Matthew Posey has pulled off some theatrical hat tricks in recent years, but none as laudable as the current one: getting respectable numbers of patrons to the tiny Ochre House theater, some three years after it opened. Perhaps it has taken that amount of time to build the buzz. Last year's one-two punch of being named one of the Dallas Observer's Masterminds and then putting up the best show in Balanced Amond's history, Umlauf's Bicycle, didn't hurt.
Judging from reports of audience sizes for the current show, Memphos!, it looks like Posey's brand of "we make'em and bake'em" experimental theater is filling a void in the Dallas theater scene. This one, about a washed-up magician on the Vaudeville circuit—written, directed by and starring Posey—isn't his best, but it's the right mix of bizarre and entertaining. And for a 90-minute show, that's enough for a hearty recommendation.
Posey is Memphos the Magnificient, taking his crew across the country performing feats whose illusions are as obvious as James Franco's Oscar jokes. His assistant, Gigi Lamour (Elizabeth Evans), is also his wife, and his performance sidekick is Leopold the Inpenetrable, or Lenny (Trent Stephenson). There's also the manager and host Lou Castor (Kevin Grammer), the stage manager and friend Mickey Two Soups (Mitchell Parrack), and the one-man band Charlie B. Sharp (Ross Mackey, doing some fine noise-making to accompany the weirdness).
In his act, Memphos, who appears in white makeup, which works well when he switches into a kabuki character dancing with large fans, gives us the ol' mind-reading gag, humorously throws butter knives at Gigi (the throwing daggers were lost on this leg of the tour) and makes people disappear in a large box, among other tricks. The goofball Lenny almost upstages him with so-stupid-it's-funny bit of hypnotism, not to mention an irreverent warm-up prayer.
That's all entertaining enough, but the meat of the show happens backstage, as the stone-faced Memphos finds his world crumbling around him. He's desperately trying to save his marriage to Gigi and keep the world of his touring show's gang together. It's in those moments where Memphos! gives us a soft-spot in the midst of bizarro world, something that often makes Posey's shows endearing.
All the performances are engaging, and Mackey manages some truly wonderful musical accompaniment, notably with an original stringed contraption that resembles a steel guitar but sounds more like a sitar.
It could all stand tightening up, and I will forever whine that any show 90 minutes or less does not need an intermission because it breaks up momentum (especially when there's no selling of concessions, although at the Ochre, drinks are available with a requested tip).
But just as the show-within-a-show isn't meant as anything more than an entertainment, so goes Memphos! Have a drink and settle in for a pretty neat trick. That trick being oddball theater that doesn't have you peeking at your watch every few minutes.