With four playwrights in the house, including the festival's namesake, Neil LaBute, electricity was in the air Friday night. The second go-round in the the annual unveiling of bold, imaginative new works at the St. Louis Actors' Studio's home turned out even more thrilling than the first lineup.
The small black box Gaslight Theatre, a space I have come to love the past few years, is a special place where artistic expression is sacred, where top-shelf performers bring provocative works to life, where you can really hear a writer's voice and deeply feel that connection when live theater crackles with energy and skill.
So the three one-act plays selected in national competition, as well as LaBute's new one-act "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" (presented each evening during the entire run), ignited on the tiny stage, a sizzling blend of combustible substance masterfully interpreted by strong actors.
"Coffee House, Greenwich Village" by John Doble percolated with a macabre undercurrent. Director John Pierson heightened a sense of danger during the first meeting of a couple who hooked up through a personal ad.
Nathan Bush, who lives in Edwardsville, conveyed Jack's awkwardness and anxiety while Ellie Schwetye was believable as a seductress calling the shots. Paul Cereghino evoked laughs as the slacker waiter with major attitude.
A meaningful encounter in a hospital ward between a sullen teenager and an arrested English teacher, beaten up in a gay-bashing melee, brimmed with inspiring poetry and hope, despite the circumstances, in "The Thing with Feathers" by Susan Steadman.
Caroline Adams was well-suited for directionless Mara and Chopper Leifheit tenderly portrayed Aaron, always prone to dispensing life lessons.
A truly entertaining, eye-opening play, "Comeback Special" by J.J. Strong revealed a major-league playwright in the wings. With such a terrific ear for dialogue, he's definitely ready for his close-up.
Set in Elvis Presley's bedroom in Graceland, Chopper Leifheit channeled the King in a hilarious piece where the dead legend hasn't quite moved to the great beyond as yet, much to the shock of a troubled married couple taking the tour.
Ellie Schwetye and Paul Cereghino expertly rode a rollercoaster of emotions while Chopper zestfully embraced Elvis' excesses,
Discovering these distinctive voices was like opening a surprise gift box. This compelling evening of theater is a must-see for any lover of language, for those who take a chance on new adventures.
And seeing LaBute's disturbing "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" again brought new shades to the dark piece. Effortlessly delivering LaBute's revealing, straightforward dialogue, Reginald Pierre and William Roth brought out more fear and emotion to the confrontation between a father of a 4-year-old boy and a convicted pedophile. While powerful the first time, this performance was more menacing.
The prolific LaBute, who will debut a new play off-Broadway in September, "The Money Shot," helped select the works chosen for this year's festival, and is committed to lend his name for future years.
The acclaimed screenwriter-director-playwright was gracious at a reception afterwards, during his one appearance here. And he knew about Belleville because of Jeff Tweedy, for he is a big fan of Wilco. Made my night.
Next year, the Neil LaBute New Theater Festival is set for July 10-Aug. 2. Mark it on your calendar now.
For more information about the playwrighting competition, visit www.slas.org.
LaBute New Theater Festival
When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
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.