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July 17, 2014

Playwright Neil LaBute will come to St. Louis for New Theatre Festival

Neil LaBute, a contemporary playwright and screenwriter known for his dark, edgy material, is premiering his latest work and again lending his name to a local theater festival debuting provocative original one-acts.

He will also be in St. Louis July 25-26 to attend the second annual LaBute New Theater Festival. Initially only to be involved its first year, now he plans on being part of it annually.

"Having Neil in town is always a treat. This is such an exciting event, hosting these professional and high school playwrights from around the world and seeing the fruits of all of our labors onstage is a thrill," said William Roth, founder and producing director of St. Louis Actors' Studio.

The festival is split into three parts, and the chosen works are by finalists selected in the playwrighting competition held last fall.

Now through Sunday, four contest-winning one-acts "Rubbas" by Steve Karp, "Little Moscow" by Aleks Merilo, "I Want to Show You Something" by Jan Henson Dow, and "Blue Lagoon" by Thomas Pierce, plus the world premier of LaBute's "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," will be presented.

From July 25 through Aug. 3, three contest-winning one acts "Coffee House, Greenwich Village" by John Doble, "The Thing with Feathers" by Susan Steadman and "Comeback Special" by JJ Strong will be performed, along with LaBute's "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."

Paul Cereghino, Ellie Schwetye, Nathan Bush, Chopper Leifheit, Caroline Adams, and GP Hunsaker will appear in the next round, along with Roth and Pierre.

A stage reading of the three high school finalists will take place at 11 a.m. on July 26. Directed by Aaron Orion Baker, the plays are "Prosaic Beatings" by Jared Ray McSwain of Stockbridge, Ga., "Pisces" by Aidan Murphy of Lincolnshire, Ill., and "The Hushed Machine" by Amelis Himebaugh of Lindbergh High School in St. Louis.

Fairview Heights native Terry Meddows, a Belleville East graduate, will take part in the readings. Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Michelle Hand and Nancy Lewis are also reading.

All take place in the intimate black-box Gaslight Theatre, home of the St. Louis Actors' Studio. Mark Feazel of Millstadt is the festival's technical director.

Opening night showcased a potent mix of compelling pieces that gave local actors an opportunity to challenge themselves.

LaBute ("The Shape of Things," Tony nominated "Reasons to be Pretty") presents a disturbing encounter between an irate father and a pedophile in his world premier, "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush." The emotional piece is strongly conveyed by Reginald Pierce as Kip, a 4-year-old's dad, and William Roth as Bill, a guy with a past he's trying to move past. Roth, founder and producing director of SLAS, delivers one of his finest performances.

Director Milton Zoth assertively builds the tension in a tranquil park setting. It is the closer each night of the festival.

Of the four original works, "Blue Lagoon" is the most entertaining, with Jenny Smith sterling as a government operative masquerading as a sweet old lady and B. Weller as her prey, a fallen U.S. spy. Also directed by Zoth, the dialogue zings between the two actors. Smith, in particular, nimbly zips through technical and inside-baseball information with aplomb. She's under specific orders from President Chelsea Clinton Could I detect a twinkle in her eyes?

The other pieces allow the protagonists to give outstanding performances. Emily Baker is exceptional as a woman with split personalities spilling her soul to a psychiatrist. She reveals, in heartbreaking detail, being molested by a teacher when she was a young pupil. In "I Want to Show You Something," she plumbs dark emotional depths as the damaged Mrs. Spencer. Chopper Leifheit is Dr Fisher in the piece directed by Chris Limber. It is reminiscent of "Three Faces of Eve" and "Sybil," but condensed in an intense one-actformat.

LaBute New Theater Festival

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 3

Where: St. Louis Actors' Studio, The Gaslight Theater, 358 N Boyle, St. Louis

Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787 or at box office one hour prior to performances.

Information: www.stlas.org

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