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Review: 'Memphos!' at the Ochre House

by Jerome Weeks 2 Mar 2011 4:41 PM

See the death-defying escape from the crate of (tiny) killer rubber scorpions! Thrill to the great knife-throwing act with the Silver Daggers of Orion! What, we’ve only got butter knives? No matter, it’s the amazing “Memphos!” and this sputtering, erratic, funny sideshow act by Matt Posey proves that vaudeville isn’t dead. It’s just passed out.


It’s hardly actor-director-playwright Matt Posey’s best work, but Memphos! certainly ranks as one of his funniest.

In the early ’90s, the local alternative theater pioneer, the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, was approaching its end, and Posey, as its artistic director, would occasionally put on hastily-assembled vaudeville revues with titles like Beast Feast. Stunts and sketches would be featured without much concern for continuity — or rationality. But over these, Posey would preside as the eager ringmaster, dressed like the decadent emcee from Cabaret, complete with dusty tuxedo and demented grin.

As erratic and offbeat as they were, the shows could be inspired, featuring some howlingly funny nonsense. A choice moment came when Posey stepped out of the ringmaster role to play the meddlesome, Southern-belle matriarch, Amanda Wingfield, in “the gentleman caller” scene from The Glass Menagerie. He didn’t do anything as conventional as spoof the Tennessee Williams classic by playing it in drag. Posey wore a kilt and on his head was a crude set of antlers made from wire coat hangers. Over these, he’d loosely stretched panty hose. The legs dangled down, so that whenever Posey moved his head, they would sway and spin. It remains one of the more outrageous treatments of a classic American drama on a Dallas stage. The other actors could not keep a straight face, but despite their snorts and giggles, Posey chatted merrily on in his cracked-flutey Southern accent, offering them drinks as the good hostess he was, all the while ignoring the panty hose legs flying around his face.

Which is an extended preamble for this: Posey’s faded ringmaster-emcee has returned in Memphos! in the guise of the titular, traveling magician, Memphos the Magnificent and His World of Death!

We’re witnesses once again to the long, slow, sad demise of vaudeville. If that sounds overly familiar and sentimental, rest assured, these stage illusions have never been seen before. One hopes so, at any rate. There’s Posey’s Kabuki geisha (something of a return for Amanda Wingfield, but with a ratty wig instead of the pantyhose antlers). There are the “Silver Daggers of Orion” — a knife-throwing act in which the titular daggers have gone missing — plus a death-defying escape from a crate full of killer rubber scorpions.

Posey is truly masterful when it comes to inventing and declaiming — with complete, smiling conviction — the sort of Eastern-Egyptian mumbo-jumbo  often employed by mentalists, faith healers and magicians of the ’20s and ’30s. Although Posey doesn’t use this precise phrase, one recalls Nathaniel West’s description in Day of the Locust of the “Aztec secret of brain breathing” — the kind of nonsense many Depression-era Americans eagerly bought into, those of us who were desperately seeking better fortune, better health and better brain breathing.

Much of the humor in Memphos! derives from the distance between such sacred secrets and the shabby stunts that Memphos tries to foist on us, the hayseeds in the seats. He’s aided by his deadpan-inept sidekick, Leopold the Impenetrable (Trent Stephenson) and Memphos’ lovely, conniving wife (Elizabeth Evans).

Much of the show’s pathos derives from this same divergence: Memphos is not some cynical barnstormer, he really believes that he’s good, that his routines are compelling and that no one in the audience notices that he must push back the trick knife that has obviously slid out of his sleeve.

Memphos! is a ragged joy when Memphos is onstage; backstage, it’s more of a bleary downer.  Memphos is clearly an aging entertainer whose world has passed and his troupe will soon be unemployed. Posey milks the pathos, but it’s more typical of his show that his tinny characters interact in (mostly) three modes, all of them loud: They argue with each other, they try to hustle each other or they try to hop into bed together.

That’s it, the sum of human interaction, and the last two usually lead to the first, hence the yelling. Kevin Grammer, as Memphos’ manager, always looks like a walking guilty conscience, so he fits right in with the show’s noir-ish feel of betrayal and backstage bitterness. The characters even have great, low-life handles like Mickey Two Soups or Gigi Lamour.  “Sorry, dollface” is the kind of thing the people in Posey’s world say — just as they do in movies like Nightmare Alley or The Big Combo.

What’s different here is the level of discomforting identification. Memphos and his tacky-but-determined faith in theater resemble Posey himself and his many years spent bravely slogging along in one raffish storefront theater after another, somehow putting on another show, finding young performers willing to pitch in and a (smallish) crowd to attend. Posey is clearly aware of this — which is probably why the show ends on something of an upbeat note instead of the lonely, drunken bender in the street that it’s plainly headed for.

So Memphos! is, perhaps, not all that Magnificent. But it makes up for it by being frequently, hilariously stupid. There are very few area actors with this particular talent: Posey can grip us  with just a dramatic gesture and a voice that can invoke the Aztec gods. It’s a bravura display that’s simultaneously pure hokum, and somehow, Posey conveys all that: He knows that we know, knows that we’re in on the joke but knows that we enjoy it all anyway.

What a delight: Laughing at while also reveling in this, the wonderful, pathetic power of theater. A couple of “Allah kazams!,” a half-empty bottle of ambrosia clearly labeled “Jack Daniels” and a trip to the netherworld — it’s magic.