Wild at Heart 

A visit to Guare's House; Circuit throws a party.

An extremely bright and incredibly talented young actress with whom I've worked took me to task over some critical observations I made about Germantown Community Theatre's recent production of Romeo and Juliet. I'd remarked that the show, while often engaging and generally innovative, was entirely too somber from the top, leaving the actors with little room to grow.

"But it's a tragedy," the actress insisted, a bit bewildered. "Shouldn't it be played like a tragedy?" My answer: "No. It's a story just like any other story. You don't 'tell a tragedy.' You 'tell a story.' If the characters fall down, we call that story a comedy. If they don't get up again, we call it a tragedy."

Too often directors, especially young ones, are confused by labels like "comedy," "tragedy," and "farce," and they end up trying to stage a generalized style instead of simply telling a specific, nuanced story about real people facing real problems. It's particularly frustrating to see Jerry Chipman, a seasoned, often excellent director, falling into the same trap. His entertaining and energetic production of John Guare's classic The House of Blue Leaves isn't bad, exactly. But it's not particularly good either, because instead of finding the humanity in Guare's dark, comical script, he's chosen to move the author's outlandish but very real characters around the stage in a farcical manner. The laughs are all in place but just about everything else is flapping in the breeze.

From its debut in the 1970s, The House of Blue Leaves has confused and delighted critics and audiences alike with its blend of kitchen-sink realism, absurdist comedy, murderous tragedy, and slapstick. Some people, it would seem, prefer their plays to be one thing or another. But life is seldom so even-keeled, and in that regard, Guare's wildly told story about Artie Shaughnessy (Barclay Roberts), a zookeeper with dreams of writing songs for Hollywood, is more genuinely lifelike than your typical drama.

Artie is married to Bananas (Ann Marie Hall), a mentally-ill housewife who prefers to act like a house pet but is planning to run off to California with the tacky downstairs neighbor, Bunny Flingus, a lousy lay with mad kitchen skills. But all of Artie's plans blow up in his face when his son's failed attempt to assassinate the pope winds up killing two nuns and a deaf movie star.

Theatre Memphis' cast is first-rate. The burly, bearded, and sweet-natured Roberts is a perfect fit for Artie, whose cruelty is dulled by an earnest desire not for stardom but normalcy.

Ann Sharp's Bunny is a ghastly vision in pink, and her skills as a physical comedian are impeccable. But the more the audience becomes aware of the comedian's skills, the less we see of her character. The same is true of the wonderful Ann Marie Hall, who has nailed the role of Bananas in previous productions but comes off here as a comic device rather than the soulful conscience of Guare's most celebrated play.

At its root, The House of Blue Leaves is about how Americans worship our gods and our celebrities and how our dreams of success and stardom too often mirror our more fantastical visions of heaven and hell. It's not a comedy, tragedy, or farce, nor is it a blend of the three. It's a story about people who fall down and get up again and people who just fall down.

At Theatre Memphis through February 18th

Circuit Playhouse's production of The Wild Party surpasses even the wildest expectations. Andrew Lippa's pop opera, inspired by a racy 1928 book-length poem of the same name, overflows with eroticism and bathtub gin. Carla McDonald's wonderful physical and vocal performance as Queenie, a libidinous vaudeville singer whose relationship with a famously abusive comedian has gone sour, is eye-popping, jaw-dropping, and wild, wild, wild.

The Wild Party is pure pulp-fiction candy: tawdry and titillating. The narrative is loose, unfocused, and sometimes it falls apart altogether. But this musical was inspired by the book that inspired William S. Burroughs to become a writer, so who cares about plot? And with songs about "good-old fashioned lesbian love stories," how can you go too far wrong?

Beautifully conceived by director Dave Landis and expertly executed by a cast of 20 hot, drunk, horny, dirty, nasty, jazz age boys and girls, The Wild Party is a total dazzler.

At Circuit Playhouse through February 11th

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