Fair Play

Historyonics brings it all back home

It's fun to see the photos taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals come to life in Historyonics Theatre Company's Fair Visage: 1904 World's Fair. Historyonics consistently assembles St. Louis' finest actors and singers to bring history to life, and this production is no exception. As this centennial year draws to a close, those still hungry for historical tidbits about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis will be sated by a smorgasbord of information. Gary Wayne Barker, Travis Estes, Julie O'Neil, Jerry Russo and Rosemary Watts sing, dance and play their way through Joe Dreyer's script, working hard to make some fairly dry material lively.

Watts plays Beals with a combination of optimism and common sense, rendering her one of the play's more complex characters. In the production's most lively scene, she and Russo portray German circus operators cutting a deal with fair president David R. Francis. Their timing and energetic movements are delightfully funny, while Estes, as Francis, plays the "straight man" perfectly. Barker's sarcastic commentary provides a witty jab in many scenes -- although it sometimes seems odd for the cynical character to join in the happy songs. O'Neil's beautiful singing voice is complemented by Michelle Friedman Siler's gorgeous costumes, complete with accurately detailed purses for the ladies and top hats for the men.

Wisely, Dreyer focuses on the controversial issues that led up to the fair: In pursuit of his goal, Francis is faced with governmental roadblocks and a local Naysayer (Barker) who questions the fair organizer's motives and slyly criticizes his mixture of Public Good and Private Enterprise. Dreyer offers cogent historical context and doesn't shy away from the "race issue." The script makes it clear that well-meaning government officials did little to provide equal access: The world was welcome to the fair -- but that didn't mean nonwhites could eat at the restaurants. Another nice example of biting social commentary has the characters imagining what it would be like if "the St. Louis citizen" were on display in another culture's exhibition.

These successful critiques are interspersed with other scenes that aren't as interesting. A debate over whether to have the fair in Forest Park, Carondelet or Tower Grove is historically accurate but dramatically flat, given that we know the eventual outcome. Ditto for the discussions of how the fair was funded and what kind of building materials were used. Dreyer does his best to make even a packing list interesting -- Russo and O'Neil make a funny bit out of mispronouncing the names of other cities -- but it's weak material upon which to build a scene. And like the fair itself, the show sometimes feels hastily put together -- some ragged transitions and line bobbles make it seem as though a little more rehearsal was needed.

Artistic director Patton Chiles must have felt compelled to stage a show about the fair -- the theater, after all, is housed in the Missouri History Museum, located at the entrance to the 1904 fair. But the subject matter, like the fairgrounds, is so vast that it's hard to stay engaged. More successful Historyonics shows have featured a series of entertaining characters (Gaslight Square), a society-changing event (Brown v. Board of Education) or an exciting adventure (the Lewis & Clark expedition). Justin Barisonek's set of columns and architecturally interesting shapes contribute to a few nice stage pictures, but most of the time the actors stand in a line or a semicircle, talking. It's an unfortunate collusion of subject matter and staging that often results in bland interchanges.

Depending on your interest in the fair and your love of historical fact, Fair Visage is either a salad of iceberg lettuce or a five-course meal. Either way, it's food for thought.