Friday, November 20, 2015

Magic Flute Star Sings Game of Thrones Theme Song

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 12:15 PM

Sean Panikkar opens up.
  • Sean Panikkar opens up.

Even if you're not an opera aficionado, you may be at least a little bit familiar with Sean Panikkar. He's part of Trio Forte, an all tenor band that made a good showing on America's Got Talent in 2013. Panikkar is in Memphis this weekend playing the role of Prince Tamino in Opera Memphis' rainforest-themed production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. 

Here's a video of Panikkar and his Forte partners running around Ireland with swords singing a vocal cover of the Game of Thrones theme song in High Valyrian

Friday, November 13, 2015

"A Box of Yellow Stars" Shows Promise at TheatreWorks

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 10:27 PM

Natalie Parker-Lawrence is a good writer. It's easy to imagine the characters she words into existence as flesh and blood people. There are many fine, emotionally honest passages in her new play, A Box of Yellow Stars. But good writers aren't always good plotters, and developing conflict may not be this full-time educator's strongest hand. In its current state A Box of Yellow Stars plays out more like a collection of related sketches than cohesive piece of theater. Still, fans of good acting may not mind the opportunity to watch Janie Paris and Donna Lappin do their thing  

There's a lot of promise in the premise, and a lot of heart evident in its execution. The setup: During WWII an American trumpet player and spy married (and quickly divorced)14 Jewish women (and apparently one man) in order to bring them to America and save them from the Nazis. The story is told in the form of various remembrances at his funeral, which is attended by three of the ex-wives, none of whom really know each other. It's based on a story the playwright learned from one of her students, and allegedly true. 

Director Ruby O'Gray has helped her actors build believable relationships and that carries the show forward when the play spins its wheels. 

There's a lot of good stuff happening in the first 1/3 of this script, but the last 2/3 aren't quite ready for prime time. Best advice I've got: Jettison the last two acts. Don't look back.  Let this play be about a mother and daughter opening a box of yellow stars with the help of some new friends. Let them discover they are all part of a much bigger family. 

Voices of the South Makes Heaven a Place on Earth

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 12:44 PM

Big kid, little kid, and Mrs. Stone in Jerre Dye's "Short Stories" - VOICES OF THE SOUTH
  • Voices of the South
  • Big kid, little kid, and Mrs. Stone in Jerre Dye's "Short Stories"

The opening moments are really something to see. The cast members of Short Stories walk through an all white corridor hung with white velour curtains that wear the light like heaven. They carry luggage and pull carts, silently passing one another, making their lonely journeys across time and space by way of this narrow celestial concourse. It’s otherworldly, church-bulletin pretty, with kitschy undercurrents that, because of the context, instantly reminded me of an interview with playwright Jerre Dye’s older brother John who died in 2011. John, a U of M theater alum who played the angel of death character on TV’s Touched by an Angel, once told me how he sometimes made people very uncomfortable on airplanes. The triggered memory made me laugh all over again, and I’m not sorry, though it probably seemed like an inappropriate response to anybody not inside my head.

I’m especially thankful for that opening moment, and for the tone established by VOTS company member Todd Berry in the show’s somewhat meandering opening monologue. I knew right away that this was the classic version of a company I’ve grown up with, at the height of their powers and fully in charge. The content — taking nothing away from its creator — becomes almost irrelevant in hands that know how to sieve meaning from the oddest scraps of found text. After some growing pains, some shakeups, and a victory lap of revivals celebrating 20-years of original play-making, order appears to have been restored. The grownups are in charge, and they’re the same standout kids I remember from 20-years-ago, still turning prose into playful theater. But a lot of water has poured under a lot of bridges over the past two decades. There has been a lot of change, a lot of struggle, and too much loss. Some life-and-company affirming version of The Five People Jerre Dye Wants You to Meet in Heaven is probably overdue for everybody.

Short Stories is exactly what it says. It’s a collection of brief, meditative narratives about loss: Loss of parents, loss of youth, loss of freedom, loss of identity, loss of love, loss of lifestyle, loss of control, loss of innocence, and loss of Jesus. Or Jesusness, at any rate. There’s a lot of Jesus and Jesusness in this play. Many hushed tones and reverent, sweetly-held silences too. Also adjectives. There are lots of glittering, garish, alluring, stinky, and provocative adjectives, languidly, and liberally scattered near adverbs and such. That Dye kid can write, but somebody needs to have a intervention regarding the ornamentals. It doesn’t make his prose richer or more musical, it only makes it more. And by more, in this case, I mean less than it might be. Less confident. Less clear. All heart, but less to the heart of the matter.

"Uber" is a story performed by Berry, about two men telling stories. One is an oversharing driver with roots in the far east. The other is a distant passenger who doesn’t know he’s in powerful need of blessing. 'Uber' is best when it’s in the moment, letting the audience decide what these internal and external dialogues mean as guarded and gregarious strangers clash, connect, and talk about death in their families. The piece ruminates too much on itself. Most all of these stories do. But "Uber" is effective in contextualizing both the evening, and the mission of a theatre company deeply committed to the singularity-like power of stories to connect across cultures, generations, dimensions, time, space and maybe even the void of death. 

Jesus and Mrs. Stone is where Dye really unpacks his adjectives. And his Jesus. But let's face it, if you’re not hooked by the faintly New Age-ish inner-child dance that opens this story, you’re probably dead inside. The opening is all about that thing kids once called “the feels” (till their parents coopted it and they outgrew it, and life went on). In a sequence worthy of a Super Bowl commercial for virtually anything (or Guardians of the Galaxy credits at least) a grown man, played by David Couter connects with his old Sony Walkman cassette player and a song that unlocks his younger self (Reece Berry) and everything that mattered to him in the 1980’s. The song is the Go-Go’s first hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” What mattered was a fading free spirit named Ms. Stone, perfectly played by Anne Marie Caskey. Like Uber, it turns in on itself instead of resolving. It is, in some regards, one of Dye’s richest portraits wrapped in some of his thinnest writing. A little less wonderous wonderousness and a little more wonder would tighten things right up.

"Two or More," is the treat of the evening, and I’d be happy to spend an entire night in the theater watching Steve Swift and Cecelia Wingate sitting on their imaginary porch going back and forth. "Two or More" starts slow and stays that way, an excelent lesson for all those directors out there suffering under the illusion that broad farce is fitful and frenetic and works best when executed at breakneck speeds.

Voices of the South lives up to its name in so many ways, expected and un. "Two or More," is a direct ancestor of a classic comedy routine most closely associated with hayseed comedian Archie Campbell of Hee Haw fame. Though it was usually scripted, “That’s Good/That’s Bad,” functions like a theater game where a story is told in which all the things that sound good turn out bad and vice versa leading to a usually anticlimactic comic payoff. In this case Swift and Wingate talk about the fate of a young hellraiser who grew into an adult hellraiser who found a good woman that led him to Jesus so he could become a hellraiser for Jesus, before he fell off the wagon and lost Jesus but not the woman or the hellraising. And so on. It’s classic front porch comedy with more substance than it lets on. Pitch perfect front to back.

Short Stories closes with a piece called "Do You Love Me," a boy’s memory of his mother. Like most of the pieces up for consideration in this collection, it loses its way a bit while working through circumstances most viewers will respond to emotionally. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And David Couter and Alice Berry are so good together you’ll want to call your mama after curtain call, whether you’re able to or not.

This is a pretty show in sentiment and style. It's also some of the greenest writing we’ve seen from Theatre South’s most celebrated voice. Well, at least since the last time the company staged a collection of Dye's shorter works longing to grow up. That collection eventually spawned the excellent new play Distance. I'm really looking forward to seeing what mature things may grow from this latest seed batch. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Adrienne Barbeau Talks About Horror, 70's TV, Learning to Write and Her Role in "Pippin"

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 9:38 AM

Adrienne Barbeau in Pippin
  • Adrienne Barbeau in Pippin

Adrienne Barbeau has done it all. She originated the role of Rizzo in the Broadway cast of Grease. She played Bea Arthur’s daughter in the groundbreaking TV series Maude. She went on to become an icon of the horror genre, starring in films like The Fog, Swamp Thing, and Stephen King’s Creepshow. She married director John Carpenter, dated Burt Reynolds, and became a pinup queen with the release of her iconic 1978 poster. In recent years Barbeau has turned her attentions to writing, having penning a best-selling memoir, and a series of fun, funny vampire novels. She’s coming to Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre this week to play the role of Berthe in the musical Pippin.

Memphis Flyer: I love the way you write. That’s probably not what you expected me to say. And I do want to talk about everything— the Broadway, TV, film, and horror movies especially. But I had no idea you’d written novels until recently. It was unexpected, and Love Bites is so much fun.

Adrienne Barbeau: It was unexpected to me too. Ten years ago ago if anyone told me that I’d be writing something that somebody else would possibly read I would've laughed.

What inspired you to do it?

The launchpad was, I guess you would say, a psychic experience. My closest friend was a film editor who I met on the first day of preschool for my older son Cody who is now 31. Suzanne and I met in the late 80s and she passed away from breast cancer. On the first day of preschool for my twins a woman walked onto the campus who looks just like my deceased friend. The resemblance was so striking I think I must have stumbled or paled or something because she asked if I was okay. I said, “Yeah, I'm fine. You just look like a friend of mine who you wouldn't know. She was a film editor who passed away couple of years ago from breast cancer. And this woman said, “Oh, well I'm a film editor. And I have breast cancer. We could be best friends.” Those were her exact words. The next day we had a three hour get to know each other session over coffee. She just happened to mention that she had attended a reading of actors and actresses who were all studying writing with a woman who’d been a musical comedy star on Broadway at about the same time I was there. As soon as she said this I thought, “I'm supposed to go and study with this woman class. This is Suzanne coming to me from wherever she is telling me this is what I'm supposed to do.”

Did it come easy? 
If you take a writing class you’ve got to write. So I started taking homework assignments just writing little pieces about my life and my career. You know, things I thought people might find interesting or funny or humorous. Like, I’d just finished doing a low budget horror movie based on a Bram Stoker short story in Russia. It was called The Burial of the Rats, and I took it because I wanted to go to Moscow. Well, we landed on the day of an attempted coup. They fired on Parliament and martial law was declared. That was interesting. I was also supposed to be working with 50 trained rats, but there were only 16 and I think eight of them were dead. The rest had only been trained to eat anything that smelled like fish. So every time I’d do a scene where the rats had had to swarm all over me, they took fish eggs and squeezed the juice all over my body. I thought, “Well, somebody might find this interesting. I wrote about that. I wrote about meeting dating Burt Reynolds and being married to John Carpenter. And after about six months of bringing in homework assignments the teacher said, “You need to get an agent because this is a memoir.” So I did and that turned into Their Are Worse Things I Could Do. So Michael Scott, an Irish author read that, and approached me. He said I should write something for my horror fan base—all the people who go to the conventions and still watch The Fog and Creepshow. I said sure. I can write the characters and the scenes and the dialogue, but I am not a story person. So he said, “Well we'll do it together.”

I love how all the old Hollywood stars become vampires. And how you can write a line that’s scary, sexy, funny, and just the right amount of campy.

They're still working out the paperwork, but it looks like Love Bites has been purchased, and I wrote the screenplay which is something I never thought I’d do. Because I don't understand the screenwriting format at all. Maybe my mind doesn't work that way.

Really? I’d have thought you’d absorb that by osmosis. Right now I’m thinking about how much of The Fog John Carpenter rewrote and reshot after the first screening, and thinking that, being a couple, and being in the film, that had to be a crash course in every aspect of filmmaking. 

I never thought about that. I remember the night John screened his first cut of The Fog, and how upset he was because he felt like it didn't work. But I don't remember my reaction. Maybe he pulled me out of the room and asked, “Will you still love me if I never direct again?” I was certainly aware of the additions that he made and how they supported. It’s like when I did Escape From New York. People wanted to know what happened to my character, so we had to go back and shoot a scene with me dead on the garage floor. 

I’m inclined to talk about Escape From New York, but before I get too distracted  we should talk about about Pippin, since that show is bringing you to The Orpheum, and to Memphis. You play Berthe, the grandmother of Pippin— the son of Emperor Charlemagne. And her song, “No Time at All,” is all about the need to embrace life and live in the moment.That’s so you.

That's why I took the role. I never had seen it, and I think it's because I was either doing Fiddler on the Roof or Grease when Pippin opened on Broadway. When I was called just last year and asked if I’d be interested in going on the road I said, “Oh, I can't do that. My boys are just finishing high school, I need to be with them. Then I looked at the scene. Berthe sings, “Now when the drearies do attack, and a siege of the sad begins, I throw these regal shoulders back, and lift these noble chins.” And then she gets on a trapeze and hangs upside down. When I saw what [director] Adrian Martin was doing my first thought was, “I can do that, and it will be really fun to do.”

You started on stage and have occasionally returned. Do you like going back?

I started on stage and I've always been very comfortable with that approach. Then I went to LA with Maude. And then married John and Cody was born. When John and I separated there was no question that I was ever going to go back to New York for any extended period of time because I wouldn’t take Cody out of the town where his dad was. But I’ve gone back several times.

Do you have a preference? Films? Stage?

As I've gotten older my body clock is aligned with making movies. I wake up on my own at 5:30 or six and I'm happy to race off and sit in a trailer for 12 hours a day to do films. I don't enjoy theater the same way. It feels, weirdly, like I’m wasting my day when I have to spend so much of it working my energy up so I can go on stage at night. So, if I were just choosing projects based on the medium, stage would probably be the third choice after film and television. Because I'm just not as happy working at night. But this is a great show whatever my energy level is. it's just so joyful to start the first number and the audience goes so crazy for it. And I get to be on a trapeze.

So, it has to be the right project to tempt you back.

It’s like I say in the memoir, whenever I hear a producer say “We couldn't get this or that person for the part, they’ll never do something like this,”— you never know what someone will do. Make the offer and let them decide. I've taken jobs because I had to put a tent on my house to get rid of the termites. I've taken jobs because I want to go to Moscow. So I read everything that comes to me and, at this point in my life, I take roles because I want to do them whatever medium is. I took Argo, which was basically cameo but oh my God, to read that script and to know who was involved. By the same token, I get numerous horror scripts and they're not even spelled correctly. Nobody's even edited them. Maybe I'll get 10 pages in and I’ll think, “You know what? If this writer doesn't have enough respect for the medium to even use the correct word, there's no way I'm doing this.

From Broadway to Maude, to the horror films to voicing Catwoman in Batman the Animated Series, your career has intersected with pretty much all of my nerdy interests. The voice work seems like a lot of fun.

I really do enjoy the voice work for several reasons. One is I don't I put makeup on. I don't have to get dressed. It doesn't matter what I look like when I walk in the studio. I've been doing a lot of video description for the blind. I do that for the TV series 24, and Scream Queens, and a lot of movies. Playing Catwoman in Batman was such a great gig. And you never knew who was going to be in the studio when you walked in. I mean it was James Earl Jones, and Mark Hamill who was one of the regulars. I can do a couple of things well, but I'm not one of these people they can give you an eight-year-old boy with a cold, or a voice for a dog. I’ve also done a half dozen video games. About three years ago I did my first motion capture for Halo 4, where you you wear the full body suit with all the cameras on it.

I remember watching Maude every week. It was an early education in issues of the day wrapped up in a situation comedy.

I think that was the only way we were able to get away with it. We dealt with some really strong subjects and some very divisive and controversial subjects. I don't know what happened in Memphis, but you probably know there were many, many stations or affiliates that refused to carry the abortion episode. But because we dealt with it with humor, and with characters that the audience loved and wanted to see, we were able to cover all the bases. Had it been a diatribe— if somebody beat you over the head without the humor— it never would've gone past the first three weeks I don't think.

And what a cast. What a great group of actors to work with. Bea Arthur, especially.

I was coming from stage. And I had only done stage. I had no idea. I read a lot but I never watched TV. I didn't grow up watching television. I didn't watch anything. So I had no idea I had no idea how fortunate I was to be in that show with those people, and it wasn't until I started guesting on others television series that I realized how incredible Bea was. Not only as an actor, but as an actor applying her craft. She was the first one in the room every day and she was the last one to leave. She knew all of her lines before any of us. She was incredibly professional and giving. She was the first one, when we’d have a table read, to say, “You know, this just might be better if someone else said it.” Then I’d get on other sets and it would be like, “Where's the star?” And they’d say, “Oh, well he's not coming in until after lunch. Or, “Oh, he's pissed off,” or whatever. 

Did Bea help with the transition from the stage, since she did so much Broadway?

You know, we shot the whole show like it was a play. We didn’t stop once the camera started rolling, and we had a live audience. We did it twice in a day. We did a 5 o'clock show and we did an 8 o'clock show. After the 5 o'clock show the writers rewrote jokes that didn't work or cut whole sequences that went too long. So, while having dinner we were getting our notes and new pages. And we’d memorize those new pages. If you didn't have a stage background and you couldn’t memorize and incorporate all those changes you were screwed. We did have some guest stars that needed cue cards. They’d never worked that way. It took me a while to realize they hired me to basically be myself. Because something in me was able to stand up to Bea. But I wasn't so much like Bea in my comedic delivery that we worked well together. And, of course, I love her so that made it easy.

You’d been fishing for definitive roles, and there you are in this groundbreaking show. Did you know right away what a big deal it was?

It wasn't until years later when I started doing conventions and women and men would come up to me and say, “You had such an impact on my life. You taught me how I could be a strong woman at a time when society was still saying, “You don't have a lot of rights.” Or whatever. One young man came up and said, “You know, watching your family on Maude let me know that people could yell at each other and still love each other.” I knew we had a hit show. And I was really proud of it, and it was really funny. But I had no idea about any of the issues that the journalists were going to come to me and make me the the spokesperson for. Because, up until that time I grew up in a household where I didn't even know what political party my parents were registered in. And as far as they were concerned it's nobody’s business if they were Democrats or Republicans. If they read the paper they read it at work, because I don't remember ever having a newspaper the house or watching the news or anything. So I was just concentrating on being an actress, and getting a job, and all of that. And suddenly it was like, “So, how do you feel about the Equal Rights Amendment?” Of course that started me thinking, “How do I feel about these things?” Of course I was aligned with [Maude creator Norman Lear’s] thoughts. I know it caused [All in the Family star] Carol O'Connor great grief to be playing [Archie Bunker,] someone so different from him. I was fortunate that I was on the other side.

You somehow found yourself at the vanguard of cultural shifts. Nudie musicals like Stag Movie may not have gotten the best reviews, but they opened the door for adult content in musical theater. You do Maude, and you’re also doing comic book movies way before they’re the dominant box office attraction. What drove your decision making?

The decisions were all totally professional. Stag Movie. was the first starring role anybody offered me. I was going to sing 12 numbers I think. And yeah, I was gonna be doing some of them in the nude. I remember calling my mother to tell her. I think she said something like, “Well... It's off-Broadway Adrienne. Are you going to get paid?” It was all about what was the next step in the career. I guess I'm just very practical. Sometimes I took jobs because I needed to support myself.

Your horror writing is really playful. You seem to have a real affinity for the genre.

Oh no. In fact, I can count the number of horror films I've seen on one hand. I don't like seeing them. I remember when John showed me Halloween, and I thought, “Oh my God!” He was black and blue because I kept hitting him sitting next to me. I don't like being scared. Now, I love doing horror movies. And probably the reason I love doing them is they give me an opportunity. I don't play victims very easily or very well. I don't play weak very well. So those roles give me the opportunity to be the strong woman.

That’s actually surprising to me.

When they sent me the script for Creepshow I didn’t know who George Romero was. I knew nothing. And I read it and I thought, “Oh no. I can't this. It’s too bloody. It's too gory. There's so much violence. And John is saying to me, “Are you kidding me? Turn down an opportunity to work with George Romero? I mean, he's the master.” I saw that Tom Atkins, an actor I know, had been cast. I called him and said, “Tom, you're gonna do this? It's really bloody and gory. And he said, “No, no Adie, you’ve got to understand, he's gonna shoot it like a comic book. And I said, “Okay, alright, I'll do it. So I showed up, put myself in George's hands, and had more fun than I've ever had. Many years later I got an offer for a script by a director my agent said was a rock-and-roll musician or something. I read it and I said, “No way I'm doing this this.” It was The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie's big hit. I'm still not sorry I turned it down, but it turned out to be huge.

With so much interest in horror and comic book properties, are you getting lots of scripts?

They come in all the time. Unfortunately, they're not very good. There's a lot of dreck out there in the horror genre. I don’t know how they get financing.

You’ve conquered Broadway, TV, film, and publishing. What’s next? 

Well, we just did the rewrite on the screenplay of Love Bites. I'll also be playing a secondary role if it all works out.

So, there’s not a new poster in the works?

Oh. Ha! No. You know the poster was John's idea, actually. I think Farah's had come out. Or Cheryl Tiegs had come out and John said, "You aught to do this!" And I attribute the success of it to the photographer, a fella named David Alexander. He shot the James Taylor album where he's curled up in a box. And he shot a Linda Ronstadt cover. And when I walked into his studio he handed me the bustier and said, "Let's try this." And I loved it. And it was great for the cover of the memoir.  

I had to work the poster into the interview somewhere. I always wondered if there was a pinup rivalry between you and Farah and Cheryl.

No. I don't think so, anyway. You know, I don’t even think I met Farah until we did Cannonball Run together. And I never met Cheryl. There may have been rivalries between the publishing companies, but it was just something we did. 

We’ve gone through this whole interview and I didn’t bring up Cannonball Run. I must be slipping. Thanks for the chat Adrienne, look forward to seeing you in Memphis.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

No Doubt: Theatre Memphis Builds a Better Potboiler

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 2015 at 4:18 PM


Certainty isn't knowing. It's the feeling of knowing. Doubt is similarly a feeling of knowing something's wrong. These are emotional conditions and when it comes to understanding the world  — particularly things that conflict with core belief —  they are equally useless.   As American physician Dr. Robert A. Burton writes in his excellent book On Being Certain, "Cognitive dissonance tends to resolve itself in favor of feeling over reason." Misplaced feelings of knowing routinely overpower the intellect and, to that end, audiences know no more at the end of Patrick Shanley's  Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt than they do at its beginning. Still, we feel like we know things. Or that we don't know things. And when the play's over and the “Rashomon Effect” takes hold, some of those feelings about things we do and don't know may approach the certainty of eyewitness. Tensions are expertly managed as the script toys with viewer bias, never providing enough clarity or perspective to really measure how fragile intuition can be. 

Father Flynn opens the show with a lyrical sermon pitting certainty against its double. Playing Devil's advocate, like a good progressive, he makes a case for doubt, describing it as a difficult condition that can cement the bonds between man and God as solidly as faith. The degree to which one engages with the rest of the play may depend on whether or not you just rolled your eyes.

Flynn, we soon discover, is a gay man. Wait... maybe he isn't a gay man. He is, however, suspected of being a child molester by a nun who's suspects everyone and everything. The young priest has allegedly entered into an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable 12-year-old African-American student — the first to attend the Catholic school where Flynn coaches basketball. Or maybe he's entered into a healthy relationship with a young man who has nowhere else to turn for fatherly advice. Okay, here's everything we know for sure about Father Flynn: He's a Catholic priest, coach and educator who takes a personal interest in his charges and who was once spotted touching another boy's arm in a way that made Sister Aloysius uncomfortable. What we may feel or project onto him at any given moment is another matter.
Michelle Miklosey, Ryan Kathman, and Christina Wellford Scott.
  • Michelle Miklosey, Ryan Kathman, and Christina Wellford Scott.

Sister Aloysius is the school's principal and the humorless yin to Father Flynn's good-natured yang. She's less conservative than anti-progressive, and firmly convinced that ball point pens are a clear sign of civilization's latest decline. Her nature is suspicious to the extreme. She's smart but unwittingly functions as a vessel for institutional racism as well as a vigilant safeguard for the heteronormativity that keeps her and her sisters in their predetermined places. Her gut tells her Flynn's guilty of something so she sets out to see the man undone. What follows is a mashup in the finest traditions of witch hunts and detective stories calling to mind Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, David Mamet's Oleanna, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, Misery by Stephen King, and Arthur Conan Doyle's as yet undiscovered novel Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Problematic Priest. Originality may not be this play's strong hand.

Theatre Memphis' Doubt is a moody potboiler, smartly imagined and tightly staged by Director Tony Isbell. Jeremy Fisher's understated lighting helps to focus audience attention and Jack Yates' set, built entirely of doors, feels deceptively sturdy while wrapping the production in a Borgesian sense of boundless possibility. For all of its many fine qualities, it's also out of balance. 

Shanley's script tasks the actor playing Father Flynn with the impossible. To borrow from Goethe, "We see only what we know," and, in what amounts to a public trial where the only evidence is inadmissible evidence, Flynn is called on to counter accusations by Sister Aloysius and audience bias built from true, widely told stories of a paternalistic church systematically protecting priests by covering up instances of child molestation. Flynn is easily offered up as a sacrificial lamb. It's not supposed to work that way. It doesn't have to and shouldn't. But judging from various accounts, it seems to happen with this play.

As Flynn, Ryan Kathman is a strong, soft-spoken and calming presence. Forward-thinking appears to come easy, though his character is also equipped with an appropriate amount of male privilege for 1964. And for his position in a church where women bear so much responsibility with no authority to speak of. But Kathman withers under Christina Welford Scott's gaze like a guilty schoolboy. In doing so he invites more than his share of the D-word when he might be better off deflecting it. It's a fair choice, but one that only works with similar chinks in his accusers' armor. 

Scott's on fire as Sister Aloysius. Her grounded, commanding presence allows her to bulldoze through any criticism or concerns regarding her various obsessions. Although we know the character is inclined toward suspicion with many eccentric views (and not above a little false witness), Scott projects moral authority that's more than a match for any actual authority. She grows to embody the kind of gruff "common sense" people respect reflexively, even though it's usually a wrongheaded expression of historic prejudice. In a play that encourages judgement based on feelings rather than knowledge, we simply feel her more. And knowing the things we can't automatically un-know coming into the theater, it's too easy to feel she's the already beaten underdog and hero of a completely different cautionary saga. 

Isbell's production of Doubt gets a lot right too, but it gets one thing absolutely right. No production of any play has ever shown so clearly how administrative crap can suck the joy of teaching right out of  the most enthusiastic young educators. At least none that I've ever seen. Michelle Miklosey turns in a strong performance as Sister James, whose confidence and positive outlook are relentlessly attacked as dangerous naïveté. Her facial expressions are subtle and priceless, especially as Sister Aloysius holds forth on the demonic nature of the popular Christmas song "Frosty the Snowman." Antoinette Harris is also convincing as Mrs. Muller, the alleged victim's mother, though her one powerfully-written scene with Sister Aloysius never really took off.

Mrs. Muller's scene makes me wish for another play telling the same story from her family's point of view. Her son lives in Hell and his only chance for a better life is rooted in his ability to get up and get out. She's aware of her son's "nature" and wonders if he might not want to be "caught." She's resolved that a kid who's endured what her kid's endured can handle anything through graduation in June. Her scene threatens to shatter the meaning of Aloysius's narrative with a context bomb but it does nothing to contradict the narrative itself. 

Doubt is set in the same year the Beatles came to America, which may be more important than it seems. The play's action is more directly informed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which sent America spiraling into a national identity crisis. The civil rights movement was coming to a full boil, threatening social norms in regard to ethnicity, economic conditions, and gender roles. The youth movement that flowered in the "Summer of Love" and wilted by the end of the decade was just starting to bud, and bedrock institutions of church, state, and short hair for boys were being questioned, as were the liberal-ish reforms of Vatican 2.0. This is the historical and political context that makes Doubt feel resonant in an era of tremendous mistrust and political divisiveness. It leaves audiences with the feeling that we know something— perhaps several conflicting somethings — while also leaving us unable to know anything at all. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Schools for Scandal: The U of M Revives a Timeless Comedy

Posted By on Thu, Nov 5, 2015 at 1:13 PM

The compulsion to share information — especially malicious and witty information — didn't start with digital peer to peer media. It just became more obvious, and easy to feed. That's why It's surprising to me (a bit) that local theater folks are just now getting around to reviving Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, a funny, wordy comedy about how — to borrow a line from Sheridan's Lady Candour — the "tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers."

From the looks of things U of M director Stephen Hancock knows just how up to date this 18th-Century comedy can be. He's set his production on the campus of a 21st-Century university.



This isn't the first time a local college or university has given Sheridan's script an update. This 90's-era production at Rhodes College was set in late 20th-Century Memphis. It was directed by the great Ellis Rabb who kept the script mostly in tact, but who updated place names, idioms, and proper nouns to incredible effect.

Terry Scott and Bennett Wood in "The School for Scandal" at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre. - COURTESY OF THE INTERNET
  • Courtesy of the Internet
  • Terry Scott and Bennett Wood in "The School for Scandal" at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre.

Tony Lee Garner in "The School for Scandal" at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre. - COURTESY OF THE INTERNET
  • Courtesy of the Internet
  • Tony Lee Garner in "The School for Scandal" at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre.

The U of M has also produced a more traditional take on the material. This 1986 production was directed by the also great Josie Helming. 

"The School for Scandal" at the U of M, 1986. - COURTESY OF THE INTERNET
  • Courtesy of the Internet
  • "The School for Scandal" at the U of M, 1986.

Natalie Wilder in "The School for Scandal" at the U of M. 1986. - COURTESY OF THE INTERNET
  • Courtesy of the Internet
  • Natalie Wilder in "The School for Scandal" at the U of M. 1986.


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