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  • July 28, 2014

LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I: Theater Review - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I: Theater Review

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Posted: Monday, July 15, 2013 5:56 pm | Updated: 6:03 pm, Mon Jul 15, 2013.

Story: In 2012 St. Louis Actors’ Studio founding director William Roth announced the premiere of the LaBute New Theater Festival in July 2013. Noted playwright Neil LaBute, whose works have been nominated for both Tony Awards and Olivier Awards, agreed to participate in the festival, both as part of the creative team and also as a contributing playwright.

LaBute’s one-act work, The Possible, is receiving its world premiere at the Gaslight Theater, the only one of nine new plays to be performed during all four weeks of the festival. Scripts by Rachel Fenton, Daniel Damiano, Joshua Thomas and Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell will be presented in Part II of the festival from July 19 through 28.

The following review covers The Possible as well as three other works presented at the Thursday, July 11 presentation. Another entry, Two Irishmen Digging a Ditch by GD Kimble, was not performed that evening.

In The Possible, two young women meet at one’s apartment with dual purposes. Woman #1 is there to give an earful to Woman #2, who seduced the former’s boyfriend. Woman #1 is taken aback, though, by the reaction of her counterpart, who calmly states that she bedded her friend’s lover only to get him “out of the way” in her pursuit of Woman #1.

Seems that Woman #2 was smitten immediately by her adversary when they met briefly at a party a year or so earlier. This only further angers Woman #1, who resents that her boyfriend has been used and wasted, since she tells Woman #2 she has absolutely no homosexual desire for her, and never has.

Woman #2 coolly listens to the rants and ravings, which seem to be less than whole-hearted refutations. The longer that Woman #1 remains in the apartment, the more one can sense where the conclusion will take these two characters.

In Cleansing Acts by Carlos Perez, a young man named William is getting ready to kill himself in the bathroom when he is interrupted by his mother, Maxine. She seems addle-minded, pre-occupied with her son’s taste or lack of same for various home-made cookies. She returns a bit later with a young woman named Star, who is introduced as William’s girlfriend but is in fact a hooker.

The forlorn William, encouraged by Star, tells her why he plans to kill himself. His father died a couple of years ago, but his mother refuses to believe that, insisting that her son take her periodically to the airport to await her salesman husband’s arrival. William, an only child, has lived a lonely existence bereft of friendship or companionship, but he strikes a receptive chord in Star, who survived her own suicide attempt years before. She promises to treat him with passion and respect in the hour before he closes out his life.

Tyler Vickers’ dark comedy, Pinky Swear, deals with a doltish dude named Jeremy, who concocts a nasty plan for revenge against the man who has had an affair with his wife. He’s given expert guidance in this matter by his friend Dave, who warns Jeremy that a good liar is never to be trusted, and even gives his slow-witted friend some tips on how to detect mendacity. Perhaps, though, the tips may have been too good. Could that limp body hanging in a duffel bag from the ceiling be Dave?

A fourth effort, a comedy by Alexis Clements titled The Elephant in the Room, focuses on the unlikely relationship between a frustrated artist named Georgi and her pachyderm pal, Elephant. Seems that the zoo where Elephant has resided has put up a ‘Going Out of Business’ sign and the animals have been left to scramble for themselves. Georgi is at first annoyed by the unexpected arrival of her new, chain-smoking, cursing comrade. But, hey, an elephant is a girl’s best friend, right?

Part I of the festival was a rousing success. The Possible, Cleansing Acts and Pinky Swear all are intriguing and compelling works for sundry reasons. The Possible features LaBute’s trademark knack for revealing quirks and the baser side of human nature in his unique fashion. Milton Zoth is finely attuned to LaBute’s nuances with his precise direction, and he elicits a pair of carefully calibrated performances by Wendy Greenwood as the aggressor and Rachel Fenton as the lady who doth protest too much.

Cleansing Acts is tightly written and empathetically sketched by Perez, who benefits from Steve Woolf’s cunningly crafted direction. Justin Ivan Brown does a stellar job bringing out William’s aching loneliness, while Jackie Manker’s Star is a hooker with a real heart, but one that stays within the bounds of the sobering script. Andra Harkins is affecting as well as William’s lost mother.

Vickers shows himself to be adept at crafting dark humor in Pinky Swear, as he moves the timeline erratically to add to the confusion of who is doing what to whom at various times. It’s a clever manipulation, though, all the more enhanced by a pair of delicious and consistently funny performances by Tom Lehmann as Jeremy and Aaron Orion Baker as Dave. Linda Kennedy’s direction is focused and persuasive throughout.

Clements’ work is the weak sister of the presentations, although it does feature a pair of winning performances by Greenwood as the hapless artist and Suki Peters as her newfound, upbeat elephant friend. It’s basically a one-joke theme that could benefit from further development. Kennedy directs the elephant tale in straightforward fashion.

Jim Burwinkel’s simple set design emphasizes that less is more, as modular panels are reconfigured for various presentation with charming effect. Kudos to Carla Landis Evans for Peters’ brown-hued elephant, complete with floppy ears and mini-trunk. Lisa Beke’s props are especially pivotal in Pinky Swear, Robin Weatherall’s sound design strikes appropriately strident notes at the right times and Burwinkel’s lighting enhances all of the work.

If Part II is as intriguing and captivating as Part I, the LaBute New Theater Festival will be a smashing artistic undertaking.

Plays: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: Run of Part I concluded. Part II runs July 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28

Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

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

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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