Story: The fifth annual LaBute New Theater Festival hosted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theater is, like its predecessors, divided into two parts. The first edition, running through July 16, features four different one-act plays, including one by festival namesake Neil LaBute. Three plays will be presented in Part II, which will be performed July 21-30, with LaBute’s effort part of that segment as well along with two different entries.

Highlights: The first part of the 2017 festival features some solid writing by four gifted playwrights, whose works are brought to life by a versatile cast under the direction of John Pierson and Nancy Bell. Playwrights, performers and technical crew ensure that the 2017 LaBute New Theater Festival is off to a fine start.

Other Info: LaBute himself was on hand at the opening-night performance to greet participants and audience members alike with STLAS artistic director William Roth. He was joined in the “playwrights’ row” in the audience by writers Ron Radice, Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich and Carter W. Lewis, whose works comprised Part I, as well as Tearrance Chisholm, whose play will be featured in the festival’s second set.

Chauncy Thomas and Greg Hunsaker star in LaBute’s contribution, Hate Crime, which opens the evening. Two lovers portrayed by Thomas and Hunsaker discuss the former character’s impending marriage to another, older man. He talks about the insurance policies they have taken out on each other, and then he coolly discusses how Hunsaker’s character will murder the older groom on his wedding night itself.

Like many of LaBute’s works, Hate Crime deals with nasty, aggressive people thinking and doing all manner of mayhem, although in this case the ending seems telegraphed fairly early, at least in my interpretation. Thomas gives his character a cunning, calculating edge as he appears to easily manipulate Hunsaker’s baser, less intelligent and more insecure individual.

More than what is said, LaBute’s script relies on crafty interpretations by the actors in its two roles to elevate suspense and create a sense of unease for more than one reason. While not as powerful as previous of his efforts such as Kandihar or Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, which he’s written for earlier festivals, Hate Crime nonetheless is well crafted and well performed, especially under Pierson’s careful and studied direction.

Pierson also guides the second effort in the first half of Part I, a nifty, amusing vignette by Radice titled Waiting for Erie Lackawanna. In this adventure into the theater of the absurd, a young man waits at a train station en route to a job interview. He’s approached by two other well-dressed men, like him each carrying a valise and looking to be of some importance in their stylish suits.

These two individuals, though, are eccentric and peculiarly exaggerated in their bizarre responses to the interviewee-to-be. Their argumentative posture puts him ill at ease, and despite his courteous behavior he finds himself more and more ostracized for no apparent reason.

Radice pays homage to Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre and even Oscar Wilde in this witty albeit weird little story. Pierson makes good use of the cozy Gaslight Theater stage to accentuate the claustrophic effect felt by the young man in search of a job as he’s pinned between the two taller and more menacing fellows. Watch also as the three valises are switched furtively back and forth by the two veteran train-waiters, who seem to revel in their bizarre behavior.

Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre are engaging as the attache case-swapping duo, the former given to fits of sneezing and quirky mannerisms while the latter conveys a personality that wavers between menacing and convivial. As the unsuspecting arrival, Ryan Lawson-Maeske is appropriately confused and apprehensive of the duo who bring unwelcome anxiety to his day. Will he see them again? That’s part of the conundrum of Radice’s tale.

Bell directs the third vignette, Sacred Space by Blumenthal-Ehrlich. Two women preparing a body and its soul for journey to the after-life are shocked when they see a text message appear on the wall behind them. The note appears to be from an unknown and unseen source. As one of them accepts the notion of contact, the other fights to ignore it until a flurry of messages cascades in rapid sequence, and they come to a sobering realization of what the notes mean.

Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow do a good job delineating the differences between the more skeptical woman (Brown) and the believer (Furlow). Bell’s direction accelerates the pace of the piece as the messages increase, although the story’s ending seems more like a laundry list than a poignant statement when it’s finished. Kelly Robertson also appears as “The Deceased.”

The edition’s most interesting segment is Lewis’ play titled Percentage America. Bell and Thomas meet in person after introducing themselves to each other via an Internet dating site. Bell’s character suggests that Thomas’ character might enjoy playing a game she learned from a couple, using the exaggerations of social media to build a story.

They find themselves following the sad and increasingly troubling saga of a teenage girl who is increasingly victimized by the crude, ignorant and rampant ugliness that pervades social media in the guise of “information.” While their characters become more absorbed by this sordid style, Kelly Schaschl portrays the lonely young girl, isolated in a corner of the stage under Pierson’s focused direction.  Schaschl also glibly plays a number of vacuous news anchors who giddily update their audiences with new "facts" about the girl.

Carter’s script sings with the truth of how often what passes as information in the 21st century is instead an updated witch trial in which unsuspecting individuals are pilloried and skewered for no logical or ethical reason. Lewis pinpoints the rampant use of adjectives which color perceptions of accuracy in today’s media, all for the sake of gaining attention for so-called purveyors of knowledge.

While the story goes on a bit too long, it’s a scary cautionary tale which should be heeded by anyone enslaved to illegitimate media outlets. Lindsey Steinkamp and Isabella Koster contribute to the piece with voices of various friends.

Patrick Huber handles the set and lighting designs, complemented by the costume and props designs by Carla Landis Evans. Pierson and Bell provide sound designs.

Part I of the LaBute New Play Festival offers some intriguing works for consideration, ones selected from more than 200 entry submissions. Check it out both for entertainment and education.

Play: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: July 13, 14, 15, 16

Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber

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