Review

Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Woman in Black": A Ghost Story in Search of a Campfire

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 1:38 PM

James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black - PHOTO: CHASE GUSTAFSON/CHASING PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo: Chase Gustafson/Chasing Photography
  • James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black

Audiences can't seem to get enough of The Woman in Black. Or can they? The Supernatural thriller opened to rave reviews in London’s West End, 25 years ago, and has been in continuous production since. A film version showcasing the talents of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was released two years ago to decent reviews but considerably less enthusiasm. Last week The New Moon Theatre Company, in keeping with the troupe's wonderful tradition of telling scary late October stories, opened The Woman in Black at TheatreWorks. It's not the company's strongest effort to date,  though the well-used material remains, somehow, as fresh and earthy as a newly dug grave. If you like a good Halloween season ghost story, you probably won’t be disappointed by this interpretation of the spine-tingling yarn. If you're looking for a Fright Night roller coaster ride, full of shocks, bumps, and screams that well up from the bottom of your soul, that’s probably not going to happen.


Audiences who've been watching this season’s American Horror Story: Freakshow, may find the premise of this dark, two-man-one-ghost play within a play weirdly familiar. AHS has loosely adapted the plot to its own Edward Mordrake storyline, which finds a two-faced man rising from his grave to claim the souls of sideshow performers foolish enough to perform on Halloween. Similarly, The Woman in Black’s namesake character suffered humiliation and loss in life, but it’s the lives of innocent children her vengeful, restless spirit claims when she appears. It’s creepy stuff, in the psychologically compelling spirit of Jacques Tourneur horror masterpiece, Night of the Demon.

New Moon’s production has a lot going for it. James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel-Gunn are both strong performers and work well enough together in the roles of an older gentleman who's experienced unimaginable terror, and a younger actor who's teaching him how to loosen up and tell his story properly. This is a great role for Green, a familiar face on Memphis stages. He’s a haunted presence onstage, and especially good at shifting from character to character with little more than a shift in posture, or a slightly altered tone of voice.

New Moon and scenic designer J. David Galloway get extra credit for making the most of TheaterWorks’ black box. The performance space has been transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. It genuinely feels like you’re sitting in some tiny ancient, grubby proscenium theater in the English countryside.

For all of these good things, The Woman in Black never really jumps off the stage, even when its characters lean in to the audience. It seems as though director Justin Asher, the creative force behind last season’s successful production of Haint, has sought to establish a tone, and in doing so, may have lost sight of the play’s shape. The show drones on and on with a heavy, never-changing sense of foreboding that prevents us from ever being too surprised by any of the terrible things that happen. It’s a one note night of theater. Thankfully that one note never really sours. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

#Bless this #Mess: Threepenny Theatre Company’s Tartuffe Needs Your Prayers

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2014 at 3:00 PM

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I’m starting with a spoiler and I’m not even sorry. There’s a scene near the end of #Blessed where Dick, the show’s ostensible villain, is taken down by a cop with a Taser gun. It’s a literally shocking depiction of excessive force that, absent some broader context, simply invites audiences to laugh at a law enforcement officer abusing a character we’ve been conditioned over time to dislike. It is at once the show’s most cringeworthy moment, and its most interesting. That the gag's dangling cultural reference gets laughs is more thought provoking than anything that happens onstage.



Conceptually, Threepenny Theatre Company gets a lot right with its current interpretation of Moliere’s Tartuffe. They don’t hide behind the play's famous name and reputation, but take ownership of and responsibility for a well known satirical farce that's been slightly reconfigured by augmenting Moliere's classic swipe at religious hypocrisy and middle class values with convoluted political messaging and apologia. The show's creators, Matt Crewse and Christopher Tracy christened their work  #Blessed, which is kind of elegant.  They describe it as a “transdaptation,” which is awkward, accurate, and perfect for a performance that has no idea where it's going or what it wants to be. Except for where it clearly wants to be Mama’s Family.


As mentioned above, #Blessed turns Tartuffe, the play’s original namesake character, into a running Dick joke, with lines of dialogue that sound like episode titles from Third Rock From the Sun. The original Tartuffe is a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, feigning extreme piousness to form parasitic relationships with the needy and the devout. He injects his own greedy agenda into his intended victims’ personal belief systems, like a virus, as he trolls for money and sex. Dick, as played by the often superb John Dylan Atkins, is a loud, ranting Jesus- jerk whose extreme, and extremely repulsive behavior calls to mind the rambunctious physical comedy of the late Chris Farley, but without the subtlety. Credibility is strained from the top because it’s impossible to understand how anybody not dangerously ignorant in their own right, might be taken in by a boogery clown of such outsized proportions. Atkins is a courageous actor who gives every role everything he’s got. It's usually a good thing but this time around it’s just exhausting.



Atkins’ unrealistic, over-the-top approach is reflected by the entire company of actors who achieve the scale, but not the specificity that makes for effective commedia-inspired clowning.



For all of its bluster, #Blessed wants to be too many things too timidly. It wants to make ham-fisted comments about about religion and politics in America today. But it also wants to apologize for these same things by way of a character who, having no other part in the action, drops in from time to time to defend communities of faith with sensible monologues that sound suspiciously like ads for Midtown’s progressive First Congregational Church. It’s an extreme violation of the show-don’t-tell principle of good theatrical storytelling even if Jerry Kimble is the most believable person on stage.



In Memphis, a city with its share of mega-churches, and mega-problems it’s easy to see why this 350-year-old play gets a full-on place-specific remake every ten years or so. And in an age of purity balls and overt anti-feminism, even arranged marriages, the source material’s most archaic plot device, don’t seem that far fetched. There is no reason in the world why a bright young company like TPC shouldn’t be able to transform Tartuffe into something edgy and up to date. But even with so many of the right ingredients in place, and chunks of the original script left more or less in tact, #Blessed is seldom more than a manic, muddled two-act SNL skit, that overflows with good intentions and sketchy judgment.



Even if its latest effort was less than successful artistically (don’t get me started on how much better it is to have no set than a clunky one) it’s good to see that TPC isn’t just a one trick pony producing a safe slate of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. I should probably mention that, criticisms aside, the show received a standing ovation on opening night, from a healthy, refreshingly young audience that seemed to genuinely appreciate the messy effort.


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Thursday, July 24, 2014

"4000 Miles" Goes the Distance at TheatreWorks

Posted By on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 4:18 PM

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I know this is the same road
I took the day I left home
But it sure looks different now
Well I guess I look different too— Bobby Bare, "500 Miles"

Gentle. That's the word I hear over and over again in reference to 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog's funny, thorny play about geographical, emotional, temporal, and even political distance across generations. Director Tony Isbell dropped the word when we chatted online. It's popped up repeatedly in conversations with friends who've seen the play at TheatreWorks. Even New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called it a "gently comic drama,” in his review, so there must be something to the idea that it's a gentle play. But that isn’t how I experienced 4000 Miles at all. It was an uncomfortably real snapshot of a generational moment. It was a sound thrashing of lifestyle-lefties, and a similarly-bracing critique of our elders and their astonishing ability to idealize the past, and enshrine it in ways that remain fixed, even as people change and cultures evolve. 4000 Miles is a quiet play, mostly. There's no sustained shouting or violence to speak of, though death looks out from every corner of the room. Genuinely sweet moments are shared between a self-absorbed millennial and his grandmother, an old lefty at the tipping point of senility. But Over the River and Through the Woods it isn’t, nor is gentle a word I'd ever choose to describe this subtle, one-act reminder that the ultimate reward of a long life is outliving everyone who might attend your funeral.

Did I mention that the show is also funny. Because it is. What it's not is tightly-plotted. Nor is it full of the archetypal characters that tend to populate the classic American family drama. To that-end, 4000 Miles— a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a chamber piece, more meditation than assault. But it's an uneasy meditation, almost never serene.

The play opens with a scruffy, baggage-laden Leo waking Vera, his elderly grandmother in her Greenwich Village apartment at 3 a.m. The last thing she expected was an early morning visit from her left-coast grandson, and she doesn’t seem all that happy to see him. Leo had been cycling across the country with a friend. When that friend died in a freak, horrible accident on the road, he broke off communication with his family in Minneapolis and went off the grid.

Leo's not intentionally malicious, but the young trustafarian is a natural manipulator: A wounded rugged outdoorsy-type quick to use his personal tragedy if it buys some sympathy or helps get the hot Chinese girl who looks like his adopted sister into bed. He takes up residence with his grandmother on a temporary basis, but makes her promise to not tell the family where he is. During that time he mooches, like some gigolo version of a grandson, trading human company and smiles for favor, making only a few real connections along the way. Leo doesn't mean to be mean, but he is, making fun of his grandmother for still using the Yellow Pages, and scolding her for buying bananas. "There's no such thing as a local banana," he calls after her disdainfully.

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Over the course of the play we watch Leo lose his girlfriend Bec, making one final douchey request to, "remember how our bodies were together." It doesn't work. We also witness an attempted hook-up with a rich girl named Amanda who flips out when she discovers she's in the huge, rent-controlled apartment of a card carrying communist "I don't know if I can have sex in a Communist's home," she says— or words to that effect. Her wild drunken anti-communist rant is one of the show's best set pieces. Replace the word Communist with any racial descriptor and the monologue would probably still work. And the audience would be left slack-jawed in its wake. Then again, Amanda is Chinese. Vera isn’t exactly a Maoist or a monster but Amanda has family history, and can’t even be won over by her ironic, rent-control envy. Leo attempts to assuage her concerns, suggesting that Communism was a fashionable thing when his grandmother was young. “It was like recycling,” he says, cutting right to the play's painfully frustrated heart.

4000 Miles took its first Off-Broadway bows about three months before the Occupy movement moved into Zuccotti Park. I mention that because, somehow that ultimately ineffective real-world occurrence seems more like the ending of Herzog’s play than its actual ending. She uses the outdoorsy Leo and the urban Vera to look at how far the easily-identified tropes of the American left had evolved. Class-conscious collective action, had become a lifestyle choice for people who can afford to protest GMOs and oil companies with their purchasing power. There is some suggestion that Leo is growing, by play’s end. It’s not hard to imagine him leaving for his new job out west only to get caught up in the massive street protest brewing in Manhattan. Nor is it hard to imagine him picking up camp on the second cold night.

Every character in 4000 Miles is a prisoner of perspective, but Leo most of all. He's loveably disheveled, despicably self-centered and difficult to like. His grandmother Vera can be abrasive, and muddled, but she clearly has the more sympathetic role, and Karen Mason Riss is spectacular in the part.

Riss is a veteran performer who’s earned her accolades. She seldom misses, and although Vera isn’t exactly a flashy role, it can be counted among her best performances.

Christopher Joel Onken is completely believable as Leo, although his more cloying antics come across as being downright sinister. Carly Crawford is also effective, if a little stilted as Leo’s girlfriend Bec. Then again, if the show has a thankless part, that’s it.

Ron Gordon’s scenic design gives the impression that Vera’s not-so-Manhattan Manhattan residence is infinitely large on the inside. That’s a quibble, not a deal-breaker.

4000 Miles is a talky play, and not very action packed. It has never sounded like a show I would like very much. And yet I can’t remember when I’ve been quite so unexpectedly swept off my feet by a script and an acting ensemble. Grace, which also showcased the talents of Mr. Onken came close, but it’s a cartoon rendition of modernity compared to the subtleties of 4000 Miles.

For ticket information, here you go.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Funny Things: GCT's Colorful "Forum" Has a lot of Heart and a Few Good Gags

Posted By on Fri, May 23, 2014 at 10:18 AM

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Germantown Community Theatre's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum presents its audiences with an interesting question to ponder: just how good can a canned ham be?

The material is time-tested and maybe a little shopworn, but the comic foundations remain solid. The cast, if somewhat streamlined, has a good sense for the material, and also the good sense to take ownership of what can be a predictable night full of predictable gags. As Pseudolus, the slave who'll do anything for his freedom, Wesley Barnes is all ham (in the best way) and although he may never quite rise to the acrobatic heights or sink to the lewd, appetite-driven depths of a true Arlecchino, Barns is a fearless performer, very funny clown, and taken on its own, his energetic performance is a perfectly good reason to recommend the show.

That's how I feel about a lot of the very funny performances and jokes here, although they collectively add up to something less than the sum of their parts.

"You know, a funny thing happened on the way to [fill in the blank]" is to comedians what rhyming moon with June is to songwriters. And true to form, Forum, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart's 1962 musical comedy, is filled with jokes that were old when the concept of comedy was still relatively young. A loving tribute to historical burlesque the show borrows plot devices from Plautus, the popular Roman author whose plays were essentially an excuse for one naughty joke after the other. Since mating hasn't changed all that much in the last 2000 years, they're essentially the same naughty jokes told by the baggy-pants comedians of burlesque who were famous for their lack of originality. After all, in burlesque, the content of the joke itself is relatively unimportant. As with the tease before the strip, it's all about how you present the material.

When were sunglasses invented?
  • When were sunglasses invented?

Plautus is the spiritual father of Commedia dell'arte, which took stock characters, and stock stories and loaded them up with timely topical references and improvisational gags called lazzis. Attempts to mine this history result in some of the night's most jarring notes (lazzi of the cell phone), and some of its biggest laughs (lazzi of mourning).

The plot (more or less): Pseudolus, a slave, has been promised his freedom if he can deliver to his master the love of his life, a young virgin who has, much to the slave's dismay, already been purchased by the pompous war-hero Miles Gloriosus. The rest is a breakneck mishmash of sight gags and mistaken identities, bolstered by 16 of Sondheim's typically literate tunes.

In addition to Barnes' admirable go at Pseudolus there are some fine comic turns by Greg Alexander (Senex), Mary Buchignani (Domina), Justin Willingham (Lycus), Brent Davis (Hysterium), and Chad Hoy (Erronius), who manages to make one of the script's most worn out gags funny again with the sheer force of silliness.

Andy Saunders stylized set depicts an Athens so garishly colorful it just might make your eyeballs bleed. While it's right on target in so many ways, sometimes it's best to remove a piece of jewelry before going out. When all of the equally colorful costumes parade across the stage it's almost too much too for tired eyes.

Alas, unless you're working with an incredible recording and a state of the art sound system (and even then...) it's hard to make canned music sound like anything but canned music. And that, ultimately, is what keeps a potentially stellar, and for GCT, a fairly progressive interpretation of this Funny Thing from ever taking us all the way to the Forum.

For ticket information, here you go!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Down On the Farm: "Camp Logan" Explores Another Bitter Patch of American Racial History

Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 1:52 PM

The cast of Camp Logan
  • The cast of "Camp Logan"

Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, Camp Logan is a play in serious need of a high and tight military-style haircut. But this humor-infused, and ultimately devastating peek inside the racial pressure cooker that resulted in the 1917 Houston riot is well worth the time investment, if only for the history lesson.

Celeste Bedford Walker’s play is more of a character study than a straightforward narrative. Inspired by actual events, it follows a platoon of black soldiers stationed at Camp Logan in Houston, TX, in the months leading up to the United States' entry into WWI. The men to whom we're introduced have served their country under Teddy Roosevelt and chased Pancho Villa throughout the American Southwest, but it's clear that they are officially regarded as blacks first, soldiers second and therefore assumed to be lazy, lecherous, and unable to get by without the strictest rules and white supervision.

Camp Logan introduces audiences to class clown Gwelly (Jose Joiner), the righteously indignant Joe Moses (Kenon Walker), the appetite-driven Boogaloosa from New Orleans (Cooli Crawford), Franciscus the straight-laced MP (Jernario Davis), and Hardin (Emanuel McKinney), a young intellectual from Minnesota, inspired by the writing of W.E.B. Dubois to serve his country, and prove to the white population that his people are worthy of something better than second class citizenship. We are also introduced to the drunken white Capt. Zuelke (Bart Mallard), and Sgt. McKinney (TC Sharpe), a hard-assed drill Sgt. tasked with keeping his men from being caught in Jim Crow traps, and taking the brunt of the Army's top-down racism.

There are two primary forces driving the action in Camp Logan. The immediate threat is rooted in the expectations of whites as Houston's black population becomes empowered by the mere presence of certifiable African-American heroes. Blacks that won't boot-lick and deliver service with a smile under even the most humiliating circumstances are deemed insubordinate. And over time it becomes clear that no fairly-devised plan can prevent the soldiers from run-ins with local law enforcement.

The second primary conflict is born from the fact that these black soldiers have been to Cuba and Mexico where they were treated the same as whites. There's concern within the military that America's enemies could easily flip black allegiance by pointing out America's obvious inequalities. The irony, of course, is that it's red blooded Americans and not the "German Huns" who make it clear to the soldiers stationed at Camp Logan that their war isn't overseas.

Is there anything more disturbing than the image of an African-American performing broad race-based comedy in blackface? If there is it's Camp Logan's depiction of black soldiers finding joy and empowerment in these performances for the entertainment of appreciative white audiences. Strong medicine, effectively presented.

In real life things in Houston came to a head when two Houston police officers broke into the home of an African American woman, dragged her partially naked into the street, and assaulted her in front of her children. When military men interfered they were shot at and beaten. Although all of this happens off-stage Camp Logan follows this basic narrative, stressing the psychological effect of constant dehumanization.

The slow-moving nature of Walker’s's play requires some patience. This is exacerbated by a fantastic cast that's still struggling to find firm footing in a meandering piece. But patience will be rewarded with an incredible story that's been all but swept underneath the rug of history.

Those keeping up with the news have no doubt encountered the story of Cliven Bundy, the rancher who became a Conservative folk hero following a standoff with Federal troops. Bundy lost some of his strongest public supporters when he said out lout what smarter politicians prefer only to say by way of deracialized public policy: Blacks might be better off in slavery. This idea, which has never gone away, comes from the belief that without the great white father to take care of them and encourage them to work a little harder than they might on their own, blacks fall into savagery and dependance. This recently-expressed idea is a guiding principle at Camp Logan. The namesake play strongly, and perhaps even unintentionally, suggests that maybe things haven't changed as much as so many of us seem to think they have.

The Bluff-City Tri-Art Theatre Company is dedicated to producing new and lesser-known works. Camp Logan is a great example of just how valuable our independent-minded companies are, even in a fairly rich and diverse theater environment. For details and ticket information click here.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tripping: New Moon Revisits Horton Foote's "Trip to Bountiful"

Posted By on Thu, Apr 3, 2014 at 1:12 PM

(Sylvia Barringer Wilson)
  • (Sylvia Barringer Wilson)

Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful speaks to me in uncommonly personal ways. I know every one of those characters. I met them when I was a child, watching the little old tough-as-iron ladies living in an East Texas retirement community, as they planted plastic flowers in the sandy beds they’d cut into grey-brown lawns full of goat-heads and grass burrs, where no actual flowers would grow. My dad was born and raised in the Lone Star State, and when I was very young he told me the story about how his dad, my Papa Charlie, once threw a brick out of the window of his house with the pronouncement, “Wherever it lands, that’s where we’re going to bury you.” Out of context it sounds like a threat, but it’s more an expression of what it means to be a Texan. My grandparents moved from city to city and town until eventually, toward the end of their lives, they moved back to their tiny hometown. I imagined all sorts of exotic reasons for the frequent changes of address, but when I finally asked the real answer was so simple and so obvious: “It’s just too beautiful a state to stay in any one place for very long.”

Clearly The Trip to Bountiful, currently on stage at TheatreWorks, has spoken to a diverse audience since it arrived as an NBC TV drama some 61-years ago. But I swear, you need a little Texas in your blood to really get it.

Bountiful is a small play with epic intentions. It’s the “there and back again” story of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living in Houston with her struggling son and his prattling wife. She burns with the Salmon-like need to return to Bountiful, TX , her hometown, just one last time before she dies, to see her old house on the banks of the Brazos river, smell the brackish Gulf air, and listen to the sound of the mockingbirds. But being a prisoner in her son’s home (for “her own good” of course), she has to sneak out and go on the lam. The play’s drama is provided by the ensuing chase, combined with an unusual look at the usual perils encountered by a “babe in the woods.” The rest is a personality study, and a meditation on changes in life and the American landscape, and all the things we lose along the way.

The supporting cast of characters are relatively benign creations, although it’s easy to imagine most of them as the same people you’ll meet in a Jim Thompson noir on the rare day when they aren’t feeling malicious.

New Moon was established as a company on a mission to produce difficult, sometimes anti-commercial work, but has evolved considerably, building a strong, well-deserved reputation as an actor’s showcase, and working with more audience-friendly material like Death of a Salesman, Vanities, and now The Trip to Bountiful.

Sylvia Barringer Wilson makes Carrie a soft-spoken spitfire, and the play is at its best when she leads the audience to wonder if Bountiful is a real place, or an invention of subtle dementia. She may even be a little too soft-spoken at times, in a nearly cinematic performance that’s done no favors by a lighting design de-emphasizing the intimacy of TheatreWorks.

Tracie Hansom makes a convincing bully of Carrie’s Coke-swilling, glamor-minded, gospel music-hating daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, and one almost longs for the moment when Carrie’s son Ludie, ably played by Joshua Quinn, snaps like the henpecked Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and tells Jessie Mae to lay off his Mom. That never quite happens. Even though Ludie tries to establish some ground rules, we leave the theater knowing that he’s not very effective, and not much has changed.

Gene Elliott and Emily Marie Burnett are especially good as the fresh-faced newlywed Carrie meets on the train that takes her closest to Bountiful, and the small town Sheriff who does a good turn.

The minimal scenic design effectively places the action between rows of telephone poles. An even more forced perspective might have made TheatreWork’s wide, shallow playing area seem more compact, as would a lighting design that emphasized people over space.

Don’t be mislead by any negative tone you may perceive in this review. I wasn’t knocked out by the production, but I was often engaged. And like I said before, I feel like I know these people. Like they could be family. And I would have preferred to spend the evening with them instead of watching them close up, but at a distance.

The Trip to Bountiful is at TheatreWorks through April 13. For more information, click here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

"Seven Guitars" Closes at the Hattiloo this weekend. August Wilson fans won't want to miss it.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 28, 2014 at 1:19 PM

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Seven Guitars asks a simple question: What happens to a dream in hock?

Earl's fresh out of jail, back in Pittsburgh's Hill District with his friends and former bandmates, and the record they cut together is climbing the charts. After much uncertainty there's an opportunity to return to Chicago to cut another single, if only Earl could get his guitar out of the pawn shop. And if the Jim Crow-era threat of a black man being arrested for "worthlessness" or for "having too much money" didn't make the proposition that much riskier.

Seven Guitars is one of August Wilson's most rambling and meandering plays. That's not necessarily a complaint, but it can be when the producing company isn't up to the challenges Wilson throws down. Thankfully, all of the performers in the Hattiloo's loose, but lucid show are able to wear their characters like a bespoken wardrobe, breathing real life into these living embodiments of the blues.


Dramatically speaking, Seven Guitars owes much to the concept Chekhovian stasis, even as it lays the foundations for some of the best contemporary African-American theater. Katori Hall's Hurt Village is the show that immediately comes to mind, in part because James Cook, who was so memorable in Hall's best play to date, turns in an equally strong performance as Earl's harp player. And he's not alone at the top. The title, Seven Guitars, is less a reverence to specific instruments than to show's seven primary characters. To every actor assembled on stage, all I can say is "Well played."

But I single out Cook— who is so very good in his role— for a reason. He's also the best example of the one thing that keeps this show off of my short list of the season's best. At one point the character pulls his harmonica out to play, and the actor just doesn't have the skills to pull it off. That's not his fault, necessarily, but it's still a problem because the only time this crew isn't jamming beautifully together, is during the jams.

That said, if you can only see one show this weekend, I'd seriously consider this one. When it cooks, it cooks and after Sunday, it's gone.

Details here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Family Matters: "Other Desert Cities" and "Death of a Salesman" face the final curtain

Posted By on Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 4:07 PM

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I'm at a loss to explain the tremendous critical acclaim that greeted Jon Robin Baitz Other Desert Cities . It's not a bad play, and I'm willing to concede that I may have missed the point. Also, the dialogue is often fantastic, even if the characters and plot both seem a little "paint by numbers."

The recipe for ODC is familiar enough. Start with a fractious family reunion (Christmas being the excuse this time), toss in some secrets, and one shocking revelation made in the play's last act that changes everything in time for a tidy epilogue ringing with forgiveness and understanding.

In a more complex work this revelation might begin a messy final chapter, or even start a fist fight, but instead resolution comes around easy.

ODC is set in the well appointed desert digs of an aging movie star who turned in his SAG card to follow Ronnie Reagan. Although we think of Hollywood as being liberal, it's had its share of New Deal-haters like Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, and John Wayne. Lyman and Polly Wyeth, the one time Hollywood power couple at the head of this dysfunctional family are cut from the same cloth. These aren't Tea Partiers by any stretch, but a more enlightened set, and far more broadminded than the causes they wholeheartedly support. Lyman, strongly played by Jerry Chipman, was a mid-20th-Century leading man turned diplomat. His wife Polly, beautifully imagined by Irene Crist in the scenes where she comfortably knows her lines, was a successful screenwriter, and is now a Nancy Reagan clone.

This is a play where the Conservatives have their convictions (and a secret to support them), while the Liberals have substances, rehab, and an incomplete picture of what's really happening. The problems have less to do with any overt politics than the degree to which shallow characters fit stereotypes, and then live up to expectations.

Ann Marie Hall is effective comic relief as Silda Grauman, Polly's troubled free-spirit sister with an agenda of her own, and Christopher Joel Onken does solid character work as the more successful of Lyman and Polly's two living siblings.

The always reliable Kim Justis takes on Brooke, a one hit wonder author struggling to write about a family tragedy that she doesn't really know anything about. Her grief and struggles are the price paid to keep an inconvenient truth buried deep. Or not, as the case may be.

Other Desert Cities, nicely staged by Dave Landis, plays out like some half-baked answer to Arthur Miller's All My Sons only this time daddy was apparently a secret hero. I guess sometimes you have to rise above the law and destroy your daughter to save your son— and the family's good name. Or something.

I caught ODC early in the run, and assume that issues with lines have been cleared up in the time that's passed. There was a lot of potential on stage at circuit, but I was often more worried for the performers than the characters, and that's a problem. That said, it's almost worth dropping in on this show for Douglas Gilpin's pitch perfect scenic design. If you must live at the edge of nowhere, this would be the place to do it.

When it clicks Other Desert Cities is a lot of fun to watch. I'm just not sure it ever adds up to much.

Details HERE.

Eath of a Sales  n by Rrhur M l  r
  • "Eath of a Sales n" by Rrhur M l r

Speaking of Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman closes this week at Theatre Memphis. I don't have a lot to say about this production other than to repeat initial misgivings that it wasn't a good idea for Theatre Memphis to stage Miller's best known tragedy with the memory of New Moon's standout production fresh in mind.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for TM's old-school unit set, even if the lighting never effectively isolates the figures in space as they move from location to location and in and out of reality.

Director Tony Isbell assembled a first rate cast including Janie Paris who reprises her role as the matriarch of the Loman family. I'll never be able to hear DOAS's closing scene without thinking of her voice, although it will be from the earlier production rather than this one.

James Dale Green is one of Memphis' finest, but he seemed to be struggling under the weighty demands of WIlly Loman. I caught the show's last preview, and always assume that performance become richer and deeper over time. But on opening night eve the audience never got to see the flashes of Willy the contender necessary to truly believe that "attention must be paid."

As Bif, the goodhearted bad boy, Memphis actor John Moore proves once again that hard work pays off. Moore has been an ambitious fixture on Memphis stages for some time but being dreamy and comfortable on stage was enough for a lot of directors and given up for eye candy, bad habits calcified.

My first memory of Moore on stage is an indie production of David Mamet's fantastic American Buffalo. The show was loose and everybody was too young and too indulgent. The same artists would collaborate on a respectable if never fully realized production of Mamet's Speed the Plow at Theatre Memphis— and to be honest, I can't remember which came first but I remember American Buffalo more because it was scrappy. First impressions linger and even though I didn't love those early performances much, I gave Moore extra points for difficulty and that's what's kept me interested even when he's been less interesting.

Now and again a show would come along like The Little Dog Laughed, and he'd nail it. By the time he returned to Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross, he was ready, and it's a shame that Ostrander judges failed to acknowledge his genuinely electrifying performance as a corrupt cop in A Steady Rain.

Moore's Biff is busted but bouncing back, trying very hard not to be the victim of the past and his own worst instincts. Scenes with Greg Earnest, who plays brother Happy were the show's most convincing on the night I sat in.

Salesman is Willy Loman's story but it revolves around Biff, and in this production, where Moore is especially compelling and others struggle, maybe a little too much.

Click HERE for the particulars.

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Review that Goes like This: If you're not sick to death of people who aren't members of Monty Python performing Monty Python routines, "Spamalot" is good fun

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 9:09 PM

Find your Grail.
  • "Find your Grail."

Once in every show
There comes a song like this
It starts off soft and low
And ends up with a kiss
Oh where is the song
That goes like this?


The best thing about the musical Spamalot is that it's short. That is, it's not especially long, or lengthy but rather concise and, being the jot of a thing it is, a minimus of sorts, this refreshingly brief musical, which is based on Monty Python's The Holy Grail, a much loved movie (also of a reasonable length) moves along at a pace most audiences should find acceptable, while still delivering near lethal doses of enjoyment. To be absolutely precise Spamalot, the Pythons' widely known, and highly praised live action romp through Arthurian legend and their own back catalog, is the un-stretched antithesis of things both long and overlong.

I'm not goofing. Not much. Musical adaptations of films tend to be bloated affairs like poor Young Frankenstein, which is twice as long as the source material, with only half as many laughs— if you're lucky. Spamalot, on the other hand, starts off at a steady cantor, then gallops for a while, then cantors some more and before you know it people are cheering and applauding and talking in high funny voices, and slapping one another with herring and the like. And I, having endured many musicals that were once shorter, better movies, appreciate that more than I can express with words, or even a reach-around.

There's not much point in a Spamalot synopsis. Everybody grew up knowing somebody who couldn't stop quoting Monty Python. The material is familiar to the point of being overfamiliar and, for all of its good parts, the musical really does seem to thrive less on its ability to summon new laughter—which it does — than its ability to stir memories of the original. Yes, you will see rude Frenchmen, heroes who soil their armor, a kneecap biting black night, coconut horses, and the Knights who say "Ni!" It's a show with everything including deadly bunnies, ladies in lakes, and, "What, the curtains?" And no Holy Grail redux would be complete without a poor old man who's not yet dead.


Margret Thatcher performs the "Dead Parrot" routine

On the bright side— and what a bright side it is— the creators of Spamalot, including original Python Eric Idle , and composer John Du Prez, with an assist from Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, did a tremendous job of taking high points from the film and transforming them into a musical burlesque, which is both in the spirit of the original and something completely different. "Song that Goes like This," the musical theater's answer to Innes & the Bonzos "The Intro and the Outro," is a very meta admission that the creators know they're making formulaic tripe, and loving every second of it.

Director Scott Ferguson is a broad comedy specialist. In addition to staging Pippin, the first show performed in Playhouse on the Square's new facility, Ferguson has mounted memorable productions of The Mystery of Irma Vep, and Richard O'Brian's Rocky Horror Show. With it's floorshows and its funny walks and accents Spamalot, which is on stage at Playhouse through February 16, has a little bit in common with both.


Carla McDonald and Bill Andrews sing an inspirational ballad.

It's difficult to imagine a better cast than the one Ferguson has assembled to sit around the round table. At the top of the bill we have Bill Andrews and Carla McDonald who have some history being over-the-top together having appeared side by side as Max and Norma Desmond in last season's cinematic conversion, Sunset Boulevard. They are much funnier as King Arthur and and some watery tart who threw a sword at him.

Cary Vaughn, who popped up in the porn movie musical Debbie Does Dallas returns as Sir Lancelot and a spooky necromancer. Jonathan Christian, who nailed Zaza in Theatre Memphis' La Cage aux Folle reminds us just how versatile and funny he can be as Sir Robin, the Knight who runs away and Playhouse heavy-lifters David Foster and Jordan Nichols are perfectly Pythonian in a variety of roles.

This show feels like a sellout to me. If it sounds like something you'd like to see, I wouldn't wait around too long before ordering tickets. And that's all I have to say about that.

Here's your link for details.

Helen Keller Jokes: GCT's "The Miracle Worker" is what it is

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 1:36 PM

Water
  • "Water"

The internet is full of meanness. One of the first viral videos I can remember watching was a clip from a community theater production of The Miracle Worker where the sighted actor playing the part of Helen Keller, who was blind, deaf, and mute, falls off the stage while pretending to be blind, deaf, and mute. The video’s still out there— EVERYWHERE— accumulating hits too. It’s awful. It's mean. and it's also funny as hell.

Don’t judge.


The Helen who fell

Thing is, when I watch the above-mentioned video, I’m not laughing at an actual impaired person. And I’m not really laughing at the gravitational misfortune of a child playing an impaired person either. I'm laughing at how simulacra can be so very troublesome. And I even suspect (and I am not alone) that the long tradition of Helen Keller jokes, as loathsome as they are, has a lot less to do with marginalizing real people who struggle to overcome great challenges, than with the ways we portray and fetishize disability in popular culture. I wade hip-deep into these treacherous waters in prelude to what some will surely perceive as an awful confession. Although nobody fell from the stage, The Germantown Community Theatre’s production of The Miracle Worker made me cringe occasionally, and it made me laugh in some inappropriate places. Here’s the crucial context: In spite of space limitations, and some directorial inconsistencies, It’s a pretty solid production. But a serious scene, like the one where Helen’s mother discovers that her infant daughter is blind and unresponsive, easily becomes titter-worthy when underscored with spooky soap opera/horror show music, and that music can make a performer’s acting choice seem wildly melodramatic, no matter how humane.

Ellen Saba is a strong choice for Mrs. Kate Keller. She is a grounding presence, and the play demands that of the character, who is, in many ways, a secondary protagonist, awakening to a woman’s place in the bellicose world of men. Sydney Bell, last seen at GCT as the bad seed in the musical Ruthless, and ShoWagon actor Lena Wallace are as good together as any two performers to tackle the iconic parts of Hellen Keller and Annie Sullivan. I’m not being especially original when I note that The Miracle Worker has always been a handful of great roles wrapped in a structurally messy melodrama. If Helen’s father Captain Keller occasionally sounds like Foghorn Leghorn wrote his dialogue, it’s hardly the fault of blustery actor Ken Mitten. That’s the part.

GCT’s cramped stage with its limited entrance and exit options aren’t helpful. The set is too literal and too inflexible to effectively account for locations as different as a house, a cabin, a school, and a train. And few experiences are more nerve wracking than watching actors playing visually impaired children awkwardly exiting by way of GCT’s narrow stage-front stairs. There were moments when I worried that this might be another viral video waiting to happen.

Director Marler Stone has some real personal experience with disability and with passionate teachers who work to give language to the hearing impaired. His aunt was deaf and his mother taught at the Mississippi School for the Deaf in Jackson. That might have something to do with why the scenes between Annie and Helen are so vivid and everything else is so fuzzy.

Weaker portions of The Miracle Worker become an accidental clown show. Captain Keller, for example, is a weak-willed blowhard still fighting the Civil War over dinner. He doesn’t really care if his daughter learns as long as she’s tamed, and his most corrosive decisions are born of a reflexive need to maintain traditional gender roles, and his belief that Annie Sullivan is a disrespectful girl with too much book learning but not enough sense. In contemporary terms the good Captain is a one man Tea Party, and a shining example of how reflexive, dogmatic Conservatism is always doomed because, by its very nature, it’s always stuck fighting old battles while the world turns, and everyone else moves on. The clownishness of the role is especially clear in productions such as this one, where family relationships are thinly established and Keller exists almost exclusively as Sullivan’s somewhat ridiculous nemesis.

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Earlier I mentioned some over-the-top underscoring that turned a serious scene into an accidental hoot, and I’d like to come back to that for a minute. Marler Stone, who has really come into his own staging memorable productions of shows like Talley’s Folly and Death of a Salesman, has often turned to his son Matthew Stone to create original musical compositions to complement and comment on the dramatic material. It’s a good and admirable urge but results have been mixed, and in this scene they are just this side of catastrophic. The problem is mostly one of consistency since the music arises from nowhere to become a principal actor, and then it’s gone, and never again allowed to be more than fifth business. That same kind of inconsistency extends to so many elements of William Gibson’s script, and the production generally.

There’s a lot of meanness on the Internet. Hopefully, this review won’t add to the pile because the story of the Miracle Worker is no joke, and neither are the performances at the heart of this fine, if occasionally muddled production. But, as I mentioned, I did sometimes laugh in the wrong places. I’d only like to suggest, for others who may respond similarly, that, given the too-familiar material, and other circumstances, the occasional cringe or snort may not be quite as inappropriate as it seems. Plan on feeling guilty anyway.

The Miracle Worker closes this weekend. Details, here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Opera Memphis Turns "The Mikado" into Manga

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 12:14 PM

A show with everything including a sumo wrestler
  • A show with everything including a sumo wrestler

Sometimes I lose my way and start imagining the world as it might be. Take, for example, the opera. Of course, I understand the economic factors that prevent runs of more than a handful of shows. And then I see something like Opera Memphis' #superfun Mikado and I want it to play for weeks, giving the production an opportunity to become tic-tight, and to grow, and have a life. And, as word of mouth builds, to attract audiences who might not have an evening with Gilbert & Sullivan at the top of their to-do list.

If there's anybody who can accomplish that last, difficult task it's Opera Memphis' Ned Canty. He's an exciting risk taker and, with the possible exception of an Elixir of Love set in the old west, his tweaked Mikado is probably the best example of just how far the General Director is willing to go to shine new light through old windows.

In this Mikado we see Godzilla before the first note is sung and right away it's clear, this isn't your mother's Mikado. The big lizard is the first of several Asian/American icons and gently rendered stereotypes to grace the stage. Before the night is through we'll see video game characters, and a giant of international branding, blown up bigger than life.

A manga-style Mikado preview comic commissioned by Opera Memphis. It is drawn by Grace Shore of the Memphis College of Art. A limited edition run available for purchase at performances.
  • A manga-style Mikado preview comic commissioned by Opera Memphis. It is drawn by Grace Shore of the Memphis College of Art. A limited edition run available for purchase at performances.

Canty took his inspiration from Japanese video games, where costuming has less to do with period continuity, than with character type. It's a look that will also appeal to anime and Manga fans, and it fits perfectly with the show's whimsical lyrics.

It's not all about design, either, the voices assembled here are extraordinary, and Kevin Burdett's run through, "I've Got a Little List," is a perfect fusion of musical and physical comedy with a few updated lyrics designed to make Memphis audiences squeal with glee.

It's especially good to see some of the top talent Canty has brought to Memphis making a return visit. Grammy nominee and winner of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition Jamie Barton, who was such a joy as TV chef Julia Child in OM's Bon Appetite, is back in the role of Katisha, and Monica Yunus, who Memphis audiences may remember from Don Pasquale has returned to play Yum-Yum.

Three little maids from School
  • Three little maids from School

I do wonder at times, whether or not this Mikado lives up to its monster promise. Not because it's not delightful, but because it's the kind of show you really want to take a bath in. I can imagine the same Mikado, in a more intimate space, where scenic design can be more complete, and a dense, candy-colored lighting plot might do the gorgeous (and garish) costumes some real justice. And where I don't have to break focus to read titles for a book that's written in English.

Things were still gelling at the final dress rehearsal, but cameos by Pikachu and Hello Kitty are worth the price of admission.

Deets: Here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Verboten Broadway: "Musical of Musicals: the Musical" is a musical about musicals

Posted By on Mon, Nov 11, 2013 at 5:33 PM

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You’d probably never guess it from the title but Musical of Musicals: The Musical is, in fact, a musical and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously either. For diehard fans with a good ear and a keen sense of silliness this tightly-wound mashup/sendup of American musical theater can pay off like the loosest slot machine in town. It’s also a bit of an insider’s game, and if you haven’t seen at least a few productions of Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Phantom of the Opera, Sunday in the Park with George, Cats, Starlight Express, Evita, Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago, and Cabaret you might get lost in the invisible woods.

MOM:TM plays out like an improv comedy game. Four core characters— the boy, the girl, a wise older woman, and a greedy landlord— tell one simple story five different ways in the style of composers Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander & Ebb. The plot distilled: “I can’t pay the rent”/”But you must pay the rent.” (Rent, get it?) And that’s just about all there is to that.

Daniel Kopera’s all purpose pink and purple set telegraphs instantly that the audience is in for a bare bones theatrical drenched in cheap sparkly stuff. The strong ensemble cast, dressed all in black with sequins and rhinestones, fulfill every garish promise.

HAWT!
  • HAWT!

Musical of Musicals is a perfect showcase for Jude Knight, a veteran of the musical stage who has appeared in many of the show’s she’s spoofing. She brings fun understatement to an over-the-top ensemble. Amy (Polumbo) Nabors gives a standout performance as the all purpose blonde, matching fantastic singing with hilarious character development. Multiple threat performer Brennan Villines is always a pleasure in song and dance roles, but nothing beats the joy of watching Kent Fleshman try his hand at spoofing the Emcee from Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret. This isn’t the sort of role a beefy baritone like Fleshmen would ever have the chance to play otherwise and he just goes for it.

The real star of this ensemble show show is just off stage: musical director/accompanist Gary Beard who has been given all the show’s secret laugh lines, and who nails every single one.

Over the years director Bennett Wood has staged many a classy musical revue and there are moments when one gets the sense that he’s spoofing himself as much as anybody else.

I don't want to encourage bad habits, but a few cocktails before showtime isn't a bad idea. This is a lounge act disguised as theater. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Musical of Musicals: The Musical is at Theatre Memphis through November 23

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rolling on the River: Ballet Memphis's River Project 2 is inspirational and aspirational

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

web_river.jpg
Dorothy Gunther Pugh thinks dance artists shouldn't be content telling stories. Performances can become conversations with the audience, and in a short film that screens before the curtain comes up on "River Project 2," Ballet Memphis' artistic director says it's her job to search for threads common enough to bind us together but not so common as to invite cliché. As a source of renewable inspiration, Pugh, her choreographers, and her dancers have turned to the Mississippi River.

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

The Devil's Harvest: "Reefer Madness" is turning our teenagers into "hooligans and whores!"

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 12:07 PM

ReeferMadness-3.jpg

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.

Corbin tastes the pot.
  • Corbin tastes the pot.
Stroup was amused. And inspired. Seeing an opportunity to to raise money for NORML he acquired a print of the film. In 1972 Stroup booked Reefer Madness on a fundraising tour of college campuses. And so the Frankenfilm was given it’s strange new life as a cult classic.

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.

Deets.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Location x 3: Race, Real Estate, and "Clybourne Park"

Posted By on Wed, Oct 9, 2013 at 11:40 AM

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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.

cartoon-the-fight-on-the-floor-of-congress-between-matthew-lyon-and-roger-griswold-1798.jpg

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.

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