The Bard comes to Gravois Park

Tlaloc Rivas sat in a circle with eight people and opened his binder. He took a deep breath and said, "'The New World,' part four."

With those words, the second day of rehearsals began March 28 for a unique play that will be performed under unique circumstances with a unique cast.

"The New World" will be performed April 27-29 at the intersection of Cherokee Avenue and California Street in the Benton Park Neighborhood.

Of the cast of 19 actors, only three are professionals. The rest are amateurs, most of whom live in the neighborhood. They lend authenticity to a play intended to reflect Cherokee Street with its varied ethnic groups and one-of-kind shops, Rivas said.

"We want the play to reflect the vibrancy of the neighborhood," Rivas said. "There is so much going on along Cherokee Avenue."

The play is very loosely based on William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which is set on a remote island dominated by magic. During the play, the actors refer to different Cherokee Street landmarks and familiar points.

In "The New World," the main characters are Prospero, an exiled duke, and his daughter, Miranda. Antonio is the duke's brother who usurped his power 12 years earlier. Since that time, Prospero and Miranda have lived on an island with their spirit helper, Ariel, and a library of books of magic. They are the source of Prospero's power. A shipwreck lands Antonio's son, Ferdinand, on the same island and he ends up falling in love with Miranda. It is Prospero's fortune to right relationships with everyone on this island.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting "The New World" with the assistance of PNC Arts Alive and the National Endowment of the Arts.

It was Rick Dildine, executive director for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, who first thought of "The New World."

"In 2009, I moved down here from Chicago," Dildine said. "I was struck by the number of dead-end streets in St. Louis. I started wondering if it was possible to shut down a street in the name of community theater. I've had experience in going to small towns and developing classic theater with the residents. For St. Louis, we developed the idea of going out and creating a play with professionals and amateurs."

Playwright and actress Nancy Bell joined others with the theater group and began to talk to merchants, residents and people on Cherokee Street.

"We spent about four months talking to people," Bell said. "We all liked the idea that Cherokee Street is kind of like an island in St. Louis. It feels more different than another part of the city."

Although most of the actors are amateurs, the production team doesn't like using the word, Dildine said.

"We consider the residents to be the experts of the neighborhood," he said.

Cast members April Regester, 35, and daughter Paisley, 10, are excited to be part of the play. The family, including husband Mark and son Otis, 7, moved to the Benton Park neighborhood in August 2011. April teaches special education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"We love this neighborhood," Regester said. "My husband and I have gotten involved in the local art scene. We heard from a couple of sources about the play and thought it would be fun. My own acting experience is pretty typical; I was in plays in elementary school and high school."

The thought of performing in front of a large group of people hasn't hit Paisley, yet.

"I'm excited, not nervous," she said. "When my mom told me about it, I thought it was a great idea."

For Mike Amoroso, 29, performing in "The New World" is a homecoming. He grew up in the neighborhood and has many great memories.

"Cherokee Street was an exceptional place to live," he said. "There always was so much going on. I live in Lemay now, but I'm looking forward to moving back."

The three professional actors in the cast belong to Actors Equity. Amoroso, who has acted in productions around the country, also hopes to join the union someday. In the meantime, he is looking forward to the production.

"This is a good script," Amoroso said.

None of the actors have been assigned their parts, Rivas said. He currently is working to create some teamwork and a family feeling among the cast.

On March 28, they seemed to be there. They talked and joked before the rehearsal, almost like they've known each other for years.

"We've been excited all of this week," Rivas said. "Right now, we're also relieved that we have got this going."


By Scott Bandle | Posted: Tuesday, April 3, 2012

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