Portrait of a Lady

ELEANOR: THE PEOPLE'S FIRST LADY
By Lee Patton Chiles
Historyonics Theatre Company

"I trust you." Imagine a politician's wife saying that to a reporter today. But that's what Eleanor Roosevelt told Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press journalist assigned to cover her during FDR's first presidential campaign. Lorena had asked whether she could print all the remarks Eleanor had just made to her. Eleanor's response highlights a difference between American political life today and American political life 67 years ago.

Her response also, we eventually realize as we watch Eleanor: The People's First Lady, reveals a certain canniness on Eleanor's part. Rather than set up an adversarial relationship with the reporters covering her, Eleanor made them feel that they were all on the same side.

Eleanor, like her husband, still took plenty of fire from the press. Some of it came from those who disagreed with her husband's policies. Much of it came because she was an unconventional first lady, carving out her own very active role in the public life of the nation. You can see why Hillary Rodham Clinton feels a special bond with her.

They're also bonded by their husbands' unfaithfulness. At least Eleanor didn't have to endure a public airing of her marriage's dirty linen -- another difference between public life then and now. And one of the best things about Victoria Churchill's performance as Eleanor in the current Historyonics production is the way Churchill manages to show us both the confident public face of the woman and the suffering that she kept very private. The usual Historyonics production style -- script in hand, all material taken from the historical record -- makes Churchill's achievement all the more amazing. Eleanor left few words about her private sorrows, handing Churchill little verbally to work with. (Nor does music director Tom Clear, he of the usually unerring taste, help by having the banal World War I weeper "My Buddy" sung while Eleanor mourns the death in infancy of one of her children.) Yet Churchill does more with the character physically than you commonly see in readers' theater, speaking volumes in a glance, a tilt of the head or the set of the shoulders.

Eleanor's son James narrates most of Eleanor's sorrows in this production, and he also sets the framework for her triumphs. Lee Patton Chiles, who both composed the script and directed the production, shrewdly uses James' memoir of his family to establish the narrative line of the evening. She then chooses with great subtlety and care from Eleanor's own writings and from other contemporary accounts to bring to life the woman and her times. John Flack makes James a warmly sympathetic narrator. Both he and Churchill successfully use that upper-caste-New York way of speaking so closely identified -- to the point of parody -- with the Roosevelts.

Monica Parks, Christy Simmons and Rosemary Watts play, variously, women journalists, a wittily observant White House maid (Parks) and adoring fans of Eleanor's. They also perform with gusto the tunes with which America fought the Depression blues. Joe Dreyer, who accompanies them on piano, relishes his few lines as several of Eleanor's harsher critics.

Elizabeth Krausnick designed the effective period costumes. Andrea Shrewsbury's simple, efficient set makes visual reference to the unseen president with a wheelchair set upstage under an American flag.

Though performed by actors, Eleanor, like many Historyonics productions, narrates more than it dramatizes. But Chiles' script and Churchill's performance make it a deeply revealing narrative.

-- Bob Wilcox

THE PARSONS DANCE COMPANY
Dance St. Louis

When the curtain went up at the Fox last weekend at the David Parsons Dance Company performance, the lights did not, and there we sat in the dark, listening to a solo saxophone. Very uncomfortable, I thought, and I was about to start resenting it when a dozen or more flashlights upstage clicked on and began to move. The piece, Parsons' own "Fill the Woods with Light," was a riff on an old-fashioned "black show," where performers in soft, light-absorbing garments (black velvet is ideal) stay behind their light source and manipulate light-colored persons or things, which appear to move independently. The Parsons people weren't in black velvet bodysuits, but they did put handheld spotlights on one another so one performer could drag another across the stage and have it appear she was dragged by unseen spirits or something. Or those with the lights would get under a dancer up in a lift, who would appear to be floating. Phil Woods' swing score, played by the Phil Woods Little Big Band, was so danceable, whether solo piano or the whole ensemble, oil drums could pirouette to it, or otherwise shake their steely bodies.

David Parsons makes theatrical dance -- playing with the lights (Howell Binkley, the company's lighting designer, is often Parsons' co-choreographer), fabrics (the evening's final piece, "Anthem," had banners huge and small, streamers) and a cyclorama blazing with vivid colors. Parsons has performed his best-known piece, "Caught," at least twice before in St. Louis. Last Friday, however, Jaime Martinez, the company's associate artistic director, took his place under the bright, closely focused ceiling spots to shimmer from light pool to light pool. Then, when the strobes came on, he seemed sometimes to float around the Fox performing space, sometimes to teleport himself, apparently, from downstage left to upstage right at the speed of thought. Another Parsons favorite, "Sleep Study," with the dancers in their jammies, moving in and out of some amusing puppy piles, was also fun.

Parsons' "Ring Around the Rosie," which closed the evening's first half, had the best dancing. It has a plot of sorts: The Wanderer (Parsons himself), who is actually the Black Plague, clothed in closely fitted black velvet, comes upon a small field of folk -- a bride, a groom, a physician, a priest, etc. -- all in elegant costumes more Renaissance than medieval. He causes the bridegroom to die and reduces the rest to terrorized individuals, afraid for themselves alone. The dance itself moves in and out of instantly formed, instantly dissolved tableaux. Sometimes they tumble up and down over one another like water over a cliff, and in their midst or very near is Death, either moving or waiting. The piece is beautiful and somewhat horrifying -- thank goodness for the evening's lighter stuff that followed: "Ring Around the Rosie" deals with the sort of reality of which humankind can only bear a little.

-- Harry Weber

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE
By George M. Cohan
West End Players Guild

From its dark-and-stormy-night opening to its remote mountaintop setting to its tough-guy lingo, George M. Cohan's Seven Keys to Baldpate pokes fun at its own genre, the melodramatic thriller. Essentially a one-joke show -- a writer faces his own threadbare cliches -- the joke does wear thin, and Cohan piles on too many reversals at the end for my taste.

Andrew Richards anchors the show with a properly breezy touch as the writer. I'm tempted to suggest that director Teresa Doggett and others in her cast at the West End Players Guild could have made the show more fun by taking their playing of these stereotypes further out, as do Rick McKenna with a mad hermit and Steve Wozniak with a hard-boiled police inspector. But Cohan's writing may be too fragile to support them if they go any further out than they are now. Doggett and fellow designer Pat Rosenbaum do have fun with the 1940s costumes -- I was especially taken with Eleanor Mullin's outrageous red wig.

-- Bob Wilcox

COCADANCE
COCAdance Company and COCAdance Too
Center of Contemporary Arts

Comparisons, they say (quite correctly, as they have a way of being), are odious and unhelpful. Occasionally, however, they have a purpose. Therefore, the following: Just a little while ago, at a sort of anthology dance concert, a dozen young dancers from a college not too nearby, one known nationally for its dance department, did a tap routine.

They were young and therefore cute, but the performance was miserable: The tap routine was simple enough, but the dancers made a nonsense of it. As I watched it I thought, I'm going to see COCAdance perform in the near future, and those high-school kids are going to blow this group far away.

About halfway through the first set of pieces last weekend, the kids from COCAdance, in a piece called "Right Time, Wrong Place," choreographed by Karen Hatcher to the singing and playing of B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt, did exactly what I had expected them to. I'd never thought of psychedelic tap before, but the dancers, in tie-dyed, fringed T-shirts, had the same appearance that the young dancers at the Fillmore West had back in the '60s: ecstatic, tuned-in and free -- but all in the careful order of the dance, carefully arranged to give the illusion of disorder. The tapping was crisp and clean, even when the 20 or so dancers were all onstage together; the body English -- which young dancers can often overdo -- was spare; and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves at least as much as the audience.

Most of the first half were pieces by the young dancers themselves, however, and it was interesting to note that the dancers seemed to give the same 100 percent to their peers that they did their teachers. Because the student choreography was simple, unpretentious and fun, in addition to being well danced, it was most enjoyable.

When older choreographers were in charge, however, the fun continued, but the dance became more demanding. The last piece of the performance's first half, "Challenge," choreographed by Lee Nolting, COCAdance's artistic director, is a case in point. Made for the four young men of COCAdance -- Antonio Douthit, Cornithea Henderson, Chavo Killingsworth and Brian Moore, -- "Challenge" is a choreographed competition in leaping, twirling, tumbling, bouncing and generally showing off for skilled young fellows who can really get off the floor. The second half opened with "P-Funk," which was made for COCAdance by Rennie Harris and had some marvelous show-off stuff, too. The dancers, in homey clothes, move to what is meant to (and does) sound like a funk radio station. They kind of socialize when the announcer is rapping on, then get into some serious dancing when the music begins again.

Someone remarked at intermission that what the COCAdance kids needed was some serious modern-dance work, and I expect that many of them will eventually get it.

In the meanwhile, they're working hard on their tap and jazz dancing and getting up pieces by choreographers like Hatcher, Nolting and Harris, as well as Christine O'Neal and Rebecca Stenn, all of whom use the playfulness of young people to get some nice stuff on the floor. Keep your eyes open and your ears on for COCAdance performances -- you'll have as much fun as the dancers do.

-- Harry Weber

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