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.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dead in the Water: New Moon's "Eurydice" is wet and wonderful

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 4:38 PM

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice isn’t for theater lovers who like a lot of action or tense tightly plotted drama. Though it borrows from ancient Greek forms it’s barely recognizable as a play in the traditional sense. It’s more of a living painting or character-driven poem that borrows heavily from its source material without ever pledging fidelity.

Written after the playwright's own father’s death, Eurydice is a grief project, strange and gentle. You can feel the author wrestling with pain — twisting it into origami birds and hurtling it at the sky. The New Moon Theatre Company and Director Jamie Boller have done an admirable job of bringing Ruhl’s quirky almost literally colorless meditation on memory and language to life, helping to cement the company’s reputation for taking on projects they probably don’t have the resources to produce, and making memorable theater anyway.

New Moon has turned to the Orpheus myth before having staged Tennessee Williams' intense Orpheus Descending. Unlike Williams' Southern drama (and also unlike the original source material) this contemporary update takes the spotlight off Orpheus, a supernaturally popular musician who’s songs are so beautiful they enchant  inanimate objects. It reorients the story around his love Eurydice who dies on her wedding day and is taken to the underworld inspiring Orpheus to undertake a hero’s journey to rescue her. As is the case in every version of the story he fails to rescue his love. Everybody dies — this is hardly a spoiler.
Ruhl introduces a new character to the drama— the Father. Unlike other shades dipped in the waters of forgetfulness, he remembers the language of living people. He remembers his life and family. He’s spent his whole death writing letters to his daughter, and when she arrives he teaches her to remember— a kindness with all the force of cruelty. The two rebel ghosts are regularly chastised by animated stones that are anything but silent. These rocks—witness to all— are our chorus.

Though minimal in one sense Eurydice is a gift to designers. It rains real drops inside an elevator to hell. Rooms are created out of nothing. Objects fly. It’s the kind of text best suited for companies with substantial budgets or none at all, facilitating a commitment to total theater. New Moon falls somewhere in between resulting in a production that’s imaginative and inspirational.

Eurydice’s secret weapon is an ensemble cast peopled with strong actors who listen to one another and play their parts like musicians in an improvisational jam. Still, it’s Eurydice’s play, and with effortless effervescence (even in death) Michelle Miklosey leads the way. As Orpheus Gabe Buetel-Gunn might be more overtly musical, but all holes are patched first by his doting, then by his pain of loss.

In some ways the tables are turned on Orpheus in this story. In the original myth Eurydice is barely there while in this version it's the musician who's been pushed to the margins. But Buetel-Gunn is always present, even when mute. In an understated, slow burning performance as Eurydice’s sweetly subversive father Jeff Kirwan reminds us that not all masculinity is toxic and not every patriarch is of the Patriarchy. In fact, as Eurydice demonstrates, some dads are so special they inspire poetry.

Similarly, this gray, drippy, lovely production (with terrific lights by Mandy Heath, costumes by Austin Blake Conlee, and original music by Joe Johnson) seems destined to inspire local artists who look back in order to look ahead; who aren’t constrained by convention; who like to color outside the lines.

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Souvenir" is a keeper: Florence Foster Jenkins sings at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 11:22 AM

David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

Friends, Memphians, Theatre lovers, lend me your ears so that I may share with you the worst, most beautiful sound you've ever heard. I'm here to praise Souvenir: A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (the tone deaf diva who thought she had perfect pitch), not to bury it. But maybe a moment of that too.

The magic trick that makes Souvenir so special is that it presents us with confident singing that's so painfully off key and rhythm-free  it makes us double over laughing. But it's not Madame Flo who takes us on this journey, it's her long suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon. And like McMoon, by the time all is said and done, we're left to wonder if Jenkins wasn't differently gifted — touched, like any other visionary artist, by angels and so compelled to make art whether she had the technical skills or not.

"It's the music in your head that matters," McMoon says, or words to that effect. When this idea drops, a kind of beauty emerges from the disaster of Jenkins' singing.

Theatre Memphis' charming, original (local) cast revival is a textbook example of how, particularly with small cast shows, technical improvements don't always improve things. Enlargements may even compete with performers, making them seem smaller and more isolated than they might in a less busy environment. TM's last Souvenir was done on the cheap, and you could tell. But by staying small and leaving much to the imagination, the crummy set accomplished what good design is supposed to do. It made Souvenir's two actors the focal point, not a chandelier or the painted floors. The revival's no worse than the original, but it's no better either. Simply said, the more sumptuous, and admittedly swell, scenic design doesn't leave much room for the music in our heads. This is all more food for thought than actual complaint as the design effectively drops viewers into the world of New York's upper crust during the 30's and 40's, where McMoon and Jenkins, as played by David Shipley and Jude Knight, take audiences on a strange tour fraught with delusion, meanness and uncommon generosity. 

As local theater fans all know, Knight has a powerful, lovely voice. It takes an especially gifted and giving singer to sing so badly so beautifully, with such precise imprecision and confidence. It also takes a special kind of vulnerability to let yourself be laughed at, as has always been the case with Jenkins who was never anything less than sincere. Souvenir taps our reflexive cruelty as efficiently as a doctor checking reflexes, but never judges us for the reflexive mockery. If anything, it's a warts and all lesson in how to overcome crazy obstacles and love, love, love. It's no romance, but perfect for the weekend after Valentine's Day. And Knight's second time around performance is every bit as great and guileless as it was when she first stepped into Jenkins' tiara and angel wings.

Some of Shipley's mugging and milking of laughter feels forced. But he's grown considerably in this revival and that's especially obvious in Souvenir's more emotionally challenging (if no less hilarious) second act. He's an engaging narrator. We feel his personal transformation. More than that, as his own opinions shift, he  changes our attitudes about Jenkins obnoxious singing as well. 

I've already written a fair amount about Jenkins and Souvenir so I'll link some of that here, for the curious, rather than repeat myself.  I don't have much left to say other than to encourage folks to check out this disproportionately satisfying little paint-by-numbers play that, like the artist it essays, spills color outside all the lines and is never quite as paint-by-numbers as it seems.

This fantasia on the life of an unlikely (pre YouTube) celebrity will make you want to stand up and sing whether it's advisable or not.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

"Perfect Arrangement" Drags History Out of the Closet

Love American Style

Posted By on Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 1:52 PM

"Two Americas" has long been a theme in U.S. politics. It typically refers to our country's unacknowledged caste system of haves and have-nots, but there's more than one way to explore the duality of a nation built around the idea of being simultaneously separate and united. To better illustrate all this, Perfect Arrangement, a daring, mostly-successful stunt of a play that's currently on stage at Circuit Playhouse, introduces audiences to a piece of theater where tragedy and farce wrap around one another like strands of DNA. It's two distinct plays telling the same hilarious and heart breaking story.

Set in 1950 and in the looming shadows of Senator Joseph McCarthy and F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover, Perfect Arrangement tells the story of two almost perfect nuclear families sharing a thoroughly modern duplex with a secret passageway connecting their apartments — straight through the closet. The symbolism's right on, if a little on the nose. The married couples, both connected to the U.S. State Department by way of employment, are gay and living a carefully built illusion where trust is dependent on deceit. From a macro perspective the two America's essayed in this conjoined, highly enjoyable oddity of a play are an nation protected by the "rule of law," contrasted with an American political system obsessed with "law and order."

The phrases "rule of law" and "law and order" are often treated synonymously in American discourse but they're very nearly opposites. "Rule of law" equalizes and assures us that the law is always the law regardless of a person's faith, race, or station in life. "Law and Order," serves the status quo so serving Americans becomes less important than protecting an "American way of life," which has always been understood to mean white, patriarchal, and heteronormative. This is the crossroads where the tragic and farcical elements of Perfect Arrangement merge as the State Department's mission to purge Communists and Communist sympathizers expands to include drunks, drug addicts, sexual deviants and anybody else whose secret lifestyle might open them up to blackmail and manipulation, compromising the department. That's when State's chief Commie inquisitor Bob Martindale (married to Millie Martindale but in a relationship with Millie's girlfriend's husband Jim Baxter) has to come up with the perfect plan for making people like him and his atypical family outcasts and unemployable. This is also where the play's tone shifts from romantic comedy to psychological horror. It's where the cracks in this perfect union become evident and everything breaks apart again. A new paradigm forms and when Kim Sanders shows up in the role of liberated translator and bon viviant Barbara Grant, the play morphs into an old school battle of the sexes like you've never seen before.

It's tempting to suggest that the entire cast (excepting Sanders who's drop-dead fabulous as Grant) is struggling with material that is, at all times, both farce and tragedy. But that's probably not accurate. The ensemble mostly rises to all occasions but their performances aren't always supported by technical elements in a production that's always a little too normal when it needs to be "NORMAL!!!!" Only Lindsay Schmeling's costumes rise to the sad yet ridiculous occasion.

So what if Danny Crowe works his eyebrows a little too hard hard as Martindale and the typically excellent Michael Gravois can't quite find the dangerous gravity needed to ground a nerdy bureaucrat. Both are ultimately effective and the awfulness of Crowe's final isolation more than makes up for any overarching deficiencies along the way. Similarly, as Martindale's smoking jacket-clad lover Jim, Tad Cameron is better in the play's darker, sadder moments.

The men may have all the real power here but this play belongs to its women. Sanders has never been better and as secret lovers Millie and Norma Claire Clauson and Brooke Papritz effectively intertwine realistic dialogue with copy that could have been lifted from a variety of atomic age TV commercials hawking modern miracles for the homemaker. Although her character's sometimes treated as a comic foil and cultural fetish, Heather Zurowski never makes Kitty Sunderson a joke. Just when you think the bureaucrat's dizzy wife is a little too two-dimensional — a blissfully ignorant proxy for an America that eschews critical thought — Zurowski makes you reconsider.

There's a lot of good theater happening in Memphis right now. A Perfect Arrangement isn't perfect, but it continues the trend.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bad Santa: Tennessee Shakespeare turns Godot into a Holiday Hellscape

Posted By on Thu, Dec 14, 2017 at 10:50 AM

Paul Kiernan and Dave Demke as Estragon and Vladimir in the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of Waiting for Godot at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. - JOEY MILLER.
  • Joey Miller.
  • Paul Kiernan and Dave Demke as Estragon and Vladimir in the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of Waiting for Godot at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
"That’s what we’ve got to do – wait on God and let this process play out. … Let’s go home and sleep on it.” Roy Moore, Good Christian, apparent pedophile, awkward cowboy, sore loser.
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?” — Vladimir, Waiting for Godot.
I awoke yesterday morning to the news of Roy Moore's narrow defeat in the Alabama Senate race and of the disgraced politician's threat of voter recount. "That's what we've got to do," Moore said, turning to the never-present Authority-on-high. "Wait on God and let this process play out. … Let’s go home and sleep on it.” Of course, for Moore, the process had already played itself out, but like Samuel Beckett's authoritarian character Pozzo, he was unable to see it. Stumbling across such familiar-sounding words so early in the morning reminded me that I had a Waiting for Godot review to write. So I suppose it's time to begin.


There was a terrific audience out this past Saturday night at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. They'd come out to see a Beckett play.


I didn't know what city I was in. Or whose life I was living. Because this is something that never happens in Memphis. I do know this though: Tennessee Shakespeare is doing something very right — even if that something isn't Waiting for Godot.


I love this material. And appreciate a thoughtful holiday present like Godot during the bleakest  time of year for theater-lovers, when every other playhouse in town is engaged in the age-old ritual of re-gifting. But the ensemble brought together for this well-meaning production never quite gels. Concept intrudes. Comic opportunities are missed and meaning gets steamrolled on the regular. And, to come right out and say it, turning Beckett's boggy wasteland into Narnia is a strange choice. It may appeal to others, but it's never going to sit right with me. Now, having made my complaints this must also be said: If you can  fill the house on a Saturday night for any Beckett play, I’m going to stand up at the end of the show and clap my fool hands off. But maybe instead of "Bravo" I'll borrow a line from one of the playwright's lesser-known works, Worstward Ho: "Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

That's not mean spirited, it's love in action.


I could have forgiven jingle bells on Lucky even though he's a man not a reindeer. I could have gotten over Christmas lights on the tree and other questionable design choices. I might have even overlooked a tacked-on, post-blackout  tableaux at the end of the play — a deal-breaking heresy for purists who wouldn't be wrong identifying this last brief gasp before curtain call as a short wholly invented third act. Some will regard it as an affront, but I could have  let every bit of it go if only this Godot had more real life in its bones — If it leaned less on sentimental signifiers, and wrestled with the absurd comedy's fragile, flatulent humanity. I gave up hope near the end of act one when Vladimir (Didi) affirms his existence, turning to the nameless boy who visits the hobos on behalf of Mr. Godot who won't be showing up (again).

"Tell him," Didi says, hesitating. "Tell him you saw us... You did see us, didn't you?"

There are a million ways to play that scene, but all of them  are desperate, needy and crushing to observe. Otherwise the whole play's pretty pointless.  It wasn't at all, and was.
Paul Kiernan as Estragon, Phil Darius Wallace as Pozzo, and Dave Demke as Vladimir in the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of Waiting for Godot at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. - JOEY MILLER.
  • Joey Miller.
  • Paul Kiernan as Estragon, Phil Darius Wallace as Pozzo, and Dave Demke as Vladimir in the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of Waiting for Godot at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Godot is an austere clown show, generous in its foolery. It's the story of two bums waiting for an expected benefactor who never shows up. Over the course of two hours the baggy-pants duo ponders philosophy, discuss one another's body odor, consider suicide, dodge beatings, have adventures, observe inhumanities, and lean on one another when it's all too much. And they wait. Penned in the wake of WWII, at the dawn of a frightening atomic age, Godot is the 20th-century "bounded in a nutshell," as Shakespeare might say — a slapstick hymn to eternity in all its terrifying glory. TSC's production finds a lot of little laughs but misses the big ones. In the end (literally) this production has to expressly tell us there's howling terror and deep uncertainty about that final blackout because it's failed to show us along the way.

There are moments when Godot actor Paul Kiernan could pass for a Lou Costello clone on stage, and I mean that in the best possible way. Costello was a walking appetite — the kind of over-feeling, over-responding Harlequin-style clown that makes for a deeply satisfying Estragon (Gogo). Gogo is certainly the play's stomach, if not its heart and Kiernan connects with his appetites and audiences and his generosity elevates the performances of those around him. Moment to moment he's more emotionally invested than anybody else on stage and that pays dividends in laughter and clarity. The entire production winds up riding on his dusty coattails and when everything else breaks down he carries it like Jesus in the Footprints poem.


Michael Khanlarian also makes informed, interesting choices as Pozzo's bound man Lucky but everything about his performance seems to have been air-dropped in from another, stylistically different production. Lucky is a slave to authority, always ready to serve, dance, recite, or think on his master's command. He's mistreated and kept on the brink of exhaustion, unable to act of his own accord unless it's to kick or bite anybody who gets too close.

When he's not serving Pozzo, Khanlarian's heavy breathing becomes soundtrack, punctuating action. It calls to mind Beckett's 35-second play Breath, which features no actors on stage, only garbage and which also has a composed text made up of nothing but birth cries and breathing. It's the existence of short, wordless plays like Breath that makes this Godot's final, post blackout tableaux so problematic. Beckett approached his work like a composer. He put codas where he wanted them. Fin means fin. And Godot's first and second act endings aren't symmetrical by accident.

Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

Actors Dave Demke (Vladimir/Didi) and Phil Darius Wallace (Pozzo) have given birth to vaguer creations, emotionally detached and not very successful.


I should apologize. I should never have begun this post with such a specific reference to contemporary politics. That was wrong of me, though it's true I may have had an ulterior motive. Even though the the quote is relevant  and title Waiting for Godot is nearly quoted in Moore's Vladimir-like commentary, this kind of reference to current events will certainly polarize readers and color all the rest — a bit like this Godot's vague and not so vague allusions to the Christmas holiday. Granted, the play is supposed to make audiences ask a lot of questions but, "Is Pozzo really Santa?"  isn't one of them.

I'm sorry. Let me walk that back a little.

Hats off to TSC's founding director Dan McCleary and all directors willing to take big, bold risks with precious material. To give McCleary's Godot its due, it might have achieved a more favorable result had the creative team taken a different route to the North pole and costumed Didi and Gogo in dirty Santa suits. That's more of a translation than an imposition or an explanation. Audiences would instantly and effortlessly recognize a modern trope of transience, instability etc.  I'm sure there are other ways to give the show a seasonal spin without raising additional, never-intended questions like "Where did they plug in the tree?"


I don't recommend any of that, mind you. But I appreciate the experimental urge. And also the urge to identify this production as a gift and welcome alternative for both Christmas lovers and those among us who've lost all interest in holiday spirits and "God bless us, every one."

This is an exciting time for Tennessee Shakespeare whose days of performing regularly at the Dixon may be numbered. With the purchase of Ballet Memphis' former east Memphis headquarters  the 10-year-old theater company has become the only professional, classically-oriented troupe in Tennessee with this kind of permanent facility at its disposal.  As everybody settles into the new space, I suspect a unique set of traditions will emerge.

Something meaty and special at the holidays would be welcome. Even better if it's difficult and risky. 

For those who've never experienced Godot this clip of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on Broadway is a good starting place.

On the odd chance my meaning's been missed, let me be clear: I did not love this show. Lighting was flat, scenic design was lacking, and the concept was intrusive. And, even though it  lasts for a few seconds only, I regard this Godot's last, tacked-on scene as one of the most questionable alterations of a text since Circuit Playhouse's creative team rewrote passages of Equus in 1998. But for some, even an off Godot may be preferable to the usual set of holiday retreads. Even as I type one of the most unfavorable reviews I've written in ages, I find myself wanting to see it again.

For reference, most of the row seated in front of me left at intermission, grumbling about their dissatisfaction on the way out. Others leapt to their feet end of show to applaud. So clearly, milage may vary. Widely.


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