By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Tennessee Williams’ richly detailed “The
Night of the Iguana,” the remarkable centerpiece to this year’s fourth annual
Tennessee Williams Festival.

At a rundown resort in Mexico, people are there to escape –
or to hide. Everyone has secrets. They can get away, but they can’t run, just
like the big fat iguana that’s tied up offstage.

The setting is not inconsequential. You can tell Cosa Verde
has seen better days, and so have most of these characters. But each has a
story to tell – and those looking for mercy, a glimmer of hope.

In his grand, striking poetic exposition, Williams tackles
a lot here – a former minister who is a tormented soul, three primary women of
different types and temperatures, and an assortment of workers and tourists. He
seizes on how people fare in volatile times.

A group of crass Nazi-sympathizing Germans on holiday stand
out for their gaudiness, and those roles might be tiny, but Williams is crafty
in his characterizations. After all, the play takes place in the early 1940s,
before World War II commandeers everything.

The metaphors are also rampant in this multi-layered
masterpiece. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created such a distinct corner of
the universe that you can practically feel the oppressive heat. Each cabin is
like an isolation pod, mosquito net hanging, a place of solitude and reflection
for some, but for others who feel trapped by their circumstances, a cage.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe brilliant Jon Ontiveros’ lighting design is a marvel of
moods and atmosphere, emphasizing Williams’ intentions through Dai’s
interpretation.

Ellie Schwetye, whose sound design is always memorable,
layers the outdoor cacophony with lapping ocean waves, which changes to different
noticeable nocturnal noises.

Meticulous director Tom Ocel has contained the sprawling
story to emphasize temptation, loneliness, loss and the despair that comes from
being lost.

This landmine of human emotions, ready to explode at any
moment, is based on Williams’ 1948 short story, which was then developed into
three acts for a Broadway production in 1961. A Tony nominee for Best Play
(defeated by “A Man for All Seasons”) in 1962, actress Margaret Leighton won Best
Leading Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Two years later,
it was adapted into a steamy movie, directed by John Huston, that starred
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.

The tormented Rev. Shannon (James Andrew Butz, in an
extraordinary performance), who fell from grace in spectacular fashion – or, as
he says: “heresy and fornication – in the same week,” is a self-destructive
shell of a human being. He’s now driving a tour bus. Oh, the irony of escorting
a group of women from a Baptist college for their pleasure.

But at a cheap coastal hotel, they’ve turned against him,
the staff is on edge, and the proprietor is just trying to get through another
day without incidents. LaVonne Byers is Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed
owner who was something in her prime. However, she is now weary of other people’s
drama – but has a soft spot for Shannon, whom she has known a long time. He can
push her buttons, nevertheless. Byers plays this vigorous woman with her
customary precision, turning Maxine into a strong, no-nonsense type whose past
is filled with hard-fought lessons. She tosses off some terrific comical lines,
too.

The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown
squall.

Summer Baer and Jim Butz, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe pretty young Charlotte Goodall, 16, has fancied this
mysterious Shannon, and vice-versa, thus resulting in all hell breaking loose
and a serious charge of statutory rape. This is the starting part. Summer Baer
is impressive as the innocent, naïve lass.

As Miss Judith Fellowes, entrusted with Charlotte’s care, Elizabeth
Ann Townsend is all blustery and self-righteous in her contempt for Shannon.
She wants justice, and she is going to get it.

Nisi Sturgis and Harry Weber. Photo by ProPhotoSTLAlong comes the refined Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis), whose
manners belie a living-on-the-edge situation. An artistic woman whose only
source of income is freelance painting and sketch work, she has accompanied her
beloved grandfather, “Nonno” — Jonathan Coffin, a poet. They survive together,
although he is ailing. They are just trying to get by, using whatever means
they can. Harry Weber imbues Nonna with dignity.

For the prickly, mercurial Shannon, Hannah becomes
something of a lifeline. She tries to save his humanity, and her spirit is revived
through their encounters. Williams makes you believe in the power of their
connection — “The magic of the other.” So do the actors — Butz and Sturgis
are stunning in their scenes together.

Butz pretty much raises the bar for every actor in town.
How he spirals out of control and goes through every emotion, depicting Shannon
on the brink of a breakdown, is astonishing. He’s always a robust life-force on
stage, but this portrayal is some of the finest acting we’ve been privileged to
see in St. Louis.

Sturgis, whose measured demeanor is exactly how you imagine
Deborah Kerr in the movie, delivers one of the finest female performances of
the year. She conveys the restraint, compassion and grace of her character
beautifully.

Nisi Sturgis and Jim Butz, Photo by ProPhotoSTLOcel moves the large cast around to the beats of the
fun-and-sun coastal setting, with a sense of foreboding and something’s
off-kilter. Again, the irony of the hellish happenings occurring at such a
slice-of-heaven paradise.

Costume Designer Garth Dunbar has a keen eye to distinguish
the personalities through their outfits.

Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and
Hannah Lee Eisenbath provide lively portraits of the garish, loud Germans oblivious
to anything but their own needs.

In minor roles, Greg Johnston is Jake Latta, Shannon’s
supervisor, and Spencer Sickmann is employee Hank, Victor Mendez is worker
Pedro and Luis Aguilar is worker Pancho.

The crisp stage direction and the ensemble’s commitment to
immerse themselves to tell this story, with all its messy interactions, make
this production stand out.

If last year’s award-winning TWF mainstage show, “A
Streetcar Named Desire,” was a leap of faith, this year’s centerpiece is a masterful
coming-of-age, a major step forward, strengthening Williams’ legacy and continuing
a vibrant tradition.

Tennessee
Williams Festival presents “A Night of the Iguana” May 9 through May 19 at The
Grandel Theatre in the Grand Arts Center. Evening performances Thursday through
Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.twstl.org

(Because of Word Press Upgrade bugs, site was unavailable April 7-16, and this review was not posted during the run. Sorry for the delay/inconvenience. – Lynn Venhaus)

By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” theme is timeless and universal, yes, but a puzzling modern interpretation of “Othello” by St. Louis Shakespeare did not best serve this epic tragedy.

Poor production quality, uneven casting and misguided,
underdeveloped character portrayals didn’t help convey the transition to the 21st
century.

Nevertheless, the show featured several strong performances
and good fight choreography staged by Todd Gillenardo.

If you want to say something about inherent racism then and
now, then say something powerfully. For all the talk in the press release about
turning this 17th century story upside down with a contemporary
slant, director Patrice Foster seemed to take the traditional story route. I
disagreed with the execution of their original concepts, which were not all
followed through.

Setting the play, which takes place in Venice and Cyprus,
in the 21st Century made no sense whatsoever. Where are we? What
world are we in? And why?

The cities were pretty much interchangeable. Jared Korte’s minimalist
set design reflected none of the exotic foreign world of this tale. Were we to
ascertain this through the Turkish music? The bedroom more akin to a young
single’s first apartment? If you are tackling xenophobia, then show it!

Based on another source material, “Un Capitano Moro” by
Cinthio, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is believed to have been written around 1603.
The Bard took the big emotions of life – love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal and
loss – to illustrate bigotry, showing how a Moorish general in the Venetian
army could be revered for his military prowess and then disdained for marrying
a Caucasian.

The couple can’t be happy because their enemy sets up a
tangled web of deceit and manipulation in order to destroy their union.

His miffed ensign Iago schemes to convince Othello that his
wife Desdemona is having an affair with former suitor Cassio, supposedly in an
effort for Roderigo to woo her instead, but really, for him to surpass Othello
in power and prestige.

In a towering performance, Reginald Pierre is compelling as
the African general whose jealousy and misplaced allegiance prove to be his
downfall. The larger-than-life role fit Pierre, who is a master at delivering
Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. A veteran of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
and Rebel and Misfits Productions’ two immersive Shakespeare presentations,
Pierre commands attention no matter what role.

He glided persuasively between scenes portraying the
victorious general, passionate newlywed and how he’s too trusting of what he’s
told. Alas, Othello allowed the lies to get inside his head, and then is
doomed. Pierre was convincing in his struggles and how he grappled with
betrayal.

Bridgette Bassa said her lines well as Desdemona, but
physically, her petite stature is such a sharp contrast to Pierre’s height, and
they did not have much chemistry. Nevertheless, the bedroom death scene is brimming
with intense emotions as Othello seethes with rage and Desdemona pleads for her
life, even though they changed the killing method.

While Bassa has often been cast in roles she has been too
young or too old for and pulled them off, Desdemona’s appearance is wrong here.
She looks like a teenager in a simple junior frock and summer wedges that don’t
visually establish a sultry woman.  

Phil Leveling smartly portrayed the complexities of Cassio,
realizing his reputation is ruined and how he’s been used. As the rich suitor
Roderigo, Jesse Munoz had the right approach, and Will Pendergast and Victor
Mendez suited their soldier roles.

Troublesome is Cynthia Pohlson’s decision to portray Iago
as broad as a Disney villain. If you view Iago, Othello’s ambitious, bitter and
sneaky ensign as a more cunning figure, then you might be as disappointed as I
was, particularly at the intrusive cackling and the exaggerated street gang
member moves.

As his wife Emilia, Hillary Gokenbach grew into the role,
and had a superb second act.

A company who has Shakespeare in the title should be able
to work with inexperienced cast members on how to not deliver the Bard’s lines
in sing-song fashion, which often happens.

The challenges of Shakespeare need to be overcome if an
ensemble is to be convincing. It didn’t help that some of the well-meaning
supporting cast players were too young for their parts – Brad Kinzel as
Desdemona’s furious dad Brabantio and Mike Stephens as the Duke of Venice.

Circling back to the stumbling block of the modern setting,
if the deception hinges on an embroidered handkerchief, switching the era to the
21st century makes no sense because no one uses handkerchiefs any
more, and really haven’t for 50 years. This is a relic of the past that’s key
to the original story but useless in new version.

In production values, Ted Drury’s sound design was fine, but the subpar staging didn’t establish the setting, and the party dance scene wasn’t as festive as it should have been. The costumes appeared to be from people’s closets, except for bulk military camoflauge outfits.

If Shakespeare presentations require fight choreographers,
should not they focus on line delivery as well? Character development is always
crucial.

Unlocking the meaning of Shakespeare is as thrilling as
recognizing the source of the Shakespeare phrases that’s become part of the
modern lexicon, and when everyone can bring those words to life, it makes a
world of difference.

The new performance space at Tower Grove Baptist Church has
possibilities. I hope the future bodes well there.

St.
Louis Shakespeare presented “Shakespeare’s Othello” April 5-13 at Tower Grove
Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia. For more information, visit www.stlshakespeare.org