Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bad Santa: Tennessee Shakespeare turns Godot into a Holiday Hellscape

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Event Details Waiting for Godot
@ The Dixon Gallery & Gardens
4339 Park
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. and Sundays, 3 p.m. Continues through Dec. 17

Friday, December 8, 2017

Waiting for Godot, J & K Cabaret, Elves, Fairies, Ghosts, and Actors

Posted By on Fri, Dec 8, 2017 at 1:46 PM


The holidays are a time of reassurance when we celebrate familiarity and comfort in all things, from food and drinks we consume to the entertainment we gobble up like sugar cookies and milk. It's the caroling time of year when area playhouses turn to beloved titles like A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, or maybe even the Santaland Diaries for folks who prefer their cocoa on the bitter side. But the Tennessee Shakespeare Company isn't like other area theaters. The Bard-minded professional troupe has always gone its own way and, true to form, TSC has another kind of classic in mind for this season of giving — a widely celebrated, often misunderstood clown show penned in the wake of WWII, at the dawn of a frightening atomic age. Samuel Beckett's austere comedy Waiting For Godot is the 20th-century "bounded in a nutshell," as Shakespeare might say — a slapstick hymn to eternity in all its terrifying glory.
TSC's founding director Dan McCleary says he's wanted to produce Godot for years, but he waited for the right moment and the right group of people. "To work as a clown means that you feel everything very deeply, whether it's joy or loss," he says, considering what it takes to fill the ragged pants and ill-fitting shoes of Beckett's famous hobos Vladimir and Estragon, who, in the face of a random, sometimes malevolent-seeming world, turn to one another for affirmation and survival. "Clowns feel things very deeply, then in the next breath they let it go. So clowns have short-term memories.

"Out of extremes comes a play of tremendous compassion and understanding and inquiry," McCleary says, describing Godot as beautiful in timing and grace. "It's always struck me as a fine seasonal, holiday play. It's very funny."

Speaking of very funny, the J&K Cabaret is back starring Jenny Madden and Kim Justis. I've written a lot about this pair over the years, and about this show, which owes its origin to a very funny production of Parallel Lives.

Count on music, comedy, bigger comedy, and generous performances from two of the city's most gifted and committed entertainers.

A Christmas Carol is back at Theatre Memphis, Peter Pan's flying around Playhouse on the Square, and Junie B. Jones is at Circuit. And Santaland Diaries too.
Event Details The J & K Cabaret
@ TheatreSouth
Inside First Congregational Church, 1000 S. Cooper
Memphis, TN
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m. Continues through Dec. 16
Event Details Waiting for Godot
@ The Dixon Gallery & Gardens
4339 Park
East Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. and Sundays, 3 p.m. Continues through Dec. 17
Event Details The Santaland Diaries
@ Circuit Playhouse
51 S. Cooper
Overton Square
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 7 p.m. Continues through Dec. 23
Theater and Holiday Events
Event Details Junie B. Jones, The Musical
@ Circuit Playhouse
51 S. Cooper
Overton Square
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. and Thursdays, Fridays, 7 p.m. Continues through Dec. 23
Theater and Kids
Event Details Peter Pan
@ Playhouse on the Square
66 S. Cooper
Overton Square
Memphis, Tennessee
When: Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m. and Fridays, 7 p.m. Continues through Dec. 31

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Turnout" debut offers informal ballet performances

Posted By on Sat, Nov 11, 2017 at 12:56 PM

Ballet Memphis' Fly Studio is an industrial strength practice room that can double as a performance space. The company's "Turnout" series is premiering there this weekend. - LOUIS TUCKER/BALLET MEMPHIS
  • Louis Tucker/Ballet Memphis
  • Ballet Memphis' Fly Studio is an industrial strength practice room that can double as a performance space. The company's "Turnout" series is premiering there this weekend.

Ballet Memphis, having recently moved to a shiny new headquarters, is taking advantage of it by adding some intriguing programming.

Friday night was the debut of “Turnout,” which the company bills as informal although that only applies to the setting and ambience. The dancing, though, is as complex and challenging as it is fresh.

The program is just under an hour and the four works in this weekend’s lineup include the popular “In Dreams” by Trey McIntire, set to the music of Roy Orbison. Five of the company’s most vivid dancers — Crystal Brothers, Julie Marie Niekrasz, Jared Brunson, Virginia Pilgrim Ramey, and Brandon Ramey — do sublime work on this gorgeous piece.

Brandon Ramey’s new piece “The Good Life” opened the show, a terrific satirical series of suit-and-tie workplace woes. And a couple of romantic works rounded out the program: “Cupid Revealed” by former company member Joseph Jefferies and “The Lovely Story of Us” by company associate artistic director Steven McMahon.

The idea of the “Turnout” series is to present contemporary works, often by company members, on an occasional basis. It gives Ballet Memphis a chance to show off its new home, particularly the Fly Studio, and is purposely kept short so balletgoers can take in some nightlife afterward. It also allows more homegrown choreography to encourage local talent.

If the first production of the series is an indicator, it may well become an event not to miss.

There’s another performance tonight at 7:30. Tickets are $12 general admission; or $20, which entitles you to a reusable lidded theater cup. Libation included. Info:

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Prime Cuts: A Pulitzer finalist, and an Orwell fable

Posted By on Fri, Nov 10, 2017 at 9:52 AM

Looking for something interesting this weekend? Whoever you are, the Memphis theater community's probably got something for you. 

Cloud9's a relatively new company still getting its legs. That sets up Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime — a significant regional premiere — as a probable coming of age story. This Pulitzer finalist is near-future science fiction about a time when artificial intelligences can be programmed to serve as companions for the elderly, even taking on the look and characteristics of lost loved ones. It would easily be the most smartly-written thing on stage this week if Voices of the South hadn't staged a narrative adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm, or if Theatre Memphis' wonderful production of Falsettos had been produced at some other time. As it happens, there's a lot of smart work to choose from. Choose well!

And there's always the ballet.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Free Shakespeare! Julius Caesar visits the Germantown Library

Posted By on Fri, Oct 27, 2017 at 4:47 PM

Michael Khanlarian, Khalil LeSaldo
  • Michael Khanlarian, Khalil LeSaldo
On a cold rainy pre-Halloween weekend the only thing I can think of that might be better than a free indoor production of Julius Caesar might be a free indoor production of Macbeth. But since the latter's not being performed you'll just have to settle for Shakespeare's tragically timeless story of murder and political intrigue in ancient Rome as performed by members of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. 
The Ides of March come late this year. The original conspiracy theory goes down Saturday, Oct. 28 at 10 a.m.

Did I mention it was free?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Let GCT's Honky Tonk Angels Sing for You

Posted By on Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 12:41 PM

"It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels."
— Kitty Wells
"REO Speedwagon can kiss my ass."
— Chris Davis
Far be it from me to suggest that there's no place in country music for "jazz hands," but if you're going for verisimilitude, it's probably a look you want to avoid. Jazz was always a major component of music created by artists like Hank Thompson, Hank Penny, Bob Wills, Ray Price and Willie Nelson, but jazz-hands belong almost exclusively to the Fosse-esque end of the musical theater spectrum. Between the hand choreography, the show-tuney arrangements, and a paper-thin script full of wince-worthy lines, the country jukebox musical Honky Tonk Angels currently on stage at Germantown Community Theatre, belongs on a cruise ship where it can entertain boozy audiences nostalgic for smoky ol' poolrooms they never hung out in in the first place.

Of course there's something intrinsically nostalgic about Honky Tonk, which, has always been city music for country people. It's the electrified steel-guitar-laden sound of rural people chasing economic opportunity in the aftermath of WWII. Cities were booming, and many a country boy and girl picked up stakes and moved to town looking for jobs and a better life. Those who landed on the street with a guitar slung over their shoulder wrote plaintive songs about displacement, temptation, loss and longing for a simpler life. In spite of its contemporary setting Honky Tonk Angels tells the story of two women from hardscrabble rural environments, and one working for a Weinsteinian character in L.A., who've left all that behind to become country stars in Nashville. They meet on a Greyhound Bus pulling out of Memphis, share origin stories, sing some country and gospel classics, and agree to join forces and start a band called Honky Tonk Angels.
What GCT's production has going for it is a strong cast that approaches the material from such an honest, loving place they almost make the pandering material work. Tamara Wright plays Sue Ellen, whose backstory is loosely rooted in the song "9 to 5." She brings the sass and sizzle on tunes like Parton's pink-collar anthem and Pam Tillis' uptempo novelty, "Cleopatra (Queen of Denial)." Songs like Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home a Drinkin," and "The Pill," sound awfully authentic tumbling from Ashely Whitten-Kopera's mouth. Her character Angela (get it?) narrates. Her backstory revolves around life in a double-wide with an inattentive husband named Bubba and a bunch of kids. Angela's written from an "outside the trailer park looking in" perspective, but Kopera finds just the right amount of good-ol-gal zest to make it all believable. .

From her simple but effective acoustic guitar accompaniment to her strong voice and wholesome girl-next-door approach, Courtney Church-Tucker is something of a miracle worker in the role of Darlene. Her history is inspired by an odd interpretation of Bobbie Gentry's hit "Ode to Billy Joe," and her backstory's told in strained one-sided dialogue that, to her credit, Church-Tucker very nearly pulls off.

You know what else doesn't really belong in a show about country music? Songs by REO Speedwagon. While the inclusion of Lee Hazelwood's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" might be forgiven because it's at least about boots, I can't be as generous with any selection from You Can Tune a Piano but You Can't Tuna Fish. It's a particularly frustrating inclusion in a show that allegedly celebrates female country artists but omits singers and songwriters like Norma Jean, Jeanne Shepherd, Wanda Jackson, Billie Jo Spears etc.  

Though it may sound cliche, I've got to acknowledge that the premise of Honky Tonk Angels is built on truth. People still arrive in Nashville every day with a guitar on their back, and a sack full of dreams. I've been down that road a time or two myself, and spent one delightful train ride from Chicago to Nashville picking out old country songs with a cowboy hat/boot-wearing former costumer for Actors Theatre Louisville who was on his way to Music City USA to make it big. But for all of its core truth, almost every element of this show rings false. The one element that doesn't is the cast.  As a huge fan of old country songs, this trio could sing me to sleep every night with zero complaint.

It's also worth noting that GCT and director Leigh Ann Evans seem to have anticipated the challenges this show presents and confronted them head on. During a time of economic difficulty for the theater, someone wisely decided to forego finished sets and extravagant costuming in favor of hiring a full complement of musicians including a fiddle player, a steel player, bass player, piano, drums, electric and acoustic guitar — all the things you need for a proper hoedown throw-down. Unless you're Miss Drag USA, there's no way to make lines like, "Without further hairdo," work, but Evans and company make an honest go of of a show that may not be worthy of their collective time and talents. Still, if you love the genre, the rest may be endured. Yes, even the jazz hands.

Even REO Speedwagon.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Ballet Memphis' "Take Shape" takes off; Juilliard String Quartet lands perfectly

Posted By on Mon, Oct 16, 2017 at 2:48 PM

I particularly look forward to Ballet Memphis’ contemporary programming, as in the season’s first offering, “Take Shape,” that runs through Oct. 22. Not that the classics aren’t spellbinding in their way (the perennial “Nutcracker” during the holidays and “Peter Pan” in April), but the new works tend to provide a higher yield of choreography that is fresh, provocative, and sometimes surprising.

There are three works in the “Take Shape” production, the first of which is George Balanchine’s 60-year-old “Square Dance,” inspired by American folk dance that the choreographer wanted to combine with classical movement. (And with six decades under its belt, it's actually older than Steven McMahon's upcoming "Peter Pan"). As in traditional square dancing, there is plenty of symmetry with ladies and gents lining up, spinning around, and pairing off.

Square dancing may be physical, but nothing like Balanchine’s vigorous demands on his performers. The rhythms of the folk dance are there, but the music is that of Vivaldi and Corelli, tunes you don’t normally imagine with do-si-do action, but entirely agreeable. The piece was absorbing, with technical demands well met and all somewhat antiseptic.

One of Ballet Memphis’ go-to choreographers is Julia Adam, and with good reason. Her “Fingers of Your Thoughts,” first performed in 2010, ambitiously depicts the passage of a life, from birth to demise, but in a way so expressive and touching that it remains entirely personal. The five dancers are a community of souls, moving as a group, as individuals, all part of the fabric of a life. Simply beautiful.

The final piece is a thrilling work by another Ballet Memphis favorite, Trey McIntire. “The Reassuring Effects (of Form and Poetry)” is a series of delights and surprises with electrifying chemistry between Crystal Brothers and Rafael Ferreras, and other superb performances by Julie Marie Niekrasz and Jared Brunson. (The cast varies depending on the date).

Also notable was lighting by Dani Deutschmann and sublime costumes by Bruce Bui and Ballet Memphis Costume Shop. “Take Shape” is a thoroughly engaging program and shows again the masterful work by Ballet Memphis’ dancers.

Juilliard String Quartet - STEVE J. SHERMAN
  • Steve J. Sherman
  • Juilliard String Quartet

Sunday afternoon, the Juilliard String Quartet came to the Clark Opera Center and performed works with such precision and control that you might have been forgiven if you forgot to breathe. There were no apparent instances of listeners slumping in their chairs, but the beautiful attention to detail in the midst of works by Beethoven and Haydn demanded careful listening.

The presentation, a collaboration between the Memphis Chamber Music Society and Concerts International, sounded flawless in the acoustically fine Clark Center, with the quartet in the center of the auditorium and the audience arrayed around it.

Expectations are high, of course, when you have four of the world’s finest musicians sawing away at great music (Beethoven’s Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5; Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5; and Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 127). Those expectations were met with warm interpretations of the works, precise attacks of the notes, and terrific dynamic control from fortissimos to pin-drop quiet. In all, a virtuoso performance.

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

How Very: "Heathers" is Halloween Candy that Won't Make Your Tummy Hurt

Posted By on Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 4:02 PM

"The teen films of the time, the John Hughes film, were fun. But there’s a whole other wing of the high school they weren’t going into — the dark, Stephen King wing that nobody wanted to look at. And I think Heathers was refreshing. It was the first time a lot of people lost their dark humor virginity. It’s hard to even remember now that going back then, there were so many television shows and documentaries about the horror of teen suicide that just made it so attractive to commit suicide because you got all this love and adulation. Who can resist! It seemed like I was the only one noticing the humor in it."
Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters.
So maybe not every note is pitch perfect. Perhaps it's never quite as surreal or shocking as it could and probably should be. The musical adaptation of Daniel Waters' dark teen comedy Heathers is a fun Halloween-season ride with too much heart for its own good. It's served up like a top-shelf ice cream sundae from some boutique parlor , topped with fruits, and nuts, and pink sprinkles. Only that's not strawberry syrup on top — It's BLOOD! TEENAGE BLOOD!

Arch, attitudinal performances by the three original Heathers, Chandler (Gia Welch), Duke, (Claire Clauson), and McNamara (Lizzy Hinton) frame the story of Veronica (Brooke Papritz), a basic Bettie whose sweet forgery skills earn her a place at the popular kids table. But life at the top's kind of ugly, bringing the mean girl dominance games into a crisp focus. Enter JD, (Connor Finnerty-Esmonde) the thrift store clad new kid who captures Veronica's teenage fancy and fills her head with ideas about taking revenge on all the high school's exclusive cliques and bullies. Next thing you know, her teen angst bullshit has a bodycount.  And because the popular kid murders are all framed as suicides, killing yourself turns into the big teen craze.

Veronica's mounting guilt kicks into overdrive when she plays a key role in humiliating her chubby, unpopular lifelong friend "Martha Dumptruck."

Papritz, who recently played a mumblecore misfit in The Flick at Circuit Playhouse is an awfully upbeat Veronica, but she sings the part beautifully, and in her role as storyteller, keeps the show moving like a freight train. As JD Finnerty-Esmonde struggles with pitch, both in his songs and in his character's tone. He's a charmer, just never quite as dangerous as JD needs to be.

Though set in some alternative version of the American 80's were teen fashion and slang is a sharp, knowing satire of the real thing, Heathers doesn't truck much in nostalgia. The music's all original, and the most effective songs — "Lifeboat," and "Kindergarten Boyfriend" don't go to the leads. As with the film, all these carefully considered pieces combine to make for some pretty substantial teen splatter.

Choreographed production numbers courtesy of director Courtney Oliver and co-choreographer Kim Sanders, stand in nicely for the source material's hard to translate visual surrealism

If you wanted to make a really good 1980's-era movie soundtrack musical you couldn't do better than Pretty in Pink. "Don't You Forget About Me," was the only good song in The Breakfast Club, and don't even get me started on the awfulness of St. Elmo's Fire. But if Pretty in Pink wasn't already a soundtrack it would make a pretty good era-defining mix-tape with terrific cuts by Psychedelic Furs, Suzanne Vega, The Smith's, OMD, New Order, Jesse Johnson, Echo & the Bunnymen and more I can't remember. I mention all this because musical film adaptations are soup of the day, and the nostalgia appeal only goes up when, as with Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the soundtrack includes a healthy dose of vintage top-40. While John Hughes musicals might seem to make more sense to investors, when it comes to teen movie adaptations, Heathers makes more sense on stage. The scary Reagan-era is well represented by this edgy box office flop, that found its misfit audience on cable and hanging out at the video store.

Fallen Woman: Opera Memphis' La Traviata is Simply Splendid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

What's Your Damage? "Heathers," "Stage Kiss" Open this Weekend!

Also onstage: "Hamlet," "Romeo & Juliet," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Fetch Clay, Make Man"

Posted By on Thu, Oct 5, 2017 at 6:49 PM

“If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be a human, You’d be a game show host.” — Heathers.

I'm pretty sure Brooke Papritz has been on a collision course with Heathers the musical since she embodied brutal, ambition-free entitlement in Carrie. She played the telekinetic title character's teenage antagonist Chris, and sang the hell out of a muddled show's best song. Papritz moves into the protagonist position this time, albeit one whose teen angst bullshit has a body count. She'll play Veronica — the non-Heather-Heather made famous by a 16-year-old Wynona Ryder. She'll be joined by a deliciously terrible threesome: Gia Welsh (Side Show) as Heather Chandler (in power red), Heather Duke (in envy green) and Heather McNamara (in cowardly yellow) as her school-ruling mean-girl compatriots.

High school is a foreign land — perhaps even another, needlessly cruel dimension where every choice a teenager makes, from scrunchie color and sneaker brand to pants-or-be-pantsed, is a matter of life and death. Heathers' twisted romance/revenge plot took that idea literally turning Ryder and co-star Christian Slater into a Bonnie & Clyde for the Clearasil set.

The original film version of Heathers was 1989's antidote to everything John Hughes ever shot (that didn't include Harry Dean Stanton) and in retrospect film critic Roger Ebert's uncommonly cautious review makes an instructive frame for a film that threw caution to the wind.

"I approach Heathers as a traveler in an unknown country," Ebert wrote, admitting it made him feel like a foreigner. "One who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word."


Heathers' screenwriter Daniel Waters fully understood that teenagers don't speak in slang or jargon but in code. Shocking as a comedy about murder and teen suicide may have been for some in 1989, Heathers was always more classical than edgy, especially in terms of complexity,  idiomatic color and meaning. It set an appropriately dark and literary tone tone for Gen-Xers heading off to college and kicked open the door for savvy adaptations like 1995's Jane Austen-inspired Clueless. Wisely the adaptors Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness) and Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) held on to all the best lines (and most of the important tropes) while transforming Heathers into an unlikely musical, but they've also built it to function more of an extension of the original than a perfect carbon copy.

Memphis' favorite Tracy Turnblad, Courtney Oliver, is no stranger to adapted films about teen angst and budding sexuality. Past directing credits include Carrie the Musical, Debbie Does Dallas.


Also opening this week at Theatre Memphis: Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl starring John Moore and Tracy Hansom with Stuart Turner, Chase Ring, Lena Wallace Black, Laurel Galaty, and Gordon Ginsburg.

Stage Kiss is a play you can almost judge from the title. What happens when two old are cast opposite one another in an old romantic melodrama? What does it mean when two actors find themselves really kissing? These are the obvious questions but when Ruhl's writing nothing's ever that obvious or exactly what it seems to be.

Directed by Tony Isbell who recently staged the terrific if under-attended Years to the Day for Quark.
ONGOING: Fetch Clay, Make Man: Muhammad Ali enlists Stepin Fetchit to teach him Jack Johnson's anchor punch. Solid acting, intriguing relationships. To read more about the background, click here. For the review click here.
Shakespeare, Love, etc. - CARLA THE MAGNIFICENT.
  • Carla the magnificent.
  • Shakespeare, Love, etc.
CLOSING: Shakespeare in Love is the fictional story of how Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet set in London's complicated theater world during the reign of Elizabeth I. Read the review here.

And speaking of Romeo & Juliet (and brutal social environments/teen suicide, to harken back to Heathers).Tennessee Shakespeare's bringing a free performance of R&J to the town Square in Collierville. Catch them both!
CLOSING: What a Piece of Work...
Our Own Voice Theatre turns its attention to another Shakespeare play — sort of. With What a Piece of Work is this relentlessly (but not indefatigably) experimental company aims to interpret Hamlet and criticize America's current president and all things that lead to complacency.

Our Own Voice has a long history of developing topical, political work but there's more at work here than mere resistance.  Maybe it's easier to share a director's note from Bill Baker.

"So, why an hour own voice production of Hamlet? Have I lost my mind? Perhaps the second question answers the first. Our Own Voice has been having a bit of an identity crisis. Reaching our 25th anniversary has involved a lot of soul searching for this company, considering if and how we should continue on our theatrical mission. It seems time for a bold move. I know it is an insane decision, to undertake one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays with a troupe of actors characterized by their lack of conventional theatrical training, a company more at home with making up plays then with serving the text of a great playwright. And, yes, I am aware that TheaterWorks has very recently been the home to a very fine production of Hamlet. New Moon Theater did an excellent production this past February. I was in the audience and I enjoyed every minute of it. In fact, I was inspired. I should say it is more because of that production than in spite of it that we have undertaken this one. Watching New Moon’s talented ensemble playing Shakespeare's glorious language in this space set me to thinking about how to OOV might go about telling the story, interpreting these words. The juxtaposition of the two ensembles telling the same tale should highlight what, for me, is the true glory of theater, the unique human encounter that happens every time an actor performs for a spectator. The potential of that encounter is what our own voice has always devoted to exploring and expanding. Our patron saint Antonin Artaud said, “No more masterpieces!” And recognized that the true language of the theater is what human bodies do in the space. So we have not yet undertaken the classic dramatic texts. The time has come. Hamlet is perhaps the greatest play ever written, and it is in the public domain! This great story, these beautiful words are no one's intellectual property. They belong to all of us. They are ours!"
So just what is Hamlet? A play about ham?
  • So just what is Hamlet? A play about ham?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Redemption Round: Reviewing Hattiloo's Fetch Clay Make Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

That's so Torvald.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started this review with one pop culture reference, I'll close with another digression that may not be relevant — I think it is. In the history of paperback romance novels there may be no single greater cover trope than the image of women running away from perfect storybook houses in varying degrees of decay. You know, like this. 

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. 
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