“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 23: Maxwell Williams, No Ring Circus, and “You Don’t Know the Half of It”

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Even though we had folks come in to talk about two shows at Le Petit on this week’s “PopSmart NOLA” we had a lot to talk about.

Maxwell Williams, artistic director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, which debuted Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” during last week’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and which continues — with the exception of a break for next weekend’s French Quarter Festival — through April 15.

We also welcomed Daphne Rose Malfitano and Eli Rose — aka Fiddles & Bo — who present their show, “Fiddles and Oboe’s Clown Orchestra & No Ring Circus,” April 6-8 and April 13-15 at the The Fortress of Lushington performance space at 2215 Burgundy St. in Faubourg Marigny.

And finally, we welcomed Cecile Monteyne, creator of the amazing, seasonal improv show, “You Don’t Know the Half of It” along with improviser Lynae Leblanc, and Amanda Wuerstlin of the You Don’t Know the Band — all discussing next Sunday’s show at Le Petit.

SEGMENT ONE: Maxwell Williams
Maxwell Williams is in his second season as Artistic Director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. He’s directed the company’s productions of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Our Town,” and co-directed the world-premiere adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty (An American Panto).” Now Max is back again in the director’s chair for “Dividing the Estate,” the final Broadway hit for the late playwright and author, Horton Foote.

“Dividing the Estate” is the story of a family in Texas, hit hard by an oil bust in the late 1980s, and whose siblings are anticipating their inheritance from their aging matriarch — all with varying agendas. What starts as a wacky family comedy turns dark in the second act in this play featuring Brenda Currin, Carol Sutton, Harold X. Evans, and Silas Cooper. The New Orleans Advocate says of this show: “What makes ‘Estate’ so charming is the bumbling incompetence of its conspirators. The hilarity of the action increases as the urgency of the circumstances compound.”

Maxwell Williams, it should be noted, served as associate director for the Tony-nominated Broadway production of this play, and he joined us in the studio. 

SEGMENT TWO: No Ring Circus’ Daphne Rose Malfitano and Eli Rose
Our next two guests have been a part of New Orleans’ burgeoning variety scene over the past few years, collaborating with circus, sideshow and burlesque performers in various shows while doing their own touring across the U.S. Now the husband-and-wife team of Eli Rose and Daphne Rose Malfitano are back in New Orleans with a new and fascinating show. Performing as two very different clowns, they will bring us “Fiddles and Oboe’s Clown Orchestra & No Ring Circus” on April 6-8 and April 13-15 at The Fortress of Lushington performance space at 2215 Burgundy St. in Faubourg Marigny. I visited the couple at their own space in the Marigny, and here’s an excerpt from that interview. I’ll also have an extended version in the podcast in this post later in the weekend.

SEGMENT THREE: “You Don’t Know the Half of It”
Our final guests represent several components of the deceptively complicated show that is the 5-year-old “You Don’t Know the Half of It,” in which writers present original comedy sketches — and with actors given half of those lines, and with improvisers are challenged with filling in the other half.

Joining us in the studio:

Creator Cecile Monteyne, a Big Easy Award-winning actress and regular performer with “The NOLA Project.” With her are one of the improvisers, Lynae Leblanc, as well as one of the musicians from You Don’t Know the Band, Amanda Wuerstlin. I should first note the entire lineup for Sunday’s show:

The Writers: James Bartelle, Alicia Hawkes, Helen Jaksch, and Mark Routhier
The Actors: AJ Allegra, Joy Lynn Andersen, Robert DoQui and Mallory Messina
The Improvisers: Chris Kaminstein, David James Hamilton, Lynae Leblanc and Josh Toups
You Don’t Know the Band: Andre Bohren, Michael Girardot, Alexis Marceaux, Stephen MacDonald, Marc Paradis and Amanda Wuerstlin

SEGMENT THREE: Relevant Link
For our Relevant Link this week, I wanted to go back a few years as we note that the downtown Super Sunday will be held this weekend on Bayou St. John – a couple weeks after the Super Sunday on St. Joseph’s Day. Both days are known for amazing suits for all of the Mardi Gras Indians, with their intricate beading and feather work. As you may have noticed a couple weeks ago, it’s a smorgasbord for amateur and professional photographers alike.

On that note, it’s important for those capturing the images of this cultural with deep and historic roots that they are being created by culture bearers who, to put it politely, barely survive from check to check. Too often they don’t see a dime for their professional use of the imagery for which they’re responsible in creating. And it’s like the city is necessarily giving them back money by using their imagery in their marketing. (Are they?) That’s why it’s important to read a “green paper” created by the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame that lays out ways professionals can compensate these culture bearers for any profits gained from the selling of these images. You can check out this green paper, and its context, when the post for this show goes up later today on PopSmartNOLA.com.

Oh, and, the downtown Super Sunday starts at noon on Bayou St. John, with a second line by the New Orleans Bayou Steppers, around 2 p.m. Good luck figuring out the route!

Those are our Relevant Links for this week!

CLOSING
I want to remind everyone that if you like what you hear on “PopSmart NOLA,” we’re here every Friday from noon to 1 p.m. — yes, our new day and time! — right here on WHIV (102.3 FM). You can listen to the archived, podcast version of the show on my SoundCloud account, “dlsnola.” Also, you can visit the website at popsmartnola.com, and like our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram at “@popsmartnola” and I’m always blathering away on Twitter at @dlsnola504.

Also, if you like our show, we’d love your support in the form of underwriting; email me at dlsnola@gmail.com for more info.

Our theme music is “Summertime” by Robin Mitchell.

Up next: Chris Lane with “Eat, Pray, Fight!”

Thanks again for joining us, y’all. For “PopSmart NOLA,” I’m David Lee Simmons, reminding everyone to keep the intelligent discussion going.

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Hail Cecile Monteyne, the queen of comedy in New Orleans

Cecile Monteyne in "You Don't Know the Half of It." (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

Cecile Monteyne in “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” (Photo by David Lee Simmons)

When I was asked at NOLA.com for ideas for possible 15 entertainers to watch for 2015, one name sprang to mind. It was pretty much a no-brainer: Cecile Monteyne. Actress, comedian, producer — she was becoming a major presence on the New Orleans entertainment scene, especially with her work with The NOLA Project and in the comedy world with machine A and especially her seasonal “You Don’t Know the Half of It” improv sketch show. I reviewed the show’s October 2015 show here.

(But first, an aside: There was another NOLA Project figure who, in hindsight, should’ve been considered. A.J. Allegra, The NOLA Project’s artistic director, is seemingly everywhere in New Orleans, acting and directing with the troupe, teaching theater to kids, and even appearing with the LPO. He is very much someone to watch.)

Monteyne and the “You Don’t Know the Half of It” crew marks four years on Sunday (Jan. 17) with a special show at Le Petit, and I profiled that in the New Orleans Advocate. And what I tried to drive home in the piece is how Monteyne — clearly a special talent and presence — often is at her best when trying to make everyone else look good:

When someone’s having a good night, it’s partly because you’re helping them have a good night,” the Tulane grad said. “It helps to work with other funny people or other straight people who can play that cold fish who doesn’t have to respond. I think comedy is at its best when everybody is working together to make one another look funny.

Her 2015 was as good as promised, highlighted by being named the Big Easy Entertainment Awards’ entertainer of the year. (She’d received acting nominations for performances in a drama and a comedy.) And later she delivered what will for sure be another nominated performance in The NOLA Project’s “Marie Antoinette.”

What’s really cool about Monteyne these days is the production she recently wrapped with her brother Jules Monteyne on “One Night Stand Off,” a romantic comedy in directed and co-written by Jules and Cecile, and starring opposite Ian Hoch. I hope to have a lot more about that in the coming days. But until then, go to Le Petit on Sunday and see what all the fuss is about.

Virginia’s Harem: Go West, young women, to SF Sketchfest (and be funny)

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UPDATE: Check out my feature of Cecile Monteyne in the New Orleans Advocate, which includes comments from Emily Slazer.

One of the many delights about finally being able to check out Cecile Monteyne’s seasonal “You Don’t Know the Half of It” improv show (now at Cafe Istanbul) is to see the now-steady stream of young comic talent — often as a continuation of sorts with The New Movement. (Monteyne is an alumnae.)

I’ll be previewing “You Don’t Know the Half of It” in a few days in the New Orleans Advocate in advance of the four-year anniversary show Jan. 17, at Le Petit, and in the process of researching story stumbled upon the work a few of her regulars are doing in the start-up sketch troupe Virginia’s Harem — most notably Emily Slazer and Valerie Boucvalt, who performed in the fall show, my first.

Seems the group landed a hard-to-land “showcase” spot at the prestigious SF Sketchfest in San Francisco this weekend — this, after forming just about a year ago. Along with several of the top sketch troupes in the nation, SF Sketchfest will serve host to several famous comedians, including Billy Crystal and Patton Oswalt as well as a reunion of “Waiting for Guffman” cast members and a tribute to “Funny or Die.”

Not bad.

“It’s really exciting,” said Slazer, a 26-year-old Slidell native who’s only been performing locally for about two years after graduating first from Centenary College in Shreveport and then The New Movement. “It is pretty prestigious for such a young group to get a showcase spot. There will be a mix of smaller groups like us and much bigger, nationally recognized comedians ,which will be a special experience for us to see what their comedy is like and what we can learn from it.

“We’re really lucky to be going,” she continued. “This is the first time I’m touring to do comedy so I’m very excited. It feels like a little bit of a legitimacy thing. It sets it apart from being a casual hobby. I never feel I have to make money doing comedy to be fulfilled. But this is more than just your friends thinking you’re comedy.”

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Jonathan Greene and Valerie Boucvalt

Slazer and Boucvalt are reason enough to watch this troupe; I couldn’t keep from laughing at just about everything Slazer did at Cafe Istanbul, whether pretending to be in double arm casts and dropping bizarro Sam’s Club references to her partner (the actor with the script) or simply rolling her eyes. There’s almost a hint of Lena Dunham’s best moments; Slazer has the kind of intuitive comic timing that I imagine one gets either through good genes or lots of training. But she’s flat-out funny.

And yet she was basically scared shitless to take an improv class as a requirement while at Centenary, despite being in theater since she was 10 years old.

“I was terrified and went in kicking and screaming, and fell in love with it after take the class,” she said. “What really appeal to me early on … was the failure of it. Learning how to fail and to be OK with that. If you fail as an actor there are ramifications. But if you do at improv early on, there’s an indication that you’re trying. You’re making big choices. You’re gonna fail at first. You have to learn it.

“I felt this is really cool that I can take big chances and make big choices and fail and it’s OK. I’m a much more brave person in my whole life than when I started improvement. It’s a good life skill.”

Check out this more timely video (released Tuesday, Jan. 5, above), the sketch “Stripping Badges,” a collaboration between Virginia’s Harem (Slazer, Boucvalt, Alicia Hawkes, Margee Green, Erica Goostrey and Liz Beeson) and fellow New Orleans sketch group Stupid Time Machine. It’s about a drunken bachelorette party that gets horrifically sober thanks to some traumatized cops turned strippers (CJ Hunt, James Hamilton). I’ll say no more.

And here’s a link to a scene from this past October’s “You Don’t Know the Half of It,” featuring Slazer opposite Corinne Williams.

‘You Don’t Know the Half of It’ fills in the comedy holes at Cafe Istanbul

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“You Don’t Know the Half of it,” created and produced by Cecile Monteyne, continued its seasonal run at a packed Cafe Istanbul on Sunday (Oct. 18) night, and I finally got to see what all the fuss was about. As baffling as it is hilarious, “Half of It” revels in the confusion and chaos of improv comedy made even more confusing by the structure.

As Monteyne, fresh off her critically praised turn in The NOLA Project‘s “Marie Antoinette” explained to the audience, performers are divided into duets with writers providing one of them a makeshift script and the other one forced to play off the written lines with moments of their own. (The stories themselves are divided into two parts, with a different duet assigned to the second “act.”) Too often, gratefully, those improvised moments steer a little too far from the apparent story, and it can take a few leaps for the clued-out performer to get back to the story.

So at any given moment one performer is trying to keep up while the other (hopefully) is trying to help them stay on target. It’s almost impossible not to break character in these moments, and when the do the crowd eats it up.

The writers for this particular evening were Laney Bedford, Breanna Biets, Tucker Keatley and Randy Walker. The actors: Jonathan Greene, Lyndsay Kimball, Eli Timm and Corinne Williams. The improvisers: Valerie Boucvalt, Christopher Kaminstein, Emily Slazer and Mike Yoder. The You Don’t Know house band featured Sam Craft, Alexis Marceneaux, Marc Paradis and Amanda Wuerstlin serving up song parodies tied to each sketch.

If “You Don’t Know the Half of It” does nothing else, it proves just how complicated and difficult improv comedy can be. For those raised on the craziness of TV’s “Whose Line Is it Anyway?”, it’s easy to take it for granted. But watching these performers work both with and against the script provides a new-found appreciation for the craft. That’s why Emily Slazer in particular was such a joy to watch, happily tossing out (and coming back to) such loony culture references as shopping at Sam’s Club to keep up with her partner (Corinne Williams). Christopher Kaminstein was another highlight, working a kind of stoner charm in one sketch and contorting an almost rubbery face in another for laughs. (At times it felt like his partner was one trying to keep up.)

“You Don’t Know the Half of It” will celebrate its fourth anniversary Jan. 17, 2016, at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. Learn more about the show by following them on Twitter (@thehalfofit) and at Facebook.com/thehalfofit.