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A Tale of Two Collaborations

Facing the Stage



I still feel the whiplash. The theatrical experiences I had this weekend could not have been more divergent. I spent Friday in an old funeral parlor, converted into an art studio, that was in turn reconfigured as a theatrical space. On Saturday night, my date enjoyed her chardonnay in the city’s most upscale theatrical venue.

 

After being flanked by hipsters one evening, I found myself overlooking a sea of my elders comfortably sipping martinis the next. My reasons for attendance at these venues were two shows separated by material and style. Nevertheless, they shared the same agenda. Goat in the Road’s “Our Man” at the Marigny's Michalopoulos Studio and “Renew Revue” at CBD's Le Chat Noir both used the crisp snap of collaborative energy to challenge and entertain their audiences.

 

Our Man

 

Where: Trouser House, 4105 St. Claude Ave.

When: April 9 at 7 & 9 p.m., April 15-16 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $10

 

            ______________

 

Renew Revue 2011

 

Where: Le Chat Noir, 715 St. Charles Ave.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 6 p.m. Through April 3.

Tickets: $32 (includes $5 bar credit)

 

Our Man

Part of the Interstate Fringe, a four show collective made up ostensibly of the best of the New Orleans and Houston Fringe Festivals, “Our Man” features the talents of Chris Kaminstein and Will Bowling as two clownish mailroom clerks trapped in a Plexiglas box. They can only watch helplessly as the mail piled up, just out of reach. They bide their time in wordplay that borrows not only from Beckettian despair but also an Americana of the 1940s and 50s that existed only in media. Subtly and methodically, the two performers construct a comical, absurdist history that details the rise and fall of a tennis racket whose story resembles that of the 40th President of the United States.

 

 

Kaminstein and Bowling are theatrical vaudevillians of the first rank. The former moves rapidly from beleaguered straight man to oafish buffoon with lightning speed. The latter brings a gee-willikers, Andy Hardy-style innocence to his performance. Bowling’s inherent sweetness allows us to forgive his character’s maddening cluelessness. They are the Cleavers' substitute for Abbot and Costello. It all works, because it is rehearsed to the last detail. Finishing each other’s sentences, they move in sharp rotations of unison and discordance, recreating old-time radio hours, engaging in mailroom politics, and committing cartoonish violence with the touch of a finger. These techniques are most ingeniously displayed as the performers constructed a war movie of their own. They tell the story of Gip and K-nute, fictive characters inside their Plexiglas fiction, who win World War II singlehandedly. Forests, foxholes, and fatal wounds are all realized in a world where one inch equals one mile.

 

While almost all is created by words and imagination, the production utilizes its technical resources well. Phil Kramer keeps the limited lights tightly focused and uses sound to punctuate crucial signposts for the audience. Cleverly, the production allows the viewer to escape the box’s claustrophobia with an on-the-air sign hanging above the audience and just off left a tube dispenses mail into the growing pile. Donned in white shirts, black ties and pants too short, the mailroom boys carry echoes of Laurel and Hardy with more than a touch of young-men-on-the-make. By keeping it simple and limiting the demands, the production opens up an entire world. It is a lesson more than one producer in this town could learn.

 

And then there is that tennis racket. Kaminstein and Bowling allow the object to take on a life of its own and facilitate its growth into a full-blown character. It is a credit to the courage of the performers that they allow the racket to deliberately upstage them at a crucial moment. “How many votes did the racket get?” might be my favorite line from one of the most original pieces in this town in quite some time. In a craft given to narcissism, it is refreshing to see actors allow the material, in this case a simple object, to speak for itself.

 

It is a celebration of theatre and a civics lesson in miniature. The script’s repetition simultaneously speaks to historical revisionism and the theatrical urge to get the story straight, a few facts be damned. I must admit, growing up in a house that was no fan of Reagan, the ending made me a bit uncomfortable, because the creators let The Gipper a little off the hook, literally and figuratively. And even though the show runs a little too long, gets a bit too preachy and relies once too often on the glib, it is a price worth paying for an evening that caters to both those who like their politics provocative and those who simply enjoy a well-timed gag. It returns to New Orleans in April and should not be missed. Do not worry. I will remind you.

 

Renew Revue

Political, funny and joyful theatricality were on equal display across town at Le Chat Noir. Constructed as a variety show right out of 1960s and 70s television, “Renew Revue,” as written by Ricky Graham, Mandy Zirkenbach, and Sean Patterson, looks at post-Katrina New Orleans and all its attendant headaches. Combining original songs by the writers and composer Jefferson Turner with more than a few incredibly clever parodies, the show arches an eyebrow at how far we have come and how little we have changed in the five years of slogging down the road home. There are doo-wops in the rain, chocolate city confections from Ramsey’s Jeweler’s, and nights before Christmas involving contractors and undocumented workers. It is a bull rush of theatre.

 

Featuring the talents of Zirkenbach and Graham along with longtime collaborators Matthew Mickal and Yvette Hargis, the revue revisits old whipping boys Ray Nagin and ex-recovery czar Ed Blakely, while introducing new developments like City Park’s dog park, Endymion’s turf wars and Edwin Edwards’ release. It is a nostalgically packaged evening full of torch-song numbers, ditzy showgirls, and Carol Burnett-style unravelings into laughter. It is a genuine revue, where each actor has a moment to shine before giving stage to the next charm, insult or send up. Solos feed into medleys that give way to Borscht Belt shtick until concluding with a piece of lunacy worthy of Fernwood Tonight. Even the misfires are so good-natured and quickly paced that we scarcely hear the thud of the joke missing its mark.

 

The phrase “giving stage” is key here, because the four performers understand that hogging the spotlight could easily derail the evening. Instead, in what has become a signature of director Graham’s style of theatre, the actors seem to root for one another and behave as if they cannot believe how lucky they are to be doing a show with these collaborators. Graham’s eager-to-please persona is nicely offset by a put-upon nature. He is at his best when playing characters such as Aaron Broussard hosting an unfortunate WYES game show. He seems a master of ceremonies by the default of being the only sane man in the room. You feel like he is holding it all together, but just barely. Zirkenbach continues to grow as an actress tripping her way through a collection of ditzy Y’ats, hyperactive canines, and emotionally challenged councilwomen. The deadly earnestness in which she sings “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” only makes the fact it is now “West Bank Storythat much more hilarious. You will not be sure if the tear in your eye was from being moved or hysterically laughing.

 

Matthew Mickal’s collection of politicians, reporters and buffoons all spring from his chin and leap from his heart. I thought at first he was laboring a bit too hard, but his Sidney Torres impersonation in “The Trash Can Can” won me over as did his Harry Lee singing with Graham’s Al Copeland the song “One More Restaurant in Heaven.” Finally, it is Yvette Hargis who comes closest to walking away with the show. Snarling, sneering and lascivious, she plays with wild abandon, unafraid to make a complete ass of herself. Her rendition of the Kurt Weill send-up “Where Are the Cranes” is fantastically realized, like Madeleine Cahn on a bender. It made me forget that jokes about Ed Blakely have been dated for some time.

 

They save the best for last. Sporting one of Cecile Casey Covert’s ridiculously sparkling costumes, Hargis comes out as a recently freed Gov. Edwards, hosting his own self-titled variety show. Jazz hands from Graham and Mickal frame the gifted comedienne’s combination of Merv Griffin and “The Silver Zipper” as she insinuates, charms and bedazzles the audience. Her rendition of “My Way” achieves something stunning: it reminds us why we miss The Cajun Fox while never forgetting the sleaze that hung about him.

 

We were out on the street in under two hours, and it felt like less. As I have said, some of the songs felt dated, like lingering reminders of recently alleviated aches. But the occasional twinge is well worth roaring laughter and precision professionalism. Like “Our Man,” “Renew Revue” was completely collaborative and absolutely committed to its audience having a great time. Both productions knew that in a city like New Orleans, there are endless options for the weekend, and it takes quite a bit more than learned lines and executed blocking to keep them coming back.

 

My only regret in writing this column is realizing how few of each audience will see the other’s show. That is a shame. Gifted performers enjoying each other’s company and, equally as important, enjoying the audience are events well worth seeing, in any neighborhood and with any crowd. Kids can have fun in any sandbox. After all, there is a reason it is called a play.

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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