Manifesting witch face
review by Eileen Daley
Origin stories are ten a penny these days, with everyone from the Joker to Cruella de Vil enjoying a deep dive into their beginnings. Wicked is perhaps the origin of origin stories if you will, and is celebrating 20 years on the stage.
If you’re not familiar, Wicked is an expansion of the Wizard of Oz theatrical universe, telling the story of how the good and bad witches came to be. It’s based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and it’s a thoughtful adaptation that foreshadows the themes more organically than you might think.
Wicked is a true Broadway sensation, now in its third decade, and it continues to captivate audiences thanks to its inventive story, dazzling production, and powerhouse performances.
From the moment Glinda the Good Witch (played with effervescent charm by Celia Hottenstein) descends in her glittering bubble, to the gravity-defying entrance of Elphaba (portrayed with vulnerability and strength by Olivia Valli), the audience was spellbound. The shifting chemistry between the leads is engaging to watch, the musical bringing a dynamic energy to a complex relationship.
Eugene Lee's set design seamlessly blends grandeur and intimacy, transporting the audience from the towering spires of the Emerald City to the learned halls of Shiz University. The lighting design (by Kenneth Posner) creates a kaleidoscope of colors that maintain the sense of wonder. A giant dragon frames the stage, which is a neat device, reminding us that we’re watching a kind of traveling marionette version of a story.
Wicked's huge success hinges on its iconic music, though, and this production did not disappoint. Tunes like ‘Defying Gravity’, ‘Popular’ and ‘For Good’ were met with panoramic excitement, fans remembering a thousand Tumblr memes and many likely seeing this show live for the latest in, well, any number of times.
The ensemble cast deliver notable performances, bringing the citizens of Oz to life with infectious energy. Big ensemble numbers, such as ‘One Short Day’ and ‘Dancing Through Life’, enjoyed daring choreography that added an extra layer of drama.
Wicked's timeless themes of friendship, identity, and the consequences of prejudice resonate strongly, and they kind of turn the musical romance trope on its head. The narrative's depth and emotional resonance are brought to the forefront by the cast's powerful performances, backed by a solid musical soundtrack (delivered by a lush-sounding live orchestra).
Wicked is a triumphant continuation of a Broadway phenomenon. With its striking visuals and a narrative that remains as relevant as ever, it continues to pull in loving crowds. It’s fun to reevaluate the movie through a different lens, and it’s clear that, even after all these years, there's no place like Oz.
Wicked plays at The Saenger Theatre through Dec 17th. More info and tickets here.
A beautiful, hot mess!
Looped @ Westwego Cultural Center
review by Todd Perley
Ah, Tallulah Bankhead (1902–1968). The diva of stage, radio, and screen. An amalgamation of Bette Davis, Oscar Wilde, Mae West, and Morticia Addams, with a healthy dose of Bitchy Drag Queen (which just sums up the previous attributes, honestly). And did Jennifer Saunders write a bit of her into Edwina Monsoon in the TV show 'Absolutely'?
Bisexual, promiscuous, ubiquitous drink in hand, a cigarette in her mouth, and white-ringed nostrils. She for whom Tennessee Williams wrote the character of Blanche Dubois. Wouldn’t you like to spend an evening with her?
Well, you’re in luck, thanks to this play, by Matthew Lombardo. As they bill it: “This three-person drama is based on a real event that took place in the summer of 1965, when an inebriated Tallulah Bankhead required a full day to redub – or loop – one line of dialogue … The recording session ends up lasting eight hours due to her drunken behavior.”
The campy mood is set before you even enter the theater. The lobby becomes an interactive playground. Sign your name to a star on the floor. Take a photo with Tallulah wearing borrowed mink and holding fake cigarettes and champagne. Don’t forget your complimentary packet of candy cigarettes. (Yes, they still make those!) Many theater-goers dress the part. I stood in the wine line with a man who had sewn dozens of dangling cigarettes to his blazer. (“It’s my smoking jacket.”)
Set in an L.A. recording studio, the three-hour-late Bankhead finally shows up to read her one line. Film editor Danny Miller’s nerves are quickly shattered as she fails, fails, and fails again. She’s more interested in prying into his life, revealing sides of her own…and drinking, smoking, snorting, and pill-popping, natch.
Eric Lincoln as Danny is believably (and justifiably) frustrated with the shenanigans. Leslie Castay delivers Tallulah’s barbs and quips with appropriately acerbic dryness. It would be easy to play this role as a campy diva stereotype, dah-ling, but Castay is never shallow.
Director Janet Shea wants us to know the real Tallulah. As sloppily aloof as she seems, her inquisitive humanity and self clarity is always at the foundation. She’s a mess, Danny’s a mess, and she recognizes this and demands to connect with him, much to his consternation as well as that of the equally-frustrated tech booth worker Steve (David L. Haydel, Jr.).
Act One is a fun-fueled bitchy romp, and Act Two, while still bitchy and quip-y, becomes legitimately moving. I confess to some casual weeping as Bankhead/Castay delivers a brilliant monologue as Blanche Dubois.
I signed up for the iconic Tallulah caricature, but her depth and fragility was lagniappe, without ever dragging the mood irretrievably into the land of morbid. As Bankhead/Castay says, “We all have our vices, dah-ling. Mine just all come out to play at once.” And you should come to this play. At once.
Looped runs through November 19th @ Westwego Cultural Center. More info and tickets here.
More on Out All Day New Orleans by Todd Perley:
True stories: No rain probably helps
True Stories: Tree beads hold their value
Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein
Review by Paul Oswell
It’s been feeling a bit like ‘Monster of the week’ in the city’s theater scene this month, with a handful of seasonally spooky productions. ’Let The Right One In’ brought the serious Scandic Noir, The NOLA Project’s ‘Dracula’ brimmed with original silliness, and now ‘Young Frankenstein’ at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center adds to the Halloween hilarity.
With musical numbers and script by the great Mel Brooks (who also wrote and directed the well-loved 1974 movie version) and the late Thomas Meehan, you arrive expecting to be launched into a high-octane, gag-filled romp, and that’s exactly how it goes. It’s not just a parody of the Frankenstein story that we all recognize; Brooks also pokes fun at the tropes of musicals, with pastiches of Cabaret and any number of Andrew Lloyd-Webber productions.
Directed with tangible enthusiasm and delight in the material by New Orleans’ own Leslie Castay, there’s little room for subtlety as the double entendres and innuendo, not to mention straight-up filthiness (the good kind), come at you from the off.
Dr Frederick Frankenstein (Michael Paternostro) leaves his prudish fiancee Elizabeth (Jennifer Delatte) to attend to his deceased grandfather’s estate in Transylvania. Events conspire to have him reanimate a corpse with a stolen brain, creating the iconic monster (Adriel Aviles). Here, he is comically assisted by sidekick Igor (Scott Sauber), seduced by saucy scientist Inga (Charlie Carr) and reprimanded by Teutonic scold Frau Blucher (Meredith Long-Dieth).
The plot, involving the monster’s escape, Elizabeth’s unexpected arrival and the villagers forming angry hordes, is a minor concern. Young Frankenstein is more a celebration of suggestive vaudeville, set pieces as vehicles for Brooks’ jokes and some top-notch physical comedy. I’m not above an obvious analogy in that the production itself feels stitched together from movie, musical and vaudevillian traditions, and like the monster, it lives, laughs and lumbers into becoming its own entity.
Paternostro gives us a relentlessly energetic lead performance, requiring no small amount of discipline to maintain some dramatic cohesion. Sauber absolutely slays the crowd as the knowingly incompetent Igor, the funniest role in both the movie (recalling the flawless Marty Feldman) and this musical. Delatte’s journey from frump to femme fatale is embellished with some seriously stirring pipes and Carr and Long-Dieth both ham up their roles with impressive commitment. Long-Dieth, for example, positively relishes racy lines such as “He won the three-legged race all by himself” as she reminisces about Frankenstein senior’s memorably-proportioned physique.
The highlights for me were the set pieces of the monster’s chaotic, slapstick-heavy arrival at the home of a blind hermit (Ken Goode) and an all-singing, all-dancing, all-bellowing rendition of Puttin’ On The Ritz that you’d have to be undead not to enjoy. Aviles skillfully winkles a personality out of the monster that is both charming and sinister, and the chorus deliver some fine moments with dynamic dance routines and pitchfork-waving mob work.
Young Frankenstein is indelicate, risqué and raucous, but even the most politically-correct reading would struggle to find offense. If you love unpretentious, bawdy laughs, then animate your own bag of bones and lurch along for one last salute to this year’s spooky season.
Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein runs at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center through Nov 5th. Tickets and more info here.
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Let The Right One In
review by Paul Oswell
If all you wanted was to not feel alone, what’s the highest price that you’d pay? This is a question that many of the characters ask themselves in ‘Let The Right One in’, now showing at Le Petit Theatre. Jack Thorne’s adaptation (of the 2008 Swedish movie of the same name) is restrained, and at many times bleak, but with hope buried deep in its dark heart.
The Scandic noir ambience of the film is impressively recreated on stage. The production team uses basic props, but somehow manages to keep things astonishingly cinematic, especially given the demanding number of scene changes. By combining unfussy, practical sets and impeccably atmospheric video projections, we’re at once in a dark forest, a school locker room, or underwater. Even judged solely on a technical level, this production soars.
We’re dropped into a small, rural and snowbound town. Oscar (Dalton Major) is an older teen, an only child with a caring but alcoholic mother (Wendy Miklovic). He is relentlessly bullied by his peers. Eli (Caylee Sanders) is a young girl around his age, who moves in next door with an adult man, Hakan (Mike Harkins), who we presume to be her father. She has strange mannerisms, and appears to live almost outside of time, like an intelligent alien. Oscar and Eli cautiously bond as outcasts. Meanwhile, blood-drained corpses start to appear as a series of grisly murders has the town understandably on edge.
A supernatural element unfolds gradually, and as both Oscar and Eli’s situations become increasingly fraught, they are drawn closer together, at the same time being forced to make some dramatically adult decisions. Salvatore Mannino’s direction has a satisfying, patient delicacy to it, allowing scenes to breathe when necessary, exploring the nuances of what it really means when you commit to loving a son, a friend, a partner, a soul mate.
Major and Sanders skillfully and empathetically navigate an unusual coming-of-age romance with poignancy, while Harkins’ unconditional love is laid heart-wrenchingly bare. Andrew Hagen and Derek Boudreaux entertainingly deliver as Oscar’s tormentors (Johnny and Mickey) - both believably cruel, with Boudreaux showing rare glimmers of a conscience. Ryan Hayes, Nick Strauss and Kevin Wheatley are all wonderful as various townsfolk, from shopkeepers to police officers to Oscar’s semi-estranged father. It’s fine character work from them, and the multiple roles are never jarring.
Occasional live camera feeds relayed on stage help to create a televised press conference, or put relationship dynamics under a probing visual microscope. There are particularly moving moments as Oscar bonds with his mother and later Eli in their small apartment. Once again, this blending of technology with a cold, analogue world helps move us seamlessly between locations. Scene changes can be tricky vortices, where the emotional resonance of a play can waver, but it’s maintained here with thoughtful imagination.
I loved the moments of stillness, the minimalist soundtrack and how evocative the whole experience was. Honors are split right down the middle between cast and crew, all of whom should feel very proud of the result. There’s an undeniable backdrop of unspeakable violence and horror, but Let The Right One In is an exploration of love. Love sometimes comes with a price tag that’s more than we can afford, and rationalizing a vast emotional cost can be terrifying in itself.
Let The Right One In plays at Le Petit Theatre through October 22nd. You can buy tickets via this link.
Review by Paul Oswell
It was a dark and stormy night, though other cocktails were also available at the bar. We’d been summoned to a strange venue by an eccentric host. The weather was, as it always is these days, unseasonably clement, and so I’d forgone my regular crucifix-emblazoned smoking jacket with garlic clove and wooden stake accessories. I brought with me, as per the invitation, a folding chair and a simple, everyday blood sample in an ornate drinking vessel. Yes, I thought that strange as well - bringing your own chair to a theatrical performance! (I'm just goofing about the blood sample)
Welcome, then, to the NOLA Project’s seasonally-astute production of Dracula, a comically romantic retelling of the classic Gothic vampire myth. The venue is a warehouse on the Lafitte Greenway, an industrially-dreary but atmospheric backdrop.
There’s little in the way of set dressing, deft and daft sound design by Khiry Armstead, Joan Long’s subtly effective lighting and a cast of eight actors taking on dozens of roles. Props are mainly limited to costumes (notably excellent work by Bridget Ann Boyle and Grace Smith), and a few boxes on wheels. In terms of challenges, it’s something of a high-wire act to turn this into a triumphantly entertaining two hours, but as you’ll see, The Nola Project vamp their way to success with real aplomb.
Jonathan Harker (played with wide-eyed befuddlement by Keith Claverie), a young English lawyer, travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to assist a reclusive Count with a real estate transaction. He orates gag-heavy letters to his fiancée, Mina Murray (a delightfully petulant Alexandria Miles) as the story unfolds.
There’s an unsettling carriage ride, Joe Signorelli and Natalie Boyd note-perfect as a knife-sharpening psychopath and his mother, the arrival at the castle (Signorelli and the excellent Wayland Cooper as overly-sensual acolytes), and an introduction to Count Dracula. Benjamin Dougherty sinks his teeth into the titular role, switching nimbly between vampiric menace and farcially flummoxed frustration.
Thanks to a script that's tighter than a pinching pair of pumpkin-print panties, the textual, visual and even aural gags come at you from the start like bats from the rowdiest belfry in town. There are post-modern, Pthyonesque set pieces, fanciful physical flourishes and let me ask you this - when’s the last time that you laughed at a recurring sound effect? I’m not sure that I ever have, but it (you won’t miss it, believe me) landed every single time.
The vicissitudes of the plot have the Count eventually traveling to London to pursue Mina, jockeying for position among a rogue’s gallery of suitors. The wonderfully versatile Signorelli is a clueless toff, Natalie Boyd is riotously great as a dope fiend in the asylum business, and Cooper fully commits to a brilliantly incongruous, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy. All of them are hilarious, and change costumes at impressively breakneck speeds.
Meghan Whittle nails Lucy, Mina’s hedonistic best friend, and has the crowd howling as Renfield in a scene parodying The Silence of the Lambs. Alex Martinez Wallace positively revels in his roles as Mina’s mother and the vampire hunter Van Helsing, approaching both with a joyous oozing of camp swagger. Dougherty and Miles both expertly distill comedy from the emotional heart of the novel, and Claverie’s coterie of brash supporting characters feels like an extra level of comic relief, even within a relentlessly funny play.
Writer Pete McElligott has penned a wonderful silly script, tonally edging toward Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Directors Khiry Armstead and Leslie Claverie allow for just the right levels of fourth wall breaking, and conduct things at a satisfying, comically-intensifying pace. Just in case it’s not clear, I loved this play like Dracula loves enticingly-exposed necks.
I can’t believe it’s much fun living as a vampire. You’d have to forgo any reflective surfaces for one, and I really couldn’t see myself living in a house without mirrors. I SAID I REALLY COULDN’T SEE MYSELF…fine, suit yourself. Catch this production before the sun comes up on it permanently - like me, you’ll be truly fangful (sorry, we had to get one in) for the memories.
Dracula plays at The Greenway Station through Oct 15th. Tickets available via this link.
Jefferson Performing Arts Society kicks off its Westbank 46th season stage productions with Steel Magnolias this month at the Westwego Cultural Center on Sala Avenue in Westwego. The show runs for two weekends, Thursdays through Sundays, from Thursday, September 21 through Sunday, October 1.
JPAS will present two more stage plays at the intimate setting of the Westwego Cultural Center as part of its 46th season: Looped (November 9-19, 2023) about Tallulah Bankhead, featuring Leslie Castay in the lead role, and The Mountaintop (January 25-February 4, 2024), about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours, in a surprising and spiritual story that takes place in the Lorraine Motel. Auditions for this show are underway and the cast will be announced soon.
For tickets and information, visit www.jpas.org or call the box office at 504-885-200. All shows will be onstage at the Westwego Cultural Center.
The View UpStairs
Review by Paul Oswell
On June 24th 1973, 32 people died in an arson attack on a gay bar called The UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter. The devastation was compounded at the time by a shameful, callous reaction to the loss of life from so-called religious leaders (even given that one of the deceased was a Reverend) and city officials alike. It remained the most horrific, violent act against the LGBTQ community until the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Before anything, we remember and honor the memory of those who lost their lives.
This may sound like an unlikely backdrop to a life-affirming musical, but playwright and composer Max Vernon was moved to create The View UpStairs in 2013, this one-act production first performed at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York in 2017.
Unless it was just to be a straight retelling of the events, a conceit was necessary, and so Vernon presents a kind of living flashback to that night. Wes (Donyae Asante), a hyper-modern influencer, has - oblivious to its history - just purchased a derelict lounge bar and tells his online followers that he can’t wait to transform it into a trendy art space.
The audience is asked to make a sudden leap as his presence somehow opens up a portal in time, and he is transported back to 1973, where it's just another night for the UpStairs regulars. It’s important to remember that much of queer life was illegal at this time, and so places to socialize were rare, the clientele ranging from vagrants to men of the cloth.
Among others, we meet firecracker bartender Henri (Lauren Sparacello), piano man Buddy (Marshall Harris), theatrical Freddy (Eddie Lockwood, who also designed the costumes), pastor Richard (Tom Vaughn), queer elder Willie (Rayshaughn Armant) and hustlers Patrick and Dale (Ty Robbins and Justice Hues).
The sense of family is apparent from the off, with a wonderful chorus adding to the opening’s song and dance numbers, a whole world and its dynamic efficiently conjured. Wes imagines himself to be hallucinating at first, but he quickly adapts and before long is explaining phone apps and the vacuity of contemporary life.
This theme has some easy laughs as the bar patrons dismiss his rants, and while it’s not the most interesting part of the night, it’s an empathetic bridge that allows us all to cross. Issues - some of which still resonate today - are discussed and fought over...the behavior of the hustlers, the spiritual health of the group, how to deal with a police raid. Some people fight, while others pretend to be straight married men, the eternal conflict between pragmatism and idealism.
Asante is tremendously charismatic as he deftly navigates a difficult role, veering from cartoonish arrogance to being mystified and lovelorn as he and Patrick - played with note-perfect, easy assurance by Robbins - start to fall for each other despite the odds. Lockwood shines as a drag queen, beaten on the street and comforted by his mother (JeAnne Marcus) before an entertaining “we’ve got just one night to put on the best show ever” subplot. Mostly in the background, Justice Hues grapples with a gradual descent into desperation with real aplomb.
Almost all of the cast are on stage for the entirety of the 100-minute run time, and I want to especially commend the chorus. Given the time-travel aspect, the show relies on the integrity of creating a realistic 1970s world, and they do an excellent job. Jack Lampert’s direction, and the choreography of Monica Ordoñez are both admirable in their dynamism and realism.
The music and songs deliver a sense of comradery and maintain an emotional resonance. There are some seriously impressive pipes on stage, particularly from Donyae Asante, Lauren Sparacello, Rayshaughn Armant and soprano JeAnne Marcus.
There are some memorable lines, and I laughed out loud when Asante begs “Give me one more chance to ruin your life!” Harris and Armant expertly tease out their characters, while Eddie Lockwood brings their skills as one of the city’s most creative burlesque performers, and they are similarly a joy to watch.
The set and book do a great job in taking us back to the early 1970s, capturing the linguistic and aesthetic ticks and contrasting them nicely with the relentless modernity embodied by Wes. It’s a love story, a cautionary tale of modern superficiality, and a gut-wrenching tragedy all in one.
It’s also a piece of New Orleans history that asks us to keep in mind both the devastating consequences of one man’s torment, but also the barbaric indifference of our institutions when a compassionate, human response was needed, but from them, none came. Many times, our found families are the ones that matter the most.
The View UpStairs plays at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through September 17th. More information and tickets here.
Star Crossed: A Midsummer Nightmare
Review by Amelia Parenteau
In a New Orleans summer rife with Shakespeare, Fat Squirrel serves up a manic retelling of the canon with 'Star Crossed: A Midsummer Nightmare'. Combining text, themes, and characters from over 17 of Shakespeare’s plays, Andrea Watson conceived and directed this original production with an ensemble cast of 18 performers. Watson herself stars as Mercutio, the mercurial agent of chaos tying the divergent plot lines together with his insatiable need for scheming.
Like any grand family reunion, the play features many familiar characters and several stunning performances. Laura Bernas is a powerhouse as Fairy King Oberon, taking inordinate delight in drugging Titania (Lizzy Bruce), the Fairy Queen, for nefarious revenge. Mary Pauley as Juliet’s Nurse showcases her phenomenal range, pulling laughs one moment and tenderly tugging heartstrings the next. Elyse McDaniel plays a fierce, spiteful Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, deftly holding the spotlight even while having her lines, spoken in Spanish, simultaneously spoken in English by the Translator (Kaylon Willoughby).
Taking advantage of the large ensemble cast, Watson created beautiful stage pictures, including a striking tableau to open the show, with characters garbed in the tunics of Ancient Athens and holding statuesque poses. Court dances and stage combat were high points of the action in an otherwise dialogue-heavy script.
The soundtrack combined moody indie rock hits with instrumental underscoring, which could have gone even further to highlight dramatic moments: I would have loved a swelling orchestra beneath Romeo and Juliet’s first ecstatic kiss, for example. “Star Crossed” delivers on unabashedly queer romance, with Hermia (Hannah Dougharty) and Helena (Desirée Burrell) as one of the central pairs of lovers, and Titania falling head-over-heels for the Nurse in her love-potioned trance.
Perhaps the truest madness is daring to love at all, knowing that after all humans, gods, and fairies’ machinations in life, we each inevitably meet our end in death? Unless we’re lucky enough to have a poet or playwright keep telling our tale.
“Star Crossed” runs through August 24, 2023. Tickets and more information available here.
Miss Rose: A Cabaret Play
The Marigny Opera House (this performance relocated to the New Marigny Theatre)
When we arrive, we are given two programs, “One that the company made and one that Miss Rose made.” The latter is a primitive-looking single sheet, headed ‘The Tarrytown Care Center Presents: Rose’s Turn’.
This is the cabaret within the play, a ‘turn’ of songs and stories performed by the character of Rose Williams. In real life, Rose was the sister of Tom ‘Tennessee’ Williams, who was institutionalized for her entire life after a failed lobotomy. Reportedly a real-life inspiration to Mr Williams (certainly for some of his most famous characters - e.g. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), in this world, she is an entertainer, just looking to express herself and put on a show for her baby brother’s birthday, despite her circumstances.
It’s a simple but immersive set, and we ourselves play the part of an audience (her fellow patients?) that don’t show up, but are imagined. A sad table of refreshments languishes expectantly in the corner. A pianist (music director Audrey Smith) accompanies the songs, and a nurse (assistant director Alston Brown) conducts, directs and sometimes participates in the skits.
Set over a series of visits, the opening has an agitated Tennessee seemingly there just to get away from production woes on his new play. She makes fun of him, playfully calling him ‘Idaho’, and attempting to both delight and goad him with family memories and shared experiences that veer between wholesome and traumatic. This is a pattern that repeats itself, the siblings often caught in cycles of euphoric reminiscing and raw confrontation.
Rebecca Gibel plays Rose with a fierce dexterity and charisma, flitting between ebullient dramatics and erratic psychosis. Songs are played for laughs as well as sympathies, scenes and games from their childhoods evoke joy and trauma in equal measure. Gibel has a wonderful voice and timing, which might not ring completely true, but the cabaret itself can’t be too amateurish or it would be a challenge to sit through. In short: she and the direction strike a great balance and Gibel is impressively fearless and completely entertaining.
Leicester Landon plays Tennessee/Tom with a louche touch, at once coy and outrageous, with many a bon mot, served awash with sultry, southern allure. Landon’s physicality, sometimes brooding, sometimes camp, but always dynamic, is a very strong aspect of his acting. He carries a comically surreal scene equating creative and literal constipation with hilarious aplomb, and rolls with the verbal jabs that he and Rose - like most brothers and sisters - use to lift and belittle each other with equal effect.
The visits bounce between elation and despair, Rose wrestling with her social and romantic solitude is as visceral as Tom confronting his sexuality in an unforgiving time (one that sadly has unwelcome modern-day relevance). The play presents the discrete sessions as one continuous play in Rose’s mind, meaning that the coherence is never lost, though a couple of very minor trims would make for a leaner, more punchy last half hour in this layman’s opinion.
Writer-directors Kenny Prestininzi and Christopher Winslow have a debut that they can be very proud of, though. Gibel and Landon have an engaging chemistry, and the framing is a compelling way into the exploration of this complicated, but fundamentally loving relationship. Kudos also to Audrey Smith and Alston Brown, who help finesse the world on stage with their musical and theatrical flourishes. With any luck, this production will return for next year’s Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival - I’ll definitely be there to see it again if that happens.
See upcoming shows at the Marigny Opera House
Chekov's Fun: Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike
Review by Ameila Parenteau
Rounding out its first season, new-to-the-scene Crescent City Stage presents Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, a belly-laugh comedy that centers on the narcissistic despair of its three titular siblings: Vanya (Doug Spearman), Sonia (Jana Mestecky), and Masha (Lorene Chesley). Yes, they’re named after Chekhov characters, and the script is littered with easter eggs for theater buffs, but even those with no knowledge of Chekhov’s oeuvre will find this 2.5-hour escapade wildly entertaining.
Michael A. Newcomer’s scenic design furnishes a sumptuous bohemian-meets-mid-century-modern living room in the siblings’ family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the entirety of the action takes place. Vanya and Sonia live listlessly in this house they inherited after their parents died, while Masha foots the bill for their languorous lifestyle as a world-famous movie star.
The play begins with 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf'-level bickering between Vanya and Sonia, revealing Sonia pines for Vanya, and she was adopted. The pair have spent the past 15 years taking care of their aging parents and find themselves purposeless without them. The tone veers from heightened poetic realism as Vanya and Sonia retread the tedium of their matinal rituals, to theatrically absurd with the entrance of their housekeeper Cassandra (Donyae Asante) and her daily prophecy of doom.
The comedy ramps up as Masha breezes in with her significantly younger boytoy, Spike (Cody Evans), who can’t keep his shirt on for the life of him. Speaking of shirts, Tiffani Sheriff’s costume design adeptly emphasizes each character’s idiosyncrasy, from glamorous Masha to fastidious Vanya. Act one builds to a costume party at the neighbor’s house, with the threat of Chekhovian tragedy descending on the farcical fun, as Masha is threatening to sell the family home, thereby evicting Vanya and Sonia (as Cassandra had warned).
Act two showcases the cast’s comedic and dramatic chops, including Sonia and Masha’s pity party dressed as princesses on the couch, competing for Vanya’s sympathy, and fawning neighbor Nina (Yvette Bourgeois) trawling her depths to embody a molecule in the performance of Vanya’s climate apocalypse play-within-a-play. Liam Gardner’s lighting design provides the perfect backdrop to brilliant, wild Cassandra’s prophetic outbursts, and Amara Skinner’s sound design supplies a fun soundtrack to accompany the characters’ mood swings.
An unusual climax comes in the form of a Boomer humor nostalgia tour monologue from Vanya, berating Spike for his lack of appreciation for how things were: “The past was idiotic, but I miss parts of it. […] Though it was extremely boring, it was something we shared.” Durang can’t help but deliver a happy ending, and Vanya & Sonia & Masha give Spike the boot and accept a new appreciation of their uncertain middle age. Neither idiotic nor boring, this Chekhov in the twenty-first century spin-off is an American response to Russian existentialism, full of hubris and humor.
Vanya & Sonia & Masha and Spike runs through June 30. Tickets and more information available here.
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