Story: Last year, St. Louis Actors’ Studio introduced its LaBute New Theater Festival, a four-week offering of new, one-act plays receiving their world premiere at the Gaslight Theater. STLAS founding director William Roth and others collaborated with noted playwright Neil LaBute, who agreed to lend his name to the festival and also to write an original work, The Possible, which premiered at the inaugural event in July 2013.
The second annual LaBute New Theater Festival has kicked off, with four short, new works being presented July 11-20, another three to be unveiled July 25 through August 3, as well as another LaBute original that is being performed each night of the four-week festival.
The following review covers the four shows that opened July 11:
• There’s trouble rising in Alabama, where the veteran U.S. Senator is working to deflect any heat he might receive if a major factory that actually is a leader in condom production is shut down by a government agency which favors a contract with a Chinese business that makes condoms better and much cheaper.
The Senator isn’t about to be caught with his pants down, an opinion he voices first to his right-hand man and then to the bureaucrat charged with the decision. The size of the senator’s political influence does indeed matter in this whimsical comedy titled Rubbas, written by Steve Karp.
• In Little Moscow, a quiet, one-act drama by Aleks Merilo, a gentle tailor recounts to a customer his turbulent childhood in Russia. He tells achingly about the romance of his older sister with a Jewish teacher, a love quashed by the rigid and bigoted demands of their tyrannical father.
• Jan Henson Dow’s harrowing drama, I Want to Show You Something, focuses on a timid young woman who is trying to work up the nerve to tell something that’s weighing on her to a psychiatrist. She is tortured by some harrowing memory, but has considerable difficulty discussing the topic.
• In Blue Lagoon, a whimsical piece written by Thomas Pierce, Russell sits alone at an outdoor café in some foreign country when he is approached by an elderly lady. He rudely brushes her off, but she correctly guesses that he’s waiting for someone he doesn’t know. It’s a critically important meeting for Russell, as it turns out, and the senior citizen is much more than Russell had estimated. She may be the key to the elusive happiness, and safety, that he seeks.
• LaBute’s contribution to both parts of the festival is a fascinating drama titled Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. Bill is eating his lunch while seated on a park bench when he is approached by a genial stranger. The man says his name is Kip, and that he’s the husband and father of a young woman and her son whom Bill has befriended on their regular walks through the park.
Unfortunately for Bill, Kip has uncovered some startling information in Bill’s past, details that don’t sit well with a man who says he is bound and determined to protect his family from people like Bill, despite the latter’s vehement protestations and denials.
Highlights: The caliber of offerings in the first half of this second annual LaBute New Theater Festival seems better than last year’s. All five of the works being presented in Part I have merit, are well directed and effectively performed by their casts.
Other Info: LaBute’s contribution is riveting stuff, showing how the accomplished playwright can deftly and quickly develop a story that is tense and exhilarating in its impact. William Roth has never been better as the quiet, non-descript Bill, whose mood goes from pleasant to annoyed to frantic in a matter of several, well-modulated minutes under Milton Zoth’s persuasive direction.
Reginald Pierre, as the seemingly friendly Kip, just continues to stack one impressive performance upon another. Pierre coolly and convincingly portrays a father who knows a predator when he sees one, and also calmly conveys the extreme lengths to which he’ll go to keep that predator at bay. The story is taut, the direction tense and the acting top-notch.
Perhaps the biggest delight of the first part of the festival is Blue Lagoon. Pierce shows a knack for fanciful writing and a pair of intriguing characters, then delivers an unexpected, very clever twist to wrap it all up.
B. Weller personifies the spy who wants to come in from the cold but doesn’t know whom to trust, perhaps because he’s made a few critical mistakes. As the lady, Jenny Smith can deliver deadly news with a smile and a gentle way that belie her curious and disturbing powers. Zoth directs this piece in breezy and amusing fashion.
Chris Limber is at the helm for I Want to Show You Something, a troubling piece in which Emily Baker displays remarkable ability to switch personalities and characters seemingly in the middle of a sentence, but always with distinct clarification. Chopper Leifheit is the sympathetic psychiatrist who learns just how psychologically impaired his young patient really is.
GP Hunsaker takes the stage for the one-man effort, Little Moscow. Limber utilizes a sound design incorporating balalaikas and other instruments endemic to Mother Russia for backdrop. Hunsaker then meticulously paints Merilo’s tender, if predictable, portrait of the unhappiness one man brings to several lives with his cruel inflexibility.
Weller, Pierre and Baker all have a fine time in the droll, albeit familiar territory of Karp’s Rubbas, which is a smart choice to lead off the evening as it is the most lightweight of the pieces. Still, it’s entertaining enough.
Patrick Huber’s economical set design allows for minimal changes between the various works, enhanced by Bess Moynihan’s lighting, costumes and props by Carla Landis Evans and sound designs by the respective directors.
Part I of the LaBute New Theater Festival gives every indication that July will be a special time and the Gaslight Theater a special place for aficionados of interesting theater.
Plays: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: July 17, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb