Using music ranging from recordings of Johnny Rotten to a live a cappella version of the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away," Vacant (Facing the Tower) told the story of a nightingale that fell asleep and became entangled in vines. After freeing herself the terrified bird never allowed herself to sleep again. Instead she kept awake by singing through the night. Koeppel, a dancer who, when she errs, tends to err on the side of beauty, made a star turn as the besieged nightingale. With the innocence of a child performing a magic show for doting parents, she flapped her wings and spun gracefully about the set, while the chorus questioned our collective ideas about what it means to be beautiful. The set, designed by Su Harruff, was a dazzling copper cage.
Sadly enough, Warren Leight's award-winning play Sideman, a show deserving a much longer run, closed this past weekend at Playhouse on the Square. The show chronicles the lives of four jazz players after Elvis Presley arrived on the scene with his rock-and-roll song-bag and robbed them all of their livelihood. But Sideman is not about the decline of jazz. Sideman is a tragedy along the lines of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It is a tragedy of obscurity and neglect about a musician, who, obsessed with his music to the exclusion of all else, somnambulates through life leaving random bits of useless beauty here and there along the way.
Michael Detroit, in his strongest performance to date, was an ideal choice for Gene Glimmer, a trumpet player of tremendous sensitivity and total obliviousness. He blunders through his character's rocky life unaware that his family is disintegrating. Guy Olivieri was equally effective as the narrator, Clifford Glimmer, and captured both the humor and frustration of a child forced by circumstance to raise his own parents. Lisa McCormick and Carla McDonald turned in a pair of noteworthy performances as, respectively, Clifford's alcoholic wife and a sassy-but-wise waitress who can't say no. Jonathon Lamer, Kyle W. Barnette, and Jason Craig brought to life a trio of brass players caught up in the midnight world of booze, dope, and groove. Craig, a performer who too easily sails over the top, was the portrait of restraint this time around, and his depiction of a gentle, world-wise junky was, without doubt, the evening's high point.
The single most maddening thing about Memphis theater is its sick determination to play by the rules at every level. Generally speaking, and with a handful of notable exceptions, local fringe groups make low-budget versions of what could easily be main-stage productions. Where are the angry artists? Where are the eager youngsters determined to inform, enlighten, and entertain us in ways we have not yet imagined? Where is the spirit of reckless innovation that a youthful Tennessee Williams once described as "something wild"? I'll tell you where it is. It's buried somewhere in the Flyer's After Dark listings. It's masquerading as a band called AUTOMUSIC.
Taking their musical cues from German groups like Kraftwerk, the band responsible for songs like "Pocket Calculator" and "Autobahn," AUTOMUSIC wants to make us all aware of our robot nature. They want us to see that all humans are robots but not all robots are human. Their immensely fun and eminently portable show is the most purely theatrical and visually exciting performance you are likely to encounter this side of Berlin, and if you don't go see them you have only yourself to blame.
Except for some occasional synthesizer pecking, all of AUTOMUSIC's music is prerecorded on video, and the digital sound is fantastic. Wonderful animations, with imagery that would make any Soviet propagandist worth his salt mine burst with pride, enhance this trio's brilliantly stiff and mathematically precise choreography. They don old-fashioned hardhats, brandish tools, and chant, "My hammer goes tink, tink, tink when I work, my hammer goes tink tink tink." That particular song, appropriately titled "The Industrial Worksong," conjures images of old-school agitprop and concludes, "If you have a hammer and you work very hard you will get very far like me, you'll help to make a productive state and a strong economy." And how can anyone resist songs like "Everything Is For the Baby," where the group declares, "What a stupid stupid baby it cannot do math at all its politics do not impress me inane, banal, obtuse baby"?
AUTOMUSIC may think they are just a band, but allow me to be the first critic to rave they're the best theater in town.