CURTAIN CALLS

A little show-and-tell of 1999 productions

For the past six months, I've had the pleasure of writing for this theater section and -- on paper, anyway -- sharing seats on the aisle with esteemed colleague Harry Weber. Before I moved, I scoured The Riverfront Times and the Post-Dispatch online to see what was happening and was pleasantly surprised to see that a variety of shows and theaters got coverage. Sure, you could see Shakespeare, but you could also see contemporary plays, bumptious revivals, even experimental work in theaters that celebrated cultural diversity. It's tremendously exciting that more than one troupe specializes in work with gay themes and that so many colleges host companies within and without the ivory tower. It's also deeply heartening to see how passionate people are about theater and how willing they are to support companies large and small. But on with the show. I've only been in this position a half-year, so I thought I'd nominate five shows for the traditional 10-best award, as well as give credit where credit is due.

The top five:

Raised in Captivity by Nicky Silver, directed by Robert Neblett, Actors Repertory Theatre. This breakneck-paced production hilariously put the funk in dysfunctional family dynamics.

Always Leave 'em Laughing: The Rise and Fall of Vaudeville by Brian Hohlfeld, directed by Lee Patton Chiles, Historyonics Theatre Company. Showbiz, classic tunes and incredible academic scholarship make a coherent narrative of the original "down market" drama.

Wit by Margaret Edson, directed by Susan Gregg, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. A beautifully constructed tragedy and a commanding production. Should be required viewing for anyone yearning to join the medical profession or health-insurance industry.

Endgame by Samuel Beckett, directed by Andrea Urice, Washington University Performing Arts Department. A minimalist's delight of a show, a maximum-effort production.

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Victoria Bussert, presented by the Rep. Profound and provocative, superbly produced.

Honorable mentions:

fag/hag at the St. Marcus. Funny and insightful, and a work in progress we'd be happy to see progress.

Bye Bye Birdie at Stages. Sure it's a cartoon, but it's one of the rare shows that explains how Eisenhower's America became JFK's. Lively cast, fabulous staging of "The Telephone Hour."

Book of Days, by Lanford Wilson, at the Rep. Act 1 is wonderful and just about a complete play on its own.

And now, the ancillary awards:

Most dazzling stage F/X: The tornado in Book of Days. When the New Madrid fault decides to rock this town, it couldn't be louder and weirder than the deafening roar and strobing lights of the twister in this production.

Second-most dazzling stage F/X: The Trojan bed in HotHouse Theatre's production of Jeffrey, which disgorged lover after lover yet no one quite right for the hero.

The "thank you for protecting our delicate St. Louisan sensitivities" award: Giving the wolf in Into the Woods a modest codpiece instead of the full-on phallus and testes the original production featured. Then again, after South Beach, perhaps theater folk decided this town wasn't phallocentric (there's an Arch, not an obelisk).

Gallantry in the face of utter disaster: Actors and audience. First, I roast the turkeys as I see 'em, but many silly or disastrous shows featured hardworking and talented actors whose abilities were squandered or otherwise disrespected. Second, one really sweet attribute of St. Louis audiences is the loyalty they muster for companies or theaters. Shows may be thorough bombs, but folks wipe the ash off their faces and head for the exits bravely claiming, "Well, I thought it was pretty good."

Nix on tix: When my dad reviewed drama for the Boston Herald Traveller in the 1960s, his collection of theater stubs featured models of elegant typography and colorful pasteboard. My assortment of gray-cardboard chits has names of productions printed in hideous Courier typeface. Can anyone do anything about this?

The "alas, I hardly knew ye" award: To The New Theatre, which closed up shop this summer. I did see Tongue of a Bird, which, though flawed, had some fine performances. Hope TNT's passing doesn't discourage other troupes, such as Actors Renaissance Theatre, from aiming for longer runs and subscriber campaigns. And, oh yes, really good theater.

Happy New Year. See you after the show.

 
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