Friday, August 28, 2015

Ostrander Awards Update: Who Else Got Robbed?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2015 at 9:43 AM

I just realized that I left a fairly significant performance off of my "who got robbed" list. That means poor John Hemphill was double robbed. So much about The Addams Family was recognized, I didn't really start noticing the omissions until I was in the thick of it.

This one may actually be the most glaring. 

This is the face of a man who has been ROBBED!
  • This is the face of a man who has been ROBBED!

So, instead of updating my last post, I'm giving Hemphill a post of his very own. As I wrote in my original review of the show, "It's a joy to see Wednesday torturing Pugsley, but nothing in this world is better than watching John Hemphill's Uncle Fester professing his love to the moon."

And that's the truth.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Intermission Impossible's 2015 Ostrander Predictions — And WHO GOT ROBBED?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 27, 2015 at 9:40 PM

Who do I think will win this year’s play prizes? And who got a raw deal? I’ve got some pretty strong feelings. I’ve also got some real blind spots. This year more than most. 

This is where I was hanging when you were doing the best work of your career. - ROXY!
  • ROXY!
  • This is where I was hanging when you were doing the best work of your career.

See, I went out of town in March to direct a production of Measure for Measure at The Roxy Regional Theatre in Clarksville, TN. While the rehearsal process was only ten terrifying days long I was effectively out of town for four weekends. That was enough time to miss All My Sons, Assassins, Boy from Oz, Vanya and Sonia and Masha, and Spike, and Good Woman of Setzuan. I’m sure I’m leaving something out.

This is probably why I missed your show. - MEASURE FOR MEASURE
  • Measure for Measure
  • This is probably why I missed your show.

While I hate to have missed that much, it was really nice to get away and make some theater for a change. And the amount I missed in that short time really says something about just how much we've got going on locally these days.

Now that apologies (or something like them) have been made, here are my predictions for the outcome of this year’s Ostrander Awards. And, more importantly I will attempt to answer the question, "WHO GOT ROBBED?" 

These guys did not get robbed. Well, most of them didn't. - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • These guys did not get robbed. Well, most of them didn't.

Set Design

Kiss Me Kate was clever, The Heiress was pretty, and The Addams Family will most likely win the prize due to epic ookieness. But these were all enormous undertakings. I tend to value simple gestures, economy, and effectiveness. So, I’m calling this one for Ekundayo Bandele. His ruined streetscape was the best thing about a strong production of August Wilson’s King Hedley II.

Who got robbed? I’m shaking my damn head over this one. Yes, The Heiress was nice, but those Home Depot wall sconces just about made me faint. This year’s nominees are (almost) all about ostentation and verisimilitude. Where’s the subtlety? Where’s the poetry? Where’s The Seagull? Where’s Mountain View? Where’s Gospel at Colonus?

The swing on Terry Twyman’s Mountain View set allowed the play’s action to mimic its soaring, fanciful language. Jack Yates has already been recognized for his more ostentatious work on The Addams Family, but his design for Rapture, Blister, Burn used Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage in a way it’s never been used before and transformed Middle-class anxiety into comfort. Kathy Haaga’s Gospel at Colonus set stopped time in its tracks, dropping audiences in the middle of a classical ruin that seemed to be both ancient and post-apocalyptic. It was a space built for poetry and magic, and brilliantly incomplete. Sets that aren’t finished until the actors are on stage are the best kinds of sets. That wonderful wanting is what separates good design from greatness. The Seagull/Vanya and Sonia... had it too.

Gospel truth.
  • Gospel truth.


It’s possible and even likely that this could tip toward The Addams Family, which requires lots of weirdness and whimsy. And, as someone who really thinks we’d all be better off if every copy of this lackluster script and score fell into the ocean, I’ve got to admit, the creative team knocked it out of the park. I’m erring on the side of elegance and calling it for Andre Bruce Ward and The Heiress.


I’m thinking Jeremy Allen Fisher may win this year for Of Mice and Men at Theatre Memphis. It was a misguided design created to illuminate an overdone set, rather than to frame actors and the action. Still, it was all awfully pretty, and this is Of Mice and Men’s only nomination. That feels significant.

Who got robbed? Daniel Kopera, come on down!  Kopera was both scenic and lighting designer for Copenhagen. He imagined a space that expressed space— and time. Three unremarkable black chairs sat in a pitch black environment. Formulas and wave signs were scribbled in white on the floor. The next dimension was made apparent when similar formulas were projected across actors inhabiting the void. 

Bad means good.
  • Bad means good.
Music Direction

Yeah, I’ve got some issues with Kiss Me Kate, but they’ve got nothing to do with that wonderful Cole Porter score. Adam Laird and Co. got every bit of it just right.

Sound Design

Gene Elliott built a textured soundscape for New Moon’s, The Woman In Black. Let’s go with that one. And while I’m thinking about it, The Woman in Black ‘s set probably deserved a nod too. The design wasn’t spectacular, but it transformed TheatreWorks spectacularly. Maybe you need to have visited some out of the way European playhouse to appreciate just how spectacularly.


I’m a little bit in awe of Emma Crystal. Once on This Island was a fantastic showcase for what she does.

Who got robbed? Emma Crystal, duh. Her Once on this Island work was showy. But her minimal choreography for Gospel at Colonus was powerful glue holding a difficult show together.

Supporting Actress in a Musical

This is a shot in the dark. I’m picking Renee Davis Brame though, because A) I saw her, B) She was excellent, and C) In a show as mismanaged as Company was, standouts really stand out.

Who got robbed? Pretty much everybody in Simply Simone not named Keia Johnson. Also, two of the best things about The Addams Family: Brie Leazer (Wednesday) and Loraine Cotton (Alice). 
Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me! - MANDATORY CURE REFERENCE
  • Mandatory Cure Reference
  • Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me!

Supporting Actor in a Musical

Justin Asher was a lurching joy as Lurch in The Addams Family, and Barry Fuller was easily the best thing about Anything Goes. But Marc Gill’s dance moves burned a hole in the Hattiloo’s brand new stage, and he was positively sinister in Once on this Island. He should win.

Who got robbed? I dunno. 

Leading Actress in a Musical

Emily F. Chateau was a deliciously morbid Morticia in The Addams Family, but Nina Simone has been getting long overdue attention this year, and I’m calling this one for Keia Johnson who raised the roof in the Hattiloo’s production of Simply Simone.

Leading Actor in a Musical

Look. This award has to belong to Jerre Dye. It has to, right? His Frank N. Furter was a hot mess of a house on fire. Rocky Horror was an enormous success for Playhouse. Audiences adored it. The Ostrander judges practically ignored it. With some exceptions, I think I agree with the judges. But only because it was the Jerre Dye show, and not much else. If you like the volume turned up to 11 (and never turned down), holy shit!

Direction of a Musical

When you want to go big, Cecelia Wingate’s the director to call. That makes me sad a little because I love it so much when she does little shows with big dynamics. But no matter how you slice it, the woman’s a damn miracle worker.  The Addams Family isn’t a masterpiece. That’s a true fact that people who’ve only seen her production probably don’t know.

Who Got Robbed? Gospel at Colonus is a difficult prospect. It may not have been perfect. It may not be a winner. But Tony Horne pulled the threads together, and kept them together in the face of adversity. A nomination seems in order.

Best Musical Production

I love Assassins. Great book, great music, bold ideas. Didn’t see it at Circuit. Oops. Kiss Me Kate has a charming score, and a handful of funny bits but it wasn't special in any way.  I’ve never been a fan of Once on This Island and regard Mary Poppins as more of a tourist destination than a piece of theater. I’ve already said my piece about The Addams Family, which I suspect will win.
"Nominate me! Wooooosh!" - CASKEY
  • Caskey
  • "Nominate me! Wooooosh!"

Supporting Actress in a Drama

JoLynne Palmer (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) has been having a great year. So has Ann Sharp (The Heiress) and Cecelia Wingate (Distance). I’m happy to see Madeline Glenn Thomas (Bad Jews) on this list because she was so good in a role that's not especially showy. Now, if you'll pardon me, I’m gonna go off the rails a  bit.

Anne Marie Caskey is a wonderful artist but her inclusion in this category is  baffling. Voices of the South had a really tough year and The Awakening was a disaster. It’s probably safe to say that the play’s shortcomings helped motivate VOTS’s founding members to step back into leadership roles. Was Caskey the best thing about that misguided outing? Probably. And in the midst of the awfulness, she even pulled off an exceptional bit of pantomime. But her character, like everything else in the show, was vague and somnambulant. I mention all of this because…

Who got robbed? A lot of people. I’m still trying to figure out how Rapture, Blister, Burn wasn’t nominated for anything this year. Nothing. Zip. Squat. Diddly. Bupkus. Zilch. I haven’t seen a comedy done that well at Theatre Memphis in years. Ann Sharp and Tracie Hansom both merit supporting nominations. But Jillian Barron, hilarious as the play's lone millennial, was straight judge mugged.

Also robbed? Jenny Odle Madden. Steve Swift and Cecelia Wingate were both very good in Distance. JoLynne Palmer was often amazing. But Madden was something else. I could feel the physical and mental exhaustion she projected through the back wall of TheatreSouth. She nailed every aspect of a daughter dutifully caring for a mother who was difficult even before she started losing her mind. If not a nomination, will somebody please at least give this extraordinary performer a hug? Damn.

Rapture, Blister, Burn... ROBBED! - (ROBBED)
  • (robbed)
  • Rapture, Blister, Burn... ROBBED!

Supporting Actor in a Drama

I hate that I didn’t see Marques Brown in All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre. It’s one of my favorite plays, and he’s one of my favorite actors. Matt Nelson was good in Bad Jews, Cameron Reeves was responsible for many of Tribes, best moments. Steve Swift was born to play the hairdresser with a heart of gold in Distance. But I was especially smitten by Jonathan Williams, who played the sooth/truth-sayer character in the Hattiloo’s King Hedley II. It’s hard to make that role convincing, but nobody bothered to tell WIlliams. If Brown doesn’t win— and it makes sense to me that he could—it’s Hattiloo time. .

Who got robbed? Steven Burk keeps getting better and better. Solid evidence: Rapture, Blister, Burn. Also robbed? The esteemed Michael Gravois, most famous for being Michael Gravois. In this case, for his top drawer work in The Seagull.

Leading Actress in a Drama

This is a tough one. Laura Stracko Franks was fantastic in Bad Jews, and her hair probably deserves its own separate nomination. JoLynne Palmer’s depiction of a woman slipping into dementia transformed Distance from a work in progress into a must-see theatrical event. If Pamela Poletti doesn’t win for All My Sons — which could certainly happen — I think Palmer takes the prize.

Who got Robbed? Call the police and your insurance company Erin Shelton of Rapture, Blister, Burn. You’ve been burgled. Also robbed? Dear Morgan Howard, poor wounded creature. The Seagull was yours. You owned it. But wait, there's more!  Copenhagen boasted a tight ensemble. Mary Buchignani kept all the boys in line. She was 100% ripped off!

Leading Actor in a Drama

Michael Detroit’s work in Seminar was asshole-and-shoulders above the formidable competition. He owns “overbearing/good-intentioned sleeze-bucket." 

Who got robbed? Ekundayo Bandele, King Hedley II. And probably Michael Ewing in The Seagull.

Direction of a Drama

Rapture, Blister, Burn and Attorney/Joker Part Sign aren’t even nominated, so I don’t much care. I suspect Irene Crist will win for Seminar, which is fine. It was good. But she's  done better work this year.

Who got robbed? In addition to Tony Isbell (RBB) and Alex Skitolsky (A/JPS)? Copenhagen is an incredibly difficult play to stage. Stephen Huff made it sing. 

Best Production of a Drama

This one is hard. I didn’t see All My Sons. Sigh. And given the choice between Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike or The Seagull (both at Playhouse on the Square), I picked The Seagull, which was fantastic, but isn’t nominated. Distance had moments, but it just isn’t done yet and The Heiress had some discernible imperfections. I think this one probably belongs to Seminar.

Who got robbed? For the love of God, somebody call an ambulance because Rapture, Blister, Burn is bleeding here. Also robbed and bleeding? The Seagull. The Seagull is bleeding. {pathetic squawking noise here} 

Copenhagen was up to snuff. - ROBBED!
  • Copenhagen was up to snuff.
Best Original Script/Production

Voices of the South’s Distance will probably win both categories even though it was lean on production values compared to Mountain View and We Live Here. JoLynne Palmer's performance was so strong, and even though he's a Chicago homeowner these days, playwright Jerre Dye remains a local institution.

Who got robbed? The most interesting piece of original theater on any stage this season was Attorney/Joker Part Sign. For most of its 25-years Our Own Voice Theater Troupe has collaborated with Randy Wayne Youngblood, a schizophrenic playwright with a gift for startling imagery. When Youngblood died last year OOVC alum Alex Skitolsky got busy adapting his last completed work, Attorney/Joker Part Sign. A/J was a weird riff on pop culture and identity patched together from pieces of 70's and 80's-era song lyrics, parts of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and bits of the old vampire soap opera Dark Shadows. There was meta-story there too about a community of artists celebrating a special person they loved very much.

But was A/J the best? I don’t know if I always know what "best" means. But it was as ambitious as anything else listed here,  more satisfying than most of the nominees, and unlike any other piece of theater nominated in any other category, it was of, by, and for an identifiable community of artists and consumers. 

And that's about all I've got to say about that. See you all at the Ostranders!

(Brought to you by the good folks at Memphis and ArtsMemphis)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Solidarity: A Video Montage from "Billy Elliot" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2015 at 3:59 PM

The new theater season is officially upon us... 

Set in Northern England, against the background of a coal miners’ strike, Billy Elliot tells the story of a little boy who stops fighting and starts to dace. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Another Voice: TEMPLE OF THE DOG Comes on Strong at Theatre South

Posted By on Fri, Aug 7, 2015 at 9:50 AM

I’m familiar with small Middle Tennessee agricultural communities like the one depicted in Memphis playwright Tom Dillehay’s play, Temple of the Dog. I grew up in a hot, hilly place where people worked hard and even the kids who didn’t live on farms learned to pitch hay and castrate pigs before they learned how to drive. It was a place where one disability could cripple an entire family. Where young bullied gay men sometimes killed themselves, or were driven to recklessness and rebellion by religious families wanting only the best. Although I’ve encountered every character in Temple of the Dog before in plays by Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, I’ve also known their real world counterparts. Even if the symbolism is spread thick and the actors are forced to gargle a few patches of contrived dialogue, there’s something real about Temple of the Dog that merits attention.

To showcase Dillehay’s promising new work Voices of the South unleashed the considerable talents of Director Stephen Huff (Copenhagen) and journeyman actors John Maness (Kiss Me Kate) and Pamela Poletti (All My Sons). Maness takes on the role of Taylor, the family’s volatile, horny patriarch. Taylor lost the use of his legs (and at least one other thing) to a stroke, and seems determined to make everybody else as miserable as he is. Even Maness can’t quite pull off the play’s more melodramatic lines about knowing what other people, “do in the dark,” but he finds a lot of dimension in a role that might easily be written off as just another peckerwood.

As a god-drunk mom with nascent pagan tendencies and a lot of repressed memory, Poletti isn’t given much to do other than epitomize traditional marriage, and a woman’s contractual duty to her no-account hound of a husband. That’s almost enough. And when her feet leave the ground and she she wraps herself around the man hitting her man, you know you’re in the presence of an actor.

Atam Woodruff gives a solid performance as Ben, an 18-year-old gay man taken out of school young to provide for his family. He’s got a sore on his foot that he doesn’t want anybody to see. He describes it as an on-the-job injury. It might be a burn or a lesion. It might just be a symbol-loving author marking a character that wants out. Ben’s seduction of his younger cousin Ricky Lee is both intensely creepy and the closest thing to love you’ll find in Temple of the Dog. As  Ricky Lee, Aris Federman is tasked with some of the plays most difficult dialogue. Following the attempted seduction and the horrible death of his pet, the young boy snaps. Like a howling predator he runs through the woods on all fours chasing rabbits. The event is recounted in a detailed and decidedly Shepardesque monologue.

In contrast to Poletti's supplicant presence, Rachel Everson provides strong, brassy support as a straight-talking home health provider.

What’s most interesting about Temple of the Dog is its transitional setting. Between bad luck, bad decisions, and a bad stroke Taylor’s family has lost its connection to the land it used to work. Purpose is up in the air. Tradition is twisted and broken. Identity is a commodity precious enough to feud over. The action occurs in a god-haunted, hand-me-down house, where love struggles to grow. Where children are tied to the land, and where ancient social codes don’t fit so easily in a modern world. The script still needs pruning and some of the play’s more over-the-top moments test the limits of credibility. But this is a very different vision of the South than what we’re used to seeing from Voices of the South. And welcome.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Ostrander Award Nominees, 2014-15

Posted By on Fri, Jul 31, 2015 at 9:14 AM

Jerre Dye in The Rocky Horror Show
  • Jerre Dye in The Rocky Horror Show

It's the most wonderful time of the year! The 32nd Annual Ostrander Awards will be held Sunday, August 30th, at the Orpheum Theatre. Cocktails and gossip begin at 6 p.m. Awards at 7.

Jim Ostrander
  • Jim Ostrander

Tickets are $10.

Set Design

Ekundayo Bandele - King Hedley II, Hattiloo Theatre
Bryce Cutler - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Andy Saunders - All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre
Jack Yates - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Jack Yates - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis

Caleb Blackwell – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Paul McCrae - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Abeo Porter - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
Rebecca Y. Powell - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
André Bruce Ward - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis

Jeremy Allen Fisher - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Jeremy Allen Fisher - Of Mice and Men, Theatre Memphis
John Horan - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
John Horan - The Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse on the Square
Mary Lana Rice – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse


Kellie Bowles – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Kellie Bowles - One Man, Two Guvnors, Playhouse on the Square
Katharine Hughen and Ashley Palmer - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Bill Short - Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, New Moon Theatre Company
Jack Yates - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis

Caleb Blackwell - The Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse on the Square
Virginia Brandt - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Buddy Hart, Caiden Britt, Ellen Inghram and Justin Asher - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Linda Lockwood, Steven Harris, Paul McCrae and Barbara Sanders - The Boy from Oz, Theatre Memphis
Barbara Sanders - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis

Music Direction 
Jeffrey B. Brewer - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Julian T. Jones - The Gospel at the Colonus, Playhouse on the Square
David Kornfeld – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Adam Laird - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Carlton Leake - Simply Simone, Hattiloo Theatre
Dennis Whitehead - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre

Sound Design
Zach Badreddine – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Zach Badreddine – Tribes, The Circuit Playhouse
Gene Elliott – The Woman In Black, New Moon Theatre Company
David Newsome – Distance, Voices of the South
Eric Sefton - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis


Emma Crystal - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
Geoffrey Goldberg - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Jared Thomas Johnson - The Boy from Oz, Theatre Memphis
Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Jay Rapp - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Renee Davis Brame – Company, Germantown Community Theatre
Leah Beth Bolton - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Emily F. Chateau - The Boy from Oz, Theatre Memphis
Carla McDonald – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Carla McDonald - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Breyannah Tillman - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Justin Asher - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Jonathan Christian – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Barry Fuller - Anything Goes, Theatre Memphis
Marc Gill - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
John M. Hemphill and John Maness - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square

Leading Actress in a Musical
Emily F. Chateau - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Katie Hahn - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Keia Johnson - Simply Simone, Hattiloo Theatre
Lynden Lewis - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Madeline Glenn Thomas - Sanders Family Christmas, The Circuit Playhouse

Leading Actor in a Musical
Jerre Dye - The Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse on the Square
David Foster – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Robert Hanford - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
Jordan Nichols - Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Josh Walden - The Boy from Oz, Theatre Memphis

Direction of a Musical
Jerry Chipman - The Boy from Oz, Theatre Memphis
Tony Horne - Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
Dave Landis – Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Jordan Nichols - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Cecelia Wingate - The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis

Best Musical Production

Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
Mary Poppins, Playhouse on the Square
Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Anne Marie Caskey - The Awakening, Voices of the South
JoLynne Palmer - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Playhouse on the Square
Ann G. Sharp - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis
Madeline Glenn Thomas - Bad Jews, The Circuit Playhouse
Cecelia Wingate – Distance, Voices of the South

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Marques Brown - All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre
Matt Nelson - Bad Jews, The Circuit Playhouse
Cameron Reeves – Tribes, The Circuit Playhouse
Steve Swift – Distance, Voices of the South
Johnathan Williams - King Hedley II, Hattiloo Theatre

Leading Actress in a Drama
Laura Stracko Franks - Bad Jews, The Circuit Playhouse
Julia Masotti – Tribes, The Circuit Playhouse
Michelle Miklosey - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis
JoLynne Palmer – Distance, Voices of the South
Pamela Poletti - All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre

Leading Actor in a Drama
Devin Altizer – Tribes, The Circuit Playhouse
Greg Boller - All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre
Michael Detroit – Seminar, The Circuit Playhouse
Michael Gravois - Vanya and Sanya and Masha and Spike, Playhouse on the Square
Cameron Reeves - One Man, Two Guvnors, Playhouse on the Square

Direction of a Drama
Irene Crist – Seminar, The Circuit Playhouse
Irene Crist - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Playhouse on the Square
Tony Isbell - The Heiress, Theatre Memphis
Anita Jo Lenhart - Bad Jews, The Circuit Playhouse
John Maness - All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre

Best Production of a Drama
All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre
Distance, Voices of the South
Seminar, The Circuit Playhouse
The Heiress, Theatre Memphis
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Playhouse on the Square

Small Ensemble
Bad Jews, The Circuit Playhouse
Copenhagen, Next Stage @ Theatre Memphis
Distance, Voices of the South
The Woman In Black, New Moon Theatre Company
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Playhouse on the Square

Large Ensemble
All My Sons, Germantown Community Theatre
Assassins, The Circuit Playhouse
Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
The Addams Family, Theatre Memphis
The Awakening, Voices of the South

Featured Role/Cameo
Wesley Barnes - One Man, Two Guvnors, Playhouse on the Square
Jonathan Christian - The Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse on the Square
Marc Gill - Kiss Me, Kate, Playhouse on the Square
David Schnell – The Gospel At Colonus, Playhouse on the Square
Lena Wallace - One Man, Two Guvnors, Playhouse on the Square

Best Original Script
Distance, Voices of the South
Mountain View, POTS@TheWorks
We Live Here, POTS@TheWorks

Best Production of an Original Script
Distance, Voices of the South
Mountain View, POTS@TheWorks
We Live Here, POTS@TheWorks

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND outtakes from Eric Swartz on Vimeo.

This is a collection of outtakes from Hattiloo Theatre's "Once On This Island" 901-525-0009

The Eugart Yerian Lifetime Achievement Award
Karin Barile, Playhouse on the Square

It's Karin!
  • It's Karin!

Ostrander College Award Nominees

Set Design
Mason Levy – Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
Brian Ruggaber - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Brian Ruggaber – The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Janice Benning Lacek – The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Corinne Langford - Blues for an Alabama Sky, University of Memphis
Clara Seigler - Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College

Laura Canon - Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
John McFadden - The Physicists, University of Memphis
James Vitale - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Janice Benning Lacek - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Corinne Langford - Blues for an Alabama Sky, University of Memphis
Ashley Rogers - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Music Direction
Jacob Allen - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Zach Williams - The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College

Sound Design
Matt Cant
A Chris Ellis cartoon of Chris Ellis holding an imaginary Ostrander.
  • A Chris Ellis cartoon of Chris Ellis holding an imaginary Ostrander.
elon - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis
John McFadden - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Eric Sefton - Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College

Choreography/Fight Choreography
Lawrence Blackwell - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Lawrence Blackwell - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis
Jill Guyton Nee - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Casey Greer - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Jenna Newman - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Christopher Calderazzo - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Lucas Hefner - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis
Bradley Karel - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Léerin Campbell - Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
Alexandra Greenway - The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
Katie Sloan - The Physicists, University of Memphis

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Justin Burgess - The Physicists, University of Memphis
James Kevin Cochran - The Physicists, University of Memphis
David Couter - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis
Jack Dee - Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
Roman Kalei - Blues for an Alabama Sky, University of Memphis

Leading Actress in a Drama
Sarah Brown - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Deya Pajarillo - The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theater @ Rhode College
Hailey Townsend - And Baby Makes Seven, McCoy Theater @ Rhode College

Leading Actor in a Drama
Jon Castro - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis
David Couter - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Tristan Parks - Blues for an Alabama Sky, University of Memphis

Leslie Barker - The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theater @ Rhodes College
Bob Hetherington - The Physicists, University of Memphis
Jung Han Kim - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Best Production
Blues for an Alabama Sky, University of Memphis
The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theater @ Rhode College
The Physicists, University of Memphis
The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Large Ensemble
Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre @ Rhodes College
The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theater @ Rhode College
The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis

Featured Role/Cameo
Drake Bailey and Marlon Finnie - The Tragedy of Macbeth, University of Memphis
Iris Mosah - The Good Woman of Setzuan, McCoy Theater @ Rhode College
Landon Ricker - The Wedding Singer, University of Memphis

The Physicists at the U of M
  • The Physicists at the U of M

Friday, July 24, 2015

Just a Swinging: MOUNTAIN VIEW is Americana in a Mason Jar

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 12:26 PM

Morgan Howard as Jokate.
  • Morgan Howard as Jokate.

If self-consciously Southern material liberally peppered with words like, “reckon,” and “yonder,” make your teeth hurt, then Mountain View isn’t going to be your cup of white lightning bugs. It’s an awfully sweet thing though, bitter about the edges, and lovingly staged by Ken Zimmerman for Playhouse on the Square’s NewWorks@theWorks series. It stars Morgan Howard, who has an uncommon affinity for the play’s central character Jokate, a large-hearted girl growing up hard in mountains full of wonder and hollers full of darkness, with a nagging suspicion she’ll eventually catch a train on down the line. Howard's been a Playhouse on the Square MVP, and this full throttle performance is the plump, red-cheeked cherry planted on top of an impressive local resume. Sadly, Mountain View is also Howard’s last performance for in Memphis, and her endearing turn as an Appalachian tomboy taking care of her mentally challenged brother, is the best argument for seeing this play new play in its current form. Teri Feigelson’s musically augmented script is packed with lush description, and full of explosive potential. It’s also lopsided— for lack of a better word— with too much telling, not enough showing, many underdeveloped roles and narrative threads that never quite stitch themselves into a quilt.

Mixing simple gesture, with rough hewn detail Terry Twyman’s scenic design sets a proper table for Feigelson’s descriptive feast. The space is vast enough to accommodate a child’s imagination, and intimate enough that Howard isn’t swallowed whole when she’s left alone on stage to monologue. Which is most of the time. Her soaring performance is aided in no small part by a weatherbeaten tree-swing that allows for the illusion of flight. When the avalanche of words isn't enough to express what’s inside, Howard grabs the rope, leaps onto the swing, and floats around like the memory of an endless Summer vacation.

Zimmerman has peopled Feigelson’s mountain village with an extraordinary cast of a-list actors that serve, primarily as set dressing. Power players like Jim and JoLynn Palmer, Irene Crist, and Michael J. Vails, are all transformed into scenery for Howard to chew.

Mountain View is a storyteller’s showcase. It is also a wistful memory play—a rural answer to The Glass Menagerie with a young, loving, and indefatigable girl standing in for Tennessee Williams’ world weary Tom. Wisely Feigelson’s script leans more heavily on the magic of theatrical convention than tight plotting, or naturalistic performance. It’s an impressionistic work, with wonderful bits of original, folk-inspired music built in. But at this point in development, the supporting characters are props, poorly woven into the fabric of the show.

Jim Palmer stands out as a mean old ginseng-digger who likes a good song, and Alice Berry is a tired wonder as Jokate’s soul-calloused mother. One gets the sense that if Mountain View was contemporary, and not set in some grimly idealized past, there would be more meth in the picture, and fewer teeth in Berry’s head. Additional props go to Isaac Middleton and McCheyne Post who skillfully trade guitar and banjo licks, bringing much-needed authenticity to a play that is honest, but overburdened with artifice.   

Mountain View is proof that there can be too much of a good thing. Jokate’s endless monologues are overstuffed with the astute observations of a precocious kid with not much going for her. But within the first five minutes of the show, the audience understands it has been enveloped in an exotic memory, full of birds and bees, and climbing trees. Then at every turn we’re reminded of all the sights, sounds, smells and feels until the descriptions of this world pile up in heaps that outweigh and overpower all the interesting things that happen there. A merciless reduction of verbiage would help, but  not as much as figuring out better ways to include the full cast and frame the most important bits of the play's fractured narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Performance and Social Justice at The Hattiloo Theatre

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 1:42 PM


Live performance and social justice: two great tastes that taste great together. 

Should you find yourself in New York this August, you might want to check out a performance of Uniform Justice, a play  by Chukwuma Obasi, a performance-based artist working with New York's TE’A (Theater, Engagement& Action). Uniform Justice was created in Memphis in partnership with the Hattiloo Theatre, and Memphis Gun Down. It was produced locally at Southwest Tennessee Community College in 2014, and was recently added to the schedule for the 2015, New York Fringe Festival

Uniform Justice  looks into the issue if retaliatory violence and, according to press materials, "is meant to trigger reflection and conversation."

Here's a short video that digs a little deeper into the story. 

In related news, on July 28, at 7 p.m. the Hattiloo Theatre is hosting an event that aims to discover what it means to, "live, learn, work, worship, and grow up in a truly Just City?"

Performers scheduled to appear include Tom Leonardo, Doug Easley, Victor Sawyer, Darius "Phatmak" Clayton, Kyle Statham, and more. 

Admission is free but tickets are required. Make your reservation here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Germantown High School Graduate Makes an Impression on Broadway

Posted By on Tue, Jun 30, 2015 at 6:05 PM

Great news for local actor Maclean Mayer. Last month the Germantown High School graduate received the Best Actor award at the Orpheum High School Musical Awards. Last week he was a top four finalist for the seventh annual National High School Musical Theatre Awards. He was also awarded the "Spirit of the Jimmy" award, which is given to the conferee that best represent the positive spirit of the program. 

For the rest of the story check out Jane Schneider's post at Memphis Parent

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Lonely People Collide in "Brilliant Traces"

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2015 at 4:44 PM

  • Threepenny Theatre Company

Brilliant Traces
is a perfectly named play. For the most part it’s not very brilliant, but it's threaded with moments of startling clarity that  knock you back in your seat. And top-drawer actors Meghan Lisi and Michael Khanlarian turn in performances worth the suggested admission price even though they're never really set free to explore the theatrical possibilities inherent in Cindy Lou Johnson's rambling, but mercifully short script

The opening is full of possibility. It’s dark, the wind is howling, and someone is beating on the door of a sparsely appointed hermit’s cabin. A woman’s voice calls out, "Let me in! I'm a person in serious trouble!" Suddenly the door bangs open and in stumbles Rosannah, delirious in a filthy wedding dress. She’s driven from Arizona all the way to a remote corner of Alaska where her car has broken down near the cabin of Harry Henry, an antisocial oil rig worker with sad stories to tell. If he can ever get a word in edgewise. For the first quarter of the play he stands silently as this mystery woman drinks his whiskey, and babbles until she passes out cold for two days.

"It's so cold in Alaska."

Harry drags Rosannah to his bed. He undresses her, respectfully. He washes her tentatively. He has a nervous breakdown over her delicate lace shoes which remind him of something that hurts real bad. Not knowing what else to do with them he puts them in the oven and burns them to a crisp. Rosannah sits up in bed and announces, “I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen,” then passes out cold again. The setup is tight. Everything else falls apart.

Have you ever been trapped in a confined space with a cocaine addict having a manic sad? That’s what the rest of Brilliant Traces is like. Only there are two of them. Once Rosannah wakes up she and Harry take turns vomiting up backstory in a series of semi-coherent rants. Outside there is a white out, with snow coming down so hard it’s impossible to distinguish one direction from another. Rosannah, who arrived all in white, babbles redundantly about her fear of becoming indistinguishable. And about how, when she was driving from Arizona, in some kind of fugue state, she felt like her essence was moving faster than the car. Faster even than her own body in the car — like the essential part of who she is might fly off into space. Harry, in turn, spins a contrived tale of negligence, woe, social anxieties and “paper shoes.”

Opening sequences notwithstanding, Johnson' script is a classic example of a play that tells us who the characters are instead of showing us who they are, and Threepenny Theatre Company director Matt Crewse keeps the action as naturalistic as the symbol-laden dialogue will allow. That may or may not be a good thing. At its best Brilliant Traces hints at Eugene Ionesco’s domesticated absurdism, which isn’t always served by a close alignment of dialogue and action. It's the kind of script you really want actors to play around with. You want them to take chances and find the physical quirks and contradictions that bring dimension to characters and depth to a script in desperate need.

There’s a kind of play that actors love even if it’s not very good. They tend to be about extreme people in extreme conditions and give character actors a chance to go big and show off their range. Brilliant Traces is one of those plays. And even though Khanlarian and Lisi play things a little too safe for my liking, these are actors that could make me excited about a staged reading of the Tennessee driver’s manual. Brilliant Traces, I’m happy to report, is much better than that. 

The closing moments find Rosannah and Harry on an inevitable collision course, and the play's last gasp is absolutely lovely. 

Brilliant Traces is at TheatreWorks through June 28. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Talking Nina Simone with "Simply Simone" Co-Creator Robert Neblett

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2015 at 5:52 PM


I've got to be honest. Following the Charleston church shooting I'm not sure how the Hattiloo's cast for Simply Simone can make it through Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."  That portion of the show was already a gut punch last week. By all accounts everybody's holding up, and audiences are really responding to the most relevant musical revue you're likely to see any time in the near future.

Singer, classically trained pianist, bon vivant, and civil rights icon Nina Simone was a complicated and compelling character. Although it's primarily a revue, running down the artist's catalog, the Hattiloo's production of Simply Simone never shies away from complexity. Robert Neblett,  who co-created the piece with David Grapes and Vince Dimura was in town last week. Intermission Impossible caught up with him to ask what he thought about Memphis, The Hattiloo, and, of course, Nina Simone. 

Intermission Impossible. How was your time in Memphis?

Robert Neblett: It was brief. Would have liked to have spent more time. It was really a quick turnaround trip so I didn’t get to see much of Memphis other than the hotel, the theater, and a late night diner. We did go to the Peabody and see the ducks Saturday morning.

Those are the parts that interest me. Especially the parts inside the theater. How did you like the Hattiloo’s take on your show?

I was coming into this a little blind. A friend of mine, Kerry Hayes, lives in Memphis. He does a lot of activism, he and his wife. And he worked for my theatre company in St. Louis when I had it 10 or so years ago. He actually told me when they were starting Hattiloo. They were starting it at about the time I was writing Simply Simone. So I contacted them a long time ago about doing this script. In the first couple of years it was not something that they thought would sell. So it was nice to bring that full circle. I don’t even know if the Artistic Director remembers that.

So you really didn’t know what to expect.

Yes. That was pretty much all I knew about Hattiloo. Then when I found out that they were doing the show. I’m like, “I’m just four hours away and that would be great!” I’d have been there on opening night but a friend was getting married and I had to choose.
Robert Neblett
  • Robert Neblett

Probably the correct choice.

But I was very impressed with this little theater district that has emerged. I’ve known about Playhouse on the Square for years because it’s known around the country. I was really glad to see that there seems to be such a nice amount of synergy there. I hate to use that word, but I’m using it in the real sense. So many cultural organizations in that one location is just great.

Did you like the show?

You know, it’s the first time I’ve seen the show live. I’ve seen video from past productions. I didn’t even see the first production. I did all my work on that show by telecommuting. So it was a real treat to see the live energy. Particularly the emotional journey of the piece. That was important to me. For all intents and purposes the show is a revue. It’s not technically a full out musical. But I feel like the piece has a lot of drama. And one of the things I’ve felt was missing in one of the readings I saw, a lot of times actors and directors will focus on the music, but they gloss over scenes in between. But I also think the musical numbers don’t land correctly if you don’t act the whole piece. That’s one of the things I thought the actors and director did such a good job with. I couldn’t have expected "Strange Fruit" to be nearly as effective as it was.

Were you a Nina Simone fan when you started working on the show?

All I knew besides knowing some of her music was that she’d been involved with the Black Panthers.

Well, of course that's what you'd know. That’s part of the dominant media narrative, right? That she was radicalized.

I read autobiographical tribute pieces and amassed a huge collection of recordings. As I listened to her recordings, especially her live recordings, I started to hear her voice. I am indebted to her live recordings. Because she talks so much during her songs and she tells stories and provides commentary. There are two moments in Simply Simone that I took directly from recordings. She starts to sing “My Father,” in the second act. And then she stops. And she says, “I don’t want to sing this song anymore. My father never promised me that we would live in France. My father had never seen France.” And she just stops. Not even halfway through the first verse.

Those live recordings are great. And the concert clips on YouTube.

In "Mississippi Goddam" she gives a running narration. That quote. “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet yet,” she says. Then she starts the second verse saying, “You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” And she has this white audience in the palm of her hand while she’s indicting them. Something that’s interesting, and a source of tension for her, is that the people who were buying her tickets were the people oppressing her brothers and sisters in the streets. Lorraine and Langston were always on her case to use her music for something more than just making money.

It’s strange. She’s known, of course, and she's so influential. But I think she only had one top 20 hit in America so, for being known, she’s also obscure. That’s a contradiction, I know, but you know what I mean?

I think that’s true. And honestly, recent interest in her has come out of things like commercials. “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” was in a car commercial then, “Feeling Good” was in a car commercial. And then it was covered by George Michael. There were years when you couldn’t get through an episode of American Idol without hearing that song.

The one thing I regret about your show is just how relevant it is. So much of the tragedy sounds like it might have come out of yesterday’s news.

I would agree. Like she says in "Mississippi Goddam", “people will say it’s a communist plot.” She goes through this list of things—this list of reasons why, if we call people out for all these things they’re doing— people are just going to dismiss it. Call you a communist. And she kind of goes through this list. And it’s exactly what happens every day in the press. 

Going Back to Laramie: New Moon & ETC Document an Atrocity

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2015 at 9:54 AM

New Moon remembers Laramie.
  • New Moon remembers Laramie.
I’m not a scientist. I can’t hold forth on asymmetrical systems or the intrinsic virtues/vices of two-state vector formalism. But I’m intrigued by quantum entanglement, and the idea that, without communicating in any way, particles with shared history affect one another across great distances. Possibly even time. That’s what was on my mind last weekend before, during, and after back-to-back viewings of The Laramie Project, and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at TheatreWorks and the Evergreen Theatre, respectively. And I wish I was a forward-thinking man of science, able to  fire up a portable wormhole generator allowing future audiences to experience both shows consecutively. Unfortunately, Emerald Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project, nicely staged by director Den-Nickolas Smith closed last week. There are, however, several more opportunities to catch The New Moon Theatre Company’s fine production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a sequel, of sorts, that looks at the Wyoming community’s struggle to reconsider past events and determine its own identity.

The Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie plays are something of a paradox. They are a progressive experiment, and a throwback to the bygone age of living newspapers. Using extensive primary source interviews they tell the story of Matthew Shepard, a slight, blond, 21-year-old, HIV positive gay man, who met with a violent end in the “live and let live” west, where, according to Willie Nelson, cowboys are frequently, secretly fond of each other.

On the night of October 6, 1998 Shepard visited the Fireside Lounge, a gay-friendly bar near Laramie, Wyoming. He ordered Heineken. There he met two other men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The three men eventually left the bar together. Shortly thereafter, McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard’s wallet and shoes. They drove him to the outskirts of town where he was pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence. They doused him with gasoline, set him on fire, and left him to burn in the cold. The blood spatter was spread across 20 square yards.

Tectonic arrived in Laramie just as the media was descending. They spoke to anybody who’d sit for an interview and assembled a potent oral history about corrosive indifference, the power of community, and the need for hate crime legislation.

The ETC’s now-closed production of the original script was rough at the edges. But the narrative was vivid and clear and the whole experience was a frustrating reminder that good journalism, and good theater don’t cross paths often enough.

Ten years after Shepard’s death, Tectonic returned to the scene of the crime and reinterviewed many of the original subjects to create the appropriately-named The Laramie Project 10 Years Later. The epilogue, currently on stage at the Evergreen Theatre under the direction of Gene Elliot explores Matthew Shepard “Trutherism,” and Laramie’s need, as a community, to define itself as something other than the [“But we’re not really…”] homophobic place where Matthew Shepard died of horrific injuries.

In 2004 ABC’s 20/20 revisited the slaying. The long running news magazine suggested that both the media and the court had gotten Shepard’s murder all wrong. The controversial “Murder in Laramie” episode made a case that, while tragic, Matt Shepard’s death was just a robbery and drug binge gone bad. Like prosecutor Cal Rerucha told reporters in regard to Shepard’s killers,"the methamphetamine just fueled this point where there was no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. But it was a murder that was driven by drugs." Returning to primary sources, Ten Years Later plays out as a deliberate refutation of 20/20’s shaky revisionism. It shows, elegantly and awfully, that nothing changes the things informing the killer’s victim choice and over-the-top brutality.

Over the years Aaron McKinney, Shepard’s primary antagonist has told different, conflicting versions of the murder story. An interview Tectonic conducted with McKinney, reveals that even he can’t remember all the variations. He maintained that he chose his victim because he seemed gay and looked like he might have some money. In his Tectonic interview McKinney even took credit for things previously ascribed to his friend Russell Henderson while bragging about the quality of his Nazi-inspired prison tattoos. Chilling revelations, even when you already know the story.
When I say there’s not one standout in performance New Moon’s Ten Years Later, that’s about the highest praise I can give. It’s a show about teamwork, and this creative team works.The Laramie Projects are both exercises in minimalism in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In both Tectonic shows, relatively small companies bring an entire community to life. This time around the story, while focusing on Matthew Shepard and his killers is less about all that and more about persuasion, bias confirmation, and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how these stories we tell ourselves about who we are duke it out until there’s only one story left standing.

I’m not a scientist. Try as I might, I don’t always get quantum mechanics, and I don’t know if there’s really any way for the present to change the past. But there are other kinds of entanglements. You don’t need a photon-splitter to alter the meaning of bygone events. You don’t even need reliable sources or reasonable extrapolation. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later forces us to confront the possibility that we’ve got that time-honored saying about history being written by the victor all wrong. Weighing 20/20’s market share against that of a PBS special debunking its claims, it cautions that victory may be the prize here, not the precondition.

Good stuff, catch it if you can. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

After 18 Freaking Years Memphis' Longest Running Improv Show, The Freak Engine, Calls it Quits

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 2:53 PM

Freak Engineers
  • Freak Engineers

It's been a long time since I've been to a Freak Engine show at TheatreWorks. Years, in fact. That makes this news extra sad. After 18 years of comedy, audience participation, performance art, and all manner of late night weirdness, The Freak Engine, Memphis' longest continuously-running improv show, is folding up its freak flag and calling, "scene." Which is to say, following a farewell performance on Friday, July 3, the party's over. 

"This wasn't a crash and burn situation," says Michael Entman, who joined the show in its earliest days, and has steered the ever-evolving company through its last. "The entire group wanted to do different things.We're all getting older. You grow up, you know? You get too old to stay up till midnight," he says. 

When The Freak Engine launched Memphis had no regular midnight theater scene. And, other than The Freak Engine, it still doesn't. The show was instantly popular and has continued to be a solid draw, attracting audiences that range in size from 70 to the 200+ that turned out for founder Tom Kirby's last performance. "The Fire Marshall doesn't come out at Midnight," Entman says, remembering the SRO crowd for Kirby's last freakout. 

Tradition isn't the only one reason why The Freak Engine has held onto its late night time slot. The other reason: It's much less expensive than renting a venue during prime time. 

The most sadistic theater game ever.

"We've been doing one show a month for 18 years," Entman says, searching for a calculator. After figuring in additional one-off performances and anniversary shows he determines Freak Engine will have done its thing a minimum of 220 times by the time it closes up shop for good. Based on an rough average of 70 audience members per show, that's 15,400 people who've visited TheatreWorks at the witching hour to observe some of the more sadistic games in the history of Memphis comedy. 

Entman, who will continue to produce midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Absent Friends at the Evergreen Theatre, says the last show will be action packed. He plans to break out all the classic Freak Engine games and invite alumni still living in the region to come back and participate one last time.

I talk about Freak Engine's 15th Birthday Show starting at 6:09

"We'll definately do 'Moustraps'," he says, teasing the company's most infamous creation. "Mousetraps" blends elements of Blind Man's Buff and Marco Polo, forcing two barefoot participants to walk across a stage filled with 80 mousetraps, all set and ready to snap.

Entman says he would consider bringing The Freak Engine back for anniversary shows, but only time will tell. 

Absent Friends
  • Absent Friends

Friday, June 12, 2015

New Ballet Ensemble Starts the Summer with Springloaded

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2015 at 12:48 PM


New Ballet Ensemble's annual spring concert is coming a little late this year. Tonight's event at the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College is a pay-what-you-can opportunity to sample all the things Memphis' classically rooted, fusion-minded company does best. It's also provides me with a perfectly good excuse to serve up a little Christmas in June and share some never before seen footage of Jookin ambassador Lil Buck in NBE's 2014 production of Nut ReMix.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Anything Goes" Goes There. Theatre Memphis Tackles Vintage Comedy With Vintage Sensibilities

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2015 at 1:50 PM

  • Theatre Memphis

There’s a scene in director Fritz Lang’s noir-ish 1952 drama, Clash By Night, where an unsophisticated fisherman played by Paul Douglas, attempts to impress Barbara Stanwyck by asking Robert Ryan, a dirtbag film projectionist, to do his “Chinese imitation.” Happy to oblige, Ryan pulls his eyes back into a slant with his fingers and begins to babble in some broad approximation of a Chinese dialect. Douglas chortles uncontrollably, pounding the table with his hand, it hurts so good. Stanwyck raises an eyebrow and shrugs, unimpressed. This is her lot in life now. Social pressure will force this worldly, restless, occasionally poison woman (who writes this stuff?), to choose between Ryan, the rugged but repellent jerk who wants to stick pins in his absentee wife, and Douglas, the big, sturdy lug stupid enough to think his friend’s unfettered racism is goddamn hilarious. This is 1952, mind you. WWII was a recent memory, the Korean war was raging, and anti-Asian propaganda was inseparable from pop culture. Four years later, Marlon Brando will squint his way through Teahouse of the August Moon, and 9 years later Mickey Rooney will bare his buck teeth as Mr.Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even in ‘52, when pan-Asian racism was relatively normal, even encouraged, this brief exchange between Ryan and Douglas was all it took to convey the essence of American life at the crossroads of misogyny, meanness and hayseed provincialism.

It’s not "politically correct" to call out comic bits that are wholly dependent on racial coding and broad stereotypes. It’s merely correct. And in 2015, theaters choosing to produce vintage shows with intrinsically racist content need to develop strategies for working with and around said content. Like, for instance, the Chinese-impersonation gag in Anything Goes, currently running at Theatre Memphis. Watching the east Memphis playhouse’s lukewarm production of this American standard, I felt a little like Babs Stanwyck in Clash by Night. Theatre Memphis stood in for Paul Douglas, and did a fine job of playing the sturdy, well-intentioned suitor wanting nothing more than to show me a good time! And oh, baby, with its hot as hell score by Cole Porter, and a frivolous, lighter than champagne bubbles script, Anything Goes is a delectable sexy-ass beast on par with Robert Ryan shirtless, slathered in Crisco. But, as the above scene suggests, that shit was ugly in 1952, and by now we should know better. We should do better.

I’m happy to report that there are many talented performers in TM’s Anything Goes. But only a handful of characters ever make it all the way to the stage. James Dale Green makes a fine Monopoly Man, hoping to seduce Ann Sharp. Likewise, in a role custom fit, the accomplished Sharp gives a top drawer performance as the show’s dotty Market Crash widow.

As the ineffective gangster (public enemy #13) Moonface Martin, the great Barry Fuller has perpetrated an accidental act of terrible cruelty. He’s gone off and crafted a not-to-be-missed performance in the midst of a show that people with options might consider skipping. And although I think she’s miscast as the worldly evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, musical theater powerhouse Whitney Branan very nearly pulls it all off. Beyond that, things get dicey. Even the usually reliable songbird and character actor Emily F. Chateau only manages one singularly grating dimension, as a shrill gun moll making her getaway.

Did I mention that I fell in love a little? Probably not, but I should. Porter’s “Friendship,” is an underrated masterpiece of rhyming meta-pop whimsey, and Fuller and Branan make a little magic when they sing it together. This sly, easygoing number showcases everything Fuller does best. And given an opportunity to slow down and connect with a co-star, Branan gives us a taste of the richly-imagined Reno Sweeney that might have been. In the parlance of the show, the dame’s pretty fabulous.

Speaking of fabulous, there’s also a spectacular tap number. And boy do all those gold sequins sparkle. And… and that’s all I’ve got. None of the main characters connect, which means a goodly number of jokes don’t connect either. With notable exceptions they fly by sans set up, sans follow through, sans teeth, sans everything. Everything, except, of course, great songs. You may want to go ahead and click here too. 

It's been said (and said, and said...), comedy is all in the timing. This Anything Goes stands as a fine and finely paradoxical proof. It’s a slow slogging two-and-a-half hour musical stuck in perpetual fast-forward. In this environment, less desirable things stand out.

TM's Anything Goes isn't all bad. But it's not especially good either. And the "yellow face" aspect made me physically cringe. It colors everything else that happens in a farce that, as the title suggests, should be pulling out the stops in the name of good fun. People will disagree, of course, even though I'm hardly the first person to flag the problem. They’ll say I’m too PC. Some will dismiss the very idea that naked racism might be embedded in a wholesome American classic that’s been performed by high school theater departments across this great, not even a little bit racist land. They might bring up canonical (but socially progressive) texts like Huckleberry Finn, or gird their arguments with talk of changing sensibilities, as if the antique content and the production vessel it currently inhabits, were somehow interchangeable. But c'mon, folks. This isn't complicated.

  • Theatre Memphis

Let's be clear. What I’m describing isn't sympathetic non-traditional casting. Nor is this in any way comparable to The (still controversial) Scottsboro Boys, which uses extreme racial stereotypes to contextualize historic racism. It’s straightforward race-based minstrelsy created for the sole purpose of giving comic actors a chance to do their best Robert Ryan. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Songwriters on Stage: The Hattiloo Remembers Nina Simone, Theatre Memphis Stages a Cole Porter Classic

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 4:28 PM


There's nobody like Nina Simone. She only had one top 40 hit, but the classically trained, jook joint tested author of "Mississippi Goddam," was a musical force, and a civil rights icon.  This week The Hattiloo opens Simply Simone, a review that uses multiple performers to explore various stages of Simone's life and career. To whet your appetite, here's an extensive concert clip of Simone performing in Holland, 1965. 

Just a little further east Theatre Memphis celebrates the music of Cole Porter with the shipboard musical Anything Goes. Which means you'll want to spin this 1962 Broadway cast recording a couple of times. It's the tops. 


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