CAVE at The Backyard Ballroom through January 27
In my 2022 Year in Review column, I lamented that a certain “NOLA quirkiness” had been missing from the season just ended.
Well, leave it to Intramural Theater, which once gave us a play about a young guy sexually involved with an air conditioner, to start the new year off with some of that quirkiness with its newest production, CAVE, playing at The Backyard Ballroom.
Adam Tourek’s incredibly realistic set, with its hanging stalactites, takes us a mile into the Long Tooth Caverns. Adrienne, an aspiring auteur (C.A. Munn) and Zoe, a scientist (Anna Karina Delage), along with Adrienne’s assistant and younger sister Crowbar (Mary Claire Davis), have spelunked through the caverns to investigate the disappearance some years back of a group of researchers who went into those caves and never came back.
Adrienne has hopes of creating a tantalizing film that she can sell to the National Geographic channel; Zoe wants their cinematic efforts to stick closer to the facts. Drama percolates between the two of them and, Adriene and Crowbar have some sister issues. All bets are off, though, once they discover the odd but not stupid Sean (Benjamin Dougherty) who may have been one of those lost researchers and now is the keeper of the cave.
Billed as “an original devised play” with Munn as “playwright”, CAVE reminded me of some horror/spooky films where the build-up is better than the denouement, which here is a bit of a mishigas. The journey that gets you there, however, is so wild and imaginative that you don’t really mind.
I suspect Munn & Co.’s tongues are somewhat in cheek as they spin out the tale’s mystery and we discover that the cave itself has a personality and is “capable of things you’ve never dreamed of.” CAVE remains just serious enough, though, that those who wish to believe in its enigmas can certainly leave the theater being able to do so.
Director Bennett Kirschner does a great job of cross-cutting back and forth as the women split up to explore the cave and sustains a high tension throughout. Stephen Thurber’s atmospheric lighting design keeps things dark enough to establish a suitably mysterious mood yet we can always see what’s going on. Bobby Burvant has created a superb sound design to accompany the action, with its dripping water and constant low thrumming.
Davis aptly brings out the dry humor in Crowbar. While I can imagine more nuanced performances than Munn’s or Delage’s, their lack of polish is well-suited for a budding movie director and a young speleologist.
Dougherty, tho, who is fast becoming one of this town’s most valuable actors, crafts a finely detailed and eerie portrait of a man who’s been away from society for a long time and who answers to a higher master than most of us will ever know. His performance allows us to believe in all the weirdness that has been devised.
I’m pleased to see that Otter’s Backyard Ballroom is open for business again. And I’m equally pleased that NOLA’s quirky groove is back.
[For tickets and further information, go to https://www.intramuraltheater.org/cave]
Cry it Out at Loyola’s Marquette Hall through February 9
In Crescent City Stage’s production of Cry it Out, Tenea Intriago and Elizabeth Newcomer both give lovely, touching, multifaceted performances as mothers of infant children. It is Mary Thornton’s performance, however, as another neighbor with a very different attitude toward her recently born child, who I’ll remember for many seasons to come.
Lina (Intriago) and Jessie (Newcomer) are both “stuck at home”, as one of them puts it, with their babies, but that’s where their similarity ends. Jessie is a corporate lawyer, married to a man who comes from an upper class background. Lina works at a hospital; she has a partner, but they’re just getting by. Jessie’s mother-in-law has a house next door to hers that she hopes Jessie and her hubby will buy. Lina’s in-law “drinks a whole box of wine every two days.” Lina accurately describes herself as “loud”; Jessie tends to be quieter. Despite these differences, though, these neighbors soon become fast friends.
Adrienne (Thornton) has no interest in becoming friends with either of them. Stylishly costumed by Jahise Lebouef, she’s a terribly chic jewelry designer, about to launch a line at Barneys. She exhibits little interest in her child. Her husband Mitchell has asked Lina and Jessie to welcome her into their daily kaffeeklatsch. She bristles at the very idea.
You don’t often see a character like Adrienne on stage and Thornton plays her with just the right mix of snobbiness, chilliness and prickliness. After listening to Lina and Jessie banter for a half hour, Adrienne brings a needed jolt of electricity to the stage.
As Cry it Out continues, playwright Molly Smith Metzler explores the challenges new mothers face as they deal with partners, careers, money, and their own emotional well-being. It’s an absolutely valid topic that deserves to be spotlighted and, ultimately, as these women confront an often unsupportive reality, I found this play to be quite moving. Metzler writes engaging dialog and has created two main characters that one can easily empathize with, especially given the charming, if different, qualities that Intriago and Newcomer bring to each of them.
Yet Metzler’s storytelling can feel manufactured and inorganic, her dramaturgy more movie-of-the-week than vital drama. Except when Adrienne comes on to confront Lina and Jessie (she especially doesn’t like it that someone suggested she’s suffering from “postpartum depression”), the script’s conflicts involve characters that never appear on stage. Mitchell, who we do see, is saddled, at first, with some bizarre behavior and, later, with an exposition-fueled monolog; LeBaron Thornton (no relation to Mary), who conveyed a caring warmth as the Headmaster in last year’s Choir Boy, does all he can with this thankless role.
Director Jana Mestecky, fortunately, brings the proper tempo to the script so that the proceedings never lag and has guided her actresses to give fearless, unsentimental performances.
While I’m sure the folks at Crescent City Stage (Newcomer and Mestecky are its Co-Artistic Directors) had worthy reasons for choosing to do Cry it Out, I just wish they had selected a play with more weight to it. For example, Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane covers some of the same territory as Cry it Out, but in a more powerful and substantial way. And I can certainly imagine Newcomer as its mother who’s caring for a chronically ill young son with an incredible grace.
As for Cry it Out, watching it I couldn’t help but think it would’ve been cutting edge theater in 1983, not so much now. Sadly, tho, forty years later, the complex issues it addresses are still with us today.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.crescentcitystage.com/cry-it-out]
The Color Purple at Le Petit through February 5
As Taylor James’ much-oppressed Celie sang the penultimate song in The Color Purple at Le Petit recently, something miraculous occurred. Like much of the rest of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s score, I’m Here is a rather quotidian number, in this case one of self-affirmation.
Yet James’ interpretation of it took it, and through the alchemical magic of great theater, transformed it into true art, a cri de cœur of self-realization as well as self-worth that communicated a bone-deep existential awareness of her too long-overlooked value as a human being. You could feel the emotional heat rise in Le Petit as she sang it.
This capped James’ triumphant performance as she beautifully charted Celie’s internal growth without ever overplaying or wading into sentimentality. While stoically absorbing the abuse Celie must endure, in other moments James would cock her head to the side, a seemingly small gesture, but one which neatly represented how Celie took in and processed all that was going on around her. Celie may be a mostly passive character, but James’ depiction of her made clear how she gathered the fuel that would ultimately power the passion of I’m Here.
Up to that point, however, the emotional temperature in Donald Jones, Jr.’s production remained more or less at the same level throughout. Jones understandably brought out the humor in this bleak story even if that meant that adultery and complicated relationships were sometimes played for laughs.
But Jones, who’s best known as a performer and choreographer, too often did not shape this episodic tale to allow some of its more significant moments (such as Sofia’s beating) to have their full impact or for some of the lesser characters (like Squeak) to make as great an impression as I’ve seen in other productions.
Still, the trio of Church Ladies (Shiquita Brooks, Keri Palmer, Jada Tanner) who function like a Greek Chorus, add a zestful sense of playfulness whenever they come on stage. Breanna Collier creates a lovely portrait of Nettie, Celie’s sister who becomes a missionary in Africa. And Myiarene’ Carter brings just the right combination of toughness and playfulness to Sofia, the show’s best-defined character who gets the sharpest number, Hell No! (which could be an anthem for the #MeToo movement).
Le Petit’s Color Purple may not be the definitive production of this popular musical, but Taylor James’ Celie will be a performance I’ll remember for a very, very long time.
[For further information and tickets, go to https://www.lepetittheatre.com/listings/events//the-color-purple.html]
Fly at WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, February 3-26
[Fly played at Jefferson Performing Arts Centerlast year. The production transfers to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen next month. Here are excerpts from my February 2022 review.]
Fly, Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan’s 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen, is about the famed group of African American military pilots and other Air Force personnel who fought in World War II
It is an epic and fascinating topic that has already served as the basis of a variety of films, plays, novels and TV shows. Ellis and Khan, by necessity, pare down the story to give us a group of diverse young men who come together and grow in cohesion as they undergo training and eventual deployment. In this case, however, they are up against not only the enemy but their racist superiors. After reading the Wikipedia account of the Tuskegee Airmen, one suspects the playwrights toned down the despicability of the commanding officers to make things more believable. Yes, they were that bad.
Thus we have W. Willis (Michael C. Forest), a self-described ladies’ man from Chicago; Oscar Hollingsworth (Donald Jones, Jr. [who is not returning for the Stage Door Canteen presentation]), a “race man” from Iowa whose motto is “Anything for our people”; J. Allen Braithwaite (Atlantis Clay), originally from the Caribbean; and Chet Simpkins (Jimez Alexander), the most grounded of the bunch and, initially, the most experienced, who’s nicknamed “125″ as he’s from Harlem.
Ellis & Khan’s script never ceases to be interesting, but too often is schematic and drama-free, especially in the first act, as it follows the structure of other wartime dramas. In addition, of necessity, the opportunity for conflict is tamped down because the group of Black airmen-in-training knows that the slightest hint of insubordination, however justified, would lead to immediate discharge. (Half of the class, according to Fly, was “washed out”, some just for looking the wrong way at one of their prejudiced officers.)
Things take off in the second act, three months after the first, when the story has relocated to Europe and the airmen are escorting bombers on perilous missions. A good deal of the act takes place in the air, and Sound & Video Designer Marcus Roberts creates a veritable feeling of flight with rear screen projections. That said, I couldn’t help imaging how such scenes might look in a movie as editing would quickly cut among long shots, medium shots, and close-ups of the men’s faces to create an even greater tension than that which the stage can afford for such depictions.
If Fly sometimes comes off as a history lesson, it could be, in part, because its four airmen (and by extension, all whom they represent) were already who they needed to be–mostly college educated, certainly smart–and their WWII experiences merely enabled them to come into their own, to soar as it were. The characters develop, but only in a very subtle way.
In contrast, the most involving scene comes late in the play when two white bomber pilots (Roberts and Sean Malley) approach two of the Black airmen and, as they ask them to escort them on an extremely dangerous mission to Berlin, only slowly do they realize just how accomplished their comrades are. It’s a small moment in which script, acting and direction beautifully combine to show organic personal growth.
That direction comes from Tommye Myrick and, as usual, she leads her entire cast to give skillfully drawn, finely detailed performances. Most notably, she avoids turning the white characters into two dimensional villains. This is especially true with Roberts and Malley, average young men who seemingly exhibit a smidgen of sympathy for their Black colleagues, but even with Michael John Smith as an Air Force Captain; sure, he’s racist, but layered in with dishonorable actions is, not only an eventual grudging respect for his trainees, but a subconscious acknowledgment that if at least a small portion of them don’t do well, it will reflect badly on him.
Jones also serves as choreographer and a step dance he does with his three fellow airmen after a Saturday night out simultaneously offers a joyous expression of self and a vital opportunity to blow off steam. Less compelling are his efforts for the “Tap Griot” a character that Ellis & Khan use to “express emotions that the represented men would have to hide”; with such accomplished acting and direction, I found such expression redundant. Nevertheless, LG Williams II danced the role with flair and passion.
At the end of Fly, the audience gets a heavy dose of shmaltzy patriotism; whether this is in the script or a flourish on Myrick’s part, I can’t say. Either way, it’s unnecessary. For, by then, our admiration for the incredibly brave and tenacious Tuskegee Airmen is boundless, even as we acknowledge our country’s historic shortcomings that tried and failed to clip their wings.
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/fly]
Roleplay at Tulane University’s Lupin Theatre, January 28-February 5
[Goat in the Road’s production of Roleplay returns with a new cast to Tulane for a two-weekend run. Here are excerpts from my September 2019 review.]
At Tulane, that fine group Goat in the Road Productions partnered with professors and students in response to the University’s 2018 Survey on Sexual Misconduct which revealed shockingly high rates of sexual assault on campus. Roleplay, the resulting collaboration, explores students’ experiences with love, sex, consent, racism, addiction and mental health issues as it focuses on a group of 11 sophomores over the course of an academic year.
According to the program, students shaped characters and scene ideas, then improvised using those ideas. The improvisations were transcribed and edited; new material was written and then incorporated into the script. This was then read, edited, reread, re-edited “til infinity” (or at least opening night. There actually was a series of workshops prior to this run.)
The result is a consistently watchable 90 minutes of fluidly naturalistic dialog which certainly addresses the aforementioned issues. The students all seem to be good kids and we empathize with them.
In its current form, however, Roleplay comes off as more documentary, impressively so, than the red-hot drama its promotional materials seem to imply it will be. Or, rather, by trying to tackle so many issues, none fully get the in-depth exploration they deserve and Roleplay becomes reminiscent of a young adult soap opera or an ABC Afterschool Special. (I was told that an earlier incarnation focused more on sexual assault and, as a result, was more hard-hitting.) Several dramatically inert characters don’t help matters.
Still, there are any number of piquant lines (“Being in a relationship is always a shit show,” so young, so cynical these kids). Until explained, we yearn to understand the mystery of one lover shutting down communications with an ex (i.e., “ghosting” her). And, perhaps ironically, in a play in which there are any number of well-written scenes, the best is a nonverbal one of budding romance.
Directors Darci Fulcher and Chris Kaminstein adroitly oversee the intersecting storylines and, more importantly, keep them all clear and comprehensible. They employ stylized dance/movement passages to convey the passage of time and which, additionally, provide a kewl vibe. It’s different and I liked it.
Kevin Griffith’s multi-dorm room set comes to life before our eyes and allows scenes to easily flow into each other. Roleplay’s being in-the-round, however, does occasionally make certain lines difficult to hear.
Roleplay may not have all the answers, but certainly begins for some, continues for others a conversation on some very important topics. Tickets are free (but must be reserved) making it very easy to be part of this vital discussion. If the challenges facing today’s college kids interest you, go.
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.goatintheroadproductions.org/#roleplay]