Thursday, June 16, 2016

Tennessee Shakespeare Company Scores with "Henry V"

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 11:41 AM

Red is passion. It's blood, lust, sin, embarrassment, anger, and revenge. It's also the color I left the theater seeing Saturday, and not for any of the usual reasons.

Red was burned into my retinas. Images of ragtag soldiers were burned into my brain. Lofty words echoed in my ears. And every little piece of it was bathed in red, red, red. 

To borrow a line from Shakespeare's titular boy king, "The fewer men, the greater share of honor." I suppose that means there's plenty of honor to go around for the 10 hard working actors taking on every role in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Henry V, handsomely situated on stage at the University of Memphis through June 19. 

Tennessee Shakespeare's is the first revival of the Agincourt story since the River City Shakespeare Company (long defunct) crowned a female Prince Hal in the castle-like Tennessee Brewery in the early 1990s. To that end, it's overdue — off season, in a polarized nation that's gone through a shotgun blast of misguided ground wars while nationalism and nativism surged. Henry V's unique ability to function as a patriotic touchstone and fierce critique of war and its politics would have been especially resonant in the Bush era, while it lay regionally dormant. So, why now?

Because you can't keep a good, well-told story down, that's why. And Tennessee Shakespeare has delivered a spare, visually arresting epic that feels, genuinely, timeless. And so red. 

Much is made of Prince Hamlet's famous scene instructing actors. As much should be made of the Chorus' address to audiences in Henry V: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth, For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings."

Director Stephanie Shine puts a lot of faith in what happens when the power of Shakespeare's words are amplified by the imagination, and it pays off. 
There's one especially fine bit in an early scene where tennis balls — the offending gift to England from France — are bounced on stage to punctuate the action. It would have been nice to see this fantastically theatrical bit more fully developed and carried on throughout the show. But I'm not complaining. The effect is already powerfully echoed in the sounds of battle.

Set and costume design are striking, and to the point. Music composed by none other than King Henry V himself, wraps the show in uncommon authenticity. Colton Swibold — the only performer taking on a single role — is most effective as the silver-tongued king, and figurative leader of a tic-tight ensemble. It's a fine effort top to bottom but, in case I haven't made it completely clear yet, the star of this show is the color red. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"The Wiz" is a Hit... Because, Because, Because, Because

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2016 at 6:01 PM

Cast of the Wiz
  • Cast of the Wiz

The bad news for slowpokes: Hattlioo's production of The Wiz sold out most of its shows before opening night, and tickets are hard to come by.

The good news for slowpokes: Don't sweat it, you're not missing much. And if you really need a fix, the good parts are all on YouTube anyway. 

Also, thank goodness for advance sales, right? Because I really don't think this was the flashy season finale Hattiloo had in mind, and it's doubtful a flat, sung-to-tracks iteration of the Oz story would capture as many imaginations on the merits. There's too much talent on stage to dismiss this Wiz outright, but there's no compelling vision either. Design is uninspired at the edge of being downright counterproductive, and the whole thing smacks of something one might observe in a small town middle school cafetorium.

Even Emma Crystal's typically inspired choreography is only intermittently inspiring. 

The Wiz follows the original Wizard's blueprint pretty faithfully. There are Munchkins, and witches, flying monkeys, weird men behind curtains and, "I'm melting, I'm melting," and like that. With its gritty vintage tone and broad emotional spectrum, it can be a moving musical event, and funky good fun for all the senses. But the Hattiloo's music is all canned and thin-sounding, especially when contrasted with live human voices, and good ones at that. It's got no bottom to speak of, and instead of feeling the music in your body as one might in a club — or a good night at the theater — the experience is more like watching karaoke on cable access.

And let's be honest, nobody goes to see The Wiz because they just love the underdeveloped book. Music is the #1 priority, and here it feels like an afterthought. 

The visual experience isn't much better. The Hattiloo's versatile space — probably the most customizable in town — seems like it was laid out to host capacity crowds, not to stage a kick-ass musical. The oppressively gray and beige set establishes a playing space that's shallow and broad, so the action's all stretched out and mostly front-facing. Audiences seated on the sides get excluded. Like, a lot.

Pro tip: Sight lines are especially bad for those unfortunate enough to be seated all the way up right and left. Arrive early, sit anywhere else.

I've seen great proscenium-style theater in black box theaters, but that's never the most interesting or effective way to use this kind of space. That said, the creative team could stand to take a cue from the folks doing Peter & the Starcatcher on the proscenium stage next door at Circuit Playhouse and learn how less can be so much more. Actors and storytellers are more important than representational scenery. But I think I miss dynamics most of all, Scarecrow.

This show could have been so much better in the round with a smaller cast, a hot little combo, and a whole lot of creative problem solving. 

While the general tone may be flatter than Kansas, there are some real bright spots in the cast. Kortland Whalum has so much presence as the Tin Man it starts feeling like his show every time he sings. Charlton L. Johnson throws himself into the part of the cowardly lion with reckless and refreshing abandon. Mary Pruitt's similarly satisfying as the Lord High Underling, and there are others.

India Ratliff is fine as Dorothy, but for someone in almost every scene, she's never given very much to do. Which is really what's wrong with the whole production. The actors walk around, say their lines and dance with a modicum of conviction. But what should be high adventure through the urban funhouse lookinglass just kind of eases on through the most basic motions.

There've been times when I could easily describe The Hattiloo as being one of Memphis' most consistently creative and resourceful theaters. Fingers crossed the unevenness of recent productions can be chalked up to growing pains. Only a year into the new building, and already this ambitious company is physically expanding to accommodate rehearsals, programs, and events. In the meantime, artistry suffers consistently and considerably.

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Wiz.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Defying Gravity: "Peter and the Starcatcher" Flies Without Strings

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2016 at 6:23 PM

The Cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
  • The Cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
What makes Peter and the Starcatcher such a joy to watch? That’s a softball question. It’s a lovely, giddy, ominous, often ridiculous piece of performance candy doubling down on live theater’s three most important things — actors, actors, and actors.

Molly & the Boy
  • Molly & the Boy
Not shading on my designers; respect to all y’all. Only saying — after scenic visionary Adolphe Appia — when it comes to show, man really is the measure of all things. At its best — even in the astonishing technological now — the theater’s not a place for fixed diversions. It’s the last safe place to imagine dangerous things collectively. And, like its beloved source material, Peter and the Starcatcher is the kind of story that helps hardened adults relinquish self-control and enter a twilight place called Neverland, where pirates lurk, mermaids frolic, fairies twinkle, and little boys never grow up.

I’m not going to say too much about Rick Elice’s sprawling — sometimes too sprawling — Peter Pan origin story, because it’s a show where the journey really is the destination. I’ll merely note that it begins with two tall ships sailing in different directions to a common destination. One ship carries a mysterious trunk, some British seamen, and a bunch of pirates. The other carries young boys destined for slavery, the daughter of a British seaman, an identically mysterious trunk, and a passel of seagoing scoundrels. It ends at the beginning of a legend we already know, about the immortal Pan locked in his forever battle with a wicked, one-handed brigand. Between times there’s swashbuckling, glib banter, vaudeville routines, a song or two, and just enough gut-honest acting to keep things real.

The not-so-secret weapon in this latest production is musical theater powerhouse David Foster, who’s been sidelined for some time due to illness.

Well, he’s not sidelined anymore, and he’s making up for temps perdu.

Black Stache & the Boy
  • Black Stache & the Boy
Foster plays Black Stache, a dark hearted pirate who’ll cut you, boo, and not bat an eye if he do. Even in the context of a deliberate ensemble he’s a capital-S-T-A-R, and bigger than Norma Desmond.

Maggie Robinson is Molly the titular starcatcher. She's a precocious kid and tough little mother-figure to a trio of lost boys played to the grubby hilt by Dane Van Brocklin, Jason Gerhard, and Isaac Middleton. This team’s responsible for some of the show’s tenderest moments, but there’s not a slouch on director Bob Hetherington’s creative team. Bill Andrews, Michael Gravois, Nathan McHenry, Ryan Kathman, Stuart Heyman, Greg Szatkowski and Jared Graham round out an uncommonly well-rounded cast.

Hetherington gets good work from his designers too. Erik Diaz, Zo Haynes, and Caleb Blackwell have conspired to create a comfortably-scaled environment for actors to build worlds inside of worlds.

Am I gushing? I think I'm gushing. But I can say critical things too like how the script’s a little too loose and referential, and the stage sometimes erupts into an overly-frenetic jumble of confusing activity. But in a fun fast-moving play, those moments zip right on by.

Hang the moon from a string and you’ll wind up hanging the sun, and all the planets too. Imagine the moon and you can cram the universe into the modest auditorium at Circuit Playhouse. That’s exactly what Peter and the Starcatcher does, and with no small amount of panache. 

To be or not to be... pirates?
  • To be or not to be... pirates?
Correction: This review erroneously listed Daniel Muller as scenic designer per POTS preview materials. It has been corrected to read Erik Diaz. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Memphis' Namesake Musical Gets its First Hometown Production

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 4:18 PM

“If you listen to the beat, and hear what’s in your soul, you’ll never let anyone steal your rock-and-roll!
That’s the last line of Memphis’ artificially uplifting closer, sung with Bic-waving conviction, as the musical concludes on a note more wishful than happy. But every time I see it (and the times are adding up), I find myself asking the same two questions: “Who stole what, now? And who’d they steal it from?”

It’s not the knotty history of black and white artists (or the black and white contracts they signed in blood) that concerns me at the moment though. It’s the irony.

This Tony-winner’s set at the dawn of the civil-rights era in the city of Sun and Soulsville, and raises the question of Rock- theft often and outright as it tells the subtext-forward story of “crazy little” Huey Calhoun, a motor-mouthed white deejay who falls in love with R&B and with Felicia, the powerful, dark-skinned woman he worships as its living embodiment. It’s based on the life of WHBQ’s Red, Hot & Blue DJ Dewey Phillips, but not really. There’s nothing romantic or bittersweet in the tragedy of Big Daddy Dewey, who played race music for white audiences and introduced Elvis Presley to the airwaves. That substance-shortened life went dark when it went off the rails, and wasn’t a tale playwright Joe DiPietro was interested in telling. What remains is a history-distorting Hairspray redux, with only a fraction of the color, and a collection of songs that make “Walking in Memphis” seem authentic.

What Memphis has going for it is sincerity, and an ability to exude quirky optimism while deploying an incrementalist mantra mugged from MLK: “Change Don’t Come Easy.” Especially if you’re poor, not white, or both. For one brief, shining moment in 2010, Memphis was the new Camelot, arriving, as it did, on Broadway, at roughly the same time the Obamas settled into the White House, and ideas about “post-racial America” were bandied around like it was a real thing. As I pointed out in my earliest reviews, it gained strong, (probably) accidental resonance, as attitudes toward “forbidden love,”  bent in saner directions.

What Playhouse on the Square’s production has going for it is director/co-choreographer Jordan Nichols who’s never been one to underestimate the worth of balls out entertainment. The pace is fast, the dance numbers are explosive and powerful ensemble singing covers for shakier solo moments. Nichols has also assembled top-drawer character actors who help to bring the weirdly-industrial streets of Broadway’s Memphis to raucous life. Huey and Felicia may hoard most of the good songs, but sidemen like John Hemphill, Michael Jay Vails, Marc Gill, and Curtis C. Jackson find authenticity in a play where Beale St. has basement nightclubs, and the Orpheum is a music venue, not a still-segregated movie theater.

Lorraine Cotten’s hillbilly drawl wanders a bit but, as Huey’s racist Mom, her gutsy gospel singing helps bring it all back home.

DiPietro, who wrote Off Broadway’s second longest running musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, and the emotionally effective, Over the River and Through the Woods, always had a knack for creating dynamic relationships. Memphis’ most effective moments are played out between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, ministers and flocks, bosses and employees. Musically speaking, there’s no better example of this than Jarrad Baker’s moving performance of, “She’s My Sister,” where his Delray warns Huey to back off in a song that owes a lot to Stevie Wonder’s, “Living For the City.

The budding, ultimately broken romance between Huey and Felicia is a tougher sell given the natural born DJ’s relentlessly clownish Huckleberry Hound personality. It works, in part, because we want it to work. We want to find just enough hope in history’s wreckage to make all the awfulness seem worth it.

Nikisha Williams’ Felicia is feisty, with a sunshine glow that bursts out of her throat when she sings her breakthrough, “Someday.” So Maybe it’s more Motown than Memphis (with a little bit of this), it’s sweet, mid-Century pop, and the best part of Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan’s score.

Nathan McHenry plays Huey like a 24/7 hayseed comic and doesn’t always seem to have control over his voice. These are endearing qualities except for when they aren’t.

I’d hoped Memphis’ Memphis would at least look a little more like Memphis. Oh well. The creative team was going for “gritty,” but ended up with, “barn.” Bryce Cutler’s scrappy, aluminum-canopied set turns a city of dirty secrets and spectacular sunsets into a missed advertising opportunity

If it sounds like I’m down on Memphis, maybe I am a little. In the finale we’re introduced to a deflated version of Huey, working for a little radio station with only one listener. Felicia’s been successful, but she’s paid for it in terrible ways. They’ve both been ripped off, losing significant pieces of their identity to an industry that sees only one color: Green. “Steal Your Rock and Roll,” should be as cautionary as, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” in Little Shop of Horrors, but that’s not how it works. These days it makes me think of the story Bryan told about how he transitioned from rock star to Broadway hero.

When his publisher asked if he’d ever thought about writing musicals, the rocker — and former Juilliard student — answered with a sarcastic, “What are they?” The publisher’s answer cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Musicals mean 23 of your songs are performed eight times a week.” Bryan’s instant, unflinching reply: “I’m interested.” 

On the flip side, music tourism in Memphis has been booming and more attractions come on line all the time. Folks in the business believe Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet played at least some part in all that, so I’ll take the good with the questionable. Besides, for all my grumbling about authenticity, revisionist history, and rock-larceny, I’ll take POTS energetic, lovingly-staged production over both the Broadway run and the tour.

It helps to have the smell of barbecue hanging on the breeze. It really does. 

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ibsen's "Enemy of The People" Tells a Sadly Familiar Story

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2016 at 12:55 PM

The Wikipedia entry for Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People opens with this quote from the playwright:
“I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It may have many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea.”

These seemingly contradictory impulses are on full display in the CentreStage Theatre Company’s production of the play, which continues through May 8 at Midtown’s Evergreen Theatre. Dr. Stockman (Adam Remsen) has been a major force in creating his hometown’s newest attraction: a hot springs where Mayor Peter Stockman (Jon W. Sparks), hopes the sick and stressed will flock to take the healing waters.

But Dr. Stockman has made a disturbing discovery. To save money, the intakes for the bathhouses have been built too close to a tannery, owned by Dr. Stockman’s skinflint father-in-law Morten Kiil (Ron Gordon), and the mineral waters that have been advertised as pure and healing are in fact contaminated with disease and poison. Hosted, the reform-minded publisher of the local paper, is eager to publish the story, and as the first act closes, Dr. Stockman is ecstatic, believing he has saved countless lives and his city’s reputation.

But, since this is Scandinavian comic/drama, things don’t quite work out that way. The entire town has invested heavily in the hot springs and the related businesses they expect to spring up around it to cater to tourists. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Dr. Stockman is in for a rude awakening, as Ibsen’s script (translated into English by Arthur Miller in 1950) slowly turns the screws on him, fatally puncturing his sense of scientific nobility.
Remsen’s Dr. Stockman and Spark’s Mayor are the yin and yang at the heart of this production, and they play off each other beautifully. Remsen expertly traces Stockman’s arc from would-be town savior to the titular enemy of the people, while Sparks is perfect as the resolute politician who effortlessly outmaneuvers his well-meaning but myopic brother. The other standout performances include Dana Terle as Catherine, Dr. Stockman’s long-suffering wife, and Ron Gordon, who imbues Morten with a wry, flinty wit.

Veteran Memphis director Marler Stone’s production could not come at a more relevant time. So many of our current cultural conflicts, from climate change to the Flint water poisoning crisis to the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, revolve around the question of the short-term cost of doing the long-term right thing. How would you react if you found out that a major local business was destroying your health? Before you answer, did you know that the Vesco refinery on President’s Island is leaking tons of poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas every year? Kinda puts all that cheap gas in perspective, doesn’t it? An Enemy Of The People proves that Ibsen was thinking clearly and deeply about these issues 136 years ago. 

Editor's Note: Thanks to Memphis Flyer film editor Chris McCoy for stepping in and doing this while I was involved with Cookie Ewing's retirement party at Rhodes and the Johnny Cash historical marker unveiling in Cooper Young this past weekend. Enemy of the People is one of my favorite plays I never thought I'd live to see performed in Memphis. Hoping to catch it this weekend — Chris Davis.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sweet & Sour: Hattiloo's "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" has its ups and downs

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 11:08 AM

Sometimes I feel like a broken record.

Like so many plays I've reviewed at the Hattiloo Theatre in recent years, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet shows incredible potential. A fine group of actors have come together for the last chapter of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's groundbreaking Brother/Sister trilogy, and with the help of director Dennis Darling, they share many fine moments. Unfortunately, all of those moments happen in blue-gelled darkness, obscuring faces, and hiding the twinkle and the terror in the actors' eyes. There's no front light to speak of, and very little texture. It's a superficial problem, but one that makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend a piece of theater I'd normally want to stand up and cheer about. 

McCraney's a certifiable wunderkind who writes stylized family dramas overlaid with ritual. His sense of community calls to mind the August Wilson canon, but formally speaking, the two writers couldn't be more dissimilar. McCraney's scripts borrow from African mythology, with dialogue so musical his characters sometimes have no choice but to burst into full-throated song. In many regards, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet is the most conventional play in a set that includes In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size. But it's hardly conventional. Dream sequences weave in and out of an already dreamy narrative while ghosts and confused lovers follow one another through a swampy Louisiana landscape. In some regards it's a lot like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with all of the old fairytale's original mystery and danger restored. 

Marcus tells the story of a young man's sexual awakening, and an accompanying compulsion to learn more about his father. Marcus is "sweet" — a euphemism for effeminate. Maybe he's gay. Maybe it's more complicated than that. At any rate, he's trying to learn secret codes that exist in a tightly knit African-American community where homosexuality is kept on the DL. He wants to make connections, not only with new friends and lovers, but with history, and also to some much bigger ideas. You don't need to be familiar with the other Brother/Sister plays to follow the action, but the show will be richer for those who are. Even more so for those who've gone the extra mile to learn about the thunder gods and gender-bending trickster deities McCraney alludes to throughout. 

Cameron Yates is so vulnerable as Marcus — able to stop hearts with quiet reticence and warm them again with shy, schoolgirl laughter. He's strongly supported by Mary Ann Washington (Oba), Hannaan Aisha Ester (Shaunta lyun), Derrick Johnson (Shua/Oshoosi Size), and an able ensemble cast that is collectively responsible for some of the season's most satisfyingly human interactions. What's surprising though, given director Darling's background as a musician and conductor, is how all of these interactions occur in the context of a production wanting for shape and dynamics.

I get that much of Marcus' action occurs at night. The challenge, obviously, is to create the illusion of evening and shadow while still framing the characters and punctuating the action with light.  But instead of blossoming into the sunflower it's supposed to be, this production just kept audiences in the dark. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Monarch Notes: Theatre Memphis’ Abbreviated Shakespeare is Inspired Silliness

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click image (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis

Don’t go to Theatre Memphis’ production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) unless you like good acting, stupid gags, and Falstaff-sized belly laughs. It’s a perfectly entertaining night in the theater, and I’m more than a little surprised to find myself typing those words. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s signature piece with its abundant (sometimes dated) pop culture references, and glib approach to the material. But Theatre Memphis’ production is completely current, with enough heart to comfort like sunshine after rain.

You don't have to know very much about Shakespeare to get the jokes here. And, in spite of the title’s promise, audiences won’t leave the theater knowing any more about the plays and poems than they did when tickets were purchased. This is an improv-based comedy show using Shakespeare’s lingering notoriety as a jumping off point. The sonnets are acknowledged, but unaddressed, the histories are lumped together in a football-inspired sketch full of handoffs, interceptions, and skullduggery. And, in a gag about Shakespeare’s most recycled plot devices, many popular comedies, and most of the obscure works are lumped together and presented as if they were a single, and singularly ridiculous play. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not going to help anybody fake their way through cocktail party conversations about Timon of Athens. (Like that’s ever happened).

Put a sock in it! - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Put a sock in it!
A more honest title for this slow-starting, but ultimately satisfying literary romp, might be Shkspr’s Greatest Hits (Abridged), as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet ultimately get the most love, and the latter is literally performed both forward and backward. (“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.) Although metatext is left unspoken, the shows thesis is inspired by the original Man in Black’s sage advice to actors: “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” Only, in this case, the goal is to see how much fun you can have un-suiting the action to the word. Cheap theatrics abound, sock puppets steal the show, and, as is the case with most roller coaster rides, somebody will be thrown up on. Possibly more than once.

There’s nothing harder to pull off than scripted spontaneity, but director Jeffrey W. Posson has brought together a fine trio of actors, able to break in and out of character, and through the theater’s invisible fourth, fifth, and sixth walls like soldiers born under mars. It’s a tight ensemble able to solo like Coltrane, when their turns come around. Meghan Lisi brings a lot of Shakesperiance to the table. She shines throughout, though maybe not as brightly as in the real thing. Joshua Hitt gives a fun, unfussy performance, playing himself as an affable dork caught up in circumstances beyond his control. And by “circumstances,” I’m referring primarily to the antics of Kevar Maffitt who’s been given the evenings silliest and most sincere moments. He nails every bit of it. “What a piece of work is man,” indeed.

“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.

One of the best things about this production is how it’s energetic and forward-moving without ever being rushed. It’s an object lesson for those who think screwball comedy needs to be performed at breakneck speed. In the spirit of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, Posson & crew take the time required to let “real things” occur. Remarkable how fascinating it can be, in proper context, to just sit back and watch a wind up toy wind down.

I still like pieces of the Compleat Wrks better than the whole. But with deft direction, great acting, and top-notch design by Jack Yates and Kristen Redding, Theatre Memphis’ production is the compleat package. Nothing abridged about it. 
Your basic wrecking ball. - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Your basic wrecking ball.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"All the Way" Comes Up Short at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 1:34 PM

All the Way isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. It’s not a piece of naturalistic theater you can just stage. It’s not a musical either, but with grand themes, leitmotifs  of venality and an orchestra-sized cast, this overstuffed sausage-grinder about Lyndon Johnson’s first 11-months in the White House needs to be conducted like a tense modern symphony full of explosive tragedy and punctuated by brassy squawks, and soaring metaphoric strings. If careful attention isn’t paid to the show’s desperate melodies, and ever-shifting time signatures All the Way turns bloodless, like Disney World’s Hall of Presidents without the Morgan Freeman gravitas. Playhouse on the Square has transformed the show into a fashion parade of gorgeous vintage suits, and unconvincing wigs on a pink (marbled?) set that looks for all the world like it was wrapped in prosciutto. It’s a remarkable showcase of extraordinary talent grinding its wheels in a low-stakes historical pageant. When actors as sharp as Delvyn Brown and George Dudley can’t make historically large characters like Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson interesting, there’s something powerfully wrong with the mix.

I’m a fan of director Stephen Hancock, but have noted occasions where concept muddled clarity. The opposite is true this time around. Kennedy’s assassination can’t be treated like melancholy Camelot nostalgia. All the Way may open with a funeral march, but it needs to be bathed in horror and bubbling over with chaos that threatens to grow worse as the play progresses. The Gulf of Tonkin incident isn’t an aside, it’s an explosion. Every provision cut from the 1964 Civil Rights bill in order to get some version of the legislation passed before the election has to bleed real blood and stink of the strangest fruit.

George Dudley is a pleasure to watch. He’s whip-smart, and even when he’s badly used the man’s a damn powerhouse. But everything is different this time around. He’s not surefooted like he usually is. Like so many of the actors in All the Way, Dudley seems unfocused, and not entirely in control of his lines. Still, you can’t act height and vertical advantages aside, he’s still the only actor in Memphis I can imagine capturing Johnson’s crude and conflicted brand of Texas idealism. And when he’s on, he’s on fire.

For all of its shortcomings, All the Way is something of a landmark. I can’t recall when I’ve seen such a gifted assemblage of swinging D plopped down on a single stage. With a handful of exceptions, every noteworthy Memphis actor has been called on to do his patriotic duty, and most have answered with gusto. Curtis C. Jackson and John Maness stand out as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Greg Boller relishes his time inside the skin of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Michael Detroit makes a sympathetic, if never entirely convincing, Hubert Humphrey and John Hemphill, Sam Weakly, and John Moore all do some fine character work. The women of the 60’are finely represented by Claire Kolheim, Irene Crist and Kim Sanders, but they are outnumbered, outgunned, out shouted, and pushed to the edge of the picture. It’s an historically appropriate dynamic, of course, but it could stand crisper translation to the stage.

Regretfully, Robert Schenkkan’s script requires more than quality acting.

All the Way is a fourth wall breaker. At the end of the show Dudley asks the audience if anybody was made to feel uncomfortable about by the things they witnessed as ideation becomes legislation, slaw, then law. He asks if we wanted to hide our faces or look away. That moment should be the key to reverse engineering an American "teaching play" that lists ever so slightly toward German Lehrstücke. It should make us want to look away. Not because of the sad black and white photographs projected on enormous screens behind the actors, but because when politicians “make the sausage” people are the meat in the grinder.

And it’s always the same people in the grinder.

There’s a frequently repeated line in All the Way about how Johnson is the most, “sympathetic president since Lincoln [to African Americans].” It’s ordinary sloganeering, of course, and an uncomfortable truth when considered from even a relatively short distance. It’s also a helpful line for considering how easily mimesis fails this kind of play where dynamic interpretation makes the difference between horrorshow and hagiography.

Face full of Johnson. Michael Detroit and George Dudley in All the Way at Playhouse on the Square.
  • Face full of Johnson. Michael Detroit and George Dudley in All the Way at Playhouse on the Square.

All the Way isn’t bad, it’s worse than that. It’s boring. It's a play that should make us see that soldiers are blown up in boardrooms not on battlefields, and how even progressive politics can play out like a slow motion lynching. It should make us flinch and look away often. But it never does.

It’s an election year, of course — in case anybody out there in Flyer-land hasn't noticed. I suspect there's a certain crowd caught up in the pageantry who are in the perfect mood for a three-hour reminder of the “good old" "bad old" days when even an oil-funded politician as crude and bullying as Donald Trump could dream of a "more perfect union" and get elected. Once, anyway.

Even political junkies and policy wonks may wish to spend cocktail hour chugging coffee. 


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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

THE OTHER PLACE: 90 Perfect Minutes at Circuit Playhouse

Posted By on Tue, Feb 2, 2016 at 2:11 PM


Go to The Other Place. It’s not an uplifting play, this story of Dr. Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist developing drugs to treat dementia, while losing her grip on reality. She has brain cancer. Or maybe she doesn’t. Her husband is screwing around and filing for divorce. Or maybe he's not. Her daughter’s dead in a ditch somewhere, or maybe she's at the bottom a the river sleeping with the fishes, or maybe — just maybe — she’s dropping by the family’s second home and bringing the twins to visit grandmother.

Sharr White's critically acclaimed play The Other Place is not an uplifting experience but, with its unique structure and big heart, it's an experience audiences are unlikely to forget any time soon. For fans of good acting and unconventional mysteries, its arrival at Circuit Playhouse is fantastic news. This is the rare piece of theater where everything you think you know one minute is wiped clean in the next, stringing viewers along until the hopeful, but not very happy end.

Go to The Other Place. You’ll see Kim Sanders play an unsuspecting woman with problems of her own who’s come home to drown her sorrows in wine and Chinese takeout only to find a stranger in the kitchen who wants to hug it out. This scene between Sanders and an astonishingly good Kim Justis is funny, tense, hard to watch, impossible not to watch, and as fine a thing as anyone is likely to watch on any stage probably ever. Unless something extraordinary occurs between now and August — and it certainly could — this is the scene that will very likely earn both performers an Ostrander award. 

Go to The Other Place, where Michael Gravois vividly falls apart and pulls himself together after taking more than anybody could ever be expected to bear and where Kinon Keplinger shows, once again, that he’s among the most versatile character actors in town. These are two of Memphis's most reliable actors at the top of their game. Gravois is uncommonly vulnerable here, and a magnificent ensemble player. His most heart crunching sounds happen off stage, framing and lifting some of Justis' best work to date. Keplinger has taken on more showy roles in the past but he's never been better. 

Go to The Other Place. Director Dave Landis and his first-rate cast and crew have served up 90 minutes of bracing uncertainty. It's a tight, concise script with zero padding, and beautifully acted. It's not the best thing I've seen, but it's the best I've seen in Memphis in ages. Just go. 

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The Lion in Winter: A Game of Thrones for People who Prefer Implied Sex and Violence

Theatre Memphis' wooden production might benefit from some flesh and blood

Posted By on Tue, Feb 2, 2016 at 6:48 AM

Christina Wellford Scott as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine comforts Gabe Beutel-Gunn portraying her son Richard, in The Lion in Winter at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, January 22 - February 7, 2106.
  • Christina Wellford Scott as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine comforts Gabe Beutel-Gunn portraying her son Richard, in The Lion in Winter at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, January 22 - February 7, 2106.

The witty, ornamental banter that makes The Lion in Winter such a joy when it clicks can also be the filigreed anchor that drowns the 47-year-old show in its own stilted cleverness. What the dialogue reveals about the play's characters is never half as interesting as what it hides.

On the surface, James Goldman's play appears to revolve around a power struggle between King Henry II of England, his steel-cut wife Eleanor, Queen of the Aquitaine, and their three horrible sons who all want to succeed daddy on the throne. Personal dramas are built around the squabbling royals, but the play's central conflict — a furnace that should keep this plays engine sparking for ages to come — is raw barbarism in all out war with the veil of civilization. Director Irene Crist's production at Theatre Memphis cuts much closer to the heart of this play that the costume drama version she starred in on the same stage a dozen years ago. But Crist, and her able cast, have fallen into the same traps that turn what should be a tense encounter into a light Medieval drawing room dramedy. Let's call it Noel Coward's Game of Thrones.

Crist's Lion gets a lot right. Jack Yates' unit set projects an air of impregnability, but his compact castle is a subtle shape shifter, and as pliable as it needs to be. André Bruce Ward's costumes are the perfect mix of thick fur pelts, rough textile, metal and and fine fabric. Jeremy Allen Fisher's lighting lacks texture, but that's a small complaint. It's also one of the very best examples I've seen locally of using lighting to edit out all the stuff we don't need to see. The problem is, there's just not a lot action to frame. 

Charles K. Hodges (seated, center). He is flanked far left by Jeff Posson and far right by Nic Picou and surrounded by (clockwise from bottom left) Damian Stuchko, Emma Vescovo, Christina Wellford Scott and Gabe Beutel-Gunn.
  • Charles K. Hodges (seated, center). He is flanked far left by Jeff Posson and far right by Nic Picou and surrounded by (clockwise from bottom left) Damian Stuchko, Emma Vescovo, Christina Wellford Scott and Gabe Beutel-Gunn.

Maybe it's wrong to say there's not enough action. What's missing is life. Passion. Greed. Pettiness. Loathing. Envy. Lust. World without end. The actors take polite turns speaking well crafted lines, move on cue, and pose regally. There's never much tension, even when the knives and swords come out. 

I haven't read enough of the Game of Thrones backstory to know just how much fantasy author George R. R. Martin borrowed from the history books. I do know his barrel-chested, pot-bellied King Robert Baratheon has always reminded me of an amalgamation of Henry II, and his father William the Conquerer, right down to the character's death in a hunting accident. Like Henry, Robert's a pistol — an able, sometimes brutal warrior who's happy to make a law now and then when he's free and when he needs to — but he'd much rather be out hunting, drinking and fathering bastards. Charles K. Hodges is a strong performer and a good choice for Henry, but there are key aspects of the character he simply fails to communicate. Henry's not some sage older gentleman, full of restraint and reflecting on youthful indiscretions. He's still a man able and willing to behead rivals while bedding contessas, milkmaids, courtesans, novices, whores, gypsies, jades, and little boys. Hodges talks a good show, but the stories his Henry tells are always at odds with his gentle bearing. Hodges is never dangerous, even when he's holding a sword. There is something basically decent about him and we get the sense Henry might even make a damn fine husband to any wife who didn't lead civil wars against him.

I make the comparison to Game of Thrones here because those three words so accurately sum up what The Lion in Winter is. Also, dialogue written for the enormously successful HBO series, can be quite clever and civilized. But viewers are never allowed to forget that the royal inhabitants of Westeros, no matter how finely arrayed, are serial killers and gluttons who guzzle wine, fuck indiscriminately, bathe sporadically, and shit in chamber pans by the bed. The Lion in Winter can't just tell us about characters, the play also has to show us who they really are. Audiences should think they can smell rotten breath behind all those pretty words. We need to know, no matter how much Henry's family, friends, and foes may attract or amuse us, none of them can be trusted when backs are turned. To that end, Hodges' Henry is too grounded and affable — too much the victim of his family tragedy, and not enough the swinging dick whose preoccupations set all the bloody nonsense in motion.

Emma Vescovo as the determined Alais has a flirtatious moment with Charles K. Hodges.
  • Emma Vescovo as the determined Alais has a flirtatious moment with Charles K. Hodges.

The brothers Richard (Gabe Beutel-Gunn), Geoff (Jeffrey Wellford Posson), and John (Damian Stuchko) are all superbly cast, and each player has his moments. But they don't always play well together. As a group they can be wooden, with little sense they'd all be happy to knife one another in the dark. Stuchko nails aspects of John, the venal little shit who Henry loves best. But there's so much more to his character than stomping to some remote corner of the stage and plopping down in a huff.

Much of the Lion in Winter's plot is pegged to Alais (Emma Vescovo) — the sad Sansa of this story. She's having an affair with Henry, who wants to marry her to John, but she's promised to Richard, and her brother King Phillip of France is prepared to make sure promises are kept. Unless something better comes along. In a contest of kings, queens, and princes, she's the only pawn, and treated as something of an afterthought. Nic Picou is purposeful and effective as Phillip, and possibly the play's most fully realized character.

I feel like a one note singer in regard to Memphis actor Christina Wellford Scott. So often I find her to be a spark of life in otherwise wooden ensembles. That's not entirely the case here, but it it often is. She shares some nice moments alone, with both Beutel-Gunn, and with her real life son Jeff Posson, whose Geoffrey is one of this productions most pleasant surprises. Poor Geoff is often reduced to a sore-tail schemer — part Varys, part Tyrion Lannister. Posson never goes too arch and sacrifices easy laugh lines to flesh out a middle child character who's taken too many knocks to make jokes.

Eleanor is such a plum role, and Scott's a good fit for it. Like Henry, she's wild at heart, and war hardened. She'd hang jewels from her nipples but it would shock the children. It's Henry who says, "be gaudy and to hell with it," but Eleanor has always lived that line out loud. It's easy to make her the Beatrice to Henry's Benedict, or the Kate to his Petruchio. But she's so much more Cersci Lannister — a dangerous would be monarch cursed to be born female. We feel every one of her feels, and enjoy her manipulations but, as with Henry, it's the danger that's missing.

The Lion in Winter didn't make much of an impact when it landed on Broadway in 1966. That was also the year of Peter Brook's groundbreaking Marat/Sade, and a talky, old-fashioned plays like Goldman's seemed like yesterday's news. It wasn't reconsidered until 1968 when the film version was released with Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn as Henry and Eleanor, and a supporting cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, and Nigel Terry. With good editing and a soundtrack to help it move along, the film brought an intimacy — and sometimes a claustrophobia — to material the that's difficult to mirror on stage. What wouldn't I give to see a production as thoughtful as this one moved into a smaller space, with modern flourishes and the stakes raised tenfold. If an up close Lion can't be every bit as engaging as an episode of GOT, maybe it's time to let this play — so beautifully preserved on film — fade away into history.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Turn it Up: American Idiot Doesn't Get It

Punking it up at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 11:09 AM

When Johnny met Whatsername
  • When Johnny met Whatsername

People who are bored are also boring. The junkie life is a study in redundancy. And it’s impossible to muster sympathy for a couch potato stoner dodging life’s responsibilities.These are hurdles any production of American Idiot has to overcome. Playhouse on the Square’s production of the Green Day musical fails to clear any of them, though it might get some extra lift if somebody would just TURN UP THE BAND!

Director Gary John La Rosa likes to tell stories and he's good at it, usually. La Rosa felt like many of American Idiot's words — and subsequently much of the musical's story — had been lost in Broadway’s noisy sensory assault. To correct for this he placed the band behind the scenery, and pushed it to the back of the theater, effectively turning punk-inspired guitar buzz that should be the real star of this project, into a supporting player in the drama. It’s a good theory, and an enormous miscalculation.

Turn up the band.

Whether it's Green Day or Lady Gaga, or something great that only you and your five closest friends know, so much of how we experience pop music is contextual. Radio hits and cult classics serve as a markers for who we are, who we were, and who we wanted to be way back when we wore our hair like whatever. Sure, the rock era has produced its share of top drawer wordsmiths, and Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong may even be one of them. But when it comes right down to the creation of meaning, a popular song’s verses aren't nearly as important as the hook. How else does one explain the creepy “Every Breath You Take,” as a prom theme? Or Ronald Reagan pairing an optimistic motto like “Morning in America,” with Springsteen’s ”Born in the USA?” And what about that deeply meaningful song you fell in love with in high school and have sung wrong ever since? The idea I’m trying (and probably failing) to express is at the heart of what went wrong at POTS. American Idiot isn’t a show where you need to hear all the words, but you absolutely do need to feel all the feels. With the band turned down and pushed into the background, I just wasn’t feeling any of it it.

Turn up the band.

American Idiot
isn't a musical in any traditional sense. It's more of a  an angry, youthful screed responding to 20th-Century excess and 21st-Century wars — a collage of sights and sounds that remind us of just how fractured and confusing life could be at the turn of the century. The story — if you can really call it that — revolves around three young bros from the burbs striking out on their own and making life choices that turn out badly. Plot points related to addiction, a failing marriage, and combat are prosaically grafted to a generous heap of mostly catchy songs from Green Day’s similarly titled concept album. The record was released in September 2004, as Republicans held their national convention in New York. It was a noisy and contentions time. 24-Hour cable news was expanding. Talk radio was at its zenith, The Daily Show was entering its prime and internet blogs were proliferating and bending toward the mainstream. All this red and blue fracturing and image saturation is alluded to in POTS’s Idiot, but the dots don’t connect.

Mark Guirguis’ set reminds me of the windows in rundown industrial blocks just off the L-line in Brooklyn about five minutes before gentrification hit. But without the flavor. John Horan’s lights spend too much time in our eyes. Caleb Blackwell’s costumes look like he may have consulted with my mother on the finer details of punk fashion. The only thing this misfire production really has going for it is a fearless cast that can sing its ass off. And does just that.

Turn up the band.

It’s not Rock-and-Roll unless it upsets the parents, and to the show’s credit, people of parenting age got up and left when Alexis Grace (Whatsername) and Nathan McHenry (Johnny) stripped down for the big sex scene. Like all the little birdies being flipped, it’s an easy way to stir the pot, but it gets the job done. I knew how the bolting couples felt though. I too became embarrassed and wanted to leave the theater on a few occasions when an actor who’s clearly not a very skilled guitar player plunked and plodded his way through music he never should have been asked to play in the first place.

Turn up the band.

I’m inclined to go on, but I’ll end before this turns into a tantrum. And with a reminder that most of these complaints might be neutralized by concert level decibels.

Turn up the band.

It’s a great fucking band.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What's the Matter with BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI? (Spoiler Warning)

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2016 at 4:49 PM

Was it Emily Post or Miss Manners who addressed the topic of farting at dinner? Whichever maven it was, the advice went something like this: ghastly, mostly involuntary embarrassments should be ignored by smeller and feller alike. I mention this even though all the important farting in Evan Linder's new play, Byhalia, Mississippi, happens somewhere other than the table, because his play is a comedy of manners. It illustrates, among other things, how easy it is to go "nose blind" to the noxious things we tolerate and even pardon in the name of good taste and breeding.

Also because the show — good as it is — may have some nose blind spots of its own.

Byhalia, Mississippi plays really, really well. I caught a fever for the work Linder does with his creative partners at The New Colony when Rhodes College produced The Warriorsa staged collection of interviews with survivors of the  mass shooting at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The Warriors wasn't just good theater. The New Colony's stubborn refusal to sensationalize tragedy felt very nearly groundbreaking. I didn't love Linder's comedy Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche, but I liked. A unique theatrical voice was clearly emerging. His latest play is the most impressive so far. Still, as previously noted, there were things that got under my skin — Things difficult to talk about without dreaded spoilers. So...


I'll dispense with plot summaries and start by underscoring some things the play gets really, really right.

Byhalia works because the characters and their relationships are true to life. It's fiction, but if you've spent any time in the Memphis or the surrounding region, you'll recognize every person on stage. In that regard it reminds me a lot of The Warriors where actors played real people. Linder knows his subject matter. He may have set up shop in Chicago, but more pertinent facts may be discovered by clicking this link, and scrolling down the page until you see THE PICTURE. You'll know it when you see it. This is a guy who gets us in ways only a few other writers really do. He gets us in ways that compliment and counterweight the romantic firefly-infested stories we like to tell ourselves.

Jillian Barron, who plays Laurel, Linder's female protagonist, is especially strong here. Barron, it seems, can do no wrong. She was one of the more fantastic things about Jo Lenhart's  fantastic As You Like It at Theatre Memphis. She followed that with an award-worthy turn as a talky millennial in Rapture, Blister, Burn in the same space. Her Laurel doesn't always make good choices but she's always trying (sometimes failing) to choose better. She owns her worst mistakes — eventually— and she learns from them, kinda. She's flawed but decent, and constantly, awkwardly evolving. It's a terrific role on the page and Barron wears the character like school colors.    

Jim, Linder's philandering male protagonist, is what passes for "post racial" in the American South. Evan McCarley plays him as a laid back good ol' boy who can't understand why Ole Miss abandoned Col. Reb, but "some of his best friends "... etc. The play trades old Jim Crow stereotypes for new Jim Crow stereotypes so Jim, an unemployed construction worker faced with the prospect of taking a job at Walmart, isn't frothing at the mouth because his wife slept with an African-American. Sure, he immediately assumes the worst of his best friend Karl, but, end of day, the baby's blackness is only an issue because it's an indelible mark of Laurel's infidelity. It makes her mistakes worse than his own because her mistakes can't be swept under the rug. Pop culture's usual cartoon rednecks who hate on women and do racist things because they're cartoon rednecks have been replaced here by something more banal. And more awful. Something that loves you like your mama. Something that hides behind heritage, embedding itself in values and institutions where nobody will look because looking is rude. 

But what about that Nativity scene conclusion, really? The one where the affable, adorably inept white people (babe in arms) get something close to a happy ending? Maybe it's not storybook perfect, but is does call to mind the holy family in its hopefulness. The play's pivotal couple is reunited. They don't leave town ahead of scandal (or worse). They're going to be okay. The troublesome brown baby at the center of their marriage crisis gets to keep one actual parent while young Jim learns to embrace his recent shame as though it were his very own flesh and blood.

Isn't "white father learns to love non-white baby," an awfully patronizing (from "pater") plot point? 

I opened my original, and generally positive review with a question about closure. Is it for caucasians only? The play ends with Jim and Laurel doing some variation on what audiences will experience as "the right thing." But outcomes are less certain for Byhalia's remaining African-American characters. They remain caught up in incidental counter-narratives about diaspora and sperm donor dads. On one hand Byhalia, Mississippi refines images of white racism while seeming to affirm unfortunate African American stereotypes regarding cheapness of life and hyper-sexualization.

Absent fathers are a staple of the American family epic and like Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie, Byhalia, Mississippi is sometimes a haunting portrait of a man who isn't there— The story of a man taking no responsibility for his progeny. This invisible dad does pay an indirect price exacted by his (angrystatus conscious wife, Ayesha when Laurel runs a suggestive birth announcement in the newspaper. Ayesha predicts a coming scandal that her husband, a small town high school principal, can't endure. She persuades her flatulent, philandering spouse to leave his his job and relocate to Jackson — which is conveniently where she always wanted to live anyway.

Ayesha offers Laurel $4,000 to get out of town. It's enough to relocate, but in the absence of meaningful sustained support, the bargain becomes little more that a payment for her husband's extra-marital sex, priced at a rate that buys discretion. Days later Ayesha and the invisible daddy put the brown-ish baby, Byhalia, and whatever those two things might mean in the rearview mirror, and drive away.

Jessica Johnson's Ayesha is a force of nature. The actor finds dignity in disgust. She finds grace, even in a Jerry Springer moment where she goes all Martin Luther and nails a message to Laurel's door. 

Karl, who's known Jim, Laurel, and Ayesha for most of their lives, may be Linder's most interestingly developed character. His ending is certainly the play's unhappiest and Marc Gill — another actor who can do no wrong — nails it. Gill is very good at emphasizing the things his character doesn't say, and sharing perfectly framed glimpses of the things he wants to keep hidden.  Ayesha calls him an "uncle," and the word lands hard with double meaning. Karl and Jim are best friends, co-workers, and serial roommates. But the relationship is out of balance. there's a dishonesty between them that only becomes apparent when Jim assumes the worst. And there's dishonesty on top of that. 

Karl's pants are down when we meet him. He's been caught whacking off to pictures on his laptop that he really doesn't want anybody else to see. That kind of introduction lingers.

Byhalia, Mississippi ends with Jim and Laurel free at last. They're free— momentarily, at least — from Laurel's hateful mom (Gail Black in top form).They're free(ish) from the bonds of other people's stupid rules. They're free to laugh. They're free to feel good bout naming their kid for a hate crime victim they'd never heard of until his memory was invoked to shame Laurel. They're free to sit on the roof and smoke pot while the little one sleeps. The are also free and isolated from all their black friends. And all of their black "friends."

Talking about these sorts of things can be tricky. Hopefully nobody involved will experience this supplementary review as an accusation of bad faith. I liked Byhalia, Mississippi. As an evening of entertaining theater, I can recommend it. But no matter how hard I try, I simply can't experience it as a finished piece of work. And if it is finished, I can't experience it as the hopeful work I believe it's intended to be. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL Ends Well at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 4:30 PM

All's Well That Ends Well is a holiday treat. Maybe it's not the most ambitious work the Tennessee Shakespeare Company has ever done, but to borrow from Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Nothing can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it." Of course the Duke's line was originally inspired by ridiculous amateur theatrics and functions as a kind of Elizabethan, "Bless their hearts." But he's speaking in earnest, and so am I. Pressed to choose only two words to describe director Dan McCleary's vision for this rarely-produced play, "simpleness" and "duty" would make the short list alongside "clarity," "competence," "charm," and "confidence."
Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604, - PHOTO: JOEY MILLER.
  • Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604,

Detailed Medieval(ish) costumes are mildly at odds with flat, cartoon-like backgrounds loosely inspired by the work of illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Stage movement and performances seem equally two dimensional, especially when one considers TSC's bolder work, and the company's proclivity for stopping a narrative cold to flesh out fight scenes or to explore Shakespeare's more musical tendencies. None of this is complaint. McCleary and company have taken a disarming "stand and deliver" approach to unfamiliar material that proves effective over time, as the story builds on itself and momentum gathers. Lovingly framed by Barry Gilmore's percussive celtic string arrangements, the overall effect is less like ensemble acting and more like group storytelling.

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan is relentlessly chipper and full of life as Helen, a lowborn orphan with healing powers, who's determined to get and keep her man Bertram, no matter how grotesque and unworthy he proves himself. (More about the plot here). Barnett-Mulligan is supported by Stephanie Shine as a grounded Spanish Countess and mother figure to Helen, Jeanna Juleson as the widow Capilet,  and Caitlin McWethy as the spunky Diana, who helps Helen trick her inconstant husband Bertram into bed. 

Joey Shaw lacks gravity as the ailing French king Helen heals and wins over. And it's hard to know what our heroine might see in Bradley Karel's vanilla Bertram. But McCleary gets fun performances from Isaac Anderson as the puffed up braggart Parolles, and from Brian Sheppard as Lavatch, one of Shakespeare's naughtier fools. As Lafew, Stuart Heyman proves that the best laughs sometimes go to the straight man.  

It's a bit disconcerting that only two of many presumably French-speaking characters use over-the-top accents, while the rest of the cast use no accents at all. Obviously somebody thought it would be fun to model Shakespeare's Parisian soldiers after the insult-hurling knights in Monty Python's The Holy Grail. It's a good bit in and of itself, and nicely acted, but incongruous and a wee bit confusing in a play that moves from Spain to Paris, to Italy, and back again with lighting changes, but no significant shifts in scenery.

All's Well ends better than it begins. Not because it begins badly, but because there's a lot to establish and it takes some time to get this neoclassical train rolling. Though darkly comic in tone, the show is sometimes described as a "problem play" due to formal irregularities that make it hard to categorize. What's fascinating is how much more modern and accessible Shakespeare's infrequently produced "problems" can seem compared to the more straightforward comedies and tragedies.

I've seldom known a theater that wasn't on the lookout for scripts with strong female ensembles. So why is  All's Well That Ends Well performed so rarely? Obviously, it's not taught in schools like the tragic masterworks. It's not as action packed as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night or As You Like It. It lack's the philosophical heft of Measure for Measure and the comic gender feuds found in Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew. As epic fairy tales go it pales next to The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. But the best bits from many of these plays are are either anticipated or echoed in All's Well That Ends Well. To ice the confection, Shakespeare places not one, but a clutch of strong women, front and center. And he populates their richly dysfunctional world with weak, violent, sexually arrested men-children who are always looking for a place to stick their swords. To that end, it plays out like a counterpoint to Aristophanes' sexually explicit anti-war farce, Lysistrata whose title character ends her reign of terrible abstinence with the declaration, "All's well that ends well." It may not be the Bard's most compelling adventure, but it's a witty thing, and delightfully inappropriate.

Catch All's Well That Ends Well at the Dixon while you can. History suggests it will be quite some time before another opportunity presents itself. 

For times and ticket information, here's your click

Friday, November 13, 2015

"A Box of Yellow Stars" Shows Promise at TheatreWorks

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 10:27 PM

Natalie Parker-Lawrence is a good writer. It's easy to imagine the characters she words into existence as flesh and blood people. There are many fine, emotionally honest passages in her new play, A Box of Yellow Stars. But good writers aren't always good plotters, and developing conflict may not be this full-time educator's strongest hand. In its current state A Box of Yellow Stars plays out more like a collection of related sketches than cohesive piece of theater. Still, fans of good acting may not mind the opportunity to watch Janie Paris and Donna Lappin do their thing  

There's a lot of promise in the premise, and a lot of heart evident in its execution. The setup: During WWII an American trumpet player and spy married (and quickly divorced)14 Jewish women (and apparently one man) in order to bring them to America and save them from the Nazis. The story is told in the form of various remembrances at his funeral, which is attended by three of the ex-wives, none of whom really know each other. It's based on a story the playwright learned from one of her students, and allegedly true. 

Director Ruby O'Gray has helped her actors build believable relationships and that carries the show forward when the play spins its wheels. 

There's a lot of good stuff happening in the first 1/3 of this script, but the last 2/3 aren't quite ready for prime time. Best advice I've got: Jettison the last two acts. Don't look back.  Let this play be about a mother and daughter opening a box of yellow stars with the help of some new friends. Let them discover they are all part of a much bigger family. 

Voices of the South Makes Heaven a Place on Earth

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 12:44 PM

Big kid, little kid, and Mrs. Stone in Jerre Dye's "Short Stories" - VOICES OF THE SOUTH
  • Voices of the South
  • Big kid, little kid, and Mrs. Stone in Jerre Dye's "Short Stories"

The opening moments are really something to see. The cast members of Short Stories walk through an all white corridor hung with white velour curtains that wear the light like heaven. They carry luggage and pull carts, silently passing one another, making their lonely journeys across time and space by way of this narrow celestial concourse. It’s otherworldly, church-bulletin pretty, with kitschy undercurrents that, because of the context, instantly reminded me of an interview with playwright Jerre Dye’s older brother John who died in 2011. John, a U of M theater alum who played the angel of death character on TV’s Touched by an Angel, once told me how he sometimes made people very uncomfortable on airplanes. The triggered memory made me laugh all over again, and I’m not sorry, though it probably seemed like an inappropriate response to anybody not inside my head.

I’m especially thankful for that opening moment, and for the tone established by VOTS company member Todd Berry in the show’s somewhat meandering opening monologue. I knew right away that this was the classic version of a company I’ve grown up with, at the height of their powers and fully in charge. The content — taking nothing away from its creator — becomes almost irrelevant in hands that know how to sieve meaning from the oddest scraps of found text. After some growing pains, some shakeups, and a victory lap of revivals celebrating 20-years of original play-making, order appears to have been restored. The grownups are in charge, and they’re the same standout kids I remember from 20-years-ago, still turning prose into playful theater. But a lot of water has poured under a lot of bridges over the past two decades. There has been a lot of change, a lot of struggle, and too much loss. Some life-and-company affirming version of The Five People Jerre Dye Wants You to Meet in Heaven is probably overdue for everybody.

Short Stories is exactly what it says. It’s a collection of brief, meditative narratives about loss: Loss of parents, loss of youth, loss of freedom, loss of identity, loss of love, loss of lifestyle, loss of control, loss of innocence, and loss of Jesus. Or Jesusness, at any rate. There’s a lot of Jesus and Jesusness in this play. Many hushed tones and reverent, sweetly-held silences too. Also adjectives. There are lots of glittering, garish, alluring, stinky, and provocative adjectives, languidly, and liberally scattered near adverbs and such. That Dye kid can write, but somebody needs to have a intervention regarding the ornamentals. It doesn’t make his prose richer or more musical, it only makes it more. And by more, in this case, I mean less than it might be. Less confident. Less clear. All heart, but less to the heart of the matter.

"Uber" is a story performed by Berry, about two men telling stories. One is an oversharing driver with roots in the far east. The other is a distant passenger who doesn’t know he’s in powerful need of blessing. 'Uber' is best when it’s in the moment, letting the audience decide what these internal and external dialogues mean as guarded and gregarious strangers clash, connect, and talk about death in their families. The piece ruminates too much on itself. Most all of these stories do. But "Uber" is effective in contextualizing both the evening, and the mission of a theatre company deeply committed to the singularity-like power of stories to connect across cultures, generations, dimensions, time, space and maybe even the void of death. 

Jesus and Mrs. Stone is where Dye really unpacks his adjectives. And his Jesus. But let's face it, if you’re not hooked by the faintly New Age-ish inner-child dance that opens this story, you’re probably dead inside. The opening is all about that thing kids once called “the feels” (till their parents coopted it and they outgrew it, and life went on). In a sequence worthy of a Super Bowl commercial for virtually anything (or Guardians of the Galaxy credits at least) a grown man, played by David Couter connects with his old Sony Walkman cassette player and a song that unlocks his younger self (Reece Berry) and everything that mattered to him in the 1980’s. The song is the Go-Go’s first hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” What mattered was a fading free spirit named Ms. Stone, perfectly played by Anne Marie Caskey. Like Uber, it turns in on itself instead of resolving. It is, in some regards, one of Dye’s richest portraits wrapped in some of his thinnest writing. A little less wonderous wonderousness and a little more wonder would tighten things right up.

"Two or More," is the treat of the evening, and I’d be happy to spend an entire night in the theater watching Steve Swift and Cecelia Wingate sitting on their imaginary porch going back and forth. "Two or More" starts slow and stays that way, an excelent lesson for all those directors out there suffering under the illusion that broad farce is fitful and frenetic and works best when executed at breakneck speeds.

Voices of the South lives up to its name in so many ways, expected and un. "Two or More," is a direct ancestor of a classic comedy routine most closely associated with hayseed comedian Archie Campbell of Hee Haw fame. Though it was usually scripted, “That’s Good/That’s Bad,” functions like a theater game where a story is told in which all the things that sound good turn out bad and vice versa leading to a usually anticlimactic comic payoff. In this case Swift and Wingate talk about the fate of a young hellraiser who grew into an adult hellraiser who found a good woman that led him to Jesus so he could become a hellraiser for Jesus, before he fell off the wagon and lost Jesus but not the woman or the hellraising. And so on. It’s classic front porch comedy with more substance than it lets on. Pitch perfect front to back.

Short Stories closes with a piece called "Do You Love Me," a boy’s memory of his mother. Like most of the pieces up for consideration in this collection, it loses its way a bit while working through circumstances most viewers will respond to emotionally. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And David Couter and Alice Berry are so good together you’ll want to call your mama after curtain call, whether you’re able to or not.

This is a pretty show in sentiment and style. It's also some of the greenest writing we’ve seen from Theatre South’s most celebrated voice. Well, at least since the last time the company staged a collection of Dye's shorter works longing to grow up. That collection eventually spawned the excellent new play Distance. I'm really looking forward to seeing what mature things may grow from this latest seed batch. 

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