LaBute Festival: New Plays Tackle Harsh Realities, Wild Absurdities in America Today

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Women rule in three of the four sturdy one-act plays presented in this year’s provocative first set of the four-week LaBute New Theater Festival, each revealing uncomfortable truths in contemporary America.

Actresses Colleen Backer, Carly Rosenbaum and Jenny Smith are in fine form playing diverse characters, different shades of personalities. Cool as a cucumber, Backer startling as a wolf in sheep’s clothing in the chilling “Color Timer,” acting opposite Shane Signorino, with Rachel Bailey as a ditzy waitress. Rosenbaum is infuriating on a first date that does not go well between Tom and Jerri (ironic? Or not?) in a piercing “Great Negro Works of Art” and Smith sympathetic as a frazzled single mother in the remarkable “Kim Jong Rosemary.”

Now in its seventh year, the new plays that are produced every summer are selected in world-wide competition. The jury reviews new previously unproduced one-act play submissions of 45 minutes or less that do not have more than four characters and are able to be presented in The Gaslight Theatre’s intimate space. This year, six plays were chosen from 300 submissions. The renowned playwright Neil LaBute is a co-producer of the festival and is an active participant.

The works opening the fest are marked by sharp writing, smart acting and astute direction, but there is clearly one that stands out above all else. “Kim Jong Rosemary” by local playwright Carter W. Lewis bristles with snappy repartee between a single mother Rhonda and precocious teenager Beth and ricochets between reality and fantasy. It is utterly delectable. Lewis is the Playwright-in-Residence at Washington University.

Witty, outrageous and oh so very clever, “Kim Jong Rosemary” weaves world issues with a woman’s daily frustrations – and uses some interesting tools to make valid points, including the playwright breaking the fourth wall, and a big blob of life’s annoyances in plain view.

“Kim Jong Rosemary” by Carter Lewis features Eli Hurwitz and Jenny Smith

Nimbly directed by John Pierson, it features Jenny Smith as the exasperated mom, Eli Hurwitz as a smarty-pants with a social conscience and Colleen Backer acting as if she is playwright Carter W. Lewis. Their skill at rat-a-tat delivery of society ills, the current zeitgeist and wry observations is impressive. And the point of view is refreshing.

This edgy dark comedy caps off a series of fresh presentations that are acerbic, unsettling and disturbing.

Neil LaBute’s annual offering is the Midwest premiere of “Great Negro Works of Art,” an agonizing first date from a pair who met online – Tom is a young black man (Jaz Tucker) working hard to impress and Jerri is a rather vanilla young white woman who professes to be liberal but turns out not to be ‘woke’ at all.

Yes, we’re going there. Mundane small talk leads to heightened racial tensions, and soon it’s one misunderstanding or misgiving after another, leading to outrage.  LaBute’s writing is both subtle and tart, meant to make us increasingly uncomfortable, while Rosenbaum and Tucker are convincing in their roles and play off each other well.

“Color Timer” is another date scenario, only this dark piece might be the one of the most audacious concepts yet at the fest. Written by Michael Long of Alexandria, Va., mild-mannered psychologist Aaron (Shane Signorino) could be a chump psyched out by strange Stacy (Colleen Backer), who may be a cold-blooded killer depending if you believe her threats. Or he might really be in danger. Or is it just a ploy?

“Color Timer” starring Shane Signorino, Kelly Howe and Colleen Backer. Part of the LaBute New Theater Festival. Photo by Patrick Huber.

It’s definitely a jittery walk on the wild side, and both performers realistically convey their anxieties. Backer’s calm delivery of shocking statements is riveting as her sweet demeanor masks either a psychopath or liar. Is she a thrillist control freak? Rachel Bailey circles as a harried waitress for a bit of comic relief. It’s directed by Jenny Smith, who keeps us off-guard with a calm approach.

The hardest hitting one is the penetrating “Privilege” by Joe Sutton of West Orange, N.J., and the title sums up the reality of being part of an affluent and powerful family of attorneys.

Deftly directed by Jenny Smith, Spencer Sickmann is compelling as Peter White, an earnest law student who has just passed the state bar exam but is worried because he must undergo a character evaluation before he can practice. His cousin, Amy, is also in the same predicament but is furious about the new component. Turns out a member of the family took part in the assault of a gay youngster with several others, which casts aspersions on those trying to get licensed. He’s compassionate, she’s angry.

This guilt by association raises issues, but also reveals the punishment did not fit the crime and what length people will go to for things to go away. Shane Signorino is heart-wrenching as Warren, the grown-up victim living with those scars and Chuck Brinkley is Peter’s uncle, who is helping him navigate the situation but loyal to family first.

While the production values are usually minimal but effective each fest, the lighting work by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo is noteworthy, particularly the eerie shadows produced in “Privilege” and for punctuating the bizarre nature of “Kim Jong Rosemary.”

The sound work by John Pierson, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Jenny Smith is outstanding as well, and the key music selections are always stellar.

Overall, a strong four that begins the annual journey with exclamation points.

The second set, July 19-28, includes “Henrietta,” “Predilections” and “Sisyphus and Icarus: A Love Story,” all directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood, and an encore of “Great Negro Works of Art.”

Stage readings of works by the four high school finalists will take place on Saturday, July 20, at 11 a.m., and is directed by Spencer Sickmann. It is a free event.

The LaBute New Theater Festival runs July 5-14 and July 19-28, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle, St. Louis. For more information, visit or call 314-458-2978. Tickets can be obtained at or by calling 800-982-2787, and will also be available at the theater box office one hour prior to performances.

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