Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lipstick Smear: Let Theatre Memphis' "Stage Kiss" slip you some tongue

Posted By on Wed, Oct 18, 2017 at 3:04 PM

I've got to admit, I don't  enjoy watching long sex scenes in any medium unless the coitus reveals something crucial about the characters and their relationship. I'm not opposed to skin or sin, mind you. It's the narrative interruption. We all understand the ins and outs of the ins and outs and, absent some real surprises, we know how this particular act ends. Outside the realm of pure titillation (and sometimes in it!) it's a greater gift to be economical with the touchin and the squeezin' and let vivid imaginations do the dirty work for you. Or fast-forward through the sloppy parts and, in the words of the poet, show us the money. I mention all of this because, even though the topic's smooching not sex, it was fun (for me) to hear my feelings on this subject debated so clearly inside Stage Kiss, a nifty little treasure-box of a play that depends on a lot of physical contact. Because, while I do enjoy the resolution a kiss might bring — or the chaos it can presage or set loose — there's nothing more redundant than watching other people mug down. On the other hand, redundancy is the kind of quality Playwright Sarah Ruhl knows how to weaponize, and transform into an epic, existential gag.

Stage Kiss at Theatre Memphis is a rare and special thing — A RomCom that's smart, disarmingly hilarious, and not just a saggy, cliche bag of warmed over kissy-boo-hoo. It's got a solid cast and fun design all around. Still, I've got to imagine this  play's probably a tough sell, even to friendly audiences who own Sleepless in Seattle on VHS, laser disc, DVD, Blu Ray and iTunes. The "backstage comedy" element was played out back when songwriters were innocently rhyming June and moon. All one sentence social media-friendly summaries make Stage Kiss sound like the most dreadful thing ever (or something you might accidentally hate-watch on the Hallmark channel) —  "Two contemporary actors who are also former lovers fall in love when they are cast opposite one another in a failed romantic melodrama from the 1930's."

Seriously, who would elect to go see that? You should. 
Ruhl's a deserving MacArthur Genius grant winner who's gone surreal with Dead Man's Cell Phone, and gotten down & dirty with the scandalous vibrator play In the Next Room. On the surface Stage Kiss might look like a departure from edgier work, but it's a classic Ruhl, and a gem for a number of reasons that I can't fully articulate for fear of spoiling the fun. Instead I'll suggest that folks who liked the interplay of stage life, real life, and the life of the mind in the movie Birdman will also enjoy Stage Kiss, which has a similar, if slightly less hallucinatory sensibility. Fans of tight character and ensemble acting will also enjoy the work being done here by Tracie Hansom and John Moore as the former lovers, Stuart Turner as their excitable director and Chase Ring as the understudy with Gordon Ginsburg, Lena Wallace Black, and Laurel Galaty in a variety of supporting roles.

Stage Kiss uses the lost-love-regained trope to explore different kinds of loving, trusting relationships attendant incompetency, psychopathy etc. Hansom, as the unnamed She, is married with a precocious, deeply betrayed teenage daughter right out of central casting. Moore's He is in a "serious" relationship with a woman he doesn't seem to know very well. He's not Peter Pan incarnate but, having never settled down, his loft might pass for an upscale dorm room. An organic, but highly artificial rekindling of He and She's relationship opens up like a farce, and the plays within the play afford ample opportunities for calculated overacting and singing that's supposed to be terrible whether the audience knows it or not.

Ruhl's  got a Stoppardian knack for changing her stories — and the meaning of her stories — midstream by altering audience perspective. Stage Kiss begins with a round of auditions in the empty theater. Sets accumulate like a lifetime's worth of baggage and are summarily disposed of or repurposed. What appears to be from one perspective changes with the scenery — when the (not very) hot new stage couple move on from romantic melodrama to ridiculous hardscrabble grit.

Even wise, loving platitudes from the play's closing chapter look like part of an epic gas-lighting when the applause fades, and you emerge from the theater into a less augmented reality.

Tony Isbell's been on a roll as a director. Quark Theatre's under-attended production of Years to the Day was an unfussy, superbly acted look at connectivity without community. Isbell's given Stage Kiss the gift of trust and not messing it up by messing with it. He simply lets it all be the sincere romantic comedy it needs to be in order to be a whole lot more.

Seeing Stage Kiss on Theatre Memphis' main stage was nice, but it made me miss the days when the Evergreen theatre was Circuit Playhouse. Although there should be plenty of room for non-musicals on our main stages, I wanted to see this  kiss-intimate comedy in a kiss-intimate house of just about that size and shape. It's not that the laughs don't land or that play loses something because it's being performed in a big room —  it's never as snuggly, or as prickly as it might be in somewhat tighter quarters.

That's really all I have to say about that, though I feel the need to offer some counterintuitive advice to producing bodies: If audiences are leaving your show at intermission because (you think) they think the play is over, let them go on in happy ignorance. Maybe they'll find out and come back. Or perhaps, instead of explaining how some people misunderstand the show, the person delivering the curtain speech could stress the ability to buy season tickets at INTERMISSION, before THE SECOND ACT. Setting your audience up for confusion places it outside the world of the play before the play has a chance to pull folks in. It changes how chunks of your audience will experience the story, turning whatever script you're producing  into a meta-mystery — a whodunnit of sorts. Who got fooled? Were they stupid? Was the show not clear? Maybe they just didn't like it? And so on.

I'm not theorizing here having experienced this before. Last week a decidedly unimpressed couple behind me spoke their theories about act one aloud creating a gravely comic, almost Beckett-like play within the play within the play. Don't misunderstand, as a critic I probably love Statler & Waldorf more than the average fan, but this intrusion was unwelcome — and unfair to a couple who, through only some fault of their own, were clearly watching a completely different play. 
Event Details Stage Kiss
@ Theatre Memphis
630 Perkins Ext.
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. Continues through Oct. 22

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Fallen Woman: Opera Memphis' La Traviata is Simply Splendid

Posted By on Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 10:57 AM

Vernon Di Carlo and Laquita Mitchell. - ZIGGY MACK
  • Ziggy Mack
  • Vernon Di Carlo and Laquita Mitchell.
With only the sparest set and subtle, effective lighting that fits and frames the scenes like a ball gown, Opera Memphis'  lean, mean La Traviata lets Verdi's familiar, unfailingly hooky score  do all the heavy lifting.

La Traviata's the story of Violetta is an upscale courtesan, and the life of any party. But the very things that make her so popular in certain segments of society also insure she can never really be a part of it. By the time young Alfredo — who's been watching her for a year — confesses love and sweeps her away, she's coughing up blood and dying of tuberculosis. Any subsequent happiness is undercut by economic hardship and cut short when Alfredo's father convinces the dying woman that her relationship with his son will prevent his daughter from ever attaining a proper husband.

So, leading Alfredo to believe that she'd followed her free spirit into another's arms, Violetta sacrifices her chance for love — or, at least, the comforts of companionship. Her nobility's rewarded with humiliation.

The simplicity of stage director Benjamin Wayne Smith's approach to the material highlights and heightens the deft plotting of Verdi's Our Lady of the Camellias redux. What's more, since scripts and scores move dynamically through history, even Smith's relatively conservative approach to this tragic "hooker with a heart of gold" melodrama, is now so much more evidently a story about sickness, the male gaze, unhealthy obsession, and a corrosive patriarchy.

Don't misunderstand, Opera Memphis can stage some pretty wild interpretations of the classics, but this production isn't quirky at all. It's frank, and humane, and the contemporary themes are right there in the meat and potatoes of the often revived masterpiece.

Even from the back row of GPAC Laquita Mitchell's warm, fluid soprano voice has an intimate quality, modestly cloaking some serious vocal pyrotechnics. She's paired with Joseph Dennis, whose sweet voiced tenor is edged with insecurity and obsession. Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost leads players from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra through a crisply-paced supporting performance that, like Mitchell's vocal work, becomes more impressive after the last notes fade, and the full effect is on you.  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mystery Play: "Shakespeare in Love" is Lovely, Lovable, Silly...

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 7:01 PM

Shakespeare, Love, etc. - CARLA THE MAGNIFICENT.
  • Carla the magnificent.
  • Shakespeare, Love, etc.
So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
— Wm. Shakespeare
What's wrong with that, I'd like to know?
— P. McCartney & Wings.

Shakespeare's in residence at Playhouse on the Square? Soft, it is not so. Yet, 'tis.

It's a neat trick too, really, more subtle and, for us groundlings, all force-fed some narrow selection of the canon, it's certainly more attractive and accessible than the heady, sweet-and-sour buzzlepoxes Tom Stoppard's known for. But no less impressive since, with the original film version of Shakespeare in Love and its faithful, less beloved stage adaptation Stoppard, sweetening the existing work of career screenwriter Marc Norman, helped to construct a perfect star-filled galaxy where comets, greater and lesser planets, and moons of all kind are drawn together and blown apart according to the usual rules of attraction.

It sounds silly to describe Shakespeare in Love as a love letter — trite, at least. But that's exactly what it is. And it's not so much a letter to Shakespeare, or to the theater itself, as it is a big ol' sloppy, muddy, faintly poopy-smelling Renaissance Faire of a love letter writ in iffy posey to the big ol' sloppy, muddy, poopy-smelling and collaborative-whether-we-like-it-or-not  process of making the play a thing. (See what I did there?) It's kind of like that old Schoolhouse Rock song about how bills become law, only this story's more fictitious than personified, imagining, with some loose attention to historical detail, how Shakespeare's play Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate's Daughter made its way from vague concept to the LONDON STAGE! And how it picked up a considerably better title along the way. It's a lightly flipped middle finger to all the classist fools wasting their time and ours trying to figure out who really wrote all those plays ascribed to the poor son of a country glover, showing us, with sympathy, good humor (and maybe even a little disgust), how plays are brought into the world like children — As the saying goes, it takes a village.

But really and for real Shakespeare in Love's just a silly love song with maybe too much dancing and a bit about a dog.

In the same way Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — a play about playmaking — loses something even in its thoughtful adaptation to the screen, and Young Frankenstein — a movie about moviemaking — makes no (okay, precious little) sense as a Broadway musical, Shakespeare in Love makes a natural home on stage, and good actual and symbolic use of tight ensemble acting. La Paltrow's just not necessary, though star power is maximized in POTS (literally) glowing production, when local treasure Ann Marie Hall (TM) is trotted out in the person of Elizabeth I, wearing neon orange hair and stunning dresses, wide as ol' Peterbilt, bumper to hitch.

London's swinging show-business community finds theater people mixing with tavern people mixing with business people and faintly criminal elements including Royalty. Will Shakespeare's bouncing ideas off master-brainstormer Kit Marlowe while vain actors and barely legitimate producers and everyday whores, most of whom aren't literally sex-workers, collude and compete in an environment where fresh material's gold and there's never any profit.

For the serious nerds it's a place where young master John Webster watches from the sidelines honing a gift for imaginative revenge plots.

In an uncharacteristic, weirdly laudable movie-move, the Disney pictures crew adapted Shakespeare in Love from screen to the stage without turning it into a musical. Or, not exactly a musical anyway. There are songs and revels and such but, for the most part, it's allowed to be exactly what it is and I've only got one real complaint about POTS's production. There needs to be a turkey-leg vendor out front.

With all that period drag, and cool Barry Lyndon-ish lighting conjuring up candlelight, I don't think one can underestimate the power of reality augmented by that special Turkey Leg Smell (TM) — I'm only half kidding.
Director Irene Crist leans on the live-ness of the show and the joys of stunty ensemble acting. When actors corpse over a barking dog's over-the-top antics, you're right there with them.

Jordan Nichols takes on the unhappily married poet/opportunist Will Shakespeare. His scenes with Jacob Wingfield's Marlowe crackle with camaraderie as and his scenes with Jamie Boller's Viola pulse with joy. Gabe Beutel-Gunn ably transforms Lord Wessex, the man to whom Viola is promised, into a weirdly Disney-esque villain, who always seems like he might just burst into a chest-thumping song — "Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain she sings as sweetly as a nightingale!" And so on. Such an interlude really wouldn't be THAT out of place in a lively script where so many of Shakespeare's words make winking cameo appearances already.

There are historic rationales for why women weren't allowed to appear on stage in Shakespeare's day but I've always thought — with no basis whatsoever — it was secretly because the best actresses always seem to eclipse their male counterparts. Sorry guys, it's just so and Boller's making my case. She's got a good sparring partner in Nichols but her performance as Viola, and her be-trousered alter ego, is big and lovely and physical and filigreed with details that call to mind — and not a little — some of her director's more Shakespearean turns. It's like watching a younger incarnation of the recently retired (from acting) Crist, but it's not remotely an impression. It's a star-turn, though no less commanding than Boller's last outing in Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties.

POTS's ensemble is tight enough, top of the ticket to fifth-business. To borrow from Dr. V. Frankenstein, it's alive. That makes all the fuss of going out and buying tickets to consume material you could totally rent from iTunes totally worth it.

I'm not sure how that works, exactly. It's a mystery.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Redemption Round: Reviewing Hattiloo's Fetch Clay Make Man

Posted By on Tue, Sep 26, 2017 at 12:40 PM

Emmanuel McKinney's a certifiable natural resource — a smart, unaffected actor with incredible range. And, not to sound too much like Howard Cosell though it may be more fun to read the last half of this sentence in his voice, every single time I think this young actor may have finally met his match he steps up his game and astonishes. In Fetch Clay Make Man McKinney doesn't even try to mimic the "Louisville Lip," Muhammad Ali, but finds the heavyweight champion's rhythms, and commits to being pretty. McKinney steps right into Ali's big, white Everlast boots wearing the character as lightly as a terrycloth robe. It's always good to see a strong actor get that kind of workout even if Will Power's historical fiction is more interesting than well-made.

I've already written about Fetch Clay's three most dominant personalities, Ali the champion preparing to take on Sonny Liston, Stepin Fetchit, a delegitimized black film star famous for playing demeaning stereotypes, and legendary boxer Jack Johnson who may be the play's most important character though, like Godot, he never actually appears.  I won't rehash all that, other than to set up the show, which unfolds in the aftermath of Malcolm X's assassination,  just before Ali's rematch with Liston. It explores the strange alliance and unexpected bond that formed between Ali and Fetchit, as the rhyme-slinging boxer sought to unlock the secrets of Jack Johnson's "anchor punch." It's a conflict-laden meditation on identity, and what it means to be a black celebrity in America.

Johnson's mythical punch works like a MacGuffin, creating opportunities for Ali and Fetchit to play cat and mouse games — to spar. It's not the mismatch one might imagine, though Fetchit's influence on Ali's wife Sonji Clay sets up a culture clash, and tense situations with Ali's brothers in the Nation of Islam who see Fetchit as the perfect Uncle Tom.

Stephen Dowdy is similarly convincing as Fetchit (AKA Lincoln Perry), though his flashbacks to early Hollywood feel tacked on — a bit of contextual embroidery that's never fully woven into the bigger narratives. It's never clear how high the stakes are in his lopsided partnership with Ali.
There's something Twelfth Night-like about Fetch Clay with Ali standing in for Duke Orsino, finding himself suddenly in need of his not-so-foolish fool. Though he's suited and bow-tied instead of cross-gartered Simon, Ali's Nation of Islam brother and bodyguard is this story's uptight Malvolio. Unlike Shakespeare's Puritan, Simon won't be made a fool. Not more than once, anyway. Justin Hicks keeps Simon's anger and instinct bubbling just under a cool surface, and brings as much tension as he can to a show that needs more. Jessica Young-Steward's similarly fine as Ali's wife, whose evolving identity might be more compelling she wasn't trotted in and out of the story for added drama.

Ron Gephart also appears in an uncredited role as the memory of Fox Film founder, William Fox.

Hattiloo director Martin Wilkins has delivered a lean, actor-oriented production filled with characters we want to watch even when Power's story gets fuzzy and repetitive.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dream Home Heartache: "A Doll's House" is as Modern as it Ever Was

Posted By on Mon, Sep 25, 2017 at 3:59 PM

Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre. - JLAPPIN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • JLappin Photography
  • Shannon Walton and Mark Pergolizzi in A Doll's House, Evergreen Theatre.
Inflatable doll
Lover ungrateful
I blew up your body
But you blew my mind

"In Every Dream Home a Heartache," Roxy Music
"In Every Dream Home a Heartache" — It's gotta be one of the best moments in pop music, doesn't it? After 3-minutes and 5-seconds of suspenseful, droning, horror-show organ overlaid with a moaning Better Homes & Gardens-inspired monologue about architecture and artificial love, it gives way — with all the subtlety of a dam breaking — to this fluid, consciousness-expanding guitar solo. The tipping point is Brian Ferry's final, table-turning revelation, "I blew up your body, but you blew my mind."

That's so Torvald.

Forgive the aging rock critic indulgence, but this song's been stuck in some remote corner of my brain since a new edition of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House showed up in my mailbox last fall, and my dutiful thumbing-through turned into a reading adventure that took me from August Strindberg to Eugene Ionesco. It was a head-trip that left me thinking I'd missed some really important things that make A Doll's House just a little darker, and more up to date than I remembered it being. Today it strikes me as less the domestic drama about a woman who's had enough, and more like a psychological horror story about a houseful of robots with varying degrees of self-awareness —  caught in a loop where desperation creates awareness and awareness magnifies desperation. So many of the themes relating to identity, information, and awakening at play in Roxy Music's perverse vision of domesticity are right there in the script. That goes double for headier contemporary diversions like West World. It's all right there in Ibsen's surprisingly concise blueprint.

Although it doesn't break much new ground, there's something about CentreStage Theatre's bland, not bad production of A Doll's House, that drives home just how modern this 19th-century script remains — and how much closer it may be in spirit to Eugene Ionesco's absurd farces than it is to Chekhov's lyrical studies in epic domesticity.

 Director Marler Stone has assembled a competent, clever, not always convincing cast to take on Ibsen's challenging script. Shannon Walton's Nora is a spunky, focused presence at the heart of a production that could stand a good deal more spunk and focus. Her dark red dress, a perfect design touch in a shoestring show that needs unifying visual themes. You can easily imagine her on the cover of a Gothic romance, running away from some big storybook house — but I'll come back to that later.

After years off the scene Memphis character actor Mark Pergolizzi has been making something of a comeback, and, as nora's husband Torvald, he's very good at revealing the oppressive fantasy narrative and dominance games that underpin all the man's superficial doting. It's hard not to imagine what Pergolizzi and Walton might do wth more focus and material support.

The primary difference between Nora and  Torvald may not be opportunity. She is evermore aware of the cheaply-gilded cage they're both trapped in — a cage baked from the same recipe (controlled economies + blind justice) that's given us other outlaw protagonists like Les Miserables' bread-stealing Jean Valjean. Nora committed a serious crime to save her husband while simultaneously having an above-means Italian holiday for her and the fam! She's well-intentioned but "no saint," as nightly news reports so often say of alleged wrongdoers who've been blown away by trigger-happy cops for no apparent reason. Nora's not-so-little secret preserves Torvald's developmentally arrested illusion of domestic comfort while her own expanding awareness makes her one of the two least doll-like characters walking in and out of Ibsen's money-eating house of mystery. Her antagonist Krogstad is similarly woke, and longing for the legitimacy he's denied by a culture where mistakes — like the one Nora's made — make it difficult to redeem oneself, even by hard, honest work. Like the subject of a Merle Haggard song, past mistakes mark him like a brand, becoming pretext for petty, baseless discrimination.

"My sons are growing up and for their sake I must try and win back as much respect as I can in the town," says Krogstad who, in reality was dismissed because he was overly familiar with Torvald, calling the petty, easily offended manager by his first name. "This post in the Bank," he says, "was like the first step up for me—and now your husband is going to kick me downstairs again into the mud."

Though never as committed as he might be to the urgency Krogstad clearly feels," Marcus Cox does a good job sidestepping potential melodrama while meticulously unpacking his complaints and leveling demands. With situational exceptions, everybody else in the drama operates like pre-programmed robots running a limited number of darkly comical scripts, adapting those prerecorded narratives to situations as they arise, and breaking down into a repetitive, "does not compute" sputter when there's a glitch in the program. A glitch like Nora.

Nora's Stepfordian friend Mrs. Linde, dutifully rendered by Leah Roberts, proposes an inoculation: "This unhappy secret must come out," she says, advocating for a dose of the one thing known to set folks free. "All this secrecy and deception, it just can’t go on." Linde runs on convention. Without work she couldn’t live because she's never known another way of living. "That has always been my one great joy," she say chillingly. "There’s no pleasure in working only for yourself."

Though he's given very little action to drive, Dr. Rank's almost literally the play's backbone and also the most metaphoric tool in Ibsen's toy box. It's the allegorically named doctor who makes us aware of the drama's architecture when he diagnoses Krogstad's "moral disease." Rank knows from disease, having been born with "spinal consumption" (syphilis) transmitted at conception by dear ol' dad. Rank's built of stock lines peppered with the unique gallows humor of someone born suffering who knows he's exceeded his expiration date. He's a repellant double reminder as to why society values domestic convention and that it fails anyway. Skip Howard's a little stiff in the role, but consistent and clever enough to find the laughter, if not the life so often missing from Ibsen.

I started this review with one pop culture reference, I'll close with another digression that may not be relevant — I think it is. In the history of paperback romance novels there may be no single greater cover trope than the image of women running away from perfect storybook houses in varying degrees of decay. You know, like this. 

And this.

And this and so many more...
What does it mean? I can't say for sure, but the imposing homes make good metaphors for stability, comfort, traditions, and — in the American idiom in particular — dreams. Like Torvald's bloodless repetition of romantic fantasies plucked straight from the pages of a penny dreadful, I think it's all got something to do with the opening line of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice — "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Not a man, mind you, but a man possessed.

This brings us back to the top of the page and comments in the new edition about how the translators chose to keep the title A Doll's House, even though it might be more accurately translated, "A Home for Dolls." The first, most conventional title, makes the house subordinate and the doll possessive in a way Nora never could be. The latter shifts emphasis from the possessor to the home itself. While I advocate for economy and firmly believe the only necessary set piece in this show is the door Nora slams on her way out, CentreStage's production would have benefited from more structure of almost every kind. The play's not called Torvald, and the sputtering, isolated man Nora leaves onstage, imprisoned by convention at show's end, might be better understood with some visual context — some real estate.   This closing scene presents us with same image on the cover of practically every gothic romance novel ever printed, after all.  Ibsen, writing 100-years after Ann Radcliffe launched the gothic  genre with The Mysteries of Udolpho, and 100-years before the pulp romance boom, just turned the picture inside out.  

CentreStages A Doll's House may be finished, but it's not quite complete. It's still a solid reminder of why, at a time when "classics" usually means Shakespeare, and visits with artists like Strindberg and Ionesco are few and far between, Ibsen also matters.

A Doll's House is at the Evergreen Theatre through Oct. 1.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Years to the Day" is Intense, Funny, Brief, Small, Essential

Posted By on Thu, Sep 14, 2017 at 2:17 PM

Maybe I have a weird sense of beauty, but I've got to confess, I got a little choked up when I pulled right up to the door of 7 N. Main on my bike and looked into this brightly lit shopfront on the mall. Beyond a small gallery there were some chairs set up and a small stage with a table, two more chairs and some lamps. When the lights finally went down on Quark's production of Years to the Day, I knew anybody walking by outside could look in and watch the show. They could watch the audience watching the show. Everything was so minimal, so open, immediate, inviting and accessible. Beautiful without being remotely extravagant.

Of course, I'm a longtime Downtowner so I'm biased. The Main St. mall is a wonder of unrealized potential — a grand front porch of a piazza, begging for art and artists to bring color and life. Quark's production of Alan Barton's intense, funny two-man drama is a good start.

Tony Isbell directs Adam Remsen and David Hammons in a play about two middle aged white guys sitting around talking that's way more engaging than that sounds. Dan (Remsen) and Jeff (Hammons) are old college buddies who've grown apart and, prior to the awkward coffee date we witness, haven't made time to hang out in four years. They're still connected by way of social media, but that turns out to be a weak thread. The ensuing conversation touches on all the things one might expect from a couple of 40-something guys hanging out talking — the latest film, health, aging, sex, kids, divorce, the grim specter of death on the horizon, etc. Jeff's gay now. Dan nearly died of a heart attack in the parking lot of a discount store. There's some catching up to do, and it's not easy.

Dan's such a conservative ranter and despiser of all things "nanny state" it's hard to imagine at times how these two men were ever friends. But the magic of Years to the Day is rooted in a slow-burning revelation that shared personal history creates needs that outweigh cultural values.
The story's set in a familiar world with an alternative history so familiar situations are presented without the usual cultural/political baggage. This nearly trigger- free environment lets us watch debates without becoming a part of them — to see the dynamics of argument, not the merits of an argument. It's a nifty, hypnotic writing trick, though it can also feel a little gimmicky at times.

If watching two strong, unaffected actors ruthlessly going for it in a tight, high-stakes game of middle-stakes Life sounds like your idea of a good time, Years to the Day delivers.

I'm not sure what else I can say about this show without spoiling punchlines that sometimes land like actual punches. Clocking in at under 80-minutes, it's not a huge time investment either, leaving plenty of time to enjoy life on the riverfront. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Light: "The Flick" Rewards patient audiences at Circuit Playhouse

Posted By on Thu, Aug 31, 2017 at 10:31 AM


“I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.” — Sam Shepard.
Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Vladimir: Yes, yes, we're magicians.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Talk about your liminal spaces, wow. Is there any other point in the universe where the membrane separating soul-eroding minimum-wage reality and vast multiversal fantasy, is so very thin as it is in a cinema when the movie’s over and the crowd’s gone home; When the crew comes in to scrape gum, sweep up popcorn and other human waste? This is context for The Flick, a Pulitzer winner and theatrical endurance test rewarding audience patience with some extraordinary acting and a story considerably greater than its parts. Set during the digital revolution, in a movie theater still projecting film, Annie Baker's slow-burning comedy of awkwardness, is only tangentially about movies. It's more about seeing (or not seeing) the light amid desperation, depression, generational angst, and dead ends in an America where jobs can be scarce and unfulfilling. It's all wrapped in a potent, subtly developed object lesson about the true nature of a thing we vastly misunderstand — white supremacy.

Avery's the newest and most vulnerable member of The Flick staff. He's a young, African-American film nerd with encyclopedic knowledge and a firm belief that, "Nothing projected digitally can truly be called a film." Avery's hipster hobbyhorse creates a kind of converse: Can a show about watching people work, and work, and work truly be called a play? Because so much of The Flick is about watching the cast sweep popcorn up and down the aisles, silently managing the weight of their problems, hopes, fears, and fantasies as they mop up puddles of spilled coke and other unidentifiable substances. The action is redundant, and mind-numbing at first. But just when you think you can't take anymore of this shit, the weight and force of Baker's painstakingly real journey into the absurd hits like a Summer blockbuster.  

It's hard to know what's going to happen to Sam. He's an angry white 30-(40?)-something who feels stuck, unappreciated, and overlooked — harmless, but still a pressure-cooker. Now he's breaking out in a mysterious rash too. And he lives at home with his mother who's swimming in credit card debt. The girl he's crushing on got promoted to projectionist over him. Now she's teaching Avery — the guy he trained (to sweep up popcorn) how to run the projector — and maybe she's teaching him more than that, too. Even Sam's younger "retarded" brother has found love and marriage, and something like happiness. To pass the time Avery asks Sam, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I am grown up," Sam answers. Doesn't sound like much, but I'm hard pressed to name a time when any brief exchange in any play has felt so colossal. Maybe in Godot when Estragon says, "I can't go on like this," and Vladimir answers, "That's what you think."

In the projection booth, high above Sam and Avery's labors, Rose splices together the previews of coming attractions, and loads reels onto the projectors. You can see her framed in her little window, like the spidery star of her own silent film. She's the object of Sam's desire — disaffected and damaged, but bright. Her attempt to seduce Avery while screening Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is like a vaudeville routine turned inside out — a crushing joke, painfully and perfectly rendered.

These are The Flick's primary characters. We get to know them pretty well over three-and-a-quarter hours. But there are other characters too — a patron who sleeps through the end of the credits, a young new-hire who's into his smart phone and already knows how to sweep popcorn. And then there's the theater's Baby-Boomer owner, angling to sell the old movie house and retire. The owner never actually appears on stage but his watch (or lack thereof) impacts lives at The Flick. He's a faintly metaphysical construct, particularly for GenXer Sam, trapped between the famously enormous generation that got to all the good jobs first, and the fresh-faced millennials who'll replace them in a world made evermore impersonal by the invisible hand of the market.

Scenes are divided by blackouts — a projector's blinding beam cutting through the darkness. It flickers with life until the digital conversion happens. Then it's just flat light with no pulse at all.

Sam and Rose take part in a minor league ticket-money-skimming scam Flick employees have been pulling forever. It's called "dinner money" and it nets everybody an extra $10 or so a night to augment their $8.24/hour pay. Avery is coerced into participating against his better judgement. For all of his nerdiness, education, and all around middle-classness, he knows he's still black and the rules are different. And, of course, they are.

Director Jordan Nichols has pulled together a first rate ensemble: Brooke Papritz (Rose), John Maness (Sam), Roman Kalei Kyle (Avery) and Oliver J. Pierce (Skylar/The Dreaming Man). Finely-tuned performances might be described as theatrical mumblecore, but it sure wouldn't hurt for Papritz to project just a little more. She was often hard to hear from the middle of the theater, but not so hard to understand.

I never did write a tribute to Sam Shepard when he passed. It took the wind from my sails. He was my favorite living American playwright and I'm not really sure if I have one of those anymore. But with plays like The Flick, Baker may be in the running. As this production slouched toward its curtain call-free terminus, I was reminded of something Shepard once said about the shape of good drama. “I hate endings. Just detest them," he said. "Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.” That's about right, and the right way to wrap this review. Except for one more thing...

We can put a man on the moon but can't make a theater seat that doesn't turn into an instrument of torture after an hour and a half. That's just barely scratching the first act of this famously crawling show. My advice — bring a pillow. This one's not going to suit everybody, probably and I suspect some folks will pick up and leave at intermission, even if they don't hate the show. I can only encourage folks to stick it out. You'll be glad you did. 
In The Flick the set watches you.
  • In The Flick the set watches you.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy: Remembering "A Play in 5 Betties"

Posted By on Wed, Aug 9, 2017 at 11:56 AM

Jamie Boller takes a peek. Because sometimes you've gotta.
  • Jamie Boller takes a peek. Because sometimes you've gotta.
Boy oh boy do I ever love the energy at late shows starting at 11 p.m. and midnight. Audiences tend to be younger. Folks have already been out for a while, and they bring that good-time momentum with them. The room vibrates with it before curtain time when it spills out onto the stage. You just know something mad is about to happen. Something exactly like Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties. (Originally A Play in 5 Boops).

Oh sure, they had shows at all the normal theater hours too. But I hit the late one, and it did not disappoint.

Normally I don't review shows that have already closed. What's the point? But this fine, fine show was here for such a short time and I really wanted to say a few words about the producing body Femmemphis, and a giddy, smart, stripped to essentials piece of theater so portable they could do it at birthday parties if they wanted to. Although that would be weird. Loosely inspired by Betty Boop, the cartoon flapper who's always fending off wolves and cat callers, (and also by A Midsummer Night's Dream) Collective Rage is a daring comedy of self-discovery and a perfect antidote to the toxic last hurrah of old, white, Viagra-fueled, cisgendered nut-rage. It's also a sly critique of an insane and irresponsible media landscape comprised mostly of outrage with vivid splashes of abject horror.

You know the thing women have that Donald Trump grabs with impunity because he's a celebrity? That's what Collective Rage is all about. And the male gaze. And the female gaze. And expectations, appearances, disappointments, truck maintenance, cocktail parties, boxing, love, loss, trial, error and ultimately, "the THEATRE!" Jen Silverman's script is as savage as it is humane, and Femmemphis' terrific cast — Kristen Vandervort, Jamie Boller, Christina Hernandez, Eileen Kuo, and Brianna Hill — devoured it like pie.
Fuck it, Brianna Hill is a wall. A non-gender-conforming male-identifying but cool with female pronouns brick effing wall.
  • Fuck it, Brianna Hill is a wall. A non-gender-conforming male-identifying but cool with female pronouns brick effing wall.
The stated mission of Fememphis is "to champion all womyn by empowering and promoting the female artistic voice in the Memphis community." Collective Rage was a fantastic place to start, and I can only hope  the show's requirements are so few  it will have a life beyond its single week run at the U of M lab theater. It's something that could attract attention over an extended run, and the kind of show some folks (like me) would happily see more than once. Even if this one doesn't come back, this collective is one to watch. Priorities are all in the right place — good material, detailed performances. Who needs fancy design when you can't take your eyes off the actors?
Jamie Boller, Brianna Hill, Kristen Vandervort, Eileen Kuo
  • Jamie Boller, Brianna Hill, Kristen Vandervort, Eileen Kuo
If I was reviewing this in real time I might grumble that there's a lot of cool and distinctive group movement  in the old Max Fleischer cartoons, and it's a shame some of that couldn't be folded into the show's transitions. Isn't that just like me to complain that a very good thing wasn't somewhat better?  But I'm not really complaining so much as imagining a more interesting future with this brave, smart, and giving group of performers in the mix.

More like this please.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Winning: POTS Debuts WW2 Aftermath Drama "Victory Blues"

Posted By on Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 12:20 PM

Poker night. - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Poker night.
Why did Jerry get fired? Was he a bad shoe salesman? Do people just not like him? Was he saying the wrong stuff? Reading the wrong things? Is he just paranoid? Or are his friends out to get him? There's a lot going on in Alan Brody's NewWorks@TheWorks-winning play Victory Blues. But what's it all about?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that  Brody's read a little Arthur Miller. Victory Blues plays out like a working class sequel to Miller's WW2 aftermath drama All My Sons. It tells the story of three young couples — old friends living in the same apartment building, adjusting to life after wartime in the greatest, most prosperous country the world has ever known.

Only one friend isn't prospering. While his buddies enjoy the fruits of winning, poor shoe salesman Jerry Greisinger just barely gets by. Jerry saw combat, and he's still struggling with that. His friends didn't, and they don't get why their old pal's worried about other people's problems when he could be out there getting his big fat slice of winner cake. They don't get why America's red scare bothers him so much, since he's not a commie. (Or is he?) They don't get why he won't forgive a friend's terrible betrayal, since it was motivated by love and concern for him, and was going to make his life so much better in the end.
Renee Davis Brame. - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Renee Davis Brame.
Jerry's wife Barbara doesn't get it either. Her friend May, who's going to college against her husband Lenny's wishes, does. Test patterns fill the TV screen. Casseroles occupy the shelf like noodly metaphors. Tension builds.

Everything about Victory Blues reminded me of All My Sons. More specifically it reminded me of Chris Keller's monologue about watching his friends die in combat and the shock of coming home:
"I went to work with Dad, and that rat‐race again.  I felt... what you said... ashamed somehow.  Because nobody was changed at all.  It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys.  I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank‐book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator.  I mean you can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you've got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, and you've got to be a little better because of that.  Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there's blood on it."
It's not that Jerry doesn't want to work in his friend Howie's appliance store. Like Miller's combat-tested protagonist who couldn't look at the refrigerator without obligations, he can't. Meaty stuff.

Director Jaclyn Suffel and a first rate ensemble do a fantastic job setting everything up in act one. They do even more heroic work after the break, carrying the script like a wounded soldier when things get repetitive and the device used to demonstrate Jerry's isolation winks at self-parody.

So the last act could stand some trimming and focus. There's lots of really fine acting collected here. And a terrific soundtrack that lifts things in all the right places.

Jerry Greisinger —Jacob Wingfield
Barbara Greisinger – Renee Davis Brame
Howie Cohen – Jeff Posson
Alice Cohen – Nichol Pritchard
May Black – Lena Wallace Black
Lenny Black – Kinon Keplinger


Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Comedy of Errors" is an Entertaining Romp

Posted By on Thu, Jun 15, 2017 at 5:38 PM

Rachel Brun (Luciana) and Claire Hayner (Adriana).
  • Rachel Brun (Luciana) and Claire Hayner (Adriana).
There’s nothing subtle about the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s production of Comedy of Errors, and I suspect The Bard would have wanted it that way.

I’m sure you’ve all seen Shakespeare reduced to mush because the director and players were too reverent to the material. Sure, Shakespeare was a great dramatist, molder of language, blah blah blah. But he was also a guy who had a side hustle writing erotic poetry. He was the Elizabethan equivalent of a B movie producer, and nowhere is that more evident than in the setup for Comedy of Errors. As TSC founder Dan McCleery noted in his opening address to the crowd at the University of Memphis, this play was basically a ripoff of a Latin play called Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus. Shakespeare looked at the story, in which a set of twins separated at birth meet years later, causing an escalating progression of mistaken identity gags, and said ‘If one set of twin is funny, TWO sets of twins would be HILARIOUS!”
I’m as big a Shakespeare fan as the next English major, but I had never seen Comedy of Errors produced before. It’s pretty clear that most of the play is just Willy Shakes having fun riffing. The two Dromios, Syracuse (Blake Currie) and Ephesus (Nicolas Dureaux Picou) take the brunt of the slapstick violence meted out by their increasingly flustered masters Antipholus of Syracuse (Joey Shaw) and of Ephesus (Colton Swibold). Among director Tony Simotes’ more interesting experiments is the casting of the twins. Shaw and Swibold share a strong resemblance, but their characterizations mark them as quite different people. Shaw’s Syracusian brother is bold and not a little mischievous, while Swinbold’s Ephesian Antipholus is a decadent noble elevated by good connections with the Duke (Stuart Heyman). The Dromios, on the other hand, are completely different physically while being functionally nearly identical in character.
All four male co-leads (I guess that’s what you’d call them) acquit themselves admirably, as do the always great Phil Darius Wallace as Egeon, the father of the two Antipholuses whose imminent execution by the Duke provides the comedy’s ticking clock tension. On the distaff side, Ephesian wife Adriana (Claire Hayner) and her sister Luciana (Rachel Bruin) serve as capable straight women for the increasingly convoluted comedic conundrums.

Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but the plotting is amazingly tight. The playwright throws gags fast and thick, and isn’t about to wait around for you to get the jokes. The players have the unenviable task of breaking through the smartphone addled modern brains of the audience who are likely struggling with the cognitive overhead of interpreting Elizabethan English on the fly. Director Simotes has his cast going big, telegraphing the gags, giving everything the hard sell. Combined with the Ottoman themed stage dressing, it gives the proceedings the feeling of authenticity. I can’t imagine Dromio of Syracuse’s extended fat joke was delivered with much subtlety to the groundlings in 1594. And let’s face it, despite what sounds like flowery language today, none of these characters are terribly bright. Thanks to the performers’ energy, TSC’s Comedy of Errors is an entertaining romp. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Teaching Moments: Theatre Memphis Visits South Pacific

Posted By on Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 2:57 PM

South Pacific's a peppy musical and liberal touchstone — a Greatest Generation romance set in WWII's Pacific theater and stuffed with 20th-Century standards in almost every sense of the word. But contrary to what the show's famous song says about racism, when it's so systemically ingrained audiences easily mistake the fetishization of submissive Asian girls for tragic romantic love, it has to be carefully untaught. Otherwise it perpetuates with the aid of broadminded heroes like Rodgers & Hammerstein's Emile de Becque, the French planter who says all people are equal and totally had kids with a Polynesian woman but still parties with peers who pay indigenous laborers so little they need American soldiers to harass the competition. To borrow an obvious but useful line from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, "few things in showbiz date more quickly than progressive politics," and today South Pacific — progressive to the point of being scandalous when it landed on Broadway in 1949 — plays out like U.S. Imperialism the Musical!

That's an observation, not a complaint.

South Pacific has always been a conversation piece. Its creators fought hard against fierce pushback to make it so, and in that spirit Theatre Memphis' production feels like a sparkling blue souvenir from a far away land — old and brittle in places, but kept in good condition to pass on to the grandchildren. The musical's frame is naive but sophistication is evidenced in the character of Nellie Forbush a spunky self-described optimist who only sees the best in the world until she finds out the man she loves once loved someone of another race. Her racism is as naked as she is in the musical's pinup-inspired shower scene. It's as fine an example as the musical theater provides of otherwise good people unable to recognize their own prejudices, and ironic in an expansionist-friendly narrative girded with orientalism.  Will Nellie really wash that miscegenationing Emile right out of her hair?  Is extravagant romance in an exotic location with plenty of champagne a meaningful gateway to other kinds of love and tolerance? South Pacific remains vital because, like Nellie the lover who discovers she's a hater in a personally jarring revelation, its ideological shortcomings are so vulnerable, begging for critique, conversation and correction.
Bloody Mary: Based on a real Tonkinese woman who led a revolt.
  • Bloody Mary: Based on a real Tonkinese woman who led a revolt.
Theatre Memphis dares to be garish and when the community playhouse rolls out its big musicals extravagance pushes elegance under the wheels time and time again. Not so this round and even director Jordan Nichols trades his choreography-heavy style for restraint. In this South Pacific, relationships matter more than razzle dazzle. As a result "dames" keep their dignity, and so does the musical's Mother Courage character, Bloody Mary.

Often presented as a Tonkinese cartoon hawking her trinkets and cursing in broken English, Mary's easily criticized for selling her underaged daughter. In the context of privation, war and isolation it's not so hard to see the caring mother trying to get her children out of the plantation system the best way she knows how.

I can't say there's any real spark between Kent Fleshman's Emile and Amy P. Neighbors' Nellie, but great voices and emotional vulnerability add up to great performances.  Noby Ewards sings and acts Bloody Mary beautifully, never allowing the profit-minded character to become a gag. Oliver Pierce makes the hustling sailor Luther Billis an affable clown, and Bloody Mary's all-American counterpart. Bradley Karel cuts a heroic profile as Lt. Cable, without hiding any of his doomed character's flaws. Ensemble characters are perfectly cast, sacrificing finesse for verisimilitude to great effect. But the real stars here are the songs: "Cockeyed Optomist," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," "Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy', [DEEP GASPING BREATH] "Younger than Springtime," "Honey Bun," "This Nearly Was Mine" — and the list goes on. All of them perfect, and perfectly presented with lots of heart and little fuss.

South Pacific may not be the groundbreaking progressive statement it was in 1947. Nellie's proud Little Rock heritage will never be as bracing as it was when the film came out in 1958, months after Federal troops rolled into Arkansas to integrate Little Rock Central High. Today a script once described by right-wing critics as a tool of Moscow is more likely to be criticized by the woke left. But for all of that, it holds up better than so many mid-Century musicals, wearing its flaws more like scars than medals. Even in 2017, it wants to foster more than just a bunch of "Happy Talk," and that makes this artifact a keeper.

Why hate when you can love and exploit?
  • Why hate when you can love and exploit?

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the Rough: Hattiloo Stages August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean

Posted By on Fri, May 12, 2017 at 9:36 AM

I’ve got a knack for blocking out distractions, but every now and then, one small thing can keep me from fully engaging with a play. In the case of Gem of the Ocean, I couldn’t figure out how a second story door leading to interior rooms might sit above a door leading outside, flanked by exterior windows up and down. Wilhelm screams were anticipated when characters passed the upper story threshold but, to my surprise, nobody fell to certain injury. I suppose it can be chalked up to an enduring truth about August Wilson’s problem play, Gem of the Ocean: 1839 Wylie is a house of mystery, where the veil of spacetime is thin. This is where Aunt Ester, the old home’s ancient inhabitant, transports pilgrims to an even more ancient city of bones. Nothing is normal here, and everything is.

Gem’s a fascinating work, packed with enough symbolism and code to build a Dan Brown novel around. It's the chronological beginning to Wilson’s century-spanning, 10-play Pittsburgh cycle introducing audiences to vivid characters, and situations of shocking currency. Like a set with doors to nowhere, it’s also something of a jumble, and probably the most difficult and daunting piece in Wilson’s 20th-Century puzzle.

Gem is a family tragedy that aims to redefine family. The people living in Aunt Ester’s house aren’t related, but they rely on one another like blood. The only true kin in this story of law, order, peace, mayhem and a  status quo looming like Armageddon, are Black Mary and her brother Caesar. She cooks for Ester in a poor but peaceful, charitable house. He wears a badge and relishes his role enforcing white interests.

Enter Citizen, a man with a secret, and a powerful need for soul-washing. Everybody told him to go to 1839 Wylie — a place of refuge and sanctuary. Times are so uncertain, and perilous for African-Americans there’s good reason to carry a heavy walking stick. There’s even debate over the relative merits of slavery, and the inevitability of prison. A man is dead because he was accused of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. The man swore he was innocent, jumped in the river, and never came out — better free and dead than jailed for nothing. Before the show’s over the mill will be on fire and Aunt Ester, born at the dawn of the North American slave trade, will be in bondage once again.

As mentioned, the Hattiloo’s Gem has issues, but director Lawrence Blackwell’s production succeeds in ways an earlier production at Playhouse on the Square didn’t. The key difference is intimacy. A perfectly cast ensemble makes the audience feel like we’re all seated around the table together while Black Mary makes a pot of greens. When everything turns to blood and sweat and chaos, the sense of alarm and disruption is shared.

Speaking of, when this Gem cooks, it really cooks, but to contradict Aunt Ester’s constant advice to simmer down, somebody needs to turn the heat up and keep it up. This play's a slow burn in any case. Fumbled cues and lost lines can make a long play feel like bottled eternity. No bones about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Million Dollar Quartet" Wants to Be Your Teddy Bear

Sam Phillips comes home to Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, May 11, 2017 at 11:34 AM

The quintet.
  • The quintet.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock’n’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door.” Jerry Lee Lewis.

In the Summer of 2010 Cowboy Jack Clement and I talked about the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet. Technically it's Cowboy Jack who recorded the famous event, but he's almost always airbrushed out of the myth. Clement got his break in the music business when Sam Phillips hired him on as sound engineer at Sun Studio, and he's vaguely referred to near the top of M$4 when Sun is briefly described as a "2-man" operation.  Clement wrote songs like "Teenage Queen," which sure would be fun to hear in a show about the early days of rock-and-roll, but is also missing here. On the country side, he wrote the honky tonk standard, "A Girl I Used to Know" and brought Memphis songwriter Dickie Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care," to George Jones. He was a producer, recording artist, disc jockey, grand interpreter of Shakespeare, and an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Clement was wonderfully weird in the way everything good about Memphis usually is. Poofed from the story, per Broadway.

"I'm not in it? Don't they have somebody operating the board," he asked and I told him, "Sam Phillips does it all."

"Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant," Clement explained. "Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in... I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn't record this. So I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened."

So, safe to say, Million Dollar Quartet's not the best historical document. But all warts and so many better possible playlists aside, the Tony-winning musical (and inspiration for the cancelled (botched?) Sun Records) gets the Memphis dynamic mostly right.

Phillips knew he couldn't compete with Nashville. So he panned for gold in a river of rejects, outcasts and oddballs. "That was right down my alley," Clement told me, affirming, for a paper thin jukebox musical playing with fast, loose facts, the story on stage at Playhouse on the Square, is undeniably true. It just didn't happen like that. As with Jersey Boys, the actors channel their famous characters, making all the music themselves — no pit. Like any good rock-and-roll show, it's about much fun for the crowd as it is for the pickers making it happen right there together. This cast looks like it's having a good time.  No surprises — Playhouse on the Square's homecoming production has an easy, authentic vibe. False notes  stick out, but are quickly buried in surplus charm and reasonably good rocking.

For locals who somehow missed the lore, M$4 is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA, but wishes he was still working with Sam. Cash and Perkins have deals with Columbia but haven't told anybody yet. Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. As he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs right where he is and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings.

"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says of studio life. Stephen Garrett, last seen at Playhouse as Lonny the narrator in Rock of Ages is a natural in the part of young Sam Phillips, and nails the moment.

Kavan Hashemian's got the voice and the moves, but it's the boyish understatement that really sells his Elvis. See, there's tension here, and hurt feelings. Carl Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" and put it on all the charts at once, then watched Elvis perform it on national TV while he was laid up in the hospital after a catastrophic car accident.  But for all of his flash and good fortune, Hashemian's King is a sweetheart, bashful, humble and human to the core — qualities fans have connected with across generations. Nobody could ever stay mad at that guy for long. Stephen Hardy is similarly winning as the Man in Black. Nobody ever bothers impersonating the no less distinctive Perkins, and that's true here too. As it should be with the father of Rockabilly,  Isaac Middleton lets his guitar do the important talking.

But what of the Killer?

It's important to understand, it wasn't just a lyric in "Whole Lotta Shakin'" Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't faking. Not a bit. Not ever. I'm not even sure the wild man of Concordia Parish could have faked anything if he wanted to. That's always been a problem for M$4. Lewis may have been the class clown, but he was never just a clown. His edge as real as the Pentecostal abandon when he played. The Killer had swagger like an OG rapper, and real gone, crazy genius. He might smile and charm, and toss his pretty hair and be polite as you please, and he might even sit down when you tell him to — and he's told to often in M$4. But Jerry Lee's gonna get you some day, wait and see. The musical comedy counts on Lewis for laughs and POTS's Nathan McHenry delivers big on that score, at the expense of spiritual verisimilitude. Then he beats the piano to the ground, sings the hell out of his songs, and gives, and gives, and gives.

As I've mentioned, all the good stuff in Memphis is weird at the edges, and think that's the main thing Memphis the musical has over a sanitized M$Q. If Andy Kaufman hadn't thrown coffee in Jerry Lawler's face, David Letterman's craziest interview award might very well belong to Sam Phillips. All these cool cats had demons and this musical's light tone wouldn't suffer a bit if things were just a touch wilder. Michael Detroit's staging always errs on the side of cuddly —  that's fine too. And if some pieces are missing from the million dollar puzzle, at least one piece has been returned — sort of.

 Kathryn Kilger's a smokey-voiced delight as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne. Her songs and character are shoehorned in, but she makes herself essential as the mystery girl cropped from the famous photo.

On any given night you can go out in Memphis, lay down $5 or $10 and watch the latest crop of Memphis rockers kick out some fantastic jams, — weird and wonderful or tight and seasoned. Fun as it was, even the Broadway production left me thinking, "that was a hefty ticket for a decent cover band." M$4's  a paradox: Polished, commercial vehicle about raw creative force. The plot's soapy — better yet, it's 100% True Bromance. The best moments are jams, where characters find each other in the groove. Like the Killer, it is what it is. And whatever it is should probably play somewhere near Graceland or Beale St. every single August when the tourist monsoon hits. Until somebody gets the ball rolling on that genius plan POTS's fluffy teddy bear of a production will have to do.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

World Lit By Lightning: GCT's Glass Menagerie Has Flashes of Brilliance

Posted By on Thu, Apr 20, 2017 at 11:20 AM

Is there anything more depressing than watching a great, beautifully acted play that, for whatever reasons, audiences have chosen to avoid like it was a rat-faced hobo yelling at traffic? The crowd that turned out for last Saturday’s showing of The Glass Menagerie was bigger than the cast, but slim enough that Germantown Community Theatre’s converted one room schoolhouse — one of the region’s most intimate play-spaces — felt cavernous, and lonely. Written in the 40’s, Menagerie is a little long in the tooth, but the script’s gathered little dust. It remains remarkable, and relatable to any working stiff who’s ever felt trapped by obligations, and entombed in a dead end job, with nothing but fantasy get by on. With director John Maness at the helm, and a strong ensemble cast, GCT’s take on the Tennessee Williams’ classic is a minor key study in subtlety and restraint. Like Violet, the last fine show I watched at a virtually empty GCT, it fills the tiny playhouse, without ever feeling crowded, or forced.

I’m not going to rehash the story here. The tragedy of the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, her missing husband, and her poor, disappointed, and disabled children Tom and Laura, is one of the few modern plays that still seems to creep into school curriculum. And plot's almost beside the point in this tone poem, anyway.

The best Toms flash with pent up anger, and the sense that it’s taking every ounce of will to keep from ghosting on mom and sis, and tripping the light fantastic out of town. Obligation is only part of what keeps him living at home, the 1930’s were an economic wasteland, and dependence also plays its part. As the son of an absent father — the telephone man who fell in love with long distances — Kevar Lane Maffit feels more woefully resigned, and almost gleeful when he’s messing with his prattling mother’s head.  He shines in little, quieter moments shared with his castmates. As the play’s narrator, Tom is often literally set outside the story. This performance finds Tom simultaneously looking for a way to blow out of town while also looking for cracks in time, space, and his mother’s fantastic bubble, trying to find, or fight his way back in. It’s a performance that never feels extraordinary, but becomes just that.

Maffit’s brooding presence is balanced by Kristen Vandervort's skittish Laura, whose low self esteem manifests as a kind of social shellshock. The nervousness makes sense, given her inability to escape her bombshell mother’s blast radius.

With her mannered manners, and sweeping stories of gentleman callers, and old South courtship, it’s easy to imagine Amanda as the Lost Cause-myth incarnate — a grand, self-deluding fabulist whose obsession with a perfect past (that never was), and faded promise (that has) walks an ever finer line between merciful escape, and psychotic break. There can be no doubt that, while she may have driven them away as quickly, Christina Wellford Scott’s Amanda most definitely turned heads. Still could, were she not so humbled, and forced to sell her romance magazines over the phone — penned by an author who never lets you down. Scott’s surprising Amanda shows us what a more grounded Blanche DuBois might have looked like, had children given her purpose, and something to project her fantasies onto. When Amanda flirts with Jim, Laura’s “gentleman caller,” it’s usually grotesque. This go-round she’s an elegant cougar, and sexually, a little threatening.

Scott, with stylistic help of Maness, transforms Amanda into the kind of romantic illusion one usually only finds in the movies — twisted by time and changing sensibilities, into something ridiculous. It’s so easy to just make her overbearing and bonkers.

The Gentleman Caller’s a tough gig. He represents hope, and hope’s a little bit of jerk, especially when nobody’s paid the light bill. Hey, maybe a kiss from a guy with executive potential really can fix a broken girl’s low self-esteem! (sigh) We know this date’s going nowhere. But when Jared Graham’s Jim’s dances Laura around the room, we want to believe, at least in the moment, that something completely unexpected could happen.

Williams dropped his Wingfield family between an economic rock and an even harder world “lit by lightning.” The World Wars are alluded to so often it’s fair to describe the play’s imaginative setting as a battlefield, occupied by ghosts and refugees. This imagery hasn’t been lost on GCT’s creative team, who’ve reduced portions of the family’s St. Louis apartment to rubble.

Hopefully word of mouth will result in fuller houses going forward. A show this good deserves an audience.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Human Resources: Rasheeda Speaks Loud and Clear at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Apr 11, 2017 at 10:38 AM

Neither of these women are Rasheeda
  • Neither of these women are Rasheeda
Well, that was awkward. A poor audience member, tricked by the convincing verisimilitude of Jack Yates’ set design, walked right into the theater and attempted to use a fake public restroom built down stage right. Yeah, that happened. It wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been though, since the show hadn’t yet started, and it was pretty clear, once you got beyond the toilet door, there was no privacy, and no real facilities in the onstage facilities. But good theater is made of good illusions, and, in this case, as I’ve mentioned already, Rasheeda Speaking — a tense comedy about race, gender, office life and the way we work now — hadn’t even begun.

Yates is such a gifted artist and technician his uncanny ability to build complete, lived-in spaces can actually be a challenge for less challenging productions. When nothing’s left to the imagination, imaginations don’t always engage as powerfully as they might. But Rasheeda Speaking is a different kind of stage story, and it benefits from playing out in such a familiar place — A surgeon’s clean, brightly lit waiting room in some anonymous professional building in some city, somewhere, just like every other city in America. This is Everyoffice, and the audience is dropped right behind the fabled fourth wall, where it’s encouraged to slip into full voyeur mode, and witness icky banal conversations never meant for public consumption. Add to this picture a trio of solid performances from Anne Marie Caskey, Brian Everson, and Dusty Walsh, and an extraordinarily confident one from Jessica “Jai” Johnson, and it’s easy to give into the fantasy and pretend it’s all happening right there in front of you — that there really are sinks and stalls just beyond the clearly marked restroom door. You can almost smell the urinal puck.

Rasheeda Speaking opens with the Surgeon (Everson) instructing his newly appointed office manager (Caskey) to observe her co-worker Jaclyn (Johnson) and take detailed notes. “Jackie,” as he calls her, doesn’t really fit in. She’s angry, he says, acknowledging that won’t be a good enough reason for the Human Resources department to let her go, or move her to another, more appropriate position. This opening conversation establishes a familiar, flirty and manipulative relationship between the doctor and his submissive senior staff member. It doubles as instruction to the audience/jury. The strong, quirky, slightly sadistic black woman they’re about to meet, is officially exotic, and absolutely on trial for it.

That’s all misdirection. While we’re all busy watching Jaclyn (She prefers Jaclyn), and wondering if she may be genuinely toxic, the doctor and his mousey spy unravel in even more dramatic ways. What begins as a variety of harassment suits waiting to happen ends in absurd hysteria and the terrifying threat of a “stand your ground” moment. 
Sometimes the set's the star.
  • Sometimes the set's the star.

It’s worth mentioning that both playwright Joel Drake Johnson and director Jerry Chipman are white guys, only because it’s worth asking whether or not we really need more deep thoughts on race and gender politics from a white guy’s POV. Thing is, Rasheeda Speaking is deliberately exploitative, putting its one brown face and two women on exhibit for study in an otherwise petty drama of arrested development, and playground paternalism. From coded beginnings, to unmistakable outbursts, it’s a native habitat diorama, instructing us on how white folks are when they don’t think any black people are in the bathroom listening. It’s never exactly what you think it is — uniquely voiced, and frustratingly topical.

Nobody in Rasheeda Speaking is named Rasheeda. It’s a name, we’re told, a group of young white professionals —liberals by implication — have mockingly given to all working class black women. It’s an inside joke they felt comfortable laughing about day after day on the bus to work. Jaclyn agrees to be called Jackie, but when the indignities pile up she surrenders to this minstrel stereotype the way Bruce Banner surrenders to the Hulk. That’s when phones get answered, “Rasheeda speaking!” It’s a messy moment, in a messy play. It’s the realest thing you’ll see on stage this week.

Rasheeda Speaking
is at Theatre Memphis through April 23.


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