Monday, April 17, 2017

Memphis Theater Community Mourns Actor, Volunteer Ron Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A memorial has been scheduled for Monday, May 15, 6-7 p.m. at Playhouse on the Square. 
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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Glass Menagerie Opens in Germantown

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

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

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

Speaking of telephones...

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

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

Privacy was also a major concern."

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

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

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

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

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

Timeless


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

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

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

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

This is the social background of the play.

[MUSIC begins to play]


The play is memory.

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Human Resources: Rasheeda Speaks Loud and Clear at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Apr 11, 2017 at 10:38 AM

Neither of these women are Rasheeda
  • Neither of these women are Rasheeda
Well, that was awkward. A poor audience member, tricked by the convincing verisimilitude of Jack Yates’ set design, walked right into the theater and attempted to use a fake public restroom built down stage right. Yeah, that happened. It wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been though, since the show hadn’t yet started, and it was pretty clear, once you got beyond the toilet door, there was no privacy, and no real facilities in the onstage facilities. But good theater is made of good illusions, and, in this case, as I’ve mentioned already, Rasheeda Speaking — a tense comedy about race, gender, office life and the way we work now — hadn’t even begun.

Yates is such a gifted artist and technician his uncanny ability to build complete, lived-in spaces can actually be a challenge for less challenging productions. When nothing’s left to the imagination, imaginations don’t always engage as powerfully as they might. But Rasheeda Speaking is a different kind of stage story, and it benefits from playing out in such a familiar place — A surgeon’s clean, brightly lit waiting room in some anonymous professional building in some city, somewhere, just like every other city in America. This is Everyoffice, and the audience is dropped right behind the fabled fourth wall, where it’s encouraged to slip into full voyeur mode, and witness icky banal conversations never meant for public consumption. Add to this picture a trio of solid performances from Anne Marie Caskey, Brian Everson, and Dusty Walsh, and an extraordinarily confident one from Jessica “Jai” Johnson, and it’s easy to give into the fantasy and pretend it’s all happening right there in front of you — that there really are sinks and stalls just beyond the clearly marked restroom door. You can almost smell the urinal puck.

Rasheeda Speaking opens with the Surgeon (Everson) instructing his newly appointed office manager (Caskey) to observe her co-worker Jaclyn (Johnson) and take detailed notes. “Jackie,” as he calls her, doesn’t really fit in. She’s angry, he says, acknowledging that won’t be a good enough reason for the Human Resources department to let her go, or move her to another, more appropriate position. This opening conversation establishes a familiar, flirty and manipulative relationship between the doctor and his submissive senior staff member. It doubles as instruction to the audience/jury. The strong, quirky, slightly sadistic black woman they’re about to meet, is officially exotic, and absolutely on trial for it.

That’s all misdirection. While we’re all busy watching Jaclyn (She prefers Jaclyn), and wondering if she may be genuinely toxic, the doctor and his mousey spy unravel in even more dramatic ways. What begins as a variety of harassment suits waiting to happen ends in absurd hysteria and the terrifying threat of a “stand your ground” moment. 
Sometimes the set's the star.
  • Sometimes the set's the star.

It’s worth mentioning that both playwright Joel Drake Johnson and director Jerry Chipman are white guys, only because it’s worth asking whether or not we really need more deep thoughts on race and gender politics from a white guy’s POV. Thing is, Rasheeda Speaking is deliberately exploitative, putting its one brown face and two women on exhibit for study in an otherwise petty drama of arrested development, and playground paternalism. From coded beginnings, to unmistakable outbursts, it’s a native habitat diorama, instructing us on how white folks are when they don’t think any black people are in the bathroom listening. It’s never exactly what you think it is — uniquely voiced, and frustratingly topical.

Nobody in Rasheeda Speaking is named Rasheeda. It’s a name, we’re told, a group of young white professionals —liberals by implication — have mockingly given to all working class black women. It’s an inside joke they felt comfortable laughing about day after day on the bus to work. Jaclyn agrees to be called Jackie, but when the indignities pile up she surrenders to this minstrel stereotype the way Bruce Banner surrenders to the Hulk. That’s when phones get answered, “Rasheeda speaking!” It’s a messy moment, in a messy play. It’s the realest thing you’ll see on stage this week.

Rasheeda Speaking
is at Theatre Memphis through April 23.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Theatre Roundup: Black Box Festival at Hattiloo, "Rasheeda Speaking" at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Apr 7, 2017 at 2:01 PM

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The Hattiloo Theatre's National Black Box Performing Arts Festival continues through this weekend with a selection plays, cinema, concerts and dance performances. Artists on tap include slam poet turned recording artist Toussaint Morrison, film and TV actor Debbi Morgan, and artist/activist Antonio Lyons.

There are also screenings of the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and public performances by arts groups like Cazateatro, Inner City South, and the Black Arts Alliance.

For more information, here's the official schedule.

Theatre Memphis hosts the regional premiere of Rasheeda Speaking, a 100-minute drama exploring institutionalized racism in office politics.

Ongoing
The Bridges of Madison County closes this weekend at the Circuit Playhouse.


Cloud9's Someday For A Crown, at TheatreWorks.
This new play by Memphis stage vet Ron Gephart is inspired by his father's struggle with Altzheimer's disease. Featuring Jim Palmer, Jo Lynne Palmer, Karin Barile, Lazora Jones, Bob McIntosh, and Charles Ingram.
Rasheeda Speaking at Theatre Memphis
  • Rasheeda Speaking at Theatre Memphis

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorraine! Hansberry!


Friday, March 17, 2017

Life in Faith & Madison Counties: Weekend Theater Roundup

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

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

Bridges of Madison
County at Circuit Playhouse

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

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

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

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


Violet at Germantown Community Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also on stage...

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

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

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


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ugly is Sin: Violet's a Rare, Richly American Musical Fable

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 3:58 PM

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America's a great big melting pot of bigotry and bias, but I swear, the worst thing you can possibly be in Barbie and Ken's Dream Meritocracy is ugly. Okay, I take that back, being poor and ugly's worse. Violet's white, anyhow, and her daddy loved her and taught her how to win at poker. She's got that much going for her, at least, when she gets on a bus rolling from North Carolina to Tulsa. A faith healer there is going to take her terrible scar away and, for her suffering, bestow upon the disfigured woman, some reasonably just measure of divine movie star hotness.

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

Germantown Community Theatre's production  boasts some extraordinary voices and some not-so-extraordinary voices, but it's all honesty and heart. Nichol Pritchard's Violet is someone everybody knows. As the young woman scarred for life when the head of her father's axe flew off its handle, her's is a standout performance in a show full of stand out performances. Her's stands out for its simplicity— the ease with which Pritchard wears Violet's troubles, and flinty determination. She's no starry-eyed, believer, this is a woman at the crossroads of exhaustion and obsession, seeing heavenly visions, like a patron saint of homely travelers.
Violet's also a buddy story, and an uncommonly effective romance. Along the way to Tulsa she meets a pair of soldier boys, one white and one black, and they connect in unexpected ways. A prickly, game of cat and mouse ends with a figurative stumble down Beale St. where things only get more complicated. All the while we're reminded that skin's a calling card, and not all doors are open to everybody.

As noted above, not every note sung in GCT's Violet is perfect. In fact a few are, while  joyous enough, still pretty sour. Some cringes may occur, but these aren't deal-breakers in a show otherwise packed with heavenly voices. In context— after initial, considerable shock— the worst is almost charming.

Violet composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) dove deep into American roots music and delivered an unpretentious country-, blues-, and bluegrass-laden score, where Bo Diddley beats meet big Broadway ballads.
Before the accident, when everything was possible. - JOEY ECHEVERIA PHOTOGRAPHY AND GCT
  • Joey Echeveria Photography and GCT
  • Before the accident, when everything was possible.

Side Show: Theatre Memphis Gets Freaky Deaky

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 10:32 AM

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

Theatre Memphis — and its audiences — have an apparent fondness for the creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky. The City's elder company has experienced success with knockout productions of less than stellar creepshows like The Addams Family, and the musical adaptation of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. With Side Show TM gets to revisit the conceptual well, but with much better material to work with.


Side Show
's painted in broad strokes. It's opening sequence — one of the most compelling in the history of musical theater — introduces three legged freaks, and pinheaded geeks who'll bite the head clean off a bird's neck. It brings us into a world that is, and is not our own. We meet sympathetic curiosities, and the nightmare carney who keeps them working for little more than the abuse he dishes out for pay. And we meet the star attractions, Violet and Daisy, who are identical, bound by flesh, and nothing alike. Unfortunately for the musical, Side Show peaks in this opening sequence. Still, what follows remains engaging, in part — and in the spirit of the old 10-in-1 tent shows — because it's real. This happened, more or less, and the show's tragic symmetry ultimately stresses the bitter in a bittersweet show at the edge of exploitation.

Director Ann Marie Hall has an affinity for quirk, and stories that walk on the dark side. She and Side Show are a good fit, and the ensemble cast she's assembled is loaded with solid actors and big voices. It's tempting to overhype the very fine solo/duet work of Dani Chaum and Gia Welch as the inseparable sisters, but that would be wrong. But for the moments when they're alone onstage — and fine moments they are — this is a group effort, and everybody delivers.  Chaum and Welch, like the Vaudeville stars they play, just deliver a little bit more.

With the simplest gestures, Theatre Memphis' designers have turned the entire main stage space into a big top. The effect brings everybody into the same big tent for the show's duration. It's a neat, easily-accomplished trick that says so much about the nature of this show, and how audiences are meant to receive it. Good stuff. 
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sleazy Peasy: Blackbird is an Intense Encounter at Theatre South

Posted By on Wed, Mar 15, 2017 at 7:10 PM

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

Maybe I can recommend it because it's perfect. Or close to. Because it's certainly not pleasant or fun.

Whatever else it may be, this 21st-Century Lolita redux, with its stark black and white memories of street lamps, phone-booths, and boarding houses, is a noir of the first order, with an inappropriate set of perverse expectations. Audiences, against all instinct and will, are forced to accept Blackbird — a story of kidnapping and abuse that's explicitly understood to be abuse — as a tale of love gone bad. It only gets darker from there.

The audience hasn't been assembled to re-try Ray, who's played here, to sputtering, sometimes paralyzed perfection, by Tony Isbell. Ray did six tough years in prison, and admits the crime, even if he disagrees with the particulars of how it was portrayed in court. He did his stretch, got out, changed his name, took a nondescript management job in some nondescript office in one of those nondescript buildings with nondescript signage everybody passes on the road all day long and never thinks twice about. Now Ray lives in a nondescript married, filthy, cluttered hell. At least he's not molesting little girls anymore, though. It's not like he was ever a predator, or the kind of person who gets turned on by little kids. Or so he stammers. It was just that one time. Just that one very special time.

Una, impeccably played by Fiona Battersby, is more vivid, wobbly, and evidently broken. Is she here for closure? Revenge? She'd been a needy kid, and vulnerable. Ray validated her when she wasn't getting it elsewhere. Her version of the story, told from the perspective of a furious adult who can't remember real innocence, staggers between puppy love, obsession, betrayal and fear. Reliving the story as a sexually frank adult, it's easy for observers to forget she wasn't yet a teenager when she first felt these feelings. When she and the man she loved and idolized and still fixates on snuck out of town, to a place he knew about where nobody would ask questions and they could be together. But it's always right there.

Blackbird was inspired by real life events, but still owes a bit to Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, which tells a similar, if less sleazy and immediate story. And it may owe a bit to David Mamet's Oleanna too. But, in terms of pure function, the play it resembles most — and improves on considerably — is Doubt. To its very intense, ugly, surprise ending, Blackbird leaves us wondering whether or not Ray's reformed and sorry for an unforgivable thing he did only once at the very lowest point in his nondescript life, or if he's always been a creeper.  Maybe this awful thing we've been asked to accept as a love story was nothing more than what it looked liked all along. Maybe it's happening all over again.

Blackbird's built like a house of cards. One shaky move or false note by either of the actors and everything collapses. With Adam Remsen in the director's chair, this little drama stands tall. Production is bare bones — perfect for a young company dedicated to "small, essential" theater.

Dates, times and ticket information here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lord of the Flies: Democracy and Madness at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Sat, Mar 11, 2017 at 1:59 PM

“Maybe there is a beast… maybe it's only us.”
  • “Maybe there is a beast… maybe it's only us.”

There are moments in Playhouse on the Square's chillingly austere take on William Golding's classic, Lord of the Flies, when the story's opposing gangs threaten to stage a Pat Benatar video, or square off in an old fashioned Jets v Sharks dance-off. While the poetic choices make sense here, and echo more ecstatic passages from the book, it's always a little too much the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, and never enough Lost. The sequences - some really impressive - create tonal inconsistencies in a strong show. It all works, it just never quite fits as cohesively as it might.

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

In one of the evening's more effective movement numbers the cast becomes a living, breathing evolution chart going one way first, then full on reverse.  It's too brutal, and too beautiful, and probably too on the nose. It's also a bullseye.


Friday, March 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Blackbird
is an interesting calling card.

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Flies Goes Primitive

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great story. Sensitive adaptation. Worth knowing.


Quark Theatre Opens with Edgy Drama, Blackbird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times, dates, ticket/production details, here.
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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Theatre of the Bizarre: Return of the Clown

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

16708263_391687767851222_4975481122032595696_n.jpg
In January I wrote a cover package about Mr. Memphis variety himself, Larry Clark. Clark's a clown who performs under the stage name JustLarry. He's also a comic, magician, juggler, daredevil, sideshow geek and all around man of mystery. The story was supposed to coincide with a big show he'd been planning, but sometimes life intrudes. The cover package ran, but the performance — alas — was cancelled.

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

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


Video Preview of "Lord of the Flies" at Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, Mar 2, 2017 at 3:20 PM

"The story is just relevant."

William Golding's savage story of childhood opens at Playhouse on the Square this week.

Here's what some cast members had to say about it.


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