Friday, April 29, 2016

Memphis Playwright Ruby O'Gray Hosts a Booksigning

Posted By on Fri, Apr 29, 2016 at 10:51 AM

After 40-years, and numerous awards Ruby O'Gray's still got a few worlds left to conquer. Saturday, April 30, she's hosting a signing party for her new book Running Away to Home, which tells the story of Kathleen, a 17-year-old basketball fan who leaves Memphis for New York in 1966, looking for adventure and opportunity. 

A portion of the proceeds from each book sold will benefit the Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis, which O'Gray founded. 

The book signing takes place at TheatreWorks. 5:30-6:45.
O'Gray also founded the Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, currently producing Gus Edwards' play, The Offering, which runs through Sunday, at TheatreWorks. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sweet & Sour: Hattiloo's "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet" has its ups and downs

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 11:08 AM

Sometimes I feel like a broken record.

Like so many plays I've reviewed at the Hattiloo Theatre in recent years, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet shows incredible potential. A fine group of actors have come together for the last chapter of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's groundbreaking Brother/Sister trilogy, and with the help of director Dennis Darling, they share many fine moments. Unfortunately, all of those moments happen in blue-gelled darkness, obscuring faces, and hiding the twinkle and the terror in the actors' eyes. There's no front light to speak of, and very little texture. It's a superficial problem, but one that makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend a piece of theater I'd normally want to stand up and cheer about. 

McCraney's a certifiable wunderkind who writes stylized family dramas overlaid with ritual. His sense of community calls to mind the August Wilson canon, but formally speaking, the two writers couldn't be more dissimilar. McCraney's scripts borrow from African mythology, with dialogue so musical his characters sometimes have no choice but to burst into full-throated song. In many regards, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet is the most conventional play in a set that includes In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size. But it's hardly conventional. Dream sequences weave in and out of an already dreamy narrative while ghosts and confused lovers follow one another through a swampy Louisiana landscape. In some regards it's a lot like Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with all of the old fairytale's original mystery and danger restored. 

Marcus tells the story of a young man's sexual awakening, and an accompanying compulsion to learn more about his father. Marcus is "sweet" — a euphemism for effeminate. Maybe he's gay. Maybe it's more complicated than that. At any rate, he's trying to learn secret codes that exist in a tightly knit African-American community where homosexuality is kept on the DL. He wants to make connections, not only with new friends and lovers, but with history, and also to some much bigger ideas. You don't need to be familiar with the other Brother/Sister plays to follow the action, but the show will be richer for those who are. Even more so for those who've gone the extra mile to learn about the thunder gods and gender-bending trickster deities McCraney alludes to throughout. 

Cameron Yates is so vulnerable as Marcus — able to stop hearts with quiet reticence and warm them again with shy, schoolgirl laughter. He's strongly supported by Mary Ann Washington (Oba), Hannaan Aisha Ester (Shaunta lyun), Derrick Johnson (Shua/Oshoosi Size), and an able ensemble cast that is collectively responsible for some of the season's most satisfyingly human interactions. What's surprising though, given director Darling's background as a musician and conductor, is how all of these interactions occur in the context of a production wanting for shape and dynamics.

I get that much of Marcus' action occurs at night. The challenge, obviously, is to create the illusion of evening and shadow while still framing the characters and punctuating the action with light.  But instead of blossoming into the sunflower it's supposed to be, this production just kept audiences in the dark. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

When Shakespeare Was Small: The World in 1616

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 3:56 PM

Galileo goes before the inquisition for expanding the Copernican heresy.

What's the deal with 1616?

Well, Shakespeare died in England, obviously. Cervantes kicked the bucket in Spain. But celebrity death's not all that interesting, in and of itself. 1616 was a time of enormous contradiction. Old dynasties crumbled while a new world was being plundered. The Earth was growing larger and smaller at the same time. A slave trade and smallpox flourished in the places where where sea monsters once appeared on flat world maps. Science advanced brave new ideas while the church doubled down on its authority and witches were hunted with renewed fervor. Globalism was in its infancy, as were global corporations. Applied arts and sciences found themselves at odds with establishment values.

Thomas Christensen's book 1616: The World in Motion is an entertaining and enlightening romp through the early modern era, when Spanish Galleons delivered silver from Acapulco  to China and exchanged it for silk and spice. Christensen's a first rate storyteller, with a curators eye for art and artifact. He's also the keynote speaker for the 1616 Symposium at Rhodes College this week. Although it's been made possible by the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, the symposium uses Shakespeare's death as a pretext to assemble scholars from different disciplines to discuss a world that was, quite literally, on the move. 
Louise Bourgeois, the Royal Midwife
  • Louise Bourgeois, the Royal Midwife

Christensen's book covers a lot of ground. In less than 400 heavily-illustrated pages he touches on a little bit of everything from major world events to a power struggle that escalated between a French midwife, and the king's physicians because the latter group had, "No knowledge of the placenta and the womb of a woman, either before or after her delivery." 

"Shakespeare's Sisters," a chapter devoted to women in 1616, is especially fascinating. More "rational" views of the natural world had curious consequences. Witch hunting, for example, had once swept up equal numbers of men and women. By 1616 accusations were leveled primarily at older women who were more likely to be herbalists, and keepers of folk traditions. Christensen elaborates on reasonably well known stories about Pocahontas' visit to Europe, the reign of Nur Jahan over the Mughal Empire, and the trials and artistic triumphs of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. My favorite part, however, is Christensen's  juxtaposition of the life of two crossdressing women: Mary Frith (AKA Moll Cutpurse), a pipe-smoking pimp known as the "Roaring Girl," and Catalina de Erauso, a Basque soldier who aided in the conquest of the Americas, and was later given special dispensation by the pope to dress in men's clothing.

Erauso, who first dressed as a man to escape life as a nun, served as the right hand man to her brother who never recognized her.  She was eventually transferred to a heavy combat zone after the siblings came to blows over another woman. 
Gorgeous double-paged spread from 1616: The World in Motion
  • Gorgeous double-paged spread from 1616: The World in Motion

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, he was quite the innovator in his day, but it would be another hundred years before his Romantic makeover as the great lion of Western literature. As his fame grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, the man himself became harder and harder to see. Like Rhodes professor Dr. Scott Newstok explained in a recent interview for Memphis Magazine, the "fixation on Shakespeare occludes the way he actually worked."

To that end the 1616 symposium doubles as a reverse-engineered portrait of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Caravaggio.
  • Judith Slaying Holofernes by Caravaggio.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hattiloo Invites You to a Free Performance of "Mahalia" at the Cossitt Library

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2016 at 4:00 PM

Gospel artist Mahalia Jackson is truly inimitable, but Deborah Manning Thomas challenges that theory. She and Sameka Johnson star in Mahalia: A Gospel Musical originally performed at the Hattiloo Theatre. Tuesday, April 19 at 7 p.m. Mahalia moves into Downtown's Cossitt Library for a free one night only performance. 
(Long empty upstairs area).

For something completely different, Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet, the third play in Tarrell Alvin McCranney's Brother/Sister plays runs at Hattiloo through May 8.


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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Monarch Notes: Theatre Memphis’ Abbreviated Shakespeare is Inspired Silliness

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click image (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • (l to r) Meghan Lisi,Joshua Hitt and Kevar Maffitt take on the Bard in the rollicking farce, The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged,April 8 -24 n the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis

Don’t go to Theatre Memphis’ production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) unless you like good acting, stupid gags, and Falstaff-sized belly laughs. It’s a perfectly entertaining night in the theater, and I’m more than a little surprised to find myself typing those words. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s signature piece with its abundant (sometimes dated) pop culture references, and glib approach to the material. But Theatre Memphis’ production is completely current, with enough heart to comfort like sunshine after rain.

You don't have to know very much about Shakespeare to get the jokes here. And, in spite of the title’s promise, audiences won’t leave the theater knowing any more about the plays and poems than they did when tickets were purchased. This is an improv-based comedy show using Shakespeare’s lingering notoriety as a jumping off point. The sonnets are acknowledged, but unaddressed, the histories are lumped together in a football-inspired sketch full of handoffs, interceptions, and skullduggery. And, in a gag about Shakespeare’s most recycled plot devices, many popular comedies, and most of the obscure works are lumped together and presented as if they were a single, and singularly ridiculous play. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not going to help anybody fake their way through cocktail party conversations about Timon of Athens. (Like that’s ever happened).

Put a sock in it! - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Put a sock in it!
A more honest title for this slow-starting, but ultimately satisfying literary romp, might be Shkspr’s Greatest Hits (Abridged), as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet ultimately get the most love, and the latter is literally performed both forward and backward. (“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.) Although metatext is left unspoken, the shows thesis is inspired by the original Man in Black’s sage advice to actors: “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” Only, in this case, the goal is to see how much fun you can have un-suiting the action to the word. Cheap theatrics abound, sock puppets steal the show, and, as is the case with most roller coaster rides, somebody will be thrown up on. Possibly more than once.

There’s nothing harder to pull off than scripted spontaneity, but director Jeffrey W. Posson has brought together a fine trio of actors, able to break in and out of character, and through the theater’s invisible fourth, fifth, and sixth walls like soldiers born under mars. It’s a tight ensemble able to solo like Coltrane, when their turns come around. Meghan Lisi brings a lot of Shakesperiance to the table. She shines throughout, though maybe not as brightly as in the real thing. Joshua Hitt gives a fun, unfussy performance, playing himself as an affable dork caught up in circumstances beyond his control. And by “circumstances,” I’m referring primarily to the antics of Kevar Maffitt who’s been given the evenings silliest and most sincere moments. He nails every bit of it. “What a piece of work is man,” indeed.

“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.

One of the best things about this production is how it’s energetic and forward-moving without ever being rushed. It’s an object lesson for those who think screwball comedy needs to be performed at breakneck speed. In the spirit of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, Posson & crew take the time required to let “real things” occur. Remarkable how fascinating it can be, in proper context, to just sit back and watch a wind up toy wind down.

I still like pieces of the Compleat Wrks better than the whole. But with deft direction, great acting, and top-notch design by Jack Yates and Kristen Redding, Theatre Memphis’ production is the compleat package. Nothing abridged about it. 
Your basic wrecking ball. - SKIP HOOPER
  • Skip Hooper
  • Your basic wrecking ball.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Magnificent Disasters: Voices of the South Brings Rebecca Fisher Back to TheatreWorks

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 12:04 PM


21 years ago, Emily Fisher, wife, mother, socialite, and celebrated patron of the arts, was beaten and stabbed in her Central Gardens home. The murder, and the harrowing trial that followed, quickly turned into a media feeding frenzy. Prosecutor Jerry Harris choked back angry tears as he described and redescribed every aspect of Fisher's murder in painstaking detail. Defense attorneys Glenn Wright and Loyce Lambert were no less emphatic in swearing that the case was being tried in the media, and their innocent clients — who were eventually acquitted — were being rushed to a guilty verdict. It was, needless to say, not an easy time for Fisher's children.

in 2007 Rebecca Fisher, Emily's writer/actor daughter launched The Magnificence of the Disaster, a solo performance chronicling not only her mother's murder and her brother Adrian's subsequent overdose but also the icy disaffections that can sometimes pass for familial love in a big white house in one of Shelby County's more privileged neighborhoods.

It's been 8-years since Fisher brought her critically-acclaimed and award-winning show to TheatreWorks, in conjunction with Voices of the South. VOTS has been marking its 20th-anniversary by reprising landmark performances, and The Magnificence of the Disaster returns to Memphis and TheatreSouth for performances April 9, 10, 14, 16, 17. 

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Visit April in Paris with Marie-Stéphane Bernard

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 11:11 AM


Do you know how to tell if you're a real diva or not? If you've never been dropped on stage by a helicopter, you're probably not a diva. Unlike Memphis treasure, Marie-Stéphane Bernard, whom you can see airdropped in the video below. 

From The Merry Widow, Opéra Comique, Paris.

Bernard's a native Parisian, who began her violin and voice studies in France and pursued her passions at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She's played the great opera halls of Europe but lives just a stone's throw from the Mississippi River. She is currently appearing at Playhouse on the Square in L'heure espagnole, for Opera Memphis' Midtown Opera Festival, and tonight (Wed., April, 6) she'll perform a concert titled "April in Paris," which takes audiences on a tour of France in the 1950s via the music of Édith Piaf, Josephine Baker, and Charles Trenet. "The idea came from my presence here in Memphis and from being French," she says, describing the street singers she enjoyed so much as a little girl. "We threw pennies from the windows, and they were happy," she recalls.

To sample some romantic melodies gorgeously performed, you might consider throwing some pennies in Opera Memphis' general direction. 

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Friday, April 1, 2016

What's Up With Midtown Opera Festival's Tragedy of Carmen?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2016 at 2:09 PM

“A stage space has two rules: (1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen.” — Peter Brook

Opera Memphis' General Director Ned Canty has never been one to mince words. "If a singer can’t act it’s hard for me to hear them sing," he says. Canty developed the Midtown Opera Festival as an opportunity to present works that benefit from the intimacy of a small space, and give singers a real chance to show off their acting chops. That's what makes Peter Brook's The Tragedy of Carmen — a condensed, uniquely theatrical distillation of Bizet's popular opera — such a good fit.

Brook, a compulsively progressive artist, famous for his work as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company's experimental wing, had strong ideas about the strengths of opera, and the weaknesses of the art form. He developed The Tragedy of Carmen as an experiment to see how opera could be more theatrical. To do so he focused on just the four main characters, making them as believable and real as possible and spent 9-months rehearsing the piece in his usual collaborative style.

Joshua Borths, who directed The Tragedy of Carmen for Opera Memphis likes how Brook played with audience expectations, re-arranging the score for a smaller orchestra, but calling for a recording of the full orchestra playing the overture at the end of the show.

Brook has always seen words as the castings of impulse, and understood how even the finest points of view are relative, expiring shortly after they're expressed. To that end, he's shown a special gift for using context and theatrical devices to sharpen edges dulled by changing sensibilities.

"While it is all the same music and the same characters it’s a very different theatrical experience than seeing the full Carmen with a chorus and ensembles that bring a lightness to the piece," Borths says. "This is a much darker take on the story." And that's saying something, considering how shocked French audiences were by the immorality, and lawlessness on display in Bizet's original. 

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