Le Chat Noir, named for the first and most famous cabaret in Montmartre, has been living up to its august pedigree lately with an astonishing array of entertaining, offbeat original shows. Much of the excitement spills over into the bar: before, between and after the performances, which is, of course, the advantage of a cabaret.
Shakespeare on Trial is a child of that excitement in more ways than one -- for the idea occurred to actress Kara Hadigan while lifting a cup with fellow thespian Dane Rhodes, who performed recently as the sanguinary Scotsman in mikko's production at The Pickery. Hadigan imagined the hilarity that would result if real lawyers were enlisted to prosecute and to defend Shakespeare's villain in front of a real judge.
On opening night, the Hon. Stanwood R. Duval Jr. was presiding. Scott Martinez was counsel for the defense and Alice Hall was the prosecuting attorney (like Hadigan, they are both students at Loyola School of Law).
In his opening statement, the defense reminded us that we were not to take into account anything prejudicial we might have encountered outside of the courtroom -- such as newspaper articles or stage plays. By contrast, prosecution assured us that His Majesty would be revealed as a cold-blooded, ambitious murderer.
The first witness was a Ms. Weird (Hadigan), one of the weird sisters. We also heard from Banquo (mikko), Macduff (Bob Edes), Lady Macbeth (Raphaelle O'Neill) and a medical expert (Elliot Fagley), who has been known to moonlight as a bartender in a certain St. Charles Avenue cabaret. The accused (Rhodes) took the stand as well.
Prosecutor: "Ms. Weird, tell the jury when you first met the accused?"
Ms. Weird (wild-eyed): "When the hurly-burly was done, when the battle was lost and won!"
Prosecutor (after a perplexed pause): "Could you be more specific?"
That little snippet from the transcript gives you some idea of the fun. On the night I saw the show, the Thane of Cawdor walked. But, I'm told the attorneys are back in their offices honing new strategies, so there's no telling what will happen next week. Fans of Shakespeare, Law & Order and the Marx Brothers will love this improvised forensic free-for-all.
Another recent highlight at Le Chat was Sketches for the Witching Hour, a late-night potpourri by R.J. Tsarov. In three short playlets, Tsarov casts his own unique dreamlike spell -- mixing a sardonic humor and an acute eye for contemporary detail into a potent hallucinogenic cocktail of personal myth.
Tsarov is not a writer who lends himself to easy synopsis. But -- to give an idea of the tone of the evening -- the first play concerns a man (Greg Di Leo) who can't stand to be touched (at one point, he considers using a dating service for paraplegics), while his buddy (Travis Acosta) sees "growing up in a home with wood paneling" as the key to this neurosis (a similar one shared by serial killers). In another play, two heavy-drinking TV watchers (Kevin Fricke, Chris Lee) discuss a plan to move a stolen copier into the garage so they can strike it rich as counterfeiters.
These pieces have a funhouse-mirror quality. Weird distortions of the real, they make us laugh, for they put us in touch with something freakish in ourselves and in the world we inhabit.
Playwright Tsarov directed, and he elicited fine performances from an exceptional cast: Acosta, Di Leo, Fricke, Dawn Faberge, Lee, Steve Zissis, Veronica Russell, Trista Douglas, Sandy Moorman, Chris Cummings and mikko.
In the same week as the two aforementioned shows, I also saw Dad Fought Hitler, the Bottle and Me!, a one-man show by Mick Berry, who has worked for years as a stand-up comic on the West Coast. Berry's father was the owner of Pelican Ice Company, a New Orleans landmark for years and a three-generation family business.
The show is a bittersweet elegy for a difficult, but engaging man. Somewhat in the manner of Art Spiegelman's cartoon masterpiece Maus, Dad Fought ... follows the World War II experiences of Berry the elder (who left a memoir of his days as a B-17 tail gunner and POW), but the core of the drama is the troubled love between father and son.
In Sue Gonczy's artful set (a tent made from a parachute), Berry acted as narrator, as himself in younger days and as his father. The tales of war and capture were truly harrowing. The domestic drama was both amusing and poignant -- for Berry's father was a man with a tremendous gusto for life, who was tripped up by his own excesses.
They say good things come in little packages. With three solid shows in a single week, New Orleans' audacious little cabaret has matured into a cornucopia of enjoyable, original theater.
- Loyola law students Alice Hall (left) and Scott Martinez (right) persuasively portray attorneys in their court battle of Macbeth (Dane Rhodes, middle) in the hilarious Shakespeare on Trial.