As literary temptation, writing a play about writing a play can be like playing with fire. In The Everlasting Bonfire, Jim Fitzmorris stokes the flames with extra fuel, having characters deconstruct words and phrases, indulge 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. Longer than a one-act but not quite the full play Fitzmorris had originally planned, it was presented in the Dixon Hall lab theater as part of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.
Imagining the life of Edwin Forrest, a character actor who became famous in New Orleans in the early 1800s, the piece follows the boisterously optimistic and determined Edwin (Shad Willingham) as he aspires to fame and consults with a playwright, Jane (Amanda Zirkenbach), who is trying to establish her career, but is struggling. The piece seems to jump around in time, partially because it's full of anachronistic references and partially because the duo often acts out scenes they are discussing. The two recreate the opening scene of Macbeth, talk of the clairvoyant ghosts Dickens unleashes on Scrooge, sing lyrical bits from The Hobbit and discuss Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Creating a play is like building a monster, they agree, and to be truly brought to life, it must be allowed to do what it wants — even if it wants to insert a reference to German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. Ideas and texts are timeless in Bonfire, but context can be somewhat elastic.
The action never leaves Edwin's study, but he is obsessed with a romantic notion of the frontier, both artistic and literal, he expects to find 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 his characters' cerebral jags. As Edwin worked up a lusty fervor over his expectations of New Orleans, he filled a couple of large snifters with generous pours of brown liquor. He cracked a raw egg into each glass and handed one to Jane, who hesitated, 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 downed his, invoking Gen. Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans, and gladly relieved Jane of her glass, tossing back the encore. It's an offbeat and entertaining toast devised by a playwright who also found a muse in the Big Easy. — Will Coviello