Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Cascade's Fire
Tesseract Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of Twelfth Night, Romanov Family Yard Sale, and LaBute New Theater Festival

Brittney Roberson, Josie Schnelten,
and Charles Melton

Photo by Florence Flick
I like the songs and the singing in Cascade's Fire, a modern tragedy at Tesseract Theatre, with some of the outlines of the Antigone legend. And, in the world of musical theatre, good music ought to be enough for a passing grade. It's part of the group's New Musical Summer Fest 2024. Tesseract co-founder Taylor Gruenloh writes and directs the story of sex-tape blackmail, suicide, and revenge, at the Marcelle Theatre. Consistently deep, meaningful lyrics pour out of Mr. Gruenloh, who wrote the songs. And the lovely piano score is by Kyle Wernke. How many tunesmiths can never achieve the glory this words-and-music pair flashes with ease?

But the story is too similar to the company's 2022 drama, The Length of a Pop Song, even upgraded with the elements of Antigone (written by Sophocles in 441 B.C.). There are two narrators, Brittney Roberson and Charles Melton (he's a late addition to the cast), and both perform with admirable intensity. Still, their opening commentaries (like lawyers speaking forcefully to a jury) go on and on in the first ten minutes. And it seemed to me their most trenchant remarks (throughout) could simply be incorporated into songs within the action.

By the final 30 minutes of this one hour and fifty minute one-act play, we come to dread the importuning of the narrators as we struggle to live in the drama. Maybe the pair could be more dynamic, perhaps regressing psychologically throughout the play (like Merlin aging backwards) to become irreverent gods, bizarre giggling babies, who confound the mortals. This is a purely random suggestion.

Currently, the narrators serve as an accusing Greek chorus (in a play chock-full of accusations), directly clashing together late in the action. And the young people within the story are likewise bound by ancient fates, tangled up in a modern sextortion scheme. There's quite an interesting little moment near the end, where the story's central character Cascade (played by the very fine Josie Schnelten) seems to realize there are one or more gods she could appeal to, somewhere beyond her fate. But it's a candle in the wind, and quickly snuffed out. Needless to say (for anyone acquainted with the source material) a fiery death is inevitable.

Before that, sophomore Cascade runs away from college after describing her retribution upon a gang of rapists, leaving behind her broken-hearted girlfriend Trinity. Kampbell Hemeyer is quite fine in that role. And when Cascade returns three years later to learn of Trinity's death, she sets her heart upon revenge.

Luke Goeckner is great as the show's Creon, a character also named Luke. He's a manipulative young man with video of a lot of drugged-up orgies hidden away on his laptop, which lends him his wicked power. It's an unexpected bonus, in terms of casting, that Mr. Goeckner has just the tiniest resemblance to billionaire Elon Musk in his facial profile, in a certain light. (The lighting is also nicely upgraded here, over past Tesseract shows, by designer Matt Stuckel: partly through the use of strands of "airspace" bulbs overhead, and through twin portable light trees that create a 1950s 3-D movie look.) And author Gruenloh gives Mr. Goeckner a couple of beautifully written speeches about Luke's dark take on the world, in remarks the actor dispatches with delicious psychopathy.

There is great acting, too, and fine singing from Ella Penico as Luke's tormented girlfriend Olivia. Everyone on stage is coaxed to excellence by the director/playwright/lyricist. David Pisoni is fascinating as Dylan (a prophet-like secondary chorus), the only one who can see the damage Luke is doing to their college town. And Jordan Ray Duncan adds beautiful singing and fine acting as Robbie, Cascade's surviving ex-boyfriend.

I can't challenge a single moment on stage for its emotional authenticity. The play is verbally quite adroit and psychologically manifold, using a palette almost exclusively of dark colors. But the pervasive mood is contentious and aggrieved, with a lot of sad song (although one particular song, between Robbie and Trinity, is unexpectedly charming). We are severely warned in the opening remarks that this is will be pure tragedy.

But everything in our entire shared universe seems to work on some kind of a sine wave of good and bad, or light and dark, and the rise and fall thereof. Except here. Heated accusations, along with the manipulations of one bad man, and a long list of broken-hearted revelations leap out like the streams from a flame-thrower, non-stop for nearly two hours. Some contrast is needed.

Finally, as a matter of directorial style, I was taught (in rehearsals for a play thirty years ago) that if you are verbally fighting within arm's reach of one another on stage for any length of time (as most of the cast is here), physical blows must be exchanged, just as a blast of lightning releases an ionized charge from air and land.

Here, an impossible tension is scarcely ever broken or relieved. And as a result, a burned-out realization, or "catharsis" (fundamental to tragedy), is never offered up.

Cascade's Fire runs through July 28, 2024, at Tesseract Theatre, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

Cascade: Josie Schnelten
Trinity: Kampbell Hemeyer
Olivia: Ella Penico
Luke: Luke Goeckner
Robbie: Jordan Ray Duncan
Dylan: David Pisoni
Male Chorus: Chris Melton
Female Chorus: Brittney Roberson

Production Staff:
Director: Taylor Gruenloh
Music Director: Randon Lane
Stage Manager: Bella Lucero
Production Manager: Sarah Baucom
Technical Director: Kevin Sallwasser
Lighting Designer: Matt Stuckel
Scenic Designers: Taylor Gruenloh, David Pisoni
Marketing Manager/Graphic Designer: Maggie Nold