Up and Away 

Circuit looks at guns; a Midsummer soars.

From Up Here, the compelling, if almost entirely humorless drama that opened at Circuit Playhouse last week, tells the timely story of a disturbed boy who takes a gun to school intending to kill himself and everybody else. Yet Liz Flahive's raw but ultimately hopeful play isn't about guns, or schools, or shooting.

It's about child abuse in every sense of the word, save the most conventional sense. It's about the abuse children heap on each other and the overprotective abuses parents can inflict with only the best intentions. It's about the abuse communities and the media dole out while quenching the public's thirst for gritty details and blood. But most of all, From Up Here is about the kind of child abuse that can happen to us at any age when our ever-tender, always-developing personal identities come into conflict with the identities ascribed to us by others. It's a play about the death of joy, when our creative urges are transformed by convention into a love that dare not speak its name.

Director Irene Crist has served up a robust production. Her excellent ensemble cast, which includes Kim Justis, John Moore, Josh Bernaski, and Liz Sharpe, negotiates the soul-scraping corners of a play that, in the wrong hands, could turn into an exercise in theatrical sadism. Justis is especially good here as a mother on the verge of falling apart. When things seem darkest, she finds this hard-to-watch but impossible-not-to-watch show's best, and necessary, laughs.

Through February 20th

Like Bottom the Weaver after his sexy adventure in fairyland, I walked away from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Opera A Cappella unable to determine whether I'd experienced authentic sorcery or some trick to make me an ass. On the surface, Shakespeare's romantic comedy about magic and mistaken identities in ancient Greece doesn't seem to mesh all that well with a smooth jazz vibe, the unavoidable byproduct of composer Michael Ching's daring a cappella score. It's a little weird to experience Robin Goodfellow's puckish games in doo-wop pentameter, although Ching's treatment of the material is both a tribute to Shakespeare's words and a nearly reckless celebration of the human voice.

Don't let the buzz — mine or anyone else's — fool you. The best thing about this Midsummer isn't the gimmick of using singers instead of an orchestra but the exquisite tension that develops as the natural consequence of extended a cappella performance. For audiences, there's a NASCAR-like thrill of knowing that there may be a crash and it might be spectacular. For the vocalists, both on stage and in the pit, Midsummer is the ultimate trust exercise, as many voices work together for two hours with nothing to assist them from measure to difficult measure but the sound of other voices. The concentration on display is intense, like watching a team of police officers defusing a bomb. But fun.

Savvy listeners will appreciate the clever composer's goofy quotations of everything from Mendelssohn to The Sound of Music. But Midsummer's clowns, the "hard handed men of Athens" who've gathered in the forest to rehearse a play to perform at the Duke's wedding, get short-sheeted at almost every turn. Their prose isn't as thoughtfully translated into song, and, as a result, some of the most humane characters in the Western canon are reduced, almost entirely, to sight gags. Somehow — and this is a true testament to the opera's strengths — it isn't a crippling defect.

Playing off Ching's musical wit, director Gary John La Rosa and his design team have strewn the stage with storybook costumes and ornate wigs. The set, defined by a row of Greek columns, is a kitschy cliché top to bottom, glowing in the gorgeous quotation marks of John Horan's lights. The traditional profiles are edged with glitter rock flourishes and, taken together, make a perfect, whimsical counterpoint to Ching's winking, compulsively romantic score.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Opera A Cappella is an unprecedented collaboration between Playhouse on the Square and Opera Memphis. It seems, at times, like it's still a work in progress, but it's still one of the niftiest things I've seen on stage in Memphis since I started paying attention 25 years ago. If it's not a sweet anomaly, it's an evolutionary moment.

Through February 13th

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