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Circuit revives The Fantasticks; U of M explores the dark side of science with The Physicists.

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If by some strange chance I found myself serving on the play-finding committee for some Memphis-area theater, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 comedy The Visit would be among the first shows I'd submit for consideration. The satirical work tells the story of a former prostitute who's become extremely rich and powerful and who returns to her rotting hometown promising to use the money she's earned and inherited to fix every problem. In exchange, she asks for one thing only: the execution of the first man who jilted her. The Visit is a mean play from the onset and a vintage work that seems overdue for a revival in Memphis, a cash-strapped place, where corporate ethos drives education reform and jobs are regularly leveraged against civic obligation. It's a good match, I think, and if anything, my desire to see someone stage The Visit has only been increased by the University of Memphis' first-rate production of The Physicists, Dürrenmatt's brutal Cold War-era comedy about scientific responsibility following the WWII-ending detonation of two atomic bombs.

Director Robert Hetherington seems to be letting his appreciation for British theater innovator Peter Brook show in his studio theater production of Dürrenmatt's dramatic satire. There's little separation between the actors and audience members who walk through the theater's door into a crime scene. A broken lamp inhabits a far corner of grimy institutional green performance space. In order to get to their seats, observers step on or over a body line that is drawn in chalk on the floor, and the play begins with the revelation of a second murder. Before the first act is over, audiences endure a third prolonged, extremely violent, graphic death by forced strangulation. All of the victims are female nurses. The killers, we discover, are all famous scientists including Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. To be more precise, they are all famous physicists who are also lunatics. To be exact, they are all perfectly sane men who pretend to be dangerously insane because they know the scientific knowledge they possess will be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, the three geniuses aren't safe in their asylum. They are financial assets, and (in spite of Einstein's and Newton's secret service training) they will be badly outmaneuvered.

Strong student performances are uplifted by faculty member Sarah Brown who appears as Fräulein Doctor Matilde von Zahn, who comes across as a cross between Shakespeare's Richard III and Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein.

The Physicists at the U of M studio theater through October 11th

Commedia dell'arte began as subversive Italian street theater, but it evolved over time (and with the increased patronage of those it once lampooned) into a kind of dainty romantic dance comedy. If One Man, Two Guvnors at Playhouse on the Square is inspired by the earlier variation, Circuit Playhouse's revival of The Fantasticks is a much tamer confection to be sure. And, although it is one of the most successful musicals of all time, there's really not very much to it, is there?

The Circuit Playhouse production has much in common with the 2006 New York revival, from its expanded set to its piano and harp accompaniment. Like the NYC version, which featured the show's author and original cast member Tom Jones as the Old Actor, this Jordan Nichols-directed version also stars an extraordinary legacy performer. In this case the Old Actor is played by (almost) 86-year-old Barry Fuller, who directed Circuit's first production of The Fantasticks 45 years ago. And Fuller, with the aid of fellow clown Sandy Kozik, absolutely steals the show.

Nichols has staged a sweet thing. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, being more inclined toward the cruder One Man, Two Guvnors school of Commedia. There's a lot of talent in this show, but it's the comedy team of Fuller and Kozik that nearly transforms a production overstuffed with adequacy into something of a must see.

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