Arts & Culture » Theater

The Show Goes On

Dennis gazes back admiringly at St. Louis theater's year that was.



For the past two years this column page has featured a mid-December progress report on the Professional Theatre Awards Council, which administers the Kevin Kline awards. We did not run that piece this month, for one simple reason: lack of space. There are too many plays to review. As anyone with eyes (and a mounting stack of playbills) has noticed, of late there's been a veritable explosion of local theater. In 2004, the year before the PTAC arrived on the scene, I wrote 43 full-length reviews. This year I wrote 62. My cohort, Paul Friswold, penned another 18. Who are we to credit (or blame) for this increased activity?

I retain a vivid memory of the first PTAC fundraiser in 2005. Director-writer James Lapine was the guest of honor at a brunch hosted by Mary Strauss at her Central West End home. It was almost disorienting to see directors of so many local theater companies schmoozing in the same room. Yet despite the palpable synergy of that bright April day, among the attendees were several muttering skeptics. As executive director Steve Isom spoke about how the creation of similar awards organizations in other cities had led to increased numbers of performing troupes, a prominent figure in our theater community (who I had met only minutes earlier) whispered into my ear, "And if you think that's going to happen here, I'll sell you the deed to the Eads Bridge."

Twenty months later what do we see? New theater groups, new playhouses. Is it a specious syllogism to suggest that because A) the Kevin Kline Awards were designed to engender more theater, and B) now there is more theater, ergo C) the PTAC is responsible? Perhaps. We might be the beneficiaries of mere coincidence. Or perhaps the awards organization is doing precisely what Isom and his confreres hoped it would do — and more quickly than anyone might have imagined.

Of course, just because there's more theater does not mean that we're getting better theater. Quantity has never equated to quality. One thing that stood out in 2007 was the inconsistency of much of the work; too few companies have set standards below which they will not fall. But truth to tell, although a reviewer critiques each play as a whole, usually it's only isolated moments, those pieces of time, that we carry with us long after memories of the play as a totality have begun to fade. This is purely subjective, but here are some of my still-vivid memories from 2007:

• J. Samuel Davis' transfixing rendition of "The Viper's Drag" in the Black Rep's Ain't Misbehavin'.

• Jim Butz and Anderson Matthews bowing to each other during the curtain call at the Rep Studio's scarifying A Number, a tacit acknowledgement of the synchronicity of two blistering performances.

• The galvanizing final confrontation between father and son in Muddy Waters' Death of a Salesman, when Peter Mayer's Willy and Joel Lewis' Biff turned a Loman family quarrel into a clash of titans.

• Another Arthur Miller moment: Late in Act One of Muddy Waters' After the Fall, as Miller's alter-ego Quentin (mercilessly portrayed by John Flack) described a man's need to kill his conscience if he is to survive, Quentin's forehead somehow morphed into a topographic map of suffering and evil.

• The unexpected poignancy in Magan Wiles' Beautiful Resistance: Confessions of a Hoosier in Palestine when a young girl consigned to a dreary exiled existence in a Gaza refugee camp stopped giggling, singing and planning her wedding long enough to confess, "I hate my life."

• The first sighting of the water mill in Upstream's Knives in Hens. How did that huge piece of stagecraft ever get into that space?

In addition to specific indelible moments, there was the guileless bonhomie of Stray Dog's You Can't Take It With You, the surreal sparring between the venal Violet Venable (Nancy Lewis) and the doomed Catherine (Julie Layton) in Stray Dog's Suddenly Last Summer and the pitch-perfect polish of Stages St. Louis' exquisitely rendered A Little Night Music. The Muny presented two solid productions, Les Misérables and Hello, Dolly! which was especially notable for the impotent rage of Lewis J. Stadlen's befuddled Horace Vandergelder.

No one would be so foolish as to suggest that the creation of the Kevins is responsible for the occasional good musical in Forest Park. But the awards might, in time, deserve credit for something more practical than better productions: better audiences.

Audiences can irritate. People talk too much; they don't turn off their cell phones; they sheepishly indulge in gratuitous standing ovations; they can take a seeming eternity to unwrap one piece of candy. (Would cellophane-wrapped candy even exist if there were no theater?) But in those precious moments when viewers become singular — as, for instance, at the St. Louis Actors' Studio production of A Delicate Balance, when by evening's end 90 strangers morphed into a unified whole, breathing as one — then the audience becomes the most important element of the equation. Especially in this era when home movie theaters are on the rise and film-going is on the fast path to becoming less of a communal experience, live theater is to be cherished.

The St. Louis acting pool is large and deep. This year I saw work by Colleen Backer, Kine Brown, Lavonne Byers, Katie Consumas, Brooke Edwards, Kari Ely, Julie Foldesi, Michelle Hand, Alexis L. Kinney, Julie Layton, Nancy Lewis, Paris McCarthy, Amy Schwarz, Kat Singleton, Kathleen Sitzer, Margeau Baue Steinau, Julie Venegoni and Magan Wiles that was as professional as any theatergoer should hope to see. And this is only the women!

Obviously not all these actresses can receive Kevins; there are far more worthy candidates than there are slots for nominees. But the PTAC can help to cultivate audiences that will see and appreciate these actresses and their peers. Already the KK posters, which list plays on view throughout the city, have become the cynosures of lobbies everywhere. But now the already valuable Web site at needs improving. When the site becomes mandatory reading on at least a weekly basis, it will serve as St. Louis theater's most important selling tool, locally and nationally.

Attention must be paid. We don't need an explosion of plays that are attended by eight people (three of whom are reviewers). On the other hand, I've been told that some shows that received negative notices on this page have enjoyed solid attendance after the reviews appeared, which is reassuring, for it suggests that people are going to the theater because they want to be there.

No theater company should rely on reviews to sell its shows. Word-of-mouth sells shows (and kills them). But when most productions run for two weeks, there's barely time for that. The most pressing challenge for local theater is the wooing of prospective new viewers. In its own self-interest, the theater community needs to band together through an aegis like the PTAC and learn how to promote itself; it needs to find funding for advertising. Foundations must be persuaded that, in the short term, getting bodies into the seats is more important than student outreach.

It may well be that the Kevins arrived in St. Louis at the most opportune moment. Despite the occasional bruised feelings over winning and losing, the PTAC must be doing something right: The last time I looked, the Eads Bridge had not been sold.

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