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 →
Bunny Love as Triple Lexxx. (Photo by Edward Simon)
WHAT: “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” written and directed by Jim Fitzmorris and starring Bunny Love, Justin Welborn and Kimberly Kaye WHEN: Thursday-Saturday (June 30-July 2), 8 p.m.; Sunday (July 3), 6 p.m. WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave. TICKETS: $25 MORE INFO:Click here
To say that Bunny Love is a woman under the influence in Jim Fitzmorris’ “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” which concludes its two-weekend run starting Thursday (July 30) at The Theatre at St. Claude, would be a massive understatement. Like the playwright himself, Bunny Love brings myriad influences to a story whose title is lifted from director John Cassavetes’ arthouse noir classic. (I noted as much in my review of the playI noted as much in my review of the play.) To get a sense of this, and how Bunny Love tapped into her own vast background as a burlesque performer, I asked her to share those influences.
“Dracula” was the first play I had done in a while and my introduction to the New Orleans theater scene after moving back here from New York City in 2014. We performed the last two weekends in October — perfect for Halloween. It was a short, intense rehearsal, as I have now learned, the only kind of (Jim) Fitmorris rehearsal. I was thrilled to be doing a play and even more thrilled to be working with Matthew Mickal, Joel Derby, Kimberly Kaye, Trey Lagan and Jim Fitzmorris. I fell madly in love with everyone involved! I’d been hit by a car on Oct. 8 while riding my bike in Audubon Park and broke my left wrist in three pieces. I could have felt sorry for myself and gotten depressed, but this show, with these people, saved me from that. At the end of our run, Jim had a light-bulb moment and realized Kimberly Kaye and I were the two actresses he’d been seeking for his play “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” a play he’d written in early 2013. He’d always had his college buddy, L.A.-based actor Justin Welborn, in mind to play Irish, but couldn’t find the right fit for the two female characters: Triple Lexxx, the burlesque star about to open her own club, and Bookie, her wise-rackin’ “Fake-O tough guy” girlfriend. When I took Jim’s script home and read it, it was like he’d written it for me! I was a little freaked out. Justin and Kimberly (who was living in New York City, but recently moved here) were able to come to New Orleans in November for a reading. Sparks were flying from that first table work. We were titillated with excitement. We decided we would do the show in June. Justin arrived on the night of the 13th, and we went to work. Long, intense, eight-to-nine-hour rehearsals with people I love and admire is pure joy for me! We opened the show on the 23rd. It all came together with “hard work and hustle,” and a lot of theatrical magic. The show is a blast — three damaged human beings looking for redemption, spitfire dialogue, and a twisting plot that will literally keep you on the edge of your seat. I did some very specific work to prepare for this play. Here are some of my inspirations.
John Cassavetes — Filmmaker, actor and just my type of man, intensely sexy and infinitely cool. Like my character, Triple Lexxx, I “love all Cassavetes.” After our initial table work, I had a Cassavetes move marathon. I spent days watching everything: “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” “Shadows,” “Faces,” “Husbands,” “Minnie and Moskowitz, “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Gloria,” and “Big Trouble.” I think I missed one or two. Falling in love again with the man and his movies, his “gritty American realism,” and how it related to “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” Cassavetes presented difficult, flawed characters in disturbing situations delivering clever dialogue one might hear at a cocktail party gone wrong. It was helpful to steep myself in that world. There is a particular feeling in all of Cassavetes’ work, and that feeling is there in “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” Irish, Lexxx and Bookie, all with their faults and dark secrets in a frightfully tense situation with crisp dialogue that sometimes erupts into shouting. I never met Cassavetes, but I did have a “next best thing” moment when I met Ben Gazzara at a film festival in New York City and had a mini-makeout session as I was putting him into a cab at the end of the night. Yum!
All the movies mentioned in “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” (in addition to Cassavetes) — “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Town,” “Frankenstein,” “The Godfather,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Chinatown” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I needed to understand the references to these movies, but I also found a love and appreciation for these beautifully constructed films, most of which I would have thought aren’t really my thing, but found myself riveted. Like Irish and Lexxx, I also love movies, and it was just great to be reminded of that. These films are also full of characters, situations and dialogue that related to life and informs “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.”
Barbara Stanwick (specifically in “Baby Face”) — this is a wonderful character study of a woman who knows how to use what her momma and daddy gave her to get what she wants. It’s super racy for 1933! She is always in control of herself and her situation — well, until the tragic end. I tried to take on that strength and control. I even stole a few facial expressions and gestures. She’s a woman on her way to the top. She knows what she wants and she will do whatever it takes to get it. She’s scrappy and comes from the wrong side of the tracks, but has groomed herself to hide all that. Triple Lexxx is also all of those things.
Lauren Bacall (specifically in “The Big Sleep”) — She is know for her cool demeanor and unflappable poise. I think Lexxx made a study of her and wanted to be that cool. I studied her posture and her stillness; she hardly ever moves her shoulders. It’s incredible and so powerful, and her hands, her beautiful hands! Another piece of candy from this movie was the way she and Bogart flirted, the cat and mouse, the wordplay. They are the best. We strive for something like that in our play. Finally, it was the love between Bogart and Bacall. You could feel her love for him. I wanted that for Lexxx: a true love. I want the audience to see that in my eyes.
My own life and various burlesque performers, strippers and sex workers I am friends with or have known — One of the first things you do as an actor is look for the connective tissue between yourself and the character. Luckily, I had so much to draw on, not that it’s the same, but that it’s relatable or easily substituted. Of course, there’s my long career in burlesque, but I had also fantasized about opening a burlesque club here, before I moved back, so I already knew what it looked like. I also used pieces of women I know, their lives, their personalities. So many influences, both good and bad, but I don’t want to incriminate anyone so I’ll just give you a few examples: From my BFF, my wife, Bambi the Mermaid, I used her incredible ability to manifest exactly what she wants in life. From Julie Atlas Muz, I got her Detroit toughness. Julie is a lovely, sweet person, but definitely the lady who can take care of herself. From Dirty Martini, I borrowed her undying passion and pure love for burlesque, performing and entertaining.
WHAT: “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” written and directed by Jim Fitzmorris and starring Bunny Love, Justin Welborn and Kimberly Kaye WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday (June 26); Thursday-Sunday (June 30-July 3) WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave. TICKETS: $25 MORE INFO:Click here
Jim Fitzmorris wears his influences on his sleeve. Or, in the case of “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” on his plays’ title, and on the spare stage of his latest work that opened this weekend at his Theatre at St. Claude. Movie posters of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and rows of DVDs from The Criterion Collection fill the stage and prompt snippets of dialogue from the characters, but clearly they’re laid bare as if transported from Fitzmorris’ home, or brain.
So when smooth-talking and wise-cracking beverage vendor (Justin Welborn) shows up on the soft opening of a nightclub venture and starts flirting with the co-owner and featured performer (Bunny Love), their shared of love of ’70s crime films by Cassavetes, Polanski and Coppola, the audience immediately knows that this is Fitzmorris at his most reverential and referential. But almost as immediately, as a flirtation turns to threats and then into terror and then into intrigue and possibly back again, the audience also recognizes another Fitzmorris passion: complexity. It’s the complexity of motivations, of desire and even of language that often motors Fitzmorris’s works, and while they’re often challenging to follow, they’re always worth the ride.
“The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is an uptempo and bumpy ride in which allegiances switch with every “reveal,” a popular word in a show and with burlesque undertones. (Fitzmorris, also a frequent chronicler of New Orleans’ burlesque scene, knows this as well as he does movies.) As the co-owner of the Triple Lexxx club, Bunny Love can practically live the role, having performed for several years in New York City’s gritty neo-burlesque scene. She returned to New Orleans a couple years ago, bringing her New York sensibilities to shows such as Bella Blue’s “Dirty Dime Peepshow” while increasingly elevating her theater profile. So when she recounts a seedy story of life as a stripper, as with Fitzmorris you almost want to believe it comes from her own experiences. But you can’t dwindle on the thought for very long in this 70-minute one-act play. The action’s too fast.
The play starts off with Lexxxi ready to open her nightclub, for which she’s scrimped and saved to open and make her meal ticket after years in the business, with the help of her lover (played by a twitching Kimberly Kaye). Those plans are compromised by the appearance of Irish, who presents himself as the beverage supplier for the club, and the two strike up a conversation that goes beyond business.
It’s just when Irish senses Lexxxi’s loyalty to her partner has its own motivations that he reveals (at least one of) his own after a frantic phone call from her partner, a part-time bookie who warns Lexxxi that Irish has come to kill her. Hanging up the phone, Lexxxi can only keep her poker face for so long before Irish explains his presence:“Bookie” owes debtors for huge gambling losses built on Lexxxi’s money. But he tries to calm her down with the slightly reassuring thought: “I’m the second-to-the-last person you want to see. … In politics and crime, there’s always a second-to-the-last-guy.” Lexxxi, twisting around their previous flirting, responds, “You watch too many movies … so you’re Tom Hagen (of ‘The Godfather’ fame)?”
Irish offers a proposal — more a less-worse option — in which Lexxxi signs the club over to him so he can gain control of it (and Lexxxi) to help pay off the debt as long as Bookie disappears.
A tight cast makes great work of a tight though sometimes dense script, with Justin Welborn (FX’s “Justified”) bringing a pitch-perfect mix of cynicism, swagger and a sliver of vulnerability to his role. He could either try to dominate the stage as the lone male character or get lost in a lover’s quarrel, but he does neither, and it’s a neat trick. It is only fitting that his character once was an aspiring movie mogul, playing on Welborn’s own movie experience. And Kaye’s nervous intensity crackles throughout the show, even at times drawing in the audience’s sympathy with her own vulnerability. Through her desperation we still see another soul trying hard, like the others, not to be lost. If they all need a few moments in the early going to get their footing with the script, they all hit their stride quickly enough.
They do this just in time for a cleverly conceived passage in which exposition is revealed in a three-way dialogue between them, told partly in present time and also in flashback, with each character alternating in filling in the holes. It’s all wordplay as gunplay, of which there’s plenty already.
So much about “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is about control, which makes it that much more interesting when Lexxxi explains why she favors burlesque over stripping: “Because it gives the illusion that the audience is in control … the only decisions are mine.” Once every character has explained their angle in this love triangle, it’s Lexxxi’s call.
Jim Fitzmorris bills the play as his first full-length piece since “A Truckload of Ink,” which he followed up with such works as his brilliant manifesto-monologue, “Be a New Orleanian.” He’s found a home for his works at The Theatre at St. Claude, with an intimate space that David Raphel makes great use of in his set design. Su Gonzcy works the lighting deftly in what amounts to two adjoining rooms, and Dana Marie Embree’s costumes blur the lines between the ’70s and the present day.
And yet, watching this compressed treat, I can’t help but wonder if “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” could be something a little grander — like, say, a burlesque musical where Lexxxi’s dreams of a fabulous nightclub come to life, with music and dance numbers as eloquent as Fitzmorris’ rapid-fire dialogues and monologues. That’s not so much a criticism as a wish. This work is already more fully realized in narrative structure and prose than its casual inspiration, John Cassavetes’ 1976 arthouse noir, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” As good as this play is, you sense the possibilities of something even grander.
I guess that’s the point of burlesque: Always leave the audience wanting more.