Thursday, May 28, 2015

Previews of "Seminar," "Gospel at Colonus," and "For Our Freedom, And Yours"

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2015 at 4:48 PM


There are a number of unique openings on the horizon.

This week Memphis Playwright Levi Frazier opened For Our Freedom, And Yours. Frazier's play is a biographical sketch of Ira Aldridge, the 19th-Century African American actor who became something of a sensation on the European stage. Aldridge would eventually use his fame to help foment the anti-slavery movement in Poland. For Our Freedom, And Yours is directed by Evelyn Little, and stars the always excellent Delvyn Brown as Aldridge. 

For Our Freedom and Yours opened Wednesday night at Southwest Community College's Union Avenue Campus Theatre. There are two additional performances. 

Seminar is a bracing and vicious comedy by Theresa Rebeck. It follows four aspiring young novelists who've signed up for private writing lessons with a celebrated literary figure played by Michael Detroit.

Seminar opens this weekend at Circuit Playhouse. 
Playhouse on the Square's production of the Pulitzer Prize nominated Gospel at Colonus doesn't open till June 19, but it's never too early to share a preview of this unique Oedipus redux by the relentlessly experimental Mabu Mines founder, Lee Breuer.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Kiss Me Kate" is a Pretty Mess

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2015 at 6:44 PM

The look of love. We guess.
  • The look of love. We guess.

No sparks ever fly in Playhouse on the Square’s fetching revival of Kiss Me Kate. And watching this lovingly staged, but chemistry-free production, I began to wonder whether or not we should put the intermittently delightful show’s misogynistic script to bed for good. It’s practically the poster child for concert-style productions. Cole Porter’s lively and lurid score is a sonic treasure. And, to be fair, with the right casting there’s still some sparkle left in Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book. Alas, running gags about spanking a spirited woman so hard she can’t sit down without the aid of a pillow, have probably received their last comfortable guffaws.

“But wait,” you say. And you’re right to say it. “This is a mid-20th Century artifact, right?” (Yes). “And it’s all based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, no?” (Again, yes). “So doesn’t that make all the troubling stuff okay?” Well… maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. In some ways, Kiss Me Kate’s classical roots almost make it more problematic since musical’s authors sampled only the source material’s most misogynistic passages. And, instead of providing contrast, Kiss Me Kate’s conjoined backstage farce about warring actors who are really in love, rigidly mirrors the selected Shakespeare. The problem isn’t that the script contains objectionable ideas. It’s that comedy invites us to laugh at those ideas. And audiences just aren’t as universally conditioned to laugh at the kind of stock material regarding gender and race, that you tend to find in comedies of a certain vintage. 
Having said all that, POTS’s Kiss Me Kate has some real high points. Bryce Cutler’s elegant, wide open set is a skeletal echo of the Elizabethan stage that also calls to mind the best of mid-20th-Century scenic designer Jo Mielziner. Beautifully lit by John Horan, it’s the perfect environment for a seedier-than-it seems story that plays with charmingly disreputable actor stereotypes.

Choreography is applied judiciously, and bent toward maximum fun, punning visually off of Porter’s famous double entendres. And, although his leads are a little on the wooden side, Director/hoofer Jordan Nichols gets winning vocal performances from the whole cast. Considering how great the songs are, that may make up for the fact that there’s not a single credible relationship.

This Kiss Me Kate is a pretty, richly-textured thing with just the right amount of grit. Johns, Maness and Hemphill, do some of the show’s best work as a pair of gangsters tricked into making sure that the play’s leading lady doesn’t abandon the show. Their song, “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare,” is a real crowd pleaser in the hands of a couple of wise guys.

There’s a deliciously amoral edge to Porter’s score. Even the sleazy here/silly there incidental music dazzles. The orchestra, under the direction of Adam Laird, nails it. “Another Opening of Another Show,” perfectly illustrates the endless excitement and existential dilemma that accompanies a life in the theater. Marc Gill burns a hole in the stage with his slinky, rubber-boned run through “Too Darn Hot” while Leah Beth Bolton stops the show cold with “"Always True To You In My Fashion",” a killer-diller song about owning your sexual identity. And, you know, maybe trading some petting privileges for a nice fur coat and stuff. Yeah, it’s a mess. But it’s a swinging mess.

So yeah. No sparks. Plenty of baggage. And plenty of reasons to go anyway. 

"Livin' Fat" Opens at TheatreWorks

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2015 at 6:36 PM


To paraphrase L.P. Hartley, the 1970's are a foreign country. They do things differently there. Judi Ann Mason's Livin' Fat, which opens this weekend at TheatreWorks, is a snapshot of a time when hair was bigger, pants were wider, and 8-track tapes were the emerging technology.  And Mason, a prolific writer for stage, film, and television, helped to define the era with her work on situation comedies like Good Times. It's directed by Karen Moore, who's uncommonly familiar with the playwright and her work. 

Intermission Impossible: Why don't you start by telling me a little bit about the play, and your connection to the work. 

Karen Moore: Well, it was written in 1970s by dear friend of mine, Judi Ann Mason. I met her in 1975. I was going to Hendrix College and my college represented Arkansas at the American College Theater Festival. Her play represented Louisiana. And it won. It won the Norman Lear comedy award and, as a result, Judi was hired to work for Norman Lear on Good Times. She wrote plays and movies. The last major thing she wrote was Sister Act 2. It was a wonderful career and she's known as the youngest TV sitcom writer in the history of television. She passed away in 2009 and I was blessed to asked to sing at her memorial. Her children call me auntie Karen. We were really close.

And you have history with the play.

It's a laugh out loud comedy. It's so good but I didn't know if it would still be funny taking it out of the context the 70s.  I directed it here in Memphis 38 years ago here in Memphis for Beale Street Repertory Company. It ran for 19 performances and they had extra performances it was such a popular piece. A lot of things happened with that show with me with that show. I met my husband there, through the theater company. I went to LA to assistant direct the play with Judi. From there I want to Chicago and I directed there.

You said you worried about the script being dated. Did you update it?

No, we're not updating it at all. it's a period piece. We are putting a dictionary in the program because there are so many words that we use, and people don't know what they mean. like someone in the cast asked about stereo components. Someone asked what is an 8-track? What's the Ali shuffle? What is Ex-Lax? What is Hai Karate? Who is Reverend Ike? What is Silly Putty? When is the last time you called somebody and asked the operator to connect you to the number?

Do you think, in addition to still being funny, that it still resonates? Did it travel through time well?

It's about a poor black family, the Carter family. They're poor but able to put their son to college. It's his first summer home after graduation and the only job he is able to get is as the janitor in a bank. And one day, while he's dusting and cleaning the bank is robbed. The two robbers drop some of the money on their way out and he covers it up. He takes it home and start buying gifts and things for the family. At one point the son says, "I started to say something, but when I thought about how society is about us black folks — especially as black men — I kept that information to myself." How does that not come full circle to 2015? 

Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company presents A Karen Moore, Inc. Production
Livin' Fat by Judi Ann Mason
Directed by Karen Moore
May 22 - 31 Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00, & Sunday, May 31 @ 2:00
Tickets: 901-213-7444    

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Attorney/Joker: Part Sign" is a Poignant Goodbye From a Unique Artist

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2015 at 6:45 PM

OOV perform Attorney/Joker: Part Sign
  • OOV perform Attorney/Joker: Part Sign

Playwright Randy Wayne Youngblood, who died last year at the age of 56, lived quite a life. He once toured as a roadie with the rock band Yes. He was a cofounder of Our Own Voice (OOV) Theatre Company. He was an a writer whose images, while often surreal, could land on the ear, and on the heart with extraordinary force. He was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1984 but he never let that define him. Instead, he used his unique perspective, and his writing to define everybody else. 

This week OOV company members say goodbye to their old friend one more time when Youngblood's last play, Attorney/Joker: Part Sign, closes at TheatreWorks.

Youngblood's funny, quirky script is patched together from pieces of 70's and 80's-era song lyrics, parts of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and bits of the old vampire soap opera Dark Shadows. Some scenes are structured entirely around the lyrics of the Eagles 'Hotel California." Only, unlike the Eagles, the scenes don't suck.

Attorney/Joker: Part Sign is an occasionally confounding patchwork of ideas relating pop culture to identity.Director/adaptor Alex Skitolsky, who is no stranger to Youngblood's writing, has done an amazing job navigating the dense language, and finding something like a narrative. It's also clear that the cast— a who's who of OOV alum— really has its heart in this one.

I sometimes caution that OOV's work may not be for everybody, which isn't true at all.  But I want audiences— especially audiences brave enough to sample new and experimental work— to have reasonable expectations. This is no-budget theater created by a community of artists with a shared vision, and a drive to make artistically progressive,  socially responsible work. It's not about slick, polished performances, or elaborate sets and costumes. But even if you're more of a mainstream theatergoer, if you open yourself up to the unexpected, the unexpected is exactly what OOV delivers.

The lingering image from Attorney/Joker: Part Sign, for me, comes from a song performed by Zak Baker of the band Zigadoo Money Clips. "The garden is tremendous," he sings. As tended by Youngblood, and his OOV colleagues, it certainly has been. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

There's So Much Dance in Memphis this Weekend

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2015 at 5:04 PM

"Harlem" by New Ballet Ensemble
  • "Harlem" by New Ballet Ensemble
What would you like to see most? Would you like to see the dancers in an established classical company doing personal, all-original work? Or maybe you'd prefer to see a modern company setting family histories into motion? How about a critically acclaimed tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, fusing various dance styles with heavy doses of ballet and Memphis street? It all sounds good, doesn't it? And here's the nifty thing: You don't have to choose. It's all on tap in Memphis this weekend. And some of it is either pay-what-you-can or free. 

INTERIORWORKS is an annual pay-what-you-can opportunity to see what the dancers of Ballet Memphis come up with when left to their own devices. The 16th installment in the ongoing series runs through Saturday, May 16, at Ballet Memphis' home base on Trinity road. The suggested $10 donation benefits the Artists Resource Fund for dancers in career transition.

The dancers of Project: Motion always start with a concept.  For Bloodlines + Bylines guest artist and writer, Anna Esquivel has been tasked with weaving together the threads of various family histories collected from Knowledge Quest Memphis, the Madonna Learning Center, and Town Village at Audubon. The original choreography for Bloodlines + Bylines was created by Project: Motion dancers Bethany Wells Bak, Rebecca Cochran, Emily Hefley, Louisa Koeppel, and Wayne M. Smith.

The works will be presented on a stage without wings, eliminating the boundaries between onstage and offstage, and putting the dancers in a position where they are performing continuously. To get the inside scoop, click here. 
In motion: "Bloodlines + Bylines"
  • In motion: "Bloodlines + Bylines"

Bloodlines + Bylines opens Friday, May 15, 2015 at 8 p.m. at the Evergreen Theatre and runs through
Sunday, May 17. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students & seniors.

Saturday night at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park, New Ballet Ensemble teams up with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to revive its critically acclaimed "Harlem." You can read all the details here, in a piece I wrote for Memphis Magazine's 901 Blog. Best of all, it's absolutely free. And coolers are welcom. 

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