Friday, May 25, 2018

mömandpöp rock the Memphis Children's Theatre Festival

Posted By on Fri, May 25, 2018 at 3:19 PM


mömandpöp is my favorite kid-rock comedy improv show ever and it's back in Memphis for a limited engagement at Voices of the South's 13th annual Memphis Children's Theatre Festival.

There's always a lot of good stuff to choose from at the MCTF but I can't get enough of these guys. The band's "Comeback Special" may be aimed at the small people in our lives, but the musical variety show transcends. Husband and wife duo Bobby and Virginia Matthews are terrific writers with a knack for improv and a gift for crafting infectious pop ditties so full of love and life they defy easy categorization

The gimmick goes something like this. Once upon a time...

mömandpöp were rock stars. Like, LEGIT. But they abandoned all that to become plain old mom and pop. Now after many (many, many, many) years off the scene, they're pulling their musty British Invasion/folk revival-inspired act out act out of mothballs and retooling it for younger listeners. Think Schoolhouse Rock with a healthy dose of the Cowsills, and a solid pinch of The Monkees.

Pure joy. Check it all out. But check this out for sure.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Love! Valour! Compassion!— Remembering Memphis actor David Foster

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2018 at 2:08 PM

David Foster in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.  - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • David Foster in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

I’ve spent the last day trying to conjure up memories of David Foster, the Memphis actor who died Wednesday after a truly brave, fiercely private battle with cancer. But, in spite of all the loving, vividly-described tributes popping up all over social media platforms, I’m having a hard time looking back. It’s like everything I know about the man is eclipsed by an image of him in the role of Bernadette from last season’s celebrated production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. His impish features are framed by an elegant shock of silver hair and he’s belting out, “I Will Survive.” Only I don’t hear his voice. Or even Gloria Gaynor’s because, in the show he was lip-syncing while Claire Kohlheim took vocal duties. This is Bernadette’s Jedi drag-master moment, where she effortlessly — and generously — shows the younger generation how it's done. Coming from a powerhouse singer in his own right, this was so much more than instructions in drag. It was a lesson in humility — a master class in how to surrender absolutely to the music, the material, and the moment.
Jerre Dye, David Foster and an Angel. Angels in America.
  • Jerre Dye, David Foster and an Angel. Angels in America.
I remember being uncomfortable around David for some time after seeing the unhinged sparkle in his eyes when he sang “Unworthy of Your Love,” as John Hinckley Jr, the attempted murderer of President Ronald Reagan in Barry Fuller’s sharply-imagined regional premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, at Circuit Playhouse. That early performance has always been a personal favorite for many reasons and the beginning of a pattern that never stopped repeating. It was the first time I’d underestimate David Foster. And to really grasp my meaning here it’s important to understand that, as an audience member, I don’t rattle easily. After Assassins expectations were always sky high.

I suppose I didn’t realize that David was also a serious actor when he was cast in Assassins. I’d been introduced to both him and Carla McDonald (who’d become a frequent Foster co-star) when the pair were recruited to be a living soundtrack for Theatre Memphis’ production of Sam Shepard’s family drama, A Lie of the Mind. I played a violent alcoholic who spends much of the show wearing dirty underwear and an American flag. From a catwalk high above the stage David and Carla harmonized to “Balm in Gilead,” so sweetly I suppose it never occurred to me that either one of these two future scene stealers ever did anything but sing together. That’s why I underestimated David the first time and it was my fault. All the rest was on him because he never stopped getting better.

I especially want to remember something nice about David’s role in Terrence McNally’s drama Love! Valour! Compassion! But my strongest recollection of that show is that it’s one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever seen. The kind of show where every  actor supports every other actor so completely — just the way it’s always supposed to be.

That’s something nice, I suppose.

I’ll bet many of David’s biggest fans didn’t know that one of his most challenging roles was that of Goldy the reindeer in the big Christmas display for Goldsmith's department store. With his grinch-like smirk and easy snark David described the job as a “horrible experience,” offset by the opportunity to spend time with fellow up-and-coming Memphis performers like Kara Winsett (who played Smitty, a Christmas duck) and Fun Home’s Stephen Huff (who played a “nameless lady pig.”) I always wanted to believe this personal experience had a lot to do with why, other than David Sedaris who wrote The Santaland Diaries and created Crumpet the grumpy elf, our David was the only Crumpet I ever really cared about. But by the time he took over the role, Sedaris' personal memoir had become as much of a holiday staple as A Christmas Carol and so much of what David did to reinvent and invigorate Playhouse on the Square's revival was  rooted in love for authentic cabaret, and a deep understanding of how that form turns on intimacy and a unique personal connection with the audience.

Across the decades I’ve seen David Foster be brilliant in Next to Normal, Ragtime, Jacques Brel, Angels in America, Caroline or Change and 1776. He was a scenery chewing force of nature as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, a charming prince in Into the Woods, and Hairspray’s corniest Corny Collins ever. I could keep on listing roles, Ostrander Awards and various other honors. But the only things I can really write about at the moment are feelings which aren’t quite the same as memories. Because whenever I look back— or in any direction, really — I just keep seeing Bernadette’s beatific face. And hearing Claire Kohlheim's angelic voice.

And maybe there's a message in that.

David's not around anymore. We don't have him to sing to us. Or to stand next to us at parties making sly, hilarious observations. But he'll survive — forever present in the voices of anybody who ever worked with him or watched him perform and was changed as a result. And how could you not be? Like Bernadette, he was a natural teacher with a new lesson to share every time he stepped into the spotlight.

I'll finish with an offstage example though, and a few words David borrowed from Dr. Seuss and typed on Facebook as the curtain came down on Priscilla's wonderful, crowd-pleasing run. 
Liz Sharpe, David Foster, Irene Crist at the 2011 Ostrander Awards
  • Liz Sharpe, David Foster, Irene Crist at the 2011 Ostrander Awards

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Drama Club: Reviews of Othello, Annapurna, and Fun Home

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2018 at 4:45 PM

New Moon's Othello
  • New Moon's Othello
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.—
Hamlet's speech to players. 

130 years before #metoo, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote, fairly succinctly, that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society.” Ibsen, an artist often regarded as a father of modernism, explained that, inside a male-manufactured reality, a woman’s identity is bent, in every case, by “laws made by men with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.” This same fragile male projection is at the jealousy-twisted heart of Othello, and 274 years before Ibsen modernized the theater with A Doll’s House, Emilia, a supporting character in Shakespeare’s Venetian tragedy, appeared before audiences for the first time with a similar message.
“I do think it is their husbands' faults if wives do fall,” Emilia says, describing a toxic combination of male promiscuity followed by peevish jealousies and physical abuse (a recipe repeated in Fun Home, which is currently on stage just around the block at Playhouse on the Square). “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them," Emilia continues, asserting her basic humanness and frailty. "They see, and smell, and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have… Else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”

Emilia’s ability to identify her circumstance is no inoculation against a tragic end. She's as infected and wrecked as the play’s title character by her husband Iago’s deceptions and Kell Christie’s clear articulation of Emilia’s wisdom and loss elevates New Moon Theatre Company's uneven production of Othello.

John Maness threatens a similarly notable Iago. The dependable foot-soldier-turned-villain's ever-shifting motivations brilliantly dissolve into projection and petty excuse-making in the shadow of naked misogyny and the unforced homoeroticism that hangs in the close, hypermasculine air of war and sport. Trouble is, neither Maness nor anybody else is given much action to suit to their words.

Willis Green follows his driven, King Lear-like turn as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, with a less assured take on Shakespeare’s great general — a man whose uncommon worth is notable in racist Venice and linked to achievements in the field. A soldier's work is never done and the play affords opportunities to create business illustrating our famously jealous warrior’s journey from national asset to wild, passion-driven liability. Given none to work, Willis does the only thing he can do. He talks. And he speaks. And he pronounces, violating several rules laid down in Hamlet's famous speech to the players.


Like New Moon, Cloud9 is a little company with big ambition. And like Othello, Cloud9’s current production of Annapurna is a thoughtfully produced but plodding enterprise that needs focus, better pacing, and higher stakes. On the other hand, when it comes to pale middle-aged dude-bootie, this show delivers an abundance. And that's not nothing!

I kid, but hats off to actor Gordon Ginsberg for plunging butt-first into a role that would be difficult enough fully clothed. And for doing so without a whiff of self consciousness. Or anything else for that matter — don't let those skid-marks on the set fool you. 

Sharr White’s one-act drama introduces audiences to Ulysses and his ex-wife Emma (Susan Howe). He’s a former academic and recovering alcoholic living out his last, sick, lonely, mostly naked days, in a revolting, bug-infested trailer. She had a second husband and a life but never got over the first and has come to visit with news that the former couple's adult son wants to reunite the father he doesn’t remember.

Annapurna’s a character study — the kind of  faintly grotesque show you really only want to produce as a stunt because you’ve got a pair of daredevil actors who are prepared and able to crush the material like a couple of Kaiju stomping down Tokyo. Cloud9 has two very good actors doing brave but fuzzy work with little urgency, and a severe need to reach for higher peaks, and sink (or drive each other!) into deeper, sadder valleys.

Warts and all this Annapurna's still novel, if never quite as polished or compelling as the company's terrific production of Marjorie Prime.
I've got to admit, my mind wandered all over the place while watching Playhouse on the Square’s perfectly fine production of Fun Home. First, I started thinking about the last show I saw at POTS, which was Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor because, like Fun Home, Laughter also employs a narrator to set tone and lead the audience through the story. Then I thought about how sad it was that every human being working as a director today wasn’t required, at some point, to take classes in narrative theater-making with retired University of Memphis professor Gloria Baxter. She never seemed to care for isolated, inactive narrators who simply stood up and said their piece or were pushed off to the side. Narrators could engage with the action, change it, and be changed by it. So she pushed students to identify a narrator’s point of view and express that his or her physical relationship with the story being told. Laughter and Fun Home are both cases where a less-than-imaginative use of pivotal narration has made otherwise finely acted shows less dynamic than they might be.

Fun Home isn’t a place where a fun family lives. It’s the family business — a diminutive version of the “Funeral Home” where Bruce, the show’s troubled father figure, sometimes works when he’s not teaching high school English or trying to have relationships with with underaged boys. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony-winning memory-musical takes place in a rarely (but sweetly) fun world where death’s always near, and love is something you sift for like an archaeologist working through the rubble of generations.

A strong and convincing ensemble cast sells a production where the stage pictures can want more life than the graphic fiction that inspired them — comic book images that should always be part of the Fun Home experience, somehow. Still, the cast gets to the heart of a show that actor Stephen Huff described as being about a, “fragmented self that's searching for some kind of wholeness.” Like Huff said, in an interview with The Flyer, "At the end of the show, you finally have all three of the Alisons together, singing in unison and harmony. It's this self-integration that's so gorgeous and fulfilling.”

There’s really nothing I can add to that. It’s everything.

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Murder, Incest, More Murder and a Fun Home: Weekend Theater Roundup!

Posted By on Fri, May 4, 2018 at 2:07 PM

Stupid Fucking Bird - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Stupid Fucking Bird
This is an abbreviated, "Your theater writer's just about to go on vacation," version of a regular roundup. The long and the short of the matter: It's a great weekend for theater fans in Memphis and here's why...

Theatre Memphis hosts the dysfunctional Weston family of August: Osage County (Review here)
August Osage County
  • August Osage County
Jitney, August Wilson's terrific portrait of the alternative economy is onstage at Hattiloo. (Review here)
Shakespeare is well represented in Shelby Co. this weekend.

Iago torments Othello at TheatreWorks
New Moon's Othello
  • New Moon's Othello
And a Tempest blows into Germantown Community Theatre.
Stupid Fucking Bird continues its run at The Circuit Playhouse

And a highly anticipated Tony-winning musical comes to Playhouse on the Square — Fun Home.

' If music festival's not your thing this is a great weekend to see what area theaters are serving up. Hard to go wrong. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Family Bile: Theatre Memphis hosts the Westons of August: Osage County

Posted By on Thu, May 3, 2018 at 12:42 PM

August Osage County
  • August Osage County
A little Clapton goes a long way for me, so when I walk out of the theater after a production of August: Osage County — an American family drama that’s all T.S. Elliot up front; Derek and the Dominos in back — I don’t hear ol’ Slow Hand’s signature guitar cutting through the piano swells. I hear something else entirely. I hear a verse from one of the most famous musicals in history sung in the caustic yet familiar voices of the South Park gang:

“We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand!
And when we say
Yeeow! A-yip-i-o-e-ay!
We're only sayin'
You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!
Oklahoma, O.K” 

So tell me Oscar Hammerstein, what if it’s just land? What if there’s nothing grand about it? What if the great plains aren’t a great geographic feature but a terrible existential condition — “like the blues”? Or a horror-movie curse resulting from too many white men’s estates being built over the spot where a native culture was buried?

Can’t help it, it’s just what Tracy Letts’ grand pastiche of the American family tragedy does to me. Standing tall on the shoulders of Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and the women in Shakespeare’s King Lear, this Pulitzer-winning story of a death in the Weston family, forced reunion, and the inevitable struggle to reclaim order and tradition, all take place in the shadow of one unrepeated moment of true greatness. It’s a bitter, withering comedy about bitterness, withering, and a world that ends with whimpering not a bang. Theatre Memphis’ neatly crafted production gets a lot right, but suffers from pacing issues and fuzzy character development.

Beverly Weston was a cowboy poet — a rugged creature of the West and raging aesthete all in one package — a one-hit-wonder whose first and only book made him a superstar. He was hopeless at the end, living in his library and past glory. The only contact we have with Beverly before he takes his plunge into the great unknown is the job interview where he hires a Native-American housekeeper and charges her to not just cook and clean, but to live in the house like it was hers. Seems the old douche, having glimpsed the end of the world, couldn’t resist an opportunity to disrupt things with a poetic flourish.

Bev drinks. His wife takes pills and dances spasmodically to old Clapton records. She has a foul, slurring mouth and her foul, slurring mouth has cancer. Instead of dividing the family estate into three parts between the daughters, she’s keeping everything but the old used furniture. Plans to make a blast of her final chapter with nice new things, songs with a beat, and a lot of prescription drugs.
Two of the daughters abandoned Osage County. The eldest followed her (soon to be separated) college professor husband when he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. The youngest chased a fantasy of romance and let the winds blow her all the way to Florida, where she’s met the man of her dreams — a sleazy businessman, serial husband, and compulsive pedophile.
The middle kid stayed home and took care of everybody but herself until, very recently she decided to start over in New York with her first cousin, and the true love of her life.
From the isolated patriarch to the rebellious and vulnerable teen, there’s not much originality in the plot. We’ve encountered all these characters and situations before. We’ve seen every piece of this puzzle in other plays and works of fiction. What’s special is how Letts stitches it all together while pushing the characters in his story of American collapse, to the brink of parody and dark farce.

Director Jerry Chipman gets some great performances from his supporting cast. Matthew Hamner is almost too good as the show’s smarmy pedo who comes on like a best pal, and Gabriella Gonzalez is just as convincing as his intended teenage target. As the youngest of the Weston daughters, Emily F. Chateau is as fragile as a glass unicorn and seems as likely to cut you, if broken. Emily Peckham is the embodiment of good old gal zest, Sarah Solarez epitomizes patience in the face of an exploding family volcano, and Greg Boller is convincing as a college professor trying to do right by the family he wronged.

The ensemble play’s more central characters never seem quite as focused or finely crafted and its herky-jerky pacing sometimes made the three-hour show a bit of an endurance test. It’s a test that’s still worth taking.

August: Osage County arrived in 2008, and its “rot in the heartland” themes reflected an especially cynical moment in American history. Today, as we wrestle with the meaning of greatness, and grandness, and the land we belong to, this show, overstuffed as it is with marital infidelity, incest, child molestation, fibs, lies, falsehoods and fucking Clapton, seems almost quaint.

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