Effing Great 

Hattiloo takes on Morrison; Next Stage does Mamet.

Sameka Johnson, Patrice Jordan, Detra Payne in the Hattiloo's production of The Bluest Eye

Sameka Johnson, Patrice Jordan, Detra Payne in the Hattiloo's production of The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is an improbably light play about impossibly heavy things like madness, abuse, rape, and racial identity. Narrated almost entirely by children, even the nightmare scenes are tempered by a sense of excitement and wonder that makes it easier to process the shocking outcomes.

Ekundayo Bandele's production at Hattiloo Theatre succeeds, ironically enough, because of its modesty and exceptional ensemble acting. A lone piano player, cleverly ghosted into the scenic design, sets a blue mood for this story of Pecola, a girl cursed by the belief that she is too black.

Audiences will come away from The Bluest Eye talking about Sameka Chel B. Johnson's haunted, hollow-eyed Pecola. They will also remember the play's bursts of violence and carnality, the child-speak of Patrice Jordan and Detra Payne, and Sophia Livingston's brave, earthy performance as Pecola's clubfooted mother.

If The Bluest Eye isn't the best thing Bandele has ever directed, it's a contender, and although it's too early to predict, some of these performances will most likely be remembered when the 2012 Ostranders roll around.

Through September 25th

If you stripped Glengarry Glen Ross of its ornamental profanity, David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play about Chicago real-estate agents screwing each other over and selling crap investment property to people who can't really afford it, the play might pass for a lean, deliciously prescient one-act. Clocking in at an hour and a half, Theatre Memphis' production, on the Next Stage, is still a brutally concise essay on a peculiar piece of real estate located at the corner of Capitalism and the Human Condition.

The question Mamet seems to be asking by way of his surrogate mouthpiece, hotshot real-estate salesman Ricky Roma: "Is there an absolute morality?" Roma, played here by a confident, affirmation-spouting John Moore, answers his own question with a definitive "I don't know."

It's the playwright's agnosticism, not his cynicism, that makes this play about the fine line separating business, confidence games, and common burglary such a wonder. And also such a great predictor of Mamet's eventual (and not remotely surprising) coming-out as a conservative. The show is, after all, less an indictment of a corporatized world than a comprehensive taxonomy of the weakness and corruption that infects all systems.

Describing his political conversion, Mamet has written: "We in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances — that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired — in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it."

Substitute "Corporation" for "United States" and "Policy Manual" for "Constitution," and that's Glengarry Glen Ross in a nutshell.

The play splits its time between two locations: a Chinese restaurant and a shabby real-estate office on Chicago's North Side, where a sloppy burglar has left a considerable mess. Flat, moodless lighting highlights the grime of Chris McCollum's atypically literal set, while a steady stream of radio hits from the 1980s sets a strange, if temporally accurate, tone. Director Tony Isbell brings an A-list cast to that table and gets mostly effective performances all around, especially from supporting players like veteran actor James Dale Green and newcomer Adam Remsen. Barclay Roberts is blustering and volatile as Moss, a disgruntled, potentially larcenous salesman. Jerry Chipman stretches outside his comfort zone to play Shelly "The Machine" Levine, a lifelong salesman at the end of his career and his rope.

This Glengarry Glen Ross is never as scrappy or spirited as some independent productions around town in years past, but it is certainly more polished. Audiences who were impressed by the New Moon Theatre Company's excellent Death of a Salesman will want to visit Next Stage to experience Mamet's darkly comical answer to that great American tragedy.

Through October 2nd

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