Friday, September 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Typographer's Dream is Dreamy Comedy at TheatreSouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's love, not judgment. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Marriage Proposal, Memorials Steal the Show: Ostranders, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

I'll attempt an example.

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

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

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Friday, August 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Neighborhood Threat! "Raisin" Is a Great Musical, and an Important Story

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 4:27 PM

From a technical standpoint I could pick Hattiloo’s Raisin to pieces. The set doesn’t look down at heel, it looks slapped together. The presence of living actors insures that the show's minimal, thoughtful choreography, will sometimes be under-supported by otherwise well-made recordings of a horn-driven, 70’s-era soul-inspired score built to jump off the stage and get up in your life choices. Tracks get the job done though, and, as always, so much of any show’s success depends on material strength and a cast’s ability to leverage it. In this regard everything about Raisin delivers. Music and dancing never undermine the message in this faithfully adapted retelling of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. This story of the Younger family and their struggle to buy an affordable home and possibly start a family business is a subtle, almost generous look at how America and its wealth became segregated. It is a deeply felt family drama that ends with a devastating loss barely tempered with dignity and determination.

Raisin won the Tony Award for best new musical in 1973, and promptly fell off the face of the Earth. A best musical win doesn’t ensure immortality or heavy rotation, but ever since Kiss Me Kate picked up the first best musical trophy in 1949, a win has typically meant Broadway tours, lavish revivals, and some longevity on the regional circuit. Raisin, — a musical described by New York Times writer Clive Barnes as being, "perhaps even better than the [Tony nominated] play" —  just went away. Why?

To answer that question we probably have to go down to the crossroads of real estate and money. It surprises people when I suggest that, for all the edgy content that marches across our stages, our regional theaters are still relatively conservative spaces shaped more by donor/subscriber communities than the broader communities they inhabit.  There's only been so much room for black programming in these spaces and while a gut-wrencher like Raisin or Caroline or Change might get produced once in a while we're more likely to see upbeat revivals of pop-culture touchstones like The Color Purple or sparkly showbiz epics like Dreamgirls. If one must return to the musty old stories, Hansberry’s original drama is accepted canon, and always less expensive to produce than a musical on your second stage.

Thing is, there’s nothing musty about the original, if you pay attention to the whole text, not just the big "amen" lines about not capitulating to people who don’t think you’re fit to share the Earth.

It’s probably fair to say that most folks, liberal and conservative alike, have bought, in some measure, the big lies about segregation and how it continues to exist because people self-select. It's always been malarkey. Contemporary segregation and urban slums were created by single family housing/industrial zoning, by the Federal government’s refusal to insure mortgages to African-Americans, and the inability of African-Americans to obtain credit via the usual channels. It was advanced by public housing back when public housing was nice and park-like and not for poor people, but for exclusively white workers priced out of areas close to job centers. It was further maintained by restrictive covenants insuring that certain properties could only be sold to white buyers. When courts turned on the covenants Neighborhood associations were created. To buy in you had to belong. To belong you had to be white.

As more and more Americans moved out of apartments and into single family homes, the limited amount of property made available to African Americans was typically far more expensive than property being offered to whites. Absent credit, it was sold via a contract system that eliminated equity. One missed payment could result in eviction, with nothing to show for your effort. Families with little discretionary income for upkeep, did sometimes crowd into substandard housing, but decay was always the result of a cruel, deliberately exploitive system backed by customary business practices and law. Though these circumstances are alluded to rather than expressly stated, this is the legal, social and economic environment in which Raisin unfolds, and to get the most out of the musical experience, it’s helpful to divorce ourselves from political myths, and open ourselves to a more complete history.
Raisin isn’t about integration or white flight from the urban core. It’s about a family's struggle to create legacy inside a system designed to prevent it. The family patriarch has died leaving $10,000 in life insurance. Lena, the surviving matriarch wants to sink most of the money into an affordable home in a white neighborhood, not because of the demographics, but because “It was the best [she] could do for the money.” Her son Walter Lee's a chauffeur who wants to invest the money in a family business — a liquor store. Her daughter, pressing against both race and gender norms, has exchanged faith for science and wants to go to medical school. Glimpsing a bigger world she may choose to get out entirely and move to Africa with her foreign-born boyfriend. In the absence of credit or anything more than sustenance income, all these dreams hinge on one pot of insurance money representing the sum total of one man's difficult life. Add to this dynamic a white representative of Clybourne Park’s progressive neighborhood association who’s arrived to negotiate a kinder, gentler way to keep blacks out, and you have all the ingredients necessary for an emotionally honest and devastating primer in how everything went wrong.

Raisin's story is famously inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes. More crucially it's informed by the Hansberry family's personal experience in court, fighting the restrictive legal covenants and members only neighborhood associations. Hers is a deeply sad but open-hearted critique of the American Dream, a Depression-era fiction embraced by President Herbert Hoover to sell the advantages of single family home zoning where ethnic groups were excluded, over crowded apartment-based urban living where anybody might move across the street.

Hattiloo has told this story before, and told it well. Stagecraft notwithstanding, the musical tops it, if only because it gives great source material a beat and sticks it to your brain like a bubblegum hit on the radio.

At the top of the show I plunged my face into my hands — I couldn’t look. Committed, vibrant performances were at odds with cool, canned music. It just looked silly and I was sure I was in for a night of deadly theater. But the commitment was real. It was relentless. It overcame and the result was so much more memorable than I ever could have ever imagined during those cringe-worthy opening moments.

Raisin’s Lena became an almost instantaneous theatrical archetype. George C. Wolfe brilliantly lampooned that archteype in The Colored Museum's  “Last Black Mama on the Couch” sketch. Hattiloo stalwart Patricia Smith never sits on a couch or plays to type. Her Lena shifts from thoughtful, nurturing and wise, to superstitious, impulsive and tyrannical. She struggles to create security for her family without realizing how restrictive security can be — or how tenuous. Smith exudes maternal virtue, but her’s is a nuanced, warts-and-all take on a part the veteran performer could have easily phoned in.

Director Mark Allan Davis gets top shelf performances from an ensemble cast that includes Rashideh Gardner, Samantha Lynn, Aaron Isaiah Walker, and Gordon Ginsberg. But Kortland Whalum’s leave it all on stage take on Walter Lee Younger is really something to see. Whalum feels nothing lightly and his words and songs land like punches — some weak, flailing and ineffectual, some like haymakers. It’s as rich a performance as I’ve seen in ages, just at the edge of too much but never tipping over.

Walter Lee gets swindled, of course. I don’t think that’s a spoiler given the shopworn material. He’s one more casualty of unstable alternative economies created when people are isolated and shut out of the regular economy. The Youngers may be moving into a Chicago neighborhood but in this moment Walter Lee becomes the embodiment of Hughes’ “Harlem,” and the “dream deferred.” Maybe this gifted, young, imperfect black man who’s trying to do all the things he’s supposed to do but still can’t get ahead, will finally dry up like a raisin in the sun. Maybe he’ll fester like a sore or stink like rotten meat or sag like a heavy load. Maybe he’ll explode. In a beautifully manicured interpretation, Whalum gives you the sense it’s all on the table all the time.

Short take: This Raisin has some real problems. Telling one helluva strong story isn’t one of them.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Follies: Let 42nd Street Entertain You

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 1:22 PM

When spare is also full.
  • When spare is also full.
The stakes are lower than they might be, and character work could be more thorough. But Theatre Memphis' production of  42nd Street — the vintage story of a (not that) shy young gal from Allentown, PA, who dances her way from the chorus to the center spotlight — is as refined as it is restrained, and effervescent as a New Year's toast.

Shortly after New York' Chrysler building opened in the spring of 1930 (becoming the textbook example of American Art Deco architecture), critic Kenneth Murchison described the skyscraper's visionary architect William Van Alen as "the Ziegfeld of his profession." This was a reference to theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld whose fancy Follies had only just moved from the New Amsterdam Theatre, an Art Nouveau gem less than a mile's stroll down 42nd Street from the shiny east Midtown tower.

Murchison's comment may not have been an insult exactly, but the suggestion was certainly one of style over substance, and of the flashy and new vs. the tried and the true. This familiar cultural crossroads is the exact spot on our conceptual subway map where director Ann Marie Hall has set her production of 42nd Street, which is a cinema-inspired jukebox musical using songs popularized in the 1930s. Scenic environments, courtesy of designer Dave Nofsinger, are minimal — a series of curtains, frames, and backdrops with deco and nouveau flourishes that frame Amie Eoff's swell costumes and the skilled hoofers who fill them. The production's appropriate use of the unadorned theater space echoes Theatre Memphis' recent production of Stage Kiss in a number of ways that should be fun for season ticket holders. They're both the kind of meta, performer-forward production that leaves you thinking style and substance might be the same thing sometimes if there's enough skill to back it up. Refreshing!
Lighting that shows us what to look at. Thanks lighting designer Jeremy Allen Fisher.
  • Lighting that shows us what to look at. Thanks lighting designer Jeremy Allen Fisher.

Omega level stage threat Gia Welch is typically splendid as Peggy, a pitch-in girl from Allentown, PA who steps into a diva's dancing shoes to save the big show. That's the kind of by the numbers 1930s-era plot this musical is built around. 1. Big-time producer Julian Marsh casts a big-time show. 2. Big-time producer Julian Marsh casts a big-time diva in the big-time show. 3. The big-time diva can't dance and does diva stuff. 4. Small-town chorus girl steps up and saves the day while romance blossoms all around. 5. Tap, tap, tap.

There's nothing to it, right? Well, you may very well think that till Welch demonstrates her hilarious speed tapping skills. That's when the show's reasons for being become self evident.

Carolyn Simpson's Dorothy is never quite as spoiled or arch as the star attraction who can't dance might be, but she's committed and sets up a classic rivalry well enough. There are other fine supporting performances by stalwarts like Lindsay Roberts, John Hemphill, and Mary Buchignani. But this show celebrates the chorus and group effort, and that's where Theatre Memphis' production shimmies and shimmers.
Graceful ages.
  • Graceful ages.
The period songs are a joy. The dancing is top notch. This should be a perfectly delightful fantasy to escape into to dodge bad news and get out from under the summer's oppressive heat. But I've got to confess, I was miserable. It wasn't because someone's phone went off or because someone else was texting or loudly unwrapping candy, or taking photos or doing anything on that annoying litany of annoying things we're cautioned against during a standard pre-show speech. It's because someone seated nearby had evidently baptized themselves in cologne before coming to the theater and it assaulted my eyes and sinus cavities like a fighting cock. Mercifully, this once-frequent offense is less common than it once was — almost endangered, praise be. So I'm not bringing this up to reflect negatively on Theatre Memphis or 42nd Street in any way. It's an earnest plea from a regular audience member to the rest of the theatergoing community: Friends, don't let friends overcologne.

With that off my chest, I really can't push much further in the review because so much of my experience was colored by circumstance. I do remember peering through raw-rubbed eyes at a group of dancers in coral-pink dresses and becoming acutely aware of how nicely the fabric draped — how perfectly its movement complemented the movers. It's not that these details aren't present in busier shows. They just get lost in the business, and it's so nice when they're found again. Even nicer when it's  all wrapped up in an illuminated deco frame. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

'Snot Bad: “A Play About a Handkerchief” doesn’t blow at Theatre South

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 6:50 PM

Comedy & Tragedy
  • Comedy & Tragedy
I’ve often thought that Iago’s wife Emilia might be the most modern and relatable character in the wonderful world of Shakespeare. To my mind (and for reasons that won't pass academic muster), her speeches are the only things approaching real proof that any words credited to our Elizabethan master might have been penned by another.

“It is their husbands' faults if wives do fall,” Emilia says at the top of a gorgeous rant — one that couldn’t have been popular with menfolk in Shakespeare's audiences. She goes on to describe a toxic environment where male promiscuity is followed by peevish jealousies and abuse. “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them," she continues, asserting basic humanness and frailty. "They see, and smell, and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have… Else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”

I mean, I suppose a dude might have written that in 1603 and placed it so thoughtfully in the duty-bound mouth of a smart, smart woman whose ability to thoroughly describe this dynamic runs parallel to personal submissiveness and approval seeking. I'm not one of those classist conspiracy theorists who can't fathom genius inhabiting a craftsman from the sticks, so I suppose the dude did write it. But it's an especially knowing passage in a trove of special, knowing passages. It's also the text playwright Paula Vogel seems to use as the point of departure for her melancholic farce Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief.

Vogel's play is inside out Shakespeare in the spirit of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but less reverent and less in love with its own cleverness. The comedy’s a slower, less frantic burn listing heavily to the dark side. Its premise is built around a broad question: What the heck are all of Othello’s pivotal female characters doing during the long stretches of time when they’re off stage right?

There’s another, more disruptive aim here too. Vogel pops the bubble of romantic game logic holding Othello's plot together, replacing it with something closer to literal truth. She does this by letting the characters ask a question audiences can only address at the risk of disbelief: Why’s Othello trippin’ so hard over a nose blower?

Vogel introduces an earthy, candid Desdemona who openly admits to having had sex with every one of Othello’s officers except for Michael Cassio, of whom she stands accused. She's become something of a sex tourist in the town brothels — a hipster of coitus, a little mean and keen to learn the latest street lingo. It’s a lifestyle the lower class Emilia may understand, but cannot approve of, bound as she is to custom, and religious superstition, and motivated by the notion that a misbehaving woman's just asking to be murdered by her beau. Emilia is similarly horrified by Desdemona's cozying up to Casio’s actual paramour Bianca, a prostitute.

Specific goal and class conscious staging by director Aliza Moran shows off mad skills in a tight ensemble cast: Jillian Barron (Desdemona), Julia Baltz (Emilia) , and Layne Crutsinger (Bianca).

Clocking in at only 90-minutes this dirty Desdemona’s come and gone before the running gags run out of steam. Making no attempt to account for every plot point in the source it may appeal even to audiences who have only a passing familiarity with Othello but the more familiar you are with the tragedy of the Moor of Venice, the more of a treasure box the comedy becomes. It’s another exciting entry by the Femmephis Collective, a young company with a minimalist aesthetic and a maximalist vision.
Burn the witches! Wait, that's another play. But what else could three women be doing on stage together other than witchery? It's a mystery.
  • Burn the witches! Wait, that's another play. But what else could three women be doing on stage together other than witchery? It's a mystery.

To really understand what Vogel’s accomplished with her script it may be helpful to look back at the discourse we were having in the 1990's. Consider Variety's review of the original 1993 production where, in a mixed assessment  of the work, critic Jeremy Gerard wrote, “Imagining Desdemona as a foul-mouthed, post-adolescent princess disappointed in marriage and bored by her prospects doesn’t go a long way toward arousing sympathy for someone about to be murdered by a jealous husband.” Seriously, what's one to do with modern criticism holding Desdemona's potty mouth as a check on sympathy in relation to any kind of murder, let alone an end so personally and intimately violent?

“It’s momentarily funny to contemplate the fact that she’s a slut who’s had everyone but Cassio, the lieutenant whom Othello suspects of having cuckolded him,” Gerard continued. “But the moment passes quickly.”

Ha. Ha ha. Hahahaha—- Whaaaaa?

Can the moment for that kind of thinking pass quickly enough? And isn't that Vogel’s point entirely? This cast seems to make it repeatedly with silliness and subtlety in fair measure.

If a smart little play with sharp, distinct edges sounds appealing, get thee to Theatre South this weekend.

For a different mood, try the late show.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Too Cute: Death of a Streetcar winks at greatness

Posted By on Fri, Jun 1, 2018 at 6:52 PM

Jonathan Christian
  • Jonathan Christian
Theater folks talk a lot about text, subtext, meta-text. Blah, blah, blah. But there's another, special kind of language that arises during rehearsals when actors are getting to know their characters and castmates. It doesn't have a name (that I know of) so I'm going to call it the gag-text, with all implications potentially operative.

No matter how serious the actor, or how intense the scene, chances are jokes will be discovered in rehearsal. Often, inappropriate ones. And if the cast is especially clever (and even sometimes when it's not), at some point during the run somebody inevitably suggests, "Wouldn't it be awesome if we could do one show where we did our hilarious and vulgar version of The Sound of Music instead of the same old Do Re Mi?" Thankfully, nobody ever really thinks this is a good idea because, while some gags might transcend and tickle the audience, this stuff's mostly inside baseball and what's fun for performers can leave an audience befuddled. Enter Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf, a sketchy scripted comedy developed by Second City, a company famous for improv. It's an intermittently funny and occasionally flailing parody that takes aim at some unassailable classics of the (mostly) American stage. Full of ham-fisted allusion, pop-culture reference, and winking insider-humor, it's kind of like watching a bunch of actors performing their personal gag-text. Or maybe an episode of Family Guy built exclusively for theater nerds.

Tony Isbell's a sure-handed director and he's brought together an able cast that was only just beginning to gel at Thursday night's preview before Friday's opening. But it's difficult to imagine this extended sketch about Streetcar's Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois meeting up with George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman, ever obtaining the essential quality all these shows obtain when banging away on all cylinders — Life. 

Spoof is easy but not very interesting and parody's always a dicy bargain. It's even harder when you're setting your sights on masterworks like Our Town and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Not because these 20th-Century giants don't have it coming, but because we've had more than a half-century to parody the youngest of them, and the best gags are already musty classics in their own right. When Death/Woolf's Stanley yells, "shut up!" and launches a running gag, it's impossible to determine if it's skewering Streetcar directly or retooling a better bit from Sid Caesar's 1952 send-up on Your Show of Shows.

Playwrights ranging from David Mamet to Samuel Beckett are referenced (with assorted other old (mostly) dead white dudes folded into the mix), while condensed versions of the title tragedies (and Our Town for good measure) are reenacted. Though it's never overtly referenced (that I caught), the overall effect,  is something akin to Agatha Christie's easily spoiled whodunnit The Mousetrap. But without the tension. And be forewarned, a working knowledge of all these shows (and more) is absolutely required for maximal enjoyment. Folks with little or no exposure to the plays or their film versions, or some background in theater, may find themselves completely bewildered.

The 70-minute script is uneven and its identity as a work of suspense never really emerges, but some of the characterizations are so perfect it almost doesn't matter. Jonathan Christian's a solid narrator and Mark Pergolizi cuts a fine, sad-sack profile as Arthur Miller's tragic, prostitute-loving salesman. Not just anybody can pull off a convincingly pathetic slouch while dropping dialogue like "Pardon my distinct odor of failure.' (Or words to that effect). Dave Landis, who's actually played the hard-drinking George, pours himself into the role like a martini (as does his Martha, Tracie Hansom).
Dave Landis, Mark Pergolizi
  • Dave Landis, Mark Pergolizi
Kim Sanders probably deserves an actual shot at Blanche, some day (and so does Hansom for that matter), and Michael Kinslow is convincing as the sweaty, angry, and shockingly well-read Stanley. But like another Tennessee Williams character, Brick Pollitt (briefly referenced in the show as merely "a homosexual"), this material's always waiting for a click that never arrives. Not because the show was unready, but because it is thinly written.

"Gag text" is a bonding thing, I think. Musicians I've known do similar things with song lyrics to keep from taking things too seriously. It's an expression of how clever we can all be when we're clever together, and an exercise in what we can get away with — Kinda like improv, a thing Second City is really good at and which Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf most definitely is not.

Death/Woolf is way too cute for my taste but if you love seeing old plays mildly tweaked with winking jokes that make you feel like an insider, make your reservations today.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, April 13, 2018

An Act of God: Theatre Memphis Stages a Divine Comedy

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 3:21 PM

I want to write an 11th commandment: Thou shalt take that preaching somewhere else.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many nice coffee drinks on the Main Street mall have been ruined when some guy’s rights to speech and worship collided with my inalienable pursuit of happiness. When you’ve been avoiding church your whole life nothing sucks like that moment when a street preacher sets up across from your table with his PA rig and his garbled, unscholarly message for sinners. So, I was ready to receive An Act of God, the irreverent nightclub act disguised as a play by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum. But somewhere between “let there be light,” and something about “wrath management issues,” I started to wonder, “Holy shit, did I get tricked into going to church?”

Don’t misunderstand. An Act of God doesn’t pull a Book of Mormon, wrapping all its hipster heresy around a fluffy, comforting case for faith. It’s a full-on lampoon having great fun with Biblical inconsistency and God’s "mysterious ways." You could build a whole show around sassy edicts like, “I'm flattered but don’t kill in my name — I can kill all by myself.” Most of the zingers have stingers. But as Kevar Maffitt works the room in his lordly robes, sharing illuminating personal anecdotes and popping his points, it’s hard to shake the sense that this avatar of the almighty is testifying to a congregation, if not preaching to the proverbial choir. Sometimes I laughed. But mostly I just sank into myself and wondered about the big philosophical questions that weren’t being addressed. Questions like, “Are all theater seats uncomfortable or only the ones I sit in?”

Maffitt’s a great God with a winning personality and offbeat charm. This material can’t sustain itself without a strong personality lifting it up, and Maffitt's got what it takes to do the heavy work. He's especially good during a deserving smitedown of the horrible (I mean “classic”) bedtime death prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But there’s a reason TED talks cut off at 18 minutes, and even mild antagonism from Stuart Turner (standing in for Archangel Michael) fails to give the monologue a dramatic spine.

Theatre Memphis’ Act of God has a lot going for it, including a supporting cast that’s way too accomplished to stand in as magician’s assistants. Director Cecelia Wingate’s eye for detail is evident and Jack Yates’ scenic design is heavenly, per usual. Javerbaum’s gags are also good. Some of them are great. We should probably thank him for this food for thought. It will tickle many skeptics and make affirmation-seeking atheists happy as fundamentalists at a foot-washing. Also, Act of God’s a brave season choice for a donor-dependent community theater in the South. Theatre Memphis is to be commended for trying it on, and giving it such a lush production. Outside that context the material doesn’t break any new ground. Not my cup of blasphemy.

The Opera 901 Showcase Puts Memphis in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2018 at 12:27 PM

Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
  • Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo
How about a big standing ovation for Opera Memphis, its general director Ned Canty, its newly announced directing fellow Dennis Whitehead Darling, and the fantastic cast and crew of the Midtown Opera Festival’s 901 Showcase. They’ve collectively made something very impressive — an epic built from the tiniest gestures.

It’s hard for opera to shake its longstanding reputation for extravagance, expense, elephants, Orientalism, and required reading for English-onlies. But there’s something almost revolutionary about Canty’s evangelical zeal and dedication to access. With his 30 Days of Opera platform, Canty’s made the intimidating form familiar throughout the 901. This year’s Opera Festival turns that formula inside out with an evening of tiny (and tremendous) world premieres marrying familiarity to the form.

Employing local and locally connected writers (and some area composers too), the Opera 901 Showcase takes on family, identity, responsibility, grief, institutional racism, secret histories, and professional wrestling (yes, wrestling). Big, universal themes are explored in unmistakably local contexts, making this year’s small opera event a true festival in the best and most basic sense of the word. It’s a multicourse feast for the eyes and ears, and a community revival testing shared values and celebrating things we cherish.

Watching the Opera 901 Showcase is like cracking into a great collection of short stories. No piece is longer than 20 minutes, and each work uses the form just a little differently to extract meaning and message from isolated moments in time. Barriers to entry are low (unless you only speak French, German, and/or Italian), and even musical theater skeptics may find themselves reconsidering their positions regarding opera.

The 901 experience begins with “Formidable,” an aptly titled, gorgeously told story about two strangers on a park bench overlooking the Mississippi River. One of the women is an earthy, oversharing Memphian. The other “isn’t from around here,” having come to Memphis to dispose of her father’s ashes. With a lean and lovely score by Kamala Sankaram and words by Jerre Dye, “Formidable” leans on a few overused sentences, but lands with the raw force of a Cathedral-era Raymond Carver story, when the influential author was redefining anthology, and muscular prose. “A Small Good Thing” particularly comes to mind.
“A Pretty Little Room” jumps back in time to 1892 to tell the true crime story of Alice Mitchell, who brutally murdered Freda Ward. In order to prevent Ward, her lover, from boarding a steamboat called the Ora Lee and leaving for a new life in rural Golddust, TN, Mitchell took her father’s razor and walked across river ice to confront her runaway lover. She slashed Ward’s face and was subsequently committed to the Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, TN, where the pulpy and portentous “Pretty Little Room” unravels like a fever dream. It’s a nifty penny dreadful of a piece, written by Dye and scored, with all appropriate dread and dissonance, by Memphis composer Robert Patterson.

Marco Pavé’s "Welcome to Grc Lnd 2030: The Demo" plays out like a hip-hop mashup of Brecht and Camus. In this one instance Opera Memphis bent rules about cast size and opera length to stage selected scenes and choreography from a proposed full-length fable about politics, plague, and Memphis’ school-to-prison pipeline.

Technical problems on opening night made “The Demo” a bumpier ride than it might have been. And, to fit better with an evening of tightly wrapped shorts it might have been better to present a single, self-contained scene. But Pavé’s entry was still a mighty preview, overstuffed with broad comedy, blunt commentary, and arresting imagery. Hopefully we'll get to see the finished product someday.

“Moving Up in the World,” is the only piece in this selection that’s not a world premiere having been originally staged as a part of Opera Memphis’ Ghosts of Crosstown event. Loosely inspired by the life of Memphis bartender Lafayette Draper, it tells the story of an elevator operator contemplating his imperfect but improving lot in life on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Stage director Dennis Whitehead Darling is more of a surging talent than an emerging talent. His simple, nuanced staging of “Moving Up” charms audience at the top, and never lets go even when things are going down.

And now, the fireworks...

Has there ever been a wrestling heel whose gimmick was being a shitty father figure to all the babyface grapplers? If not, there should be, and "Kayfabe: A Wrasslin’ Opera" is all the proof you need. This brief, delightful rock opera is a collaboration between Dye and Memphis rocker/arranger Sam Shoup that squashes all the garishness of pro wrestling into the barely developed story of an abusive father-son relationship.

Dye’s wrestlers aren’t rooted in Memphis lore, and neither the storyline nor the characters measure up to the operatic grandeur of a good Jerry Lawler/Ric Flair feud. But honestly, that’s a tall order. Shoup’s got some experience marrying rock and opera and his giddy, gritty score hits all the electric marks.

And I cannot tell a lie: There is something very satisfying about about going to the opera to see a guy get whacked with a folding chair. That may be all you need to know.

I haven’t said much about the performers. The singing’s all lovely and professional, of course, and the music’s great. But we expect all that, right? The revelation here is the up-close acting. Sawnette Sulker and Phyllis Pancella warm hearts and break them in “Formidable.” Daniel Spiotta and Brendan Tuohy chew scenery in “Kayfabe.” Darren Stokes takes audiences for a ride in “Moving Up in the World,” and Chelsea Miller and Nikola Printz chill in “A Pretty Little Room.” Stephen Len White does great character work throughout and Pavé leaves us wanting more.

When it didn’t glitch, projected images and titles were striking and allowed scenic design to be stripped to the bare essentials. Not needing to move a lot of scenery between operas made for fluid transitions. Canty’s commentary between shows was fun, sometimes improvisational, and always informative.

The Midtown Opera Festival continues this weekend with “The Triumph of Honor,” and another performance of the Opera 901 Showcase.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Drowsy Chaperone" hits, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" hits walls

Posted By on Sat, Mar 17, 2018 at 6:27 PM

Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
  • Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
The Drowsy Chaperone begins in the blackout with a cranky voice calling out into the darkness. "I hate theater," it says. "It's always so disappointing, isn't it?" Lights finally come up, illuminating an unremarkable apartment and its lone occupant, the Man in Chair. He shares a little prayer before the start of any live performance asking God to keep things short — two hours at the most. Additional requests are just as modest: a story, "a few good songs" and some good old fashioned escapism.

I've felt this poor man's pain since the first time I sat down to watch The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of 1920's era musical comedies that takes its share of pokes at modern fare ("Please Elton John, must we continue this charade!"). The Man in Chair loves theater, of course. Or what it's capable of anyway. He's just picky. Discerning.

Theater Memphis' take on this instant classic is knowing and no holds barred, with a terrific cast that includes Jason Spitzer as the curmudgeonly man, with Gia Welch as a superstar giving up her career for love, and Annie Freres as the titular chaperone.

There's so much more I could say about this cast and all its performers but maybe reviews shouldn't be too long either. How about we wrap with a classic: Don't miss this one.
  • Michael Gravois
I regret that I've been occupied with other stories of late and unable to blog about Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Or, to be precise, I regret that I haven't blogged about its source material Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and boasting one of the greatest comedy writing teams of all time. The roster included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen and Laughter author Neil Simon among others. Best I can say at this point: Those unfamiliar are overdue a YouTube binge. It was SNL when words like "pregnant" were too racy. But in spite of a more restrictive environment, Caesar's team regularly delivered smart, relevant material. Maybe even too smart for network TV, which always looked to grab the biggest audience possible no matter how low you had to aim.

Your Show of Shows represented an extraordinary convergence of talent and its quirky backstage life has been eulogized memorialized in TV's Dick Van Dyke Show, Simon's Laughter, and the wonderful Peter O'Toole film My Favorite Year.

Like Drowsy Chaperone, Laughter on the 23rd Floor pivots around a narrator. Unlike Chaperone, we're never given that much of a reason to care about this storyteller, loosely based on the playwright. He's just a device to set things up and wrap them up in a show with not much story, but a whole lot of character.

From people punching holes in the wall to running gags and unexpected changes of pants, the conflict and physical comedy in Laughter on the 23d Floor echoes the source material. What it may lack story-wise, it more than makes up for in opportunities for laughs.

Michael Gravois digs into the role of Max Prince, loosely based on the driven but booze and pill-addled Caesar.  With a believable, manic edge Gravois convinces us he's the kind of guy who might write a post sobriety novel titled Where've I Been? But there's no starring role in this comedy, it's the kind of ensemble where one weak link breaks the chain. Gravois is supported by a gaggle of solid comic performers including Jonathan Christian, Brent Davis, and Kim Sanders as various other members of the greatest writers room in the history of writers rooms.

I've never been a Simon fan — an unpopular opinion I know. And structurally speaking, this is arguably one of a prolific writer's most paint-by-numbers efforts. It may not be a great play. But when the characters come to life and the comedy cooks it can be a helluva show. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

"The Nether" : A horror show about pedophilia without consequence in virtual paradise

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 11:51 AM

Sims v the Detective in The Nether onstage at the Evergreen Theatre.
  • Sims v the Detective in The Nether onstage at the Evergreen Theatre.
Jennifer Haley's The Nether is a remarkable little play stuffed with big ideas. It’s a near future detective story about investigating pedophilia and brutal murder in a virtual world “without consequence.” It’s another big little play produced by Quark, a company devoted to “small, essential” theatre. With an A-list cast of Memphis actors it’s one brief act of smart, relevant drama — serious stuff with a comic book edge and satisfying moments of dark, blindsiding humor.

Today we call it the internet. In the future it’s the "Nether." And in the future (should we choose to become “shades”) we can leave our physical bodies behind to atrophy, live in our own custom-built avatars and enter into a world without consequence where girls will be boys and boys will be girls and nothing is real — unless it all is. Jillian Barron plays the hardboiled detective here and brings a fierce anime edge to her scenes with Sims/Papa, as played by the honest, always understated Barclay Roberts. Papa invented The Hideaway — a beautiful, faintly Edwardian world where everything is perfect and visitors can have special encounters with little girls (sometimes the avatars of adult men) before chopping them to pieces with an axe.

There are moments when The Nether begins to echo old, dubious warnings about the effect of deviant behaviors in entertainment and video games. Sims/Papa, as played by Roberts, makes the usual (nevertheless icky) counter argument that he provides a safe place for potential bad actors to work through compulsions without actual harm. But, for being such a little play — only 85-minutes long —The Nether is bigger than all that, bird-dogging a variety of near-future challenges that seem almost inevitable.

Quark’s a poor company that embraces its poverty, leans hard on good material and the strongest tool in the theater-maker’s toolbox — imagination. This isn’t bare-stage theater, but it nearly is. There are screens and some furniture, but this show is mostly built of sound. A low electronic buzz defines the real world with more pleasing noises taking us into The Hideaway. And yet, as visually null as this production may be (save for some colorful lighting splashes courtesy of Louisa Koeppel) this play is most likely to appeal to sci-fi fans who’ve enjoyed eye-candy like Blade Runner and HBO’s Westworld.

Stephen Garrett — soon to take a paternity break from the stage — is typically strong as a conflicted patron of The Hideaway who’s more than he seems.

In a difficult role that calls to mind the play’s own cautions about role-playing in a world without consequence, young Molly McFarland stands shoulder to shoulder with her adult co-stars and delivers a brave, polished performance.

From a technical theater standpoint, it’s easy to imagine a better dressed version of The Nether using projection or some other wizardry to paint scenes with pure light. With confident, unfussy direction by Tony Isbell, t’s hard to imagine a more thoughtful or surprising version.

With terrific productions of Blackbird and Years to the Day in the rearview mirror, Quark’s still the new kid on the block. Also a real contender. Good stuff.


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