Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Holiday Spirit

Jesse Helms kicks Tiny Tim's crutch in Circuit Playhouse's offbeat production.

By Hadley Hury and Debbie Gilbert

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  An evening of Inspecting Carol may be just the ticket for a lighthearted start to the holidays. A silly romp about a small, struggling theatre company in “a mid-sized city in the Midwest,” the play-within-a-play focuses on the antic crises that plague a particularly crucial staging of its annual cash cow, A Christmas Carol. Awash in red ink – and at sea in a financially and artistically compromised rehearsal for Carol – the troupe anxiously awaits the on-site inspection by a representative of the National Endowment of the Arts; riding on the rep’s assessment is a grant which will determine the company’s survival. Devised by artistic director Daniel Sullivan and company members of the Seattle Repertory Theatre Company, Inspecting Carol is the stage equivalent of last year’s sleeper film hoot Waiting for Guffman and is currently making a holiday niche for itself in regional and community theatres across the country. The Circuit production is ably directed by Jenny Odle.

After many years in the company’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim (Jordon Nichols) is now a strapping young adolescent whom Bob Cratchit (Denis Riva Jr.) is loathe to cart around: “He’s so big. It may look like I’ve enabled his disability by carrying him around everywhere.” Cratchit lusts after the company’s volatile – “I’m Lithuanian; I can’t help it!” – artistic director, Zorach Bloch (Karen Barile Hill), who is convinced, along with the managing director (Art Oden) that a hapless actor who shows up to audition for the company (Tucker Curtis) is actually the NEA inspector incognito. Marley’s Ghost (Kimber Cox) can’t keep his chains under control or keep up with the bag of suppositories he brings to the theatre (one colleague regrettably mistakes them for Hershey Kisses). The determination of Scrooge (Todd Berry) to freshly reimagine Dickens’ characters, coupled with his passion for Nicaraguan freedom-fighters, leads to some bizarre interpretations of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future – one of which is “a third-world infant symbolizing our national guilt over insufficient foreign aid for family planning.” This does not sit well with the young black actor (Shawn Stewart) who must play it. “No, I am not going to be some stereotypical, third-world big baby!” And as if it were not enough that the would-be actor mistaken for the NEA spy is egregiously untalented, the troupe is impelled to listen to, and adopt, his very wrongheaded whims regarding the production as well.

Just as all of these misbegotten and misguided misadventures culminate in a horrifically disastrous final dress rehearsal, the real NEA inspector (Alicia Klyman) shows up.

The cast also includes M. Michele Somers as the much put-upon stage manager who ultimately snaps onstage (her essaying of the small role of one of the Cratchit children becomes one, long, floor-rolling aria of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter); Caroline Waters as a pretentious middle-aged trouper who still fancies herself a frolicking ingenue vixen (she may be the only Mrs. Cratchit in history to play the part with a pony-tail-like hair extension winsomely tossing around on the back of her head); and Alex Cooke as a young novice who just tries to stay out of everyone’s way.

Inspecting Carol is a lot of fun, and director Odle frames the actor’s foibles with the thoughtful punch good satire needs. The only weakness in the evening comes in the final 10 or 15 minutes and it seems more the fault of the script than of this production. After the cataclysmic production of A Christmas Carol, the comic climax of the piece in which the actors reach a feverish energy peak and the situational silliness crescendos, Inspecting Carol winds down with a denouement that seems unfocused, unfunny, and unnecessary. This Circuit production – held aloft by the insights and timing of a good director and cast – doesn’t deserve this let-down anymore than does the audience.

Perhaps, in the final collaborative tradition of Daniel Sullivan and his Seattle Rep Company, Odle & Co. could do just enough creative editing to ensure a more suitably funny finale? – Hadley Hury

Shakespeare’s Richard III would be just a convoluted political history if it weren’t for the title character. Richard, a power-hungry misfit who lets no one stand between him and the throne, is one of the most delicious villains ever created: evil, self-absorbed, without a conscience, yet possessed of irresistible charisma.

Unfortunately, Rhodes College’s McCoy Theatre production of the play (which has its final two performances this Saturday and Sunday, November 22nd and 23rd) isn’t quite able to pull this off. As Richard, Cy Carter is not yet sophisticated enough to be both cunning and charming; he comes across more as a spoiled brat, laughing over his misdeeds with his sleazy cohorts. And his appearance counts against him; he looks barely old enough to have a driver’s license, and a Kurt Cobain-style thatch of yellow hair doesn’t help his credibility any.

But the problem stems from miscasting, not from a lack of acting talent. Carter makes a valiant effort in his formidable role, and he does a good job of portraying Richard’s deformity: he wields a crutch to support his stiff, unbending right leg, while his “withered” left arm is curled tightly against his chest.

This version of Richard III is performed in the round, with no scenery and very few props, simulating how the groundlings might have watched the play in Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre. Director Julia “Cookie” Ewing makes efficient use of the tiny space, with actors constantly running in and out of five different exits, often performing literally inches from the audience. This affords an extraordinary degree of intimacy, but the absence of a barrier between stage and audience does have its drawbacks. It was not a good idea, for example, to have one of the characters smoke cigarettes. And when another character is stabbed, some audience members get splattered with fake blood.

One of the most effective scenes comes when all of the people Richard has killed reappear before him, swathed in gauzy, burlap-like material. They converge upon him during a dream sequence and continue to haunt him throughout the fatal battle, in a surreal kind of revenge.

The actors are almost uniformly excellent, delivering their lines as if they truly comprehend the emotions behind the 400-year-old words. Among the standouts in the large cast is Elizabeth Watt as the sad yet dignified Lady Anne; her timing and inflection are just about perfect. Sixth-grader Zack Baker, as the precocious young Duke of York, handles his part like a pro and is already adept at stage movement. Croix Lazzara and Greg Krosnes, as a Lenny-and-Squiggy pair of thugs hired to assassinate Richard’s brother Clarence (a properly timorous Brandon Barr), provide one of the few moments of comic relief in the play. And Rob Bell brings an unusual level of subtlety to the minor role of Catesby.

Overall, the production – which runs three hours and appears to be nearly the complete text – is a remarkable endeavor, with these college students managing to succeed where many more experienced actors have fallen short. It’s been more than 20 years since Richard III has been performed on a Memphis stage, and this show was worth the wait. – Debbie Gilbert

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