For Rivertown Theaters’ “Die Die Birdie,” Gary Rucker’s Top 5 zombie stories

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“DIE DIE BIRDIE”
WHAT: Rivertown Theaters diverges for a zombie-fied version of the classic Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” Gary Rucker directs Trevor Brown, Bryce Slocumb, Abby Botnick, Kyle Daigrepont, Helen Blanke and Haley Nicole Taylor
WHEN: Fri.-Sat. (May 26-27), 8 p.m.; Sun. (May 28), 2 p.m.
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
TICKETS: $25
MORE INFO: Visit the Rivertown Theaters website

One of the things that makes productions at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts so compelling to watch is how they bring fresh ideas to classic works. But with “Bye Bye Birdie,” they are going the extra mile. In what might qualify as the ultimate example of lagniappe, director Gary Rucker is presenting a bonus weekend of performances with the show reconfigured as a zombie story, “Die Die Birdie.” Here he delivers his Top 5 zombie stories of all time, prefaced with one of the funnier artist statements I have seen.

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Gary Rucker, transitioning zombie

In the early 2000s, over way too many beers, some friends and I got on the subject of how terrible puberty was for each one of us. My own experience was horrifying — bad skin, crackly voice, gangly limbs, hungry all the time, listless … it was terrible. I brought up the fact that hitting puberty was a lot like turning into a zombie. We all ran with that premise for a bit, eventually said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. Not long after that, I happen to be listening to some random show tunes and “Bye Bye Birdie” came on, specifically the song “Put on a Happy Face.” I imagined how funny it would be if the little girls Albert was so desperately trying to cheer up were actually zombies but he had no idea. This tickled me to no end. It suddenly occurred to me that “Bye Bye Birdie” would actually make a pretty terrific zombie story. The themes are already pretty much laid out in the original text, and even the lyrics of the songs fit the new interpretation perfectly. It became my mission.

Over the next 17 or so years, I tried to figure out any way I could to present “Bye Bye Birdie” as a zombie musical. The key would be to stay true to the original work without changing a single word of dialogue or lyric. I would direct the show traditionally, and then convert the exact same production into a vehicle for a zombie apocalypse. Same cast, same technical elements … same story. Only now, there’s a new threat.

The problem was always the cost and risk of mounting such a wacky concept. Luckily, I found a loophole. Since my partner Kelly and I are now in charge of The Rivertown Theaters in Kenner, it was a no-brainer (pun) to present the traditional version of “Bye Bye Birdie” as part of our main stage season, and since the show would already be paid for, there would be very little risk in running it for one weekend with some zombie visitors. I told my son all about this on a car trip and he said, “You should call it “Die Die Birdie.”

Yes I should, son. Yes I should.

“So how do you add zombies to Birdie? Is everyone just dead now?”

[Learn more: Ted Mahne reviews “Bye Bye Birdie”]

That’s the question I get the most … and without ruining the surprise of the show … no, not at all. There’s a whole through line and rules just like in any regular zombie movie. They arrive, they kill some people, they’re dealt with. I really wish I could say more without giving too much away but I will say that my dream of watching Albert try to cheer up two dead girls has come true. And it’s as funny as I thought it was. Please come see it. I’ll even throw in a discount code! At checkout use the code word “ZOMBIE” for $15 tickets. I promise it’s worth every penny.

OK, so now onto the point of this whole thing: my top five zombie movies! These aren’t the most traditional choices but each movie has inspired me in directing “Die Die Birdie” in some way. There are even a few “Easter eggs” in the show … see if you can spot them.

“SHAUN OF THE DEAD” — Not only my favorite zombie movie, but also one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s the most like what I’m trying to present. I love how Edgar Wright shot a scene as a normal, ordinary day and then shot basically the same exact scene after the zombies had arrived. It completely encouraged me in trying to tell Birdie two different ways. It’s chock full of its own set of Easter eggs as well. This one is paid a pretty big homage in “Die Die Birdie.” Also it kicked off the Cornetto Trilogy, and any time Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get together you know good things are bound to happen. Also, the only zombie movie to say zombie!

“WARM BODIES” — “Romeo and Juliet” told as a zombie love story. I was prepared to hate this movie, as I was dragged to it, but I ultimately really loved it. I had no idea it was based on “Romeo and Juliet” when I went in, and although the characters are clearly named R, Julie, Nora (Nurse), Perry (Paris), M (Mercutio), it took me about half the movie to put it together. Nicholas Hoult is particularly good in this. Also, the dialogue between the zombies is particularly funny.

“ZOMBIELAND” — “Holy crap, the zombies are running!” It’s a great, well-told and well-directed adventure movie that is touching and very funny. And with a fantastic cameo! **NO SPOILERS** Also, this is the movie that really kicked off Jesse Eisenberg’s career and he’s just great in it. Woody Harrelson is at his most Woody Harrelson, and his character’s quest for Twinkies is gold. My favorite part of the movie is the Zombie Tips that Jesse Eisenberg’s character explains to us throughout the movie. My favorite is Rule No. 1: Cardio. I wouldn’t need any other rules. I’d be dead instantly.

“THE WALKING DEAD” (THE BOOK) — I know books don’t really count but it’s probably the best ongoing zombie story ever told. The TV show gets it right once in a while when it STICKS TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL, but nothing compares to the graphic novels. I’ve been emotionally devastated by these books … I’ve felt betrayed and heartbroken, and once actually had to put the book down and walk away because I was so upset by something that had just happened. After all this time, it still hooks me.

“DAWN OF THE DEAD” — Because George A. Romero is the master of this genre. And it premiered on my birthday, but that is literally the only reason I picked this title over any of the others. Every one of his movies is a masterpiece in zombie horror. If you want to be really scared, these are the movies for you. The zombies are terrifying … they look angry and desperate, and even though the style of the acting is a little over the top, those zombies are committed to their performances. It’s a movie very much of its time, but man is it intense.

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For “The Spider Queen,” Alex Martinez Wallace’s Top 5 crazy fantasies

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The cast of “The Spider Queen” (Photo by Jeremy Blum)

“THE SPIDER QUEEN”
WHAT:
The NOLA Project’s annual collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art is a fantasy story and world premiere from members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace
WHERE: NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden, City Park
WHEN: 7 p.m. May 10-14, 17-18, 21, 24-26, 28
TICKETS: Adults: $25, NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members: $18, NOMA Members: $18, Students with ID: $18
MORE INFO: http://www.nolaproject.com

We are blessed this week with a double-dose of inspiration at The NOLA Project launches “The Spider Queen” for its annual collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art. First, the obvious inspiration: “The Spider Queen, co-written by James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace,” is heavily influenced by “Spider,” the sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that resides in the production’s stage, NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden. “Spider” tells the story of a teen on a mission to learn how his father died, but winds up going down a rabbit hall along with a tepid park ranger. Along they way they encounter a characters that includes plenty of crazy creatures and, of course, a spider. So we figured Wallace would make for a fun choice to double down on the notion of inspiration by citing some inspirations of his own:

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Alex Martinez Wallace

I understand that I’m supposed to remark and embark on a vernacular voyage wherein I divulge with everyone the five cinematic influences that most affected the part I played in writing “The Spider Queen” — but I’m going to break the rules a little bit. And you’re honestly very lucky. Because I could go rule-breaking mad. I could have just sent to the editor-in-chief a painting of my influences. Or just a dreadful pencil drawing or some other such thing they absolutely didn’t ask for (mud slung fitfully against a blank wooden door), which, while it might mean something truthful and genuine to me, gives the kind readers of this editorial virtually nothing to go on.

I’ve lived non-sequiturally before. Sometimes I like getting yelled at. James Bartelle, with whom I co-wrote this story, was very good about keeping things from getting absolutely Loony Tunes while simultaneously letting me stretch my big dumb feathery wings. So I’m only going to break the rules a little here. And so most of my influences aren’t films. Some are television shows, and one is a play. I’m actually being really well behaved. A good boy! Arguably.

5) “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” (BOTH THE MOVIE AND THE BOOK) — Particularly the first installment of the trilogy, because it, more than the other two, asks you to swallow the most nonsense right out the gate. If you aren’t willing right away to eat the history of the One Ring, and the thousands of elves and dwarves and men and the great war that was many thousands of years ago and has now come thundering back into the present with the rediscovery of the ominous golden circlet and another imaginary race of tiny Hobbits … then the rest of the movie will sit with you as well as a hot-shit sandwich. You really just gotta go with it. It’s like the smash hit film “Inception.” If you start asking too many questions, you’re gonna miss something and then, before you know it, the main character of the play is in Gardendale talking to a flower person and you won’t know why. Just go with it. And “The Spider Queen” plunges you headlong right into the Council of Elrond. No foreplay! In theater, we can’t have lengthy voiceovers with historical cut scenes, or a length of text scrolling into the stars that sets the tone of the show. Well, we could, but it’s a lazy-bum solution. And we don’t have tiiimmme. There’s a kingdom in peril and two worlds colliding, and if you want in, you’ll have to hold on to your butts and jump in headfirst. And, like in Middle Earth, singing a song or poetry recital is a perfectly acceptable way to respond to any situation. That was particularly true in the books. “Why is Tom Bombadil singing? Again? Why, God, why?” Go with it — this isn’t your world — you aren’t in Kansas anymore. If you can’t tell by now, I’m a geek by many measures; if you’ve any experience with fantasy stories of any kind, you’ll slip into this play as easily as a familiar old worn leather boot

4) “STRANGER THINGS” — The first and largest revision of the play happened right when Netflix released “Stranger Things” — and just in time, too. The first cut of the play was going in a very odd direction. Very 1980s … but like… too 1980s. Like each character had their own hairband rock song. It’s ironic that a show set so completely in the ’80s helped move our play out of the ’80s. But more than anything, “Stranger Things” helped us conceptualize a fantasy world whose features were a reflection of our own world as opposed to a fantasy world with its own random lineaments. It also helped us, we hope, create a multifaceted heroine who takes the audience on a journey unlike any that has been seen onstage before. We also incorporated Eggo Waffles into the play — lololol that’s a lie. Continue reading

Can watching The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” help make America great again?

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“A FEW GOOD MEN”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Feb. 9-11), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Feb. 12), 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

To attend a production of The NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men” at Delgado Community College is to take a step back in time. Yes, it takes one back to the early 1990s, when the kinetic rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogues and monologues had not yet invaded America by way of movies (“The American President”) or TV shows (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “The Newsroom”). The stage and screen versions arrived as a kind of postscript to 1980s Hollywood — in which macho, Reagan-era action thrillers like “Red Dawn” and subtle, pro-military movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman” were juxtaposed with Vietnam War cautionary parables like “Platoon” bemoaning the insanity of war.

But it also feels like going all the way back … to 2016.

As noted a few weeks ago in the preview to the show, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep’s famous “You can’t handle the truth” monologue provided the rationale for collateral damage; that to defend our country, we need the few, the proud, but also, the strong. The weak must be pushed to the side — even eliminated — to defend our higher ideals. This is not just about thinning the herd. The Marines, as their soldier characters tell us, live by a code: “Unit, corps, God, country.” And when someone breaks that code, they must pay a price, for the good of the country. But Sorkin tells us that there’s such a thing as understanding the differences, the nuances, of a code, especially when improperly applied. We are, he argues, rational, thinking human beings, and we must understand when living a life blindly following orders, we blind ourselves to doing what is right.

All of this stuff has been pondered over the years, but watching the show live onstage for the first time in over a decade — there was a capable mounting of the play at True Brew Theater — conjured fresher images. And part of that is because, intended or unintended, “A Few Good Men” arrived again fresh off a contentious presidential election, and finished up a few weeks into the Trump administration. It’s almost impossible to think about words like strength and weakness and not think about Trump’s motto — “Make America great again” — and wonder at what price, or even in what way, that greatness is supposed to be achieved. In my mind, what Trump is also getting at is strength, which is part of the backbone of the kind of authoritarianism and nationalism Trump is consistently pushing. When forced to criticize Russian President Vladmir Putin, Trump always demurs, preferring instead to compare Putin’s so-called strength as a leader to the perceived weakness of Trump’s more cerebral predecessor, ex-President Barack Obama.

In some ways, I see a lot of Trump in Lt. Col. Jessep, and a little bit of Obama in his underling, Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson. Jessep is hard charging, a win-at-all-costs kind of guy who only respects action and strength, and detests weakness. He’s also a bit caught up in his own vanity, comfortable not just in his moral certitude (as confirmed by his other underling) but also in the knowledge he’s about to move up in the military ranks. The latter, like Obama, is cerebral, reticent, and hesitant to use force.

[Learn more: “Hillary Is Tom Cruise To Trump’s Jack Nicholson In ‘A Few Good Men’ Debate”: Huffington Post]

So what does that make the rest of us, in this play, or in this new world order? Maybe we’re like the two grunts, Dawson and Downey, who did a bad thing, however hesitantly, because they were only following orders, and following a code to its letter or face some version of dishonor. How will we respond as citizens when we’re told to do things in the name of strength, or in the name of the law (our “code”), when it doesn’t seem right to us?

Or maybe we’re more like the callow Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who has at least a smidgeon of rank but who’s also oblivious to the ways of a military that is (as Jessep continually insists) in the business of saving lives? And someone who doesn’t initially appreciate this strict code? And someone who, to better fight this code’s misinterpretations, must work the unused muscles of his own code of ethics.

Living in 2017 and not 1992, I most related to Kaffee’s good friend and defense teammate, Lt. Sam Weinberg (played here by Andrew Larrimer), arguably the moral conscience of the group, and (not to be overlooked) a new father. When guiding a newborn life, a parent appreciates the dangers of this world, and almost immediately develops a pathological wariness of bullies. When asked by Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway why he doesn’t like his clients, Sam retorts, “They beat up on a weakling. The rest is just smoke-filled coffee house crap. They tortured and tormented a weaker kid. They didn’t like him. So, they killed him.” (Galloway’s response about why she likes her clients — in the movie version but not this play’s version — is awesome: “Because they stand on a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.’” It’s as maternal a thought was one could imagine, just applied differently.)

So what, if anything, does “A Few Good Men” tell us about doing the right thing, or even about the moral or ethical value of disobeying orders in the service of a greater good — especially now? While conceding the realities of political theater, we are seeing various forms of disobedience (or “resistance”) in these early, chaotic weeks of the Trump administration. We see it in the firing of then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee) after she instructed the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s immigration-related executive order in court.

[Learn more: Performances overcome script’s flaws in NOLA Project’s “A Few Good Men”: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

We see it in the increasingly popular Twitter feed “Rogue Potus Staff,” which describes itself as “The unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” (This has not yet been confirmed.)

But after watching “A Few Good Men,” I can’t help but wonder where else we might see someone in the government, in the military, even, refusing a direct order they believe to be wrong. I’m reminded of one of the two missile silo operators in another Reagan-era movie, “WarGames,” in which he refuses to follow orders and launch a nuclear strike on Russia because he just can’t believe he’s supposed to do this. (He’s replaced by a computer.) In the real world, how many times can the intelligence community listen to a president demean its work? How many times can the military be asked to execute a possibly poorly planned mission, or see its role on the National Security Council diminished? At what point will good people, with good intentions, be asked to do something they believe in their heart is wrong, and contradict an order? And should they?

President Trump believes he can “Make American great again,” and that he can do it through authoritarian action, and through a strain of nationalism that strikes at the heart of our own rather obvious multicultural and pluralistic identity. And so we might seek wisdom where we can find it. I confess to an affinity for Sorkin’s often-lofty and idealistic prose. In the final scene, Dawson explains to Downey why, even after Jessep’s improbably confession, they’re still found guilty of a lesser charge — “It means we beat the shit out of the wrong guy.”

I wonder if we’ll be coming to that realization, like Dawson and Downey — after the fact, when it’s too late.

Michael Aaron Santos, “A Few Good Men” and how to handle the truth

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“A FEW GOOD MEN”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents Aaron Sorkin’s debut stage work, a military courtroom drama; Jason Kirkpatrick directs A.J. Allegra, Cecile Monteyne, Michael Aaron Santos and others
WHEN: Jan. 26-Feb. 12; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
WHERE: Timothy K. Baker Theatre, Delgado Community College
TICKETS: $30 (general admission), $20 (NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members, $24 (military & veterans: $24, $10 (Delgado students)
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives … You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”

Michael Aaron Santos has the juiciest monologue fueled by the sharpest rebuke of the 2016-2017 New Orleans theater season. Almost by extension, then, he carries the heaviest burden as well, given its history. Like so many stage moments, it’s from a movie that the monologue gets its currency, with Jack Nicholson solidifying its place in cinema history as a part of Rob Reiner’s Academy Award-winning 1992 film adaptation of “A Few Good Men.”

And like so many others, the stage version is a different animal, as The NOLA Project hopes to prove this weekend when it opens the military drama at Delgado Community College. (The premiere is Thursday, Jan. 26.) Santos, a NOLA Project ensemble member, will play Col. Nathan Jessup opposite Artistic Director A.J. Allegra as Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Cecile Monteyne as Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway.

The play follows the defense by a callow Naval attorney of two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine while stationed at Guantanamo Bay, and the suspicion that the trial is part of a cover-up to protect Jessup, a rising star in the military. Kaffee must wrestle with one of the other members of his legal team, Galloway, who, along with the memory of his famous father, serve as his conscience.

There’s no problem with Jessup’s conscience, who sees the late Marine as collateral damage in a continual war to protect his country. The “You can’t handle the truth” serves to explains Jessup’s motivations and actions, which, in the hands of the legendary Nicholson, are as wrongheaded as they are calculated.

Santos is a study in contrasts to Nicholson; Santos is tall and lanky, where Nicholson was short and stocky. In the rehearsal I got to witness earlier in the week, Santos offers his own version of Jessup, foul-mouthed but charming but almost heartfelt in his self-defense. Santos is well aware of the ground he’s covering here.

“When you break it down, you kind of have this image of it from the movie,” Santos said during a break, as captured in the video posted here. “But then you try to learn the monologue and looking at each sentence and each phrase in there, and applying meaning in it. One that struck me is the irony in it — that here is someone who is speaking so vehemently and passionately about something he believes in. And he even calls Kaffee blind.

“But he’s sort of blinded by his own sense of the truth, his own sense of the code that can’t be broken, or that is the right path, so to speak. He has found the truth, the right path in life, and everybody else needs to get in line and follow him, or at least get out of the way. I find a little bit of sympathy towards him … .”

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A.J. Allegra and Cecile Monteyne. (Photo by John Barrois)

Needless to say, Santos will be working slightly against the legacy of one of Nicholson’s career-defining roles — and an Academy Award-nominated one, at that. In interviews, both director Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise spoke of Nicholson’s commitment to the role. Nicholson stuck around the set after he’d shot the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue, happy to repeat the line some 40-50 times while they filmed different reaction shots.

“We spent the entire day just shooting that speech,” Sorkin said on the Jimmy Kimmel show. “There came a time when he didn’t need to be there anymore because we’re doing coverage of other people. The director Rob Reiner said, ‘Jack you don’t have to keep doing this three-page speech.’ He said, ‘Nah, I just love to act,’ and he kept doing it all day and all night.

“There’s nothing like having your first movie experience be with Jack Nicholson.”

Cruise, who spent the first half of his career seeking out roles set opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, marveled at his technique: Playing the scene out, Col. Jessup as a written character is overpowering, so Jack needed to give him that power,” he told GQ magazine’s David Bailey. “But he understands the camera in such a manner that the power had to come from stillness. I could see the motions becoming less and less.”

So much about “A Few Good Men” is about the lines we draw as we try balance our duties to uniform, country and our own, sometimes-elusive sense of right and wrong. The defense’s main argument is one that has been heard over the years, and resonates in everything from the Holocaust to Vietnam War: They were only following orders.

Counter-balancing that is Aaron Sorkin’s time-honored examination smart professional men at work, and how the professional space becomes intertwined with their own certitude. In a New Yorker essay that serves as a more modern critique of Sorkin’s more recent work (and actions outside that work), writer Nathan Heller perfectly encapsulates Sorkin’s views on whether the ends justify the means, and keys in on the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue:

That it has become perhaps the best-known paragraph of his career is unfair … it is often taken as realpolitik fact. Though Jessup is a villain, after all, he acknowledges his ugly amorality. He believes instead in the essential righteousness of what he does, the greater good of his hard, unrelenting work. This willingness to ride over small decencies for a big cause is a regular theme in Sorkin’s writing, from “The West Wing” to “The Social Network” (tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”), and it underscores a basic tenet of the universe he conjures: that messiness of process can bear majestic results.

Heller comes back to Sorkin’s career later in the piece, concluding:

Onscreen, repeatedly, he’s led us through the boiler room of Camelot: here are the young, fast-talking, best-and-brightest types, perennially at one another’s throats, maybe a little Machiavellian, but still good. Their hearts are in the right place—that’s the difference between these people and the bad guys—and they’re looking out for normal folks like you. Sorkin is a creative child of the eighties, which is to say that he came of age at a moment when the possibilities of institutional ascent, governmental and otherwise, were being remade after a period of shame and disappointment. He’s the liberal answer to Tom Clancy, celebrating the hidden mechanics of power not as a source of perfidy but as a site of grace.

Santos’ sympathy for Jessup lies in Sorkin’s consistent theme that men of purported valor believe they’re doing the right thing. Indeed, one of the best lines of the monologue is inspired by the notion that the older, wiser, battle-tested Jessup sees through Kaffee’s inexperience and flippant nature: “[D]eep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline.”

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(Photo by John Barrois)

As someone who’s developed closer personal relationships with those in the military after the movie’s 1992 release (including my own brother and sister-in-law in the process of becoming colonels themselves), I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for that contrast. Jessup’s saying, in part, that his strength must stand in sharper contrast to us weaker civilians — that, after failed misadventures in Korea and Vietnam, we don’t have the stomach for war even when it’s necessary. Not because we’re pacifists, necessarily; because we don’t have the moral courage, but we’re happy to let others shoulder this heavy burden and mock them as they do it.

As Santos notes, “The one line that he repeats throughout the play is saving lives, the phrase of ‘saving lives.’ I think that’s very important to him. But it’s the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, sometimes.”

Perhaps Jessup, as Santos muses, is a relic who, like George “Blood and Guts” Patton before him, had no problem with the notion of cannon fodder.

“I told (director Jason Kirkpatrick) from the very beginning, he reminds me of a Spartan warrior dropped in the middle of an Athenean assembly,” Santos says. “There’s just this culture divide that is going to take years of working through it to get anywhere with it. Two cultures that are going to have generational gaps and slowly hopefully come to some kind of co-exist.”

With that kind of insight, it’s pretty safe to say that, as he approaches Thursday’s curtain call, and a chance to face a major legacy, Michael Aaron Santos is ready to handle the truth.

With “Yiddishe Shtunde,” Elliot Raisen recalls his Top 5 radio days memories

jim-elliot-7889-768x588“YIDDISHE SHTUNDE”
WHAT:
Elliot Raisen’s tribute to the radio shows of the 1930s through the ’50s stars Bunny Love, Matthew Mickal, Maggie Corbett, Margeaux Fanning and Jim Fitzmorris
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Jan. 12-14), 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
TICKETS: $15-$20
MORE INFO: Visit the website

Elliot Raisen has a deep and abiding love of the radio shows from the good old days, and, at age, 88, is happy to share them with New Orleans audiences. So we asked him to take a swing at his top five favorites, and here’s what he came up with as The Theatre at St. Claude presents “Yiddishe Shtunde”:

When I was a teenager, I saw almost every radio show that was being broadcast in the 1940s. Tickets were free. People always asked for more tickets than they needed because it took about a year to receive them by mail. We would go to the theater and ask for extra tickets.

I loved ”Hit Parade,” ”The Bob Hope Show,” ”Fibber McGee and Molly,” ”The Shadow,” ”The Green Hornet,” “Double or Nothing,” ”The $64 Question,” ”Dick Tracy,” ”Molly Goldberg,” ”The Aldrich Family,” ”Against The Storm,” ”The Abbott and Costello Show,” ”Abie’s Irish Rose,” ”Whiles the World Turns,” ”Guiding Lights,” ”Fred Allen’s Show,” ”The Great Gildersleeve,” and ”The Mercury Theater on The Air.”

I loved hearing The Shadow say, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?” Today it would be not only men but also women and transgender people as well.

I loved hearing the announcers talking about the train coming into Grand Central Station with the reminder, “There’s a story in every window”. This is so true.

When we weren’t listening to the radio, we used to take the Third Avenue El to its end and go back. There was no A/C then, so we could open the windows. We did it just to look at the buildings and look into the windows, because it only cost five cents.

But those adventures are another story. Ask me. Here are five memories from radio:

  1. I remember the sponsor for “Double or Nothing” was Feenamints. These are little candies that look just like Chiclets. They act like Ex-Lax. They gave samples to the audience. We used to put them in an Chiclet box and give them to our friends. Actually , at one of my productions I bought 200 Chiclets and gave them out.I still have a few.
  1. We saw Marlene Dietrich on “The Bob Hope Show.” They would read the script and throw each page on the floor after they read it. At the end of the show, we ran to the stage, scooped up the scripts, and ran out … with them chasing us. After I moved from home, my mother threw the scripts out before I could retrieve them. She also threw out a Japanese sword from World War II that my friend in the army gave it to me.
  1. At “The Abbott and Costello Show,”I went to the men’s room and peed next to Bud Abbott! Now I can go into Puccino’s and pee next to him again. They have a picture of Abbott and Costello on the wall there.
  1. I saw Constance Bennett in the hallway one time. I thought she looked anorexic. I realized years later that the film made them look heavier, so they used very thin actresses.
  1. I hated Frank Sinatra, because he got all the “bobby-soxers.” When he was on “The Hit Parade,” all the “soxers” (my wife Sandy was one of them) screamed and tried to attack him. On the other hand, when we tried to pick them up? They ignored us completely. Hated him. But the man could sing.

Rivertown Theaters announces 2017-2018 season filled with mix of musicals and comedies

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Contemporary and classic Broadway musicals, a novel approach to a venerable comedy and a whole lotta Ricky Graham are among the highlights of the 2017-2017 season announced by Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in a fundraiser celebration Saturday (Jan. 7).

Rivertown Theaters will go old school by kicking off the season with “Guys and Dolls” but also ups the ante with the season-closing “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The latter production will be directed by Graham, his third for the company this season, with each of them having a distinct aspect. With “Beauty and the Beast,” it will be the sheer spectacle of the production. With Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” it will be the novelty of having both male and female actors rotating in the lead roles.

Then there’s Robert Harling’s 1987 play, “Steel Magnolias,” set in North Louisiana and the inspiration for the tear-jerker film. Graham also co-wrote, starred and directed (with Jeffery Roberson) in the recent holiday drag spoof, “Steel Poinsettias,” so we should have seen this one coming.

Other productions for the season: “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Ferriday’s own Jerry Lee Lewis. This will be directed by Michael McKelvey.

“For our sixth season, we are widening our range of shows to feature titles and music everyone knows and loves,” said Rivertown co-artistic/managing director Kelly Fouchi said in a press release. “There is so much talent in the New Orleans area, so we are very proud to introduce some new directors to Rivertown Theaters. We have great respect for them and their work and know they will bring the same level of excellence we are committed to.”

Fouchi and co-artisistic director Gary Rucker and presented “People of the Year” recognition awards to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune theater critic Ted Mahne and videographer Bill Blanke at the celebration.

Visit the website for more info.

Herewith is the complete Main Stage schedule, with descriptions provided by Rivertown Theaters in italics.

“Guys & Dolls”
Sept. 8-24, 2017
Directed by David Hoover
Frank Loesser’s celebrated musical comedy about rolling the dice and falling in love under the bright lights of Broadway. “Guys and Dolls” is considered by many to be the perfect musical comedy. This multi Tony & Olivier Award-winning classic is packed with one unforgettable song after another—not to mention loads of romance and charm to spare. With beloved tunes such as “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “The Oldest Established,” there is plenty of toe-tapping to be had. If you are the betting type, you should know that Guys and Dolls is the odds-on favorite to ride to the winners’ circle of your greatest Broadway loves. These gents and dames have an irresistible mix of naughty, nice and classic Broadway pizzazz that will entertain audiences of all ages.

“The Odd Couple” (male & female version)
Nov. 2-19, 2017
Directed by Ricky Graham
Neil Simon’s classic comedy about two mismatched roommates, has enjoyed countless revivals, three TV series and a hit film testifying to the sure-fire hilarity of “The Odd Couple.” Filled with one-liners, slapstick comedy and likeable characters, we’re delivering a one-two punch by presenting the male AND female versions. two different scripts, both written by Neil Simon. Watch the same casts flip roles and switch places as they perform the two different versions throughout the run, proving that gender has nothing to do with being a bad roommate, or a great friend. Audiences can pick and choose their preferred version and are encouraged to come back a second time to experience both shows. We will offer a special “combo package” ticket price for the two-timers! Director Ricky Graham will bring his comedic expertise to the poker game (male) and Trivial Pursuit night (female), assuring a night full of laughter for all.

“Million Dollar Quartet”
Jan. 12-28, 2018
Directed by Michael McKelvey
“Million Dollar Quartet” is the new smash-hit musical inspired by the famed recording session that brought together rock ‘n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time. On Dec. 4, 1956, these four young musicians gathered at Sun Records in Memphis for what would be one of the greatest jam sessions ever. This thrilling musical brings you inside the recording studio with four major talents who came together as a red-hot rock ’n’ roll band for one unforgettable night. Million Dollar Quartet brings that legendary night to life, featuring a score of rock hits including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more. Don’t miss your chance to sing and dance along with some of the greatest of all time!

“Steel Magnolias”
March 2-18, 2018
Directed by Ricky Graham
It’s somewhat of a “Louisiana rite of passage” to experience Steel Magnolias live on stage. If you’ve already had the pleasure, continue the tradition – grab your loved ones and closest friends to share this beloved “comedy that will make you cry!” Six women come together in this hilarious and heartwarming story of life, love and loss in a small North Louisiana parish. At the center of the group is Shelby, newly married and joyfully pregnant, despite the fact that her diabetes could make childbirth life-threatening. Terrified and angry at the possibility of losing her only daughter, M’Lynn looks to her four closest friends for strength and laughter as she battles her deepest fear of death in order to join Shelby in celebrating the miracle of new life. Not just for the ladies, this wonderfully crafted play is a beautiful tribute to friendship, community and the power of the human spirit that will touch the hearts of all theatergoers. Spend an evening celebrating the Louisiana woman …”delicate as a magnolia, but tough as steel.”

“Little Shop of Horrors”
May 4-20, 2018
Directed by Gary Rucker
Feed the need for musical hilarity with this delicious sci-fi smash about a man-eating plant. A deviously delicious Broadway and Hollywood musical hit, Little Shop of Horrors has devoured the hearts of theatre goers for over 30 years. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, and Aladdin) are the creative geniuses behind what has become one of the most popular shows in the world. This charmingly tongue in cheek comedy features the meek floral assistant Seymour Krelborn who stumbles across a new breed of plant he names “Audrey II” — after his coworker crush. This foul-mouthed, R&B-singing carnivore promises unending fame and fortune to the down and out Krelborn as long as he keeps feeding it, BLOOD. Over time, though, Seymour discovers Audrey II’s out of this world origins and intent towards global domination! Throw in a trio of sassy, high belting street-urchins, a nitrous oxide loving dentist and a cast of “Skid Row” characters, and you’ve got an evening of “over the top” musical fun for everyone.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”
July 12-22, 2018
Directed by Ricky Graham

“Be our guest!” The Academy Award-winning film comes to life in this romantic and beloved take on the classic fairytale. Step into the enchanted world of Broadway’s modern classic, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” an international sensation that has played to over 35 million people worldwide in 13 countries. The stage version includes all of the wonderful songs written by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, along with new songs by Mr. Menken and Tim Rice. The original Broadway production ran for over thirteen years and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This “tale as old as time” is filled with spectacular costume, sets and your favorite characters like Belle, Gaston, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Ms. Potts, Chip and more. Keeping with our summer tradition, we look forward to bringing the community together for family theatre at its best.

 

Poor Yorick, new theater company, to present “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” as debut production in 2017

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Poor Yorick theater company, which features familiar faces from the New Orleans theater scene, will launch its first production when it presents “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour in January 2017 at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church Fellowship Hall (583 Broadway St.)

Billed as a “deep exploration of isolation, censorship, communication, manipulation, and the remarkable power of spontaneity,” the play is presented as minimally as one might imagine — devoid of a director and set, and with a different guest performer each night reading a script for the first time. The play will from Jan. 12-27.

“It’s a theatrical event that can only happen once,” said Poor Yorick Artistic Associate Alex Ates said in a press release. “All at once, the play is revolutionary, modest, hilarious, chilling, charming and even dangerous. The artists of Poor Yorick are exhilarated to bring this one-of-a-kind production to New Orleans for its regional premiere.”

Ates is also known as a key figure in The NOLA Project and is joined by James Bartelle, associate artistic director of that troupe. The other two artistic associates are Isabel Balée (creative writing instructor at Tulane University) and Daniel Pruksarnukul (instructor at NOCCA). (Bartelle was most recently seen in The NOLA Project’s “4000 Miles.”)

The company, Bartelle said in the release, “aims to develop and produce provocative, engaging, and intimate work with a focus on writers from marginalized communities … at a time when those marginalized voices may need the loudest amplification.”

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” premiered in 2011 at Toronto’s Volcano Theatre in collaboration with Aura Nova Berlin. It has since enjoyed international stagings, including an extended run off-Broadway.

The play deals with such weighty issues as power, obedience and manipulation. Soleimanpour was a conscientious objector in his native Iran, refusing to participate in the country’s mandatory military service program.

Scheduled performers include Kathy Randels, Lisa D’Amour, Michael “Quess?” Moore, Devyn Tyler, Claire Moncrief and Bartelle.

Visit the Facebook page for more details.

Jon Greene’s Top 5 (or so) influences for Le Petit’s “The Musicians of Bremen: A Holiday Panto”

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“THE MUSICIANS OF BREMEN: A HOLIDAY PANTO”
WHAT:
Panto musical comedy written and directed by Jon Greene and starring Bob Edes Jr., AshleyRose Bailey, William Bowling, Natalie Boyd, Keith Claverie, Clint Johnson, Garrett Prejean, Michael Spara
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, St. Peter St.
WHEN: Dec. 14-21
TICKETS: $15/$35
MORE INFO: Visit the website

As Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré launches its holiday show, “Musicians of Bremen: A Holiday Panto,” we thought it would be a good idea to have writer-director Jon Greene offer a look into his creative process for the show. After all, Greene already had presented a “Sleeping Beauty” panto version, so this was familiar territory for him.

This particular production, which opens Friday (Dec. 16), is of course based on the popular Brothers Grimm story but serves as a wacky sequel to the original, with animal musicians working to save their nightclub from a mean neighbor. In true panto style, there will be plenty of audience participation, slapstick, and a whole lot of crazy songs.

Herewith, Greene’s own Top 5:

“YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS”: “THE CLOCK” — “In the earliest years of television there, was a level of comedic freedom that would never be the same. ‘Your Show of Shows’ featured a lineup of soon-to-be comedy icons, including Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner (still with us!). With a writing staff that included the not-yet-famous Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gilbert, and Neil Simon, ‘Your show of Shows’ was critical in helping the world of Vaudeville transition so seamlessly to the world of TV. ‘The Clock’ is a personal favorite. A simple set-up that combines physical skill at dance levels and a wonderful sense of timing. This routine influenced not one but many of the physical gags in our panto.

GROUCHO MARX, “HELLO I MUST BE GOING” FROM “ANIMAL CRACKERS” — “The logical illogic says it all. I have never laughed harder as a child than at the idea of saying one thing but meaning and doing the complete opposite. Stick around and you’ll get a special singing treat in our panto.”

HEDLEY LAMARR AND TAGGERT FROM “BLAZING SADDLES” — “No one helped American audiences bridge the comedic gap more than Mel Brooks. He has always understood the universal nature of archetypes, especially when he writes and directs his villains. Equal parts menacing and foolish, the brilliant Harvey Korman’s Hedley Lammar and his daft sidekick (played by Slim Pickens) are classic panto stock characters and share a lot of similar behaviors with our Baddie and #2.”

THE CHASES FROM “BENNY HILL” AND “WHAT’S UP, DOC?” — “If you ever saw even one Wile E. Coyote cartoon, then you’ve seen a chase. But before there were cartoons, ‘The Chase’ was already a part of comedic history. Whole movies have been written around a chase — ‘The Great Race,’ ‘Cannonball Run’ and ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ come to mind. But the best chases I know were how Benny Hill ended his show every week. And this American version from the 1960s classic ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ isn’t so bad, either. Either way, you will definitely find an outsized chase in our panto.’

THE OPENING SEQUENCE OF “BANANAS” — “Woody Allen’s slapstick comedy ‘Bananas’ is about a small Latin American country going through a military coup. But Allen does more than just make merriment; he always adds a level of intelligence to even his silliest work. Take the opening of ‘Bananas,’ in which the assassination of a country’s dictator is broadcast as if on ‘The Wide World of Sports.’ Pointed, poignant and absolutely absurd. Moments like this have always pushed me to do the same. Comedy — and especially our panto — doesn’t shy away from issues or big ideas; it skews them better than anyone.

BONUS: “VITAMEATAVEGAMIN” — “Nobody does comedy better than Lucille ball. And there are too many amazing and hilarious routines to mention but when it comes to homophones, mixed up words, and word play in general this routine takes the cake. Our panto takes its word play very seriously, and without Ms. Ball pointing us in the right direction, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Honorable mentions: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“The Cheese Shop/Ministry of Silly Walks”), “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” (“The Duel”),“The Carol Burnett Show” (“The Dentist”)

Trans, Planted: Brooklyn Shaffer and AJay Strong look back at a life in transition and toward an uncertain future

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“STEEL POINSETTIAS”
WHAT:
Holiday spook from the creative team behind “Ditzyland,” featuring Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman, Jefferson Turner, Sean Patterson, Brooklyn Shaffer and Michael P. Sullivan
WHEN:
Dec. 2-18
WHERE:
Rivertown Theaters of the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
TICKETS:
$30
INFO:
Rivertown Theaters website

“POPSMART NOLA”
WHAT: This week’s show will focus on transgender issues, with guests Brooklyn Shaffer (“Steel Poinsettias”), AJay Strong (Bella Blue Entertainment), Wesley Ware (BreakOUT!), and journalist Katy Reckdahl
WHEN: Sat. (Dec. 3), 3 p.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE: WHIV (102.3 FM); www.whivfm.org

Sitting in between Brooklyn Shaffer and AJay Strong in the back of the CC’s Coffee House in the French Quarter this week was watching, and listening to, one of most bizarre and fascinating mirror images one might imagine. There sat AJay Strong, the co-producer of Bella Blue Entertainment who, after transitioning from a femaile during relocation to New Orleans a couple years ago, discussing how his transgender journey has finally helped him feel comfortable in his own skin.

Across the back table from him sat his friend, Brooklyn Shaffer, the actor who, just a few years ago as Brian Peterson, was one of New Orleans funniest and campiest performers — often in drag. And, after having transitioned to female at almost exactly the same time, Shaffer could only nod her head in agreement with Strong and expressed her own improving sense of self. She feels so comfortable, in fact, that Shaffer returns to the stage with her current co-conspirators that include Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman and Sean Patterson in the holiday spoof “Steel Poinsettias.” It’s got the same kind of campy fire that Shaffer used to produce in Running With Scissors’ annual “Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas” as well as the Graham-Merman concoction, “Ditzyland.”

When one was speaking, really, the other would nod their head. For even though these are two people who have transitioned from exact opposite gender to the other — conjuring the image of two genders crossing in the night — they both appear to have landed in the same type of contentment one gets when they better recognize themselves in the mirror.

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“The Lion in Winter” queen Leslie Castay’s Top 5 royals in popular culture

15250790_10154736025909561_5339399058981059792_o “THE LION IN WINTER”
WHAT: See ’Em On Stage presents the Tony Award-winning drama. Christopher Bentivegna directs Leslie Castay, Kali Russell, Kevin Murphy, Alec Barnes, Alex Martinez Wallace, Eli Timm and Jake Wynne-Wilson
WHEN: Dec. 1-18
WHERE: Sanctuary Cultural Arts Center, 2525 Burgundy St.
TICKETS: $25-$30
INFO: seosaproductioncompany.com

There’s something very special, and very royal, about See ’Em On Stage’s production of “The Lion in Winter,” a witty tale of palace intrigue around King Henry II; his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and some nasty song with a mistress and French King thrown in for good measure. The Tony Award-winning play (written by the great James Goldman) might be better known for the Academy Award-winning film adaptation that starred a late-career Katharine Hepburn opposite young British stars Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins. It’s also noted as an inspiration for Fox’s delicious TV drama on the hip-hop world, “Empire.”

Intrigued by the staging of palace intrigue, we asked star Leslie Castay, a fittingly royal choice for Eleanor, to serve up her five favorite royals of popular culture:

AUDREY HEPBURN IN “ROMAN HOLIDAY” — The 1953 movie starring a luminous young Audrey Hepburn as a princess on the loose in Rome, accompanied by the handsome Gregory Peck and the charming Eddie Albert. Pure escapist rom-com heaven.

“SNOW WHITE”’S QUEEN — “Snow White” was the first movie I ever saw as a child and I still get chills when her beautifully evil face fills the screen.

LADY DIANA’S WEDDING DAY — Also known as “the original Kate Middleton.” Her wedding dress was the inspiration for my prom dress, along with the rest of New Orleans high school girls. (Mine was dusty rose taffeta, by the way.)

SIAN PHILLIPS AS LIVIA IN “I, CLAUDIUS” — I got hooked on the miniseries during a re-broadcast on PBS in the 1990s while I was doing summer stock in Pennsylvania. Sian Philllips’ played Livia, wife of the first Emperor of Rome Augustus, trying to elevate her son Tiberius to the throne by any means possible was deliciously evil and elegantly royal at the same time — such fun.

KATHARINE HEPBURN IN “THE LION IN WINTER” — I was in high school when my drama teacher showed us the movie one day in class. Hepburn and O’Toole’s chemistry is fantastic, and I delighted in hearing such wickedly contemporary dialogue in period costume and surroundings. Classic lines include “I’d hang you from the nipples, but you’d shock the children.” ’Nuf said.