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.

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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.

“Mary’s Little Monster” gets to the heart of creation at Mudlark Public Theatre

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INFO:
spit&vigor presents “Mary’s Little Monster
WHAT: Local premiere of Thomas Kee’s play about the birth of the “Frankenstein” story. Kaitlan Emery and Sara Fellini direct Adam Belvo, Tyler Downey, Linnea Larsdotter, Ian Petersen and Fellini.
WHEN: Thurs.-Fri. (Nov. 17-18), 8 p.m.; Sat. (Nov. 19), 7 p.m. & 9:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mudlark Public Theatre, 1200 Port St.
TICKETS: Visit the ticket page or email spitnvigor@gmail.com

The company spit&vigor is back with the New Orleans premiere of Thomas Kee’s play about the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s legendary work “Frankenstein. Co-director and co-star Sara Fellini of spit&vigor took a moment to answer some questions about the work.

What inspired “Mary’s Little Monster” and how did the three of you get together for the project?
“Mary’s Little Monster” is loosely based on the “Year Without Summer,” where Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” whilst cooped up with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Polidori, and Claire Claremont at Byron’s estate on Lake Geneva. It chronicles the artist’s process, the genesis of an idea and the labor it takes to give birth to a work of genius. My partner and I saw a production of “Mary’s” performed in New York, and we loved the story so much we wanted to produce a version with our own company’s take on the material, one that is emotionally raw and volatile, but also explores the subtle and nuanced elements of human interaction that these great writers would have been keenly aware of and which produced such immortal work.

This is, after all, a story about artistic inspiration and creation. What is it about the claustrophobic nature of being sequestered that’s so appealing when you think of “birthing” a story so legendary as “Frankenstein”?
I think that limited surroundings and people can become grating, and that kind of irritant is not unlike a grit of sand in an oyster — given time to agitate and mull, one can produce pearls as you add layer after layer and coat after coat of enamel to a core idea at the heart of a story. As an added experiment, we drove the entire cast down in a van, and that closeness and the lack of time alone has informed and infused our production and performances with an urgency to create that is unique.

How does someone “perform” as a crystal ball?
I myself read Tarot cards, and as any good soothsayer will tell you, a great deal of the reading of a crystal ball (or what’s “in the cards”) is reading the person across from you. I think that being open to what’s in front of you, creating nothing and denying nothing, but being present and allowing the thoughts and prognostications to come as you see them, I think that is a vital element of being a performer — you can perform things that people didn’t even know was in them, just by suggesting the thought.

Why do you think “Frankenstein” in particular and the creation motif in general continues to resonate with audiences? Of all the monster stories we’ve heard over the past century or so, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” stand so resiliently.
Mary has a wonderful line in this play about how the true “horror is within.” I think this play resonates so strongly because we are all afraid, in some part, of what lies within us — our ability to create, to destroy, and what we might wreak on this planet. I think Mary Shelley wrote an incredible story precisely because she took elements of the world around her and then with a small leap showed the true horror of human creation — that we are afraid of what we are inside, and that if we ourselves are able to create that spark that only the old gods had had up until that point, what terrors might we bring into existence.

Why did you choose Mudlark, and why is it is vital to have this theater space and back up and running in the community?
My partner, Adam, has performed at the Mudlark many times in the past. As part of the New Orleans Fringe, he brought “My Aim Is True” and “Butcher Holler Here We Come” to the space, and when we were thinking of places to bring the show, it was number one on his list for ambience, for the space itself, and for the generosity and warmness of heart and soul that Pandora (Gastelum) and her community has. The Mudlark is a vital space because it brings people together from all walks, and produces top-notch puppetry and theater in the Bywater.

“1776,” a bit dated yet very timely, gets a patriotic salute at Rivertown Theaters

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INFO:
“1776”
WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students
MORE INFO: www.rivertowntheaters.com

There is something grandiose about Rivertown Theaters’ staging of “1776” that goes beyond the obviously calculated timing of its presentation over the course of this presidential election finale. The musical itself, which debuted in 1969, was an ambitious affair, trying to meld politics, policy and poetry long before Aaron Sorkin broke all the rules with TV’s masterful “The West Wing.”

Much as John Adams tries to help herd the cats that were the nation’s first Congress, director A.J. Allegra must herd a cast of characters that must feel distinct, yes, but also, well, entertaining. But because, nearly 50 years since the musical’s premiere, politics as entertainment has taken on a whole new meaning, anyway, so “1776” becomes a whole other challenge.

And with a few curious exceptions — not necessarily the fault of the production — the musical is a smashing success that should be seen before the glow of this fraught election subsides. Intricate, complicated, uncomfortable but filled with pride, music and respect, “1776” restores your faith in musical theater as something more than just a song-and-dance piece of fluff. It’s a testament to this collaboration, ostensibly, of two of the most talented figures in the greater New Orleans theater scene.

Allegra, as artistic director of The NOLA Project, here is in cahoots with Rivertown’s Gary Rucker, the co-artistic director and, in this case, the star of the show in playing John Adams. I have no idea what kind of collaborative spirit was sparked between the two in the production; maybe Rucker just stuck to the production and acting side and left the directing to Allegra. But the final product does indeed feel like a powerhouse team effort.

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5 questions for Nick Shackleford as Tennessee Williams Theatre Company presents “Dangerous Birds (If Agitated)”

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INFO:
“DANGEROUS BIRDS (IF AGITATED)”
WHAT: Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans presents a trio of short comedies from Williams
WHEN: Nov. 4-20, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Phillips Bar & Restaurants, 733 Cherokee St.
TICKETS: $25 general, $20 students/seniors
MORE INFO: Visit http://www.twtheatrenola.com/

As the company whose oxygen comes completely from the tank of one playwright, the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans happy to plumb the depths of the legendary writer in whichever way possible, packaged in whatever way works best.

That’s why we have “Dangerous Birds (If Agitated),” a triple-bill of three short plays by Williams as presented by the company starting Friday (Nov. 4) at, of all places, the patio of Phillips Bar. That package reportedly comes in the form of an “ornithology lesson” as taught one of New Orleans’ edgiest burlesque performers, Bunny Love — the mistress of ceremonies. (While known for her burlesque work, Love has explored theatrical acting with this troupe and as a lead in Jim Fitzmorris’ compelling “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” You can read my review here.)

The packaged trio includes late-career works by Williams: “The Gnadiges Fraulein,” “Sunburst” and “The Pronoun ‘I’” And so we asked co-artistic director Nick Shackleford to walk us through the show, whose cast also features Mary Pauley, Morrey McElrey, Chris Silva, Abby Botnick, Herbert Benjamin and Pearson Kunz.

As these are generally late-career works but ones that still possess a sense of humor, can you give me a sense of how you think Tennessee Williams’ sense of humor might have evolved from his earlier works to these?
I think Williams always had a dark sense of humor, but as a younger playwright, he practiced an even, if not timid, hand in exercising this aspect of comedy. He had a concern with how he would be commercially and critically regarded. As he matured as a playwright, I think he became less preoccupied with what would be easily digestible, and elected to go full-tilt into the land of black comedy, burlesque and even cartoonish expression. He’d still include tender moments, and some of his later plays like “Vieux Carré, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel” and “Something Cloudy, Something Clear” would be more emotionally delicate, but he’d intersperse those types of plays with the bawdy, outrageous ones like you’ll see in “Dangerous Birds.”

What inspired you to work with Bunny Love on this and to give the show a dash of burlesque? She’s been with the troupe previously, but what kind of added dimension does this bring to the show?
We loved working with Bunny so much in “The Rose Tattoo” that we had to have her back again. We’d been waiting for opportunities to involve her since our very first auditions in 2015. The burlesque element just made perfect sense because Williams described the play as slapstick, and akin to burlesque himself. We took this element and ran with it, and Bunny was happy to lead the charge. We have strung the evening’s plays together in an ornithology lesson led by her character, Professor Birdine Hazzard. She’s naughty and hysterical, and at the same time it pulls these three unique plays together in a way only Bunny can. Continue reading

A.J. Allegra’s Top 5 political-themed musicals as Rivertown Theaters mounts its “1776” campaign

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INFO:
“1776”
WHAT: Rivertown Theaters presents the Tony Award-winning musical about the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. A.J. Allegra directs Sherman Edwards music (book by Peter Stone); starring Gary Rucker, David Hoover, Louis Dudoussat and others.
WHEN: Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m.; Nov. 6, 2 p.m.; through Nov. 20
WHERE: Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St.
TICKETS: $44 adults, $41.90 seniors, $39.80 students
MORE INFO: www.rivertowntheaters.com

When Rivertown Theaters’ Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi announced they would include “1776” as part of their 2016-17 season, they cleverly timed it to coincide with the Nov. 8 presidential election. Well played! But did they really know what they were getting into, given how crazy this election season has become? Some are lamenting the death of a republic in this toxic campaign, so now more than ever it’s crucial to witness the birth of a nation in this Tony Award-winning 1969 musical from Sherman Edwards (working from Peter Stone’s book). A.J. Allegra, artistic director of The NOLA Project, slides over to direct a cast that includes Rucker in the lead role of co-founding father John Adams, with David Hoover as Benjamin Franklin, Nori Pritchard as Abigail Adams and Louis Dudoussat as John Hancock.

Allegra, who I tapped to offer insights into a NOLA Project production a couple years ago, offered up his favorite musicals with a political theme — including this production, which opens this week at Rivertown Theaters in Kenner.

In anticipation of the opening of “1776” and our impending election, here are my picks for my favorite political musicals. I use the term “political” a little loosely, but all of them are very political at heart. Also, it is important to note that these are simply my favorite and not an objective “best of” list in any way.

I think comparing most pieces of theater is comparing apples and oranges. But all of these shows have moved or affected me in some way. It should not be surprising that many are shows I’ve worked on. You tend to develop an affinity for those ones.

“ASSASSINS” — This show is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of art ever created for musical theater. At a very surface-level interpretation, it can be viewed as a glorification of the men and women who have attempted to take the lives of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, F.D.R., Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ronald Geagan, and John F. Kennedy. But in reality, this pastiche and bizarre Stephen Sondheim musical review set in a vague carnival purgatory setting is an acidic indictment of the American culture of “Me” that drives individuals with sociopathic tendencies towards seeking the greatest form of infamy. I love the darkness of the piece and the intentional discomfort that it aims squarely at the audience, forcing us all as viewers to come to terms with our own jaded views of the American Dreams that were promised to us but did not come true. This was the first professional musical I ever directed back in November of 2008 on the eve of our election of Barack Obama. While that was certainly a historic and (for me, wonderful) time, I honestly feel that the musical might be even more appropriate during this year’s absolutely toxic and vile election campaign, where one candidate’s large and vocal support base is made up in very large part of furious and (sometimes) violent Americans who feel that the American Dream promised to them has been deceitfully stolen from them by others. And yet, sometimes I think it is best to combat reality with art rather than reflect it. Perhaps a production of Assassins this year might just be too much to handle. I’m glad we are opening “1776,” in that case!

“CABARET” — Like “Assassins,” “Cabaret” is a dark concept musical (the first “concept musical,” in fact!) with many, many layers that really was revolutionary in its 1969 inception. If Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the American musical with “Oklahoma!” in 1943 by creating the first fully integrated story using music, dialogue and dance, then Kander and Ebb and director Harold Prince re-revolutionized the form with “Cabaret” by blowing that straightforward storytelling concept to smithereens. “Cabaret” is a show within a show within the head of a central character who is far more passive bystander than objective-oriented story hero. The entire thing is controlled and run by a seedy and somewhat creepy, nameless emcee. And the central female hero of the story is a cabaret performer in 1930s Berlin whose final dilemma revolves around whether she receives an abortion. So I think you could say things have come a damn long way since Nellie Forbush sang about being corny in Kansas! Now, you might be curious as to what makes “Cabaret” a political musical, but that is because the piece is so multi-layered. The most interesting layer of “Cabaret,” for me, has always been about the political circumstances of 1930s Berlin (a highly liberal city) that allowed for the unprecedented rise of Naziism. The city is intentionally presented as a very familiar depiction of an urban liberal bastion where, despite the reigning “It could never happen here” mentality, Naziism eventually takes a sudden and unprecedented hold. The musical ends with the knowledge that those same carefree figures enjoying the good life in the first scene are very likely the first ones to be sent to die in the concentration camps of Hitler. It’s chilling. Perhaps another apropos musical to our 2016 election, but best left untouched for now… As a fun personal note, I have never worked on any production of “Cabaret,” though I have seen several. Every year, when The NOLA Project sends out our year-end audience surveys, we ask for suggestions on future shows people would like to see. Year after year, one patron sends back the request that we produce “Cabaret” with myself as the Emcee. The egotist in me always thinks “What a fine idea!” but the more prudent artistic director always wins out.

“BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON” — Now here is a controversial musical. In fact, I would venture to guess that this musical may never be performed professionally again, despite premiering at the Public Theatre (home of “Hamilton” and “Fun Home,” recently) less than a decade ago. The difficulty and controversy, of course, revolves around the supremely controversial titular character, President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was America’s first populist president, rising to power on the supportive backs of several million Americans who were tired of the elite Washington class ruling everything in government. After losing his first presidential bid to John Quincy Adams (son of the central character in “1776”), Jackson claimed that the election was essentially rigged. (Dear God, the terrifying parallels!) He regrouped, re-energized his base, and defeated Adams four years later in a landslide. And then things got tricky, because, as Jackson tried to please all parties, he ended up directionless, clueless and totally lost. And so the musical represents him as such a man: a childish Emo rockstar. But what makes the musical controversial and essentially unperformable today is in its depiction of indigenous people. Jackson famously maligned several thousand Native Americans, forcing them off of their lands and onto the infamous Trail of Tears. And while the musical certainly depicts these acts and never puts Jackson in anything close to an admirable light for doing so, the Native Americans in the show were played by non-Native performers, both off and on Broadway. In my own local production of the show that I directed during the re-election of Obama in October/November 2012, I admit to practicing the same. But the American Theatre has progressed in many ways since just four years ago, and agency in storytelling has become a major and necessary sticking point for indigenous people. And they have deemed the portrayals in this musical as mostly offensive. So we owe it to them to follow suit. Look, by no means am I ashamed of my work on this show, nor does its present un-performability make me appreciate it any less. I still consider it to be a scathing and hilarious satire of a fascinatingly complicated American figure dealing with a lot of his own neurotic demons. It also features some of the best pop-rock music in the last decade on Broadway. By no means does it glorify Andrew Jackson or his actions. In fact it plainly mocks them and holds presidential incompetence sternly to the fire. But by denying those Americans who have already been denied so much the right to speak for themselves and tell their own version of the story, it oversteps its boundaries. So do yourself a favor and give the cast recording a listen. Because I doubt you’ll see it again.

“PACIFIC OVERTURES” — This is one of those musicals that theater fans mostly know of, but don’t actually know. And I was completely in this camp myself until Jefferson Turner, my good friend and former NOCCA colleague suggested that I direct it with the students at NOCCA in 2013. I was terrified. Wasn’t this Stephen Sondheim’s Kabuki-inspired musical about something in Japan that flopped in the 1970s? Well, the answer is yes! But that is far too ignorant and simplistic of a definition. So I dove in and discovered it to be a rich and complicated examination of the forceful opening of Japan to Western trade by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 as told from the Japanese perspective. The music and book, by Sondheim and James Weidman (the same pair behind Assassins) are a detailed depiction of Japanese society as they slowly become Westernized following the visit by Perry and his ships. It has a “Rashomon”-like effect, telling the same story from multiple points of view, leaving the final say so with the audience. Would Japan have been better off left alone, or did America do a great thing by bringing the insular country into great commerce with the rest of the industrializing world? These are questions that we do not ask enough in America, because, to us, if we did it, then of course it was right and good. This musical does not beg to differ, but rather just begs the question. I would encourage everyone reading this to discover it for yourself, as I did three years ago. It is greatly rewarding and intellectually stimulation for those of you that do.

“1776” — Of course. “1776” is, to my mind, the finest book of a musical ever written. Now for those with less of a theater-nerd vocabulary, the “book” of a musical is another way to say the scripted dialogue of the show. In this masterfully crafted musical, there are a mere 11 songs. Today, most two-act musicals have more than 11 songs in each act alone. And yet, the musical is not short of music for any reason. The dialogue, written by Peter Stone, is so sharply crafted, that the show would quite honestly work as a taught and thrilling play on its own terms. The music only adds to the sheer American delight of it all. I discovered the power of this show in a high school U.S. history class in 2001 when my teacher popped the “1776” VHS in for a very skeptical class of jaded and eye-rolling teenagers. Certain that I would be the sole theater-loving student in the room enjoying myself, I remembered watching as every singly student grew uniformly transfixed to the happenings on screen. A singing and dancing Benjamin Franklin was suddenly not a subject for mockery, but a fully formed, randy and hysterical old man who the kids all uniformly loved. The truest mark of its success was the second day of class when we found ourselves half-way through the film and one boy raised his hand to ask “Are we gonna finish the “1776” musical today? I want to know how it ends.” There is the success of this show — you actually sit there in fearful anticipation of how it will end.

Lastly, I would be remiss to leave out mention of the phenomenon that is “Hamilton.” But in all honesty, I do not yet have the knowledge or expertise of any kind to write anything worthwhile about it. I very badly want to experience it in person for myself, and will do so this May in Chicago! Lord, those tickets were hard to get! If the mountains of recommendations I have heard are correct, if all of my good friends are to be trusted, and if the truckload of phenomenal press and awards heaped upon it thus far are to be deemed worthy, then it goes without saying that the political musical list has now been topped by this. And for that I am very excited. To be living in a time when a piece of new theater has such a profound affect on the American public is something to be cherished for an artist like me. So by the time election 2020 rolls around, I hope to have a lot more to say about “Hamilton.”

Until May, I wait in hopeful anticipation.

With “4000 Miles,” characters search for destinations uknown

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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: Wed.-Sat. (Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Oct. 30), 2 p.m. (Wed., Oct. 26 & Nov. 2: “Bike to Show Night” with discounted tickets for cyclists)
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20-$35 (vary per night)
MORE INFO: Visit event page

Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” might be one of the most counter-intuitive works to be found on New Orleans stages this fall. It’s nominally a two-person comedy-drama, which doesn’t necessarily play to The NOLA Project’s strength as a deep well of ensemble performers. As a family tale, it lacks the narrative crackle of such intimate works as, say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or the dreamlike quality of “The Glass Menagerie.” Even as a comedy-drama, you’re never really sure at which genre it particularly excels.

But in immediately recognizing what “4000 Miles” isn’t, there’s a danger of not recognizing what it is — a sublime meditation on honest and authentic human (and familial) emotions of honesty that features actors hitting all the right subtle notes in this pairing one of the city’s brightest young stars with one of its legends.

Even in its tight, 90-minute, one-act structure, and under the direction of Beau Bratcher, Herzog’s play creates a great deal of space for the two principal characters (and even two supporting characters) to present themselves as multi-dimensional and more than a little familiar. At its heart, literally and figuratively, are James Bartelle as Leo, showing up on the doorstep of his grandmother (Carol Sutton) showing more than the hard miles of his cross-county bicycle trek. Though familiar with each other’s work, Bartelle and Sutton are working together for the first time, and their chemistry together is immediate and astonishingly tender.

They’re both a little at odds with their future. Leo, having lost his best friend in an accident midway across the country, is directionless in life, much to the concern of his (unseen mother). Not that he was exactly driven before their trip, but the death has underscored an existential angst in Leo that should hit close to home for any millennials in the audience. By contrast, Vera is experiencing all of the losses of a nonagenarian, from teeth and words and hearing to her shrinking circle of friends, and she’s not taking it well. (Every tenth word, in her now-limited vocabulary, seems to be “whatchamacallit.” The worst part about growing old, she protests, is not being able to find the words.)

Their mutual concern for each other grows so naturally that, by the end of the play, you forget that they weren’t really that close at the beginning. There were signs, though; Vera’s a former ’60s radical, and it’s clear that Leo’s somewhere in that anti-establishment mix. He’s picked up her copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” and is digging it. While he initially is not prepared for her blunt candor, chafing when she calls his ex-girlfriend chubby, Leo grows to appreciate her honesty.

Likewise, Vera does not quite Leo or much of the information- and technology-obsessed generation, or its passion for newfound recreation. When he asks for money to go climb rocks in a gym, she gasps,“More than $50? To climb a wall?” But even Leo is not too crazy about technology. They both have computers, but Vera rarely uses hers. “I don’t like ’em,” says, who doesn’t even own a cellphone,“but I can use ’em.”

[Read more: James Bartelle comes a little closer to home]

Their differences might be underscored by the fact that they’re not even blood relatives. Adoption, with its vague whispers of distance, runs throughout “4000 Miles,” which might not sit too well with us folks who are keyed into the concept. But perhaps Herzog, in her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-nominated script, uses the device as a way to encourage her characters — as often unseen as seen — to encourage people to forge their connections with one another a little freer of the pressure of biological kinship.

Connections in “4000 Miles” are always messy, sometimes funny but always real, and this is where the supporting characters show their greatest value. There’s Bec, who, as played by Annie Cleveland, who as Leo’s ex-girlfriend feels fretful and concerned about him — and still very much in love with him — and not quite sure how to relate to Vera’s brutally frank observations. And there’s also Amanda, who, as hilariously played by Anna Toujas, represents possibly the world’s easiest one-night-stand opportunity for Leo. Even the admittedly “slutty” and drunken Amada senses red flags. When he gets her name wrong, she jokes that he’s only set himself back about 20 minutes, but ultimately her antenna warns her off from even a casual hook-up with a guy who clearly needs to work his personal shit out.

Vera’s world is surprisingly complicated for a woman of a certain age we think we know. We only know she’s been married twice, but not the why and how of it until later. And her problematic relationship with her next-door neighbor (another older woman) — carried on strictly by phone — only complicates her lonely existence in her Greenwich Village apartment.

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James Bartelle and Annie Cleveland. (Photo by John Barrois)

Like a slow-drip faucet, facts, truths and anecdotes plop into the story, and we learn more about Vera’s romantic life and Leo’s tragic loss (often with the help of a shared marijuana joint). We learn, awkwardly, of Leo’s problems connecting with the people in his life, including his relationship with his tone-deaf mother and one with this adopted sister — a relationship that borders on the incestuous.

As mentioned previously, Bratcher handles this understated story and his actors with equal subtlety; at no point do we get much in the form of fireworks, and this is a good thing. These are characters and themes Bratcher wants us to find and understand and sympathize with on steady emotional terms, and if at times “4000 Miles” errs on the side of narrative caution, it’s forgivable.

The same can be said for John Grimsley’s set design — a spare apartment with a flood of books but light on art hanging on the walls — and Joan Long’s lighting. (Only the changing shade of light streaming from an outside window and against the building’s wall tells us what time of day it is.)

[Learn more: Read Ted Mahne’s review on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

“4000 Miles” might not be the grandiose relationship story that gets some theater audiences all worked up — but by the end of the journey, thanks especially to this gifted cast — you’ll realize by the drive home just how far you’ve come.

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.

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