Can a symposium inspired by the works of William Shakespeare really be timely? Like the man says, "that is hot ice and wondrous strange snow." But thePearce Shakespeare Symposium: Jews and Muslims in Shakespeare's World — an event three-years in the making — lands at Rhodes College in the midst of an attempted national travel ban targeting Muslims, and at a time when America's official policy regarding Israel seems all over the place, at least. It could, just as easily, have been planned last week.
But what can Shakespeare teach us about this stuff, really? As it turns out, maybe quite a lot. And so can visiting cultural historians Jerry Brottonand James Shapiro, who'll be in town for, "a far-ranging dialogue" about Judaism. Islam, comedies, tragedies, histories, and the story of nations.
In Shakespeare in America, Shapiro considers how the plays have been used by Americans to discuss things where there's no standard for national conversation.
"There are things that we, as Americans, tend not to talk about very comfortably," Shapiro says, in an email interview with Intermission Impossible. "One of them is immigration. In the past, one way that those against immigration have tried to express their views on this subject is through Shakespeare."
Shapiro's first example is Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, "who wrote about 'Shakespeare’s Americanisms' in 1895, in which he argued that 'the English speech is too great an inheritance to be trifled with or wrangled over. It is much better for all who speak it to give their best strength to defending it and keeping it pure and vigorous, so that it may go on spreading and conquering.' Shakespeare was at the heart of the purity of our language and race; to preserve one was to save the other. It was a view that dovetailed with his view of making America great again by keeping aliens out: 'the immigration of people who are not kindred either in race or language, and who represent the most ignorant people who are not kindred either in race or language, and who represent the most ignorant classes and the lowest labor of Europe, is increasing with frightful rapidity.'
His second example is drawn from the inaugural address of Joseph Quincy Adams at the founding of the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1932. The event was attended by numerous dignitaries including U.S. President Herbert Hoover, as well as ambassadors, cabinet members, justices, and congressmen. "Adams," Shapiro says, "was even more blunt about how Shakespeare stood as a bulwark or wall against a flood of immigrants who have 'swarmed into the land like the locust in Egypt.' He too believed that Shakespeare was invaluable for preserving in America a homogeneity of English culture."
"How ironic," Shapiro . "Our current government, similarly fearful of immigration, is reportedly plannin
g to end funding for the NEH and NEA—which are both so crucial to sustaining Shakespeare in America. Lodge and Adams are likely spinning in their graves."
In an interview with Chapter 16, Brotton, author of The Sultan and the Queen was asked what lessons contemporary leaders might draw from Elizabeth I's experiences negotiating with the Muslim wold during times of mounting tension. Brotton's answer: "Don’t stop people of different faiths and beliefs from crossing your borders because it never works. The irony is that empires like the Ottomans prided themselves on their ability to absorb and assimilate multi-confessional, polyglot communities. To limit, isolate, and demonize particular religious or ethnic groups was seen as a sign of weakness, not power. Even when the Elizabethan state issued edicts trying to deport what they called “blackamoors” (mainly Muslims from North Africa), it never stuck because, guess what, everyone realized it just wasn’t workable!"
Ballet Memphis opens Places Beyond at Playhouse on the Square this weekend. The anthology of new work is being described as, "A journey from places of the heart to places far out of reach." Places showcases new work from award-winning choreographers Uri Sands, Mark Godden and Associate Artistic Director Steven McMahon.
Next week on Beale Street GC Dance Academy and G Nation presents Blood on the Dance Floor 5 at The Hard Rock Cafe.
Don't let the title of the event fool you. Although things can get pretty intense out on the floor sometimes, there's nothing more chill than an old school Memphis dance battle.
Memphis has its own brand of competitive urban dance, and there's not much better than watching the best of the best go toe to toe.
Opera Memphis’ general director/nerd-in-chief Ned Canty compares Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance to Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. “It’s a direct descendent from the pirates," he says. "You take this very fearsome group of people and make them kind of ineffectual and cuddly. These pirates never attack anybody weaker than they are, and they never attack an orphan. So everybody says they’re an orphan and the pirates never make any money."
The Pythons aren't the only comics to crib from G&S. Is there any musical theater song more frequently referenced than Pirates' "Modern Major General?" I've linked to clips from a handful of times it's bubbled up in pop culture — this list can't even scratch the surface.
What notable versions of the Major General's song have been left out? Gotta be a lot.
• "You blew it my child": The great Gilda Radner gets comically tripped up on The Muppet Show. Also — a giant snooty carrot.
• "With the eggs on top": Poor Peter doesn't do much better on Family Guy.
• "Very unattractive flannel.": Pranks take an operatic turn on Home Improvement.
• Babylon 5. Wait for the credits.
•Things get dreamy in the "Peggy & the Pirates" episode of Married... with Children.
• Barney's diction gets better on The Simpsons. In space nobody can hear you burp.
• Searching for that last episode of The Simpsons made me aware of this rendition on Veggie Tales. So, that happened.
• And now for something not completely different, The Pirate Movie: "Not now darling, I'm on!"
John Rone's a first rate director with some experience bringing Jane Austen's classics (as adapted by Jon Jory) to wordy life. Productions of Pride & Prejudice in 2008, and Emma in 2011 were long, literate affairs, lovely to look at and listen to. Like I wrote following the original P&P, "If devoting the best eighth of your day to a barrage of class- and gender-conscious barbs traded with restraint in a variety of picturesque settings sounds at all like a little slice of heaven, then the play will probably be a delightful experience. If it sounds like a hellish torture ingeniously conceived by your worst enemies, it's probably that too."
That's no knock at the material or the work, which was very good.
But, in my experience there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who live for 19th-Century authors, with a special affinity for Austen, and those who'd rather bathe in leaches. A say this as someone who trusts this creative team, and tends to be the former, with a slight preference for George Elliot's more startling imagery. If it sounds like you, order tickets now (opening night has already sold out). If it doesn't...
Maybe you'll want to check out Rock of Ages, which, in spite of being a difficult, class-conscious romance, is about as far as you can get from Jane Austen. 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 jeans, dreaming of work on the silver screen, even while she works the pole in a gentleman's club. A five-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. It's fun, vibrant work expertly executed by a great band, and a top-notch cast. Looks like they're having the time of their lives.
If you're in the mood for something a little more serious, Blueprints to Freedom is a timely ode to civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. 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.
To read more about Blueprints, here you go.
For something just as timely, but far more irreverent, Hand to God delivers. 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, Good stuff, dark as hell.
Looking for something a little more local? Justin Asher's a Memphis playwright to watch and Haint's an entertaining example of what he does. 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. Worth checking out.
Also on stage this week: Hamlet.
I haven't seen the New Moon Theatre Company's take on Shakespeare's masterpiece, but I've seen the director play every single character in the show and trust it to be in very good hands. The cast is solid, and it looks fantastic.
Okay, okay, so the sound's not very good, the view is compromised, and, of course, it's a rehearsal, but I found this vid out there on the internets, and wanted to share it here anyway, because, this wonky little bit drives us right to the crossroads of thoughtfulness and simplicity where the best New Moon productions reside.
I may miss opening weekend, unfortunately. Would love to get some reader comments about the show.
Rock of Ages
I'm sure the Germans must have a word for it. (What does "Gunter gleiben glauchen globen" mean, anyway?) But, far as I know, there's no good English word or phrase to describe the sensation, unique to critics, of being entertained by a show you dislike in every way a thing can be disliked. "Guilty pleasure" doesn't quite get there, because there's nothing inauthentic about having one's biases dismantled by the right cast, or some clever staging.
The 80's-era jukebox show Rock of Ages collects all of my least favorite songs from high school (snatches of Benatar and actual guilty pleasure "Sister Christian" excepted) and plops them down in a thin romantic comedy set on the Sunset Strip in a fictionalized Whiskey-a-Go-Go during the sleazy heyday of hair metal. It's a fine locale for exotic bird-watching, and almost relevant as America lists in a gaudier, greedier direction. Director Scott Ferguson keeps things light and moving, and the cast sells it even when some of them can't quite sing it. Either way, I could recommend this entirely were it not for some excessive mugging, and "We Built This City," an automatic deal breaker.
Still, if you need some 80's-era escapism, Playhouse on the Square's got a great big jellybean jar full of the stuff. Full review to come.
(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
The 39 Steps (opening at Theatre Memphis) is a fine example of what's possible when performers throw out all the old rules about "suspending disbelief" and simply ask audiences to engage their imagination and play along. Suddenly, anything's possible.
This giddy homage to Alfred Hitchcock is built on one primary conceit: A small company of actors play 150-plus characters, recreating events from various Hitchcock films that are impossible to recreate onstage — being chased by airplanes for example. When it works it's what fun theater is all about.
Blueprints to Freedom
Man, Bayard Rustin is a complicated individual. He was an architect of the Civil Rights movement but isolated within the movement, not because of his prison time, but because he went to jail for things like standing up against the draft and being gay. He was as a nonbeliever among ministers — a Communist who eventually became a neoconservative. As a labor organizer his common sense mantra "from protest to politics," shifted responsibilities from individuals to intermediaries at the moment when corporations became people, money became speech, and the movement became unraveled.
Blueprints to Freedom, a new play opening this week at the Hattiloo Theatre drops in on Rustin in the tense Summer of 1963. It depicts a man of conviction and contradiction confronting an enormous, assignment — to organize an unprecedented march on Washington D.C. When it comes to subject matter, you simply couldn't ask for better.
The drama of another year is playing out its final scene. It would normally be time to look back and remember the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. But, if I'm reading the social media tea leaves correctly, 2016's been a bummer for everybody, so I'm going to do something completely out of character and only highlight the good stuff.
While I aim to see everything, and do see most of the shows produced in Memphis, I inevitably miss some things along the way. GCT's Ostrander-winning production of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, might have made my year's end list if I'd seen it. Or maybe not, hard to say. This list isn't supposed to be definitive. It's a collection of things that spoke to me, surprised me, moved me, and made me laugh. Feel free to add, detract, or share your own lists in comments.
"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. "
2.The House That Will Not Stand: A fantastic script based on Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba. Betting this one picks up some Ostrander nominations next summer. And an award or two.
"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."
3: Charles III: Missed opportunities in staging were more than balanced by solid performances and a clever, confident script that out Shakespeare's Shakespeare. Like The House That Will Not Stand, this one's got play prizes in its future.
"Mike Bartlett's deliberately (and delightfully) Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It's also one of the more interesting, and innovative scripts to make rounds in ages. It begins with somber candles, and a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who, in real life, is still very much alive, but a relative short-timer at 90-years and ticking."
4. Peter and the Starcatcher: Theater should be theatrical — like Peter and the Starcatcher. Cheers for David Foster as Black Stache.
"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."
"Jim, [Evan] 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."
6: Beauty and the Beast: This wasn't a great year for musicals in Memphis. In some cases extravagant extravagance underscored flaws instead of hiding them. And God only knows what went wrong with The Wiz. Playhouse on the Square did good work with less than stellar material like Sister Act and Memphis' namesake musical. Only one song and dance show really delivered the goods start to finish.
"There’s a difference between staging a classic fairytale and staging the Disney version of a classic fairytale. When one leaves the public domain to dance with branded content, there are certain obligations (not to mention expectations) to forego interpretation and adhere, as much as possible, to visual tropes and character traits established by Disney in a growing catalog of adapted animated features. In other words, you’re supposed to faithfully recreate beloved cartoons on stage. Large talent’s a must, obviously, and some ingenuity is always required. But as long as you can figure out a way to raise enough money to rent a Shrek head, or build a giant whale mouth, all the creative stuff’s been taken care of for you by Uncle Walt’s magnificent i-merch-a-neers. So it’s rare to see a company really stamp a Disney musical and make it their own. That’s what makes Theatre Memphis’ production of Beauty & the Beast a little extra special."
"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...".
"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."
9. (Tie) I Hate Hamlet and One Ham Manlet. Do we overproduce Shakespeare and Shakespeare by-products? Love it though I do, I sometimes think so. More accurately (and troublesomely), we cynically ignore big chunks of his oeuvre while wearing out a narrow spectrum of hits. 5 plays on this short list are Shakescentric and three of them — including the Compleat Wrks — are mostly about Hamlet. Good news: It was all a joy to watch.
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.
It seems silly to write it down, but tastes have changed quite a bit since John Barrymore's days on the Great White Way. There's not much room in the modern theater for the kind of disposable material I Hate Hamlet aspires to. Jokes fall flat. Characters annoy. But just when it feels like the play's about to devolve into a live action version Three's Company, Rudnick's comedy — aided by director John Maness and a terrific ensemble — taps into something genuinely Shakespearian.
10. Sister Act: One of the most appealing shows I've ever actively disliked. Proof that good theater is often greater than the sum of its parts. There's dialogue in Sister Act that makes me cringe, and I'll count myself lucky if I never have to sit through this musical again. It made my list because I believe in giving credit where it's due. Designers and performers understood that they had one job here — to entertain. Nailed it.
"Painterly lighting designs by John Horan splatter across Jimmy Humphries' fine, illustration-based scenery to make this Sister Act easy on the eyes. Rebecca Powell's costumes take cues from the script's John Travolta references and are built to highlight the dancers' most shakable parts. It's almost enough to send alert audience members straight to confession."
Beatrice and Benedick are one of Shakespeare's greatest couples and the Tennessee Shakespeare Company reunites them whenMuch Ado About Nothingopens this weekend in Dixon Gallery & Gardens’ Winegardner Auditorium.
In keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, director Dan McCleary has given his production an especially festive air. For a taste of what's in store I talked briefly with Much Ado's stars Tony Molina, Jr. (Benedick) and Carey Urban (Beatrice).
Tony Molina, Jr.
Intermission Impossible: There are a handful of really great couples in Shakespeare and Beatrice and Benedick have to be close to the top.
Tony Molina, Jr: Benedick is certainly one of the wisest characters I’ve ever played. And one of the funniest. They have this fiery and passionate relationship that kind of reminds me of my grandparents. They were married for 50 years, and it was easy sometimes to wonder why. Because they knew how to get under each other’s skin. And they knew each other so well they knew exactly what to say. And it was funny because they’d argue for hours sometimes. And then, at the end of the night, granny would still sit on grandpa’s lap, and kiss him, and they’d hug each other. I wish I’d had one relationship like that in my life. And hopefully, I will have, someday.
It can be such a fun show.
And it’s a lot of fun working with Carey too.
She was easily the best Juliet I’ve ever seen, and at this point I’ve lost count.
She’s so passionate and fiery. Skilled, funny— a great acting partner.
I think when people think of Benedick they think of his wit before his wisdom. But you brought up his wisdom, tell me about that.
The wisdom— He puts things into perspective, simply. The way people deal with things. He talks about being a confirmed bachelor who’ll never marry. At the same time he’s in love with Beatrice. That’s what people do. They hide their feelings by creating this mask. And Benedick, very wisely, describes that mask. And when he comes to be in love, the way he expresses it, is from the heart, and the words are really eloquent.
I understand this show has a festive atmosphere — appropriate for the holidays. Can you tell me a little bit about the production?
The whole thing is set at a party. The audience members are guests. They get to hear all the conversations and all the relationships, and all the things that are happening at the party. There are tuxedos and masks. And music. I won’t say it’s holiday music, but it’s music of celebration. It’s a state of mind for us, and we try to include the audience.
Intermission Impossible: So, Carey, this isn’t your first Much Ado, is it?
Carey Urban: I did another production in New York 10-years ago and played three characters, none of which are the characters I play in this one.
Do you like returning to a show?
It’s wonderful getting to play Beatrice. When Dan announced the season I wrote him and said, “Beatrice is on my bucket list. When I did Much Ado 10-years ago I didn’t even dream of being considered for Beatrice. But I knew I wanted to play the role some day.
Beatrice is one of the great roles. That’s not intimidating. What does it even mean, “the great roles.”
I wanted to play Juliet since I was a little girl.
You were my favorite Juliet ever. And I’ve seen that show more times than I can count.
When I was little I didn’t even know that much about the role. I just knew the legend. Then you get older and learn more about the canon. And things you want to do get added because something grabs you emotionally. Maybe you’ve seen somebody else play a part and it really spoke to you. Or like Juliet, there’s a legend or a mystique to it. One of the great rewards is how they challenge you, and you grow as an actor. They’re usually very demanding.
Audiences love all the banter between Beatrice and Benedick..
Something— obviously a lot of humor in the dialogue. But people recognize aspects of themselves or people they’ve known in these characters.
Right. Is it the humor that attracted you, or something else?
That aspect isn’t what most drew me to the role. What made me hungry to play her was she’s really very modern in her worldview. Even for today. There’s a really important scene where she says something about gender inequality that really hit home for me. This woman has some things to say that I want the opportunity to say.
I understand the show is something of a holiday party. Can you tell me a little about the production?
It has a very celebratory air, in keeping with the play as written. It’s mainly about love and all the crazy, brave, and potentially even insane and cruel things that love inspires or compels us to do. It begins with men coming home from a battle in which they’ve been victorious, and that sets off a season of parties, and masked balls, and courting.
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens through December 18
Ballet Memphis' enormous new Midtown home is all about nurturing and transparency — from its egg-shaped cafe to it's courtyards, and glass walls. Almost none of that's apparent yet, but the building's bones are firmly in place, and construction is moving fast.
Architect Todd Walker took media on a tour of the 38,000 square foot, $21-million project, which will soon house five studios, including a large glass-walled studio with limited, retractible seating, and a similarly transparent costume shop, visible from the street.
The holidays are coming up fast and that means local institutions are breaking out the classics. For New Ballet Ensemble, that means something a little different. The Nut ReMix, which I've written about pretty extensively over the years, is a decidedly Memphis take on The Nutcracker, with a blend of musical styles, and a hearty mix of ballet and urban dance.
Global Jookin phenomenon Lil Buck — who broke into classical dance with NBE is coming home to show off his moves. He's joined by fellow NBEer Maxx Reed, who's spent more than a little time dancing on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.
Want to know more about these guys and this nifty, MAF thing that's probably way too family-friendly to use "MAF" even though it's totally MAF? Here's a fantastic interview I did with Lil Buck in 2014. There's a shorter version of that interview here, where you can also scroll down to read about Reed.
If that's still not enough to whet your whistle, here's a rehearsal video I shot from a previous ReMix. Lil Buck's in white, Reed's in red.
Kathman teaches at St. Benedict's. He's also an actor, and the creator of One Ham Manlet, a comedy forward solo take on Hamlet opening at Theatre Memphis. The words are Shakespeare's, but reduced from it's nearly 4-hour original length, to a hearty, 90-minute Shakespeare sauce. "The thing theater has over film, and it’s not embraced enough, is the audience’s imaginations," he says, describing his approach to the source material. "We want them to fill in the gaps."
Kathman teaches his students that actors sometimes need to make their own opportunities. He originally performed One Ham Manlet for them. The solo solo show is, in some measure, the teacher taking his own advice. He knew he wasn't getting younger and wondered if anybody else might give him a chance to play Hamlet. Or Ophelia, for that matter. Polonius? Horatio? The famous skull?
"I'm one of those people who sometimes thinks its unfortunate that we categorize Shakespeare's plays into comedies and tragedies," Kathman says. One of his goals from the beginning was to highlight just how funny tragedy can be. "The best productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen have embraced a blend," he says, hoping that playing many characters with many voices affords comic opportunities while playing into one of the play's big questions — is Hamlet mad?
One Ham Manlet isn't just 90-Minutes of Kathman talking to himself. He also fights himself too. And puts on puppet shows. And... whatever it takes.
"What makes what I'm doing unique is is how I can wink at the conventions of a one-man show, and find theatrical solutions to problems like, how do you have a sword fight with yourself? How do you have a play within the play? How do you have the appearance of a ghost?"
How do you have a sword fight with yourself?
"I attached a piece of metal bracket to my belt," Kathman says. "I made it a rapier dagger fight so whenever I make a play with the rapier I can hit the metal with my dagger. You get this foley effect of blades sounding like they’re hitting one another."
This weekend's Fri. & Saturday only. 8:30 start time, not matter what you may see elsewhere. After this week everything returns to normal. (seriously)
Jersey Boys isn't just one of the most successful jukebox musicals of all time, it's one of the most successful musicals period. But, because all the actors are required to play their own instruments and the lead character —Frankie Valli — sings 30-numbers in an impossibly high falsetto, keeping numerous resident and touring companies fully staffed requires a casting strategy as unique as the show. Richard Hester, the show's original stage manager talked to Intermission Impossible about where all the Frankies come from — a little place called Frankie Camp.
Intermission Impossible: I've heard of all kinds of dance camps, and vocal camps that get actors up to speed to join big tours. Frankie Camp sounds completely different.
Richard Hester: How it all came about— I was the original stage manager of the show at La Jolla in 2005. Almost immediately thereafter I became the supervisor of the companies because we started opening so many of them all over the world. One of the things I’m responsible for is all the preliminary casting along with our casting associate, Merri Sugarman. Merri and I are responsible for all companies — at one point 11 worldwide, staffed and cast. Each company requires four guys who can play Frankie Valli, because the role is so demanding.
I know big shows like Jersey Boys spin off all kinds of almost cottage industry. You have to have fabric for the costumes, matching or similar props, etc. This is maybe the human resources version of that?
The problem we found, having to find four guys for every company, is that the pool of guys who can actually do this is limited. Anybody who plays Frankie has to be 5’9” or shorter. They have to be vaguely Mediterranean looking. We can help that in some regards. We’ve had a Lebanese Frankie and a Native American Frankie you could sort of buy as Italian. They have to be able to sing up in that falsetto. Frankie sings 30 songs in falsetto. They have to be able to dance well. And act, aging from 14 to 70. Without makeup.
We do open auditions several times a year. Will also do specific trips to places like Los Angeles or Boston or Orlando — places that have a music community. Where we can find people who wouldn’t necessarily come to a call in New York. So, over time, we gather these guys. When we get 100-120 of them we’ll have a couple of days in New York where we bring them all in, listen to them sing and compare them to each other. Out of that group we’ll pick a maximum of 10-people — to either fill a Frankie, Joe Pesci or swing slot. And we put those 10 people through a rigorous week’s worth of work. They each get a day with our choreographer. Our vocal coach, who’s worked with people like Jon Bon Jovi, works with every Frankie. If you go to a normal music theater vocal coach, you can’t sing rock-and-roll properly. You know, if Jon Bon Jovi gets sick and cancels an arena show, that’s a loss of several million dollars. His voice has to be strong enough to get through these concerts.
How many guys make it?
120 guys over the course of several months boiling down to Frankie camp — if we’re lucky we yield 2 or 3 guys who can really do the role.
I'm sure the theater guys are looking for different things than Frankie, and Bob Gaudio. Does that ever create conflict.
Bob and Frankie to their credit are pretty hands off. They trust us and know we’re looking ut for them. And nobody ever copies a role. When somebody comes in we want them to find their own way through it— to bring their personality to the role.
How to put this. I love the Four Seasons. But listening to all those guys singing falsetto — Ouch. Do you have to go home and listen to guided meditation tapes? Waves crashing? Wind blowing?
I’ve worked on a lot of other musicals. I always get bored with the music in a year or two, and I’ve never done a show longer than two years or so. I’ve been working on this one for twelve, and I’m still not bored with the music. But I’ll tell you this, a day of listening to 120 guys singing “Walk Like a Man,” is enough to make your fillings come out sometimes. When you hear somebody who can really do it, and has the control, that’s exciting. The problem is all the guys who don’t have that control and you start getting pitchy versions. Hits you right in the fillings.
Not blowing smoke. I see so many tours that just look tired. These people have been doing the same parts over and over for a long time, and have lost steam. Not Jersey Boys. Every time I see it it's as good as the last time. Sometimes better.
We check in on the companies as often as we can and make sure they are running the way they should. There’s something about the way Jersey Boys is constructed with music and underscoring that moves like a freight train. Also, for whatever reason, we always seem to have happy companies. They always seem to enjoy what they’re doing. Really, what person hasn’t dreamed of being paid to be a rock star. Audiences treat these guys like rock stars, and they thoroughly enjoy it. It’s also a satisfying script to act.
Very solid storytelling.
You could almost take the music away and have an interesting night of theater.
Charles Holt hears voices. He collects voices. Studies voices. The Broadway actor also possesses quite a voice of his own — one that’s rung out from the ensemble of Disney’s The Lion King. He performed in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and in Europe he toured as the first African-American Rocky in a professional company of The Rocky Horror Show. He left a lot of that behind, to find his true voice — and to follow voices calling out to him. Holt’s in Memphis, Monday Oct. 24 speaking at a benefit dinner for Facing History and Ourselves. Maybe "speaking" is the wrong verb. He'll perform his solo show about 14 people who changed Memphis:The Upstanders. It’s a project Holt’s developed with Facing History. It’s a good example of how he answered a call he heard while he was working in New York.
“I was in the Lion King for almost 5-years,” Holt says. “And the time came when I just thought I should be doing something else.” A mentors advised him not to just walk away from a successful show, and he listened. But Holt also started to figure out ways to find a life in performance outside the Broadway houses he usually played.
“I felt like Lion King was limiting me,” he says.
Holt grew up in Lake Providence, a small, Nashville-area community founded in 1868. He was often amused and inspired by the town elders — the way they moved and spoke. And as a younger artist, he was prone to satirizing their mannerisms. “I would get in trouble,” he says, remembering the family’s response to his antics. But in those moments of acting up Holt discovered his love for creating characters, and when he needed to grow creatively, that’s exactly what he started doing. Then he created an avenue for sharing those characters.
“I started calling colleges and universities, creating my own tour,” he says. Monday nights are dark on Broadway, so he’d fly out Sunday nights, do his own thing on Monday, them be back on Broadway Tuesday night.
After he left Lion King Holt realized his character-creating wasn’t just a passing fancy. “It became my job,” he says.
Holt’s been working with Facing History and Ourselves for two years, developing some Memphis characters. His show introduces audiences to folks like Dr. Sheldon Korones who worked to create a neonatal center in the urban core; Lucy Tibbs who testified before Congress about massacres of African-Americans and riots; Civil Rights leaders like Rev. Billy Kyles, and Maxine and Vasco Smith.
“People who have gone beyond the call of duty to speak their truth on things they felt so connected with,” Holt says.
The characters speak to Holt. “Like Lucy Tibbs,” he says. “There was a time when she felt like cowering down, because she knew her life was at stake. But something in her rose up. I hear it all, and I all these people when I’m reading the manuscripts.”
Those elders he grew up with, and imitated are the examples he draws from. “They were upstanders too,” he says.
Cuddles is a different kind of vampire story. And it can be hard to talk about without giving away the things that set it apart in a genre done to (un)death. Even director Tony Isbell keeps a pretty tight lip, referencing a quote by the original British producer. He says it's "Part horror film, part domestic tragedy, part romantic comedy. And it's very disturbing."
Given the play's reputation that description sounds both accurate and understated. Cuddles is an exercise in creeping dread. It tells the story of two sisters — one human, one vampire. They have a strict system of rules created to keep both of them alive and together — tenuously in every sense.
New Moon Theatre has made a couple of promotional videos that don't give too much away, but seem to capture the unholy spirit of the piece. If you like spooky stuff, be sure to check them out. I've been wanting to see this one since I read an early review in The Guardiana few years back, and can't wait till opening night. Only a week away.
Forget Lee Greenwood. Hell, forget Kate Smith. The most patriotic music ever performed may have referenced old glory and American soldiers, but it didn't slob all over them. Back when bands hammered it out 8-to-the-bar and Uncle Sam was recruiting young men to defeat the Axis powers nobody did it better than USO darlings Patty, Laverne, and Maxine — The Andrews Sisters. Although they performed for decades — even got themselves into a harmony sing - off with Diana Ross and the Supremes — it's difficult to think of them out of their spiffy military duds. Even Over Here, the popular 1974 musical written for the sisters' return to Broadway was a farce calling to mind the trio's WWII-era movies and shows.
If any songs remains familiar to younger audiences it's probably "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which is still a banging little ditty for being 75-years old. But for sweet Americana, nothing holds up like "Apple Blossom Time."
In case you haven notices it's election season, and Circuit Playhouse is providing Memphians an opportunity to get their red white and blue on and return to the days when propaganda was fun. Sisters of Swing — an Andrews Sisters tribute — opens at Circuit Playhouse this weekend. Here's a sneak peek.