Matthew Posey's Memphos! has weird tricks up its sleeve; elsewhere, boring old Bard.

They're up to new tricks at Matthew Posey's Ochre House theater, that odd little hotbox of freakishly entertaining original work written, directed by and starring Mr. Posey. His latest is Memphos!, a 90-minute look at the last performance of the last-worst act in old-timey vaudeville. Posey plays the title character, a half-mad mentalist who prefers his world of illusion to the shattered reality of his life.

What may once have been flashy, fleshy spectacle combining mystic hokum, hoochie-coochie dancing and carnival mind games now is a tumbledown mess as Memphos the Magnificent takes the stage for the final time. The magician's pigeons have frozen to death, the "hoops of infinity" are missing, someone's stolen the turkey to be raffled off at intermission and the "Silver Daggers of Orion" for the knife-throwing sequence have been replaced with ordinary butter knives. Memphos' much-younger wife Gigi (played by pretty Elizabeth Evans with a Betty Boop squeak) is so eager to ditch the old man and lam it to Hollywood, she's sleeping with the creepy manager/emcee (Kevin Grammer) and possibly sabotaging the act on purpose.

On the tiny stage in the Ochre House's storefront space, before a ragged red lamé curtain that glitters in the glow of cheap paper lanterns, Memphos launches into his opening spiel, asking "What is death, hmmm?" and promising feats of legerdemain that could, in the wrong hands, lead to a "whirlpool of death and despair." After challenging his sidekick Leopold (Trent Stephenson) to do the math on "the square root of nine celestial spheres," the show-within-the-show suddenly stutters to a stop. Sweating and gasping, Memphos stumbles off. The red curtains pull back to reveal him collapsed in a chair in his dressing room, staring into the mirror. Here, Posey invites the audience to witness the lurid backstage drama of a ragtag troupe of clowns. In his script's best moments, Posey goes deep as he begs his manager to find him just one more booking and pleads with Gigi not to desert him. His only friend seems to be stage manager Mickey Two Soups (Mitchell Parrack), so named "because you know one soup is never enough."

Out front, Memphos is all mighty poses and swagger in his crisp cutaway coat; backstage, he deflates to half his size. That's the actor's life in brief. And as an actor and director, here's where Posey really works his magic, taking his time and using small gestures. It's the best part of the show.

Being a Posey play, however, the subtle bits don't last long. Punctuated with crashing cymbals and drum rolls by onstage musician Ross Mackey, Memphos! gets going full tilt again in the second half, whirling through funny scenes like the butchered knife-throwing act and some audience mind-reading by Memphos and Gigi, whose "code" is as obvious as the gimmicks used by TV faith healers. Posey likes low humor, so there's also some panty sniffing and crotch grabbing amid the kooky kabuki dancing and watch-swinging hypnotic trances. The theater's resident pup, Walter, gets a cameo (and a treat for doing a cute trick).

It's all weird and kind of wonderful, as are so many of the Ochre House productions. See Memphos! before it disappears.

Like the flu, Shakespeare in February is hard to avoid and unpleasant to endure. Measure for Measure at the Magnolia Lounge and Macbeth at Kitchen Dog Theater are particularly rough strains on theatergoers as they take fevered liberties with the Bard's scripts and characters.

The worst offender is Measure, the first full-length production by Theatre Nouveau 47, a new company that has taken up residence in regional theater pioneer Margo Jones' long-ago home space at Fair Park. It's a 45-seater just right for conversational tones, but the cast, which includes a couple of decent actors and a whole bunch of bad ones, whoops lines at cattle auction volume. There needs to be a sign posted backstage here: "Yelling isn't acting."

Director Tom Parr IV heaps more problems on what already is regarded as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." Setting it in an asylum a la Marat/Sade is just confusing, with one character using his straitjacketed hands as puppets to play two characters. In a main role as a Duke masquerading as a Friar, Jonathan Taylor declaims the words—and there are many—in a slow, choppy monotone. Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing computer, speaks more expressively.

The plot is a doozy about a nun (Danielle Pickard, too hysterical by half) unwilling to blow a duke (or so it's implied in this version) to stop him from carrying out the death sentence on her wastrel brother (Austin Tindle), convicted of knocking up a girlfriend. If the nun gives in and gives it up, the brother's life will be spared. Some identity switching goes on—all tedious in the extreme—and the duke gets serviced in the garden. Everyone ends up alive and happy. Except maybe the nun, who now has to marry the other duke who pretended to be an understanding priest.

Only actor Justin Locklear, he of the best facial profile in Dallas theater, acquits himself admirably in Measure for Measure as the snooty duke who expects sexual favors. His diction is crisp and his emotions reasonable. The rest are all over the top, shrieking and carrying on with no regard for the audience's ears or patience. Lovely period costumes by Samantha Rodriguez deserve to be seen in a much better-acted production.

Kitchen Dog's Macbeth takes the Scottish play out of kilts and puts its Thanes in black mufti and berets, like members of the Symbionese Liberation Army that abducted Patty Hearst. The script, already Shakespeare's shortest, has been sliced and diced and shuffled and stomped on till it's nearly impossible to follow the murderous intrigues of the power-grabbing Mackers (Christopher Carlos, Christina Vela) and their dinner party from hell.

Director Matthew Gray has let a goofy concept trump simple storytelling. (The back wall is emblazoned with graffiti-like images that decode as "king me." Yeah, we get it already.) Gray keeps the nine-member cast on forced march across the high platform stage and up two sets of stairs into catwalks in the balcony. But motion isn't the same as action and the production falls into numbingly static rhythms.

And there's this: After many scenes involving the carefully choreographed clanging of steel swords as the clans battle for the throne of Scotland, suddenly one of the murderers does the Indiana Jones stunt of pulling out a gun and blowing a sword-wielding enemy to smithereens.

Shakespeare with guns. Put some sidearms and rifles in Hamlet, the Henry plays and Julius Caesar and you could cut hours off these babies.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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