The Flyer's annual Best of Memphis issue is an opportunity to pay tribute to our favorite things. From where I sit, Overton Square developer Bob Loeb had the best idea anybody's had in ages when he decided to build the entertainment district around the square's most enduring creative culture: live theater. Few changes to the local landscape are as exciting as the new Hattiloo Theatre, a nexus for Memphis' African-American creative class, that opened on the square earlier this year, just across the street from the Circuit Playhouse, which turns 45 this week with a revival of The Fantasticks. Theater tourists visiting the square this weekend can choose between that, the Hattiloo's soul-searching production of The Convert, Madhatted, a manic take on Alice in Wonderland at TheatreWorks, and the madcap farce One Man Two Guvnors at Playhouse on the Square. I'll be taking a closer look at these last two shows in the column below, in addition to Theatre Memphis' slow but satisfying production of Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding.
I wasn't a fan of Madhatted when the show debuted at the Memphis Children's Theatre Festival a few years back. The script felt insubstantial, and the manic non sequitur was exhausting. But Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe (OOV) saw merit in the piece, which makes complete sense since OOV's founding director Bill Baker (the White Rabbit), is a master of absurd clowning, and his edgy fooling has become a company specialty.
OOV's Madhatted is an improvement, although it still devolves from inspired nonsense into the ordinary kind, becoming strained as the act wears on. But the business is funny and themes relating to identity are clarified giving the revival much-needed heft.
Madhatted borrows lyrics from the Tom Waits musical Franks Wild Years, cultivating an air of Waitsian menace. It's too much of a reminder that Waits collaborated with avant garde director Robert Wilson on a darkly majestic version of the same story.
Madhatted fluctuates between grand and grating, a curiosity custom fit for more adventurous theatergoers who like to dive down the occasional rabbit hole.
Madhatted at TheatreWorks through October 11th
In addition to being a masterful clown show, One Man Two Guvnors is a romp through the soundscape of pendulum-swinging England circa 1963, as skiffle bands transformed into mop-topped rockers like the Beatles and Stones. Live music pulls double duty as sideshow and soundtrack, and the tone set is spot on.
Two Guvnors is a ball-kicking farce (literally), adapted freely but with care from Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century Italian comedy, Servant of Two Masters. The original story is transformed into a slapstick extravaganza set in the UK underworld. Francis Henshall (an updated vision of the stock character Harlequino — a personification of the human appetite) has just been fired from his skiffle band and, being desperate for work, takes employment from two masters who keep him running. Hilarity ensues, as it will.
Cameron Reeves is completely brilliant as Two Guvnors' hungry, sex-starved clown of generous proportions. He builds his gags from the ground up, like pieces of classical architecture, designed to survive the ages.
One Man Two Guvnors at Playhouse on the Square through October 12th
Membership yields privileges not extended to those merely invited to party at the club. And if you're serving, forget about it. These messages alone make Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding seem prescient, if not positively up-to-date. The elegant novel and awkward, author-adapted play don't tell a coming-of-age story so much as a coming-to-grips story. It's unfortunate that some things that make the novel compelling don't translate to the immediate medium of live performance.
Member tells of Frankie, the tomboy who has fallen in love with her brother, his bride-to-be, their wedding, and a dream of running away from the tedious, humid place where she's excluded from clubs and ignored by her father.
Lauren Ledger makes a lanky Frankie, showing a real affinity for the role, and Holden Guibao is an adorable John Henry. The always-excellent Delvyn Brown is once again superb as Honey, the doomed jazz trumpet player, smelling of reefer and smoldering with anger and frustration.
As Bernice, the one-eyed domestic, Judi Bray is an understated force, knowing herself and the precarious position she occupies.
Echoing the novel, secondary characters are little more than scenery, and the play's final tragic events drop like the atom bombs Frankie reads about in the newspaper. There's good content here, but the form remains problematic.