Mixed Bag

Mamma Mia! smokes, Problem Child and Criminal Genius explode, Henry IV fizzles

In Criminal Genius, that same drab motel room is the hideout for a gang of small-time thugs. In an abrupt change of style, the play is a manic variation on The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. But some of this gang won't shoot at all, because they're afraid of violence. It's very funny material, adroitly crafted by the playwright and delightfully acted. The uniformly excellent five-person cast rises to the challenge of maintaining a frantic tone without tiring the viewer. The link between the two plays is Phillie (Gregory Paul Hunsaker), the hotel manager from hell, who may have been inspired by Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil.

One of the great hazards of hype is that it sets us up for a fall, so one note of reservation: Although Walker is an accomplished and substantive writer, he's not adept at ending his plays. But until their disappointing denouements, and while they're spinning out their unpredictable tales, these two extracts from the "Suburban Motel" cycle offer surprisingly satisfying theater.


The cast of Criminal Genius: front, Cindy Stricker and Terry Meddows; back, Gregory Paul Hunsaker, Amy Brixey and Nick Kelly
The cast of Criminal Genius: front, Cindy Stricker and Terry Meddows; back, Gregory Paul Hunsaker, Amy Brixey and Nick Kelly

Details

Mamma Mia!
Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; book by Catherine Johnson. Performed through August 25 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand. Call 314-534-1111.

Problem Child and Criminal Genius
By George F. Walker. Performed by the ECHO Theatre Company through August 24 at Berzerker Studios, 3033 Locust. Call 314-963-5266.

Henry IV, part 1
By William Shakespeare. Performed by St. Louis Shakespeare through August 25 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111.

Last month, St. Louis Shakespeare opened its eighteenth season with The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), a daffy spoof on muddleheaded productions of the Bard's works. Alas, that same company's current offering, Henry IV, part 1, is one of those dreary productions that last month the company was irreverently mocking. What a pity, because Henry IV, part 1 is one of Shakespeare's most remarkable plays. Ostensibly a history chronicle, this rousing saga of insurrection and civil war skillfully weaves comedy, tragedy and history into an absorbing whole.

You wouldn't know that from this moribund staging. For the most part, what we get here is stand-in-a-straight-line tableaux, abetted by recitations of speeches that have no meaning because they are delivered by actors who have no understanding. The talented Jason Cannon, who last year gave a galvanic performance as Orson Welles in the HotHouse production of It's All True -- and who seems like a perfect fit for the aptly named Hotspur -- is burdened by costumes that reduce a fiery rebel to a fop. This is Shakespeare at its most dispiriting.

The one accomplished portrayal is delivered by Wm Daniel File as the lusty Sir John Falstaff. File is a professional who understands the fundamentals of acting -- how to set up a laugh, how to control the audience's eye and ear. You don't fall asleep when he's onstage. Appropriately enough, it is the sage Falstaff who delivers the play's most memorable line: "The better part of valour is discretion." If you discreetly choose to avoid this lame, skimble-skamble production, I doubt that even Sir John would fault you.

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