Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rhodes to stage Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 3:26 PM

A line from Suzan-Lori Parks' Top Dog/Underdog has been running through my mind since I met actor/director Pamela Poletti for wine at the Belmont Grill last week. It's the line where Lincoln tells his brother Booth about the general public's taste in historically-themed carnival entertainments. "They don’t want it looking too real. I’d scare the customers then I’d be out for sure," he says. "People are funny about they Lincoln shit. It’s historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming."

Poletti says her decision to stage Caryl Churchill's 10-minute play Seven Jewish Children has made her instantly controversial. And that this development is surprising to her.

What's more surprising to me —and a real testament to the text's ability to launch conversations— is the sheer volume of criticism this tiny little play has generated. Some commenters have described Churchill's dramatic poem as a clear-eyed response to the troubling Gaza war while others have dismissed it as agitprop and denounced it as antisemitic blood libel. But is it either one, really?

Churchill's ritualistic text—which you can read in 5-minutes for free online here— is one-sided and manipulative by design and the playwright makes it clear in the subtitle that this is "a play for Gaza." But, one-sided or not, do her allusions to children killed in the 2008-09 Gaza invasion really echo Medieval propaganda about murderous, well-poisoning Jews using the blood of innocents in their religious ceremonies?

Seven Jewish Children is too brief to be seriously viewed as a nuanced history of Israel but it does show how histories— real and emotional—are personal and cobbled together from many competing stories. And if there's one thing I'm confident about regarding the ongoing, seemingly intractable strife in the middle east, it's that there is enough diversity of opinion on all sides to make broad brush strokes difficult. The script, which begins in pre-holocaust Germany and ends sometime after the Gaza war is built around parental instinct to protect children from truths that may be too frighting to share.

I was hoping that Intermission Impossible readers could take a peek at this script and explain to me why a play so clearly designed to be a catalyst for difficult conversations makes people so nervous and angry.

Remember, I'm not interested in finger pointing here or solving the world's problems. This isn't about who's right or wrong or who committed the worst war crime first. I just want to know what it is it about this slippery script— all 10-anti-commercial-minutes of it— that makes it so upsetting?

I think it's partly because Suzan-Lori Parks is right about how people like their "Lincoln shit." People respond negatively to the ugly voices saying shameful things like, "Tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen.” But who hasn't read the comments section of a newspaper article and noticed how often conversations are hijacked by the haters?

When I first read Seven Jewish Children it made me think of how people in America continue to fight the Civil War with with words: "Tell her it's about slavery. No, tell her it's about states' rights." I thought about Lynne Cheney fighting the creation of a standardized history curriculum for American public school students because she was appalled by the idea that western expansion might be presented as genocide by Leftist academics. And I thought about Suzan-Lori Parks and how Seven Jewish Children might make an interesting companion piece to Top Dog/Underdog.

More importantly, what do you think?

Seven Jewish Children: Thursday, December 1, 7:30pm- 9:00pm. McCoy Theatre Studio, Rhodes College

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christopher Durang Does Dickens

Posted By on Tue, Nov 22, 2011 at 1:31 PM

I like Christopher Durang's early work and love The Marriage of Bette and Boo. His later plays haven't always done very much for me and I've got to admit, this one— Mrs. Bob Crachit's Wild Christmas Binge— isn't really calling my name either.

Reserving judgment. The cast is top notch so it could be outstanding.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy Urinetown

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 at 11:03 AM


Somewhere between scatology and eschatology, there's Urinetown.

I recently reported that The Magic Kids wanted some Brecht.


Well, Urinetown: the musical, a grand spoof of all things song and dance (including some pokes at old BB himself) isn't that, exactly. But it's just Brecht/Weillian enough to scratch that peculiar itch. It's a dystopian comedy about a rebellion that takes down a corrupt corporate-owned Democracy where, to manage a water crisis, citizens must pay for every pee. But here's the important part: director Scott Duff, musical director Kermit Medsker and an all student cast have done a fantastic job of bringing this fun show to grubby, noisy, stinky life at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre.

I'm a Rhodes alum and was in the locally infamous Jack Eric Williams production of Threepenny Opera which used an unauthorized translation and was shut down after only two preview performances. I've got to admit, seeing Urinetown's filthy beggars and twisted cops staring straight through the fourth wall, bellowing their lyrics like hungry animals with a taste for audience meat gave me a strange sense of closure.

Your Int: Imp blogger at the far left in Threepenny Opera, 1988
  • Your Int: Imp blogger at the far left in Threepenny Opera, 1988

Urinetown has some rough patches here and there but it's inventive and entertaining throughout. Corbin Williams makes Bobby Strong an innocent everyman. As his love interest Hope Cladwell Katie Marburger is a smarter-than-she-seems bubblehead in the tradition of Gloria Grahame and Judy Holliday. Emily Tarr's emotionally detached, absent-eyed take on the Little Sally, the Teddy Bear hugging waif is creepy and inspired. Chase Ring struts and squawks his hour upon the stage as Caldwell B. Cladwell, the show's fat cat villain. And Kilby Hodges strikes just the right balance between Barbara Stanwyck and the Bride of Frankenstein in the role of Penelope Pennywise, Urinetown's strumpet turned low-level bureaucrat turned hero of the revolution.

Weirdly enough I walked out of the theater not humming any tunes from the show but rather this Mr. Peachum lyric from Threepenny was stuck in my head: "The reply to a kick in the pants is just another kick in the pants so pursue but not to eagerly injustice."

This is a fun show and it's been selling well so it's probably best to call ahead and reserve seats.

If you want more details about Urinetown here's a review I wrote about a nicely imagined Playhouse on the Square production from 2006.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Things that make a theater writer grumpy #684

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 11:08 AM

I tried to go see "Mr. Black & Blue" an original interactive comedy created by the Emerald Theatre Company. But when I arrived at TheatreWorks on Sunday, November 13 I found the door locked and this notice tacked to the posters:

Am I really upset about not spending my Sunday afternoon at a Leather-man beauty pageant featuring brief nudity? Well, a little maybe.
  • Am I really upset about not spending my Sunday afternoon at a Leather-man beauty pageant featuring brief nudity? Well, a little maybe.

These things happen, obviously, and for any number of perfectly good reasons. Audiences have been thin for the last few ETC shows I've seen so I actually double checked ETC's website before leaving home to make sure I wasn't misremembering the matinee schedule. I wasn't.

The 13th... thats Sunday, right?
  • The 13th... that's Sunday, right?

I went back to the press release to make triply sure that this all wasn't my fault somehow.

I see Sunday
  • I see Sunday


And ETC's Facebook page hadn't been updated since September.

  • Sigh...

I wasn't the only person who was confused. Several would-be audience members walked up and cussed when they saw the report. One poor guy who couldn't reconcile the dates on the poster with the words in red got out of his truck to make sure he wasn't misreading two or three times.

The afternoon wasn't a complete waste of time, at least. I wound up discussing William Shakespeare, Gangster (a nifty blog post at with a delightful woman (and therapist by trade) whose name I failed to catch.

So, truth be told I'm not all that grumpy. But audiences hate being tricked. Word to the ETC and other small companies: When you need to change your performance schedule, update your website. Please.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Curtain's Down on Curtain Up 11-11-11

Posted By on Sat, Nov 12, 2011 at 4:00 PM

  • Trippy

I missed all the hot burlesque, and the vaudeville, and the honky tonk, and the New Orleans fusion. But I did make it by Playhouse on the Square's Curtain Up event in time for dessert and a dance party with the Magic Kids.

  • Magic

Couldn't agree with the kids more.

Oooh! How about The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui?
  • Oooh! How about "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui?"

Meanwhile, down in the trap room Michael Detroit watches Ann Marie Hall play real poker with fake money.

All in?
  • All in?

More than 300 people came out to play, or so I overheard.

What's up (at the Hattiloo), Chuck?

Posted By on Sat, Nov 12, 2011 at 3:36 PM

So, this is happening. Tonight and tomorrow only. Three day runs. Go figure.


I took in some high school theater last night and missed the opening. Anybody catch it? Care to share?

Friday, November 11, 2011

In which I talk about Arcadia, Wit, and Sondheim. And The Pixies

Posted By on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 3:29 PM

Your Local Color.

One Love Part Two: Reviewing Al Kapone and the MSO's Opus One

Posted By on Fri, Nov 11, 2011 at 10:52 AM

Al Kapone and Opus One
  • Al Kapone and Opus One

Sometimes I forget that, for all of its issues, Memphis really is the coolest city in the solar system. Or, it has the potential to be, at least. And then nights like last night happen and I'm reminded all over again of why I chose to settle here. When Al Kapone pumped his finger in the air and chanted, "One love," it was officially a shout out to Craig Brewer. Still, it felt like a little piece of that love was aimed at me and everybody else who packed into the New Daisy to see this longtime fixture on the local rap scene perform in front of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra as part of the ongoing and wildly successful (apparently) Opus One concert series.

One Love

"This is a hip town," an ecstatic Kapone announced, dismissing Memphis's bad reputation. The crowd went nuts in a way symphony crowds seldom do.

Pairing Kapone and the U-Dig Dance Academy with the MSO could have been a straight up gimmick. But what happened at the New Daisy was the opposite pandering. The deep collaboration between artists was evident front to back as the musicians ran through a program showcasing old masters, a moden innovator, and an original work by a local composer. Kapone was the MC, in every sense of the word. He (with a little help from Lord T & Eloise) was the unique force binding Beethoven's Vienna to Memphis in the here and now.

"Million Dollar Boots" into Beethoven's 5th with U-Dig

Thanks to groups like New Ballet Ensemble and natural talents like Charles "L'il Buck" Riley Memphians are regularly exposed to dance works that blur the boundaries between classical and street. U-Dig Dance Academy erased the remaining lines as they responded whimsically to both Kapone and Beethoven.

"Yaman Yar" by Memphis cellist Jonathan Kirkscey is a droning, mournful, vaguely celtic slice of melancholy that evolves into something warm and comforting with all the sensual impact of sunbeams breaking through a dark cloud that never really lifts. It silenced a crowd that had been whooping and hollering only moments before. No small feat.

Watch the audience

Phillip Glass's String Quartet #3 was a casualty of the environment. It was the piece that set talkers to talking and sent drinkers back to the bar. But Glass's work was always intended to be a soundtrack and, at least for those of us down front, the odd snatches of conversation that escaped from the rumble seemed to actually enrich Glass's beautiful, hypnotic work in most unexpected and comical ways.

The casual audience, disarmed by electricity in the air and delighted by the U-Dig dancers laughed, clapped, and commented all the way through Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," making it a truly interactive experience. But the night belonged to the MSO's Sam Shoup who arranged all of Kapone's selections and to the rapper who radiated joy and charmed his audience at every turn.

Al Kapone reminds: It's all about the music

"We on Deck/Whoop That Trick," was an obvious closer, but for being Kapone's best known track, it wasn't nearly as satisfying as the earnest "My Flow My Hustle," the soulful, horn-heavy "New Jewelry," or the proudly Memphis-centric "The Music," a tune that really let the MSO players cut loose and cut up.

In the past I've been fussed at a bit by the musicians union for posting clips that exceed two minutes. I get it and want to play by the rules. But I hope this time they'll forgive me for posting some that run a few seconds over the limit because, at some point, words fail. And I think it's important for curious newcomers and skeptics to see the the depth of interaction between the symphony players of Opus One, the guest artist, the U-Dig dancers, and the audience.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gloria Baxter performs in "Wit"; Margaret Edson visits the U of M

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2011 at 10:42 AM

It's been a long time since Gloria Baxter has performed on stage. In the early 90's she collaborated with choreographer Susan Chriezberg in a 15-minute piece for the U of M's dance department, but other than that she hasn't acted since 1973 when she took part in Ken Zimmerman's production of The Serpent at Circuit Playhouse.

"That's about the totality of my on stage time as a performer rather than as a Director," She says. Now the influential teacher, director, and narrative theater pioneer is acting again in Margret Edson's W;t, which closes this weekend at the University of Memphis.

The instinct that this was just the right time, just the right play seemed to be based on two things:

Baxter's undergraduate mentor, Lea Queener, recently celebrated her 86th Birthday. Professor Ashford—the character Baxter plays—brought to mind for me how influential Queener's Interpretation of Poetry class became in the direction her career took


"One of the poets we studied there was John Donne. I wrote an essay in that class on Donne's poem, "A Lecture Upon the Shadow," which Lea submitted to the then University quarterly literary magazine, and it was published there. At age 20, I was so very proud and honored that Lea gave her much valued "stamp of approval" to my first "publication." When I read Professor Ashford's first scene with the main character, Vivian Bearing , and saw that Vivian was in her early 20's when she presented an essay on Donne to her mentor, Professor Ashford—So much memory and gratitude came back to me in regard to Lea and her influence in the direction of my life. "

In the program for W;T —along with her bio , Baxter added this note:

Gloria would like to dedicate her performance as Professo Ashford to her mentor

and friend, Dr. Lea Queener. My undergraduate courses with Lea were my initial introduction to rigorous study and difficult texts (including the metaphysical poetry of John Donne!) and engendered in me a life long love of great literature and the spoken word. Thank you, Lea, for your unforgettable classes even after oh these many years and the depth of your caring as a teacher. You were and are a continuing inspiration in my life.

More on the timing:

"I began teaching at then Memphis State University , now University of Memphis, in the Fall of 1965. This Spring Semester 2012 will be my last time to teach courses there. I formally retired from my full time faculty position beginning in Spring 2009 —but have been on a post-retirement contract that allowed me to teach two courses a year in the Department. This Spring I will be teaching for the last time a graduate
Margaret Edson
  • Margaret Edson
seminar course in Analysis of Dramatic Literature and in Directing Narrative Theatre."

W;t is a Pulitzer Prize-winning memory play about the death of an English professor in the last stages of metastatic ovarian cancer. Playwright Margaret Edson will visit the University of Memphis Campus on Friday, November 11. She will present a free lecture, “The Map of Speech: Orality, Literacy, and Writing for Performance.” The lecture will begin at 2:30 p.m. in the Fogelman Executive Conference Center, Room 136.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Goodness Sake: Elaine Blanchard tells the story of her accidental involvement in a racially motivated beating

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 2:20 PM

If you don't know about the things Elaine Blanchard does you should. The creator of the Prison Stories project is reviving her popular one-woman-show For Goodness Sake, a true story that revolves around a childhood memory of racially motivated violence.

You can catch For Goodness Sake on Saturday, November 5 at 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 6 at 2 p.m. at Theatre South which is located in the basement of First Congregational Church. These performances fund raisers for Prison Stories. $20.00 suggested donation. Call 901-726-0800 visit to reserve space.


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