We all know the downside of DramaRama: the confusion, the unevenness, the running into people you were hoping to avoid, etc., etc. But is there an upside that makes DramaRama worth it?
I tend to the "yes" side. Take "The Emperor of the Universe," for instance -- by which, of course, I mean the late, great New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe. The emperor is the main character in Burn K-Doe Burn. This idiosyncratic, enjoyable, disquieting play was written by local playwright Rob Florence and directed by Karen-kaia Livers. It's back on the boards at Mid City Lanes' Rock 'n' Bowl Cafe, but the play began life as a presentation in last year's DramaRama. So the seed that was cast in that fertile festival went on to flourish as part of the overall theater scene.
Burn K-Doe Burn almost defies description -- that is to say, it accurately mirrors the temper of its central character. The production begins with a karaoke sing-along of K-Doe hits. These are sung by members of the audience, dragooned into performing by none other than Antoinette K-Doe, who introduces herself as "Mrs. K-Doe" -- modestly avoiding her more grandiloquent title "Empress of the Universe." Mrs. K-Doe's role is not limited to hostessing; she appears as a character in the play itself.
Now, here things get tricky. Burn K-Doe Burn is a sort of surreal docudrama. The character, Antoinette K-Doe, appears in it, as one would expect in the life story of her husband. But the character of Antoinette K-Doe is played by an actress. In the version I saw, Adella Gautier ably brought Antoinette to life. However (hold on now, I told you it was a surreal docudrama), the real, flesh-and-blood Antoinette K-Doe also appears onstage, but she appears in the part of her own mother -- that is to say, Ernie K-Doe's mother-in-law. And, as everyone knows, Ernie K-Doe's mother-in-law is right up there with Whistler's mother as a cultural icon.
The Emperor of the Universe himself is played by the remarkable Harold Evans in one of the most unexpected and accomplished performances in his long and accomplished career. Looking like an African-American Louis XIV in a colossal wig of shoulder length hair and dressed in nifty white tails, with a crimson-and-gold shirt and matching two-tone shoes, Evans is a musical maverick par excellence. He begins the play as the legendary K-Doe statue -- mimicking the same statue Mrs. K-Doe is said to take across the street to a manicurist to have the nails done. But, is this stage K-Doe really a statue? There is the possibility that this K-Doe is the real K-Doe, who is merely pretending to be a statue, since he (the real K-Doe, that is) fobbed off the K-Doe statue to a credulous outer-space alien.
Once again, I warned you it was a surreal docudrama. But, given the subject, what other kind could it be? Anyway, some of the more sordid aspects of K-Doe are shown, like his near-fatal battle with alcoholism. And although the evening has retained some of its original DramaRama chaos, it has also retained some of its original DramaRama zest. Nick Thompson, Donald Lewis, Mike Zarou and Geannie Thomas ably contribute in supporting roles.
Now, what about the recent DramaRama at the Contemporary Arts Center? Will it send spin-offs into the theater scene? Some shows I saw have a chance. And one, at least, is already a shoo-in. Kevin Allman's Cheap God (directed by R.J. Tsarov) was a monologue in which a man (Gary Rucker) told how his tenuous friendship with a neighbor developed by way of their shared mailbox. The playlet raised questions about the nature of faith. A Different Woman by Veronica Russell was another compelling monologue. Russell adapted the story from a little-known 1925 memoir and ably performed it herself, under the direction of Perry Martin. A third one-man show, The Morning After, written and performed by Barret O'Brien, transformed the audience into students in a lecture hall being taught by a comic, despairing professor of political science. The two-hander, Puppies, was adapted by R.J. Tsarov from a short story by Dean Paschal. Andy English and Michael Salinas brought two doomed little mutts to brief life under Tsarov's direction. Meanwhile, the frigid tawdriness of corporate ambition got a going-over in More, written and directed by Brian Sands. Luke Nodere, Tonya Ambruster and Bert Pigg played the main parts.
On the lighter side, those irresistible scamps from Running With Scissors gave us a taste of The Gulls, a hilarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. This inspired silliness is already assured an afterlife. It's scheduled to appear soon in its full-length version at One Eyed Jacks.
- Playwright Kevin Allman's Cheap God was one of the highlights of this year's DramaRama, a playlet that raised questions about the nature of faith.