It didn't feel like I was in Memphis" was the frequently repeated refrain from audience members lucky enough to catch Saturday night's performance of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's seldom-seen 1977 work, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.
And while this is a compliment that somehow diminishes the achievement, there was something rare about the performance, something wonderful and decidedly un-Memphis. Maybe it was the production itself, the first joint project between Playhouse on the Square and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, two of the city's vanguard arts organizations. Certainly, Stoppard's play, which compares the plight of a Soviet political prisoner to an inmate in a mental hospital, is shockingly accessible though bursting with political import. And no matter where you live, one-act plays that require a full symphony orchestra aren't run-of-the mill.
And then, of course, there is the Cannon Center itself. The new concert hall is stunning, to say the least. For many theater fans not given to venturing out for classical performances, this was their first time to visit the spectacular new space, and it's fairly easy to see why they felt so deliciously dislocated. One way or the other, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor set a new standard for collaboration between Memphis arts groups. In a city obsessed with the idea of becoming "world-class," this production was a landmark event.
Bob Hetherington, chair of the theater and dance department of the University of Memphis, beamed as he looked out over the crowd and introduced the show. He offered special thanks to the production's benefactors, including Facing History And Ourselves -- an extremely appropriate alliance given the play's subject matter. One might think Stoppard's play, set in the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war, might be dated. Not true. In fact, as the play unfolds, many direct parallels can be drawn between Soviet dogma and the blindly nationalist sentiments fostered in America during the early 21st century.
"Why do this play when virtually nobody under the age of 15 or maybe even 20 remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall; when [Soviet] Communism has gone off the world stage?" asks MSO conductor David Loebel. "Because there are always governments cracking down on freedom of expression," he says. "Because governments are always cracking down on religion of some kind, on the right to assemble, and, of course, on the arts."
"It's something special and timely," adds Jackie Nichols, executive director of Playhouse on the Square.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, a one-night-only event, was two years in the making. The seed was sewn when Loebel called Nichols for advice one day in 2001, and somehow their conversation migrated toward the seldom-performed Stoppard/Previn collaboration. Both were interested in the idea of Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, but it took nearly a year just to set the date.
"I couldn't even find the recording," Nichols says. Actually, he found an original recording on vinyl but discovered it was warped. He later scoured New York record shops, to no avail. Just when he was about to give up, he stumbled across a copy that had been misfiled. According to Nichols, the live recording was difficult to listen to, but it was good enough.
Saturday night's performance represented the best talent that the Memphis art world has to offer. Seasoned veterans of the Memphis stage such as Bennett Wood, Michael Detroit, and Irene Crist performed alongside promising newcomer Robert McDonough, a graduate of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard and assistant professor at the U of M. Andre Leonard, who played Sacha, the troubled son of the Soviet dissident, turned 13 on opening night. Detroit was particularly fine as Ivanov, a potentially violent though generally good-natured fellow imprisoned because he thinks he plays the triangle in a symphony that does not exist. He made a fine counterpoint to McDonough's Alexander, the brooding prisoner who might be set free if only he would stop going on hunger strikes and agree that the Soviet Union does not lock sane men in mental hospitals.
Throughout the play we are reminded that what is real and true is unimportant: All that matters is agreeing with the state, that hegemony means health, happiness, and wisdom. Even when both prisoners are released by way of an absurd error, it is still a triumph for the oppressive system.
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra never sounded better. Simply playing in the acoustically fine Cannon Center has to have a powerful effect on the players. Engaging in such a unique experiment in front of a large, unusually enthusiastic audience could only make things that much better.
"Even in mankind's darkest moments, great art not only survives, it may be the only thing that tells the truth," Loebel told the audience before launching into Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a. And even in cities not known for being on the cutting edge of world culture, great art can happen. Even in Memphis.