Porcupine at Bywater Wonderland through June 5
Michael Merino is a brave playwright.
Inspired by an article in Cabinet Magazine, Merino wrote Porcupine in 2009 to commemorate the centenary of psychoanalysis’ arrival in America, via Sigmund Freud’s lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts. Author George Prochnick’s article explained why Freud had a bronze porcupine on his desk in his London home. Apparently, Prochnick’s great-grandfather, James Putnam, invited Freud and his European colleagues to his family’s retreat in the Adirondacks. Freud mentioned that his goal for his visit was to see the North American porcupine in its native habitat…and to deliver some lectures. When he was unsuccessful in achieving his primary objective, Putnam commissioned the porcupine sculpture and presented it to his new friend.
After a reading in Washington, DC, Porcupine languished until last year when another reading of the script occurred in New Orleans. One thing led to another and Merino, working with Director Mel.Cook, wrote more scenes and transformed the original text meant for a traditional proscenium stage into an immersive experience at the Bywater Wonderland (3405 Royal St.), for which cast members also devised various private moments to occur in this multi-room mansion. Brave indeed.
Thus we meet the Putnam family, father James (Mason Joiner), mother Marian (Jen Pagan) and their teenage daughter Molly (Jay Canova) at their “summer camp for adults.” At the start, James is playing gin rummy with the eminent psychologist William James (Todd Schrenk), while Marian oversees preparations–polishing silverware, chopping wood–prior to Freud’s appearance. Eventually, Freud (Vatican Lokey) shows up with Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Ryan Bruce) and Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (Ratty Scurvics), who is charged with handling his friends’ luggage. There’s also an Irish housekeeper, Maggie Malone (Lizzy Bruce).
Now I’ve loved immersive theater, where one gets to choose which characters and storylines to follow, since first experiencing it with Tamara in New York in the 1980s and continuing, more recently, with the long-running Sleep No More there, and here with Goat in the Road Productions’ The Stranger Disease (2018) and The Uninvited (2020).
I’ve also always enjoyed interactive theater, a subset of the immersive category, where, to get a fuller experience, you talk to and ask questions of the actors (who reply in character), since seeing the genre’s best known progenitor Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding during its initial NYC run and, subsequently, Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral among others.
Typically, immersive works are more serious, the action propelled by such weighty topics as an impending plague (The Stranger Disease) or a potential racist attack (The Uninvited) while interactive shows tend to be sillier, the actors allowed to camp things up as the audience becomes part of the festivities.
Porcupine seems to want to be both. Yes, you can talk to the characters but does that put them in the present day or you in 1909? Sure there’s some zaniness (at one point, I entered a scene where a character had heart-covered boxer shorts over his pants; I never did discover why), but, in general, Porcupine’s Chekhovian atmosphere of family bickerings and professional rivalries does not readily propel the action forward in ways that cause you to compulsively follow a character.
More importantly, there are not always enough compelling storylines simultaneously occurring so the audience tends to bunch up where the main action is. This isn’t a problem in the courtyard where the folks play tetherball but, indoors, if you come to some scenes late, you’re likely to be looking at the backs of heads rather than fully enjoying the action. And unlike the aforementioned shows where crucial things go on steadily throughout their playing areas, too many moments in Porcupine seem extraneous; after all, one can take only so many moments of a mother asking her daughter to do her chores or get ready for bed. Maggie the housekeeper, in particular, never really seems to be an essential part of the plot.
It might have helped if someone had, before the play began, explained to audience members how best to enjoy Porcupine–ask questions, explore nooks and crannies, open drawers; eventually, we did get the idea, but a little guidance would have been welcome.
Still Porcupine is not without its pleasures. Merino has a way with a turn of phrase (“wayward afflictions of the uterus”) or keen observation (“I don’t think anyone knows what riboflavin is”). A sequence in which the characters entertain themselves by turning into human instruments and performing the Grand March from Tannhäuser amusingly demonstrates how people entertained themselves in pre-TV days.
And while tetherball games and Freud’s search for a porcupine take up lots of time, the best scenes are more quiet ones involving Molly, first during a proto-feminist discussion with her mother as to what a woman like her wants out of life and, later, a heartfelt conversation with her father during which we observe her burgeoning evolution from child to adult. At such moments, it didn’t matter if I was missing something elsewhere in the mansion as those passages provided powerful revelation of character and utter emotional satisfaction.
Though the entire cast does a fine job, from the silly (Scurvics) to the serious (Joiner) to both (Lokey–hey, it’s hard to imagine Freud playing tetherball with a straight face), Canova makes an especially touching Molly, a teenager who thinks and feels too much.
That said, at first, I questioned whether Canova, in a proper dress and long hair age-appropriately styled, was male or female (only, after a while, when I got closer did I notice some slight stubble and his Adam’s apple) and then I wondered why, regardless of his talent, he was cast when, certainly, many actresses here could’ve played the role equally well. (Note: in his bio, Canova uses “he/his” pronouns; as it was a virtual program, I didn’t have a chance to read it until after the performance.)
Granted, a show that features Freud can certainly play with gender. Yet neither Merino’s script nor Cook’s direction made anything at all of this provocative casting; compare this to Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 which employs cross-dressing to brilliantly subversive effect. As it was, in Porcupine it was simply a distraction, like a loaded gun waiting to go off which never did.
Despite my reservations, if you are looking for a fun way to spend an evening and an opportunity to explore, inside and out, a magnificent property from the 1880s, you have until June 5 to check out Porcupine. I’ll be curious to hear your (psycho)analysis of it.
For tickets and more information, go to www.porcupine-nola.com
The Kitchen Witches at Playmakers Theater through June 12
Don’t try to analyze The Kitchen Witches too much. Its plot may strain credulity, but it engages you similarly to a Chantilly cake–lotsa whipped cream plus just enough berries to give it some nutritional value.
In this 2003 comedy by Canadian playwright Caroline Smith, two cable-access chefs/hostesses, Isobel Lomax and Dolly Biddle, have hated each other for thirty years, ever since the late Larry Biddle dated one and married the other. When circumstances put them together on a TV cooking show called The Kitchen Witches, the insults fly and the program becomes a ratings smash, a combination of Martha Stewart and Jerry Springer.
It’s a wild set-up. Yet Smith knows what she’s doing in constructing Witches which also includes Biddle’s 30something son as the show’s put upon producer. Her tale may move at a leisurely pace but eventually gets where it’s going. Does it ever, even in its more serious moments, rise above the level of a sitcom? No, but it’s a fun and well-crafted sitcom, with shifting alliances and some good twists along the way, and, despite some inconsistencies of plot (how does a li’l cable show go viral so quickly with a cookbook deal no less?), I’ll happily take enjoyable entertainment such as Witches in these trying times.
Smith’s dialog doesn’t quite achieve Noel Cowardesque sparkle; in fact, the folks at Playmakers wisely revised the script, replacing Canadian towns and other north-of-the-border and/or dated references with more accessible markers such as “Chalmette” and “Johnny Depp”. Smith does, however, provide two juicy roles for actresses, and Julie Generes (Dolly) and Janie McNulty (Isobel) take full advantage of them, each imbuing Smith’s lines with as much personality as possible.
Generes doesn’t overplay Dolly’s quirkiness which is fine. McNulty, whose Isobel has more culinary training, certainly knows how to play the diva but, when she drops that facade, reveals an unaffected, and thus affecting, charm. Together, they combine to make a believable pair of friends-turned-frenemies with hysterical results as barbs are traded and pastry dough winds up in unexpected places. I can imagine more heightened performances, but as directed by Anysia Genre with her usual flair and fidelity to the text, this Isobel and Dolly make for realistic North Shore celebs.
As the TV Kitchen Witches’s producer who has to deal with his stars’ ongoing demands, Jonah Boudreaux delivers an understated and sympathetic performance, a suitable balance to the onscreen shenanigans he faces. Titus McCann does well as the show’s mostly wordless cameraman, though I wish he had been given some more lines to fill out his character. The overall production may be “community theater” basic but it’s acceptable; only Derek Thrush’s lighting could’ve been sharper.
As with Porcupine, there’s some audience interaction in Witches when a member of the show’s “studio audience” is pulled up on stage. Who was it the night I attended? WDSU’s Heath Allen who proved to be a good sport and came up with some yummy ad libs that elicited hearty guffawing from the crowd.
And why was Allen there? Turns out his sister Arden Dufilho, who gave an extraordinary performance as Amanda Wingfield in last year’s Glass Menagerie, is President of Playmakers’ Board of Directors. Together they invited celebrity chef Kevin Belton to be part of Witches’ opening night festivities which served as a benefit for Playmakers. Belton welcomed the audience with warm words and his charmingly low key presence added extra effervescence to the evening.
Even without Belton and Allen, however, Playmakers’ The Kitchen Witches cooks up a tasty treat, well worth a trip to Covington.
Reservations and more info at https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/
Swamplight Theatre in Ponchatoula recently remounted its 2020 production of Tracers with many, but not all, of the same actors; both productions also featured veterans of a 1988 staging at Southeastern LA University. That this play, written by Viet Nam war veterans in 1980 about their experiences there, which had its off-Broadway debut in 1985, remains as trenchant as ever offers sad evidence of the timeless nature of war.
Fortunately, it also offers exhilarating evidence of the power of theater to engage, to enlighten, and to entertain even when dealing with the grimmest of subjects.
In a series of searing scenes and monologues leavened by some humor, particularly of the gallows variety, we meet and get to know a group of young soldiers as they go from basic training to the battlefield and then back to a post-Army life. Not everyone completes the cycle.
Again directing Tracers, as he had the two aforementioned local productions, Kendel D. Smith, seen last year as Miss Trunchbull in Swamplight’s Matilda The Musical, beautifully staged it, eliciting sharp characterizations from both old and new cast members, including himself.
The entire cast gave powerful, brutally honest, and fearless performances. A combination of older (Michael Dubret, Thaddeus R. Kilpatrick, Lee Stolf, and Smith) and younger (Ben C. Dougherty, Josiah Rogers, and Robinson J. Cyprian) actors worked very well by mixing a kind of You Are There verisimilitude with a wonderfully bizarre peek into the future showing how these unseasoned recruits might turn out.
In his one scene, Ivan Janis authoritatively portrayed a tough drill sergeant who, in his aria of intimidation full of every -phobia and -ism you can imagine, did leave room for you to wonder if, for all his bullying, his main intention is to ensure that his charges ultimately come home in one piece.
As horrific as Tracers’ scenes of battle are, the play doesn’t even begin to process the decades of PTSD, addiction, and lack of support that Viet Nam vets have encountered since the play debuted. And while drones, now substituting for in-person combat, may not reduce the assault on soldiers’ psyches, they do make us reflect on the changing nature of war.
While Tracers could perhaps be a bit shorter (I wonder if a 90 minute, no intermission version might be even more potent), I’ll not soon forget the “Blanket Party” section in which the soldiers try to solve the macabre ”jigsaw puzzle” of reuniting their dead comrades’ torsos with severed fingers and arms. In its writing, direction and acting, the scene was mesmerizing and no less surreal for being based on what once happened.
Surreal in another sense was The Six Blanches which The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans presented at the Historic New Orleans Collection last month in conjunction with its exhibit “Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire”, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Williams’ legendary play.
Adapted and directed by Augustin J Correro, The Six Blanches gave us six actresses (Anja Avsharian, Jaclyn Bethany, Gwendolyn Foxworth, Lin Gathright, Roya Scott, Xel Simone) spread out throughout the exhibit’s one-room space. Each recited a monologue that featured sections from Blanche’s dialog; though certain iconic lines (“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, etc.) appeared in all six recitations, each performer’s presentation was slightly different as each focused on a different part of Blanche’s character–grief, magic, tenderness, panic, desire, and fantasy.
If I’m not sure each of these aspects fully emerged as the actresses cycled through their monologues (about twice in Blanches’ allotted 25-minute running time), the entire presentation came off as marvelously surreal with the cast surrounded by such items as Vivien Leigh’s Oscar statue, the typewriter on which Williams created the script, Blanche’s wedding dress costume from a local Streetcar production, and a variety of photos & other memorabilia, a veritable Tennessee Williams wet dream. I think he would have approved.