Memphis theaters spotlight Seminar, Simone, Shakespeare, and a shipside farce. 

Class Act: The cast of Seminar, at Circuit Playhouse

Class Act: The cast of Seminar, at Circuit Playhouse

Theresa Rebeck's comedy Seminar has all the f-words covered. It's got frontal nudity, ball-sucking fornication, flamboyance, good old-fashioned f-bombs (duh), and plenty of additional four-letter words, all expertly flung with venom to spare. It's a light comedy about unbearably heavy people that stakes out previously uncharted territory somewhere in the vast DMZ separating David Mamet and Neil Simon. I was particularly reminded of a comically damning line hurled in Nicky Silver's play Beautiful Child, when it's discovered that Silver's protagonist is having an affair with his secretary: "You're past cliché and into archetype." Similarly, Seminar's broadly drawn characters flirt with cliché, but rapidly transcend it.

Seminar often reads like a truly inspired first draft, resplendent with cringe-worthy lines like, "Don't make me hit you with this Buddha." Thankfully, director Irene Crist has assembled a cast compelling enough to weather the worst. Morgan Howard hides her soul, but bares other things as Izzy, a promising student who lives the life she writes about. Julia Masotti gives a thoroughly winning performance as Kate, who, like the real-world playwright, Sarah Kane, hides behind a gay male alias to test for bias in her editor/tormentor's stinging criticism. But from his first rude appearance, this show belongs to Playhouse on the Square's associate producer, Michael Detroit. His performance as Leonard, a dirtbag editor with a heart of gold (sort of), will earn an Ostrander nomination, at least, and probably the prize. Write it down.

Seminar is at Circuit Playhouse through June 21st.

The Hattiloo is nearing the end of its first season in its custom-built space on Overton Square, but technical issues that have plagued the company since its earliest days linger on. This time around, there were jarring mic issues marring the first third of Simply Simone, a small but mighty musical revue about artist, activist, and bon vivant Nina Simone.

Keia Johnson, Rhonda Woodfork, Tymika Chambliss, and Jackie Murray all play Simone at different ages and stages of her career. They are, by turns, naive, worldly, wise, and wanton. And by the time this rhythmically gifted quartet was through singing, dancing, clapping, monologuing, and stomping out beats on the floor with their fists and heels, I felt like I'd spent the evening with one singular, complicated, and completely captivating personality. Highlights include the company's spirited run through "Mississippi Goddam" and a seething take on Billie Holiday's lynching ballad, "Strange Fruit."

Simply Simone is a little show that delivers an oversized wallop. Catch it if you can.

Simply Simone is at The Hattiloo through June 28th.

The Tennessee Shakespeare Company's hoodoo-inspired take on A Midsummer Night's Dream is a triumph of stagecraft, although there's something eerily robotic about some of the more heavily choreographed human characters.

The duke has a wise line in Midsummer about how nothing can be amiss when simpleness and duty attend it. And, true to the Bard's words, this production's sourest notes are a result of praiseworthy ambition that is dutiful but not simple. Actors have learned to play the accordion, washboard, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and a variety of other instruments in order to capture the sonic flavors of the Louisiana bayou. When it's off, it can make you clinch up a bit, but when it works, it brings the magic this show demands.

Oberon has been imagined as Papa Legba, and it's a role Phil Darius Wallace was born to play. The force he projects as Duke Theseus and Oberon the fairy king is matched by Stephanie Weeks who is delightful in her dual role as the earth mother Titania and Hippolyta, the tough-as-nails warrior queen. Noah Duffy's broom-wielding, accordion-squeezing, shape-shifting Puck is this Midsummer's most complete creation.

The Athenian actors commonly known as "the mechanicals" deserve a special shout-out for their fully committed, sometimes awkward musical efforts. As Nick Bottom, G. Valmont Thomas is as tender an ass as one might hope to meet on a summer's day.

It's likely that this imaginative Midsummer will tighten up with repetition. Its shortcomings are, at every turn, outweighed by a willingness to do the hard thing and take smart risks. It also represents the beginning of what could grow into an interesting, mutually beneficial partnership between Memphis' only professional, classical theater company and the University of Memphis' Department of Theatre and Dance.

Tennessee Shakespeare Company Presents A Midsummer Night's Dream at the University of Memphis through June 21st.

Cole Porter's been all over Memphis. No sooner does Kiss Me, Kate close at Playhouse on the Square (POTS) then Anything Goes opens at Theatre Memphis. Both antique scripts are plagued by racial stereotyping, but the Chinese minstrel show near the end of Anything Goes is especially hard to watch in the second decade of the 21st century. Unlike POTS' musically lush, perfectly paced romp through Shakespeare's most misogynist material, Porter's shipside farce never builds much steam.

Director Amy Hanford's production contains one spectacular tap number, and veteran actor Barry Fuller is a joy front to back as a dimwitted gangster on the lam. But this production is long on sparkle and shine and short on dynamics and character development. Its best moment is a cheeky duet between Fuller and Whitney Branan, who proves in this one scene that all she needs to be convincing in the role of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney is a grounded actor to play off of. Too bad for the gifted Branan, that doesn't happen often enough.

Even with its temporal baggage, Anything Goes is the kind of show Theatre Memphis tends to knock out of the park. Beyond the top-notch technical elements and the tap dancing, the details in this show just didn't seem to get much love. And that, as we all know, is where the devil lives.

Anything Goes is at Theatre Memphis through June 28th.

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