Vacant (Facing the Tower)
, a joint effort between Project: Motion and Loop Productions, played to a full house Saturday night. The theater was so full, in fact, that patrons crowded together, curling up on the stairs and squatting near the stage. At the showÕs start, the lights came up to reveal the entire cast quietly holding eggs. One dancer violently threw her egg to the ground, strongly suggesting we were in for an evening of angry, feminist propaganda. It was a fantastic sleight of hand by choreographer Louisa Koeppel as nothing could have been further from the truth. The piece ended with the exact same image, only the eggs had been replaced with white rubber balls which, much to the audienceÕs surprise, bounced into the crowd en masse. This kind of whimsy infused an otherwise predictable meditation on the nature of beauty with liberating lightness.
Using music ranging from recordings of Johnny Rotten to a live a cappella version of the gospel standard ÒIÕll Fly Away,Ó Vacant (Facing the Tower)
told the story of a nightingale that fell asleep and became entangled in vines. After freeing herself the terrified bird never allowed herself to sleep again. Instead she kept awake by singing through the night. Koeppel, a dancer who, when she errs, tends to err on the side of beauty, made a star turn as the besieged nightingale. With the innocence of a child performing a magic show for doting parents, she flapped her wings and spun gracefully about the set, while the chorus questioned our collective ideas about what it means to be beautiful. The set, designed by Su Harruff, was a dazzling copper cage.
Some of That Jazz
Sadly enough, Warren LeightÕs award-winning play Sideman
, a show deserving a much longer run, closed this past weekend at Playhouse on the Square. The show chronicles the lives of four jazz players after Elvis Presley arrived on the scene with his rock-and-roll song-bag and robbed them all of their livelihood. But Sideman
is not about the decline of jazz. Sideman
is a tragedy along the lines of Arthur MillerÕs Death of a Salesman
. It is a tragedy of obscurity and neglect about a musician, who, obsessed with his music to the exclusion of all else, somnambulates through life leaving random bits of useless beauty here and there along the way.
Michael Detroit, in his strongest performance to date, was an ideal choice for Gene Glimmer, a trumpet player of tremendous sensitivity and total obliviousness. He blunders through his characterÕs rocky life unaware that his family is disintegrating. Guy Olivieri was equally effective as the narrator, Clifford Glimmer, and captured both the humor and frustration of a child forced by circumstance to raise his own parents. Lisa McCormick and Carla McDonald turned in a pair of noteworthy performances as, respectively, CliffordÕs alcoholic wife and a sassy-but-wise waitress who canÕt say no. Jonathon Lamer, Kyle W. Barnette, and Jason Craig brought to life a trio of brass players caught up in the midnight world of booze, dope, and groove. Craig, a performer who too easily sails over the top, was the portrait of restraint this time around, and his depiction of a gentle, world-wise junky was, without doubt, the eveningÕs high point.
Robots and Rhyme
The single most maddening thing about Memphis theater is its sick determination to play by the rules at every level. Generally speaking, and with a handful of notable exceptions, local fringe groups make low-budget versions of what could easily be main-stage productions. Where are the angry artists? Where are the eager youngsters determined to inform, enlighten, and entertain us in ways we have not yet imagined? Where is the spirit of reckless innovation that a youthful Tennessee Williams once described as Òsomething wildÓ? IÕll tell you where it is. ItÕs buried somewhere in the Flyer
Õs After Dark listings. ItÕs masquerading as a band called AUTOMUSIC.
Taking their musical cues from German groups like Kraftwerk, the band responsible for songs like ÒPocket CalculatorÓ and ÒAutobahn,Ó AUTOMUSIC wants to make us all aware of our robot nature. They want us to see that all humans are robots but not all robots are human. Their immensely fun and eminently portable show is the most purely theatrical and visually exciting performance you are likely to encounter this side of Berlin, and if you donÕt go see them you have only yourself to blame.
Except for some occasional synthesizer pecking, all of AUTOMUSICÕs music is prerecorded on video, and the digital sound is fantastic. Wonderful animations, with imagery that would make any Soviet propagandist worth his salt mine burst with pride, enhance this trioÕs brilliantly stiff and mathematically precise choreography. They don old-fashioned hardhats, brandish tools, and chant, ÒMy hammer goes tink, tink, tink when I work, my hammer goes tink tink tink.Ó That particular song, appropriately titled ÒThe Industrial Worksong,Ó conjures images of old-school agitprop and concludes, ÒIf you have a hammer and you work very hard you will get very far like me, youÕll help to make a productive state and a strong economy.Ó And how can anyone resist songs like ÒEverything Is For the Baby,Ó where the group declares, ÒWhat a stupid stupid baby it cannot do math at all its politics do not impress me inane, banal, obtuse babyÓ?
AUTOMUSIC may think they are just a band, but allow me to be the first critic to rave theyÕre the best theater in town.