By John Quinn
The cult of celebrity is a defining characteristic of the common culture. It’s not a new phenomenon – witness the teen-age Judy Garland mooning over magazine cutouts of Clark Gable in the flick “Broadway Melody of 1938.” Nor will it go away anytime soon. The Bieber blowup in London this week proves some things never change.
But the ultimate deification was bestowed on one Elvis Aaron Presley; who died in 1977 but, while gone, is not forgotten. There is something quite fitting, then, that Luigi Jacuzzi’s play, “All the King’s Women,” is not about Presley – he’s not even a character – but about the people who made an idol of the King. In an odd, symbiotic ballet, his casual contacts formed Elvis as they, in turn, were formed by him. The Detroit Ensemble Theatre at Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale brings us this thoughtful little comedy.
“All the King’s Women” comprises eight individual scenes: three monologues and five playlets. The seven member ensemble – Joanna Bronson, Jaclynn Cherry, Phil Hughes, Sonja Marquis, Linda Rabin-Hammel, Hobart Reynolds, and Kez Settle – play some 18 characters that were touched by brief encounters with the rock ‘n’ roll legend. They range from the Tupelo hardware clerk who convinced a belligerent 11-year-old he wanted a guitar for his birthday (“Take this and play it and you may be famous some day!”) to a determined young woman who, 36 years after Elvis has left the building, realizes there might be a life beyond the Graceland gift shop.
The monologues are beautifully rendered. Linda Rabin-Hammel hits all the right notes in a thick Mississippi drawl as she recounts how her quick thinking set Elvis on the road to superstardom in “One Tupelo Saleswoman.” In contrast to her prim, efficient reading is the manic Sonja Marquis in “3 AM in the Garden with a God,” the tale of a chance encounter over bananas at Piggly Wiggly.
In “One Private Guard,” it’s 1977 and the King is dead. A Graceland service representative is dragooned into working security to handle the overflow of mourners. Hobart Reynolds’ gently understated portrayal of the guy’s sense of loss is satisfying.
One would wish that Jacuzzi’s talent for monologue extended to his dialogue. It doesn’t; a fair number of the playlets are poorly constructed and ramble. Some of them are improved by skillful direction and sharp character studies. In fact, “Leaving Graceland,” which contains some of the weakest material, is redeemed by the performances. Eddie (Phil Hughes) is a dedicated Elvis impersonator, although he hates the term; he’s more of an “Elvis lives on through me” kind of guy. In stark contrast is his girl Leslie (Marquis), who is turning her back on adulation and willing to start a new life. There is a sharp absurdity in the three-way tension they share with Joanna Bronson, whose character is stuck in the gift shop when Leslie leaves. A little more absurdity elsewhere might have made up for a tentative script.
The unenviable jobs of both technical and stage manager are in the capable hands of Holly Lashbrook. Even with short scenes and the necessity of rearranging furniture between them, the production flows very smoothly.
“All the King’s Women,” directed by Rachel Bellack and Rich Goteri, demonstrates The Detroit Ensemble Theatre’s trump card – a virtuoso skill in “black box theater.” The company accepts the challenges of minimal set and lighting to focus on character and situation. The artist who opens up to his or her audience will find nothing to block the bond that makes theater a unique experience.
‘All the King’s Women’
Detroit Ensemble Theatre at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale. 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through March 24. 1 hour, 45 minutes. $12-18. 877-636-3320. http://www.DetroitEnsembleTheatre.org