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Exit the King

Scaling mountaintops, succeeding by degrees, and cruising Sunset.

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"Why was I born, if it wasn't forever?"
— Eugene Ionesco

I've seen few shows more rewarding than Hattiloo Theatre's regional debut of Hurt Village by Memphis native Katori Hall. And I've seen even fewer shows more frustrating than Hall's award-winning breakthrough play The Mountaintop, which closes at Circuit Playhouse this week. The former is Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, bundled together and set against the backdrop of a drug- and dealer-plagued housing project on the north side of Memphis, where love is impossible and methods are inseparable from madness. The Mountaintop, which could pass for a deliberate reworking of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, is a play that wants to be measured against modern masterworks like Samuel Beckett's Endgame or The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder's own dramatic reworking of Finnegans Wake. But Hall's play is probably doomed to play itself out again and again, like a staged episode of Touched by an Angel. Too bad, because there's a lot more here, but to get to the heavy stuff one must fully embrace the ridiculous.

Exit the King tells the darkly comic story of a monarch resisting and eventually surrendering to death with the aid of his staff and both his older and younger wives. As absurdist plays go, it's relatively straightforward, laced with slapstick, bawdiness, and plenty of gallows poetry. Hall tells the same story, stripped to the essentials, but instead of an unnamed monarch in the lead, she uses civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. And that's where the trouble starts.

It's not that Hall's paranoid, libidinous King, with his stinky "marching feet," does a disservice to the original. It's the memory and myth of the original that make it difficult to experience the Everyman in Hall's viscerally humanized simulacrum.

Circuit's production has a strong-enough cast. Lawrence Blackwell is an unassuming, charming, nicotine-addicted King, and Detra Payne is appropriately and effortlessly sensual as the hotel maid with a secret. But real and unreal elements that should intertwine are clearly defined and kept apart.

The Mountaintop makes difficult demands on artists and audience alike. In the case of Circuit's too-literal approach to the material, the audience will have to work a little harder, especially in later scenes where a potentially beautiful peek into the future turns into a too-familiar, projector-assisted History Channel-style montage. At Circuit Playhouse through February 10th

John Guare likes how John Guare writes. It's evident in every self-satisfied line of Six Degrees of Separation, an acutely aware class- and race-conscious answer to a typical David Mamet con game. The good news: When it cooks — and Theatre Memphis' production often does — it can be a real thrill ride.

The story: A gifted young African-American man takes advantage of two wealthy white couples and destroys the lives of one poor bohemian couple by pretending to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. It is loosely modeled after real events.

The exciting, slightly off-kilter structure of Six Degrees owes as much to modernist painting as it does to modern drama, but Theatre Memphis' A-list cast isn't always able to take advantage of opportunities to engage intimately (or in some cases explosively) with the audience. What's lost in style is balanced by nuanced character work, especially by the chameleon-like Marc Gill, who infuses magnetic con man Paul with a redemptive innocence. At Theatre Memphis through February 10th

No amount of video projection can change the fact that Sunset Boulevard the musical takes larger-than-life characters from the silver screen and renders them life-sized and, in a trick of perspective, even smaller than life. Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical treatment is, at best, a pale reminder that Billy Wilder, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, and William Holden once made a spectacular, film-noir homage to the ghosts of silent Hollywood.

But there are worse ways to spend two hours than with talents like Carla McDonald (Nora Desmond), Justin Asher (Joe), and Bill Andrews (Max) doing their best to give the originals a run for their money.

Boulevard director Bob Hetherington has kept his production lean and uncluttered, and in doing so, he's transformed an abomination of a show into something approaching a good time.
At Playhouse on the Square through February 17th

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