Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Germantown High School Graduate Makes an Impression on Broadway

Posted By on Tue, Jun 30, 2015 at 6:05 PM

Great news for local actor Maclean Mayer. Last month the Germantown High School graduate received the Best Actor award at the Orpheum High School Musical Awards. Last week he was a top four finalist for the seventh annual National High School Musical Theatre Awards. He was also awarded the "Spirit of the Jimmy" award, which is given to the conferee that best represent the positive spirit of the program. 

For the rest of the story check out Jane Schneider's post at Memphis Parent

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Lonely People Collide in "Brilliant Traces"

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2015 at 4:44 PM

  • Threepenny Theatre Company

Brilliant Traces
is a perfectly named play. For the most part it’s not very brilliant, but it's threaded with moments of startling clarity that  knock you back in your seat. And top-drawer actors Meghan Lisi and Michael Khanlarian turn in performances worth the suggested admission price even though they're never really set free to explore the theatrical possibilities inherent in Cindy Lou Johnson's rambling, but mercifully short script

The opening is full of possibility. It’s dark, the wind is howling, and someone is beating on the door of a sparsely appointed hermit’s cabin. A woman’s voice calls out, "Let me in! I'm a person in serious trouble!" Suddenly the door bangs open and in stumbles Rosannah, delirious in a filthy wedding dress. She’s driven from Arizona all the way to a remote corner of Alaska where her car has broken down near the cabin of Harry Henry, an antisocial oil rig worker with sad stories to tell. If he can ever get a word in edgewise. For the first quarter of the play he stands silently as this mystery woman drinks his whiskey, and babbles until she passes out cold for two days.

"It's so cold in Alaska."

Harry drags Rosannah to his bed. He undresses her, respectfully. He washes her tentatively. He has a nervous breakdown over her delicate lace shoes which remind him of something that hurts real bad. Not knowing what else to do with them he puts them in the oven and burns them to a crisp. Rosannah sits up in bed and announces, “I’m the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen,” then passes out cold again. The setup is tight. Everything else falls apart.

Have you ever been trapped in a confined space with a cocaine addict having a manic sad? That’s what the rest of Brilliant Traces is like. Only there are two of them. Once Rosannah wakes up she and Harry take turns vomiting up backstory in a series of semi-coherent rants. Outside there is a white out, with snow coming down so hard it’s impossible to distinguish one direction from another. Rosannah, who arrived all in white, babbles redundantly about her fear of becoming indistinguishable. And about how, when she was driving from Arizona, in some kind of fugue state, she felt like her essence was moving faster than the car. Faster even than her own body in the car — like the essential part of who she is might fly off into space. Harry, in turn, spins a contrived tale of negligence, woe, social anxieties and “paper shoes.”

Opening sequences notwithstanding, Johnson' script is a classic example of a play that tells us who the characters are instead of showing us who they are, and Threepenny Theatre Company director Matt Crewse keeps the action as naturalistic as the symbol-laden dialogue will allow. That may or may not be a good thing. At its best Brilliant Traces hints at Eugene Ionesco’s domesticated absurdism, which isn’t always served by a close alignment of dialogue and action. It's the kind of script you really want actors to play around with. You want them to take chances and find the physical quirks and contradictions that bring dimension to characters and depth to a script in desperate need.

There’s a kind of play that actors love even if it’s not very good. They tend to be about extreme people in extreme conditions and give character actors a chance to go big and show off their range. Brilliant Traces is one of those plays. And even though Khanlarian and Lisi play things a little too safe for my liking, these are actors that could make me excited about a staged reading of the Tennessee driver’s manual. Brilliant Traces, I’m happy to report, is much better than that. 

The closing moments find Rosannah and Harry on an inevitable collision course, and the play's last gasp is absolutely lovely. 

Brilliant Traces is at TheatreWorks through June 28. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Talking Nina Simone with "Simply Simone" Co-Creator Robert Neblett

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2015 at 5:52 PM


I've got to be honest. Following the Charleston church shooting I'm not sure how the Hattiloo's cast for Simply Simone can make it through Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."  That portion of the show was already a gut punch last week. By all accounts everybody's holding up, and audiences are really responding to the most relevant musical revue you're likely to see any time in the near future.

Singer, classically trained pianist, bon vivant, and civil rights icon Nina Simone was a complicated and compelling character. Although it's primarily a revue, running down the artist's catalog, the Hattiloo's production of Simply Simone never shies away from complexity. Robert Neblett,  who co-created the piece with David Grapes and Vince Dimura was in town last week. Intermission Impossible caught up with him to ask what he thought about Memphis, The Hattiloo, and, of course, Nina Simone. 

Intermission Impossible. How was your time in Memphis?

Robert Neblett: It was brief. Would have liked to have spent more time. It was really a quick turnaround trip so I didn’t get to see much of Memphis other than the hotel, the theater, and a late night diner. We did go to the Peabody and see the ducks Saturday morning.

Those are the parts that interest me. Especially the parts inside the theater. How did you like the Hattiloo’s take on your show?

I was coming into this a little blind. A friend of mine, Kerry Hayes, lives in Memphis. He does a lot of activism, he and his wife. And he worked for my theatre company in St. Louis when I had it 10 or so years ago. He actually told me when they were starting Hattiloo. They were starting it at about the time I was writing Simply Simone. So I contacted them a long time ago about doing this script. In the first couple of years it was not something that they thought would sell. So it was nice to bring that full circle. I don’t even know if the Artistic Director remembers that.

So you really didn’t know what to expect.

Yes. That was pretty much all I knew about Hattiloo. Then when I found out that they were doing the show. I’m like, “I’m just four hours away and that would be great!” I’d have been there on opening night but a friend was getting married and I had to choose.
Robert Neblett
  • Robert Neblett

Probably the correct choice.

But I was very impressed with this little theater district that has emerged. I’ve known about Playhouse on the Square for years because it’s known around the country. I was really glad to see that there seems to be such a nice amount of synergy there. I hate to use that word, but I’m using it in the real sense. So many cultural organizations in that one location is just great.

Did you like the show?

You know, it’s the first time I’ve seen the show live. I’ve seen video from past productions. I didn’t even see the first production. I did all my work on that show by telecommuting. So it was a real treat to see the live energy. Particularly the emotional journey of the piece. That was important to me. For all intents and purposes the show is a revue. It’s not technically a full out musical. But I feel like the piece has a lot of drama. And one of the things I’ve felt was missing in one of the readings I saw, a lot of times actors and directors will focus on the music, but they gloss over scenes in between. But I also think the musical numbers don’t land correctly if you don’t act the whole piece. That’s one of the things I thought the actors and director did such a good job with. I couldn’t have expected "Strange Fruit" to be nearly as effective as it was.

Were you a Nina Simone fan when you started working on the show?

All I knew besides knowing some of her music was that she’d been involved with the Black Panthers.

Well, of course that's what you'd know. That’s part of the dominant media narrative, right? That she was radicalized.

I read autobiographical tribute pieces and amassed a huge collection of recordings. As I listened to her recordings, especially her live recordings, I started to hear her voice. I am indebted to her live recordings. Because she talks so much during her songs and she tells stories and provides commentary. There are two moments in Simply Simone that I took directly from recordings. She starts to sing “My Father,” in the second act. And then she stops. And she says, “I don’t want to sing this song anymore. My father never promised me that we would live in France. My father had never seen France.” And she just stops. Not even halfway through the first verse.

Those live recordings are great. And the concert clips on YouTube.

In "Mississippi Goddam" she gives a running narration. That quote. “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet yet,” she says. Then she starts the second verse saying, “You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” And she has this white audience in the palm of her hand while she’s indicting them. Something that’s interesting, and a source of tension for her, is that the people who were buying her tickets were the people oppressing her brothers and sisters in the streets. Lorraine and Langston were always on her case to use her music for something more than just making money.

It’s strange. She’s known, of course, and she's so influential. But I think she only had one top 20 hit in America so, for being known, she’s also obscure. That’s a contradiction, I know, but you know what I mean?

I think that’s true. And honestly, recent interest in her has come out of things like commercials. “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” was in a car commercial then, “Feeling Good” was in a car commercial. And then it was covered by George Michael. There were years when you couldn’t get through an episode of American Idol without hearing that song.

The one thing I regret about your show is just how relevant it is. So much of the tragedy sounds like it might have come out of yesterday’s news.

I would agree. Like she says in "Mississippi Goddam", “people will say it’s a communist plot.” She goes through this list of things—this list of reasons why, if we call people out for all these things they’re doing— people are just going to dismiss it. Call you a communist. And she kind of goes through this list. And it’s exactly what happens every day in the press. 

Going Back to Laramie: New Moon & ETC Document an Atrocity

Posted By on Fri, Jun 19, 2015 at 9:54 AM

New Moon remembers Laramie.
  • New Moon remembers Laramie.
I’m not a scientist. I can’t hold forth on asymmetrical systems or the intrinsic virtues/vices of two-state vector formalism. But I’m intrigued by quantum entanglement, and the idea that, without communicating in any way, particles with shared history affect one another across great distances. Possibly even time. That’s what was on my mind last weekend before, during, and after back-to-back viewings of The Laramie Project, and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at TheatreWorks and the Evergreen Theatre, respectively. And I wish I was a forward-thinking man of science, able to  fire up a portable wormhole generator allowing future audiences to experience both shows consecutively. Unfortunately, Emerald Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project, nicely staged by director Den-Nickolas Smith closed last week. There are, however, several more opportunities to catch The New Moon Theatre Company’s fine production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, a sequel, of sorts, that looks at the Wyoming community’s struggle to reconsider past events and determine its own identity.

The Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie plays are something of a paradox. They are a progressive experiment, and a throwback to the bygone age of living newspapers. Using extensive primary source interviews they tell the story of Matthew Shepard, a slight, blond, 21-year-old, HIV positive gay man, who met with a violent end in the “live and let live” west, where, according to Willie Nelson, cowboys are frequently, secretly fond of each other.

On the night of October 6, 1998 Shepard visited the Fireside Lounge, a gay-friendly bar near Laramie, Wyoming. He ordered Heineken. There he met two other men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The three men eventually left the bar together. Shortly thereafter, McKinney and Henderson robbed Shepard’s wallet and shoes. They drove him to the outskirts of town where he was pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence. They doused him with gasoline, set him on fire, and left him to burn in the cold. The blood spatter was spread across 20 square yards.

Tectonic arrived in Laramie just as the media was descending. They spoke to anybody who’d sit for an interview and assembled a potent oral history about corrosive indifference, the power of community, and the need for hate crime legislation.

The ETC’s now-closed production of the original script was rough at the edges. But the narrative was vivid and clear and the whole experience was a frustrating reminder that good journalism, and good theater don’t cross paths often enough.

Ten years after Shepard’s death, Tectonic returned to the scene of the crime and reinterviewed many of the original subjects to create the appropriately-named The Laramie Project 10 Years Later. The epilogue, currently on stage at the Evergreen Theatre under the direction of Gene Elliot explores Matthew Shepard “Trutherism,” and Laramie’s need, as a community, to define itself as something other than the [“But we’re not really…”] homophobic place where Matthew Shepard died of horrific injuries.

In 2004 ABC’s 20/20 revisited the slaying. The long running news magazine suggested that both the media and the court had gotten Shepard’s murder all wrong. The controversial “Murder in Laramie” episode made a case that, while tragic, Matt Shepard’s death was just a robbery and drug binge gone bad. Like prosecutor Cal Rerucha told reporters in regard to Shepard’s killers,"the methamphetamine just fueled this point where there was no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. But it was a murder that was driven by drugs." Returning to primary sources, Ten Years Later plays out as a deliberate refutation of 20/20’s shaky revisionism. It shows, elegantly and awfully, that nothing changes the things informing the killer’s victim choice and over-the-top brutality.

Over the years Aaron McKinney, Shepard’s primary antagonist has told different, conflicting versions of the murder story. An interview Tectonic conducted with McKinney, reveals that even he can’t remember all the variations. He maintained that he chose his victim because he seemed gay and looked like he might have some money. In his Tectonic interview McKinney even took credit for things previously ascribed to his friend Russell Henderson while bragging about the quality of his Nazi-inspired prison tattoos. Chilling revelations, even when you already know the story.
When I say there’s not one standout in performance New Moon’s Ten Years Later, that’s about the highest praise I can give. It’s a show about teamwork, and this creative team works.The Laramie Projects are both exercises in minimalism in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In both Tectonic shows, relatively small companies bring an entire community to life. This time around the story, while focusing on Matthew Shepard and his killers is less about all that and more about persuasion, bias confirmation, and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how these stories we tell ourselves about who we are duke it out until there’s only one story left standing.

I’m not a scientist. Try as I might, I don’t always get quantum mechanics, and I don’t know if there’s really any way for the present to change the past. But there are other kinds of entanglements. You don’t need a photon-splitter to alter the meaning of bygone events. You don’t even need reliable sources or reasonable extrapolation. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later forces us to confront the possibility that we’ve got that time-honored saying about history being written by the victor all wrong. Weighing 20/20’s market share against that of a PBS special debunking its claims, it cautions that victory may be the prize here, not the precondition.

Good stuff, catch it if you can. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

After 18 Freaking Years Memphis' Longest Running Improv Show, The Freak Engine, Calls it Quits

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 2:53 PM

Freak Engineers
  • Freak Engineers

It's been a long time since I've been to a Freak Engine show at TheatreWorks. Years, in fact. That makes this news extra sad. After 18 years of comedy, audience participation, performance art, and all manner of late night weirdness, The Freak Engine, Memphis' longest continuously-running improv show, is folding up its freak flag and calling, "scene." Which is to say, following a farewell performance on Friday, July 3, the party's over. 

"This wasn't a crash and burn situation," says Michael Entman, who joined the show in its earliest days, and has steered the ever-evolving company through its last. "The entire group wanted to do different things.We're all getting older. You grow up, you know? You get too old to stay up till midnight," he says. 

When The Freak Engine launched Memphis had no regular midnight theater scene. And, other than The Freak Engine, it still doesn't. The show was instantly popular and has continued to be a solid draw, attracting audiences that range in size from 70 to the 200+ that turned out for founder Tom Kirby's last performance. "The Fire Marshall doesn't come out at Midnight," Entman says, remembering the SRO crowd for Kirby's last freakout. 

Tradition isn't the only one reason why The Freak Engine has held onto its late night time slot. The other reason: It's much less expensive than renting a venue during prime time. 

The most sadistic theater game ever.

"We've been doing one show a month for 18 years," Entman says, searching for a calculator. After figuring in additional one-off performances and anniversary shows he determines Freak Engine will have done its thing a minimum of 220 times by the time it closes up shop for good. Based on an rough average of 70 audience members per show, that's 15,400 people who've visited TheatreWorks at the witching hour to observe some of the more sadistic games in the history of Memphis comedy. 

Entman, who will continue to produce midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Absent Friends at the Evergreen Theatre, says the last show will be action packed. He plans to break out all the classic Freak Engine games and invite alumni still living in the region to come back and participate one last time.

I talk about Freak Engine's 15th Birthday Show starting at 6:09

"We'll definately do 'Moustraps'," he says, teasing the company's most infamous creation. "Mousetraps" blends elements of Blind Man's Buff and Marco Polo, forcing two barefoot participants to walk across a stage filled with 80 mousetraps, all set and ready to snap.

Entman says he would consider bringing The Freak Engine back for anniversary shows, but only time will tell. 

Absent Friends
  • Absent Friends

Friday, June 12, 2015

New Ballet Ensemble Starts the Summer with Springloaded

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2015 at 12:48 PM


New Ballet Ensemble's annual spring concert is coming a little late this year. Tonight's event at the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College is a pay-what-you-can opportunity to sample all the things Memphis' classically rooted, fusion-minded company does best. It's also provides me with a perfectly good excuse to serve up a little Christmas in June and share some never before seen footage of Jookin ambassador Lil Buck in NBE's 2014 production of Nut ReMix.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Anything Goes" Goes There. Theatre Memphis Tackles Vintage Comedy With Vintage Sensibilities

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2015 at 1:50 PM

  • Theatre Memphis

There’s a scene in director Fritz Lang’s noir-ish 1952 drama, Clash By Night, where an unsophisticated fisherman played by Paul Douglas, attempts to impress Barbara Stanwyck by asking Robert Ryan, a dirtbag film projectionist, to do his “Chinese imitation.” Happy to oblige, Ryan pulls his eyes back into a slant with his fingers and begins to babble in some broad approximation of a Chinese dialect. Douglas chortles uncontrollably, pounding the table with his hand, it hurts so good. Stanwyck raises an eyebrow and shrugs, unimpressed. This is her lot in life now. Social pressure will force this worldly, restless, occasionally poison woman (who writes this stuff?), to choose between Ryan, the rugged but repellent jerk who wants to stick pins in his absentee wife, and Douglas, the big, sturdy lug stupid enough to think his friend’s unfettered racism is goddamn hilarious. This is 1952, mind you. WWII was a recent memory, the Korean war was raging, and anti-Asian propaganda was inseparable from pop culture. Four years later, Marlon Brando will squint his way through Teahouse of the August Moon, and 9 years later Mickey Rooney will bare his buck teeth as Mr.Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even in ‘52, when pan-Asian racism was relatively normal, even encouraged, this brief exchange between Ryan and Douglas was all it took to convey the essence of American life at the crossroads of misogyny, meanness and hayseed provincialism.

It’s not "politically correct" to call out comic bits that are wholly dependent on racial coding and broad stereotypes. It’s merely correct. And in 2015, theaters choosing to produce vintage shows with intrinsically racist content need to develop strategies for working with and around said content. Like, for instance, the Chinese-impersonation gag in Anything Goes, currently running at Theatre Memphis. Watching the east Memphis playhouse’s lukewarm production of this American standard, I felt a little like Babs Stanwyck in Clash by Night. Theatre Memphis stood in for Paul Douglas, and did a fine job of playing the sturdy, well-intentioned suitor wanting nothing more than to show me a good time! And oh, baby, with its hot as hell score by Cole Porter, and a frivolous, lighter than champagne bubbles script, Anything Goes is a delectable sexy-ass beast on par with Robert Ryan shirtless, slathered in Crisco. But, as the above scene suggests, that shit was ugly in 1952, and by now we should know better. We should do better.

I’m happy to report that there are many talented performers in TM’s Anything Goes. But only a handful of characters ever make it all the way to the stage. James Dale Green makes a fine Monopoly Man, hoping to seduce Ann Sharp. Likewise, in a role custom fit, the accomplished Sharp gives a top drawer performance as the show’s dotty Market Crash widow.

As the ineffective gangster (public enemy #13) Moonface Martin, the great Barry Fuller has perpetrated an accidental act of terrible cruelty. He’s gone off and crafted a not-to-be-missed performance in the midst of a show that people with options might consider skipping. And although I think she’s miscast as the worldly evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, musical theater powerhouse Whitney Branan very nearly pulls it all off. Beyond that, things get dicey. Even the usually reliable songbird and character actor Emily F. Chateau only manages one singularly grating dimension, as a shrill gun moll making her getaway.

Did I mention that I fell in love a little? Probably not, but I should. Porter’s “Friendship,” is an underrated masterpiece of rhyming meta-pop whimsey, and Fuller and Branan make a little magic when they sing it together. This sly, easygoing number showcases everything Fuller does best. And given an opportunity to slow down and connect with a co-star, Branan gives us a taste of the richly-imagined Reno Sweeney that might have been. In the parlance of the show, the dame’s pretty fabulous.

Speaking of fabulous, there’s also a spectacular tap number. And boy do all those gold sequins sparkle. And… and that’s all I’ve got. None of the main characters connect, which means a goodly number of jokes don’t connect either. With notable exceptions they fly by sans set up, sans follow through, sans teeth, sans everything. Everything, except, of course, great songs. You may want to go ahead and click here too. 

It's been said (and said, and said...), comedy is all in the timing. This Anything Goes stands as a fine and finely paradoxical proof. It’s a slow slogging two-and-a-half hour musical stuck in perpetual fast-forward. In this environment, less desirable things stand out.

TM's Anything Goes isn't all bad. But it's not especially good either. And the "yellow face" aspect made me physically cringe. It colors everything else that happens in a farce that, as the title suggests, should be pulling out the stops in the name of good fun. People will disagree, of course, even though I'm hardly the first person to flag the problem. They’ll say I’m too PC. Some will dismiss the very idea that naked racism might be embedded in a wholesome American classic that’s been performed by high school theater departments across this great, not even a little bit racist land. They might bring up canonical (but socially progressive) texts like Huckleberry Finn, or gird their arguments with talk of changing sensibilities, as if the antique content and the production vessel it currently inhabits, were somehow interchangeable. But c'mon, folks. This isn't complicated.

  • Theatre Memphis

Let's be clear. What I’m describing isn't sympathetic non-traditional casting. Nor is this in any way comparable to The (still controversial) Scottsboro Boys, which uses extreme racial stereotypes to contextualize historic racism. It’s straightforward race-based minstrelsy created for the sole purpose of giving comic actors a chance to do their best Robert Ryan. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Songwriters on Stage: The Hattiloo Remembers Nina Simone, Theatre Memphis Stages a Cole Porter Classic

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 4:28 PM


There's nobody like Nina Simone. She only had one top 40 hit, but the classically trained, jook joint tested author of "Mississippi Goddam," was a musical force, and a civil rights icon.  This week The Hattiloo opens Simply Simone, a review that uses multiple performers to explore various stages of Simone's life and career. To whet your appetite, here's an extensive concert clip of Simone performing in Holland, 1965. 

Just a little further east Theatre Memphis celebrates the music of Cole Porter with the shipboard musical Anything Goes. Which means you'll want to spin this 1962 Broadway cast recording a couple of times. It's the tops. 

Voodoo Shakespeare: Stephanie Shine Sets "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Bayou.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2015 at 10:43 AM

Phil Darius Wallace as Oberon, Stephanie Weeks as Titania, and Noah Duffy - COURTESY OF TSC
  • Courtesy of TSC
  • Phil Darius Wallace as Oberon, Stephanie Weeks as Titania, and Noah Duffy

Tennessee Shakespeare Company is reviving one of the bard's best loved comedies, and giving it a distinctly Southern twist. Intermission Impossible asked director Stephanie Shine about the magical elements found in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and how she's used regional music to recontextualize the play's familiar settings and characters. 

Intermission Impossible: Tell me a little bit about your perspective on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and how you came to give it a voodoo/bayou twist.

Stephanie Shine: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is play known to many. If it’s not known specifically, it’s known generally. So there’s this sense of familiarity about it. For this production in particular, I wanted to explore the depths of it. Because, I think the general notion, speaking for all of America here, is that it’s a great comedy. And it is. It’s one of the great comedies. But it also has a soul worth mining. And the soul of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of transformation. Shakespeare has all the characters go into a forest. And, as with so much literature, where there is a trial by nature — a trial by forest — you come out changed. Everybody gets to change because of the forest. And, with that in mind, I wanted to emphasize the area of change. That’s where the bayou comes into play because in my mind, and in my imagination the bayou is sultry, ever changing, ever mysterious. And you never quite know if you’re on terra firma or not. And you think about the animals that might be existing in there, and the inherent dangers, and the sounds of the bayou. And the fireflies— it just seemed like a really great place to try yourself. To see if you could do a night in the bayou . And what it would be like coming out the other end.

I like the regional specificity— that it’s a distinctly Southern choice.

For us here in the south the Bayou is familiar ground. The play has so many magical elements to it, and I think the bayou grounds us. Because we understand the setting and we can imagine things unimaginable happening in the bayou.

Noah Duffy at Puck. - COURTESY OF TSC
  • Courtesy of TSC
  • Noah Duffy at Puck.

And we’re familiar with the sounds.

Midsummer it is a very musical play it has lots of music in it and I consider there to be four fairly distinct worlds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and each of those worlds is represented musically. That's what's fun about having it set in a Southern Louisiana-inspired setting, because the music of that culture so rich. And that's one way to define the worlds— by the sounds that we hear.

How does all of that work?

Part of the comedy is watching how these worlds intersect. There is the world of martial, military law that we have in the court of Duke Theseus, who wooed [the Amazon Queen] Hippolyta with his sword and won her by doing her injuries. Now he’s going to wed her whether she likes it or not. The young lovers experience this martial law when Hermia’s father Egeus comes to Theseus and says, “Well if my daughter won't marry the person I want her to marry, I'm going to call up an old law.” God knows in our country there are so many old laws on the books you don't know exist anymore until someone brings them up. And I kind of think this law is that way as well.

Good point. I think Egeus describes it specifically as the “ancient” law of Athens.

He does. Then we have the young lovers who are looking towards hope, and trying to carve a new existence for themselves. And you've got the immortals— the fairies who exist without having a lot of interaction human beings knowingly. But they certainly wreak havoc on human world. We also have the mechanicals who work with simpleness and duty, trying very hard to produce art that will be pleasing to people. And of course they have a big transformation in the forest as well when Bottom is turned into that donkey.

And each of these groups has its own musical sound.

Our human world setting is the mid-nineteen-forties, which makes sense, coming at the end of a war. So there’s all that wonderful big-band music. And the mechanicals play the music live. All six of them play a variety of musical instruments, and many learned just for this production. The sounds of the mechanical world is early New Orleans Jazz. And then in the forest it's Cajun, Acadian, Creole and all ancient sounds. Who knows how old some of those melodies really are? It’s fun to bring them to life again for the lullaby to Titania and the blessing.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so frequently produced. How many times have you done it?

Actually not too many times given the length of my career and how popular the play is. I did it once when I was 20. I played a fairy. I’ve directed it twice. Once with middle school kids and later professionally. But it's been 17 or 18 years since I've had any in depth contact with the play, which is also a blessing. It's humbling to come back to a play you think you know, and you’ve got almost two decades of life under you, and all of a sudden it's speaking a different language to you. That's why we do Shakespeare. That's why you spend a life with Shakespeare. Although there's a limited number of plays, what they have to offer you is infinite.
G Valmont Thomas (Bottom) and Stephanie Weeks (Titania). - COURTESY OF TSC
  • Courtesy of TSC
  • G Valmont Thomas (Bottom) and Stephanie Weeks (Titania).

Wow. That is unusual. I’d have guessed you would have worked on it many times, and I was hoping for some insight as to how one goes about greeting old friends as strangers.

If it’s not something that I’ve personally been involved with it's not quite an issue. If I’ve done a show several times within recent history— like the Romeo and Juliet that I’ve directed every year for four years — that's a challenge. I have to really think about it. Really take time to figure out what the play is saying this time that is different than even eleven months ago. What's important in the world that the play might address? So it's always topical, always fresh.

Transformation is the thing that really stands out in my mind about Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s first production of Midsummer several years ago. Specifically in regard to the character Puck. The text makes it clear that he’s a shapeshifter, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that fact made so clear as it was in that production, directed by Dan McCleary. You’ve already talked a little bit about transformation, I was hoping you might take a deeper dive on that theme.

The word that Shakespeare uses to describe that is “translated.” At first I thought, “translated?” Are they speaking malaprops? But no. Translation is to change the form. This starts in the forest when Bottom is physically turned into which he behaves. And then he’s changed once again from an actor that was all about, “I” to an actor who is all about, “we.” And as you know, you can’t do theatre if “we” isn’t the active pronoun.

Puck’s feelings about the mortal world are ones of disdain: “Lord what fools these mortals be!” He likes to make your life difficult for humans. But something changes in Puck too. He talks about his transformations and how he'll make himself to look differently and scare people. Then towards the end of the play he's the one who comes out to offer the final blessing and the apology to the audience. So it's within Puck that we see how the fairy world changes its viewpoint about humanity.

When I think about Tennessee Shakespeare, I think about environmental productions. But this time around you’re using the University of Memphis’ theater.

We are not only using the University of Memphis to space but the partnership that came about as a result of collaboration with Holly Lau and the whole theatre department at the University of Memphis, is allowing us to build our set there and out costumes. So we're really in residence right now. It's a beautiful rehearsal situation to have all the elements we need in one space. That’s not always been afforded to this company. It just feels like a dream come true.

Stephanie Weeks at Titania. - COURTESY OF TSC
  • Courtesy of TSC
  • Stephanie Weeks at Titania.

Speaking of transformation, I love environmental theater and have done a lot of it. But sometimes it’s a relief not having to expend so much energy trying to make a viable theater experience a place that was never intended to be a theater.

I have watched Dan McCleary spend so much time and effort doing exactly that. We were constantly inventing a space. Often it can give you marvelous artistic explosions and insights. But sometimes it's so nice to be in a theater and let other elements of your artistry have an opportunity to come to the surface. You know there are only so many hours in a day.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on the University of Memphis main stage June 4-21, 2015

The production’s title sponsor is FedEx, is sponsoring a "Free Will Kids Night" every Thursday. Up to four children under 17 years will be admitted free when accompanied by a paying, attending guardian. Also, family morning matinees will be made available Wednesday mornings at 10:30 am.

Some images and sounds from TSC's 2011 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

RIP: Memphis Actor John Malloy

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2015 at 3:13 PM

John Malloy as King Lear (L) with Jazzy Miller. And as Jones (R) in "Cannery Row."
  • John Malloy as King Lear (L) with Jazzy Miller. And as Jones (R) in "Cannery Row."

I'm really going to miss getting the random "catching up" phone call from Memphis actor John Malloy.

Malloy, who passed away this week at the age of 82, was a character actor's character actor, as comfortable on stage as he was in front of a camera. He played one of the lovable bum's in the 1982 film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, and appeared in a number of other films such as Black Snake Moan, Hoffa, and My Blueberry Nights. Malloy also taught theater classes for the University of Memphis' Continuing Education program. " 


I only had the pleasure of working with Malloy once, in a rough and tumble production of Shakespeare's Henry V, produced in the beer garden of the Tennessee Brewery. The gruff-edged actor loved Shakespeare, and loved acting as much as anyone I've ever seen. He told the best backstage stories and was incredibly patient as a certain young actor (turned theater critic) asked endless questions about McNary Co. Sheriff Buford Pusser and the drive-in movie classic, Walking Tall: The Final Chapter. 

If you don't know about Pusser and the Walking Tall Movies, this is as good a place as any to start. 

In the final installment of the original Walking Tall trilogy, Malloy played Mel, a Hollywood producer who comes to Tennessee to make a movie about Pusser's tragic life and crime-fighting exploits. 

Here's the scene where Mel meets Buford. I especially enjoy how believably Bo Svenson, the actor playing Pusser, delivers the line, "huh?" Enjoy it. And rest in peace John Malloy, you were one of a kind. 


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