Mise en scene: 100 things that defined Memphis theater in the Aughts. Part one.

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Dead Mans Cell Phone
  • Dead Man's Cell Phone

How would I define Memphis theater in the Aughts? I don't think I could define it. Not easily, anyway. There were hundreds of shows and of thousands of performances. It was mostly good. It could be incredibly bad. And yes, sometimes it was inexplicably ugly. Great actors passed away. New stars were born. The show always went on.

Hopefully this top 100 list will at least give readers some sense of the surprising depth and breadth of Memphis' ever growing theater scene. And since I didn't see everything I encourage readers to step in and correct any sins of omission. I'm sure there will be many.

70: Playhouse on the Square stages one of the most talked about productions of the decade, which isn't always a good thing. There are two reasons to put Shakespeare's Juliet in a wheelchair. One might discover from a lost first draft of Romeo & Juliet that Shakespeare intended his perfect female lover to be rich, 13, and paralyzed from the waist down. Or a director might find an actress who has everything it takes to play the part except for the use of her legs. Or, if you're director Drew Fracher you could just put her in a wheelchair for the hell of it and see how everything shakes out.

71:Even when dressed as Jesus and sporting a strap-on device with three silly-looking rubber penises attached Kyle Barnette manages to be strangely understated in Quills. TheatreWorks, 2004.

72: Michael Walker's set for Far East is Zen-like in its minimalism and beauty, turning an uneventful play into a visual feast. Theatre Memphis, 2001.

73: Forget O Brother Where Art Thou, Meagan Bowers sings like a natural born daughter of Appalachia in Floyd Collins. Circuit Playhouse, 2005.

74: Angela Groeschen tramps it up as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. Playhouse on the Square, 2005.

75: Heaven is a laundromat and Allen Busby is a very grumpy corpse in Dead Man's Cell Phone. Circuit Playhouse, 2009.

76: Chatterbox Audio Theater is founded in 2007.

77: Susan Chrietzberg's choreography turns Taming of the Shrew into a Max Fleischer cartoon. University of Memphis, 2000.


78:People leave a brilliantly acted production of Stonewall Jackson's House in clumps because they've either missed the satire or don't like having their entrenched beliefs so vigorously and hilariously challenged. NextStage, 2000

79:"Toad looks funny in a bathing suit.” From A Year With Frog & Toad at Circuit Playhouse, 2007.

80: A billboard for Jerry Springer the Opera looms over Midtown making Memphis seem like a progressive white trash theater town. Courtesy of Playhouse on the Square, 2007

81: Kell Christie is both ethereal and bawdy singing “The Miller's Son” in a beautiful production of A Little Night Music. Theatre Memphis, 2004.

82: Designer Tim McMath performs a magic trick by turning a door frame and a few yards of astroTurf into an elegant and effective set for Medea. Circuit Playhouse, 2006.

Medea
  • Medea

83: Ernie Scarborough plays perfect Floyd Cramer-style piano in A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. Circuit Playhouse, 2003.

84: Wes Meador stages the perfect ghost story, Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird. Rhodes College, 2006.

Tongue of a Bird
  • Tongue of a Bird

85: David Jilg and Laura Canon team up and create a scenic masterpiece. Their set design for J.B. Was perfectly surreal and seemed to defy gravity.Rhodes College, 2000.

86:David Newsome creates a sound design for A Midsummer Night's Dream that includes every great song ever written about the moon and stars. K-Tel should have taken notice. Theatre Memphis, 2007

87: Former cop/security guard Ralph Hatley follows in his son Kyle's footsteps with a breakout performance as Butch, a dangerous prisoner in Tennessee Williams' lost play Not About Nightingales.

88: Artist L.D. Beghtol hand draws the details on Kerry Strahm's set for Gorey Stories. Germantown Community Theater, 2009.

89: John McFerrin plays Schmendiman the inventor in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. His performance is so out of time with his fellow actors he actually feels like some drunken Shriner who wandered in off the street. Very funny. Theatre Memphis, 2006.

90:
Bennett Foster of Memphis bands The Barbaras and The Magic Kids re-imagines Shakespeare's “Sigh No More Ladies” as a lost Brian Wilson song for Much Ado About Nothing, Bartlett Performing Arts Center, 2009. Click here to listen.

91: Circuit Playhouse is completely gutted to turn the tiny playhouse into an intergalactic nightclub for Saucy Jack & the Space Vixens. Circuit Playhouse, 2006.

92: Playwrights' Forum isn't known for building elaborate sets but the DIY company constructed an amazing Rube Goldberg device for The Man Who Only Wanted a Screwdriver. TheatreWorks, 2004.

93:
Savannah Bearden channels Tallulah Bankhead in ETC's production of You Should Be So Lucky, TheatreWorks, 2009.

94:All those shoes in Bad Dates. NextStage, '09.

95: Emily Peckham delivers an understated performance as Annie Wilkes in Misery that makes us forget all about Kathy Bates. Germantown Community Theatre 2005.

96: Great performances can emerge from the most deeply frustrating shows. In Retreat From Moscow Barclay Roberts and and Irene Crist create an anti-chemistry that reduces the temperature in the theater by at least 10 degrees. Circuit Playhouse, 2005

97: If John Waters and Jean-Luc Godard got rip-snortin' drunk one night and decided to rewrite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf before sunrise, the result might very well resemble Jim Esposito's black comedy Tell Me You Love Me. Sleeping Cat Studio, 2003

98: Commercial Appeal theater critic Chris Blank and his co-workers protest layoffs and outsourcing at the CA with some good old fashioned street theater. In this clip Blank plays some guy named Chad.

99: Theatre Memphis stages Bark! An original musical about dogs that's so bad it becomes a must see production. Sample lyric: "You fill my bowl. I fill your soul." Ed Wood couldn't have done worse. Or better. Or... you know what I mean.

100: In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and interactive media Memphis thespians still communicate with one another via "The Callboard," a subscriber-only Yahoo user group. May it live forever.

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