Sweet Sting

By Douglas Carter Beane
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre

Does wit punish wickedness, as satirists claim? Or does laughter act as a safety valve, draining off the pressure to take action against knaves and fools?

Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown could be cited to make the case either way. The knave gets her comeuppance, the fool learns his lesson, and with that happy ending we can go home secure in the knowledge that, eventually, all's right with the world. On the other hand, duplicity has been unmasked and condemned.

One thing Beane certainly does in Bees is what Hamlet expected the theater to do -- hold a mirror up to nature. Beane's mirror reflects human nature as it exists in certain influential segments of society at the end of the 20th century.

Maybe it exists in most of the society. That's a question worth pondering. But Beane, in his little parable of our time, limits himself to the most rarefied stratum of celebrity-mongering, where all is a whirl of meetings, lunches, phone calls, photo shoots, limousines and trips to the south of France. At the center of the whirl is Alexa Vere de Vere. Alexa catches young people -- writers, musicians, actors, singers -- at the first moment of their celebrity, when they're being hailed as the next big thing. She takes over their lives, rushing them here and there, promising ever more money and fame. When the bubble bursts, they're sadder, wiser and poorer. Alexa has moved on to the next willing victim, eager to share the thrill of fame. That thrill -- not money, which is merely a means to an end -- is what Alexa wants, a perpetual high. And she knows, in this time and place, who and how to manipulate in order to get what she wants.

Alexa's world spins faster than ours. That's how Carolyn Swift plays her in the Rep Studio -- sometimes too fast for these aging ears. The first act is a whirl of wit and wonder, driven by Swift's performance. The second act takes us behind the curtain, where Swift's virtuosity shows us Brenda from Pennsylvania transforming herself into Alexa Vere de Vere. The first act is amusing. The second act is a brilliantly trenchant critique of a culture in which appearance is more important than reality because appearance is reality.

Jason Bowcutt plays Evan Wyler, the hot young novelist ensnared by Alexa, with the look of a deer bedazzled by headlights. In multiple roles, Daryl D. Vaughn and R. Ward Duffy bring human warmth to characters who educate Evan. Jessica Jaques and Tracy D. Holliway complete the gallery of hangers-on and wised-up victims in Alexa's world.

Director Steven Woolf constructs that world with precise clarity. Within a proscenium of Warhol-like portraits, fashionable black dominates Bill Clarke's set and costumes, with touches of faux-industrial decor, all given protean fluidity by Glenn Dunn's lights. David Van Tieghem's music wraps this world in sound with perfect pitch.

There is less than meets the eye to Alexa Vere de Vere. There's more than meets the eye to As Bees in Honey Drown.

-- Bob Wilcox

By Marian X
St. Louis Black Repertory Company

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company's second production of 1999 is Marian X's The Screened-In Porch, an urban melodrama set in the present. The central character, Hattie Rains (superbly performed by Linda Kennedy), widow and mother of grown children, meets her childhood friend Lucille Withers (Velma Austin), who moves back into the neighborhood after a successful career as a writer, teacher and therapist in the big world. The two are delighted to rediscover one another, until Aleta (Ret DeBrown), Hattie's youngest (and troubled) child, shows up, three months after her release from a drug-treatment program, pregnant. Mother and daughter quarrel; old friend befriends daughter; old friends quarrel, too; then everyone reconciles. Fannie Bell, at the top of her form, plays Miss Mary Woodson, a grumpy-old-unmarried-woman Greek chorus; Jo A. Cross has a nice cameo as a young, hassled neighborhood mother; and Jerome Morgan plays several different men quite effectively.

The problem is, Hattie, the character Linda Kennedy plays, is real (or Kennedy makes her so), whereas Lucille, the character Velma Austin plays, is a stereotype (and Austin can't get beyond it). Indeed, I think the playwright is very ambivalent about educated, high-achieving women, for Lucille, who talks sense when she's talking with Hattie, says the most specious bullshit, especially when talking with men. She has two sex scenes: In the first, she pleasures herself with a man less than half her age; in the second, a colleague rapes her. Though both scenes have their credibility, both times Lucille seems unreal, talking body language far too rapidly, speaking portentously and pretentiously at the same time.

Things are too often taken up, played with and dropped, only to be picked up again, rather crudely. And too much goes on. In Act 2, for instance, after a nicely structured semireconciliation between mother and daughter, daughter disappears, and we are given some highly charged, understructured happenings, after which daughter appears again in a sort of symbolic ending -- and the grim past disappears. Lucille learns her place in the scheme of things, daughter reappears fulfilled and everyone is going to live happily ever after.

Still, The Screened-In Porch is not a bad place to spend an evening. The acting is, for the most part, especially entertaining; Andrea Frye's direction is generally straightforward; and Jim Burwinkle's set and lights are handsome and effective.

-- Harry Weber

By Moli`ere

By William Shakespeare
The Acting Company at the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series

The Acting Company strikes me as something Americans can be proud of. Somehow we have managed, for a quarter-century, to support this group of mostly young actors who year after year demonstrate the high level achieved by the actor-training programs in this country. They appear in productions of both new plays and classics that are directed and designed by some of the best people in the American theater and that travel to large cities and small towns all across the country.

Nor are these productions dumbed down for the provinces, as we saw last weekend at Washington University's Edison Theatre, where the Acting Company brought its repertory for two evenings. Tartuffe in particular had more than a little weirdness about it. The late Garland Wright, on whose original production director Mark Ax based this one, liked to explore the darker side of comedies, and moli`ere gives him plenty to explore here. I could do without the wild party andindustrial-strength rock at the top of the show, which gives too much justification to Tartuffe's pious complaints. Nor could I figure out why Susan Hilferty's costumes span centuries, either making the too-obvious point that moli`ere is for all ages or else making a point too subtle for this dummy to grasp.

But the production does give a visceral intensity to the agonies of a family tortured by a patriarch under the thumb of a fake holy man. Andrew McGinn's Orgon bursts with nervous energy, driven to constant activity, a man who could long for the spiritual rest Tartuffe promises him. Even the hint of a homoerotic attraction, never consciously acknowledged by Orgon, helps explain his irrational commitment to the man.

Troy Hourie's two-level set, on which Matthew Frey's lights create fascinating chiaroscuro, gives the cast lots of opportunity for physical comedy and visual surprises. Best of all are the assurance and intelligence with which they speak the rhymed couplets of Richard Wilbur's delicious translation and the way their physical rhythms match the verbal ones.

They do well by Shakespeare's language, too, in Twelfth Night. Penny Metropulos' direction, like the dun-colored sets of Michael Vaughn Sims and costumes of Jeff Fender, emphasizes the play's autumnal, melancholy quality, sometimes to the point of sapping it of energy both comic and romantic. But the approach can create a dreamlike feeling appropriate to this comedy of disguises and confusions that questions how real our reality really is.

McGinn again stands out, this time as the rigidly correct steward Malvolio. Rayme Cornell, the self-possessed wife in Tartuffe, here shows a more yielding side as the Countess Olivia. As Viola, Charity Jones makes a convincing young man while never losing touch with the young woman hiding in his clothes.

Even my reservations add to the pleasure -- and the challenge -- the Acting Company brings with these classics.

-- Bob Wilcox

Choreographed by Susan Gash and Beckah Voigt
Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre

Susan Gash and Beckah Voigt compose and perform, with other members of their company, dance that often almost speaks. Individual movements are like words, longer divisions like short lyric but didactic chapters. Most dance is either primarily abstract movement or primarily mime. Gash/Voigt uses dance to embody -- what? Notions? Ideas? Concepts? Their dance gives tangibility to whatever it is the way words give tangibility to ideas and those feelings that can go into words.

Their newest work, Mystics, which received its first performances last weekend before the high altar at Christ Church Cathedral, also almost speaks of what perhaps cannot be spoken. Inspired (says its program note) by the writings of medieval women visionaries, Mystics becomes a mystery -- that is, an embodiment of what cannot be comprehended rationally. We are used to this meaning of the word from religious speech: Christians, for instance, cannot comprehend the love and mercy of God, so the word becomes flesh, and God's love becomes visible in Jesus. It is impossible to speak of the religious experience of women, but Gash/Voigt attempts to dance of it the way talkers usually talk. The piece begins with the four women of the company (besides Gash and Voigt, Lisa Eck and the always interesting Mary Ann Rund) quite literally boxed up in elaborately carved cubes, pawing at the sides and tops of the cube, unaware of one another. As they emerge to the floor, we see they are clothed in gauzy, rust-colored silk tunics (reminiscent of a subdeacon's tunicle) and trousers of the same material.

As happens often in Gash/Voigt choreography, fabric plays an important part. Mystics involves a large rectangle of dark velvet and a long, narrow strip of white gauze. When three of the cubes are put together and covered with the velvet, we have an altar around which the dancers circle. When the gauze is laid over the length of the altar's communion rail beneath which a dancer sleeps, it becomes a heavenly road on which angels dance. At one point the velvet is a rich gown and the white gauze the veil of the bride of the godhead; later, it makes bandages for the feet and a rope to pull the devotee upward.

A problem with Mystics is its relatively ubiquitous pacing: A rhythm established early in the piece continues until late in the dance, when the women, wearing dark-blue dresses under the tunicles -- very much like vestments -- dance vigorously to music evoking both early-music and American folk melodies. Before this point, the most solid connections have been pairs: Rarely do all four performers move together. After the joyful, quick-moving dance, they seem to go back into the darkness, first ritually cleansing the performance space by sweeping it with fir branches, then forming a tableau.

Mystics have always been the exasperation of organized religion: With direct, if nonrational, access to God, they bypass the bishops and end-run around pastors. Mystics (like all Gash/Voigt dance) is a bit exasperating, too. You feel it dopey for not understanding what seems on the surface to be so forthright and clear. Only when you realize that the dance and what the dance is saying are the same thing can you relax and just let it happen.

-- Harry Weber

SHORT SEEN: For lovers of Cole Porter, an evening of his music both familiar and obscure is sheer pleasure. That's what Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts gives us in Cole. Some voices may still have weak spots and an occasional dance step may falter, but these four young men and four young women perform the marvelously inventive staging of director and choreographer Millie Garvey with the assurance of the professionals they soon will be.

-- Bob Wilcox

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