Josephine Beauharnais is not remembered for her first husband, but her second -- the one who crowned himself emperor of France. Here's a hint: Napoleon Avenue is named after him. Josephine's first husband was a vicomte and met his death on the guillotine. In fact, Josephine herself spent some time in prison, during the French Revolution. That was before she became enamored of a penniless but very ambitious soldier from Corsica.
I learned these facts about the Empress Josephine from Amy Woodruff over a cup of strong coffee in the sitting room of her shotgun apartment on St. Mary Street. Woodruff is the founder and moving spirit of Theatre Louisiane, a company that has given us challenging, thought-provoking plays and performance pieces over the past six years. This weekend, at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, Theatre Louisiane premieres its newest show. Dis+graced, according to the flyer, compares and contrasts the fates of "two women cast aside by powerful men." One is Josephine Beauharnais, whom Napoleon divorced because she failed to provide him with an heir. The other is Medea, whom Jason -- the mythical ancient Greek hero -- dumped after she helped him and his Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. Not surprisingly, the mythical icon is more extreme than the real mortal. Medea not only betrays her country and kills her brother to help Jason, she flees with him to Corinth. When he deserts her to marry a Corinthian princess, Medea kills their two children as revenge.
Woodruff says the subject of her drama is "meaty." Few would argue with the characterization. That "meatiness" -- and the classical aura -- is typical of Woodruff's presentations. Bloodreign, which Louisiane premiered at the State Palace Theater in 2004, told the complex tale of Agamemnon's children. The next offering, The Seven, followed the children of Oedipus. Woodruff quarried both dramas from Greek sources. She has done the same sort of remix with dis+graced, using Euripides' play and the collected letters of Josephine Beauharnais.
Although Woodruff compiled the script for dis+graced (as she has for many previous outings), she shies away from the title of playwright. In fact, her training was as an actress. In dis+graced, she plays the parts of both women. Except for two wraithlike figures who help her transform from Medea in the first part to Josephine in the second, Woodruff is alone onstage. The treacherous males appear via video-projection. Both are played by John Tiliakos, who acted in the last three Louisiane shows. He was to be live onstage in this one, as well, until Katrina blew him to Fort Lauderdale.
It should be noted that Woodruff, in addition to compiling the script and acting the two main roles, also directed the show and designed and sewed the costumes. This is one busy lady.
Woodruff, who hails from Lake Charles, stumbled into acting at McNeese University, because "theater was the only major that didn't sound miserable." After graduating, she spent two years as an intern at the Vortex Repertory Theater in Austin, Texas, where she got hands-on training in what she calls "avant-garde, seat-of-your-pants, cheap theater." The Vortex featured cross-gender and cross-ethnic casting; a lesbian Romeo and Juliet was typical fare.
During a short stop, back in Lake Charles, Woodruff met and married a cartographer named Blake Buchert. Then, in 1998, the newlyweds headed for New Orleans, where they have lived ever since. Cartography, by the way, is important to governments and the oil industry. It's especially important where there are shifting areas of wetland.
In any case, in November 1999, Woodruff launched her newly formed Theatre Louisiane with The Ridiculous Damsels by Moliere at the Dream Palace Music Club. Next, Louisiane moved to midnight shows at the Mystic Caf. In 2001, they had a hit at Dramarama with a short horror tale The Music of Erich Zann. That's where I first saw them. I heralded them as the standout of the festival.
Being a standout at Dramarama is fine and dandy, but can you attract a New Orleans audience with meaty, serious work? Is there a groundswell of interest in phantasmagoric, multimedia retellings of ancient Greek myths?
"The first few years were real difficult," Woodruff confesses. "But you build up a following. I've had lots of people come to me after a show. They said they didn't think they were going to like it. But they were so glad they came. And then again, you have to keep testing and improving."
Testing and improving continues for Theatre Louisiane -- and not only in the Crescent City. Woodruff has been invited to bring dis+graced to the Montreal Fringe Festival in June.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Amy Woodruff, pictured here at Lake Pontchartrain rehearsing for dis+graced, formed Theatre Louisiane in 1999 and has brought challenging, avant-garde works to local stages ever since.