Two notable productions have recently appeared on St. Petersburg stages. Theater lovers will find satisfaction seeing either or both.
When freeFall Theatre first came to town, it announced itself with an extraordinary version of the musical The Wild Party. The company has had ups and downs since then — mostly ups, I’m happy to say — but watching the current production of Spring Awakening, you’ll remember what all the excitement was about. This is a spectacularly professional offering, featuring top-notch actors, first-class voices, perfect instrumentation, and inspired direction. True, Duncan Sheik’s music is too innocuous too often, and the play’s subject matter isn’t very relevant to today’s adolescents (who are buffeted by too much, rather than too little information on sex). But even with these drawbacks, this is as good a staging of this play as you could hope to find anywhere in the country. If you want to remember why the coming of freeFall was one of the best things ever to happen to Bay area theater, buy a ticket to this rock musical.
There are three main characters in the 13-actor show: Wendla (St. Pete native Rachel Potter), Melchior (Chase Peacock), and Moritz (Lucas Wells). All are teenagers trying to learn about sex in late 19th century Germany, and all are in danger because of adult censorship. Wendla wants to know how babies are made; her mother (Lisa Kay Powers) is too embarrassed to tell her. Melchior and Moritz are a little more knowledgeable — Melchior has even written a daring essay about sexuality — but the one impregnates unsophisticated Wendla while the other, under constant pressure, considers suicide. Meanwhile, grownups like the boys’ Latin teacher (Steve Garland) exhibit cruelty where understanding is needed, and Wendla’s pregnancy is treated by her parents as a misfortune to be concealed and ended with abortion. There are a few other plotlines, but it’s the fate of the three lead characters that carries the play, and it is they who stand in for all the victims of sexually repressed societies of any period.
The freeFall production, directed by Eric Davis, is marvelous. The play is staged in the round, with the acting area on two raised platforms, one above the other. On and around these platforms we encounter a kinetic world of adolescents, vibrantly costumed by Scott Daniel, brimming with sexual energy and trying to make sense of a world that won’t explain their feelings to them. Potter’s Wendla is an endearing half-girl, half-woman, and Peacock’s Melchior has a likable intellectuality and firmness of purpose. Wells as Moritz is a firebrand, too passionate to endure adult silences undamaged, and Powers and Garland are superb as various adult characters. Steven Sater’s text is mostly true to Frank Wedekind’s 1891 original, though it’s missing the key figure of the Masked Man in the final cemetery scene. Only two songs really impressed me — Wendla’s “Mama Who Bore Me” and the whole company’s “Totally Fucked” — but all the singers are pros. Mike Wood’s lighting couldn’t be better.
Is the show as complete a success as was The Wild Party? No, not quite. But it’s as polished as was that earlier musical, and it tells us that freeFall hasn’t lost one bit of its mojo. What a pleasure to know that this wonderful theater is in our midst.
Bay area theatergoers have to expand their horizons now and then in order to catch significant stage events. They’ve had to find the best-concealed street in Ybor City to attend the Silver Meteor. They’ve had to discover an out-of-the-way area of downtown St. Pete to enjoy The Studio@620. They’ve had to acquaint themselves with the HCC-Ybor campus to follow the Tampa Rep. And they’ve had to travel farther east than ever on Pinellas’s Central Avenue to see the stellar sights at freeFall.
Well, now stage aficionados need to add one more new venue to their mental maps: the Bininger Theatre at Eckerd College, where Gavin Hawk’s “a simple theatre” is offering a first-rate production of Dorothy Fortenberry’s Good Egg. This literate and intelligent play, about a young woman and her bipolar brother, features stirring acting by Meg Heimstead and Chris Jackson, sharp direction by Hawk, and a strikingly beautiful living room set by Jeff Weber. Problem: On the night I saw the drama, there were fewer than a dozen people in the audience. I guess Eckerd and the Bininger just aren’t on most people’s radar – yet. I hope this will change.
Because Good Egg is good. It’s about what happens when Matt, played by Jackson, discovers that Meg, played by Heimstead, has decided to have a baby with the help of a sperm donor. The plan is for Meg’s gynecologist to harvest Meg’s eggs, fertilize them in vitro, and then implant the chosen embryo back in Meg’s uterus. The difficulty for Matt is the choosing: it seems that Meg is insisting that the embryos be screened so that the child she bears will not have the bipolar gene. This enrages Matt. He feels judged and sentenced, as if Meg is “editing him out of the family.” When he demands that Meg change course, the mother-to-be is conflicted and confused. If the fate of the bipolar embryo is to be destroyed, isn’t that a way of saying she wants her troubled sibling dead? Or does she have the right to avoid carrying a bipolar child?
Heimstead is remarkable as Meg, who tries bravely to balance her obligations to Matt with her personal needs. The terrific Jackson as Matt is charming and loving when he’s taking his Lithium; without the pills, he becomes accusatory and physically aggressive. The dramatic question, of course, is how Meg will finally respond to him. Is there a good solution?
If you want to know, get in your car and drive. The Bininger Theatre is a notably handsome space, only a few minutes from I-275. And it’s currently offering two excellent actors in a fine new play. Do your best to see it.
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