Year in Review
I don’t think anyone will be sorry to see the curtain coming down on 2020.
In this year-like-no-other, theaters and other performing arts venues throughout our area were forced to shut down in mid-March. For about two months after that, it seemed as though the light that usually shines so brightly on the arts here had gone off as local artistic directors and other producers figured out how to proceed in the “new normal”.
Theater people are an amazingly resilient bunch, however. Without minimizing the incredible challenges that COVID-19 brought and that continue to confront us, slowly but surely theater returned here.
First came Zoom benefits, readings and cabarets. Beginning in July, live theater, with venues employing strict COVID-19 precautions, returned first on the North Shore and then, later, to Jefferson Parish. By October, Orleans Parish saw its first live performance, a limited outdoor one, with another open-air show, appealing to a broader crowd, entertaining audiences during the holidays.
This, along with the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, gives hope that things will return to a pre-pandemic regularity, ameliorated, I hope, by a long overdue reckoning, precipitated by George Floyd’s killing, of systemic racism in NOLA’s theaters with some organizations taking hard, inward looks.
It will be many months, however, before this is likely to be fully realized and the results seen. Theater staffs have been furloughed. Revenue streams have been cut off causing budgets to be slashed. Planning is nearly impossible as COVID-19-imposed restrictions, or the threat of them, continue to bedevil us.
But more on what 2021 holds for us later. First, I’d like to look back at this past year’s bifurcated season with an emphasis on what caused us to applaud in the past 12 months.
The year began with Nari Tomassetti’s 3 Ring Circus at the Old Iron Works which featured a wonderfully bizarre love story, a pop/rock score (by Luke Oleen-Junk), and classic circus acts all put forth with blazing imagination, theatrical flair, and that only-in-NOLA “je ne sais quoi”. Theater stalwarts Chris Wecklein, Allee Peck and Owen Ever meshed beautifully with a krewe of alternative/performance/circus artists in this 50-minute extravaganza which should someday become NOLA’s own year-round spiegeltent.
Following 2018’s The Stranger Disease, Goat in the Road Productions presented another successful immersive historical drama. Set and performed in Gallier House, The Uninvited explored how a real-life incident might have impacted the actual Gallier family and their household staff members. Taking us back nearly 150 years, lead writers and directors Chris Kaminstein and Kiyoko McCrae created a phenomenal intimacy between actors & audience members who could decide which character(s) to follow throughout the 1859 home. Seeing this story of race and class in its actual setting provided an ineffably powerful authenticity which its ensemble (Brian Egland, Shannon Flaherty, Darci Jens Fulcher, Tenaj Jackson, Grace Kennedy, Ian Hoch, Dylan Hunter, April Louise, Jessica Lozano) marvelously brought to life.
I had no idea what to expect from The NOLA Project‘s production of Sigrid Gilmer’s “science fiction, historical drama, and comedic farce” Harry and the Thief at the CAC. It turned out that this time-traveling, genre-bender involving Harriet Tubman and a modern-day gunrunner provoked thought and elicited belly-hurting laughs, a winning combination. Making his directorial debut, Khiry Armstead guided his pitch perfect cast (Samantha Beaulieu, Te’Era Coleman, Wayland Cooper, Maryam Fatima Foye, Lucas Harms, Monica R. Harris, Michael Pepp, Gavin Robinson, Matthew Thompson, Brittany N. Williams) with an awesomely sure hand, steering the play through its hairpin stylistic/thematic curves with precision.
Le Petit gave a long overdue local debut to Something Rotten!, Baton Rouge natives Wayne & Karey Kirkpatrick’s zany musical romp set in Elizabethan times that purports to give the backstory of how musical comedies came to be. Director Michael McKelvey and Choreographer Jaune Buisson provided a gorgeous, first class production, featuring Glenn Avery Breed’s sumptuous costumes and Steve Schepker’s fabulous Renaissance-inspired set. Keith Claverie, Leslie Claverie, Kyle Daigrepont, Matthew Michael Janisse, Sean Patterson, Richard Spitaletta, Maggie Windler, and Bryan DeMond as the preening Shakespeare, all shined in roles comic, romantic, comical-romantic, and even tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.
At NOCCA, Phyllis Treigle staged a magnificent production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for the Classical Vocal Department; her simple and clear direction superbly conveyed the characters’ various emotions. A’farrah Wallace (Dido), Arwen Morley-Zender (Aeneas), Lauren Albano (Dido’s Lady in Waiting), and Sarah Schexnayder (the evil Sorceress) lead a cast of their fellow students who dispatched Purcell’s difficult music with ease and beauty.
Similarly, the students at Hahnville High School delivered a terrific production of Matilda The Musical under the expert guidance of Director Megan Harms, Music Director Craig Matherne and Choreographer Laila Harding (then a junior at HHS). Headlining the talented cast were Abby Matherne, Kadin Gaubert, Billy Davis, Kate Faucheux, Ayme Melancon, and, in a small but pivotal role, Adam Vedros, all of whom made you think you were watching a professional bus and truck tour that just happened to have stopped in Boutte.
Back in NOLA at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, We’ll Meet Again paid tribute to the blonde bombshell singers of that era. Sean Patterson’s well-researched and amiable script acknowledged both household names (Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Peggy Lee) and some whose stars have faded (Helen Forest, Martha Tilton, Jo Stafford) with deserving admiration. Thru 70 lovely minutes, Hannah Rachal, who also directed, performed a cornucopia of songs with charm and a beautiful voice. In this two-person show, Bryce Slocumb aced all his numbers and, together, he and Rachal shared a true comradely chemistry.
And then things went dark.
Over 70 shows were cancelled or postponed from See ‘Em On Stage’s gender-reversed Driving Miss Daisy to New Orleans Opera’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird to Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane’s entire season (Follies/Legally Blonde/Evita) to the national tour of the Broadway hit Moulin Rouge which was to have rehearsed here and begun its journey at the Saenger Theatre. Perhaps none was I looking forward to more than No Dream Deferred’s local premiere of Robert (Barbecue) O’Hara’s wicked satire/scalding drama Bootycandy having loved it when I saw it in NYC in 2014.
Eventually, Zoom, and its other online/virtual cousins, became the new norm.
Tulane’s Musical Theatre Workshop kicked things off at the beginning of May with Zooming with Sondheim, a virtual cabaret in honor of the master’s 90th birthday. The NOLA Project added a new chapter to its video game-inspired saga with Oregon Trail 2. Southern Rep‘s long-running soap opera Debauchery!, penned by Pat Bourgeois, moved online. Summer Lyric Theatre hosted Virtually On the Air, a benefit evening of show tunes, while Crescent City Stage presented a reading of Richard Vetere’s This Living Hand.
Rivertown Theaters involved viewers with its “Quarantunes Challenge”, an online musical entertainment via a singing contest. Goat in the Road’s 11th Annual Play/Write Showcase went virtual and featured 14 student scripts produced by eight local theater companies. Readings of John Biguenet’s “Katrina Trilogy” (Rising Water, Shotgun, Mold) aired on Alan Smason’s YouTube channel. The Tennessee Williams Festival did a starry benefit entitled, natch, The Kindness of Strangers.
Best of all, for delivering a humorous take on these depressing times, was Running with Scissors’ Grenadine in Quarantine in which the dysfunctional McGunkle family and assorted friends dealt with the pandemic in their own unique way. Its 9½ minutes of laughs is still available at www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1522650211229974. I just wish they would come up with more episodes.
Finally, in mid-July, live theater returned to the area when Mandeville’s 30 by Ninety Theatre reopened with The Hallelujah Girls. Temperatures were taken upon arrival. Staff and audience members wore masks. Hand sanitizer was supplied. Seating was socially distant. And the show went on to a full house.
Concerning a group of women’s romantic and business challenges, Hallelujah Girls, with its endearing cast led by Laurie Bonura, offered likeable comedy at a time when such froth served as a vital tonic. Plus, it granted audiences the added thrill of seeing three-dimensional people in real time sharing the same space as their fellow actors, something we had previously taken for granted.
Other shows followed over the next few months including the showbiz send-up Pete’n’Keely at Slidell’s dinner theater Café Luke (its final production, unfortunately, for reasons only partly related to the pandemic); an enjoyable The Odd Couple at Playmakers Theater in Covington; and the ever-timely 12 Angry Men, also at 30 by Ninety. Later, during the holiday season two other theaters came back to life, Slidell Little Theatre with the wacky A Twisted Christmas Carol, and JPAS in Metairie with a beguiling revival of Kenneth Beck’s 2019 production of The Nutcracker.
Though I haven’t yet had an opportunity to visit it, Rivertown Theaters in Kenner also turned its lights back on beginning in the summer with a live production of the comic Meemaw Mystery Theatre, followed by Lisa Picone Love’s cabaret Lisa Sings Lee (as in Peggy), the epistolary two-hander dramedy Love Letters, and A Charlie Brown Christmas Live on Stage!
I did have a chance to go to Ponchatoula where I encountered the Swamplight Theater for the first time. Well, kinda, as a new, young theater company was presenting The Pillowman, Martin McDonough’s campfire terror tale about our desperate need to tell stories, under its auspices.
Director Robinson J. Cyprian and his topnotch leads (Jonathan Damare, Ben C. Dougherty, Hans Heilmann, and, particularly, Christin J. Prince) did a crackerjack job with this challenging work. I look forward to seeing more of all of them as well as Swamplight’s own productions when it resumes programming in the spring.
Closer to home, assuming home is in Orleans Parish, Southern Rep started off the year with a worthy production of Ntozake Shange’s adaptation of Mother Courage and her Children, directed by Chivas Michael, but then, even before the coronavirus struck, faced money challenges and had to cancel its next show, Steve Yockey’s Reykjavik. Since then, the company has seemingly gotten itself on firmer footing and has invited a number of other theater companies to share its historic building on Bayou Road.
Southern Rep’s biggest change this year, however, was the fall announcement that Aimée Hayes, its Producing Artistic Director since 2008, would be stepping down. In her 12 years helming the company, Hayes acted in and directed many memorable productions; championed new plays, working tirelessly with the National New Play Network; established the 6×6 series of 10-minute plays and then the 3×3 series of one-acts which I had the pleasure of participating in; and, perhaps most importantly, kept the theater going after it lost its offices and then theater space in Canal Place and began its odyssey through numerous temporary venues.
Over a multi-year period, Hayes searched for a permanent home and then oversaw the major renovation of the former St. Rose de Lima Church. Though Hayes will continue to support Southern Rep during its transitional period, after all this, her retirement can’t be said to be a total surprise, especially as her husband, Tim Sanford, had also recently stepped down after many years as Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons in New York. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.
As Southern Rep’s Board of Directors conducts a search for an interim executive director, programming has recently begun online with The Pop-Up, a continuation of 6×6 with the addition of musical pieces, and Mandatory Merriment: This Time It’s Virtual, a new edition of Leslie Castay and Ian Hoch’s popular holiday show.
Other theater companies had established an online presence sooner. Le Petit began broadcasting a series of radio plays in May, but really hit its stride in the fall with Anthology of Negro Poets, a live-streamed adaptation of a 1954 record album composed of six of the 20th century’s most esteemed Black poets each reciting two of their works; narrowed down to five poets, Director Kenna J. Moore staged a hauntingly imaginative half hour version in and around Le Petit’s building. I look forward to seeing future projects of Moore’s.
Following Poets, Le Petit kicked off a wonderful live virtual cabaret series with Just Getting Good featuring Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, whom I had been unfamiliar with, and Crazy World featuring Leslie Castay, whom I’ve enjoyed onstage for many years. Monteleone’s immensely likable 45-minute set boasted soulful blues and bluesy rock numbers. Castay’s similarly timed gig gave us a thoroughly enjoyable profusion of show tunes and classics from the Great American Songbook; highlights included the naughty I Never Do Anything Twice from A Little Night Music and the very nice Beautiful City, an overlooked gem from Godspell. I hope this series continues.
Le Petit finished the year with an original holiday confection, A Nola Noël, a live outdoor musical which toured to Abita Springs, Metairie and, lastly, the Broadside Theatre along the Lafitte Greenway where I saw this family friendly, time-traveling, jolly bagful of NOLAness. Though it dealt with a young boy’s encounter with a kindly stranger with a white beard named Nick (hint hint), the only really odd thing about it was listening to characters complain about 90-degree weather in December as my toes chilled in that evening’s 45 degrees!
In October, The Nola Project introduced its PodPlays monthly series of new 30-60 minute audio stories that combine the new trend of podcasts with the old-fashioned radio play. The first group of playwrights (podwrights?) have been James Bartelle, Pete McElligott, Gab Reisman, and Brittany N. Williams. For holiday lagniappe, A.J. Allegra’s Rated-R Christmas Carol put an irreverent spin on you-know-what.
Although The Radical Buffoons spent a good deal of time thinking about systemic racism and restructuring in response to it over the past nine months, its Giving Tuesdays Alone-a-thon fundraisers presented all sorts of creativity on an hourly basis for 24 hours. I believe much of this fun and offbeat content can still be found on its website (www.radicalbuffoons.com).
Similarly, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans has “restructured and reflected” while also presenting in October a Zoom version of Aristophanes’ classic anti-war comedy Lysistrata, which is no less relevant for being 2,500 year old.
As always, some of the most significant work of the year was presented by our local universities.
Loyola University’s Department of Theatre Arts distinguished itself with the first live performance in Orleans Parish since March with its Theatre For One: For This Moment which offered five brief playlets seen consecutively at four outdoor sites around campus and one indoor one (for a video presentation). Each masked member of this audience-limited show was guided individually by a masked docent from one presentation to the next, each one (except for the video) performed by a masked solo actor.
If all but one of the playlets seemed a bit thin, more a snippet or a musing than a fully formed piece, I loved the overall approach, and greatly admired Sal Mannino, Loyola Theater Department’s new Artistic Director, Patrick Gendusa, the Chair of the Department, the production’s Creative Director Helen Jaksch, and its entire cast & crew for pulling it off under unique circumstances, including the rumble of passing streetcars.
I loved without any caveats UNO’s Theatre Program’s opening production of the fall semester, Single Black Female. Working in a Zoom format, Director Richon May made Lisa B. Thompson’s 1999 play about the hopes, aspirations, joys & frustrations of 30something African American middle-class women in urban America seem fresh as today’s news despite an occasional outdated cultural reference or two in the script. Although as the titular SBFs Alexandria Miles and Danielle James, both extraordinary, were separated virtually, so in synch were they that, along with May and her expert design team led by Diane Baas, they created a tremendously fluid, intimate production that seemed tailor-made for this Zoom era.
Other university productions included the popular She Kills Monsters from Delgado and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, also from UNO, a refreshing change from the mostly contemporary works that had been done this year.
Sadly, the New Orleans theater community lost two of its most beloved members within a week of each other just this month.
Having recently been part of one of The NOLA Project PodPlays, Carol Sutton succumbed to COVID-19 after a valiant fight against the virus. If it’s easy to remember this brilliant actress’ final bravura stage appearance as the matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun where she was by turns, feisty, stern, & mothering, and full of resolute anger, determined pride, & unconditional love, Sutton’s huge body of work over 5+ decades bears witness to a magnificent, protean talent.
Beginning with the Dashiki Project Theater, Sutton would go on to become a mainstay of the Anthony Bean Community Theater. She worked all over town, however, from Le Petit (the Stage Manager in Our Town among other productions) to Le Chat Noir (numerous one-act play festivals) to the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company (her award-winning role in Camino Real); in one five-month stretch she starred in three plays (The Old Settler, The Last Madam, Callie’s Tally). She could do both comedy and drama–and did so in films and TV as well–but, in addition to better known works, she could also be seen in such quirky offerings as Tom Eyen’s campy satire Women Behind Bars and Charles Mee’s experimental bobrauschenbergamerica as well as in numerous original plays and readings.
Perhaps as important as her achievements on stage, Carol Sutton was the warmest, kindest, most generous and most forgiving person you could ever hope to meet. On a personal note, I will greatly miss our middle-of-the-night Facebook IM chats.
Sherri Marina, who lost her battle with cancer at the too young age of 51, may not have had as extensive a resume as Sutton but that’s due, in part, to her tenure as Chair of Dillard University’s Theater Department where she taught and mentored legions of young people. While I wish Marina had had more roles worthy of her, she was always memorable whether starring in Pink Collar Crime, one of the first post-Katrina plays, or in such featured roles as Gonzalo in The Tempest or Master Sunflower in The Lily’s Revenge, a favorite part of hers.
Marina, who notably appeared in the hit film Girls Trip and was also a dedicated member of Actors’ Equity Association, always had a smile on her face, enveloping all around her with her natural radiance. And she was the most fun person to dish with.
Other losses this year include Reneé Saussaye, a vital member of Slidell Little Theatre whose dazzling performance in 45 Seconds from Broadway I’ll never forget; Tory Andrus, who excelled on multiple local stages (King Hedley II, Eubie!, Smokey Joe’s Café, Okra, Rent) in the mid-2000s before moving on to NYC and LA; and distinguished opera singer and teacher Ruth Falcon, a native New Orleanian with degrees from Loyola and Tulane, whose Metropolitan Opera debut in Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten I was fortunate to see. All of these artists shall be missed.
On a happier note, in addition to those already mentioned above, some other praiseworthy folks who trod the boards in 2020 include: Nicole Barwick, Erin Kate Young (The Odd Couple); Helen Blanke (The Mousetrap, JPAS); Michael D. Graves, Jennifer Patterson (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Playmakers Theater); Tom Hassinger (12 Angry Men); Tom Hook (A Nola Noël); Lori Molinary (Pete’n’Keely); Sarah Nansubuga, Elexis Selmon (Mother Courage and her Children); and Gary Rucker (Oliver, Rivertown Theaters).
Helping to keep me sane throughout these past months were two phenomenal series available worldwide but with some ties to NOLA.
Starting on March 16, The Metropolitan Opera broadcast a Nightly Opera Stream from its archives. From Handel’s Agrippina, the earliest opera in the Met’s repertoire, to Kurt Weill’s 20th century masterpiece The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (which happened to be my two favorites) plus lotsa Bohemes, Carmens, Aida’s and Traviata’s, The Met provided world class entertainment for free. NOLA connection? Rising stars Bryan Hymel and Lisette Oropesa, and the late Charles Anthony, who holds the all-time record for most performances at the Met, all made appearances and all are native New Orleanians.
And nearly every Sunday night since the end of May, Marc Cortale has presented The Seth Concert Series starring Seth Rudetsky and a cast of dozens of Broadway’s finest musical comedy stars. Similar to Cortale’s exceptional series Broadway@NOCCA, performers who have appeared live (generally, from their living rooms) to chat about their careers with Rudetsky and sing songs from shows they’ve been in include Ana Gasteyer, Audra McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, Jessie Mueller, Judy Kuhn, LaChanze, Lillias White, Megan Hilty, and Norm Lewis. While nearly all have expressed what a thrill it is to perform again, even without an audience, the joy they’ve spread by allowing a 90-minute escape from this crazy world has been incalculable.
In closing, I want to thank all the theater artists who contributed a PAST PRESENT FUTURE article to this column: A.J. Allegra/The NOLA Project; Jon Greene/The Radical Buffoons; Augustin J Correro and Nick Shackleford/The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company; Anthony Bean/Anthony Bean Community Theater; Chris Kaminstein and Shannon Flaherty/Goat in the Road; Michael McKelvey/Summer Lyric Theatre and Tulane Musical Theatre Workshop; Tommye Myrick/Voices in the Dark Repertory Theatre Company; and C. Patrick Gendusa/Loyola’s Department of Theatre Arts. I greatly appreciate your sharing how you managed to sustain your companies during this singular time.
So what’s next? Will audiences come back? When? At what capacity? 25%? 50%? More? Will this be enough to allow theaters to survive? I am cautiously optimistic that the answer to that last question will be “Yes” as theater has managed for thousands of years and the need to come together to share this communal experience seems to be a primal urge or necessity. As the curtain rises on 2021, let’s hope our theaters will meet this newest of challenges and continue to spread laughter, thought-provoking ideas, and lots of joyousness.