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. 

And this.

And this and so many more...
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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Shakespeare, Ibsen, Angry Jurors, and Muhammad Ali: Memphis Theaters offer variety.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 22, 2017 at 5:55 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.
I'm glad CentreStage is dusting off Ibsen's A Doll's House, for a number of reasons. Mainly because I'm a nerd and I think, having ascribed to the usual conversations about this groundbreaking piece of modern drama, I may have missed some things, subtle and unnerving as a Roxy Music joint. Since this is a 150-year-old classic I'll skip plot details, and get right to the meat of an academic concern that may not interest another living soul, but hey — that's what blogs are for! If you need a refresher course, there's plenty to choose from. 

It's probably not so strange, given translation goals, that the publishers continue to use the well-branded title A Doll's House even though that's not quite right. In Norway "Doll House" is a distinct word, and one that playwright Henrik Ibsen specifically rejected in favor of something closer to "A Home for Dolls," which is less catchy, but bends things in this atypical Christmas story in a slightly different direction. The never-used title implies a system of domesticity that imprisons all of us, not just women.

Don't worry, I'm not going #AllLivesMatter here. It's a play about women in a place where there's little opportunity for fulfillment, and I'm not here to bury the playwright's message. Rather to praise his selection of flawed heroes whose choices are steered by rules spoken and un, and not easily understood in terms of good, bad, right or wrong. With A Doll's House we can almost see an inverse to Martin Luther King's idea that none of us are free until all of us are. In the basic "must-be-more-money" rooms inhabited by Nora and Torvald, nobody can be free until somebody is. Her escape will obviously demand a price.

A Doll's House's exploration of marriage and sexual inequality broke so much fresh Earth in 1879, but I've been giving second thoughts to August Strindberg's real-time criticism of the play's iconic end — The sound of a door slamming and a woman, liberated from traditional constraint, striking out without husband or children. Conventional wisdom holds, with that slam, the famously progressive Ibsen reimagined women as, "human beings first, wives and mothers second." This was "swinish," to Strindberg, who was Ibsen's more fanciful, but socially conservative peer. Ibsen's female protagonist, Strindberg argued, wouldn't leave her children behind, which sounds like  typical conservative douchebag thing to say. But his concern wasn't really that a mother left her children behind so much as he didn't believe she would leave them in an environment she found toxic, in the care of a man she can't abide.

Strindberg's complaints are rooted in his own issues but highlight the fact that Nora's abandonment of family may be less the choice of a liberated woman than the projection of a male playwright making a man's choice in a woman's story.

As is the case with other Ibsen plays like Pillars of Society and Enemy of the People, the big antagonists can be systems inclusive of extortionists, leeches etc. more than the extortionists, leeches, etc. themselves. Conflict's made inevitable by controlled economies and all manner of cultural corseting — Houses wherein Ibsen's dolls are expected to play out proscribed sexual and social fantasies. Simply said, a lot happens in Ibsen's home for mannequins, automatons, and dolls called into the world, etc. How much did I miss as the reluctant schoolboy, when classics tasted like medicine?
Queen Ann (Marie Hall) as Lizzy-1 in Shakespeare in Love. - QUEEN CARLA
  • Queen Carla
  • Queen Ann (Marie Hall) as Lizzy-1 in Shakespeare in Love.
Blah, blah, blah. Important information: A Dolls House opens at the Evergreen Theatre Friday, Sept. 22.

In the mood for something more Elizabethan, but not as challenging as Shakespeare, and maybe a little familiar? Shakespeare in Love opens at Playhouse on the Square this week. Not the movie, of course, the stage version. I know, following productions of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and 9 to 5, it's starting to feel like a real Inception/Cloud Atlasy warping of spacetime is going on over on Cooper Street, right? And the cinematic blackouts between scenes in The Flick (recently closed at Circuit Playhouse) are being rolled out ad seriatim across the street at Playhouse on the Square where they've got more movie titles than Indie Memphis. (Totally free to steal that slogan). It's freaking me out, man!

Here's a video preview.

Other onstage offerings this week include Fetch Clay, Make Man, which I preview here, Twelve Angry Jurors which I review here, and Years to the Day, which may be the play to see if you're seeing only one. 
Event Details Fetch Clay, Make Man
@ Hattiloo Theatre
37 S. Cooper
Overton Square
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Sundays, 3 p.m., Saturdays, 2 & 7:30 p.m. and Thursdays, Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Continues through Oct. 15
Event Details 12 Angry Jurors
@ Theatre Memphis
630 Perkins Ext.
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Thursdays, Fridays, 7:30 p.m., Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m. Continues through Oct. 1
Event Details Years to the Day
@ 7 N. Main
7 N. Main
Memphis, TN
When: Through Sept. 29

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Muhammad Ali Meets Stepin Fetchit at The Hattiloo Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Sep 21, 2017 at 2:57 PM

Muhammad Ali, Lincoln Perry AKA Stepin Fetchit
  • Muhammad Ali, Lincoln Perry AKA Stepin Fetchit
“The search for the white hope not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another.” — Jack Johnson

"I'm bold, he was crazy." — Muhammad Ali on Jack Johnson.

"There's power in the art of doing nothing." — Stepin Fetchit

Will Power's play Fetch Clay, Make Man, currently on stage at the Hattiloo Theatre, is set just after the assassination of Malcolm X, and just before Muhammad Ali's rematch with Sonny Liston. It explores the strange alliance and unexpected bond that formed between Ali and the delegitimized comedian Stepin Fetchit, as the 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. Look for a full review of the show in days to come. In the meantime, here's a quick look back at Fetch Clay Make Man's crucial trinity — Ali, Fetchit, and Johnson .

It's difficult imagining Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood's first black millionaire — an embarrassment and "race traitor" in they eyes of following generations — as the bridge between the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and the celebrated boxer and black power icon Muhammad Ali. But as Ali prepared to take on both Sonny Liston and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Fetchit, an inward friend of Johnson's, was enlisted for the purpose of "secret training." Ali was particularly interested in a Johnson move called the anchor punch, a short, twisting jab that took no longer to execute than the burst of a flashbulb, and could only be executed as an opponent moved in with force. Fetchit, who made his money and built a reputation presenting broadly comic images of  lazy, mush-mouthed clowns swore he didn't know how Johnson did it, but signed on to help anyway.

Like Ali, Johnson's mouth was as dangerous as his fists. He was a masterful defensive fighter who strategically nullified his opponents arms in a way that forced them to overwork. Taunting opponents — particularly white opponents — while fighting them made them work that much harder, overextend themselves. He'd go into a clinch, delivering two to the body, one to the top floor, or he'd back up with his right hand batting at his opponent like a cat, left cocked close to the body like a tight spring ready to pop. Outside the ring he was even bolder, and Ali frequently expressed admiration for both the athlete, and the man saying things like, "Jack Johnson was a black man back when white people lynched negroes on weekends. Back in 1909 they'd send him letters saying, 'You're fighting a white man, and ni**er, if you knock him out, we'll kill you. He'd say, 'just kill my black butt cause I'm gonna knock this white man cold."

Similarly, Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry), who was 20-years younger than Johnson, and who shrewdly and deliberately traded Vaudeville for a career in Hollywood less than a decade after Birth of a Nation, has to be understood in a hostile climate and context — and with the full understanding that, at the same time, black artists like Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson,  and Paul Laurence Dunbar chose to make definitive African-American statements over Hollywood salaries.

But was Fetchit's clown as reprehensible as emerging comedian Bill Cosby made it sound in 1968 when he appeared in the Andy Rooney-penned documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed? Cosby, a frequent moral scold whose own reputation has come under fire in recent years, described Fetchit as, "The traditional lazy, stupid, craps-shooting, chicken-stealing idiot." Gentler critics have found a lineage of subversion in otherwise hard-to-defend routines, by placing Fetchit's work in the long tradition of stock servant characters who pretend laziness or incompetence to trick masters into doing the work for them — a kind of comedic rope-a-dope echoing, faintly at least, the sweet science of both Johnson and Ali.

It's difficult to imagine any common ground between the physically and rhetorically powerful Ali and Lincoln Perry's submissive sleep-warrior Fetchit. Then again, our understanding of race and pop-culture continues to evolve and comparisons of Ali to Johnson that were once dismissed as superficial seem evermore apparent in hindsight.

Fetch Clay, Make Man is running at the Hattiloo through Oct. 15
Event Details Fetch Clay, Make Man
@ Hattiloo Theatre
37 S. Cooper
Overton Square
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Sundays, 3 p.m., Saturdays, 2 & 7:30 p.m. and Thursdays, Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Continues through Oct. 15

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Memory of Charles Billings

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 1:39 PM

Charles Billings, speaking the speech...
  • Charles Billings, speaking the speech...
Synchronicity's a bear sometimes. Over the past month I've been cleaning the clutter from closets, drawers, and cabinets at work and home; disposing of all those things I thought I needed to keep but really didn't, and finding special places to store all the trivial nothings that grew into meaningful somethings while I wasn't watching.

One of the things that turned up was a handwritten missive from Waynoka Ave. in the 38111 that began, "Dear One...". Even if his name hadn't been embossed in red at the top of the card I'd have known in those two words, this was was a summons from Charles Billings — actor, vocalist extraordinaire, and the longtime voice of WKNO. He'd enjoyed my 2009 guest appearance on Michael Feldman's show Whaddya Know? and couldn't wait till he saw me in person to tell me. The note ended with an invitation, "Come have a drink with me at The Grove Grill soon," and his phone number, which I realized wasn't in my current contacts list. So I immediately logged it into my phone thinking I'd surprise him with a call sometime soon.

We'd communicated now and then, but there hadn't been a proper bull-session since right after he'd sent that card. I'd heard rumors of health issues and have been trying to be better about staying in touch with old friends — particularly the people who sometimes come into you life that you may not see all the time, but whom you sometimes just want to write or call out of the blue to say, "Dear one...".

Days after unearthing his note from the bottom of my office filing cabinet, I received news that Charles Billings — No, the Great Charles Billings — had passed away. Still processing.

Charles was such an integral part of Memphis' cultural life for so long there's no good way to condense his accomplishments into a paragraph or two, so instead I'll share my earliest — and frankly, my weirdest — memories of one of the most charming, gracious, and talented people I've ever known. Whether he was acting in dramas by Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein musicals, or belting one out for Opera Memphis, Charles made everything look effortless. Nothing impressed the younger, only recently urbanized, me half so much as the way he could sit down to the mic at WKNO, drop his deep, honeyed Southern drawl, and wrap his tongue around the names of all those classical composers. Fresh out of farm country, this very nearly astonished.

Since the bad news broke, people have posted many photos of Charles wearing tuxedos and suits but, honestly, I can't think of him without seeing the man sporting 18th-Century British military drag with a sparkling rhinestone tiara perched atop his thinning, close-cropped hair, wearing a devilish, grinch-like smile bookended by a dangling pair of rhinestone "ear-bobs."  It's an imprinted memory from 1986, when we were both cast in Betty Ruffin's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Restoration comedy, The Rivals. These sparkly items, left over from some past show, were worn for our enjoyment, and to let everybody know it was backstage story-time and Prince Charles would be holding forth. Until his next scene, anyway. This was my very first show in Memphis and my first opportunity to learn from professionals — like the man with the booming baritone voice wearing the tiara whose commitment to excellence combined with wild and wonderful offstage antics to teach a young aspiring actor some valuable lessons about fearlessness and freedom.

Now, because I've never known how to write a proper obituary, let me share an off-color story.

The Rivals is probably most famous because of the character Mrs. Malaprop from whom we get the expression "malapropism" — an accidental insertion of wrong, similar words into common phrases with humorous results. Naturally, during down time between scenes, the cast made its own modern malaprops built around lines in Sheridan's script. Mrs. Malaprop's already bungled Shakespeare, "A station like Harry Mercury,"  became, "A station like Freddy Mercury," while Charles' line to a disobedient son, "Damn me if I ever call you Jack again," was given a decidedly NC-17 twist. I'll leave the actual change to the reader's imagination, but suffice it to say, it was naughty. It was silly. It made good use of the word Jack, and it was all in good fun until the night Charles, in the rarest of rare moments, became tongue tied and very nearly said the adult "backstage-only" variation in front of an audience. Keeping a straight face was difficult for everybody.

"I'm gonna get all y'all," he said, bursting into the green room beet red, and snickering like a school boy who'd just split his pants.

I mention the dirty joke both because it's so inextricably woven into my own origin story as a theater person who fell in love with the live-ness of live theater, and to contrast with the other thing I so strongly associate with Charles Billings — his vocal interpretation of  sacred music. He was the kind of singer literally able to shake rafters while inserting incredible nuance into every phrase. It was a powerful, revealing, and otherworldly voice that made it easy to imagine other, better worlds.  If I had only one sentence to summarize the man - very nearly a myth in local arts circles — I think I'd skip all the usual and well-deserved lines about gentility, elegance, generosity, etc. and go with something a little more hypostatic.

Charles Billings was fully human and he was entirely divine. He'll be missed. He already is. 
Charles Billings in The Rivals (Center, forward facing). McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College.
  • Charles Billings in The Rivals (Center, forward facing). McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College.

Visitation will be from 5-7 Tuesday, September 26th, at Canale Funeral Home. The funeral will be Wednesday, September 27th at 10:00 a.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis.

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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

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.
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. 
Event Details Years to the Day
@ 7 N. Main
7 N. Main
Memphis, TN
When: Through Sept. 29

Friday, September 8, 2017

"Years to the Day": Offbeat Theater in an Offbeat Venue

Posted By on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 12:29 PM

Quark Theatre co-founder/director Tony Isbell has a tidy description for Allen Barton's play, Years to the Day: "It's sort of like if David Mamet had written a play set in a version of our world with a slightly different history."

Years to the Day is difficult to describe in a way that makes it sound as dynamic as it should: two middle-aged guys — former college pals, still digitally networked — organize a face-to-face coffee reunion and discover via device-steeped, and rant-laden conversation, the vast differences between connected and connecting. "Politics and the personal are irrevocably intertwined," Isbell says. "It's sort of like what happens on Facebook when you discover that an old college chum has completely changed his political stripes. Or maybe he was 'that way' all along, and it just never came up. Can you remain friends with someone who has a radically different view of the world?"

Who doesn't ask that question several times a week?

A Downtown Memphis Commission program to help revitalize Downtown's North side has provided Quark with a temporary home. Years to the Day is being presented at 7 N. Main, Sept 8-29. Details here. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tennessee Shakespeare Company Purchases Former Ballet Memphis Property

Posted By on Thu, Aug 31, 2017 at 8:06 PM

It didn't take long to fill Ballet Memphis' old Trinity Road home. Better news, the spot's being taken over by another growing Mid-South arts organization. After years of partnering, renting and space-sharing the ambitious, Tennessee Shakespeare Company announced it would evolve its site-specific tradition and occupy the 18,000 + square-foot space left vacant by Ballet Memphis.

From the announcement.

"With this acquisition, Tennessee Shakespeare Company is preparing to create the first and only permanent, year-round home for professional Shakespeare performance, education, and training in the state of Tennessee.

TSC purchased the 18,484 square foot facility outright from Ballet Memphis for $1,900,000. There is no mortgage.

TSC, now beginning its tenth anniversary season, expects to begin interior renovation this Fall and to be completed in Spring 2018."

With this acquisition, Tennessee Shakespeare Company is preparing to create the first and only permanent, year-round home for professional Shakespeare performance, education, and training in the state of Tennessee.

TSC plans to open its new facility next Spring.

"[TSC founder] Dan McCleary launched the silent phase of TSC’s New Home Capital Campaign in June, and within seven weeks the full sale price for the property was raised from the company’s first Legacy Donors. These donors, many of whom remain anonymous until the facility is officially opened in 2018, reserve naming rights in the new home. "

Dan McCleary
  • Dan McCleary
“We now get to create a Southern center for creative collaboration, inquiry, inclusiveness, arts education, compassion, exalting language, for stories of healing, and for tremendous entertainment founded on Shakespeare’s and other classical works," McCleary stated in the sale announcement. "Memphis will soon have a permanent, professional theatre that produces the world’s greatest plays with America’s finest classical actors."

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

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


“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.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ostrander Honors Irene Crist, Ruby O'Gray: Winners, 2017

Posted By on Sun, Aug 27, 2017 at 10:30 PM

The quintet.
  • The quintet.
Congratulations to all!

Set Design
Jack Yates – Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Memphis

Betty Dilley – The Odd Couple, Germantown Community Theatre

Lighting Design
Jeremy Allen Fisher – Side Show, Theatre Memphis

To be, or not to be... framed?
  • To be, or not to be... framed?
Hair/Wig/Make-Up Design
Buddy Hart, Rence Phillips, Ellen Inghram – Side Show, Theatre Memphis

Costume Design
Amie Eoff – Side Show, Theatre Memphis

Music Direction
Thomas Bergstig and Nathan McHenry – Sisters of Swing, The Circuit Playhouse

Sound Design
Carter McHann – Victory Blues, POTS@TheWorks

Choreography/Fight Choreography
Daniel Stuart Nelson and Courtney Oliver – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Playhouse on the Square

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Jo Lynne Palmer – Haint, Germantown Community Theatre

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Gabe Beutel-Gunn – The 39 Steps, Theatre Memphis

Leading Actress in a Drama
Michele Somers Cullen – Haint, Germantown Community Theatre

Leading Actor in a Drama
Jordan Nichols – Hand to God, The Circuit Playhouse

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Claire D. Kolheim – Mamma Mia!, Playhouse on the Square

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Nathan McHenry – Million Dollar Quartet, Playhouse on the Square

Leading Actress in A Musical
Dani Chaum and Gia Welch – Side Show, Theatre Memphis

Leading Actor in a Musical
David Foster – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Playhouse on the Square

Large Ensemble
Million Dollar Quartet – Playhouse on the Square

Small Ensemble

Sisters of Swing – The Circuit Playhouse

Cameo/Featured Role
Ron Gordon – Hamlet, New Moon Theatre Company

Best Production of an Original Script

Victory Blues – POTS@TheWorks

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
Irene Crist – Disgraced, The Circuit Playhouse

Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Dave Landis – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Playhouse on the Square
Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
Best Dramatic Production
Disgraced – The Circuit Playhouse

Best Musical Production
Million Dollar Quartet – Playhouse on the Square

Set Design
Jesse White – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Danica Horton – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Lighting Design
Anthony Pellecchia – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Hair/Wig/Make-Up Design
Austin Blake Conlee – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Costume Design

Austin Blake Conlee – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Music Direction
Jacob Allen – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis
Ruby O'Gray
  • Ruby O'Gray

Sound Design
Jo Sanburg – Anon(ymous), University of Memphis

Jill Guyton Nee – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Marian Anderson – A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Southwest Tennessee Community College

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Blake Currie – Anon(ymous), University of Memphis

Leading Actress in a Drama
Vermico Smith – The Amen Corner, Southwest Tennessee Community College

Leading Actor in a Drama
Jorge Guaman – Anon(ymous), University of Memphis

Supporting Actress in a Musical
Erica Peninger – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Cody Rutledge – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Leading Actress in A Musical
Brittni Taylor Rhodes – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Leading Actor in a Musical
Jacob Clanton – Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Large Ensemble
Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Cameo/Featured Role
Naivell Steib – Anon(ymous), University of Memphis

Best Original Script
When It Rains, Southwest Tennessee Community College

Excellence in Direction
Stephen Hancock – Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Best Production
Spring Awakening, University of Memphis

Special Award
MJ Evans and Jenny Wilson – Video Production, The Unencumbered, McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College
Kennon Cliche & John Phillians – Puppeteer and Voice of Audrey II, Little Shop of Horrors, University of Memphis

Behind the Scenes Award: Katharine Hughen

Gypsy Award: Noelia Warnette-Jones

Janie McCrary Putting It Together Award: Ruby O’Gray
Irene Crist, far right.
  • Irene Crist, far right.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Germantown Community Theatre Names New Executive Director

Posted By on Fri, Aug 25, 2017 at 4:53 PM

Eric Newsome
  • Eric Newsome
Good news for a change from Germantown Community Theatre.  Eric Newsome — who comes to the theater by way of an engineering and telecommunications background — has accepted the position of Executive Director.

GCT has been  struggling to stay afloat — you can read all about that here. With this announcement it looks like things are finally stabilizing.

From GCT's official announcement:

Eric's interest in the stage began in 1992 when he was magically transported through time and space (i.e. college road trip) to witness his first musical on Broadway. Following a successful career in engineering and management in the telecommunications industry, he transitioned into the entrepreneurial domain and started Historic Images, a local Memphis company that specializes in bringing life to vintage photography archives from media outlets around the country. He and his partners grew the company into a multi-million dollar organization, and he continued to get more entrenched in the local arts scene. He also focused his energy on starting a non-profit organization with local church leaders, Arpana House, that works with partners in India to find homes for abandoned girls. Along the way, he witnessed his incredibly talented wife rekindle her passion for live theatre, and subsequently bring the children along to grow up in the local theatre community. He first appeared onstage in Memphis in 2010, and was smitten. He has since served on local boards and continued to act on stage in various productions, including shows at GCT. Everyone in the family has a long and storied resume in local theatre, from dresser to featured role to stage manager to pin to cameo and everything in between. "I love theatre for many reasons, but chief among them is I believe in the power of story to connect us all. Life is full of struggle and love and pain and joy and we all, every one of us, identify with varying degrees to this whirlwind of emotions. The stage helps connect us all in our own, unique way to these common travails through the raw vulnerability of creating and telling a story. It helps us get through it all, with a sense of unity and belonging. I'm looking forward to applying my backgrounds in corporate management and entrepreneurial success, woven in with a passion for the craft, to ensure that GCT will bring great entertainment experiences to our community for generations to come."

Bo Adams, president of the Board of Directors, had the following to say. “The close of the 2016-2017 season marked a challenging chapter in history of GCT. The opening of the 2017-2018 season has the board excited about the future. Part of this excitement comes from the hiring of Eric Newsome. Eric brings a unique mix of business experience, having spent time in the tech industry as well as being an entrepreneur and being an active member of a non-profit. I would like to thank the all of the supporters, donors, and patrons that have made this possible especially the city of Germantown and the Germantown Women’s Club.”

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

Tags: , ,

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Jamie Farr, George Burns, Snow White: Halloran Centre Launches 3-Show Stage Series

Posted By on Tue, Aug 15, 2017 at 12:57 PM

I don't normally announce good news with a sad story but when I saw the George Burns show Say Goodnight Gracie on the Halloran Centre's new stage series it reminded me of the time Frank Gorshin told me, with forced enthusiasm, "I might be getting Burnsed out." The original Riddler was as hyperactive as ever when we spoke, but he sounded tired. He'd been sick for a long time and I had a feeling that crack was no joke. It was Gorshin's last interview and Say Goodnight Gracie at the Orpheum was his last performance.

My autographed Frank pic.
  • My autographed Frank pic.
Gorshin was a special kind of mimic and a hard act to follow in any case. Hopefully Memphis will be a better, happier ending gig for Wizards of Waverley Place actor Alan Safier.

M*A*S*H* fans and Tuesdays With Morrie fans can get both in one place when Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger (AKA Gong Show panelist Jamie Farr) brings his adaptation of Tuesdays With Morrie to town.
The series closes with the adult fairytale musical Disenchanted, which seems like the perfect show after a couple of blocks workout on the party-bike. Amiright?

At $90 for a season pass, the price is right for this new series. Fun gift for friends who like vintage comedians and girls night out.

For more details, here you go.

TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE starring Jamie Farr
December 2 – 3, 2017
Television icon and star of M*A*S*H Jamie Farr brings this funny and touching stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book to life. Tuesdays is the true story of Mitch, whose chance reunion with former college professor Morrie leads to a weekly master class in the meaning of life.

Alan Safier as George Burns in SAY GOODNIGHT GRACIE
February 17 – 18, 2018
Spend a hilarious, heart-warming evening in the uplifting company of George Burns, the world’s favorite and funniest centenarian. Burns, who spanned over 90 years of American entertainment history, is now alive and kicking – and singing and dancing – in a stunning solo performance for Safier. Say Goodnight Gracie brings to life Burns’s fascinating story.

DISENCHANTED! The Hilarious Hit Musical
March 16 – 17, 2018
Poisoned apples. Glass slippers. Who needs ‘em?! Not Snow White and her posse of disenchanted princesses in the hilarious hit musical that’s anything but Grimm. Forget the princesses you think you know – the original storybook heroines have come back to life to set the record straight. These royal renegades tossed off their tiaras to bring their hilariously subversive, not-for-the-kiddies musical to you – and what you thought about princesses will never be the same.

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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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Memphis Symphony Orchestra Names New CEO

Posted By on Tue, Aug 8, 2017 at 5:37 PM

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has hired  Porter-Leath Development Veep Peter Abell as its new CEO. The news comes almost two years to the day when the MSO's previous CEO Roland Valliere announced his imminent departure.

Abell has a long history working in not-for-profit development, but this is his first time to lead an arts organization. He takes over during a period of rebuilding and rebranding that started in 2014 when the orchestra announced it had burned through the last of its resources.

From the official announcement:

Abell’s appointment follows a string of leadership hires for the Symphony beginning with the promotion of Robert Moody to Music Director in March, followed by the hiring of Andrew Crust to serve as Assistant Conductor of the Symphony and Conductor of the Memphis Youth Symphony in June. Steven Fox was also added to the team as Engagement and Inclusion manager, and finally the addition of Rachael Patton to serve as the Director of Artistic Operations.

“Each appointment was made with careful consideration and confidence – we knew that each of these roles needed to be filled by strong leaders, demonstrating a history of success in music and nonprofit management as well as community development," said Gayle Rose, Chairman of the MSO’s Board of Directors. “Every member of this team brings immense experience from diverse backgrounds that, when combined, will undoubtedly produce musical excellence and serve Memphis like this city has never seen. These individuals are dedicated to charting our path toward becoming an exciting, relevant 21st century orchestra.”

Abell is a seasoned nonprofit leader, serving in various capacities with the Boy Scouts of America and Youth Villages before being named Executive Director of Books from Birth in 2012. Over the past year, he led the merger of Books from Birth with Porter-Leath, which was completed in July.

Full symphony, chorus, and audience from the Holiday Pops show - COURTESY OF MEMPHIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
  • Courtesy of Memphis Symphony Orchestra
  • Full symphony, chorus, and audience from the Holiday Pops show


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