Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Woman in Black": A Ghost Story in Search of a Campfire

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 1:38 PM

James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black - PHOTO: CHASE GUSTAFSON/CHASING PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo: Chase Gustafson/Chasing Photography
  • James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel Gunn in The Woman in Black

Audiences can't seem to get enough of The Woman in Black. Or can they? The Supernatural thriller opened to rave reviews in London’s West End, 25 years ago, and has been in continuous production since. A film version showcasing the talents of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was released two years ago to decent reviews but considerably less enthusiasm. Last week The New Moon Theatre Company, in keeping with the troupe's wonderful tradition of telling scary late October stories, opened The Woman in Black at TheatreWorks. It's not the company's strongest effort to date,  though the well-used material remains, somehow, as fresh and earthy as a newly dug grave. If you like a good Halloween season ghost story, you probably won’t be disappointed by this interpretation of the spine-tingling yarn. If you're looking for a Fright Night roller coaster ride, full of shocks, bumps, and screams that well up from the bottom of your soul, that’s probably not going to happen.


Audiences who've been watching this season’s American Horror Story: Freakshow, may find the premise of this dark, two-man-one-ghost play within a play weirdly familiar. AHS has loosely adapted the plot to its own Edward Mordrake storyline, which finds a two-faced man rising from his grave to claim the souls of sideshow performers foolish enough to perform on Halloween. Similarly, The Woman in Black’s namesake character suffered humiliation and loss in life, but it’s the lives of innocent children her vengeful, restless spirit claims when she appears. It’s creepy stuff, in the psychologically compelling spirit of Jacques Tourneur horror masterpiece, Night of the Demon.

New Moon’s production has a lot going for it. James Dale Green and Gabe Beutel-Gunn are both strong performers and work well enough together in the roles of an older gentleman who's experienced unimaginable terror, and a younger actor who's teaching him how to loosen up and tell his story properly. This is a great role for Green, a familiar face on Memphis stages. He’s a haunted presence onstage, and especially good at shifting from character to character with little more than a shift in posture, or a slightly altered tone of voice.

New Moon and scenic designer J. David Galloway get extra credit for making the most of TheaterWorks’ black box. The performance space has been transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. It genuinely feels like you’re sitting in some tiny ancient, grubby proscenium theater in the English countryside.

For all of these good things, The Woman in Black never really jumps off the stage, even when its characters lean in to the audience. It seems as though director Justin Asher, the creative force behind last season’s successful production of Haint, has sought to establish a tone, and in doing so, may have lost sight of the play’s shape. The show drones on and on with a heavy, never-changing sense of foreboding that prevents us from ever being too surprised by any of the terrible things that happen. It’s a one note night of theater. Thankfully that one note never really sours. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Playhouse on the Square Throws a Party

Posted By on Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 7:02 PM

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Playhouse on the Square knows what to do with a good thing: Work it.  The Midtown Theater's annual Curtain Up fundraiser asks the question, why throw just one party when you can throw six? 

"All things Memphis," is this year's party theme, and that sounds about right, if I do say so myself. I'll get around to why that last disclaimer is important shortly.

In addition to a rooftop bonfire and all kinds of food and drink, this year's Curtain Up features some top notch musical performers like...

The astonishing Mighty Souls Brass Band...



Vaudeville-inspired skifflegrass pickers The Side Street Steppers...


The Bouffants (who work hard for the money) ... 


Force of nature, Alexis Grace...




Singer, actor, piano man, and all-around showoff Brennan Villines, who will  perform with the Cooper Union (a group of Playhouse on the Square's best vocalists including Carla McDonald, Claire Kohlheim, and Sheila Jay).


And lastly (and probably leastly), deep down under the stage in the trap room, where poker and other games of chance are being played,  vintage-sounding honky tonk music will be supplied by Papa Top's favorite band, the mighty West Coast Turnaround, who are (as always) fresh off their "Conjugal Visits" tour of area prisons. 


Full disclosure for those not in the know, the WCT— a drinking club with a little country music problem — is MY band of many years. I'm not in the habit of promoting myself here, but this is different because, after years (and years) of saying just godawful things about all of these weird, smelly actor people, your (not so) humble theater critic intends to sashay his rhinestone-studded-self down to the corner of Cooper and Union, to sing his absolute best for some folks who are much, much better singers. And Dave Landis.  Pray to whoever might be out there with enough power to intervene on my behalf that there's not a heaping sack of rotten tomatoes nearby. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Original Game of Thrones: Tennessee Shakespeare's Dan McCleary Talks Richard III

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 2014 at 2:50 PM

Dan McCleary as Richard and Caley Milliken of the Spirit World in TN Shakespeare Company's production of RICHARD III playing at GPAC October 30 - November 1 at 7:00 pm.  Children admitted FREE with paying, attending guardian.  Box Office: 759-0604; tnshakespeare.org. - PHOTO: JOEY MILLER.
  • Photo: Joey Miller.
  • Dan McCleary as Richard and Caley Milliken of the Spirit World in TN Shakespeare Company's production of RICHARD III playing at GPAC October 30 - November 1 at 7:00 pm. Children admitted FREE with paying, attending guardian. Box Office: 759-0604; tnshakespeare.org.
It’s almost Halloween, and as good a time as any to talk about dry old bones that have come back to haunt the living. Also, given the wild success of contemporary TV shows like Game of Thrones and this season’s installment of American Horror Story, set against the backdrop of a mid-20th-Century freakshow, the cultural stage couldn’t be more perfectly set for a reconsideration of Shakespeare’s gruesome historical tragedy, Richard III. And that’s exactly what the Tennessee Shakespeare Company will be providing in an extremely limited run (October 30-Nov 1) with TSC’s founding director Dan McCleary starring as the deformed and determined soldier who would be king.

It’s almost as if the spirit of the last Plantagenet called out across the centuries, begging to have his twisted bones exhumed from an anonymous grave. In September, 2012, a team of archeologists from the University of Leicester, working with the Richard III Society, broke ground in a parking lot poured over the site where Greyfriars Friary Church once stood. On the very first day of the dig the team discovered human remains. It was the body of a smallish man in his 30’s with a number of wounds, some clearly inflicted after death. The most compelling physical feature was a spine, severely twisted by scoliosis. Over time it became clear that the team’s first discovery, in the first hole they dug, was the body of Richard III, best known to the world by way of Shakespeare’s tale of a murderous hunchbacked villain who slaughtered anybody who stood between him and the throne. Shakespeare's play presents an image of the King the historical society responsible for unearthing the remains has long dismissed as Tudor propaganda. Earlier this week I talked to McCleary about his approach to playing Richard, and the degree to which information drawn from the newly-discovered bones  combines with current pop cultural fascinations to inform how the historical horror story might be understood by contemporary players and audiences.

Intermission Impossible: This is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and one of his most demanding roles. I can’t even imagine how you can run the company, keep up with young twin boys, and rehearse this part. How are you holding up?


Dan McCleary:
The boys just came to tech rehearsal last night. They're really interested in this cartoon called Mike the Knight. I wear some pretty full armor on my torso for the duration of the play and so thay became immediately interested. They wanted to know why I wasn't wearing a visor or a helmet. It wasn't about Shakespeare for them.

This isn’t my first time to play Richard. I played him once before when I wasn’t this old and tired and grisled. It's been 17 years and I was very different then, in a very different take on the play. So yes I did know what it would likely mean to do the part again and that's why brought in a long time associate David Demke to direct, so I could feel like I had confidence in that area. I wanted to surround myself with some folks who were quick studies and knew the play.

It’s a short run, at least.

It’s a strange schedule you know? It's more like an opera or a concert. One of the originations of Halloween is a reconsideration of saints or souls, so when GPAC had a few days available over Halloween I seized on that, and also the fact that Richard's actual remains are still are above ground right now. I thought it was a perfect confluence of creative impulses they came together. In terms of schedule we'd love to run for two or three weeks obviously but it's fitting quite nicely on the stage.

I’m glad you brought up the bones. There’s been a lot of contention regarding the historical Richard III. Does having seen the remains change how we see the play? And how it’s performed?

I think it does. I really should only speak for myself. But it has for us and it's one of the questions at the heart of what we’re doing. As Shakespeare was writing England into being he knew very well who his monarch was. He was writing for the Tudors, and as we know, history is written by the winners. Also, Shakespeare is writing at at a time when there is a true and genuine belief, not just a religious belief but a humanist belief, that what’s on a person’s outside was the stamp of God. And because it was a stamp of God they were the same on the inside. We know Richard was not buried as a monarch. He wasn’t buried as a king or with any blessing or ceremony. Shakespeare wrote about a withered hand, and he didn't have one. What may have made him a smaller person of 5’1” or 5’2” was, quite likely, the onset of scoliosis at the age of 10, which twisted his back quite painfully, and visibly into the shape of the letter C. That wouldn’t have prevented him from being a fierce warrior, but it would've forced him to find a way to breathe differently. To reorganize his internal organs. To walk differently. To fight differently. To approach life differently, maybe like the elephant man. We’ve considered those things, and we spent a lot of time looking at people who do indeed live through this. It forced us to come to terms with some of Shakespeare's writing with an overlay of Richard’s bones.

It does humanize the monster.


Instead of creating a vice or a morality play, or some monster or creature, we're considering who the man had to be considering the humanist and religious thoughts about what people look like on the outside, and how he was born, which is talked about very explicitly in Shakespeare's play. We have to consider any horse accident he may have had after the age of 10 and everything he had to do to live, not just physically, but psychologically as well. He was a child born into war. He called himself deformed, and yet he was the most fearsome warrior there was. So we're trying to figure out what might make him so.

The face of evil?
  • The face of evil?

So the remains suggest a more sympathetic view?

The remains force us to look at is what Shakespeare created for Richard in acts 4 and 5, which is a subconscious, his waking dream when the ghosts visit. There's a lot of fun working toward Richard becoming King. But there's about six beats of silence in one of the first lines after he becomes King. He only gets six beats of happiness as king and then he’s already thinking about having to kill a child or children. So with the remains being above ground the impact on our production, so far, has been more heartbreaking than harrowing and more painful than Machiavellian.

Audiences seem more familiar with Richard III than they are with the other History plays.

The monster that Shakespeare was writing for the Tudor family made it a very popular play for 400 years. It's easy to make into a fun story about a monster but I'm not quite sure that's what Shakespeare intended, especially as we get to his fourth and fifth acts where we are able see the actual man. And then there’s the remains. Eleven wounds to the body. Nine to the head. Two of them lethal. And then there are the wounds inflicted on the body after he was dead, the shaming wounds. And the body unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave.

You know, right or wrong, good or bad, they’ve decided legally to give him a ceremonial burial in the spring. So that informs us as well.


I know your production isn’t directly informed by Game of Thrones or American Horror Story. But it seems to me, given the huge popularity of these kinds of TV shows, that the time is absolutely ripe for bringing Richard back. He's so clearly an inspiration for the GOT character Tyrion Lannister. Even shows like Walking Dead force us to confront a dark side born of circumstance. So, do you think that these trends in pop culture also shape how we experience Richard?


I don’t watch those shows so I can’t say. We always want to create something through Shakespeare the talks directly to our Memphis audience about time and about geography. We want immediacy, urgency, and relevance. This might not be something that's as Memphis-flavored as our [Taming of the] Shrew. But the bones being aboveground is what excites. We’re going to have a reconsideration of Shakespeare's Richard with this overlay of natural history. And we're going to find ways to visualize that. In regard to pop culture, there's a fascination and always has been a fascination with perceptions of human evil. How can someone do such a thing to someone else? Or to themselves? Something we do I find, as humans, is attempt to not to just be a spectator, but to understand it. We don’t just pay five dollars to go and see the bearded lady, but to find out what it means for us. You know, I’ve killed a fly before. I’ve done something mean. That's basically the  foundation and Shakespeare is really the first playwright to be fascinated by this and to investigate.

He also knew human nature and our sick attraction to oddity. In The Tempest, which he writes much later, he says that people who “will not lay out a droit to relieve a lame beggar” will pay good money to see “a dead indian.”

Well, he was a marketing guy too. He was a business owner and he knew what would bring audience to the theater. And I don't blame him at all for that. But really, Richard was probably presented as a morality play, and, to me, that seems like a foreign kind of theater and a form that’s already settled its case. This way there are more unknowns involved. I much prefer that.

Richard III
is at GPAC Oct. 30-Nov. 1. 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Dan Savage Takes Memphis Playwright to Task Over Verisimilitude

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2014 at 9:38 AM

Morgan Jon Fox in a blue t-shirt.
  • Morgan Jon Fox in a blue t-shirt.

Dan Savage says he doesn't wear shirts with collars. Not on CNN or anywhere else. That was The Stranger editor/Savage Love columnist/occasional theater director's one comment about Memphis filmmaker/playwright Morgan Fox's short nervous breakdown of a comedy, Ann Coulter and Dan Savage in an Elevator on its Way to Hell. Savage  posted the criticism on his SLOG blog under the headline "Offered Without Comment." He also, generously, posted a video of the show, which enjoyed a healthy three-week run at TheatreWorks in May.

I once took a thoroughly enjoyable (if almost entirely useless) workshop with Savage that was all about how every weekly newspaper in America should put the word "fuck" in big letters on the front page, and include the four letter word as often as possible in stories. So I tend to believe he's given to pointed overstatement, even when he's understating. Also: Google image search. 


Dan Savage on MSNBC in a shirt with a collar.
  • Dan Savage on MSNBC in a shirt with a collar.


If you don't read Dan Savage, you should. He's irreverent, sharp, and hilarious. So is Fox's play, which was originally produced by Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe, and which you can now sample right here. Enjoy. 


Thursday, October 23, 2014

#Bless this #Mess: Threepenny Theatre Company’s Tartuffe Needs Your Prayers

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2014 at 3:00 PM

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I’m starting with a spoiler and I’m not even sorry. There’s a scene near the end of #Blessed where Dick, the show’s ostensible villain, is taken down by a cop with a Taser gun. It’s a literally shocking depiction of excessive force that, absent some broader context, simply invites audiences to laugh at a law enforcement officer abusing a character we’ve been conditioned over time to dislike. It is at once the show’s most cringeworthy moment, and its most interesting. That the gag's dangling cultural reference gets laughs is more thought provoking than anything that happens onstage.



Conceptually, Threepenny Theatre Company gets a lot right with its current interpretation of Moliere’s Tartuffe. They don’t hide behind the play's famous name and reputation, but take ownership of and responsibility for a well known satirical farce that's been slightly reconfigured by augmenting Moliere's classic swipe at religious hypocrisy and middle class values with convoluted political messaging and apologia. The show's creators, Matt Crewse and Christopher Tracy christened their work  #Blessed, which is kind of elegant.  They describe it as a “transdaptation,” which is awkward, accurate, and perfect for a performance that has no idea where it's going or what it wants to be. Except for where it clearly wants to be Mama’s Family.


As mentioned above, #Blessed turns Tartuffe, the play’s original namesake character, into a running Dick joke, with lines of dialogue that sound like episode titles from Third Rock From the Sun. The original Tartuffe is a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, feigning extreme piousness to form parasitic relationships with the needy and the devout. He injects his own greedy agenda into his intended victims’ personal belief systems, like a virus, as he trolls for money and sex. Dick, as played by the often superb John Dylan Atkins, is a loud, ranting Jesus- jerk whose extreme, and extremely repulsive behavior calls to mind the rambunctious physical comedy of the late Chris Farley, but without the subtlety. Credibility is strained from the top because it’s impossible to understand how anybody not dangerously ignorant in their own right, might be taken in by a boogery clown of such outsized proportions. Atkins is a courageous actor who gives every role everything he’s got. It's usually a good thing but this time around it’s just exhausting.



Atkins’ unrealistic, over-the-top approach is reflected by the entire company of actors who achieve the scale, but not the specificity that makes for effective commedia-inspired clowning.



For all of its bluster, #Blessed wants to be too many things too timidly. It wants to make ham-fisted comments about about religion and politics in America today. But it also wants to apologize for these same things by way of a character who, having no other part in the action, drops in from time to time to defend communities of faith with sensible monologues that sound suspiciously like ads for Midtown’s progressive First Congregational Church. It’s an extreme violation of the show-don’t-tell principle of good theatrical storytelling even if Jerry Kimble is the most believable person on stage.



In Memphis, a city with its share of mega-churches, and mega-problems it’s easy to see why this 350-year-old play gets a full-on place-specific remake every ten years or so. And in an age of purity balls and overt anti-feminism, even arranged marriages, the source material’s most archaic plot device, don’t seem that far fetched. There is no reason in the world why a bright young company like TPC shouldn’t be able to transform Tartuffe into something edgy and up to date. But even with so many of the right ingredients in place, and chunks of the original script left more or less in tact, #Blessed is seldom more than a manic, muddled two-act SNL skit, that overflows with good intentions and sketchy judgment.



Even if its latest effort was less than successful artistically (don’t get me started on how much better it is to have no set than a clunky one) it’s good to see that TPC isn’t just a one trick pony producing a safe slate of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. I should probably mention that, criticisms aside, the show received a standing ovation on opening night, from a healthy, refreshingly young audience that seemed to genuinely appreciate the messy effort.


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Friday, October 17, 2014

Have a #Blessed Day

Posted By on Fri, Oct 17, 2014 at 2:57 PM

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Sex, lies, and religious hypocrisy all on one stage? I guess that means the rapscallion Tartuffe must be back in town. 

I suppose it should come as no surprise that artists working in the Mid-South look to Moliere's perfect farce and see Memphis perfectly reflected. Threepenny Theatre Company's "transdaptation" #Blessed is at least the third time I can think of that a local company has taken the very funny source material, and configured it specifically for Memphis.

The cast of  Tartuffe. Rhodes College, 1994 - MCCOY THEATRE
  • McCoy Theatre
  • The cast of Tartuffe. Rhodes College, 1994

The King in Tartuffe. Rhodes College, 1994 - MCCOY THEATRE
  • McCoy Theatre
  • The King in Tartuffe. Rhodes College, 1994

In the 1994 Rhodes College professor Frank Bradley set Tartuffe in a mythologized Memphis, using a special translation developed by Memphis playwright Bill Baker. It was so Memphis, in fact, that the King became none other than the King of Rock-and-Roll, Elvis Presley.

Tartuffe at the Hattiloo, 2010. - HATTIOO.ORG
  • Hattioo.org
  • Tartuffe at the Hattiloo, 2010.

The Hattiloo's 2010 production, smartly adapted with Memphis in mind, felt less like a 17th-century French farce than a lost Douglas Turner Ward comedy. It was a little rough around the edges, but absolutely right in every way that mattered, and I regret that this video I'm posting doesn't do the show justice. 


Now the classically-minded Threepenny Theatre company has turned its attention to this story of a con-man of the cloth who sets his sights on a happy family, nearly tearing them apart. 


If you're intrigued, Threepenny has posted a series of cast interviews here. 


Theatre Memphis Revives “The Heiress”

Posted By on Fri, Oct 17, 2014 at 12:26 PM

"The Heiress" then and now: Tony Isbell and Christina Wellford Scott, '86.  Evan McCarley and Michelle Miklosey, 2014.
  • "The Heiress" then and now: Tony Isbell and Christina Wellford Scott, '86. Evan McCarley and Michelle Miklosey, 2014.

The Heiress director Tony Isbell has a question: “What’s wrong with a little melodrama?”

In his day, novelist Henry James, who authored Washington Square, the play’s tried and true source material, could have probably answered that question with an earful. James had nothing but disdain for the work, and his inability to love the slender, unaffected novel— a novel in which others have found so much merit—is ironic, at least considering his story’s actual content. The Heiress tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who becomes unable to love because she grew up unloved.

Catherine’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, a successful and worldly doctor, sees his infant daughter as the one who murdered his happiness. Worse, the daughter has the audacity to be plain and ungraceful, with no ear for music. Worser still, she’s become beguiled by Morris Townsend, a charming but unemployed young profligate who may actually love her a little, but is fantasizing openly about the prospects of a wife worth $30,000 a year. Jane Austen, an author James disregarded, couldn’t have done much better.

“It’s such a good script,” says Isbell who hadn’t revisited the material since he played the role of Morris Townsend at Theatre Memphis 25 years ago. It was Isbell’s first show on TM’s mainstage, and a production that looms large in the collective memories of Memphis theater folk, for bringing together talents like Isbell, Christina Wellford Scott, and Bennett Wood. The handsome 1986 production was also the last set design created by beloved Memphis scenic designer Jay Ehrlicher, who fell ill, passing the baton to musician/designer Kermit Medsker who finished the show.

Ann Sharp, Michelle Miklosey, Barclay Roberts
  • Ann Sharp, Michelle Miklosey, Barclay Roberts

Isbell had fond memories of the production but rediscovered the simple pleasures of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s relatively faithful 1947 adaptation, while perusing scripts as a member of TM’s playfinding committee.

“It was even better than I remember it being,” he says, citing the James’ ability to bring complicated characters to life in a story that couldn’t be more clearly told. He leapt at the opportunity to direct material that is both modern and not so modern: to tell a story that wants to be a comedy, tragedy, and romantic fantasy all at once, but is too real to fit neatly into any of these more rigid categories.

“There is a lot happening in The Heiress that’s relevant,” Isbell says, touching on the enduring play’s themes of personal identity. “Women being told there’s a way they are supposed to be or to look. And it’s not just women.”

Though subtly framed, James’ story also considers the politics of fashion. Catherine’s red dress with gold fringe is gaudy wrapping paper for an uninspired gift in the eyes of Dr. Sloper, who can imagine his wife owning the outfit, not her daughter. To reveal his nature, the impoverished suitor’s fine and fancy gloves are compared to more humble variety worn by his doting aunt.

“This period, it’s the sort of thing [costume designer] André [Bruce Ward] does so well,” Isbell says, lavishing special praise on Catherine’s many detailed gowns.

Isbell’s cast is a mix of veterans and newcomers. Newly-arrived Memphian Michelle Miklosey takes on the role of Catherine. Veteran performer and human teddy bear Barclay Roberts, plays her father, against type. Ann Sharp and Christina Wellford Scott — Isbell’s original Catherine — play Roberts’ romantic, and eccentric sisters. Evan McCarley appears as Morris Townsend.

As an added attraction, Virginia Yerian, who played the part of Catherine in Theatre Memphis' even earlier, 1958 production of The Heiress will be in the audience for opening night. 

So, getting back to Isbell’s original question, what’s wrong with a little melodrama? It’s a question for the comment section, because I’ve got nothing. 
David Morelock and Virginia Yerian in "The Heiress" at Theatre Memphis, 1958.
  • David Morelock and Virginia Yerian in "The Heiress" at Theatre Memphis, 1958.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Memphis Roots of "One Man Two Guvnors"

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2014 at 2:39 PM

The Cast of "One Man Two Guvnors"
  • The Cast of "One Man Two Guvnors"
One of the niftier things about One Man Two Guvnors, the Commedia-inspired romp, currently onstage at Playhouse on the Square, is its incorporation of live British Skiffle music, which evolves over the course of the show into something just a little more Fab.

I’m not sure that Playhouse has done the best job of integrating Two Guv’s musical and non-musical elements, but I’m not complaining too loudly either because shortcomings, real or imagined, don’t diminish the fun.

But it’s an unsubtle play, innit? And yet there are subtle reasons why this thumbnailed musical history pairs so well with farce to create the romantic dystopia of mid-20th-Century working class England at the point on the cultural map where it collides with Britannia’s criminal class and the bourgeois.


To say that skiffle is rooted in Memphis is an overstatement, of course, but the distance is deceptively short between Presidents Island and Liverpool. Today the word “skiffle” is probably most commonly associated with England in the 1950’s, but it’s really just another word for the spasm bands and jug bands that played throughout the South in the early 20th-Century. The form has deep roots running from Chicago, where “skiffle parties” were thrown to raise rent money, down South to Beale where jugs farted and banjos sang, and on to Storyville in New Orleans where jazz oozed up from the gumbo.


Skiffle music’s defining qualities are exuberance, and innovation born from poverty. Skiffle band banjos might have started out in life as pie pans. Washboards, spoons, and “bones” stood in for drum kits and washtubs (or jugs) for bass. If you didn’t have a trumpet a kazoo would do. And if you didn’t have a kazoo, a comb and slip of tissue paper worked just as well. Mandolins might be fashioned from broken guitar necks and gourds. Saws sing, if you know how to strike or bow them.

The British Skiffle—the revival that brought together so many key players in the British Invasion-- doesn’t exist without artists like Gus Canon, Ma Rainey, or Memphis Minnie. Or without more polished acts like the Hoosier Hotshots who made movies with Gene Autrey, and were a huge influence on genius jazz clown Spike Jones.


Early rock is often imagined as a collision of country, blues and gospel and, of course, it is all of that. But from its lower class roots to the exuberant but distorted sounds of crudely repaired amps and the dollar bill Johnny Cash threaded between his guitar strings to make it sound like a snare drum, early rock artists seem to be carrying on skiffle and jug band traditions. When jazz and folk players in the UK embraced skiffle in the mid 1950’s musicians like Lonnie Donegan and bands like The Vipers embraced its folk roots and its rockabilly branches all at once.


So, I should probably get back to One Man Two Guvnors for a tic. Commedia dell’arte is some silly, silly stuff. What we call slapstick takes its name from a club composed of two wooden slats that literally slap together and make a loud smacking sound whenever one Commedia clown uses it to strike another for laughs. There are no beatdowns with a slapstick in Two Guvs, though there is one slapstick bit that could easily be called "the lazzo of beating your own self down." At its best this kind of humor aims at the lowest common denominator but catches everybody in a shotgun blast of inspired zaniness. And in its original incarnation, Commedia could also be very smart and subversive, its stock characters representing extreme elements among rulers and the too easily ruled. It began as a kind of street performance, like the flash mobs of yesterday, but not so twee. Commedia belonged to the people. And fewer characters better represented the people than poor beaten-down half-devil, Arlequino — the perennial servant of two masters. He’s the appetite personified, and would easily trade a fortune promised, for a beer in hand. Oi!


Skiffle was very much a working/underclass movement and in its skiffelized version of the English underbelly One Man Two Guvnors tells the story of just such a man. Francis Henshall— our Arlequino— can’t afford to say no to an extra paycheck, and he’s too distracted by his food and sex drives to even serve himself. It’s serious anarchy. It’s punk rock.


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