Thursday, September 29, 2016

Monarchy in the UK: Charles III Rules Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 10:06 PM

Long may he reign?
  • Long may he reign?
Mike Bartlett's deliberately (and delightfully) Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It's also one of the more interesting, and innovative scripts to make rounds in ages. It begins with somber candles, and a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who, in real life, is still very much alive, but a relative short-timer at 90-years and ticking.

In a twinkling England has changed and everybody — Prince Charles especially — wonders what it means to have a King in Buckingham Palace.

Things get tense right away when Charles is presented with a privacy bill that, to the old man/new monarch’s way of thinking, undermines press freedom and, in doing so, looms as a serious threat to English Democracy. Law requiring the royal autograph, real though it is, has come to be regarded as ceremonial, and when the required signature is withheld, a crisis ensues that threatens to boil over into anarchy. And that’s just the beginning. Charles knows history and the law, so when the politicians seek to neuter him, he raises the stakes in a big, big way.
Here is a play where politics is practiced by master craftsmen and rude brawlers alike while the royals get on with a proper game of thrones. Prince Harry (Jared H. Graham) struggles to reconcile his disposition with birthright and responsibility, while media darlings William and Kate learn how to leverage their own authority as the reigning “King and Queen of column inches.” Bartlett presents it all in Shakespearean verse, with special working-class dives into prose. It’s tribute artistry fine and rare, and so much more than just stunt writing.

As directed by Dave Landis, Playhouse on the Square’s Charles III is smart, but sharper than it is crisp — full of vigor and clever, history-winking design, but badly organized in spots that could and should make jaws hit the ground. As long as one thing is happening on stage at a time the sailing's smooth, but stagecraft lists freeform and sloppy whenever the set’s enormous staircase is packed with party people or protesters.

Actors struggled with lines opening weekend, but for all the rough edges the end result was still something to cheer about.

As Charles, James Stuart France had the heaviest load to bear, and the most trouble matching words to action. But when he was on he was on, and very much the evening’s sad star — risking the crown to save Democracy. Charles finally catches his elusive dream, stepping into a role he’s spent a lifetime preparing for, only to discover he’s arrived late to party in last season’s frock.

Jamie Boller is infinitely watchable as Kate, much beloved of the camera. Bartlett imagines her as a less ghoulish iteration of Lady Macbeth driving William (Ian Lah) as he trips and lunges toward glory.

And what about the media who, over the course of the play turn (Brooke Papritz) an ordinary girl’s life into a circus shame-show because she had the good/bad fortune to get on with a Prince? Playhouse’s production never pulls this thread hard enough to make audiences’ second guess Charles’ problematic, but moral position; a position informed by his own complicated relationship with the British press. He’d been the King of column inches too, when Diana was by his side, and none of that turned out well for anybody. Now the doomed ex-princess’ ghost wanders through this bleak parody, with a punchline on her lips. It only sounds like prophesy. 

Juicy character work abounds. Tony Isbell and Michael Gravois are the conservative devil (doing the Lord’s work?) and liberal angel (fallen?) whispering treason and hateful policy in the King’s royal ears. Isbell’s the opposition leader, playing all sides; Gravois the Prime Minister, prepared to go nuclear if he has to. Christina Wellford Scott’s also quite fine as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It’s a smaller role compared to the heavy lifting she’s performed in shows like Doubt and The Lion in Winter, but it’s pivotal, and one of the best things she’s done in a long time. She might even be having fun.

Charles III’s awkward moments will probably stay a little awkward. The rest will tighten with repetition, and from edge of seat suspense to meditations on the meaning of celebrity, it was all pretty tasty to begin with.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" Closes this Weekend

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 3:34 PM

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Once in a while the Tennessee Shakespeare Company gives the bard a rest and turns its considerable talent loose on a completely different set of classics. Fall finds the Shakespeareans working with an adapted version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird — a short-list contender for great 20th-Century American novel. 

Given the source material's powerful brand, and the fairly recent hubbub and scandal over its posthumous "sequel" Go Set a Watchman, there's not much point in recounting the story or its cultural impact. Instead, enjoy some special video cast interviews created by Jillian Barron and the good folks at TSC. 


Baseball Lives Matter: Mr. Rickey Cuts a Deal at Hattiloo

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2016 at 1:42 PM

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What was really at stake when baseball was integrated and Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues? That question drives Ed Schmidt's brief, argumentative drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. It's slippery too. Much trickier than you might think given how the history's usually presented. Schmidt's bracing historical fiction, which opened solidly at the Hattiloo Theatre last weekend, only scratches a scant bit deeper, but good creative archeology's been done here, and there's a whole lot of illuminating artifact in the short, shallow trench Mr. Rickey digs.

The push to integrate major league baseball didn't begin with Jackie Robinson. Lefty journalists and activists campaigned to make the national pastime look more like the nation for years. Even in the Jim Crow era, this was inevitability, so in the mind of Baseball exec Branch Rickey, the question turned from when it would happen, to how it might be allowed to happen. Rickey's answer: One man — to test the waters — others to trickle. So Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting becomes an engaging, often entertaining study in American exceptionalism.

With America's first African-American president preparing to leave office while folks who look like him are in the streets protesting the same old never-ending shit, this play feels like it's landed right on time. 

Branch Rickey wants everything perfect for Jackie Robinson's big rollout. He knows what to expect from the white community, and it's not pretty, so he's carefully selected a squeaky clean player who's agreed to remain passive and pleasant in the face of spitting, name calling, violence, whatever. But resistance to integration came from within the African-American community too, and with good reason. While promoting a black baseball hero who smiled in the face of adversity, might create opportunities for similarly dispositioned individuals, it would be a major league victory for white hegemony, per usual, sending devastating shockwaves through the African-American sports and business community. So — and this is where the fiction takes over —  one of baseball's great innovators — a man sometimes called "Mahatma" — calls a meeting of what today we'd call "influencers."  Summoned guests on his list include an aged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who's still dancing to make ends meet, broke boxing champ Joe Louis, and actor/activist Paul Robeson who's flat not having any. Rickey wants them to say nice things to the media and guard against inconvenient protests that could threaten Jackie's chances in the majors. So the titans assemble (along with a resourceful bellboy) in a cramped room at the Roosevelt Hotel. There they sip cherry sodas, shoot the shit, scrap like contenders, and, in a faint echo of the Medieval mystery play, act out all the reasons not to trust Whitey. 

Everybody at Mr. Rickey's summit understood what it meant to be exceptional, rising to the top of their fields while other African-Americans struggled — and still having to enter through the rear of public buildings. Mr. Bojangles, depicted near the end of his life, had been a Civil Rights champion and the highest-earning black performer in America. But the elderly dancer, with an owner's stake in Negro League Baseball, was on the ropes financially and assailed by critics for performing stereotypical roles. Louis — the Brown Bomber — was similarly down at heel, and too familiar with the day-to-day indignities black men faced regardless of achievement. Robeson, by contrast to everybody else in the room, was  an active Communist who didn't trust the myth of individual achievement. He worries the success of Jackie Robinson and the relatively few players called up to the big show comes at the expense of other people's jobs and entire careers. He believes it will result in the ultimate failure of the Negro League, ceding all the power in baseball to white ownership. Who will go to the games when all the stars have gone away, he asks, wondering what will become of the people who sell tickets and concessions, and maintain fields, and so on. Then he makes a fair counterproposal.

Instead of one man at a time, how about one team at a time — black-owned? There are no spoilers here since we know the outcome, but the big ideas roiling through this cage match of a play make it exciting to watch as it swings for the fences on it's way to its historic conclusion.

The Hattiloo's production is sturdy, but rough at the edges at the preview performance I attended. It looked like it could stand another week of rehearsal instead of just a day, but all signs pointed to a production growing into what it needed to be. When the actors are more confident with lines and cues, this one promises to give off sparks. It's a strong ensemble led by journeyman actor Ron Gephart as the titular Mr. He's joined by Mario Hope as the bell hop, Frank Johnson as Bill Robinson, Emmanuel McKinney as Louis, Courtney Williams as Jackie Robinson, and Jonathan Williams as Robeson.

McKinney feels miscast here, but show's once again just how good a character actor he can be. As Louis he spends much of the play detached, either listening, or self-distracting, but when he engages it's fierce, game-changing, and alternately threatening and intensely humane. It's another great performance from an actor who doesn't seem to know how to do it any other way. 

Williams seemed to struggle most with lines, but crackled when he his his marks. 

As directed by Dennis Darling, Mr. Rickey is a fantastic example of Hattiloo doing what it does best by providing Memphis theatergoers with a clear alternative. Although more musicals are creeping into its seasons there's still a strong commitment to drama and this is a good one. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Opera Doesn't Suck": Opera Memphis' General Director Ned Canty

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2016 at 2:07 PM

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Would you rather sit through an opera or be beaten with bamboo rods? Just one of the questions Opera Memphis' G.D. Ned Canty asks in his Ted talk.  Also, "How is opera like a hamburger?" 


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dave Landis Talks About "King Charles III" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Tue, Sep 20, 2016 at 5:00 PM

Jim France as Charles III
  • Jim France as Charles III
Mike Bartlett's deliberately and delightfully Shakespearean King Charles III is a history play about things that haven't happened yet. It begins with a sad eventuality — the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II who's still very much alive, but 90-years-old. What follows is the story of a man — Prince Charles — who gets the thing he's been been preparing for his entire life, only to discover it's all happened too late. Written in verse, Charles is a show with everything — suspense, intrigue, the ghost of Princess Di, etc.

As evidenced by supermarket tabloids, Americans remain fascinated by Great Britain's royal family, even if New World audiences don't seem to care for Shakespeare's multi-volume game of thrones. Still, given the Parliamentary crisis at the heart of Bartlett's play, there was something I wanted to ask Dave Landis, who's directing the show for Playhouse on the Square:  Just how British is it?

Dave Landis: It obviously deals with the royals we know — Charles, William, Harry, Kate Middleton, Camilla. Even the next generation are mentioned in passing. There is some British politics involved but it's all pretty straight-forward. Parliament passes a bill into law and the King is supposed to sign it because that's tradition. But, out of the blue, the King decides 'I don't want to sign it.'  That's when all hell breaks loose. Beyond that as a basic catalyst, there's stuff about the role of the monarchy. It's purpose. Has it out-lived it's usefulness?

In a more personal way, it's about the family and their individual wants and desires and objectives and how they set about pursuing them.


An interview with King Charles III star Jim France.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Stones In His Pockets" Questions the Luck of the Irish

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 3:14 PM

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There's a great little show opening at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center this weekend featuring a pair of top notch actors — John Maness and Ryan Kathman.

My favorite line from Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets: "Just stand there and look dispossessed." Such are the instructions film extra Jake Quinn passes on to his mate Charlie Conlon. And as the movie cameras roll by, both men lean on imaginary sod-cutters, mouths agape, eyes hollow and hungry. The irony, of course, is that Jake and Charlie, like all the residents of Ireland's County Kerry, are already quite dispossessed. Poverty is the norm and hopeless depression has spread across the countryside like a thick Irish fog. Only whiskey, pints, drugs, and a wistful nostalgia for the good old days keep the general population from drowning itself in the river. These days, County Kerry's only useful as the backdrop for sprawling Hollywood dramas with fake happy endings. And since the glamorous cast and cocaine-sniffing crew of The Quiet Valley showed up with costumes, lights, and ready cash in tow, that's exactly what it has become.

There's a gimmick to this dark but giddy comedy: Two actors play all the residents of County Kerry. So it's a bit like Greater Tuna, but intelligent and set in Ireland.

Stones is only running for four performances, and I probably won't get to see this one. Would love to get some reader reviews in the comments though. 

Details here. 

Beauties, Beasts etc — Theatre Memphis Darkens a Disney Classic

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2016 at 11:32 AM

Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
  • Barry Fuller and Ashley McCormack
“Happily, there is some remnant of childhood in this jaded public. It is this childhood we must reach. It is the incredulous reserve of the adults that we must overcome.
Jean Cocteau on his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

There’s a difference between staging a classic fairytale and staging the Disney version of a classic fairytale. When one leaves the public domain to dance with branded content, there are certain obligations (not to mention expectations) to forego interpretation and adhere, as much as possible, to visual tropes and character traits established by Disney in a growing catalog of adapted animated features. In other words, you’re supposed to faithfully recreate beloved cartoons on stage. Large talent’s a must, obviously, and some ingenuity is always required. But as long as you can figure out a way to raise enough money to rent a Shrek head, or build a giant whale mouth, all the creative stuff’s been taken care of for you by Uncle Walt’s magnificent i-merch-a-neers. So it’s rare to see a company really stamp a Disney musical and make it their own. That’s what makes Theatre Memphis’ production of Beauty & the Beast a little extra special. It’s very Disney, with bits borrowed from both the animated feature, and the Broadway extravaganza. But director Amy Hanford has tweaked the tone ever so slightly in the direction of horror and hallucination and, in doing so, she’s gifted Memphis with a densely entertaining production that instantly calls to mind the source material, while glistening with its own dark appeal. Even if you’re not a fan of the show or musicals generally, it’s hard not to be seduced by such overwhelming spectacle, and a formidable cast whose abilities won’t be eclipsed by applause-inducing costumes or lush scenery.

Hanford has always displayed a comfortable familiarity with the mechanics of a blockbuster Broadway musical. She's also had trouble infusing her finely-imagined automatons with the spark of life. To that end, Disney’s beastly tale of surface to soul relationships, represents an enormous leap forward. It’s not just lively, it’s alive and full of weirdness and wonder.

Beauty & the Beast tells the story of… nah. We’ve been telling ourselves versions of this story since we started telling ourselves stories, and we’ve been telling this particular variation for at least 400-years. Let’s skip plot points and get on with the important stuff.

Whether she’s singing about books or taming the beast, Ashley McCormack owns the stage as Belle. And although he’s never as menacing as he could be, Charles K. Hodges’ big baritone is well-suited for the monster’s role. As Gaston, a self-aware critique on traditional Disney heroes, Philip Andrew Himebook is large in every sense of the word. His enormous voice being rivaled only by similarly enormous acting choices that make him the most animated thing on stage.

Hanford also gets fine performances from ensemble players, particularly the Beast’s servants who are all being steadily transformed into household objects — a candlestick, a teapot, a wardrobe, spoons, knives etc. “Be Our Guest,” the servants’ big number about generous hospitality, bubbles like fine French champagne overflowing its glass. If there’s one good reason to produce Beauty & the Beast live, it’s the challenge of staging, “Be Our Guest,” and from the cartwheeling rug, to glittering mylar confetti, and all the rest of Travis Bradley’s fine choreography, Theatre Memphis doesn’t disappoint.

As is often the case on Perkins Rd. Ext., the real stars of this show are the designers. Lights, sets, and costumes have all been crafted to overwhelm audiences while elevating the actors and never overshadowing them or a text/score combo that’s more popular than worthy of such fuss.
A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
For better and for worse Theatre Memphis has been something of a one-size-fits-all shop lately, with a “more is better” ethos that’s smoothed defects in shows like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family, making troubled brand cash-ins better than they deserve to be, while inflicting considerable damage on more intimate shows like Gin Game and Sondheim’s anti-blockbuster Into the Woods, which wants to be more cubist Modern than Disney-framed contemporary. In a diary he kept while filming his own iconic version of Beauty and the Beast, French filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote of a constant regret he felt after cutting “bits of intense poetry” from the screenplay. But regret was tempered by his understanding that, “one mustn't, at any cost, be seduced by an attractive idea if it hasn't got its right place.” It’s good advice in any case, but especially good for an institution that, for all of its good intentions, can fall into the consumer’s trap of mistaking extravagance for excellence. But they’ve struck gold with Disney’s Beauty & the Beast. It’s an indulgent piece of candy to begin with, and Theatre Memphis stuffed its production with golden tickets, and wrapped it in sparkling layers of old fashioned razzle dazzle.

It’s all too sweet for my buds, but will almost certainly keep box office phones ringing. So if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I’d reserve tickets now. I suspect word of mouth will soon make them a scarce commodity.
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