Friday, January 30, 2015

Madness Takes Control: POTS “Rocky Horror" is built to make crowds go wild

Posted By on Fri, Jan 30, 2015 at 12:25 PM

Somebody's gonna get hurt.
  • Somebody's gonna get hurt.

I would like— if I may— to take you on a strange journey. It seemed a fairly ordinary night when Bill Andrews— a Rocky Horror veteran— sat down in a sturdy, conservative, high-backed chair to tell the story of Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, two young ordinary healthy kids from the happy, perfectly normal town of Denton, on what was supposed to be a normal night out… a night they were going to remember for a very long time. While Andrews is (as always) spot on as the musical’s narrator/criminologist, this introduction underscores everything that’s wrong with Playhouse on the Square’s incredibly fun, undeniably fab, but somewhat gutted production of Richard O’Brien’s decadent, glam-rock fairy tale. While Dr. Frank-N-Furter is obviously the star of this horror show, its story is presented as a case study: The strange tale of Brad and Janet, their harrowing journey out of innocence. It’s basically Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, but with electric guitars, aliens, and erotic candy. And for all of the goodness that happens in this production, it really is unfortunate that, after the opening sequences, these two characters— finely acted by Jordan Nichols and Leah Beth Bolton almost fade into the background, and none of the other characters are ever allowed to really savor their moments in the spotlight. Once Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Jerre Dye— you might have heard of him) prances on stage as everybody’s favorite Transvestite, it’s hard to even see anybody else.

I haven’t loved everything Scott Ferguson has directed, and have occasionally pointed out some measure of predictability in his always solid, sometimes brilliant work. But the POTS regular and I share some overlapping aesthetic interests, and when I want something visual, that’s not too abysmal, I can usually count on Ferguson to deliver the goods. I even had an opportunity to work with him a few years back on a rustic, and completely perverse production of The Robber Bridegroom at Rhodes College, which is relevant only because he built that entire production around the idea of a quilt— ragged scraps of fabric expertly crafted into something colorful, inviting, and transformative, but ultimately very familiar. Although there is nothing rustic about this Rocky, like a quilt, the whole is greater than the sum of its weaker parts. And for all of my quibbles, it may the craziest thing Scott Ferguson (Pronounced “Frunk-un-schteen”) has ever stitched together.

There are basically two ways to stage Rocky Horror. You can either highlight the musical’s narrative threads, a weave of British pantomime by way of the Brothers Grimm, and tropes of classic Drive In cinema. Or you can say goodbye to all that and give yourself over to absolute decadence. Ferguson chooses the later, which makes his show short on dynamic tension, but big on jolts delivered directly to an audience’s pleasure centers. His vision of Rocky Horror is a pansexual psycho beach party fantasia complete with fast (but faulty) cars, zombies, and tons of choreography.

If you’ve heard that Jerre Dye’s performance as Frank-N-Furter is the greatest thing that ever happened, you’ve not heard wrong. Make no mistakes, Dye’s not an extraordinary singer, and there’s not a lot of nuance in the vocal performances. But he knows how to strut (and sell) his stuff, and if this show has any moral at all it’s “FUUUUUCK NUANCE!!!” The watch-cry here is “More excess!” and you shall have it in abundance. This Frank-N-Furter walks on stage snorting face powder (or something from a compact), and you feel the kick. You can see the mind go “PING” as Dye skips, and sniffs, and licks, and condom-snaps his way through a dense thicket of bits and gags that are devilish and delightful but make it impossible to see many actual details in the show’s original architecture.

Everybody’s favorite song will be different, I’m sure, but if Rocky Horror has a musical heart it’s “Hot Patootie” (“I Really Love That Rock-and-Roll”). With it’s 1950’s swagger, and it’s PG-rated backseat make-out lyrics, it’s the heteronormative baseline from which all else is extrapolated. On top of that the number delivers a lot of backstory about Columbia and where Rocky got his brain. It’s the dimmest spot in POTS floorshow, and treated like a throwaway until Frank breaks out his chainsaw to end it.

Columbia barely exists, Riff and Magenta (all fine) show up to do what’s expected of them and not much more. And poor Janet, almost ignored by Dye’s Frank, gets the shortest end of the stick, so to speak. Her seat-wetting song, “Touch Me (I wanna be dirty),” feels like an orphan. Compared to everything else in this show, it’s downright sanitary.

Fantastic pulp-inspired costumes by Caleb Blackwell.
  • Fantastic pulp-inspired costumes by Caleb Blackwell.

Rocky Horror
super nerds who’ve seen more than one local revival may recognize what appear to be a number of Easter Eggs built into Memphis’ fifth, (and POTS fourth) production of the show. The silver spaceship, the “Double Feature" flashlights, and the chainsaw splatter scene, all call to mind earlier attempts. But for all of its originality, the biggest and most obvious tribute to productions past may be Jerre Dye’s outrageous, overstuffed, down-and-dirty “big ol’ [Southern] sissy” (his words) take on the megalomaniacal scientist from Transexual Transylvania. At key moments the singing, and uninhibited choice-making powerfully echo Mark Chambers, the homegrown actor who played the role twice in the 1990’s, and whose Circuit Playhouse performance made an indelible impression on a much younger Jerre Dye. The seeming tribute is especially obvious when the music swells, Dye accesses his lower vocal registers, and belts out lyrics like a Ms. Man-Thing possessed.

To borrow an idea from Mary Shelley and a line from songwriter Stephin Merritt, I think this show needs a new heart. But, then again, who needs a heart when you’ve got such a smoking hot body? Given a chance all this sexy silliness can actually suckerpunch you with an emotional wallop you never saw coming. The wind-up starts when Eddie and Columbia are separated in “Hot Patootie.” The fist tightens when Frank discovers the line between extreme and “too extreme.” It lands as Brad and Janet struggle to find their way back home in the haunting “Superheroes.” And we’re left to contemplate time, space, and meaning in the wistful, minor key reprise of “Science Fiction Double Feature.” We don’t really get to experience any of that this time around, and in the complete absence of emotional and narrative content, even a short show can drag. And so does this, at the end, just before the spaceship launches. Emotion is a powerful and irrational master, but so is pleasure. And, based on what I eagerly viewed on stage at Playhouse on the Square last week, the audience was clearly its slave. Using almost no scenery, and some inventive projection POTS energetic, mostly able ensemble, delivers about as much fun as a person can have with their clothes on. Or half off. Or even fully off in some truly pathetic cases. You know who you are.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Bad Jews" is Good Theater at Circuit Playhouse

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 12:01 PM


Good theater isn't always pleasant. Remind yourself of this caution as the lights dim and you prepare for the onslaught of Bad Jews.

Bad Jews has one of the best end reveals I’ve ever seen. It’s not shocking or especially surprising. And it doesn’t really change how audiences see the characters, though it certainly changes how some of the characters regard themselves. It’s a touching moment that picks up lost threads of throwaway conversation from earlier in the scrip, to make unexpected, perfectly poetic, and entirely wordless comments about tradition, trend, and the meaning of meaning. This isn’t a play about how ritual dissipates, but how it evolves. Joshua Elias Harmon’s difficult show also highlights a universal truth: Still waters run deepest.

The only problem with this closing image, as I see it, is that you have to spend an hour and forty (funny, finely acted) minutes with some extremely unpleasant characters to get there.

Bad Jews is a deliberately provocative title. It invites people to judge before peeling back the layers to see what’s really there. Another, more prominent critic, suggested “Jews Behaving Badly” might make for a better title, though, for all of its accuracy, I find that a little “on the nose,” without the benefit of offering less potential for offense. This is a show about personal and cultural narcissism: people with strong feelings and weak connections, that judge one another using their own reflections as a gold standard. Conservatives dismiss progressives who sneer at the conservatives in the great circle of modern life. Watching the characters go at it is a little bit like reading an argument on the internet, and even though it can be very funny, it requires more than a little patience.

The shell story couldn’t be more simple. The family patriarch has passed, and the college age cousins gather for the funeral. The oldest male arrives late because he was off on a skiing holiday with his shiksa girlfriend, and lost his phone in the snow. The conflict—often hateful and cringe inducing— is built around which cousin will inherit a gold chai amulet their grandfather kept under his tongue in a Nazi concentration camp. Daphna, who is leaving America to marry an Israeli soldier and join the military herself, thinks she deserves the chai because of some perceived spiritual significance. Cousin Liam, who prefers Christmas trees and Santa hats, thinks it should be his simply because he’s next in the line of succession.

Director Anita Jo Lenhart, who did such a bang up job with last season’s As You Like It at Theatre Memphis, had her work cut out for her. Thankfully, she scored a top shelf cast, lead by the remarkable Laura Stracko Franks, who knows how to work Bad Jews' limited dynamics, and never allows the show to become a one note shrill-fest. That's 90% of the battle.

As Daphna, Frank owns the space, stomping around with an unruly mane of hair that makes her seem twice her actual size.  Liam, nicely played by Oliver Jacob Pierce, mocks her openly with no idea that he’s just like her.

The show’s less showy, but more interesting roles go to Madeline Glenn Thomas , who plays a WASPY opera major who can’t sing a note, and Matt Nelson as Jonah, who may be the one person in the family with some real sense of who he is and what he believes.

I love synchronicity. And love that Bad Jews is playing just across the street from Katori Hall’s moody Hoodoo Love.

Hall’s script has its origins in a college playwriting assignment where the young dramatist was asked to develop a scene showing two characters struggling for possession of an object. Hall made her characters fight for a mojo bag— a pouch full of associative magic. And Hall, like all great writers, knows that these kinds of struggles are almost never about the thing itself, but about power, perception, and meaning. To that end, Bad Jews functions as an unexpected reflection of Hoodoo Love, which still contains a remnant of that original scene. It’s very nifty to see these two very different plays built around similarly associative artifacts and the people who have given the objects their meaning and power. See both, and you’ll see what I mean. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Love American Style: Katori Hall's "Hoodoo Love" is a Blues Fairy Tale

Posted By on Sat, Jan 24, 2015 at 2:20 PM

She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep, 
She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep, 
to keep [me with] her, so I won't make no midnight creep.
— "Bad Luck Woman Blues," by Papa Charlie Jackson 

I’d like to see a Texas cage match where Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love takes on Memphis: The Musical. Not because I think it would be much of a match, but because it would be deeply satisfying to see Hall’s scruffy fairy tale school that wannabe rock-and-roll origin story by a couple of Jersey boys, and take it down for the count.

Hall’s a Memphis writer who writes Memphis, and Hoodoo Love, currently onstage at The Hattiloo Theatre, is an intense love story from the Great Migration, about a small woman with a big voice, who escapes her hellish life as a preacher’s daughter in rural Mississippi, hoping to make it as a blues singer on Beale Street in Memphis, and to cut a record on down the road in Chicago. She spends most of her time washing clothes for white people and thinking up songs.

Toulou, sweetly embodied by Keia Johnson, falls for Ace, a masterful bluesman with a girl in every port. Desperate to make him her own she turns to her neighbor Candy Lady, the conjure woman, whose root work is known to be some “powerful shit.” The charm works, but magic, like everything else, has a price.

To spice up this voodoo stew Toulou’s violent, hard drinking brother follows her to Memphis with the intention of founding his own congregation. He brings with him everything she was running away from in the first place.

Hall has a real gift for colorful, idiom-laden dialogue that tumbles from her characters’ mouths like Shakespeare’s prose. She also has a gift for style-hopping, and Hoodoo Love's mix of earthy music and magical realism  calls to mind Alice Walker by way of Sam Shepard’s early rock-and-blues fantasias. It’s a meditation on the violence and deprivation behind the thing we call the blues, riffing on the memories of people who claim to have seen guitar legend Robert Johnson on the day he died, crawling on his hands and knees and barking like a dog.

There are a number of satisfying things about the Hattiloo’s run through Hoodoo. Johnson’s performance tops the list, although every actor brings something interesting to the table. Arthur Ford makes a compelling Ace, and his scenes in Toulou’s arms, and under her spell, can be intense. Rickey Thomas makes brother Jib an awkward mess of a manchild and a loose cannon. And conjure woman Candy Lady is brought vividly to life by Hurt Village veteran Angela Wynn. But on opening weekend not all of the actors seemed fully comfortable with their lines and blocking, and nothing upsets the flow of a performance like actors having to think about what they are doing and saying.

That’s also the sort of thing that tends to improve as the actors settle in, so here's hoping.

It’s also frustrating, in Memphis especially, to watch actors pretending to play blues, out of sync with music from the wings. Even if you commit to actors who can’t play, Hoodoo Love’s subtle, but sturdy magical elements create a lot of opportunity to present music in a theatrical way, without turning the show into an actual musical.

Guitars and harmonicas aside, Director Brooke Sarden seems especially attuned to the meaning and musicality of Hall’s language. And even though it’s set in the 1930’s, Hoodoo Love’s Memphisness shines through in a way that should make it especially satisfying for regional audiences, even if the show never quite seems to hit on all cylinders. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

See Memphis Dancer Lil Buck in the Trailer to Spike Lee's Film, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus."

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 4:54 PM

Buck & Spike
  • Buck & Spike

If you have not seen it yet you really do need to check out Memphis' own Jookin ambassador, Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, in the opening credits to Spike Lee's new film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which opens in theaters Feb.13th. It's kinda beautiful. And if you haven't read it yet, you also want to check out the fantastic interview he gave The Flyer in Nov. when he came home to dance in New Ballet Ensemble's Nut ReMix

It's worth noting that shortly after Lil Buck's loving shout out to Stephen Colbert's natural Jookin abilities, he was prominently featured in the Colbert Report's grand finale.   

And to think, it all started with a bunch of teenagers in a parking lot... 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Laura Stracko Franks Talks About "Bad Jews" and Life After Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 4:53 PM

Laura Stracko Franks
  • Laura Stracko Franks

You can't get attached to Playhouse on the Square company members, they'll only break you're heart. Here for a minute and gone is the nature of the beast. And when they're good, you want them to spread it around. Still, I was pretty thrilled when I heard that Laura Stracko Franks was coming back to Memphis to perform in the play Bad Jews.  

Franks has been a favorite in shows ranging Hairspray and the 25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee, to August: Osage County and A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Opera). Although I didn't care much for Circuit's most recent staging a Jacques Brel, it was worth sitting trough some turbulence just to hear her sing "My Death."  

Intermission Impossible: So, I'm a big fan Penny Pingleton. Catch me up. What all have you been doing since you left Memphis? 

Laura Stracko Franks: Right after Playhouse I did a quick show in Michigan, and then I went to New York and the first show I booked was a national tour, so I left right away. And then I was on the road and doing regional stuff all around the country since then, jobbing in and out of New York. I haven’t really stopped, so this feels almost like coming home, because I spent so much time here and stayed here. Everywhere else I’ve lived I’ve come and gone so quickly that when I come back here it feels like a break, which is weird because I’ve worked harder here than anywhere else.

Intermission Impossible: What are some of shows you’ve been doing?

I did a national tour of Damn Yankees where I was actually cast by Allison Frank, who is a former Playhouse on the Square intern. I’ll never forget, I went into the room and she said, “Ah, you’re a Playhouse person.” Yep. And she’s called me in for a bunch of stuff since then, so it was great to have that connection in the City. That felt right.

Intermission Impossible: I bet. 

I’ve been performing regionally doing shows like Marvelous Wonderettes, and Rent, and Great American Trailer Park Musical, and I did a quick Christmas Carol tour through a theater up in New Hampshire. And I’ve also been performing in New York and doing Cabarets which, unless you are on the Broadway, is the best way to be seen. Of course I have goals, but I’m in no hurry. I’m not going to put a timeline on my career.

Intermission Impossible: Well, while you’re waiting for your career to happen it sounds like you’ve been having a pretty good one.

Yeah. Which is interesting, I do. I was in a workshop and somebody said something that really spoke to me: The hustle never stops. And it’s stuck with me. I’m constantly thinking about what’s next. As soon as you get a job in this industry you’ve got to start thinking about something else.

Intermission Impossible: That’s why I got out early. I realized I just didn’t have that kind of hustle in me.

It’s a pain in the ass, I’ll tell you. But I’ve learned I have to have the two parts where I have the creative part, and the business part where I develop my brand.

Intermission Impossible: So, let’s talk just a bit about Bad Jews, an angry, verging on savage, but also often funny play.

All those adjectives describe it perfectly. People need to know they’re allowed to laugh at the show. I think some people see the title and are like “ugh!” They’re put off by it.

Intermission Impossible: The title is deliberately provocative. The writer wants you to respond from the gut before you have all the information.

It’s really satisfying getting to do this show. There’s something really cathartic about just getting to fight and tell the truth for an hour and a half. Joshua Harmon’s script is so well written. I've heard him interviewed and he writes like he talks. And, at the end of the day it’s a story about family.

Intermission Impossible: So “Bad Jews” describes what?

It’s about how the characters view each other. My character, for example, is very traditional and conservative and the other characters are more liberal. And we’re all like, if you don’t do it my way, it’s the wrong way. Which is really common in all religion and politics. It’s really timely. 

Bad Jews tells the story of Daphna Feygenbaum who reunites with her cousins following the death of the family patriarch. A vicious fight breaks out over who is most deserving of their grandfather's Chai necklace and things are said that can't be easily taken back.

Voices of the South Hires a New Executive Director

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 12:58 PM


Voices of the South starts its second decade with Teddy Eck at the Helm.

Eck, who was announced as the company's new Executive Director earlier this week, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at The New School in New York, NY and his Master of Fine Arts Degree in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Memphis. 

VOTS was founded in 1995 by Alice Berry and Jenny Madden, two U of M grads with an interest in transforming classic Southern literature into narrative theater events. The scrappy troupe has endured, evolved, and is highly regarded for its ongoing commitment to great children's theater and to the development of new, original, and culturally significant work. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A First Look at Playhouse on the Square's Revival of "The Rocky Horror Show"

Posted By on Wed, Jan 21, 2015 at 9:58 AM


Rocky Horror director Scott Ferguson playfully dishes on Memphis actor/playwright Jerre Dye. “You know he cleans his house in red pumps,” Ferguson says, conspiratorially. “With a handkerchief tied to his head.”

“Jerre’s fearless,” Ferguson says of his Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Playhouse on the Square’s fourth production of Richard O’Brien’s classic proto-punk fairytale. “He immediately goes to places nobody else would go.”

Dye likes the way playing Frank-N-Furter makes him feel. He likes the ridiculous narcissism and the extreme vulnerability. He knows he’s not really known around town as a vocalist or musical theater guy and that aspect of the show still scares every time he walks on stage. But he likes going to extremes. “Never underestimate the power of platform heels,” he says.

This is Ferguson’s second time to mount the original live version of Rocky Horror for Playhouse on the Square. His 1998 production starred Memphis stage veteran Mark Chambers as the Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania. Dye remembers seeing Chambers in the role, all done up in his leather and glitter. It awakened something in an otherwise introspective kid and may be the moment when he decided he wanted a career in the theater.

The look of Playhouse’s Rocky Horror revival set is inspired by a theater under construction, and Ferguson promises some interesting updates to the perennial favorite. “The music is so ’70s,” he says, allowing that a lot has changed since audiences were first introduced to Brad the asshole and Janet the slut, Eddie the rocker, and a host of alien party animals. This revival, he says, will have a more modern edge.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Too Bad You'll Miss Opera Memphis’ “Hansel & Gretel.”

Posted By on Fri, Jan 16, 2015 at 12:44 PM


The best review a show can get is a sell out. And Opera MemphisHansel & Gretel is sold out. No matter how badly you want to see it, chances are pretty good that you can’t.

And I’m sorry that you can’t. The tale is told well enough from "Once upon a time" to "The End." It moves fluidly with the assistance of some talented young dancers from Ballet Memphis. Performances are charming across the board, even if some aren't taken as far as they might go. The singing is very good and Engelbert Humperdinck's luminescent score is beautifully played. Those not lulled to sleep by the show’s gorgeous lullaby, will enjoy a fun, family-friendly night at the opera. But the real reason you should try to defy the odds, get on a waiting list, or beat the bushes for tickets, is a chance to drink in Michelle Duckworth’s fantastic storybook renderings.

Duckworth is a local artist with a real knack for adventurous imagery and fanciful illustration. Opera Memphis’ set consists exclusively of a pair of tables and three ever-changing panels where Duckworth’s colorful drawings are projected and, in some cases, animated. Her trees look like a marriage of Seuss and Sendak. Her interiors are full of storybook detail.


Opera Memphis’ General Director Ned Canty has often said that he aims to produce one PIXAR-inspired opera a year. By that he means a show that targets kids without pandering, and appeals to adults without compromise. Hansel & Gretel accomplishes that in a minimalist environment that, thanks to a strong ensemble and Duckworth’s illustrations, gives the impression of being stuffed and cozy. 


Friday, January 9, 2015

A New Performance Company Launches with "The 168 Hour Dance Project"

Posted By on Fri, Jan 9, 2015 at 1:55 PM


Perhaps you've heard of a film competition called The 168 Project? The idea is that filmmakers are given a Bible verse and one week—168-hours— to create a short film inspired by the verse. This isn't about that. Well, not exactly.

The new Racine + Southern Dance Exchange has taken the same basic idea and tweaked it, replacing film with dance and exchanging the inspirational verse with an inspirational "artistic prompt." 

See these envelopes? Last week they contained the prompts. 


They were distributed at a little get together.
And for the past week artists ...

and choreographers have been scrambling to make a show.

This is an of the moment notion so, of course, there is a documentary element, and the process has been shared on social media

Performance details HERE. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Friends Celebrate the Life of U of M Theater Professor Josie Helming

Posted By on Thu, Jan 8, 2015 at 11:02 AM

  • Josie
The outpouring of affection for retired U of M theater professor Josie Helming  has been incredible and incredibly moving. Helming, known as much for her life coaching as her performance advice, struggled with complications related to congestive heart failure, and went to study with Chekhov in Nov.

Another tribute arrived in my inbox this week from one of Helming's former students, Alice Rainey Berry, the director of promotions for the U of M theater department and a founding member of Voices of the South

"Josie Helming was tall, it's true – a force of nature to be sure.
A teacher, mentor, colleague and friend that empowered all who surrounded her to be their best, especially her students.
During her 28+ years at the University of Memphis Department of Theatre & Dance, Josie Helming had a dramatic impact
on hundreds of young lives. She nurtured us with great compassion and a lust for life. She fed us both literally and figuratively.
She met us where we were and saw potential for greatness, and she guided us to self discoveries about the theatre, yes, but most importantly, about life."

That about says it.

A public celebration of Helming's life and work is being held this Saturday, January 10, at 2:00pm on the U of M Main stage. All are welcome.


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