D.O.A.

THE CEMETERY CLUB
By Ivan Manchell
The New Jewish Theatre

Once upon a time, you had to leave your house and go to a theater to see a show like The Cemetery Club. Now you can stay home and watch it on TV -- a rerun of The Golden Girls, maybe.

I do not say this to put down TV. Most writing on TV, like the acting and everything else, is well crafted, the best that money can buy. But, like anything churned out on demand for an industry, it follows a formula. The formulas are old ones, used in theater since the Greeks. But now, when we can get the formula at home at the touch of a button, we want something a little more -- some fresh twist -- when we make the effort to go out.

The Cemetery Club concerns three widows. When their husbands were alive, the three couples had hung out together, gone on cruises and such. Now the three widows visit the cemetery together. One remains unshakably devoted to the deceased. The second flaunts her flirtations. The third seems to be getting serious about the neighborhood butcher, a recent widower. A serious romance could break up the Cemetery Club, so the other two scheme to break up the romance.

You can write the rest.
These widows happen to be Jewish and live in Queens. That's not essential to the plot, but it does lend a certain flavor to the familiar jokes that dot the script. And it probably adds to the play's appeal for some in the audience at the New Jewish Theatre, where the play is currently running.

Under Bob Koerner's direction, the cast keep the jokes and the sentimentality rolling smoothly through their well-worn ruts. Jan Meyer brings real feeling to the autumnal romance -- her giddiness when the butcher first shows interest, her pain when he doesn't call. Lynda Levy Clark gives a well-turned waspish edge to the devoted mourner. As the merriest widow, Diana Krueger stumbled a little in the first few minutes on opening night, but she eventually brought feeling as well as humor to her role. Ray Davidson plays the butcher with a lovely quiet conviction, and Amy Ruprecht-Belt has delicious fun with her brief turn as an intruder into the trio.

Ruprecht-Belt also organized the costumes, having more fun with the almost-matching bridesmaids' dresses the women wear to the most recent nuptials of a much-married friend. M.T. Schmidt's set and L.D. Lawson's lights cleverly find room, in the postage-stamp space of the Jewish Community Center's Studio Theatre, to sketch in a cemetery on the fringes of a convincingly realistic living room.

-- Bob Wilcox

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
By William Shakespeare
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which opened last weekend on the Mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton Center, is about as entertaining as comedy can get, partially because its director, Bruce Longworth, has seen more possibilities for farce within the play than one might think possible. In addition, the cast is singularly well-chosen and effective, the set both practical and in itself funny, the costumes handsome and historically apt, the lighting both bold and subtle.

Longworth, well-known as both actor and director, decided -- wisely and sensibly -- not to inflict political correctness on the play and its audience. Katherina (Katherine Leask) is a shrew, not an early manifestation of a woman (hear her roar!) fighting for liberation and equality; Petruchio (John Rensenhouse) is a man determined to have both a handsome dowry and a peaceable wife, not a coldhearted, insensitive oppressor. The abounding farce can distract us from Katherina's humiliation, but Longworth does something even better: Watch the way Leask and Rensenhouse make their hearts go boom from across the room when they first lay eyes on one another. Katherina's heart isn't really in beating up on Petruchio before they marry; Petruchio obviously and honestly humiliates Katherina for her own good as well as his. Leask's unmarried Katherina is more than a physical and emotional bully; she is patently unhappy and miserable. The reformed Kate, however harsh the therapy, is, at least as Leask plays her, far better off for it. Though her long speech to her sister and another recently married woman is a little too much for any but the farthest wing of the Religious Right, Leask and Longworth have played it straight, with nary a wink or other hint at irony. Those who require it, however, can bring their own.

The Taming of the Shrew has a subplot so strong that it's almost another play. It concerns the wooing and winning of Katherina's younger sister, Bianca (Camille Troy) by a much older man, Gremio (John Tyrrell); a significantly older man, Hortensio (Anderson Matthews); and an appropriately aged young man, Lucentio (Michael Ray Escamilla). There's also a young ringer, Tranio (Hunter Bell), who is actually Lucentio's clever servant and who passes himself off as a foppish and boastful Lucentio. All four are skilled comics. Whereas Tyrrell uses a waspish effeminacy more than I care for, Jerry Vogel -- besides playing Vincentio, Lucentio's father -- does a little turn as a tailor where he uses effeminacy to greater humorous and charitable effect. Escamilla, one of the best face-makers I know of, is very funny as a young, besotted lover and will be a touchstone Lucentio when he produces his words somewhat more clearly.

And how the cast goes on! Joe Palmieri, whose regular appearances at the Rep are always an occasion for rejoicing, plays Grumio, Petruchio's long-suffering servant. His astonishment at the pain Petruchio inflicts on him in the course of taming his wife is the best of the production's running gags. Corey Behnke, in his debut at the Rep, makes Biondello, Lucentio's other servant, the play's second best running gag. Whit Reichert's Curtis is a witty cameo. And there's a gang of young people from the Webster University Conservatory -- John Carlos Cantu, Quin Gresham, Ben Nordstrom and Faith Sandberg, plus high-schooler Gabriel Levinson -- who might think about keeping the gang together and doing some sort of Marx Brothers-type physical-comedy routine.

John Ezell's set is almost a character in the production, so active is it. It has its own motion -- flags and banners, furniture moving here and there at rapid speed, the courtyard of a city dwelling morphing into the great hall of a country manor, even running water. Its bright primary colors, when lit, make anything that happens on or in front of it comic per se. When the lights dim for interior scenes, the bright colors go dark, too, and the effect is almost sinister -- a dungeon dark and drear for Katherina's humiliation. Mary Jo Dondlinger, who designed the lighting, and Ezell seem to work and play very well together.

Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes are also worth noticing, for they are both very attractive and very interesting. Costuming a play set in the English Renaissance must be fun to begin with -- velvet, hoops, tight bodices, even bustles for the women; doublets and hose, rich gowns, continued on page 63continued from page 60boots and leather for the men. But the costumes for this production substantially illuminate the characters. All the principals, save the servants, are rich, so many costume changes are appropriate. When Tranio, for instance, changes from servant's clothing to assume his master's identity, his new costume is indeed rich but a little too gaudy for a real gentleman. Petruchio's fantastical attire for his wedding day -- worn to bother his easily angered wife -- would cause a more levelheaded person to smile, for though it's crazy it's also fun, and Rensenhouse looks good wearing it, and once Katherina has seen the light, she will remember it with fondness and amusement. The Rep consistently does Shakespeare and other theatrical classics with tremendous elan, and when it pulls out all the theatrical stops for a production, it tends to make Lloyd Weber's sets and costumes seem feverish, overwrought and overwhelming.

This production of The Taming of the Shrew would be an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for younger people: An intelligent 8-year-old would have no trouble following the plot and enjoying the movement. Older, more world-weary folk will enjoy seeing it made new so winningly. And everyone should enjoy a play that ends with a sense that Katherina and Petruchio will live happily ever after. The Mikado correctly observes, "Virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances," but that's as good a reason to go see The Taming of the Shrew as any other around -- if, that is, any excuse is needed.

-- Harry Weber

UGLY WAYS
By Tina McElroy Ansa; adapted by Ralph E. Greene
Unity Theatre Ensemble

When all a husband can say at his wife's funeral is, "Esther Lovejoy's life speaks for itself," you figure there must be a story behind it. Tina McElroy Ansa tells that story in her novel Ugly Ways. Tiresomely familiar battle-of-the-sexes and conflict-of-the-generations stuff forms the framework of the story. But by telling much of it from Esther's posthumous point of view, Ansa enlivens the oft-told tale with wicked humor.

At least, that's how it works when Esther speaks in the person of Thomasina Clarke, as she did last weekend at the Unity Theatre Ensemble. Clarke can be a devastatingly funny performer, but she can also devastate you by showing you the pain and the strength that drive Esther to her unique perspective on life. And the audience the night I was there laughed uproariously at the jokes, smart enough to see that the humor gave depth and significance to what could otherwise be a painfully banal story.

Ralph E. Greene, who both adapted and directed Ugly Ways, emphasizes in his director's comments that he's using the techniques of reader's theater; he hasn't turned the novel into a play. That's important to remember as you listen to a character narrate a scene from the family's past life that could make exciting theater if dramatized. Keep in mind what the company is trying to do, and you may not be disappointed by what they don't do.

Some of the actors, like Clarke and C. Andre Jennings, who plays her husband, and Sophia Mulligan, who plays the middle daughter, are equally effective whether narrating or acting. Others, like Andrea Smythe as the oldest daughter and Vickie Hubbard as the youngest, do better when they can sink their teeth into a dramatic scene -- Hubbard has some especially powerful moments. Bill Murphy's sets and Mark Schilling's lighting help the action flow easily and clearly.

-- Bob Wilcox

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