The Everlasting Bonfire at the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane

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As literary temptation, writing a play about writing a play can be like playing with fire. In The Everlasting Bonfire, running at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, Jim Fitzmorris stokes the flames with extra writerly indulgences, having characters deconstruct words and phrases, discuss literary references and even animate a punctuation mark (the suspect intentions of an ellipsis), but he manages to ignite a battle of wits with genuine warmth and crackling banter and lets the creative process bask in the light for 70 minutes.

Imagining the career of Edwin Forrest, a character actor who became famous in New Orleans in the early 1800s, the piece follows the boisterously optimistic and driven Edwin (Shad Willingham) as he rises to fame and consults with a playwright, Jane (Amanda Zirkenbach), who is also trying to establish her career but is struggling. At times, Edwin seems to be Forrest and at times he appears to be talking about Forrest as a historical subject. The piece often seems to jump around in time, especially because it’s full of anachronistic references. The two reenact the opening scene of Macbeth with its brooding witches, talk of Scrooge’s clairvoyant ghosts, sing lyrical bits from The Hobbit and discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Creating a play is like building a monster, they agree, and to truly be brought to life, it must be allowed to do what it wants — even if it wants to work in a reference to German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Ideas and texts are timeless in Bonfire, and a sense of limitless knowledge and awareness seems to inspire Edwin with a romantic notion of the frontier, both artistic and literal, to be found in New Orleans. The city has not been conquered by the “weak and effeminate” influences of the British, who he believes have spoiled theater on their side of the Atlantic as well as in New York and Philadelphia. He gleefully states that Shakespeare was an American, a smug and funny moment typical of the wit and tone Fitzmorris deploys in the piece.

Fitzmorris also has a gift for physically grounding the more cerebral indulgences in his plays. As Edwin works up a lusty image of the great artistic freedom he expects to realize in New Orleans, he fills a couple of large snifters with a generous pour of brown liquor. He cracks a raw egg into each glass and hands one to Jane, who hesitates, transfixed by the bobbing yellow yolk. The audience seemed to wince along with her, unsure of the challenge of handling a little bit of raw material. But damn the salmonella, Edwin quickly downs his, and invokes Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Then he gladly relieves Jane of her glass and tosses back an encore. It’s an offbeat and brilliant toast from a playwright who also found a muse in the Big Easy.

The Everlasting Bonfire

By Jim Fitzmorris

8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Tulane University, Dixon Hall, Lab Theater

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