Theater trends, 2002. Let's start with the bad news and get it over with. We probably lost two theaters this year. Carlone's is already selling off its equipment and only an act of God can save the Pickery from the wrecking ball. Carlone's was never known for its adventurous choice of scripts, but the Metairie dinner theater had some memorable hits, for instance, the penultimate show, Neil Simon's The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, directed by Dane Rhodes and featuring a comic romp by Jerry Lee Leighton.
The Pickery is fighting a desperate rear-guard action against eminent domain. The city wants to gobble up the property for its endlessly expanding convention center. Unfortunately, all the smart money is on City Hall. This rough-hewn little theater is a greater loss than the well-appointed Carlone's, for we get more than our fill of Neil Simon -- and similar acceptable, brand-name revivals. Nothing wrong with well-made comedies "d'un certain age," of course. However, one can't help but notice that the audience for them is "d'un certain age," as well. The Pickery offered an inexpensive place for new talent, new ideas and new approaches -- most recently, for instance, Trust Fund Babies, written and directed by R. J. Tsarov, held a haunting and mysterious mirror up to urban flora and fauna.
On the plus side of the ledger, we have the new UNO Downtown Theater, located in the Masonic Temple building on Carondelet Street. It's too soon to say what the new theater's personality will be, but there is a promising augury in the theater's director. Don Marshall was the director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) back in the beginning when it was a empty warehouse, not all that different from the Pickery. He went on to run Le Petit, which he saved from one of its periodic dips to near extinction. Marshall is still getting his ducks in a row, with his eye on next fall. But already, he has allowed some homeless events to find a home -- the recent Pushkin festival, for instance.
This brings us to two troubling silences: the CAC -- though admittedly, we have grown resigned to a dearth of activity in those costly renovations that are still nominally designated as theaters -- and, more distressingly, the A.R.K. Hopefully, the warehouse space on Marigny Street will rise from its ashes and gives us more shows like Brecht's A Man's a Man (directed by Daniel Kahn and Sarah Clifford), an evening that bubbled or, more accurately, seethed with humor and grit.
Meanwhile, two established institutions have gotten a second wind and seem infused with a new vitality. With Brandt Blocker at the helm, Le Petit's Children's Theater is rocking. A show like Honk! was as polished as it was joyful. In a similar vein, new Artistic Director Ryan Rilette has given a coherent vision to Southern Rep, as exemplified by the well-crafted and topical Spinning Into Butter, directed by Lisa Jo Epstein.
Southern Rep also provided my top contender for the "Hidden Treasure" award: Wit, directed by Bert Pigg and starring Adriana Bate, surrounded by a dynamite cast. Curiously, Pigg was an actor in another hidden treasure: Athol Fugard's Valley Song, featuring an incandescent Fahnlohnee Harris (under Jimmy Walker's direction) at the new Neighborhood Gallery Theater on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. A third contender would have to be the Ethiopian Theater's The Amen Corner, directed by Jomo Kenyatta-Bean and starring Dorshena Pittman.
But to get back to "trends." One-man shows were particularly strong. Diana Shortes, who seemed to be everywhere this year (and everywhere delightful) was a fascinating Anne Sexton, and Gary Rucker gave us a sardonic elf in The Santaland Diaries -- both directed by John Grimsley. Sean Patterson laid 'em on the floor with his hilarious rogues gallery of types in Fully Committed, directed by Carl Walker. And finally, John McConnell was utterly compelling in local writer Jason Berry's Earl Long in Purgatory, directed by Perry Martin.
And that brings us to the subject of original work. In addition to plays by Tsarov and Berry, we were treated to Buzz Podewell's staged reading of The Visitation, the final installment in Jim Fitzmorris' quartet about a New Orleans political dynasty, and The Black and White Blues, Ricky Graham's comic celebration of waiters (directed by Graham and Heidi Junius). Not surprisingly, The B&W Blues premiered at Le Chat Noir, which has miraculously evolved into New Orleans' primo venue for new work -- as attested to, for instance, by the staged reading of the four winning scripts in its first one-act play contest.
And so, with the usual apologies to the many worthwhile efforts that did not get mentioned, those were some of the major trends in 2002.
- Earl Long in Purgatory at Southern Rep this past spring served up an impressive hat trick: Jason Berry's writing, Perry Martin's direction, and the acting of local favorite John McConnell (pictured).