Nothing humanizes like vomit. It’s pretty much the same routine for all of us. First, pretending everything’s fine and knowing everything’s not. Then gagging and fighting back the spew as we search for an an appropriate place to spill our guts until we're no longer able to contain it and surrender to wave after body-wracking wave of puke. And then finally, after all of the sputtering and the splattering, after thinking you’ve reached the lowest point of your entire life, there is catharsis.
It’s really not a terrible metaphor for God of Carnage, a deceptively ambitious one act by Art playwright Yasmina Reza, that’s getting a healthy workout at Playhouse on the Square through April 1. It’s a play about parenting, art, good pastry, excellent rum and the wonders of modern living. It’s also about how goddamn horrible most people really are, especially the civilized ones.
Much has been made of the live onstage puking in this show. Too much probably, considering how beautifully the gross-out comedy fits into this otherwise cerebral work, and how much more there is to talk about.
Carnage is unrelenting. It opens with two bright, white, upper-middle-class couples trying to agree on the language that best describes an altercation between their pre-teen boys. Was the child armed with a stick or was he furnished with a stick? Did he aggressively disfigure the other child or did he lash out because he felt threatened by the other child’s gang? And so on. It’s a painful, painfully funny exercise showing how, people can agree on words, and still be speaking two completely different languages.
Anybody who’s watched the news recently will be instantly reminded of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the punditry’s countless interpretations of only a few known facts.
Gathered in the room: An attorney for a large pharmaceutical company who is constantly on his cell phone; his wife who works in wealth management; also the apparently liberal author of a book about the Darfur genocide and her not so liberal husband, a businessman who sells practical household items like pots and pans. They are all impossible and, once you scratch beyond the surface, extremely difficult people to like.
Reza’s play isn’t entirely realistic. It’s difficult to imagine that any of these beastly people would actually spend an hour-and-a-half together. After the first ugly impasse most would probably call it a day and let their attorneys do the talking. But the Big Pharma lawyer— nicely underplayed by Michael Gravois— says he believes in a “God of carnage.” And, as one might expect from such a believer, he actually seems to enjoy the conflict. When things heat up he ignores his phone and becomes animated, and engaged.
The cast is a director’s dream. Gravois is joined onstage by Erin Shelton, Kim Justis, and Barclay Roberts, and they all do exceptional work. Irene Crist, who most recently directed Circle Mirror Transformation at Theatre Memphis might have insisted on a faster pace and crisper performances, but instead she lets the show sprawl. And with this cast, why not let them indulge a little?
God of Carnage plays out like like some intense chamber quartet that breaks down into solos, duets, trios, as the couples square off against one another, new alliances form, old partnerships break apart, and everything settles back roughly where it began.
Comparisons have been made to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and to Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, both of which strongly put forward the notion that Hell is other people. And at times God of Carnage does seem like some delightfully nauseating offspring of these two classics. But I’m going to take an oversimplified view of the play, and assume—as many have—that Reza’s script is merely a descent into childishness. It’s the same kind of childishness William Golding depicted in his brutal masterpiece The Lord of the Flies, suggesting that even the most civilized people can fall, almost instantly, into savagery.
If you like good theater don’t let the threat of puke keep you away. God of Carnage is one of the best shows you’ll see all season.
God of Carnage is at Playhouse on the Square through April 1.
Chicago is Jazz. First there is nothing but an idea. Then there’s a note. Then color, motion, and narrative. Kander & Ebb’s prohibition-era musical, inspired and originally staged by Bob Fosse is a powerful example of how little you need in the way of spectacle when you’ve got a great story, fantastic songs, and outstanding performers. Hell, you don’t even need that great a story.
Chicago trades in crime and corruption using vaudeville as a metaphor and classic comedy/song and dance routines as a storytelling template. The show’s architecture is playfully dark. Its ripped-from-the-headlines story is barely but beautifully told: Two ginned up jazz babies with stardust in their eyes have killed their lovers and it’s gonna take one helluva lawyer to get them back in the spotlight.
I hold two very distinct sets of feelings about Theatre Memphis’s production Chicago, a razzling, dazzling good-time show that I suspect most audiences will enjoy quite a bit. But when I consider this creative team— a strong one— I can’t help but think that the show might have been more complete and more interesting.
Regional heavy hitters like Cecelia WIngate and Randall Hartzog are perfectly cast as Mama, a women’s prison marm on the take, and Amos the cuckolded baggy pants clown who can’t catch a break. It’s great to see an underutilized talent like Lindsey Roberts chewing up a juicy part like the hard as nails Velma Kelly. And while I can tick off a long list of locals who might make a better Roxie Hart than former Idol contestant Alexis Grace, nobody can accuse Theatre Memphis of stunt casting. Grace has two things you can’t teach: Presence and sass. Her acting chops could be more fully developed but she’s got pipes, knows how to sell a song, and is a fresh, welcome face on the local theater scene. Hopefully she'll stick around.
Roberts, who (unfortunately in my opinion) is best known to Memphis theater audiences for her high-flying performances as Peter Pan, is especially fine. This performance is more in keeping with her celluloid star turn as Harper, the waifish petty thief in Craig Brewer’s The Poor & Hungry. Only now she gets to be a full grown woman, and to play a little over the hill. Roberts’s physical revulsion to Roxie’s rise projects a thick cloud of envy and danger giving the show almost all of its emotional heft.
Rob Hanford does solid work as Chicago’s super-lawyer Billy Flynn. Hanford’s one of Memphis’s most gifted musical theatre performers but the rubber-faced actor can be a little busy and over-the-top for my taste. This may be his most restrained and disciplined performance. It’s a good thing.
TM’s Chicago is derivative. There's just no getting around that. If you’ve seen the film the choreography will be vaguely familiar. Fosse is ever-present and in large quotation marks.
Director Amy Hanford knows how to put on a show and she’s taken Chicago’s thesis— Razzle dazzle the crowd and you can get away with murder— to heart. Audiences looking for a bawdy good time will probably be more impressed than the critic. But skin doesn’t equal sex, and a hodgepodge of design elements never quite coalesce to express a unified style of their own.
If it sounds like I’m complaining because a good thing wasn’t much better, I am. Chicago’s a show that gives artists a lot of room to play and I’d hoped for something more playful. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t thoroughly satisfied three songs in by Wingate’s powerhouse run through “When You’re Good to Mama.” That doesn't mean Hartzog didn't break my heart when he called for his exit music and was greeted by nothing but sad clown silence. And, in spite of an excessive, nearly kitschy use of stage smoke and enough flashing lights to send an elephant into epileptic seizures, that doesn't mean there weren't moments when I was completely swept up in the high-life, the low-life, and all that jazz.
Need ticket information? Here's the link you're looking for.
George Hamilton is what he is. And what he is— sorry Dos Equis— is the most interesting man in the world. So without further ado here is Memphis's native suntan and the star of La Cage aux Folles George Hamilton talking about everything but shoe shopping with Imelda Marcos.
Memphis Flyer: We’re looking forward to having you back in Memphis.
(there is a disturbance)
George Hamilton: I’m sorry can you hold on for just a second. (off the phone) Come in? Yes, come in. Do you need me to move? I can go in the other room. (back on the phone) Do not disturb signs: one of my favorite things in the world. The great luxury hotels have really lost something.
Now you have a mini bar. And if you move anything you’ll be charged for it. There’s a sign posted with skulls—”touch a Coca Cola you own it.” And everything is turned away so you have to turn it around just to see what it is. You go looking for what you want to drink and now you own everything in the mini-bar.
I go back to the Peabody hotel.
Memphis Flyer: You spent a lot of time at the Peabody as a kid, right?
George Hamilton: My father was the orchestra leader there and when I was a little boy I knew the ducks personally. In the doors at the Peabody there was like a little closet and you could put your suit in it at night and the valet would pick it up and return it in the morning. Do they still do that?
Memphis Flyer: I have no idea. I’m sure you can have a suit cleaned.
George Hamilton: I don’t know where refuge is. The big house doesn’t work for me. I had a big house. Beverly Hills. 39 rooms with lots of staff and everything. I will never do that again.
I learned to live in really good hotels where do not disturb signs meant do not disturb. In America there were only a very few great hotels and many of them were great from another era. They can all tell you how great they were but not how great they are. Now you have a mini-bar in your room. Or you can go down to the Starbucks. All the style is gone.
And they can’t even pronounce concierge correctly. I call and they say, “Hello, kun-serge.” There was a time when I was convinced that if I ever killed somebody I could simply go to the concierge at the Ritz hotel in Paris and he would say “Not a problem sir, what else?” Those days are gone with the wind.
I’m anachronistically lost from another era.
Memphis Flyer: Both of your parents were in show business and your childhood was— not unusual necessarily— but different. Did that prepare you for the Hollywood lifestyle?
George Hamilton: My mother had this huge lust for life and sense for the outrageous. Most of my early childhood was spent in and around Blytheville, Arkansas and Memphis. My dad gave my mom her first real taste of glamor. That’s not true. She’d been to a boarding school in New York in the 1920’s— Mrs. Simple’s Finishing School— but my father really brought glamor into her life. Bandleaders were the rock stars of the day. She was beguiled by all of it. I married a woman named Alana Stewart. She eventually realized that she wanted that kind of glamor. The glamor of movie stars was on the wane and she wanted a Rock-and-Roll lifestyle. So she married Rod Stewart. I remember seeing her right before that divorce. She had that look only combat veterans get. That million mile stare. That was a whole other era of hedonism.
These days if I walked into the Skyway at the Peabody I would ask for a party of one. The trip within is just this huge thing. I come ready to entertain myself because I see the outrageous in everything.
Memphis Flyer: What was it like having a traveling bandleader for a dad and an actress for a mom?
When I was a little boy I traveled with my mother and father in a bassinet. And I’d hear the band practice. I liked the full sound of the orchestra so they put me down next to the bandstand in the bassinet.
I got used to the realities of my father’s life. He had to be very practical. He had this band with 20-some-odd men or whatever and they would travel everywhere by car. And they would set up every night and do a show. They were an orchestra and dressed in tails to look glamorous. Mother wasn’t practical at all. My father had to be. He had to make the dates, drive the distances, show up and do whatever the job was. You had to have discipline. And I’ve carried that over into my life. My mother, she didn’t have that. She was looking for the next party to happen. It wasn’t about practical or discipline. For her it was “whatever’s just around the corner is what I’m looking for. The next man I meet is going to be the one. It’s all going to happen.” She was always positive about the future. That’s partly because of my grandmother’s faith as a Christian Scientist and my grandfather who was a doctor.
Memphis Flyer: Wait, he was... she was... that doesn’t make any sense at all.
George Hamilton: I know. I don’t know how this combination happened. But it did, and beautifully. My grandfather started thinking, over the course of his life, that no doctor ever really created health or made anything come alive. All he’d done was minister to the sick.
I’ve been in that zone. Changing from “I have to do this” to “I get to do this.” A little thought like can shift your whole focus. It’s like, if somebody asks to take a picture I say of course. I’ve never said no to an autograph or a photo. It’s over in the time it would take you to say no.
Memphis Flyer: So here’s an unusual question: You’ve flown planes, you’ve been circled by sharks, you’ve gone drinking with Robert Mitchum, your romantic adventures are international full of intrigue and well documented. As an actor you’ve played Evel Knievel and gay Zorro. Why aren’t you the pitch man for Dos Equis?
George Hamilton: Ha! I have seen those commercials. But I don't know. ... I'll tell you something interesting that happened a few nights ago, though. Ten pairs of panties were thrown onstage by ladies in their 70s and 80s. Maybe they think I'm Tom Jones? Chris Sieber plays Albin in the show, and he can't let that go. He bends down, gets a pair, and put them on. On the back it was written, "Mary Anne, call me." And her number.
And it’s wonderful These people grew up with you. Children were probably conceived near or around one of your films.
Memphis Flyer: Elvis’s manager Col. Tom Parker is probably one of the most elusive personalities in the history of showbusiness. He was also the best man at your wedding. Can you tell me what he was really like?
George Hamilton: I was at MGM in late 50’s doing Home from the Hill with Robert Mitchum. I was told “You’re about to begin at top of the chain.” The movie was directed by Vincente Minnelli and there was going to be a major push. It was the end of an era. Studios were still about contract players and we all worked as chattel.
The first day I walked onto commissary was amazing. There was the inner sanctum. Fred Astaire was sitting there and Carry Grant and Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum who I’m working with.
Robert told me, “They say I don’t know my lines but it’s not true. I know ‘em I’m just to drunk to say ‘em.”
Memphis Flyer: He took you out drinking that night, right?
George Hamilton: There was a bar around corner from MGM. He said the trick wasn’t to get up early and go to the studio it was to stay up late and then go in and get it done. He made me stay up all night. We went from the bar to the studio. He told me to lie down on a camera blanket. He got a camera blanket from another camera and we slept for about an hour. When they woke us up they gave him a Bloody Mary and they gave me a razor.
Anyway I was told that I’d need someone to guide me through this labyrinth of Hollywood. Because the studio’s going to take over and there was this man who worked at MGM—Jenson Moses—who said Col. Tom Parker’s the guy for you. He handles Elvis Presley. Having him would be a great help. So I called Col. Tom and he said, “Son I understand what you want and I understand what you need but let me just put it this way: Anything I CAN do for you I SHOULD be doing for Elvis. If you ever get to Hollywood — I was finishing up the picture and on the road you see — call me. I’m at MGM studios. Well, we we got back from location in a few weeks and I was at MGM and I saw Elvis Presley and Tom Parker.
The Colonel said he already had the right deal for me. “See these elephants,” he asked. And there were literally 1000 elephants there. They were made of paper-mache or something. With fuzzy things. It was all Carnival stuff. I’d never seen anything like it. Anyway, he said, “All of these elephants are all being sold today and you are the lucky buyer. You’re going to get all of these elephants here for just over $1000.”
I sat there thinking this man was crazy. Then I said okay. He said, “We’ve got a deal. It’s the first deal you’ve made with me and I’ll buy you lunch out of the profits.” Then he looked around and said, “boys, we’ve got a live one.”
So we ate lunch. It was all heavy Southern food. And while we were eating people packed these elephants in boxes. And it settled in that I had to give Col. Tom a thousand dollars. For elephants. What the hell was I going to do with elephants?
I called my brother who was a decorator and said “Hey — Ummmm — So look. I bought all of these elephants from Tom Parker— That’s Elvis’s manager you see. My brother asked if Elvis could sign them but the Colonel said that was a whole other deal and would cost a lot more money. So I asked Col. Tom if he would sign them and he said he could do one or two but not all of them. “That would take too much time and I’ve got arthritis,” he said.
My brother was decorating condominiums in Palm Springs. And he actually managed to place every single one of those elephants in the condominiums he was working on. I doubled my money. Doubled it at least. So I went back to the Colonel and asked him if he had any more of those elephants to sell because my brother and I sold all the ones I’d bought from him.
Col. Tom said, “Now you’re worthy to sit down and talk business with me.” And we became the best friends. I moved next to him in Palm Springs. He convinced me to marry my wife. “Woman’s smarter than you,” he said. “And I can get it all done in Las Vegas tonight but I want to be home by the evening news.”
I went to my girlfriend and told her that if she wanted to get married we’d have to get married now. So we got married in Elvis’s suite at the International.
Elvis was smart. He was not a dumb guy. He’d come over and sing gospel music and we’d have dinner. And I was at his funeral some years later. I flew in on his airplane the Lisa Marie with the Sweet Inspirations. That was a freaky day when we took him out of Graceland to the cemetery and we were all in the white limousines. A very, very freaky day. Things happened that I’ll never forget. The stewardess on the plane told me that his milkshake mug broke that day on landing. And when they picked me up they said the blanket in back, in his bed had caught fire. And I saw for myself, when they brought his body out of Graceland this huge branch of a tree just cracked. Not some little willow. There was a weird energy happening there and you could feel it. After the funeral we all went back to Graceland and sat around. Sam Phillips and those guys were there.
George and Dracula have a few things in common. (a clip with Sherman Hemsley)
Memphis Flyer: I made a list of things I wouldn’t ask you about: Your tan, Imelda Marcos, your stepmother. So far I’m doing a pretty good job of not bringing that stuff up.
George Hamilton: Ask me anything.
Memphis Flyer: We should probably talk about La Cage, which is coming to the Orpheum. With you in it, I hear.
George Hamilton: Okay, we can do that.
Memphis Flyer: La Cage aux Folles is a great political farce but also great cabaret and a beautiful love story. What appeals to you the most?
George Hamilton: You have to ask yourself, “What am I doing?” Am I an activist with messages I’m trying to deliver? We were told at MGM not to do that speciffically. We were never supposed to wear any kind of medal that was religious. You couldn’t take sides in things that would separate your audience. We were there to entertain not to use the bully pulpit.
I wanted to go to Broadway again. I’d had two offers to do other shows but this one seemed to be more of a challenge. The universal story isn’t about the gay world it’s about being who you are and being faithful to that. My brother was gay. When I went to see him at the end of his life I asked him if he’d do anything differently if he could do it all over again. He said he’d love more.
When people come to see this show they respond to the universal things— the loss of a son getting married. Two people devoted to each other being tested. Gay or straight didn’t matter. Not like it would in the 1970’s when gays had so much trouble having any kind of relationship openly. There’s a lot of pain involved in that.
What I liked was that this was something quite beautiful and the music was extraordinary.
Bartlett Community Theatre opens Agatha Christie's popular whodunnit The Mousetrap at Bartlett Performing Arts Center this weekend. Director Tony Isbell has helmed the show three times and two of his cast members, Janie Paris and Beverly Morlang are both returning to parts they've played before.
The Mousetrap is at BPAC March 15-18.
And here's a video...
What a scene. It's springtime in Chicago, 1924, and Beulah Annan, a glamorous gin-soaked jazz baby has just shot her lover Harry Kalsted. Instead of running away she pours another drink, puts a record on the Victrola and plays it over and over again for hours before calling her husband and telling him she'd gunned down an intruder who'd threatened her honor.
By the time the cops arrive Annan— the real life Roxie Hart— is loaded up on illegal hooch. The song still playing on the Victrola: "Hula Lou." Some sample lyrics:
Her name was Hula Lou
Kinda gal that never could be true
She did her dancin’ in the evenin’ breeze
Beneath the trees
Oh how she used to shake her BVDs
As a reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins had covered Beulah Annan's case. She later wrote a play called Chicago that was adapted into a stage musical by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb. Chicago, which opens tonight (March 9) at Theatre Memphis has gone on to become one of the most popular and longest running Broadway musicals of all time. The 2002 film adaptation won six Oscars including Best Picture.
But it's hard to improve on that opening musical number. The real one, that is.
Between 1915 and 1924 there were several recordings with Hula Lou in the title. If Annan was current in her music collection—as any glamorous flapper would be— she was probably listening to a version recorded by the Sam Lanin Orchestra in January of 1924 or one released the following month by Billy Jones. Both were on the Regal label.
Here's the Billy Jones version.
Theatre Memphis's Chicago features former American Idol contestant Alexis Grace as Roxie Hart. Lindsey Roberts takes on Velma Kelly who's based on the equally colorful Belva Gaertner, a twice-divorced cabaret singer who got blind drunk and shot her lover in a jealous rage.
Theatre Memphis has planned a season filled with familiar titles. To the best of my knowledge only the cop drama A Steady Rain hasn't seen previous (and in most cases multiple) productions in Memphis. What do you think?
Fiddler on the Roof
August 24 — September 16, 2012
October 12 — 28, 2012
A Christmas Carol
November 30 — December 23, 2012
Six Degrees of Separation
January 25 — February 10, 2013
A Chorus Line
March 8 — 31, 2013
Brighton Beach Memoirs
April 26 — May 12, 2013
Singin’ in the Rain
June 7 — 30, 2013
September 21 — October 7, 2012
November 2 — 18, 2012
January 11 — 20, 2013
A Steady Rain
February 15 — March 3, 2013
April 5 — 21, 2013