Two or three years ago, I grew disgruntled with the New Orleans Fringe Festival. Except for any absolute obligation shows, I started avoiding it in its entirety. Sheer size had not made the fest a “victim of its own success.” There’d been no noticeable decline in the quality of its slate. Rather I believed that the rest of the New Orleans scene had fallen victim to it. It’s all in the timing: Whereas in most cities a fringe fest invigorates the off-season, the theatrical dead zone, ours had set up camp in the middle of prime time – in a town where workable periods for full-run shows is already severely limited by the major holidays – then grown so huge as to suck all the air out of the room.
Local producers not ensconced in the suburbs now have little choice but to close their fall productions a week early to get the hell out of the way or fold one weekend of whatever they’re presenting under the Fest banner. And if Fringe Fest gave back value to those overshadowed producers in the form of new butts regularly in the seats, I couldn’t see it. The 800-pound gorilla of the fall feeds mostly itself, returning next season tipping in at 900 pounds.
This year, I beganreviewing for the Defender and figured that I was due for a reality check. So, I signed up for a full plate of everything that was not puppetry, burlesque, sideshow, stand-up, poetry, or dance. (In other words, the plays.) Is the breadth and depth of Fringe Fest offerings really outweighed by its voracious omnipresence, or was I just being a bitch?
If my first night running around town is any indication, it looks like the latter…
Cicada (Lofty Productions, New Orleans)
The production of Mary Jacobs’ Cicada, by Lofty Productions at Claire’s Garden – in Gentilly, way off the official Fest map – harkens back to what fringe fests used to be: the loving presentation of technically modest, thematically adventurous, interesting but uncommercial work. Cicada concerns itself with Joann (Abigail Riddick), a workaday grunt whose ordinarily unhappy life is notable only for her status as the very young single mother of eight-year-old Cole (Preston Slaughter.) Cole has been giving her the silent treatment, without explanation, for many weeks. Is he sick? Depressed? Going through a phase?
Joann's conversations with the one bright spot in her life, her tippling lesbian BFF Ellen (Christina Ingrassia) – a near-stereotype, akin to the sassy gay friend, redeemed by the modesty of her sassiness – with Cole’s concerned teacher Ms. Miro (Jasmine Johnson,) and, most memorably, with Cole himself Jacobs limns the depth of Joann’s anger and hurt. My son can hear me, respond to me so, what? Does he hate me?
Cicada is a drama of the quotidian, such as we almost never see from American writers. (At its best, it put me in mind of the British maestro of the working class, Ken Loach.) In calling Cicada "adventurous," I mean to compliment Jacobs mostly for what she does not do. I waited in dread of The Explosion – a moment of violence or the revelation of a dark secret; perhaps, just as bad, a Lifetime-movie hug-cum-reconciliation – that blessedly never comes. Even the title metaphor is unstrained in its use. The play ends as it begins: a plain-spoken, poignant slice of hard life, its central mystery unresolved. Yet, still we feel that we’ve traveled somewhere important.
I can take issue with director Jacobs not pressing her unforced and persuasive actors harder to play beneath the surface of her lines, Specifically, I question the apparently intelligent and devoted Joann’s adamant refusal to even consider Ms. Miro’s suggestion that she get counseling for Cole (and for herself), and, really, with an entire scene in Cole’s classroom. Since Joann doesn’t contradict or evade what Ms. Miro said to her when she tells Ellen about the meeting (which would’ve been interesting) there’s probably no reason for us to see it. And the play would benefit in unity if it never left the living room.
Jacobs may or may not prove to be a major writer, but she’s a serious one already. Cicada is my favorite new work by a local playwright this year.
Boesman and Lena (American Theatre Project and Ashé Center, New Orleans)
Lately I have had reason to accuse myself of being an easy grader. So, it’s a special relief that American Theatre Project’s latest, Athol Fugard’s modern masterpiece Boesman and Lena offer some confirmation of mu scale. The work presents the same grace and confidence I found in ATP's recent Freedom Summer…all of it and then some.
This staging proves ATP artistic director Ed Bishop’s determination to burn off any mere “business,” make no moves that don’t serve the story, indulge no showoff-y “moments.” With only simple but appropriate costumes and set and two high-powered leads, Bishop tells the story of tense, exhausted bottom feeders who live off the literal garbage of the ruling class. They are always on the vagrant move until a walking-dead ‘kaffir’ appears to disrupt their balance of power by providing Lena the illusion of companionship…which is, under the awful circumstances, is as good as the real thing. This is powerful, darkly funny work, resonating well beyond the confines of its apartheid-era South African setting, as work by geniuses like Fugard are wont to do.
It specifically confirms my suspicion that India King is thrilling. She vaults beyond the success of her show-stopping performance as Fannie Lou Hamer in Summer (which was merely a long monologue, after all, grand as it was.) Now, she lays claim – alongside Amy Alvarez, Becca Chapman, Jennifer Pagan, and Liann Pattison – to the finest dramatic lead performance by an actress this year. Her Lena is believably tough yet subservient to the volatile Boesman, blunt but given to flights of poetry and, most important, alive in character every single moment. Here is what I call bone-deep acting.
The surprise is Kirk Bush as Boesman, whom I’ve always enjoyed but never been thrilled by. It must’ve been the roles, because he matches King beat by beat. Boesman’s anger at their lot in life has left him sullen and dangerous. This is yet another in a recent spate of local productions shot through with toxic machismo, and if I lauded Alex Wallace’s transformation in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I can do no less for the handsome and charming Bush here. He’s made himself feral, ugly, and magnetic.
I must be brief(er.) So, I’ll close by noting that I wish to hell Bishop would give more thought to the opening and closing moments of his shows – they are always weak – and that as the kaffir Outa what TJ Toups accomplishes, although it might appear otherwise, is not at all easy. Kudos to Toups for being so disciplined and effectively eerie in a thankless role.
The Other Mozart (New York City)
I can’t actually recommend that theater lovers arrive five minutes late to a house show especially when it starts on time, then locks its doors because the layout of the parlor doesn’t allow for late seating. However, you could do worse if the curtains aren’t tightly drawn on the porch and the show you’re peering in at is The Other Mozart.
Although I lacked the stamina to peeping-Tom my way to the conclusion, I saw (and heard: Sara Florence Fellini, who alternates in the title role with the playwright, Sylvia Milo, has the voice of a crystal bell) a good half-hour of it before I grew weary of crouching. There was something very Upstairs Downstairs right about furtively watching such a fey and stylish show through the window of a gorgeous manse.
Anyway. In case I don’t make it back as I hope to do – like I said, the plate is full – I can confirm that Milo’s script is a detailed, straightforward recounting of the life of Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’ older sister, and an acclaimed musician in her own right before becoming lost to history. (There is, by now, a buckling shelf of forgotten-woman-genius solo shows, most of them having originated on the fringe circuit. An enterprising anthologist with patience for research could collect into a terrific volume.)
Milo and her collaborators, especially director Isaac Byrne, made two extremely smart decisions. The high style of the performance – all-white, period-elegant, the actress surrounded by a moat of sheet music and tulle – is inversely proportionate to the grounded trustworthiness of the just-the-facts-ma’am text. Secondly, before they dive into the inherent polemics of Nannerl’s overlooked life, and broaden the story to include the neglect of other female musicians of her day, they really lay on the charm. This is feminist theatre with girlish allure.
Oh! And Fellini is captivating. Beyond that, I just can’t say.
I can say that, outside of Fringe Fest, we rarely if ever see work like this. Perhaps by virtue of providing inspiration, that alone is giving back enough to the local theatre scene.