Cuddles is a different kind of vampire story. And it can be hard to talk about without giving away the things that set it apart in a genre done to (un)death. Even director Tony Isbell keeps a pretty tight lip, referencing a quote by the original British producer. He says it's "Part horror film, part domestic tragedy, part romantic comedy. And it's very disturbing."
Given the play's reputation that description sounds both accurate and understated. Cuddles is an exercise in creeping dread. It tells the story of two sisters — one human, one vampire. They have a strict system of rules created to keep both of them alive and together — tenuously in every sense.
New Moon Theatre has made a couple of promotional videos that don't give too much away, but seem to capture the unholy spirit of the piece. If you like spooky stuff, be sure to check them out. I've been wanting to see this one since I read an early review in The Guardiana few years back, and can't wait till opening night. Only a week away.
Forget Lee Greenwood. Hell, forget Kate Smith. The most patriotic music ever performed may have referenced old glory and American soldiers, but it didn't slob all over them. Back when bands hammered it out 8-to-the-bar and Uncle Sam was recruiting young men to defeat the Axis powers nobody did it better than USO darlings Patty, Laverne, and Maxine — The Andrews Sisters. Although they performed for decades — even got themselves into a harmony sing - off with Diana Ross and the Supremes — it's difficult to think of them out of their spiffy military duds. Even Over Here, the popular 1974 musical written for the sisters' return to Broadway was a farce calling to mind the trio's WWII-era movies and shows.
If any songs remains familiar to younger audiences it's probably "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which is still a banging little ditty for being 75-years old. But for sweet Americana, nothing holds up like "Apple Blossom Time."
In case you haven notices it's election season, and Circuit Playhouse is providing Memphians an opportunity to get their red white and blue on and return to the days when propaganda was fun. Sisters of Swing — an Andrews Sisters tribute — opens at Circuit Playhouse this weekend. Here's a sneak peek.
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 Othelloand 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.
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.
The scripts are fine, the essays are swell, but from the teeny tiny titles on, I'm just not loving this design.
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'sHouse 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 Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and an underrated early work The Pillars of Society.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
Did you miss Krapp's Last Tape at Theatre South last season? If the answer is yes — and given trends and logistics it probably is — then you missed a genuine event. All the right pieces were in play: Veteran actor Tony Isbell starring in a dream role; Beckett's bleak bite-sized memory play; A production focusing on bare essentials, not because anybody had to (even if they did), but because that was a priority. For true blue fans of great scripts and masterful acting this was a "Get it while it's hot moment," because, even in a city with a growing, thriving theater scene, this collision of actor and ethos was as rare as the production was fine and fuss-free.
It makes for a nice logo too. Also essential. Build that brand, kids! (Also on Facebook, of course, friend them).
Quark was inspired by Krapp's modest success, and aims to produce similarly modest work with a focus on performance and quality material that hasn't, and might not otherwise be produced in Memphis.
Season One launches in Spring 2017 with a production of David Harrower's acclaimed Blackbird, a British drama about a young woman meeting the middle aged man who sexually abused her when she was 12. It's an Olivier winner, with two notable New York runs.
Blackbird is followed by Alan Barton's Years to the Day in September, and Jennifer Haley'sThe Nether in March 2018. The former chronicles a coffee house meeting between two old friends where savage nostalgia ensues meriting comparisons to David Mamet and Brett Easton Ellis. The latter's virtual future noir of shifting avatars and changeable realities.
That sounds like a tight schedule; ambitious but manageably so for a company stressing essentials.
Memphis loves big musicals, and big musicals love Memphis. Nothing wrong with that. Even so, and accounting for existing indies, we remain underserved on other fronts. Every jot helps.
So a muslim, a white liberal, a black, and a jew walk into a theater... And no, that's not the beginning of a joke that got someone shamed off Twitter. There's no regrettable punchline here unless, of course, you mean the punch in the gut delivered by Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning one-act play Disgraced, which is available for local consumption at Circuit Playhouse through September4.
And who doesn't love a good punch in the gut now and then?
Disgraced is a play you need to see if you're a fan of fine acting and/or argumentative, politically-charged drama. Irene Crist, who directed Circuit's vividly-realized production, has done her part to give the acclaimed show the life and wit it deserves. Still, I've got mixed feelings, no matter how much tough truth it spills in 90 overly-familiar, coincidence-packed minutes.
The show is often described as being about cross-cultural identity and the obstacles facing Muslim-Americans post 9-11. But since the proscenium's frame turns the mundane into myth, so it also functions — less fortunately — as a domesticated metaphor for globalism, radicalization, and terrorism, with the latter part expressed as a shocking moment of rage-fueled violence.
The story: Amir (Gregory Szatkkowski), is a hotshot Pakistani-American lawyer with a shot at becoming a partner at the prestigious Jewish law firm where he works harder than anybody. He's derailed when his artist wife Emily (Natalie Jones) talks him into helping an Imam who's been accused of raising money for extremists. It's not paranoia when people really are conspiring against you and after his name's associated with a suspected Islamic radical, the knives come out for Amir. He becomes increasingly (and understandably) agitated by snubs, and other signs that he's falling from favor professionally.
Emily's an artist gunning for a show at the Whitney. She's also -in an unguarded moment- bedded Isaac, the Jewish man (Gabe Buetel-Gunn) who can make that show happen and who just happens to be married to the African American attorney (Jessica "Jai" Johnson) who, unbeknownst to Amir, has been given the partnership he was expecting. The hard-drinking dinner party that brings all these characters together to nibble on fennel and anchovy salad, plays out like a deconstruction of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as imagined by God of Carnage playwright Yasmina Reza using snippets of a real life newspaper comment section argument for dialogue. Noteworthy too, in a trivia-conscious play about American identities, everybody eats pork.
There are things you can be sure of. Like when somebody produces a gun on stage you can bet it will fire before the show's over. While there are no firearms in this play, there are linguistic equivalents, and they strongly telegraph certain outcomes. Similarly, it's common enough for certain kinds of plays to climax with seemingly openminded characters revealing their prejudices by shouting racially-charged epithets in a moment of rage. Those familiar with the trope may find themselves anticipating this ugly inevitability. Akhtar might be appropriating these things ironically and aiming for ritual, but the effect is a little closer to deja vous.
Amir describes himself as an apostate and the Quran as hate mail to humanity stating, "There’s a result to believing that a book written about life in a specific society fifteen hundred years ago is the word of God: You start wanting to recreate that society... That’s why you have people like the Taliban. They’re trying to re-create the world in the image of the one that’s in the Quran." Events that follow result in a similar simulacrum, and Amir gives in to his scriptural destiny.
There's a frustrating air of fatalism to Disgraced, as atavistic pride bends toward violent predisposition. But never mind the complaints. Terrific casting and scenic design evocative of Manhattan privilege help make up for predictability, and naked provocation.
Disgraced picked up its Pulitzer in 2012 — a presidential election year, but not like this one. The newly-minted Tea Party, emboldened by it's reactionary, anti-Obama midterm success, was just starting to stir a white nationalistic pot of extreme conservatism that bubbled over into Donald J. Trump's 2016 campaign for the White House. Today Disgraced's cast of characters represent a microcosm of that candidate's clearly defined enemies. There are brown people, black people, immigrants, "East Coast Intellectuals," and liberals "with blood coming out of their whatever," all gathered together in one place to rehearse — as it is written — their parts for the end of the world. And so a play that aims for hard questions and complexity begins to feel a bit like propaganda. Nevertheless, its clearer and cloudier moments will both leave audiences with questions of their own, and that may very well be the point.
The Devil's Music is a simple pleasure. It's not one of the Hattiloo's most ambitious shows, but it's certainly one of the company's most cohesive. Audiences enter the playing space through a comfortable parlor lounge that's one part black box theater and two parts high-end bordello. It's a sweet, time-warping transition that makes entering the theater more like walking into a comfortable sitting room, where everything's soft and inviting — The perfect place to sit down and have a little talk with Blues Empress Bessie Smith.
At this point it's time to do some disclaiming. Walking in on that set was little like walking into my own house, and maybe there's a reason for that. You see, I share a modern-decorated, 19th-Century cottage with the designer, and the red velvet curtains she's used here look awfully familiar. The wallpaper's right out of my TV room too. My wife, Charlotte Davis, has been a theater professional and project manager since before I started slinging words at the Flyer. Miraculously, our professional paths never conflicted until she joined the Hattiloo as production manager earlier this summer. What you need to know about our relationship is this: I won't have opinions about Hattiloo shows anymore. I'll know for certain everything that's wrong with any given set, because she's a bigger critic than me, and throughout production week I'll drift off to sleep at night hearing her furiously scratching items off her to-do list, and asking aloud, "Why isn't there a spittoon in this Memphis buffet flat?" "Wouldn't a plant take up some of that empty wall space?" "Why aren't there more rugs?" "Couldn't everything be even softer, more nest like?"
Like our cozy, brothel-esque house, maybe? Sure, The Devil's Music could be all that - and probably should be. I get it. But the magic happens in the transition. It just feels good hanging out in this space, and it feels even better when the spirit of Bessie Smith drops in for a visit. I'm not just saying that because, at some point, I have to close my eyes and sleep, but because it's true. Long story short, I doubt that this change in circumstances will compromise my reviewing, and if I ever begin to suspect that's happening, I'll recuse myself tout suite.
The Devil's Music is part house concert, and part memory play, as Smith's piano payer Pickles summons up fond (and not so fond) recollections from the night his Empress died. It's not a solo show, though it mostly is. Pickles is there, obviously. And a sax player. And the audience is very much a character in this immersive show. But Bessie, as played by, Samantha Miller, doesn't share the stage with anybody. She's a force, and expects to be recognized.
Director Leslie "Sticky" Reddick and Miller had their work cut out for them. The biographical monologue (with and without music) (See Lady Day at Emerson's...) has been done to death, and these kinds of shows can be hard to freshen up. This creative team has hit a mini-jackpot by keeping things simple and just letting Bessie be Bessie. This show succeeds because it puts the singer under a microscope and, in spite of the extreme close up, Miller never lets herself get caught acting. Bessie's just right there with you in the room, chatting it up, fussing, cussing, getting raw, working the house, losing her shit, going somewhere far, far away, and crashing back to earth with a shot of store bought gin. She's savory, like all those Columbia sides she recorded, but up close and so, so real.
Smith got her start singing in the Chattanooga streets. When food was scarce, she'd dance and sing at the corner of 13th and Elm Street in front of Chattanooga's White Elephant Saloon, with her older brother Andrew playing guitar. Better times were on the way, though. And worse.
At the height of her recording career the Empress was America's highest-earning black artist, headlining her own revue and touring the country in style in a customized boxcar. But she liked her liquor, her boys, her girls, and between a tumultuous marriage and an over the moon career, she manufactured enough drama to supply dozens of plays. This one's loaded with the stuff and packed full of devilish songs. Miller sings the hell out of them.
With numbers like, "Give Me a Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)," "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Sugar in My Bowl," Smith's catalog is the perfect soundtrack for sensualists, which brings me back to where we came in — literally, the parlor between the lobby and the show, where my conflict of interest resides.
The Hattiloo's transformation from scrappy little storefront sensation to Midtown institution happened at light speed. Growing pains remain evident, exacerbated by the fact that a transformation of this significance also transforms requirements, modus operandi, and expectations. Consistency, as one might expect from a seat-of-the-pants startup, has always been an issue, and it's been an even bigger issue since the move. So it's good to see The Devil's Music — a show that might have been a hacked off revue — turned into a special little event.
All I can do at this point is encourage you to take advantage of this brief, bluesy confection while it's available on the buffet. It goes down fast and easy. Then come back and tell me if you think I'm being fair.
Because, I'm not unbiased, and won't ever insult readers by pretending to be.
Quick word about the music. It's not the most musically sophisticated combo I've ever heard, and a bass would really be appreciated here. But the not-too-adorned approach also adds to the intimacy and the sense that we're just hanging out with Bessie. There's nothing harder than being on stage with nothing to say or do and, in that regard, Bessie's backup is there for her whether she's singing or not. They are present — watching, listening, and responding. It's the mirror that sells the illusion we're all in this thing together.