Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Memphis Theater Community Mourns the Loss of Andrew Clarkson and Leigh Walden

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 11:43 AM

Andrew Clarkson, hero.
  • Andrew Clarkson, hero.
The Memphis arts community has suffered a double loss. Former AutoZone CEO and visionary arts patron Andrew Clarkson died last week following a long battle with emphysema. Before anyone had time to process Clarkson's death, news broke over social media that actress and arts administrator Leigh Walden had also passed.  

Clarkson, whose philanthropic work was honored at this year's Ostrander Awards,  gave a perfectly logical reason for committing himself so diligently to the arts after retirement. “I’m a terrible golfer,” he was quoted as saying. That had to be a tough admission for a man with a lilting Scottish accent and an Anderson plaid kilt that he'd wear on formal occasions. But instead of investing in his swing, Clarkson’s turned his troubles on the links into a sustaining and nurturing force for the Memphis arts community. His generosity has made a difference in the growth and development of ArtsMemphis, the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Hattiloo Theatre, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and Beale Street Caravan. Without Clarkson’s Jeniam Foundation, TheatreWorks — Midtown’s performing arts incubator — wouldn’t exist, and Playhouse on the Square couldn’t have built its new state-of-the-art performance center on the northeast corner of Cooper and Union.

Clarkson made Memphis a better place for art lovers and strong case can be made that impressive, multi-use spaces like the Hattiloo and Playhouse on the Square launched a domino tumble leading to the full revitalization of Overton Square. Here's to terrible golfers!

Walden's passing strikes a little closer to home for this theater blogger. The tiny powerhouse played my sharp-tongued mother in a production of The Lion in Winter at Germantown Community Theater. Her Eleanor of Aquitaine proved more than a match for her costar Jim Ostrander, the actor who played King Henry, and namesake for Memphis' annual theater awards. Walden was fantastic in the role made famous by Katherine Hepburn, but far more loving and maternal than Queen Eleanor ever was. She treated her stage sons like the real thing and even offered me a job in the family business so I could work in an environment that supported my theater habit.

Walden is probably best known locally for her spot on performance in the title role of Alfred Uhry's drama, Driving Miss Daisy. Professionally she worked as a teacher before going into business with her husband Al. In the mid-1990's she joined the staff at Germantown Community Theatre, becoming its executive producer in 2000. 

Tennessee Williams wrote of the "soft voice of the south." When she was off stage Walden's deep, drawling purr always put me in mind of that phrase. She was gracious, generous, and incredibly gifted. Though I saw her take many parts over the years, I'll always remember her as "mother," fiercely commanding the stage and hurling words like daggers:

"Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little - that's how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world." 

She should have been on Broadway. 

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL Ends Well at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 4:30 PM

All's Well That Ends Well is a holiday treat. Maybe it's not the most ambitious work the Tennessee Shakespeare Company has ever done, but to borrow from Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Nothing can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it." Of course the Duke's line was originally inspired by ridiculous amateur theatrics and functions as a kind of Elizabethan, "Bless their hearts." But he's speaking in earnest, and so am I. Pressed to choose only two words to describe director Dan McCleary's vision for this rarely-produced play, "simpleness" and "duty" would make the short list alongside "clarity," "competence," "charm," and "confidence."
Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604, tnshakespeare.org. - PHOTO: JOEY MILLER.
  • Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604, tnshakespeare.org.

Detailed Medieval(ish) costumes are mildly at odds with flat, cartoon-like backgrounds loosely inspired by the work of illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Stage movement and performances seem equally two dimensional, especially when one considers TSC's bolder work, and the company's proclivity for stopping a narrative cold to flesh out fight scenes or to explore Shakespeare's more musical tendencies. None of this is complaint. McCleary and company have taken a disarming "stand and deliver" approach to unfamiliar material that proves effective over time, as the story builds on itself and momentum gathers. Lovingly framed by Barry Gilmore's percussive celtic string arrangements, the overall effect is less like ensemble acting and more like group storytelling.

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan is relentlessly chipper and full of life as Helen, a lowborn orphan with healing powers, who's determined to get and keep her man Bertram, no matter how grotesque and unworthy he proves himself. (More about the plot here). Barnett-Mulligan is supported by Stephanie Shine as a grounded Spanish Countess and mother figure to Helen, Jeanna Juleson as the widow Capilet,  and Caitlin McWethy as the spunky Diana, who helps Helen trick her inconstant husband Bertram into bed. 

Joey Shaw lacks gravity as the ailing French king Helen heals and wins over. And it's hard to know what our heroine might see in Bradley Karel's vanilla Bertram. But McCleary gets fun performances from Isaac Anderson as the puffed up braggart Parolles, and from Brian Sheppard as Lavatch, one of Shakespeare's naughtier fools. As Lafew, Stuart Heyman proves that the best laughs sometimes go to the straight man.  

It's a bit disconcerting that only two of many presumably French-speaking characters use over-the-top accents, while the rest of the cast use no accents at all. Obviously somebody thought it would be fun to model Shakespeare's Parisian soldiers after the insult-hurling knights in Monty Python's The Holy Grail. It's a good bit in and of itself, and nicely acted, but incongruous and a wee bit confusing in a play that moves from Spain to Paris, to Italy, and back again with lighting changes, but no significant shifts in scenery.

All's Well ends better than it begins. Not because it begins badly, but because there's a lot to establish and it takes some time to get this neoclassical train rolling. Though darkly comic in tone, the show is sometimes described as a "problem play" due to formal irregularities that make it hard to categorize. What's fascinating is how much more modern and accessible Shakespeare's infrequently produced "problems" can seem compared to the more straightforward comedies and tragedies.

I've seldom known a theater that wasn't on the lookout for scripts with strong female ensembles. So why is  All's Well That Ends Well performed so rarely? Obviously, it's not taught in schools like the tragic masterworks. It's not as action packed as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night or As You Like It. It lack's the philosophical heft of Measure for Measure and the comic gender feuds found in Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew. As epic fairy tales go it pales next to The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline. But the best bits from many of these plays are are either anticipated or echoed in All's Well That Ends Well. To ice the confection, Shakespeare places not one, but a clutch of strong women, front and center. And he populates their richly dysfunctional world with weak, violent, sexually arrested men-children who are always looking for a place to stick their swords. To that end, it plays out like a counterpoint to Aristophanes' sexually explicit anti-war farce, Lysistrata whose title character ends her reign of terrible abstinence with the declaration, "All's well that ends well." It may not be the Bard's most compelling adventure, but it's a witty thing, and delightfully inappropriate.

Catch All's Well That Ends Well at the Dixon while you can. History suggests it will be quite some time before another opportunity presents itself. 

For times and ticket information, here's your click

Friday, December 11, 2015

Tennessee Shakespeare Opens "All's Well That Ends Well" at Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 1:18 PM

Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens.  For ticket and more information: 759-0604, tnshakespeare.org. - PHOTO: JOEY MILLER.
  • Photo: Joey Miller.
  • Helena (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) heals the King (Joey Shaw) in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Dan McCleary now running through December 20 at Dixon Gallery & Gardens. For ticket and more information: 759-0604, tnshakespeare.org.
I haven't seen Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of All's Well That Ends Well yet, but can already tell you it's a cause for celebration. Just as New Moon Theatre Company's recent (and not especially good) production of Titus Andronicus was cause for celebration. Any time a local company digs a little deeper into Shakespeare's rich canon to produce something Memphians haven't had an opportunity to see in decades— if ever— I'm 100% on board. 

All’s Well That Ends Well, which runs December 10-20 in Dixon Gallery & Gardens, will explore the play's mysticism, and what it means when women undertake the classic, usually masculine, hero's journey. This dark-edged comedy — sometimes described as a "problem play" due to formal irregularities — is inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron. It tells the story of Helena, the low-born charge of Spanish aristocrats with healing gifts inherited from her father. She sets out to marry a young nobleman named Bertram whose appetite for adventure includes an a taste for fighting wars and rampant virgin defilement. The clever, and gifted suitor follows him first to Paris, and later Italy in a play chock full of life-or-death bargains, bed tricks, and faked death.

Like the wittier and more frequently produced Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well lays bare the similarities between love and war. The journey is fraught with trouble and tragedy, but the play ultimately lives up to its title. 

TSC's latest production is a neoclassical fantasy inspired by the artwork of American illustrator Maxfield Parrish, whose work is closely associated with A Midsummer Night's Dream

For tickets and production details, here's your click. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Stuff a Theater Lover's Stocking With "Musicals": The Coffee Table Book

Posted By on Thu, Dec 10, 2015 at 1:16 PM

Or don't, it's entirely up to you.

Upside: You can snap a picture with your phone, in the dark.
  • Upside: You can snap a picture with your phone, in the dark.

I'm not sure that at Musicals lives up to its subtitle, The Definitive Illustrated Story. It's an ambitious, nicely illustrated guide to modern musical theater. But "definitive?" Maybe not.

The only thing I learned from the short, five-paragraph forward by original Evita, Elaine Paige, was that West Side Story inspired her to act, and that she enjoyed turning the pages of this newly compiled book. I'm not certain that musical theater diehards will discover anything in the collected show histories they don't already know. But, then again, detail has never really been a goal for this kind of publication. It's all, quite literally, about the big picture. And to that end, this collection is wildly successful. It would make an especially nice gift for the young person in your life who's only just beginning to show a love for the form. 

No business like show business.
  • No business like show business.

Like Paige, I too enjoyed turning the pages, although I thought the gaudy, gold sequin-inspired cover might cause an epileptic fit. A lot of effort obviously went into essaying the 200 + musicals covered here, even if the selection process seems entirely arbitrary. There are stinkers and throwaways that get two page spreads, while more substantial works get only a paragraph.

As one might expect from a coffee table book, there are no deep historical dives to be found between the glistening, golden covers, but there's plenty of trivia embedded in the book's concise histories and timelines.  Also, as one might expect, there are tons of fantastic photos, playbills, and posters from a variety of stage and film musicals.

The last 19-page chapter is titled "Other Musicals," with capsule histories of movies and stage shows ranging from Memphis, and Once Upon a Mattress, to Willy Wonka and Hamilton, that were either too new, or too whatever for prime real estate. 

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story comes to us by way of UK publishing house DK, in partnership with Penguin, Random House. But for its hard-to-look-at cover, it's a delightful primer touching on everything from Showboat to Rocky Horror, and beyond, and spotlighting important personalities like Richard Rodgers, Fred Astaire, and Ethyl Merman along the way. A mostly glorious effort, if a little grandiose.  

You can buy it here. And, in spite of all my complaints, if there's a younger theater person on your list his holiday season, it's $40 well spent. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sneak Peak at "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change"

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 3:02 PM


It's back... at Playhouse on the Square. 


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