Thursday, January 24, 2019

"A Song For Coretta" Sounds Good But the Timing's Off

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 2:41 PM

At first I blamed the material. And then it hit me: Pearl Cleage’s odd little one act may end with, “This Little Light of Mine,” but A Song For Coretta is a funeral dirge. It presents as the intertwining stories of women standing in line, patiently waiting to pay their last respects to Civil Rights icon, Coretta Scott King. It’s really the allegorical story of voices that have forgotten how to harmonize and of five individual fingers that have forgotten how to make a fist.

For starters, A Song for Coretta isn’t a musical. It’s a play about generation gaps. We meet a proper, older matriarch, full of bootstraps stories, proud to have participated in Civil Rights events with her parents and satisfied with how far her generation has come. King died in 2006, so millennial bashing wasn’t a thing yet, obvs. But the elder is quick to scold anybody younger and ungrateful enough to complain about anything. We're also introduced to a free-thinking artist and Hurricane Katrina survivor; an ambitious reporter; and a younger, directionless woman from the neighborhood, who’s easy to dismiss but almost impossible to refute.

The secret gag is that this show has very little to do with Coretta Scott King or her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s not about the movement and what’s been won or what’s yet to be achieved. It’s about missing pieces. Things like a common purpose and leaders binding everybody together like glue.

A lot’s changed since 2006. Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office, riding in on a wave of hope and change. He’s since been replaced by the overtly racist Donald Trump. In this time the spirit of protest has rekindled and movements like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, and #TakeEmDown901, have restored at least some  lost momentum. That spirit was just beginning to smolder again to the moment of King's death, as America was slid into an era of endless war and rapidly expanding income equality. Long story short: There may be plenty left to learn and laugh over in Cleage’s script, but some if its complaints ring at least a little less true today than they might have, even a few years ago. That’s no knock, but something to consider in production design.

Speaking of ... Hattiloo’s flat, storybook set is a good-looking charmer, but maybe too much. It’s a shame, at any rate, that so very little of the designed space is ever really used by the actors. And even two weeks into the run, the show’s cast seemed less than confident with blocking and lines. Even the nicest individual performances were incomplete and the relationships never clicked. A Song For Coretta might clip along with all the quirk of an absurdist farce, but in this environment, it limps forward, wounded by an absence of crispness and clarity.

I didn’t think I liked A Song for Coretta till I sat down and wrestled with it for a while. But the more I struggled the more I came to regard it as a special little gem searching for the right setting and a whole lot of polish. Hattiloo solved one of these wants, but not the other. 

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Theatre Memphis Reminds Us, "It's a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird."

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:43 AM

To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis
Theater Memphis’ production of To Kill a Mockingbird is handsome thing, lovingly lit, and costumed. It faithfully follows the story told in Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel and director Kevin Cochran’s production team has treated it like a classic. But the cast, while fully committed, is sometimes tragically uneven. Pacing was nonexistent and on opening night tensions never built. I felt particularly bad for young actors whose honest work needed to be slowed down or amplified for clarity’s sake.

When Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s messy early draft and/or sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was published (for better or worse) in 2015, fans were horrified to discover that Lee’s unforgettable character Atticus Finch was, in addition to being a perfect dad, first rate attorney and model citizen, was also racist and the kind of person who might attend a Klan meeting. The outrage was silly because of course he was! Even for a progressive Southern lawyer in 1935, it would be far stranger if he wasn’t. And for all of Atticus's apparent wisdom, you can see the darker biases, even in the original’s most famous passages — written, as they were, when the idea of race was still concrete, and understood to be a catalyst preceding racism, not an artificial distinction created and preserved by white supremacy.

“The truth is this: Some Negroes lie,” Atticus says. “Some Negroes are immoral. Some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white.” In spite of what you might assume from these lines, he’s defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. “This is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men,” Atticus concludes, putting forward the good Christian notion that all men are flawed while enshrining a fundamentally racist paradigm and the question it turns on: “Is this the good kind or the bad kind?”

In polarized times, To Kill a Mockingbird might appeal to a sense of nostalgia for some mythical age when men of principle argued in good faith, and even against their own nature or political ideology. A time when stand-up guys like Atticus Finch at least tried to raise their children to be better than themselves. But the applause lines in Atticus’s big address to the jury — and our proxy jury, the audience — must be understood as naive and as much a part of the white biased system as Tom Robinson's accusers. So,as good a man as Atticus may be, absent some critical perspective it’s hard to valorize his best intentions or frame his moral victory as an act of pure heroism, without also affirming and valorizing its racist architecture.

The actor cast as Atticus is Bob Arnold. He has been a generous, and under-appreciated contributor to Memphis’s performing arts scene. Before anybody had heard the word “podcast,” he was the indefatigable driving force behind Chatterbox Audio Theater, an audio performance troupe that brought area talent, and a mix of classic and original stories right into our earphones by way of digital broadcast and occasional partnerships with WKNO radio. It’s an understatement to say I’m a fan of the man and his work. That being said, I can’t say much good about this performance.

With his soothing, radio-ready baritone, Arnold narrates the role of Atticus more than he inhabits it. He brings more life to act two when the story shifts toward courtroom drama, but barely. Arnold trudges through the role with perfect diction, and loads of heart but little sense of urgency, place, or purpose.
Following on a streak of great work in shows like All Saints in the Old Colony and The Flick, John Maness doesn’t disappoint as classic yokel, Bob Ewell. Despite the character’s lack of dental hygiene and grooming, there’s not a hair out of place in Maness’s performance. As his daughter Mayella, Hailey Townsend is even better. It's horrible stuff but great news for a stiff production that's never able to work up the momentum or sense of urgency it needs. It’s also a problem.

White America still struggles to understand the racism it creates and sustains apart from classist signifiers like trailer park teeth and overtly racist behaviors like those embodied by Lee's Ewell family. To Kill a Mockingbird, being of its time, reinforces a false dichotomy by making Bob Ewell and Atticus adversaries but not two sides of the same white supremacist narrative.

The best moments in this To Kill a Mockingbird still arrive courtesy of Maness and Townsend and a few other secondary roles, with strong character turns by JoLynn Palmer, Mario Hoyle, and Annie Freres.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. But as much as it may have meant to book lovers and justice-loving progressives in the 20th Century, it’s very much a product of that century and ultimately a story of white struggle and sentimentality written inside a culture of supremacy. It’s not the boldest choice for Theatre Memphis, and honestly, maybe even a little tone deaf for the place we live and this particular moment in time.

In 98 years Theatre Memphis has hired so few African Americans to direct its main stage subscription shows, you can count them all on one hand with fingers left over. Even when producing August Wilson, a playwright who asked theaters to find black directors for his work — White directors. To Kill a Mockingbird would have been as good a place as any to start growing that embarrassing number. No matter whose story it may be, ultimately, I can’t imagine we’d have gotten a show where the black life at stake — and the life eventually lost — wouldn't be pushed more to the center, and made to matter at least as much as a white attorney’s social and moral struggles or his young daughter’s disillusionment.

This show was chosen by the wonderful John Rone, and he was supposed to direct it before becoming unavailable. So I know Theatre Memphis's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't play out as intended. As a loving tribute, it may serve some completely separate community function that's only tangentially related to the show's content. But the content needs serious attention.   

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Eternity on Stage: Tuck Everlasting is Lush & Lovely

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 3:34 PM

Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square
Tuck Everlasting's never going to be my cup of magical realism, but I've got to admit, it's an awfully pretty thing. And it's also nice to see a story about regular people struggling with the ups and downs of eternal life for a change instead of another bunch of hot vampires. Here's how it all plays out: A long time ago every member of the Tuck family drank from a hidden forest spring and became immortal, but each one is forever stuck with all the tropes of their frozen age. The parents manage middle-aged ruts and middle-aged spread and snoring marital monotony. Lost love burns like it only can in youth. Teen angst and pimples also last forever. Neighbors also tend to notice when you never age, so be careful what you wish for, and all that.

Life gets even harder if you're essentially decent folk who  know what could happen if people who aren't decent folk ever get their hands on a spring of eternal life. People like the mysterious Man in Yellow who blows into town with the carnival, chasing rumors of magic and mystery. So what's an unkillable clan to do when a charming young runaway like Winnie Foster stumbles into the family's life and onto its secrets? 

Tuck Everlasting is too much like Playhouse on the Square's favorite and most frequently revived show, Peter Pan — with actor Curtis C's flamboyantly malevolent Man in Yellow filling in for Pan's flamboyantly sinister Captain Hook. Both musicals tell the story of strong young women who ultimately reject immortality and a magical life outside of time and decay. Only Tuck abandons all of Pan's high flying fairy mayhem, swashbuckling pirates, and general sense of deviltry for mundane concerns and long conversations about the meaning of life and death, with lyrical dance passages illustrating the same.

Is Tuck Everlasting magical enough to make a good fairy tale? Maybe not. Nobody flies or spins flax into gold. A deep sincerity undercuts the story's Twilight Zone-like ironies, and conflicts never test the play's subjects enough to pass for allegory. The musical's songs are almost instantly forgettable, and the book's more sweet than convincing. But director Dave Landis has assembled a  terrific cast and his design team has outdone themselves, building a world of green parsley stalk trees and purple "magic hour" skies, where a big round sun is eternally stuck in the rising position. Or the setting position, hard to say. 
Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Tuck Everlasting at Playhouse on the Square
Gia Welch's voice has never sounded as rich or full or uniquely hers as it does in this show. If you've read previous previous reviews of the young artist, you'll know that's no small compliment. Even though she's a little too old to convincingly pass for an 11-year-old, her performance as Winnie is never anything short of winning. Welch leads a tight, talented ensemble of local favorites, including Michael Gravois, Lorraine Cotton, and Kent Fleshman. Even if you don't emerge from the theater able to remember the words to any of Tuck's songs — a distinct possibility — these voices follow you home.

This is the part of the review where I remind readers that I'm not not the target audience for most family musicals, and Tuck Everlasting's no big exception. The show presents like a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life then opens and closes like a Hallmark card with no personal inscription. Thankfully, POTS' creative team has built a production so lush and lovely it's easy to watch and listen to even if you can't bring yourself to care about any of the characters or what they choose to do with their time, magic water, and pet toads. 

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Addicted to Capote? Cloud9 and Mark Chambers tell Tru Stories

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2019 at 1:37 PM

Things are seldom about the things they seem to be about. Take Tru, for example. This solo performance by the mighty and all-powerful Mark Chambers, would appear to be a dramatic portrait of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s author, Truman Capote, but it’s not really. While Capote is clearly the subject, this brief, intimate and fantly gonzo encounter, brought to us courtesy of Cloud9 Theatre, is a fully developed play about the slippery multifaceted nature of addiction.

Tru introduces us to a man keenly aware of expiration dates. He's planning a comeback built on weight loss, plastic surgery, and fine hats to hide an expansive forehead where shaggy locks had hung. This is Capote at his lowest; he was more famous for being famous than for the extraordinary sentences he used to spin out of dust and memory and diamonds and horror. Now he’s just a drunk and an A-list gossip who’s been delisted for telling tales and naming (a few) names.

Tru’s still giving Tiffany for Christmas, but he’s getting flowers in aluminum buckets. Hard candy for a naughty boy who’s grown accustomed to spending his nights at Studio 54 and his days with folks able to produce $50-million, “ready money.” He knows there’s meaning here, but chooses to drink it away, chasing booze with pot and pills.

The real addiction, though, is celebrity. It’s no good for Capote the writer and artist , but he craves it. He wants it for himself and he wants to be near it. In Tru, celebrity is the lens through which Capote’s addictions are most clearly viewed. If the play’s primary struggle isn’t about this, transcending the tropes of Capote’s own fame, what’s left is mere tribute artistry. 
Ann Marie Hall (seated) and Mark Chambers in The Mystery of Irma Vep
  • Ann Marie Hall (seated) and Mark Chambers in The Mystery of Irma Vep

Thankfully, Mark Chambers is every inch the actor I remember from our overlapping time in Memphis. He is no mere mimic. He’s revived this show four times now, and it's evident in this revival at The Evergreen Theatre, that he is very comfortable in Capote’s uncomfortable skin. Tru could still stand fine tuning to tease out narrative threads, connect the dots of conflict and addiction, and make it drama-forward, but all the raw material is all there, and hardly insufficient.

Chambers, who longtime Memphis theater fans may remember as the sweet transvestite in two separate Playhouse on the Square productions of The Rocky Horror Show, is a professional member of Actor’s Equity. But it’s probably more important to point out that Cloud9 is community theater. I don’t say that to trigger memories of Waiting for Guffman, but as a reminder that this, and other companies exist to correct for institutional deficiencies. Cloud9, for example, helps to account for the limited number of great roles available to older actors in Memphis. That’s exactly how community theater should work and Chambers has often described Tru as “a good show for this time in [his] life.” I don’t disagree and won’t complain a bit about how Cloud9 does its thing, but as I watched Chambers do his thing, I kept thinking there would be a lot more great roles available to older actors if more people thought Dr. Frank-N-Furter would still be a good part for him, “at this time in life.”

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

New Comedy Takes Us "Back When Mike Was Kate."

Posted By on Wed, Jan 9, 2019 at 3:07 PM

Astrid and Kate
  • Astrid and Kate
There's a specific Chicago train platform where Howard goes to connect with his past. That's were he meets Mike and, after first mistaking him for a panhandler, it's where Howard learns that this bearded transit stop vagrant is the same person who broke his heart four years ago. Only back then Mike was a woman named Kate.

Filled with questions, Howard becomes immediately desperate to rekindle romance where there was never more than friendship in the first place. It's awkward for a number of reasons, but primarily, because he's theoretically cis/hetero and already married to Astrid, an unsatisfied artist with a "stripper name" and a history of dancing her problems away. Howard's basically a nice, confused doof of a guy, who wants to make his fantasy crush work out for everybody without hurting anybody, or making things weird for the people close to him. He does both of the things he doesn't want to do pretty quickly.

How weird does it get, you ask? Aprons and fuzzy handcuffs weird.

Back When Mike Was Kate is a promising little play that might be better as a quirky little film with art direction bordering on OCD and a vintage indie rock soundtrack. Ben Kemper's script whips elements of mystery, suspense, coming of age, and farce into a kind of romantic comedy with easy charms that almost make up for stiff expository dialogue and plot points that test belief. Also, Astrid's not very likable, Howard is either clueless or selectively insensitive, and while Mike's presented as something of a pleasant cypher, Kate's so cool and complete it's hard to imagine why he might want to enter/re-enter these evidently unhappy lives. 
Howard and Kate
  • Howard and Kate

In keeping with past POTS@TheWorks premieres, Back When Mike Was Kate contains top notch  performances by a tight ensemble comprised of Joshua LaShomb (Mike), David Hammons (Howard), Brooke Papritz (Astrid), and Ronnie Karimnia (Cameron the transit guy), with a terrific performance by R. Franklin Koch,* whose Kate is the grounded "old soul" tying the whole play together.

Mike/Kate may be the titular character but Howard and Astrid are the play's dueling protagonists. It may even be Astrid's play, ultimately, though she's also the least developed among principle characters. 

Director Claire Rutkauskas' production doesn't draw hard lines between present action and things that happened four years ago. It's only a short temporal span, sure, but a disproportionately big leap forward in terms of where all the characters are in life. This huge juxtaposition of time-versus-change brings a faintly surreal and potentially lovely edge, like something by Sarah Ruhl, minus the flights of poetry. These possibilities are unfortunately never rigorously explored in a show that tidies up and refines threads that might want to be woolly and teased out.

Following deliberately provocative scripts like Crib, extraordinary productions like All Saints in the Old Colony, and well-crafted plays like Evan Linder's Byhalia, Mississippi, this latest winner of Playhouse on the Square's New Works@TheWorks series feels a little undercooked. It knows where it wants to go, but not always what it wants to say or how to accomplish its goals believably. New works are often still works in progress — even after the "world premiere." It could be that the script remains a draft or two away from done or maybe there were some finer points glossed over in this finely acted but often chilly production. Maybe it just needs enough warmth to mistake for heat. Either way, it's nice when playwrights find new wrinkles in old storylines, and nicer still that POTS is identifying nifty new scripts with potential to grow and go places outside the 901.

And I do hope this romcom makes it to celluloid eventually, where it can build past relationships out of something other than words and recollection.
  • Mike
*UPDATE: R. Franklin Koch was originally identified as Rebekka Koch per the cast list on the Playhouse on the Square website. Intermission Impossible sincerely regrets the error. 

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Quark Theatre Announces New Season, New Nonprofit Status

Posted By on Tue, Jan 8, 2019 at 11:54 AM

Sims v the Detective in Quark's "The Nether"
  • Sims v the Detective in Quark's "The Nether"
In only a few short seasons, Quark Theatre has built a reputation for producing thoughtfully staged work that's conceptually ambitious, intellectually challenging, and technically do-able: little plays full of big ideas. Keeping with the Quark tradition, Season Four is exploring themes like the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of meaning, and what all that means. It marks the company's fifth year of making theater together, and its first as a nonprofit.

September, 2019 
WAKEY, WAKEY by Will Eno

Wakey, Wakey is a funny, sad, tragic, comic examination of life and the leaving of it. In the first line of the show, GUY, the protagonist, seems to rouse from a nap and says “Is it now? I thought I had more time.”

And then we’re off to an examination of GUY’s life as he comes to the end of it. But it’s not a wake we’ve come to attend, but rather a celebration of GUY’s life, and OUR lives, too. A funny, thoughtful, at times tearful examination of what it means to be human.

The New York Times called “A glowingly dark, profoundly moving new play.”

March, 2020
A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill

When an adult son confronts his father about the reality behind his existence and identity, a dark world of truths, half-truths and lies is exposed...and nothing will ever be the same. The son learns he is but one of a number of clones, each with his own distinct personality and life. When multiple versions of a person exist, how can he be sure the love of his father is real?

The New York Times called it “A gripping dramatic consideration of what happens to autonomous identity in a world where people can be cloned.”

Quark's next show is Radiant Vermin. The comedy by Philip Ridley opens March 15th. 

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