Daylight saving time may have sprung us forward Sunday, but even so, it's getting darker out there all the time. Almost every production on stage in Memphis right now toys in some way with concepts of ugliness, scars, and deformity. In Lord of the Flies, schoolboys turn into murderous beasts when they're marooned on an island. Violet's about a girl whose face was scarred by an axe. Based on the true story of the conjoined Hilton twins, Side Show tells a circus story populated by a cast of "human oddities." Blackbird's a tiny piece of chamber theater subjecting audiences to 90 painfully awkward real-time minutes as a victim of child sexual abuse confronts her abuser at his workplace. Everything's ugly, and beautifully done.
There are moments in Playhouse on the Square's chillingly austere take on William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies when the story's opposing gangs threaten to stage a Pat Benatar video or square off in a Jets vs. Sharks dance-off. The sequences — impressive as they are — create tonal inconsistencies in a strong show. It works but never as cohesively as it might.
Lord of the Flies is the definition of an ensemble show. Director Jordan Nichols brought together an age-appropriate cast of (mostly) teens, capable of addressing the story's heart and its horror. Golding's violent parable of tribalism and unraveling democracy is encumbered by a bit of post-colonial savage vs. civilization bias, but its story of marooned British schoolboys playing naked dominance politics rings as true as ever. The kids nail it.
In one of the evening's more effective movement numbers, the cast becomes a living, breathing evolution chart going one way first, then full on reverse. It's too brutal and too beautiful and probably too on the nose. It's also a perfect bullseye.
Lord of the Flies at Playhouse on the Square through March 26th
Violet's the best Tony-nominated musical nobody's ever heard of. Based on Doris Betts' short story The Ugliest Pilgrim and buoyed by a collage of authentic Americana sounds, Violet tells the story of a hardened young woman who's pinned her hopes and dreams on a Tulsa faith healer. It's a road trip story prominently featuring one hot, transformative night in Memphis. In a short-feeling 90 minutes, Violet tackles big ideas about race, class, beauty, and faith with none of the usual "put it on Jesus" cliches. Germantown Community Theatre's production of Violet boasts some extraordinary voices and some not-so-extraordinary voices, but it's all honesty and heart. Nichol Pritchard's Violet is someone everybody knows. Hers is a standout performance.
Violet composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change) dove deep into American roots music and delivered an unpretentious country-, blues-, and bluegrass-laden score, where Bo Diddley beats meet big Broadway ballads.
Violet at Germantown Community Theatre through March 26th
If you like good acting, go see Blackbird. If you like stories that are so overloaded with emotional twists, you'll spend the rest of the night unpacking it all, go see Blackbird. This first production by Memphis' Quark Theatre is one hell of an introduction. Tony Isbell and Fiona Battersby play Ray and Una — a sexual predator and his one known victim. Their unexpected reunion in Ray's workplace keeps audiences squirming, cringing, and trying very hard to look away (and failing) for 90 intense minutes.
Blackbird at TheatreSouth through March 26th
Side Show's got it all — great voices, great design, and a great story to tell. It doesn't really capture the hell conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton lived through and only hints at a life where every relationship is abusive, reducing a horrible existence to so much irony and failed romance, but for all of its missed opportunities, this circus musical cuts to the core of everyday insecurity. Who hasn't felt like everybody was staring at them and asked "Who will love me as I am?"
With the simplest gestures, Theatre Memphis' designers have turned the entire main stage space into a big top. The effect brings everybody into the same big tent for the show's duration.
Side Show at Theatre Memphis through April 2nd