Curtain Callers: Dennis and Paul have looked at St. Louis theater from both sides now

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Upstream Theater's production of The Hairy Ape.
Upstream Theater's production of The Hairy Ape. Peter Wochniak

Curtain Callers: Dennis and Paul have looked at St. Louis theater from both sides now

Two weeks back RFT theater reviewers Dennis Brown and Paul Friswold selected twelve theater highlights from 2012. This week they continue the dialogue with a discussion of theater in St. Louis.

Dennis Brown: I suppose the start of a new year should be a time for optimism and hope, but let me begin by mourning some of our recent losses, especially the Crestwood ArtSpace, which has fallen prey to a Scrooge-like landlord. To borrow from Charles Dickens, theater in the former Crestwood Mall is now "dead as a door-nail."

Paul Friswold: I don't know that the landlord was Scrooge-like. I believe the unique arrangement at ArtSpace was always intended to be temporary, and the theater companies knew the mall was theirs to use only until funding for the redevelopment was lined up. That does not mean I don't miss ArtSpace's charms, however.

Brown: Like so many others, I suppose, I was dubious about attending plays in vacated shoe stores. Yet I saw some memorable theater there. I immediately think of Whit Reichert's craven father in The Subject Was Roses, Peter Mayer's conflicted brother in The Price and Dean Christopher's comic romp in The Good Doctor, all at Avalon Theatre Company. Across the concourse, Charlie Barron, Michelle Hand, Terry Meddows and Ben Nordstrom put on a master class in ensemble acting in the challenging Echo Theatre production of The Ugly Ones.

Friswold: For me Erin Kelley's and John Contini's stellar work in The Country Girl (another Avalon production) leaps immediately to mind, as does the rampant silliness of Cannibal! The Musical. The latter was an independent production mounted solely by Brian and Suki Peters, which proves how valuable ArtSpace was. The affordability of the space surely helped the Peterses to stage an ambitious show, from cast to costumes to fully filmed opening and closing credits.

Brown: Another significant loss this past year is the impending demise of the Kevin Kline Awards. I'm somewhat conflicted here. Awards for the sake of awards don't much interest me, but I thought the Professional Theatre Council of St. Louis, which administered the Kevins, had a chance at pulling the theater community together. And in the early years of Kevin Kline lobby posters and playbill ads, I think it did. But in hard economic times, I also understand why would-be donors prefer to give money to individual theaters rather than to an umbrella organization.

Friswold: I think I'm less conflicted, but only because I'm more spiteful and single-minded than most. My tastes were often at odds with that of the Kevins' panel of judges, and it infuriated me to see work I valued overlooked when the nominations were announced. As a professional, I understand the importance of a juried awards program and the potential boon of the promotional aspect. But as a petty and vicious human being, I cursed each — to my eyes — miscarriage of justice. If the Kevin Klines had to die so theater companies could live on those donations, I'm comfortable with the outcome.

Brown: On a more expansive note, in 2012 we saw St. Louis' inaugural Fringe Festival, we witnessed the introduction of Ignite! — the new-play-reading program at the Rep — and we saw Shakespeare Festival St. Louis move beyond the grassy confines of Forest Park and take the Bard into the streets. Did any of those endeavors strike your fancy?

Friswold: My fancy is an intangible beast, rarely tickled. I missed the entirety of the Fringe owing to extenuating circumstances, but I like the idea of it and look forward to actually witnessing its second year.

Brown: The other key development in 2012, though hardly surprising, was significant nevertheless. Under the leadership of fledgling executive producer Mike Isaacson, the quality of Muny productions rose like the proverbial phoenix. It was so satisfying to see shows that were smartly cast six and seven actors deep. So when the Muny announced that the summer's musicals had played to 2,500 fewer customers than in 2011, I was stunned. True, the Muny put a brave face on the attendance figures and blamed the low numbers on the heat. But the statistics are alarming. The December 15 announcement about a new outdoor cooling system for next summer is both welcome and of critical importance.

Friswold: I don't think you can easily dismiss the impact of the brutal heat wave on Muny attendance. I don't have air-conditioning, and I can assure you that finding a place to go that had AC was much more important to me in the summer of 2012 than in years past. I've sat through some scorching Muny shows, but I couldn't do it this year. That attendance dip prorates out to, what, a 60-person decrease per night? That's ten families of four, plus eight couples on dates who decided they couldn't bear to sit in 100-plus degrees for a few hours, give or take one sweaty, Andrew Lloyd Webber-hating theater critic.

Brown: Finally, as we move into a new year, an appreciative salute to some of the many memorable performances of 2012. I was moved by the confusion of Jerry Vogel's tormented Red Cross inspector in Way to Heaven at New Jewish Theatre. At St. Louis Actors' Studio, Killer Joe was more fun than a bucket of spicy chicken wings, thanks to a greasy cast led by Larry Dell, Jason Cannon and especially Rachel Fenton, whose enigmatic passivity made the evening constantly surprising. As the three crusty sailors in Upstream Theater's moody evocation of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, John Bratkowski, William Grivna and Tim Schall evoked the smell of the sea. Those three actors reminded us of the critical importance of small roles well played.

Friswold: I come not to praise the past, but to bury it. I look forward to a new year of surprises and sure things. What will happen at the Fringe Festival in year two? I don't know, but I want to find out. I anticipate being baffled and sated by St. Louis Actors' Studio's take on Waiting for Godot, I yearn for the campy insanity (campynsanity?) of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party next month at Stray Dog Theatre and I admit some trepidation about New Line Theatre's Bukowsical but fear even more not seeing it. And as always, I wonder when this town is going to produce another stable, cheap, well-maintained small theater that could host the half-dozen companies that could use a home.

Brown: By the way, Paul, what ever happened to those small theaters that were supposed to open in the basement of the Peabody Opera House?

Friswold: I dunno. Maybe that project's been delayed so as not to steal the thunder from our beloved white elephant, Ballpark Village. 

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