The ArtsZipper Blog

Last Chance to See Ensemble Español’s Spanish Dance Theatre at The Touhill Tonight

Spanish Dance

The electricity began from moment one of the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance performance Friday evening at The Touhill. With furrowed brows, chins raised and eyes cast downward in concentration, heeled shoes called out, "Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat." And with the confidant flip of a ruffled skirt, the women charged, elbows forward, "Rat-a-tat-a-tat-tat, Ha!" In response, coat-tails were flung backward to reveal the men's hands pridefully--nobly--ensconced on the hips of their high-waisted pants. Their collective heels hit the floor in a progressively faster and more complex display as the dancers' grace resolved into a puffed-chest freight-train of flamenco rhythm.

The chemistry between the dancers was palpable. Dark passion and flirty charm exchanged equally as dancers circled each other, their moves culminating in arms tossed succinctly and triumphantly in the air before resuming another impossibly beautiful combination. A rhythm that was double-timed was--seemingly beyond human capability--quadrupled. As if the energetic dancers were not (literally) breathtaking enough, less than twenty minutes into the two-and-a-half hour performance, two Spanish guitarists took the rear-stage in silhouette and the most wonderfully gravelly, mournful, haunting traditional singer you could hope for turned the fiery performance into an out and out conflagration.

St. Louis audiences have been known to treat the final curtain as a starter-pistol for a pedestrian drag-race to the parking lot. This was far from the case last night. The entire room leaped to it's feet to applaud, and whistled and howled until the stage lights fell again and the house lights illuminated. In the lobby afterwards, I passed an elderly man delivering coffee to his companion with a jaunty "rat-a-tat" of his own heels and a tickled expression on his face. There was a ripple of warm chuckles from those who passed. I think we all kind of wanted to do that.

I'd advise The Touhill get some safety-belts in preparation for tonight's performance. Members of the audience were on the edge of their seats for so long last night, I was afraid some were in danger of falling off. Saturday's evening performance is the company's last for this show. Run--do not walk--to the box office to snag a ticket. It's the best night of performance available in town and out.




(Danielle Sommer)

HotCity Theatre presents Oleanna

If you love Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright David Mamet (best known for plays Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed the Plow, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and films The Verdict and Wag the Dog), you probably rush to the theatre to absorb his "Mamet-speak," especially those fascinating, mysterious, phone call monologues in which you have no idea who is on the other line or what is being discussed. In Oleanna, now playing at HotCity Theatre, you won't have to wait; the play opens with one of those fabulous phone calls.


Oleanna tells the story of a college professor (John Pierson) assured of his impending tenure - and the nicer house that goes with the salary bump - and a concerned student (Rachel Fenton) who visits the professor's office to talk about her terrible grades. Or is it the story of a predatory older man in power and a victimized young girl? Or is the story of a pompous but harmless educator and a vengeful, potentially disturbed woman? Part of the fun - and the challenge - of Mamet is unraveling the mystery, threading the clues together to figure out the story.


What is clear is that Mamet is a master of words, whether they rush forward or stumble out in fragments. Words themselves are the crux of the issue in Oleanna. Do we really mean what we say? Do we ever fully understand each other's words? Another focus of Oleanna is education itself. Is higher education necessary? Is it helpful? Or is it, for some, just another object to acquire or a status symbol to attain? Oleanna gives us much to think about...and talk about.


Oleanna, directed by Annamaria Pileggi, runs through February 4th at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Find ticket information at HotCity's website or Facebook page.


Words definitely have great power, and we often interpret each other's words quite differently from the way they were intended.  Share a memory of when words had unintended consequences for you by clicking on "Comments," below.

See Tom Sawyer Get In and Out of Trouble at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Through Dec 23rd.

If you are alarmed at the state of culture when whether you are a 'Carrie' or a 'Samantha' starts well-informed debate at nearly any table, don't gather your canned-goods and head for the doomsday bunker just yet; deciding whether you are a 'Tom' or a 'Huck' can still spark just as much keen discussion. This month, the Repertory Theatre keeps Mark Twain's enduring cultural lynch-pin on top of the zeitgeist with a brand new adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer through Dec 23rd.

Last Friday night, I took my place with the Rep crowd under the entry canopy and funnelled through to the lobby's refreshment area to the dimmed theater within thinking about those favorite childhood buddies who made you late for dinner, coming home to parents' crossed arms and cross expressions with grass stains on your knees and strange things in your pockets. How well Tom's adventures capture that elemental childhood awareness of perpetually growing to be the biggest, oldest, and wisest you've ever been, and the heartbreaking sincerity and earnestness (and humor) that comes with that knowledge in so many children. I couldn't wait to see that come alive on stage.

Promptly at 8 p.m., the crew's silhouettes scurried busily from view, the stage lights rose and the crowd's voices fell, revealing a spartan but vibrant set: an aged picket fence, yellow stalks of wheat and blue sky. Tom and Huck were playing hooky from school. From here on, the young audience audibly delighted in the many (often dubious) treasures of youth Tom and his friends present, from brass doorknobs as love-tokens, to dead animals as currency, to the pursuit of love, freedom and honor--to the knowledge of darker things like betrayal and murder.

I couldn't resist turning in my seat more than once to try to locate the child who had squealed at Tom and his gang's bratty antics. Tom and Becky's first kiss got intergenerational smiles. Even the music (banjo and electric guitar?) has a singular cheekiness, and the music and sound effects together form a continuous soundtrack that creates a nearly film-like atmosphere.

But it is not all foibles and laughs. When Tom has a nightmare that the murderous "Injun Joe" stalks and kills his friends and family, some slouched pre-teen spines snapped to attention as a terrific slasher spray of blood spattered across Tom's bedroom window, through which Injun Joe's ominous silhouette is visible.

It makes for a charming night out for any person who once was or still is a kid. So, thanks for the reminder, Rep: I have a long-overdue date with the book, a flashlight, a tent made of blankets, and my inner child.

Please click here to find detailed ticketing and contact information for the theatre's current and upcoming shows or call 314-968-4925.

It would be a crime to miss out on the Bissell Mansion!


When my friend and I arrived to the Bissell Mansion a few weeks ago, the foyer was crowded with guests snacking on Crab Rangoon and toasted ravioli. Buttoned up for the special occasion, the two couples at our assigned table were already fast friends, laughing, joking and quick to make introductions: a Kansas City pair celebrating their 20th anniversary and a slightly nervous couple out for one of their first dates.

The Bissell Mansion's shadowy posture overlooking the North City district sets the tone for a night of mystery theatre- especially when the theme is "It's a Wonderful Death." A parody of Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life," the production follows a similar story line, but ties in new, outrageous characters, witty puns and an air of suspicion.  The Bissell Mansion is the oldest building in St. Louis and the ideal backdrop for this age-old tradition of storytelling.

Guests were welcomed into the mansion and assigned a script according to a pseudonym, some of them names from the original film (Clarence the Angel) and others clearly dreamed up by the staff at Bissell: Ima Pain, I.M. Devious and Dr. Willie Know. (But don't worry-everyone has the option to choose of a nonspeaking part!) George and Mary Bailey made their introductions from the center of the dining room, where throughout the evening guests were called into question concerning the death of Bailey. Three glasses of house wine later, the room was in hysterics over some of the crowd's classically awkward actors and other more confident players who were kindly ushered back to their seats.

During the intermissions between each act, waiters served a series of plates that amounted to a delicious four-course meal. I ordered the baked fish, which was presented with a nice helping of steamed vegetables. For dessert, our table seemed particularly taken by the chocolate mousse.

As the evening winded down, guests set down their cooling cups of coffee to explore the many quarters of the mansion. The building has retained some of its original signatures such as the detailing on the mantel, which dates back to the 1820's. Aside from a highly entertaining night of comedy (and mystery!), the mansion itself if worth the visit.

"It's a Wonderful Death" will be playing through the end of December. The Bissell Mansion will host "Dapper Flappers" January through April, 2012 and "Phantom of the Grand 'Ole Opry" from May through July, 2012.

For more information, please visit or call the Bissell Mansion at 314-533-9830 or 1-800-690-9838.

A New Kind of World’s Fair: The St. Louis International Film Festival


From now until November 20th, you'll be missing out if you're not in front of the silver screen at this year's  Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). One of the largest film festivals in the Midwest, SLIFF spotlights international cinematic talent against the backdrop of classic St. Louis venues: The Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac, Webster University and Washington University.

SLIFF, which began on November 10th, showcases an impressive variety of genres, from the story of a 100 year-old tennis champion and a team of basketball grandmothers "(Age of Champions"), to a German silent film ("The Wildcat"/ "Die Bergkatze"), to a series of short films, with themes like "Youth in Revolt," "Absurd," "Outsiders and Eccentrics." With over 400 films, the festival offers something for everyone: lighthearted films for a family night, WWII period pieces and high-art dramas to satisfy the tastes of the most urbane film critics.

On Monday evening a friend and I saw "Jane's Journey," the story of world-renowned scientist Jane Goodall- and also one of the best documentaries I've seen in years. Beginning her life's work as a 23 year-old researcher in Tanzania, Goodall continues to make contributions to the study of social behaviors of wild chimpanzees and champion social programs around the world. Just as much as the film documents Goodall as a scientist and social activist, it also captures the romance, loss and introspection of her personal life. Interviews with Goodall's son, personal assistant, family members, and colleagues add color and dimension to a name we've read in the news for years. Goodall is comfortingly kind, unshakably hopeful, and lovelier than ever at 75. 

Participate in the wonder of SLIFF by checking out for the film schedule, ticket prices and other special events!

Adrian Kellard's Meditations on Healing- Now through December 11


It's easy for time and space to fall away in Adrian Kellard's "The Learned Art of Compassion" exhibit. During my visit to the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) at St. Louis University last week, I entered the exhibit on a clear autumn day and was surprised to see the sun setting as I left.  

 "The Learned Art of Compassion" commemorates two important artistic and social milestones: the twentieth anniversary of the artists' death and the thirtieth anniversary of the identification of the HIV virus that causes AIDS. As an ambitious artist gaining international acclaim in the 1980's, Kellard's life was tragically cut short at the age of 32 because of complications due to AIDS.  Kellard was a New York native who left his working class background to study art at The State University of New York (SUNY) and to later receive training under a celebrated artist in his program. His work tells the story of his encounter with success, illness, and spirituality.

What I love about Kellard's style is that his art is practical. Almost every one of his works serves a useful function: a calendar-themed privacy screen, a decorative table, a prayer vigil with a built-in clock. Kellard's installations are not only captivating in their confident play with colors (blood reds, kelp greens, bumblebee yellows); they are also surprisingly hopeful. I forget that these murals and carvings are made by the hands of a man suffering from AIDS.

Drawing inspiration from his working class background and his academic study of German Expressionist printmakers, Kellard's work is an expose of "high" and "low" art. Themes of transcendent religious experience are rendered with hardware store materials like pine wood and latex paint, vestiges of his low-income background. In the same way, Kellard makes the divinity of the Christian tradition accessible by portraying it with a style that quotes pop culture icons.

I appreciate how Kellard's work rethinks the humanity of Christ. We witness Christ's sorrows and his joys, his good days and his bad days in carefully crafted woodcarvings. We also experience Kellard's own process of healing and how intensely he relied on the mercy of Christ. In his largest installation "Healing, Learned Art of Compassion" the face of Christ resembles that of someone with AIDS. His eyes are sunken in. He looks grey with illness. In this practice of empathy, Kellard sees himself as someone both broken and sanctified, sick and well.

When you go to see "The Learned Art of Compassion," you will be blessed by the honest storytelling of these works. Time spent in the exhibition leaves the viewer with a renewed sense of what it means to be well, and hopefully, a lesson on how to learn compassion.  

Regular museum hours are 11 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, though there is a suggested donation of $5 or $1 for students and children. Call (314) 977-7170 or visit the MOCRA web site for more information.


Photo: Adrian Kellard, St. Francis screen, 1985.
Latex on wood with hinges. Collection of Antonia Lasicki and
William Devia, Niskayuna, NY.

Boys in Tutus: Billy Elliot the Musical sets the stage for a new kind of man


During yesterday's matinee performance of Billy Elliot the Musical at the Fox Theatre, I heard weeping in the seat behind me. I looked back to see tears streaming down the face of a handsome, bearded man in his fifties. As Billy took his last bow and the curtain dropped, the theatre lights slowly unveiled a crowd of people warm with the thrill of inspiration. And, to the delight of screenwriter Lee Hall, a fair number of them were men.

Billy Elliot is not only riveting in its inventive set production and impeccable choreography; it is also a great story. Set in a small town in England in 1984, the musical captures The National Union of Mine Worker's strike against the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. While the story is largely interested in the economic depravation resulting from the strike, it centers on Billy, a coal miner's son who wants to become a ballet dancer. More so than the film Billy Elliot, the theatre production focuses on the mining community: their struggle to find work, live with no hope of social mobility and, eventually, come together to send Billy to ballet school in London.

Director Stehphen Daldry teamed with Elton John, who wrote music specifically for the production. John saw the premier of the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, and, like the sobbing audience member behind me, left the theatre deeply affected. John could relate to the elemental themes in the story (trying to be something out of the ordinary, breaking free from parents' expectations) and proposed the idea for adaptation to Daldry. Since its debut in 2005, Billy Elliot the Musical has received more than 70 awards and ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The most creative element of the production shows itself in how the rowdy, angry miners and the delicate ballerinas share the stage and the same musical numbers. In the amalgam of little girls in leotards, bawdy drinkers with protest signs, and tried, homely mothers, the message of each scene never loses its focus.  The viewer at once experiences Billy's passion for the ballet and the econmic distaster with in the mining community.

Some critics are quick to caution parents that the language of Billy Elliot the Musical is at times ribald and quite crude. It's true. But these are the voices of kids who come from a working class mining town and so, reasonably, they speak with a little edge. Despite this qualm, Billy Eliot cannot be missed. Everyone from young children to theater gurus to teary-eyed dads will love the heart, grit and passion of such a legendary performance. 

See Billy Elliot the Musical at the Fox from now until November 13, 2011. Tickets are available at

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Upstream Theater's Blood Wedding

Blood Wedding - Upstream Theatre

Photo by Peter Wochniak

It's a simple story. A young woman prepares to marry a good man, but her heart still draws her to a bad one. But, thanks to playwright Federico Garcia Lorca and the always-creative Philip Boehm and Upstream Theatre, Blood Wedding is a feast for the senses.

We meet a mother who mourns her murdered husband and son as much as she adores her surviving son. Her sense of dread at losing her only remaining family to marriage foreshadows a more permanent loss. We meet a father who wants his obedient daughter to make a profitable match and provide him grandsons to work his land. The daughter's passions seem to lie elsewhere, however, foreshadowing a sad end for this couple. And we meet a bloodthirsty moon and his friend Death, who will control these passionate characters to tragic effect.

Live musical accompaniment by Lliam Christy adds to the passion and pain. Set Design by Michael Heil creates a world so dry your throat yearns for water. And the gorgeous costumes by Michele Siler make me wish I could be transported just for a moment to early 20th Century rural Spain.

Blood Wedding, directed by Upstream Theatre's artistic director Philip Boehm and starring Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Michael James Reed, Linda Kennedy, Kelsea Victoria McLean, J. Samuel Davis, Alessandra Silva, Peter Mayer, Julie Lawton, Jef Awada and Aaron Orion Baker, runs through October 23 at the Kranzberg Theatre in Grand Center. Tickets and information are available at Upstream Theater's website or Facebook page.

Has passion ever led you to a dangerous place? Share your thoughts by clicking on "Comments," below.

Nuts at St. Louis Actors' Studio


Photo by John Lamb

The state wants to commit a woman to a mental institution because her doctor, her parents and the prosecutor believe her behavior is wildly inappropriate for a lady of her upper class background. She is not demure and prim; she speaks her mind; she is brutally blunt about her sexual life, and those closest to her simply cannot accept that these are the actions of a rational mind. No, this isn't the 18th Century. It's 1979, and it's the crux of the conflict in Nuts at St. Louis Actors' Studio.

Nuts was a Broadway success in 1980 and a hit film starring Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss in 1987. While we can hope that our attitudes about mental illness - and, frankly, about women - have since changed for the better, it's still a harrowing story to watch. Where is the line between protection and imprisonment, whether it's drawn by one's family or one's government?

Playwright Tom Topor began his writing career as a journalist for the New York Post, covering the police beat and spending hours in courtrooms and psychiatric wards, eventually turning that experience into "ripped from the headlines" tales (such as Nuts and the film The Accused, starring Jodie Foster) long before Law and Order did the same for television.

Nuts, directed by Milt Zoth and starring Keith Thompson, William Roth, Alan McClintock, Donna Weinsting, John Contini, Steve Callahan, Rachel Visocan, Bob Harvey and Lara Buck, is the current offering of St. Louis Actors' Studio's "Law and Order" season and runs through October 23rd at The Gaslight Theatre - 360 North Boyle Avenue, next to the West End Grill and Pub. Tickets and information are available at St. Louis Actors' Studio's website and Facebook page.

We have all been misunderstood by those closest to us. Hopefully your experiences aren't as extreme as those exposed in Nuts, but you can share your own story by clicking on "Comments," below.

"Monet's Water Lilies": Now Until January 22 at the St. Louis Art Museum

When I was twelve years old, my father and I took a bus through the countryside outside of Paris to spend the day in the quaint village of Givereny where Claude Monet lived and painted.  We crossed the same rickety wood planks that inspired his Japanese bridge paintings, lunched on cheese and baguettes alongside little garden paths, and passed through the same threshold of the house where Monet and his family lived for over forty years.

Seeing the Saint Louis Art Museum's new exhibit "Monet's Water Lilies" refreshed in my mind the wonder of that day, and also unleashed a new, informed fascination with the life and work of the Impressionist painter. Upon entering the exhibit, guests are greeted by Monet himself as captured in rare footage from 1915. Shot with grainy, black and white film, the silent and serene observation of Monet at his painting stool (brush in hand, dressed in a white, crisp suit, smoking a cigarette) offers the kind of intimacy with the artist rarely seen in feature exhibits.  Monet looks tender, grandfatherly and kind, and perhaps this kind of introduction readies the viewer for an even more personal engagement with a world-renowned work.

The main event of "Monet's Water Lilies" is the famous triptych (or three-panel series), "Agapanthus." Named after the African Lilly, the painting once featured an Agapanthus plant, which Monet ultimately painted out. From the time of Monet's death until thirty years later, "Agapanthus" was stored in Monet's studios and largely ignored. It wasn't until the late fifties that the triptych was purchased by three institutions: the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Cleveland Museum of Art. SLAM's momentous exhibit is the first time the three sections have been united since.

In the central room of the exhibition, a comfortable stretch of seating runs the length of the entire triptych and invites guests to take a seat and get lost in the Givereny landscape. For a painting absent of a horizontal line, this work achieves incredible dimension while working in a flat space. The gentle movement in color drifts from reflections of sky, to lily pads, to the vague point of shore. Guests whisper, a woman cups her face in her hand, and a group of students relish in the quiet romance of getting to know a man by the strokes of a brush: these are the small glories of "Monet's Water Lilies."

See the exhibit from now until January 22, 2012. SLAM is offering a series of classes and workshops centered on Monet's work from now until January 22, 2012. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $6 for children 6 to 12, free for children younger than 6, free to Members every day, and free to all on Fridays. An audio tour accompanies the exhibition and is included in the price of $8 and $10 tickets. Audio tours are available on Fridays for $3. Purchase tickets at

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