Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Summer/Winter Romance an Uncertainty in Heisenberg at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 1:03 PM

Uncertainty Principle: The principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time. — Google.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Exists solely "in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  — Wikipedia.

How nice it is for fans when these sorts of harmonics occur between shows in a local theater season. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which opened last week at Playhouse on the Square, is a spectacle-driven event, faithfully adapted from Mark Haddon's book by British playwright, Simon Stephens. Heisenberg, which opened the same weekend at Theatre Memphis, is a a spectacle-free example of the kind of work Stephens does when he's doing his own thing. In the case of Heisenberg, "his own thing" is also a little like Tom Stoppard's thing, but shorter, maybe a wee bit duller, and way less pleased with itself.

None of the above is a complaint, mind you. But be warned: Heisenberg is not a play about the famously conflicted WWII physicist tasked with developing a nuclear weapons program for the Nazis. Beyond the title, his name is never mentioned and the metaphor, at the heart of Theatre Memphis' sturdily built production, is pretty basic: It's difficult to take the full measure of a person or relationship in any time-isolated circumstance. It's harder still to predict where the players may end up when the curtain comes down. The story is a romance, of sorts, with just a hint of suspense woven into the fabric. It introduces us to Alex Priest, a reserved, 75-year-old Irish-born butcher living in London, whose life is turned upside down by a motormouthed American woman with ulterior motives.

Alex is shocked when a complete stranger sneaks up on him at a train station and kisses him on the back of the neck. Georgie Hardeman swears it was a case of mistaken identity, but she sticks around the station anyway, launching an awkward, distinctly one-side conversation. It's the beginning of an unlikely and complicated relationship between a mouthy 42-year-old woman and a quiet but soulful septuagenarian who loves music like John Cusack in High Fidelity and takes long walks around London with nothing but his headphones for company. Stephens' script toys with the idea that we can never tell where a story will go, but we can be pretty sure from the onset that Georgie— a confessed fabulist — is either going to swindle Alex or the two lonely characters are going to fall in love and/or teach one another valuable life lessons. Or maybe some less expected combination of all of the above.

Like the sensitive young protagonists of a certain kind of movie, Alex is coping with losing his parents. He's also managing the trauma of true love lost. The only real difference between Alex and the sensitive but stunted male leads in coming of age fantasies like Elizabethtown, or 500 Days of Summer, is that, by the time Georgie shows up in his life, Alex has been making the most of his arrested development for 60 years or so. And he's pretty good at it.

In many regards, Georgie is a "manic pixie dream girl" straight out of central casting, but aged to middle years — like a slightly broken refugee from Mama Mia. Unlike the cinema archetype she so closely resembles, Georgie, a school administrator by profession, has been doing her quirky carpe diem schtick long enough to have a backstory. This includes an adult son who hates her free-spirited ways and has abandoned her for the USA where he hopes to put down roots. Differences aside, the results here are very much the same as they always are with the MPDG type. She storms into Alex's life like a 42-year-old Kirsten Dunst,  and the sheer force of her quirk draws him into an unexpected, sometimes dangerous, and certainly uncharacteristic adventure that results in sexual and personal awakenings and second chances.

As Georgie Natalie Jones comes on like a weird tornado, winding and smashing her way into Alex's personal space. It's a strong, detailed performance that hints at the kind of work Jones might have done as Maggie the Cat had she been given more to work with in Theatre Memphis' 2017 production of Cat on a Hot in Roof.  In a dynamic similar to Cat's, Georgie's would-be squeeze doesn't always have much to say. In Irene Crist's tightly directed production, Alex is always present, no matter how hard Jones monologues.

Alex is another familiar type. He's a classic salt-of-the-earth guy with the soul of a poet/philosopher. He's a sensitive butcher who likes knowing that animals have seams and are put together just like ready-to-wear. He's never experienced life outside of London, but he can tango like a champ. He's got a big heart, a bigger record collection, and grand ideas about the universe, if only somebody would ask him to share.

There's not so much salt and vinegar in Jerry Chipman's butcher. His routines seem less habitual than duty-bound, just at the edge of dharma. He blushes and giggles his way through the awkward stuff in a sweet, complete performance that's maybe a little too passive for a little too long.

Jack Yates' set is an elegantly abstract object lesson in economy, utility, and how to frame characters in a small, intimate drama. It's likely my favorite thing the resident designer has ever done in Theatre Memphis' smaller black box space.

I've admittedly fallen for a few manic pixies, but, for being a committed Harold & Maude guy,  fantasies about older men and eccentric younger women have never turned my ticket. All else aside, Heisenberg is still that. But clocking in at about 90 minutes, it's too brief to bog down and, if it sometimes feels a little familiar, I can't complain about a show that invites us to think a little harder about uncertainty and the limits of information without making the physics lesson too dense, too dark, or too self-congratulatory. Good show!

Correction: An earlier draft misidentified Georgie Hardeman as Katie Hardeman.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Hattiloo Puts the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 4:13 PM

Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry and Richard Wright's prose, Dominique Morisseau's  Pipeline wants to be a teaching play where various aspects of the grooming system known as the "school to prison" pipeline are explored in broad strokes and emotionally fought conflicts. Characters exist at the edge of archetype, representing specific tensions in the narrative. Hattiloo's uncommonly wooden production is only sporadically successful in giving Morisseau's brief, panic-attack of a show the life, urgency, and inevitability it needs in order to cook.

Pipeline introduces us to Laurie, a grizzled soldier-educator from urban district trenches. She's a "white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” and probably the kind of person who shows up in memes for calling the cops on black people outside Chick-fil-A  for ... I don't know, reasons, okay? Laurie describes her teaching gig as "war," and kids are clearly the enemy here. Now that a student's slashed her face with a knife, she's got the scars to show for it. Or, she did have scars, before the reconstructive surgery. With a mannequin-still face and gutsy swagger, Memphis veteran actor Pamela Poletti just lets Laurie's opinions rip.

We also meet Nya (Nicole Bandele), an African-American English teacher who shows grace in the face of Laurie's white noise while navigating a whole other set of conflicts.  She's committed to the neighborhood but sends her son Omari to a private school. When Omari faces expulsion after pushing his teacher in an incident he can explain, but can't dispute, Nya's ex-husband, a brusque and evidently successful man of business becomes involved. Things get prickly, complicated and class-and-gender conscious real quick.

To Omari dad-not-dad, he's just a signature on a check the secretary probably sends automatically. There's  more going on in this one under-explored relationship than Pipeline's 75-minutes can hold. Many things are left unattended.

Hattiloo's Pipeline benefits from honest, committed performances, particularly from James Cook, as a straight-dealing security guard and younger cast members Desmond Cortez and Zaria Crawford. Overall, the stakes here are always too low and the threats too intangible. The action is unfocused and story's momentum is interrupted rather than aided by projected video. 

Video projection can be a nifty tool, especially when it becomes interactive, environmental, or provides the audience with a different view of things than the one being presented by the actors. But these kids-gone-wild, ready-to-go viral videos depicting school tensions and violence were redundant, highlighting and reinforcing only the more sensational aspects of a complicated story. The clips are projected on theater walls between scenes and it's a nifty effect at first. Over time the clips become speed bumps, interrupting the momentum of a brief, bracing text with the potential to land hard.   

Pipeline mixes kitchen-sink guts with cold formalism. It deploys Brooks' "We Real Cool," like Greek Tragedy uses prophesy. You feel the audience nod in collective recognition when the first words of the touchstone poem dropped. Hattiloo's production connects in these and other moments, but it never connects the dots.


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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Typographer's Dream is Dreamy Comedy at TheatreSouth

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2018 at 11:00 AM

First off, Quark Theatre's production of The Typographer's Dream, is a fine, fine thing with more honest laughs, and little epiphanies than most plays twice its length. I'm probably not going to write very much about It though. Not because it's not worthy, but because it's a tiny thing, featuring only three actors, no set to speak of, and clocking in at around 75-minutes. More than usual, describing any of the component parts in any detail will spoil the fun.

Instead of narrative, playwright Adam Bock uses the convention of a panel discussion to just let a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer talk directly to the audience about their seemingly unrelated jobs. The result is a curious, quirky show about the differences between what we do and who we are. Playing out like the most delightful documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control filmmaker Errol Morris never made, The Typographer's Dream is a subtle, jokey inquiry into the malleable, too-easily-shaded nature of translation and described realities. Best part: For being pretty heady stuff, Bock is never afraid to be a little poignant, and first and foremost, The Typographer's Dream was built to entertain. But when the laughter fades, it may leave audiences contemplating the meaning, poetics, and ethics of their own occupations.

Jillian Barron is joyfully weird as the geographer. She's one of those eternally chipper people and seems to love her job — and maps — just a little too much. Eric Vinton Jones plays the proud, disciplined stenographer like a man who's always wondered what it might be like for somebody to care about what he had to say for a change. It's a quiet, uncommonly honest performance, and very funny. 

Of the bunch, Michelle Miklosey's typographer has the most trouble getting started. Her character's feelings are complicated and thinking about them doesn't always bring clarity. She's not sure how to describe her her job. She's not a graphic artist or a word decorator. She's engaged with so much more than a visual representation of language. She worries about truth and honesty and how meaning can be distorted if we give it a misleading physical form. The whole of this warm, probing (but not so deep) comedy turns on this idea. It's frustrating. It's lovely.

Speaking of misleading, it's not entirely true that there's no narrative here. A story tying the three panelists together does emerge from their fragmented work histories. It becomes full enough to trigger stylistically incongruous flashbacks that shouldn't work but somehow do.

Director Tony Isbell's kept things simple, which is never as simple as it sounds. It's another winner for Quark Theatre, and bite-sized performance in Memphis. 

The Typographer's Dream closes this weekend, so catch it while you can. It would be so nice if a show of this scale — a show that could move into another theater, shopfront, lobby, or living room tomorrow — could be kept going. If it could be booked privately, like a band or deployed like a calling card to raise awareness, and $ for the company. But that never happens. Assume it will be gone after this weekend. Though it seems like such a disposable trifle, this is a show you want to see — a show you'll want to keep with you. 
For more details, here's the click.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Newsies Is Good Entertainment: Weekend Theatre Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 4:28 PM

Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
  • Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
What does it mean when a musical about newspapers and unions is way more popular than newspapers and unions? I honestly don’t know. And I don't really know where to start with my review of Theatre Memphis’ production of Newsies other than to say it’s a technically outstanding interpretation of the famously failed Disney film that found a more natural home on Broadway. The ensemble is first rate. The singing soars. The choreography is energetic and stunty. The kids (and baby-faced grownups) playing the “Newsies” are especially good and John Hemphill and Kent Fleshmen make perfect comic and villainous foils.

What’s not to love?

For me, it’s the irony. See, striking newspaper delivery kids were they primary means of distribution for afternoon papers. Their after-school labor helped to make Joseph Pulitzer very rich. Although the strike did win the newsies some concessions, they are all still crushingly poor when the curtain comes down. They’ll be paid no more for their labor. They still have to invest more up front. They still take a hit on every paper they sell. But Pulitzer, knowing a good deal when he hears it, subsidizes their risk and incentivizes productivity by agreeing to buy back unsold issues. Although the result was favorable and the Newsboy strike is an important moment in American labor history, in the post-labor 21st century it’s hard to see Newsies as anything but nostalgia. Or a cynical artifact of American capitalism celebrating values and systems we don’t officially like anymore. Values and systems our elected representatives had been busy starving and stamping out for more than a decade by the time Disney released the original flop film in 1989.

To be fair, Disney grabbed good headlines recently for making $15/hour the new minimum wage in its parks. It’s a good, overdue decision that’s earned praise from affiliated unions that, though diminished, continue to press for better wages and working conditions. Well, from the unions MouseHouse hasn’t stealth-busted, anyway.

Theatre Memphis’ Newsies got a well-deserved standing ovation opening night, but looking around at all the gray hair, pale faces, conservative suits and Marsha Blackburn supercuts, I couldn’t help but wonder what this demographic was clapping for. It couldn’t possibly be for a story about disruptive, production-choking protest. The Newsboy strike famously shut down a bridge, after all, and we all know how Memphis’ privileged classes feel about that sort of thing. Maybe they were just applauding the unpaid talent sweating guts out to entertain? Or depictions of the use of law enforcement as the strong arm of big business, quelling dissent and making compromise more appealing? Or the plebe-appeasing triumph of capital inherent in the musical’s happy ending? Or maybe it was just habit.

See, in the current political and economic environment a proper telling of this story shouldn’t entertain, it should incite.

Allow me to double down on my opening comments. Theatre Memphis’ Newsies is perfect and polished in the ways musicals at the East Memphis playhouse often are. Fans of the film, and earlier iterations of the stage show won’t be disappointed. Voices are strong, the acting is professional and featured dancers (high) kick ass. Costumes are appropriate and scenic and lighting elements serve the material well. Even if the book and music underwhelm, the production may yet inspire.

That’s not nearly enough, but I’ll take it.
Junk continues...

For a different take on business in America, Junk continues its run at Circuit Playhouse. From the Review...

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 1980s, 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.  (Continue reading).
Hattiloo takes a look at the "school to prison pipeline" with the play Pipeline.

From press materials: 
"Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities they’ll never have. When a controversial incident at his private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent."
•The popular musical Nunsense opens at Germatown Community Theatre.
•Emerald Theatre Co. presents Gaydar, its third annual original 10-minute play festival
•Tennessee Shakespeare opens Two Gentlemen of Verona. This is also the best bargain in town thanks to Tennessee Shakespeare's Free Shakespeare Shout-Out Series which kicks off this month with 11 performances in nine different indoor and outdoor locations. It's a 75-minute show and no tickets or reservations are required.
•Quark Theatre opens The Typographer's Dream at Theatre South. You can read the preview here. 

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