Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism

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.

 

Nixon in St. Louis: A #LibertarianMoment

August 13th, 2014

I normally don’t use this space for political rants, but the unfolding events surrounding the murder of Michael Brown in St. Louis have made it impossible to not weigh into the situation.

Where are the Republican Libertarians? Where is Rand Paul (update: he has finally arrived)? Where is Paul Ryan? And where are the countless other voices who bemoan the lack of support Republicans receive from African-Americans.

If I was a Republican who wanted to be President of The United States, I might sense the opening. I might head to St. Louis, like Nixon did with China or Reagan did in opposing Proposition 6, and take up a cause on behalf of the people I claim to want to represent.

For too long, the inner cities in this country have been transformed into mini-Gazas, experimental grounds for increasingly weaponized police. Displaying their new toys, they march militaristically into disenfranchised neighborhoods, ratcheting up the tensions to justify their provocations, and abandoning patrol presence for the trappings of martial law.

Isn’t this what the right fears? Jack booted thugs? A police force that looks like muscle for a junta?

Perhaps they’ll start asking for these citizens paper’s next.

Does this only count when it’s white people?

No Democratic politician could put a stop to this. The standard sighs of pandering would follow and wouldn’t get the electrifying press coverage a Republican would.

It is going to take a Tricky Dick going to The Great Wall.

Winning over a constituency isn’t about condescendingly talking slower in the hopes they’ll accept your supply-side, Horatio Alger bromides. Sometimes saying something your base doesn’t agree with tells the rest of the country that a committed half of a small primary isn’t going to dictate how to speak to the majority of Americans.

And if you are a Libertarian, this should be a no brainer. The state, in the form of its steroid induced law enforcement arms, is violating the civil liberties of a minority that has proved one of the most loyal, religious, and patriotic in its history.

Nick Gillespie’s Reason is giving this coverage, but I am amazed at the silence from the supposed civil liberty Republicans.

Imagine a sitting Senator or Congressman with a national following walking into the one of those neighborhoods and calling for deescalation of the fear and intimidation that plagues people who are already terrorized by crime. Imagine them leading a march against cops who look like a U.N Peacekeeping force in Mogadishu.

Imagine them saying, turn the Humvees, tanks, and helicopters around. Imagine them saying release the name of the officer in question, imagine them calling for a top to bottom investigation of the police force, and imagine them saying, “This is America, and I stand here today in defense of your rights.”

And not give a damn that some asshole in Mississippi sees them standing with Black Folk.

Oppressed peoples have long memories. They remember not only the vicious voices that cried out against them, but they also remember the courageous figures who stood with them when no one else would.

Sounds like a Libertarian Moment to me.

 

Veronica Russell

August 7th, 2014

Michaelle Nolan tells a great story about Veronica Russell that I think sums up the actress/costume-designer/noise-maker/dreamer/joyful curmudgeon better than I ever could.

A number of years ago, Michaelle was behind Veronica at The A&P on Royal. When it came time for Veronica to pay, she realized she had grabbed the wrong purse. Michaelle paid for Veronica’s groceries, telling her that someone had done the same for her years earlier.

Less than an hour later, while Michaelle was behind the bar at Pravda, Veronica came in, paid her back, proceeded to buy a drink, and then doubled down on the tip.

That was Veronica.

No grand gestures. Just good to her word, honoring her commitments, and no bullshit. In fact, I think it’s the no bullshit part I will miss the most about her. Anyone who knew her knew she had a bullshit detector the size of her home state. She would give a bullshitter a sideways glance, squint just a bit, and twang, “yeaaaah…” before decimating whatever crap someone had tried to feed her.

When I told Michaelle of Veronica’s passing today at the age of 44, Michaelle simply looked at me and said, “every time I saw her, she made me smile.”

Sober In New Orleans: Rejoice and Be Glad

August 1st, 2014

So, I am sure you have read Jules Bentley’s self-pitying, navel gazing, and outright nasty Sober in New Orleans in Gambit Weekly.

I was so angry when I read the piece that it took me days to be able to organize my thoughts and prevent whatever I wrote from coming out as a primal yelp.

Bentley’s argument boils down to this: alcohol in New Orleans is not only unescapable but its absence also prevents you from functioning properly or enjoying yourself. Essentially, if you stop drinking and sober up, you are like Neo in the Matrix having taken the pill and now dealing with the exposed lie. Without booze, New Orleans is nothing more than the stink of piss and second-rate art.

The more you read, the more Bentley sounds like that same movie’s Joe Pantoliano savoring imaginary steak and wishing himself back under the veil.

The biggest problem is Bentley began with this thesis and then set out to confirm it.

Notice I said confirm not prove. There is a distinct difference. The first means you have made up your mind and only seek validation; the second, instead, seeks to test the theory under difficult circumstances.

Confirming his thoughts was easy. All he had to do was talk to sober people hanging on for dear life in The Sliver by The River. Think about the thrust of his efforts: he hung out in bars talking to those who make their living off drunks and to recently sober drunks who resent having to be sober.

Congratulations, Jules, they agree with you.

Setting out to prove his idea might have been more difficult.

He had moved out of his contempt for live theatre, he might have encountered the numerous costume designers who love to build outfits every year at Mardi Gras and Halloween. They get their highs off their clients’ joy at fitting into their imaginary worlds. Had he dug deeper, he might have met at least one burlesque dancer whose sobriety has led to a better show, a thriving business, and a deepening love affair.

If he went onto Magazine Street the Sunday before Mardi Gras, he might have seen the amazing spreads and happy families who await Thoth with nary a drop of booze around them. And speaking of Mardi Gras, he should really volunteer to march with a High School Band in search of additional chaperones. I have done it twice, and it was one of the most galvanizing experiences of my life.

Delighted children supported by sober adults and all coming together for the music that unites their community. Sound pretty New Orleans to me.

Ever work for a political campaign in New Orleans? Find a candidate or an issue you believe in? It is like electioneering no other place in the country, and for a would-be-writer, it is an experience not to be missed.

I have two friends that are sober who are intoxicated by the music in this town. They catalogue it, play it, and attend every event they can, so they can write about it, cover it, and spread the good news near and far.

I am sober 20 years in this town, and I still marvel how the fun and friendship never ends.

The other morning I woke up in my Fabourg St. John apartment and walked up Esplanade Avenue. During that amazing walk through the oaks, I mentally worked out the problems I am having with a commissioned screenplay, stopped at a collaborator’s home to give her notes on the book for a musical she is crafting, and then she and I completed the walk to Croissant d’Or where I had cafe au lait and an almond croissant that almost seemed injected with butter. We talked for two hours.

Notice what is not present in that previous paragraph?

If you feel self-consicuous around drinking, you are around drunks. If people constantly ask you if you are not drinking, you are around drunks. If you are sadder because you are not drinking, you are a drunk. And you haven’t sobered up.

You are merely not drinking for the moment.

Of course, the lonely and broken places fueled by alcohol look lonely and broken when you stop drinking. But so many places in New Orleans look better with the haze of booze gone.

Bentley should come find us, and we’ll show him where.

I am not sure what possessed Gambit to take Bentley up on the story. But they did, gave him a wide audience, and allowed him to take a couple of potshots at a city that is so much more than the sloshed nightmare that appears once you take the pledge.

And for that, shame on them.

Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism