When the Kinks sang "girls will be boys and boys will be girls" they might as well have been singing about this peculiar juncture in Memphis' 2009-10 theater season. Two of the three shows I caught this week featured an abundance of cross-dressing. Only Frost/Nixon, a tragedy disguised as a documentary about the confessions British talk-show host David Frost coaxed from Richard Nixon, exists in a world where the genders aren't mixed and muddled.
In spite of what you may have heard, Jonathan Christian's mascara-loving ZaZa is only the second best thing about Theatre Memphis' ambitious, entertaining production of La Cage aux Folles. Considering the eye-popping sequined gowns designed and made by Theatre Memphis' costumer André Bruce Ward, it may only be the third. That's saying something, because Christian, who sings like a young Bea Arthur and looks like a different '30s-era starlet with every costume change, takes what could have become a campy drag show and crafts it into a touching character study. He is perfectly paired with Randall Hartzog, who makes Georges, the owner of the wildest transvestite club in Saint-Tropez, the very picture of love and level-headed stability. The tender if occasionally turbulent romance Christian and Hartzog share is framed by the diverse and open-minded community of Saint-Tropez, which becomes the understated star of a show that, on its painted face, would seem to be all about over-the-top fabulousness.
La Cage functions as a farce, love story, and political statement. The serious silliness gets under way when Georges' son, conceived during a fling with a showgirl, plans a party to introduce his father to his fiancée's conservative, gay-hating parents.
Director Mitzi Hamilton's choreography may not be as original as it has been in past productions she's directed for Theatre Memphis, but all of the acting is spot-on. The vocal performances are memorable, from ZaZa's drag classic "Put a Little More Mascara On" to the timeless love song "With You on My Arm." The show's highlight, however, is the rousing barroom singalong "The Best of Times Is Now."
Through April 11th
The Tennessee Shakespeare Company's eight-woman production of Julius Caesar is interesting but less successful. Dan McCleary, the company's founding director, said he envisioned the show as an answer to the Elizabethans who only allowed men onstage. He also thinks women deserve a chance to play the great classical roles. But in this case, McCleary has altered Shakespeare's text in ways that are more significant than he may realize. By making all the pronouns in the play feminine, he commits a kind of artistic genocide, creating a world without the faintest trace of a Y chromosome. Shakespeare's players lovingly impersonated women. They didn't obliterate them.
Classically trained performers showing off their diction is no substitute for nuanced characters and developed relationships. There's lots of hard work on display here, but only Kerry Ryan comes close to creating a unique character. Even then her clownish Casca only shows us her funny side, not the elitist senator with nothing but contempt for the people she represents.
Julius Caesar is a timely drama about ambitious politicians who manipulate the fickle populace with speculation and innuendo and who resort to violence to achieve their goals. It could be a relevant piece of theater, but it plays out like an elegant stunt. Although the show has been plopped down in Germantown's City Hall, no useful dialogue between the past and the present materializes.
Through April 11th
Speaking of politics, Frost/Nixon may be the best thing Playhouse on the Square's guest director Rob Satterlee has done in Memphis since he staged Lanford Wilson's chilling Book of Days in 2004. Frost/Nixon is a deceptively minimal piece that both exonerates Nixon and condemns him. What's most astonishing about this production is how none of the players in the tight ensemble vanishes in the long shadows cast by Bill Andrews' complex, career-defining performance as Richard Nixon or Michael Ingersoll's finely tuned take on talk-show host David Frost. Andrews never settles for cheap impersonation. Ingersoll, a former company member, returns to Playhouse after a three-year run in the Chicago production of Jersey Boys.