Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism

Cycling Through: Enter Your Sleep, A Review

November 23rd, 2014

Towards the latter half of Christina Quintana’s Enter Your Sleep, moving into its final week over at the Fortress of Lushington on Burgundy Street, a childlike, diminutive Becca Chapman, as the play’s principal character Zico, becomes lost in a dark wood.

That treacherous forest is actually the landscape of a dream from which she is unwilling to wake up.

Having scattered the stones that would’ve led her back to safety, Chapman’s Zico suddenly finds herself face to face with a spinster hermit who adamantly denies having any taste for human flesh.

The elderly woman, played by Chapman’s physical opposite but energetic equal Matt Standley, has a much darker secret than ones involving gingerbread houses. It falls to this elderly soothsayer to inform Zico that she is a woman for whom a life with a man is not an option.

And this is despite the fact that her soul mate is a man.

Under Joseph Funari’s clear-if-on-the-nose direction, the scene is simple, abruptly humorous, tonally out of place, expertly acted, runs a bit long and ultimately breaks the heart.

In short, it is everything right and wrong about Quintana’s new play.

Taking place in the REM stages of Zico’s dream, The Elm Theatre’s production of Enter Your Sleep is a two-person tragic-comedy that showcases the impressive talents of its actors Chapman and Standley. Using memories as its springboard, it follows grammar school friends Zico and PK who wrestle with trying to figure out not only how they fit into the world but each other as well.

I am not familiar with Ms. Quintana’s work, but it shows great promise in its highly imaginative exploration of two relatively ordinary Midwest kids whose relationship defies easy category.

Rather than having the play be a series of realistic encounters over the course of a brief lifetime of friendship, Quintana has instead chosen to explore the characters’ emotional difficulties with a dash of August Strindberg, a taste of Tennessee Williams and some wisdom from Billy Crystal.

Aided by Alex Smith’s sharp lighting design and Swamp Deville’s clever series of boxes for a set, Quintana pens a series of vignettes exploring tropes of childhood with a reliance on make believe, love of storytelling and need for naps. Those vignettes serve as a structure to track Zico’s gradual sexual awakening and PK’s long drift away from a woman whose love he never fully understands.

Where Quintana’s play becomes fitful is in its inability to decide whether the story belongs either to both characters or merely Zico.

As the work stands now, it is Zico’s dream, Zico’s awakening, and ultimately her story. However, just enough time is spent following the arc of PK to become disappointed when his tale begins to fade in level of importance.

It seems Quintana can either increase the strength of PK’s presence, making the evening a full one requiring an intermission, or reduce the dramatic burden of her male figure, reducing the play to a character study of the fully realized Zico.

But regardless of Enter Your Sleep’s structural tossing and turning, the performances themselves are first rate. Chapman and Standley are a natural odd couple and should develop something together along the lines of Elaine May and the late Mike Nichols.

Tiny, energetic and bursting out her frame, Chapman pivots from frightened child to condescending teacher to smug talk show host. And Standley beams expansive warmth at one moment by channeling the beloved Ferdinand the Bull and projecting glowering menace the next as a film noir heavy.

Most importantly, they listen to one another.

I am not always a fan of demonstrative, expressionistic acting with its reliance on funny voices and big faces. However, Standley and Chapman’s employment of those techniques works in Enter Your Sleep, because there isn’t a moment where they are not honed in on each other’s rhythms, pace or energy.

Don’t take my word for it; watch either actor when the other is speaking.

And for all of this Funari is to be applauded. I was rather harsh on his directing for A Lie of The Mind. That show simply overwhelmed him, but given his strong work here, I can now see there are strengths he brings to a project.

The piece is visually balanced, the performances exist in the same show, and Funari keeps the action moving only slowing in those moments where reflection or tension is mandated.

But the great success of the acting and directing is in communicating the complexity of the relationship Quintanna is trying to project. Neither lovers nor simply best friends, Zico and PK are instead something elusively undefinable and rewardingly heart aching.

Which is also another way of describing this play at its best.

 

 

 

The Barren Earth: Oxblood

October 23rd, 2014

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Swaying with shovels, dancing spouses dig graves. Long lost tools emerge from the ground like secrets better forgotten. And the earth itself becomes an anatagonist pushing against all who would seek to labor it for either profit or solace.

Elliptical to the point of almost willful inaccessibility, the avant-garde theater company New Noise’s Oxblood is an hour-long intellectual hybrid of dance, song, and Southern Gothic sensibilities.

Taking place in City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm in the late afternoon, this original work is deeply connected to the outdoor environment in which it plays. And that may be its biggest selling point.

Despite its form being more sophisticated than its content, director Joanna Russo’s collective piece is worth a trip to the park if only to see a rigorous example of theatrical potential outside traditional confines. It truly lives in the space, much like ArtSpot’s Loup Garou did, and forces you to change your perspective in how you approach theatre as an audience member.

Ostensibly following a triangular and embittered relationship between a married couple and the wife’s left-behind sister in The Deep South, Oxblood is actually a performance poem about the inability to recover or escape our roots.

Staged lovingly by Russo alongside set designer Joan Long’s creepy replication of the burnt out husk of a family farm house, the show flirts with a Flannery O’Connor energy and has more than a few flashes of compelling imagery supplied by its three able actors Kylie Arcenaux, Phil Cramer, and Bonnie Gabel.

If you are able to make the performance, watch any of the moments where the actors work the land while conversing. Engaged in seemingly innocuous dialogue, the actors utter commitment to “farming” the earth suggests a second meaning of regret and recrimination underneath their exchanged expositions.

But Oxblood is neither linear enough to drive us with a compelling narrative nor sufficiently eerie to suggest darker secrets beneath its surface. Instead, it unwinds as merely a coming home story whose details have been replaced with interpretive dance routines or choral folk songs.

And eventually, the wonder of Oxblood’s locale began to work against it.

I was drawn at first by the use of distance and kinetic motion in the large field, and I was delighted that the environment was regarded as an equal collaborator in how its landscape pushed against the efforts of the performers. That world, lush with just-browning-green life, mosquito hawks circling prey and the rich sweat of labor, seemed to promise darker more violent timbers, perhaps worthy of Terrence Malick’s earlier films.

But when the thinness of the story began to become apparent, nothing more than a sad surrender of an already lost country to strip malls and exburbs, that carefully framed wilderness only served to amplify those shortcomings. Its content unable to fill form, the show reaches for something that was obviously rendered undefinable even before the reach, and becomes people grasping for a place that was never theirs to begin with…

It is less a matter of feeling as if Oxblood’s meaning escapes you and more a sense that the mystery is solved for everyone but the characters who inhabit the tale.

Cracking the Case: The Mysterious Wisterias

October 22nd, 2014

It’s a dark and stormy night at a mysterious plantation in the early 40′s.

There’s a fading starlet, a handsome gigolo, a failed comedian, a ditzy blonde, a hip piano player, a zany personal secretary… and a growing body count. Can the crackerjack, novice reporter solve the case and sing a song before she joins the victims?

What theatrical whirligig Ricky Graham and his collaborator Sean Patterson have schemed together with The Mysterious Wisterias is a mash-up of Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, a Nancy Drew mystery, and a Bowery Boys adventure.

Playing over the next month at The Stage Door Canteen, the half musical/half mystery doesn’t make a lick of sense, hangs around one song too long, and has an equal number of face-palming groans to its genuine laughs.

But when you throw in the vernacular of the times, down-to-the-socks period detail from costumer Kathleen Van Horn, and sharp-to-the-touch ensemble work from such longtime Graham troupe members like Tracey Collins and Matthew Mikal, you get an evening of first-rate silliness that should please kids as much as it does adults.

And Graham is the perfect actor to keep that engine cranked up. Wisterias gives him a chance to not only dress in drag and sing double entendre ditties but also to impersonate a collection of classic detectives including an “As Time Goes By” crooning Sham Shovel, a poor relation to Sam Spade.

His argument with Trina Beck as the feisty reporter over the pronunciation of Sham’s name is a clinic in creating comedy through reaction.

But for all the spit and polish, a discerning audience member might be left with the feeling that something was a missed.

Given the talent involved and all the attention to detail, it might not have hurt to have given the material itself the same sort of care. While Wisterias can be great fun, it seems more designed to rely on the gifts of the performers than on the subject matter itself.

See enough shows by Graham and Patterson, you begin to get a pretty clear sense of where they spent their Saturday afternoons: planted in front of the independent television station soaking up every triple-feature the programming had to offer.

Theatrical collagists at heart, Graham and Patterson’s work both on the page and stage comes off as a wild hybrid of Your Show of Shows, Carol Burnett’s celebrated weekly revue and an encyclopedic machine of pop culture references jammed between 1939 and 79.

In other words, they are a perpetual nostalgia machine.

And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, done properly not only can that work be the subject of a rewarding evening of comic theatre, but it also can be a theatrical commerce machine. After all, Greater Tuna, Tuna Christmas, The Mystery of Irma Vep, 39 Steps, and Graham’s own Scrooge in Rouge are all examples of shows that use audience familiarity with classic tropes to create tight comedic send-ups of genres, seasons and cultures that continue to provide joy and revenue no matter how often they are done.

But each of those works decides what it is and sticks with it. Whether it is the clear plotting of both 39 Steps and Scrooge, the world building of the Tunas, or Irma Vep’s exacting celebration of the genre, the success of those shows hinges on their clarity of purpose.

And that is what I think was missed at The Stage Door Canteen.

The Mysterious Wisterias is simply too much, and in that too much, it is not enough.

Unlike the aforementioned shows, it boasts a cast of eight, sacrifices its through-line for gags, and leaves most of the theatrical fun for its star turn. In other words, it really can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it an affectionate send-up of the anti-Axis detective stories of the early war? Is it a down home ghost yarn? Or is it a musical revue disguised as a whodunit?

Deep into the second half of Wisterias, Graham appears as a very British send-up of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple. As his creation attempts to unravel the mystery, he suddenly turns on one of the characters and reveals the suspect to be in the employ of The Gestapo. For one chillingly funny moment, my pleasant distraction turned into riveted attention, and I began to see one of the potential clear routes available to Wisterias’ creators.

But just as I sat up in my chair, the lights went out, another murder victim was discovered, and the thread, so electrifying in its revelation, evaporated as the next series of jokes were cranked up. This is not to say the jokes that followed were all bad or their execution was anything other than highly professional, but a charged moment was squandered for the sake of safer entertainment.

Just like the characters that inhabit it, Wisterias ends up lurching in the dark looking for answers but only bumping into the furniture.

That being said, it is still a far better time than many of things masquerading as comedy in this town, and for that reason alone, we should give its creators another chance to crack to the case.

One Flew Over The Loyal Dissent

September 22nd, 2014

Let’s start with the obvious.

Tracking the journey of insurrectionary malcontent R.P. McMurphy through Nurse Ratched’s sterile psych ward of broken souls, director Mark Routhier’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a solid, muscular and intermittently inspired season opener from The NOLA Project.

Featuring a chiller of performance from Amy Alvarez as the diminutive but intimidating Ratched, it boasted generous ensemble work from its entire cast, and on more than one occasion, left this viewer deeply impressed with its visual surety.

If this highly collaborative show had any real star, it was Routhier’s production team. Lighting designer Dan Zimmer, scenic artist Bill Walker and costumer Christopher Arthur all place Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s seminal novel of counter-culture squarely at the unhinged end of The Sixties.

With a groovy assist from Mike Harkins’ acid soaked sound design and Jaime Bird’s location-establishing props such as 1969 editions of Life Magazine, the design team accelerated into the NOCCA Black Box and through the dangers of creating a period piece by exacting such detail that it actually prevented the show from feeling dated.

Essentially, it was everything audiences have come to expect from a troupe who are entering their tenth year riding high on sold out performances and widespread critical acclaim.

Bravo, huzzah, and onward!

It all feels a little easy, doesn’t it?

And that easiness makes me a bit uneasy.

Because while it was an overall compelling evening with much to offer, “Cuckoo’s Nest” was not perfect. And I am not simply talking about a bad wig undercutting a soulful performance by Michael Aaron Santos as Chief Bromden. The show has some intrinsic issues that a little more rehearsals or a minor tweak could not have remedied.

It featured an energetic but erratic performance from its lead Alex Wallace, peaked too soon, and had a cast who, with a few notable exceptions, were all at least five years away from being the right age for their roles.

And those imperfections point to the overall problem with this “Cuckoo’s Nest:” gravity. In more than one crucial moment, the play lacked it both stylistically and emotionally.

By substituting histrionic shouting for genuine emotions like frustration, disappointment and despair, Wallace lacked a devastating resonance in the play’s more quiet passages. By amping up the stakes too early, Routhier diluted the power of the play’s closing frames.

And by failing to project the effects of age and world-weariness on already worn psyches, the cast failed to achieve the sort of synthesis that would’ve staggered all in attendance.

To ground all of that in a more specific way, I am going to focus on a performance that actually produced those missing qualities.

As the doctor ostensibly in charge of the ward, Kyle Daigrepont gave the best turn of the evening. You could see the years of work and dedication in his bearing. Furthermore, in his detached resignation of slumped shoulders and deep sighs, you could see the toll working with mentality disturbed men had taken upon him.

In many way, he is as emotionally and psychologically exhausted as the men for whom he toils.

But when called to summon resistance to Ratched and her obviously unreasonable threat of lobotomy for McMurphy, Daigrepont pulled the best moment of that Sunday. Gathering himself up for battle, he found a gleam in his eye, a stiffness in his spine, and a force to his delivery that had been missing throughout. It felt calculated, decisive, and was the singular moment of the matinee I saw that arrested my attention.

It shut down Alvarez’s Ratched instantly, and we believed it.

You see, as we get older, life plays a nasty trick on us. Just as we are figuring out how to use the body we have been given, it starts to subtly fail in numerous ways. Our back aches, our knees creak, and the desire for rest grows. No longer all powerful twenty-somethings, we become navigators of encroaching age who must pick the exertion of our power wisely lest we squander it on a misguided crusade.

In that moment, we saw in Daigrepont a cagey veteran of such battles understanding the gravity of the situation and bringing a gravity of his own to bear.

And in too many corners of the production, that force was missing. At no time did it occur that the clock is ticking for all these men. Every moment of voluntary confinement takes them away from living the lives that await them in the outside world. The anxiety that their physical, emotional and sexual peaks are slipping away should haunt their every action, movement, and decision throughout the show.

Unlike the tragic Billy Bibbit, these are not men with their whole lives ahead of them, but a group of shattered souls creeping towards middle age. If they do not act soon, the ward will finish off what their fragile minds began.

That’s gravity.

More problematic is the fact that amidst the praise and ballyhoo no one has seemed to point out that New Orleans’ audiences and its critical apparatus have confused basic professionalism with perfection. And that does not bode well for our local scene.

Of course, I am thrilled everyone performing in the play knows the play, delighted the cast has an excellent sense of storytelling, and pleased as punch that its director understands the key to blocking in a thrust is to keep the actors moving and working on different sight lines.

I am equally over the moon that good enough is not enough for The NOLA Project’s production team.

After all when good enough is the gold standard, missing that mark even by a little a bit can be a disaster for its audiences (see: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bug, Bent, A Lie of The Mind, and any other great play chosen by a narcissistic and undercapitalized company.)

Because when you just miss good enough, see if you can guess what the play isn’t.

But all those aforementioned things shouldn’t be cause for celebration, they should be expected. Think about what it means to revel and swoon in simple solid craftsmanship. It means that such efforts are a rare commodity. It means we are so parched in a desert of performance that we call brackish water thirst quenching.

It means the people who we have come to depend on for entertainment in this community are not being pushed towards greater things.

 

 

 

Season’s Greetings

September 17th, 2014

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

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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.

 

Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism