Theater » Theater Feature

Good Times, Bad Times

Our Own Voice responds to war; Lend Me a Tenor is strangely flat.

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I have heard what may be the most horrible sound in theater: the sound of military dog tags hitting the ground, one at a time. It's a thin sound, a tinny sound, not loud at all but impossible to ignore. It sounds like death. It sounds like torture. It sounds like a thousand awful things that can only happen in a faraway land and in the hands of an abstracted foe known to you only as "the enemy."

In the closing minutes of Good Time Speech, a timely play written for Our Own Voice Theatre Company by frequent OOV contributor Randy Youngblood and adapted to the stage by director Alex Cook, Eileen Townsend, a young, school-aged girl, trembles like a shell-shocked veteran in her combat fatigues. The dog tags fall from her trembling hands. Not far away a character known as Daddy Combat, played by John Rutkauskas, pours fake blood from a clear pitcher into a drinking glass sitting atop an oil barrel. It spills out of the glass and onto the barrel. It spills off of the barrel and onto the floor. It seems as if the pitcher is bottomless, that the blood will never stop pouring. It seems every bit as likely that the sound of falling dog tags will never stop ringing. It's a powerful sensory collage. The grim, increasingly pertinent message rings out loud and clear.

The number of soldiers killed in combat situations since President George W. Bush donned a military flight suit, stood beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, has now surpassed the number of soldiers killed prior to this pompous and certainly premature declaration of victory. Of course, the White House thinks it's foolish for the media to concentrate on dead soldiers and has even made the ridiculous statement that the ongoing bombings and guerrilla attacks prove just how successful the United States' efforts to bring freedom to Iraq have been. Hardly a day passes that we do not get a message from our leaders imploring us not to dwell on death and destruction but to rejoice because Iraqi children have returned to school. This bizarre "up-is-downism" is at the heart of Good Time Speech.

Youngblood's stream-of-consciousness writing style can be difficult to follow at times but not in this case, due in no small part to director Cook's detailed staging. We are presented with a topsy-turvy world where the irrational is rational, where patriotic songs fill the void created by death, where families mourn and politicians celebrate. One often-repeated line: "I had to put the flag in the washing machine to get all the dirt out of it." That just about says it all.

Our Own Voice is, hands down, Memphis' most interesting theater company, capable of creating world-class art with virtually no financial resources. If you miss Good Time Speech, you've missed the most important piece of work this increasingly innovative company has staged to date.

At TheatreWorks through November 9th

Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor is a classic farce of mistaken identity in the screwball spirit of Preston Sturges. Sadly, and in spite of a fantastic ensemble cast, Theatre Memphis' production falls flat. Blame it on that elusive thing called chemistry, because this show's failures have nothing to do with a lack of skill, consideration, or energy. All are there in abundance.

LMAT tells the story of a famous Italian tenor who misses a production because he is dead. Well, the opera company that hired him thinks he's dead, and to avoid refunds, they send in an impostor. Things seem to be going remarkably well, until the real tenor wakes up from his deep, drug-induced sleep and all the metaphorical door-slamming begins.

John Moore, who plays Max, the (professionally and sexually) ambitious impostor, seems to channel the comic physicality of Eddie Bracken, whose understated pratfalls were the hysterical heart of such films as Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. As the tenor in question, Keith Salter is likewise the very picture of bombastic understatement. Under the direction of Tony Isbell, the farce moves along quickly enough, hitting all the right marks, but somehow hilarity never ensues. Then again, maybe I just caught the cast on an off night. These things happen, and the performances seemed too good for the show to really be that bad.

At Theatre Memphis through November 9th

E-mail: davis@memphisflyer.com

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