Cave-ins, crazies, torture, and turmoil: Memphis theater gets dirty and dark.

In this post-O.J., post-9/11, post-tsunami world, the term "media circus" is all too familiar. We've seen the degree to which tragedies are manipulated by hacks and hucksters for personal gain. But America's first full-bore media circus happened in 1925, when a Kentucky caver named Floyd Collins became trapped in a narrow passage 100 feet beneath the earth. William "Skeets" Miller, a skeptical cub sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, took a trip deep into cave country to cover the rescue efforts. At 5'4" -- "no bigger than a mosquito" -- Miller turned out to be the only adult small enough to reach Collins, and he served as reporter, comforter, and rescue worker, writing copy that delved deep into the psyche of a "lucky man" who'd been buried alive. His Pulitzer Prize-winning stories appeared in thousands of papers worldwide, and reporters from around the country were dispatched to rural Kentucky. Thousands of people came to observe the rescue efforts. And with the crowds came preachers, vendors, filmmakers, and confidence men of every stripe. Floyd Collins, a devastating musical currently running at Circuit Playhouse, captures both the human drama and comments on the more monstrous, exploitative aspects of human nature.

After Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, became a successful tourist attraction, many rural Kentuckians who scraped out a meager living farming the rocky topsoil came to believe that their fortunes were buried deeper than any shovel could dig. They dreamed of caves, curio shops selling stalactites, and concession stands open seven days a week. The impoverished Collins was eaten up with cave fever and his tragedy represents the American Dream transmogrified into the American nightmare.

Floyd Collins, which marries American folk music to the operatic virtuosity of the modern musical, misses some very telling pieces of the story but still cuts to the heart of the matter. Sadly, but not tragically, Circuit's production, under the direction of Scott Ferguson, has been sabotaged, in part, by a few chorus players who infuse their characters, simple country folk and city slickers alike, with the kind of self-aware camp one might expect from a Hee Haw rerun. In doing so, the actors undermine the obliviously selfish interests of their characters and do considerable damage to the dramatic narrative.

There's also the matter of bad design. Circuit's already tiny stage has been cut in half, and the set consists of an upstage platform and a raked downstage platform. Rather than removing all ornament, allowing the spaces to be multifunctional and metaphoric, every aspect of the set has the look and feel of roughhewn boards: not terribly cavelike. Furthermore, once Floyd is trapped, the downstage platform, which represents the cave, is rendered virtually useless. That means nearly 50 percent of the available playing area, including the all-important front-and-center, is dead space. Crowd scenes are crammed into the upper level, making movement awkward and confusing.

What Michael Ingersol as Floyd lacks in character development, he more than makes up for in emotional honesty, and when the ensemble breaks down, his presence carries the show. Bill Andrews is also excellent as H.T. Carmichael, an engineer motivated by publicity and determined to rescue Floyd even if it kills the poor caver. Dave Landis (Floyd's grieving, money-scraping father) is likewise excellent, and Andrew Weir (Floyd's brother) is effective as a young man caught between filial love and overnight celebrity. But the most heartbreaking moments of this show come courtesy of Evan Linder (conflicted reporter Skeets Miller) and Megan Bowers (Floyd's sweetly disturbed sister). Bowers, a native of East Tennessee, is the only actor to capture the regional flavors of rural Kentucky without a wink and a nudge: a truly revealing performance by an actress coming into her own.

Through February 13th

Misery in Germantown

If not for the painfully long blackouts which make Germantown Community Theatre's production of Stephen King's Misery feel miserably long, it could be a knockout. The film is so iconic that suspense is entirely out of the question, but there are things about this Misery that justify a drive to the wilds of Forest Hill-Irene.

Emily Peckham's understatement makes torturous nutcake Annie Wilkes so sympathetic the audience comes down with Stockholm Syndrome. And as romance author Paul Sheldon, Greg Boller makes a witty but no less defiant fly to Peckham's sadistic spider.

This tale of capture, nurture, and torture is claustrophobic enough to begin with. GCT's claustrophobic space enhances the experience, and the revolving set makes full use of the postage-stamp stage.

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