Thursday, August 3, 2017

Irene Crist Honored with Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Memphis Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Aug 3, 2017 at 8:12 AM

Irene Crist in The Little Dog Laughed.
  • Irene Crist in The Little Dog Laughed.
If Memphis is a theater town as Irene Crist asserts, she did her part to make it so. As an actor, she’s set a high bar. As a teacher for Playhouse on the Square’s conservatory, she shared her gift across generations. She retired from the stage in June after one last performance at Circuit Playhouse in Ripcord, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire’s  farce about odd-couple roommates in an all-out brawl to determine who reigns supreme in the nursing home.

Crist has been one of Memphis’ most reliable and recognizable actors since she first went to work for Jackie Nichols and Playhouse on the Square in a 1978 production of Much Ado About Nothing. She’s known Overton Square in its glory days, remembers when it hit the skids, and watched it bounce back and the number of theaters grow from one to four. She dropped into the scene on a high note and it looks like the classically trained actress who built a reputation for versatility, playing characters that ranged from Shakespeare’s ingenues to the pharmaceutical-impaired matriarch of August: Osage County, is bowing out on one too.

Crist's also known for her work as a director. This past season she helmed Ostrander nominated productions of Disgraced and Hand to God. She plans to continue that part of her career. Teaching too.

Much Ado
  • Much Ado
Before moving South Crist worked as a full-time actress with a small startup theater company in Rockville, Maryland.  Street 70, the company where she cut her teeth, started out as a project of the Montgomery County Dept. of Recreation. It grew into the Round House Theatre, an award-winning Beltway company with an Equity venue in Bethesda and an education center in Silver Springs. Helping to launch this company was Crist’s first real job. It was also the continuation of a lifelong student/mentor relationship with Round House founder June Allen, a British actress who’d trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts under the guidance of British stage icons like Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir John Gielgud.

After working with Playhouse on the Square for a number of years Crist took a break from the stage to raise her kids. Her post-2001 comeback was accompanied by a shift in artistic focus. In addition to acting for Playhouse, she started directing shows for smaller theaters and suburban companies like Desoto Family Theatre. It was all pretty small stuff until 2010, when Theatre Memphis revived a production of Much Ado that Crist had set at the end of the Vietnam war and originally staged for Bartlett Community Theatre. The revival brought Crist’s Shakespearean romp more attention than it originally received and high praise for an offbeat cast and original, authentically psychedelic musical arrangements created by her son, Bennett Foster.

So Much Ado — Crist’s first show as an actor in Memphis — also heralded her arrival as a director of note. In 2013, her epic simultaneous staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 swept Memphis’ Ostrander Awards, bringing home 15 play prizes including Best Dramatic Production and a Best Director nod for Crist. In the following season she used her newfound talent for directing two plays at a time to stage richly imagined productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Like Angels, it was an enormous undertaking and a similarly enormous success with Memphis theater judges, earning Crist and Playhouse a second round of Best Director and Best Production Ostranders for the Durang.

The story continues this month when Crist is honored with the Yugart Eurian award for lifetime achievement in Memphis theater at The Ostranders.
Jerre Dye, David Foster and an Angel. Angels in America.
  • Jerre Dye, David Foster and an Angel. Angels in America.
The Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement will be presented at the 2017 Ostrander Awards, Sunday, August 27 at the Orpheum Theatre. Cocktails at 6 p.m. awards and show at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online. Just follow this link.
Hosted by Sister.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sneak Peek at "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"

Posted By on Fri, Jul 14, 2017 at 5:29 PM


Before the burlesque revival there was burlesque. And before that there was more burlesque. And before that...

Never mind. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a timelessly bawdy romp, and it's currently on stage at the Harrell theater in Collierville.
Here's what it looks like. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Winning: POTS Debuts WW2 Aftermath Drama "Victory Blues"

Posted By on Thu, Jul 13, 2017 at 12:20 PM

Poker night. - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Poker night.
Why did Jerry get fired? Was he a bad shoe salesman? Do people just not like him? Was he saying the wrong stuff? Reading the wrong things? Is he just paranoid? Or are his friends out to get him? There's a lot going on in Alan Brody's NewWorks@TheWorks-winning play Victory Blues. But what's it all about?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that  Brody's read a little Arthur Miller. Victory Blues plays out like a working class sequel to Miller's WW2 aftermath drama All My Sons. It tells the story of three young couples — old friends living in the same apartment building, adjusting to life after wartime in the greatest, most prosperous country the world has ever known.

Only one friend isn't prospering. While his buddies enjoy the fruits of winning, poor shoe salesman Jerry Greisinger just barely gets by. Jerry saw combat, and he's still struggling with that. His friends didn't, and they don't get why their old pal's worried about other people's problems when he could be out there getting his big fat slice of winner cake. They don't get why America's red scare bothers him so much, since he's not a commie. (Or is he?) They don't get why he won't forgive a friend's terrible betrayal, since it was motivated by love and concern for him, and was going to make his life so much better in the end.
Renee Davis Brame. - BILL SIMMERS
  • Bill Simmers
  • Renee Davis Brame.
Jerry's wife Barbara doesn't get it either. Her friend May, who's going to college against her husband Lenny's wishes, does. Test patterns fill the TV screen. Casseroles occupy the shelf like noodly metaphors. Tension builds.

Everything about Victory Blues reminded me of All My Sons. More specifically it reminded me of Chris Keller's monologue about watching his friends die in combat and the shock of coming home:
"I went to work with Dad, and that rat‐race again.  I felt... what you said... ashamed somehow.  Because nobody was changed at all.  It seemed to make suckers out of a lot of guys.  I felt wrong to be alive, to open the bank‐book, to drive the new car, to see the new refrigerator.  I mean you can take those things out of a war, but when you drive that car you've got to know that it came out of the love a man can have for a man, and you've got to be a little better because of that.  Otherwise what you have is really loot, and there's blood on it."
It's not that Jerry doesn't want to work in his friend Howie's appliance store. Like Miller's combat-tested protagonist who couldn't look at the refrigerator without obligations, he can't. Meaty stuff.

Director Jaclyn Suffel and a first rate ensemble do a fantastic job setting everything up in act one. They do even more heroic work after the break, carrying the script like a wounded soldier when things get repetitive and the device used to demonstrate Jerry's isolation winks at self-parody.

So the last act could stand some trimming and focus. There's lots of really fine acting collected here. And a terrific soundtrack that lifts things in all the right places.

Jerry Greisinger —Jacob Wingfield
Barbara Greisinger – Renee Davis Brame
Howie Cohen – Jeff Posson
Alice Cohen – Nichol Pritchard
May Black – Lena Wallace Black
Lenny Black – Kinon Keplinger


Friday, July 7, 2017

Theatre Memphis Showcases Singers, TheatreWorks Gets Victory Blues

Posted By on Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 2:10 PM

Kinon Keplinger in Victory Blues
  • Kinon Keplinger in Victory Blues
Set in 1947 Victory Blues tells the story of  a combat veteran adjusting to postwar life. It's the latest installment of Playhouse on the Square's NewWorks@TheWorks series.

Three Tenors... and a Baritone is an original cabaret performance featuring four Theatre Memphis mainstay performers, Philip Himebook, Charles McGowan, Joseph Lackie, and Charles “Chuck” Hodges. It's a mix of Broadway and opera inspired by the Three Tenors. But, you know, with a baritone. Compiled by music director Jeff Brewer.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

PRIZM Ensemble Co-Founder Lecolion Washington Tapped to Head Community Music Center of Boston

Posted By on Thu, Jun 22, 2017 at 4:37 PM

Lecolion Washington, the co-founder and Executive Director of Memphis' PRIZM Ensemble will become the new Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston.

Washington, who also serves as director of in-school programs for the Memphis Music Initiative, has described the transition as bittersweet. In a positive, forward-looking statement he announced that, "PRIZM’s core values — diversity, opportunity, and access – are much larger than its founders."

The Community Music Center of Boston is a 107-year-old nonprofit education hub, " where people of all ages and abilities share music as common ground, and where diversity, expression and self-transformation are the very air we breathe."

PRIZM's Director of Operations and Educational Programming Roderick Vester, will serve as interim executive director while the growing classical company conducts a national search for Washington's replacement.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Comedy of Errors" is an Entertaining Romp

Posted By on Thu, Jun 15, 2017 at 5:38 PM

Rachel Brun (Luciana) and Claire Hayner (Adriana).
  • Rachel Brun (Luciana) and Claire Hayner (Adriana).
There’s nothing subtle about the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s production of Comedy of Errors, and I suspect The Bard would have wanted it that way.

I’m sure you’ve all seen Shakespeare reduced to mush because the director and players were too reverent to the material. Sure, Shakespeare was a great dramatist, molder of language, blah blah blah. But he was also a guy who had a side hustle writing erotic poetry. He was the Elizabethan equivalent of a B movie producer, and nowhere is that more evident than in the setup for Comedy of Errors. As TSC founder Dan McCleery noted in his opening address to the crowd at the University of Memphis, this play was basically a ripoff of a Latin play called Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus. Shakespeare looked at the story, in which a set of twins separated at birth meet years later, causing an escalating progression of mistaken identity gags, and said ‘If one set of twin is funny, TWO sets of twins would be HILARIOUS!”
I’m as big a Shakespeare fan as the next English major, but I had never seen Comedy of Errors produced before. It’s pretty clear that most of the play is just Willy Shakes having fun riffing. The two Dromios, Syracuse (Blake Currie) and Ephesus (Nicolas Dureaux Picou) take the brunt of the slapstick violence meted out by their increasingly flustered masters Antipholus of Syracuse (Joey Shaw) and of Ephesus (Colton Swibold). Among director Tony Simotes’ more interesting experiments is the casting of the twins. Shaw and Swibold share a strong resemblance, but their characterizations mark them as quite different people. Shaw’s Syracusian brother is bold and not a little mischievous, while Swinbold’s Ephesian Antipholus is a decadent noble elevated by good connections with the Duke (Stuart Heyman). The Dromios, on the other hand, are completely different physically while being functionally nearly identical in character.
All four male co-leads (I guess that’s what you’d call them) acquit themselves admirably, as do the always great Phil Darius Wallace as Egeon, the father of the two Antipholuses whose imminent execution by the Duke provides the comedy’s ticking clock tension. On the distaff side, Ephesian wife Adriana (Claire Hayner) and her sister Luciana (Rachel Bruin) serve as capable straight women for the increasingly convoluted comedic conundrums.

Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but the plotting is amazingly tight. The playwright throws gags fast and thick, and isn’t about to wait around for you to get the jokes. The players have the unenviable task of breaking through the smartphone addled modern brains of the audience who are likely struggling with the cognitive overhead of interpreting Elizabethan English on the fly. Director Simotes has his cast going big, telegraphing the gags, giving everything the hard sell. Combined with the Ottoman themed stage dressing, it gives the proceedings the feeling of authenticity. I can’t imagine Dromio of Syracuse’s extended fat joke was delivered with much subtlety to the groundlings in 1594. And let’s face it, despite what sounds like flowery language today, none of these characters are terribly bright. Thanks to the performers’ energy, TSC’s Comedy of Errors is an entertaining romp. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Slideshow Peek at Tennessee Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors

Posted By on Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 8:32 PM

Two sets of identical twins and their parents are separated at birth. 20-years later they wind up in the same city in one of Shakespeare's wildest romps.

Tennessee Shakespeare Company sets it all against the backdrop of 17th-Century Grease.

Have a peek. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Teaching Moments: Theatre Memphis Visits South Pacific

Posted By on Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 2:57 PM

South Pacific's a peppy musical and liberal touchstone — a Greatest Generation romance set in WWII's Pacific theater and stuffed with 20th-Century standards in almost every sense of the word. But contrary to what the show's famous song says about racism, when it's so systemically ingrained audiences easily mistake the fetishization of submissive Asian girls for tragic romantic love, it has to be carefully untaught. Otherwise it perpetuates with the aid of broadminded heroes like Rodgers & Hammerstein's Emile de Becque, the French planter who says all people are equal and totally had kids with a Polynesian woman but still parties with peers who pay indigenous laborers so little they need American soldiers to harass the competition. To borrow an obvious but useful line from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, "few things in showbiz date more quickly than progressive politics," and today South Pacific — progressive to the point of being scandalous when it landed on Broadway in 1949 — plays out like U.S. Imperialism the Musical!

That's an observation, not a complaint.

South Pacific has always been a conversation piece. Its creators fought hard against fierce pushback to make it so, and in that spirit Theatre Memphis' production feels like a sparkling blue souvenir from a far away land — old and brittle in places, but kept in good condition to pass on to the grandchildren. The musical's frame is naive but sophistication is evidenced in the character of Nellie Forbush a spunky self-described optimist who only sees the best in the world until she finds out the man she loves once loved someone of another race. Her racism is as naked as she is in the musical's pinup-inspired shower scene. It's as fine an example as the musical theater provides of otherwise good people unable to recognize their own prejudices, and ironic in an expansionist-friendly narrative girded with orientalism.  Will Nellie really wash that miscegenationing Emile right out of her hair?  Is extravagant romance in an exotic location with plenty of champagne a meaningful gateway to other kinds of love and tolerance? South Pacific remains vital because, like Nellie the lover who discovers she's a hater in a personally jarring revelation, its ideological shortcomings are so vulnerable, begging for critique, conversation and correction.
Bloody Mary: Based on a real Tonkinese woman who led a revolt.
  • Bloody Mary: Based on a real Tonkinese woman who led a revolt.
Theatre Memphis dares to be garish and when the community playhouse rolls out its big musicals extravagance pushes elegance under the wheels time and time again. Not so this round and even director Jordan Nichols trades his choreography-heavy style for restraint. In this South Pacific, relationships matter more than razzle dazzle. As a result "dames" keep their dignity, and so does the musical's Mother Courage character, Bloody Mary.

Often presented as a Tonkinese cartoon hawking her trinkets and cursing in broken English, Mary's easily criticized for selling her underaged daughter. In the context of privation, war and isolation it's not so hard to see the caring mother trying to get her children out of the plantation system the best way she knows how.

I can't say there's any real spark between Kent Fleshman's Emile and Amy P. Neighbors' Nellie, but great voices and emotional vulnerability add up to great performances.  Noby Ewards sings and acts Bloody Mary beautifully, never allowing the profit-minded character to become a gag. Oliver Pierce makes the hustling sailor Luther Billis an affable clown, and Bloody Mary's all-American counterpart. Bradley Karel cuts a heroic profile as Lt. Cable, without hiding any of his doomed character's flaws. Ensemble characters are perfectly cast, sacrificing finesse for verisimilitude to great effect. But the real stars here are the songs: "Cockeyed Optomist," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," "Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy', [DEEP GASPING BREATH] "Younger than Springtime," "Honey Bun," "This Nearly Was Mine" — and the list goes on. All of them perfect, and perfectly presented with lots of heart and little fuss.

South Pacific may not be the groundbreaking progressive statement it was in 1947. Nellie's proud Little Rock heritage will never be as bracing as it was when the film came out in 1958, months after Federal troops rolled into Arkansas to integrate Little Rock Central High. Today a script once described by right-wing critics as a tool of Moscow is more likely to be criticized by the woke left. But for all of that, it holds up better than so many mid-Century musicals, wearing its flaws more like scars than medals. Even in 2017, it wants to foster more than just a bunch of "Happy Talk," and that makes this artifact a keeper.

Why hate when you can love and exploit?
  • Why hate when you can love and exploit?

Friday, June 2, 2017

South Pacific Opens at Theatre Memphis: Photo Preview

Posted By on Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 5:06 PM

Musical theatre doesn't get more bedrock than Rodgers & Hammerstein. Take a gander at what Theatre Memphis is doing with one of the duo's most celebrated classics. 

Orpheum Offering New Camp for Kids Who've Lost Parents

Posted By on Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 12:34 PM

Brett Batterson
  • Brett Batterson
Orpheum CEO Brett Batterson was playing on a neighbors porch in Davenport, Iowa when an unfamiliar black car pulled up in front of his parents house, and two men in suits got out. The news they brought was bad. Batterson's father had died of a massive heart attack. He was only 30. Batterson was 7. Years later, as CEO of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, and with that terrible day in mind, he launched Hands Together, Heart to Art, a one-of-a-kind theater camp for kids who shared his experience of having lost one, or both parents.

"I realized that involvement with the arts and the theater specifically gave me a group of friends I could rely on," says Batterson, who grew up in a creative household with a puppet theater in the basement. "It gave me a place to express myself creatively, and it gave me self-confidence. One of the biggest things councilors see in kids who’ve lost a parent is a lack of confidence." He wanted to replicate that experience, as much as possible, for as many kids as he could reach. Now that he's in Memphis, with the full resources of the new Halloran Centre at his disposal, Batterson has announced the arrival of Mending Hearts, a similar camp, with similar goals, but a different approach.
"When we were talking to Blue Cross/Blue Shield about funding they said they were interested in programs that had a health aspect," Batterson says. "And I said, well, here’s this one program that we’ve talked about bringing from Chicago. I don’t want people to think we’re doing it just for the funding because this was already on my mind. But that was the motivation."

Mending Hearts is inspired by "the soul of the Chicago camp," according to Batterson. "But it’s different in a few ways," he says. "One of the things that’s different here is that we’re focusing more on the art for art’s sake, and letting some of the healing that comes through creative expression happen more organically than we did in Chicago.  Although the counseling is vitally important it will be used to support what they’re doing in the classroom."

A typical day at Mending Hearts camp will include music, acting, and dance classes, visits from guest artists, and time for the campers to bond and share stories.

"The hardest part of the first year is just getting the word out and getting campers," Batterson says. "After that word of mouth takes over."

So tell your friends. 
July 10-21, 2017, Monday through Friday, 9 am – 4 pm

Cost: $50 per family; scholarships available — no child will be turned away due to financial hardship
Ages: 6-13

Application Deadline: June 26, 2017 or until all spots are filled.

Before and after extended care available and lunch and snacks provided free of charge.

More details here.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Winners for the 2017 High School Musical Theatre Awards

Posted By on Fri, May 26, 2017 at 11:17 AM

Another spectacular High School Musical Theatre Awards is in the books. And the winners were...

Outstanding Small Ensemble
Toffee’s Girlfriends, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Large Ensemble
The Ancestors, The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

Outstanding Chorus
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Student Orchestra
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Dance Execution
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Choreography
42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Production Materials
Sister Act, St. Agnes Academy

Outstanding Front of House
The Little Mermaid, Corinth High School

Outstanding Artistic Element
The Airplane, The Drowsy Chaperone, Olive Branch High School

Outstanding Hair and Makeup
The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

Outstanding Costumes
Into the Woods, Briarcrest Christian School

Outstanding Lighting
Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Set
Man of La Mancha, Memphis University School

Outstanding Technical Achievemen
Little Women, St. Mary’s Episcopal School

Student Creative Achievement Award
Grace Korsmo Arlington High School

Student Technical Achievement Award
Natalie Eslami Lausanne Collegiate School

Student Stage Management Award
Dustin Albarracin Corinth High School

The Bravo Award
Harriston Jones as Pugsley in The Addams Family, Jackson Christian School

People’s Choice Award
Shrek the Musical, Wynne High School

Outstanding Featured Dancer
Tim O'Toole as Andy, 42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Featured Actress
Katy Cotten as The Witch, Big Fish, St. George’s Independent School

Outstanding Featured Actor
Kyle Bowers as Bazzard, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Germantown High School

Outstanding Supporting Actress
Sarah Cate Melton as Maggie Jones, 42nd Street, Houston High School

Outstanding Supporting Actor
Riley Young as Sonny/Piragua Guy, In the Heights, Hernando High School

Outstanding Music Direction
Tammy Holt, Into the Woods, Briarcrest Christian School

Outstanding Direction by a Teacher
Karen Dean, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Lead Actress
Asia Smith as Ms. Strict, Zombie Prom, Bolton High School

Outstanding Lead Actor
Ethan Benson as Benny, In the Heights, Hernando High School

Outstanding Overall Production
42nd Street

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trash: Killer Joe's a Dark Tour of the American Trailer Park

Posted By on Wed, May 17, 2017 at 5:58 PM

  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Fathers & Sons
It's tempting to open this review with a doting paragraph about Santo & Johnny's bittersweet and otherworldly slide guitar instrumental "Sleepwalk," which would be a fine addition to New Moon's Killer Joe soundtrack. Or maybe I could drop some words about the overly dramatic theme music associated with Quinn Martin-produced detective shows that seem to be an original inspiration forTracy Letts' violent black comedy about love and death out in the great wide lonely. But director James Kevin Cochran has assembled a fine show with a first rate ensemble, so I'll focus on things audiences can expect instead of mourning details lost in translation.

Bouncing boobs, bobbing peckers, and even the odd butthole all make featured appearances in Killer Joe. Letts' breakthrough play is pure pulp — a Texas trailer park noir about life behind the aluminum curtain, in a land of narrowing opportunity where thrills are cheap and life is cheaper. More disaster than tragedy, Letts smudges the boundary between what's seen through the trailer's one useful window — the glowing TV — and what's unfolding in the filth-stained world of the play. Everything plays out like an update of Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, dragging bourgeois audiences through Flyover country where (to borrow from the band Pulp), "they  dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do."

See, Chris Smith's mom stole his coke, right ?It was a lot. He was going to sell it and, you know, responsibly get his life back in order, only for real this time not like that time he tried to start a bunny farm but neglected the rabbits and they got rabies somehow and tore each other apart like some kind of sick drive in monster movie come to life.  Metaphor alert. Now Chris (played with impressive restraint by Luke Conner) owes 6G to some really bad dudes and Ansel Smith, Chris'  no-account daddy (Nicely rendered by Daniel Pound) — says he can't help. It's not like Ansel and his his sex-addicted wife (who's not Chris' mom) ever had more than $1000 at any one time.  So these two broke, broken, and helpless manchildren get high as hell underneath the Confederate flag in a convincingly squalid trailer, watch some shit TV and concoct a plan to murder Chris' mama for not very much insurance money

Enter Killer Joe, a polite, organized, thoroughly corrupt police detective wearing a black hat. He'll do the job for $25,000, non-negotiable, nothing else to say.

Joe's a classic Western trope: The bad, possibly evil SOB who becomes accidentally almost heroic now and then because he lives by a personal code that sometimes puts him on the right side of things though he remains, in every case,  a bad, possibly evil SOB. He's a direct man who means what he says, and says only what needs to be said.  He's also Letts' answer to Tennessee Williams' famous Gentleman Caller and when the Smiths can't make their downpayment Joe says he'll take a retainer — Chris' virgin sister Dottie, an infantilized adult with Munchausen by proxy written all over her pretty face. What follows is sick romance, rape, and horror interrupted and occasionally enhanced by buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The drama climaxes too literally with a scene of humiliation, abuse, and shaming so graphic and severe it threatens to make the play every bit as horrible as the dark world it aims to illuminate.

Killer Joe is a grotesque, trigger-laden, exploitive and genuinely poetic fable of limited horizons playing out in the vast flatness of Texas. It's a Libertarian paradise where radical self-interest neutralizes the blessings of liberty like chemtrails neutralize, I dunno — something or other. It's a liminal place where characters dream small and fail epically.

Speaking of epic...

Killer Joe Preview Scene from New Moon Theatre on Vimeo.

Annie Freres, notable for performances in Mama Mia and Rock of Ages at Playhouse on the Square, proves that her acting chops are just as finely developed as her "Jesus Christ" pipes. As Sharla Smith she's often naked, and so emotionally honest in the play's closing scenes the most stoic observers may find themselves watching through laced fingers. Mersadies Burch is similarly compelling Dottie, the childlike somnambulist at the heart of Letts' nightmare.

But what about the killer?

There's color missing from Don McCarrens' one (admittedly perfect) note performance as Joe, but he somehow manages to get the job done just fine in black and white. Whether he's laying out the terms of his agreement, or force-feeding a villain no worse than him (save for lack of a bullshit code) McCarrens is never anything short of credible.

The  cast's good, okay? But Chris Sterling's scenic design is the star. Texas has never been more claustrophobic or patinaed with grime. His is a very real cross section of trailer life. You can literally smell the green shag carpet. You can almost smell the poverty. Still, something's missing.

TV and radio broadcasts intrude throughout Killer Joe creating a secret sixth character in the drama — possibly the real bad guy in this western. It's helpful to highlight what the Texas lottery means to folks already gambling on meth and multilevel marketing schemes. It' might be fun to hint at why a plan that sounds like the plot of a Quinn Martin potboiler just seems like the way ordinary people do in Everytrailer USA. Strange as it sounds, the one thing desperately needed in a show already overstuffed with texture, is maybe a little more texture.

The adult content warnings aren't bullshit. Dirty words and basic nudity are only the tip of an icky, disturbing, weirdly riveting iceberg.

  • Chase Yarwood-Gustafson
  • Brothers & Sisters

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the Rough: Hattiloo Stages August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean

Posted By on Fri, May 12, 2017 at 9:36 AM

I’ve got a knack for blocking out distractions, but every now and then, one small thing can keep me from fully engaging with a play. In the case of Gem of the Ocean, I couldn’t figure out how a second story door leading to interior rooms might sit above a door leading outside, flanked by exterior windows up and down. Wilhelm screams were anticipated when characters passed the upper story threshold but, to my surprise, nobody fell to certain injury. I suppose it can be chalked up to an enduring truth about August Wilson’s problem play, Gem of the Ocean: 1839 Wylie is a house of mystery, where the veil of spacetime is thin. This is where Aunt Ester, the old home’s ancient inhabitant, transports pilgrims to an even more ancient city of bones. Nothing is normal here, and everything is.

Gem’s a fascinating work, packed with enough symbolism and code to build a Dan Brown novel around. It's the chronological beginning to Wilson’s century-spanning, 10-play Pittsburgh cycle introducing audiences to vivid characters, and situations of shocking currency. Like a set with doors to nowhere, it’s also something of a jumble, and probably the most difficult and daunting piece in Wilson’s 20th-Century puzzle.

Gem is a family tragedy that aims to redefine family. The people living in Aunt Ester’s house aren’t related, but they rely on one another like blood. The only true kin in this story of law, order, peace, mayhem and a  status quo looming like Armageddon, are Black Mary and her brother Caesar. She cooks for Ester in a poor but peaceful, charitable house. He wears a badge and relishes his role enforcing white interests.

Enter Citizen, a man with a secret, and a powerful need for soul-washing. Everybody told him to go to 1839 Wylie — a place of refuge and sanctuary. Times are so uncertain, and perilous for African-Americans there’s good reason to carry a heavy walking stick. There’s even debate over the relative merits of slavery, and the inevitability of prison. A man is dead because he was accused of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. The man swore he was innocent, jumped in the river, and never came out — better free and dead than jailed for nothing. Before the show’s over the mill will be on fire and Aunt Ester, born at the dawn of the North American slave trade, will be in bondage once again.

As mentioned, the Hattiloo’s Gem has issues, but director Lawrence Blackwell’s production succeeds in ways an earlier production at Playhouse on the Square didn’t. The key difference is intimacy. A perfectly cast ensemble makes the audience feel like we’re all seated around the table together while Black Mary makes a pot of greens. When everything turns to blood and sweat and chaos, the sense of alarm and disruption is shared.

Speaking of, when this Gem cooks, it really cooks, but to contradict Aunt Ester’s constant advice to simmer down, somebody needs to turn the heat up and keep it up. This play's a slow burn in any case. Fumbled cues and lost lines can make a long play feel like bottled eternity. No bones about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Million Dollar Quartet" Wants to Be Your Teddy Bear

Sam Phillips comes home to Playhouse on the Square

Posted By on Thu, May 11, 2017 at 11:34 AM

The quintet.
  • The quintet.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock’n’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door.” Jerry Lee Lewis.

In the Summer of 2010 Cowboy Jack Clement and I talked about the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet. Technically it's Cowboy Jack who recorded the famous event, but he's almost always airbrushed out of the myth. Clement got his break in the music business when Sam Phillips hired him on as sound engineer at Sun Studio, and he's vaguely referred to near the top of M$4 when Sun is briefly described as a "2-man" operation.  Clement wrote songs like "Teenage Queen," which sure would be fun to hear in a show about the early days of rock-and-roll, but is also missing here. On the country side, he wrote the honky tonk standard, "A Girl I Used to Know" and brought Memphis songwriter Dickie Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care," to George Jones. He was a producer, recording artist, disc jockey, grand interpreter of Shakespeare, and an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Clement was wonderfully weird in the way everything good about Memphis usually is. Poofed from the story, per Broadway.

"I'm not in it? Don't they have somebody operating the board," he asked and I told him, "Sam Phillips does it all."

"Sam went next door to Taylor's restaurant," Clement explained. "Carl Perkins was in the studio recording, but everything stopped when Elvis came in... I remember thinking I would be remiss if I didn't record this. So I moved a few mics around and recorded what happened."

So, safe to say, Million Dollar Quartet's not the best historical document. But all warts and so many better possible playlists aside, the Tony-winning musical (and inspiration for the cancelled (botched?) Sun Records) gets the Memphis dynamic mostly right.

Phillips knew he couldn't compete with Nashville. So he panned for gold in a river of rejects, outcasts and oddballs. "That was right down my alley," Clement told me, affirming, for a paper thin jukebox musical playing with fast, loose facts, the story on stage at Playhouse on the Square, is undeniably true. It just didn't happen like that. As with Jersey Boys, the actors channel their famous characters, making all the music themselves — no pit. Like any good rock-and-roll show, it's about much fun for the crowd as it is for the pickers making it happen right there together. This cast looks like it's having a good time.  No surprises — Playhouse on the Square's homecoming production has an easy, authentic vibe. False notes  stick out, but are quickly buried in surplus charm and reasonably good rocking.

For locals who somehow missed the lore, M$4 is a fictionalized account of the one and only occasion Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were all at Sun Studio together. The conceit: Elvis has gone to RCA, but wishes he was still working with Sam. Cash and Perkins have deals with Columbia but haven't told anybody yet. Phillips has a secret too. He's been offered a chance to move to New York and join Elvis at RCA. As he watches his most famous artists leave for greener pastures he becomes more convinced that he belongs right where he is and swears he'd rather sell a hundred records made his way that a million with somebody else pulling the strings.

"This is where the soul of a man never dies," the fictionalized Phillips says of studio life. Stephen Garrett, last seen at Playhouse as Lonny the narrator in Rock of Ages is a natural in the part of young Sam Phillips, and nails the moment.

Kavan Hashemian's got the voice and the moves, but it's the boyish understatement that really sells his Elvis. See, there's tension here, and hurt feelings. Carl Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes" and put it on all the charts at once, then watched Elvis perform it on national TV while he was laid up in the hospital after a catastrophic car accident.  But for all of his flash and good fortune, Hashemian's King is a sweetheart, bashful, humble and human to the core — qualities fans have connected with across generations. Nobody could ever stay mad at that guy for long. Stephen Hardy is similarly winning as the Man in Black. Nobody ever bothers impersonating the no less distinctive Perkins, and that's true here too. As it should be with the father of Rockabilly,  Isaac Middleton lets his guitar do the important talking.

But what of the Killer?

It's important to understand, it wasn't just a lyric in "Whole Lotta Shakin'" Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't faking. Not a bit. Not ever. I'm not even sure the wild man of Concordia Parish could have faked anything if he wanted to. That's always been a problem for M$4. Lewis may have been the class clown, but he was never just a clown. His edge as real as the Pentecostal abandon when he played. The Killer had swagger like an OG rapper, and real gone, crazy genius. He might smile and charm, and toss his pretty hair and be polite as you please, and he might even sit down when you tell him to — and he's told to often in M$4. But Jerry Lee's gonna get you some day, wait and see. The musical comedy counts on Lewis for laughs and POTS's Nathan McHenry delivers big on that score, at the expense of spiritual verisimilitude. Then he beats the piano to the ground, sings the hell out of his songs, and gives, and gives, and gives.

As I've mentioned, all the good stuff in Memphis is weird at the edges, and think that's the main thing Memphis the musical has over a sanitized M$Q. If Andy Kaufman hadn't thrown coffee in Jerry Lawler's face, David Letterman's craziest interview award might very well belong to Sam Phillips. All these cool cats had demons and this musical's light tone wouldn't suffer a bit if things were just a touch wilder. Michael Detroit's staging always errs on the side of cuddly —  that's fine too. And if some pieces are missing from the million dollar puzzle, at least one piece has been returned — sort of.

 Kathryn Kilger's a smokey-voiced delight as Elvis' squeeze Dyanne. Her songs and character are shoehorned in, but she makes herself essential as the mystery girl cropped from the famous photo.

On any given night you can go out in Memphis, lay down $5 or $10 and watch the latest crop of Memphis rockers kick out some fantastic jams, — weird and wonderful or tight and seasoned. Fun as it was, even the Broadway production left me thinking, "that was a hefty ticket for a decent cover band." M$4's  a paradox: Polished, commercial vehicle about raw creative force. The plot's soapy — better yet, it's 100% True Bromance. The best moments are jams, where characters find each other in the groove. Like the Killer, it is what it is. And whatever it is should probably play somewhere near Graceland or Beale St. every single August when the tourist monsoon hits. Until somebody gets the ball rolling on that genius plan POTS's fluffy teddy bear of a production will have to do.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Grace Notes: Race and Erasure in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

Posted By on Wed, May 3, 2017 at 2:39 PM

It's not uncommon for a director to cut servants from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They are peripheral characters  with no role in the play's central action.  It's understandable too —  In 2017, nobody wants to ask a gifted African-American performer to play a menial who does little more than wheel a birthday cake around on stage, stock the bar, and stand respectfully in the background. But what's achieved by minimizing disagreeable elements woven into the culture of an historical work? Particularly in a piece of theater deliberately built like music, with so much attention devoted to grace notes, and non-essential dialogue?

We're not talking about "Servant #1 and Servant #2" characters either. These theatrical phantoms have names: Daisy, Brightie, and Small. Getting rid of them doesn't affect core conflict, but it erases silent witnesses to the Pollitt family's lies, infighting and unnecessary strife. The servants may also be a proxy for the audience, able to show those of us stationed on the other side of the footlights, how to observe the action. Senior actors in the roles give  resonance to Maggie the Cat's motivating fear of being old without money. The servants' quiet efficiency frames the family's dysfunction and casual racism — something one anticipates in the house of a "Mississippi redneck," turned multimillionaire in the mid-20th-century. They've been cut entirely form Theatre Memphis' production of Cat. (As has the expression "Mississippi Redneck"— unless I missed it). Through edition selection or careful cutting, language at the intersections of race, and class (and even sex) has been minimized and softened. I'm not here to scold or applaud that. I'm only here to ask what it means when we adjust for the racial insensitivity of historic fiction by eliminating all the black people?

Before the usual assumptions are made, I'm not accusing anybody of being a bad person, or of doing something wrong. I am accusing Theatre Memphis of being a successful East Memphis arts institution with only good intentions — and all the systemic issues that go hand-in-hand with being a successful East Memphis arts institution with only good intentions. In its near-Century history only two African-American-themed plays have been presented on its main stage, and black directors have been few and far between. A strong recent production of Rasheeda Speaking on the NextStage, with its white author, white director, and 3/1 white cast, highlights the trend instead of testing the rule. Success and best intentions notwithstanding, this isn't a great track record.

One would think in the majority community might be better served by the city's namesake company. But that's never been the case, and maybe it never can be given the city's history of segregated urban planning, crap transit system, and the gatekeeper nature of contemporary arts development and funding. (Read the Q&A connected to this story for background). Besides, though more opportunities may exist, it's not like any of Memphis' other theatrical arts institutions are that much better.

When The Hattiloo Theatre came on line as a Memphis institution it immediately filled a need. Though still limited, Memphis' black theater, and theater-going communities now have a year-round place to experience work relevant to black culture. This good development resulted in a pair of unfortunate externalities. Increasingly the Hattiloo evidences the kinds of issues that go hand in hand with monopoly growth.  Meanwhile, the city's other playhouses — consciously or un — seem to feel even less obligated to produce a consistent body of work relevant to the city's dominant culture. Not to put too fine a point on it, this has to change. That means companies inclined toward traditional content need to identify opportunities for non-traditional casting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was an opportunity for Theatre Memphis to do exactly that.

The Williams estate can be prickly about changes, but not so long ago Broadway audiences were treated to a Pollitt family comprised of James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, and Phylicia Rashad. That precedent makes the near complete erasure of race from this tragedy of the American South stand out even more.

This isn't a dig at Theatre Memphis. It shouldn't be interpreted as one. Nor is it a dig at a director who staged Cat, more or less, as was originally intended. Nor is it a eulogy for poor Daisy, Brightie, and Small, rubbed out for being inessential and awkward. I suspect most folks won't miss them a bit — and maybe that's the point.

But is it progress?

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