Theatre Memphis’ Rapture, Blister, Burn; Hattiloo’s King Hedley II 

Rapture, Blister, Burn

Rapture, Blister, Burn

So how is free internet pornography like a GPS? And what does any of that have to do with the price of American dairy products? To find out you'll have to go see Rapture, Blister, Burn at Theatre Memphis.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is a fantastic comedy with a terrible name. It sounds like a trashy novel where the female protagonist's late-life sexual awakening results in a loss of social standing and cruel psychological torment. And while Gina Gionfriddo's authentically clever script does flirt with that tired conceit, it's something altogether different and unlikely. It's a full-fledged screwball romp through three generations of pop culture feminism that milks a few sacred cows while exploring the possibility that evolution and biological hardwiring have conspired against the easy eradication of patriarchal values. Why else might a strong, smart woman who should know better make terrible, self-defeating choices to be with a no-account stoner dude who'd rather be watching porn? Imagine a 21st-century version of Chekhov's three sisters pining for a less heteronormative Moscow, and you'll get the picture.

Jack Yates' detailed design overstuffs Theatre Memphis' Next Stage with all the trappings of middle-class anxiety dressed up to look like comfort. Tony Isbell's directorial hand is as sure as it is invisible. The show plays out like it was expressly written to showcase the considerable talents of an ensemble cast led by the always excellent Erin Shelton.

Shelton plays Catherine Croll, a middle-aged academic and best-selling author in full-blown crisis mode and looking to rekindle an old flame who's now married to her old college roommate. She's joined on stage by the deliciously dotty Ann Sharp, a charming Steven Burke, the convincingly conflicted Tracie Hansom, and Jillian Barron, who is hilarious as the play's lone millennial.

Rapture, Blister, Burn seems to be aware of its own pretensions and limitations and chooses to keep the cultural conversation light and fairly superficial. As a result, one doesn't have to have a degree in women's studies to follow the dialogue. You don't have to agree with the play's conclusions to enjoy the ride either.

Through April 19th

Time has been uncommonly kind to August Wilson's King Hedley II, a play set in the 1980s, in the moment before crack and the subsequent War on Drugs pulverized the poorest urban communities. For all of its structural shortcomings, it's probably a better show today than it was in 2001 when it opened on Broadway.

The penultimate entry in Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle opens with an incantation. Evil omens abound. Aunt Ester, the neighborhood's magical matriarch dies at the age of 366. Stool-Pigeon, a "Truth Sayer" (expertly portrayed by Jonathan Williams) divines the future from yesterday's newspapers. Meanwhile, the play's doomed title character kneels on a broken sidewalk, burying seeds in a crumbling patch of gravel and dust that he savagely defends: "This is good dirt." It's a picture ripped from Sophocles. It couldn't be more modern or more contemporary American.

King Hedley is portrayed by a brooding and volatile Ekundayo Bandele. King's fresh out of jail, having spent the past seven years behind bars for burying a man who slighted him; robbing a little boy of his daddy in the process. He aims to go straight, too, after he sells enough stolen refrigerators to open a video store. Yes, a video store. And, yes, the pathos is thick and darkly funny, providing the audience with a nifty object lesson in the ways a play can change as it moves through time.

From our perspective, Wilson's Reagan-era story seems even more cruelly fatalistic than it was at the beginning of its theatrical life. In 2001, video shops were a declining but still-viable business. There was a faint glimmer of hope that even in this barren landscape fertilized with blood, something of lasting value might grow.

Director Erma Elzy gets solid performances from her cast. But the real star of this shooting match is Bandele's fantastically detailed set. It's a stunning urban still life, populated with litter, wreathed in decrepitude and decay.

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