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

Photo 1-001

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:

Alex Wallace (1)

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

Advertisements

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a-few-good-men-1288

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a-few-good-men-1135_1

(Photo by John Barrois)

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

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

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

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

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

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

nassim-soleimanpour_credit-nima-soleimanpour-001
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.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

“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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

4000-miles-001

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.

Playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s Top 5 influences for “Flood City,” opening The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


“FLOOD CITY”
WHAT: The NOLA Project presents its 2016-17 season opener, written by Gabrielle Reisman, directed by Mark Routhier, and starring Ashley Ricord Santos, Keith Claverie, Amy Alvarez, Trey Burvant, Ian Hoch, Jessica Lozano, Matthew Thompson
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Sept. 1-3), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Sept. 4), 2 p.m.; through Sept. 17
WHERE: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), 2800 Chartres St.
TICKETS: Thursdays and Sundays: $30 general admission & $20 for NOLA Project Backstage Pass Members. Fridays and Saturdays: $35 general admission & $25 for NPBPM. Purchase online at www.nolaproject.com or by calling 504-302-9117.

“Flood City” already was remarkably timed as The NOLA Project’s 2016-17 season opener, what with its proximity to the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The recent floods in Louisiana — first in March, in north Louisiana, and the a couple weeks ago in south Louisiana — make playwright Gabrielle Reisman’s world premiere feel downright prescient. But as with lots of productions, there’s a lot more to “Flood City” than just water, as we’ll learn from Reisman after requesting her influences for this work — her third produced by The NOLA Project, which mounted “Taste in 2009 and Catch the Wall” in 2013. This production is directed by Mark Routhier. Here’s what Reisman had to say about it:

“Flood City” charts the wake of The Johnstown Flood of 1889. The flood has destroyed the bustling steel town of Johnstown, Penn., and left a motley crew of survivors and surveyors to clean up and rebuild. Meanwhile, at a bar in Johnstown a century later, laid-off steel workers wax metaphoric about past lives and future ambitions. Traversing time and space, the play is an all-too-apt mirror of our present times. It takes a darkly comic look at both the lunacy of rebuilding and the strength it takes to clean up and start over.

Though I watched a fair amount of Johnstown Flood documentaries, 1980s country music videos and revivalist church services in writing this play, these five videos most influenced the dark-hopeful magic I was trying to build in “Flood City.”

“Telephone,” Lady Gaga — These U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” may be my favorite thing on the Internet. I love the combination of completely earnest choreography and fabulous DIY costumes against the intense polish of the pop music. Add to this the fact that it was made in the strange anti-space of an occupying army base in a war zone. It’s more Dadaist than anything Lady Gaga herself could dream up. “Flood City” is about a bunch of folks making something out of nothing in the midst of disaster. It employs a similar sense of play and peril. A man moves nonchalantly through the wreckage with a pipe sticking out of his head. Two women sell bits of broken flood relics to first responders. There’s a blitheness-of-necessity inside the catastrophe.

“Don” — I’ve been enamored with the 1978 Bollywood film“Don” since I was in high school. “Don” follows a charismatic crime boss (Don), the woman who wants to see him dead, the man who begins impersonating him, and their complicated romance. I’ve spent years looking at Bollywood songs from this period because they usually involve a character singing a secret to the person the secret’s about. The person they’re singing to can totally hear the words, but it’s as if the song takes place in some sort of breakaway dream moment. When it’s over, we as audience know more about the person singing and their secret intentions, but the person who heard the song is none the wiser. In this song, the man impersonating Don is telling Don’s criminal brethren he’s not who they think he is and he is tricking them all. You can read a weird translation of it here. In “Flood City,” and in all my plays, I’m interested in the moments where characters casually break the fourth wall and the ways giving an audience secret knowledge invests them in the world. There’s also a lightness/sharpness/silliness to this video that I love so hard. We’ve been playing with that same light/sharp/silly combo as we put the play on its feet.

“Get Into the Groove,” Madonna — In “Flood City,” the survivors of the Johnstown Flood live onstage simultaneously with a dive bar of newly out-of-work steel men in 1992. When I was figuring out how these two times intersected in the play, I was listening to a lot of pop and country songs from the late 1980s and early ’90s. Writers do this sort of lucky-socks thing where we’ll hear a song that makes us see something new about our play then we obsessively listen to it on repeat like its a portal for all of our play’s secrets. Madonna’s “Get Into the Groove” was this song on this play. The upbeat call to dance was somehow the perfect discordant window to these jobless, uncertain steel men.

“Funnel of Love,” Wanda Jackson — This song makes me swoon every time I hear it. It’s sexy and a little scary. There’s queerness and down-the-rabbit-hole quality to the song that I dig so much. While “Get Into the Groove” feels like the way 1992 operates inside a story about folks in 1889, “Funnel of Love” is the way these two times are dancing up on each other: an off tempo two step between different disasters a century apart.

“Tambourine Praise,” Jacolby Parker — “Flood City” skirts a little with miracles and faith. I spent a lot of time parsing through spirituals of the late 1800s, as well as the ballads and parlor music that was written about the Johnstown Flood itself. In the end, though, the thing that spoke to me most were Baptist tambourine breaks, and the sermons that lead right up to these breaks. Of all the videos I watched, and even of my memories visiting Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the 1990s, this post by Jacolby Parker gets me the most. It is so simple and so personal and so skillful. I wanted to touch on the hope inherent in rebuilding and the way we have to give ourselves over sometimes to a higher power — the rigor and joy it takes to let go and move forward.

 

For The NOLA Project’s 12th season: Survival of the fittest

Season12_Announcement2.jpgThe NOLA Project recently announced its 2016-17 season, with the theme of “Survival.” Often topical, sometimes irreverent and almost always excellent, The NOLA Projects offers some of the most consistently compelling productions in New Orleans.

This season, according to a press release, will feature world and regional premieres along with a Broadway comedy. Here’s the rest of the release in full. I’ll have more thoughts later:

“We open the 2016-17 Season with the World Premiere of FLOOD CITY by Gabrielle Reisman.Award-winning director Mark Routhier (Marie Antoinette and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)will bring to life Reisman’s striking and quirky story that examines the working class residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania during both the famous Johnstown Flood of 1889 and in the midst of the steel mill closures of 1992. Traversing time and space, Reisman’s distinct magical realism infuses the words and stories of these distinctly American workers who, more and more it seems, are fading into total extinction. FLOOD CITY will run September 1-18, 2016 at NOCCA’s Nims Black Box Theatre.

Next is the Regional Premiere of the new Pulitzer Prize-nominated play 4000 MILES by Amy Herzog. This hilarious and heartbreaking new work tells the story of a young man seeking solace from his feisty 91-year-old grandmother in her West Village NYC apartment after a lengthy and painful cross-country trip on his bicycle. The New York Times called the original production, which starred New Orleans local Mary Louise Wilson, “a funny, moving, and altogether wonderful drama.” Stepping into the roles of grandmother Vera and grandson Leo are New Orleans stage luminaries Carol Sutton and James Bartelle. They will be directed by Big Easy Award-winning director Beau Bratcher. 4000 MILES will run October 20-November 6, 2016at a location to be announced.

In January, The NOLA Project will partner with Delgado Community College for the first time ever to present a massive co-production of John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATHadapted by Frank Galati. The play will be the first professional production to appear in the brand-new Delgado MainStage Theater and will feature a cast of over twenty actors, directed by NOLA Project Ensemble Member Jason Kirkpatrick. Through beautiful staging and story-theatre techniques, the ensemble will bring Steinbeck’s classic tale of the Joad family to life as they pile everything they own into a battered old truck and head west to California in the desperate hope for work and a living wage. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company premiered the epic stage work in 1991 where it transferred to Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play. THE GRAPES OF WRATH will run January 26-February 12, 2017.

May 2017 brings the annual return to the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden with the World Premiere of THE SPIDER QUEEN by NOLA Project Ensemble Members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace. In this imaginative new play, two teenage siblings become lost in the woods and encounter a kingdom in peril, filled with fantastical creatures, nefarious villains, and the giant Spider Queen who has been frozen by a sorcerer’s curse. Like “The Goonies” meets “The Chronicles of Narnia”, THE SPIDER QUEENintends to awaken the adventurous spirit in us all as the audience travels through NOMA’s Sculpture Garden and the young heroes befriend elves and trolls, battle ogres, and learn lessons of courage, kindness, self-sacrifice, and finding direction without a smartphone. Big Easy Award-nominated director Jon Greene will helm the production.

And to end the season in a big way, we are teaming up on our first-ever co-production with Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre to present the hilarious love letter to theatre IT’S ONLY A PLAY by Terrence McNally. It’s the opening night of THE GOLDEN EGG on Broadway and the wealthy producer Julia Budder is throwing a posh party in her lavish Manhattan townhouse. Downstairs the celebrities are pouring in, but the real action is upstairs in the bedroom where a group of insiders have staked themselves out to await the reviews. Will it be the massive flop to end their careers or the greatest new American play of this century? Only The New York Times will tell. NOLA Project Artistic Director A.J. Allegra will direct a cast of New Orleans all-stars including Ricky Graham, Sean Patterson, Leslie Castay, Cecile Monteyne, James Bartelle, Keith Claverie, and Alex Ates. IT’S ONLY A PLAY will run June 8-25, 2017 at Le Petit Theatre.

“This season we’re exploring what it means to be an American,” says NOLA Project Artistic Director, A.J. Allegra. “We are in a fight for our national existence. In every facet of American culture, there are battles for agency and recognition from different races, genders, and other groups and we see this in the American Theatre just as strongly as we see it in our politics. For our 2016-17 Season we chose stories that reflect that sentiment and cause us to start meaningful dialogue with one another rather than divisive argument.”

For “The Winter’s Tale,” The NOLA Project’s Top 5 site-specific shows, courtesy Richard A. Pomes

One of The NOLA Project’s many strengths is its ability to place several shows in a physical context with its site-specific productions. While the company stages perfectly fine shows in traditional venues (think the recent “Marie Antoinette” at NOCCA), there’s something to be said for a theater company being a little on the rootless side. While other theater companies might lament the lack of a permanent home, The NOLA Project plays it fast and loose — and sometimes fancy-pants, given the location of its next production.

“Our mission clearly states that we’re committed to ‘innovative performances.’ For us, as theatre professionals, we’re not here to simply mimic what’s come before us. Because that’s boring. We want to change the way people think about theater,” said company member and Marketing Director Richard A. Pomes. “It doesn’t have to be audience on one side and actors on a stage. To us, that traditional proscenium style of theatre has its place when the production calls for it. But we live in an age where people are constantly immersed in interactive entertainment. We’re in an age of iPads, video games, and theme parks where people expect a new level of attention grabbing excitement. On top of that, we’re in New Orleans where every weekend is a festival, a sporting event, Mardi Gras, concerts, and more.

“And despite what you think about these kind of outings, they aren’t spectator events,” he continued. “Theater in New Orleans doesn’t compete with other theatre. It competes with our audience saying ‘Hey, it’s Friday night. What do you want to do tonight? Basketball game? Kermit Ruffins? Movie?’ Etc. Both from a creative perspective and a marketing perspective, we have to constantly push the envelope to engage our audience in new, exciting ways. Something I hear often at our site-specific productions is: ‘I don’t go to a lot of plays. But this is great.'”

As it has done in the past, the company will stage one of William Shakespeare’s last written works, “The Winter’s Tale,” inside the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Great Hall. (Check out the Facebook event page.) On the eve of the show’s run (Dec. 1-20), I asked Pomes for the company’s top five locations over the years.

Little Gem Saloon — “The newest NOLA Project venue on this list is the Ramp Room, upstairs at Little Gem Saloon on Poydras. If you’ve never been to Little Gem, check it out. It’s a snazzy little restaurant and bar that features great live music acts. The Ramp Room is where we performed our second show this season, ‘Clown Bar.’ (Read the review here.) One of the most distinct productions in our company’s history, ‘Clown Bar’ required a unique venue. The script tells a film noir inspired story about the seedy underbelly of the organized clown crime world, orchestrated by clown crime boss and bar owner, Bobo, and the show’s playwright, Adam Szymkowicz, suggests (nay, demands) that the show takes place in a real bar. Actors in full clown regalia performed the script not only on a small stage built for a jazz quartet, but also throughout the rest of the bar, weaving between cocktail tables and muscling people out of the way at the bar to order a drink. Although for me, the best part was using audience members for cover during shootouts.”

The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art — The NOLA Project’s relationship with the New Orleans Museum of Art goes way back. One of our earliest performances was a 2006 production of ‘The Misanthrope’ in NOMA’s lecture hall/auditorium that most people don’t know exists. Several years later I, was chatting with their then-marketing gal, Grace Wilson, who mentioned she was thinking about doing a concert series in the Sculpture Garden. I blurted out, ‘What about Shakespeare?’ (As if those two things were somehow interchangeable.) Suddenly we’re performing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for standing-room-only crowds. They were standing-room-only because director (and NOLA Project founding artistic director) Andrew Larimer designed the production as an immersive experience in which the audience would get up and move from location to location for different scenes. If you know ‘Midsummer,’ you know that as the story progresses our heroes go deeper and deeper into a forest, get lost, and then reemerge for a double wedding celebration (sorry, 400-year-old spoiler alert). And so our audience quite literally followed the heroes deeper into the garden to find out what happened next, stumbling across characters hidden in the scenery along the way. Since ‘Midsummer,’ we’ve performed more Shakespeare in the garden as well as original takes on ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ But that production of ‘Midsummer’ will always be our favorite. There’s something about performing Shakespeare under the stars that’s really magical.” Continue reading