Macbeth at The Fortress of Lushington
All hail Dane Rhodes!
Rhodes, a two-time Ambie Award-winner (in the same year no less!), has not been seen on local theater stages of late, in part because of the pandemic, in part because TV and films have been keeping him busy. Now looking trim, muscled and DILFy, he made a welcome return to our boards in Macbeth at the Fortress of Lushington earlier this month, Fat Squirrel‘s final production of its first season.
As the titular character, Rhodes conveyed the Scottish king’s anguish and haunted qualities from the start. Gravelly voiced and with fingers constantly twitching, he made palpable that the rot at Macbeth’s core is eating him up and causing him to hurtle morally downward.
Rhodes dispensed with bombast, his line readings at times barely above a whisper, and allowed audiences to watch what happens as a feral creature becomes cornered. While he could’ve savored the words of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..” more (and anyone who’s seen Sir Ian McKellen dissect that speech knows there’s lots to savor), his was a riveting performance.
Alas, the production surrounding Rhodes left me puzzled. Set by Directors Stephanie Garrison and Andrea Watson in the “Mid-19th Century Five Points Manhattan, New York”, even after reading Garrison’s “Director’s Note” in the virtual program that refers to the Astor Place Riot of 1849 involving two actors, one British, one American, who were simultaneously playing Macbeth, I can discern no connection between the co-directors’ fairly standard issue interpretation of the Scottish tragedy and those long ago events in Manhattan.
I have also never seen a production in which there was so much moving, not of the set, but of the audience. For Garrison/Watson situated some pairs of audience members on small platforms with casters that the actors positioned and repositioned and repositioned again for nearly every new scene to allow for slight reconfigurations of the playing area. While done smoothly by the cast, it seemed unnecessary and merely added to the play’s three hour running time.
Watson also portrayed Lady Macbeth and, while I admired that she took a different approach than usual–very cool, almost laid back–it sapped the play of any romantic/erotic energy between the two rulers. The directors also seemed to include Lady Macbeth as part of the witches, expanded from three to six, an interesting idea, but never fully developed.
Unlike, say, King Lear or Hamlet, I’ve always found the supporting characters in Macbeth a rather colorless bunch who (a) advance the plot and (b) philosophize without having much of an interior life of their own. That said, in these roles, Fat Squirrel’s cast mostly acquitted themselves well with Desirée Burrell bringing passion to Macduff and Joe Signorelli enhancing Lennox’s lines with an appealing subtext that I wouldn’t have thought possible for this usually blandly played role.
Having produced new works (The Canopic Jar of My Sins and a one-act play festival), a contemporary one (Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi) and this classic, Fat Squirrel has had a diverse and worthy initial slate of offerings. I look forward to its future seasons.
Craigslisted at Loyola’s Marquette Hall
The NOLA Project recently presented the professional premiere of Craigslisted by Sharai Bohannon. Director Leslie Claverie gave the script a production that scrupulously brought to life all of the script’s contours. The problem was, I just didn’t buy them.
Set in Kansas City, Craigslisted gives us college student Maggie who desperately needs money. It’s 2015 so she turns to Craigslist to offer her services as a companion/relationship partner; never does Bohannon lead us to think, explicitly or implicitly, that Maggie is engaging in sex work.
In a fairly brief period, Maggie becomes financially stable for the first time. Fine. She’s an aspiring writer, however, and details her clients and their often strange predilections on her blog, only slightly fictionalizing them. Fine. Through some contrived plot twists, though, word leaks out about her blog & her services and there’s a newspaper exposé and her college suspends her and some of her clients turn on her and it becomes a mess. Until it kinda turns out happily ever after at the end.
Craigslisted’s first act goes on too long with scenes of Maggie and her clients that seem manufactured; yes, I’m sure weirdos can be found on Craigslist but Bohannon uses these folks simply as foils for Maggie. They’re all superficial depictions without having the granular feel of reality.
Bohannon seems to think that Maggie’s blog posts, that we hear in overlong voiceovers, are amusing; rather, they pale in comparison to some tales of New Orleans such as those I just heard at a holiday party. As things spiral out of control and Maggie, who is identified as Black in the script, is labeled a “prostitute” in social media, Bohannon misses an opportunity both for social commentary and adding some depth to her play by not having any of her characters note that had Maggie been white she probably wouldn’t be called anything like that.
Aria Jackson, so compelling in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play earlier this year, did all she could to bring Maggie to three-dimensional life and succeeded, especially when Bohannon’s writing occasionally gave her something to work with. Maggie’s actions and attitudes to her clients, however, are inconsistent which deprived Jackson of giving as rich a performance as she’s capable of.
As Robin and Haley, Maggie’s best friends (tho Robin is more a frenemy) Mariola Chalas and Emily Bagwill made the most of these one-note, almost commedia dell’arte-like, roles, with Robin being there solely to provide conflict and Haley existing solely to provide support for Maggie.
Similarly, Robert A. Mitchell, so excellent in Trouble in Mind and Summer & Smoke, did as much as possible to humanize one of Maggie’s clients whose defining characteristics are that he (a) is clumsy and (b) refuses to comprehend that Maggie doesn’t want an actual relationship with him. Mitchell, Bagwill and the rest of the cast deserve better.
Claverie, a fine actress herself, smoothed over as much of this as possible, but a few details nagged at me. Don’t people in Kansas City ask “Who is it?” or look through a door’s peephole before opening a door, especially when they don’t know the person on the other side? And why were there white figures/emojis on the blog post of a Black woman?
I’ve always admired how The NOLA Project presents a mix of old and new plays. I just think they could’ve selected a better one than Craigslisted from Craigslist or wherever they found it.
Holiday Inn at Jefferson Performing Arts Center
Lest you think I’m a complete Grinch, I thoroughly enjoyed JPAS’ Holiday Inn that played for a mere two weekends in Metairie’s Jefferson Performing Arts Center. Based on the 1942 movie, this stage version offered a bounteous selection of Irving Berlin songs including Blue Skies, Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk, Easter Parade, and, of course, White Christmas.
The story, about Jim Hardy deciding to give up showbiz and do farming in Connecticut but then needing money so he puts on shows at his inn (but only on holidays–insert eye-rolling emoji here) is negligible but within its mid-century time frame it works; unlike Craigslisted, I guess it’s easier to suspend disbelief in unreality when the events occur 80 years ago rather than just seven.
Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge’s book takes a little while to get going but finally comes to full life with Shaking the Blues Away for which Choreographer Kenneth Beck employed buckets and jump-ropes and, despite these challenges, his dancers came through with flying colors.
With nearly twenty songs, not every one of them is as memorable as the aforementioned tunes, but even second-rate Irving Berlin is better than what can be found in most Broadway musicals these days.
Director Leslie Castay remained true to the script and leaned into the period, but never became gooily sentimental, guiding her cast to highlight their characters’ flaws without ever allowing the production to become too dark. (Nowadays, Jim, who seems to have a passive/aggressive controlling streak in him, would probably be sent to therapy.)
By playing against that dark side of Jim, Richard Arnold made for an appealing leading man, epitomizing 1940s sunniness and optimism, even if Jim needed a little boost every now and then. That Arnold’s bright tenor voice fulfilled the demands of all his songs was no surprise, but that he can sing while jumping rope is truly impressive.
Chloe Vallot, with her creamy soprano, brought a clear-eyed, unsentimental charm to Linda, Jim’s love interest, which made their eventual union all the more satisfying. Alcee Jones, as Ted, Jim’s former musical partner and occasional romantic rival, demonstrated, as he did in In the Heights, what a fine singer he is.
Holiday Inn’s plentiful humor was brought out by Bailey Gabrish as the third member of Jim & Ted’s trio who yearns for Hollywood stardom; Tracey Collins, as Jim’s farm manager with a crush on Veronica Lake, who cracked jokes a la Thelma Ritter; the ever-funny NOCCA alum Adam Seagrave, playing Jim & Ted’s been-around-the-block manager; and young Caleb Cantrell as a newspaper boy/future banker; all of whom displayed great comic timing.
Despite my vow not to be Grinchy, I must make note of Amanda Bravender’s cheesy wigs which looked liked gussied up mops plunked on the chorus girls’ heads; surely JPAS can do better.
Holiday Inn is certainly a throw back and I could imagine a camped up version of it. Or a deconstructed one. Or one in which Jim and Ted wind up together. But in these times, nearly as challenging as things were in 1942, an old-fashioned, traditional version was just fine.