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Wild, Wild, Wild

Playback, Voices, and Errors.

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A funny thing happened on the way to The Comedy of Errors. Okay, that's not true. But a funny thing did happen the night before at a rare public performance by Playback Memphis.

Shoeless actors in black costumes created spontaneous performance art in response to the electoral defeat of a proposal to consolidate the Memphis and Shelby County governments. It was like some ridiculous civic exorcism and completely unexpected. But the really funny part was me explaining the story about the daddy who molested his daughter to my 8-year-old twins.

Playback is dedicated to building compelling art on the spot based on the impressions, concerns, and stories from the audience. It can be screwball one moment and uncomfortably confessional the next. Awkward parenting moments aside, that's what makes it great and draws an especially healthy, theater-savvy crowd.

And who knew consolidation's crash and burn would be so phallic? With such misshapen birth imagery and an anxious clown on a tightrope?

playbackmemphis.com.

 Nothing funny happened on the way to The Comedy of Errors. But something really unusual happened Sunday afternoon at the Evergreen Theatre. Voices of the South hosted a talk-back session after a matinee performance of Wild Legacy, a new play by Gloria Baxter, and the entire audience stayed to participate. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but very few people took advantage of the opportunity to bolt.

 "I was with you on this adventure all the way," said one member of what appeared to be a uniformly impressed crowd. It's cliché, I know, but Southerners do seem to have a gift for vivid storytelling. Even though Wild Legacy plays out on a bare stage with a bare minimum of props, the show is as cinematic as any IMAX film about the Arctic.

Baxter and her former students in Voices of the South get, probably better than any group in town, that even in this digital age, you can still get fabulous results when you forget all that stuff about "suspension of disbelief" and just ask an audience to turn on its imagination. The narrative-theater style, of which Baxter is an important pioneer, is getting a lot of well-deserved attention at the moment due to the wall-to-wall sell-out of Gatz, the Public Theatre's six-hour word-for-word performance of The Great Gatsby in New York.

Wild Legacy, helped along with wonderful guitar accompaniment by Virginia Allis Ralph, is every bit as enchanting as the pristine wilderness the show's characters describe. Jerre Dye and Alice Berry give performances as Olaus and Mardy Murie — the husband-and-wife naturalists whose expeditions in the far north inspired the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — that are as inviting as a roaring campfire. The couple's own love story is reflected in their mutual love affair with the unspoiled places at the top of the world.

Wild Legacy, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, continues its preview run through November 21st before heading out for a seven-city tour that will carry Voices of the South all the way to Alaska.

voicesofthesouth.org

 

One astonishing thing did happen on the way to The Comedy of Errors. University of Memphis Theater Department chair Bob Hetherington, standing on the colorful set of Stephen Hancock's production of the sprawling Shakespearean comedy, announced that the university would produce the mega-musical The Phantom of the Opera in 2012. An announcement like that is always going to steal a little thunder from whatever might be going on at the time, and that's not fair because Hancock's bawdy, over-the-top take on Errors deserves to be fully in the spotlight.

The Comedy of Errors is heavily inspired by the works of the Roman playwright Plautus, whose dirty little sex farces also inspired the popular musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and this burlesque-heavy production takes inspiration all around. The women are mostly floozies, the men are mostly dopes, the plot is beside the point, and broad cultural stereotypes abound. Colorful togas almost cover the student cast, who speak the Bard's words like they just walked off the set of Jersey Shore. And that's a good thing.

Through November 20th

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