Friday, November 30, 2018

A Philosophy of Magic: Memphis’s Newest Conjuror Has a Mission

A Conversation With Lawrence Hass

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2018 at 8:53 AM

Lawrence Hass
  • Lawrence Hass
"Let me tell you, it almost never goes up the sleeve." Veteran educator and practicing sleight-of-hand artist Lawrence Hass drops some information on the audience in a TEDx talk. The PhD and former professor is working toward a philosophical understanding of stage magic. He wonders how magic performance can be so ancient and universal without having ever been seriously addressed by Western philosophy.

Hass was professor of humanities at Austin College before moving to Memphis with his wife, Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass. In addition to academic duties, he's been known to teach magic to magicians at Jeff McBride's Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas. In his TED talk, he works toward a sturdy definition that separates magic from the the idea of "tricks." He asks if techniques developed by magicians are somehow more manipulative, deceptive, or dishonest than any other kind of art or stagecraft. Magic, he ultimately determines, is "The artful performance of impossible things that generates energy, delight, and wonder."

For Hass, who makes his Memphis debut at Beth Sholom Synagogue Saturday, December 1st, the live performance of stage magic constitutes a message of hope and transcendence. "As we live our lives, we constantly confront limits," he says, listing the usual suspects: sickness, loss, death, and transition —  things we want but can't have, and things we wish were true but aren't.

Then performers like Harry Houdini come along and show us we can escape. Illusionists like David Copperfield defy gravity and levitate. Magicians get their audience thinking big while working on a smaller scale. Hass is a prestidigitator, a card manipulator, and a conjurer, able to bring inanimate objects to life in his hand.

Impossible, you say? That's the point. "When everybody wins in the world, that's real magic," Hass concludes, after one of his online card tricks. It's a good line. It also seems to be a reasonable summation of this newly minted Memphian's performance philosophy.

Intermission Impossible: Memphis is still relatively new for you. How are you adjusting?

Lawrence Hass: We really love it. We came to Memphis because Marjorie was hired as the new president at Rhodes College. We came in June of 2017. Since then we've really settled in — both into Memphis, the larger community, and also the Rhodes College Community. We've been very warmly welcomed and just love the city. There's so much energy and culture and art. Memphis is on the rise, and we're really happy to be a part of it.
I was surprised to discover you didn’t take up magic until you were an adult with a PhD. And children of your own. There’s so much manipulation— so much manual dexterity required. I think of it like violin: Most of the folks who practice magic started training when they were very young.

That question’s very perceptive actually. You understand there's this whole physical level to magic. And it has to work at a very high level. I sometimes think of myself, as being like an athlete, or a musician in terms of, there's all this body work going on. And you have to stay after it pretty much every day. So when I came to magic, I was 34 years old. That's older than most people, as you say.
I learned over time that, I think I have uncommon coordination. At first I had no perception of it. But as I started teaching magic to others, I realized that I could very intuitively and quickly do things with my hands that other people ... they just didn't have the same facility for. The other part of it, I was a musician back in the 1970s. I played guitar and piano, so obviously that was part of the picture too. I understood practice and rehearsal. Also, I came to magic as a philosopher. I studied art and aesthetics. So already, I was ahead of the game. I had the dedication and discipline to really keep after it, and I also had a vision, or sense of what artistry was. From the very beginning I wanted my magic not to be commonplace, but artistic.

In the TEDx you're obviously connecting your ideas with narrative. But I also saw a lot of storytelling in your online videos. Is this exclusive to teaching magic or teaching people about magic, or is storytelling a regular part of the act?

It's a part of the act. Some magicians that we see, it's all about the props. Here's the cup and here's the ball and now the ball is gone from the cup, and so on and so on. And I find that tedious. It's all purely visual and, “Fooled you! Made you look!” From the very beginning I wanted my magic to be about things that matter to people. In the show I’ll be performing Saturday night, I will have two “Once Upon a Time” kinds of stories that are Illustrated with magic. But even when it’s not about stories, what I do hopefully inspires or affirms the ways in which everyone is a magician.


When I watched your TEDx, I was reminded of directing Ubu Roi at Rhodes several years ago, which is an unrealistic piece. I bring it up because students would sometimes fall into traps of “naturalism” and I’d find myself asking, “Why lie to the audience? Do you really think they believe you are this character? That this crazy stuff is really happening?" The challenge to forego pretense gave actors access to problem-solving tools they didn’t have before. And one of your main points is all about breaking down pretense — magic isn’t about lying to the audience, or tricking them — It's not suspending disbelief, but engaging imagination. I love this, obviously.

One of the things that hangs up contemporary magic is the notion that it's about tricking people or fooling them.

Theater too, I think.

This is a very old, long association about magic, often from religious authorities and philosophical authorities who were trying to denigrate magic. When we shift to the recognition that magic is a theatrical art, and is engaged in creating astonishment, not lying to people or tricking them, everything about this changes. Because just like the actor isn't lying to people, the magician isn't either. What we're doing is using techniques to create an entire experience — a theatrical experience. I think what happens, both magicians and non-magicians confuse the con artist with the theatrical artist. So, when I teach magicians, this is one of the things I say: ‘You are a theater artist, not a con artist. If you want to be a con artist go out and play three card Monte in the street. But if you want to perform theatrical acts of magic, you need the skills that come along with the theater.’

Right. And obviously performers like Harry Anderson, who built so much of his act around classic geek shows and cons, instinctively get this.

Yes. The 'street thing' is the character. And Harry was so smart about that. Penn and Teller are the same way. Their show is about the con games and the fun of the con. But I happen to know Penn and Teller, and they are very smart, dedicated theatrical artists. That's just part of their presentation. I admire it greatly. My presentation is about helping people connect with magic as an affirmation.

Was that approach something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning, or was it something that evolved as magic came into contact with your other life in philosophy.

I believe the answer is, as a philosopher, I was always concerned with truth-seeking. I didn't always get there But I was always concerned with revealing more or less true things about the world and how we might live in it. So I never would have gone into magic if it was all about lying to people to take advantage of them. I have zero interest in that. But once I understood that magic wasn't about truth or lying, it was about creating a rich theatrical experience, then I realized those theatrical experiences could be inspirational and affirmational rather than, ‘made you look!’ And I realized that 'made you look,' aspect of it, which some magicians do, was really not essential to magic. It was a choice they made. So this grew out of my deep commitments as a philosopher. And just like Harry Anderson performed as a con artist, I performed as the philosopher magician. So it's a very different show from what other people do, because there really is no other philosopher magician.

I was also surprised by your discussion that, as ancient and universal as stage magic is, it's been so widely ignored by philosophy and academics.

It's such a fascinating part of the story. When you study the history of magic and how we got into this place where there is no academic department of magic, anywhere in the world, that is itself a mystery. Because, as you say, magic is an ancient and universal art form. It's very primordial in our psychology to conceal things — to make them hide and make them appear. Every infant plays peek-a-boo. Magic is primordial and yet somehow, it's absent. The story of that, I believe, is the story of authorities not liking the energy and delight, and astonishment that magic creates. Religious authorities, scientific authorities, philosophical authorities, political authorities ... and when we look back through the history all the way back to the Greeks, and even earlier than the Greeks, you can see magicians are distrusted. Magicians are held out as ‘the other,’ or the thing we don't want to be. There are some unbelievable tracts in the history of religion, and the history of science, and history of philosophy, that are polemics against magic. So the modern-day magician has a lot of historical baggage to overcome, to help people appreciate this primordial art form. I'll be very honest, it's part of my vision. It’s part of why I do what I do. Because magic — It's not just fine, it's great. It's energy. It’s delight and wonder.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Katori Hall Strip Club Drama To Begin Production

Posted By on Wed, Nov 28, 2018 at 3:36 PM

Katori Hall
  • Katori Hall
P-Valley, a Starz series adapted from Memphis playwright Katori Hall's strip club drama Pussy Valley, has been ordered to series, Variety reports. 

Like the script it's based on, P-Valley tells the story of a rural Mississippi strip joint, the girls who work there, the customers who visit, and Uncle Clifford, a trans man connected to the club. Hall will serve as showrunner.

Hall who served briefly as artistic director for Memphis' Hattiloo Theatre, was recognized as a writer of note in 2009, when her play, The Mountaintop, won an Olivier award. She's also the author of Hurt Village, Hoodoo Love and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Pussy Valley was originally produced by Mixed Blood theater in Minneapolis in 2015. It has been in development as a Starz series since 2016. A Memphis area talent search was conducted in July.

Variety describes P-Valley.

It tells the story of a little-strip-club-that-could and the characters who come through its doors—the hopeful, the lost, the broken, the ballers, the beautiful, and the damned. It will star Brandee Evans as Mercedes and Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford. Shannon Thornton and J. Alphonse Nicholson will appear as series regulars.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Can You Spell Fun? Theatre Memphis Hosts a Lively Bee

Posted By on Thu, Nov 8, 2018 at 10:29 AM

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The midterm elections are over — hooray! But nobody's catching a break from our national shit-show. The race for 2020 is on like Fox News in a waiting room! Jeff Sessions is out as Attorney General! The Constitutional Crisis Clock is now set at one minute 'til midnight. Everything only gets worse. Wouldn't you like to get away? Maybe spend some time in a place a little more like Norman Rockwell's America? Only funny?


I've seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee too many times. The jokes shouldn't work. But they do. The Tony-winning one-act combines all the elements of a traditional musical with all the unexpected surprises of improvisation and audience participation. It's the rare show that can be exactly the same from night to night while providing a completely different user experience from audience to audience

The musical's characters represent a broad spectrum of adolescent privilege and insecurity. Chip's been told he's not so smart. Olive made friends with a dictionary because her parents were never there for her. Even perfect Miss Marcy Park who plays piano, twirls baton, speaks six whole languages, and spells like a champion is struggling with the personal cost of overachievement. Angst, acne, and unfortunate erections are on parade. It's only a fraction of the freaky, geeky goodness packed into one of the most purely entertaining musical comedies of the past two decades.

Winners all. - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • Winners all.
Bee's an actor-driven show. It's the kind of thing a solid company of players could do well with almost no physical resources. But that's not how Theatre Memphis rolls. It's certainly not how director Cecelia Wingate (usually) rolls. This one's a monster of detail with Jack Yates' immersive set dropping audiences on the sidelines in a school gym so convincing you can practically smell the tube socks. Lighting designer Mandy Heath skillfully, and unobtrusively illuminates a good, old, cutthroat American spelling bee. If you ever went to school, you know all these kids. And you know right away, there will be blood. And hugs. And juice boxes.

Something about this modest ensemble show always brings out the best in character actors. Theatre Memphis' production is no exception. Jenny Madden, Jimbo Lattimore, Jared Johnson,  Ryan Gilliam, Javier Peña, Nichol Pritchard, and Miranda Tonkin all give fun, first-rate performances. But there's a little something extra that happens between Kevar Maffitt's unapologetically weird William Barfee and Jenny Wilson's nearly spectral take on poor Olive Ostrovsky, who seems to have fled some awful story narrated by Lemony Snicket. He's over-the-top. She's just barely there. Together they're perfect.       

Did I mention at any point that everything is awful? Because that's not correct. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is anything but awful. If anything, it's an antidote for awful. While you're watching it, anyway.
  

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Nightmare Before Christmas: Tennessee Shakespeare Closes Macbeth

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2018 at 2:28 PM

Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4. - TENNESSEE SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
  • Tennessee Shakespeare Company
  • Michael Khanlarian (Banquo), Paul Kiernan (Macbeth), and the Witches. Through Nov. 4.
Hard as it may seem to believe, winter is coming. It won't be long before area playhouses roll out stock scenery and turn their attention to holiday favorites. Theatre Memphis opens The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee this weekend. And there are still a few more opportunities to catch Agatha Christie's enduring mystery The Mousetrap at Germantown Community Theatre. But if there's anybody out there who's not quite ready to put Halloween away just yet,Tennessee Shakespeare Company performs Macbeth through November 4th.

Shakespeare's witchy meditation on ambition and evil is directed by TSC's founder Dan McCleary and performed by a company of nine actors. How dark do things get? Here's what McCleary had to say via the TSC website:

“The witches are our masked Chorus, and a sacrifice is offered to cleanse a world of crimes against humanity. The sacrifice is a man who Shakespeare clearly defines as noble, generous, un-ambitious, indecisive, overly kind, incapable of lying with skill, morally incapable of imagining his own corruption or wrong-doing, courageous, patriotic, regretful, and a good husband and friend. Macbeth is the best of us. What is horrific is that we might be able to explain how he becomes the very worst of us.”
 

Very scary.

Thursday night's performance is Free Will Kids night. That means up to 4 kids (17 or under) are admitted with one paid adult ticket. 

Tennessee Shakespeare follows Macbeth with a  large cast production of  As You Like It Nov. 29-Dec. 6

General Admission tickets are $39. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mixology: Ballet Memphis gets Unapologetic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 12:24 PM

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If you savor local flavor, Memphis music and musicians are lovingly entwined with the dance works in Ballet Memphis’ Fall Mix that continues through this weekend.

Every October, Ballet Memphis presents a series of new, or newish, works that often give the young dancers and sometimes new choreographers a chance to do contemporary and sometimes experimental movement. Steven McMahon, the company’s associate artistic director, says Fall Mix re-launches The Memphis Project, an off-and-on series that puts the focus on the creative and cultural soul of the city.

The effort is a triumph of programming and performance. The opening work is something of an epic oldie, Trey Mcintyre’s “Memphis Suite,” reworked from its debut 20 years ago. The dances are song-length short stories soaked in Memphis sauce and with a soundtrack of classic tunes and local performers starting with Elvis, and moving through Ike Turner, Al Green, The Staples Singers, Roscoe Gordon, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, Pat Hare, and John Lee Hooker.

The next piece by dynamo Alia Kache is “Unrest,” and is, fittingly, overlaid by the music of Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker from her “Turn Out the Lights” album. Baker is a poet of unrest and Kache’s choreography, dark and constrained at first, finds a fascinating deeper expression throughout.

McMahon choreographed the final piece, “Unapologetic,” in collaboration with Unapologetic LLC, the innovative record label and brand that travels the sonic edge while treasuring enough of the traditional to keep you guessing. Headed by record producer IMAKEMADBEATS, the group — Cameron Bethany, Kid Maestro, C Major, PreauXX, and Aaron James — is at the back of the stage, interacting with the dancers. The ballet, like the music, endeavors to take some risks and give the spirit of Memphis some complex, energizing expression.

Fall Mix is a thrilling program grounded in Memphis history and Memphis today, and celebrating the bounty of creativity in the city.

It's performed at Ballet Memphis, 2144 Madison. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Nov. 1 (with a spark discussion beforehand), 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 8 p.m. Nov. 3, and 2 p.m. Nov. 4. Tickets are $25 evenings / $15 matinees. Go to balletmemphis.org or call 901-737-7322.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Memphis Actor/Comedian Harold Foxx Makes Off-Broadway Debut

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 5:01 PM

Hanging with Harold Foxx - OUR AWESOME SERVER
  • Our awesome server
  • Hanging with Harold Foxx
The Old Testament character Job had his share of problems. He lost his home, his livelihood, his health, and his family. Craig Lucas' play I Was Most Alive With You, which recently took its last bows at Playwright's Horizons, may borrow heavily from the troubling Bible story, but none of that tragedy's rubbed off on Harold Foxx. The Memphis-born actor may have made his Off Broadway debut in Lucas' Job-inspired play, but he looks like a man on top of the world. Sitting in the Buffalo Wild Wings on Manhattan's W. 47th ("the one close to Playwright's Horizons"), Foxx' broad face practically glows with confidence.

"Did you see my New York Times spread," he asks by typing the words out on his phone and holding it up for me to see. I indicate that I have and tell him it looked great. He then types out a message saying he's waiting to see if the attention results in more work. If it does, he'll get excited about it.

Foxx is realistic about life as a working actor. He grew up in Orange Mound and graduated from White Station where he played football and made citywide headlines. Foxx is completely deaf. He's mostly silent. He's currently a professional actor, who lives in Los Angeles where he studies improv comedy with the Groundlings and auditions as often as possible. He doesn't think a Netflix special is out of the question. There's no reason to believe he won't get a shot at being in the next Black Panther movie. Nothing's for sure, but Foxx believes. He points to his personal inspiration, the deaf actor C.J. Jones who recently made his film debut in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

"My agent's good," he types.

Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas - COURTESY OF HAROLD FOXX
  • Courtesy of Harold Foxx
  • Harold Foxx and Craig Lucas
Foxx is as expressive as any silent film star. Every wrinkled brow or nostril flare writes a whole new story on his face. He describes this expressiveness as an artifact — something that just happens when you're in the deaf community. But there's precision to every eye-roll or pursing of the lips. There's timing, and it's good. You don't always need to read ASL to get the gist of his messaging. Critics noted his skills in I Was Most Alive With You, where the play's main speaking characters are mirrored by a shadow cast who perform a somewhat modified version of the show in ASL.

I caught up with Foxx in Manhattan, during the last week of his run at Playwright's Horizons. We "talked" about many things over wings, but did our official Q&A in a typed format. Here's a lightly edited version of that conversation.

Memphis Flyer: Wondering about life in Memphis. Did you know you wanted to act and do comedy when you were still living there?

Harold Foxx: Born and raised in Memphis. Native of Orange Mound. It’s funny how my comedy starts. Every morning the school bus picked me up. It was sorta of long ride. Then one day all of us kids on the bus just start to making jokes. From there I started doing comedy storytelling. That was in elementary school. And everybody laughs. Then, after school, when the bus takes us back home, everybody asked me for another comedy storytelling. And I start doing it again. Then somehow it became daily on the school bus, on the way to school and after school. Only difference is that I didn’t get paid that time. Since then, everybody sees my talents. Not only in comedy, but in acting too. Even my teachers in elementary school got me in school talent shows for dance and sign music. Plus, when I was in elementary school, the national theatre for the deaf came to my school and performed for us and I really looked up to them. Not only that. My former theater teacher Rita Grivich, who runs Deaf Drama & Theatre at White Station, always had a show. And when I was young, I'd always go there and watch the older kids perform. And I knew it would happen for me someday and glad that I was part of it.

MF: Memphis only has limited opportunities for actors, and the comedy scene has only begun to mature in the last few years. Guessing Paulette Reagan was a theater teacher at White Station? Were there many opportunities to experience and participate in comedy or theater?

Yes, Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich were my theater teachers at White Station. Honest with you, I’m thankful to have had them as my teachers at White Station. When I was there, I was heavily involved in theater and it actually helps. It applies to what I’m doing today as an actor.

MF: When did you decide on comedy and acting as a career? And was there an obvious path for deaf performers or did you have to make your own?

Actually with all my experience and background as an actor from White Station High school under Paulette Reagan and Rita Grivich, they taught me a lot on what it takes to be an actor. When I graduated from White Station in 1999, I went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.,  where I graduated and also played college football there. Everybody expected me to join the theater at Gallaudet University but I didn’t get involved in theater productions. I focused on football. But I took a couple of theater courses at Gallaudet. So, when I graduated, I started to work as a football coach, personal trainer, and physical education teacher. Somehow my acting passion hits me again one day and I started doing some comedy sketches on Vine apps. It changed my whole life. Now I’m doing acting/comedy as a career, full time. Most of all I started this out on my own from looking up to my role model like CJ Jones, John Maucere, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, etc..
Past show flyer
  • Past show flyer
MF: I love silent film, and your comedy reel was a joy to watch because it has the expressiveness of great silent comedy. Funny enough to transcend any biases hearing audiences might have. Curious as to which actors and comics might have inspired you?

I started on Vine Apps. Of course, as deaf person, I can’t hear a sound or music. Most of my sketches were based on body language and physical comedy so it can be accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. It started similar to silent film — like my favorite comic who did all amazing in silent film, Charlie Chaplin. Then I started my internship at DPAN.TV (Deaf Professional Arts Network) where I learned to make better quality work — script, film, edit. Plus, they have a sound engineer who installs all sounds and music. My comedy video went to a whole different level. That’s when I started getting recognized for my work and getting opportunities in acting and comedy.

MF: How did you land the role in I Was Most Alive With You? And was working on it like anything you’ve done before? Looking at the behind-the-scenes videos, the process looks like it must have been unique and difficult.

Yes. It’s different from what everybody's already seen from my work as a comedian or doing sketches on the video. I was in a production of Our Town last year by Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre. That’s where everybody recognized my work on stage in theater. I’m not only limited to comedy. I can do variety range of work as an actor. Actually how did I land the role? I was in Jamaica doing stand up comedy and then I got an email from my agent. They asked for my video audition, but at that time I wasn’t really interested because I didn’t want to move to NYC. I’m still new in LA. Then one friend convinced me. Said, "It’s Off Broadway." And that’s a good start for my career. So I decide to do the video audition and I got offered the job. So, I’m thankful for this opportunity because I got to work with amazing talented of actors and actresses plus Craig Lucas and Tyne Rafaeli.

MF: Do you think the show’s accurate in its depiction of hearing impaired people, and culture?

We do both as English spoken and ASL, it’s a very heavy play and powerful at the same time and it’s very accessible to both audience.

MF: Has the run been rewarding? And is it difficult to put away as closing night approaches?

We had a very successful run, but at the same time we wish it could be extend more.

MF: Has the run of this show resulted in more opportunities, or is it back to the audition grind?

I’m hoping this production will get me more opportunities. I mean, it’s not easy as deaf actors/actresses because we don’t get a same opportunity as hearing actors/actresses. They might get an audition daily when we, as deaf actors and actresses, are probably lucky to get 2 or maybe 3 auditions a month. But for me, it’s all about hustling. Show your work out there and create your own work. That’s why I created a bunch of short comedy sketches. Now I’m writing my new stand up comedy material and working on a film script. Who knows, I might produce a feature film and act in it someday instead waiting for someone to offer me the opportunity. Always have your own work ready to go.


MF: I know you’ve been training with The Groundlings — which is great! But wondering what’s next, and if you have a preference for sketch/standup over other kinds of performance?


Right now I’m still in training and taking classes at the Groundlings. Sometimes I put it on hold if I get an opportunity like Off Broadway in NYC. But now my agent and I are working on something. Be aren’t sure yet. But for the Groundings, my training continues. Who knows? Maybe one day I will end up on SNL or Comedy Central.

MF: Do you ever make it back to Memphis? What’s the best way for folks back home to experience what you do?

I finally made back to Memphis last summer after seven years. I did a homecoming standup show there and am hoping to do it again soon. Memphis is my hometown, roots, and where I started. One thing I would tell Memphis folks, if they are pursing what I’m doing, it starts with passion and hard work. Create your work and get some training with a top acting or improv class to develop some network.

Click here for more on Harold Foxx

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College Theaters Stage Festival of Plays by Pulitzer Winner Lynn Nottage

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2018 at 4:46 PM

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Three local college theater programs are staging work by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Collectively, it's called, “NottageFest." One play is being performed on each campus with an "intercollegiate finale," Sunday, November 11th, at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Southwest Community College, Verties Sails Building, Room 113

Crumbs From the Table of Joy (premiered 1995)

Directed by Sheila Darras

Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 at 12:30 p.m.

Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.

Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 at 3 p.m.

All tickets are free and available at the door.

www.tn.edu/theater



The University of Memphis, Theatre Arts Building

Intimate Apparel (premiered 2003)

Directed by Dennis Whitehead-Darling

Nov. 1-3 & 8-10, 7:30 p.m. each night

All tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and students

Purchase in advance at www.memphis.edu/theatre/currentseason/intimate.php



Rhodes College, McCoy Theatre

Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine (premiered 2004)

The play is about Undine Barnes Calles, an ambitious African-American woman in the early days of the Obama era whose best-laid plans don’t go accordingly. On the brink of social and financial ruin, Undine retreats to her childhood home and forgotten family only to discover she must cope with her cruel new reality and figure out how to transform her setbacks into small victories.

Directed by Thomas King

Nov. 9 & 10, 15-18, 7:30 p.m. each night, except the 2 p.m. Sunday matinee.

All tickets are free,but reservations are recommended by contacting the McCoy Box Office at mccoy@rhodes.edu or (901) 843-3839

www.rhodes.edu/mccoy

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Dracula's Got No Bite at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2018 at 11:25 AM

This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
  • This is not a musical. No ships hit icebergs. Nobody's king of the world.
Was that a wolf mask? A bat mask? A rat mask? Or a fly? Was it rubber?

Forgive.

Thoughts have been scattered since I sampled Sunday's matinee performance of Dracula at Theatre Memphis. To combat the glamour, I've given myself a mental challenge. I'll make it through this entire review without using the word "sucks." Even if it kills me.

Theatre Memphis' Dracula is all blood, no guts. Still, the lush production gets at least one key thing exactly right. A little well-placed magic goes a long way. Levitation illusions are also a fun way to evoke that steamy point on the temporal map where nineteenth-century spiritualism crashes headlong into the modern age — a time when psychoanalysts unlocked mysteries of the mind while performers like Harry Keller toured the globe performing self-decapitations and floating head tricks.

William McNulty's script leans into the vampire story's potential for Jacobean-style splatter and grand-guignol illusion. In doing so, it also opens a portal to the camp dimension. Like the hapless victims of a cruel prank, the cast and crew walk right through.


We've seen so many versions of Dracula since 1897, the year theater manager and pulp author Bram Stoker borrowed the memory of Vlad the Impaler, a brutal prince who butchered Turks and Bulgarians for "the preservation of Christianity," and transformed him into the shape-shifting prince of darkness we know today. We've seen demonic Draculas, sleazy Draculas, sexy Draculas, silly Draculas, groovy Draculas, disco Draculas, and outright campy Draculas. We've seen porny Draculas, super-villain Draculas and kid-friendly Draculas who sell breakfast cereal and teach us to count. The fatal flaw with this latest incarnation is that nobody seems to have made a hard, clear decision as to what kind of Dracula this Dracula wants to be.


Brian Everson's a trooper but hopelessly miscast in the title role. He's a go-to actor for light comic leads. Adjectives that come to mind include "able," "clever," and "nonthreatening." Outfitted with a long black wig, and dark, impaleresque facial hair, his Dracula looks like it might have wandered away from the set of  What We Do in the Shadows. He's adopted a broad Draculonian accent and acts in bold strokes more suitable to musical comedy or farce. The pomp and  effort makes this blood-craving ghoul funny when he should be scary and the wolf mask thing with "Safety Dance" hair doesn't help a bit.

Wolf-bat?  Flying rat-wolf?
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Everson's got a sound supporting cast. Andrew Chandler is especially enjoyable as the bug and rat munching Renfield. Jason M. Spitzer's an attentive director, notable for the work he did to inject a much-needed dash of horror into Theatre Memphis' long-running holiday staple, A Christmas Carol. His Dracula is thoroughly rendered but never scary enough to qualify as horror, mysterious enough to function as suspense, or funny enough to be a comedy. It's not tricked out enough to be a magic show nor is there quite enough mayhem to call it theater of blood.

Memphis' namesake playhouse seems to be taking some risks these days but the best adjective I can think of for this show is "safe." As noted above, Dracula can be a lot of different things. But safe isn't one of them.


As the well-known horror classic unfolded in front of me, my mind wandered far and wide. At one point I started trying to think of all the fun spook season shows Theatre Memphis might have produced instead of this Dickensian Dracula. They've done such a fine job with monster musicals like Young Frankenstein and The Addams Family. "So why wasn't I watching the American Psycho musical?," I wondered, not giving a fig if the flopped Brett Easton Ellis adaptation was ever a good idea or not. All that brutality, misogyny, and 1980's-style greed would at least be in line with contemporary anxieties.  For fresher takes on the old vampire story there's Little One, Cuddles, and Let The Right One In. There's an Evil Dead musical and if that's too far out, Theatre Memphis is more than equipped to explore the psychological terror in dramas like Frozen or The Pillowman.

via GIPHY


With this list of things that might have been, I've got nothing left to say. So here we are at the end of the review and I didn't use "sucks" once. Or even bites. To borrow from Deadpool, that would have been lazy writing. Besides Theater Memphis' Dracula doesn't suck or bite. But it doesn't thrill or chill either. That blows.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Lizzie Borden Rocks Theatreworks

Posted By on Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 9:43 AM

Lizzie & Co. - NEW MOON
  • New Moon
  • Lizzie & Co.
Rock-and-roll was barely old enough to drink when somebody asked playwright Sam Shepard his opinion about the rock musical. I've not been able to run down the exact quote, but the Shepard, who sometimes drummed with The Holy Modal Rounders, thought rock musicals and operas would remain theoretical until somebody composed one that was as "violent" as "a Who concert." As someone who tends to rate concerts by the degree to which they've "ripped my head off," or "melted my face," I've always agreed with Shepard's assessment. By that measure, it's probably fair to note that, in spite of the city's storied music history, the rock musical didn't arrive in Memphis until October 2018 when Lizzie — the Lizzie Borden ax-murdering musical — opened at TheatreWorks. I say this as a veteran of Hair, American Idiot, Rock of Ages, Rocky Horror, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and a dozen more electric guitar musicals.  But when it comes to pure rock concert muscle, New Moon's Lizzie kills the competition. Dead.

Lizzie's soundtrack is show-tune aware, but with a punk heart, a goth soul and roots anchored deep in the sisterhood of classic rock. Delivered in an audience-aware, concert-style format, songs like "Why Are All These Heads Off," and "What The Fuck, Lizzie?" make The Who's Tommy sound about as quaint and orderly as the collected love songs of Lerner & Lowe. It's the rare Halloween season treat that should appeal to most traditional theater fans while flirting hard with a quality I'm going to call Goner appeal.


The story of ax-murderess Lizzie Borden (and her famous 40-whacks) is sung, shouted, and shrieked at the audience by a strong, all-female cast of 4. The book strays far enough from the facts as we know them to qualify as historical fiction, but the details of what actually happened when Mr. & Mrs. Borden were murdered, are beside the point in this bloody portrait of a place where sexual abuse and the status quo walk hand in glove. Director Kell Christie keeps the sex and money elements of the narrative front and center while making the overall experience more like an arena concert than a piece of musical theater. Melissa Andrews' lights are on point, and Eileen Kuo's music direction drives hard without sacrificing dynamics.  A nearly perfect ensemble showcases the acting and vocal talents of Christina Hernandez, Annie Freres, Joy Brooke Fairfield, and Jaclyn Suffel.

Lizzie closes Sunday, Oct. 28, so there aren't many chances left to witness this dreadful tale of horror and woe. You don't want to miss this one.

Pay-What-You-Can Wed. Oct 24. 

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Summer/Winter Romance an Uncertainty in Heisenberg at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 1:03 PM

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Uncertainty Principle: The principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time. — Google.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Exists solely "in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  — Wikipedia.

How nice it is for fans when these sorts of harmonics occur between shows in a local theater season. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which opened last week at Playhouse on the Square, is a spectacle-driven event, faithfully adapted from Mark Haddon's book by British playwright, Simon Stephens. Heisenberg, which opened the same weekend at Theatre Memphis, is a a spectacle-free example of the kind of work Stephens does when he's doing his own thing. In the case of Heisenberg, "his own thing" is also a little like Tom Stoppard's thing, but shorter, maybe a wee bit duller, and way less pleased with itself.

None of the above is a complaint, mind you. But be warned: Heisenberg is not a play about the famously conflicted WWII physicist tasked with developing a nuclear weapons program for the Nazis. Beyond the title, his name is never mentioned and the metaphor, at the heart of Theatre Memphis' sturdily built production, is pretty basic: It's difficult to take the full measure of a person or relationship in any time-isolated circumstance. It's harder still to predict where the players may end up when the curtain comes down. The story is a romance, of sorts, with just a hint of suspense woven into the fabric. It introduces us to Alex Priest, a reserved, 75-year-old Irish-born butcher living in London, whose life is turned upside down by a motormouthed American woman with ulterior motives.

Alex is shocked when a complete stranger sneaks up on him at a train station and kisses him on the back of the neck. Georgie Hardeman swears it was a case of mistaken identity, but she sticks around the station anyway, launching an awkward, distinctly one-side conversation. It's the beginning of an unlikely and complicated relationship between a mouthy 42-year-old woman and a quiet but soulful septuagenarian who loves music like John Cusack in High Fidelity and takes long walks around London with nothing but his headphones for company. Stephens' script toys with the idea that we can never tell where a story will go, but we can be pretty sure from the onset that Georgie— a confessed fabulist — is either going to swindle Alex or the two lonely characters are going to fall in love and/or teach one another valuable life lessons. Or maybe some less expected combination of all of the above.

Like the sensitive young protagonists of a certain kind of movie, Alex is coping with losing his parents. He's also managing the trauma of true love lost. The only real difference between Alex and the sensitive but stunted male leads in coming of age fantasies like Elizabethtown, or 500 Days of Summer, is that, by the time Georgie shows up in his life, Alex has been making the most of his arrested development for 60 years or so. And he's pretty good at it.

In many regards, Georgie is a "manic pixie dream girl" straight out of central casting, but aged to middle years — like a slightly broken refugee from Mama Mia. Unlike the cinema archetype she so closely resembles, Georgie, a school administrator by profession, has been doing her quirky carpe diem schtick long enough to have a backstory. This includes an adult son who hates her free-spirited ways and has abandoned her for the USA where he hopes to put down roots. Differences aside, the results here are very much the same as they always are with the MPDG type. She storms into Alex's life like a 42-year-old Kirsten Dunst,  and the sheer force of her quirk draws him into an unexpected, sometimes dangerous, and certainly uncharacteristic adventure that results in sexual and personal awakenings and second chances.

As Georgie Natalie Jones comes on like a weird tornado, winding and smashing her way into Alex's personal space. It's a strong, detailed performance that hints at the kind of work Jones might have done as Maggie the Cat had she been given more to work with in Theatre Memphis' 2017 production of Cat on a Hot in Roof.  In a dynamic similar to Cat's, Georgie's would-be squeeze doesn't always have much to say. In Irene Crist's tightly directed production, Alex is always present, no matter how hard Jones monologues.

Alex is another familiar type. He's a classic salt-of-the-earth guy with the soul of a poet/philosopher. He's a sensitive butcher who likes knowing that animals have seams and are put together just like ready-to-wear. He's never experienced life outside of London, but he can tango like a champ. He's got a big heart, a bigger record collection, and grand ideas about the universe, if only somebody would ask him to share.

There's not so much salt and vinegar in Jerry Chipman's butcher. His routines seem less habitual than duty-bound, just at the edge of dharma. He blushes and giggles his way through the awkward stuff in a sweet, complete performance that's maybe a little too passive for a little too long.

Jack Yates' set is an elegantly abstract object lesson in economy, utility, and how to frame characters in a small, intimate drama. It's likely my favorite thing the resident designer has ever done in Theatre Memphis' smaller black box space.

I've admittedly fallen for a few manic pixies, but, for being a committed Harold & Maude guy,  fantasies about older men and eccentric younger women have never turned my ticket. All else aside, Heisenberg is still that. But clocking in at about 90 minutes, it's too brief to bog down and, if it sometimes feels a little familiar, I can't complain about a show that invites us to think a little harder about uncertainty and the limits of information without making the physics lesson too dense, too dark, or too self-congratulatory. Good show!

Correction: An earlier draft misidentified Georgie Hardeman as Katie Hardeman.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Hattiloo Puts the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Spotlight

Posted By on Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 4:13 PM

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Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry and Richard Wright's prose, Dominique Morisseau's  Pipeline wants to be a teaching play where various aspects of the grooming system known as the "school to prison" pipeline are explored in broad strokes and emotionally fought conflicts. Characters exist at the edge of archetype, representing specific tensions in the narrative. Hattiloo's uncommonly wooden production is only sporadically successful in giving Morisseau's brief, panic-attack of a show the life, urgency, and inevitability it needs in order to cook.

Pipeline introduces us to Laurie, a grizzled soldier-educator from urban district trenches. She's a "white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” and probably the kind of person who shows up in memes for calling the cops on black people outside Chick-fil-A  for ... I don't know, reasons, okay? Laurie describes her teaching gig as "war," and kids are clearly the enemy here. Now that a student's slashed her face with a knife, she's got the scars to show for it. Or, she did have scars, before the reconstructive surgery. With a mannequin-still face and gutsy swagger, Memphis veteran actor Pamela Poletti just lets Laurie's opinions rip.

We also meet Nya (Nicole Bandele), an African-American English teacher who shows grace in the face of Laurie's white noise while navigating a whole other set of conflicts.  She's committed to the neighborhood but sends her son Omari to a private school. When Omari faces expulsion after pushing his teacher in an incident he can explain, but can't dispute, Nya's ex-husband, a brusque and evidently successful man of business becomes involved. Things get prickly, complicated and class-and-gender conscious real quick.

To Omari dad-not-dad, he's just a signature on a check the secretary probably sends automatically. There's  more going on in this one under-explored relationship than Pipeline's 75-minutes can hold. Many things are left unattended.


Hattiloo's Pipeline benefits from honest, committed performances, particularly from James Cook, as a straight-dealing security guard and younger cast members Desmond Cortez and Zaria Crawford. Overall, the stakes here are always too low and the threats too intangible. The action is unfocused and story's momentum is interrupted rather than aided by projected video. 

Video projection can be a nifty tool, especially when it becomes interactive, environmental, or provides the audience with a different view of things than the one being presented by the actors. But these kids-gone-wild, ready-to-go viral videos depicting school tensions and violence were redundant, highlighting and reinforcing only the more sensational aspects of a complicated story. The clips are projected on theater walls between scenes and it's a nifty effect at first. Over time the clips become speed bumps, interrupting the momentum of a brief, bracing text with the potential to land hard.   

Pipeline mixes kitchen-sink guts with cold formalism. It deploys Brooks' "We Real Cool," like Greek Tragedy uses prophesy. You feel the audience nod in collective recognition when the first words of the touchstone poem dropped. Hattiloo's production connects in these and other moments, but it never connects the dots.


 

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Typographer's Dream is Dreamy Comedy at TheatreSouth

Posted By on Thu, Sep 20, 2018 at 11:00 AM

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First off, Quark Theatre's production of The Typographer's Dream, is a fine, fine thing with more honest laughs, and little epiphanies than most plays twice its length. I'm probably not going to write very much about It though. Not because it's not worthy, but because it's a tiny thing, featuring only three actors, no set to speak of, and clocking in at around 75-minutes. More than usual, describing any of the component parts in any detail will spoil the fun.

Instead of narrative, playwright Adam Bock uses the convention of a panel discussion to just let a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer talk directly to the audience about their seemingly unrelated jobs. The result is a curious, quirky show about the differences between what we do and who we are. Playing out like the most delightful documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control filmmaker Errol Morris never made, The Typographer's Dream is a subtle, jokey inquiry into the malleable, too-easily-shaded nature of translation and described realities. Best part: For being pretty heady stuff, Bock is never afraid to be a little poignant, and first and foremost, The Typographer's Dream was built to entertain. But when the laughter fades, it may leave audiences contemplating the meaning, poetics, and ethics of their own occupations.

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Jillian Barron is joyfully weird as the geographer. She's one of those eternally chipper people and seems to love her job — and maps — just a little too much. Eric Vinton Jones plays the proud, disciplined stenographer like a man who's always wondered what it might be like for somebody to care about what he had to say for a change. It's a quiet, uncommonly honest performance, and very funny. 

Of the bunch, Michelle Miklosey's typographer has the most trouble getting started. Her character's feelings are complicated and thinking about them doesn't always bring clarity. She's not sure how to describe her her job. She's not a graphic artist or a word decorator. She's engaged with so much more than a visual representation of language. She worries about truth and honesty and how meaning can be distorted if we give it a misleading physical form. The whole of this warm, probing (but not so deep) comedy turns on this idea. It's frustrating. It's lovely.

Speaking of misleading, it's not entirely true that there's no narrative here. A story tying the three panelists together does emerge from their fragmented work histories. It becomes full enough to trigger stylistically incongruous flashbacks that shouldn't work but somehow do.
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Director Tony Isbell's kept things simple, which is never as simple as it sounds. It's another winner for Quark Theatre, and bite-sized performance in Memphis. 

The Typographer's Dream closes this weekend, so catch it while you can. It would be so nice if a show of this scale — a show that could move into another theater, shopfront, lobby, or living room tomorrow — could be kept going. If it could be booked privately, like a band or deployed like a calling card to raise awareness, and $ for the company. But that never happens. Assume it will be gone after this weekend. Though it seems like such a disposable trifle, this is a show you want to see — a show you'll want to keep with you. 
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For more details, here's the click.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Newsies Is Good Entertainment: Weekend Theatre Roundup

Posted By on Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 4:28 PM

Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
  • Newsies at Theatre Memphis.
What does it mean when a musical about newspapers and unions is way more popular than newspapers and unions? I honestly don’t know. And I don't really know where to start with my review of Theatre Memphis’ production of Newsies other than to say it’s a technically outstanding interpretation of the famously failed Disney film that found a more natural home on Broadway. The ensemble is first rate. The singing soars. The choreography is energetic and stunty. The kids (and baby-faced grownups) playing the “Newsies” are especially good and John Hemphill and Kent Fleshmen make perfect comic and villainous foils.

What’s not to love?

For me, it’s the irony. See, striking newspaper delivery kids were they primary means of distribution for afternoon papers. Their after-school labor helped to make Joseph Pulitzer very rich. Although the strike did win the newsies some concessions, they are all still crushingly poor when the curtain comes down. They’ll be paid no more for their labor. They still have to invest more up front. They still take a hit on every paper they sell. But Pulitzer, knowing a good deal when he hears it, subsidizes their risk and incentivizes productivity by agreeing to buy back unsold issues. Although the result was favorable and the Newsboy strike is an important moment in American labor history, in the post-labor 21st century it’s hard to see Newsies as anything but nostalgia. Or a cynical artifact of American capitalism celebrating values and systems we don’t officially like anymore. Values and systems our elected representatives had been busy starving and stamping out for more than a decade by the time Disney released the original flop film in 1989.

To be fair, Disney grabbed good headlines recently for making $15/hour the new minimum wage in its parks. It’s a good, overdue decision that’s earned praise from affiliated unions that, though diminished, continue to press for better wages and working conditions. Well, from the unions MouseHouse hasn’t stealth-busted, anyway.

Theatre Memphis’ Newsies got a well-deserved standing ovation opening night, but looking around at all the gray hair, pale faces, conservative suits and Marsha Blackburn supercuts, I couldn’t help but wonder what this demographic was clapping for. It couldn’t possibly be for a story about disruptive, production-choking protest. The Newsboy strike famously shut down a bridge, after all, and we all know how Memphis’ privileged classes feel about that sort of thing. Maybe they were just applauding the unpaid talent sweating guts out to entertain? Or depictions of the use of law enforcement as the strong arm of big business, quelling dissent and making compromise more appealing? Or the plebe-appeasing triumph of capital inherent in the musical’s happy ending? Or maybe it was just habit.

See, in the current political and economic environment a proper telling of this story shouldn’t entertain, it should incite.

Allow me to double down on my opening comments. Theatre Memphis’ Newsies is perfect and polished in the ways musicals at the East Memphis playhouse often are. Fans of the film, and earlier iterations of the stage show won’t be disappointed. Voices are strong, the acting is professional and featured dancers (high) kick ass. Costumes are appropriate and scenic and lighting elements serve the material well. Even if the book and music underwhelm, the production may yet inspire.

That’s not nearly enough, but I’ll take it.
Junk continues...

For a different take on business in America, Junk continues its run at Circuit Playhouse. From the Review...

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980s, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers, was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry, sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage, there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color, or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.  (Continue reading).
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Hattiloo takes a look at the "school to prison pipeline" with the play Pipeline.

From press materials: 
"Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities they’ll never have. When a controversial incident at his private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent."
•The popular musical Nunsense opens at Germatown Community Theatre.
•Emerald Theatre Co. presents Gaydar, its third annual original 10-minute play festival
Gaydar.
•Tennessee Shakespeare opens Two Gentlemen of Verona. This is also the best bargain in town thanks to Tennessee Shakespeare's Free Shakespeare Shout-Out Series which kicks off this month with 11 performances in nine different indoor and outdoor locations. It's a 75-minute show and no tickets or reservations are required.
•Quark Theatre opens The Typographer's Dream at Theatre South. You can read the preview here. 

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Obsession: Circuit Playhouse Stages White Collar Crime Drama, Junk.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 7:10 PM

Gabe Beutel-Gunn - PLAYHOUSE ON THE SQUARE
  • Playhouse on the Square
  • Gabe Beutel-Gunn
"It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you're left like a zombie
And I want you
And I want you
And I want you so
It's an obsession" —
The Eurythmics, 1982.

To build on an idea put forward by addict/philosopher William S. Burroughs, Junk needs swagger like a junkie needs junk. It also needs the raw, biological urgency of addiction. Though Ayad Akhtar's script is a trope-eschewing, drug-free zone compared to most mythic tales of corporate greed in the 1980's, Circuit Playhouse's earnest production joneses hard for the wild eyes and religious fervor so vividly described in the play's opening moments.

We've seen stories like Junk before. Salesmen, The Maysels Brothers 1969 documentary about door-to-door Bible peddlers was a study in the rich, racist language of predatory business in America. That inspired David Mamet's prescient real estate drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. The Wolf of Wall Street was a blurry,  sweat and semen-drenched Polaroid of excess and, in a similar post-party vein, The Big Short was quirky, disruptive, and as entertaining as it was educational. On stage there's been Enron and Serious Money and I can't believe I almost forgot to mention  Gordon Gekko's succinct "Greed is good," monologue from 1987's Wall Street, an original period artifact that's still as quotable as it ever was. But Junk, the story of game-changing junk bond king Robert Merkin, has no use for quirk, color or succinctness. It's all sprawling sincerity and shades of gray with one thing logically following another with all the intrigue and suspense of a single-file domino tumble. Junk's script leans on narration, biasing "tell" over "show," and Circuit's translation from page to stage does little to correct the imbalance.

Robert Merkin's got problems with the American media. Newspapers only collect low hanging fruit he grouses in a familiar complaint about the modern press. He's not all wrong, of course. Reporters do sometimes craft narratives with "good guys and bad guys," as surely as if they were playwrights.

“[Reporters] don’t understand how the real world works,” Merkin says, laying out Junk's primary meta-text. Calling no attention to the irony, he heroically (and accurately) points out that his brave, new system puts money into the hands of poor people and minorities who'd been shut out of the American economy. Watching Merkin invent subprime loans in prison to "help" an underpaid guard realize the "dream" of home ownership, is a helpful reminder of how big time gangsters may have better reputations back in the old neighborhood. In doing so, it also reminds us why the professional classes don't get "deplorable," values.


What all these narrative threads lack is the meaning and human context of a crashing economy and the historic loss of minority wealth that occurred when the bubble finally popped.

Akhtar's balanced, complicated treatment tells the story of a hostile takeover. Merkin, by proxy, acquires the publicly-owned  Everson Steel, outfoxing the family-run corporation's third-generation management at every turn. He's going to kick the struggling steel business to the curb, killing jobs and the possibility of resurgence while focusing on pharma holdings in a weirdly boring game of economic chicken that makes it impossible for even the horn-doggiest of old-school capitalists to compete without getting themselves hooked on junk.

Junk strips away the usual trappings of business procedurals, exposing a kind of ritual addiction. Akhtar works a nonjudgmental idea that every person's the hero of his or her own story. Every man, anyway. But so many characters never develop, many more important threads go un-pulled, while other shopworn tropes emerge.

To some degree guest director Warner Crocker ignores the playwright's suggestion to avoid making Junk "an 80's play," and it wouldn't shock me if all John Hughes' movies got together and called Circuit Playhouse to ask for their soundtrack back. But, if one were to go that way, Junk's about boys club bullies, and in spite of its pivotal female roles, closer in spirit to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" than "Summer of '69." Soaring, transcendent (and sometimes bewildering) moments would nestle brilliantly into something from Glassworks. Judy Chen's sexless monologue about money giving her an orgasm might make more sense were she one of many stone-faced Robert Palmer girls, swinging to the shredding guitar samples of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" or if all the filthy lucre flowing through Junk manifested itself in any way other than the decorative illuminated spikes on a graph-inspired set.

Speaking of, Phillip Hughen's sweet scenic design is also a bit of a one trick pony. Oh hell yes, the light-bright graph is way cool to look at, but does it help tell the story? Or does it just limit stage depth and opportunities to design something bolder than this Junk's enter/exit blocking. The isolation works for one character and Jason Gerhard is typically excellent as a terrified, easily manipulated dumb-money investor.
Extra width, not much depth. - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • Extra width, not much depth.
Circuit's creative team has brought together a strong cast that should be capable of riskier, and more rewarding choices. As Merkin, Gabe Beutel-Gunn is all sincerity and righteousness, while Mark Pergolizzi's Tresler, a traditional capitalist determined to preserve the status quo at (almost) any cost, mixes entitlement and easy self-assurance with rigidity and calculated bluster. Both men need to command a room like Tony Robbins power-walking into a self-improvement revival, thumping his latest book like the King James Bible. Neither do, and no other character is developed enough to make this play tick.

This should be a good role for Beutel-Gunn, and maybe even a better role for Pergolizzi who knows a little something about how to play rock star kings threatened by gypsy killers with no respect for established rules of the game. Why does it seem like every staging choice was designed to make both the high-rolling, p-grabbing Tresler and his natural enemy so much smaller than life?

Kevin Shaw crafts the evening's most compelling character. He's completely believable as Everson, the third generation scion of American steel royalty, coming awkwardly, and much too late to an understanding that sustainability means more than shuffling numbers on a balance sheet. It means expensive modernization. It means working with communities and labor and taking the kind of profit hits Wall Street won't stand for. But he's pure milquetoast, blinkered by privilege and unprepared to face the expensive-suited barbarians hammering away at his gate.  

Though the character is somewhat misused, Jeff Kirwan gets to the heart of things as a union boss scolding the rank and file for choosing self-interest over self preservation. Sadly, even in this very long play, there's not enough time to show how the steel industry changed the face of labor with its "new experimental bargaining." That broadly-adopted change in protocol took away the right to strike in favor of binding arbitration. Since you're reading this review here and are unlikely to find anything similar on the The Commercial Appeal's website, it might be helpful to understand that these same bargaining techniques enabled union -busting and the corporate delocalization of daily newspapers. So Junk's most heartfelt moment leaves the false impression of short-sighted workers availing themselves of a money grab when, for the previous 20-years union leadership had been golfing with management, while ignoring comment from the rank and file that might have sustained America's unionized industry through mechanization.  Like reporters, playwrights also tell easy, incomplete stories sometimes. At least Kirwan connects with both his character, and the audience during Junk's heart-breaking aside about complicity and the common man.


While I don't really miss all the cocaine or the gratuitous sex that often accompanies these kinds of stories, I do miss the speed, clarity, chaos and manifest temptation. Junk's a fine essay, but a less than extraordinary play that creeps along with three dots left dangling for every two it connects. Even these weaknesses might be exploited by embracing another trope of the 1980's — postmodernism. Expanding on the example of shows like Enron,  Junk might discover its better life as a rose-strewn toe-dance across the keys of  a big baby-grand, ascending like good hair or a big black and white stairway to heaven. The thing about this american ritual, to borrow from The Eurythmics, "It's savage and it's cruel and it shines like destruction, comes in like the flood and it seems like religion. It's noble and it's brutal. It distorts and deranges. It wrenches you up, and you're left like a zombie." Junk doesn't do any of that.

That's love, not judgment. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Marriage Proposal, Memorials Steal the Show: Ostranders, 2018

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2018 at 10:10 AM

Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
  • Dawwwwww! (From the 2016 Ostranders).
Laughter, tears, goosebumps, the uncontrollable urge to dance, and the undeniable need to stretch: This year's Ostrander Awards packed in an entire theater season's worth of feels, including big surprises and the occasional jot of dismay. This year's event boasted more (and better) musical numbers, with a bigger band and better production than Ostranders past.

What began in 1984 as a simple act of handing out play prizes, is now a proper mini-festival where theater makers and theater lovers can spend a few more hours with favorite shows from the past season, and sample the best work being created by top artists working in Memphis area playhouses. This year's audience was treated to heartfelt, heart-stopping, rafter-shattering samples from Falsettos, Dream Girls, The Wild Party, Fun Home, Violet, Shrek, Once, and The Drowsy Chaperone.

A memorial for local performing artists who've died in the past year turned the crowd into a sobbing mess. 



This year's host-free version of the Ostrander Awards took several tentative steps forwards in terms of packing in fun content and letting Memphis' theatrical talent really show off for itself. People who do shows don't always get to see shows, and it's hard to overstate the revival-like affirmation of being in room filled with actors, singers, hoofers, writers, and musicians all together for the first time hearing Breyannah Tillman cut loose with "And I Am Telling You," or falling into a stunned hush when the cast of Once hammers out a ragged Irish ballad. But between the singing and all the dancing, and the surprises, this was still a show desperately in need of an editor. 
Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
  • Dreamgirls at the Ostranders
C'mon, folks! Excluding a modest acceptance address by lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell, every speech and award citation would have improved with distillation. Actors may love a meaty monologue, it's true, but when it comes to telling this night's story well, in a reasonable amount of time, a deft sentence or two composed for speakers rather than readers, is more effective than detailed paragraphs rattled off imprecisely at a breakneck pace.

I'll attempt an example.

The 2018 Ostrander for "Oh No You Didn't" goes to Chase Ring. Ring upstaged everybody (including lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell!), when he took a knee and proposed to co-presenter, Ellen Inghram. Congratulations and raised eyebrows are both in order.
Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.
  • Scene stealer! Yeah, it's a terrible, blurry photo, but it's the best shot I got of Chase Ring proposing to co-presenter Ellen Inghram on the Orpheum stage at the 2018 Ostrander Awards.

I'm kidding about the raised eyebrows part. And the part about giving Chase the business for being a spotlight-hogging scene thief. Mostly. But congratulations really are in order. It was lovely, and an awesome moment to share with a community that's experienced a good deal of crisis and loss in the past 12 months. Also, any citation longer than the one above my super blurry photo of Chase and Ellen showing us what perfect storybook romance looks like, is probably too much.
Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
  • Members of the cast of Once offer a lesson in ensemble performance.
I'll have one last report about this year's Ostrander awards in the October issue of Memphis magazine. Until then — and until next year for Intermission Impossible's annual Ostrander coverage — I'll leave you with this picture of Justin Asher loving life. In Shrek ears. 
Shrek & Donkey.
  • Shrek & Donkey.

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