The Pillowman at Swamplight Theater through November 1
As I headed to Ponchatoula to see a production of The Pillowman, I didn’t know what to expect as it would be the first time I’d be attending the theater there.
When I got to the Swamplight Theater and discovered that this challenging play was not actually part of its schedule but a presentation by a new, young theater company, I went “Hmmm…”
When I then read in the program that it would be the professional debut of the director and one of the lead actors, I braced myself for the worst, especially given that I was there on opening night.
Hey, call me cynical. Or jaded. Or whatever.
I am thus absolutely delighted to report that this is the best version of Martin McDonough’s campfire terror tale that I’ve yet seen with a director who knows exactly what he’s doing and not a weak link in the ensemble.
As The Pillowman begins, two gruesome murders have been committed. Katurian, a writer, has been hauled into a police station for questioning as these crimes have seemingly been inspired by two grisly short stories he’s written but that have, along with hundreds of others of his tales, except for one, been unpublished. Is Katurian somehow responsible? Or his “slow” brother Michael? And if so, why did they do it? And what is their dark family history that caused them to turn out this way?
McDonagh gives us lots of ifs and maybe’s, as his story turns upon itself with Escherian knottiness, occasionally being too smart for its own good. In fact, it’s only now, due both to having seen three productions of Pillowman and Robinson J. Cyprian’s razor clean direction of this one, that I can give a full and clear accounting of its plot.
Regardless of that plot, what The Pillowman really explores, however, is man’s desperate need to tell stories, and how we deceive others and ourselves. In a world permeated by “fake news,” The Pillowman may be even more relevant now than when it debuted in 2003 as none of the characters in it can be fully trusted. And with police brutality claiming more headlines now than even just two years ago, when I saw it last, The Pillowman, sadly, feels as timely as ever.
With the audience along both sides of the playing space, Cyprian makes excellent use of the stage area spreading the action throughout it. He gets the pacing just right for this long play, finds the subtle humor in McDonough’s script, and creates some memorable stage images, particularly towards the end.
What is most impressive, however, about this recent University of Southern Mississippi graduate’s work here is that he brings out the tragedy in Pillowman by making it less merely intellectual but, rather, finding the beating heart beneath its verbiage. Because of this, certain parts of the play got underneath my skin in a way they never had before and gave me chills. How perfect for Halloween.
To be sure, the last scene of the first act between the two brothers, sometimes done as a separate act, goes on too long–why didn’t someone convince McDonough to trim it a bit?–but Cyprian and his cast overcome this and prevent boredom from setting in by infusing it with passion and clarity.
And while I don’t think Cyprian arranged to have a train go by, loudly blowing its horn, at the climax of Act One, whether he planned it or not, it added mightily to the effectiveness of that moment.
For a role played on Broadway by Jeff Goldblum, Cyprian selected a young actress, Christin J. Prince, to be Tupolski, one of two officers interrogating Katurian. Such gender-bending casting is nothing new for The Pillowman; the previous production I saw of it featured a female Ariel, the “bad cop” to Tupolski’s “good cop”.
Prince makes an auspicious professional debut. Her hair stylishly coiffed, Prince exudes a casual toughness and oozes an evil intelligence, making it clear why she’s top dog (“a detective”) and not Ariel (“a policeman”). Self-certain at all times, her offhanded manner is at odds with her insinuating words. Charming as a fox, Prince layers in a soupçon of smugness, as she taunts Katurian and plainly enjoys needling Ariel, to demonstrate that maleficence does not require a Y chromosome.
If Prince’s voice seems a little bit pinched, it is entirely appropriate for someone who upholds the law in a “totalitarian state”. Notice, too, simple gestures she makes, such as the flick of a hand, which speak volumes. I hope to see more, much more, of Prince on our local stages before movies or TV take up all of her time.
Prince is well-matched by Hans Heilmann as Katurian. He starts out protesting his innocence, confused as to why he’s been brought into the police station; we root for him, figuring he’s some sort of political prisoner.
As Heilmann reveals different facets of Katurian–his pride, his pompousness, his desperation to keep his writings from being destroyed–however, while we sympathize with his plight, we are repulsed by some of his actions. Rather than give a showy performance, as some Katurians have done, histrionically acting out all the roles in the stories he tells, Heilmann imbues his lines with an emotional transparency, allowing terror to bubble up in him naturally. Pitifully scurrying along the floor in a crab-like crawl to escape a beating, Heilmann gives a go-for-broke, soul-draining performance.
I suspect Jonathan Damare, who’s appeared in some JPAS productions, studied people with mental challenges, as his portrayal of Michael, Katurian’s brother, convinces with absolute verisimilitude. Without ever overdoing it, Damare is superb at showing Michael’s psychic pain as the young man concurrently tries to make sense of the situation he’s in. Still understandably mad at how his parents treated him, his anger manifests itself when Damare shoots looks-to-kill at his brother. Combining innocence with fatally misplaced curiosity, Damare is simply the best Michael I’ve yet seen.
Ben C. Dougherty makes the tough guy Ariel neither nice nor smart but, like his fellow actors, never falls into exaggeration. Claiming to be a “good policeman…(who) stands on the right side” despite his strong-arm tactics, Dougherty simmers with evilness. For a tale ostensibly set in some Eastern European country, Dougherty’s slight Southern accent seems a bit out of place…or does it?
Caleb S. Garner’s simple set allows scene changes of cinematic fluidity while the uncredited lighting is both imaginative and adds some precise, expressionistic strokes.
If you’re looking for blood and scary stories, and are tired of watching the news, by all means head to the Swamplight Theater. What makes this Pillowman special, tho, is that, in addition to McDonough’s narrative tricks, there’s the treat of a pulsing humanity as well.
Tickets for The Pillowman are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-pillowman-tickets-118842175145
Beth Leavel/The Seth Concert Series through November 15
Making her Seth Concert Series debut, Tony Award winner (for The Drowsy Chaperone) Beth Leavel was just as playful, sassy and bubbly as when she performed at NOCCA a year ago, providing a fizzy tonic in this topsy-turvy world.
Reprising some of the songs she sang and stories she told here last year, Leavel, guided by Host/Musical Director Seth Rudetsky, added thoroughly enjoyable new ones while commenting “doing this out of my living room is so cool.”
Unlike many of the other performers in The Seth Concert Series, Leavel doesn’t take herself too seriously and keeps the ballads to a minimum, both refreshing. A performer who radiates the love of performing, Leavel, a wonderful comedienne as well, provided interesting behind-the-scenes tales told with flair.
Unlike last year, when her fiancé Adam Heller was in the NOCCA audience, for this program he served as Leavel’s technical director and dueted with her on You’re Just In Love from Call Me Madam. Having starred in Gypsy together before the pandemic and now living together, their mutual bond was lovely to see (even when Leavel managed to disconnect her microphone).
One thing I learned from this show is that Leavel is starring in a new musical version of The Devil Wears Prada, with music by Elton John no less, that is scheduled to open in Chicago next year before heading to NYC. As Rudetsky, with whom Leavel shares an easy camaraderie, remarked “It must be so nice to know you have a role when Broadway comes back”. Please let this be as soon as safely possible!
Providing 90 marvelous minutes, the Leavel/Rudestsky show reminded me of a late night, topnotch, joy-filled cabaret at a club somewhere in the West Village. It was the next best thing to actually being there.
Future performers in The Seth Concert Series include Tony winners LaChanze (Oct. 25) and Lillias White (Nov. 15), both treats. Enjoy!
To purchase tickets to these upcoming shows, as well as Beth Leavel’s, available On Demand through Oct. 26, go to thesethconcertseries.com
Lights! Camera! Action!
Suiting the times we live in, The 31st New Orleans Film Festival has been completely reimagined this year. The Festival will showcase 160+ films between November 6-22 through NOFF Virtual Cinema available globally, as well as a selection of films which will be shown at two screens at the NOFF Open-Air Cinema on Lafitte Greenway (between Dorgenois and Tonti Streets), and Broadside, the new outdoor venue of the Broad Theater. The festival lineup can be viewed at neworleansfilmfestival.org where passes & tickets are also available.
For 31 years, the Oscar-qualifying NO Film Festival has been a labor of love, and that is more true than ever in 2020. After receiving 4,655 submissions from 105 countries, the festival’s team of programmers selected a slate of 165 films that represent a wealth of perspectives. The directors of selected films alone represent 44 different nationalities.
This year, movies directed by women and gender non-conforming directors account for 57% of the lineup, while films helmed by directors of color make up 58% of the Festival’s programming.
Here are some of the films focusing on LGBTQ+ characters or issues: To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything! (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7f0f) and Princess Stephaney (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ee0) featuring local favorites; Right Near the Beach (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ee7) about homophobia in Jamaica; the documentaries Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ec9) and Proper Pronouns (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ee1); and the documentary shorts Take Me to the Prom (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ef4) and Jared Dawson is The Church of Lavonia Elberton (https://noff2020.eventive.org/films/5f497c13ab220400855c7ec2).
PAST PRESENT FUTURE VII
In this PAST PRESENT FUTURE, Tommye Myrick, Artistic Director of Voices in the Dark Repertory Theatre, tells us what was going on in her and the company’s life when things shut down, what they’re doing now, and what plans she has for its future.
I have long admired Myrick’s work for Voices in the Dark as well as with other theater companies around town. When she did The Women of Brewster Place at The Anthony Bean Community Theater, I wrote “Tommye Myrick directed with passion and infused the production with vitality.”
About last year’s A Raisin in the Sun, I noted that “Myrick’s unfussy direction allows the play’s tender moments to shine through counterbalancing the more volatile ones. Most notably, she has guided her entire cast to tremendous performances.” And I called her 2017 revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill simply “stunning.”
In January, I received a call from the Big Easy Theatre Committee stating that I was this year’s recipient of the Big Easy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre. I later learned that Voices in the Dark Repertory Theatre Company’s 2019 production of A Raisin in the Sun had received 4 Big Easy nominations for the awards that would be given out in the spring. Wow! This year is starting off beautifully, I thought.
I had founded Voices in the Dark in December 1992 because I wanted to do theater that really addressed issues of the day including life as a woman, as an African American living in America, as a lesbian, and as a woman in a male-dominated profession — directing. I wanted to produce plays, lectures, visual art shows, literary symposiums, and music concerts that represented the artistic expressions of the disenfranchised. All of which I was.
I believed, and still do, that where there is enlightenment there is understanding. Where there is understanding there is acceptance. Thus, Voices’ mission would be to strengthen the ties that bind all peoples of the world through education and the arts.
2020 began on a high note for me. Cane River, a movie I starred in nearly 40 years ago, had never been released due to the untimely death, at age 42, of writer/director/producer Horace Jenkins one month before the movie was to premiere in 1982; it was subsequently lost for 31 years. In 2013, a negative of the film was found and, eventually, restored, allowing the movie to reappear, finally, in the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival.
Its New York City premiere occurred at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 7, 2020. Though many of Cane River’s producers, cast, and crew are now deceased, my leading man, Richard Romain, and I, were flown to New York for this grand occasion.
As we checked into our hotel, we noticed that several flight attendants, all speaking Mandarin, were wearing masks. We looked around wondering why only they were masked. We commented to each other and the receptionist, and continued our celebration. Little did we know that maybe they knew something we didn’t. Hmmmmmm.
In March, Voices was in the midst of kicking off its 28th season when all productions were put on hold for, we thought, 8 weeks. COVID-19. We now suspect that our 2020 Season, echoing our mantra “The Vision Continues…” would indeed leave our voices in the dark.
We were not alone, though, as the entire world closed its theatrical doors for an unscheduled and prolonged intermission. Our season which was to include Voices’ original full-length production of New Orleans’ 1st historical outdoor drama Le Code Noir; an all African American production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and the return of the highly popular production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, was deferred.
Yes, the masks, airline attendants. Makes sense, now.
Now what? What do we do while sheltering in place? What of the Big Easy Awards ceremony? The national distribution of Cane River? What happens to “Theatre”?
Ok. Think. First, we eat while thinking, learn Zoom, meet with other theater companies (via Zoom, of course), and plan for the future.
Then we eat some more.
After gaining 15 pounds, I had to end this pity party fast, realizing the eating was NOT a good substitute for Theater. So, I began riding my bike (something I had not done in 10 years) at least 5 times a week along the Lakefront (fell only once). Got up and do what I’ve always done — CONTINUED. I got back to work, believing that “the vision does continue”, that “this too shall pass”, and that “a delay is not a denial.”
As of late, Voices has been working with Southern Rep Theatre on its Anti-Racism Taskforce. We have also been actively seeking partnerships and sponsorships for our upcoming season (a hard thing to do when you have nothing to show for it). I, on the other hand, have been coping as most of you–EATING (just joking).
Currently, I have been hired as the casting director for a film project about a few of New Orleans’ legendary heroes and sheroes of the past. Look for a grand announcement of this project in the Spring. I am also editing a soon-to-be-published novel for a friend of mine.
So, as we try to recover from this maddening pandemic, we ask the question “How? How do we do theatre, now?”
These are stressful times and relief is greatly needed. Thinking outside the box is essential. Accepting the new normal for American Theater is critical to its survivability. Hence, Voices has decided to aggressively advocate for the support of outdoor dramas in New Orleans. This, we think, will help to put theater back on track. Therefore, Voices will attempt to offer an entire season that will feature plays outdoors.
Our upcoming season, if funded and supported, is entitled ODYSSEY: TAKE THE JOURNEY WITH US, and will include:
—TULSA ’21–Black Wall Street which will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921
—Le Code Noir, conceived and written by me and the late Mark R. Sumner, Director Emeritus of the Institute of Outdoor Drama, chronicles 25 years in the life of an 18-year-old enslaved African girl who arrives in New Orleans in 1794
—DUST: Remembering Marcy Borders — “The Dust Lady” which will commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001 by telling the story of the lady who was the subject of an iconic photo from that tragic day
—Le Nativity Noir — A Christmas Musical, the story of the birth of Christ, The Real Reason for the Season
Yes, this is now our new mission — to create an outdoor venue that will promote safe, comfortable social distancing entertainment to New Orleans audiences and tourists. I hope and intend for it to be successful.
Tommye Myrick, a native New Orleanian, attended McDonogh #35 High School and Xavier University in New Orleans. While there, her interest in the arts, social sciences, and politics led her to join Free Southern Theatre under the direction of the late John O’Neal. After graduating from Xavier, Ms. Myrick obtained her Master’s Degree in theater at the University of Michigan, later moving to New York City. She would eventually return to New Orleans to continue her work as a director, producer, writer, educator, and historian. She is a 2-time winner of the Big Easy Award as Best Director for Fences (1993) and Flyin’ West (1998). Other productions include A Soldier’s Play (1992 and 2001), Purlie! (2007), Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (2013), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2014), and Trans Scripts (2019).