Friday, April 27, 2018

August: Osage County, Jitney, and Stupid F**king Bird: Weekend Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2018 at 4:36 PM

August Osage County
  • August Osage County
Memphis musical fans despair! I have no comfort for you this week. (Unless you want to take a quick trip to DeSoto County to catch the closing weekend of Camelot at DFT). On the other hand, tragedy and comedy lovers have some great choices.

August: Osage County
has a bit of everything for everybody: marital infidelity, incest, child molestation, Eric Clapton records, fibs, lies, falsehoods, etc. But in spite of the unsavory ingredients, this dish comes together like apple pie — crusty, sweet at the center, and full of spice.

Set in Oklahoma during a blazing hot summer just before and after the drowning suicide of the Weston family patriarch, Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning drama August: Osage County plays out like a middle-class echo of one of Sam Shepard's savage family plays with a pinch of King Lear folded in. Letts' breezy dialogue and ability to find screwball humor and slapstick in dark and realistic events makes him unique among playwrights.
Stupid Fucking Bird - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Stupid Fucking Bird
Mixing clever adaptation with bits of improv Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird has earned a reputation for transcending its title profanity to pay reasonable tribute to Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.

Love? Art? Adulthood? — IT'S ALL SO DISAPPOINTING. And sometimes, it's awfully funny.

August Wilson's rarely produced work, Jitney, is a play that merits mass-revival. Written before Uber was either a noun or a verb, the play looks into the lives of gypsy cab drivers in in Pittsburgh's Hill district, where proper taxis refused to travel. It's a story about life in America's alternative economy, legacy, and what a struggle it can be to hold on to anything, let alone pass it down.

This script probably merits mass revival. Definitely worth a peek. 
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Friday, April 13, 2018

An Act of God: Theatre Memphis Stages a Divine Comedy

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 3:21 PM

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I want to write an 11th commandment: Thou shalt take that preaching somewhere else.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many nice coffee drinks on the Main Street mall have been ruined when some guy’s rights to speech and worship collided with my inalienable pursuit of happiness. When you’ve been avoiding church your whole life nothing sucks like that moment when a street preacher sets up across from your table with his PA rig and his garbled, unscholarly message for sinners. So, I was ready to receive An Act of God, the irreverent nightclub act disguised as a play by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum. But somewhere between “let there be light,” and something about “wrath management issues,” I started to wonder, “Holy shit, did I get tricked into going to church?”

Don’t misunderstand. An Act of God doesn’t pull a Book of Mormon, wrapping all its hipster heresy around a fluffy, comforting case for faith. It’s a full-on lampoon having great fun with Biblical inconsistency and God’s "mysterious ways." You could build a whole show around sassy edicts like, “I'm flattered but don’t kill in my name — I can kill all by myself.” Most of the zingers have stingers. But as Kevar Maffitt works the room in his lordly robes, sharing illuminating personal anecdotes and popping his points, it’s hard to shake the sense that this avatar of the almighty is testifying to a congregation, if not preaching to the proverbial choir. Sometimes I laughed. But mostly I just sank into myself and wondered about the big philosophical questions that weren’t being addressed. Questions like, “Are all theater seats uncomfortable or only the ones I sit in?”
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Maffitt’s a great God with a winning personality and offbeat charm. This material can’t sustain itself without a strong personality lifting it up, and Maffitt's got what it takes to do the heavy work. He's especially good during a deserving smitedown of the horrible (I mean “classic”) bedtime death prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But there’s a reason TED talks cut off at 18 minutes, and even mild antagonism from Stuart Turner (standing in for Archangel Michael) fails to give the monologue a dramatic spine.

Theatre Memphis’ Act of God has a lot going for it, including a supporting cast that’s way too accomplished to stand in as magician’s assistants. Director Cecelia Wingate’s eye for detail is evident and Jack Yates’ scenic design is heavenly, per usual. Javerbaum’s gags are also good. Some of them are great. We should probably thank him for this food for thought. It will tickle many skeptics and make affirmation-seeking atheists happy as fundamentalists at a foot-washing. Also, Act of God’s a brave season choice for a donor-dependent community theater in the South. Theatre Memphis is to be commended for trying it on, and giving it such a lush production. Outside that context the material doesn’t break any new ground. Not my cup of blasphemy.

The Opera 901 Showcase Puts Memphis in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 12:27 PM

Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
  • Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
How about a big standing ovation for Opera Memphis, its general director Ned Canty, its newly announced directing fellow Dennis Whitehead Darling, and the fantastic cast and crew of the Midtown Opera Festival’s 901 Showcase. They’ve collectively made something very impressive — an epic built from the tiniest gestures.

It’s hard for opera to shake its longstanding reputation for extravagance, expense, elephants, Orientalism, and required reading for English-onlies. But there’s something almost revolutionary about Canty’s evangelical zeal and dedication to access. With his 30 Days of Opera platform, Canty’s made the intimidating form familiar throughout the 901. This year’s Opera Festival turns that formula inside out with an evening of tiny (and tremendous) world premieres marrying familiarity to the form.

Employing local and locally connected writers (and some area composers too), the Opera 901 Showcase takes on family, identity, responsibility, grief, institutional racism, secret histories, and professional wrestling (yes, wrestling). Big, universal themes are explored in unmistakably local contexts, making this year’s small opera event a true festival in the best and most basic sense of the word. It’s a multicourse feast for the eyes and ears, and a community revival testing shared values and celebrating things we cherish.

Watching the Opera 901 Showcase is like cracking into a great collection of short stories. No piece is longer than 20 minutes, and each work uses the form just a little differently to extract meaning and message from isolated moments in time. Barriers to entry are low (unless you only speak French, German, and/or Italian), and even musical theater skeptics may find themselves reconsidering their positions regarding opera.

The 901 experience begins with “Formidable,” an aptly titled, gorgeously told story about two strangers on a park bench overlooking the Mississippi River. One of the women is an earthy, oversharing Memphian. The other “isn’t from around here,” having come to Memphis to dispose of her father’s ashes. With a lean and lovely score by Kamala Sankaram and words by Jerre Dye, “Formidable” leans on a few overused sentences, but lands with the raw force of a Cathedral-era Raymond Carver story, when the influential author was redefining anthology, and muscular prose. “A Small Good Thing” particularly comes to mind.
“A Pretty Little Room” jumps back in time to 1892 to tell the true crime story of Alice Mitchell, who brutally murdered Freda Ward. In order to prevent Ward, her lover, from boarding a steamboat called the Ora Lee and leaving for a new life in rural Golddust, TN, Mitchell took her father’s razor and walked across river ice to confront her runaway lover. She slashed Ward’s face and was subsequently committed to the Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, TN, where the pulpy and portentous “Pretty Little Room” unravels like a fever dream. It’s a nifty penny dreadful of a piece, written by Dye and scored, with all appropriate dread and dissonance, by Memphis composer Robert Patterson.

Marco Pavé’s "Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo" plays out like a hip-hop mashup of Brecht and Camus. In this one instance Opera Memphis bent rules about cast size and opera length to stage selected scenes and choreography from a proposed full-length fable about politics, plague, and Memphis’ school-to-prison pipeline.

Technical problems on opening night made “The Demo” a bumpier ride than it might have been. And, to fit better with an evening of tightly wrapped shorts it might have been better to present a single, self-contained scene. But Pavé’s entry was still a mighty preview, overstuffed with broad comedy, blunt commentary, and arresting imagery. Hopefully we'll get to see the finished product someday.

“Moving Up in the World,” is the only piece in this selection that’s not a world premiere having been originally staged as a part of Opera Memphis’ Ghosts of Crosstown event. Loosely inspired by the life of Memphis bartender Lafayette Draper, it tells the story of an elevator operator contemplating his imperfect but improving lot in life on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling is more of a surging talent than an emerging talent. His simple, nuanced staging of “Moving Up” charms audience at the top, and never lets go even when things are going down.


And now, the fireworks...

Has there ever been a wrestling heel whose gimmick was being a shitty father figure to all the babyface grapplers? If not, there should be, and "Kayfabe: A Wrasslin’ Opera" is all the proof you need. This brief, delightful rock opera is a collaboration between Dye and Memphis rocker/arranger Sam Shoup that squashes all the garishness of pro wrestling into the barely developed story of an abusive father-son relationship.

Dye’s wrestlers aren’t rooted in Memphis lore, and neither the storyline nor the characters measure up to the operatic grandeur of a good Jerry Lawler/Ric Flair feud. But honestly, that’s a tall order. Shoup’s got some experience marrying rock and opera and his giddy, gritty score hits all the electric marks.

And I cannot tell a lie: There is something very satisfying about about going to the opera to see a guy get whacked with a folding chair. That may be all you need to know.

I haven’t said much about the performers. The singing’s all lovely and professional, of course, and the music’s great. But we expect all that, right? The revelation here is the up-close acting. Sawnette Sulker and Phyllis Pancella warm hearts and break them in “Formidable.” Daniel Spiotta and Brendan Tuohy chew scenery in “Kayfabe.” Darren Stokes takes audiences for a ride in “Moving Up in the World,” and Chelsea Miller and Nikola Printz chill in “A Pretty Little Room.” Stephen Len White does great character work throughout and Pavé leaves us wanting more.

When it didn’t glitch, projected images and titles were striking and allowed scenic design to be stripped to the bare essentials. Not needing to move a lot of scenery between operas made for fluid transitions. Canty’s commentary between shows was fun, sometimes improvisational, and always informative.

The Midtown Opera Festival continues this weekend with “The Triumph of Honor,” and another performance of the Opera 901 Showcase.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Dirty Dating, Homemade Opera, and God: A Weekend Theatre Roundup!

Posted By on Fri, Apr 6, 2018 at 1:23 PM

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If you find yourself in Germantown this weekend, First Date's not a terrible idea for an actual first date. And Saturday midnight performance at Germantown Community Theatre promises to be ... different.

This short, sweet rom-com musical introduces us to artsy, edgy Casey (Christina Hernandez)  and boring, businessy Aaron (Ryan Gilliam). They've been set up on a blind date and their meeting in a restaurant takes us through all the awkward stages from crushing one another's self esteem to Google background checks, to pre-planned bail-out calls, to wondering what to talk about next.

GCT's cast also showcases the talents of Nichol Pritchard, Jimmy Hoxie, Court Nixon, Jess Brookes, Jason Eschhofen, and Joe Johnson.

All I know about Saturday's special midnight show is that it's being described by cast and crew as "EXTRA raunchy," so bring your smelling salts.

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Daily Show writer Savid Javerbaum penned the comedy An Act of God, which gives the Supreme Being an opportunity to set the record straight on a variety of topics. Over the course of 90-minutes, the Good One discusses his famously mysterious ways, addresses longstanding misconceptions, weighs in on Adam and Steve, and pretty much lets it all hang out. Theatre Memphis' NextStage production is directed by Cecelia Wingate and stars Kevar Maffitt as God with Jason Gerhard and Stuart Turner as the angels Gabriel and Michael.
Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company is showcasing original works focusing on Memphis and the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. BCTC Remembers reunites the 2-woman African-American comedy team Royston & O’Gray who wrote and toured together for more than a decade.
Friends of George's presents Dragnificent 2018: Dragnificent Doo-wop with music from the ‘50s and ‘60s, original skits, production numbers, and group performances featuring the ensemble cast.
Dye & Shoup
  • Dye & Shoup

The Opera 901 Showcase is about as Memphis as you can get without somebody grilling ribs on stage. The lineup of short works includes "Formidable," which tells the story of a woman scattering her father's ashes in the Mississippi River and hip-hop artist Marco Pave's dystopian "Grc Lnd," about a future outbreak of Yellow Fever and a rising tide of activism. "A Pretty Little Room" is technically set in Bolivar at the Western State Hospital for the Insane, while "Going Up" — originally created by Opera Memphis as part of its Ghosts of Crosstown project — tells the story of an elevator operator working for Sears. "Kayfabe" is subtitled "A Wrasslin' Opera," and unites librettist Jerre Dye with composer, arranger, and old-school rocker Sam Shoup to tell the story of a pretty boy grappler called Face coming to grips with his personal demons — and the big bad heel.

"This isn't about an actual Memphis wrestler. It's not about Jackie Fargo or Jimmy Hart," says Shoup, a veteran of MTV's weird video vanguard band the Dog Police and staff arranger for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, New York Pops, and Memphis Symphony Orchestra. "But it is set in the Mid-South Coliseum in the 1970s. And let me tell you, it ain't Mozart.

"I played in a lot of '70s rock bands," Shoup says, describing the opera's attitude and sonic texture. "This show is 15 minutes of pure fun."

Speaking of fun, here's a little project Shoup did with Kallen Esperian — "The Immigrant Song."



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