I the nearly three years I’ve spent in New Orleans, I’ve seen at least 150 plays, well over 200 if you count all the ten-minute plays at Southern Rep’s 6×6 series. I wanted to reflect on a few of them to see what made them stand out.
The Top Five
These made my list because everything came together at once, acting, script, setting. I’m not saying that they were the ones with the best script, or the best acting — those elements often came separately. These were shows that just hit a bunch of high notes at once.
- Chesapeake (Second Star)
- Cry Me One (ArtSpot)
- Never Swim Alone (Elm Theatre)
- Next To Normal (Southern Rep)
- Shiner (NOLA Project)
Chesapeake was a tour-de-force one-man show starring Jake Bartush. The play, written by Lee Blessing, concerns the life (and afterlife) of a gay southern artist whose work falls under the eye of a right-wing senator (think Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms) who uses makes a scandal of the artist’s work to gain publicity for a re-election campaign. Bartush was brilliant and richly deserved the Big Easy Theatre Award he won for the show.
Cry Me One is a completely different type of show: site-specific, multiple story lines, full of dance and music. A call to attend the ecology of the Louisiana delta, it took the audience on a literal tour (a several mile hike) through the bayou. Some people faulted the story lines as merely being vehicles for eccentric characters, and that is to some extent true. However, the show one me over with the natural beauty of the setting and great Cajun music, and I strongly sympathize with its politics.
Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s Never Swim Alone is a satyric examination of (North?) American manhood, portrayed in a spare and poetic style. It covers much of territory of a show like Glengarry Glen Ross, but it a way that was fresh and original. The Elm, which had just tackled Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind a few months earlier, was relentless in presenting a tightly executed show.
Southern Rep is the area’s premier regional theatre company. They do a mix of new work (Totalitarians), popular plays (Venus in Fur), and at least one Tennessee Williams piece each season. I went into Next to Normal with a bit of skepticism because I’d seen the Broadway touring version in San Francisco, but this local production had more heart and energy than the one with the big stars. Cast with talented local actors, the only thing this cast couldn’t do was match the towering multi-story stage that the Broadway version used. It wasn’t necessary.
Shiner was a surprise and featured another outstanding performance, this time by Cecile Monteyne. Cecile also earned a Big Easy award recently, taking the Entertainer of the Year prize for her work as solo performer, actor, and producer. Shiner is a two-person play focused on two teenagers finding their identities via the music of Kurt Cobain. The press material made frequent reference to the featured music, and as I was never a big Nirvana fan, I didn’t expect to be won over the way I was. Both leads, though clearly older than the teenagers portrayed were very convincing and I fell into the world of the play easily.
Although I didn’t see every possible play New Orleans had to offer in the time I was here, I saw a lot of good stuff. Some of my favorites came in from out of town during the Fringe festival, but it’s the local pieces that really show what the city has to offer. Some of the other great shows that were produced here included: An Outopia for Pigeons by Justin Maxwell*, The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac, Tenneesee Williams’s early play Battle of Angels, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (my favorite of several August Wilson plays that were produced by the Anthony Bean community theatre), and a Tulane University production of the Ionesco classic The Lesson.
On scanning the list above, I realize I could add several more excellent productions to my list, but I have to stop somewhere, and ten seems to be one of those numbers that listmakers prefer. I’ve come away with a real appreciation for the dedication of the theatre-makers in this town. Resources can be scarce, and the city itself tents to focus on tourism and music, so the dramatic arts don’t aways get the funds and recognition they deserve, but it was clear to me that NOLA theatre people love their art, and it shows.
* Full disclosure, Justin Maxwell was my professor. However, a) I’ve already graduated, so I can’t be accused of trying to butter him up, b) I doubt he has any idea this blog even exists, and c) I really liked his play.