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'K of D' welcomes theatergoers with open arms — and treats

'K of D' welcomes theatergoers with open arms — and treats

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Who says theater can't be a pleasure?

Not Em Piro. Her new one-woman show “The K of D,” directed by Tom Martin and presented by his Blue Rose Stage Collective, is performed in a backyard in the Cherokee Street antiques district. A campfire warms the bundled-up theatergoers, who sip hot cider and toast s'mores before the play starts. A campfire cobbler bakes during the play, to enjoy when the “curtain” falls.

Martin and Piro (who's best known as the founder and leading light of St. Lou Fringe) knock themselves out to welcome their audience. In fact, Martin opens the show with an invitation to the audience to share their personal ghost stories.

But it would be hard to top the one on stage. Playwright Laura Schellhardt recounts a disturbing “urban legend” about a young girl, Charlotte, who develops uncanny abilities after a reckless driver kills her twin brother in front of her and all their friends.

Piro plays Charlotte and everybody else: the brother, the conscience-free driver, the young teens who run together in a pack that includes quiet Charlotte. With small, distinctive gestures, Piro introduces each one so clearly that we recognize them when they return.

She's particularly effective as the twins' father, a man determined to treat each new eerie event calmly (as a man “should”) and as the bossy girl who rules the youthful roost. At one point, Piro even sketches a persuasive portrait of a bird.

Although “K of D” is as bare-bones as theater comes, it includes some lovely touches. A bulb on a pole turns into a firefly. Distant events are enacted by Mark Wilson's paper shadow puppets. (Wilson also also designed the lighting and minimal set.) Billy Croghan wrote and performs the gentle, moody music.

In an era when we are accustomed to getting a lecture on manners every time we take a theater seat (and OK, maybe we need it), it's pure joy to go to a show where the performers and producers treat the audience courteously. Released from the confines of conventional rows of seats and dress-up clothes, “K of D” reconstructs the theater-going experience along warm, original lines. People who go will remember this one for a long time.

The opposite happened at Sunday night's performance of “Antigone” at Upstream Theater, which was followed by a talk-back.

Let me just say that I have never seen a talk-back start without a break. Instead, someone announces that the talk-back will start in five minutes. That gives members of the audience a chance to get a drink of water, to use the restroom or to leave.

There was no chance at this event, which went on for at least 30 minutes (10 or 15 is usual). For that matter, it was not so much a talk-back as a talk-to, with the author of the new "Antigone" translation that Upstream staged, David R. Slavitt, dominating the conversation.

Presumably future audiences will not undergo this kind of thing, as no more talk-backs are scheduled. They will be able to take director Philip Boehm's production on its own stern terms.

Sophocles' play is old as time. Since the exile of Oedipus and the suicide of his wife and mother, Jocasta, Thebes is ruled by Jocasta's brother, Creon (the impressive Peter Mayer, reprising the role he played when Upstream staged Slavitt's translation of “Oedipus King” four years ago).

In an ensuing war, two sons of Oedipus fought on opposing sides. Creon honors the brother who fought for Thebes, but orders that the body of the other, Polynices, remain unburied and unmourned. Polynices' sister Antigone (Maggie Conroy, serene and self-controlled) defies their uncle and buries his body respectfully. She knows it will cost her life.

The story is full of grim incident (including a raft of suicides) that takes place offstage. Instead of action, the actors talk about what has happened, is happening or will happen — someplace else.

It's a distinctly un-modern notion of theater, but the speeches can be compelling - particularly when Creon's son Haemon (Andrew Michael Neiman) tries to persuade his father to spare Antigone, the woman he loves and expects to marry.

Haemon can't come straight out and tell his father that he's wrong. Instead, he seems to agree at first. Then — head cocked, pursing his lips between words that he chooses with care — Neiman sidles up on the alternatives. He wants to make Creon believe that he changed his own mind. Anyone who's ever had a difficult boss knows the drill.

There are also some memorable stand-alone images: Creon's wife Eurydice (Wendy Renee Greenwood) laying her beautiful bracelets and earrings on a sacrificial altar, Antigone calmly dusting herself with ashes, the men of the Chorus (Dennis Lebby, Norman McGowan and Patrick Siler) playing simple instruments as they reflect on their helplessness.

John Bratowski and Nancy Lewis, who as messengers must explain off-stage events, dowse their speeches with character. Bratowski goes for humor, Lewis for rage, but each manages to imbue narrative with personality.

The action — if that is the word for it — plays out on a beautiful set designed by Michael Heil, with a key design around the rim of the stage and gigantic Grecian figures depicted on panels. These are of course less animated than the actors. But in this serious, stylized tragedy, the difference isn't as great as you might expect.


'The K of D'

When • 10 p.m. Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday, 10 p.m. Oct. 24 and 25

Where • Revisionist Inn, 1950 Cherokee Street

How much •  Suggested donation, $10-$20

More info •  kofdstl.com

'Antigone'

When • 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 25; 7 p.m. Sunday; 3 p.m. Oct. 26

Where • Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard

How much • $30 general admission, $25 for older adults, $20 for students

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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