Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Trois Jeux Corts (Three Short Plays)
If I were to take you on a guided tour of St. Louis, of course I would show you the big things: the Arch, the world's largest brewery, and just down-river, what's been called the world's largest aspirin plant. But among the smaller gems, because you value theatre, I would take you to the Tin Ceiling Company, on the city's south side.
From the outside, it's not that much to see. But most of the Tin Ceiling's productions are transcendent originals. The current Trois Jeux Corts, a series of three one-acts performed in their storefront venue, has many of the stylistic touches that make the Tin Ceiling worth watching. Last year, another triptych of playlets under the broad title of Conscription of the Fates was presented; to me, this new offering is a good sequel to 2004's exceptional revue of modern life.
This frequently silly, frequently brilliant shoe-string operation is revisiting some of the themes of that prior success - a success based on the demise of honor. Here, in Trois Jeux Corts, modern young people find themselves robbed of any sense of destiny or vision. Once again, the director is John Strasser, providing an effortless flow and an emblematic style. He's also dealing with a heightened level of violence and sexuality, and a little less literary "flash" than last year, but the results are generally satisfactory.
All Trains West Have Passed, by Robert Strasser, gets the ball rolling with a group of young people who've formed a comedy improv group in their spare time. It is this improvisational theme that runs through the rest of the stories, in one way or another, as young adults battle disaffection. Andrew Byrd is one of their lot, privately engaged in a typically Tin Ceiling argument with a piece of talking furniture. Damien Samways is that barroom table, and narrator, broader and more comically sinister than ever.
Unfortunately for Mr. Byrd's character, he is outwitted by that talking table on the subjects of Icarus and D.B. Cooper, with somewhat tragic results: tragic, in the sense that a night of drinking ends with a jump from a tall building. Less tragic, in the sense that Mr. Byrd has to carry a large red Plexiglas cutout of a pool of blood on and off stage, plastered to the side of his head. The playful use of props is another First Amendment right of the Tin Ceiling.
The short play is marked by unusually explicit (for this company) dialog, with Drew Somervell and Jason Lauderdale as young men unabashedly on the prowl. Andrea Schoof is the template of a Tin Ceiling girl: reflective, intelligent and kind, lending the possibility of redemption to her circle. The night I attended, the cast of All Trains also performed a spontaneous improv routine with suggestions from the audience, with fair results. That Mr. Byrd's character is less involved in the improv than his stage partners may also explain his own tragi-comic suicide later on, as his own escape from earthbound worries.
Jeff Schoenfeld is endearing as a stuttering resident of a cult in a ghost town in the second one-act, Ruby, Arizona, written by Robin Garrels (who originated the troupe). There's a sort of carry-over in themes here, as we leave one set of males being led around by their genitalia and find ourselves in the presence of two strange, pregnant blonde girls polishing a large statue of an engorged phallus. When someone gets too close to their astonishing (and shiny) sculpture, they growl hilariously, like shitsus.
Elizabeth Bolhafner is the Tin Ceiling girl here, passing through, stopping to look-up a fellow from her own hometown. That fellow (Mr. Byrd) has cobbled together a brutish cult, improvised as a response to various crises of the 1960s. Richard Mintzlaff lends an air of bizarre authority (making him the Tin Ceiling grown-up), warily observing the out-of-towners as they blow through like tumbleweed.
But the unquestioned success in these short plays is Jason Lauderdale's Sequential Heart, a one man show featuring Robert Strasser (with voices off-stage to accompany). A steady rush of laughter follows handsome, likable Mr. Strasser (nephew to the director) as he fumbles to operate a magical belt that's crashed from outer space, lending him various superpowers. (Where the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire works from unusual diseases for some of his on-stage situations, superpowers and magic are an equally valid jumping-off point for the Tin Ceiling scribes.)
As the final story here is told in a series of abrupt blackouts, young Mr. Strasser records his adventures on the alien belt's data log: adventures both heroic and romantic. Sequential Heart echoes a few little elements from last year's Conscription of the Fates, creating a second bookend for the two works as heroism is reclaimed and rejuvenated. Mr. Lauderdale's script, delightfully performed, is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding works this group has come up with in the last several years.
Trois Jeux Corts (Three Short Plays) continues through October 23rd (2005) at Compton and Cherokee in Saint Louis, MO. For information, go to www.tinceiling.org.