The 2017-18 theatre season launches this week with "Ruined," and "9 to 5"


It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it. - CARLA MCDONALD
  • Carla McDonald
  • It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

As a lifelong Dolly Parton fan and country music cosplayer who spent one of the best afternoons of his life shooting the breeze with Lily Tomlin, and most of his teen years watching Jane Fonda's Barbarella over and over again on the VCR, I'm trying to get excited about Playhouse on the Square's season opener, 9 to 5. But I've got to confess, I could use a up of ambition. Help?

I never warmed  to the Broadway tour, which seemed, sometimes, to miss the point of a story that comes with a special history and and maybe some obligations.

9 to 5
 isn't just a screwball pink-collar relic of the pre-Reagan-era. It's a transgressive anti-chauvinist romp with politics, to borrow  from The New Republic:
 "rooted in the moment when Second Wave feminism prompted the entrance of millions of middle-class white women into the paid workforce and the exit of many of those same women from the marriages they had entered in the Baby Booming 1950s and ’60s." 
Like most labor expressions born in the 70's it never found the right intersection of race, gender, and class, but it found other things that make this 1980 film — a film Roger Ebert described as good-hearted but "simple-minded"— look like the secret roadmap to a largely unclaimed future. The shenanigans get underway following a good old fashioned pot party/fantasy sequence that presages an actual office coups that makes Johnny Paycheck's "Shove It" look weak. Three overworked (and over-groped) secretaries kidnap the boss and take over the office. Then they listen to worker needs, and introduce radical ideas like in-office daycare, flex time and a bunch of wacky stuff that still probably sounds like paradise to the average cubicle-dweller in your average right to work state, and an unobtainable blue collar fantasy. Or, maybe "OMG SOCIALISM!!!" if you're insane.

Not to be all Danny Downer while discussing a zany musical farce, but a lot of the stuff we all learned in school about women's progress in the 20th-Century is bunk. Good stuff happened and things are marginally better but bodies are still battlefields, there's a groper in the Oval office, and when you boil down the data historic shifts toward economic parity tend to reflect a general decline in male earnings not great strides for womankind. Every time a glass ceiling shattered two iron window-shades slammed shut and for all its silly laughs, 9 to 5 is an expression of pure Hulk-smash rage. It's a sharp comic book vision, firmly set in reality, and built around a set of interviews actress Jane Fonda conducted with members of a Cleveland-based group called Working Women. According to WW organizer Karen Nussbaum, every aspect of author Patricia Resnick's story, from 9 to 5's pet-along-to-get along office environment to its characters' dreams of taking revenge against the boss, were drawn from Fonda's original interviews. Everything except for the part where the boss/villain played by Dabney  Coleman gets kidnapped and and trussed up like an S&M clown show. That part is pure fictional revenge porn.

Crafted in the right spirit, a good musical adaptation could  translate into something even more righteous and radical than the source material. But does it?Will it? Did it ever have a chance? Fonda's sincere desire to give Working Women a voice everybody could hear is unlike the motivations driving Broadway producers who've perfected the art of transforming nostalgia into piles of cash.

The struggle is real, you can hear it in the original cast recording.

Parton's original songs ground things, but arrangements are way more broad than Butterfly. On the plus side, Playhouse on the Square often makes the most out of okay film adaptations — Priscilla, anyone?  And to end on a high note, 9 to 5 unites a trio of heavy hitting, slapstick-capable musical theater artists. Jeanna Juleson, Nicole Hale, and Jenny Madden take on the roles made famous by Tomlin, Parton, and Fonda. Mike Detroit stands in for Coleman. Gary John La Rosa who delivered a memorable Les Miz, and a forgettable American Idiot directs. Well, that was sort of a high note.


MAMA COURAGE: With Ruined Lynn Nottage explores the curse of plenty, and weaponization of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Opening at the Hattiloo this weekend.

"You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, that's where it begins"
— Bertolt Brecht, "Second Threepenny Finale"

“If things are bad, then Mama eats first.” — Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's Ruined .  

Americans tend to think of foreign conflicts as things happening across some ocean or another — Somebody else's problem. But our global village often means the violence is closer than you think. When you watch a production Lynn Nottage's raw, ragged, prize-winning script Ruined, you've got to know that the global infatuation with electronics helped fund Civil War in the Congo. Cell phones funded it. Video games funded it. I helped make it happen. You too, probably. That's not what the show is about, but the brutality has context.

Ruined is is set in and around Mama Nadi’s bar, bodega, and brothel in a mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nadi's character was inspired by Brecht's Mother Courage who finds opportunity in conflict. Nadi sells a mix of vices and necessities to soldiers, but she buys too. Nadi has rage and uses some of her income to rescue women from sexual torture that scars them physically and turns them into socially ruined outcasts.

She rescues from one horror then puts them and puts them to work servicing the military men.

Disaster feeds on disaster in a vicious cycle, punctuated by hope and horror. Nottage's play is informed by her travels in Africa and exposure to the suffering of women amid the Congolese civil war. And unlike Brecht, who wanted to create emotional distance between characters and audience, she wants us to feel every piece of it.

Maya Robinson plays Mama Nadi with Ostrander nominated Jessica "Jai" Johnson as one of her rescues, Salima.

Love & Bank Robbery: Willie & Esther finishes its run at TheatreWorks

Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Co. stages James Graham Bronson's comedy about middle aged lovers who plan an imaginary bank robbery and figure things out about commitment.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sunday, August 13, at 3:00.

BCTA has finalized its season. Here's what else they have in store.

“FITTIN’ INN” /August 25, 26, 27, 31 TheatreWorks 2085 Monroe Ave. Celebrating our 12th Season!
BCTC presents series hosts the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis production of the comedy “Fittin’ Inn” by Ruby O’Gray. Set in pre-Katrina NOLA, 3 ladies stumble upon an injured man whose deathbed request they grant. They are soon Memphis bound, but someone’s following them, which leads to-a-gut busting laugh fest. Friday 25 & 7:30pm.

/September 9 & 10/Evergreen/1705 Poplar Ave. 26, 6:00pm & 8:30pm/ Sunday 27, 3:00pm. Thursday 31, 7:30pm/ Tickets are $20/$15 for Seniors (50), Students,&
Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre presents “The Strange Case of Mr. Wolf ” by Ruby O’Gray. A fun show for parents & children, as the town takes the ever-menacing Big Bad Wolf to court for his misdeeds. Tickets: (Early Bird) $10 for ages 14 and up & / $5 for age 3-13. Saturday 9th-5:00pm & 7:30pm/ Sunday 3:00pm At The Door: $12 ages 14 and up /$10 ages 3-13


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