“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.

See ’Em On Stage announces 2016-17 season along with expanded programming, restructuring (exclusive)

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See ‘Em On Stage, the nearly three-year-old New Orleans theatrical company known for its passion for offbeat musical satire, announced a 2016-17 season fueled by a management restructuring and other changes during its “Rebel Rebel” premiere party Tuesday (May 31) at the Ugly Dog Saloon.

“This new model will allow us to offer opportunities to a wider variety of artists including local writers, directors, actors, designers, dancers, musicians, and theater educators; along with visual artists (for special projects),” Artistic Director Christopher Bentivegna said in a press release. “Our team now includes 16 diverse theater professionals working together in order to provide a multitude of projects within seven different divisions.”

That team will feature Bentivegna along with Kali Russell (associate artistic director), Bob Murrell (managing director), Breanna Beitz (managing director), Jake Wynne-Wilson (community outreach coordinator), Ashton Akridge (burlesque division coordinator), Kayln Hepting (staged readings division coordinator) and Abbey P. Murrell, Caroline St. Amant, Eli Timm, Clayton Shelvin, Anna Toujas, Robert Young, Logan Faust, Rebecca Lindell, Ariel Schwab, and Sam Cespedes.

(Read more: Christopher Bentivegna’s Top 5 favorite See ’Em On Stage productions)

New divisions to accompany the company’s main-stage productions include original works, burlesque, comedy, staged readings, community outreach and youth education. The new season also will bring on new venues such as the New Orleans Art Center, The Avant-Garden District, and The Valiant, a new theater opened by Richard Mayer — formerly of the Old Marquer Theatre. (This new theater is scheduled to open in July, the release said.”

See ‘Em On Stage already has presented work that reflects this new approach, the release said, noting the production of original short plays as part of its community-outreach program for patients and clients at both Children’s Hospital of New Orleans and Crossroads Louisiana (which services adults with disabilities). The company plans to partner with The New Movement for a program for teens to perform in a full one-act production at program’s end.

The company also has brought in Four Sweater Vests, the local staged-readings company, as one of its official divisions “with a mission to provide opportunities to both experienced and novice performers and directors through participation in staged readings of popular works.”

“This new model of different divisions will allow us to not only offer more opportunities to established as well as fledgling artists, but will provide us and the theater community in general with a more diverse and wide-reaching audience base,” the release said.

The 2016-17 main stage season will offer a schedule that speaks to the “Rebel Rebel” theme that explores the notions of heroes and anti-heroes, and will include three regional premieres and one New Orleans premiere. (Synopsies provided by the company.)

Lizzie the Musical
Written by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Aug. 11-28, 2016 (Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.) except Aug. 13 (9:30 p.m.)
New Orleans Arts Club
Synopsis: “Four women front a rock band and tell the scandalous story of Lizzie Borden, America’s favorite double-axe murderess and Victorian hometown girl. In 1892, on a sweltering August day in a small New England town, a well-to-do elderly man and his second wife were brutally murdered with an axe in broad daylight. Lizzie Borden, their youngest daughter, was the primary suspect. She was arrested and tried, but, with no witnesses to the hideous crime, she was acquitted. The murders remain unsolved to this day and have become not only one of America’s most notorious legends but also the inspiration for this critically acclaimed new musical. This nearly sung-through rock opera’s score owes less in inspiration to Andrew Lloyd Weber or Stephen Sondheim than it does to Heart, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Grace Slick. Starring Abbey P. Murrell, Idella Johnson, Kali Russell, and Leslie L. Claverie as Lizzie Borden. This production will be a regional premiere.” Continue reading

“Clown Bar” sends in, and up, everyone’s favorite punching bag, courtesy The NOLA Project

There were plenty of things to admire about The NOLA Project’s current mounting of “Clown Bar,” from its fitting location (the Little Gem Saloon’s upstairs bar, the Ramp Room) and Adam Szymkowicz’s clever interpretation (clowns as mob thugs) to director James Yeargain’s staging of all of the above. He’s brought to life everyone’s worst nightmare of a subculture we’ve long loved to hate, ridicule and often fear even when the main objective has been to laugh.

These are clowns as Goodfellas, bottom-feeders from a pulp nightmare, and in “Clown Bar” Yeargain has created a most unhappy hour that’s filled with the darkest possible laughs. Clown rules line one wall of the bar: “There are no rules in a clown bar,” “You better not try nothin’,” “What’s your business is your business. Don’t get in my business,” and so on. It’s all menacing caveat: You come to the clown bar at your own risk, because more often than not, you’ll never get out alive.

Szymkowicz’s script is clever by half in telling the story of a former clown, Happy Mahoney, who tried to leave the life by becoming a cop only to get sucked back in to find out who killed his younger and brother, Timmy (Levi Hood), whose minimal talent becomes increasingly apparent as he falls into a rabbit hole of addiction. (The irony being, getting high is supposed to make him funnier; instead it makes him worse.) The murder mystery creates a bittersweet reunion in the joint, with mob flunkie Twinkles (Richard Alexander Pomes), hooker Petunia (Natalie Boyd), former lover and bar burlesque dancer Blinky Fatale (Kali Russell), bar crooner and often drunk Dusty (Keith Claverie), henchmen Giggles and Shotgun (Clint Johnson, Alec Barnes), sweet psycho Popo (Jessica Amber Lozano) and the boss himself, Bobo (Kurt Owens).

Happy has to both reunite with and navigate his way around all of these lowlifes, not the least of which is his former lover Blinky, who in a burlesque number reminds him of the happier times, so to speak, but whose too-familiar pleas to stand up to boss man Bobo (her current lover) help to bring back the pain.

So who killed Timmy? The mystery at the heart of the story really isn’t the heart of the story; if anything, it’s the play’s weakest link. The heart of the story is the way Szymkowicz plays with all of the clown archetypes and stereotypes — mostly for laughs, but almost at all the right times, for pathos — but also how the NOLA Project ensemble warms to the task. This is my third viewing of a NOLA Project show, in consecutive order starting with the 2014-2015 season finale, “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand” and continuing with the 2015-2016 season opener, “Marie Antoinette.”

And while this might sound like a backhanded compliment, so far the greatest strength of the troupe isn’t its choice in original new works (impressive) or its savvy location choices (appropriate, always). It’s in the actual acting talent onstage. In both of the previous shows, The NOLA Project troupe does an amazing job of balancing star turns by the actors in the title roles with ensemble work that spreads the love around.

It’s that willingness to share the stage that helps “Clown Bar” to really take flight, because this really is built for an ensemble cast, and the payoff of for the audience (sprinkled throughout the bar, at tables and on the sides) is massive. Alex Martinez Wallace is fine as Happy, the nominal protagonist — yet he’s happy, pardon the pun, to be more of an ensemble performer. As the only one not in clown makeup, he all but lets the rest of the clowns run the show.

That allows brilliant little moments of laughter and, of course sadness. There’s Russell as the moll Blinky (her last name gives her away), both sexy and strong in her insistence that Happy grow a pair. Having been left behind once before by Happy, she’s seen what it’s like to be treated by a “good guy,” and prefers the security of the bad Bobo.

And there’s Pomes as the menacing Twinkles, with his ambiguous loyalties, trying to decide whether to kill or back Happy, all the while chewing on every possible clown pun the script allows. And Hood, as Timmy, dressed as Pagliaccio, is a sad, addicted clown indeed, feeding off his brother in every way possible in the flashbacks. (The most telling line for Timmy goes for everyone: “On a good day, anyone can be funny. The question is, how many days can you be funny?”)

Boyd as the floozy Petunia is all bounce and verve but with a surprising heart, flirting with Happy but knowing she’ll always finish second to Blinky. She’d like to bed him, but she really loves him.

Lozano as Popo is everyone’s split-personality clown nightmare, smiling and twirling one moment, flashing a gat and a killer’s stare the next. Just like the cast, you really don’t know what to expect next from Popo. As the mob boss Bobo, Kurt Owens comes off as a late-career John Huston (think Noah Cross in “Chinatown”), smiling because he knows he holds all the cards, and possibly Happy’s fate.

The cast features regular ensemble members, but there notable exceptions, including Hood, Lovano and Owens — each of whom acts like they fit right in.

If there is a scene-stealer in “Clown Bar,” it might be Keith Claverie as Dusty, a sad trombone of a character, but blessed with a golden-throated voice that shines on every song he sings (accompanied with melancholy on piano by Christopher Grim). Claverie can switch from funny to sad clown at the drop of a wig, and his singing just adds to the entertainment. The songs — “The Clowns Have All Come Home,” “Lois Lane,” “Clown Love” and “There’s No Heaven for Clowns” — were penned by Sweet Crude bandmates Jack Craft and Skyler Stroup, and when Claverie sings from his sad sack, you know he bears the weight of the world on his padded shoulders.

(Related: See Keith Claverie’s top 5 clowns.)

I’ve seen complaints elsewhere about the pitfalls of Yeargain’s staging up in the Ramp Room; the audience sits literally in the middle of the action, which swirls about the room and forces more than a fair share of neck-craning to keep up visually. On a packed night, it’s a challenge but well worth paying. Joan Long’s lighting and scenic designs gives a you-are-there feeling, and Lindy Burns’ costumes lend a distinct identity to each performer (especially those out-sized shoes).

There will be plenty of other opportunities to watch The NOLA Project showcase the best that it has to offer in new works, fun settings and sharp performances. But as more people are learning during this run, it’s never a good idea to miss it when the circus comes to town.

“Clown Bar,” which sold out its Tuesday (Nov. 3) show as it has done for most of its run, continues through the rest of the week with performances tied to the Faux/Real Fest: Wednesday (Nov. 4, 8 p.m.), Thursday and Friday (Nov. 5-6, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.), and on Sunday (Nov. 8, 8 p.m.). Click here for more details.