Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

LaBute New Theater Festival
The Gaslight Theater

Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's reviews of Red Curtain Rivalry and Chess

Eileen Engle and Reginald Pierre
Photo by Patrick Huber
There's lots of spectacle in this summer's LaBute New Theater Festival in St. Louis, at the Gaslight Theater, though it's all of the cerebral kind: five stories to puzzle us in the modern world, in a three-hour sampler that runs through July 23, 2023. It's the ninth installment of an annual showcase produced by the St. Louis Actors' Studio, this time featuring six splendid performers under the direction of Kari Ely and John Contini.

Taken in order, Safe Space by Neil LaBute (the festival's namesake) plops actress Jane Paradise down as a white ticket buyer in the middle of a theater promoting a Black audience night, triggering a debate over reverse racism. Does she or doesn't she have the right to be there?

Reginald Pierre plays a Black theatregoer exasperated that this Caucasian woman has "taken" the seat of a potential Black patron before curtain-up at an unnamed play. Directed by Mr. Contini, Ms. Paradise keeps the mood impish and impetuous, and Mr. Pierre is authentically noble and righteous, as she winkingly suggests he might be the racist on this particular occasion. The genuine delight in the story comes from the way both characters rearrange their views to parry and thrust.

The Blind Hem by Bryn McLaughlin finds a Shakespeare scholar (Anthony Wininger) in a motel room with a former student (Eileen Engel) on the two-year anniversary of his wife's death. The talk is centered on Romeo and Juliet, though a bathroom wall that frequently separates them suggests the playlet Pyramus and Thisby, best known from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Directed by Ms. Ely, it's an interesting glimpse into how a relationship with the past becomes more like a marriage than marriage itself.

DaVinci's Cockroach by Amy Tofte likewise turns troubled identity into a kind of prison from which to escape. It's set in a colorful museum gallery, and is very funny in spite of the lack of obvious jokes. Laurel Button plays Finn, a lowly assistant in the art world, and Colleen Backer is Dana, a mysterious expert on poisonous insects, wandering through. The very fine costume, hair, and make-up designer Abby Pastorello also painted the whimsical artwork seen in this one-act. Finn starts out by obsessively measuring the display areas of the gallery, seeming to imply that art may literally change the dimensions of the world. Dana is tormented by the loss of her mother–as Ms. Backer will be again in the festival's finale, though with much broader implications in DaVinci's Cockroach, where the stakes rise to encompass the fate of humanity itself. But director Contini uses art in hopes of stitching the two women's pasts and futures together.

After an intermission, Mr. Pierre returns for what may be the finest performance of his career on stage thus far, as the title character in One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston by J B Heaps, directed by Ms. Ely. Ms. Engel plays a Las Vegas showgirl who stops by to deliver drugs late one night in 1970, insisting she's never heard of the famed prize-fighter. As Liston, a defiant bad-boy in the world of boxing, Mr. Pierre combines rural toughness with celebrity and pain, even as Ms. Engel shape-shifts into a mysterious of angel of death. The one-act on, a shoebox stage, unfolds with cinematic style.

Last but not at all least is The Mockingbird's Nest by Craig Bailey. Ms. Backer, as Robyn, patiently tends to her mother Daisy, a dementia patient (Ms. Paradise) in a well-to-do family home. But the trouble begins when Daisy unexpectedly changes the facts of their family history. It's a great little "Twilight Zone"-style story to express some of our twenty-first century worries.

The ninth annual LaBute New Theater Festival runs through July 23, 2023, at the Gaslight Theater, 360 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit

Safe Space Cast:
Woman: Jane Paradise*
Man: Reginald Pierre
Director: John Contini*

The Blind Hem Cast:
Robert: Anthony Wininger
Kate: Eileen Engel
Director: Kari Ely*

DaVinci's Cockroach Cast:
Finn: Laurel Button
Dana: Colleen Backer
Director: John Contini*

One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston Cast:
Sonny: Reginald Pierre
Her: Eileen Engel
Director: Kari Ely*

The Mockingbird's Nest Cast:
Daisy: Jane Paradise*
Robyn: Colleen Backer
Director: Kari Ely*

Production Staff
Directors: Kari Ely* and John Contini*
Stage Manager: Amy J. Paige*
Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsay Mosher
Set Designer: Patrick Huber
Lighting Designer: Kristi Gunther
Technical Director: Joseph M. Novak
Costume/Hair/Makeup Designer: Abby Pastorello
Sound Designers: Kari Ely*, John Contini*
Board Operator: Grace Huber
Master Electrician: Raina Compton
House Manager: Eric Kyser
Intern: Iris Sommer

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association