A Season of Laughs
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. As a stage form, comedy got misplaced, ignored, forgotten. Pick your verb. But the result is the same: Comedy is about to join the manatee and the relict leopard frog as an endangered species. As these words are being written, 32 plays are currently running on Broadway. Mostly they are musicals, dramas, revivals; only two of the 32 are comedies. Moral? If you want to laugh, don't go to New York. Stay right here. This spring St. Louis will be a sanctuary for silliness. From A (as in Applegate, Fred) to Z (Zoppé, as in the sublime Giovanni) local theatergoers are going to be regaled by a veritable cluster of clowns.
The capers begin in earnest later this month (May 16 through June 9) at New Jewish Theatre (Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive; 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org) with Shlemiel the First, a 1994 musical based on folk tales by Isaac Bashevis Singer (the same Isaac whose stories led to Fiddler on the Roof). This life-affirming musical is set in a village of dunces, where the hapless Shlemiel is first among equals. The title role will be played by Terry Meddows. At his best, Meddows is a magical actor who excels in finding truth in simplicity. Expect your face to be wide from smiling as Meddows takes a scalpel to the geographically challenged title-role character in Shlemiel.
That same weekend (May 17 through 26), St. Louis Actors' Studio (Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue; 314-458-2978 or www.stlas.org) presents Talking Heads, an evening of three monologues written by Alan Bennett (The History Boys, People) in the 1980s and '90s for the BBC television series of the same name. The three-person cast comprises Elizabeth Townsend (marvelous in Awake and Sing! at New Jewish), Glynis Bell (who has excelled of late in one-person profiles of Martha Mitchell and Tallulah Bankhead) and, in the male role, that fine farceur Alan Knoll (so brilliant on this same Actors' Studio stage in David Mamet's November, so deft in the one-man This Wonderful Life at Dramatic License). Because Knoll does what he does with such seeming ease, it's easy to take him for granted. But to see him onstage is always a treat. With so many louder shows opening in May, the quiet and erudite Talking Heads could too easily slip under the radar screen, a loss that might make you feel, in Bennett's words, "frightfully sorry."
So too could Jeffrey Hatcher's quirky little Mrs. Mannerly get lost in the shuffle. Hatcher has written an unashamedly autobiographical two-actor reverie about having attended charm school as a child in 1960s Steubenville, Ohio, a town that is not these days necessarily known for charm. In the title role, the ever-ebullient Donna Weinsting should be ideally cast. Like Knoll, Weinsting is not solely a clown (as witnessed in her wrenching portrayal as a mother-in-denial in Actors' Studio's Nuts). But no one revels in the bliss of being onstage more than Weinsting. In Max & Louie Productions' staging of Mrs. Mannerly she will introduce us to a character for whom life itself is 24/7 theater. Performed May 23 through June 2 at the Center of Creative Arts Black Box Theater (524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555, extension 130 or www.maxandlouie.com).
Memorial Day weekend brings us still more great clowns. Twelfth Night, this summer's Shakespeare Festival St. Louis offering in Forest Park, is a cornucopia of buffoons: the sly Feste, the boisterous Sir Toby Belch, the timid Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Then there is their humorless foil, Malvolio, who is sure to be played to his cross-gartered hilt by Anderson Matthews. Over the past decade, Matthews has delivered a gallery of the most consistently original performances of any actor at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. (Remember his inspired acrobatics in Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and his shameless shenanigans in You Can't Take It With You?) Matthews has been away from St. Louis for far too long, but now he's returning to remind us that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." At his most nuanced, Matthews' comic capers approach greatness too. (May 24 through June 16; 314-531-9800 or www.sfstl.com)
Even as Twelfth Night will be spinning its tale that begins with a fateful shipwreck, another ship — this one, an ocean liner bound from New York to London — will make a port stop (May 28 through June 9) at the Fox Theatre (527 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-1678 or www.fabulousfox.com). The Cole Porter musical Anything Goes is best known for its immortal score ("I Get a Kick Out of You," "All Through the Night," "You're the Top" — and we're still in Act One). In addition to the enchanting Rachel York in the lead role, the current touring production has an added arrow in its quiver: the droll Fred Applegate as stowaway Moonface Martin. Applegate is a stealth comic magician whose laid-back prowess allows him to operate under the radar. In the 1980s he was a recurring character on Newhart (and if you can't learn timing from being around Bob Newhart, get out of the business). He brought that unassuming Newhart manner to Mel Brooks in both The Producers (he was London's Max Bialystock) and Young Frankenstein. Today he is one of the most sought-after comic actors in the business.
Even as Applegate is making cheerful in Anything Goes, across the street and down the block Circus Flora will be back on the Powell Hall parking lot (Samuel Shepard Drive and North Grand Boulevard; www.circusflora.org). You know what that means: Giovanni Zoppé — better known and loved as Nino the Clown — will be holding court under the Big Top. Nino barely speaks, but his silent visuals elicit roars of laughter. Even as we gasp for breath, we sense that our souls have been filled with wonder. How does Nino do that — and so effortlessly? Circus Flora's summer run takes place May 30 through June 23.
There are still more clowns this spring. Herman Gordon steps into the paws and whiskers of the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz at the Grandel Theatre (3610 Grandel Square; 314-534-1834 or www.theblackrep.org), courtesy of the Black Rep May 29 through June 29. Speaking of whiskers, expect to see at least sideburns on Hugh Russell, who will be tongue-twisting his way through Major Stanley's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" in the venerable Pirates of Penzance (1879) at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (in repertory May 25 through June 29) at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road; 314-961-0644 or www.opera-stl.org). Another old chestnut, Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt (1892) will be staged on alternate weekends (June 14 through 30) by Act, Inc. (Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard; 314-725-9108 or www.actincstl.com). Jack Dryden will be doing the farcical cross-dressing honors as Lord Fancourt Babberley and — apart from stage adaptations of Dickens — how often do you get to see a character with a name like that?
Four nights before spring comes to an official end, the Muny in Forest Park (314-361-1900 or www.muny.org) opens its current season with the uproarious Monty Python musical Spamalot (June 17 through 23). If you're not yet exhausted from two months of cavorting, King Arthur (in the regal presence of John O'Hurley, Seinfeld's memorably imperious J. Peterman) and his merry band will be only too happy to teach you how to look on the bright side of life. The goofy Spamalot is sure to provide us with the last laugh(s) of spring and the first of summer.