Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Constellations
In this ensemble-created piece, Anna Skidis Vargas directs five young performers, with jagged, uneasy, and thrilling choreography by Geoffrey Alexander. It resembles a millennial's guide to the underworld, led by the amazing Elizabeth Van Pelt and the very funny Rahamses Galvan as orientation guides, the kind you might meet joining the business world, after growing up in 21st century America: perky, and monstrous.
Of course the millennial connection here is only superficial, owing to the ages of the actors on stage. Yet it's also a big part of the appeal, youthful resilience in the face of grim philosophical conflicts, along with the outrageous passive-aggressive torments set for each of them, which sometimes resemble modern corporate life.
Interspersed along with all the comedy, each of the characters on stage endures plenty of hell before they die, until the whole concept of eternal torment seems viciously redundant. Kevin Corpuz plays a young man hounded by unbearable dread and the inability to form meaningful connections during his corporeal life; La'Brie Jones is featured as a Muslim girl who suffers a long, debilitating illness before she wakes up in hell to play a ridiculous game show, "Wheel of Torture"; and Amanda Wales is a young woman who succumbs to the alcoholism that killed her father. In their lives, hell can only exist as a form of comic relief.
But, lest you abandon all hope, Mr. Corpuz is also an exciting dancer; Ms. Jones makes for a touching hospital patient; and Ms. Wales' character delivers one of the best monologs of the night (or of the month, really), detailing familial destruction, and (in a seemingly unrelated scene) tries to get a younger sister out of the ongoing disaster of small town life in America. Each of them displays great introspection which, unfortunately, has no place in this afterlife.
Thank goodness for Ms. Van Pelt and Mr. Galvan, who are always thinking up absurd new torments for their next arrivals from across the River Styx. Having seen Ms. Van Pelt in action before, I almost think Mr. Galvan is getting a lot of comic nurturing from her, a "freedom to be mad," and he blooms magnificentlyand even literally, when he comes on in a surprising costume in the last 15 minutes or so.
Director Vargas explains: "Hell is a piece that's been rolling around in my head ... for about eight or nine years, based on the song by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. [It's] an exploration, or juxtaposition, of everyone's personal hells, vs. the religious/cultural concepts."
And who knew hell would have a terrific live band, too, led by Charlie Mueller? He's surrounded by popular local actor Marshall Jennings supplying great vocals, Dustin Allison on drums, Logan Furey on guitar, and Michaela Kuba playing cello. They all add a lot of excitement to this crazy little show.
Through January 29, 2017, at the Chapel on Alexander, just south of Wydown and Skinker Blvds. All shows at 8 p.m., at 6238 Alexander Drive, behind the big white church. For more information visit theatrenuevo.com.