The second installment of the company's ongoing "River Project" begins with an inspirational number, then moves into a more mystical landscape, and closes with a soulful history lesson. The tone is light throughout, and the trio of original danceworks emphasizes the company's physical strength and classical training.
"The Hurdle Runner," choreographed by Petr Zahradnicek, begins with the northern migration of African Americans. It spotlights George Coleman Poage who, like Mark Twain, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, but who moved with his parents to La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 1904, Poage became the first African American to win an Olympic medal. His event, the 200-meter hurdles, makes an easy and appropriate metaphor.
Employing huge umbrellas, inventive lighting, and a stage littered with flower petals, choreographer Julia Adam celebrates the mushrooms growing along the Mississippi. "The Devil's Fruit," doesn't conjure up images from Alice in Wonderland and nobody will be subjected to the music of Jefferson Airplane; nevertheless, it is a sweet and relentlessly sincere walk on the psychedelic side. It is also a blithe display of raw strength and easy elegance.
"River Project 2" closes with Corps de Fortitude, inspired by the sights and sounds of St. Louis. It's a joyful piece, but when Lee Taylor takes the stage to sing a soulful rendition of that city's namesake blues, the dancers nearly disappear. And taking not a thing away from Taylor's performance or that of the dancers, that may still be an actual complaint.
"River Project 2" is at Playhouse on the Square through October 27th. Balletmemphis.org
What makes Reefer Madness (the musical, not the movie) such a nice fit for the Halloween slot at Circuit Playhouse? It’s full of terrifying zombies —- Dope zombies! In fact, the musical itself is a kind of zombie, that might be easily and accurately described as the reanimated corpse of a forgotten feature, laid to rest generations ago, but brought back to life by an activist drug fiend, and kept alive by his savage, pot-addled minions.
Reefer Madness, dead since the 1930’s, was resurrected in the 1970’s by a mad hippie seeking secret knowledge and money. While browsing through the Library of Congress film archives Keith Stroup, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, stumbled across a forgotten church-financed exploitation film from the 1930's. The ridiculous propaganda film had been developed as a cautionary tale about the perils of smoking the demon weed, but it had been purchased and re-edited by an exploitation filmmaker and occasional sideshow huckster named Dwain Esper. Looking to make a buck Esper re-edited the film, gave it a sexier name and transformed into a timeless masterpiece of accidental comedy.
I have a confession to make. I’m overdosing on zombies. Over the years I’ve loved our undead brothers and sisters as much as the next George Romero cultist. But enough is enough. Nevertheless, director Dave Landis doesn’t wear out the gangrenous convention and this giddy, sometimes ghoulish tumble through America’s twisted Puritan psyche is good fun and full of fantastic performances.
As campy musicals go Reefer Madness is probably an act too long and most of the music is unmemorable. But it has its moments, and some of them are pretty spectacular. Fans of mid-century stereo exotica, the broadly-defined musical genre exemplified by artists like Martin Denny and Les Baxter, will get a kick out of “Jimmy Takes a Hit,” a trippy production number with appropriately over-the-top choreography courtesy of Courtney Oliver and Standrew Parker.
Landis has stylized everything and gets wonderfully precise and delightfully off kilter performances from all of his actors. It is especially fun to watch Corbin Williams’ Jimmy evolve from the perfect picture of promise and youthful exuberance into a sweaty, sex-crazed doob junkie with glazed over eyes, who’ll do anything for his next fix.
Williams is in good company. With her often affectless affect Morgan Howard conjures images of Vampira as Mae, a reluctant druggie hooked on, “The Stuff.” Kent Reynolds is an inspired choice for the brain-scrambled Ralph, Caroline Simpson disappears into Sally, a sex addict and strong candidate for world’s worst mom, and Richie MacLeod slathers pusher-man Jack Stone with gallons of vintage slime.
David Foster, who plays the story’s hip to be square narrator and steps into a number of smaller character parts, has long been one of my favorite local actors, and his performance in Reefer Madness exemplifies why. Foster allows every gag the all the time it needs to develop, and in this homage to terrible cinema his deliberately awkward, out of time timing couldn’t be more perfect.
There’s not much nutritional value in Reefer Madness but it’s a good time and loaded down with only the cheapest of theatrics. If it sounds like something you might like, you probably will. Besides, everybody’s doing it. And it won’t hurt you none.
Memphis Theatergoers may experience some deja vous at The Buddy Holly Story. In addition to playing in a Buddy Holly tribute band The Rave-Ons, Todd Meredith, the actor and musician currently playing Buddy at the Orpheum has played the seminal Texas rocker in 14 different productions. If you saw Playhouse on the Square’s solid 2008 production, you’ve already seen Todd do that thing he does so well.
Intermission Impossible: Tell me a little bit about how you get in touch with Buddy.
Todd Meredith: He was real person, you know, so there are certain challenges. I do a lot of research to really try get his speech patterns down, to get how he moved down. Because people have expectations it really keeps you from phoning it in. Because you have to live up to being this great rock-and- roll star.
Having done the role so often, do you continue to discover new things about the character, or have you pretty much got it down.
When I go into each production I get a little more perspective on things. It happens in different ways. It keeps things fresh for you and it keeps things fresh for the audience as well. I'm not the type of actor who goes out there and says the same line the same way every time.
What’s your favorite Buddy Holly song right now?
My band just started playing this one song called on "Lonesome Tears" that I hadn't even heard until fairly recently and is now quickly becoming one of my favorites.
We all know Buddy Holly the rock star. Who was Buddy Holly the guy?
He was a polite boy from Texas very polite and all the interviews he comes off as a very well spoken intelligent guy. The musical also shows that he was very tenacious. He knew exactly what he wanted at all times and was always able to express what he wanted. And when he didn't get what he wanted to get he actually become a bit ornery.
Buddy or Elvis?
Elvis was around longer and he kind of had that whole Las Vegas thing. I think that's sort of hurt some people's perspective of him. Buddy died in his prime. We weren't able to find out what he could've done. I'd like to think that he could have done great things. The directions he was taking with his music were really innovative. It’s like he knew he didn’t have much time. Buddy asked his wife to marry him the day they met. He knew he needed to get things accomplished really fast so he wasn't the type of guy to sit around and wait for things to happen. I think that really draws me to the character I wish I could be more like Buddy in that respect.
For ticket information here's your click.
While browsing through the Library of Congress film archives Keith Stroup, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, stumbled across a forgotten church-financed exploitation film from the 1930's called Reefer Madness. The ridiculous propaganda film had been developed as a cautionary tale about the perils of dope smoking, but it was purchased and re-edited by exploitation film producer and occasional sideshow huckster Dwain Esper, and transformed into a masterpiece of accidental comedy.
Stroup, seeing an opportunity to to raise money for NORML, acquired a print of the public domain film. In 1972 he booked it on a fundraising tour of college campuses and a cult classic was born.
Reefer Madness — also released under the titles Tell Your Children, Doped Youth, and (my favorite) The Burning Question — became a stage musical in 2005, and opens at the Circuit Playhouse tonight. (Friday, Oct. 11). Deets.
If nothing else, the show has already inspired some fantastic promotional t-shirts for Playhouse on the Square. On sale now!
Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein-- originally a film about film— loses something vital in its translation to the stage. But it gains a little something too: Freedom.
Theatre fans who've seen director Cecilia Wingate's previous work on shows like Little Shop of Horrors know that she knows her scary movies, and she knows how to turn the thrills and chills into comedy gold.
Tickets information here.
To make an appointment with Truvy, follow the link.
On Friday, October 11, Rhodes College is hosting a public symposium on the latest developments in book history that dovetails with innovative digital interpretations of Shakespeare.
All events are free and take place in Blount Auditorium (Buckman Hall), 9am—noon
9:00 am: Lukas Erne will discuss "Disseminating Printed Shakespeare in Early Modern England.” Dr. Erne is Professor of English at the University of Geneva. He is author of "Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist" (2003); "Shakespeare and the Book Trade" (2013); "Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators" (2008); and "Beyond ‘The Spanish Tragedy’: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd" (2001). He has won the Hoffman Prize, the Roma Gill Award, and the Robert Harvey Prize.
10:00 am: Michael Witmore will address "Writing Literary and Cultural History at the Level of the Sentence.” Dr. Witmore became the Folger Shakespeare Library′s seventh director on July 1, 2011. He is the author of "Landscapes of the Passing Strange" (2010); "Shakespearean Metaphysics" (2008); "Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance" (2007); and "Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledges in Early Modern England" (2001). He is co-winner of the Perkins Prize.
11:00 am: Robert Darnton will respond to these presentations, and engage in a roundtable discussion with Erne and Witmore. Dr. Darnton is University Professor and Director of the Harvard Library. Among his honors are a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Humanities Medal. He has written and edited many books, including "The Great Cat Massacre" (1984, translated into 18 languages) and "The Case for Books" (2009).
Dr. Darnton will also lecture at the University of Memphis on Thursday, October 10 (6:00pm, UC-Theatre): "Digitize and Democratize: Libraries, Books, and the Digital Future".
I take some comfort in a crudely drawn political cartoon from 1798 that depicts American congressmen fighting with fists, feet, clubs, and fireplace tongs. It reminds me that incivility isn't some new creation midwifed by Jerry Springer, refined by talk news, and perfected by the modern House of Representatives. Ignorance, bigotry, and bad behavior have always been with us, although digital and broadcast media have certainly turned up the volume in recent decades.
Just look at all those guys going at it. If they weren’t all white it might be a scene from Clybourne Park. I say that because the Pulitzer Prize winning drama, which is currently available for consumption at Playhouse on the Square, is a loud and noisy play. Voices compete with radios, phones and other voices as characters talk to, at, and over one another like impasse and misunderstanding was the most desirable outcome. And there are moments in Bruce Norris' fiercely funny play about race, real estate, and the evolving urban environment, when that absolutely seems to be the case. It sometimes becomes so busy, frustrating and noisy it might as well be Congress.
Clybourne Park's well known central conceit is that it functions as a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act occurs simultaneously with the actions of Raisin, but in the tragedy-haunted home Hansberry's Younger family will eventually buy. The white middle class sellers are packing up for the suburbs and as they prepare, physically and emotionally, to move away from the place where their son took his own life, they are visited by a neighbor, Karl Linder, the only character to appear in both Raisin and Clybourne Park. He's come with his deaf wife in tow, to announce that the family that has bought the house—a house already devalued by suicide—is black. He explains, with increasing frustration and anger, all the reasons why this new development will have a devastating effect on the neighborhood and the value of his property.
Flash forward 50 years. For being so wrong Karl was correct in his predictions. As foretold, white families moved away from Chicago's once desirable Clybourne Park. Well, at least the people who were capable of moving. Over time it became a black, down-at-heel neighborhood that has since stabilized and is now on the cusp of gentrification.
The graffiti-covered Younger house is now empty and a young white family is hoping to tear it down and erect a new home that's 15-feet taller than anything in the neighborhood. They are being opposed by a neighborhood group, and Norris's depiction of the negotiations over demolition may be the most eviscerating depiction of privilege and modern tribalism to appear on this, or any stage. Everybody, justified or not, has their own persecution complex, and offense is the default response to nearly every circumstance.
Norris's sharp writing doesn't just expose overt prejudice on all sides, it also digs into the white liberal value system to expose more subtle and insidious strains of racism that can't be easily recognized or understood without an unusual degree of self reflection. We've all seen it. It's the kind of racism that invariably leads a person to remind other people that some of his/her best friends aren't white. Norris addresses all of this so honestly and with such biting humor that even thinner-skinned audience members who might be caught up in their own privilege and inclined toward easy offense, will be too busy laughing to get mad.
Director Stephen Hancock has assembled a top drawer cast of character actors for Clybourne Park’s regional premiere. John Maness is superb as Karl, the kinder gentler 50's-era racist. He’s even better as Steve, a successful progressive who has suppressed his “white man’s burden” as long as he can, and isn’t going to take it anymore.
Maness’ telling of an off color joke is a brilliant exercise in uncomfortable anti-humor. And it frees up other players in this too familiar drama to share their own culturally-charged jokes.
How is a white woman like a tampon? I’m not saying, but there it is.
Recent Ostrander winner Claire Kolheim proves once again that she is one of Memphis’ finest, playing a soft-spoken maid and an outspoken attorney. The always excellent Michael Gravois is convincing as a 50’s era businessman devastated by the loss of his son and also as a talkative laborer who finds a chest buried in the back yard. Meredith Julian gives a fearless performance as the potentially offensive hearing-impaired racist’s wife then turns the tables as an easily offended yuppie who isn’t deaf but still seems to have a hearing problem.
Clybourne Park is, in every way, an ensemble show but somehow, and in spite of her not being especially tall, Mary Buchignani Hemphill stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. In act one she is the stereotypical mid-century housewife, happy to not have a mind cluttered with all the pesky information that trouble the menfolk. If knowledge is power she’d rather be powerless. Hemphill disappears into the character.
In act two Hemphill plays the middlebrow daughter of Karl Linder, who is now a real estate agent. And she does so with such confidence and comfort it’s easy to forget she was also the crumbling hysteric from act one.
We're only two months into the 2013-14 theater schedule and already Memphis theatergoers have had an opportunity to see some extraordinary dramatic productions. Red at Circuit Playhouse, Proof, at Theatre Memphis, and The Whipping Boy at Hattiloo were all shows that could be a highlight of any season. Of them all, Clybourne Park is the most provocative and the most entertaining. It's exploration of tribal codes and loaded language might even lead one to suspect that all the fighting happening in the U.S. Congress right now isn’t really about the budget, or the deficit. It could be about a certain piece D.C. of real estate— a white house, if you will— and who is and isn’t allowed to occupy.
For details click here.
There was a time when POTS regularly produced at least one original script every year or two but, if memory serves, the practice ended sometime in the 1990's.
Submissions began in January of this year and public readings of the finalists begin this weekend.
From the press release:
A total of six finalists were selected by a panel of local directors, actors, and designers. Each play will receive a staged reading and audience feedback will help to determine which two plays will be fully produced as part of Playhouse on the Square's 2014 - 15 Season.
For a list of all finalists and more information about the competition, click here.
Memory Grove by Dean Farell Bruggeman
Saturday, October 5, 1pm at Playhouse on the Square
Four married couples face destructive, life-altering obstacles. Is love fatally misplaced? "Til death do us part" is more an omen than a vow.
CAST: Lorraine Cotten, Michael Detroit, Renée Kemper, Lisa Lynch, John Moore, Joshua Quinn, Kevin Stark, and Jacob Wingfield
Directed by Jordan Nichols
In Her Awkward Fist by Wayne Paul Mattingly
Sunday, October 6, 7pm at Playhouse on the Square
On the day of her father's burial, 14-year-old Brigette meets Marvin, a middle-aged man. Friendship quickly evolves into intimacy. Is it love or lust?
CAST: Stephen Booth, Ann Marie Hall, Carly Crawford, Erin Shelton, and Cary Vaughn
Directed by Matt Crewse
This weekend's readings:
Memory Grove by Dean Farell Bruggeman, Saturday, October 5.
In Her Awkward Fist by Wayne Paul Mattingly, Sunday, October 6th
Tickets for all readings are $10. Call 901-726-4656 or purchase ONLINE.
I can’t really review Rigoletto. I didn’t see the show on opening night, but rather during a final dress. I suppose it was a critic's preview, but I’m funny about that. Things can change before opening night, and usually do. I can share impressions though. Most all of them positive. I was knocked out by scenic design that perfectly captured the color palette of renaissance portraiture, and lighting that would have suited Caravaggio. Rich, vibrant reds and golds explode among all the black and shades of gray on stage. And, although I thought a lot of character development wasn’t quite there just yet, I was equally impressed by an ensemble performance hellbent on undermining all the old cliches about tenors, sopranos, and the amorous lure of the spotlight.
But enough about the show, let’s talk about me.
During the first intermission I relocated from my excellent seat (balcony, front and center) to the social media section far stage right, where audience members gathered for Wednesday night’s Rigoletto preview could tweet and text and post comments about the show to Facebook. Or, being located where the dimmed lights of our devices wouldn’t distract, we could even play a round or two of Temple Run during the slow parts.
For the record, it never got slow enough for Temple Run. In fact, for being a dress rehearsal, and still a little hinky here and there, things moved right along. I also have to admit, as someone who believes that all devices go off when the lights go down, there was something really nice about taking in a masterpiece in such a casual environment. I wasn’t alone in a crowded room anymore and could silently share with friends and followers— as if by telepathy— every thought that welled up, and every emotion that swept over me. To my surprise, people were paying attention.
I say surprise only because, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what the hell is tweeting about opera? But there were people on the other end. People who love music. People who love opera. And also people who are curious but don’t know much about either one.
“Hope you have tissue ready,” one friend warned after I noted that lightning had begun flashing all around the stage. The tragedy, she cautioned, would be devastating.
To be honest, none of my tweets were especially insightful. And the more I narrated the more obvious it became how much I sounded like some bumbling Fred Willard character spinning “informed comment” into accidental heavy metal lyrics: “Bombast from the pit. Now the Jester dreams of revenge!” In fact, I only bring it up because it was fun. And it was fun in a way that, as ordinary as social connection has become, still made the whole experience seem new.
But maybe it’s time for a little more about the opera.
Rigoletto is a piece that seems to beg for reinvention. It’s been set in the world of mobsters, and in 1950’s Las Vegas, when Frank Sinatra was Chairman of the board. Although he wasn’t directing, Opera Memphis’ General Director Ned Canty likes to play with the material he produces, and I was almost surprised by a traditional profile and subtle acting that’s about as cinematic as an opera can be without losing its clarity. The story is one of a womanizing duke, his saucy, crippled jester, a hit man, a curse, a mob set on woman-stealing, and a family tragedy too horrible to imagine. The familiar music is atmospheric, and sometimes ironic with flashes of fire and fury.
At preview director Keturah Stickann’s Rigoletto never seemed as dynamic as it might be. But then again, this production always seemed to be more of an exercise in balance than anything else. And from the orchestra in the pit to the voices on stage, balance was achieved. If the storytelling was short on character, it was as clear and engaging as Anya Matanovic’s delightful soprano singing in the role of Gilda, the title character’s ill-fated daughter.
For more information, here’s your click.
I happen to like staged readings. They let audiences experience plays in a living context that, for whatever reasons, might never be produced. And they can help producing bodies realize potential and gauge interest in newer or more obscure works.
I like readings even more when they are as complete as this one is, but can still understand why someone might feel the need to dress up the concept to attract skeptics.
Sunset’s opening is gorgeous. It takes off like a bullet train with blinking red lights, clanging bells, then a burst of white light. And then, as eyes recover from the shock, the image of the actors fades into view. And their scripts.
Ron Gephart— book and all— is perfectly cast as “White” the otherwise unnamed professor. White is a laconic, sardonic depressive bent on self-slaughter, and Gephart brings a quantity of bitterness and rage to the table and keeps that potentially explosive pairing at a steady smolder throughout the night. His acting partner, the almost always excellent TC Sharpe, is merely effective. But he's got a lot more words than Gephart— probably more words than Hamlet for that matter — and is more tied to his script.
It's frustrating to see perfectly cast performers getting so close to a finish line they’ll probably never be allowed to cross. It's even more frustrating to see an author of McCarthy's caliber ( All the Pretty Horses , No Country for Old Men, etc.) hobbled by tired cliches.
The story in a nutshell: After attempting to throw himself in front of a train called the Sunset Limited, White is taken back to the rundown slum apartment of his savior Black, an ex-con and murderer who has found God and now works as maintenance man when he’s not skipping work to do good deeds. White is a depressed atheist with no faith in God or his fellow man. Black is a textbook example of an American entertainment stereotype commonly described (and not without controversy) as the “magical negro.”
Black came from out of nowhere to save White, who swears he looked to make sure the platform was empty before attempting to take his his own life, and there’s some slight suggestion that Black might be an angel. Later in the “play” Black accurately and unbelievably pulls off a Kreskinesque mentalist stunt by writing down what White is going to say before he says it, leaving White— and the audience— to wonder “how?” In addition to these seemingly magical feats, this older, unrelentingly wise, and uncommonly cheerful ex-con does what he can to bring his lost brother White back into the brotherhood of man.
After my first brush with Sunset, a story that suggests that academic learning might separate us from emotional learning, and the childlike acceptance that helps us find God, all I wanted to do was sit down with McCarthy and watch Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels.
In Sullivan’s Travels Joel McCrea plays an educated and optimistic young screenwriter who thinks Hollywood movies are too shallow and should show Americans the depth and breadth of human suffering. After a series of unfortunate events that result in false imprisonment and hard labor this bright optimist comes to understand, without ever having to explain, that Disney is its own kind of opiate, and for those who suffer, as merciful as Morphine. Or religion. Or whatever gets you through the rough patches, soul intact.
Unlike Sunset, Sullivan’s Travels is a film that, while not blind to race, or religion, puts these hot topics in supporting roles. When McCrea and his fellow prisoners encounter Disney, it’s during “movie night” at a black pentecostal church, where the pastor cautions his congregation not to make the prisoners feel unwelcome. It is, perhaps, a more Jesus-like way to share faith, and in terms of entertainment, a lot less tedious than this more-contemporary phenomenon where older black characters are Bible wizards directly connected to the supernatural.
I use Sullivan’s Travels as a point of comparison because it also helps us to see some things that McCarthy may have gotten right, critical reception notwithstanding. Unlike other similarly heady and equally inactive works by authors like Beckett and Sartre— works whose dramatic qualities have also been scrutinized— there’s nothing alienating about the setting or the language of Sunset Limited. In that regard maybe it’s a working class Godot with one character stuck on the line “Why don’t we hang ourselves.”
In short, for all of its obvious problems, and its potential to plunge headlong into cliche, Sunset Limited deserves a fair shake. The opportunity to see two excellent actors read through it live only highlights the fact that this isn’t that. But it could be.
I’m grousing, not dismissing. This isn’t a bad night of theater. But to minimize disappointments, you need to know exactly what you’re getting into.
For more information, here you go.
There is a famous quotation variously credited to Martin Mull, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, George Carlin, and a slew of other creative wits, but predating the lot of them: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." The line is generally invoked to discredit music critics, but it's really dancers who take the hardest hit. What's wrong with dancing about architecture? Why not respond sonically, poetically, or physically to the landscape, manmade or natural? It's a question a group of local dancers are asking as they prepare to perform "Trees: Dances and Odes for Tall Leafy Friends."
"Trees," is a series of short environmental works inspired by specific trees in Greenbelt Park on the banks of the Mississippi River. Contributing artists including Robin Salant, Anne J. Froning, Bethany Bak, Marianne Bell, Wayne M. Smith, and Sarah Ledbetter will use installation, improvisation, tap dance, storytelling, and a variety of mixed media to consider the life, shape, motion and sounds of trees.
Director Sarah Ledbetter has described “Trees” as “an irreverent love letter," although it was difficult to find much irreverence in a recent "open studio" work through of the piece. Even the most humorous work, which finds a group of tap dancing beatniks reciting sincere poetry, is infused with good old fashioned capital-R Romanticism.
"Trees" is a free event taking place Saturday, October 5 and Sunday, October 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Mississippi Greenbelt Park on Mud Island.Attendees should park at the lot approximately 1 mile north of the Willis Ave (Harbor Town) bridge, where they will receive a program and beverages.