For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls at Loyola’s Lower Depths Theater through April 9
In March 2020, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans (TWTC) had been just about to open its production of Williams’ In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel when the world changed and things shut down.
They then hoped to return to the stage that fall with For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, an evening of comic one-acts by Christopher Durang and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Despite their optimism, it had to be postponed.
Again, they hoped to open it in the fall of 2021. And again, another postponement, when the Delta variant reared its ugly head. At least, as TWTC Co-Artistic Directors Augustin J Correro & Nick Shackleford observe in a program note, they didn’t have to cancel the run due to Hurricane Ida.
It may have taken a while, but For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls finally opened in Loyola’s Lower Depths Theater. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely! One of the funniest shows New Orleans has seen in years, its timing is perfect as, boy, we all can use laughs–and lots of them–these days.
The evening opens with Desire, Desire, Desire, Durang’s sendup of A Streetcar Named you-know-what. Like a late-night TV commercial, however, Durang adds parodies of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Maggie, Brick & Big Daddy and, as lagniappe, The Iceman Cometh. Too much? Not an iota’s worth when the satire’s so sharp and the dramaturgy so nimbly done.
It helps to know the source material, but, with its heavy sprinkling of “Stella!”s, Durang’s humor manages to be broad and risible enough to tickle anyone’s funny bone. That said, if you live in New Orleans and don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Streetcar and Cat, shame on you.
Utilizing split-second timing, and abetted by Shackleford’s cagey sound design and Baylee Robertson’s witty costumes, Director Correro guides his cast of six to knowingly over-the-top, hilarious performances that combine slapsticky bits with verbal pyrotechnics.
Mary Langley portrays Stanley Kowalski as an idiot with droll understatement and then morphs into the equally ding-a-ling-y Brick with a slight but canny differentiation between the two.
Matthew Raetz makes for a cute and clueless Census Taker, Blanche’s object of desire, tossing off his lines with deadpan accuracy.
An unrecognizable Tracey E. Collins prattles on as Big Daddy about peanut brittle. Delicious as she is, her best turn in Belle is yet to come.
And then there’s Breland Leon as Blanche Dubois. I had last seen him in 2020 in Loyola’s outdoor Theatre For One: For This Moment when he was still an undergraduate there. I thought that he, like the show’s other performers, was good, but not much more, chalking it up to the somewhat thin material he had to work with.
Indeed. Given Durang’s richer script, Leon fearlessly creates a Blanche for the ages. With heaving breasts and perfect comic timing, Leon goes from fortissimo exclamations of “Desire! Desire! Desire!” to slyly contemplative moments. Exuberantly spilling beer over his torso while looking like an oversexed Jessye Norman in turban and peignoir, Leon inflates every line of Durang’s to its bursting point but, always in control of his instrument with musicianly precision, never goes too far, staying true, at all times, to Blanche’s innately theatrical character.
Lizzy Bruce as both a Maggie the Cat who wanders into the Kowalskis’ apartment and an Iceman tart, and Jefther Osorio as another Maggie and a very preggie Stella both contribute wonderfully wacky turns.
The satirical focus shifts to The Glass Menagerie in the program’s second, eponymous installment, one of Durang’s better known one-acts. I had seen Belle once before, pre-Katrina, and thought it rather wan, especially when compared to the much funnier The Glass Mendacity. After seeing this version, I’ve happily revised my opinion.
As ripe for parody as they are, the Wingfield clan of Menagerie does not offer quite as many theatrical fireworks to send up as Blanche and Stanley do. Correro thus bores down and draws out exquisitely detailed, supremely ridiculous performances from his quartet of thespians in this playlet.
Raetz returns as Tom who even his mother knows is not just “going to the movies” during his late night excursions. Rather than making Tom a flaming queen, a possible interpretation but one that wouldn’t be fully supported by the script, Raetz wisely gives us a Tom whose Scruff/Grindr profile would probably read “Masc4Masc.”
Langley contributes another lunkhead as Virginia, a neo-Gentleperson Caller, Tom’s factory colleague who’s going deaf. It may be a one-note role, but Langley gets all the nuances out of it with hysterical results.
Looking like a neurotic cousin to Pee-wee Herman, Roman Ellis as Lawrence Wingvalley, with his various maladies and precious swizzle stick collection, spins endless variations on Tom’s overly sensitive younger brother to marvelous effect.
And then there’s Collins as Amanda Wingvalley. With an ever-optimistic smile plastered on her face, Collins seemingly plays this most put-upon mother straight, letting the barbed words carry the humor. But watch her face as an eyebrow rises, a grin tightens, and eyes widen; like Leon in Desire, Collins extracts ever ounce of silliness from Belle.
The evening ends with Aguirre-Sacasa’s Swamp Gothic, a mash-up, we’re told, of Suddenly, Last Summer and Swamp Thing comics. It may be a shaggy alligator tale, but Raetz and Leon both give perfectly calibrated accounts of a Tulane student and the sister of his missing best “friend”. Leon offers a more understated take than his Blanche but one that is just as funny, detailed, and archly knowing.
Correro has added a narrator that tongue-in-cheekly introduces each short piece. Far be it for me to tell the TWTC what to do, but if they’d care to do a Durang comedy each year, I don’t think Mr. Williams would mind. Perhaps Sister Mary Ignatius can explain it all for Blanche and Stanley and Brick and Maggie and Amanda…
[For tickets and more info, go to https://ci.ovationtix.com/35398/production/1106101]
How the Other Half Loves at Playmakers Theater through April 10
How the Other Half Loves scored a big hit for its young playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, when it debuted in the West End in 1970; it went on to become a popular staple of community and dinner theaters.
A farce about philandering spouses and the cover-ups & misunderstandings that ensue, How the Other Half Loves remains best known for its scene of two dinners taking place on successive evenings in two different homes yet occurring simultaneously on the same set. Alas, not all of the comedy’s plot points and observations have aged well. While Ayckbourn is, in part, sending up the “swinging ’60s”, some of his views of women and relationships now come off as rather dated.
In Covington, Playmakers Theater‘s revival does well in that dinner scene and when Ayckbourn offers up truly funny, character-based dialog as in the final act. Yet in the exposition-drenched first scene, as the plot is being set up, the folks in Covington struggle to accessorize their characters with the requisite social class distinctions, so vital for the playwright’s comic worldview to succeed fully.
Director Arden Allen Dufilho keeps the action flowing with precise timing, an essential quality for a show like this. What’s lacking is a sense of momentum as the situation’s craziness spins out of hand.
The cast members fill out the contours of their roles, but don’t entirely fill them in with the detailed specificity which would add a welcome extra dimension. Perhaps more importantly, though the two main couples, the posh Fosters (Evette Randolph & Chris Aberle) and the younger, just-starting-out Phillipses (Summer Kavalier and Jonah Boudreaux), are experiencing troubles in both their marriages (hence the philandering), neither pair of actors display much chemistry, even if only ember-like, to allow us to believe that they were, at least once, in love.
At least James Michel and, especially, Esther Trosclair, as a couple who get caught up in the crossfire of the other two, offer up character traits, if only in a commedia dell’arte performative way, that inform their personalities. During that wild dinner scene, these two innocents appear to have landed on a different planet–twice!–and do well switching between the equally crazy worlds of the Fosters and the Phillipses.
Aberle, as the boss of the two other gentleman, does play Frank’s ditziness well; had he (and Dufilho) expanded such business, he might’ve gotten even more laughs.
I can certainly appreciate Playmakers wanting to produce a comedy in these challenging times. And if they want to do a British one, why not? Yet as their 2015 production of Joe Orton’s Loot was not only one of the best shows they’ve ever done, but one of the best productions I’ve ever seen here, why not do another Orton piece which combines dark humor with still relevant social satire? What the Butler Saw, anyone?
[For more information and tickets and, go to https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/]
Anastasia at the Saenger Theatre through April 10
Had the new musical Anastasia played here when originally scheduled in the spring of 2020, or even its postponed dates in June 2021, it would’ve been just another okay stage adaptation of an animated film.
I would’ve gone on about the score being yet another by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) which features generic words and tunes that could probably fit into any show.
I’d’ve observed that Terrence McNally’s book doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a comedy or drama and settles for a confusing mush featuring mostly two-dimensional characters.
I’d’ve certainly complimented Linda Cho’s sumptuous costumes and Aaron Rhyne’s projections that take us from a warring Moscow to fireworks over Paris.
I probably would’ve wondered about various sections that seemingly reference Fiddler on the Roof’s Anatevka, My Fair Lady’s The Rain in Spain and The King and I’s Shall We Dance?, not in a knowing, witty way as with such theatrical quotations in The Producers or Something Rotten!, but just due to lazy dramaturgy.
And I’m sure I would’ve complimented Kyla Stone who stars as Anya (who may actually be Anastasia, the daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia) with a charming personality and a beautiful voice that lends warmth to all her songs. (The rest of the cast are all fine in cartoonish roles.)
This is 2022, however, and Russia is waging a brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine. Atrocities against innocent civilians can be found in the headlines as cell phones are checked during intermission. For a show whose first act is set in Saint Petersburg (later Leningrad) and kinda glorifies Russia (at least its czarist version), I really was expecting somebody to make some sort of statement during the curtain call about the production standing with the people of Ukraine (or something like that). Nothing, however, was said.
I realize that the producers may not want to mix art and politics, but given the horrors currently being caused by Anastasia’s homeland (broadly defined but still…), to not acknowledge it in some way in a show dealing with Russia, left an extremely bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think that’s the way one should leave a theater after seeing a musical comedy. Or any other show for that matter.
Delayed by the pandemic for the past two years, José Torres-Tama’s UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA: Dare to Remember final premieres at Ashé Powerhouse (1731 Baronne St.) on April 8 and 9 at 8:00pm.
In UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA, Torres-Tama uncovers a hidden legacy of anti-immigrant laws such as Operation Wetback (1954), Arizona’s SB 1070 (2010), and the Zero Tolerance Policy (2018), and reminds us that the nation’s current anti-immigrant hysteria is nothing new. It’s all enough to cause pandemic melancholia, but Torres-Tama hopes to inspire a revolutionary paradigm shift.
Tickets and additional information at www.ashenola.org
Varla Jean Merman’s Little Prick comes to Café Istanbul (2372 St. Claude Ave.) on April 22 and 23 at 7:30pm. What is Varla Jean Merman’s Little Prick you ask? Well, after a long year spent in look-down, drag long-hauler Varla Jean Merman has been paroled and is ready to stick it to you! Accompanied by Gerald Goode on the piano, everyone’s favorite non-essential twerker promises to vaccinate audiences with a double-dose of infectious new songs and viral videos. It’s the shot-in-the-arm booster that the finest doctors have ordered!
For tickets and more info, go to http://cafeistanbulnola.com/shows/varla-jean-merman
The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra presents Joel Thompson’s To Awaken The Sleeper featuring DC PauL on April 21 at The Orpheum Theater (129 Roosevelt Way) and April 23 at St. Paul’s School (917 S. Jahncke Ave.)in Covington. Both concerts are at 7:30pm.
Inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays tackling issues of race in America and Europe, To Awaken The Sleeper premiered in 2021. Thompson crafted the piece as a response to the social and political unrest in 2020.
Nicholas Hersh conducts. Also on the program will be works by Lili Boulanger and Courtney Bryan, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. Tickets available at