Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism

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.

What Fools These Critics Be: Plot (Ctd)

June 19th, 2014

So… The idea is outlined, and I can now start writing the review.

Almost.

There is one bureaucratic responsibility for which I have yet to account: a synopsis of the play.

That tasks requires I spend words against my 700 word limit, so I have to tread careful.

This requires some real editing. I must say just enough that the reader knows the story without spoiling crucial moments in the plot. My basic rule of thumb is 10% of the review can be spent summarizing plot. Anymore and I run the risk of not being to talk about direction, acting, design, or thematic concerns. After all, it is a critical engagement with a production not a summary of a text.

So in the case of The Advocate, 700 words means around 70 on plot. Now, if plot points emerge in discussing other qualities of the show all’s the better, but if I spend two paragraphs or more laying out the tale, I am short changing my reader of what is essential in making the choice to attend or making sense of a show that they have seen.

The great exception is new work. If the play is a regional or world premiere, then the text itself is fair game. Its structures, rhythms and concerns, in fact, should be front and center. That changes the structure of the review, because it turns the order of discussion into an analysis of what the play is trying to achieve, the quality of that writing, and then answering the question does the production do service to that mandate.

In the case of Midsummer, I had the advantage of that play being incredibly well known even beyond the usual familiarity with The Bard’s work. Since, I had a great deal to say about the production I kept the thrust short and sweet…

It is unlikely you will see the resources used to tell this version of Shakespeare’s tale of love and confusion in an enchanted forest available to any other nonmusical production in town.

Throughout the remainder of that review, I do explicate a number of the characters’ importance to the plot, and it helps create a better picture of the overall tale. However, I begin with the presumption that anyone invested in reading my review knows the contours of this particular play.

Yes, as with all rules of thumb, there are exceptions (and if you read my reviews you will find them), but each and every one of them should be grounded in helping amplify the critical engagement of the immediate production.

Anything else is a book report.

 

What Fools These Critics Be

June 17th, 2014

By now, I am sure you have read my harsh criticism of Tulane’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mostly due to spatial considerations, it was the hardest review I’ve had to write for the paper. Populated by 19 actors and containing a major contribution from every technical theatrical aspect, the show’s successes and failures offered endless angles and approaches I could have used in analyzing the ever-popular play.

And that is my topic today: how I construct the theatrical reviews that you read in The New Orleans’ Advocate.

My methodology has three parts. First, I seek to recreate the experience of the actual show. Second, I then focus on my principal reason for approval or disapproval, and finally, if possible, I look to draw larger conclusions about theatre or the New Orleans’ theatre scene in general.

Reconstructing the performance can take two forms. I can either try to write in a way that gives the reader a sense of what the show is like while watching (as I did with Young Frankenstein at Rivertown or Sister Act at The Saenger), or I can perform a theatrical autopsy as I did with Skin Horse’s Macbeth. The former method is akin to trying to capture the energy of a roller coaster ride while the latter becomes a clinical breakdown of the various parts in an attempt to make sense of what worked and what didn’t.

As you probably have guessed, a more visceral response earns reconstruction and a more inquisitive response requires a forensic examination. In the case of Tulane’s Midsummer, I wasn’t angered by its failure so much as puzzled as to how so many resources could be squandered, so I began to look for reasons why the show left me cold. Therefore, that review is a dissection of sorts.

Once I have determined approach, I begin to select specific examples to back up my emotional and intellectual assertions. With just around 700 words to use, I need to be incredibly selective. Choose wrong and either I lose the thread or end up looking like I am grinding an individual axe.

I focused on Liam Kraus’ performance as Bottom, not because he was the worst offender of a style that I felt undermined the proceedings. I focused on him, because he was indicative of that style. Readers who are familiar with Shakespeare would instantly know the character. Therefore, it makes discussing the problems of his performance easier, since I do not have to unpack a great deal of explanation about the role he is presenting.

In explaining that role, I am able to explain the overall energy of the evening with specificity allowing the reader to draw larger conclusions to the overall problem. It then opens the door for what I believe to be the explanation: the performances were strident and overcharged, because the technical elements of the productions required that of them.

Now, we can have a debate about whether or not the actors in Midsummer could have figured out solutions to navigate the production’s overly ambitious technical charge, but when more than a few actors are doing the same thing, the logical thought is they are either being told to do that or they are compensating for something.

And that brings me to the conclusion. The orgy of effect and a more or less consistent style of acting can only have come from one place: the director. Since that is where I gleaned the problem that is where I laid it. If you notice, both the lead and conclusion include mention of the directorial shortcomings. The first is almost posed as a question and the second provides an answer.

Mind you, everything I have shared with you are merely the notes I take before actually writing. Once those thoughts are clear, I begin working on the review proper. And that process has other considerations I have not yet shared.

But I will tell you about those tomorrow.

 

Attention Must Be Paid…

May 25th, 2014

It has been quite a few weeks for New Orleans’ theatre audiences.

Immediately after Jazz Fest, patrons of live performance were treated to Adventures in Wonderland, A Celebration of Harold PinterYoung Frankenstein, Death of A Salesman, War HorseMarry Me, A Little, and Bent in rapid succession.

Five of those were local inceptions. Anyone who had a chance to catch that quintet of events would get something of a sense of what is going on with mainstream offerings throughout the town.

Not comprehensive of an entire theatrical scene by any means but somewhat indicative of a theatrical town still in search of an identity, these show demonstrate both what is working and what still remains to be done within the fitfully growing New Orleans’ landscape.

There does seem to be some progress in regards to companies and organizations clarifying their missions and methodologies, but still, too many theatrical entities lack the infrastructure to create consistent product. Either through spatial inadequacies, resource scarcity, or a lack of vision, a number of companies and efforts still lack a series of necessary components to take the step into a healthier theatrical existence.

In essence, it is a lot of one-and-a-half-steps-forward-one-step-back. It’s progress, but it is precarious.

Southern Rep needs a home, Le Petit needs to address the roles of its artistic chiefs in regards to production, and Mid City and The Shadowbox Theatre need to sort out their programming structure. These are all bigger issues than space or pay grade allows, and I know, for a fact, that a number of those issues are being addressed by the powers-that-be within those institutions.

It’s the quality of work that I would like to turn my attention. This, after all, is the area where I spend most of my time engaging and enraging your readership, so I will focus on that.

My view is this: the two strongest local shows of the last few weeks (Wonderland and Frankenstein) were the ones where the producers executed only within the confines of what was achievable. This does not mean that those successful shows were neither ambitious nor stretched the talent contained within the project; it simply suggests that inventiveness and execution trumped a delusional imposition of the impossible or a sloppiness of execution.

They did this by paying attention.

There was a sense in both productions that close wouldn’t cut it. Every location in Wonderland and every set change in Frankenstein was given equal care in its creation; casting decisions (in their majority) were expertly picked without settling for someone merely because they looked the part or possessed one element necessary for the role; no artistic choice in either show reeked of that awful resignation “I can live with that,” and finally, both shows exuded the impression that the entire production team was invested in the idea of the entire audience having a good time.

In short, neither production was constructed as if it was trying to get away with something.

Now, before you start yelping about those productions having resources, manpower, or infrastructure, remember this, there was time when neither The NOLA Project nor Theatre 13 possessed those components. What they did possess were the aforementioned qualities that went into their latest theatrical forays.

For those same reasons, it’s why I fully expect  great things from the creators of shows like Shoebox Lounge, Woyzeck, and Zanna, Don’t! You could see in each of those productions the same key elements of care and attention to details that promises theatrical health in at least some corners of this city in the coming years.

If you notice, I haven’t included the avant-garde, the educational or projects from out of town in this discussion. Those are different discussions for different days, and therefore, joys like War Horse, A Celebration of Harold Pinter and Play/Write, while cause for celebration, will have to wait for future postings.

blog_lee-j-cobb-as-willy-loman-in-elia-kazans-original-1949-production-of-death-of-a-salesman-2

Attention Must Be Paid

Marry Me, A Little: A Review

May 12th, 2014

In an evening that can at best be described as an inconsequential disaster, director Stephen Eckert botches “Marry Me, A Little,” an hour-long collection of Stephen Sondheim songs posing as an evening of theater, into an unrecognizable mess.

Add the fact that one of his two romantic leads, Aaron Lind, despite having a solid singing voice, is woefully miscast, and you have the makings of a misguided offering mitigated only slightly by its brief time on the stage.

It does contain a lovely turn from Ashley Rose Bailey as the other lonely heart, but her efforts are simply not enough to recommend this Promethean Theatre Company production, playing for two more weekends at Mid City Theatre, to a larger audience.

At first blanch, the show doesn’t seem that difficult a task. After all, it is a tight one-act featuring two characters, both in the aftermath of romantic break-ups, living in adjoining apartments

Moving through a catalogue of songs from shows as diverse as “Company” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Marry Me” is the story of a boy, a girl, and how far away love can be when a wall intercedes.

But “Marry Me” is tougher than it seems. Despite its brief length, two-person cast and simple unit set requirement, the show needs to build a storyline exclusively through song and requires both its actors to create realistic characters that move through the grief of lost love.

Remember, nary a lick of dialogue.

If those two aforementioned elements are missing, the show becomes a confusing revue that looks like an evening with two sad Sondheim fans in adjoining apartments.

And that is exactly what happens.

Lind is simply not up to the task. His voice is not the problem. In fact, it seems as if it is the only reason for his casting. And while he is too young for the role, it is less a matter of age and more of gravitas.

He is simply not able to muster the sense of loss necessary in the darker songs of the evening, and in a sadly unintentionally comic moment, fails to justify the presence of a box of Kleenex and a lotion bottle during the song “Bang.”

His efforts seem exclusively concentrated on hitting the right notes and carrying the tune.

Bailey fares better. She has a winning sprightly quality in songs like “That Boy Can Foxtrot” and a nice sense of longing during “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” But Eckert places her upstage from Lind for the duration of the show making it impossible for her charms to truly win over the audience.

That placement is due to the fact that Leah Farrelly’s set is designed at the wrong angle and creates the effect of a shared space. Had I not known the show going in, I would not have understood the man and woman inhabited separate apartments.

It looks great but lacks functionality. In essence, it exists in a an uncanny valley of sorts where it appears to be first rate at initial glance but proves incapable of allowing its director to tell the story.

A dividing wall, designed to establish the different locations is hidden behind a futon couch, and on more than one occasion furniture from one room creeps ever so slowly into the other.

Furthermore, Brian Debs’ lighting design fails to aid in distinguishing the playing areas, and in fact, deepens the confusion with its constant spill of light that pulls the eye towards places that are not the focus.

Rather than simplifying the situation and going with two clean looks and a series of practical lights, Eckert and Debs reach for something beyond their grasp. It leaves them with a muddy palette either stranding Lind and Bailey in shadows or denying them the attention their numbers require.

In fact, the distractions mount so quickly as to prevent the actual music from being enjoyed for long stretches. Just as a song begins to weave its spell, unfortunate blocking, creeping shadows, or unnecessary business disrupt the flow and returns us to the production’s failing apparatus.

Like an absent lamented lover, “Marry Me, A Little” leaves the viewer with the feeling that something got away.

Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism