Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Bitter Fruit
Upstream Theater
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent reviews of The Immigrant and Twisted Melodies

Jane Paradise and Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Some art marches right up to you, like the fulsome paintings of a Thomas Kinkade, or the big musicals that tour through the Fabulous Fox Theatre here in St. Louis. But with smaller, more personal kinds of art, you have to get out of your chair and peer into it, like figuring out the deceptive linocuts of M.C. Escher. Or the consistently magical and intriguing productions of the Upstream Theater here in the Gateway City.

At their latest production, Hector Levy-Daniel's Bitter Fruit (El Fruto Más Amargo) from 2018, I found myself leaning forward to get a fuller glimpse into the puzzle of a ruthless upper class in Latin America. And here it is, set in a gilt-edged frame at the Marcelle Theatre, as a murder mystery by way of a labor uprising. But it might help first to know the history of Latin America, or at least to have seen Evita or the movies Brazil or Missing, to understand how this play twists and turns in ways we might not be expecting.

Only now in North America do we begin to grasp all the extreme class inequalities of that region, which have led to so much bloodshed over a hundred years. And Bitter Fruit comes north to us as income inequality tilts more and more out of balance in this country, in a show cleverly staged by producer/director Philip Boehm.

Honestly, you can mostly forget about all the region's over-arching political history during this ninety-minute play. But history may be the main substance of the suspense. A weird texture falls on us–like a spider's web–as a strange new housemaid arrives at the home of a wealthy family, sparking the immediate hostility of a strident young woman who runs her family's farm and mill there.

Jennifer Theby-Quinn plays that young woman, Maria, the privileged adult daughter on the estate, and Jane Paradise is the new maid, Luisa. And the strangely captivating Michelle Burdette Elmore is Maria's mother, Teresa. All three actresses work together until every moment on stage wriggles out of the one that came before, like a psychological origami. It's a Spanish telenovela, seemingly reimagined by Alfred Hitchcock.

Louisa, the new maid, quakes obsequiously in the blast wave of each outburst by the señorita. But, mysteriously, Luisa comes up with a totally different colorful story each time she's challenged by the mother or the daughter. And her Latin courtliness, or good manners, or eagerness to embrace her own lowliness, may just be a smart way of deflecting outrage. Still, the show just needs to be about 33 percent longer, to where foreigners would learn more about each type of woman, and what each represents within their culture.

Combatting that sketchiness of character in the script, Ms. Burdette Elmore displays a bombastic matronly air as Teresa, something we normally associate with comedy. It adds a giddy sensibility that evolves into something alarming. This is when her clownishness flowers and decays into something mad, and almost lurid to behold. It's a side of Ms. Burdette Elmore (a regular ensemble member at Stages St. Louis) that we never get to see, otherwise.

Perhaps the only thing really missing here is context for most American audiences, and whatever knowledge we might bring to the play as men or women of the world. The vast majority of us would never think of being killed at work or of not getting paid for months at a time, nor would we think about being found dead in a remote marsh for unionizing.

The only male actor on stage carries most of those fears with him, though. The soulful Isaiah Di Lorenzo is rendered a bit gritty and desperate in this setting, as Pedro, who will come under suspicion as Maria's illicit lover. And their weirdly non-confrontational/confrontational private scenes together begin as happy flashbacks. But the chronology of the flashbacks catches up to the present, and sours, as the power-mad finally devour their own.

The excellent guitar accompaniment before and during the show is provided by Lliam Christy. The next day, after the show, a friend of mine (in a funny mood) tried to sum it all up for me, politically. And he knew he was talking to me as a naive North American. But, with a smile, he described it all as a problem of colonialismo.

Theatre can still speak this language, when it dares.

Bitter Fruit runs through October 29, 2023, at Upstream Theater, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

Luisa: Jane Paradise*
María: Jennifer Theby-Quinn*
Teresa: Michele Burdette Elmore*
Pedro Coltinari: Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Guitarist/Composer: Lliam Christy

Production Staff:
Director: Philip Boehm**
Scenic Designer: Patrick Huber
Costume Design: Michele Siler
Lighting Designer: Steve Carmichael
Properties: Cecile "Cece" Entz
Scenic Artist: Cameron Tesson
Production Stage Manager: Patrick Siler*
Technical Director: Brian Macke

Assistant Director: Gregory Almanza**
Assistant Stage Manager: Joseph "Gus" Kickham
Assistant Lighting/Board Op: J.M. Bock
House Manager/Box Office: Monica Roscoe
Master Electrician: Tony Anselmo
Wardrobe: Abby Pastorello
Graphic Design: Sleepy Kitty Arts

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association

** Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society