Friday, February 27, 2015

MSO Conductor Mei-Ann Chen to Step Down Following the 2015-2016 Concert Season

Posted By on Fri, Feb 27, 2015 at 12:36 PM

  • Photo by Justin Fox Burks
  • Mei-Ann Chen

Mei-Ann Chen, who has served as Conductor and Music Director for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra since 2010, will step down when her contract expires at the end of the 2015-2016 concert season.  

According to a press release issued Fri., Feb 27,  officials from the MSO are currently in discussions about her future role with the symphony as Conductor Laureate.

With her dramatic, dance-like conducting style, Chen is often credited with revitalizing the orchestra, although it's probably more fair to say that she brought her rising star-power to an already innovative orchestra, in the process of revitalizing itself through a variety of artist-led, community building initiatives.  

"Mei-Ann is one of the most in-demand guest conductors for orchestras, and we respect her decision to step away at this time to pursue her many opportunities around the world,” MSO Board Chair Gayle S. Rose was quoted as saying. 

Although it has enjoyed a period of exceptional artistic achievement, he MSO has fallen on hard times and is working to determine the new way forward.

MSO President and CEO Roland Valliere says the 2015-2016 will be dedicated to Chen. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Gloria Baxter on "Long Day's Journey Into Night"

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 4:14 PM


I'd planned on seeing Long Day's Journey Into Night Monday. But then the Ice Storm Cameth, and things got cancelled, and then things got complicated and the sad trombones played, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

Anyway, I love sharing audience reactions, and this is a good one from retired U of M theater professor Gloria Baxter

"Still thinking about the bold choice of Threepenny Theatre Company to produce Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. (To the best of my memory, the last production of this American classic in Memphis was at U of M in the 1970's). In 1995 I became immersed in O'Neill's work as I was invited by the American Embassy in Paris to give a lecture tour to Universities in eight cities in France regarding O'Neill's play, Strange Interlude. The reception and deep appreciation of O'Neill I found there had lasting effect on my Script Analysis classes at U of M. (As many former grad and undergrad students know I often had folks engaged in study of Long Day's Journey Into Night long into the midnight hour!) So for all those reasons I especially looked forward to seeing this production at TheatreWorks. I was not alone. The audience on opening night (Friday, February 13th) was wholly present—a spontaneous and immediate standing ovation at the end of the show. All of us in unison so appreciative of Threepenny’s commitment to producing such a demanding play and so grateful for the rich and admirable performances we had just experienced. Accolades to Bill, Christina, Dylan, Gabe, and Jillian! Thank you and Matt for a wonderful evening at the theatre!"

"Copenhagen" is Up to Snuff

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 1:49 PM

Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.
  • Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.

Once upon a time I described Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen as a “bad play.” Having gone back for a second serving, I’m comfortable standing by that initial pronouncement, with one allowance. When you submit to the script’s unreality, and meet Frayn's difficult material on its own terms, this "bad play" can make for a fine night in the theater. Thankfully Theatre Memphis' straightforward take on the atomic ghost story doesn't force ideas as big as all space into a vessel as unworthy as parlor drama.

And maybe it's a "bad play" because it's not really a play at all. At least not in the conventional sense. 

Copenhagen is set in no place or time. The characters— physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, are not alive. The author’s aim is to project the image of these three characters across time and catalog possible outcomes of a 1941 meeting at the onset of a global nuclear arms race. It resembles a WWII-era thriller, but Copenhagen is a genuinely experimental, steadfastly inconclusive, and demanding theatrical exercise. It's comprised of exotic sub-dramatic matters, isolated for observation. And changed by it.

Theatre Memphis’ current Next Stage revival — like good scientific process — requires some patience. It rewards that patience with smart, award-worthy performances by Jason Spitzer, Gregory Alexander, and Mary Buchignani. Director Stephen Huff’s clear, unfussy take on complicated material reflects the spirit of Bohr, the pioneering physicist who expressed complex ideas using practical examples and plain language. To that end this Copenhagen is still probably more literal than it might be. The staging never takes full, fantastic advantage of the show’s determined anti-realism. But when the actors cook, it’s the atomic bomb.

Scenic and lighting designer Daniel Kopera has imagined a space that expresses space— and time. Three unremarkable black chairs sit in a pitch black environment. Formulas and wave signs are scribbled in white (painted) chalk on the floor. The next dimension is made apparent when similar formulas are projected across actors inhabiting the void — Actors who live, love, and hate on each other a little, in the imaginary skeleton of a rotting universe. An uncomfortable time was had by all.

That's a good thing, if you ask me. 

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ballet Memphis Presents "I Am"

Posted By on Thu, Feb 19, 2015 at 12:25 PM

Ballet Memphis
  • Ballet Memphis

Ballet Memphis describes I Am as a, "symphony of struggles and triumphs in four world premiere works." The evening showcases new work by a quartet of notable choreographers from the four corners of America — Reggie Wilson, Julia Adam, Gabrielle Lamb, and Memphis' own Steven McMahon.

Here's a preview...

And another...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Uncertainty Principle

"Copenhagen" Director Stephen Huff Talks About Michael Frayn's Atomic Drama

Posted By on Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 11:53 AM

Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and  Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen,  February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis. - PHOTO BY SKIP HOOPER
  • Photo by Skip Hooper
  • Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.

Every theater is a laboratory, every play an experiment — a methodical attempt to create new worlds built in and of imaginary space. Michael Frayn’s ambitious, math-centric drama Copenhagen, currently running on Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage, is just a little more overt than most. The play’s formal conceit: turn traditional dramatic structures into a series of scientific proofs, each of which has been designed to quantify the mechanical aspects of a private meeting between Niels Bohr, the Jewish father of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s former pupil and the chief scientist in charge of creating Adolf Hitler’s atomic-weapons program. It’s a heady story told by ghosts in an otherworldly setting. 

The Bohr family and Heisenberg in a theatrical setting.
  • The Bohr family and Heisenberg in a theatrical setting.

Intermission Impossible:
I like that this is opening in the same season as The Physicists at the University of Memphis. Science and ethics are a major theme in post WWII art and literature, for obvious reasons. I suppose that's less of a question than a jumping off point for any historical context you might want to bring.

Stephen Huff: I was very excited about this coincidence, too, and I really enjoyed the excellent production of Dürrenmatt’s play that Bob Hetherington put together with Sarah Brown and the students. Now if only someone had produced Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Memphis this season, we’d have had a trifecta! I think it is one of the jobs of the theatre, like any other art form, to serve as a means of asking and discussing the big questions about human existence, and the conflicts between science and ethics have certainly brought up some huge questions, especially in the post-WWII era. Whether it’s Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Churchill’s A Number, or Dürrenmatt, Kipphardt, and Frayn, playwrights and other theatre artists have been juxtaposing scientific gains and human losses with regularity over the last seventy years. I found it especially interesting to note in Dürrenmatt’s “21 Points to The Physicists,” which were included in the program notes for the University of Memphis production, that several of these might be directly applied to Copenhagen:

14. A drama about physicists must be paradoxical.
15. It cannot have as its goal the content of physics, but its effect.
16. The content of physics is the concern of physicists, its effect the concern of all men.
17. What concerns everyone can only be resolved by everyone.
18. Each attempt of an individual to resolve for himself what is the concern of everyone is doomed to fail.

Intermission Impossible:The play's structure is unusual. The playwright playing with the idea of uncertainty. What challenges do these formal conceits present for the various artists involved.

Stephen Huff: Copenhagen is, in essence, a thought experiment, not unlike the ones mentioned in the play, such as Schrödinger’s cat or the particle that moves through two slits at the same time. The three characters work their way through three “drafts of the paper,” editing and re-editing until they come to a fuller explanation of what might have happened during that fateful meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941. As a thought experiment, the play is set in theoretical time and space. In other words, time and space are fluid and shift into many different modes. For most of the duration of the play, the characters exist in a time and space beyond their earthly being—or an afterlife, if you want to call it that. They argue about what happened in the past and re-live events and emotions in the present of that nebulous existence. But for a good portion of Act One, they re-enact a possible version of the moments surrounding the encounter, conscious only of those real-time moments in the past, except for when either Heisenberg or Margrethe breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience about what is happening in the scene. Then in the final draft, all three of them simultaneously re-enact the encounter and comment upon its meaning, observing and specifying as they move through the events. The final edit of this third and final draft produces a conclusion, voiced by Margrethe, that seems to satisfy—at least for the time being—the query that she had set in motion at the very beginning of the play. (However, I tend to think of the play as circular; it could start right back at the beginning from where it leaves off.) Anyway, these are the three primary modes that characterize the three “drafts,” but there are other shifts as well, including three dream-like moments where the characters are awash in memory, speaking together but each lost in his or her own thoughts at the same time. So yes, it is a very unusual structure, and it does present challenges to all of the artists involved in a production. The actors have to be aware of the shifting modes and where (or when) they are at any given moment. And the director and designers have to stage the play in such a way that helps to clarify and move the story along, rather than to obscure. I certainly hope we’ve done that in this production. I’ve set the play in the round, which I think does a couple of things: symbolically, it underscores the orbital nature of the atom, which is of course the subject of much of the dialogue. And in a practical sense, it reinforces the inherent theatricality of the play. The forum-like arrangement of the space seems to me to be a natural fit for the re-enactments, the commentary to the audience, and the questioning and discussion in the play. It doesn’t let anyone forget that we are all—audience and actors alike—sharing time and space together in the theatre. And I feel very honored to be in the company of a really wonderful team of artists who have done some beautiful work in an effort to tell this complex and moving story.

Intermission Impossible:Nothing about Copenhagen is dumbed down. There's a lot of science talk integrated into the play. How much did that effect the process? Was there a lot more homework required?

Stephen Huff: Luckily for us, we’re almost two decades out from the first production of this play, and because of its tremendous impact there is a lot of information out there that is geared specifically toward understanding it. I mean, we are none of us nuclear physicists here—although I will say that all three of the actors are very smart people. But, for instance, MIT has a website that provides summaries of the physics discussed in the play, glossaries of people and places mentioned, and links to lots of other sources of information. Other theatres, such as the Timeline Theatre in Chicago, have published study guides for students as well as general audiences, and those are great resources as well. We all did a fair amount of research on our own in order to understand what we were dealing with in terms of the material, and we spent a good deal of time at the table during the beginning stages of rehearsal discussing and helping each other out with the interpretation of it.

Intermission Impossible: The play's impact is almost more interesting to me than the play. It caused a lot of academics to go back and try to nail down the particulars of this meeting. How has that post Copenhagen research changed how we might experience Copenhagen, if at all?

Stephen Huff: Yes, the discussion sparked by the play in the scientific community and elsewhere was as voluminous as to lead to the publication of at least one book of essays reacting to it, along with many other articles. The published version of the play includes Frayn’s own foray into these arguments in the form of a postscript and a post-postscript that together constitute much more of the volume than the play itself. The renewed interest in the controversy over the encounter between Bohr and Heisenberg incited by the play even compelled the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen to release sealed documents ten years ahead of schedule. Some of the criticisms and evidence offered in these arguments and documents seem to cast doubt on some of the details in the play, and Frayn answers to these in his postscripts. While delving into the plethora of written material provoked by Copenhagen might provide an audience member with a richer experience, the play, in and of itself, remains an intriguing and poignant theatrical exploration of the uncertainty of intentions.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Memphian Joins the Cast of Broadway's "Les Misérables"

Posted By on Fri, Feb 13, 2015 at 1:44 PM

Eleanor Koski, Broadway Bound!
  • Eleanor Koski, Broadway Bound!

Broadway's Les Misérables is welcoming several new young company members including Memphis' own Eleanor Koski

Koski will be performing as a member of the show's ensemble. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Illness Delays the Opening of Threepenny Theatre Company's "A Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Posted By on Fri, Feb 6, 2015 at 10:27 AM


Yeah, I know you were looking forward to seeing 3PT's take on Eugene O'Neill's sprawling American family drama this weekend. I mean, what a cast, right? Christina Wellford-Scott, Bill Baker, John Dylan Atkins, Gabe Beutel-Gunn, and Jillian Barron... just... wow.  

But you're going to have to wait till Friday, Feb. 13. Oh well. Life goes on.

In the meantime, here's the complete 1987 revival with Jack Lemon and Kevin Spacey. I mean, what a cast, right?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Miss Firecracker" Lights Up the Stage at Germantown Community Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2015 at 1:59 PM


I’m not exactly a fan of Beth Henley's 1984 comedy The Miss Firecracker Contest, although I do have a soft spot for the show, and fond memories of its long-ago Memphis premiere. The script's too contrived, too mechanical. And no matter how much I may enjoy the antic bits and surreal set pieces, Henley's screwball romance never seems to go anywhere. Maybe it’s Chekhovian in that regard, but never as substantial or satisfying.

Henley’s storycraft may be pat, but she’s a genius when it comes to memorable, unexpected moments. And to borrow a feel-good line from countless forgettable romantic comedies, sometimes the journey really is the destination. And seriously, when’s the last time you sat through a feel-good comedy laden with so many over-the-top stories about terrible deaths and hideous deformities?

With diversions touching on everything from malformed kittens and midgets to terrifying dreams of female dismemberment and mutilation, Firecracker tells the "bless-her-heart" story of Carnelle, a "Delta Dawn" in training, pinning what’s left of her tattered, tarted-up self-worth, on the outcome of a small town beauty contest. She’s an orphan, raised by relatives, living alone in the ancestral manse and working on a patriotic tap routine to be performed with Roman candles. Carnelle yearns to ditch her current title, Miss Hot Tamale, an honor unceremoniously bestowed upon her by the mean boys (and girls) of Brookhaven, and roll out of Mississippi in a red, white, and blue blaze of glory. She’s been messed up, but she’s working things out.

Carnelle shares the stage with cousins Elain (who’s left her husband… and all her beautiful clocks), and Delmount, an unhinged Tom Wingfield type, who’s in and out of trouble but longs to settle down and study philosophy so he can finally tell people why we’re here. They’re joined in mutual Southern Gothic silliness by Popeye, a an oddball Southern seamstress, Mac Sam, a randy carnival roustabout with the clap, and busybody pageant organizer named Tessy Mahoney. Each character is somehow imprisoned by economic circumstances, tyrannizing ideas, and societal expectation. Only the sickly, hard-drinking Mac Sam counts himself a king of infinite space.

Germantown Community Theatre wants to step up its game. The teenincy east-side playhouse has expanded its lobby, and built what, at first glance, seems to be a more actor and tech-friendly stage. And, while this revival of Miss Firecracker, may miss some marks here and there, it really fits the space, both physically and tonally. It made me wonder why, for all of its shortcomings, the show hadn’t been revived in Memphis in almost 30-years.

As much as I like what’s been done with the GCT space, it might have been interesting to take things a step further and experiment with less representational scenic design. Not to play backseat director, but simply taking away solid walls and leaving old photos (and maybe some clocks) floating in the background like ghosts, might help the audience transition visually into a less representational second act, where an unchanging circus tent backdrop currently makes it difficult to know where the actors are playing from scene to vaguely-defined scene. Oh well, baby steps.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if GCT's cast members are inhabiting their characters or judging them, however sympathetically. And for all the good humor and laughs, this Miss Firecracker misses a number of emotional marks along the way. Jenny Smith, Shawna Lei Gardner, and Rebecca Lipscomb all turn in nicely crafted performances, but the only sparkler on this stage is Meredith Koch, as TCB pageant coordinator Tessy Mahoney.

I understand the show’s selling out. And at GCT, a theater that, to my mind, has always been plagued with a bit of an identity problem, this one absolutely should. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Theatre Memphis' "Of Mice and Men" Doesn't Say Much About Either

Posted By on Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 12:14 PM

George and Lennie, together again. - SKIP HOOPER, COURTESY OF THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Skip Hooper, Courtesy of Theatre Memphis
  • George and Lennie, together again.

I try not to play favorites, and work hard to consider every show based on its own merits. I want to write about the play I’ve seen rather that the play I wish I’d seen. But some productions stick with you, and letting go of the past is hard. Take, for example, Memphis’ last production of the play inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men. It really wasn’t good. No, it was “Holy Crap” extraordinary, top to bottom. The perfectly cast ensemble was tight. And with it’s narrow swath of blue sky, Bruce Bergner's expressionist design dropped audiences into the hope-twisted minds of damaged people, and the austere, off kilter world of the Great Depression. Michael Ingersoll’s bantam rooster edge couldn’t hide that his George needed the giant, developmentally stunted Lennie just as much as Lennie needed him. But it was George Dudley’s rich, humane portrayal of Lennie, an infinitely sweet, extremely dangerous man who literally loves things to death, that really elevated Playhouse on the Square’s take on material that can easily slide into cliche.

When awards season rolled around, it became evident that the Ostrander judges were also mightily impressed.

So, what does any of this have to do with Theatre Memphis’ perfectly competent, epically-imagined revival? Maybe not so much, as far as the average audience member is concerned. For me, however, these two takes on an American classic represent a clear line in the sand dividing things I value from things that make me shake my head. The earlier production was poetic and evocative. The current one, while beautifully executed, is often literal to a fault. After all, it’s the empty spaces— the things things left to an audience’s imagination— that turn our imaginations on, and optimizes a theatrical experience. Show me an elephant and I’ve seen an elephant. Good show! But hold up an apple and make me believe it’s an elephant; that’s magic and the stuff that sticks with you after you’ve seen your share of elephants.

If the wonderful short story writer George Saunders teaches us anything, it’s that nothing highlights artificiality like attempted verisimilitude. And, from a design standpoint, that’s where TM’s Of Mice and Men takes its first wrong turn. When water is splashed in an onstage creek and embers glow in a realistic fire (that looks anything but real) we aren’t drawn into the world of the play, but taken out of it and reminded of something that has nothing to do with the majesty of nature or Depression-era austerity. We’re reminded instead of sumptuousness, excess, and so many things at odds with the tone of the source material. But maybe it’s not about the set at all. A more thoughtful and dynamic lighting design wouldn’t just illuminate all of the beautiful space all the time. It would instead frame the actors and focus the action on a stage big enough for eyes to wander about.

It’s easy to make an audience say, “Awwww.” Walking an adorable, and obviously very loving three-legged dog on stage will do it. Finding the interior life of a play and its characters can be more difficult, however, and this is the kind of play where any “awww”-inducing sweet things really need to have their guts crushed by Lennie in short order. The sympathy we feel for old man Candy’s soon-to-be-executed dog shouldn't stem from adorability, but vulnerability, and the pathetic animal's bond with a failing one-handed laborer, too feeble to keep up.

Todd Nelson delivers a grounded performance as Slim, the sure handed crew boss, and Joshua Hitt effectively conveys douchey entitlement as Curley, the ranch owner’s son, desperately jealous of a wife he treats like property. For the most part, however, the supporting cast seems flat and disconnected. One, functional but frustrating performance is so lacking in depth it might be described as shouting in a peculiar accent. 

The casualty in all of this may be Stuart Turner’s simple, emotionally honest performance as George. Turner’s an under-appreciated area performer who raised his profile last year with a funny, physically generous performance in the iffy 60’s-era sex farce Boeing Boeing. Turner’s George is plainspoken, and easily agitated, but a little too decent, exhibiting no trace of the cruelty he eventually confesses. It’s a subtle, against type performance and I wish I could have seen it in a more intimate circumstance, where there was no need to enlarge character traits and project them across so much distance. I’d have also liked to see him play the part opposite a more genuinely threatening Lennie.

On the surface Jeremy Bukauskas would appear to be a great choice to play Steinbeck’s man child, a challenging character that never really grows or changes as the story plays out. He’s sweet faced, and he dwarfs everybody else on stage. But Bukauskas can’t seem to muster more than one note, and at every turn performance choices call to mind a half-century of “pet him and squeeze him” cartoon parodies by Warner Bros. The scene where Lennie’s love of soft things turns deadly needs serious attention. To borrow a line from Dennis Miller (something I almost never advise), I haven’t seen choreography that stiff since Ruby shot Oswald.

Having said all of this, I never regret time spent with Steinbeck and his characters. And for all my complaints, this was no exception. I appreciate the fine craftsmanship on display, and more than anything else, I appreciate that director Tracy Zerwig Ford saw something big and wanted audiences to experience Americana on an operatic scale. I just wish that George, and Crook, and Slim, and even the giant Lennie weren’t somehow rendered smaller than life in the process.

As always, Theatre Memphis delivers a quality production. But I strongly suspect that customer satisfaction will vary.   

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