St. Louis has a reputation for preferring the familiar. At Opera Theatre, you’re more apt to see empty seats at a newish work than at La Boheme, for instance. So it’s heartening to see a good turnout on the opening night of the fourth Labute New Theater Festival. It’s a project of St. Louis Actors’ Studio, which brought it to New York this past January, in fact, and will do so again in January 2017. The Festival offers two sets of new short plays, each evening beginning with that year’s premiere from LaBute’s pen. Or keyboard, these days. Part 1 opened July 8.
This year’s LaBute is Life Model. Jenny Smith is an amateur artist who uses paid models for her charcoal and pastel sketches, Bridgette Bassa her regular female model. They’ve been working together for several months – and then the model sees the artist’s work, which she had been told not to look at. It’s LaBute, so of course things deteriorate not only rapidly but amazingly, as mesmerizing as watching a video of a train crash. Smith’s artist slips back and forth between calm and jittery, managing to remain enigmatic despite it all. Bassa, as the model, handles the model’s odd and slippery arguments very well.
Fire Sans Matches, by Jeff Carter, pits Emily Baker, the mother, against Eric Dean White, the father, on a camping trip with a deeply bored Jeremy Pinson, their adolescent son. Sounds like a sitcom, of course, but it’s fun watching Baker hit bank shots off White, and then there’s the wham-o ending that takes it out of the trite.
A college-age daughter, Leerin Campbell, is off for an overseas trip between semesters in James Haigney’s Winter Break. She’s going to study with a Sufi master, but her mother, Jenny Smith, is worried, since the recent is Islam convert is going to Turkey, and will be near Aleppo, Syria, where her grandmother is from. Daughter is angry and defensive, mom’s unable to stop trying to persuade her that it’s dangerous – and then in comes older brother Ryan Foizey. He’s convinced she’s either already gone over to or is about to be seduced by militant philosophy, and would do about anything to stop her. It’s an emotional situation, vividly drawn and well-acted by all three. Unfortunately, on the stage, as in real life, there is no resolution, satisfactory or not, to the tale.
And then for something completely different, to paraphrase the laudable Monty Python, we have Mark My Worms. Written by Cary Pepper, it indulges in the theater-about-theater school of art, but don’t let that give anyone pause. Here again are Eric Dean White and Emily Baker, actors cast in a recently-discovered play from a dead absurdist playwright. The crowning touch is the nearly-unrecognizable David Wassilak as director of the script, which is full of typos. This could be considered high-verbal humor. I’d say it comes closer to low verbal, but it’s pretty funny, and a good offset to the more serious work that precedes it onstage.
A worthwhile evening at the Gaslight Theatre.
LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I
through July 17
360 N. Boyle