Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.
Once upon a time I described Michael Frayn’s Copenhagenas a “bad play.” Having gone back for a second serving, I’m comfortable standing by that initial pronouncement, with one allowance. When you submit to the script’s unreality, and meet Frayn's difficult material on its own terms, this "bad play" can make for a fine night in the theater. Thankfully Theatre Memphis' straightforward take on the atomic ghost story doesn't force ideas as big as all space into a vessel as unworthy as parlor drama.
And maybe it's a "bad play" because it's not really a play at all. At least not in the conventional sense.
Copenhagen is set in no place or time. The characters— physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, are not alive. The author’s aim is to project the image of these three characters across time and catalog possible outcomes of a 1941 meeting at the onset of a global nuclear arms race. It resembles a WWII-era thriller, but Copenhagen is a genuinely experimental, steadfastly inconclusive, and demanding theatrical exercise. It's comprised of exotic sub-dramatic matters, isolated for observation. And changed by it.
Theatre Memphis’ current Next Stage revival — like good scientific process — requires some patience. It rewards that patience with smart, award-worthy performances by Jason Spitzer, Gregory Alexander, and Mary Buchignani. Director Stephen Huff’s clear, unfussy take on complicated material reflects the spirit of Bohr, the pioneering physicist who expressed complex ideas using practical examples and plain language. To that end this Copenhagen is still probably more literal than it might be. The staging never takes full, fantastic advantage of the show’s determined anti-realism. But when the actors cook, it’s the atomic bomb.
Scenic and lighting designer Daniel Kopera has imagined a space that expresses space— and time. Three unremarkable black chairs sit in a pitch black environment. Formulas and wave signs are scribbled in white (painted) chalk on the floor. The next dimension is made apparent when similar formulas are projected across actors inhabiting the void — Actors who live, love, and hate on each other a little, in the imaginary skeleton of a rotting universe. An uncomfortable time was had by all.
Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.
Every theater is a laboratory, every play an experiment — a methodical attempt to create new worlds built in and of imaginary space. Michael Frayn’s ambitious, math-centric drama Copenhagen, currently running on Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage, is just a little more overt than most. The play’s formal conceit: turn traditional dramatic structures into a series of scientific proofs, each of which has been designed to quantify the mechanical aspects of a private meeting between Niels Bohr, the Jewish father of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s former pupil and the chief scientist in charge of creating Adolf Hitler’s atomic-weapons program. It’s a heady story told by ghosts in an otherworldly setting.
The Bohr family and Heisenberg in a theatrical setting.
Intermission Impossible:I like that this is opening in the same season as The Physicists at the University of Memphis. Science and ethics are a major theme in post WWII art and literature, for obvious reasons. I suppose that's less of a question than a jumping off point for any historical context you might want to bring.
Stephen Huff: I was very excited about this coincidence, too, and I really enjoyed the excellent production of Dürrenmatt’s play that Bob Hetherington put together with Sarah Brown and the students. Now if only someone had produced Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Memphis this season, we’d have had a trifecta! I think it is one of the jobs of the theatre, like any other art form, to serve as a means of asking and discussing the big questions about human existence, and the conflicts between science and ethics have certainly brought up some huge questions, especially in the post-WWII era. Whether it’s Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Churchill’s A Number, or Dürrenmatt, Kipphardt, and Frayn, playwrights and other theatre artists have been juxtaposing scientific gains and human losses with regularity over the last seventy years. I found it especially interesting to note in Dürrenmatt’s “21 Points to The Physicists,” which were included in the program notes for the University of Memphis production, that several of these might be directly applied to Copenhagen:
14. A drama about physicists must be paradoxical.
15. It cannot have as its goal the content of physics, but its effect.
16. The content of physics is the concern of physicists, its effect the concern of all men.
17. What concerns everyone can only be resolved by everyone.
18. Each attempt of an individual to resolve for himself what is the concern of everyone is doomed to fail.
Intermission Impossible:The play's structure is unusual. The playwright playing with the idea of uncertainty. What challenges do these formal conceits present for the various artists involved.
Stephen Huff:Copenhagen is, in essence, a thought experiment, not unlike the ones mentioned in the play, such as Schrödinger’s cat or the particle that moves through two slits at the same time. The three characters work their way through three “drafts of the paper,” editing and re-editing until they come to a fuller explanation of what might have happened during that fateful meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941. As a thought experiment, the play is set in theoretical time and space. In other words, time and space are fluid and shift into many different modes. For most of the duration of the play, the characters exist in a time and space beyond their earthly being—or an afterlife, if you want to call it that. They argue about what happened in the past and re-live events and emotions in the present of that nebulous existence. But for a good portion of Act One, they re-enact a possible version of the moments surrounding the encounter, conscious only of those real-time moments in the past, except for when either Heisenberg or Margrethe breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience about what is happening in the scene. Then in the final draft, all three of them simultaneously re-enact the encounter and comment upon its meaning, observing and specifying as they move through the events. The final edit of this third and final draft produces a conclusion, voiced by Margrethe, that seems to satisfy—at least for the time being—the query that she had set in motion at the very beginning of the play. (However, I tend to think of the play as circular; it could start right back at the beginning from where it leaves off.) Anyway, these are the three primary modes that characterize the three “drafts,” but there are other shifts as well, including three dream-like moments where the characters are awash in memory, speaking together but each lost in his or her own thoughts at the same time. So yes, it is a very unusual structure, and it does present challenges to all of the artists involved in a production. The actors have to be aware of the shifting modes and where (or when) they are at any given moment. And the director and designers have to stage the play in such a way that helps to clarify and move the story along, rather than to obscure. I certainly hope we’ve done that in this production. I’ve set the play in the round, which I think does a couple of things: symbolically, it underscores the orbital nature of the atom, which is of course the subject of much of the dialogue. And in a practical sense, it reinforces the inherent theatricality of the play. The forum-like arrangement of the space seems to me to be a natural fit for the re-enactments, the commentary to the audience, and the questioning and discussion in the play. It doesn’t let anyone forget that we are all—audience and actors alike—sharing time and space together in the theatre. And I feel very honored to be in the company of a really wonderful team of artists who have done some beautiful work in an effort to tell this complex and moving story.
Intermission Impossible:Nothing about Copenhagen is dumbed down. There's a lot of science talk integrated into the play. How much did that effect the process? Was there a lot more homework required?
Stephen Huff: Luckily for us, we’re almost two decades out from the first production of this play, and because of its tremendous impact there is a lot of information out there that is geared specifically toward understanding it. I mean, we are none of us nuclear physicists here—although I will say that all three of the actors are very smart people. But, for instance, MIT has a website that provides summaries of the physics discussed in the play, glossaries of people and places mentioned, and links to lots of other sources of information. Other theatres, such as the Timeline Theatre in Chicago, have published study guides for students as well as general audiences, and those are great resources as well. We all did a fair amount of research on our own in order to understand what we were dealing with in terms of the material, and we spent a good deal of time at the table during the beginning stages of rehearsal discussing and helping each other out with the interpretation of it.
Intermission Impossible:The play's impact is almost more interesting to me than the play. It caused a lot of academics to go back and try to nail down the particulars of this meeting. How has that post Copenhagen research changed how we might experience Copenhagen, if at all?
Stephen Huff: Yes, the discussion sparked by the play in the scientific community and elsewhere was as voluminous as to lead to the publication of at least one book of essays reacting to it, along with many other articles. The published version of the play includes Frayn’s own foray into these arguments in the form of a postscript and a post-postscript that together constitute much more of the volume than the play itself. The renewed interest in the controversy over the encounter between Bohr and Heisenberg incited by the play even compelled the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen to release sealed documents ten years ahead of schedule. Some of the criticisms and evidence offered in these arguments and documents seem to cast doubt on some of the details in the play, and Frayn answers to these in his postscripts. While delving into the plethora of written material provoked by Copenhagen might provide an audience member with a richer experience, the play, in and of itself, remains an intriguing and poignant theatrical exploration of the uncertainty of intentions.
Yeah, I know you were looking forward to seeing 3PT's take on Eugene O'Neill's sprawling American family drama this weekend. I mean, what a cast, right? Christina Wellford-Scott, Bill Baker, John Dylan Atkins, Gabe Beutel-Gunn, and Jillian Barron... just... wow.
But you're going to have to wait till Friday, Feb. 13. Oh well. Life goes on.
In the meantime, here's the complete 1987 revival with Jack Lemon and Kevin Spacey. I mean, what a cast, right?
I’m not exactly a fan of Beth Henley's 1984 comedy The Miss Firecracker Contest, although I do have a soft spot for the show, and fond memories of its long-ago Memphis premiere. The script's too contrived, too mechanical. And no matter how much I may enjoy the antic bits and surreal set pieces, Henley's screwball romance never seems to go anywhere. Maybe it’s Chekhovian in that regard, but never as substantial or satisfying.
Henley’s storycraft may be pat, but she’s a genius when it comes to memorable, unexpected moments. And to borrow a feel-good line from countless forgettable romantic comedies, sometimes the journey really is the destination. And seriously, when’s the last time you sat through a feel-good comedy laden with so many over-the-top stories about terrible deaths and hideous deformities?
With diversions touching on everything from malformed kittens and midgets to terrifying dreams of female dismemberment and mutilation, Firecracker tells the "bless-her-heart" story of Carnelle, a "Delta Dawn" in training, pinning what’s left of her tattered, tarted-up self-worth, on the outcome of a small town beauty contest. She’s an orphan, raised by relatives, living alone in the ancestral manse and working on a patriotic tap routine to be performed with Roman candles. Carnelle yearns to ditch her current title, Miss Hot Tamale, an honor unceremoniously bestowed upon her by the mean boys (and girls) of Brookhaven, and roll out of Mississippi in a red, white, and blue blaze of glory. She’s been messed up, but she’s working things out.
Carnelle shares the stage with cousins Elain (who’s left her husband… and all her beautiful clocks), and Delmount, an unhinged Tom Wingfield type, who’s in and out of trouble but longs to settle down and study philosophy so he can finally tell people why we’re here. They’re joined in mutual Southern Gothic silliness by Popeye, a an oddball Southern seamstress, Mac Sam, a randy carnival roustabout with the clap, and busybody pageant organizer named Tessy Mahoney. Each character is somehow imprisoned by economic circumstances, tyrannizing ideas, and societal expectation. Only the sickly, hard-drinking Mac Sam counts himself a king of infinite space.
Germantown Community Theatre wants to step up its game. The teenincy east-side playhouse has expanded its lobby, and built what, at first glance, seems to be a more actor and tech-friendly stage. And, while this revival of Miss Firecracker, may miss some marks here and there, it really fits the space, both physically and tonally. It made me wonder why, for all of its shortcomings, the show hadn’t been revived in Memphis in almost 30-years.
As much as I like what’s been done with the GCT space, it might have been interesting to take things a step further and experiment with less representational scenic design. Not to play backseat director, but simply taking away solid walls and leaving old photos (and maybe some clocks) floating in the background like ghosts, might help the audience transition visually into a less representational second act, where an unchanging circus tent backdrop currently makes it difficult to know where the actors are playing from scene to vaguely-defined scene. Oh well, baby steps.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if GCT's cast members are inhabiting their characters or judging them, however sympathetically. And for all the good humor and laughs, this Miss Firecracker misses a number of emotional marks along the way. Jenny Smith, Shawna Lei Gardner, and Rebecca Lipscomb all turn in nicely crafted performances, but the only sparkler on this stage is Meredith Koch, as TCB pageant coordinator Tessy Mahoney.
I understand the show’s selling out. And at GCT, a theater that, to my mind, has always been plagued with a bit of an identity problem, this one absolutely should.
I try not to play favorites, and work hard to consider every show based on its own merits. I want to write about the play I’ve seen rather that the play I wish I’d seen. But some productions stick with you, and letting go of the past is hard. Take, for example, Memphis’ last production of the play inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men. It really wasn’t good. No, it was “Holy Crap” extraordinary, top to bottom. The perfectly cast ensemble was tight. And with it’s narrow swath of blue sky, Bruce Bergner's expressionist design dropped audiences into the hope-twisted minds of damaged people, and the austere, off kilter world of the Great Depression. Michael Ingersoll’s bantam rooster edge couldn’t hide that his George needed the giant, developmentally stunted Lennie just as much as Lennie needed him. But it was George Dudley’s rich, humane portrayal of Lennie, an infinitely sweet, extremely dangerous man who literally loves things to death, that really elevated Playhouse on the Square’s take on material that can easily slide into cliche.
When awards season rolled around, it became evident that the Ostrander judges were also mightily impressed.
So, what does any of this have to do with Theatre Memphis’ perfectly competent, epically-imagined revival? Maybe not so much, as far as the average audience member is concerned. For me, however, these two takes on an American classic represent a clear line in the sand dividing things I value from things that make me shake my head. The earlier production was poetic and evocative. The current one, while beautifully executed, is often literal to a fault. After all, it’s the empty spaces— the things things left to an audience’s imagination— that turn our imaginations on, and optimizes a theatrical experience. Show me an elephant and I’ve seen an elephant. Good show! But hold up an apple and make me believe it’s an elephant; that’s magic and the stuff that sticks with you after you’ve seen your share of elephants.
If the wonderful short story writer George Saunders teaches us anything, it’s that nothing highlights artificiality like attempted verisimilitude. And, from a design standpoint, that’s where TM’s Of Mice and Men takes its first wrong turn. When water is splashed in an onstage creek and embers glow in a realistic fire (that looks anything but real) we aren’t drawn into the world of the play, but taken out of it and reminded of something that has nothing to do with the majesty of nature or Depression-era austerity. We’re reminded instead of sumptuousness, excess, and so many things at odds with the tone of the source material. But maybe it’s not about the set at all. A more thoughtful and dynamic lighting design wouldn’t just illuminate all of the beautiful space all the time. It would instead frame the actors and focus the action on a stage big enough for eyes to wander about.
It’s easy to make an audience say, “Awwww.” Walking an adorable, and obviously very loving three-legged dog on stage will do it. Finding the interior life of a play and its characters can be more difficult, however, and this is the kind of play where any “awww”-inducing sweet things really need to have their guts crushed by Lennie in short order. The sympathy we feel for old man Candy’s soon-to-be-executed dog shouldn't stem from adorability, but vulnerability, and the pathetic animal's bond with a failing one-handed laborer, too feeble to keep up.
Todd Nelson delivers a grounded performance as Slim, the sure handed crew boss, and Joshua Hitt effectively conveys douchey entitlement as Curley, the ranch owner’s son, desperately jealous of a wife he treats like property. For the most part, however, the supporting cast seems flat and disconnected. One, functional but frustrating performance is so lacking in depth it might be described as shouting in a peculiar accent.
The casualty in all of this may be Stuart Turner’s simple, emotionally honest performance as George. Turner’s an under-appreciated area performer who raised his profile last year with a funny, physically generous performance in the iffy 60’s-era sex farce Boeing Boeing. Turner’s George is plainspoken, and easily agitated, but a little too decent, exhibiting no trace of the cruelty he eventually confesses. It’s a subtle, against type performance and I wish I could have seen it in a more intimate circumstance, where there was no need to enlarge character traits and project them across so much distance. I’d have also liked to see him play the part opposite a more genuinely threatening Lennie.
On the surface Jeremy Bukauskas would appear to be a great choice to play Steinbeck’s man child, a challenging character that never really grows or changes as the story plays out. He’s sweet faced, and he dwarfs everybody else on stage. But Bukauskas can’t seem to muster more than one note, and at every turn performance choices call to mind a half-century of “pet him and squeeze him” cartoonparodies by Warner Bros. The scene where Lennie’s love of soft things turns deadly needs serious attention. To borrow a line from Dennis Miller (something I almost never advise), I haven’t seen choreography that stiff since Ruby shot Oswald.
Having said all of this, I never regret time spent with Steinbeck and his characters. And for all my complaints, this was no exception. I appreciate the fine craftsmanship on display, and more than anything else, I appreciate that director Tracy Zerwig Ford saw something big and wanted audiences to experience Americana on an operatic scale. I just wish that George, and Crook, and Slim, and even the giant Lennie weren’t somehow rendered smaller than life in the process.
As always, Theatre Memphis delivers a quality production. But I strongly suspect that customer satisfaction will vary.
I would like— if I may— to take you on a strange journey. It seemed a fairly ordinary night when Bill Andrews— a Rocky Horrorveteran— sat down in a sturdy, conservative, high-backed chair to tell the story of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, two young ordinary healthy kids from the happy, perfectly normal town of Denton, on what was supposed to be a normal night out… a night they were going to remember for a very long time. While Andrews is (as always) spot on as the musical’s narrator/criminologist, this introduction underscores everything that’s wrong with Playhouse on the Square’s incredibly fun, undeniably fab, but somewhat gutted production of Richard O’Brien’s decadent, glam-rock fairy tale. While Dr. Frank-N-Furter is obviously the star of this horror show, its story is presented as a case study: The strange tale of Brad and Janet, their harrowing journey out of innocence. It’s basically Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, but with electric guitars, aliens, and erotic candy. And for all of the goodness that happens in this production, it really is unfortunate that, after the opening sequences, these two characters— finely acted by Jordan Nichols and Leah Beth Bolton almost fade into the background, and none of the other characters are ever allowed to really savor their moments in the spotlight. Once Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Jerre Dye— you might have heard of him) prances on stage as everybody’s favorite Transvestite, it’s hard to even see anybody else.
I haven’t loved everything Scott Ferguson has directed, and have occasionally pointed out some measure of predictability in his always solid, sometimes brilliant work. But the POTS regular and I share some overlapping aesthetic interests, and when I want something visual, that’s not too abysmal, I can usually count on Ferguson to deliver the goods. I even had an opportunity to work with him a few years back on a rustic, and completely perverse production of The Robber Bridegroom at Rhodes College, which is relevant only because he built that entire production around the idea of a quilt— ragged scraps of fabric expertly crafted into something colorful, inviting, and transformative, but ultimately very familiar. Although there is nothing rustic about this Rocky, like a quilt, the whole is greater than the sum of its weaker parts. And for all of my quibbles, it may the craziest thing Scott Ferguson (Pronounced “Frunk-un-schteen”) has ever stitched together.
There are basically two ways to stage Rocky Horror. You can either highlight the musical’s narrative threads, a weave of British pantomime by way of the Brothers Grimm, and tropes of classic Drive In cinema. Or you can say goodbye to all that and give yourself over to absolute decadence. Ferguson chooses the later, which makes his show short on dynamic tension, but big on jolts delivered directly to an audience’s pleasure centers. His vision of Rocky Horror is a pansexual psycho beach party fantasia complete with fast (but faulty) cars, zombies, and tons of choreography.
If you’ve heard that Jerre Dye’s performance as Frank-N-Furter is the greatest thing that ever happened, you’ve not heard wrong. Make no mistakes, Dye’s not an extraordinary singer, and there’s not a lot of nuance in the vocal performances. But he knows how to strut (and sell) his stuff, and if this show has any moral at all it’s “FUUUUUCK NUANCE!!!” The watch-cry here is “More excess!” and you shall have it in abundance. This Frank-N-Furter walks on stage snorting face powder (or something from a compact), and you feel the kick. You can see the mind go “PING” as Dye skips, and sniffs, and licks, and condom-snaps his way through a dense thicket of bits and gags that are devilish and delightful but make it impossible to see many actual details in the show’s original architecture.
Everybody’s favorite song will be different, I’m sure, but if Rocky Horror has a musical heart it’s “Hot Patootie” (“I Really Love That Rock-and-Roll”). With it’s 1950’s swagger, and it’s PG-rated backseat make-out lyrics, it’s the heteronormative baseline from which all else is extrapolated. On top of that the number delivers a lot of backstory about Columbia and where Rocky got his brain. It’s the dimmest spot in POTS floorshow, and treated like a throwaway until Frank breaks out his chainsaw to end it.
Columbia barely exists, Riff and Magenta (all fine) show up to do what’s expected of them and not much more. And poor Janet, almost ignored by Dye’s Frank, gets the shortest end of the stick, so to speak. Her seat-wetting song, “Touch Me (I wanna be dirty),” feels like an orphan. Compared to everything else in this show, it’s downright sanitary.
Fantastic pulp-inspired costumes by Caleb Blackwell.
Rocky Horror super nerds who’ve seen more than one local revival may recognize what appear to be a number of Easter Eggs built into Memphis’ fifth, (and POTS fourth) production of the show. The silver spaceship, the “Double Feature" flashlights, and the chainsaw splatter scene, all call to mind earlier attempts. But for all of its originality, the biggest and most obvious tribute to productions past may be Jerre Dye’s outrageous, overstuffed, down-and-dirty “big ol’ [Southern] sissy” (his words) take on the megalomaniacal scientist from Transexual Transylvania. At key moments the singing, and uninhibited choice-making powerfully echo Mark Chambers, the homegrown actor who played the role twice in the 1990’s, and whose Circuit Playhouse performance made an indelible impression on a much younger Jerre Dye. The seeming tribute is especially obvious when the music swells, Dye accesses his lower vocal registers, and belts out lyrics like a Ms. Man-Thing possessed.
To borrow an idea from Mary Shelley and a line from songwriter Stephin Merritt, I think this show needs a new heart. But, then again, who needs a heart when you’ve got such a smoking hot body? Given a chance all this sexy silliness can actually suckerpunch you with an emotional wallop you never saw coming. The wind-up starts when Eddie and Columbia are separated in “Hot Patootie.” The fist tightens when Frank discovers the line between extreme and “too extreme.” It lands as Brad and Janet struggle to find their way back home in the haunting “Superheroes.” And we’re left to contemplate time, space, and meaning in the wistful, minor key reprise of “Science Fiction Double Feature.” We don’t really get to experience any of that this time around, and in the complete absence of emotional and narrative content, even a short show can drag. And so does this, at the end, just before the spaceship launches. Emotion is a powerful and irrational master, but so is pleasure. And, based on what I eagerly viewed on stage at Playhouse on the Square last week, the audience was clearly its slave. Using almost no scenery, and some inventive projection POTS energetic, mostly able ensemble, delivers about as much fun as a person can have with their clothes on. Or half off. Or even fully off in some truly pathetic cases. You know who you are.
Good theater isn't always pleasant. Remind yourself of this caution as the lights dim and you prepare for the onslaught ofBad Jews.
Bad Jews has one of the best end reveals I’ve ever seen. It’s not shocking or especially surprising. And it doesn’t really change how audiences see the characters, though it certainly changes how some of the characters regard themselves. It’s a touching moment that picks up lost threads of throwaway conversation from earlier in the scrip, to make unexpected, perfectly poetic, and entirely wordless comments about tradition, trend, and the meaning of meaning. This isn’t a play about how ritual dissipates, but how it evolves. Joshua Elias Harmon’s difficult show also highlights a universal truth: Still waters run deepest.
The only problem with this closing image, as I see it, is that you have to spend an hour and forty (funny, finely acted) minutes with some extremely unpleasant characters to get there.
Bad Jews is a deliberately provocative title. It invites people to judge before peeling back the layers to see what’s really there. Another, more prominent critic, suggested “Jews Behaving Badly” might make for a better title, though, for all of its accuracy, I find that a little “on the nose,” without the benefit of offering less potential for offense. This is a show about personal and cultural narcissism: people with strong feelings and weak connections, that judge one another using their own reflections as a gold standard. Conservatives dismiss progressives who sneer at the conservatives in the great circle of modern life. Watching the characters go at it is a little bit like reading an argument on the internet, and even though it can be very funny, it requires more than a little patience.
The shell story couldn’t be more simple. The family patriarch has passed, and the college age cousins gather for the funeral. The oldest male arrives late because he was off on a skiing holiday with his shiksa girlfriend, and lost his phone in the snow. The conflict—often hateful and cringe inducing— is built around which cousin will inherit a gold chai amulet their grandfather kept under his tongue in a Nazi concentration camp. Daphna, who is leaving America to marry an Israeli soldier and join the military herself, thinks she deserves the chai because of some perceived spiritual significance. Cousin Liam, who prefers Christmas trees and Santa hats, thinks it should be his simply because he’s next in the line of succession.
Director Anita Jo Lenhart, who did such a bang up job with last season’s As You Like It at Theatre Memphis, had her work cut out for her. Thankfully, she scored a top shelf cast, lead by the remarkable Laura Stracko Franks, who knows how to work Bad Jews' limited dynamics, and never allows the show to become a one note shrill-fest. That's 90% of the battle.
As Daphna, Frank owns the space, stomping around with an unruly mane of hair that makes her seem twice her actual size. Liam, nicely played by Oliver Jacob Pierce, mocks her openly with no idea that he’s just like her.
The show’s less showy, but more interesting roles go to Madeline Glenn Thomas , who plays a WASPY opera major who can’t sing a note, and Matt Nelson as Jonah, who may be the one person in the family with some real sense of who he is and what he believes.
I love synchronicity. And love that Bad Jews is playing just across the street from Katori Hall’s moody Hoodoo Love.
Hall’s script has its origins in a college playwriting assignment where the young dramatist was asked to develop a scene showing two characters struggling for possession of an object. Hall made her characters fight for a mojo bag— a pouch full of associative magic. And Hall, like all great writers, knows that these kinds of struggles are almost never about the thing itself, but about power, perception, and meaning. To that end, Bad Jews functions as anunexpected reflection of Hoodoo Love, which still contains a remnant of that original scene. It’s very nifty to see these two very different plays built around similarly associative artifacts and the people who have given the objects their meaning and power. See both, and you’ll see what I mean.
She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep,
She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep,
to keep [me with] her, so I won't make no midnight creep.
— "Bad Luck Woman Blues," by Papa Charlie Jackson
I’d like to see a Texas cage match where Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love takes on Memphis: The Musical. Not because I think it would be much of a match, but because it would be deeply satisfying to see Hall’s scruffy fairy tale school that wannabe rock-and-roll origin story by a couple of Jersey boys, and take it down for the count.
Hall’s a Memphis writer who writes Memphis, and Hoodoo Love, currently onstage at The Hattiloo Theatre, is an intense love story from the Great Migration, about a small woman with a big voice, who escapes her hellish life as a preacher’s daughter in rural Mississippi, hoping to make it as a blues singer on Beale Street in Memphis, and to cut a record on down the road in Chicago. She spends most of her time washing clothes for white people and thinking up songs.
Toulou, sweetly embodied by Keia Johnson, falls for Ace, a masterful bluesman with a girl in every port. Desperate to make him her own she turns to her neighbor Candy Lady, the conjure woman, whose root work is known to be some “powerful shit.” The charm works, but magic, like everything else, has a price.
To spice up this voodoo stew Toulou’s violent, hard drinking brother follows her to Memphis with the intention of founding his own congregation. He brings with him everything she was running away from in the first place.
Hall has a real gift for colorful, idiom-laden dialogue that tumbles from her characters’ mouths like Shakespeare’s prose. She also has a gift for style-hopping, and Hoodoo Love's mix of earthy music and magical realism calls to mind Alice Walker by way of Sam Shepard’s early rock-and-blues fantasias. It’s a meditation on the violence and deprivation behind the thing we call the blues, riffing on the memories of people who claim to have seen guitar legend Robert Johnson on the day he died, crawling on his hands and knees and barking like a dog.
There are a number of satisfying things about the Hattiloo’s run through Hoodoo. Johnson’s performance tops the list, although every actor brings something interesting to the table. Arthur Ford makes a compelling Ace, and his scenes in Toulou’s arms, and under her spell, can be intense. Rickey Thomas makes brother Jib an awkward mess of a manchild and a loose cannon. And conjure woman Candy Lady is brought vividly to life by Hurt Village veteran Angela Wynn. But on opening weekend not all of the actors seemed fully comfortable with their lines and blocking, and nothing upsets the flow of a performance like actors having to think about what they are doing and saying.
That’s also the sort of thing that tends to improve as the actors settle in, so here's hoping.
It’s also frustrating, in Memphis especially, to watch actors pretending to play blues, out of sync with music from the wings. Even if you commit to actors who can’t play, Hoodoo Love’s subtle, but sturdy magical elements create a lot of opportunity to present music in a theatrical way, without turning the show into an actual musical.
Guitars and harmonicas aside, Director Brooke Sarden seems especially attuned to the meaning and musicality of Hall’s language. And even though it’s set in the 1930’s, Hoodoo Love’s Memphisness shines through in a way that should make it especially satisfying for regional audiences, even if the show never quite seems to hit on all cylinders.
If you have not seen it yet you really do need to check out Memphis' own Jookin ambassador, Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, in the opening credits to Spike Lee's new film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which opens in theaters Feb.13th. It's kinda beautiful. And if you haven't read it yet, you also want to check out the fantastic interview he gave The Flyer in Nov. when he came home to dance in New Ballet Ensemble's Nut ReMix.
You can't get attached to Playhouse on the Square company members, they'll only break you're heart. Here for a minute and gone is the nature of the beast. And when they're good, you want them to spread it around. Still, I was pretty thrilled when I heard that Laura Stracko Franks was coming back to Memphis to perform in the play Bad Jews.
Franks has been a favorite in shows ranging Hairspray and the 25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee, to August: Osage County and A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Opera). Although I didn't care much for Circuit's most recent staging a Jacques Brel, it was worth sitting trough some turbulence just to hear her sing "My Death."
Intermission Impossible: So, I'm a big fan Penny Pingleton. Catch me up. What all have you been doing since you left Memphis?
Laura Stracko Franks: Right after Playhouse I did a quick show in Michigan, and then I went to New York and the first show I booked was a national tour, so I left right away. And then I was on the road and doing regional stuff all around the country since then, jobbing in and out of New York. I haven’t really stopped, so this feels almost like coming home, because I spent so much time here and stayed here. Everywhere else I’ve lived I’ve come and gone so quickly that when I come back here it feels like a break, which is weird because I’ve worked harder here than anywhere else.
Intermission Impossible: What are some of shows you’ve been doing?
I did a national tour of Damn Yankees where I was actually cast by Allison Frank, who is a former Playhouse on the Square intern. I’ll never forget, I went into the room and she said, “Ah, you’re a Playhouse person.” Yep. And she’s called me in for a bunch of stuff since then, so it was great to have that connection in the City. That felt right.
Intermission Impossible: I bet.
I’ve been performing regionally doing shows like Marvelous Wonderettes, and Rent, and Great American Trailer Park Musical, and I did a quick Christmas Carol tour through a theater up in New Hampshire. And I’ve also been performing in New York and doing Cabarets which, unless you are on the Broadway, is the best way to be seen. Of course I have goals, but I’m in no hurry. I’m not going to put a timeline on my career.
Intermission Impossible: Well, while you’re waiting for your career to happen it sounds like you’ve been having a pretty good one.
Yeah. Which is interesting, I do. I was in a workshop and somebody said something that really spoke to me: The hustle never stops. And it’s stuck with me. I’m constantly thinking about what’s next. As soon as you get a job in this industry you’ve got to start thinking about something else.
Intermission Impossible: That’s why I got out early. I realized I just didn’t have that kind of hustle in me.
It’s a pain in the ass, I’ll tell you. But I’ve learned I have to have the two parts where I have the creative part, and the business part where I develop my brand.
Intermission Impossible: So, let’s talk just a bit about Bad Jews, an angry, verging on savage, but also often funny play.
All those adjectives describe it perfectly. People need to know they’re allowed to laugh at the show. I think some people see the title and are like “ugh!” They’re put off by it.
Intermission Impossible: The title is deliberately provocative. The writer wants you to respond from the gut before you have all the information.
It’s really satisfying getting to do this show. There’s something really cathartic about just getting to fight and tell the truth for an hour and a half. Joshua Harmon’s script is so well written. I've heard him interviewed and he writes like he talks. And, at the end of the day it’s a story about family.
Intermission Impossible: So “Bad Jews” describes what?
It’s about how the characters view each other. My character, for example, is very traditional and conservative and the other characters are more liberal. And we’re all like, if you don’t do it my way, it’s the wrong way. Which is really common in all religion and politics. It’s really timely.
Bad Jews tells the story of Daphna Feygenbaum who reunites with her cousins following the death of the family patriarch. A vicious fight breaks out over who is most deserving of their grandfather's Chai necklace and things are said that can't be easily taken back.
Eck, who was announced as the company's new Executive Director earlier this week, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at The New School in New York, NY and his Master of Fine Arts Degree in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Memphis.
VOTS was founded in 1995 by Alice Berry and Jenny Madden, two U of M grads with an interest in transforming classic Southern literature into narrative theater events. The scrappy troupe has endured, evolved, and is highly regarded for its ongoing commitment to great children's theater and to the development of new, original, and culturally significant work.
Rocky Horror director Scott Ferguson playfully dishes on Memphis actor/playwright Jerre Dye. “You know he cleans his house in red pumps,” Ferguson says, conspiratorially. “With a handkerchief tied to his head.”
“Jerre’s fearless,” Ferguson says of his Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Playhouse on the Square’s fourth production of Richard O’Brien’s classic proto-punk fairytale. “He immediately goes to places nobody else would go.”
Dye likes the way playing Frank-N-Furter makes him feel. He likes the ridiculous narcissism and the extreme vulnerability. He knows he’s not really known around town as a vocalist or musical theater guy and that aspect of the show still scares every time he walks on stage. But he likes going to extremes. “Never underestimate the power of platform heels,” he says.
This is Ferguson’s second time to mount the original live version of Rocky Horror for Playhouse on the Square. His 1998 production starred Memphis stage veteran Mark Chambers as the Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania. Dye remembers seeing Chambers in the role, all done up in his leather and glitter. It awakened something in an otherwise introspective kid and may be the moment when he decided he wanted a career in the theater.
The look of Playhouse’s Rocky Horror revival set is inspired by a theater under construction, and Ferguson promises some interesting updates to the perennial favorite. “The music is so ’70s,” he says, allowing that a lot has changed since audiences were first introduced to Brad the asshole and Janet the slut, Eddie the rocker, and a host of alien party animals. This revival, he says, will have a more modern edge.
The best review a show can get is a sell out. And Opera Memphis’ Hansel & Gretel is sold out. No matter how badly you want to see it, chances are pretty good that you can’t.
And I’m sorry that you can’t. The tale is told well enough from "Once upon a time" to "The End." It moves fluidly with the assistance of some talented young dancers from Ballet Memphis. Performances are charming across the board, even if some aren't taken as far as they might go. The singing is very good and Engelbert Humperdinck's luminescent score is beautifully played. Those not lulled to sleep by the show’s gorgeous lullaby, will enjoy a fun, family-friendly night at the opera. But the real reason you should try to defy the odds, get on a waiting list, or beat the bushes for tickets, is a chance to drink in Michelle Duckworth’s fantastic storybook renderings.
Duckworth is a local artist with a real knack for adventurous imagery and fanciful illustration. Opera Memphis’ set consists exclusively of a pair of tables and three ever-changing panels where Duckworth’s colorful drawings are projected and, in some cases, animated. Her trees look like a marriage of Seuss and Sendak. Her interiors are full of storybook detail.
Opera Memphis’ General Director Ned Canty has often said that he aims to produce one PIXAR-inspired opera a year. By that he means a show that targets kids without pandering, and appeals to adults without compromise. Hansel & Gretel accomplishes that in a minimalist environment that, thanks to a strong ensemble and Duckworth’s illustrations, gives the impression of being stuffed and cozy.