"It's a real stretch for Jim." Gavin Mahlie is talking about local playwright Jim Fitzmorris' new script, The House of Plunder -- which opens this Friday at Southern Rep. Mahlie should know; his role in the play will be the seventh time he's appeared in one of his friend's theatrical ventures.
Buzz Podewell begs to differ, however. And Podewell also should know, since he's the director most often associated with Fitzmorris -- having staged The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's critically acclaimed (and Mark Twain Award-nominated) premiere of With Malice Towards All and (in a concert format) The Visitation. "Does the new play begin with a mystery?" Podewell inquires. "Does the plot have lots of twists and turns? Are there villainous characters we end up having a grudging affection for? Well, then, where's the stretch?"
This amusing anecdote captures a paradox about The House of Plunder, and Jim Fitzmorris recalls the story with a laugh, leaning back behind his desk in the Drama Department building at Tulane, where he teaches.
"In one way, The House of Plunder is a stretch, because it's historical. But in another, it's not, because it's political." he concludes. "I'd call it an international spy thriller, set in New Orleans in 1803, on the eve of the greatest land scam in U.S. history."
In fact, the play was commissioned by Southern Repertory Theatre to celebrate the bicentennial celebration of that "land scam," more commonly known as the Louisiana Purchase. Fitzmorris views the Purchase as politics as usual, Louisiana-style: "all kinds of nefarious deals from top to bottom," as he puts it, with unconcealed relish.
Some of the characters in the play are fictional portraits of historical figures: the infamous Col. James Wilkinson (Dane Rhodes), for instance, who was both a U.S. Army administrator and a paid spy for America's Spanish adversaries. Others are invented, such as the French opera singer Justine Gabrielle (Kyra Himmelbaum), who provides the love interest.
Intimate personal dramas amidst a whirlwind of venal public shenanigans is a dramatic terrain that Fitzmorris has long ago laid claim to. The mixture is as natural to him as the air he breathes. On the one hand, he grew up amid a large, loving Irish-American family in Lakeview. As he says, "Whenever and wherever I do a show, a posse of relatives will show up." On the other, he had a ringside seat for some knock-down drag-out political brawls. Jimmy Fitzmorris, who was lieutenant governor from 1974-78, is technically a second cousin, once removed. But the playwright knows his namesake as "Uncle Jimmy." The excitement and the palaver surrounding Uncle Jimmy's many campaigns (he lost two close races for mayor and one for governor) were formative events for the younger Fitzmorris, who remembers going around the city putting up signs.
However, the playwright -- when explaining his jaundiced views of the democratic process -- adds a caveat about his sources: "Uncle Jimmy was known for his integrity. Some people said he would have won more often if he had been less honest. But just because you don't do vile things, doesn't mean you don't know how they're done. The people around Jimmy Fitzmorris knew the dirty tricks, alright. They talked about them at length."
Although politics was in Fitzmorris' blood, theater was slower to take hold. After he graduated from Jesuit High, he entered the University of Alabama on a scholarship as an art major. But he found his paintings becoming more and more narrative -- as though what he really wanted to do was to tell stories. At one point, a friend mentioned that the theater department was looking for original scripts to use in their director's workshop. Fitzmorris decided to give it a try, and once he saw a script come alive onstage, he was hooked.
He switched majors and continued his studies. Armed with an MFA in theater from Alabama (which is associated with the prestigious Alabama Shakespeare Festival), Fitzmorris set out next for the University of Washington in Seattle to work on a doctorate.
This spring, he returned home -- to write, to teach and to throw his considerable energy into the local theater scene. He has been named literary manager of Southern Rep, where, Artistic Director Ryan Rilette says, "it will be Jim's job to 'grow' the fledgling Southern New Plays Festival into a major regional and national event."
Rilette, who is directing The House of Plunder, admits he was "not too keen" on the Louisiana Purchase as the subject for a play, when a Southern Rep board member first suggested the idea.
"But when I asked Jim if he'd be interested, he had so many ideas off the top of his head, I was sold," Rilette says. "House is an incredibly ambitious play. It comments on how our society began and draws parallels to what we've become."
- I'd call it an international spy thriller, set in New Orleans in 1803, on the eve of the greatest land scam in U.S. history," says politically astute playwright Jim Fitzmorris of his latest work, The House of Plunder.