Just like theatrical space, print space for theatre coverage is at a premium these days.
The explosion of shows over the last few weeks, when coupled with the onset of the rest of the cultural season, has made it impossible to get all the theatre that is happening in the city into print for The New Orleans Advocate.
If you would like to see more coverage, I suggest you continue to share this blog with others interested in theatre. If I can show a large number of consistent visitors to this site, I might be able to make the case for further reviews, previews and analysis.
That being said, it is a nice problem to have. There are consistently three to four articles a week dealing with theatre in The Advocate and other outlets have shown a willingness to cover more of the off-the-beaten-path material, most particularly Ted Mahne and David Lee Simmons at that other newspaper.
This last weekend alone, I saw four shows. Shrek the Musical, Clue: A Burlesque Mystery, A Lie of the Mind and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. They were of varying quality, but three of the four had a host of things to recommend about them. But only one is getting a full review in The Advocate.
The other three will have to settle for a smaller demographic but a more in depth analysis on this site.
CLUE: A MYSTERY BURLESQUE
Mr. Body has been murdered. The manor’s maid is a charming, stripping ditz, and the suspects are more interested in displaying their unique talents than hiding their motives.
It’s Clue: A Burlesque Mystery, and it just had its season debut at The Allways Lounge.
The brainchild of MC/Musician Dr. Sick and burlesque comedienne Gogo McGregor, the send-up/drinking/guessing game moves at a thriller’s pace, keeps the facts simple and serves as a nice magnifying glass for some of the city’s better burlesque talent. It still has a few details to work out, but if its creators continue to improve its visual motifs and make a few ambitious moves, it could becomes a staple of the scene for years to come.
The set up is pretty basic. Patrons are given one ticket upon admission and can purchase more of the same for a dollar as the show goes on up until intermission. Just as in the classic board game, audiences attempt to guess the who, what and where by filling out their ticket. Each of the performers plays a suspect, each routine takes place in a room indicated on a display board, and at some point during an individual act, a murder weapon is revealed.
But unlike the game, it is pure guess rather than deductive logic.
The last act of the night is the guilty party. Therefore, anything you witness before the sixth and final suspect is automatically eliminated. It’s more about luck and less about skill.
Actually, it’s more about enjoying the acts and drinking each time you’re wrong. And on that score, it a solid success.
It’s a line-up of unusual suspects that along with four purely dance routines includes a comedian, a sideshow performer, and an aerialist. While I particularly enjoyed Ginger Licious’ spinning her way out of her Ms. White costume and McGregor herself seamlessly interweaving sexy tease with klutzy surprise, I felt all the performers, which included Cherry Brown and Charlotte Treuse, acquitted themselves well.
Playing the crucial role as the deceased, Sick has a strong machine gun approach to marshaling the event and an impressive disclaimer of a delivery. I would like to see a little more polish on the in between banter and more discipline by staying within the confines of the conceit, but that being said, he maintained the evening’s focus on the acts, which in this town is rarer than you’d think.
Moving forward, I hope the two creators take the time to build prop weapons that bear a consistent look. I realize there are times when acts require knives and ropes for specific talents, but on those occasions where the murder weapon is merely a reveal concluding a strip tease, actual wrenches or toy store guns don’t have the impact that something build specifically for the act would.
Finally, there is a general note for which McGregor and Sick must be praised.
While starting late due to an overlap of performers with a show across town, the piece itself was a merciful hour-and-a-half even with its intermission. Clear in its acts, rapid in its transitions and designed not to wear out its welcome, Clue actually seemed interested in its audience enjoying themselves. I knew where I was at all times, I never fidgeted in my seat, and I had fun scheming with my company filling out the ticket to guess the murderer.
If that seems like a no-brainer for a theatrical experience, you need to hear me out.
You see, there is a distinct difference between the enjoyable mystery of not knowing how something is going to end and the interminable agony of the mystery of not knowing when something is going to end. The first leaves you guessing, creates that oft-sought quality of suspense and produces the delightful buzz of whispers during the blackouts as people catch their breath, attempting to solve the puzzle at a performance’s core.
The second is the plague of too many a burlesque, salon, or theatrical anthology evening.
You know it too well.
A show begins. It moves from act to act of varying quality and length. Some of it you enjoy, some you can live without, and some you look away from in wincing aversion.
An hour passes. And it continues.
And an awful creeping feeling kicks in.
You have lost your bearings, wandered deep into the woods, and begun to sense that there is no end in sight. The late reservation at the restaurant has slipped through your fingers, your plans at rising at a reasonable hour Sunday morning are now shot, and you are faced with the decision to exercise the only available expression of dissatisfaction: an early exit.
And it is that observation that brings me to The Elm Theatre’s A Lie of the Mind.
A LIE OF THE MIND
Sam Shepard’s dark, sprawling domestic-epic is one of my favorite plays of the last fifty years. I felt the need to begin with that qualification, because it informs what I am about to say. A raging journey across the heart of Middle America, the 1985 drama chronicles the struggle of two families to come to terms with the savage beating of Beth from one clan by her husband Jake from another.
It is a play of unraveling.
Family, friendship, and the very heart of The American Dream come apart before our very eyes as violence, betrayal and long simmering anger undo already fragile bonds. Beth’s brother Mike seeks revenge, Jake’s mother Lorraine deludes herself to the sins of her son, and husband Baylor bowdlerizes any attempts at reconciliation with or affection from wife Meg. All the while, Jake’s sibling Frankie impossibly tries to bridge the divide between the two families only to find himself a victim of their violence.
At the center of it all, Jake, driven by impenetrable demons, and Beth, reduced to an emotional and physical shell of her former self, attempt to reconstruct their shattered identities while unwilling to move beyond the lies in their psyches.
Playing out across a cold desolate landscape, childhood toys like model airplanes become painful nostalgic emblems for missing patriarchs, slaughtered deer are symbols of wasted lives, and the folding of an American flag contains the resonance of hope for a failed marriage.
It’s a tough play: tough in subject matter and tough to execute.
It needs both a grounding in psychological realism and a sense of mythic Americana. Therefore, any attempt at it requires not only actors with a sense of both the organic real and an archetypal embodiment but also a director with a kinetic brutality. Done right, you should instantly recognize the humanity of this world while hearing the distant sounds of wind whipping through barbed wire and wolves howling in the distance.
Like I said, tough play.
Unfortunately, The Elm Theatre simply isn’t up to the task. Its production at Mid City Theatre fails at almost all those aforementioned elements, and adds insult to injury by making it damn near impossible to see the greatness that resides at the heart of the work.
Under Joe Funari’s simultaneously sluggish and hysterical direction, this A Lie of the Mind is an interminable, unending collage of whining, screeching and disappointments. Good actors like Kate Kuen and Joel Derby are reduced to Dawson’s Creek performances, transitions buck and lurch throwing the show off its already sputtering momentum, and the technical elements lack the coherence to express any sort of consistent world view.
It desperately needed Funari to tell his actor to calm down, focus on the storytelling and remember that a play of this length requires a long fuse rather than an unending stream of pyrotechnics.
Those continuous emotional explosions deaden the senses and more damningly throw the audience off the map of the show. You simply don’t know when it is going to end. I know the play inside and out and found myself lost in the minotaur maze of unmediated shrillness. In a text layered with grace notes and caesuras, I could count on my hand the number of quiet passages in this production.
The lack of physical control is infuriating. Garrett Prejean, as the troubled Jake, flails his arms at every occasion, bends over constantly while addressing his fellow actors and substitutes a boyish pout for the character’s necessary menace. Instead of Shepard’s subversion of American manhood, Jake becomes a self-pitying abuser.
Other actors exist in one note performances comprised of tics, mannerism, and showy exclamations. As Beth, Becca Chapman has a certain technical assurance in portraying the wounded woman’s physical trauma, but she never lets off the throttle. It as if she is hoping a continual amping of the character’s condition will obscure the lack of emotional core to the production.
Exchanges of long hidden truth, like Jake’s sister Sally revealing the nature of her father’s death, come across as histrionic rantings rather than the terse, flinty slow building horrors they are designed to be.
Finally, the traveller staging, which attempts to create a gulch of separation between the two warring families, hinders the flow of the evening. Rather than solving the problem of moving from scene to scene in order to create a seamless flow, Funari simply stops the action and tries to hurriedly set the next sequence while ill-considered music plays underneath.
And the designed world is simply not defined. Lights do not specify where we are, floors do not demarcate space, and the costumes suggest nothing of the archetype each character carries. It feels like an art gallery rather than the rugged land of the strong.
And it goes on and on: indulging bad habits, celebrating showiness, and missing the entire point of the magisterial play. Three hours plus and two intermissions later, the show finishes the way it came in, a whimpering, petulant child demanding attention it lost almost instantly.