Genre-bending artists Latrelle Bright and Sarah Ledbetter both devoted part of their performances to the big bang during the opening weekend of Voices of the South's first Memphis Fringe Festival. That seems about right. Bright's piece was about water. Ledbetter took on gravity. In a moment between shows at Theatre South, VOTS co-founder Jenny Madden, an elemental force in her own right, described the two shows as companion pieces — the kind of happy accident that can only happen when the stars align in this kind of short work showcase.
"This feels like the beginning of something good," Madden said, and it did. In the first of two weekends, audiences were treated to Bright, Ledbetter, and half a dozen bite-sized performances ranging from a condensed reader's theater version of The Laramie Project by students from Central High School to The Healing Power of JC, a show about the relative therapeutic value of John Cusack movies. Weekend two highlights include The Cabin, a new play by Quark Theatre co-founder Adam Remsen and director James Kevin Cochran's production of Caryl Churchill's Far Away.
Voices of the South presents The Memphis Fringe Festival at Theatre South through April 22nd. $10 per show or $65 for a festival pass. Voicesofthesouth.org
And now for something completely different.
I want to write an 11th commandment: Thou shalt take that preaching somewhere else.
Honestly, I can't tell you how many nice coffee drinks on the Main Street mall have been ruined when some guy's rights to speech and worship collided with my inalienable pursuit of happiness. When you've been avoiding church your whole life, nothing sucks like that moment when a street preacher sets up across from your table with his PA rig and his garbled, unscholarly message for sinners. So, I was ready to receive An Act of God, the nightclub act disguised as a play by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum. But somewhere between "let there be light," and something about "wrath management issues," I started to wonder, "Holy shit, did I get tricked into going to church?"
Don't misunderstand. An Act of God doesn't pull a Book of Mormon, wrapping all its hipster heresy around a fluffy, comforting case for faith. It's a full-on lampoon having great fun with Biblical inconsistency and God's "mysterious ways." You could build a whole show around sassy edicts like, "I'm flattered but don't kill in my name — I can kill all by myself." Most of the zingers have stingers. But as Kevar Maffitt works the room in his lordly robes, sharing illuminating personal anecdotes and popping his points, it's hard to shake the sense that this avatar of the almighty is testifying to a congregation, if not preaching to the proverbial choir. Sometimes I laughed. But mostly I just sank into myself and wondered about the big philosophical questions that weren't being addressed. Questions like, "Are all theater seats uncomfortable or only the ones I sit in?"
Maffitt's a great God with a winning personality and offbeat charm. This material can't sustain itself without a strong personality lifting it up, and Maffitt's got what it takes to do the heavy work. He's especially good during a deserving smitedown of the horrible bedtime death prayer, "Now, I lay me down to sleep." But there's a reason TED talks cut off at 18 minutes, and even mild antagonism from Stuart Turner (standing in for Archangel Michael) fails to give the monologue a dramatic spine.
Theatre Memphis' Act of God has a lot going for it, including a supporting cast that's way too accomplished to stand in as magician's assistants. Director Cecelia Wingate's eye for detail is evident, and Jack Yates' scenic design is heavenly, per usual. Javerbaum's gags are also good. Some of them are great. It will tickle many skeptics and make affirmation-seeking atheists happy as fundamentalists at a foot-washing. Also, Act of God's a brave season choice for a donor-dependent community theater in the South. Theatre Memphis is to be commended for trying it on. Outside that context the material doesn't break any new ground. Not my cup of blasphemy.
An Act of God continues at Theatre Memphis through April 22nd. $25 Theatrememphis.org