The King Is Dead 

Plus: The U of M's Flyin' West and a hippopotamus at Rhodes.

Ah, how fondly I remember my days working as a tour guide at Graceland. I can remember each and every one of the colorful fans who shimmied through the mansion's famous musical gates. There was a skinny British fellow who flew in every year for death week to take the tour and to propose to the same tour guide. He'd offer her her heart's desire -- anything to be near Elvis forever. Every year she gave him a one-way ticket back to Lonely Street. Then there was the unthinkably obese peroxide blonde in a too-tight rainbow-striped tube top. She was of indeterminate middle-age with the word "Elvis" tattooed on one colossal breast and the word "Lives" similarly inscribed on its somewhat larger twin. There were all the 50-year-old guys, with bedazzled bell bottoms, gold sunglasses, and graying pompadours, who wanted to be just like Elvis. There was the handful of similarly dressed men who actually thought they were the King of Rock-and-Roll.

All these unforgettable faces really stood out in the crowd. And that's what so many people forget about Elvis fans: They are legion and there is a crowd to stand out in. Most fans are perfectly normal folks you'd never look at twice in the grocery store. But it's the tacky nutjobs we tend to remember. It colors our perspective and creates in the mind of some a genuine prejudice. That is certainly true of Ronnie Claire Edwards, former Waltons star and author of Idols of the King, a third-tier Branson-esque revue which is finishing its run at Playhouse on the Square.

When asked if she knew Elvis, Edwards answered, "No." When asked if she had known any Elvis fans like the ones in her play (a menagerie of truly tacky individuals with solid-gold hearts), she answered, "No." When asked where she got the idea for her play, she said, "Well, I saw Always Patsy Cline and thought, Hey, I can do that [but with Elvis]." As one might expect, given the origins, Idols is one worn-out cliché after another loosely connected by a random sampling of the King's greatest hits.

Consummate character actors Kim Justis and Jason Craig make the most of the zanies they portray, but even they can't completely rescue this dreck. Idol's Elvis, David Valentine Fraccaro, does a respectable vocal imitation and has learned how to gyrate like a champ. But the choreography is all stiffly executed and rather bloodless. Smugness and smarm stand in lieu of Elvis' smoldering self-confidence. Still, all of the performers deserve a medal for their total commitment, which puts this show at least a few notches above something you might see at Libertyland.

Westward the women

There is a joke that runs through Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West, a play about a group of African-American women, pioneers all, who left a certain racist cesspool called Memphis for the wild frontier. The women keep making fun of a mulatto poet and publisher of fancy verse. They scrunch up their noses and ask, "A colored person wrote that?" The same question might be asked of Flyin' West, which has all the tired trappings and doubly tired stock characters of a 19th-century "Baby, it's cold out there"-style melodrama. And while it touches on certain geographical aspects of the African-American experience that are often overlooked, the story is not unlike many with which we are all too familiar.

The slow-moving story is not helped by the fact that some of the performers don't project their voices clearly enough to be understood beyond the third or fourth row. It's hard to imagine, given the ever-expanding canon of African-American dramatic literature (can you say Suzan-Lori Parks?), why the U of M chose to so fully realize this limply realized script.

The Kathy and hippo show

The McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College has chosen a season that is challenging to say the least. They have followed Strindberg's nearly impossible A Dream Play (which they came as close to nailing as anyone) with Mario Vargas Llosa's confounding (and wonderfully so) psycho-farce Kathy and the Hippopotamus.

KATH follows the complicated sexploits of the well-heeled Kathie (Erin Foster Cook) as she dictates them to her tattered ghostwriter Santiago (Bob Arnold) for the purpose of future publication. Fact begins to mingle with fiction in the boho "Parisian" attic they share as four actors assume a variety of characters and act out Kathie's and Santiago's private fictions.

Llosa has claimed that he intended KATH to be a farce, but it slipped away from him in the writing and became something else: something new but a farce nonetheless. To complicate matters, he begs actors and directors for restraint and normalcy in situations that seem to soar well over the top. And restraint and normalcy are what director David Jilg and his hard-working cast deliver. Perhaps even a little too much restraint at times, as opportunities for comedy have been missed and some characters are too alike early on. Still, it's an exceptional piece and the young actors have risen to the occasion. Cook, in her best performance since Escape from Happiness, is a joy to behold as Kathie, though it would have been nice to see her done up as a 1960s bohemian (as Llosa recommends) rather than traipsing around in decidedly un-exotic chinos.

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