Friday, August 18, 2017

2017 Ostranders — Picks, Pans and WHO GOT ROBBED!?!?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 18, 2017 at 10:20 AM

Lord of the Flies
  • Lord of the Flies
The Ostrander Awards are just around the corner and I've got some questions.

Where is Killer Joe?

[Looks sternly, menacingly around the room]

I'm not playing judges? Where the eff is Killer Joe?

Nothing? You've got nothing? No nominations? Not a crumb? Not a courtesy nod for this upsetting season highlight?
I've read the nominations over and over, hoping I'd overlooked something. But no. It's just not there. I've heard tell it wasn't even recommended for judging, and if that's so, somebody's got some explaining to do. Because in this particular moment, as we consider just how very screwed up our world has become, that show was fire.
True fact.
Maybe it wasn't pleasant. And maybe it wasn't perfect. And I'm not sure I ever want to see that ugly thing again. But New Moon's Killer Joe was sometimes thrilling, and outstanding in most regards. The set —  a hyperrealistic mobile home interior — was as convincing as Katie Bell Kenny's Sun Studio simulacrum for Million Dollar Quartet. It was more believably lived in than the (gorgeous) Georgetown doll house Jack Yates dreamed up for The City of Conversation too. The  glowing blue bug-zapper on the trailer's porch was a special touch— a perfect detail triggering good off-kilter memories from the last time New Moon produced a Tracy Letts script. Killer Joe's cast made me feel icky, I admit. It was a refreshing change from feeling nothing at all.

I'll be ranting more about this and a few other glaring omissions later but, as good as many of this year's Ostrander nominees may have been, I struggle with the idea that Letts' disturbing black comedy wasn't even a contender. Judges can hide behind reasonable differences of opinion and taste but I'm not having it with Killer Joe. It was a powerhouse indie and a strong example of what what can bubble up when a motivated community outgrows its institutions.
Killer Joe: Love & Death in the trailer park.
  • Killer Joe: Love & Death in the trailer park.
Oh well, here's this year's cranky list of Ostrander picks, pans and yes, of course, "Who Got Robbed?".

Set Design
Is it just me or does it seem like the judges really have a thing for literal environments and lots and lots of money?
Katie Bell-Kenny's lovingly detailed brick by brick Sun Studio was the spitting image of a place we all know just a few blocks down the road. Ryan Howell solved a lot of big problems for Priscilla Queen of the Desert and his beautiful bus sang in perfect harmony with Kathleen R. Kovariks costumes. Jack Yates  gets three nods for Beauty and the Beast (epic Disney at a nearly human scale), The City of Conversation (whole lot of set for not much drama) and for the doctor's office drama Rasheeda Speaking, for which he crafted an artificial environment so realistic I watched an audience member walk onstage before the show and attempt to use the fake public restroom. These are all fantastic nominees and I think (hope) Yates takes the prize for Rasheeda — or even for Beauty and the Beast were he darkened the corners in ways that might make old Cocteau smile.  But it's strange to me that Yates has three nominations while some really interesting work was ignored. As perfectly theatrical gestures go, things don't get much better than the enormous but not very flashy stairway built for Charles III. With its plain raked stage and floating french doors JImmie Humphries design for The House That Will Not Stand was a lean ghostly vision of Old New Orleans that looked great under light and Killer Joe was a convincing germaphobe's nightmare. Flat mugged, all three of these guys.

Jeremy Allen Fisher  and Theatre Memphis pick up three lighting nominations for a trio of lushly lit musicals: Beauty and the Beast, Side Show and South Pacific. I didn't see The Bridges of Madison County, at The Circuit Playhouse but I'm a John Horan fan and Priscilla Queen of the Desert didn't disappoint. I get the sense that our judges have a "more is better" aesthetic, so they probably picked Beauty and the Beast but South Pacific and Side Show were more enchanting. Who got robbed? Killer Joe's bug-zapper was an awfully special practical but no show made better use of illumination this season than Playhouse on the Square's production of Lord of the Flies. I was especially struck by the closing scene when the rescue occurred and bright lamps flooded the stage. Until that moment I didn't realize just how literally dark things had gotten. Robbed!

Also, I don't know who to call out for Rasheeda Speaking. Jeremy Fisher's listed as the lighting designer but the practical lighting built into Jack Yates' set made the illusion complete. Did I mention that an audience member tried to use the onstage bathroom? Good stuff.
Sometimes the set's the star.
  • Sometimes the set's the star.
Costume Design
Disney's Beauty and the Beast is a a show about spectacle and Amie Eoff should probably win for that (with Anne Suchyta, Dawn Bennett and Rafael Castanera) though she may have done better work for Side Show, where she wasn't beholden to any animated expectations. I missed Sisters of Swing but have seen enough to know why this vintage snapshot of the Andrews Sisters career was included. Odds on Favorite: André Bruce Ward for Sense & Sensibility. Andre's period work is always on point and this lifetime achievement honoree is retiring from Theatre Memphis this year, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work (and 15-tons of sequins). and I'm betting the judges set him up with one for the road.

Sound Design
Screw this category.
TV and radio broadcasts intrude throughout Killer Joe creating a secret sixth character in the drama. Without Killer Joe in the mix Sound Design is a 100% illegitimate category. Okay, okay, un-screw this category. Chris Cotton's design for Haint was lonesome, haunting and deserving and so was Carter McHann's post-WWII soundscape for Victory Blues. I'm calling this for Cotton, but it's a tossup.

Supporting Actress in a Drama
I didn't catch Mary Buchignani  in Sense & Sensibility, and that's on me because she's reliably fantastic. That makes this category a tough one to call. The similarly consistent Jessica “Jai” Johnson started a terrific year with Disgraced and Eugart Yearian lifetime achievement honoree Jo Lynne Palmer brought the spirit of a a stock Southern character to life in Hain't.  I particularly enjoyed Kristen Vandervort 's shellshocked take on Laura in The Glass Menagerie, and Leah Beth Wingfield's irreverent turn in Hand to God. If I'm forced to choose from this truly fine field I'll take Vandervort for shining new light through old windows. But Mersadies Burch's performance as the Laura Wingfield of Killer Joe was more interesting than any of these. Annie Freres' performance in Killer Joe was braver than all of these. And then there's Maya Robinson's breakout performance in The House That Will Not Stand. In my realtime review I wrote, "I predict an Ostrander nomination [for Robinson] and have a hard time imaging who might even rise up to challenge this winning performance." I still have a hard time imagining it, so here's to you Ms. Robinson. You were 110% ganked.
House That Will Not Stand
  • House That Will Not Stand
You know who else got 110% ganked?  There were three superb things about Theatre Memphis' profoundly meh production of the political drama City of Conversation. One of them was Jack Yates' eye-dazzling recreation of a swanky Georgetown home.  One of them was Michael Walker's pitch-perfect performance as a Southern politician. The third was Shannon Walton's savagely imagined, Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who'd sit still long enough. A thrilling performance in a play mythologizing bullshit. And speaking of plays mythologizing bullshit, Christina Welford Scott owned the stage as Camilla Duchess of Cornwall in Charles III — ganked.

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Another botched category absent a nomination for Daniel Pound as the no-account daddy and beer-swigging couch-wart in Killer Joe. Among the actual nominees Gabe Beutel-Gunn was solid in Disgraced but maybe better in The 39 Steps and Emmanuel McKinney turned in one of his strongest performances since Hurt Village as the aging boxer Joe Louis in Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. I'm calling this one for McKinney but Pound needs to file a police report sometime in the nest 24-hours. Robbed!

Leading Actress in a Drama
Why is Karen Mason Riss nominated for The City of Conversation? I'm not asking because she's not one of our best, she is! I even thought she was fantastic in last season's forgettable Mothers & Sons. But this show was a misfire. Her co-star Shannon Walton might just as easily be considered a lead, and her's was the more interesting performance in a show so crisply written you almost don't notice how  muddled the vision is. It wouldn't be terrible if Anne Marie Caskey and Jessica “Jai” Johnson shared this year's award for Rasheeda Speaking. But my pick: Michele Somers Cullen. She swore she'd never act again and then along came Haint to make her a liar. She was remarkable as the misunderstood old root worker in this enjoyable Southern noir, but swears once again she's done.  Maybe a play prize will change her mind.

Who got robbed? I've seen The Glass Menagerie many, many times. I've seen as many fine Amandas. But I've never seen one half as interesting or alive as Christina Welford Scott — Robbed! And while we're on the subject of Tennessee Williams poor Natalie Jones was a promising Maggie in Theatre Memphis' misfire production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I can't say she was robbed exactly, but aggressively panhandled at the very least.
Glass Menagerie: Blow out your candles, Laura.
  • Glass Menagerie: Blow out your candles, Laura.

Leading Actor in a Drama
There was a scene in Hand to God where Jordan Nichols and Leah Beth Wingfield act their asses off while the puppets on their hands engage in frenzied, pagan sex. It's a high-wire moment scoring a solid 9 on the actor difficulty meter. Everybody else was fine, but if this season had one perfectly perfect moment that was it. Wingfield was amazing too.

Now for the bad news. Every time I think I've seen The Glass Menagerie enough and never need to see it again, I see a production that changes my mind. Shining in quiet, unexpected ways Kevar Lane Maffit is one of the best Toms I've ever seen. He was 100% Robbed!

Supporting Actress in a Musical

Annie Freres' voice is a force of nature and she blew down the house in both Mama Mia and Rock of Ages. Her only real competition here may be Jude Knight, who did Mrs. Potts proud in Beauty and the Beast.

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Philip Andrew Himebook was a perfectly heroic heel in Beauty and the Beast and Nathan McHenry sure could bang his piano in Million Dollar Quartet but I don't think there was any supporting performance more satisfying this season than Stephen Garrett's LA metalhead turn in Rock of Ages. A win in this category will more than make up for the fact he wasn't nominated for playing Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet.
Also Mark Pergolizzi I hope you had insurance. You were the heart of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and you got ROBBED! Also robbed — Did the judges even see Quinton Rayford in Violet?
Sense & Sensibility & Vampires but without the Vampires.
  • Sense & Sensibility & Vampires but without the Vampires.
Leading Actress in A Musical
I'm not considering anybody not in Side Show and not named Dani Chaum and Gia Welch. They had to play two distinctly different characters functioning as a single body. It was another high difficulty performance and they stuck the landing. A young team with talent to spare, and that's all I have to say about that. Any other choice is just wrong. Except for one choice that's not really a choice at all. There were a lot of good musical performances this season but only one was perfect — Nichol Pritchard as the titular Violet in GCT's uneven, but no-less rewarding production.

Violet had issues and I can see why might not have received many nominations. But, as the musical teaches us, we're so much more than our scars and blemishes. Prichard's performance was brassy and beautiful and all she got for it was ROBBED!
Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?

Leading Actor in a Musical
The choices are Gary Beard in Liberace!, which I didn't see, Kent M. Fleshman in South Pacific, David Foster in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Daniel Gonzalez in Sisters of Swing, which I also didn't see, and Bruce Huffman in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. As good as Fleshman and Foster were Huffman's the only nominee to really show me something new and unexpected. I don't know how you ground that much fabulous camp, but there was something uncommonly down to Earth about Huffman's over-the-top flights of fantasy. It was a winning performance among winning performances.

Who got robbed? I know Sam Phillips doesn't have any songs in Million Dollar Quartet, but y'all do know it's his show, right? Go check your insurance policies Stephen Garrett, you've been ROBBED!
Sam Phillips tribute artist.
  • Sam Phillips tribute artist.
Large Ensemble
Am I the only person who thinks it's funny to see Million Dollar Quartet in the large ensemble category? It's a show about a quartet. That's four people plus Sam Phillips which makes five. Then Elvis brings a date, making it six. Thing is M$4 also brings the backing band on stage adding a costumed bass player and drummer who basically just sit/stand there till it's time to play.That technicality brings M$4 into the large ensemble category where it still doesn't belong. Who's winning this one? I don't know. If One-Ham-Manlet the one-man Hamlet didn't get nominated, can't care. That Ryan Kathman contains multitudes.

Small Ensemble

Blackbird wasn't eligible and Killer Joe wasn't nominated so whoever wins this category will have to live with the full knowledge that they were second or third best at least. Having said, I wouldn't cry a bit if Mr. Ricky — a show with one more principle cast member than M$4 — took this one. It was a great example of Hattiloo choosing fantastic material nobody else is even looking at and elegantly performed.

Cameo/Featured Role
Better be Ron GordonHamlet, New Moon Theatre Company. Flights of angels and all that...

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
I sound like a broken record but without James Kevin Cochran who directed Killer Joe and Tony Horne who brought together a real "wow" of a show with The House That Will Not Stand I'm not sure what we're rewarding here. Where's John Maness' nomination for GCT's tight, fuss-free Glass Menagerie? (Robbed!)

I missed only one among the chosen: Sense & Sensibility— that John Rone always does a fine job with Jane Austen. Irene Crist's a pro too but if Disgraced was more polished than her fun but spotty Hand to God.  Dennis Whitehead Darling's sure and invisible hand allowed Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting to speak for itself, and boy did it have a lot to say. Tony Isbell unleashed a storm of silliness and sight gags in The 39 Steps, a show I don't always enjoy. None of the nominated shows excited me like the ones that were overlooked.

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Please let Scott Ferguson win for Rock of Ages. God how I hate (old-school hate, I'm a total H8R) some of the music in that ridiculous, gaudy, shitshow and Ferguson made it so much fun I got mad at myself and punched myself in the face for liking it. Michael Detroit did a fine job with Million Dollar Quartet and I suspect an equally competent job with Sisters of Swing. Dave Landis is also double-nominated for The Bridges of Madison County and a popular staging of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. For over-the-top vision and execution it's hard to beat Ferguson at his worst. Landis got close sometimes with Priscilla, but this was Ferguson at his best.

Best Dramatic Production
The 39 Steps was a screwball romp. The City of Conversation was a boring af. Disgraced was a firecracker. Hand to God was a messy, cathartic shart-fart of a comedy. I'm calling this one for Rasheeda Speaking. From its hyperrealistic, perfectly lit set, to similarly realistic performances Rasheeda was certainly the most relevant thing nominated.

Best Musical Production
Million Dollar Quartet has a hometown advantage and POTS did a fine job with the show. But it wasn't as humane as Priscilla Queen of the Desert or as hilarious as Rock of Ages. Sisters of Swing and
South Pacific both seem to be popular this season but I'm picking Rock of Ages. Because it's no easy easy job turning shit to solid gold. 

And that's the end of this year's highly-anticipated peeing-in-the-punchbowl party.

See y'all at the Ossies!
Mr. Huffman
  • Mr. Huffman
Event Details Ostrander Awards
@ The Orpheum
203 S. Main
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Sun., Aug. 27, 6 p.m.
Other Art Happenings

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The 2017-18 theatre season launches this week with "Ruined," and "9 to 5"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 15, 2017 at 8:58 AM

It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it. - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

As a lifelong Dolly Parton fan and country music cosplayer who spent one of the best afternoons of his life shooting the breeze with Lily Tomlin, and most of his teen years watching Jane Fonda's Barbarella over and over again on the VCR, I'm trying to get excited about Playhouse on the Square's season opener, 9 to 5. But I've got to confess, I could use a up of ambition. Help?

I never warmed  to the Broadway tour, which seemed, sometimes, to miss the point of a story that comes with a special history and and maybe some obligations.

9 to 5
 isn't just a screwball pink-collar relic of the pre-Reagan-era. It's a transgressive anti-chauvinist romp with politics, to borrow  from The New Republic:
 "rooted in the moment when Second Wave feminism prompted the entrance of millions of middle-class white women into the paid workforce and the exit of many of those same women from the marriages they had entered in the Baby Booming 1950s and ’60s." 
Like most labor expressions born in the 70's it never found the right intersection of race, gender, and class, but it found other things that make this 1980 film — a film Roger Ebert described as good-hearted but "simple-minded"— look like the secret roadmap to a largely unclaimed future. The shenanigans get underway following a good old fashioned pot party/fantasy sequence that presages an actual office coups that makes Johnny Paycheck's "Shove It" look weak. Three overworked (and over-groped) secretaries kidnap the boss and take over the office. Then they listen to worker needs, and introduce radical ideas like in-office daycare, flex time and a bunch of wacky stuff that still probably sounds like paradise to the average cubicle-dweller in your average right to work state, and an unobtainable blue collar fantasy. Or, maybe "OMG SOCIALISM!!!" if you're insane.

Not to be all Danny Downer while discussing a zany musical farce, but a lot of the stuff we all learned in school about women's progress in the 20th-Century is bunk. Good stuff happened and things are marginally better but bodies are still battlefields, there's a groper in the Oval office, and when you boil down the data historic shifts toward economic parity tend to reflect a general decline in male earnings not great strides for womankind. Every time a glass ceiling shattered two iron window-shades slammed shut and for all its silly laughs, 9 to 5 is an expression of pure Hulk-smash rage. It's a sharp comic book vision, firmly set in reality, and built around a set of interviews actress Jane Fonda conducted with members of a Cleveland-based group called Working Women. According to WW organizer Karen Nussbaum, every aspect of author Patricia Resnick's story, from 9 to 5's pet-along-to-get along office environment to its characters' dreams of taking revenge against the boss, were drawn from Fonda's original interviews. Everything except for the part where the boss/villain played by Dabney  Coleman gets kidnapped and and trussed up like an S&M clown show. That part is pure fictional revenge porn.

Crafted in the right spirit, a good musical adaptation could  translate into something even more righteous and radical than the source material. But does it?Will it? Did it ever have a chance? Fonda's sincere desire to give Working Women a voice everybody could hear is unlike the motivations driving Broadway producers who've perfected the art of transforming nostalgia into piles of cash.

The struggle is real, you can hear it in the original cast recording.

Parton's original songs ground things, but arrangements are way more broad than Butterfly. On the plus side, Playhouse on the Square often makes the most out of okay film adaptations — Priscilla, anyone?  And to end on a high note, 9 to 5 unites a trio of heavy hitting, slapstick-capable musical theater artists. Jeanna Juleson, Nicole Hale, and Jenny Madden take on the roles made famous by Tomlin, Parton, and Fonda. Mike Detroit stands in for Coleman. Gary John La Rosa who delivered a memorable Les Miz, and a forgettable American Idiot directs. Well, that was sort of a high note.


MAMA COURAGE: With Ruined Lynn Nottage explores the curse of plenty, and weaponization of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Opening at the Hattiloo this weekend.

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, that's where it begins"
— Bertolt Brecht, "Second Threepenny Finale"

“If things are bad, then Mama eats first.” — Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's Ruined .  

Americans tend to think of foreign conflicts as things happening across some ocean or another — Somebody else's problem. But our global village often means the violence is closer than you think. When you watch a production Lynn Nottage's raw, ragged, prize-winning script Ruined, you've got to know that the global infatuation with electronics helped fund Civil War in the Congo. Cell phones funded it. Video games funded it. I helped make it happen. You too, probably. That's not what the show is about, but the brutality has context.

Ruined is is set in and around Mama Nadi’s bar, bodega, and brothel in a mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nadi's character was inspired by Brecht's Mother Courage who finds opportunity in conflict. Nadi sells a mix of vices and necessities to soldiers, but she buys too. Nadi has rage and uses some of her income to rescue women from sexual torture that scars them physically and turns them into socially ruined outcasts.

She rescues from one horror then puts them and puts them to work servicing the military men.

Disaster feeds on disaster in a vicious cycle, punctuated by hope and horror. Nottage's play is informed by her travels in Africa and exposure to the suffering of women amid the Congolese civil war. And unlike Brecht, who wanted to create emotional distance between characters and audience, she wants us to feel every piece of it.

Maya Robinson plays Mama Nadi with Ostrander nominated Jessica "Jai" Johnson as one of her rescues, Salima.

Love & Bank Robbery: Willie & Esther finishes its run at TheatreWorks

Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Co. stages James Graham Bronson's comedy about middle aged lovers who plan an imaginary bank robbery and figure things out about commitment.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sunday, August 13, at 3:00.

BCTA has finalized its season. Here's what else they have in store.

“FITTIN’ INN” /August 25, 26, 27, 31 TheatreWorks 2085 Monroe Ave. Celebrating our 12th Season!
BCTC presents series hosts the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis production of the comedy “Fittin’ Inn” by Ruby O’Gray. Set in pre-Katrina NOLA, 3 ladies stumble upon an injured man whose deathbed request they grant. They are soon Memphis bound, but someone’s following them, which leads to-a-gut busting laugh fest. Friday 25 & 7:30pm.

/September 9 & 10/Evergreen/1705 Poplar Ave. 26, 6:00pm & 8:30pm/ Sunday 27, 3:00pm. Thursday 31, 7:30pm/ Tickets are $20/$15 for Seniors (50), Students,&
Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre presents “The Strange Case of Mr. Wolf ” by Ruby O’Gray. A fun show for parents & children, as the town takes the ever-menacing Big Bad Wolf to court for his misdeeds. Tickets: (Early Bird) $10 for ages 14 and up & / $5 for age 3-13. Saturday 9th-5:00pm & 7:30pm/ Sunday 3:00pm At The Door: $12 ages 14 and up /$10 ages 3-13

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

More like this please.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Theatre Memphis Showcases Singers, TheatreWorks Gets Victory Blues

Posted By on Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 2:10 PM

Kinon Keplinger in Victory Blues
  • Kinon Keplinger in Victory Blues
Set in 1947 Victory Blues tells the story of  a combat veteran adjusting to postwar life. It's the latest installment of Playhouse on the Square's NewWorks@TheWorks series.

Three Tenors... and a Baritone is an original cabaret performance featuring four Theatre Memphis mainstay performers, Philip Himebook, Charles McGowan, Joseph Lackie, and Charles “Chuck” Hodges. It's a mix of Broadway and opera inspired by the Three Tenors. But, you know, with a baritone. Compiled by music director Jeff Brewer.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Slideshow Peek at Tennessee Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 8:32 PM

Two sets of identical twins and their parents are separated at birth. 20-years later they wind up in the same city in one of Shakespeare's wildest romps.

Tennessee Shakespeare Company sets it all against the backdrop of 17th-Century Grease.

Have a peek. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

South Pacific Opens at Theatre Memphis: Photo Preview

Posted By on Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 5:06 PM

Musical theatre doesn't get more bedrock than Rodgers & Hammerstein. Take a gander at what Theatre Memphis is doing with one of the duo's most celebrated classics. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

August Wilson's Metaphysical "Gem of the Ocean" Opens at The Hattiloo

Posted By on Fri, Apr 28, 2017 at 12:32 PM

Let's play a numbers game. August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904. Aunt Ester, the wise old history-keeper  referenced throughout Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, resides at 1839 Wylie  Avenue. She is 285 years old. That means Aunt Ester was born in 1619, the year a Dutch slaver bartered African slaves for essential goods in New England, effectively beginning the North American slave trade. 1839 is an important number too because it's the year the Slave ship Amistad was overtaken by slaves who would eventually win their freedom. You don't need to know this to follow Wilson's narratively-challenged play. But for maximum enjoyment it helps to know that Wilson wrote Gem of the Ocean like he thought Dan Brown might some day write The August Code. There are games afoot.

1839 Wylie Street is a "peaceful house," a sanctuary for troubled souls, and a stand-in for the Amistad, where seekers like Citizen and Black Mary can shake off the chains of the past and become masters of their own fate. August Wilson's metaphor-rich problem play is many things including a meditation on the meaning of family in the midst of and ever-expanding diaspora. The people living in Aunt Ester's house aren't family, but they function like one. The only blood relatives on stage are Black Mary and her brother Caesar who wears a badge and has become an enforcer for white interests.

They don't get along for obvious reasons.

Gem of the Ocean is a messy problem of a play — quilt-like assemblage of aria-like like speeches, and flights of imagination. It's a frustrating, but essential mix of the playwright's most striking imagery and spiritual nonsense-speak.  It opens at the Hattloo Theatre this weekend. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Memphis Theater Community Mourns Actor, Volunteer Ron Gordon

Posted By on Mon, Apr 17, 2017 at 4:21 PM

  • Ron.
I don't know what Ron Gordon's actual last words were, but I know exactly what his last words were to me. On March 10, 2017, the delightfully irreverent Memphis actor and serial volunteer typed, "By the way, that was improv" —  then he ghosted away. If our years long, reliably uplifting conversation had to come to an end, that's as appropriate a closing line as I can think of for such a free, and generous spirit.

Monday morning, April 17, Gordon died of complications related to heart surgery. Don't be fooled by factual detail, or any number of past procedures that turned his chest into a map of old scars. Anybody who ever met this gentle giant of a man knows one thing for certain: There was nothing wrong with Ron Gordon's heart. Unless, like Kilroy, the Everyman boxer from Tennessee Williams' experimental play Camino Real, it was just too big to go on beating.

Whether he was acting, working backstage, building sets, or writing checks, it's hard to think of any one person who contributed so much of himself to so many different performing arts organizations.  He worked with our biggest playhouses, and with our scrappiest independent troupes. No role was ever too small. No task was ever too large either.

Gordon was a combat veteran, and loving parent. He's a 4-time Ostrander Award winner and past technical director for Germantown Community Theatre, and Southwest Tennessee Community College.  His own life's struggles made him uncommonly sensitive, and quick to aid anybody in need of a helping hand — or a helping guitar. He regularly donated red Epiphones to charity auctions, reflecting another of his other great loves — live music.  

So what, exactly, was "improv?" I'd made some comment about Gordon's wonderful nonspeaking role as a hirsute gangster in the 1980's-era Judd Nelson film Making the Grade. In one scene Nelson gives Gordon a fist-sized onion, which he immediately polishes and bites into like it was a delicious apple. It's not a very good film, but it was shot in Memphis and, as a high school student who'd soon be attending Rhodes College, I must have watched it a dozen times or more. I was a special fan of Gordon's onion business and would rewind the taped-from-Cinemax video, to watch his scene over and over again — and wince. I suppose that makes Gordon my first favorite Memphis actor.

As this clip shows indisputably, the man could make one hell of an entrance too. His exit however — if I may be allowed one final review — was far too abrupt. He will be sorely missed.

A memorial has been scheduled for Monday, May 15, 6-7 p.m. at Playhouse on the Square. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Glass Menagerie Opens in Germantown

Posted By on Thu, Apr 13, 2017 at 6:48 PM

The opening monologue from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is one of the 20th-Century's most haunted and haunting pieces of writing. While the play's original context slips further and further into the past, its themes remain frustratingly current. To that end Williams' first major success as a playwright, may also be the most timeless thing he ever wrote.

Menagerie wasn't Williams' first play. He'd completed a number of short, and full-length works including The Fugitive Kind, Battle of Angels, and many of the one-act plays eventually collected in American Blues. He'd consistently explored ideas related to authority, and of societal order trumping justice for those who didn't fit in — or weren't allowed to. The "lost" prison drama Not About Nightingales, with its anti-fascist core, multiracial cast, and sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals, suggested a radical in the making. All the while the young writer worked menial jobs that worked his nerves to the edge of collapse. Though not exactly autobiographical, Tom's story in The Glass Menagerie, is also the story of the making, and the breaking of that same young radical. 13-years before Jack Kerouac published On the Road, and 22-years before Timothy Leary made dropping out sound like a groovy idea, Tom, Williams' beat-to-his-socks protagonist, abandons the impossible, even tyrannizing fantasies of a merit-based American Dream, and follows in the footsteps of his absent father, the telephone man who fell in love with long distances.

Speaking of telephones...

So much is made of Laura Wingfield's glass unicorn, from her titular collection of fragile glass critters. But as central images go, the telephone— the play's  prominent  technology— is more pervasive, and more interesting. The phone, which Amanda WIngfield uses to sell magazine subscriptions, with diminishing success, had been around in some form or another for nearly a century when Menagerie first his the stage. But it had only really just become a household staple — a necessary expense for anyone hoping to connect with friends, business associates and modernity itself. The combined necessity and burden had been around just long enough to have had most of the virtue sapped from its potential.

"People said the telephone would: help further democracy; be a tool for grassroots organizers; lead to additional advances in networked communications; allow social decentralization, resulting in a movement out of cities and more flexible work arrangements; change marketing and politics; alter the ways in which wars are fought; cause the postal service to lose business; open up new job opportunities; allow more public feedback; make the world smaller, increasing contact between peoples of all nations and thus fostering world peace; increase crime and aid criminals; be an aid for physicians, police, fire, and emergency workers; be a valuable tool for journalists; bring people closer together, decreasing loneliness and building new communities; inspire a decline in the art of writing; have an impact on language patterns and introduce new words; and someday lead to an advanced form of the transmission of intelligence.

Privacy was also a major concern."

Sounds like a lot of the same stuff people said about the internet, right? Until people started documenting all the loneliness, and mapping polarization. To that end, Tom's larger-than-life mother, Amanda Wingfield, seems less like a fossil leftover from a more genteel age that never really existed, and more like the average single mom, with a disabled daughter answering every piece of Internet SPAM promising extraordinary opportunities to work from home and get paid. The only thing out of date about Amanda is her famously out of date world view.

Jim — the "Gentleman Caller" — rounds out the cast.  Tom describes Jim as the long anticipated something we live for. Does it surprise anybody, in this bleak story, that everybody's last great hope is almost all artifice, just learning to mouth the mantras of success? That he sounds like he's destined to be the victim of some future Ponzi-scheme? That hope itself is kind of a jerk?

Yeah, other plays come and go, but The Glass Menagerie hangs in there.

Germantown Community Theater had critical, and presumably commercial success with last season's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Menagerie is evidently an attempt to see if the struggling 45-year-old company can re-can the lightning.

Even if you can't make the show, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with the script. At least the opening — and perhaps the hard, lovely, closing passages where Williams skips right past "to be or not to be," and straight on to "blow out your candles." And so, goodbye.


Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.

In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion.

In Spain there was Guernica. Here there were disturbances of labour, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis. . . .

This is the social background of the play.

[MUSIC begins to play]

The play is memory.

Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.

In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.

I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.

He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from. But since I have a poet's weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for. There is a fifth character in the play who doesn't appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel.

This is our father who left us a long time ago.He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town. . . .The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words -
'Hello - Good-bye!' and no address.
I think the rest of the play will explain itself ...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hattiloo Announces Season 12: August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Soul Train...

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 1:27 PM

Hattiloo's twelfth season opens with a Pulitzer Prize winner and climaxes with a musical version of A Raisin in the Sun.

Aug. 11-Sept. 3, 2017
by Lynn Nottage

This Pulitzer-winner almost didn't happen. Ms. Nottage was planing to focus her formidable talents on America's misadventure in Iraq, when Civil War in the Congo caused her to pause. There was another war going on there too, a war against women. The weapon of choice being rape. With Ruined — set in a bar where soldiers from all factions gather — Nottage Reincarnates Mother Courage and Her Children, and brings her into the latest bloody century.

Sept. 15-Oct. 15
Fetch Clay, Make Man
by Will Power
Hattiloo has had good success with The Meeting, a show about Martin Luther King and Malcom X; and also with Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting which brings baseball giant Branch Rickey together with Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Bill Robinson, etc. So Fetch Clay, Make Man about Muhammed Ali's friendship with Stepin Fetchit makes perfect sense.

Sept. 29-Oct. 22
Sassy Mamas
by Celeste Bedford Walker
 Older girlfriends in Washington, D.C. decide to date young.

Nov. 24-Dec. 17
Take the Soul Train to Christmas
A musical review compiled with a book by Ekundayo Bandele.
Christmas soul, history, and seasonal message.

Jan. 12-Feb. 11, 2018
Sunset Baby
by Dominique Morisseau
The personal and political collide in East Brooklyn when former the wife of a former black revolutionary dies, and he struggles to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

Feb. 23-Mar. 18
Selma: A Musical Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Tommy Butler
Songs for MLK.

April 20-May 13
by August Wilson
"You just have to shake off that ‘white folks is against me’ attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you’re alive.”

August Wilson's plays don't just show us the black 20th-Century. They show us an America becoming what it is today. This talky, storytelling show is set inside a pre-Uber gypsy cab company. It's Wilson channeling Arthur Miller, making working class drama swing like jazz and ring like prophesy.

June 8-July 1
Book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg, Music by Judd Woldin, Lyrics by Robert Brittan.

Lorraine! Hansberry!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Life in Faith & Madison Counties: Weekend Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 11:24 AM

Carla McDonald and Chris Swann - PLAYHOUSE ON THE SQUARE
  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Carla McDonald and Chris Swann

Bridges of Madison
County at Circuit Playhouse

Dave Landis is a sentimental, foolish old sap... his words, not mine. "I love shows that have heart and tug at your heart-strings," he says, describing his relationship, as a director, to the musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. "This music, this story, these two characters definitely tug at the essence of anybody who has ever wondered, "What if...?

For those who haven't read James Waller's best selling novel, or seen the film it inspired, Bridges — opening at Circuit Playhouse this weekend — is an autumnal love story about a magazine photographer who meets a housewife while he's visiting in Iowa, shooting  the historic covered bridges of Madison County. Her husband's out of town with the kids, and an affair begins.

Landis has been a Memphian for many years now, but hails from Iowa. "I spent over half my life in Iowa and lived about an hour away from Winterset," he says. "I can relate to that yearning and the longing to be somewhere else... to explore life beyond the state boundaries."

Landis' cast showcases the considerable talents of Carla McDonald and visiting favorite, Christopher Swann.

Violet at Germantown Community Theatre

Violet and her fellas in uniform. - GCT
  • GCT
  • Violet and her fellas in uniform.
Violet's the best Tony-nominated musical nobody's ever heard of. Based on Doris Betts' short story The Ugliest Pilgrim and buoyed by a collage of authentic Americana sounds, it tells the story of a hardened young woman who's pinned her hopes and dreams on a miracle. It's a road trip story prominently featuring one hot, transformative night in Memphis. In a short-feeling 90 minutes, Violet takes on big ideas about race, class, beauty, and faith with none of the usual "put it on Jesus" cliches.

Germantown Community Theatre's production boasts some extraordinary voices and some not-so-extraordinary voices, but it's all honesty and heart. Nichol Pritchard's Violet is someone everybody knows. As the young woman scarred for life when the head of her father's axe flew off its handle, her's is a standout performance in a show full of stand out performances. Her's stands out for its simplicity— the ease with which Pritchard wears Violet's troubles, and flinty determination. She's no starry-eyed, believer, this is a woman at the crossroads of exhaustion and obsession, seeing heavenly visions, like a patron saint of homely travelers.

Side Show at Theatre Memphis
Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at  Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
  • Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
Side Show's got it all — great voices, great design, and a great story to tell. It doesn't really capture the hell conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton lived through and only hints at a life where every relationship is abusive, reducing a horrible existence to so much irony and failed romance. But for all of its missed opportunities, this circus musical cuts to the core of everyday insecurity. Who hasn't felt like everybody was staring at them and asked "Who will love me as I am?"

Blackbird at TheatreSouth
Bye, bye, Blackbird.
  • Bye, bye, Blackbird.
I'm glad I've seen Blackbird once. I'm especially glad to have seen a production so thoughtfully staged and exquisitely acted as the one you'll discover should you venture out to TheatreSouth this weekend. Frankly, for good acting, and effective, economical stagecraft, I'm not sure I can recommend it enough. At the same time, I'm not sure why I ever would. Why would anybody recommend anything so relentlessly uncomfortable? Unfolding in real time over 90 excruciating minutes, David Harrower's Blackbird tells the story of Ray, who's surprised at work by Una, the woman he kidnapped and molested 15-years earlier when he was 40 and she was 12. In the intimate black box of TheatreSouth, audiences are transformed into peeping Toms, observing a squalid, trash-strewn company break room while two already torn apart people tear themselves and each other apart again and again and again.

Maybe I can recommend it because it's perfect. Or close to. Because it's certainly not pleasant or fun. And if you don't see it, you'll be sorry you missed it.

Lord of the Flies at Playhouse on the Square
POTS's Lord of the Flies is the definition of an ensemble show where nobody's the star and everybody is. Director Jordan Nichols has brought together an able, age-appropriate cast of (mostly) teens, capable of addressing the story's heart, and its horror. Golding's violent story of tribalism and unraveling democracy is encumbered by a bit of post-colonial "savage v civilization" bias, but this sketched-in story of marooned British schoolboys playing naked dominance politics still rings as true as it ever has. And this crop of super-talented Memphis kids measures up to the challenge.

Also on stage...

Crowns at Hattiloo
The Gospel musical Crowns uses "church hats" as the entry point for an exploration of Black cultural identity. Crowns is told from the point of view of a young woman leaving the personal tragedies of a northern metropolis to rejoin family in the South. This is no Lidsville — these hats tell some extraordinary stories.

The Dragnificent Variety Show 2017 at Evergreen Theatre
The Friends of George's are back with original skits, production numbers, showcasing the talents of Memphis ’ favorite drag stars. Proceeds will benefit Planned Parenthood

Dupont Mississippi at TheatreWorks
Does anybody remember Faith County? It was a Memphis-produced radio soap opera set in a fictional Southern town and broadcast weekly over WLYX radio Rhodes. The popular comedy was written by then Rhodes student Mark Landon Smith, who's also the author of Dupont, Mississippi, opening this week at TheatreWorks. Faith County fans will find the plot synopsis intriguing: "Verna Dewberry, the evil and dictatorial matriarch of the small town of Dupont , Mississippi has died - a joyous occasion for its citizens!"

Friday, March 10, 2017

Freaks, Atrocities, Disfigurement, Abuse, Escape: Your Weekend Theater Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Mar 10, 2017 at 1:14 PM

Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at  Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
  • Dani Chaum (center left) and Gia Welch (center right) as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, play conjoined twins in Side Show at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage March 10 - April 2, 2017. They are surrounded by their chosen family of "freaks" played by (clockwise) Jacquelene Cooper, Amari Keon Nathaniel, Jimmy Hoxie and Jess Brookes.
The Freaks Come Out for Side Show
Few things chill like the chant of the freaks, "One of us, GOOBLE GOBBLE, ONE OF US!"

The big question this raises: ("Gooble gobble") Is Side Show Director Ann Marie Hall, "one of us" in the classic sense? After all the comic marvel  turned director doesn't sing or dance. That's her story, anyway, in spite of  strong evidence she might be underselling. But friends (and gawkers), occasionally ask how it can be that someone who'd rather tackle a meaty role (or stay home and host a horror movie marathon) than participate in most musicals, winds up directing extravaganzas like Into the Woods, and the first rate production of Side Show, opening this weekend at Theatre Memphis.

"There's lots of complex stuff happening in this one," Hall says. "The story's great, the music's gorgeous... it's all accessible, and the music just glides over you.

Side Show (right up Hall's aesthetic alley), tells the semi-true story of the conjoined Hilton twins, Violet and Daisy — Human oddities bound together by a thin ribbon of flesh. While the musical may smooth over the  never-ending horrors of their seemingly successful lives, there are no happy endings here. Just when the twins — sold at birth, and raised as objects to be gawked at or fondled for money— seemed to be getting everything they ever wanted, the curtain comes down. There's some evident cause for celebration, but the audience clearly sees how a show that began inside an exploitive freak show, has also ended with one.

"A lot of it's about accepting our differences:  Embrace your own freak.," Hall says, before quoting Side Show's most affecting song. "Who will love me as I am," she asks. "This is every one of us."

For Side Show Theatre Memphis' designers have, with the simplest gesture, turned the whole theater into a big top tent. Great effects, and superb performances make for a memorable night of theater.

Theatre Memphis has had incredible success with gloomier musicals like Cecelia Wingate's darkly glittering productions of The Addams Family and Young Frankenstein. Side Show is less overstuffed, and can afford to be. The material's so much better, there's no need to rely on spectacle overdose. But, of course, there's some of that too.

For more about Side Show, here's a Soundcloud file with audio clips, and interviews.

Blackbird Dives Headfirst into Taboo 
Bye, bye, Blackbird.
  • Bye, bye, Blackbird.

is an interesting calling card.

"The show is not 'about' pedophilia or sexual abuse,"  says Tony Isbell, who stars as Ray, who had an abusive relationship with Una when she was 12, and he was 40. The play is set 15-years after the abuse. "It's about how these two people deal with their shared past and how they struggle to find a way forward when they finally meet again," Isbell says. "Or at least that’s part of what it’s about. It’s also about the power dynamic between men and women; the nature of love; the slipperiness of truth and memory; and the mystery of human existence. Hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious, but it’s all in there."

Even if it does sound a little bit pretentious, it is all in there. Blackbird is Quark theaters first production.

Crowns pulls a Hat Trick
If I haven't missed anything, Hattiloo's Crowns is Memphis' third major production of the moving gospel musical. Crowns uses "church hats" as the entry point for an exploration of Black cultural identity. Crowns is told from the point of view of a young woman leaving the personal tragedies of a northern metropolis to rejoin family in the South. This is no Lidsville — these hats tell some extraordinary stories.
Take the Pilgrimage. See Violet at GCT
Not only is Violet a personal favorite, it promises to be the most excellent fit for a narrative musical at Germantown Community Theatre since the company staged Spitfire Grill, a few seasons back. I mention the latter, because both shows are steeped in Americana and truck in sonic, and emotional authenticity. But Violet takes more risks, and yields more rewards.

Based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Beasts of the Southern Wild author Doris Betts, Violet tells the story of Violet Karl, a wounded young woman on a pilgrimage to Tulsa, OK to meet with a televangelist and faith healer. Her face was disfigured when she was very young. The head flew off her father's axe while he was chopping wood and... it was awful. It's continued to be awful. This leap of faith is her last shot.

Lord of the Flies Goes Primitive

I'll have a fuller review of Playhouse on the Square's Lord of the Flies online shortly. Simply said, director Jordan Nichols goes minimal, and guides a mostly teenage cast through one of the most harrowing pieces of teen fiction ever written. There are ritualized moments that, while well conceived, threaten to go full Broadway musical. Still, of you're  fan of this bleak, too relevant story of divisiveness and human nature,  you'll want to drop in on this one. And sometimes, you may want to look away.

Comedy, Comedy Everywhere
As if all this wasn't enough to choose from, the Memphis Comedy Festival's happening all over Midtown this weekend. Lots of standup, and lots of improv too. Check it out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Honey in the Bushes: Take the Pilgrimage to Germantown for "Violet"

Posted By on Thu, Mar 9, 2017 at 6:22 PM

Violet's a Tony nominated musical's nobody's ever heard of. That's not true, of course. It's even been done in Memphis before. Once. But somehow this wonderful piece of theater lacks the name recognition it deserves. Whenever I bring it up people ask, "What?" "Who?"

Not only is Violet  a personal favorite, it promises to be the most excellent fit for a narrative musical at Germantown Community Theatre since the company staged Spitfire Grill, a few seasons back. I mention the latter, because both shows are steeped in Americana and truck in sonic, and emotional authenticity. But Violet takes more risks, and yields more rewards.

Based on the  short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Beasts of the Southern Wild author Doris Betts, Violet tells the story of Violet Karl, a wounded young woman on a pilgrimage to Tulsa, OK to meet with a televangelist and faith healer.  Her face was disfigured when she was very young. The head flew off her father's axe while he was chopping wood and...  it was awful. It's continued to be awful. This leap of faith is her last shot.

For Violet, Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change), dove deep into American roots music and delivered an unpretentious Country, R&B, Swing, Blues, and bluegrass-laden score, where Bo Diddly beats meet big Broadway ballads.

To be honest, I have a hard time listening to the soundtrack. Cringeworthy southern accents undermine Tesori's good work, and the mix errs on the side of cheese. Still, you can hear all the things that set Violet apart.

Great story. Sensitive adaptation. Worth knowing.

Quark Theatre Opens with Edgy Drama, Blackbird.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 9, 2017 at 10:19 AM

Ray and Una (Tony Isbell,  Fiona Battersby).
  • Ray and Una (Tony Isbell, Fiona Battersby).
Quark is the new kid in theater town, with a sciencey name inspired by tiny, essential particles that build the building blocks of everything. It was conceived during an independent production of Krapp's Last Tape, and has now been carried to term. Blackbird, the company's inaugural production, is a drama is a minefield of triggers and snares relating to subject matter so delicate and unvarnished, even the creative partners had their doubts. It's a play about a man and a woman who had an abusive sexual relationship 15-years ago when he was 40 and she was 12. And it's never exactly what you think it is.

"We chose Blackbird for our inaugural production for several reasons," says actor/director Tony Isbell, who cofounded Quark with his Krapp partner Adam Remsen, and Remsen's wife, dancer/choreographer Louisa Koeppel. "First, in my opinion, it’s a great piece of writing, It’s edgy, intense and provocative. This is the kind of script that Quark was founded to produce. I don’t mean that other theaters in town don’t produce these kinds of scripts, but I personally just don’t feel there’s enough of it. It is a challenging script, in just about every way you can use the word. It’s an intense emotional journey that lays bare two souls."

Isbell, who most recently directed The 39-Steps at Theatre Memphis, is acting this go-round, taking on the role of Ray.

"The show is not 'about' pedophilia or sexual abuse," Isbell says. "It's about how these two people deal with their shared past and how they struggle to find a way forward when they finally meet again. Or at least that’s part of what it’s about. It’s also about the power dynamic between men and women; the nature of love; the slipperiness of truth and memory; and the mystery of human existence. Hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious, but it’s all in there."

If you're interested in finding out more about this company devoted to, "small, essential" work, here's the origin story.

Times, dates, ticket/production details, here.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Theatre of the Bizarre: Return of the Clown

Posted By on Thu, Mar 2, 2017 at 3:49 PM

In January I wrote a cover package about Mr. Memphis variety himself, Larry Clark. Clark's a clown who performs under the stage name JustLarry. He's also a comic, magician, juggler, daredevil, sideshow geek and all around man of mystery. The story was supposed to coincide with a big show he'd been planning, but sometimes life intrudes. The cover package ran, but the performance — alas — was cancelled.

Better news: If you don't know JustLarry, you can still read his story here.

And you can see Clark in action when he revives his Theatre of the Bizarre show this weekend. The man does not disappoint.


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