The poster for Jim Fitzmorris' The House of Plunder, currently receiving its world premiere at Southern Rep, shows a phantasmal woman, cloaked in white, brandishing a large knife. Not what you'd expect for a play about the Louisiana Purchase. The image faithfully represents both the glories and the glitches of this ambitious and puzzling work.
Let's start with the glories. This local playwright is an impressive craftsman. He knows how to tell a complicated story clearly and entertainingly. He has a good ear for dialogue, a flair for suspense and a confident sense of form. He writes solid, playable scenes that often ride easily on the cusp of contemporary stagecraft. There is, for instance, a marvelous scene in House where an attractive spy is telling her handler about her first encounter with her intended victim. The scene expands to include the actual encounter and then the two events (the telling and the actual encounter) run simultaneously. It's a ingenious narrative device, gracefully carried out.
In the glories column, I hasten also to add the cast and the direction. Southern Rep's artistic director, Ryan Rilette, has gathered a group of talented actors, each of whom is believable as his character, and has created a well-paced, fluidly staged production.
The story concerns Justine Gabrielle, a French opera singer (the engaging Kyra Himmelbaum) who has come to perform in New Orleans. She is "enlisted," that is to say blackmailed, by an Irish-immigrant businessman and (possibly) zealous patriot named Daniel Clark (Gavin Mahlie) to spy on his arch-rival and former business partner, General James Wilkinson (Dane Rhodes). To complicate matters, Justine's lover, a black Creole harpsichordist named Alexander (Tony Molina) has followed her to the New World -- where his African heritage places him in jeopardy. He is a young man, desperately in love. He wants to find a way, perhaps through the sale of some land he inherited from his white father, to marry Justine and live with her a life of culture and normalcy.
This story of intrigue and passion is set amid the events of the Purchase, in much the same way as The Three Musketeers is set amid the court intrigues of Louis XIII. There really was a Daniel Clark and a General Wilkinson; some of the facts about them, presented in the play, are true, just as most of the facts narrated in the play concerning the bizarre concatenation that dropped one third of a continent into the hands of Thomas Jefferson are true.
Another achievement of House, both in terms of the language and the acting, is the plausible evocation of a historical period; these people are like us and they are not like us. In this regard, Himmelbaum, Molina (in his most moving performance to date), Mahlie and the masterfully roguish Rhodes more than earn their ovation.
However, for me, the play does have some problems. Let's forget, for a minute, the question of whether the fictitious plot sheds any light on the actual events -- as the play seems to imply. (Why else does an allegorical African figure, Karen-Kaia Livers, exhort us in rhymed verse about the relevance of history?) We are left to ponder the fictional story itself? Here, I'm afraid I found my suspension of disbelief too often coming "unsuspended."
To cite one, of many, examples: Justine comes home after a party, only to discover that Clark has snuck into her room. She responds with a cool, flirtatious poise, until he reveals he has somehow uncovered the secret of her identity. She is the Jacobin daughter of a Jacobin father, who later became allied with Madame De Stael (an anti-Bonapartist). In the dangerous countercurrents of the times, she was dragooned into espionage. Well, OK, I can accept the opera-singer/spy and the preternaturally well-informed Mr. Clark. But then, Justine pulls a gun from her bodice. She informs Clark, it is, in fact, HIS gun, which she has stolen from him. She fires. He grabs his chest, stumbles. But no! He's all right. She has missed at point blank range! But wait, it's not that she missed, it's that he knew she would steal the gun, so he filled it with blanks!
Maybe my imagination is sadly earth bound, but I don't know what to do with James Bond triple whammies of this sort. And while I am aware that the 18th century doted upon mechanical curios, a harpsichord with a secret compartment that springs open when someone plays "Eco Il Punto" from Mozart's La Clemenza de Tito seems a bit much.
The House of Plunder has considerable flair. If you want a historical thriller with equal doses of political philosophy and summer-movie swashbuckling, it may be just your ticket.
- General James Wilkinson (Dane Rhodes) gets his rogue on with Justine Gabrielle (Kyra Himmelbaum) in Jim Fitzmorris' commissioned play about the Louisiana Purchase, The House of Plunder.