Review

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

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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?”
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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
  • 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

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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.
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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

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"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.

Pause.

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

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

Pause.

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.

VLADIMIR:
Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON:
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.

Pause.

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?"

Pause.

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.

Pause.  

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm not theorizing here having experienced this before. Last week a decidedly unimpressed couple behind me spoke their theories about act one aloud creating a gravely comic, almost Beckett-like play within the play within the play. Don't misunderstand, as a critic I probably love Statler & Waldorf more than the average fan, but this intrusion was unwelcome — and unfair to a couple who, through only some fault of their own, were clearly watching a completely different play. 

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Fallen Woman: Opera Memphis' La Traviata is Simply Splendid

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Redemption Round: Reviewing Hattiloo's Fetch Clay Make Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, September 25, 2017

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

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

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


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

That's so Torvald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started this review with one pop culture reference, I'll close with another digression that may not be relevant — I think it is. In the history of paperback romance novels there may be no single greater cover trope than the image of women running away from perfect storybook houses in varying degrees of decay. You know, like this. 
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And this.
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And this and so many more...
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What does it mean? I can't say for sure, but the imposing homes make good metaphors for stability, comfort, traditions, and — in the American idiom in particular — dreams. Like Torvald's bloodless repetition of romantic fantasies plucked straight from the pages of a penny dreadful, I think it's all got something to do with the opening line of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice — "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

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

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

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

Vladimir: Yes, yes, we're magicians.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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