Theater is storytelling, which means that involved watchers are looking for a cohesive narrative. St. Louis Actors' Studio's inaugural LaBute New Theater Festival has no singular narrative; the only shared element in the five plays comprising the first half of the festival is their newness. Each is a self-contained story, unconnected by a unifying theme, as tempting as it is for a professional audience member (ahem) to search for one. Instead, they must be taken on their own terms.
LaBute's "The Possible" opens the evening with a zippy tautness under the direction of Milton Zoth. Two unnamed women, played by Rachel Fenton and Wendy Greenwood, argue about the actions of Greenwood's character. She has seduced Fenton's boyfriend and just finished confessing when the play starts. Greenwood's plan is to break up the happy couple so that she can claim Fenton for herself. Fenton's character is outraged but continues to engage in the conversation. It's not hard to understand why: Greenwood is supremely confident in her actions, never flustered by Fenton's anger or protestations of heterosexuality. Her composure wavers only when discussing her profound love for Fenton, which blossomed when the two met in a doorway. Here they spar on the compact Gaslight stage framed between two doors, still caught in that initial moment of transition.
Steve Woolf directs Carlos Perez's "Cleansing Acts," a similarly hopeful story of a suicidal virgin (Justin Ivan Brown) and a suicidal hooker (Jackie Manker) fumbling toward sex while the virgin's mother (Andra Hawkins) makes cookies in the other room. Brown and Manker find a quiet, mournful place in the bathtub as they discuss why each is done with the daily struggle of life. Brown portrays the emotionally shut down William with self-contained grace, barely capable of making eye contact with his prostitute. Can these two morbidly unhappy people make a go of it? "It" in this case is sex and death, and in that rapidly cooling bathwater both find what they want.
"Pinky Swear" opens with Jeremy (Tom Lehman), hanging a conspicuously human-size duffel bag from a hook in preparation for a brutal interrogation session. Aaron Orion Baker is Dave, the bulky object in the duffel bag, but we don't find that out right away. Linda Kennedy directs Tyler Nickers' black comedy about adultery has a fractured timeline that's not helped by set changeovers, but Lehman and Baker dexterously slice through the ripe dialogue. Jeremy fears he's a cuckold, and Dave is the rational friend who teaches him how to suss out a liar. Dave is a world-class dissembler and — sad to say — an excellent teacher.
Also directed by Kennedy, Alexis Clements' "The Elephant in the Room" feels unfocused. Suki Peters plays the titular pachyderm who shares the story of Georgia (Wendy Underwood), an artist. Peters is entertaining, and the tale of how she wound up with Georgia is an amusing one, but it wanders to no apparent purpose.
Directed by Woolf, GD Kimble's "Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch" is set during Ireland's infamous Troubles and features the same joke told twice: once with chilling calmness by Haggerty (Nathan Bush) and once mangled by Doyle (Justin Ivan Brown). Kimble has given Haggerty a corker of a monologue preceding the punch line, and Bush utters it naked, battered from a vicious beating. It's a bravura portrayal of a man whose body is ruined but his spirit unbloodied. The second half is just as strong, with Doyle and Evans (Aaron Orion Baker) continuing the theme of revenge and pleasant banter prior to sudden death.
It's a satisfying capstone to the evening — and a fine beginning for the LaBute New Theater Festival.
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