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

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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.

“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 1: James Bartelle, Beau Bratcher, Quinn McCourt

popsmart-soundcloud-thumbnailThe premiere episode of “PopSmart NOLA” on Saturday (Oct. 29) on WHIV (102.3 FM) was a tremendous success as we shared our time with the workers performing excellent renovations on the kitchen!

We welcomed guests James Bartelle and Beau Bratcher — the star and director of The NOLA Project’s “4000 Miles” — and Quinn McCourt from The New Movement’s “Broadcast Delay” and “The Megaphone Show.” You also can listen online at whivfm.org.

My favorite part of the show: Bartelle and Batcher discussing the notions of color-blind and color-conscious casting in theatrical productions as well as the progress New Orleans theater has made in casting for performers of color.

This episode’s playlist:
“Hot Tamale Baby” — Buckwheat Zydeco (RIP)
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” — Gill Scott-Heron
“Custom Concern” — Modest Mouse
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” — Dave Edmunds
“Cranes in the Sky” — Solange Knowles
“Don’t Go” — Yaz
“Halloween” — Siouxsie & the Banshees
“Halloween” — Dead Kennedys

Please forgive the truncated recording of this show, due to technical difficulties, which lopped off the Dead Kennedys song and these closing thoughts.

That’s our show for this week. Tune in for our next show, next Saturday, Nov. 5, 3-4 p.m. for another edition of “PopSmart NOLA.” We’ll have in, among others, Gary Rucker and A.J. Allegra of Rivertown Theaters’ timely production of the musical, “1776.”

Also want to remind everyone if you like what you’re hearing you can “like” PopSmart NOLA on Facebook and follow me on Instagram at @popsmartnola and on Twitter at @dlsnola504. Keep the smart conversation going.

Please continue tuning into 102.3 WHIV LPFM, New Orleans. We are: community radio dedicated to human rights and social justice, end all wars. Stream us online (if you aren’t already) at whivfm.org.

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.