When playwright Jim Fitzmorris set out to create a play for the NOLA Project, he said, "Let's go meta," and wrote a play about the NOLA Project, in which the actors play themselves. It also is a play about plays, and one of the characters is a talking text revealing itself as a riddling fate, who at times taunts players with "Socratic dialogue," as one of them quips.
Overly self-referential works risk confinement to a small, narcissistic world, but the NOLA Project players didn't write What, Has This Thing Appeared Again Tonight?, and Fitzmorris is both too erudite and too perverse to allow this opportunity to be anything less than complicated, impassioned and at times funny. As both writer and director, he has a microscopic awareness of turns of phrase and twists in perspective. The cast rose to the occasion and gave the piece the intense performance necessary to carry off the play's ethereal sense of conflict through dialogue frequently dedicated to philosophical and linguistic deduction. Staged in the intimate lab theater of McWilliams Hall, it concluded the season for the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.
Two Project members, Sean Glazebrook and James Bartelle, start the play on the Danziger Bridge. They are aware of different accounts of what happened on the bridge how police came to shoot a mentally retarded man in the days after the levees failed. They also talk about a book that Glazebrook has found and that Bartelle doesn't necessarily want to see.
The scene changes and we see the majority of the rest of the company talking about NOLA Project founder Andrew Larimer's desire to have them move to New Orleans his hometown in the wake of Katrina. Fitzmorris stakes out the players' personalities and predilections and digs right into the heart of an issue that he intends to explore the desire to make art in the setting of a tragedy. It's not immediately in the wake that they are arriving. No one is talking about using Shakespearean soliloquies to entertain Superdome evacuees waiting to be bused en masse and with little dignity to Houston and other major shelter points. The question seems to be more about whether the tragedy can be used to inspire art. Is there something selfish about the creation of art that would best be left unsaid even if true? It's a difficult proposition that they debate, and it's impressive the way the cast members embrace the raw and candid viewpoints that Fitzmorris assigns them.
But it's not that simple. There's the issue of the book The Terrifying Tome of Terrible Things that Glazer has found. In it is the proposition of answering a question but it's difficult to say what exactly that riddle is. There's the possiblity of annihilation for getting this question wrong a Sphinx-like proposition. It pushes the deliberation into the compounded problem of figuring out the question and then the answer. There's an almost comedic suggestion that by not opening the book, the dilemma could be avoided all together. Just leave the book at the bridge. But that's not what the NOLA Project members have come to do. They came to engage the city. To explore tragedy amidst tragedy. Or so Fitzmorris presumes.
Digging into the text dredges up tragedy, namely Hamlet. Scenes and characters are lifted from it, so that the audience learns that the title of this play comes from the first appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost in Shakespeare's drama. But before we get there, there is Seneca's Thyestes to be addressed a more obscure work but one which is also partially enacted. A tortured ghost is summoned to play a further role in his cursed family's acts of betrayal and murder.
How these ghosts appear to us and what we make of them is the point of this play and its puzzling text. Fitzmorris' play is a thought-provoking exploration of how to give voice to troubling thoughts. It's fitting that he found worthy subjects to carry out the project.
- Members of the NOLA Project played themselves in What, Has This Thing Appeared Again Tonight?