Year in Review
As 2021 began, with its promises of a vaccine, things continued much as they had in 2020 with live performances occurring at Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS), Rivertown Theaters, on the North Shore, and at university theaters, along with zoomed productions from some Orleans Parish theater companies. Slowly, other theaters returned to in-person presentations (WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane (SLT), N.O. Shakespeare Festival, etc.) and it looked like things were getting back to normal.
But then the Delta variant reared its ugly head (thanks anti-vaxxers) and productions shuttered or were canceled or postponed. And then just as things were kinda settling down, along came Hurricane Ida which upended lives and damaged theaters and caused more postponements.
So we learned to live with uncertainty. Schedules shifted. Producers found new locations. And, miraculously, the shows, most of them, went on.
It hasn’t been easy on the psyches of local theater community members or the bank accounts of NOLA’s theater troupes. JPAS and Rivertown both had to deal with hurricane-ravaged buildings which necessitated moving shows (The Addams Family and Hello, Dolly!, respectively) to other venues. The Tennessee Williams Theater Company has had to postpone For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls twice; hopefully, it will finally be able to be done in March.
Not surprisingly, the season’s traditional ebb and flow of openings followed by 2-3 week runs was disrupted. Even as things kindasorta returned to usual, I saw about half as many shows as I had in 2019. Much of the year, if you lived in Orleans Parish and wanted to see a live drama, comedy or musical, it necessitated an hour or so drive north or east. While some of our local acting talent found work in TV and film productions shooting here, it seemed odd not seeing the familiar faces of both local thespians and habitual theatergoers on what had once been a steady schedule.
Yet, after lockdowns and quarantines and social distancing, audiences hungry for live theater–presentations that allow us to come together in a manner going back hundreds and hundreds of years–regularly filled performance spaces to capacity.
To be sure, perhaps the biggest drama swirled offstage around Southern Rep which was forced to vacate its home in the former St. Rose de Lima Church on short notice. Sam Sweet, who has an extensive background in arts consulting and management, had been bought in as Interim Executive Director and he worked with Sacha Grandoit, who had been part of SRep’s artistic leadership team for the past three years and was promoted to Interim Artistic Director in October.
Together with the theater’s Board of Directors, they worked tirelessly to stabilize a challenging situation. After 22 months, the curtain finally rose again on a Southern Rep production, the regional premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play which was done in a classroom in Loyola University’s Monroe Hall. While I wish both the play’s satire and Jeanette Godoy’s production had been sharper and more focused, it was heartening to have one of NOLA’s oldest companies “back on the boards.” They have since announced the upcoming world premiere of local playwright Rob Florence’s Holy Wars, a New Orleans-inspired play with music, another encouraging sign.
Prior to Ida wrecking its homes on both the East and West Banks, JPAS kicked off the year with Janet Shea’s solid production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Travis Resor as the incarcerated McMurphy, an enthusiastic defender of the mental institution’s oppressed patients, going up against Maria Victoria Hefte’s Nurse Ratched who, despite an ever-calm exterior, oozed evilness. Especially noteworthy was the Chief Bromden of Paul Bello who, with his wonderfully resonant voice, let show the emotional toll that societal injustice had taken on this troubled person.
JPAS also acquitted itself well with Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors, a farce featuring wacky misunderstandings and door-slamming tomfoolery. Directed by native New Orleanian and Met Opera star Anthony Laciura, who mined as much ridiculousness from the script as he could, Tenors showcased Robert Wagner, terrifically switching back and forth in a dual role, and an earnest Jake Wynne-Wilson as a rising operatic tenor with a no-body-fat physique.
Persistence paid off at the Stage Door Canteen where Heather Massie’s one-woman show HEDY! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr finally appeared after a year-plus delay. If a bit on the talky side, HEDY! drew you in by demonstrating how smart a cookie the glamourous Austrian screen actress/inventor was.
Live musical theater performances returned to New Orleans in June with SLT’s Songs for a New World done outdoors at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Polanco Jones, Jr.’s exuberant direction and choreography had a cast of eight using all three levels of the Museum (also known as The Old U.S. Mint) to marvelous effect, and had me asking “Why did it take so long for anyone to do a show there?” If Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle could alternately be called Songs from a Very Heteronormative Perspective, the four main performers (Prentiss E. Mouton, Meredith Owens, Ximone Rose, Adair Watkins) tore into the material with gusto and bountiful talent.
Though I had reservations about Director Jon Greene’s Comedy of Errors done for the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and reset in 1980s South Beach, the performances of Mack Guillory III and Michael Forest (as the twin Antipholuses) and Monica R. Harris, as Forest’s sister-in-law, took these comic characters seriously and, by doing so, brought out their humor and humanity to marvelously touching effect.
I greatly admired José Torres-Tama for producing and hosting the monthly Teatro Sin Fronteras Latin Late Night Live at Café Istanbul. Starting in July and running through December, it presented an appealing mixture of local Latinx musicians, singers and dancers as well as activists from the fields of NOLA’s cultural and social services. The night I saw it, there was tango music, modern dance, and song–all thoroughly entertaining–as well as interviews with Martha Alguera (Voces Unidas: Louisiana Immigrants’ Rights Coalition) and Tania Vidal (LATINE Life) to make for an extremely well-rounded evening.
Le Petit Theatre came back to vibrant life in October with Dear Mr. Williams, Bryan Batt’s fascinating coming of age story as told in counterpoint with some of Tennessee Williams’ writings. Given a handsome production and smooth staging by Director Michael Wilson, this one-man show described Batt’s uniquely NOLA upbringing, including his gradual acceptance of his homosexuality, and was essential viewing for anyone who admired this local son who went on to conquer Broadway, film and television (Mad Men).
Like Le Petit, The NOLA Project had offered some Zoom presentations since the shutdown. Its return to live performances in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden, however, was delayed by Hurricane Ida as, understandably, it took a while for the Museum’s staff to return from their evacuation journeys. Tell It To Me Sweet, though, was well worth the wait.
Brittany N. Williams’ knowing adaptation of five fairy tales and folk stories had audiences rotating around the Garden’s new section, and enjoying each playlet before moving on to the next. Director Torey Hayward elicited pitch perfect performances from his cast of 15, using a style of presentation grounded in heightened, honest emotions that connected characters, actors and viewers.
From the opening “Once upon a time….”, script, direction, acting (especially Jordan Bordenave, Natalie Boyd, Mint Bryan, Keith Claverie, Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk, Monica R. Harris, Jordan Joseph, Annie Phoenix, and Randall MacKenzie Rosenberg), costumes, make-up plus the magical setting itself, all united to leave me helplessly grinning from ear to ear by the final “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Also postponed a couple of times was SuspiriAcqua: A Haunted Water Ballet at the Drifter Hotel. The fourth annual extravaganza by Aqua Mob, New Orleans’ first and only community-based water ballet ensemble, SuspiriAcqua involved strange doings at a dance academy, a mash-up of Black Swan and Esther Williams. If the tale’s plot was somewhat murky, Aqua Mob’s cast and krewe deserved a special award for their synchronized swimming routines, done in chilly weather.
Mudlark Public Theatre, a much-beloved venue in the Marigny, reopened in November with Mahagonny Songspiel. Dennis Monn gave Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht’s astringent “small-scale ‘scenic cantata'” dealing with societal inequities a saucy production filling out its brief running time to an hour by the addition of several more Brecht/Weill songs as lagniappe.
Sure, you can consider those playhouses on the Northshore “community theaters”. Each one of them, however, offered a production this year that ranks among the most outstanding I’ve ever seen.
At Playmakers Theater in Covington, Arden Allen Dufilho jettisoned all of the typical “Southern belle” flourishes that tend to accrue to Amanda Wingfield and, by simply trusting Tennessee Williams’ words, came off as much more believable than other actresses who have “ACTED” the role. Layering the matriarch of The Glass Menagerie with righteousness and a pinch of haughtiness, understandable anger and frustration, as well as an insinuating girlishness that conjured up Amanda’s youth, hers was a flawless performance.
Dufilho was well-matched by Matthew Eli Judd as Tom, the stand-in for Williams himself. A bear of a man, Judd spoke the subtle poetry of Williams’ lines better than any other Tom I’ve seen while balancing, exquisitely, Tom’s anger and the wry humor he uses as a survival tactic. And unlike most Toms, Judd evinced such a heterosexual persona that I was able to overlook the absence of any acknowledgment of Tom’s implicit homosexuality.
Both Jamie Ferguson Lee (Laura) and Jason Smith (Jim aka “the Gentleman Caller”) also delivered admirable performances. Beautifully paced and well-staged by co-Directors Michael Doyle Graves & Anysia Genre, this Menagerie felt less like two-plus hours than a blink of the eye, a snap-of-the-fingers journey that revealed the tortured humanity of four vivid lives.
Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which had underwhelmed me on Broadway, soon followed in late winter at 30 by Ninety Theatre in Mandeville. In this pre-WWII dramedy, under Tom Bubrig’s meticulous direction, the entire cast found the perfect period tone, all sounded like they had just jetted down from Brooklyn, and each member of the company revealed a compassionate humanism in their decent if imperfect characters.
As the 15-year-old, girl- and baseball-obsessed Eugene Jerome, the excellent John Gavin Hodges nailed all the rhythms of Simon’s dialog and found the humor in Eugene’s innocence without ever falling into caricature. Manifesting a stoic, casual demeanor that was utterly natural, Kristina Kingston made a wonderful Kate, Eugene’s mother; when a lifetime of bitterness finally erupted, Kingston astonished with a devastating truthfulness.
The rest of the cast (Stephen Campo, Avery DeFrank, Jason J. Leader, Reese Maguire, Evette Randolph) were all topnotch, and this nearly 40-year-old play proved to be surprisingly and refreshingly timeless.
Although Hurricane Ida had significantly damaged Slidell Little Theater‘s building, that did not stop Director Scott Sauber from creating an absolutely magical production of Matilda. He brought out the gothic darkness in Roald Dahl’s tale and ingeniously intermingled it with the wild humor, romanticism, and supernatural elements that are a vital part of Dahl’s storytelling.
Teresa Fasone gave us a brilliantly complex Matilda full of justifiable indignation and heartfelt yearning, a young girl bursting with the need to tell stories. With a face like an evil toad, John Giraud fashioned an Agatha Trunchbull that rose to Shakespearean evil, someone who truly enjoyed torturing others; at times, Giraud even conjured up scary recollections of our most recent ex-president.
Rebecca McMillan made for a deliciously coarse Mrs. Wormwood; Gary Gilmore and Trenton Gilmore created a knuckleheaded Wormwood pere and fils filled with comic glee and brash stupidity; and Madeleine Appel imbued Miss Honey with so much warmth & compassion that you wanted to give her a big hug. Along with the rest of the cast and choreographer Katie Peck, who crammed the stage with joyousness, athleticism, and youthful independence, this was a revoltingly magnificent production.
After making a notable debut in Ponchatoula last year, RoBenHood Productions moved to Hammond for two shows this year. I detected no sophomore slump.
Ben C. Dougherty’s respectable direction provided a worthy rendering of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (though I’m still not convinced, at an overlong two-and-a-half hours, that this play truly measures up to Pulitzer Prize-winning caliber). Robinson J. Cyprian gave a galvanic portrayal as the more tragic of the two desperate brothers.
Even better was Reverse Negative, a buffet of one-act plays done at The Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts (the night I saw it, unfortunately, one had to be cancelled due to an actor’s illness). Featuring short offbeat works by Neil LaBute, David Ives, and Marco Ramirez; highly effective direction by Dougherty, Cyprian, and Benjamin Norman, respectively; and an ace cast (Payton Core/Jonathan Damare, Elizabeth Beagley/Liam Sawyer McCarty, Isaiah Smith/Taylor Larche), Reverse Negative provided a crackling evening of edgy theater.
Edgy theater had been lacking on the Southshore for the past few seasons even before the pandemic shut things down. I’m thus happy to report that just before year’s end, two troupes–one new, the other new-ish–ramped up the edginess quotient here.
Founded by Bennett Kirschner, Intramural Theater has been around for six years. Apostles of Everest, an “Original Devised Piece” at The Fortress of Lushington, was its most accomplished effort yet.
If the script engrossingly explored such themes as governmental control of private citizens, capitalism run amok, and environmental disaster, it did so through the lens of two intriguingly odd couples who come together in an isolated houseboat community. Comic drama? Dramatic comedy? Either way, Apostles’ quirky plot ultimately didn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Making up for his Comedy of Errors with outstanding work here, Director Jon Greene kept the pace from ever lagging, knowingly mixed naturalistic & heightened styles of acting, and brought this new work to life with an acute sensitivity. The entire cast (Frenchie Faith, Joshua James, Lydia Stein, and Kirschner) did well by not overplaying their characters’ oddities.
Debuting earlier this month, Foxtrot Stage Productions aims “to inspire conversations that activate community engagement and elevate LGBTQIA and BIPOC artists to the forefront of New Orleans theater,” a worthy goal. I’m not sure if its premiere production, Killing Christmas, will achieve all that, but, with its wildly diverse cast, it’s certainly an auspicious start.
A dysfunctional family comedy written by Ben Fox, Killing Christmas had enough characters, including friends returning from the dead, and storylines to fuel a soap opera for a few months. It also had an overabundance of exposition at the start, much too static staging by a trio of directors (Samantha V Rohr, Lindsay Kaufman, and Fox), and amateurish acting (one exception: Natalia Nia Faulk who brought things to life whenever she was on).
BUT as Killing Christmas proceeded and the plot kicked in, slowly but surely, to motion and exposition gave way to timeless questions about life & death, I found myself being drawn into its absurdist story and wondering how it would eventually turn out. Unfortunately then, I had to leave at intermission as I was freezing and felt a cold coming on, a victim of the play being performed in the patio of Poor Boys Bar in the 7th Ward and my being underdressed due to the temperature dropping precipitously after I had headed out earlier in the day.
If Killing Christmas becomes an annual tradition, I’ll certainly be back next year for Act Two. In any case, I look forward to future Foxtrot entertainments and wish them the best of luck.
As usual, productions at universities around town offered some of the year’s most satisfying theatrical experiences.
At Loyola University, Cadillac Crew focused on an overlooked part of history, namely women’s contributions to the civil rights movement. Lauren E. Turner’s accomplished direction propelled the action along while expertly shaping terrific performances from her four young actresses (Demyria Bell, Eden Camille James, Aaliyah Thompson, Jada Williams).
Loyola also scored with the local premiere of Stop Kiss, Diana Son’s exploration of an incipient lesbian relationship between two young women that is halted by violence just as it begins to blossom. Though the play’s action jumps around in time, Salvatore Mannino & Baylee Robertson’s precise direction kept the story always clear, and elicited a luminous performance from Aria Jackson as one of the would-be lovers at a crossroads in her career and romantic life.
UNO’s outdoor Amphitheater provided the setting for Directors Maggie Tonra and Richon May’s imaginative realization of Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl’s take on the oft-told tale of Orpheus and his wife. As Eurydice, Josie Oliva was coyly charming, bringing out the heroine’s intelligence and headstrongness. Drew Stroud manifested deep paternal concern as Eurydice’s Father and, together, they brought to life the play’s emotional centerpiece with a touching delicacy.
It was still spring, and thus not many people had been vaccinated yet, when Dillard University presented Tongues of the Pandemic/Protest online. Directed by Ray Vrazel, this series of original, student-written monologues was an impassioned cri de coeur from young people dealing with both the Covid pandemic as well as Black Lives Matter protests.
Tulane University began its season with She Kills Monsters, Qui Nguyen’s dramedy which uses a Dungeons & Dragons setting to explore how outsiders, both sexual minorities and those who are physically challenged, may use such fantasy games as wish fulfillment escapism.
Director John “Ray” Proctor and his entire cast, (particularly Grace Patterson in the lead role and Emily Robinett and Madi Bolin in key smaller ones) made all of Monsters’ twists and turns utterly pellucid by entirely committing to the characters and situations, filling the former with personality and the latter with vitality.
Tulane ended 2021 with Eclipsed by Patricia Burke Brogan, a drama set in the 1960s about the real-life hardships and brutal situations that occurred in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries run by the Roman Catholic Church to correct the behaviors of “fallen women”, i.e., woman who had children out of wedlock.
If no one actress stood out in Monica Payne’s heartbreaking production, with its subdued lighting (by Vlad Ghinea) and haunting musical interludes (Amy Pfrimmer, Music Director), credit an ensemble that worked superbly together to show the tragic consequences of religious do-good-ism run amok.
In between, the University presented one of the finest shows of this or any other season.
Alice Childress’ searing Trouble in Mind examines not merely overt racism, but its subtler forms and the effect they have on those who have to deal with them. It does this through the backstage goings-on during rehearsals for a Broadway play, a melodrama about race relations in the Jim Crow South. Childress’ script is as relevant now as when it debuted off-Broadway in 1955.
Proctor again directed and I was mightily impressed with his production which captured Childress’ indignation and humor, and exquisitely delineated the opposing forces in her play.
By coincidence, Trouble in Mind was about to have its Broadway debut and I was able to see it when I was in New York for Thanksgiving. Though a justly heralded production, in some ways Tulane’s was even better; it benefitted from being in a smaller, more intimate space and Tulane students Jared Goudsmit, as the play-within-the-play’s director, and Asher McCleary, as a young Black actor, along with veteran performer Robert A. Mitchell, as a more experienced Black thespian, outshone their Broadway counterparts. And if, in the lead role, Aiyana Thomas didn’t quite match Tony-winner LaChanze, who stars in NYC, she came awfully close for someone who is one-third the age of a character that requires a life’s worth of experience to wholly portray.
In addition to institutions of higher learning, exciting work was also being done in some of our area’s secondary schools.
In April at Hahnville High Theatre, Director Megan Harms used an abridged, 95-minute version of Romeo and Juliet which sacrificed none of Shakespeare’s plot points, and staged the tragedy outdoors in a sylvan-lite setting, utilizing the trees and the rest of the landscape with prodigious imagination and wit. I’ll not soon forget her having Romeo paddle his way across the adjacent pond in a rowboat as he approached Juliet in the famed balcony scene.
Adam Vedros, delivered a nigh-perfect, age-appropriate long-haired Romeo. Mopey and lovestruck one moment, charming the next, and ready to fight when necessary, his was an organic portrait of young manliness struck by urgent passion. Though there was not a weak link in the cast, Taelor Bailey stood out in the key role of Friar Laurence, effectively getting all the nuances out of her lines, as did Kate Faucheux, who rendered an impressive Queen Mab speech as Mercutio.
In May, NOCCA’s Drama Department presented a Zoom version of Leigh Fondakowski’s SPILL about the BP Gulf oil disaster. Nine years after its stage debut, SPILL came off as both an important reminder of recent history, and a prescient alarm of what the future could hold. Online, with its more intimate, literally in-your-face format, it became more emotionally powerful sooner and held your attention till the end.
Directing her own script, Fondakowski expertly guided her extraordinary student cast of nine (Eli Barron, Kayla Elder, Will Ettinger, Ian Faul, Audrey Gold, Rosaria Jackson-Shipps, Myana Myrick, Amalia Perez Lam, Ava Pezant) to finely nuanced performances as, chameleon-like, they metamorphosed from one character to the next, portraying rig workers, their parents & wives, scientists, fishermen, and other members of the community engulfed by this disaster.
In early spring, New Orleans Opera (NOO) was also online with a streamed production of Menotti’s The Medium starring Metropolitan Opera veteran Victoria Livengood, ideally cast as Madame Flora, a bogus psychic, and New Orleans’ own Sarah Jane McMahon who, with radiant presence and lush voice, fashioned Monica, Flora’s daughter, as the voice of reason against her mother’s excesses. A gripping tale compellingly directed by James Marvel.
Shortly after that, NOO returned to live performances with a condensed, concert version of Porgy and Bess done at Audubon Park’s Newman Bandstand. Featuring a fantastic cast, what a treat to hear Gershwin’s soaring melodies in a lovely setting under the stars. In November, NOO finally came back to giving live indoor performances with Act One of Die Walküre at The Mahalia Jackson Theater.
After 20 months, Broadway shows returned to the Saenger Theatre with thoroughly entertaining touring productions of Tootsie and Cats. And if the charms of Anaïs Mitchell’s Tony-winning Hadestown escape me for the most part, I certainly enjoyed it more here than on Broadway courtesy of an Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) and Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) whom actually generated a passionate chemistry between them, and a Hermes (Levi Kreis) who provided a vivifying energy as he conducted souls between Earth and the Underworld.
Sadly, some members of the New Orleans theater community took their final bows this year.
Gregory Johnson moved to New Orleans to join his wife, playwright Anita Vatshell, and went on to direct the 2019 production of Kurt Opprecht’s Dos Coyotes at the Fortress of Lushington. He was the friendliest of people and always had a smile on his face.
Mark P. Burton’s resume spanned over four decades on stage including Lettice And Lovage, Damn Yankees, At The Club Toot Sweet On Bourbon Street, Cabaret, Urinetown, The Boys Next Door, Prelude To A Kiss, and, perhaps most memorably, The Normal Heart.
Actor/director/producer Michael Martin gave towering performances as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and James Tyrone, Sr., in Long Day’s Journey into Night; did shows everywhere including the cluttered back room of a N. Rampart storefront and a second floor space in a rickety Bywater building; organized annual daylong readings of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets; and energized many, many other things.
Adella Gautier was perhaps best known for her alter ego “Adella Adella the Storyteller” who spun folk tales to the delight of children of all ages, but she also gave unforgettable performances in such shows as 70, Girls, 70, HouseWarming, Gem of the Ocean, and Bourbon at the Border, among many others.
Jim O’Quinn, founding editor-in-chief of American Theatre, had recently begun serving with me on the Big Easy Theater Committee when the pandemic shutdown occurred. A native Louisianian, he made his mark away from here and, having retired to New Orleans, I had been looking forward to working with him for many years to come.
They shall all be missed.
On a happier note, in addition to those already mentioned above, other praiseworthy folks who trod the boards in 2021 include: Rebekah Alphonso, Jonathan Damare (Rent, 30 by Ninety Theatre); Skylar Broussard, Larry Johnson, Jr. (Little Shop Of Horrors, Slidell Little Theater); Arden Dubret (13 the Musical, Swamplight Theater); Ken Goode, Chase Kamata (Jesus Christ Superstar, SLT); Tom Hassinger, Courtney Calato Lee, Cashel Rodriguez, Alan Talbott (Clue, 30 by Ninety Theatre); Ayvah Johnson, Jeremy Lloyd, Mariah Strickland (Once on This Island, Slidell Little Theater); Clark Long (Matilda); JaQuan Monroe-Henderson (Hoodoo Love, UNO); Sebastian Phillips (Stop Kiss); and Sarah Ryals (Wedding Secrets, Playmakers Theater).
As the curtain rises on 2022, let’s hope everyone gets vaccinated and boosted and that no more variants emerge; that hurricanes, tropical storms and their ilk stay far away from us; and that our theatrical stages come roaring back to pre-pandemic levels of activity.