The Memphis I know talks to itself like Hamlet. It's got daddy issues and walks down Looney Avenue day and night spitting out questions and rhymes like a king of infinite space.
Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall gets that about her hometown. The characters in her play Hurt Village are constantly dueling with words instead of rapiers, checking themselves and everybody else to a point where it becomes difficult to tell where childish games end and dangerous grown-up battles begin. If Hall's idiom-rich story about life and death in one of Memphis' housing projects isn't intentionally Shakespearean, it is at least incidentally so.
Hurt Village opens with Cookie, a precocious 13-year-old with a gift for language, setting the stage. She raps about war. Only she's not talking about war in the Middle East, where Buggy, the father she barely knows, was stationed until he had a breakdown and was shipped home. She's talking about North Memphis in the early aughts.
Buggy returns home to a world in flux. Hurt Village is slated for demolition to make way for the new Uptown project. Cookie's great-grandmother Big Mama thought she was moving into a Section 8 apartment in Raleigh that was better and big enough for the whole family. She's just discovered that her income is barely above the limit to remain in the housing program and that she, Cookie, and Cookie's mother, a recovering addict, will soon be forced into the street with nowhere to go.
Buggy reunites with his old friend Cornbread, and the two plot to move a large quantity of crack and take revenge on the neighborhood's parasitic drug boss. Everything falls apart with deadly consequences.
I've lived on the north side since Uptown was still called Greenlaw and the projects at Danny Thomas and Auction were standing and populated. For better and worse, Hall's vision of Memphis' lower depths looks and sounds like this place I know very well. Watching the intimate Hattiloo Theatre production reminded me of the conversations I overheard and participated in from my porch, just before the demolition started, when fires and blue lights lit up the night and gunfire was part of the soundtrack.
Director Ekundayo Bandele has never made better use of the small Hattiloo space. The acting could all be crisper, but an honest ensemble cast brings Hall's complicated Village to messy, detailed life. Jeanika Taylor is sometimes difficult to understand as Cookie, but her moving, no-nonsense performance is the smart heart of a story that Memphians will recognize as their own.
Through October 21st
Becky Shaw, at the University of Memphis, is another down-and-dirty, modern dramedy with classical flourishes. Gina Gionfriddo's painfully funny play about love, crime, sex, death, marriage, emotional manipulation, and variously successful approaches to financial management opens like Hamlet with a funeral, a wedding, and a pissed-off heir who can't make up her mind. The story evolves into an abrasive romance that might be best described as a mashup of Jane Austen and Neil LaBute, with a little Restoration comedy mixed in for giggles.
The fine production, helmed by Stephen Hancock, takes audiences through a broken looking glass to a place where everything is familiar and nothing is as it seems. Gionfriddo is a master of moral ambiguity with an uncanny ability to reveal the attractive side of obnoxious characters and the vulnerabilities that turn people we like into people we can barely stand. This is savage comedy, nicely acted by an all-student cast, and theater lovers won't want to miss it.
Through October 13th
If there's anything I like more than mid-century modern design, it's a campy musical about alien zombies set in the 1950s. That's why I was shocked to discover that Circuit Playhouse's good-looking production of Zombies from the Beyond bored me nearly to tears. The production's fine. Ann Marie Hall's cast is top-notch, the gags are good, the design is swell, and the flying-saucer puppets are hilarious as flying-saucer puppets should be. But problems can arise when your retro-spoof of bad acting and worse writing is itself a vintage artifact. Sometimes, instead of seeming clever, the intentionally flat and pointless writing just comes off as flat and pointless.
From John Hemphill and Emily Draffen to Stephen Garrett and Eileen Peterson, there's some fantastic talent in Zombies from the Beyond. But, as is the case with zombies, there's only the faintest appearance of life.
Through October 28th