With “4000 Miles,” the versatile James Bartelle comes a little closer to home

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The NOLA Project presents “4000 Miles”
WHAT: Regional premiere of Amy Herzog’s comedy-drama about the relationship between a former ’60s radical and her visiting grandson. Directed by Beau Bratcher, starring James Bartelle and Carol Sutton
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Oct. 20-22), 8 p.m. (Thursday is NOLA Project board and company members only performance); Sun. (Oct. 23), 2 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. (Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Oct. 30), 2 p.m. (Nov. 2: “Bike to Show Night”)
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20-$35 (vary per night)
MORE INFO: Visit event page

In some ways, it’s easy to miss James Bartelle at first. He kind of sneaks up on you, and even then, his countenance is so serene, it’s almost as if he’s not even there. Or not obtrusive. But you can’t take your eyes off him.

It’s hard to explain. Until, maybe, you hear his story.

The man who has been called the big brother of The NOLA Project ensemble acting troupe, the man who has played Robin Hood as if in an identity crisis — gah, the man who has played a talking sheep, of all characters — can indeed come across as an enigma, a cipher. You can, I suppose, say that about a lot of actors, because so often they’re vessels of the writer and director.

But James Bartelle is different. Over the course of his decade in New Orleans — inspired, like many, by Hurricane Katrina — Bartelle has slowly, methodically, created a body of work that has theater critics calling him one of the best actors in the city. He’s won a few Big Easy Awards, and a few Storer Boone Awards.

And yet again, it feels like he’s snuck up on all of us. I remember the first time I met him, while sitting outside a coffee shop chatting with a friend, and he kind of just stopped by to say hi, sporting his wire-rim glasses, modestly coiffed afro, a slender frame and a matching voice. He was sweet, polite, reticent but not rude, and then went on his way — and you kind of kept watching him as he left. He leaves a mark.

Just as his title-role performance in last year’s “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand” felt more like an ensemble delivery than a star turn, his supporting role as the sheep in “Marie Antoinette” was magnetic and unforgettable. “I watched lots of videos of sheep (to prepare),” said the man who most acknowledge is the first NOLA Project actor to work off-script on any given production.

Now the actor with a preference for Shakespeare roles and the ability to play animals taps into a role that might hit a little closer to home with the upcoming production of the Amy Herzog comedy-drama, “4000 Miles” — opposite one of New Orleans’ theater legends, Carol Sutton. In the Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, the 31-year-old Bartelle plays Leo, an affable but aimless twentysomething who shows up at the door of his grandmother, an octogenarian and former ’60s radical living in near isolation in New York. Leo’s just finished a cross-country bicycle trip, one that included a terrible tragedy en route, and now Leo isn’t sure where to head next, on or off his bike.

Facing her own existential crisis, his grandmother takes him in and they forge a bond that feels as much a friendship as a kinship. As one character learns how to play out the last chapter of her life, the other figures out how to face, hopefully, a longer yet still uncertain future.

For a young man who seven years ago had lost his mother to a suicide, traveled to India on a lark, and wound up in a psychiatric ward after having experimented with too many psychedelic drugs, James Bartelle maybe knows Leo a little better than the average actor — which could be a blessing and a curse.

“The part that’s a blessing is how well the role is written,” he says over coffee at Rue de la Course in Riverbend. “Usually when I choose to do a show, I specifically look for the ability to do something I hadn’t done before, so at the end of my career I can look back and say no two roles were similar. I have been, I guess, conscious or unconsciously looking for roles not too close to me. I’ve always just chosen roles that required an accent or a crazy voice or something contorting my body.

“I had a lot of connection with this character,” said Bartelle, associate artistic director for the company. “It’s hard to be that honest onstage. It’s easy to hide behind a voice or makeup or a crazy costume. It’s harder for me to speak like a normal being. There is something different about this role.”

If it’s a challenge, Bartelle has a cheering section like no other — starting with his co-star, Sutton.

“I’ve been awed by this young man since the first time I saw him in other (shows),” she said after a Sunday afternoon tech run, before the cast and crew moved into the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “I looked at the shape of his face and thought, he could be in my family! So when I got the chance to play his grandmother, I was just overwhelmed.”

There’s a calmness about him, Sutton noted: “I’ve never seen him upset. He came in so prepared, and I think I knew that about him. That’s why I wanted to be prepared, too. … I knew I had to get ahead of him. He never loses his calm. He’s always so gentle.”

“4000 Miles” director Beau Bratcher has worked with Bartelle on several other NOLA Project shows, most notably in “A Truckload of Ink” and “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand.” If artistic director A.J. Allegra is the company’s father, Bratcher says, then Bartelle is easily its big brother, serving as a role model for the other players in everything he does.

His talent, critics note, is undeniable. In his review for “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand,” NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune theater critic Ted Mahne wrote:

In the title role, James Bartelle shows why he is not only one of the best actors in town, but also among the most insightful and generous. As he enters the grounds early on, Bartelle’s Robin is the adventurous leader of the pack of Merry Men, exuding every ounce of derring-do. But as the character reveals his deeper motivations, including a stint serving King Richard in a crusade (which becomes a key plot element), Bartelle reveals his inner conflicts.”

There is, Bratcher observes, a certain amount of intelligence and humility in the way Bartelle works within the group.

“He looks at all of the information that the play provides about his character and he filters it through his brain and his heart, and he comes up with a character that is fully true to the text of the play, the director’s vision and himself,” Bratcher said. “My experiences with him when he doesn’t have an assigned task for a show have always been the same. He is constantly offering his support through time and counsel and manual labor.”

The manual labor mostly comes in the form of carpentry skills he honed after following his older brother into theater in high school in San Antonio; the sons of military parents who’d divorced, they finally got to settle down there when their mother retired from the service there.

He wound up with lots of small parts in shows, but never a lead — “I think there were people who complained more about not getting the parts they wanted,” he said — and so carpentry helped make him useful.

[LEARN MORE: Brad Rhine previews the show for the New Orleans Advocate]

He followed his brother to New York University to study theater at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, and befriended what would later serve as the core of The NOLA Project: Andrew Larimer, A.J. Allegra, Kristin Witterschein, Alex Wallace and Sean Glazebrook. But soon the student loans ran dry and Bartelle returned to San Antonio after his freshman year while his brother remained.

He kept trying unsuccessfully for additional loans, but just a half hour after he’d received his last rejection letter, he recalls, the phone rang. It was Tom Oppenheim, artistic director of the famed Stella Adler Studio of Acting (and Adler’s grandson). He knew of Bartelle’s plight, and had just learned that actor Paul Newman had just established a scholarship at the conservatory.

“We would like to offer you this spot if you’re interested,” Oppenheim told him.

So it went for Bartelle, who, when he couldn’t find regular work to pay his way, had sympathetic staffers offer him working the studio’s front desk.

“It was a lot of people looking out for me,” he said.

It was at the Stella Adler Studio that Bartelle learned four defining traits: the ability to create different voices, the need for physical training, the value of preparation, and the beauty of Shakespeare.

“The depth and breadth of his characters is still unmatched after 400 years,” said Bartelle, who’d played Tybalt to his brother’s Mercutio in a high school production of “Romeo and Juliet. “I wonder how many more characters he would’ve been able to create if women were allowed onstage back then. I think his understanding of the way humans interact with one another on all levels of class is just extraordinary. As an actor, if you’re able to tackle Shakespeare characters, you’re able to act to a lot of other writers who are not so difficult.

“It’s a great workout.”

As Bartelle and the others were winding down their time in school, Larimer, a New Orleans native, hatched the idea of starting up a theater company that would include performing in his hometown — which led to a production of “The Cripple of Inishman” at NOCCA just before Hurricane Katrina. The finished the production back up in New York, but agreed they’d like to return later and help in the recovery process. (Bartelle, with his carpentry skills, instantly found work helping rebuild houses.)

get-this-lake-off-my-house

“Get This Lake Off My House”

By the spring they would stage an outdoor production of Larimer’s “Get This Lake Off My House” — a Katrina-inspired reworking of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” — out at Pontchartrain Park. From there, The NOLA Project became a fixture in New Orleans’ theater scene of the next decade.

Bartelle stuck to mostly supporting roles, earning a Big Easy Award for his turn as James in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (2007). A year later, another hurricane, Gustav, blew Bartelle and some of the others to Larimer’s mother’s home in Tennessee. The day they prepared to return to New Orleans, he recalls, his stepfather called to say that Bartelle’s mother had committed suicide.

Trying to put the death behind him, Bartelle stopped acting, and, using some of the money left by his mother, traveled to India with Glazebrook and Larimer.

“I’m not sure,” he said, “if I was searching for something, or still grieving.”

When he returned, he began using psychedelic drugs, mostly in the form of psilocybin mushrooms. Troupe members became so concerned that they contacted his father and brother, who came to New Orleans and had Bartelle checked in to the psychiatric ward of Children’s Hospital near Audubon Park.

“It sort of wasn’t my choice,” he said.

His two-month stay, he recalls ruefully, seemed to do more harm than good.

“What it should have been was a detox, but they treated it like it was bipolar (depression) and schizophrenia,” he said. “The conditions were shabby. I was given lots of medication, Klonopin, lorazepam, lithium.”

Even though he was a vegetarian, workers forced him to eat meat: “When I said I didn’t eat meat, they said I was crazy.”

More therapeutic for Bartelle were the visits from NOLA Project troupe members. “They acted as my family,” he said.

After his discharge from the hospital, Bartelle was introduced to Elizabeth Eckman, who had recently opened Divine Yoga with her husband, Gary, in Central City. Bartelle was intrigued by the allure of classes that focused on strengthening the nervous system and balancing the glandular and endocrine system. Bartelle wound up going every day for two and a half years.

sive

“Sive”

“I felt, more than anything, that that was a huge part of my rebalancing,” he said. “It felt like it was making me a more present person, which I think makes you a better actor. I don’t think about things that have happened in the past too much.

“They’re more like passing clouds.”

If The NOLA Project is his family, than A.J. Allegra is probably his big brother. They’d met during freshman orientation — really, Allegra says, the first college friend he’d made — and remained close ever since. It was Allegra who later brought Bartelle in as a roommate after his discharge.

“James is an incredibly gifted actor who has a tremendous heart,” Allegra said.

But Bartelle came as part of a package. After his stay in the hospital, fellow NOLA Project troupe member Alex Wallace gave him a stray kitten, Bubastis, named after a character in “The Watchmen” graphic novel — a Wallace favorite.

“(Wallace) told James that he had to keep the kitten alive,” Allegra recalled, “because if he could keep the kitten alive, he could keep himself alive, too. That cat is still with James today.”

For Bartelle, their friendship has become a lifeline.

“At the time I was not somebody that would open and talk about my feelings,” he said. “What he really gave me was a space to be myself — a person that I could be around who wasn’t judging me. And, as a leader of the company at the time, he gave me tough love — not letting me back into the rehearsal room and onstage until I was ready, which was to my benefit.”

Rooming with A.J. Allegra and Bubastis, Bartelle slowly regained his balance, returned to the stage and performing regularly. He won another Big Easy Award for “The Norman Conquests.” And there was lots of Shakespeare. Along the way, he’d met and started dating Jamie Montelepre. Within a few years, and to a complete surprise to many, they married.

“We got married in our backyard. We had some chickens running around,” Bartelle recalls with a smile. Alex Wallace was the lone NOLA Project member there.

“I’m in a really lucky situation because my wife is a more humble and peaceful and loving person than I am, and just naturally so,” Bartelle says. “And we serve each other reminders of what’s good in life.”

marie-antoinette

“Marie Antoinette”

Bartelle started to apply even more discipline to his work as an actor as well, showing up for the first rehearsal having learned all of his lines — being off-book, as they say. This all served as prologue for his remarkable turn as Robin Hood, in a play written by Andrew Vaught — who tweaked the script as Bartelle grew into the role. Bartelle earned a Big Easy nomination for the performance, his biggest to date.

Then came the role as the talking sheep in “Marie Antoinette” (opposite Cecile Monteyne) later in 2015. The requires the actor to reflect the physicality and fluidity of a sheep, which Bartelle captured perfectly (thanks in part to all that YouTube-clip watching) — but then the character turns more violent and human in a sudden flip. As Ted Mahne put it:

As a pimped-up sheep who appears regularly to Marie, Bartelle balances a sense of absurdist humor with the classic role of prophetic court jester, speaking truth to power. He serves as Marie’s conscience, the guide through her transformation. In addition, Bartelle’s gentle approach to her also suggests the comfort of redemption, reflecting (playwright David) Adjmi’s attitude toward Marie as the sacrificial lamb. It is another touching performance from one of the best actors in The NOLA Project’s strong ensemble.”

He believes all of this has helped prepare him for the role of Leo in “4000 Miles,” and yes, he realizes this role might hit a little close to home — closer than any role yet. He welcomes the challenge.

“It’s something I feel like I’m qualified, through my life experience, to play this role in a way I might not feel about toward other roles,” he said. “Maybe because of my acting technique. For this, I have personally experienced enough of a similar situation to justify playing the part.”

Is it too soon, I ask him?

“I think that a lot of my personal grieving process ended a long enough time ago, in all honesty,” he replied. “What I do think that I’m able to do is infuse in my role, and what the play does, is show the different ways we’re coping with loss — that in some losses, you can come out of the other side a lot stronger person. That’s what I really connect with the play.

“That’s what theater does at its best,” he says. “Help us, uplift us, teach us these lessons, that maybe you can’t learn from other art forms.”

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5 thoughts on “With “4000 Miles,” the versatile James Bartelle comes a little closer to home

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