Apostles of Everest at The Fortress of Lushington through Nov. 23
While it has often been gratifying to travel beyond Orleans Parish to attend performances in the past 15 months, I’m delighted to report that now, in this fall season, theater is finally blossoming in places that require just a short bicycle ride from my home in the French Quarter.
Among shows playing recently to packed houses have been Tell It To Me Sweet, The NOLA Project’s series of five fables for a peripatetic audience in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden; Swing That Music, a rousing tribute to Louis Armstrong at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen; Aqua Mob’s audacious water ballet, SuspiriAcqua; Dennis Monn’s acerbic production of Brecht/Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel at the Mudlark Public Theatre; and Tulane Drama Department’s NOLA premiere of Alice Childress’ searing Trouble in Mind.
Add to that list Intramural Theater’s Apostles of Everest at The Fortress of Lushington in the Marigny.
I approached Apostles of Everest, an “original devised play”, with a smidgen of trepidation as original plays always present a bit of a gamble, and devised ones can sometimes lack a clear authorial vision. Plus, Intramural tends to produce work that can be a little off-the-beaten path (okay, even weird); I still fondly remember their Chet’s Summer Vacation from four years ago, a surreal comedy done outdoors that featured a talking air conditioner.
I needn’t have worried. For a “collaborative effort”, Apostles comes off remarkably as a whole, a new work that has something to say and says it in a most engrossing manner.
Set fifteen years in the future, Apostles introduces us to Nancy (Lydia Stein) and Tom (Joshua James), a somewhat odd couple who live together in an isolated houseboat community. They are soon joined by Lily (Frenchie Faith) and Hunter (Bennett Kirschner). She says she’s an entomologist studying giant waterbugs; he’s a documentarian recording her research. Or are they?
Cameras and microphones play a big role in Apostles of Everest. The question becomes “Who’s spying on whom?” And “Why?”
Other themes that the script explores include governmental control of private citizens, capitalism run amok, and environmental disaster. I’ll leave it at that as I think it’s best to allow audiences to discover the ins and outs of this comic drama (dramatic comedy?) on their own. Suffice to say, as quirky as it is, nowadays its plot ultimately doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Amid an undercurrent of menace and sexual tension, Apostles sustains an air of mystery for its first hour or so. When matters then become somewhat clarified, the show simultaneously becomes a little more interesting because we now understand what the story is that it’s spinning out and, ironically, a little less engaging as we no longer have to decipher exactly what’s going on.
Director Jon Greene keeps the pace from ever lagging, and knowingly mixes naturalistic and heightened styles of acting, taking full advantage of the Fortress’ wide playing area. He even finds the humor in shifting a couch into a foldout bed. Kirschner, Intramural’s founder, is also billed as “Devising Process Director/Playwright”, making him first among equals I suppose, so credit goes to him for shaping the piece in its initial stages which began in January 2020.
By a trout’s nose, the women in Apostles have the richer material, and both actresses exploit it fully.
With her flat accent and tossing off a “You betcha”, Stein shapes an idiosyncratic character, part sitcom mom, part Sarah Palin. You may discount Nancy at first as being just a aproned homemaker, but she’s smarter than she seems, and Stein navigates these turns with precision. Plus she sings “terribly” wonderfully.
Lily may not be a very good actress, but Faith is, revealing multiple layers of this bug researcher as she sheds increasing skins. Lily may be the moral center of the play and Faith brings the appropriate level of integrity to bear on it.
James captures Tom’s casual bonhomie and underlying perviness, while Kirschner’s beady eyes and officious way are just right for the caddish Hunter. Both do well by not overplaying their characters’ oddities.
Set Designer Kevin Griffith provides a suitably downscale houseboat cabin with such nice details as a life preserver that hangs above it that says “Welcome Aboard”, and cottony clouds throughout the theater that change color according to Bunny Lushington’s evocative lighting. Through the magic of theater, Griffith also takes us out on a lake with a small boat that gently rocks as Tom and Lily go fishing.
While Apostles of Everest joins Tell It To Me Sweet and Bryan Batt’s Dear Mr. Williams as a highly accomplished original work to emerge from the pandemic’s forced intermission, it does have some bumps in it.
Like many (most?) plays, its script could probably be about 15 minutes shorter, editing which should be done with a scalpel rather than a hacksaw to make it just a little tighter; it occasionally meanders when a slightly straighter path might allow for more compelling storytelling.
That said, its ending seems a bit abrupt; after such a fine set-up, the resolution deserves a little more complexity in its untangling and these four offbeat characters merit a few more valedictory moments.
Apostles exhibits some delicious verbal humor. Tom observes “I always loved thinking about sex. Sometimes even more than sex itself.” Late in the play, Nancy asks “Wanna get a glimpse into my glimpsing?” I wish there had been more of such witty wordplay. It seems appropriate to these people and would add to the play’s intellectual vibrancy.
And with all due respect to Stein and James, who contributed to the devising process, they both seem a tad too young for their roles, even with the streaks of gray applied to Stein’s hair. Since they’ve lived in the houseboat for “30 years” after meeting as adults, they’re presumably in their 50s or early 60s. The script also references a kind of motherly/fatherly bond between them and Lily/Hunter, and older actors would’ve heightened the creepiness factor, that seems to be part of the script, as they come on to their houseguests. I kept thinking of a Kathy Bates or a younger June Squibb type for Nancy (or even The Brady Bunch’s Ann B. Davis); Bill Macy from his Maude days could’ve stood in as Tom. Or maybe Stein and James can just reprise their roles in about 15 years when Apostles is revived.
But with a second act that includes a marvelously subversive tale of “interactive VR porno” and a talking puppet (kudos to designer Sarah VanDerMeer) in one of the wildest scenes I’ve ever seen, Apostles of Everest provides one of the most worthy and provocative evenings of theater New Orleans has seen in a long, long time.
More information and tickets at https://www.intramuraltheater.org/upcoming/apostles-of-everest
Tootsie at the Saenger Theatre
After a half hour delay, whether due to Covid protocols or technical difficulties I’m still not sure, the opening night audience for Tootsie was finally let into the auditorium of the Saenger Theatre and, in the words of Dolly Levi, it was so nice to be back where we belong.
I suppose that half hour delay mattered little as the NOLA debut of this Tony-winning musical had already been postponed a year by the pandemic. It was worth the wait.
Based on the smash 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie, I had seen, and enjoyed, Tootsie on Broadway two years ago. Of course, the whole story of an out of work actor who presents himself as a woman to audition for a role in a new musical is wildly improbable (does no one notice his Adam’s apple or 5 o’clock shadow), but who cares when it’s so entertaining?!
Tootsie is an old-fashioned musical in a good way, featuring songs with witty lyrics that aren’t drowned out by a rock score and melodies that stay in your head. In fact, on second hearing, I found David Yazbek’s fizzy score even more appealing.
Robert Horn’s book, filled with knowing theater references, keeps all the wit and warm moments of Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire’s Oscar-nominated screenplay while finessing it to deepen its characters for today’s audiences. If I’m not mistaken, even more laughs could be heard at the Saenger than on Broadway.
Drew Becker made an excellent Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels (his alter ego) even if, at about 24 (a little googling reveals he obtained his BFA in 2018), he’s a little too young for an actor, like Dorsey, on the verge of 40.
Payton Reilly turned neuroses into an art form as Dorsey’s girlfriend (Teri Garr’s character in the movie). Jared David Michael Grant brought fine comic timing to Michael’s laid-back roommate. Lukas James Miller made Dorothy’s would-be beau a lovable goofball whose dancing pecs deserve a credit of their own.
Ashley Alexandra was lovely as Julie, Michael’s love interest (created on screen by Jessica Lange), though one might’ve wished for a little more chemistry between her and Becker.
While Tootsie has never been a gay tale per se, it certainly presaged our current obsession with gender identity and the fluidity of such. Watching it onstage at the Saenger, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe now we’re ready for a queer version of it with Michael being gay and falling for a guy who doesn’t realize he’s a guy until he does and then real complications ensue. Tootsie 2, anyone?
Coming up soon at the Saenger are the 25th Anniversary Tour of RENT (Nov. 26-28); the return of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (how many lives has it had?) (Dec. 14-19); Sarah Brightman, the former Mrs. Lloyd Webber, in concert with an orchestra and choir (Dec. 21); and the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth (Dec. 28-Jan. 2). More info at https://www.saengernola.com/
Little Shop of Horrors has three more performances at the Azienda Theater (2000 Paris Rd, Chalmette), Nov. 19 and 20 at 7:30pm and the 21st at 2:00pm. The Company: A St. Bernard Community Theatre presents the classic tale of a man-eating plant starring Jaleel Green and Vieta Collins, directed by Tony Ortego. Call (504) 507-0015 for tickets or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Southern Rep returns to live performances with Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Dec. 8-19, a regional premiere to be done on Loyola’s campus. In this satirical comedy, three white people try to devise a politically correct First Thanksgiving play for Native American Heritage Month to be done in local schools. The director hires a Native American actress to be their cultural compass. Turns out, she’s not who she appears to be and they all now have to find their way through a crazy thicket of privilege, historical accuracy, and school district rules. For tickets and more info, go to www.southernrep.com
Slidell Little Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, directed by Lee Dukes, at its home at 2024 Nellie Drive in Slidell. In this adaptation of the popular children’s novel, six misfit children volunteer to star in their town’s Sunday school Christmas pageant, and end up teaching the town the true meaning of Christmas. Performances are Dec. 3-19, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets can be purchased online at www.slidelllittletheatre.org/tickets