Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mystery Play: "Shakespeare in Love" is Lovely, Lovable, Silly...

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 7:01 PM

Shakespeare, Love, etc. - CARLA THE MAGNIFICENT.
  • Carla the magnificent.
  • Shakespeare, Love, etc.
So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
— Wm. Shakespeare
What's wrong with that, I'd like to know?
— P. McCartney & Wings.

Shakespeare's in residence at Playhouse on the Square? Soft, it is not so. Yet, 'tis.

It's a neat trick too, really, more subtle and, for us groundlings, all force-fed some narrow selection of the canon, it's certainly more attractive and accessible than the heady, sweet-and-sour buzzlepoxes Tom Stoppard's known for. But no less impressive since, with the original film version of Shakespeare in Love and its faithful, less beloved stage adaptation Stoppard, sweetening the existing work of career screenwriter Marc Norman, helped to construct a perfect star-filled galaxy where comets, greater and lesser planets, and moons of all kind are drawn together and blown apart according to the usual rules of attraction.

It sounds silly to describe Shakespeare in Love as a love letter — trite, at least. But that's exactly what it is. And it's not so much a letter to Shakespeare, or to the theater itself, as it is a big ol' sloppy, muddy, faintly poopy-smelling Renaissance Faire of a love letter writ in iffy posey to the big ol' sloppy, muddy, poopy-smelling and collaborative-whether-we-like-it-or-not  process of making the play a thing. (See what I did there?) It's kind of like that old Schoolhouse Rock song about how bills become law, only this story's more fictitious than personified, imagining, with some loose attention to historical detail, how Shakespeare's play Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate's Daughter made its way from vague concept to the LONDON STAGE! And how it picked up a considerably better title along the way. It's a lightly flipped middle finger to all the classist fools wasting their time and ours trying to figure out who really wrote all those plays ascribed to the poor son of a country glover, showing us, with sympathy, good humor (and maybe even a little disgust), how plays are brought into the world like children — As the saying goes, it takes a village.

But really and for real Shakespeare in Love's just a silly love song with maybe too much dancing and a bit about a dog.


In the same way Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — a play about playmaking — loses something even in its thoughtful adaptation to the screen, and Young Frankenstein — a movie about moviemaking — makes no (okay, precious little) sense as a Broadway musical, Shakespeare in Love makes a natural home on stage, and good actual and symbolic use of tight ensemble acting. La Paltrow's just not necessary, though star power is maximized in POTS (literally) glowing production, when local treasure Ann Marie Hall (TM) is trotted out in the person of Elizabeth I, wearing neon orange hair and stunning dresses, wide as ol' Peterbilt, bumper to hitch.

London's swinging show-business community finds theater people mixing with tavern people mixing with business people and faintly criminal elements including Royalty. Will Shakespeare's bouncing ideas off master-brainstormer Kit Marlowe while vain actors and barely legitimate producers and everyday whores, most of whom aren't literally sex-workers, collude and compete in an environment where fresh material's gold and there's never any profit.

For the serious nerds it's a place where young master John Webster watches from the sidelines honing a gift for imaginative revenge plots.

In an uncharacteristic, weirdly laudable movie-move, the Disney pictures crew adapted Shakespeare in Love from screen to the stage without turning it into a musical. Or, not exactly a musical anyway. There are songs and revels and such but, for the most part, it's allowed to be exactly what it is and I've only got one real complaint about POTS's production. There needs to be a turkey-leg vendor out front.

With all that period drag, and cool Barry Lyndon-ish lighting conjuring up candlelight, I don't think one can underestimate the power of reality augmented by that special Turkey Leg Smell (TM) — I'm only half kidding.
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Director Irene Crist leans on the live-ness of the show and the joys of stunty ensemble acting. When actors corpse over a barking dog's over-the-top antics, you're right there with them.

Jordan Nichols takes on the unhappily married poet/opportunist Will Shakespeare. His scenes with Jacob Wingfield's Marlowe crackle with camaraderie as and his scenes with Jamie Boller's Viola pulse with joy. Gabe Beutel-Gunn ably transforms Lord Wessex, the man to whom Viola is promised, into a weirdly Disney-esque villain, who always seems like he might just burst into a chest-thumping song — "Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain she sings as sweetly as a nightingale!" And so on. Such an interlude really wouldn't be THAT out of place in a lively script where so many of Shakespeare's words make winking cameo appearances already.

There are historic rationales for why women weren't allowed to appear on stage in Shakespeare's day but I've always thought — with no basis whatsoever — it was secretly because the best actresses always seem to eclipse their male counterparts. Sorry guys, it's just so and Boller's making my case. She's got a good sparring partner in Nichols but her performance as Viola, and her be-trousered alter ego, is big and lovely and physical and filigreed with details that call to mind — and not a little — some of her director's more Shakespearean turns. It's like watching a younger incarnation of the recently retired (from acting) Crist, but it's not remotely an impression. It's a star-turn, though no less commanding than Boller's last outing in Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties.

POTS's ensemble is tight enough, top of the ticket to fifth-business. To borrow from Dr. V. Frankenstein, it's alive. That makes all the fuss of going out and buying tickets to consume material you could totally rent from iTunes totally worth it.

I'm not sure how that works, exactly. It's a mystery.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Redemption Round: Reviewing Hattiloo's Fetch Clay Make Man

Posted By on Tue, Sep 26, 2017 at 12:40 PM

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Emmanuel McKinney's a certifiable natural resource — a smart, unaffected actor with incredible range. And, not to sound too much like Howard Cosell though it may be more fun to read the last half of this sentence in his voice, every single time I think this young actor may have finally met his match he steps up his game and astonishes. In Fetch Clay Make Man McKinney doesn't even try to mimic the "Louisville Lip," Muhammad Ali, but finds the heavyweight champion's rhythms, and commits to being pretty. McKinney steps right into Ali's big, white Everlast boots wearing the character as lightly as a terrycloth robe. It's always good to see a strong actor get that kind of workout even if Will Power's historical fiction is more interesting than well-made.

I've already written about Fetch Clay's three most dominant personalities, Ali the champion preparing to take on Sonny Liston, Stepin Fetchit, a delegitimized black film star famous for playing demeaning stereotypes, and legendary boxer Jack Johnson who may be the play's most important character though, like Godot, he never actually appears.  I won't rehash all that, other than to set up the show, which unfolds in the aftermath of Malcolm X's assassination,  just before Ali's rematch with Liston. It explores the strange alliance and unexpected bond that formed between Ali and Fetchit, as the rhyme-slinging boxer sought to unlock the secrets of Jack Johnson's "anchor punch." It's a conflict-laden meditation on identity, and what it means to be a black celebrity in America.

Johnson's mythical punch works like a MacGuffin, creating opportunities for Ali and Fetchit to play cat and mouse games — to spar. It's not the mismatch one might imagine, though Fetchit's influence on Ali's wife Sonji Clay sets up a culture clash, and tense situations with Ali's brothers in the Nation of Islam who see Fetchit as the perfect Uncle Tom.

Stephen Dowdy is similarly convincing as Fetchit (AKA Lincoln Perry), though his flashbacks to early Hollywood feel tacked on — a bit of contextual embroidery that's never fully woven into the bigger narratives. It's never clear how high the stakes are in his lopsided partnership with Ali.
 
There's something Twelfth Night-like about Fetch Clay with Ali standing in for Duke Orsino, finding himself suddenly in need of his not-so-foolish fool. Though he's suited and bow-tied instead of cross-gartered Simon, Ali's Nation of Islam brother and bodyguard is this story's uptight Malvolio. Unlike Shakespeare's Puritan, Simon won't be made a fool. Not more than once, anyway. Justin Hicks keeps Simon's anger and instinct bubbling just under a cool surface, and brings as much tension as he can to a show that needs more. Jessica Young-Steward's similarly fine as Ali's wife, whose evolving identity might be more compelling she wasn't trotted in and out of the story for added drama.

Ron Gephart also appears in an uncredited role as the memory of Fox Film founder, William Fox.

Hattiloo director Martin Wilkins has delivered a lean, actor-oriented production filled with characters we want to watch even when Power's story gets fuzzy and repetitive.


Monday, September 25, 2017

Dream Home Heartache: "A Doll's House" is as Modern as it Ever Was

Posted By on Mon, Sep 25, 2017 at 3:59 PM

Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre. - JLAPPIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • JLappin Photography
  • Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre.
Inflatable doll
Lover ungrateful
I blew up your body
But you blew my mind


"In Every Dream Home a Heartache," Roxy Music
"In Every Dream Home a Heartache" — It's gotta be one of the best moments in pop music, doesn't it? After 3-minutes and 5-seconds of suspenseful, droning, horror-show organ overlaid with a moaning Better Homes & Gardens-inspired monologue about architecture and artificial love, it gives way — with all the subtlety of a dam breaking — to this fluid, consciousness-expanding guitar solo. The tipping point is Brian Ferry's final, table-turning revelation, "I blew up your body, but you blew my mind."

That's so Torvald.

Forgive the aging rock critic indulgence, but this song's been stuck in some remote corner of my brain since a new edition of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House showed up in my mailbox last fall, and my dutiful thumbing-through turned into a reading adventure that took me from August Strindberg to Eugene Ionesco. It was a head-trip that left me thinking I'd missed some really important things that make A Doll's House just a little darker, and more up to date than I remembered it being. Today it strikes me as less the domestic drama about a woman who's had enough, and more like a psychological horror story about a houseful of robots with varying degrees of self-awareness —  caught in a loop where desperation creates awareness and awareness magnifies desperation. So many of the themes relating to identity, information, and awakening at play in Roxy Music's perverse vision of domesticity are right there in the script. That goes double for headier contemporary diversions like West World. It's all right there in Ibsen's surprisingly concise blueprint.

Although it doesn't break much new ground, there's something about CentreStage Theatre's bland, not bad production of A Doll's House, that drives home just how modern this 19th-century script remains — and how much closer it may be in spirit to Eugene Ionesco's absurd farces than it is to Chekhov's lyrical studies in epic domesticity.

 Director Marler Stone has assembled a competent, clever, not always convincing cast to take on Ibsen's challenging script. Shannon Walton's Nora is a spunky, focused presence at the heart of a production that could stand a good deal more spunk and focus. Her dark red dress, a perfect design touch in a shoestring show that needs unifying visual themes. You can easily imagine her on the cover of a Gothic romance, running away from some big storybook house — but I'll come back to that later.

After years off the scene Memphis character actor Mark Pergolizzi has been making something of a comeback, and, as nora's husband Torvald, he's very good at revealing the oppressive fantasy narrative and dominance games that underpin all the man's superficial doting. It's hard not to imagine what Pergolizzi and Walton might do wth more focus and material support.

The primary difference between Nora and  Torvald may not be opportunity. She is evermore aware of the cheaply-gilded cage they're both trapped in — a cage baked from the same recipe (controlled economies + blind justice) that's given us other outlaw protagonists like Les Miserables' bread-stealing Jean Valjean. Nora committed a serious crime to save her husband while simultaneously having an above-means Italian holiday for her and the fam! She's well-intentioned but "no saint," as nightly news reports so often say of alleged wrongdoers who've been blown away by trigger-happy cops for no apparent reason. Nora's not-so-little secret preserves Torvald's developmentally arrested illusion of domestic comfort while her own expanding awareness makes her one of the two least doll-like characters walking in and out of Ibsen's money-eating house of mystery. Her antagonist Krogstad is similarly woke, and longing for the legitimacy he's denied by a culture where mistakes — like the one Nora's made — make it difficult to redeem oneself, even by hard, honest work. Like the subject of a Merle Haggard song, past mistakes mark him like a brand, becoming pretext for petty, baseless discrimination.

"My sons are growing up and for their sake I must try and win back as much respect as I can in the town," says Krogstad who, in reality was dismissed because he was overly familiar with Torvald, calling the petty, easily offended manager by his first name. "This post in the Bank," he says, "was like the first step up for me—and now your husband is going to kick me downstairs again into the mud."

Though never as committed as he might be to the urgency Krogstad clearly feels," Marcus Cox does a good job sidestepping potential melodrama while meticulously unpacking his complaints and leveling demands. With situational exceptions, everybody else in the drama operates like pre-programmed robots running a limited number of darkly comical scripts, adapting those prerecorded narratives to situations as they arise, and breaking down into a repetitive, "does not compute" sputter when there's a glitch in the program. A glitch like Nora.

Nora's Stepfordian friend Mrs. Linde, dutifully rendered by Leah Roberts, proposes an inoculation: "This unhappy secret must come out," she says, advocating for a dose of the one thing known to set folks free. "All this secrecy and deception, it just can’t go on." Linde runs on convention. Without work she couldn’t live because she's never known another way of living. "That has always been my one great joy," she say chillingly. "There’s no pleasure in working only for yourself."

Though he's given very little action to drive, Dr. Rank's almost literally the play's backbone and also the most metaphoric tool in Ibsen's toy box. It's the allegorically named doctor who makes us aware of the drama's architecture when he diagnoses Krogstad's "moral disease." Rank knows from disease, having been born with "spinal consumption" (syphilis) transmitted at conception by dear ol' dad. Rank's built of stock lines peppered with the unique gallows humor of someone born suffering who knows he's exceeded his expiration date. He's a repellant double reminder as to why society values domestic convention and that it fails anyway. Skip Howard's a little stiff in the role, but consistent and clever enough to find the laughter, if not the life so often missing from Ibsen.

I started this review with one pop culture reference, I'll close with another digression that may not be relevant — I think it is. In the history of paperback romance novels there may be no single greater cover trope than the image of women running away from perfect storybook houses in varying degrees of decay. You know, like this. 
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And this.
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And this and so many more...
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What does it mean? I can't say for sure, but the imposing homes make good metaphors for stability, comfort, traditions, and — in the American idiom in particular — dreams. Like Torvald's bloodless repetition of romantic fantasies plucked straight from the pages of a penny dreadful, I think it's all got something to do with the opening line of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice — "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Not a man, mind you, but a man possessed.

This brings us back to the top of the page and comments in the new edition about how the translators chose to keep the title A Doll's House, even though it might be more accurately translated, "A Home for Dolls." The first, most conventional title, makes the house subordinate and the doll possessive in a way Nora never could be. The latter shifts emphasis from the possessor to the home itself. While I advocate for economy and firmly believe the only necessary set piece in this show is the door Nora slams on her way out, CentreStage's production would have benefited from more structure of almost every kind. The play's not called Torvald, and the sputtering, isolated man Nora leaves onstage, imprisoned by convention at show's end, might be better understood with some visual context — some real estate.   This closing scene presents us with same image on the cover of practically every gothic romance novel ever printed, after all.  Ibsen, writing 100-years after Ann Radcliffe launched the gothic  genre with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and 100-years before the pulp romance boom, just turned the picture inside out.  

CentreStages A Doll's House may be finished, but it's not quite complete. It's still a solid reminder of why, at a time when "classics" usually means Shakespeare, and visits with artists like Strindberg and Ionesco are few and far between, Ibsen also matters.

A Doll's House is at the Evergreen Theatre through Oct. 1.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Shakespeare, Ibsen, Angry Jurors, and Muhammad Ali: Memphis Theaters offer variety.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 22, 2017 at 5:55 PM

Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre. - JLAPPIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • JLappin Photography
  • Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre.
I'm glad CentreStage is dusting off Ibsen's A Doll's House, for a number of reasons. Mainly because I'm a nerd and I think, having ascribed to the usual conversations about this groundbreaking piece of modern drama, I may have missed some things, subtle and unnerving as a Roxy Music joint. Since this is a 150-year-old classic I'll skip plot details, and get right to the meat of an academic concern that may not interest another living soul, but hey — that's what blogs are for! If you need a refresher course, there's plenty to choose from. 

It's probably not so strange, given translation goals, that the publishers continue to use the well-branded title A Doll's House even though that's not quite right. In Norway "Doll House" is a distinct word, and one that playwright Henrik Ibsen specifically rejected in favor of something closer to "A Home for Dolls," which is less catchy, but bends things in this atypical Christmas story in a slightly different direction. The never-used title implies a system of domesticity that imprisons all of us, not just women.


Don't worry, I'm not going #AllLivesMatter here. It's a play about women in a place where there's little opportunity for fulfillment, and I'm not here to bury the playwright's message. Rather to praise his selection of flawed heroes whose choices are steered by rules spoken and un, and not easily understood in terms of good, bad, right or wrong. With A Doll's House we can almost see an inverse to Martin Luther King's idea that none of us are free until all of us are. In the basic "must-be-more-money" rooms inhabited by Nora and Torvald, nobody can be free until somebody is. Her escape will obviously demand a price.

A Doll's House's exploration of marriage and sexual inequality broke so much fresh Earth in 1879, but I've been giving second thoughts to August Strindberg's real-time criticism of the play's iconic end — The sound of a door slamming and a woman, liberated from traditional constraint, striking out without husband or children. Conventional wisdom holds, with that slam, the famously progressive Ibsen reimagined women as, "human beings first, wives and mothers second." This was "swinish," to Strindberg, who was Ibsen's more fanciful, but socially conservative peer. Ibsen's female protagonist, Strindberg argued, wouldn't leave her children behind, which sounds like  typical conservative douchebag thing to say. But his concern wasn't really that a mother left her children behind so much as he didn't believe she would leave them in an environment she found toxic, in the care of a man she can't abide.

Strindberg's complaints are rooted in his own issues but highlight the fact that Nora's abandonment of family may be less the choice of a liberated woman than the projection of a male playwright making a man's choice in a woman's story.

As is the case with other Ibsen plays like Pillars of Society and Enemy of the People, the big antagonists can be systems inclusive of extortionists, leeches etc. more than the extortionists, leeches, etc. themselves. Conflict's made inevitable by controlled economies and all manner of cultural corseting — Houses wherein Ibsen's dolls are expected to play out proscribed sexual and social fantasies. Simply said, a lot happens in Ibsen's home for mannequins, automatons, and dolls called into the world, etc. How much did I miss as the reluctant schoolboy, when classics tasted like medicine?
Queen Ann (Marie Hall) as Lizzy-1 in Shakespeare in Love. - QUEEN CARLA
  • Queen Carla
  • Queen Ann (Marie Hall) as Lizzy-1 in Shakespeare in Love.
Blah, blah, blah. Important information: A Dolls House opens at the Evergreen Theatre Friday, Sept. 22.

In the mood for something more Elizabethan, but not as challenging as Shakespeare, and maybe a little familiar? Shakespeare in Love opens at Playhouse on the Square this week. Not the movie, of course, the stage version. I know, following productions of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and 9 to 5, it's starting to feel like a real Inception/Cloud Atlasy warping of spacetime is going on over on Cooper Street, right? And the cinematic blackouts between scenes in The Flick (recently closed at Circuit Playhouse) are being rolled out ad seriatim across the street at Playhouse on the Square where they've got more movie titles than Indie Memphis. (Totally free to steal that slogan). It's freaking me out, man!

Here's a video preview.



Other onstage offerings this week include Fetch Clay, Make Man, which I preview here, Twelve Angry Jurors which I review here, and Years to the Day, which may be the play to see if you're seeing only one. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Muhammad Ali Meets Stepin Fetchit at The Hattiloo Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Sep 21, 2017 at 2:57 PM

Muhammad Ali, Lincoln Perry AKA Stepin Fetchit
  • Muhammad Ali, Lincoln Perry AKA Stepin Fetchit
“The search for the white hope not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another.” — Jack Johnson

"I'm bold, he was crazy." — Muhammad Ali on Jack Johnson.

"There's power in the art of doing nothing." — Stepin Fetchit

Will Power's play Fetch Clay, Make Man, currently on stage at the Hattiloo Theatre, is set just after the assassination of Malcolm X, and just before Muhammad Ali's rematch with Sonny Liston. It explores the strange alliance and unexpected bond that formed between Ali and the delegitimized comedian Stepin Fetchit, as the boxer sought to unlock the secrets of Jack Johnson's "anchor punch." It's a conflict-laden meditation on identity, and what it means to be a black celebrity in America. Look for a full review of the show in days to come. In the meantime, here's a quick look back at Fetch Clay Make Man's crucial trinity — Ali, Fetchit, and Johnson .


It's difficult imagining Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's first black millionaire — an embarrassment and "race traitor" in they eyes of following generations — as the bridge between the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and the celebrated boxer and black power icon Muhammad Ali. But as Ali prepared to take on both Sonny Liston and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Fetchit, an inward friend of Johnson's, was enlisted for the purpose of "secret training." Ali was particularly interested in a Johnson move called the anchor punch, a short, twisting jab that took no longer to execute than the burst of a flashbulb, and could only be executed as an opponent moved in with force. Fetchit, who made his money and built a reputation presenting broadly comic images of  lazy, mush-mouthed clowns swore he didn't know how Johnson did it, but signed on to help anyway.

Like Ali, Johnson's mouth was as dangerous as his fists. He was a masterful defensive fighter who strategically nullified his opponents arms in a way that forced them to overwork. Taunting opponents — particularly white opponents — while fighting them made them work that much harder, overextend themselves. He'd go into a clinch, delivering two to the body, one to the top floor, or he'd back up with his right hand batting at his opponent like a cat, left cocked close to the body like a tight spring ready to pop. Outside the ring he was even bolder, and Ali frequently expressed admiration for both the athlete, and the man saying things like, "Jack Johnson was a black man back when white people lynched negroes on weekends. Back in 1909 they'd send him letters saying, 'You're fighting a white man, and ni**er, if you knock him out, we'll kill you. He'd say, 'just kill my black butt cause I'm gonna knock this white man cold."


Similarly, Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry), who was 20-years younger than Johnson, and who shrewdly and deliberately traded Vaudeville for a career in Hollywood less than a decade after Birth of a Nation, has to be understood in a hostile climate and context — and with the full understanding that, at the same time, black artists like Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson,  and Paul Laurence Dunbar chose to make definitive African-American statements over Hollywood salaries.

But was Fetchit's clown as reprehensible as emerging comedian Bill Cosby made it sound in 1968 when he appeared in the Andy Rooney-penned documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed? Cosby, a frequent moral scold whose own reputation has come under fire in recent years, described Fetchit as, "The traditional lazy, stupid, craps-shooting, chicken-stealing idiot." Gentler critics have found a lineage of subversion in otherwise hard-to-defend routines, by placing Fetchit's work in the long tradition of stock servant characters who pretend laziness or incompetence to trick masters into doing the work for them — a kind of comedic rope-a-dope echoing, faintly at least, the sweet science of both Johnson and Ali.


It's difficult to imagine any common ground between the physically and rhetorically powerful Ali and Lincoln Perry's submissive sleep-warrior Fetchit. Then again, our understanding of race and pop-culture continues to evolve and comparisons of Ali to Johnson that were once dismissed as superficial seem evermore apparent in hindsight.

Fetch Clay, Make Man is running at the Hattiloo through Oct. 15
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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Memory of Charles Billings

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 1:39 PM

Charles Billings, speaking the speech...
  • Charles Billings, speaking the speech...
Synchronicity's a bear sometimes. Over the past month I've been cleaning the clutter from closets, drawers, and cabinets at work and home; disposing of all those things I thought I needed to keep but really didn't, and finding special places to store all the trivial nothings that grew into meaningful somethings while I wasn't watching.

One of the things that turned up was a handwritten missive from Waynoka Ave. in the 38111 that began, "Dear One...". Even if his name hadn't been embossed in red at the top of the card I'd have known in those two words, this was was a summons from Charles Billings — actor, vocalist extraordinaire, and the longtime voice of WKNO. He'd enjoyed my 2009 guest appearance on Michael Feldman's show Whaddya Know? and couldn't wait till he saw me in person to tell me. The note ended with an invitation, "Come have a drink with me at The Grove Grill soon," and his phone number, which I realized wasn't in my current contacts list. So I immediately logged it into my phone thinking I'd surprise him with a call sometime soon.

We'd communicated now and then, but there hadn't been a proper bull-session since right after he'd sent that card. I'd heard rumors of health issues and have been trying to be better about staying in touch with old friends — particularly the people who sometimes come into you life that you may not see all the time, but whom you sometimes just want to write or call out of the blue to say, "Dear one...".

Days after unearthing his note from the bottom of my office filing cabinet, I received news that Charles Billings — No, the Great Charles Billings — had passed away. Still processing.

Charles was such an integral part of Memphis' cultural life for so long there's no good way to condense his accomplishments into a paragraph or two, so instead I'll share my earliest — and frankly, my weirdest — memories of one of the most charming, gracious, and talented people I've ever known. Whether he was acting in dramas by Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein musicals, or belting one out for Opera Memphis, Charles made everything look effortless. Nothing impressed the younger, only recently urbanized, me half so much as the way he could sit down to the mic at WKNO, drop his deep, honeyed Southern drawl, and wrap his tongue around the names of all those classical composers. Fresh out of farm country, this very nearly astonished.

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Since the bad news broke, people have posted many photos of Charles wearing tuxedos and suits but, honestly, I can't think of him without seeing the man sporting 18th-Century British military drag with a sparkling rhinestone tiara perched atop his thinning, close-cropped hair, wearing a devilish, grinch-like smile bookended by a dangling pair of rhinestone "ear-bobs."  It's an imprinted memory from 1986, when we were both cast in Betty Ruffin's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Restoration comedy, The Rivals. These sparkly items, left over from some past show, were worn for our enjoyment, and to let everybody know it was backstage story-time and Prince Charles would be holding forth. Until his next scene, anyway. This was my very first show in Memphis and my first opportunity to learn from professionals — like the man with the booming baritone voice wearing the tiara whose commitment to excellence combined with wild and wonderful offstage antics to teach a young aspiring actor some valuable lessons about fearlessness and freedom.

Now, because I've never known how to write a proper obituary, let me share an off-color story.

The Rivals is probably most famous because of the character Mrs. Malaprop from whom we get the expression "malapropism" — an accidental insertion of wrong, similar words into common phrases with humorous results. Naturally, during down time between scenes, the cast made its own modern malaprops built around lines in Sheridan's script. Mrs. Malaprop's already bungled Shakespeare, "A station like Harry Mercury,"  became, "A station like Freddy Mercury," while Charles' line to a disobedient son, "Damn me if I ever call you Jack again," was given a decidedly NC-17 twist. I'll leave the actual change to the reader's imagination, but suffice it to say, it was naughty. It was silly. It made good use of the word Jack, and it was all in good fun until the night Charles, in the rarest of rare moments, became tongue tied and very nearly said the adult "backstage-only" variation in front of an audience. Keeping a straight face was difficult for everybody.

"I'm gonna get all y'all," he said, bursting into the green room beet red, and snickering like a school boy who'd just split his pants.

I mention the dirty joke both because it's so inextricably woven into my own origin story as a theater person who fell in love with the live-ness of live theater, and to contrast with the other thing I so strongly associate with Charles Billings — his vocal interpretation of  sacred music. He was the kind of singer literally able to shake rafters while inserting incredible nuance into every phrase. It was a powerful, revealing, and otherworldly voice that made it easy to imagine other, better worlds.  If I had only one sentence to summarize the man - very nearly a myth in local arts circles — I think I'd skip all the usual and well-deserved lines about gentility, elegance, generosity, etc. and go with something a little more hypostatic.

Charles Billings was fully human and he was entirely divine. He'll be missed. He already is. 
Charles Billings in The Rivals (Center, forward facing). McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College.
  • Charles Billings in The Rivals (Center, forward facing). McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College.

Visitation will be from 5-7 Tuesday, September 26th, at Canale Funeral Home. The funeral will be Wednesday, September 27th at 10:00 a.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Years to the Day" is Intense, Funny, Brief, Small, Essential

Posted By on Thu, Sep 14, 2017 at 2:17 PM

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Maybe I have a weird sense of beauty, but I've got to confess, I got a little choked up when I pulled right up to the door of 7 N. Main on my bike and looked into this brightly lit shopfront on the mall. Beyond a small gallery there were some chairs set up and a small stage with a table, two more chairs and some lamps. When the lights finally went down on Quark's production of Years to the Day, I knew anybody walking by outside could look in and watch the show. They could watch the audience watching the show. Everything was so minimal, so open, immediate, inviting and accessible. Beautiful without being remotely extravagant.

Of course, I'm a longtime Downtowner so I'm biased. The Main St. mall is a wonder of unrealized potential — a grand front porch of a piazza, begging for art and artists to bring color and life. Quark's production of Alan Barton's intense, funny two-man drama is a good start.

Tony Isbell directs Adam Remsen and David Hammons in a play about two middle aged white guys sitting around talking that's way more engaging than that sounds. Dan (Remsen) and Jeff (Hammons) are old college buddies who've grown apart and, prior to the awkward coffee date we witness, haven't made time to hang out in four years. They're still connected by way of social media, but that turns out to be a weak thread. The ensuing conversation touches on all the things one might expect from a couple of 40-something guys hanging out talking — the latest film, health, aging, sex, kids, divorce, the grim specter of death on the horizon, etc. Jeff's gay now. Dan nearly died of a heart attack in the parking lot of a discount store. There's some catching up to do, and it's not easy.

Dan's such a conservative ranter and despiser of all things "nanny state" it's hard to imagine at times how these two men were ever friends. But the magic of Years to the Day is rooted in a slow-burning revelation that shared personal history creates needs that outweigh cultural values.
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The story's set in a familiar world with an alternative history so familiar situations are presented without the usual cultural/political baggage. This nearly trigger- free environment lets us watch debates without becoming a part of them — to see the dynamics of argument, not the merits of an argument. It's a nifty, hypnotic writing trick, though it can also feel a little gimmicky at times.

If watching two strong, unaffected actors ruthlessly going for it in a tight, high-stakes game of middle-stakes Life sounds like your idea of a good time, Years to the Day delivers.

I'm not sure what else I can say about this show without spoiling punchlines that sometimes land like actual punches. Clocking in at under 80-minutes, it's not a huge time investment either, leaving plenty of time to enjoy life on the riverfront. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

"Years to the Day": Offbeat Theater in an Offbeat Venue

Posted By on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 12:29 PM

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Quark Theatre co-founder/director Tony Isbell has a tidy description for Allen Barton's play, Years to the Day: "It's sort of like if David Mamet had written a play set in a version of our world with a slightly different history."

Years to the Day is difficult to describe in a way that makes it sound as dynamic as it should: two middle-aged guys — former college pals, still digitally networked — organize a face-to-face coffee reunion and discover via device-steeped, and rant-laden conversation, the vast differences between connected and connecting. "Politics and the personal are irrevocably intertwined," Isbell says. "It's sort of like what happens on Facebook when you discover that an old college chum has completely changed his political stripes. Or maybe he was 'that way' all along, and it just never came up. Can you remain friends with someone who has a radically different view of the world?"

Who doesn't ask that question several times a week?

A Downtown Memphis Commission program to help revitalize Downtown's North side has provided Quark with a temporary home. Years to the Day is being presented at 7 N. Main, Sept 8-29. Details here. 

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