The Good Person of Setzuan Bertolt Brecht's dispassionate, intellectual cry for mercy among human beings receives a bracing staging through the joint efforts of St. Louis Actors' Studio and the Saint Louis University theater department. Director Milton Zoth moves his large cast with balletic grace over, under and through Jim Burwinkel's magnificent set, a grubby and rickety playground of corrugated steel that represents the outskirts of 1930s Setzuan. Kari Ely delivers a tough and tender performance as Brechtian heroine Shen Te, a poor woman who can't say "no" to any imposition, much to her detriment. Aided by a trio of impotent and naive gods (Robert Ashton, Alex Woodruff and Healy Rodman), Shen Te is granted the slimmest chance to improve her lot — but her love for feckless grounded pilot Sun (Larry Dell, roughneck and charming) strains her fabled goodness to the danger point. Shen Te is made remarkably complicated by Ely, hopeless and sorrowful but still joyously optimistic. David Wassilak draws a similarly complex character in Wang the Water Seller, a crooked man who tries to be straighter in gratitude to Shen Te's kindness. Wryly funny, painfully sharp stuff handled with great compassion by a vibrant cast. Through May 3 in Xavier Hall, 3733 West Pine Mall (on the Saint Louis University campus). Tickets are $25 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org. — Paul Friswold
The Good Times Are Killing Me It's a curious play that requires seventeen actors to present what is essentially a monologue. The success of Lynda Barry's nostalgic evocation about listening to rock & roll while growing up white during the 1960s civil-rights movement relies totally on the charms of the actress who portrays twelve-year-old Edna (Colleen Backer), for she is both our protagonist and our narrator. Even as we submit to her endearingly self-conscious innocence, we vaguely sense that we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by a deft comedian. There are other fine performances here (especially from Briston Ashe as Emma's first black friend and from Margery Handy and Kirsten Wylder as the two mothers), and director Deanna Jent strives mightily to instill this feel-good mood piece with occasional bursts of raucous energy. But the script loses steam halfway through Act Two, owing mostly to the episodic nature of the surface-thin material. What we're left with — and what makes the evening a delight — is Backer's pitch-perfect portrayal. Performed by Mustard Seed Theatre through May 3 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Center Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton. Tickets are $20 to $30 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-719-8060 or visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com. — Dennis Brown
The One-Hour Lord of the Rings Trilogy! Easily the funniest thing going right now. John Wolbers and Liz Henning have pared ten-something hours of film down to an insane sixty-odd minutes, focusing only on the silliest bits of Peter Jackson's magnum opus. Wolbers also stars — and begs openly for Kevin Kline Konsideration — as Frodo, playing the heroic hobbit with a wide-eyed stare and the stiff-legged strut of a borderline moron. Aaron Orion Baker is a pitch-perfect Gandalf, pompous and self-impressed — and no one is better at delivering single lines with gut-busting hilarity. OK, maybe Chris Jones, who steals the show several times with his turn as Gimli the Dwarf — simply amazing from his carbuncle nose to his little fake feet. And let us not forget Roger Erb's Gollum, half-naked and half-Fat Albert. From the brilliant use of action figures in place of forced perspective special effects to Amy Kelly's massively demented Arwen to Tyson Blanquart's bizarrely effective Shelob, this thing is straight-up ridiculous — and smart. You have to be dead intelligent to be this funny, and director Donna Northcott and the Magic Smoking Monkey ensemble are smart enough to know when to play it stupid. Twice nightly through May 9 at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students). Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare.org. (PF)
The Trial Reviewed in this issue.
Woyzeck Georg Büchner was only 23 when he died in 1837, but already he had completed two plays. Woyzeck, alas, was not one of them. In the ensuing century and a half, scholars have sought to penetrate Büchner's fevered mind and complete this fragmented script about a soldier who is so pummeled by life that he turns to murder. Philip Boehm does not presume to be a mind reader. He's more concerned with telling a bracing good story. As translator, author and director, Boehm has taken a great gamble by trying to make this stilted, unrealized play come to life as relevant, resonant theater. His gamble has paid off. In crafting an essentially new work, Woyzeck's story becomes as immediate as a lurid TV news report about a domestic dispute turned violent. J. Samuel Davis and Brooke Edwards lead a rock-solid cast in a production that has been evocatively designed. Performed through May 3 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students, $20 for seniors). Call 314-863-4999 or visit www.upstreamtheater.org. (DB)