Thursday, August 30, 2018

Obsession: Circuit Playhouse Stages White Collar Crime Drama, Junk.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 7:10 PM

  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Gabe Beutel-Gunn
"It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you're left like a zombie
And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession" —
The Eurythmics, 1982.

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980's, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry,  sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention  Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.

Robert Merkin's got problems with the American media. Newspapers only collect low hanging fruit he grouses in a familiar complaint about the modern press. He's not all wrong, of course. Reporters do sometimes craft narratives with "good guys and bad guys," as surely as if they were playwrights.

“[Reporters] don’t understand how the real world works,” Merkin says, laying out Junk's primary meta-text. Calling no attention to the irony, he heroically (and accurately) points out that his brave, new system puts money into the hands of poor people and minorities who'd been shut out of the American economy. Watching Merkin invent subprime loans in prison to "help" an underpaid guard realize the "dream" of home ownership, is a helpful reminder of how big time gangsters may have better reputations back in the old neighborhood. In doing so, it also reminds us why the professional classes don't get "deplorable," values.

What all these narrative threads lack is the meaning and human context of a crashing economy and the historic loss of minority wealth that occurred when the bubble finally popped.

Akhtar's balanced, complicated treatment tells the story of a hostile takeover. Merkin, by proxy, acquires the publicly-owned  Everson Steel, outfoxing the family-run corporation's third-generation management at every turn. He's going to kick the struggling steel business to the curb, killing jobs and the possibility of resurgence while focusing on pharma holdings in a weirdly boring game of economic chicken that makes it impossible for even the horn-doggiest of old-school capitalists to compete without getting themselves hooked on junk.

Junk strips away the usual trappings of business procedurals, exposing a kind of ritual addiction. Akhtar works a nonjudgmental idea that every person's the hero of his or her own story. Every man, anyway. But so many characters never develop, many more important threads go un-pulled, while other shopworn tropes emerge.

To some degree guest director Warner Crocker ignores the playwright's suggestion to avoid making Junk "an 80's play," and it wouldn't shock me if all John Hughes' movies got together and called Circuit Playhouse to ask for their soundtrack back. But, if one were to go that way, Junk's about boys club bullies, and in spite of its pivotal female roles, closer in spirit to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" than "Summer of '69." Soaring, transcendent (and sometimes bewildering) moments would nestle brilliantly into something from Glassworks. Judy Chen's sexless monologue about money giving her an orgasm might make more sense were she one of many stone-faced Robert Palmer girls, swinging to the shredding guitar samples of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" or if all the filthy lucre flowing through Junk manifested itself in any way other than the decorative illuminated spikes on a graph-inspired set.

Speaking of, Phillip Hughen's sweet scenic design is also a bit of a one trick pony. Oh hell yes, the light-bright graph is way cool to look at, but does it help tell the story? Or does it just limit stage depth and opportunities to design something bolder than this Junk's enter/exit blocking. The isolation works for one character and Jason Gerhard is typically excellent as a terrified, easily manipulated dumb-money investor.
Extra width, not much depth. - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Extra width, not much depth.
Circuit's creative team has brought together a strong cast that should be capable of riskier, and more rewarding choices. As Merkin, Gabe Beutel-Gunn is all sincerity and righteousness, while Mark Pergolizzi's Tresler, a traditional capitalist determined to preserve the status quo at (almost) any cost, mixes entitlement and easy self-assurance with rigidity and calculated bluster. Both men need to command a room like Tony Robbins power-walking into a self-improvement revival, thumping his latest book like the King James Bible. Neither do, and no other character is developed enough to make this play tick.

This should be a good role for Beutel-Gunn, and maybe even a better role for Pergolizzi who knows a little something about how to play rock star kings threatened by gypsy killers with no respect for established rules of the game. Why does it seem like every staging choice was designed to make both the high-rolling, p-grabbing Tresler and his natural enemy so much smaller than life?

Kevin Shaw crafts the evening's most compelling character. He's completely believable as Everson, the third generation scion of American steel royalty, coming awkwardly, and much too late to an understanding that sustainability means more than shuffling numbers on a balance sheet. It means expensive modernization. It means working with communities and labor and taking the kind of profit hits Wall Street won't stand for. But he's pure milquetoast, blinkered by privilege and unprepared to face the expensive-suited barbarians hammering away at his gate.  

Though the character is somewhat misused, Jeff Kirwan gets to the heart of things as a union boss scolding the rank and file for choosing self-interest over self preservation. Sadly, even in this very long play, there's not enough time to show how the steel industry changed the face of labor with its "new experimental bargaining." That broadly-adopted change in protocol took away the right to strike in favor of binding arbitration. Since you're reading this review here and are unlikely to find anything similar on the The Commercial Appeal's website, it might be helpful to understand that these same bargaining techniques enabled union -busting and the corporate delocalization of daily newspapers. So Junk's most heartfelt moment leaves the false impression of short-sighted workers availing themselves of a money grab when, for the previous 20-years union leadership had been golfing with management, while ignoring comment from the rank and file that might have sustained America's unionized industry through mechanization.  Like reporters, playwrights also tell easy, incomplete stories sometimes. At least Kirwan connects with both his character, and the audience during Junk's heart-breaking aside about complicity and the common man.

While I don't really miss all the cocaine or the gratuitous sex that often accompanies these kinds of stories, I do miss the speed, clarity, chaos and manifest temptation. Junk's a fine essay, but a less than extraordinary play that creeps along with three dots left dangling for every two it connects. Even these weaknesses might be exploited by embracing another trope of the 1980's — postmodernism. Expanding on the example of shows like Enron,  Junk might discover its better life as a rose-strewn toe-dance across the keys of  a big baby-grand, ascending like good hair or a big black and white stairway to heaven. The thing about this american ritual, to borrow from The Eurythmics, "It's savage and it's cruel and it shines like destruction, comes in like the flood and it seems like religion. It's noble and it's brutal. It distorts and deranges. It wrenches you up, and you're left like a zombie." Junk doesn't do any of that.

That's love, not judgment. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Marriage Proposal, Memorials Steal the Show: Ostranders, 2018

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 10:10 AM

Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
  • Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
Laughter, tears, goosebumps, the uncontrollable urge to dance, and the undeniable need to stretch: This year's Ostrander Awards packed in an entire theater season's worth of feels, including big surprises and the occasional jot of dismay. This year's event boasted more (and better) musical numbers, with a bigger band and better production than Ostranders past.

What began in 1984 as a simple act of handing out play prizes, is now a proper mini-festival where theater makers and theater lovers can spend a few more hours with favorite shows from the past season, and sample the best work being created by top artists working in Memphis area playhouses. This year's audience was treated to heartfelt, heart-stopping, rafter-shattering samples from Falsettos, Dream Girls, The Wild Party, Fun Home, Violet, Shrek, Once, and The Drowsy Chaperone.

A memorial for local performing artists who've died in the past year turned the crowd into a sobbing mess. 

This year's host-free version of the Ostrander Awards took several tentative steps forwards in terms of packing in fun content and letting Memphis' theatrical talent really show off for itself. People who do shows don't always get to see shows, and it's hard to overstate the revival-like affirmation of being in room filled with actors, singers, hoofers, writers, and musicians all together for the first time hearing Breyannah Tillman cut loose with "And I Am Telling You," or falling into a stunned hush when the cast of Once hammers out a ragged Irish ballad. But between the singing and all the dancing, and the surprises, this was still a show desperately in need of an editor. 
Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
  • Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
C'mon, folks! Excluding a modest acceptance address by lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell, every speech and award citation would have improved with distillation. Actors may love a meaty monologue, it's true, but when it comes to telling this night's story well, in a reasonable amount of time, a deft sentence or two composed for speakers rather than readers, is more effective than detailed paragraphs rattled off imprecisely at a breakneck pace.

I'll attempt an example.

The 2018 Ostrander for "Oh No You Didn't" goes to Chase Ring. Ring upstaged everybody (including lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell!), when he took a knee and proposed to co-presenter, Ellen Inghram. Congratulations and raised eyebrows are both in order.
Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.
  • Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.

I'm kidding about the raised eyebrows part. And the part about giving Chase the business for being a spotlight-hogging scene thief. Mostly. But congratulations really are in order. It was lovely, and an awesome moment to share with a community that's experienced a good deal of crisis and loss in the past 12 months. Also, any citation longer than the one above my super blurry photo of Chase and Ellen showing us what perfect storybook romance looks like, is probably too much.
Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
  • Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
I'll have one last report about this year's Ostrander awards in the October issue of Memphis magazine. Until then — and until next year for Intermission Impossible's annual Ostrander coverage — I'll leave you with this picture of Justin Asher loving life. In Shrek ears. 
Shrek & Donkey.
  • Shrek & Donkey.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Jitney, Fun Home Take Top Honors: Ostrander Winners, 2018

Posted By on Mon, Aug 27, 2018 at 9:07 AM

Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square
  • Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square
This season, Hattiloo completed August Wilson's entire century-cycle with a first-rate production of Jitney, Wilson's requiem for gypsy cab drivers working Pittsburgh's Hill District. In the musical category, Ostrander liked Playhouse on the Square's Fun Home, a sophisticated musical adaptation of comic book artist Alison Bechdel's traumatic childhood. 

College Division

Set Design
The Wild Party - Brian Ruggaber, U of M

Costume Design
The Secret in the Wings - Becca Bailey, U of M

Lighting Design
The Secret in the Wings - Nicholas F. Jackson

Music Direction
Nine - Jason Eschhofen, U of M

Nine - Jill Guyton Nee

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Hiawartha Jackson, Southwest

Leading Actress in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Jordan Hartwell, U of M

Supporting Actor in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Tyler Vernon

Leading Actor in a Drama
Theophilus North - Ryan Gilliam, McCoy Theatre, Rhodes

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Violet - Destiny Freeman, Rhodes/U of M co-production

Leading Actress in a Musical
Violet - Jenny Wilson

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Violet - Jason McCloud

Leading Actor in a Musical
Violet - Deon'ta White

Featured/Cameo Role
Violet - Jaylon Jazz McCraven

Large Ensemble
Nine - The entire cast of ladies

Small Ensemble
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Ciara Campbell, Jhona Gipson, Rashidah Gardner, Mary Ann Washington, Hiawartha Jackson

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Danica Horton

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Violet - Karissa Coady

Best Production

Ostrander Nominees and Award Winners 2018 Community and Professional Division

Excellence in Set Design
Tim McMath, Fun Home, Playhouse on the Square

Excellence in Costume Design
Amie Eoff, Shrek, Theatre Memphis
Shrek at Theatre Memphis - JOEY MILLER
  • Joey Miller
  • Shrek at Theatre Memphis

Excellence in Props Design
Betty Dilley, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Germantown Community Theatre

Excellence in Hair/Wig/Makeup Design
Buddy Hart, Rence Phillips, Charles McGowan, Shrek

Excellence in Sound Design
Joe Johnson, Eurydice, New Moon Theatre Company

Excellence in Lighting Design
Zo Haynes, Fun Home

Excellence in Music Direction
Jeffrey Brewer, Drowsy Chaperone, Theatre Memphis
Falsettos, Next Stage, Theatre Memphis
  • Falsettos, Next Stage, Theatre Memphis
Excellence in Choreography
Travis Bradley & Jordan Nichols, Drowsy Chaperone

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama
Erin Shelton, All Saints in the Old Colony, POTS@TheWorks
Jessica “Jai” Johnson, Ruined, Hattiloo

Best Leading Actress in a Drama
Maya Geri Robinson, Ruined

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama
John Maness, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Leading Actor in a Drama
Greg Boller, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical
Carla McDonald, Fun Home

Best Leading Actress in a Musical
Breyannah Tillman, Dreamgirls, Playhouse on the Square

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical
Napoleon Douglas, Dreamgirls

Best Leading Actor in a Musical
Justin Asher, Shrek

Best Featured Performer in a Drama
Jamel “JS” Tate, Jitney, Hattiloo

Best Featured Performer in a Musical
Annie Freres, Shrek
All Saints in the Old Colony: Greg Boller, John Maness - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • All Saints in the Old Colony: Greg Boller, John Maness

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
Jeff Posson, All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Production of a Drama

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Dave Landis, Fun Home

Best Production of a Musical
Fun Home

Gypsy Award
Christi Hall

Larry Riley Rising Star
Breyannah Tillman

Behind the Scenes
Andy Saunders.

Best Original Script
All Saints in the Old Colony POTS@TheWorks

Best Production of an Original Script
All Saints in the Old Colony

Annie Freres in Shrek
  • Annie Freres in Shrek

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Tony Isbell Awarded Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Memphis Theater

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2018 at 11:43 AM

Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
  • Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
In the Ostrander Awards first year of existence Tony Isbell was one of two actors nominated in the Best Actor category. He lost. Oh well. He’d be nominated many more times and win his share of play prizes. Now, after 40 years working in Memphis as an actor, director, producer, sometimes writer and occasional cult movie star, Isbell is being honored with the Eugart Yerian award for lifetime achievement.

Isbell will be honored at the Orpheum Theatre this Sunday evening when the Memphis theater community converges at the corner of Main & Beale for Memphis' annual theater awards, The Ostranders.

Memphis Flyer: Origin stories are a good place to start. And we’ve talked about this before because, like me, you moved here from rural Middle Tennessee.

Tony Isbell: West Tennessee.

Yes, West Tennessee. But you didn’t exactly grow up in an urban environment.

I was born in Union City and lived in a 10-mile radius of Union City and Martin until we moved to Memphis. That would have been 1978. So at this point I've lived more of my life in Memphis than where I'm from originally.
Tony Isbell in "Red"
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"

Was theater something available to you?

No. That's a very short answer. No. I used to say the first play I ever saw I was in. The University of Tennessee at Martin is there. And I'm sure they were doing [theater there]. But when I was a kid was a long time ago. Union City was maybe 10,000 people when I was a kid. Martin was maybe 3-4000. Something like that. So this was a small agricultural community, basically. I didn't see theater. I saw a lot of stuff on TV of course. And at that time, there was still some stuff that was kind of like live theater. Even when I was in elementary school and junior high, there were no productions in the schools.

What were your creative outlets?

I don't know if you can classify this is creative, but… For my family, who I love, I probably seem like an alien. I love to read. And I’d read practically anything when I was a kid. But when I discovered things that were like science fiction and fantasy and stuff that today would be called magical realism, I truly fell in love. Those were the kinds of things that I loved almost from the minute I began to read. Some of the earliest books that I remember — I can't remember the titles — but they were Norse mythology and all that stuff about the Norse gods. Mythology in general. So anything that had a kind of flavor of the fantastic.

I did watch a lot of TV. Probably more than was good for me. But I used to pester anybody I could to read to me. They would laugh at me. In a good way. I was especially fascinated by the comics in the newspaper and I always wanted to know what does this cloud say. What does this cloud say. The act of reading just fascinated me and in Elementary School I got in trouble for reading too much. That sounds crazy, I know. We had assigned days when we could go to the school library. I’d find books that I wanted to read and we go back to class and we were supposed to do something else and I’d hold the book under the desktop and begin reading it immediately and just lose myself completely. I remember one time when the teacher called on me and I was totally in another world.

I do remember being fascinated by television when I was still fairly young, and asking I don't know if it was my father or who it was. See, I understood the people on TV were actors. I didn't think Gunsmoke was really happening. But it suddenly struck me — how did they know what to say? “Well, somebody writes it,” I was told. I thought that was so cool. So when I was really young I thought maybe I would be a writer. And I wrote some stuff.

You still do, don’t you?

I haven't written anything in a long time. I wrote some things for Chatterbox. But I thought I might be a writer. I enjoyed reading too much to be a writer if that makes sense. I still get ideas and I get inspired and I start reading about things I want to do and… well...

Other than that, I grew up in a very rural environment. My grandparents had a farm. They had some dairy cows. And I would spend summers with them, not even 10 miles from where my folks lived. Both my parents worked. My mother was a factory worker. Real working class sort of thing. My dad drove a truck. He drove trucks pretty much his whole life. Not like semis but like local delivery trucks and things like that.

Did you act things out? Or were you a class clown?

No. I was incredibly shy. And in many ways, I still am. But I was not the class clown or anything like that. If anything, I wanted people not to notice me. It goes back to that reading thing. I would get so involved in reading and watching shows. So caught up in that, it almost seemed like I lost track of what was going on in the real world around me. My mother was worried about me reading so much. She was really concerned that I wasn't getting enough sunshine and fresh air and stuff. I told you before about how one time she made me give away all of my comic books. Oh my God it broke my heart. I had Spider-Man #1. She made me get rid of it. I think I got a nickel for it. It's worth what now? $100,000 or something? Something crazy. My mother in particular was really concerned about me reading all that science fiction. She thought it was bad for me. And she didn't know anything about it, I don't think. She just saw the lurid covers on the paperbacks and magazines. She thought it was bad for my brain

Did you come to Memphis for school?

I went to undergraduate school at Martin. Marie and I actually got married there. In Union City. We moved to Memphis so she could go to graduate school to get her Masters. We weren't really planning to stay here. We didn't think much beyond her getting her Masters. She's a speech pathologist. She works and has worked for the state of Tennessee for almost 30 years.

When did you start doing theater?

High school. And there are two people I can point to that got me into theater. One was an English teacher named Harriet Beeler. She taught English but at some point she got certified to teach speech. So she had to take some extra courses at the University at UT-Martin, which happened to be right there. One of the courses she ended up taking was a directing class. So, for her final, all the students had to direct a short play and she approached me. I don't know why. I guess I was a good English student. She asked about doing a small role and I’d never done anything like that before, but for some reason, something in me just immediately responded. With fear and also extreme interest. So I said okay.
Isbell and Ellis in True West.
  • Isbell and Ellis in True West.
I would have been a sophomore or junior at this time. The play was this - oh my God, like the worst Lifetime movie you’ve ever seen. Big tearjerker. I don't remember the author but it was called The Valiant and it was about this guy who was in prison for murdering a man basically because he needed murdering. I wasn't playing that role, I was playing a role that had about two lines. A prison guard. Beeler cast a football player to play the hero because she thought he looked right. He was very popular. Well, he didn't come to the first rehearsal. There had been some mixup or something. But then he didn't come to the second one. Just didn't show up. So, I don't know if it was the second or third time he missed that she says, “Well, maybe I think he doesn't want to do this play.” By this point, I wanted to play that role so bad. But I was too scared to say anything. So she said, “I'm going to ask Andy to do it.” Andy was another guy in the show playing a guard. And Andy was a nice guy, but he could barely say the lines. So, after about 5 minutes of him struggling with the words she said, “Maybe we should let Tony do this.” Whatever else I may not have had, I was able to read things out loud really well and that was all she needed. She was like, “Oh good you can do it.” So I ended up doing that for the directing class and to this day I can remember how I felt before I went on stage. I was 16 or 17 and I was waiting backstage and my heart was pounding. I think I was actually afraid something bad was going to happen to me because my heart was beating so hard.

So, we went out there and did it and when it was over and we got to take a bow there was such an adrenaline and endorphin rush I literally felt high. Like I was on drugs of some kind. It was unbelievable. I’d never felt like that or imagined anything like that. It was just crazy. I was wearing this grey shirt and I had sweated so much I was wet from my elbow all the way down to my hip. I’d never done anything like that before either. I couldn't believe it. I must have been a junior because the next year we moved to a new high school, they built a new high school. And I wound up starring in the senior play which was the first senior play we'd ever done since I'd been in that school.
With Deborah Harrison in Fool for Love.
  • With Deborah Harrison in Fool for Love.
Then I went to UT Martin and studied theater with Bill Snyder all four years I was there and did lots of acting and directing. He was an interesting guy. He was from originally from Memphis but went to Yale and was a couple of years ahead of Bennett Wood who also went to Yale. So they knew each other or knew of each other. Then he went to New York. His real thing was playwriting, he was a playwright and had a minor success Off Broadway with a play called The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker. Which is partially set in Memphis and partially set in New York. It opened the same season Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and was one of the first acting jobs for Robert Duvall. Bill Snyder was friends with Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman and ended up going to Actors Studio for a while. Everything he taught at Martin was extremely Actors Studio based. it was interesting because, when he would direct we would improvise everything. You know, doing it without the dialogue. He'd say, “Okay, you're doing the play now but don't worry about getting the words. Just get what's going on.” It could be helpful. He hardly ever gave us blocking; all of that evolved out of the improvisation.

The show I felt like I made my really big breakthrough on was the production of Marat/Sade, which I would actually like to direct someday.

Me too, but I don’t see that happening.

I love that show. And it's not really done. It's like nobody does it anymore and I think it's just as relevant now as it was back then.

Somehow that doesn’t seem like a very Actors Studio kind of play.

I never knew why he picked any of the plays that he did.

Who did you play in that?

I played The Herald. And improvising all that stuff in the insane asylum was incredibly freeing for me. I've told people before, and it sounds goofy. But there was one night in particular when I felt like all my my previous acting had been in a dark room and then somebody turned on the lights. It's hard to explain. I've talked to other actors and they said they never had a moment like that. But it was like I understood what acting was supposed to be like. It wasn't just saying lines. All of a sudden I was connected emotionally and I really understood the difference, I think. From that point on I was able to access it

So, after college you move to Memphis. What was the theater scene like when you arrived here? Was it welcoming?

Yes. Well, a qualified yes. When I arrived here it seemed like the only places to do theater were Circuit Playhouse and Theatre Memphis. Playhouse on the Square had either just started or was about to start. I came down from Martin a few times to see shows at Circuit. This is when it was still over on Poplar across from Overton Park. A tiny little theater.

I'd heard it was harder to get into Theatre Memphis. At that time, Circuit was doing the kinds of shows I was more interested in. So, for the first eight, nine, or ten years - I don't know - I didn’t do any shows at Theatre Memphis. It was mostly Circuit because they did the more interesting plays for me. Also, the theater either owned or rented a house and, in the attic there was literally a space called called The Attic Theater that held, I'm not kidding you, maybe 10 seats. Maybe 12 seats. And that's where I did some of my first stuff in Memphis, because anybody could do anything in The Attic. I did some original scripts there. All you had to do was say, “Hey, I want to do this.”
With Mark Pergolizzi in As Is.
  • With Mark Pergolizzi in As Is.
The first play I did on a main stage was American Buffalo at Circuit. I played Bobby the kid. That was the first show I did there. It's a wonderful show. It was the Christmas show — to literally let you know how much things have changed. I can't remember the exact dates but it ran like December into January.

So this is my first show in Memphis really. Alan Mullikan played the shop owner and Jim Palmer played Teach. And the review was mixed to bad. It was Bob Jennings who hated any kind of thing like that anyway. Didn't like foul language. So this was not a good show for him to see. I remember his opening of that review and it was the first time I've ever been reviewed in the newspaper the opening with something like… Wait. Did American Buffalo win the Pulitzer Prize or was it just nominated.

I don’t think it won. But maybe.

Maybe it was just nominated.

Glengarry Glen Ross won a Pulitzer. American Buffalo won a Tony. But maybe it won the Pulitzer, I hate that I have such a terrible memory for these things. *

Maybe it won. Or was nominated. Because, the opening of the review was something like, “The American Pulitzer committee, whether it should or not, has seen fit to award the Pulitzer Prize for drama to American Buffalo and Circuit Playhouse, whether it should or not, has seen fit to produce it.”

Oh wow. That’s really something.

He didn’t like it at all. He said something about me to the effect of “Tony Isbell, as Bobby, the mentally retarded young thug, doesn’t seem to be acting. He simply is the part.” He didn’t mean that in a good way. That was my first review.

So you wind up staying in Memphis.
It just kind of happened that we ended up staying. I never seriously thought about going to New York or Los Angeles because, frankly, I wanted to be able to do a lot of theater. I didn't want to spend most of my time hustling auditions for shows that you don't get. Then Marie got a pretty good job here and I ended up going to Memphis State and getting an MFA in theater because I thought I might go back to Martin to teach. But that didn’t happen, so we just ended up staying here and over the years I've gotten to do tons and tons of theater, which is what I wanted to do. And a little film and TV here and there. As far as being a professional, I just didn't want to face all that. It had no appeal to me.

You bring up film and TV so maybe we should talk a little bit about “I Was a Zombie for the FBI?”

Oh, I loved that. That's when I was working on my Master's. I was actually approached by Marius Penczner, who was the director. He said, “Hey I'm going to be making this movie.” And I didn't know who he was. He had seen me in some theater stuff and thought I’d make a good villain. Especially a space alien. I don't know if this is true but he said he wrote the part with me in mind because he thought I had a cool demeanor that would work really well.

When I signed on I told everybody that I worked during the day and we’d have to work around that. Well, damned if I didn't get laid off my job a week or two later. Then I saw the shooting schedule and was like, “I couldn't have done this if I still had my job.” It was kind of good in that way. We shot for several weeks. Five or six weeks. Maybe a little longer.

And this launches on cable with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or something like that, right?

They had a premiere at Ardent Studios. They set up all these big screens because there wasn't one auditorium big enough for all the people. There were five or six rooms they set up chairs in and you could watch on big TV screens. 20-30 people to a room. Then it actually played on Channel 5 a couple of months later. It ended up playing on the USA Network’s Up All Night. I think it was in rotation with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and they’d play it every four to six months.
Greatest hits: What are some of your favorite shows you’ve worked on?

Some of my favorite shows I’ve acted in? The Dresser at Circuit. I played Norman and it was the first year they had Ostrander awards. Myself and Jay Ehrlicher were nominated for best actor and I lost.

Jay was nominated for playing Salieri in Amadeus?

Yes, Amadeus. Also, I did Fool for Love. I loved that play. Still love that play. I got a lot of nominations in the early years. And in the later years too. It sounds like bragging, but I got nominated a lot. Acting more than directing. And I did True West a few years later at Theatre Memphis.

With Chris Ellis.

Yes. I directed Memphis’ premiere of Prelude to a Kiss and wouldn’t mind directing that again.

I like that Craig Lucas.

I did the other show of his— the Christmas Show...

Not Blue Window. Reckless!

Yes, Reckless. Loved that show.

This is all main stage stuff more or less, but you’ve also always done independent work too. Like you said you worked in the Attic. But you also produced a show in the basement at First Congo Church long before there was a theater in the basement of First Congo Church.


Yes, Thais. And now you have a company for doing independent work. Tell me a little about Quark.

It came about as a kind of joke. I made a joke on Facebook about Krapp’s Last Tape. There’s a line in the play, “I’ve just eaten two bananas and was only able to just keep myself from eating a third.” Or something like that. I made that joke about donuts because I had, that morning, eaten three or four donuts. Adam got the reference. I knew he was a Beckett fan. He wrote his masters thesis on Beckett and he was the one person who responded with the correct line. In a post on Facebook I said it’s the one play I want to act in rather than direct and he said, “Well, let's.” It turned out to be such a good experience. Such positive feedback from people. Even from people I didn’t think would care for it. A few months after the show I asked Adam, how about we do this on regular basis? Just a couple of shows a year.

We’re both nerdy, so we named the company Quark. Building blocks of the universe. And that’s what we want to focus on. We started with Beckett then looked at maybe doing some Pinter and said, “Maybe we want to do new things. Or things that haven’t been done here. So we started looking for new work that engages the intellect a well as emotions.
Bye, bye, Blackbird.
  • Bye, bye, Blackbird.

I love good design and I’m not just saying that because I’m married to a designer. Good, thoughtful design — which doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive — elevates everything. But I also love work that strips everything away but the barest essentials. That’s what I love about Quark.

I wanted to get down to just the actors, the audience, and the script and let the rest be bare minimum. The main things I’m concerned with are the actors and audience. The space, the audience, the performers and what happens between them is what’s most interesting to me.

*American Buffalo did not win the Pulitzer though playwright David Mamet was confident it would. It won 3 Tony awards and the New York Drama Circle's Award for Best New American Play. 

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Ostranders 2018: Picks, Pans, and "Who Got ROBBED?!?!"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 11:35 AM

Maness 4-ways.
  • Maness 4-ways.
You know what? As long as John Maness wins something, I don’t care about anything else this year. If the Ostrander committee misses all the rest by miles and miles, I’ll be satisfied for the ounce of justice done. Because … holy crap! After this season, the O-committee should consider a “John Maness hardest-working-person in Memphis Theater” trophy. With a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic married to the soul of a magician and escape artist, he hammers out one unique character after another and vanishes inside them. I mean, who the hell does this guy think he is, Erin Shelton?

Nevertheless, the time has come, once again, for shade to be cast and predictions made in regard to this year’s crop of nominees and nominees that might have been if only the universe wasn’t so frequently unfair. It’s the season when the Intermission Impossible team wonders what it is our tireless, too human Ostrander judges might be smoking. When we ask the one question on every right-thinking thespian’s mind — “WHO GOT ROBBED?”

I want to see J. David Galloway take home the set design for New Moon’s lovely, immersive, and necessarily inventive design for Eurydice. I’ve been frustrated in the past by designers who quote or wink at surrealism when what’s needed is something approaching the real thing. Not every aspect of Galloway’s design was as dreamy as it might have been, but the microbudget masterpiece engaged imaginations, enabling the kind of stage magic money can’t buy.
That said, bigger, better-funded companies still have advantages in design categories and I suspect the judges may prefer Jack Yates’ outstanding work on The Drowsy Chaperone or the ordinary otherworldliness of Tim McMath’s design for Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square.

But what about the eye-candy that was An Act of God (also Yates)? What about 12 Angry Jurors, an environment so real yet another confounded patron tried to use the onstage bathroom (also Yates)? If it sounds like I’m arguing for more Jack Yates nominations, maybe I am. But I’m also making a case that there’s been some good design this season, and given a different set of sensibilities, this category might have swung another direction entirely. There might have been nods for the elegant emptiness of Bryce Cutler’s Once, at Playhouse on the Square, or the grubby, unfussy realism of Phillip Hughen’s design for The Flick at Circuit Playhouse. I look forward to seeing how this category evolves as New Moon continues to mature, and smaller Memphis’ companies leverage thoughtfulness against more tangible resources. 
  • Falsettos.

It’s wrong that Mandy Heath wasn’t nominated for lighting Falsettos but I can live with the slight as long as she wins the prize for Eurydice. That’s really all I have to say about that.

Once is a stunt musical — and what a terrific stunt! It’s part concert, part narrative drama, with the actors doubling down as their own orchestra. The three-chord score’s not Sondheim but casting players who are also, well... players isn’t easy. And pulling off a piece musical theater where the songs feel more like barroom romps than show tunes, requires a different kind of sophistication. I suspect the thrice-nominated Nathan McHenry will take this prize. He should take it for Once.

Who got robbed? Maybe nobody this year.

For excellence in sound design there are a few nominees, but really only one choice. Joe Johnson’s dreamy original score for Eurydice didn’t enhance the designed environment. It completed it.

I was happy to see choreographers Ellen Inghram and Jared Johnson nominated for the wit and wisdom permeating their work on Falsettos. It would be nice to see them win over the flashier entries in this category. No robberies here.

When it comes to the non-musicals, best female lead and supporting roles are almost always the toughest category to call because year after year they are overstuffed with contenders. While Kim Sanders was her usual perfect self in both A Perfect Arrangement and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the double nomination in the supporting category may not double her odds against commanding, emotionally wrenching turns by Jessica “Jai” Johnson in Ruined and Erin Shelton in All Saints in the Old Colony. Kell Christie was the best Emelia I’ve ever seen and a perfect match for John Maness’ woman-hating Iago in New Moon’s Othello. Any other year Christie would be my #1 pick. She’s a longshot compared to Shelton and Johnson and I’m hard pressed to say who’s more deserving of the honor.
Opera 901 Showcase
  • Opera 901 Showcase
Who got robbed? Although FEMMEemphis’ productions aren’t under consideration, basically the entire cast of Collective Rage. Quark’s similarly out of the running but in the young company’s very adult production of The Nether, young Molly McFarland stood shoulder to shoulder with grownup co-stars and delivered a brave, polished performance. As the youngest of the Weston daughters in Theatre Memphis’ tepid August: Osage County, Emily F. Chateau was damn near perfect — as fragile as Laura Wingfield’s glass unicorn and as likely to cut you if broken. ROBBED AS HELL!

Anne Marie Caskey does consistently professional work but she seemed miscast in Theatre Memphis’ not altogether successful production of August: Osage County. Ostrander loves Caskey (as do I) and her inclusion here might seem less bewildering if not for the absence of Michelle Miklosey’s pitch perfect Eurydice  Tracy Hansom's good old fashioned curtain chew in Stage Kiss. Were I one of these two ladies, I’d take The Oblivains strong advice and call the police. Because, ROBBED! OMG ROBBED!

Some of the best female leads this season did their thing just outside Ostrander’s natural reach. Jillian Baron and Julia Baltz were equally badass in FEMMEmphis’ Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. But let’s be real. All this talk of robbery is purely academic because each of these fantastic performances paled next to to Maya Geri Robinson’s larger-than-life depiction of a Congolese Mother Courage in Ruined at Hattiloo. And Robinson's performance may have only been the season’s second best. I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve ever seen an actor own a show like Morgan Watson owned Sunset Baby, also at Hattiloo.
Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!
  • Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!

The list for Best Supporting Actor is strong. It’s so strong I’m picking Bertram Williams for Ruined even though I started this column cheering for John Maness in anything. The list of nominees might also have included nods to Jeff Kirwan for his performances in New Moon’s Buried Child, Eurydice or both. It's worth noting (yet again) that every performance in All Saints in the Old Colony approached a personal best and Marques Brown was ROBBED!

I don’t know what the theater judges had against Buried Child but James Dale Green’s Dodge is a glaring best actor omission. So is Emmanuel McKinney, who gave a knockout performance as Muhammad Ali in the uneven Fetch Clay, Make Man. Both of these men should post on right away to let everybody know they were ROBBED! Once that’s been done, can we please all agree to give this year’s prize to John Maness? And can we go ahead make it for everything he touched this season? I say this with deep appreciation for and apologies to All Saints’ Greg Boller and Jitney’s Lawrence Blackwell who both delivered special, award-worthy performances in a season where the competition happened to be a little stiffer than usual.

I take it from the sheer number of nominations in the category of Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, the Ostrander judges liked Fun Home. Me too. But maybe not enough to give any category a near sweep. Especially when it might be appropriate to co-nominate Fun Home’s small and medium Alison in order to make room for Falsettos’ Jaclyn Suffel and/or Christina Hernandez who were both ROBBED!

A taste of Once's pre-show jam.
Like I said, Ostrander very clearly likes Fun Home this year with the odd exception of adult Alison, Joy Brooke-Fairfield. So, individual nominations aside, I’m predicting a joint win for the two Alisons. Of course Annie Freres was a force of nature as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone. All else being equal, she was probably the most outstanding nominee in a field of outstanding nominees.

Best Female Lead in a Musical is a heartbreaker category because everybody nominated is ridiculously talented. Nobody in town has pipes like DreamgirlsBreyannah Tillman, who’s also proving to be a formidable actor. But Emily F. Chateau also had an amazing year and may have been better in Falsettos than she was in August: Osage County. Gia Welch is a precocious powerhouse. She was great in Chaperone, but might also have been nominated for work on 42nd Street or Heathers. Meanwhile, Once’s Lizzy Hinton and Shrek’s Lynden Lewis occupy opposite corners of this playing field. The former helped build a complete world out of song and mirrors.The later was almost buried in spectacle but made heart and soul so much more important than green makeup and ogre costumes.

Let me let you in on a secret: Like Lena Younger’s striving son Walter, Patricia Smith was ROBBED! She should have gotten a nod for her work in the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. I’m gonna talk about Raisin later on in this seemingly endless column, but frankly, that whole cast might want to call a personal injury attorney because they were dealt a disservice up front then ripped off by out appraisers!

Given all of Fun Home’s nominations in other categories, the omission of Joy Brooke-Fairfield feels oddly pointed. Fun Home’s a show that might challenge traditional gender divisions in these kinds of awards and when I didn’t see the older Alison included in this category, I so I double checked the whole list to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. But there was no Joy to be found anywhere, and that sentence is every bit as sad as it sounds. ROBBED!

I’d like to see Joshua Pierce win the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category for Theatre Memphis’ superlative take on Falsettos. But I missed First Date and Dreamgirls this season and, truth be told, I don’t understand Shrek’s appeal. Too disoriented by this category to make a fair call. That almost never happens. Y'all tell me.

Best Leading Actor in a Musical is yet another heartbreaker category. Shrek’s never going to be my thing, but it’s very clearly Justin Asher’s, and he was a mighty fine ogre,  loving every second of big green stage time. Stephen Huff was so at home in Fun Home it’s now almost impossible for me to imagine anybody else in his role. And I kinda feel the same about Jason Spitzer’s near definitive take on The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair. But I've gotta say, having been underwhelmed by his pitchy turn in Heathers, I was most impressed by Conor Finnerty-Esmonde's take on the hard-luck musician in Once. But when I filter out personal taste in music and storytelling and just let myself focus on the difficulty and potency of the performances represented here, one actor’s work really stands out. Villains are fun to play but nothing's harder than a complex character who's hard-to-like but can't be allowed to become a villain. Cary Vaughn, in his finest of many fine performances, plowed through Falsettos like a steamroller. Still standing. Still applauding this entire cast.
Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
  • Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
But what about Kortland Whalum? Where is his name? I’ll be the first to admit, Raisin was tragically underproduced. The scenic environment felt unfinished, and in an intimate space like Hattiloo, nothing sucks the soul from musical performances like warm bodies performing to cold tracks. But somehow, in spite of everything the actors had working against them, Raisin’s cast collectively overcame. I can’t blame the Ostrander for not rewarding the production, but when you factor in the odds against, no cast was more ROBBED than this one. I’ll brook zero argument: No actor deserves to this category half as much as Whalum. Folks are welcome to disagree on this point, but folks who do are flat wrong. ROBBED!

If Jamel “JS” Tate doesn’t win Best Featured Performer in a Drama for Jittny I’m personally calling in the FBI. Annie Freres is likely to win Best Featured in a musical for her flashy roll-on as the Dragon in Shrek. Or maybe it will go to Breyannah Tillman, who stuck the landing in her role as The Drowsy Chaperone’s show-stopping aviatrix. But James Dale Green stopped time with nothing but his weatherbeaten tenor, a strummed mandolin, and a compelling story to tell. That sounds like a winner to me. Who got Robbed? Once’s Chris Cotton, that’s who.

I’m totally happy if the Ensemble award goes to All Saints in the Old Colony, Falsettos, Fun Home, Jitney, or A Perfect Arrangement. All are deserving, though Jitney may be just a little bit more deserving than all the rest. But how in the blankety-blankblanblank did Once not make this list? The cast doesn’t just act together, they also make music together — acoustic music. Music largely unaided by electronics and amplification. Music so thoroughly human it connects past and future like a time machine made of skin, bone, wood and string. I’m happy if the award goes to any of the fantastic nominees, but no matter who wins the judges lose on this account. Once was the season’s ultimate ensemble show, and POTS’s ensemble crushed it. The pre-show hoedown was worth the price of admission. BOO!

As long as I’m complaining about the judges, OMG! Why is Tony Isbell nominated for excellence in direction of a drama for Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf? Don’t misunderstand, I come to praise this year’s lifetime achievement honoree, not to dis him. Isbell absolutely should have been nominated in this category, but for his work on The Nether (not eligible). Or his work on Years to the Day (also not eligible). Or maybe even his work on Stage Kiss (eligible and solid but fuck-you ignored). I’d go so far as to say he got ROBBED! in spite of bing nominated. This insubstantial work is a jarring inclusion next to Dr. Shondrika Moss-Bouldin’s unflinching approach to Ruined and the inventiveness of Jamie Boller’s Eurydice. Not to mention the hyper-detailed character development, and ensemble work Jeff Posson oversaw for All Saints in the Old Colony and the flawless world-building of Steve Broadnax’s Jitney. I’m calling this one for Posson, but it could go in almost any direction.

Best production of a drama? I like Jitney, though I’ve not pegged it as a winner in many other categories. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the case here, though the parts were also quite good. Should All Saints in the Old Colony win, it’s every bit as deserving and, being a new script and the underdog here, maybe even more deserving.

I’m betting the darkhorse for excellence in Direction of a Musical and calling this one for Jerry Chipman and Falsettos. Everything else was bigger or flashier or more current in some way or another, even the stripped down Once. But life’s about balance, and Chipman’s production had nary a hair out of place that wasn’t supposed to be out of place.

Looking at the nominee spread, my gut tells me Fun Home was the judges’ favorite musical this season, and why wouldn't it be? It was flawlessly cast, and beautifully performed. But this wasn't the best work I’ve seen from director Dave Landis. I saw the performance with two companions. One wept openly, responding to the story and the characters. The other complained all the way home about the musical’s almost complete lack of action and visual/physical dynamics. I became the most unpopular person in the car when I said I thought they were both 100-percent right to feel the way they felt. Up to this point I’ve been #TeamFalsettos but I’m calling this one for Once. The other shows were great, but they were shows. Once was an event.

“Theaters not actively engaged in creating new material are passively engaged in their own obsolescence.” — Me.

Yeah, I totally quoted myself, but there’s not much I believe more than that. It’s one of the reasons I think the Ostrander Awards for Best Original Script and Best Production of an Original Script, may be more important than nice. In the future, judges might even consider beating the bushes a little on this front, and looking beyond the usual qualifying companies. All Saints in the Old Colony is a fantastic new script. It will win these categories, and it will know productions and awards beyond Memphis. But now would be a good time for all the folks who contributed words and music to Opera Memphis’ all-original 901 Opera Festival to cancel their credit cards because they have been ROBBED! OM might not be under consideration, but if we’re looking for superlatives, I can’t recall a more impressive example of new musical theater in the 901. Not 
Tony Isbell in "Red"
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"
since OM’s 2014 production of Ghosts of Crosstown heralded the rebirth of a neighborhood.

That may not cover every category, but it’s all I’ve got for now. Who did I forget?

Also, stay tuned for a Q&A with lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

In Praise of "Love and Murder" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2018 at 11:22 AM

Michael Gravois, Kristen Doty
  • Michael Gravois, Kristen Doty
It’s pointless to refer to “the death scene” in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The musical farce at Playhouse on the Square has eight or maybe nine of them, and every one of the characters who goes in extremis is played by the exceptional Michael Gravois.

The stage veteran throws himself brilliantly into the silliness, playing members of the D’Ysquith family who stand in the way of a greedy outcast whose mother married for (shudder) love and was therefore kicked out of the clan’s good graces.

Nonetheless, if certain of Monty Navarro’s relatives should die (the quicker the better), then he’ll be a duke with a wife, a mistress, and most importantly, money. But we really love to watch as Gravois bursts on stage as one of the royal relatives, expires, and then reappears moments later inhabiting the character and costume of another doomed relation.

Holding forth as the initially guileless Monty who embarks on a comic Breaking Bad as the bodies accrue, is Ryne Nardecchia, who played the role in the national tour and is flawless. Adam Cates directs and choreographs, and he, too, worked on the Broadway version and the national tour as associate choreographer.

It’s a thoroughly delightful escape, smartly produced, and scads of fun. If the orchestra would ease up a wee bit from time to time to let the singers be heard, it would be even better.

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Ostranders to Honor Memphis Performers Who Died During 2017-18 Season

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2018 at 11:45 AM

The Ostranders are usually a place where Memphis actors go to laugh together and celebrate the passing of another season. And it will be that again this year, of course. But having lost so many key players and personalities in the past year, it may also be a place where this tempest-tossed community goes for revival — and a big public cry.

Brian Eno famously contemplated the meaning of success by speculating that each of the 30,000 people who purchased a Velvet Underground record went out and started a band. That's become a rock-and-roll cliche, but on a regional scale, similar math might be applied to George Touliatos’ relatively short-lived but enormously influential Front Street Theater. The professional venture, co-founded with actress Barbara Cason, has been described as “a merry go round in quicksand,” but it was also a launching pad for artists like Cason, Dixie Carter, George Hearn and, of course, Touliatos himself.

Beloved Memphis performers like Dorothy Blackwood, Barry Fuller and Bennett Wood also trace origin stories to Front Street. It inspired and informed the development of Playhouse on the Square. Touliaotos' theater may only have lasted a dozen years or so, but its influence touches every corner of the contemporary Memphis theater landscape.
David Muskin
  • David Muskin
Touliatos died in Washington and hasn’t been a consistent part of the Memphis Theater family for a long time,  but it’s impossible to imagine what that family might look today like without him.
Tony Anderson on the right.
  • Tony Anderson on the right.

Speaking of cliches, I’m pretty sure the expression “big things come in small packages,” was created to describe Anthony “Tony” Anderson who’s been one of my favorite actors for as long as I can remember. Anderson was a generous performer. He launched himself into parts with jarring force and seemed to have such a good time on stage it was impossible not to have a good time watching him, whether he was working out on a weighty classic like Master Harold… and the Boys or lending his talent to an unknown, unproven scripts written by local authors.

This year the Memphis theater community also says goodbye to icons and stars like Ann Sharp, Charles Billings, David Foster, and Greg Krosnes. We've lost touchstone choreographer and lifetime achievement honoree Otis Smith, and character actor David Muskin, whose performance as Solly Two-Kings in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean was a masterclass in subtlety and understatement.

A tribute is being planned for the August 26th award ceremony. Bring your own tissue.

Ostrander tickets are available here.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

It's Time for Ostrander Nominees, 2018!

The Memphis Theater Awards are Aug. 26, at The Orpheum

Posted By on Tue, Aug 7, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Dreams, Saints, Fences
  • Dreams, Saints, Fences
Congratulations Memphis Theater people — especially this season's nominees! Ostrander season, 2018 has officially begun.

Tickets are available at this link. Additional details can be found here. Thanks as always to Memphis magazine and ArtsMemphis for making things happen. And your nominees are...

College Division

Set Design
The Wild Party - Brian Ruggaber, University of Memphis
The Secret in the Wings, University of Memphis - Andy Bleiler
Violet - Montana Pugh, McCoy Theatre, Rhodes in collaboration with the U of M

Costume Design
The Secret in the Wings - Becca Bailey
Nine - Jennifer Ammons, University of Memphis
The Servant of Two Masters - jennifer ammons

Lighting Design
The Secret in the Wings - Nicholas F. Jackson
Nine - Anthony Pellecchia
Violet - Emily Murphy

Music Direction
Nine - Jason Eschhofen
Violet - Tracy Thomas
The Wild Party - Jacob Allen

The Wild Party - Jill Guyton Nee
Nine - Jill Guyton Nee

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Hiawartha Jackson, Southwest
The Servant of Two Masters - Jasmine Robertson
Cabs, Ogres, Fun
  • Cabs, Ogres, Fun
Leading Actress in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters, Jordan Hartwell
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Jhona C. Gipson
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Rashidah Gardner

Supporting Actor in a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Toby Davis
The Servant of Two Masters - Tyler Vernon
The Secret in the Wings - Kyle Buchanan

Leading Actor in a Drama
Theophilus North - Ryan Gilliam, McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College
The Servant of Two Masters - Blake Currie

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Nine - Brittni Taylor Rhodes
Violet - Destiny Freeman
The Wild Party - Emily Collins

Leading Actress in a Musical
The Wild Party, Kennedy Staiger
Nine, Ellie Boisseau
Violet, Jenny Wilson

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Violet - Jason McCloud
Nine - Nathan Morton
The Wild Party - Christian Boyd

Leading Actor in a Musical
Violet - Deon'ta White
The Wild Party - Jacob Clanton
Nine - Tyler Vernon

Featured/Cameo Role
Violet - Jaylon Jazz McCraven
The Secret in the Wings - Blake Curry
The Secret in the Wings - Levarius Goods

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
The Servant of Two Masters - Danica Horton
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress - Thomas King

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Nine - Stephen Hancock
Violet - Karissa Coady
The Wild Party - Mark Schnitzler

Best Production
The Servant of Two Masters

Community and Professional Division

Excellence in Set Design
Ekundayo Bandele, Jitney, Hattiloo
J. David Galloway, Eurydice, New Moon
Jack Yates, Drowsy Chaperone, Theatre Memphis
Jack Yates, Shrek, Theatre Memphis
Tim McMath, Fun Home, Playhouse on the Square
Dragons, Gods*, Modernity
  • Dragons, Gods*, Modernity
Excellence in Costume Design
Amie Eoff, Drowsy Chaperone
Amie Eoff, Shrek
Kathleen Kovarik, Dreamgirls, Playhouse on the Square
Lindsay Schmeling, Perfect Arrangement, Circuit Playhouse
Patricia Smith, Jitney

Excellence in Props Design
Aubanita Kirk, Perfect Arrangement
Betty Dilley, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Germantown Community Theatre
Jack Yates, August: Osage County, Theatre Memphis
Jack Yates, Shrek
Katharine Hughen, 9 to 5, Playhouse on the Square

Excellence in Hair/Wig/Makeup Design
April Rose Korpitz, Eurydice
Buddy Hart, Drowsy Chaperone
Buddy Hart and Rence Phillips, 42nd Street, Theatre Memphis
Buddy Hart, Rence Phillips, Charles McGowan, Shrek
Lindsay Schmeling, Perfect Arrangement

Excellence in Sound Design
Carter McHann, Crib, POTS@TheWorks
Carter McHann, Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf, Circuit Playhouse
Eric Sefton, Shrek
Joe Johnson, Eurydice
Zachary Badreddine, Jitney

Excellence in Lighting Design
Jeremy Allen Fisher, Drowsy Chaperone
Jeremy Allen Fisher, Shrek
Mandy Kay Heath, Eurydice
Justin Gibson, Once
Zo Haynes, Fun Home

Excellence in Music Direction
Jeffrey Brewer, Drowsy Chaperone
Jeffrey Brewer, Shrek
Nathan McHenry, Dreamgirls
Nathan McHenry, Fun Home
Nathan McHenry, Once

Excellence in Choreography
Christi Hall, 42nd Street
Ellen Inghram & Jared Johnson, Falsettos, Next Stage, Theatre Memphis
Kim Sanders, Fun Home
Travis Bradley & Jordan Nichols, Drowsy Chaperone
Travis Bradley & Jordan Nichols, Shrek

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama
Erin Shelton, All Saints in the Old Colony POTS@TheWorks
Jessica “Jai” Johnson, Ruined, Hattiloo
Kell Christie, Othello, New Moon
Kim Sanders, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Circuit Playhouse
Kim Sanders, Perfect Arrangement

Best Leading Actress in a Drama
Anne Marie Caskey, August: Osage County, Theatre Memphis
Jamie Boller, Shakespeare in Love, Playhouse on the Square
Jessica “Jai” Johnson, Fences, Theatre Memphis
Maya Geri Robinson, Ruined
Morgan Watson, Sunset Baby, Hattiloo

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama
Bailey Dumlao, Lost in Yonkers Germantown Community Theatre
Benjamin Greene, Fences
Bertram Williams, Ruined
John Maness, All Saints in the Old Colony
Justin Raynard Hicks, Fences
Tommy “TC” Sharpe, Jitney

Best Leading Actor in a Drama
Greg Boller, All Saints in the Old Colony
John Maness, Othello
John Maness, The Flick, Circuit Playhouse
Lawrence Blackwell, Jitney
Marques Brown, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical
Annie Freres, Drowsy Chaperone
Brooke Papritz, Fun Home
Carla McDonald, Fun Home
Heather Zurowski, Fun Home
Sarah Johnson, Fun Home

Best Leading Actress in a Musical
Breyannah Tillman, Dreamgirls
Emily Chateau, Falsettos
Gia Welch, Drowsy Chaperone
Lizzie Hinton, Once
Lynden Lewis Jones, Shrek

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical
Cordell Turner, Dreamgirls
Jimmy Hoxie, First Date
Joshua Pearce, Falsettos
Kevar Maffitt, Shrek
Napoleon Douglas, Dreamgirls

Best Leading Actor in a Musical
Justin Asher, Shrek
Stephen Huff, Fun Home
Jason Spitzer, Drowsy Chaperone
Conor Finnerty-Esmonde, Once
Cary Vaughn, Falsettos

Best Featured Performer in a Drama
Ann Marie Hall, Shakespeare in Love
Greg Fletcher, August: Osage County
Jamel “JS” Tate, Jitney
Jason Spitzer, Shakespeare in Love
The Stones, Eurydice

Best Featured Performer in a Musical
Annie Freres, Shrek
Breyannah Tillman, Drowsy Chaperone
James Dale Green, Once
Jason Eschhofen, First Date, Germantown Community Theatre
Tamara Wright, 9 to 5

All Saints in the Old Colony
Fun Home
Perfect Arrangement
Myths, Sports, Sunsets, Chaperones
  • Myths, Sports, Sunsets, Chaperones
Excellence in Direction of a Drama
Dr. Shondrika Moss-Bouldin, Ruined
Jamie Boller, Eurydice
Jeff Posson, All Saints in the Old Colony
Steve Broadnax, Jitney
Tony Isbell, Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf, Circuit Playhouse

Best Production of a Drama
All Saints in the Old Colony
Perfect Arrangement

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Cecelia Wingate, Shrek
Dave Landis, Fun Home
Jerry Chipman, Falsettos
Jordan Nichols, Dreamgirls
Jordan Nichols, Once
Travis Bradley & Jordan Nichols, Drowsy Chaperone

Best Production of a Musical
Drowsy Chaperone
Fun Home

Best Original Script
Some Day for a Crown
All Saints in the Old Colony

Best Production of an Original Script
Some Day for a Crown
All Saints in the Old Colony

Once, Perfect, Flicks, and more Flicks
  • Once, Perfect, Flicks, and more Flicks
* Totally not nominated for anything. But look at that set! Check those lights! And remember, to check back with Intermission Impossible for Ostrander-related features including memorials, an interview with lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell, as well as picks, pans, and "Who got robbed?!?!


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