Monday, October 24, 2016

Is "The City of Conversation" Provocative or American Myth-making as Usual?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2016 at 5:54 PM

She said/She said
  • She said/She said
The City of Conversation  is a sharply-written slice of political drama nested in a family crisis. It’s essentially the story of liberalism at the end of the 20th-Century as Reaganite barbarians stormed the New Deal’s crumbling gates. The tale — told from the perspective of a politically split Georgetown family — wants to map polarization, and the end of civility in American discourse. Set apart from issues, or the social conditions that caused so much fissuring in traditional party lines, it becomes an exercise in scapegoating, and misplaced congratulations. There are plenty of fresh ingredients assembled here, but the spice blend is flat wrong.
 
As usual Jack Yates’ sets dazzle and Amie Eoff’s period costumes pop under the lights. There’s at least one extraordinary performance to crow about too,  and a few good ones worth bragging on. But the cast is unbalanced in terms of ability, and when the play staggers, author bias becomes evident. So does an unmistakable streak of weird woman-blaming.
The unwritten “Georgetown rule,” once held that, no matter how bitterly Beltway rivals fought at work, evenings were for collegiality, cigars, and dick jokes told over highballs at boozy, loose-talking soirees like the ones hosted by Hester Ferris — crisply played at Theatre Memphis by Karen Mason Riss. Hester's the tireless influencer we meet at the top of the play, working on Teddy Kennedy’s disastrous primary run against sitting president Jimmy Carter— a bitter affair opening doors for Reagan & Co. Her plans are upended when son Colin arrives home a day early from college, with Anna, the ambitious conservative he plans to marry.

Playwright Anthony Giardina romanticizes Georgetown as a kind political Eden, turning Anna — beautifully and savagely imagined by Shannon Walton — into an Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who’ll sits still long enough. Eventually — and inevitably — she squares off against Hester, tearing the family apart. That’s where The City of Conversation’s metaphors break down. Because women didn't queer the fraternity. And whether the script is blown up to mythic scale, or boiled down to microcosm, turning a contrived standoff between two stubborn, differently corrosive women into a model for polarization is, quite possibly, the biggest dick joke that ever was.

From casting to set details, this City has director Jerry Chipman's fingerprints all over it. That's normally not a bad thing, but in this case it means seeing familiar faces working well inside their comfort zones. That yields some positive results — It's great to see Michael Walker back on stage, fully inhabiting the skin of a changeable Kentucky Senator. But as Hester, Riss — a JC regular — speaks well, but seems adrift. Granted, she's better adrift than a lot of actors are fully focused. But here, in a play where victories don't necessarily produce winners, and true heroes are hard to come by,  her frank, no-bullshit style falls a little flat.

Given 30-years worth of Presidential comment to choose from City's sound design makes American politics seem boring, if not exactly uneventful. So much potential, little of it realized.

But damn, it's so good looking.



Friday, October 21, 2016

Broadway Actor Charles Holt Brings Memphis Upstanders to Life

Posted By on Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 4:35 PM

Charles Holt
  • Charles Holt
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.

Form more details on the dinner, click here. 

Looking for a Halloween Costume? Theatre Memphis is Having a Yard Sale.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 10:22 AM

Christmas ghosts are still ghosts.
  • Christmas ghosts are still ghosts.
Sure, you could probably go buy a mass-produced sexy pirate costume made from the world's worst fabrics. Or you could make something at home — a paper bag mask, perhaps. Or you could take advantage of Theatre Memphis' storage limitations and pick up pieces built or selected by professional costumers. Cheap. Or, at least, relatively so. 

Theatre Memphis Is bringing back its annual Halloween season overstock yard sale. According to press materials, items up for grabs will primarily be, "clothing including vintage costumes, shoes, hats, and other unique specialty children’s items."

Just in time for all those fancy dress parties you're attending, right?

Saturday's sale happens rain or shine in the Theatre Memphis lobby.  Doors open at 8am with large kitchen trash bags  available from Noon – 1pm. $5 for all you can stuff into your treat bag. No tricks. 

Who knows, maybe you can find something swell that looks good on you all year long. 

Don't be a mass-produced sexy pirate. Be awesome. 

Oh, almost forgot: Early Birds get in at 7 a.m. for a $5 early bird fee. Just saying. 

All goes down at Theatre Memphis this Saturday. Perkins at Southern. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Cuddles" Won't Comfort: New Moon Tells A Better Vampire Story

Posted By on Thu, Oct 13, 2016 at 5:31 PM

Huggy?
  • Huggy?
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 Guardian a few years back, and can't wait till opening night. Only a week away. 

Cuddles Preview from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.

Cuddles Preview Two from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Circuit Playhouse Pays Tribute to the Andrews Sisters

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2016 at 4:39 PM

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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. 


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

New Editions: Ibsen, Naughty Shakespeare

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 4:56 PM

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This post is so going viral. I mean, who among us doesn't get crazy excited about new editions of classic plays by authors like William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen? 

I've already written a bit about Pelican's new Shakespeare collection. But I feel compelled to jot a few words about Othello and The Taming of the Shrew. Both include the usual essays, with nice, lightly rendered introductions. Breaking a willful wife and training her up right was a popular plot back in Willie's day and Shrew, we're instructed, is part of that mysoginist genre, forever popular, but at odds with modern sensibilities. Othello's intro builds from the Shavian barb inspired by Verdi's Opera Otello. In a spot on analysis George Bernard said Otello wasn't Verdi's most Shakespearian adaptation, so much as Othello was Shakespeare's best Italian Opera. But honestly, I'm not here to type about what's in the books, so much as what's on them. I mean, it's one thing to be bawdy, and quite another to be so on the nose. Or on the... something.

Nice berries Othello. 
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I'm not sure what it means to reduce the Moor of Venice to nothing but a head with a stylized penis, but here we are. Now here's Kate the cursed on the cover of Shrew. 
 What are all those little things around her her heartgina? Beads of sweat? Bugs? Just... Ew. 
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The scripts are fine, the essays are swell, but from the teeny tiny titles on, I'm just not loving this design.

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Is it fair to call Ibsen Norway's Shakespeare? Maybe not. Okay, no. But he was practically as inventive as the Bard when it came to word coinage and that can be a problem for translators. The new Penguin Ibsen collection isn't just a new edition, it's a new set of translations. That's great news because we're talking about an author who worked in a small language and is known primarily by way of translations, not all of which are historically sensitive.

It's probably not so strange, given translation goals, that the publishers continue to use the title A Doll's House even though that's not quite right. In Norway "Doll House" is a distinct word, and one that Ibsen specifically rejected in favor of something closer to "A Home for Dolls," which is less catchy, but bends the title's meaning in a slightly different direction. Beyond this example where the title is too well known to alter, this is exactly the kind of thing the new editions aim to correct. 

In addition to A Doll's House the new collection includes GhostsAn Enemy of the People, and an underrated early work The Pillars of Society. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Body Language: Our Own Voice Gets Physical

Posted By on Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 4:38 PM

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I'm a cheerleader for Our Own Voice. I'm glad they're here doing important experimental work in Memphis. It thrills me that they soldier on, in a role that must feel truly thankless at times. If you're accustomed to reading my reviews, you're probably already anticipating the, "but." So let's just rip the bandaid off quickly, shall we?

Body of Stories, which runs at TheatreWorks through Oct. 15, is slow and shapeless. It has its share of transcendent moments, but often feels more like an ongoing workshop than a completed body of work. And I use "completed" loosely because I appreciate how OOV sometimes builds productions that aren't finished until the audience shows up to participate — or to not participate. But this one feels like it opened a little too soon, before the group's collected improvisational work yielded much in the way of revelation or insight.

Kimberly Baker and her ensemble have developed a collection of monologues and multigenerational movement pieces about how we relate to our bodies. This is well worn turf, obviously, but given a political climate where every new day brings a new slate of stories about a serious presidential contender body-shaming people, there's plenty left to explore. I'm just not sure that this "Moving Exploration," as it's subtitled, moves the ball very much. 

There's a monologue about a guy who thinks people who say nice things about his toned physique are actually body shaming themselves in a backhanded way. Interesting premise/humble brag, but without much in the way of development. We hear other, somewhat atypical stories, about esteem-raising compliments in the kind of forum that usually focuses on insults and expectations. Even then, there's very little in the way of considering what complaints and compliments may mean — And no real conflict pushing the dialogue forward. 

There's not much I enjoy more than the choreography Baker builds using a mix of dancers and non-dancers, and how she finds ways for even the less experienced movers to shine. That's true here too, although the evenings most playful and poignant moments occur in what appears to be semi-improvisational work between the company's better trained dancers. Fun, fresh stuff also happens when some of the cast's younger members are engaged. Kids continue to say the darndest things. 

OOV's goals are vastly different from most companies. There's no such thing as failure when we experiment, only positive and negative results, all of which can be interesting and instructive. So it's not uncommon to see an occasional OOV piece that doesn't feel like it was intended for general audiences (though I suspect the company's founders can make a convincing case that all the work they do is for everybody). Maybe if Body's length was cut in half, and something was done to develop conflict and connect various threads so pieces and parts feel like a body instead of like a coffee house open mic transcript circa 1992, this one might be for everybody too. And maybe it's for everybody else, just not me.

Oh well, I remain a cheerleader for Our Own Voice: RAH! 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Monarchy in the UK: Charles III Rules Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 10:06 PM

Long may he reign?
  • Long may he reign?
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.

In a twinkling England has changed and everybody — Prince Charles especially — wonders what it means to have a King in Buckingham Palace.

Things get tense right away when Charles is presented with a privacy bill that, to the old man/new monarch’s way of thinking, undermines press freedom and, in doing so, looms as a serious threat to English Democracy. Law requiring the royal autograph, real though it is, has come to be regarded as ceremonial, and when the required signature is withheld, a crisis ensues that threatens to boil over into anarchy. And that’s just the beginning. Charles knows history and the law, so when the politicians seek to neuter him, he raises the stakes in a big, big way.
Here is a play where politics is practiced by master craftsmen and rude brawlers alike while the royals get on with a proper game of thrones. Prince Harry (Jared H. Graham) struggles to reconcile his disposition with birthright and responsibility, while media darlings William and Kate learn how to leverage their own authority as the reigning “King and Queen of column inches.” Bartlett presents it all in Shakespearean verse, with special working-class dives into prose. It’s tribute artistry fine and rare, and so much more than just stunt writing.

As directed by Dave Landis, Playhouse on the Square’s Charles III is smart, but sharper than it is crisp — full of vigor and clever, history-winking design, but badly organized in spots that could and should make jaws hit the ground. As long as one thing is happening on stage at a time the sailing's smooth, but stagecraft lists freeform and sloppy whenever the set’s enormous staircase is packed with party people or protesters.

Actors struggled with lines opening weekend, but for all the rough edges the end result was still something to cheer about.

As Charles, James Stuart France had the heaviest load to bear, and the most trouble matching words to action. But when he was on he was on, and very much the evening’s sad star — risking the crown to save Democracy. Charles finally catches his elusive dream, stepping into a role he’s spent a lifetime preparing for, only to discover he’s arrived late to party in last season’s frock.

Jamie Boller is infinitely watchable as Kate, much beloved of the camera. Bartlett imagines her as a less ghoulish iteration of Lady Macbeth driving William (Ian Lah) as he trips and lunges toward glory.

And what about the media who, over the course of the play turn (Brooke Papritz) an ordinary girl’s life into a circus shame-show because she had the good/bad fortune to get on with a Prince? Playhouse’s production never pulls this thread hard enough to make audiences’ second guess Charles’ problematic, but moral position; a position informed by his own complicated relationship with the British press. He’d been the King of column inches too, when Diana was by his side, and none of that turned out well for anybody. Now the doomed ex-princess’ ghost wanders through this bleak parody, with a punchline on her lips. It only sounds like prophesy. 

Juicy character work abounds. Tony Isbell and Michael Gravois are the conservative devil (doing the Lord’s work?) and liberal angel (fallen?) whispering treason and hateful policy in the King’s royal ears. Isbell’s the opposition leader, playing all sides; Gravois the Prime Minister, prepared to go nuclear if he has to. Christina Wellford Scott’s also quite fine as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It’s a smaller role compared to the heavy lifting she’s performed in shows like Doubt and The Lion in Winter, but it’s pivotal, and one of the best things she’s done in a long time. She might even be having fun.

Charles III’s awkward moments will probably stay a little awkward. The rest will tighten with repetition, and from edge of seat suspense to meditations on the meaning of celebrity, it was all pretty tasty to begin with.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" Closes this Weekend

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 3:34 PM

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Once in a while the Tennessee Shakespeare Company gives the bard a rest and turns its considerable talent loose on a completely different set of classics. Fall finds the Shakespeareans working with an adapted version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird — a short-list contender for great 20th-Century American novel. 

Given the source material's powerful brand, and the fairly recent hubbub and scandal over its posthumous "sequel" Go Set a Watchman, there's not much point in recounting the story or its cultural impact. Instead, enjoy some special video cast interviews created by Jillian Barron and the good folks at TSC. 


Baseball Lives Matter: Mr. Rickey Cuts a Deal at Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 1:42 PM

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What was really at stake when baseball was integrated and Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues? That question drives Ed Schmidt's brief, argumentative drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. It's slippery too. Much trickier than you might think given how the history's usually presented. Schmidt's bracing historical fiction, which opened solidly at the Hattiloo Theatre last weekend, only scratches a scant bit deeper, but good creative archeology's been done here, and there's a whole lot of illuminating artifact in the short, shallow trench Mr. Rickey digs.

The push to integrate major league baseball didn't begin with Jackie Robinson. Lefty journalists and activists campaigned to make the national pastime look more like the nation for years. Even in the Jim Crow era, this was inevitability, so in the mind of Baseball exec Branch Rickey, the question turned from when it would happen, to how it might be allowed to happen. Rickey's answer: One man — to test the waters — others to trickle. So Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting becomes an engaging, often entertaining study in American exceptionalism.

With America's first African-American president preparing to leave office while folks who look like him are in the streets protesting the same old never-ending shit, this play feels like it's landed right on time. 

Branch Rickey wants everything perfect for Jackie Robinson's big rollout. He knows what to expect from the white community, and it's not pretty, so he's carefully selected a squeaky clean player who's agreed to remain passive and pleasant in the face of spitting, name calling, violence, whatever. But resistance to integration came from within the African-American community too, and with good reason. While promoting a black baseball hero who smiled in the face of adversity, might create opportunities for similarly dispositioned individuals, it would be a major league victory for white hegemony, per usual, sending devastating shockwaves through the African-American sports and business community. So — and this is where the fiction takes over —  one of baseball's great innovators — a man sometimes called "Mahatma" — calls a meeting of what today we'd call "influencers."  Summoned guests on his list include an aged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who's still dancing to make ends meet, broke boxing champ Joe Louis, and actor/activist Paul Robeson who's flat not having any. Rickey wants them to say nice things to the media and guard against inconvenient protests that could threaten Jackie's chances in the majors. So the titans assemble (along with a resourceful bellboy) in a cramped room at the Roosevelt Hotel. There they sip cherry sodas, shoot the shit, scrap like contenders, and, in a faint echo of the Medieval mystery play, act out all the reasons not to trust Whitey. 

Everybody at Mr. Rickey's summit understood what it meant to be exceptional, rising to the top of their fields while other African-Americans struggled — and still having to enter through the rear of public buildings. Mr. Bojangles, depicted near the end of his life, had been a Civil Rights champion and the highest-earning black performer in America. But the elderly dancer, with an owner's stake in Negro League Baseball, was on the ropes financially and assailed by critics for performing stereotypical roles. Louis — the Brown Bomber — was similarly down at heel, and too familiar with the day-to-day indignities black men faced regardless of achievement. Robeson, by contrast to everybody else in the room, was  an active Communist who didn't trust the myth of individual achievement. He worries the success of Jackie Robinson and the relatively few players called up to the big show comes at the expense of other people's jobs and entire careers. He believes it will result in the ultimate failure of the Negro League, ceding all the power in baseball to white ownership. Who will go to the games when all the stars have gone away, he asks, wondering what will become of the people who sell tickets and concessions, and maintain fields, and so on. Then he makes a fair counterproposal.

Instead of one man at a time, how about one team at a time — black-owned? There are no spoilers here since we know the outcome, but the big ideas roiling through this cage match of a play make it exciting to watch as it swings for the fences on it's way to its historic conclusion.

The Hattiloo's production is sturdy, but rough at the edges at the preview performance I attended. It looked like it could stand another week of rehearsal instead of just a day, but all signs pointed to a production growing into what it needed to be. When the actors are more confident with lines and cues, this one promises to give off sparks. It's a strong ensemble led by journeyman actor Ron Gephart as the titular Mr. He's joined by Mario Hope as the bell hop, Frank Johnson as Bill Robinson, Emmanuel McKinney as Louis, Courtney Williams as Jackie Robinson, and Jonathan Williams as Robeson.

McKinney feels miscast here, but show's once again just how good a character actor he can be. As Louis he spends much of the play detached, either listening, or self-distracting, but when he engages it's fierce, game-changing, and alternately threatening and intensely humane. It's another great performance from an actor who doesn't seem to know how to do it any other way. 

Williams seemed to struggle most with lines, but crackled when he his his marks. 

As directed by Dennis Darling, Mr. Rickey is a fantastic example of Hattiloo doing what it does best by providing Memphis theatergoers with a clear alternative. Although more musicals are creeping into its seasons there's still a strong commitment to drama and this is a good one. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Opera Doesn't Suck": Opera Memphis' General Director Ned Canty

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 2:07 PM

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Would you rather sit through an opera or be beaten with bamboo rods? Just one of the questions Opera Memphis' G.D. Ned Canty asks in his Ted talk.  Also, "How is opera like a hamburger?" 


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dave Landis Talks About "King Charles III" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Tue, Sep 20, 2016 at 5:00 PM

Jim France as Charles III
  • Jim France as Charles III
Mike Bartlett's deliberately and delightfully Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It begins with a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who's still very much alive, but 90-years-old. What follows is the story of a man — Prince Charles — who gets the thing he's been been preparing for his entire life, only to discover it's all happened too late. Written in verse, Charles is a show with everything — suspense, intrigue, the ghost of Princess Di, etc.

As evidenced by supermarket tabloids, Americans remain fascinated by Great Britain's royal family, even if New World audiences don't seem to care for Shakespeare's multi-volume game of thrones. Still, given the Parliamentary crisis at the heart of Bartlett's play, there was something I wanted to ask Dave Landis, who's directing the show for Playhouse on the Square:  Just how British is it?

Dave Landis: It obviously deals with the royals we know — Charles, William, Harry, Kate Middleton, Camilla. Even the next generation are mentioned in passing. There is some British politics involved but it's all pretty straight-forward. Parliament passes a bill into law and the King is supposed to sign it because that's tradition. But, out of the blue, the King decides 'I don't want to sign it.'  That's when all hell breaks loose. Beyond that as a basic catalyst, there's stuff about the role of the monarchy. It's purpose. Has it out-lived it's usefulness?

In a more personal way, it's about the family and their individual wants and desires and objectives and how they set about pursuing them.


An interview with King Charles III star Jim France.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Stones In His Pockets" Questions the Luck of the Irish

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 3:14 PM

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There's a great little show opening at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center this weekend featuring a pair of top notch actors — John Maness and Ryan Kathman.

My favorite line from Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets: "Just stand there and look dispossessed." Such are the instructions film extra Jake Quinn passes on to his mate Charlie Conlon. And as the movie cameras roll by, both men lean on imaginary sod-cutters, mouths agape, eyes hollow and hungry. The irony, of course, is that Jake and Charlie, like all the residents of Ireland's County Kerry, are already quite dispossessed. Poverty is the norm and hopeless depression has spread across the countryside like a thick Irish fog. Only whiskey, pints, drugs, and a wistful nostalgia for the good old days keep the general population from drowning itself in the river. These days, County Kerry's only useful as the backdrop for sprawling Hollywood dramas with fake happy endings. And since the glamorous cast and cocaine-sniffing crew of The Quiet Valley showed up with costumes, lights, and ready cash in tow, that's exactly what it has become.

There's a gimmick to this dark but giddy comedy: Two actors play all the residents of County Kerry. So it's a bit like Greater Tuna, but intelligent and set in Ireland.

Stones is only running for four performances, and I probably won't get to see this one. Would love to get some reader reviews in the comments though. 

Details here. 

Beauties, Beasts etc — Theatre Memphis Darkens a Disney Classic

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 11:32 AM

Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
  • Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
“Happily, there is some remnant of childhood in this jaded public. It is this childhood we must reach. It is the incredulous reserve of the adults that we must overcome.
Jean Cocteau on his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

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. It’s very Disney, with bits borrowed from both the animated feature, and the Broadway extravaganza. But director Amy Hanford has tweaked the tone ever so slightly in the direction of horror and hallucination and, in doing so, she’s gifted Memphis with a densely entertaining production that instantly calls to mind the source material, while glistening with its own dark appeal. Even if you’re not a fan of the show or musicals generally, it’s hard not to be seduced by such overwhelming spectacle, and a formidable cast whose abilities won’t be eclipsed by applause-inducing costumes or lush scenery.

Hanford has always displayed a comfortable familiarity with the mechanics of a blockbuster Broadway musical. She's also had trouble infusing her finely-imagined automatons with the spark of life. To that end, Disney’s beastly tale of surface to soul relationships, represents an enormous leap forward. It’s not just lively, it’s alive and full of weirdness and wonder.

Beauty & the Beast tells the story of… nah. We’ve been telling ourselves versions of this story since we started telling ourselves stories, and we’ve been telling this particular variation for at least 400-years. Let’s skip plot points and get on with the important stuff.

Whether she’s singing about books or taming the beast, Ashley McCormack owns the stage as Belle. And although he’s never as menacing as he could be, Charles K. Hodges’ big baritone is well-suited for the monster’s role. As Gaston, a self-aware critique on traditional Disney heroes, Philip Andrew Himebook is large in every sense of the word. His enormous voice being rivaled only by similarly enormous acting choices that make him the most animated thing on stage.

Hanford also gets fine performances from ensemble players, particularly the Beast’s servants who are all being steadily transformed into household objects — a candlestick, a teapot, a wardrobe, spoons, knives etc. “Be Our Guest,” the servants’ big number about generous hospitality, bubbles like fine French champagne overflowing its glass. If there’s one good reason to produce Beauty & the Beast live, it’s the challenge of staging, “Be Our Guest,” and from the cartwheeling rug, to glittering mylar confetti, and all the rest of Travis Bradley’s fine choreography, Theatre Memphis doesn’t disappoint.

As is often the case on Perkins Rd. Ext., the real stars of this show are the designers. Lights, sets, and costumes have all been crafted to overwhelm audiences while elevating the actors and never overshadowing them or a text/score combo that’s more popular than worthy of such fuss.
A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
For better and for worse Theatre Memphis has been something of a one-size-fits-all shop lately, with a “more is better” ethos that’s smoothed defects in shows like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family, making troubled brand cash-ins better than they deserve to be, while inflicting considerable damage on more intimate shows like Gin Game and Sondheim’s anti-blockbuster Into the Woods, which wants to be more cubist Modern than Disney-framed contemporary. In a diary he kept while filming his own iconic version of Beauty and the Beast, French filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote of a constant regret he felt after cutting “bits of intense poetry” from the screenplay. But regret was tempered by his understanding that, “one mustn't, at any cost, be seduced by an attractive idea if it hasn't got its right place.” It’s good advice in any case, but especially good for an institution that, for all of its good intentions, can fall into the consumer’s trap of mistaking extravagance for excellence. But they’ve struck gold with Disney’s Beauty & the Beast. It’s an indulgent piece of candy to begin with, and Theatre Memphis stuffed its production with golden tickets, and wrapped it in sparkling layers of old fashioned razzle dazzle.

It’s all too sweet for my buds, but will almost certainly keep box office phones ringing. So if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I’d reserve tickets now. I suspect word of mouth will soon make them a scarce commodity.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Want to Think Like Shakespeare?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 30, 2016 at 10:33 AM

Shakespeare and Newstok
  • Shakespeare and Newstok
Rhodes College English Professor Scott Newstok has presented his first lesson to the incoming class of 2020, and is a Deusey: "How to think like Shakespeare." It's a witty critique of modern education practices that begins with a rather incendiary notion stated in clear, unmistakable terms.

But to me, the most momentous event in your intellectual formation was the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which ushered in our disastrous fixation on testing. Your generation is the first to have gone through primary and secondary school knowing no alternative to a national regimen of assessment. And your professors are only now beginning to realize how this unrelenting assessment has stunted your imaginations....You’ve been cheated of your birthright: a complete education. 

In his address Newstok takes on several misconceptions about education, brushing away the waxy film of political ideology to reveal truths about the relationship between traditional models and meaningful progress. He does so using Shakespeare — the only named author in contemporary "common core" curriculum — and the kind of educational models he'd have encountered as a student.

Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. Could there be a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education?

Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these "4Cs," I would add "curiosity.") Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.

I've only quoted the set up. The good stuff's all in the body of the address, which was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and which I heartily encourage you to read.
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