Review

Friday, March 17, 2017

Life in Faith & Madison Counties: Weekend Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 11:24 AM

Carla McDonald and Chris Swann - PLAYHOUSE ON THE SQUARE
  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Carla McDonald and Chris Swann

Bridges of Madison
County at Circuit Playhouse

Dave Landis is a sentimental, foolish old sap... his words, not mine. "I love shows that have heart and tug at your heart-strings," he says, describing his relationship, as a director, to the musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. "This music, this story, these two characters definitely tug at the essence of anybody who has ever wondered, "What if...?

For those who haven't read James Waller's best selling novel, or seen the film it inspired, Bridges — opening at Circuit Playhouse this weekend — is an autumnal love story about a magazine photographer who meets a housewife while he's visiting in Iowa, shooting  the historic covered bridges of Madison County. Her husband's out of town with the kids, and an affair begins.

Landis has been a Memphian for many years now, but hails from Iowa. "I spent over half my life in Iowa and lived about an hour away from Winterset," he says. "I can relate to that yearning and the longing to be somewhere else... to explore life beyond the state boundaries."

Landis' cast showcases the considerable talents of Carla McDonald and visiting favorite, Christopher Swann.


Violet at Germantown Community Theatre

Violet and her fellas in uniform. - GCT
  • GCT
  • Violet and her fellas in uniform.
Violet's the best Tony-nominated musical nobody's ever heard of. Based on Doris Betts' short story The Ugliest Pilgrim and buoyed by a collage of authentic Americana sounds, it tells the story of a hardened young woman who's pinned her hopes and dreams on a miracle. It's a road trip story prominently featuring one hot, transformative night in Memphis. In a short-feeling 90 minutes, Violet takes on big ideas about race, class, beauty, and faith with none of the usual "put it on Jesus" cliches.

Germantown Community Theatre's production boasts some extraordinary voices and some not-so-extraordinary voices, but it's all honesty and heart. Nichol Pritchard's Violet is someone everybody knows. As the young woman scarred for life when the head of her father's axe flew off its handle, her's is a standout performance in a show full of stand out performances. Her's stands out for its simplicity— the ease with which Pritchard wears Violet's troubles, and flinty determination. She's no starry-eyed, believer, this is a woman at the crossroads of exhaustion and obsession, seeing heavenly visions, like a patron saint of homely travelers.

Side Show at Theatre Memphis
Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at  Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
  • Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
Side Show's got it all — great voices, great design, and a great story to tell. It doesn't really capture the hell conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton lived through and only hints at a life where every relationship is abusive, reducing a horrible existence to so much irony and failed romance. But for all of its missed opportunities, this circus musical cuts to the core of everyday insecurity. Who hasn't felt like everybody was staring at them and asked "Who will love me as I am?"

Blackbird at TheatreSouth
Bye, bye, Blackbird.
  • Bye, bye, Blackbird.
I'm glad I've seen Blackbird once. I'm especially glad to have seen a production so thoughtfully staged and exquisitely acted as the one you'll discover should you venture out to TheatreSouth this weekend. Frankly, for good acting, and effective, economical stagecraft, I'm not sure I can recommend it enough. At the same time, I'm not sure why I ever would. Why would anybody recommend anything so relentlessly uncomfortable? Unfolding in real time over 90 excruciating minutes, David Harrower's Blackbird tells the story of Ray, who's surprised at work by Una, the woman he kidnapped and molested 15-years earlier when he was 40 and she was 12. In the intimate black box of TheatreSouth, audiences are transformed into peeping Toms, observing a squalid, trash-strewn company break room while two already torn apart people tear themselves and each other apart again and again and again.

Maybe I can recommend it because it's perfect. Or close to. Because it's certainly not pleasant or fun. And if you don't see it, you'll be sorry you missed it.

Lord of the Flies at Playhouse on the Square
POTS's Lord of the Flies is the definition of an ensemble show where nobody's the star and everybody is. Director Jordan Nichols has brought together an able, age-appropriate cast of (mostly) teens, capable of addressing the story's heart, and its horror. Golding's violent story of tribalism and unraveling democracy is encumbered by a bit of post-colonial "savage v civilization" bias, but this sketched-in story of marooned British schoolboys playing naked dominance politics still rings as true as it ever has. And this crop of super-talented Memphis kids measures up to the challenge.

Also on stage...

Crowns at Hattiloo
The Gospel musical Crowns uses "church hats" as the entry point for an exploration of Black cultural identity. Crowns is told from the point of view of a young woman leaving the personal tragedies of a northern metropolis to rejoin family in the South. This is no Lidsville — these hats tell some extraordinary stories.

The Dragnificent Variety Show 2017 at Evergreen Theatre
The Friends of George's are back with original skits, production numbers, showcasing the talents of Memphis ’ favorite drag stars. Proceeds will benefit Planned Parenthood

Dupont Mississippi at TheatreWorks
Does anybody remember Faith County? It was a Memphis-produced radio soap opera set in a fictional Southern town and broadcast weekly over WLYX radio Rhodes. The popular comedy was written by then Rhodes student Mark Landon Smith, who's also the author of Dupont, Mississippi, opening this week at TheatreWorks. Faith County fans will find the plot synopsis intriguing: "Verna Dewberry, the evil and dictatorial matriarch of the small town of Dupont , Mississippi has died - a joyous occasion for its citizens!"


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ugly is Sin: Violet's a Rare, Richly American Musical Fable

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 3:58 PM

16938520_10155006482275996_1005877378953004554_n.jpg
America's a great big melting pot of bigotry and bias, but I swear, the worst thing you can possibly be in Barbie and Ken's Dream Meritocracy is ugly. Okay, I take that back, being poor and ugly's worse. Violet's white, anyhow, and her daddy loved her and taught her how to win at poker. She's got that much going for her, at least, when she gets on a bus rolling from North Carolina to Tulsa. A faith healer there is going to take her terrible scar away and, for her suffering, bestow upon the disfigured woman, some reasonably just measure of divine movie star hotness.

Violet's the best Tony-nominated musical nobody's ever heard of. Based on Doris Betts' short story The Ugliest Pilgrim and buoyed by a collage of authentic Americana sounds, it tells the story of a hardened young woman who's pinned her hopes and dreams on a miracle. It's a road trip story prominently featuring one hot, transformative night in Memphis. In a short-feeling 90 minutes, Violet takes on big ideas about race, class, beauty, and faith with none of the usual "put it on Jesus" cliches.

Germantown Community Theatre's production  boasts some extraordinary voices and some not-so-extraordinary voices, but it's all honesty and heart. Nichol Pritchard's Violet is someone everybody knows. As the young woman scarred for life when the head of her father's axe flew off its handle, her's is a standout performance in a show full of stand out performances. Her's stands out for its simplicity— the ease with which Pritchard wears Violet's troubles, and flinty determination. She's no starry-eyed, believer, this is a woman at the crossroads of exhaustion and obsession, seeing heavenly visions, like a patron saint of homely travelers.
Violet's also a buddy story, and an uncommonly effective romance. Along the way to Tulsa she meets a pair of soldier boys, one white and one black, and they connect in unexpected ways. A prickly, game of cat and mouse ends with a figurative stumble down Beale St. where things only get more complicated. All the while we're reminded that skin's a calling card, and not all doors are open to everybody.

As noted above, not every note sung in GCT's Violet is perfect. In fact a few are, while  joyous enough, still pretty sour. Some cringes may occur, but these aren't deal-breakers in a show otherwise packed with heavenly voices. In context— after initial, considerable shock— the worst is almost charming.

Violet composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) dove deep into American roots music and delivered an unpretentious country-, blues-, and bluegrass-laden score, where Bo Diddley beats meet big Broadway ballads.
Before the accident, when everything was possible. - JOEY ECHEVERIA PHOTOGRAPHY AND GCT
  • Joey Echeveria Photography and GCT
  • Before the accident, when everything was possible.

Side Show: Theatre Memphis Gets Freaky Deaky

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 10:32 AM

Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at  Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
  • Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
Side Show's got it all — great voices, great design, and a great story to tell. It doesn't really capture the hell conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton lived through and only hints at a life where every relationship is abusive, reducing a horrible existence to so much irony and failed romance. But for all of its missed opportunities, this circus musical cuts to the core of everyday insecurity. Who hasn't felt like everybody was staring at them and asked "Who will love me as I am?"

Theatre Memphis — and its audiences — have an apparent fondness for the creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky. The City's elder company has experienced success with knockout productions of less than stellar creepshows like The Addams Family, and the musical adaptation of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. With Side Show TM gets to revisit the conceptual well, but with much better material to work with.


Side Show
's painted in broad strokes. It's opening sequence — one of the most compelling in the history of musical theater — introduces three legged freaks, and pinheaded geeks who'll bite the head clean off a bird's neck. It brings us into a world that is, and is not our own. We meet sympathetic curiosities, and the nightmare carney who keeps them working for little more than the abuse he dishes out for pay. And we meet the star attractions, Violet and Daisy, who are identical, bound by flesh, and nothing alike. Unfortunately for the musical, Side Show peaks in this opening sequence. Still, what follows remains engaging, in part — and in the spirit of the old 10-in-1 tent shows — because it's real. This happened, more or less, and the show's tragic symmetry ultimately stresses the bitter in a bittersweet show at the edge of exploitation.

Director Ann Marie Hall has an affinity for quirk, and stories that walk on the dark side. She and Side Show are a good fit, and the ensemble cast she's assembled is loaded with solid actors and big voices. It's tempting to overhype the very fine solo/duet work of Dani Chaum and Gia Welch as the inseparable sisters, but that would be wrong. But for the moments when they're alone onstage — and fine moments they are — this is a group effort, and everybody delivers.  Chaum and Welch, like the Vaudeville stars they play, just deliver a little bit more.

With the simplest gestures, Theatre Memphis' designers have turned the entire main stage space into a big top. The effect brings everybody into the same big tent for the show's duration. It's a neat, easily-accomplished trick that says so much about the nature of this show, and how audiences are meant to receive it. Good stuff. 
sideshowlobbyscreenrev3.jpg

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sleazy Peasy: Blackbird is an Intense Encounter at Theatre South

Posted By on Wed, Mar 15, 2017 at 7:10 PM

Ray and Una (Tony Isbell,  Fiona Battersby).
  • Ray and Una (Tony Isbell, Fiona Battersby).
I'm glad I've seen Blackbird once. I'm especially glad to have seen a production so thoughtfully staged and exquisitely acted as the one you'll discover should you venture out to TheatreSouth this weekend. Frankly, for good acting, and effective, economical stagecraft, I'm not sure I can recommend it enough. At the same time, I'm not sure why I ever would.  Why would anybody recommend anything so relentlessly uncomfortable? Unfolding in real time over 90 excruciating minutes, David Harrower's Blackbird tells the story of Ray, who's surprised at work by Una, the woman he kidnapped and molested 15-years earlier when he was 40 and she was 12. In the intimate black box of TheatreSouth, audiences are transformed into peeping Toms, observing a squalid, trash-strewn company break room while two already torn apart people tear themselves and each other apart again and again and again.

Maybe I can recommend it because it's perfect. Or close to. Because it's certainly not pleasant or fun.

Whatever else it may be, this 21st-Century Lolita redux, with its stark black and white memories of street lamps, phone-booths, and boarding houses, is a noir of the first order, with an inappropriate set of perverse expectations. Audiences, against all instinct and will, are forced to accept Blackbird — a story of kidnapping and abuse that's explicitly understood to be abuse — as a tale of love gone bad. It only gets darker from there.

The audience hasn't been assembled to re-try Ray, who's played here, to sputtering, sometimes paralyzed perfection, by Tony Isbell. Ray did six tough years in prison, and admits the crime, even if he disagrees with the particulars of how it was portrayed in court. He did his stretch, got out, changed his name, took a nondescript management job in some nondescript office in one of those nondescript buildings with nondescript signage everybody passes on the road all day long and never thinks twice about. Now Ray lives in a nondescript married, filthy, cluttered hell. At least he's not molesting little girls anymore, though. It's not like he was ever a predator, or the kind of person who gets turned on by little kids. Or so he stammers. It was just that one time. Just that one very special time.

Una, impeccably played by Fiona Battersby, is more vivid, wobbly, and evidently broken. Is she here for closure? Revenge? She'd been a needy kid, and vulnerable. Ray validated her when she wasn't getting it elsewhere. Her version of the story, told from the perspective of a furious adult who can't remember real innocence, staggers between puppy love, obsession, betrayal and fear. Reliving the story as a sexually frank adult, it's easy for observers to forget she wasn't yet a teenager when she first felt these feelings. When she and the man she loved and idolized and still fixates on snuck out of town, to a place he knew about where nobody would ask questions and they could be together. But it's always right there.

Blackbird was inspired by real life events, but still owes a bit to Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, which tells a similar, if less sleazy and immediate story. And it may owe a bit to David Mamet's Oleanna too. But, in terms of pure function, the play it resembles most — and improves on considerably — is Doubt. To its very intense, ugly, surprise ending, Blackbird leaves us wondering whether or not Ray's reformed and sorry for an unforgivable thing he did only once at the very lowest point in his nondescript life, or if he's always been a creeper.  Maybe this awful thing we've been asked to accept as a love story was nothing more than what it looked liked all along. Maybe it's happening all over again.

Blackbird's built like a house of cards. One shaky move or false note by either of the actors and everything collapses. With Adam Remsen in the director's chair, this little drama stands tall. Production is bare bones — perfect for a young company dedicated to "small, essential" theater.

Dates, times and ticket information here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lord of the Flies: Democracy and Madness at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Sat, Mar 11, 2017 at 1:59 PM

“Maybe there is a beast… maybe it's only us.”
  • “Maybe there is a beast… maybe it's only us.”

There are moments in Playhouse on the Square's chillingly austere take on William Golding's classic, Lord of the Flies, when the story's opposing gangs threaten to stage a Pat Benatar video, or square off in an old fashioned Jets v Sharks dance-off. While the poetic choices make sense here, and echo more ecstatic passages from the book, it's always a little too much the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, and never enough Lost. The sequences - some really impressive - create tonal inconsistencies in a strong show. It all works, it just never quite fits as cohesively as it might.

POTS's Lord of the Flies is the definition of an ensemble show where nobody's the star and everybody is. Director Jordan Nichols has brought together an able, age-appropriate cast of (mostly) teens, capable of addressing the story's heart, and its horror. Golding's violent story of tribalism and unraveling democracy is encumbered by a bit of post-colonial "savage v civilization" bias, but this sketched-in story of marooned British schoolboys playing naked dominance politics still rings as true as it ever has. And this crop of super-talented Memphis kids measures up to the challenge.

In one of the evening's more effective movement numbers the cast becomes a living, breathing evolution chart going one way first, then full on reverse.  It's too brutal, and too beautiful, and probably too on the nose. It's also a bullseye.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Haint Ain't Bad. GCT Builds a Better Ghost Story

Posted By on Sat, Feb 4, 2017 at 5:01 PM

werec_haint.jpg
It’s easy to make fun of Scooby Doo, but that spooky Saturday morning cartoon show had one helluva message that it hammered home in episode after predictable episode: If you want to catch the real monsters, always follow the money. (And maybe the trail of empty bottles is a clue!) Justin Asher’s Haint is a Southern Gothic noir about life, death, and ghostly resurrection in the rural South, where gossip is corrosive politics, and church is a gated community separating “us” from “them.” But once you get past its hoodoo and hard boiled exterior, Haint’s got a heart that’s pure Scooby Doo. The bad guys would totally get away with it too if not for for a pair of meddling friends, who didn’t know they needed each other till they absolutely did.

Inspired by rural legends about a woman who wanders the roadsides looking for her lost son, Haint tells the story of Mercy Seer, a caustic medicine woman who whips up weed-and-seed home remedies, hangs jars full of memories on trees, and occasionally pretends to talk to spirits for the townsfolk in order to pick up a few extra bucks. She lives in a ramshackle old house on the edge of town with her son Charley, who dies midway through the show, but never goes away.

After being too long absent from the stage, Michele Somers makes an impressive return as Mercy. Her performance as the root-working conjurer, washerwoman, and mom is grounded, completely real, and a joy to watch. The former Playhouse on the Square company member swears this is her one last gig.  Let's hope that's not the case.


Somers leads an able cast that includes the reliable Marques Brown as an abusive sheriff, Amy Neighbors as his frustrated wife Evangeline, and Stuart Turner as poor, doomed Charley.

JoLynn Palmer is in top form as a small town gadfly with an agenda.

Justin Asher's set is fussy, but effective and Christopher Cotten’s sound design is about one snuck-in Robert Johnson song away from being perfect.

When I first reviewed Haint in 2014 I described it is being “a good play” — something the theater needs a lot more of. It’s an even better, tighter play now, with director Cecelia Wingate's fingerprints all over it. That's true, even if the outcomes are still a little woo - Scooby Doo. Though set in the early 1950’s, threads of otherism, sexism, slut-shaming, xenophobia, and good old fashioned Christian hypocrisy resonate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Voice of Satan: Hand to God's a Wicked Piece of Puppet Theater

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2017 at 5:18 PM

Aside: I told Hand to God director Irene Crist I'd let everybody know I attended a preview performance of the show. You know, the performance before the opening night performance, once called a "critic's preview," but now called "friends and family night." I promised I'd put the information front and center too, so here it is. The paint was literally, and figuratively still wet, but so what? I grew up on the other side of the footlights, and I always liked that smell. It smelled like the details coming together.

Promise fulfilled. Now, the review...
  
handtogodweb.jpg
Hand to God. Holy shit. Maybe you should just clear your mind and let me give this to you like an elevator pitch. The time: Now, more or less. The place: A Sunday school room somewhere in suburban Texas. The plot: Margery is working through grief and an evidently difficult past by teaching teens how to reject Satan with puppets. She's a horny new widow doggedly pursued by a horny minister, engaged in a dangerous liaison with one of her horny young puppeteers, and emotionally ill-equipped to cope with her own horny, hurt, badly repressed, and clearly demon possessed teenager. Though sometimes compared to Avenue Q, because both shows contain  foulmouthed puppets doing shocking things, Hand to God is more like a mashup of The Exorcist and King of the Hill, all under the influence of Meet the Feebles,

There's something not quite right about the Circuit Playhouse's production, admirably directed by Irene Crist, with showy performances by Jordan Nichols and L.B. Wingfield, and a strong cast all around. It's a tonal problem. Something I like to call "outside the trailer park looking in" syndrome, with actors commenting on characters they need to inhabit. But it's not quite wrong either — except in the ways it's supposed to be.
Hand to God works like The Twilight Zone or Tales From the Crypt. It's a living comic book journey into mystery, complete with an ominous narrator. In this case, a gospel-preaching sock puppet named Tyrone. It's a trip to the House of Secrets in a Black Mirror universe much like our own, where humor and heartbreak spring from some really dark, sometimes genuinely upsetting places. Crist's take is a little more icky sit-com with lots of canned contemporary kiddie music. It should  appeal to the more mature end of the Stranger Things demo, but could stand a bolder, more cringe-inducing treatment.

Nichols uses young Jason/Tyrone's split personality to really show off his acting chops and it's impressive stuff.  The infernally-charged monster on the end of his arm has its own independent life — One that, unlikely as it seems, becomes even more unique and vibrant in the scenes Nichols plays with himself. The play's best moment happens when Jason and Jessica (L.B. Wingfield, wonderfully) have the show's first real breakthrough conversation. It's a feat they accomplish while their puppets are having nasty sex and too distracted to interrupt.

Tracie Hansom's about the bravest actor in town. She's always good and often great, though she didn't seem completely comfortable as Margery. The same goes for Sam Weekley as a minister with roaming hands and entitled fingers. He settles in when the good Reverend slips out of good ol' boy mode and into something a little more authoritarian.  As Timmy, the Sunday School bully, Jacob Wingfield takes care of business like the bad motherfucker in a John Hughes film.

I got the sense Hand to God was coming together late. On the night before opening actors were still too busy wrestling with their parts to be part of an ensemble. But they were getting there.

Freaky stuff, and recommended. But not for the faint of heart.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rules for Radicals: "Blueprints to Freedom" is Right on Time

Posted By on Tue, Jan 31, 2017 at 11:52 AM

Courtney Williams Robertson as Bayard Rustin in the Hattiloo Theatre's production of Blueprints to Freedom. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Courtney Williams Robertson as Bayard Rustin in the Hattiloo Theatre's production of Blueprints to Freedom.
Blueprints to Freedom has its share of resonant moments. But, in this peculiar place we occupy in spacetime, nothing rang out in the theater like this four word question — "Why do we march?"

Michael Benjamin Washington's ambitious portrait of  Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin, zeroes in on a singular moment in history. But what went down in the hot summer of 1963 didn't stay in 1963. The historic march for jobs on Washington D.C. was attended by 250,000 people, creating magnificent ripples that still rock us today. The play is celebratory. But it's also cool, conflict-ridden and circumspect.  It shows Rustin, King's mentor in the ways of nonviolent protest, in exile, but still  the intellectual center of a coalitional movement grasping for unity. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Washington's soul-searching history, also forces us to consider whether or not the "protest or politics" choice Rustin and union leader A. Philip Randolph present is a false dichotomy. As the late Judge D'Army Bailey often suggested, as an early advocate for the creation of a National Civil Rights museum, maybe activism is always in season.
Davis, Randolph, and Rustin - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Davis, Randolph, and Rustin
American politics have always failed to account for class issues at the intersection of race and gender. Blueprints to Freedom is especially good at showing intersectional tensions inside the movement, with special attention paid to the predicament of being a minority inside a minority: Women, atheists, gays, etc. The communist-affiliated Rustin had been to jail for draft dodging, and for being homosexual, which made for easy propaganda, and an uneasy relationship with Martin Luther King and other movement leaders. All anybody had to do to spread discredit was go on the radio, name names, read charges, and infer, infer, infer.

American propaganda used against Americans isn't the latest fashion, it's retro chic.

Washington's play is also very good at showing Rustin's complicated relationship with physical sex, and how he found discipline, and motivation in faith, even when he was deeply skeptical, and unable to find the light or hear the still, small voice. It's especially satisfying watching Bayard — a Quaker whose faith walks hand in hand with a widening skepticism — sparring with MLK over which Biblical character they're most like, and how that rhetorical bedrock defines their tricky relationship.

The Hattiloo gets things done, but the production feels like an unfinished sketch — Roughed in and a little bit stilted. Even a beautifully executed piece of multimedia that takes the audience on a documentary tour of the '63 march stops the show in its tracks. Ultimately strong characters, strong writing, committed actors, and one hell of a timely story about complicated alliances, secrets, sacrifices, and hard choices wins the day.
Also starring a piano, never played. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Also starring a piano, never played.
Courtney Williams Robertson struggles to find his center as Rustin, but grows into the role as the narrative unfolds. It's an unassured performance that still strikes many of the right chords. He is especially good in scenes where Rustin explores faith, not as a matter of passive certainty, but active process.

Tim Flowers and Charlton Johnson are effective as Randolph, and King. Like Robertson, it takes Johnson a little time to warm up to his role. But he's also a real life minister, and when he works up a good head of steam, there's a mix of vulnerability and authenticity to his cadences that transcends simple imitation. Strong stuff in fits and starts.

Hattiloo regular Bart Mallard is typically capable, if maybe a little too predatory-seeming, as Davis Platt, Rustin's white lover, who can't square any struggle for freedom that means he has to keep hiding and pretending. Mallard is a confident performer, and a grounding presence on stage. When he's in the game things move. Stakes become evident, and choices get made. The same is true of Maya Robinson, who never fails to find the humor or the humanity in her characters. She's a perfect fit for Miriam Caldwell, Rustin's atheist, feminist, single mom intern.

The Hattiloo has been on a roll with strong shows like Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, and The House That Will Not Stand — easily the most fulfilling thing the company's produced since Hurt Village rocked its old, shop-front space to the foundation. To that end, Blueprints to Freedom, which could be fluid and majestic, is stiff, with visible seams and a projection screen that ripples like a sail in a gale. The one constant element — and probably the most important — is top notch content programming.  As was the case with The House That Will Not Stand, Blueprints is a show with a lot of life still ahead of it. We haven't heard the last of it.

So, back to the original question: "Why do we march?" There are a lot of answers, I guess. The first may be to find out who we are. The second is to show everybody else — or remind them — whether they like it or not. The rest is politics. 
Looking for the light. - HATTILOO THEATRE
  • Hattiloo Theatre
  • Looking for the light.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Take The 39 Steps, Please: Theatre Memphis Roasts Hitchcock

Posted By on Sat, Jan 28, 2017 at 5:21 PM

(l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5
  • (l to r) Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, Kinon Kiplinger and Chase Ring perform in the comedic adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps at Theatre Memphis, January 20 - February 5
Style only goes so far. But sometimes "so far" is a long, long way. Theatre Memphis' take on The 39 Steps, an homage to cinematic suspense, murders any opportunity for tension or coherent storytelling, but the wounds bleed laughter. Style and some very good acting carry the day even when it's impossible to follow the plot. At every surprising twist and unforeseeable turn it looks great doing whatever it is it does.

The 39-Steps is a tough proposition. It's a balancing act between Hitchcocky storytelling and self-aware gags in the vein of a Seth Macfarlane cartoon. Only, instead of Family Guy's celebrity drop-ins, be on the lookout for allusions to other films, particularly those by the old master himself. Add to all that an impressive stunt factor:  Four actors  play somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 characters, revisiting events from movies that should be impossible to recreate onstage. Airplane chases, anybody? (Airplane chases anybody?)

Director Tony Isbell has built a chaotic clown show, chock full of cheap theatrics and owing as much to the Marx Brothers as it does to Hitchcock. Of course his cast of clowns are deadly serious, especially when they're being absolutely ridiculous. The show's train-top chase is a purely theatrical joy, as is the climactic moment when the villain is flung from the balcony. And if you think that's a spoiler, you may not fully grasp the fact that the plot just does not matter here at all. Besides, while unessential, it's more fun if you've seen the film already. If, by some chance, I've now spoiled the film for you, it's like 80-years-old, you had your chance.


The 39 Steps  tells the story of an ordinary, if almost impossibly handsome Londoner, who, while going about the everydays, stumbles bum-behind-teakettle into rollocking spy-infested misadventure. This go-round said Londoner is played by Kinon Keplinger, and it's a perfect fit. Keplinger's a versatile character actor trapped in the person of a lost-in-time leading man. He's a solid anchor — the one actor not jumping from role to role, holding all the play's threads together , even when things threaten to become unmoored.

Gabe Beutel-Gunn, Lena Wallace Black, and Chase Ring play everybody else with an eye toward the original film, and heel toward the banana peel. But not really. I'd never spoil a good banana peel gag.

I don't know how well the 39-Steps works in Theatre Memphis' big space. It's a big little show. It wants to be big, and it looks great on the stage. But it's also a show that benefits from intimacy. It wants to include the house, and Isbell's hyper-aware production ups the ante on all that. The deep, narrow space with its gulf between upper and lower seating doesn't prevent this sort of thing, but it's not ideal either.

The 39-Steps is one of those shows where pieces outshine the whole, and the gags are the best thing going. To that end it's a little like vaudeville. And, as the setting should make perfectly clear, it knows it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild, Wild, Wild: Rock of Ages Revisits the Reagan Era

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 1:38 PM

Just a small town girl... - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Just a small town girl...
It’s confession time. I haven’t been a fan of 80’s top-40 music since way back in the 80’s when my high school class wanted to make the sappy Phil Collins hit “Against All Odds,” the song we marched into at graduation. Unironically. So, it should come as no surprise, of all the jukebox musicals out there — good, bad, and terrible — I’ve always had the hardest time giving Rock of Ages a fair shake. It’s like somebody went out of their way to pick all the music I rebelled against and force-fit it into a thinly plotted romantic comedy set in the sleazy, testosterone-flooded hair metal scene of LA’s Sunset Strip. The first viewing I endured like torture, and swore it would be the last. The show’s campy edge couldn’t shake off the slime, and the few songs I do legitimately enjoy (Motering...) couldn’t escape the horrible gravity of Starship’s “We Built This City,” which, I think we can all agree, is at least a least a semi-finalist in the worst song in history contest. So imagine my surprise when I found myself (mostly) enjoying Playhouse on the Square’s energetic homage to the Reagan era, when everything was awful.

The story goes something like this: The economy is wrecked, city cores are crumbling, but it’s morning in America so foreign investors are snapping up property and transforming local flavor into upscale homogeneity. Into the scene walks Sherrie, a young girl from the heartland, in painted on cut-off 
Born, raised in S. Detroit. - MCDONALD/SIMMERS
  • McDonald/Simmers
  • Born, raised in S. Detroit.
jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman’s club. A 5-minute stand with a burnout rockstar in the men’s room of the Bourbon Room (a stand-in for the Whiskey-a-Go-Go) has wrecked her chances for real love, and brought her to a place she never thought she’d be. Now she’s holding out for a hero.

In this case, the real bad guy isn’t the asshole rock star — a cross between David Lee Roth of Van Halen and Axl Rose. We recognize him from first meeting, as someone spiraling toward oblivion and probably a toilet filled with his own vomit. The villain is a German real estate speculator with no compunctions about bulldozing rock clubs and putting up a retail shopping destination. The hero is busboy and would-be metal god, Drew Boley, who only wants to rock. And maybe sip some wine coolers with a nice girl now and then.

Scott Ferguson is a favorite among directors. I like how he stuffs scenes to their bursting point with life, color, and texture, although sometimes storylines get swallowed up in all the fun. This go-round, he keeps the action up front, and the conflicts clear while working with choreographer Travis Bradley to build body shots, stage dives, and lots of windblown hair into the production numbers.  Even the muddled second act races along like a crazy train, always threatening to slip off the rails.

There’s always been a little teeny-tiny hint of Threepenny Opera in Rock of Ages, and Ferguson, and a rock solid ensemble, find grace and meaning in LA’s slimy underbelly. Maybe even a hard life lesson or two.

Kathryn Kilger is a fine fit for Sherrie, the good girl in a bad situation, and Chris Steinmetz is appropriately cringe-inducing as Stacee Jaxx, a pretty, petty boozed up sack of garbage in too-tight pants. Isaac Middleton sometimes struggles with the range and brute force the songs require, but he overcomes all obstacles including the character’s own piggish instincts. He makes you love him, and makes the music work.

The glue holding everything together, however, is Stephen Garrett, who’s back on stage in Memphis after a brief hiatus. It is a welcome and auspicious return. Garrett specializes in emotionally detached smart guys, smartasses, and smarmsters with hearts of gold. This go-round he’s Lonny, a rock-and-roll lifer, living for the city and the scene: A little bit middle aged Jim Morrison, a little bit roadie for Spinal Tap. But the way he leads both the audience, and his fellow characters through the show is more like stoner Bugs Bunny leading Elmer Fudd on a wild rabbit chase. You just know somebody’s gonna get a big ol’ kiss. It may be my favorite musical performance by Garrett since he Christian rocked the house in the band satire Alter Boyz.

If there's anything I dislike more than Hair Metal it's Huey Lewis & the New's Sports LP. But if there is a Heart of Rock & Roll it's Jarrad Baker as the Bourbon's true believing owner, trying to hold on to that feeling and everything else that matters, even if he can't hold on to his club. Jonathan Christian turns in a strong supporting performance as Hertz, the teutonic moneyman, as does dancing machine Daniel Stuart Nelson who channels the spirit of Klaus Nomi as Hertz’s son Franz. Brooke Papritz mugs a little too much in her role as a cartoon activist, but also displays comic instincts reminiscent of Laugh In-era Ruth Buzzi.

Annie Freres has a voice that can’t be ignored, and her too-brief moments on stage are worth the ticket price. "Shadows of the Night," could have gone on much, much longer.

I’m never going to be a Journey fan. Or a Bon Jovi fan. Or all that into Quiet Riot. But if every production of Rock of Ages was as full and fun as this one, I could warm up to it pretty quickly — Against all Odds.
Anywhere
  • Anywhere
Apologies: Brooke Papritz was originally misidentified because somebody clearly can't read a program. (Me)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Living Colors: "Other People's Happiness" is a Well Made Play

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2017 at 11:18 AM

Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
  • Little ditty 'bout Sara & John
You know what it's like when everybody in the family gets sick at the same time? Nobody's able to make soup, or Jello, and somebody's always in the bathroom when you really need to go, and nobody can seem to be nice to anybody for very long, even when everybody's sympathetic? Other People's Happiness is a little like that. It's a well made play about a tightly knit family of four who all come down with relationship flu at the same time. Some of the drama feels artificial — manufactured by characters who court it — but there's some real stuff too in this latest NewWorks@TheWorks-winning world premier. It's a handsom thing too.

Like most well made plays Other People's Happiness begins fairly late in an ongoing story, and the first stretch is devoted to much exposition. This one starts on a family fishing vacation, with an occasionally interrupted monologue by John. He's a reasonably successful businessman and father of two, who's casting around for more than the evening meal. John drops his fishing line again and again without success, while talking about the new phase he and his wife Sara are entering. Maybe it's time to relax and try new things. Maybe they can spice things up too with some erotic adventures. But Sara has a completely different future in mind, whether she's willing to be honest about it or not. Words are spoken, mean things are done. Stupid things too.

Did you catch the metaphors? I figured. More complications (and metaphors) arise when the couple's adult son and daughter, who are experiencing rocky patches of their own, get involved. The details make the show, so I'll say one more thing and stop at that. There's a twist that comes near the end of the show. In a well made play there's almost always a twist that reverses much of what the characters think they know about everything.

Jeanna Juleson is a terrific Sara, reserved on top but with so much more going on just below the surface. After all these years she's still something of a mystery to her husband, and that's only mostly his fault. Gordon Ginsberg's John is appropriately bland, working harder than his wife to maintain a veneer of reason and control while completely losing his shit. Jacquelyn Skoog Hayner and Standrew Parker are the kids and they both bring a lot of dimension to characters that are sometimes more functional than fully baked.


Like a New Yorker Cartoonist, playwright Adam Seidel has a fine sense of economy. He ably builds people we recognize, and circumstances we know too well, with only a few scribbles and scrawls. And like old masters of the well made play he makes great use of letters and notes. Or, in this case, smart phones. So many big events happen offstage and are explained in scenes where the kids meet up to catch up, or while John gives a tour of the barn he's decided to rehabilitate and repurpose. It sometimes makes for a play that's more talky than active. When somebody sets fire to the family home conversations about the blaze need to pulse with the heat and horror of memories and dreams fighting to stay alive. What we get is more and more squabbling between characters who are so bland they're almost fascinating.

New plays are usually born in an austerity that fosters marvelous invention. But a professionally mounted show is one of the real perks of POTS' competition, and it's a nice one. Veteran performer/first time director Leah Bray Nichols hasn't gone out on any limbs, and with a straightforward piece like Other People's Happiness, that's probably for the best. She's shown a keen sense for what's necessary, and gotten honest, believable performances from a generous cast. But artistry is another metaphor in Other People's Happiness and the real stars of the show are Jackie Nichols' blank canvas set and Mandy Heath's gorgeous, painterly lighting design. Heath isolates her figures in space and makes them glow against rich, jewel tone landscapes of color that sometimes make up for an absence of color in the writing. The lights are a big bold choice in a play plays it safe and could benefit from more bold choices.

New plays are the lifeblood of live theater, and Playhouse on the Square's New Works series, now in its third production season, has been a magnet for solid material like We Live Here, and the excellent Byhalia, Mississippi. Like most of what we've seen so far from the series, Other People's Happiness is intriguing, with real potential to become something much better with a draft or two. On many occasions I've made the point that not everything needs to be a masterpiece, the theater needs more good plays appealing to all kinds of consumers. Other People's Happiness is already a good play, and it connects, judging by the mostly enthusiastic response of a packed Saturday night house. It's also a little familiar — currently lacking the unique identity and defining moments that make for really memorable theater. Leah Nichols' clean composition and Heath's saturated colors make it memorable anyway.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Unamerican Psycho: Germantown Community Theatre Does Something Crazy

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 10:23 AM

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First, I’d like to do something I almost never do and start this review with a standing ovation. Hooray for Germantown Community Theatre. Hooray for being brave and doing things differently during the holidays when nobody ever does anything especially brave or very different. While other playhouses pull out beloved Christmas classics and reel in customers who attend theatrical performances somewhere between once a year and once a lifetime, it makes good sense for a clever company to cash in on regulars looking to escape all the Bah Humbugs and God bless us every ones.

There’s a problem though, and it may have been reflected in Sunday afternoon’s uncomfortably small matinee audience. From its violent beginning through a long, somber curtain call (set to the loping tune of Alfred Hitchcock’s TV theme), Germantown’s Rope never feels like a gift of any kind.

A question Rope's characters are asking themselves: "How does it feel...

Rope
’s a funny fish to begin with. Modern audiences may be familiar with the show by way of Hitchcock’s 1948 film starring Jimmy Stewart as a morally ambiguous college professor coming to terms with a pair of decadent students who’ve misunderstood Nietzsche and done something awful. It’s based on Patrick Hamilton’s chatty, 1929 play, which tells the same basic story, but with a few substantial differences bringing it even more in line with the grossly indecent works of Oscar Wilde. Set in the period of original production, and loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Rope was Hamilton’s portrait of a dangerous and narcissistic class, happy to make games out of sex and murder. It also functions an overdetermined object lesson — a kind of dialogue between Wilde and Nietzsche built to address common misunderstandings about nihilism. Think of it as a gay-ish American Psycho set in post WWI Britain with an au current ideology standing in for watermarked business cards. It's also, fundamentally, a ham-handed exercise in suspense. Still, there’s real potential for a bold company of artists ready to wallow in Rope’s sick banalities (“Rather!”) and indecent desublimations (“Rather!”).

In a nutshell, Chase Ring’s production for GCT is short on color and long on the literal. Ring’s an inventive actor with a large personality, but neither quality seems to have followed him into the director’s chair.

When you do daring (like serve up gruesome for Christmas?) it’s an opportunity to create audience sampling. Just like the bigger playhouses leveraging their technological advantages, it’s a real chance to make lasting memories. In this case it might have been fun to swing for the design fences and create a dynamic space that frames the production instead of entombing it in a dollhouse. Something touched by elements of futurism, surrealism or dada —  period-appropriate European art movements fancied by brats of all kinds. Something to elevate the middling material and leave a mark. But what stands out most in this production (costumes excepted), is a pronounced absence of style.

Every character in Rope has some mental picture of his/herself as an iconoclast, living bigly and in ways the typical Alf, Bert, or Bill couldn't understand. They're the butt of The Aristocrats joke, and the intellectual elite we’ve all been warned about — SCARY! But also a hoot! One's just a little more alive than all the rest right now. Another’s deader.

For his cast, Ring has brought together an able mix of seasoned veterans and fresh faces. There are a lot of good actors on stage, they’re just never lit very well, or given much to do besides talk, and talk, and talk (and talk, and talk). The lust for a life less ordinary that drives this chiller, is largely desexualzed, and reduced to something considerably less magnetic than it might be.

James Dale Green holds his own as Rupert Cadell, an irascible, hard drinking poet shaped by the original war to end all wars. But for a man full of drinks and dangerous ideas, he’s never allowed to be more than a scamp. Nor is anybody else, regardless of who they may not have killed, or why.

Joe Prestigiacomo, Ryan Spearman, Kristen Vandervorst, Whitney Bogus, Ty Hoskins, Louise Levin, and Beverly Morlang round out an ensemble more talented than tight.


Ironically Patrick Hamilton, named the condition GCT’s Rope suffers most — “Unchange.” Although Hamilton, achieved fame and fortune writing popular thrillers, it was never enough for the well-heeled Marxist. He longed to be taken seriously, by which I mean he wanted to create meaningful work for which there was no apparent market. So, in the late 1930’s, as fascism spread, war loomed, and global economies faltered, he penned a satirical, surrealist novel about the British caste system. The badly reviewed work of dystopian fiction was called Impromptu in Moribundia and told the story of a perfect world populated by perfect stereotypes, where perfect order is kept by “Little Men” of business who wear bowlers and become suspicious of the novel’s foreign narrator when he doesn’t take his hat off during the national anthem. Moribundia is a place where transition is possible only in the absence of change — “Unchange.” Absent a lively concept, or opportunity to experience finely focused performances, there’s just no compelling reason to revive an artifact like Rope or believe an ordinary season offering can compete with something as big as Christmas.

Rope’s not bad but, as Hitchcock once noted, the best films are made from mediocre source material. I love the idea. And believe there’s a market for something different this time of year, as long as that thing's also special in some way. In a giving season lackluster material and an all around lack of inspiration seems downright miserly. 
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Manhattan skyline, hair, suits, moistened lips... style.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reduced Shakespeare: "One Ham Manlet" is Serious Fun

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 3:53 PM

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If you only see one one-man Hamlet this season, make it One Ham Manlet. It's a joy for Shakespeare lovers, but also a fantastic entry point for skeptics, who think they should know a little something about the celebrated tragedy, but can't bring themselves to commit to the full four-hour show.

At 90-minutes Ryan Kathman's Manlet isn't an enormous time investment, and will leave many theater lovers wanting more. That's pretty much the definition of success.

Kathman, who developed, and stars in this solo tour de force had me from the show's opening when he... Dammit!

To say what he did would give it away and spoil the fun. This makes it difficult to talk about without letting a lot of cats out of their respective bags. So instead of getting too deep into it, I'm going to link back to this preview. It tells you just about everything you need to know about a funny, thoughtful, loving and somewhat irreverent take on the original man in black.

Good theatre of any kind results from good problem solving. Few things present more problems than doing Hamlet on a relative shoestring with a cast of one. One Ham Manlet's a solid primer in how to make theater theatrical, and take advantage of commercial theater's most underrated tools — audience imagination.

I'd see this one again, if I could.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The House That Will Not Stand: Great Writing on Display at the Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2016 at 2:17 PM

hattiloo_housenotstand-email.jpg
Wow.
Wow.
Wow.

I could say it again, but I won't. The Hattiloo Theatre's production of The House That Will Not Stand isn't perfect, but it's good, sometimes very good, and occasionally better than that. But Marcus Gardley's script — inspired by the Federico Garcia Lorca classic House of Bernarda Alba — is extraordinary. It's a fitting tribute to the original, never standing in its shadow. The uncommonly strong writing carries the Hattiloo's production through  rougher patches. When things click, it soars.

Before getting to the good stuff — and there's so much good stuff to talk about — I want to make a worried  confession. This title gave me pause. It reminded me of something a friend in a band called The Lights once said about his group's name. "I can see the headline if critics hate it," he said — "Turn Off the Lights." I've frequently complained that the Hattiloo undervalues technical theater, treating it as an afterthought. But since moving into the new space, it's struggled with other aspects too. Quality's swung pole to pole, show to show, from perfectly professional, to events that wouldn't pass muster at area high schools. And, just as I've wondered about stagnation and the absence of creative strategies in our older institutions, I've similarly wondered how any new playhouse can sprout so fast, in so many directions, with so much programming, divided attention, and stretched resources, and not crack down the center. To that end, some titles are just scarier than others.

Sometimes, like Lorca, I like to go dark for contrast. Because this is a fairytale review, and the ending is happy. Yes, consistency remains a problem, but in spite of that, here I am, the constant skeptic, with nothing but a basket full of "Wows." Sure, some of the casting in the The House That Will Not Stand seemed off, but some was spot on, and the production, which could have stood another run or six before opening night, was beautiful to look at, and —especially for fans of virtuoso writing — a joy top to bottom. While I still worry about the things I've mentioned previously, I also have to stand back and marvel. Before Hattiloo, it's not impossible to imagine shows like Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, or The House That Will Not Stand making the cut at Circuit Playhouse, or maybe Theatre Memphis' NextStage. More likely we'd see them at the University of Memphis, if at all. But there's no way both would ever appear in the same theater in a single season. And we'd never see these two thoughtfully, and thoroughly rendered productions back to back. The former became a sell out show for Hattiloo, and rightly so. And The House That Will Not Stand is extra special. It's something every theater lover in Memphis should make a point of checking out while it's here. Writing of this potency is rare anywhere, and this still relatively new work has plenty of life ahead of it, with a New York production, and a film in the works. See it now, before everybody else is talking about it.

Set in New Orleans in 1813, a short decade after the Louisiana Purchase, House is, in part, about the Americanization of French Louisiana where communities of free blacks flourished. Men and women, once able to walk the streets without papers, could be stopped by authorities and enslaved. With this change in dynamics — all tragic contemporary resonances considered — came other changes to culture and tradition. The House That Will Not Stand touches on many things, but is essentially a twisted, sometimes terrible Cinderella story built around an old, decaying practice of French colonials taking black common-law wives. There is a (possibly) wicked mother, who only wants to protect her three girls from the new system, keep them out of the old system, mind her interests, and serve the occasional slice of pumpkin pie.

Beartrice (Jacki Muskin) is the Mother in question. Her white lover and keeper is dead when the play starts — choked on a chicken bone. Maybe. This means the nice house she lives in could be inherited by the man's wife. Or it might go on the market and be purchased by an old rival (Patricia Smith). This potential murder mystery and a sub-thread about about the curse of being born darker than a paper bag drive the plot along, but the beating heart of this dark, delirious dramedy belongs to the slave Makeda, practicing to carry herself like the free woman she knows she's going to be.

Makeda absorbs a number of classic African/African-American myths. She's the cunning trickster, separating fools from their gold. She's also the wise conjure woman, and magical in ways that might seem exploitive if the character was created to redeem a white master. She's also a perfect Lorcan clown, responsible for heavy doses of truth and laughter. Maya Geri Robinson seems young in the role, but inhabits this character completely. I predict an Ostrander nomination, and have a hard time imaging who might even rise up to challenge this winning performance.

At first glance, Jimmy Humphries set design's not nearly as gothic as it might be. That's what makes it worth a second and third look. The gently raked and sparsely furnished stage gives this House a versatile, modern edge. With nothing but light the whole space shape shifts to be whatever it needs to be — drawing room or discotheque. (Oh, yeah).

Opening night had some shaky moments. Actors were reaching for the odd line or landing just outside their light. That's the sort of stuff that fixes itself. Director Tony Horne has built his House like a master craftsman. All actors are aimed in the right direction, and this already fine show promises to grow into something fantastic.

I want to leave everybody with this image. Marcus Gardley was in the house for opening night, and before the show he had some things to say about his visit to Memphis, a city that sometime has trouble seeing itself — especially the best of itself. The playwright was overwhelmed by the Hattiloo, and the potential it represents. He didn't completely assuage my worries, but confirmed all convictions when he described the theater — one of a very small handful of African-American playhouses — as one of most important in the world.

There's still a long way to go, but finding and staging gems like The House That Will Not Stand — and doing them rightwill certainly help it get there.



Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Hunger Game: "Cuddles" Isn't Your Typical Vampire Story

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 10:25 AM

Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
  • Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums
I no longer possess a copy of The Amityville Horror, so don’t expect me to quote it directly. But I devoured the paperback when it was new, and I was too young to get into an R-rated picture. The line that scared me most explained the mundane triggers for demonic haunting. Supernatural horror, it said, might appear and disappear suddenly. It might be caused by something as simple and ordinary as “rearranging the furniture.” For some reason that line stuck with me, and it pops into my head whenever good plays with strong directors and gifted casts don’t seem to work. I wonder how many haints and horrors might be driven away by better design — Or at least by a simple shuffling of the chairs.

Cuddles is a different kind of vampire mystery. It unravels slowly, strangely, evoking a grinding sense of dread that grows minute to minute. At core, it’s a modern fairy tale with gothic elements ripped from 19th-Century novels where everybody seems to have a mad or embarrassing relative locked in the attic. It’s the story of Tabby, a well off, not very nice woman, and Eve the bloodsucking little sister she cares for. There are men in this story too, and although we never see them, they often feel like the play’s realest characters. Their influence erodes a system of rules and rituals the sisters created to protect each other from “the hunger.”
Cuddles is clever, but New Moon’s cast is struggling. Conversations (one-sided, per the script) turn into droning monologues. But when Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums connect it's horrible, hard to watch, impossible not to watch, and everything you want from a revisionist nightmare. They’re good together, but disadvantaged.

Most of the action is pushed as far upstage as possible and confined to a smallish platform floating in the comparatively immense darkness. The effect isn’t one of claustrophobia — which would be appropriate — but distance. The play’s less active moments happen in this big dark gulf between the audience, and a perfectly revolting little attic set. 

Maybe the audience could have been drawn in closer, and assembled on three sides. Maybe the attic set could have been brought to center stage. Distinctions might even blur and the attic and outside word could bleed together — literally and figuratively. Point being, there's a lot to like about this spook story. But somebody needs to rearrange the furniture.




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