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Love & Death

Rhodes and University of Memphis offer tales of sex and murder.

by Chris Davis

nybody remember Jerzy Grotowski, the inspired Polish stage director and theorist who spent a hunk of his life trying to find out the minimum requirements for theatre? After years of research, he determined that the simplest recipe called for one performer and one observer -- two boards and a passion, as the old saw cuts. The "poor" theatre, which Grotowski pioneered, was to stand in sharp contrast to the popular entertainments of the day, which were, as he put it, "rich in flaws." Never have Grotowski's ideas been more necessary than they are today. As technocentric Broadway becomes more and more like a visit to the MGM theme park, it is important to remind our performing artists that elaborate sets and detailed costumes ultimately reinforce the artificiality of the stage. The theatre's greatest asset and its only hope to ever again rise as a vital and unique form is the living presence of the actor.

Blood Brothers, at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre, and the University of Memphis' Les Liaisons Dangereuses serve as an excellent model for comparison between the purely theatrical act and the lavish spectacle that is rich in flaws. Though Blood Brothers, under the direction of Greg Krosnes, is a far cry from the acrobatic rituals Grotowski would (quite literally) bring to the table, it is rock-solid proof that exciting storytelling and commitment to performance have far more impact than clever costumes and the fanciest of lighting tricks.

There is Power in the Blood

Blood Brothers, an unlikely musical, tells the tale of Liverpudlian twins, separated at birth due to their poor mother's inability to provide for her expanding family. Unaware of their true relationship, the brothers grow up the best of friends, until issues of lucre and ladies lead them to a violent end.

Sean Lyttle is vaguely menacing as the show's infernal narrator spinning Joycean reels and dark nursery rhymes. He is committed and his voice is clear, but his connection to the action is sketchy at best. He slinks on stage, sings a bit, and slinks back off when his bit is done. No lasting relationship is established between the narrator and the ensemble, rendering Lyttle almost entirely utilitarian and his role less compelling than it should have been. Shelly Stenshol is feisty beyond her years as the poor but scrappy mother, Mrs. Johnstone. As the ill-fated twins, Wesley Meador and Monty Montgomery are fascinating to watch as they age and change before our eyes. As is often the case with student casts, not every performance is stellar, and on opening night there were some pacing problems, but overall the mythic tale is told with clarity and enthusiasm.

Blood Brothers at Rhodes' McCoy Theatre through April 25th.

Talk Talk Talk

The only thing noteworthy about the current U of M production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is its ability to elicit yawns. The ghostly, gauzy set strewn with fine furniture and fainting couches was certainly impressive, as were the ornate gowns and brocade jackets, but that is where all praise ends. The show was a textbook case of the costume wearing the actor.

Shakespeare provided the ultimate acting lesson when he advised, "Suit the action to the word, and the word to the action." It is a lesson Les Liaisons director and department chair Bob Hetherington must have slept through. There is no action on stage, only tedious talk. The sexual combatants take no joy in their wickedness, and the game's stakes are never raised. The actors all drone through their lines like robots on Prozac, and the event never becomes more than a shapeless costume parade.

Hetherington seemed more interested in superfluous lighting effects than in motivating his actors to do anything. I might expect this kind of amateurism from a student director, but not from the department chair. It takes a hell of a lot of oversight to make actors as fearless as Ashley Bugg and P.A.T. Fitzgerald disappear entirely.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses at U of M through April 24th.

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