Friday, September 25, 2015

Quick Hits: "Rumors," "Gin Game," and "Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking"

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2015 at 4:53 PM

Gin's a Tonic

What do you get when you mix a dynamite husband and wife team like Jim and Jo-Lynne Palmer with a dynamite script like The Gin Game? Fireworks, that's what. That's pretty much all I'm saying about this one for now. A fuller review of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play will appear on this blog mid-week. 

In case you don't know, The Gin Game's about a couple of nursing home patients who get to know a little too much about one another over cards. Dark comedy with that nursing home smell.

The Gin Game: Through Oct. 4 at
Theatre Memphis



Doesn't Have It

Love him or hate him you have to admire Neil Simon's craftsmanship. The guy knows how to write comedy. Farce, on the other hand, I'm not so sure. 

Full disclosure: I've never liked Rumors. But goodness knows I've tried to. I've suffered through it four or five times at least, and always with an open mind. The play's action is rooted in a very human trait, and one that interests me deeply: Love of a good story. Never once— other than a "too little too late" twist in the closing moments— does the show live up to its pedigree, or its promise. 

The plot, such as it is: A fancypants party is spoiled when guests arrive to discover the hostess and servants gone, and the host shot and mostly unconscious, but in no danger of losing more than an ear lobe. Nobody knows exactly and wild speculation results in wild antics. The big problem: In order to suspend one's disbelief and enjoy, we have to allow that the characters on stage are all incredibly stupid. And not just mildly so either. They are stupid to the point of being reprehensible. 

GCT Director Jason Spitzer hasn't given his show much in the way of dynamics. It's a shoutfest. The volume starts somewhere around 11 or 12 and it's never turned down. So too the breakneck pace. 

The cast's got  lot of heart, and there's some nice character work happening behind all that loudness. But to what end?

Rumors is at Germantown Community Theatre through Sept. 27


Old School

Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking is exactly that. It's about two old guys who allegedly don't like each other just sitting around talking. With its park bench setting and semi-absurd tone, the comedy is reminiscent of many other shows. Zoo Story, Waiting for Godot, and I'm Not Rappaport all come to mind, though Black Guys it's never quit as substantial as any of that. Most viewers will be able predict the play's trajectory by the end of scene one making the journey the destination. 

Posted by Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company on Monday, September 14, 2015

T.C. Sharpe and J.S. Tate are top notch actors and fun to watch as they fuss at one another and spin their yarns. In their hands, and with the help of director Ruby O'Gray, an interesting counter-narrative emerges. Gender roles and expectations are explored as two old guys who both dated the same woman come to understand that they are, for all intents and purposes, an old married couple. They may not like it, but that's just how it is. 

Gus Edward's script has its moments but could stand a serious haircut. There's a much better and more focused one act play lurking in there somewhere. 

Bluff City Tri-Arts Theatre presents Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking. At TheatreWorks through Sept. 27. 

Voices of the South Revives the Company's Earliest Performances

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2015 at 9:43 AM

Saturday night at the Buckman Center (Sept. 26), Voices of the South founders Alice Berry and Jenny Odle Madden will recreate their 20-year-old company's earliest narrative theater performances. 

Madden and Berry were an unlikely partnership. Both were University of Memphis theater students, but they couldn't have been less alike. Madden did all the musicals while Berry was drawn to drama and more experimental work. But they were both inspired by the narrative theater pieces developed by professor Gloria Baxter who became mentor and creative partner.

Tonight's program includes a performance of The Window, a story by Memphis author Eleanor Glaze, and Listening, from the first chapter of Eudora Welty's autobiography, "One Writer's Beginnings."

The Window tells the story of Miss Manifest, an elderly woman who finds she has locked herself out of her house. Listening is a lyrical look at childhood, exploring Welty's, "memory, family, and her life-long love of words."

Also, if you'd like to learn more about Voices of the South's origin story, here's a short video of Madden, Berry, and Baxter, telling the story, along with some great photos from early productions.    

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Hattiloo Stages August Wilson's Last Play, Radio Golf

Posted By on Thu, Sep 24, 2015 at 5:48 PM


August Wilson’s plays are full of love, life and humor, but they all list in the direction of tragedy and his life's work documents just about everything that went wrong in America during the 20th-Century. Over the course of 9-plays set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and one play set inside a Chicago recording studio, Wilson’s wordy wonders celebrate 100-years of African-American achievement, culture and community. Everything is set against the backdrop of Jim Crow, exploitation, segregation, isolation, war, overcriminalization, labor dispute, banking disaster, and the flight of blue collar industry from the urban core. Although it was first produced in 2005, Radio Golf— currently running at the Hattiloo Theatre— even addresses topical issues like police officers shooting unarmed African-Americans, with relative impunity. Radio Golf is set in 1997, making it the last play in the series chronologically. It’s also the last play Wilson wrote before he died. It’s easily the author's leanest work and his most direct. The story is a heady, Mamet-esque mix of business and politics that looks at a specific kind of gentrification masquerading as urban renewal. It’s primarily a study in class bias and exceptionalism: the public tendency to define minority groups by best and worst examples as determined by a white middle class standard, but widely adopted across the cultural spectrum. Forced to describe the play in one word, “prescient,” might just do the trick.

In addition to all those other things, Radio Golf is also a good old fashioned Cain and Abel story. Harmond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks are two old school chums from the “wrong side of town” who got out, got educated, and are now going back and “giving back,” to their down-at-heel community. Their gift will appear in the form of mass demolitions followed by the construction of condos, and an enormous retail development with a Whole Foods. At the top of the play both men are hopeful that the area will be designated as “blight” by the city, so they can qualify for more grants and public aid. Their individual attitudes are about to be adjusted by the people they meet after opening a business office/campaign headquarters in the Hill District.

Roosevelt is a Tiger Woods fan who thinks the kids from his old neighborhood would really benefit from learning how to play golf. He’s done well for himself in the banking world, and is moving into radio station management. He’s also joining the hand-selected team of a successful white developer. The latter partnership gives said developer a minority front and a stake in the Hill district redevelopment. In return Roosevelt gets to spend more money and more time dreaming on the links.

Wilks reluctantly welcomes characters from the neighborhood into his office. He’s awkward and sometimes insulting, but he genuinely wants to employ these hard luck cases, and to engage them in the civic process. He wants to make them believe that they aren't alone and can make a difference. Sterling Johnson is an ex-con construction worker (originally introduced as a young man in Two Trains Running) and Elder Joseph Barlow is the strange talking man who could stop the retail development in its tracks. These two men represent the neighborhood as it is now, while functioning as ghosts from its past. Over time Wilks hears what the two men are saying, and realizes the degree to which he’s been the victim of pervasive urban narratives regarding everything from blight to the meaning of success. He wants to be everybody’s mayor someday, but the more he tries to do the right thing, the more he’s made to understand how the things he’s required to do to be elected will make him a, “white man’s mayor.”

Roosevelt has no patience for the less fortunate men who drop by his office, and no time for his old friend’s crisis of conscious. When it becomes clear that he and WIlks have acquired Barlow’s property illegally, he dismisses the technicality and moves forward with demolition. And so the tension lines are drawn.

Emmanuel McKinney (Wilks) and Bertram Williams Jr. (Roosevelt) give strong performances as the upwardly mobile partners. They are sometimes eclipsed by Shadeed A. Salim (Barlow) and Willis Green (Johnson), who bring the neighborhood characters to life with tremendous subtlety, understanding, and detail.

Joia Erin Thornton also turns in a solid performance as Mame Wilks, Harmond’s marketing director and wife. She watches her career falter as a result of her husband’s good deeds. As her plans fall apart so does the marriage. What does saving an historic home and the soul of a neighborhood mean if you lose your cushy gig working for the governor?

For its relative brevity, Radio Golf picks up on histories launched in Wilson's first play Gem of the Ocean, and carried forward throughout the Pittsburgh series. Director Lawrence Blackwell has done a great job pulling all the threads together. As a result, one doesn’t have to be a Wilson scholar to pick up on the backstory. Some familiarity may help.  

Opera, Queen, Barbershop Quartets, and Jookin

Posted By on Thu, Sep 24, 2015 at 2:27 PM

I've been posting a lot about Opera. But during 30-Days of Opera there's a lot to post about! If you missed the recent OM performance at the Levitt Shell, here's a fun recap. The best part starts at 1:40 with a look at the Opera/Jookin Song/Dance battle. Dang. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Opera, Opera Everywhere...

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2015 at 1:43 PM


Opera Memphis General Director Ned Canty hates to say no to anybody. But September's now-annual 30 Days of Opera event has grown to near capacity since it launched four years ago. And every year there are more fall festivals and events to choose from. He can't take live opera to all of them, can he?

"What we really need to figure out before next year is a way to get more access to more singers," Canty says of an event that was originally conceived as a profile-raising campaign involving one location-specific opera event per day for an entire month. Now, most days in September, the company does at least two, and often three, off-site performances.

A different kind of Meow Mix.

This week's 30 Days performance schedule includes a Friday-night concert at the Levitt Shell. "That's a show where we know the audience is proportionately least likely to have attended an opera," says Canty, who's always eager to get his singers in front of fresh eyes and ears. "So what we have is an open-minded audience that enjoys a lot of different types of musical experiences but are not necessarily coming to our events." He sees it as an opportunity to preview Opera Memphis' upcoming season, share some of opera's greatest hits, sing some show tunes (maybe), and engage in some derring-do. This year, Canty is pairing individual singers with Memphis street-style dancers from New Ballet Ensemble. The duos will then square off against one another in an opera-enhanced version of a jookin' dance battle.

Opera + Jookin= It's On 

"The concert at the Shell really kicks off our season in a way that's ecstatic and kind of, 'hell yeah,'" Canty says. "We will end with 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' which is just a lot of fun for all of us."

Kid stuff

The concert is free, but those interested in adding dinner and drinks to the evening may want to consider paying $25 to attend ArtsMemphis' Shell Out for the Arts pre-concert event, which includes a meal by the Brushmark and chef Abby Jestis and beverages courtesy of Buster's Liquors.

Singing for sweet potatoes

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Krapping You Negative: Beckett Finds Love at Theatre South

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2015 at 11:42 PM

Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
  • Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.

A question that is seldom asked: What does Samuel Beckett's mini-masterpiece Krapp's Last Tape have in common with poop porn? Consider the "reaction video," a digital-era phenomenon that came of age following the release of Two Girls, One Cup, a pornographic short depicting two women enjoying a pint glass full of human chocolate. Here's a classic reaction video of somebody showing the infamous TG1C clip to their grandmother. As viral content goes, it's horrible. And a stone cold classic. 

So, what's the point of this strange comparison? For starters, I want to demystify Beckett, whose work is often characterized as being difficult and detached. Also, in both a formal sense, and as a piece of entertainment, Krapp's Last Tape functions identically to a reaction video. If granny makes you laugh, blush, cringe, or shake your head, you'll have no trouble at all engaging with Krapp. In both cases the comedy and the pathos are are rooted in the relationship between a candid observer and the content stored on his/her technology. Only instead of watching girls go wild, Beckett's titular curmudgeon sits at an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and listens, in real time, to a decades old recording of himself reviewing an even older recording of himself. It's an Escher portrait of a mirror selfie, reducing one man's entire life to 40-minutes of covert clowning. It is, by turns, hilarious and hateful, and in a masterful performance that lives up to that description, Memphis actor Tony Isbell hits every single note, high and low.

Krapp's Last Tape hasn't just aged well, it's become even more resonant in the age of Instagram and #TBT. Contemporary audiences are primed to sympathize with a solitary man interacting with his device.

Update: I'm in my kitchen writing a review of Krapp's Last Tape. And I need a shave. Also, even though you can't see it, there's an entire bunch of overripe bananas hanging behind my head. - ME
  • Me
  • Update: I'm in my kitchen writing a review of Krapp's Last Tape. And I need a shave. Also, even though you can't see it, there's an entire bunch of overripe bananas hanging behind my head.

Toward the end of his opening night performance Isbell struggled to detach a spool of tape from Krapp's antique recorder. That's all part of the show. But when the spool finally released something seemingly spontaneous and wonderful happened. The actor reeled backwards, hitting a pendent lamp hanging above his head. Planned or not, the result was more effective than any expensive special effect ever could be. The lamp swung like a mad pendulum, casting the protagonist in light and leaving him in darkness over and over again until, at last, all potential energy was spent. Action, reaction, etc. Visual metaphors don't get much better or more basic than that. 

Krapp's Last Tape
shares the stage with a neatly packed production of Beckett's rarely-seen micro-drama, Ohio Impromptu. The show's action consists of a stationary "reader," (Adam Remsen) reading a book to a similarly stationary "listener," (Isbell), who remains silent but sometimes knocks to indicate he'd like to hear a passage repeated. Remsen's interpretation is smart and sympathetic but, through no fault of his own, it's never all it could be. Beckett wrote for unique voices. Krapp's Last Tape, for example, was inspired by a radio performance given by British actor Patrick McGee. While Remsen did his job beautifully, Ohio Impromptu cries out — like a strange disembodied mouth — for a special voice that paints vivid pictures in the surrounding blackness. That's why I'm looking forward to a repeat performance when age and experience have seasoned the soft-spoken actor's pipes. 

A strange disembodied mouth

My favorite thing about this night of independently produced theater is its origin story. The nutshell: a couple of actors realized they both loved a play that's easy and inexpensive to stage, so they staged the damn thing. Because, why not? More like that, please.

Big things really do come in small packages. I should probably use that line to connect this closing graph to the poop porn in my opening. But, in spite of having just typed the words, "poop porn in my opening," I'm not that kind of critic. It's hard to imagine a more modest production than Krapp's Last Tape and Ohio Impromptu. It's equally hard to imagine a more satisfying night in the theater. 

Standing. Clapping. 
Picture,  or it didn't happen! - ME
  • Me
  • Picture, or it didn't happen!

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Monday, September 14, 2015

The Halloran Centre for Performing Arts and Education is Open

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2015 at 4:55 PM


Here are some images from Saturday's open house for the new Halloran Centre

Pat Halloran pops a collar and does an interview.
  • Pat Halloran pops a collar and does an interview.

The new Centre is full of classrooms and meeting rooms.
  • The new Centre is full of classrooms and meeting rooms.

Decor is fun and funky modern.
  • Decor is fun and funky modern.

All that and there's a 300-seat theater too.
  • All that and there's a 300-seat theater too.

When the first curtain rose on a performance by Ballet Memphis (set to a Roy Orbison song), we were there to capture it for posterity. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Opera Stories

Posted By on Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 5:52 PM

Opera Memphis is ten days into its annual 30 Days of Opera. This year the singers have made a video where they tell their favorite opera stories.

The stories are nice, but let's face it. It's all about the intro and the outro.   

Friday, September 4, 2015

Que Calor: "In the Heights" is Hot, Hot, Hot

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2015 at 5:22 PM


Powerlessness. Blackouts as metaphor. Life in an isolated urban multiethnic community with irregular transit and limited opportunity. None of that sounds like the foundation for a Tony-winning feel-good Broadway musical, does it?

Then again, In the Heights isn't your typical Tony-winning Broadway musical.

There's a lot to love about this hip-hop-inspired street scene with its intermingling Caribbean and Puerto Rican accents. And there's a lot to digest after the last notes fade. It's interlocking stories are old fashioned romantic melodrama, but the themes are current and vital. These lighter-than-they-might-be tales of transition and struggle combine into a modern fable about urban decay, tradition, and gentrification. It's the story of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood in the 90's, as told from the perspective of corner store regulars. It's the voice of shopkeepers, shaved ice vendors, and graffiti artists. There's love in the ruins, young and old. And a sense of shared identity that even brings hustling entrepreneurs close to the vandals that plague them.  

The Hattiloo is getting really good at putting street life on stage. In the Heights' design echoes last season's excellent set work for King Hedley II. In spirit, anyway. Hedley was Philly in bad decline. From the Unisex Salon to the street-side bodega and coffee shop, this is a taste of the Heights at the end of the boom box era. Both shows really get at the essence of crumbling places at a specific moment in time.

Breezy, heartfelt performances from a tight ensemble completes the picture. While I can imagine more lively and robust productions, it's hard to imagine one more honest or appealing.   

Montanez Shepherd is especially fine as the entire neighborhood's adopted grandmother. But don't take my word for it. Watch this clip. 
Hattiloo Theatre to open "In the Heights"
The acting is solid, the dance is a hot as a New York subway station in August. But In the Heights, bittersweet poetry oozes from the details. A family owned limo service closes, and it's sign comes down. The change reveals an older style sign for a different family's car service from back in the days when the neighborhood moved to an entirely different beat. 

Good, thoughtful stuff. Catch it while it lasts. 

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