsettling nighttime, while Jenn Ciaverella manages a sharp sound design – the Chieftains’s folk music is a good choice to play before the show and during intermission.

Under Robert Ashton’s fluid direction, the ensemble works together well, with Ted Drury as the hapless local priest Father Welsh and Hannah Geisz as Girleen Kelleher. Their comic timing is crisp, as is their ability to not break character, no matter how daffy or audacious the dialogue sounds.

Drury’s booze-swilling, advice-giving priest is hell-bent on saving the brothers’ relationship, but realizes it’s hopeless, and his despair is palpable.

Ashton has included a handy reference sheet to explain some of the Irish terms, such as poteen – meaning moonshine. You’ll see the men drinking copious amounts of the hooch, which is made from potatoes.

McDonagh, an Oscar nominee for writing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” doesn’t seem to have an endgame here, which is frustrating, but at least what WEPG does with it is impressive.

Photos by John Lamb

West End Players Guild presents Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” from April 29 through May 8 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information or tickets, visit westendplayers.org

The West End Players Guild is employing touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons, front of house staff and volunteers.

By Lynn Venhaus
Oh the irony. Henry, who is an off-kilter sort, likes to sing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when his life is anything but – or at least appears that way. That sets the tone for “Here Lies Henry,” a kooky one-man show that opened by The Midnight Company at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s blackbox theatre last weekend.

Part jester, part blowhard, Henry’s personality is central to his act, a freeform stream of conscience where he wonders aloud why there are yellow fire trucks and repeats his schtick with some twists. He wants to tell you something that you don’t already know. He can rant but he’d rather get a laugh. Did he really say that? Did he commit any of the crimes he takes credit for?

Henry is an entertainer created by the fertile mind of quirky Daniel MacIvor, a Canadian playwright, actor and screenwriter. MacIvor specializes in solo pieces, just like Joe Hanrahan, a St. Louis theater veteran, who acts, directs, writes and produces. He adds the peculiar and curious Henry to his repertoire of uncommon characters.

Hanrahan likes choosing works that aren’t part of the mainstream, and as The Midnight Company’s latest one-man show, the first since the coronavirus public health restrictions lifted, it’s a good fit.

Hanrahan has previously performed MacIvor’s other works, “Cul-de-Sac” and “House,” and understands the rhythm the playwright attains in this 1995 work.

As he tackles love and death, Hanrahan displays Henry’s awkwardness, his impish penchant for odd jokes and puns, and builds more confidence as he weaves tall tales. Henry might be “not quite right,” but will we know?

Director Ellie Schwetye, who has worked with Hanrahan multiple times, is also familiar with the off-center and the screwball. There is an ease to the presentation, maintaining a mood where you don’t quite know what’s happening or where it will go, but you’re willing to take the ride.

That uncertainty is the chief tone throughout – as Henry, who admits he lies, embellishes stories about his parents and life. Is he serious? Is this a TED talk? Or is this a comedy club’s open-mic night? It has that feel of a guy telling big whoppers at a bar – but you can’t ignore him here as he is compelled to get on your good side.

As always, Hanrahan is entertaining in his unconventional, idiosyncratic way. “Here Lies Henry” doesn’t necessarily answer the Big Questions, but you’ll have fun with the asking.

Technically, the show flows smoothly, with Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Kevin Bowman’s production design. Anselmo designed lighting for Midnight Company’s past works, “Popcorn Falls” and “A Model for Matisse.”

“Here Lies Henry” is an interesting look at one man’s point of view. The play is presented without intermission and runs 70 minutes.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

“Here Lies Henry” will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, from June 10 to June 26, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, June 27, at the Kranzberg Black Box. For tickets, visit MetroTix.com or MidnightCompany.com. Call 314-487-5305 for more information.

By Lynn Venhaus

Wow. Just a WOW.
Dynamic Debby Lennon has a beautifully trained voice that is spellbinding, and even better on stage when she is playing a character. She is a terrific storyteller, which is why she’s often the centerpiece in recent revelatory shows by Max and Louie Productions.

“Songs for Nobodies” showcases both those talents in a warm, endearing way. On a simple set, wearing a nondescript black dress, Lennon vividly creates a genuine connection between the audience and the stars.

Lennon smoothly guides us through homages of divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. This is no small feat, given the challenges of their distinctive personas but also the differences in dialects and genres – standards, country, blues, torch ballads and opera.

Lennon delivers each number with customary skill, from Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen classic that was part of her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, to Callas’ signature aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” – her 1953 recording is considered the best.

Photo by John Lamb

These are not imitations, but rather representations. As Lennon sings these memorable selections of the 20th century in a revealing and heartfelt way, we are transported to other times and places, as this play offers intimate glimpses into ordinary lives with extraordinary results.

Kevin Bowman’s projection design creates a visual frame of reference for each interaction – the famous singer, who after all is human, and the regular people who are their fans. Touched by the music, those fans make a connection that matters in their lives.

Lennon sets each vignette by smartly defining each fictional everyday woman character with humor and instantly likable traits. And why not? They have unexpected life-changing encounters with musical icons of the 20th century, much to their surprise and joy.

These females are the “Nobodies” in the title, but that’s facetious because they are significant human beings. And Lennon brings out the fun in those personalities.

Lennon has sung with the St. Louis Symphony for 33 years and has performed with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera and Winter Opera in St. Louis, in addition to the Muny and other professional regional theater companies.

Debby Lennon sings Edith Piaf, Photo by John Lamb.

For her unforgettable performances in Max and Louie’s “Grey Gardens” and “Souvenir,” she won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Last year, she appeared in the one-woman show “Love, Linda, The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.”

Perhaps the most emotional segment is Billie Holiday’s, given her troubles with addiction and the segregated time she lived in, and her bold song “Strange Fruit” is an example of her courage. And “Lady Sings the Blues” was part of her portfolio too.

And French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s rousing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Don’t Regret Anything) is one of the most familiar songs, and Lennon matches its fervor. She also delivers a robust “L’Accordeoniste.”

Music Director Nicolas Valdez, who also plays piano, superbly conducts the one-woman show. He is joined by Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion. They are behind a black scrim that is strikingly lit by lighting designer Tony Anselmo, a nice touch.

With wit and charm, Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith has imagined these memorable women in intriguing scenarios. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who is stationed in a powder room in a New York hotel; Pearl Avalon, a proud back-up singer; and fashion writer Too Junior Jones thrilled to interview Billie Holliday take place in the U.S. Edie Delamotte, whose section takes historical liberties when talking about Piaf; and Orla McDonough with prima donna Maria Callas.

The most moving is Edie Delamotte’s recollection of her French father’s hardships during World War II.

The play is captivating in the way it presents the personalities, this timeless music and why we care about our relationships with artists.

Director Pamela Hunt also noted the women lived at a time where many a man controlled their lives. This is indeed an interesting aspect.

These gifted singers are bright-light individuals who allowed their brilliance to shine, which is still felt today, and their stories go beyond entertainment.

In their mission statement, Max and Louie refers to “bringing artists and audiences together in a shared experience that illuminates life through joy, wonder, laughter and tears.” Mission accomplished with “Songs for Nobodies.” You could feel the audience’s happiness. That’s a good way to start Max and Louie’s 11th season.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Songs for Nobodies” Jan. 23 – Feb. 2 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. 501 N. Grand. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. A special 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 1, has been added. For more information, visit www.maxandlouie.com

Debby Lennon. Photo by John Lamb

By Andrea BraunContributing WriterIndecent (2017) by Paula Vogel tells the story of a play written by the young Sholem Asch entitled God of Vengeance, first performed in 1907. It is presented as his first play, but it is actually his second; however, this and other departures from fact are described by Vogel as “emotional truth,” rather than absolute historical accuracy.

“Vengeance” ran in Germany in the original Yiddish and
was translated and traveled to several other countries, but then came America. At
first, Asch’s play ran off Broadway and stayed more or less under the radar.
But when it moved uptown to the Apollo and the general public was going to be
courted to buy tickets, as Vogel tells it, the script was changed without
Asch’s knowledge or permission because it contained “unacceptable” material.

Photo by Dan DonovanFor example, a Jewish man makes his living owning a
house of prostitution while he and his wife and “virginal” daughter occupy an
apartment upstairs. This was considered by American Jews to be anti-Semitic,
since the Jewish procurer was a stereotype and would be reinforced in the
general public’s mind. So would the focus on making money any way possible. At
one point, he becomes so furious he destroys a holy Torah, a great sin in
Judaism. But most controversial of all was what became known as “the rain
scene,” in which the daughter kisses one of the prostitutes and they proclaim
their love. To middle-class Americans, this is pornographic filth.

Photo by Dan DonovanAsch is so depressed he can’t leave his house.
Finally, his loving and patient wife talks him into attending a rehearsal, but
to him, the play is dead. The longtime stage manager, Lemml (Lou) also
considers this is a disaster, and it’s something they just cannot understand.
Even stranger, the play is closed down by the police and the actors are
arrested and tried, but the playwright and Lemml are not. Lemml tells Asch that
he is going to take the play back to Poland and translate it back into Yiddish.
He tells Asch, “I am tired of being in a country that laughs at the way I
speak. They say America is free? What [sic] do you know here is free?”

And so he does and his troupe performs the play in
cafes, attics, basements—anywhere that will have them until the Holocaust
decimated the European Jewish community of artists and patrons.  Asch himself returns after he’s received an
“invitation” from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s to
live in London and write prolifically until he literally dies in the saddle, at
his desk, writing. Before he leaves, he meets a young scholar from Yale whom he
tells that he, Asch, “lost six million [who] have left the theater.”

Photo by Dan DonovanThat’s the plot, but now comes the hard part: telling you about the production, which is indescribably beautiful (but I’ll try to describe it anyway). I haven’t listed the names of actors who play the characters because they are all played by seven extraordinary performers who not only tell the story through words but also through song and dance.

They are accompanied on stage by a group of three Klezmer musicians, who play a violin, bass clarinet, and accordion to help express both the sadness and joy the audience and characters are experiencing. I’ve only seen four of the actors listed below (Judi Mann, Tim Schall, John Flack, and Paul Cereghino) but I’ve never witnessed any of them stronger or more sure of the material which makes them turn into other people on a dime.

Photo by Dan Donovan

The evocative music is directed by Ron McGowan, Ellen
Isom choregraphs, Phillip Evans gets credit for sound, and Menachem Szus is the
Yiddish dialect coach.It is a clever conceit to have titles on the rear wall to
help us know where we are, and to have the actors use perfect English to speak
their native languages and accented English when they are speaking a second or
third language. The action spans Warsaw from 1906 to Bridgeport, Connecticut in
the 1950s, and as the program notes, “everywhere in between.”

It’s difficult to write about Indecent without gushing, and I don’t think I managed it. But you
know what? It’s brilliant in every way, so a little gushing is justified. It is
both timely and timeless, and I hope you’ll go see for yourself.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Indecent” at the Grandel Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available through Metrotix and more information is available at www.maxandlouie.com

Photo by Patrick HuberThe
Troupe

TJ
Lancaster:  Lemml, The
Stage Manager; Paul Cereghino: The
Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble; Zoe Farmingdale:
The Ingenue: Chana/ Ensemble; John Flack:
The Elder: Otto/Ensemble;  Katie Karel: The Middle:
Halina/Ensemble; Judi Mann: The
Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Tim Schall: The
Middle: Mendel/Ensemble

The
Musicians

Alyssa Avery: Nelly Friedman/Violin/Ensemble; Kris Pineda: Moritz Godowsky/Accordion/Ensemble; Jack Theiling: Mayer Balsam/ Clarinet & Mandolin/Ensemble

Photo by Patrick Huber

By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor In The Midnight Company’s charmer of a one-man show, “Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust” is a good match for Joe Hanrahan’s storytelling skills.

He plays an average Joe, 75, retired from insurance, whose
mundane Midwest life includes Snappy Seniors activities and family to-dos. One
day, Charlie doesn’t realize that a package of cookies as a snack at Starbucks
will lead to a reading adventure. He has what’s called “a Madeleine moment,”
and thus enters the world of French literary legend Marcel Proust, more out of
spite at his snobbish know-it-all daughter-in-law. 

The cake-like cookie, sort of in the shape of a seashell,
is associated with Proust’s opus, “In Search of Lost Time,” earlier known as
“Remembrance of Things Past,” which was published between 1913 and 1927, in
seven parts. Dipping the cookie in his tea, the narrator is immediately
transported to childhood memories.

On the surface, Paris during the French Third Republic
couldn’t be more different than contemporary Indiana, but then again, Charlie is
open to the similarities and differences. At that time, France saw the rise of
the middle class and the decline of the aristocracy.

But it is through Proust’s penchant for reflection and
articulation about memory that sparks multiple revelations for Charlie.

And lest not forget perseverance. Many a literary scholar
can’t seem to work their way through all of Proust. The title in itself is a
testament to fortitude. And in modern library terms, the seven volumes amount
to 4,300 pages – and 2,000 characters.

Charlie proves to be quite an interesting character, a
meaty role designed for Hanrahan’s gifts. And he’s well-suited to bring out the
humor in playwright Amy Crider’s work, which pops with personality. She is an
astute observer of human nature, visually conjuring an assortment of regular
folks you know you know.

The Kranzberg black box is simply outfitted with a
comfortable easy chair, a well-worn living room space that provides an
immediate sense of place. Chuck Winning’s set design takes you to an everyman
nook, with photographs and artwork that mean something, a statement on the
artist’s role in society and understanding an artist’s life as influence. Tony
Anselmo’s lighting design also reflects on the lived-in quality.

Director Sarah Lynne Holt emphasizes Charlie’s dignity and
intelligence, while Hanrahan’s monologue delivery brings out the absurdities in
life we can all relate to, no matter our circumstances.

This solo sojourn is an insightful piece, a fanfare for the common man that the Midnight Company fluidly interpreted as a guy with something to say.

The Midnight Company presents “Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust” Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., May 30 to June 15, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Linda Kennedy is a whirling dervish as the title character in “Chef,” pacing, pouncing, pouting and preening in a sparse jail cell.
She remains animated through the entire 80 minutes, keeping our attention as she talks of her complicated life. And when she discusses food, she practically swoons.
Through her customary skill, Kennedy creates vivid depictions of the scenario she weaves in Upstream Theater’s season opener.
What kind of journey did she have, from haute cuisine to prison cafeteria kitchen? Heartbreak, humor, and life experiences tumble out of this tiny woman.

Life isn’t so black-and-white, and Kennedy will lead us through her painful memories, but there is joy as well. She will recall people she loved, and those she didn’t. Those who betrayed, and those who let her down.
Defiant, she questions our attitudes about violence, love and convicted inmates, people not so different from us who serve time.
UK/Egyptian Writer Sabrina Mahfouz has crafted a play with the ingredients that director Marianne de Pury celebrates in the art form: “laughs, tears, curse words, beautiful language, silly giggles, weird sounds, spurts of anger, love, resentment, war, peace, unexpected and long-forgotten memories – and sometimes even a message to the world,” she writes in her director’s notes.
De Pury, who came to St. Louis from Europe to direct this U.S. premiere, makes sure Kennedy’s energy engages.
Kristin Cassidy has created a claustrophobic feeling in that small cell, while Tony Anselmo’s lighting design pinpoints the reality of the chef’s present situations.
Jim Blanton’s sound design provides the cacophony of a correctional center while Laura Hanson’s costume design jolts our complacency with a bloody chef’s white uniform coat.
Kennedy makes us think and feel, drawing us in as bystanders – it’s impossible not to be moved by this gripping material.
“Chef” is presented at Upstream Theater Friday through Sunday, Sept. 28-30, Oct. 5-7 and Oct. 12-14, at the Kranzberg Arts Center (Grand and Olive), with all shows at 8 p.m. except for the first two Sundays at 7 p.m. and the last Sunday at 2 p.m. For the box office hotline, call 314-669-6382.
Photo by ProPhotoStl.com