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Views From the Fringe

NoDef Reviews Opening Night Fringe Fest Shows

Spanning neighborhoods and genres, Fringe kicked off with a KABLAM! Wednesday night. As the action reached fever pitch, NoDef's crack team of stage savants was out among the crowds, taking in all the marionettes, reworked slave narratives, shadow puppets and Mr. T appearances that were thrown at them. Looking to get in on the fun that lurks in the 70 performances, but don't know where to start? Start with the following reviews.


Where the Spirit Rides

Where the Spirit Rides is inspired by the true story of Quaker woman Abby Kelly who claimed she was possessed by the soul of a black woman and joined in the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s. Playing at the Shadowbox Theater, this one-woman show, written and performed by Lisa Biggs, is a blending of historical texts, dance, and projections that is both humorous and deeply moving.


This piece is filled with gems. The first is Biggs herself. She is a dynamic performer with a commanding stage presence from start to finish. At one point, Biggs pounds on her chest rhythmically with one hand and points with the other. The thump of her hand to her heart and the fierceness of her movement was arresting. She also has a moment where she lays down her scarf to signify the above-ground New Orleans grave of a slave owner. She dances around it and on it. It is funny at first. Then it becomes desperate and forceful. She also conjures up the voices of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Dolly Harris to the choreography of choking herself with a scarf.


The most stunning moment of the piece is Biggs’ mock slave auction. She dons a giant floppy stars-and-bars top hat and begins to auction off a black blow-up doll with a wig plastered to its head. Her violent and sexual movements towards the doll border on the absurd and then they become incredibly disturbing. She takes off the hat and cradles the doll, her back towards the audience. As Biggs lets the air out of the doll, she rocks bath and forth and sings a quiet song. It is devastating.


Presented by the Chicago-based Drapetomaniac Productions, Where the Spirit Rides is a powerful and bold dance-theatre piece that grabs a hold of your heart and your imagination. The show runs Nov 18, 5 pm; Nov 19, 7 pm; and Nov 20, 9 pm. -Helen Jaksch



Baltimore-based Nana Productions returns to Fringe Fest after an absence last year with Eureka!, an inventive shadow puppet production inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Among the floats at the Den of Muses on Architect Street, the artists utilize three overhead projectors and hundreds of individual cellular overlays to create a unique kind of live action animation on a screen.  Director and principal artist Molly Ross and her fellow “lanterneer”  Julia Smith tag team throughout the show, switching shots by moving from projector to projector or combining two at a time to create complex visuals. Composer Ellen Cherry accompanies them with atmospheric piano and guitar pieces. 


The art is very impressive and finds a great balance between the dark silhouettes and moody colors. Scenes don't so much change as slowly dissolve from one overlay into another, and the figures have a limited range of movement against the backdrop: a rising hand, a flapping wing, a bobbing bottle.  While the animation is less than fluid, it is easy to give in to because of the dreamlike nature of the art.  Each short vignette requires a practiced manipulation of the cells, and on Wednesday night the audience cooed at the revelation of each new technique. 


With no narration and few verbal clues, Eureka! is more impressionistic than a direct adaptation of any of Poe’s works.  That’s good in that you can enjoy it no matter the level of your familiarity with Poe’s catalog; the show seems to draw almost more from our collective ideas about Poe’s aesthetic than specific lines on the page. The silhouetted characters sit at lamplit desks crouched over manuscripts or stroll down a street of rowhouses looking up into the night sky, and a raven often pursues or leads them. The visuals are an accessible type of surreal, but the accompanying music walks a thin line between repetetive and genuinely hypnotic. 


The impact of this production relies heavily on the illustrations and the effects, but the absence of a traditional story arc could leave some groping.  Eureka! ends just as abruptly as a dream, without warning or climax.  It’s a unique and worthwhile offering and the obvious product of countless hours of effort and practice, but at around thirty minutes running time it may be more suitable for the holder of a five-show pass  than someone making a single crosstown trip. Eureka!  plays Nov. 18 at 11 p.m., Nov. 19 at 5 p.m., and Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. -Ryan Sparks


Billy the Liar

Along with pods that sprout sound instead of peas and pads that do more than regulate the flow, the recently departed Steve Jobs left us with a concept that is not so much gadget as gift: kids' movie that adults could stand – and even enjoy. Over at the Mudlark Public Theatre (1200 Port St., BYOV), a group of puppeteers from Asheville, N.C., is helping Fringe put Pixar's great leap centerstage as well. In Toybox Theatre's Billy the Liaraudience interaction and a simple plot that teaches a childhood lesson is aimed right at early middle schoolers. Without a lack of Lusher field trips down to the St. Roch neighborhood, this might not be Fringe's targeted audience. And, after all, children's theatre is nothing new. But children's theatre that slaps the word “loquacious” across the stage? Now we get it.


The 30 minute show begins with a lovely songstress playing accordion, and a diorama set. Both are quickly shoved off the action – she simply walking to the right, and the dinosaurs struck by the comet that made their entire race mere museum fragments for our times. The two set-asides quickly make way for a bevy of action that centers on a trio of highly-detailed Czech-style rod marionettes, but grows to include giant pointing parental hands, a nefarious man on a flying motorcycle, a dirty plastic bottle that stands in for a prop the players wanted to use, a giant robot and Mr. T, among other subjects. The action keeps coming from all sides to keep the kids happy, and the script employs a light touch that keeps everyone old enough to enjoy the bar chuckling.


Lurking somewhere in this cacophony is Billy, the titular character who cannot stop telling a lie, and his friend Suzy. Eventually, he is captured and condemned to a labyrinth, where he must acquire a video tape and a magic pony that may or may not exist to escape. Eventually, Suzy also joins this bit of fun. Billy and Suzy are the main marionettes, and not a detail is glanced over – from his pigeon toes to her pointed braids. The beautiful puppets are one of only a few signs of the formidable skill and craftsmanship that goes into a show that is otherwise filled with camp and cheap laughs. But since it is aimed at children, the show is allowed to be joyful where it is rough around the edges. An arm swoops down into the action of the play, or the audience gets a glimpse of the puppeteers' next prop before it gets shown to the crowd. But none of it hurts a thing. At the end, they even asked us what we thought. Billy the Lair plays Nov. 17 at 9 p.m., Nov. 18 at 11 p.m., Nov. 19 at 3 and 11 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 1 and 9 p.m. -Kermit N. Mudgely


Marilyn: A Play About Our Bodies

Now playing at the Villa di Furnari, the dance/theatre/dinner party piece Marilyn: A Play About Our Bodies uses the complex personality and life of Marilyn Monroe to get at the question: what do you love about your body? Conceived and written by Alison Haracznak and directed by Bonnie Gabel, the story is spread through several rooms of a house: the backyard, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room. All three women in the show wear platinum blonde wigs. And each have a mole on their cheek. One woman, Alison Haracznak, wears Marilyn’s signature white halter dress. The other two Marilyns, Sara Schmatz and Louisa Sargent, wear simple black dresses and heels. They read as two extremes of Monroe’s personality: one is innocent and quiet, even silenced by the make-up made to look like sewn-up lips. The other is the curvaceous sex symbol. Haracznak’s Marilyn lives somewhere between the two, made up of both. She sweetly serves tea to the audience while playing with a porcelain doll in one scene and does a strip tease in another. 


Some highlights of the show include a moment when Haracznak is frantically trying to put on shoes that do not fit her feet. She finally jams her toes into a pair of five inch heels with big flowers on the back. She gets up triumphantly and falls flat on her face. It is quiet and heartbreaking. Haracznak, Sargent, and Schmatz each give solid performances. I also really enjoyed the original music created and performed by Sargent. There is a face-off in the kitchen between the three Marilyns involving sharp knifes and apples that was very dynamic. The costumes, especially those of the “real” Marilyn, designed by Gabel were charming and very well done. And of course, I enjoyed the pie served at the dinner party.


Because we were moving through space fairly quickly and juggling multiple personae, it was sometimes difficult to follow the story and the ending was a little too sentimental for my taste. But the show brings with it a noble intention: to ask the audience to look beyond the surface of things to find the beauty that lives inside each of us. A sweet piece played with generous spirit and genuine hearts, Night Light Collective’s Marilyn: A Play About Our Bodies runs Nov 18, 5 pm & 7 pm; Nov 19, 5 pm & 7 pm; and Nov 20, 5 pm & 7 pm. -Helen Jaksch



Senseless! A Brick Foley Adventure

Senseless! A Brick Foley Adventure takes its inspiration from melodramas of the Golden Age of radio but the interpretation takes a detour onto the stage with the help of suggestive prop puppets and sound gags. The story itself is a send up of a gumshoe whodunnit - private detective Brick Foley is attempting to find out who’s killing blind and deaf students at the Helen Keller School of Music and why - and while the tropes and accents are all familiar, the juxtaposition of the handmade sound effects and the gesture-based action is a new and fun way to experience this brand of camp. 


Within the confines of Mardi Gras Zone (2706 Royal St.), five performers whirl behind a plywood stage-on-a-stage and take turns manipulating simple items like hats, eyeglasses, shoes, and often a single accompanying glove into an “air” character while also giving them voices.  The action is well-rehearsed and timed perfectly, and the teamwork necessary to pull of some more complicated sequences is really remarkable.  An additional dance takes place in addition to the movement as the performers accentuate the story with foley effects like stretching out masking tape to mimic the smack of a kiss or snapping a bunch of celery to simulate the snapping of a victim’s neck.  The production of these sounds often add another layer to the humor as the actors mug and shrug along with their tools knowing that there’s no use trying to “fool” an audience who can see them. 


There isn’t much depth to the characters, but Brendan Yi-Fu Tay digs deep to make Brick Foley an entertaining focal point as he stumbles his way through the mystery.  Katrina Denney and Sarah Lafferty portray the opposite ends of the spectrum of Foley’s female attractions.  Michael Schupbach ably juggles three characters and their separate voices, even while conversing with himself.  Nate Wilson brings the accident prone Officer Murphy to life with some of the best handwork of the show, and David Brown provides brief interludes on organ and guitar, as well as adding fuel to the fire with more music and sounds during the more hyperactive scenes. 


The plot itself is more of a ride than an true mystery.  There are familiar archetypes like the do-good dame and an Irish beat cop, but Senseless! really tries to utilize the cliches instead of relying on them.  The show aims for a couple jokes a minute, but the slapstick is always stronger than the wisecracks.  Writer/director Elizabeth Hara has cast a great team and coached them to a nearly flawless performance that is probably one of the most suitable shows for a general audience to enjoy at Fringe Fest.  Those in the front row may want to be forewarned that they are in a Splash Zone and may have to dodge an errant strand of spaghetti or a wingtip shoe.  Senseless! plays Nov. 18 at 7 p.m., Nov. 19 at 11 p.m., and Nov. 20 at 9 p.m. -Ryan Sparks



Costumes are strewn about. A chair is overturned. A suitcase lays open.


All is quiet.


A flashlight from the darkness.


It is the Master of Ceremonies, in smeared make-up and dirty clothes. It is 1933. In Germany. The Nazis are rising to power and suppressing the Kabaretts (cabarets). The MC is readying himself to leave, eager to escape the awful fate of his fellow actors. But there is an audience. And the show must go on. Written and performed by Bremner Duthie and directed by Dave Dawson, ‘33 is a beautiful, haunting, and musical show now playing at The Shadowbox Theater (2400 St. Claude Ave).


The thing that strikes me the most about this piece is the music. Duthie’s voice is dazzling. A few of my favorite songs were "Our Town is Burning," "I Never Do Anything Twice," and "Mack the Knife." But to be honest, it would be hard to pick a only three; every song was so well performed. The show’s political satire is spot-on and transcends 1933 to the here and now of immigration laws and the war on terror. I enjoyed the mixture of language onstage as the MC jumps from German to French to English. Duthie’s MC stumbles around the stage and finds the left-behind props and costumes of his dear friends. He dons these things--shoes, a clown nose, a skirt--and pays homage to their ghosts by performing their acts for the crowd one final time. He expertly jumps from character to character, bringing them back to life, if only for a moment.


The play struggled with pace at the beginning and the lights were very sloppy, but these are minor mishaps. Duthie is a master of his craft. He will have you close to tears in one moment and laughing the next. An absolute joy to watch, this kabarett of soft-shoeing, satire, and song is playing Nov 18, 9 pm; Nov 19, 5 pm; and Nov 20, 11 pm -Helen Jaksch


The Bride of Black Lake

A babushka provides the backdrop for a tale that takes travels from The Little Mermaid to pogroms. A puppet dies in a bloodbath of fabric, but, since we're dealing with a Jewish tale, no one rises from the dead in the end. At the Mudlark Public Theatre (1200 Port St.), The Bride of Black Lake, is an hourlong whirlwind journey packed with names that are hard to pronounce, silhouette scenes that can be difficult to decipher and flashes of overwrought melodrama. But if attention is rapt too closely on any of these details, you're likely to miss the dazzling puppets, and the precise movements of the NOLA-based Mudlark Puppeteers. And that would be a disservice to the time the players spent preparing the dolls.


In the skeleton of a story – or, to put it more correctly, condensed and amalgamated plot elements from stories that have already been told – bride Lita is attacked and killed on the way to her wedding during the Russian pogroms under Czar Alexander. This puts the year around 1881, but who's counting? Once killed, she sinks down to the depths of Black Lake and a sort of purgatory, where she is given a wish that allows her to return to her prince. But to get back to land she must bargain with a witch who takes her voice in return for retaking human form. In the end, she must choose between saving her own life and the life of her prince's betrothed.


Yes, it all sounds familiar. But when sitting in that small, warm Marigny room and taking in the show with the eyes, the production stands as an original article. At the center of this pronouncement is the puppets. The marionettes are the work of fine craftsmanship, with fins, flippers and outifts of the water underworld's ruling class dazzling, and the personality of an old woman shining through. The puppeteers, lead by Pandora Gastelum, clearly spent enough time with their figures leading up to the production, as each movement is either as ethereal or as humanlike as is necessary to communicate the specific onstage action. Other Fringe shows may excel in the realm of story and shadow puppets. The Bride at Black Lake is not the production for those elements. But if you wish to be hypnotized by puppets, a trip to the lake side of St. Claude may be in store. The show runs Nov. 17, 11 p.m., Nov. 18, 7 p.m., Nov. 19, 5 and 7 p.m. and Nov. 20, 3 and 11 p.m. -Kermit N. Mudgely




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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


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