New Orleans Suite, the latest from ArtSpot Productions, is about Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in our fair city, as interpreted by its five performer/creators. What's it all about? As the performers' collective vision unfolds over the course of an hour, conveyed through movement, speech and song, what New Orleans Suite seems to be about is sex, death, alcohol-induced haze, love, lust, carnality, spirituality, the primal lure of all of the above, being in church, and the grimy residue of New Orleans history that mingles with your sweat on the thickest night of the summer.
All are juicy fodder for ArtSpot's considerable talents. But if the subject matter sounds broad and vague at the same time, that's because it is. The boldface message in the program that alerts audiences to the literal fog that emanates from a set element could be amended to warn them of some metaphoric fog as well. There is much to enjoy about the piece, but it lacks a clear communicative drive, and its meandering, improvisational structure reflects this lack of focus. It's best to let it wash over your senses like a gauzy impression of Mardi Gras remembered around four in the afternoon on Ash Wednesday, only without the hangover.
The piece opens with masked-man J Hammons thrusting open the theater doors and beckoning individual audience members inside with a touch of his hand. The performers are already onstage in a semi-circle, drumming hands, tapping feet and vocalizing, presumably in rhythm with the restless undercurrent of New Orleans herself. Once the audience is settled, each performer takes a turn in the center of the circle to be introduced through movement and text.
Each scene then flows into the next. The evening is constructed almost solely of monologues and duets. (Since the interactions are more between entities than characters, and are often played out physically more than through dialogue, 'duet' seems more appropriate than 'scene.') The remaining players add to the atmosphere with movement and sound. In one example of this, Roscoe Reddix Jr. is drawn, despite his own better instincts, to a watering hole where he is surrounded by buzzards in the form of the three female performers. Roughly the first half of the piece concerns Saturday night, moving in and out of bars and street corners and culminating in an orgiastic frenzy and subsequent collapse. The rest deals with Sunday morning, which here means church, complete with stained-glass windows and choir robes.
Throughout, questions may tug at viewers' sleeves. Who are these personages? What are their relationships to one another? And most importantly, what are they trying to tell us? While certain moments are lucent on these points, the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts. In perhaps the clearest, and thus most vividly memorable scene, Kathy Randels transforms from a Death figure into the Maiden, a Catholic school girl whose desire propels her into the arms of a man. Her sexual encounter ends with her in a death-like posture on the floor, where she is in turn joined by each performer. Then they all come to in fits of laughter. It's a captivating moment, but what does it mean in the context of the piece? It's not that we need characters or a linear narrative. Nor do we need an obvious message or neat conclusion. But what is the connection between sex, death and New Orleans, in the opinion of these artists? To some of us, it's no clearer at the end than it was at the beginning.
Randels is a ferocious performer, and as Death she grabs the audience's attention by the throat. Reddix brings an endearing quality of childlike openness to his monologues. Yvahn Martin shines belting out a bluesy hymn to lesbian love, and her monologue about the sometimes-indistinguishable differences between love, lust, liquor and licking is a crowd-pleaser. Hammons as a gatekeeper figure does some acrobatic dancing and brings an intensity to his delivery of text. Along with Randels, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse gives the evening's most lucid performance. When she says, 'I give you this gift, I pray you know what to do with it,' it doesn't matter if we have no clue what she's talking about. She knows precisely what she means, and instants such as this are the most compelling.
What New Orleans Suite lacks in specificity, it partly makes up for in sensual appeal. Carnivalesque costumes by Ellen Macomber are so central to the show's mood that it's difficult to imagine it without them. Live music, written and performed by Courtney Bryan, is haunting and lovely in addition to lending needed continuity.
No one else is doing multidisciplinary work like this in New Orleans, and for that reason alone it deserves to be seen. It's also extremely difficult to create successful performance works with neither an anchoring text nor a director's outside eye. ArtSpot doesn't overcome the challenge posed by its methods here, but we're glad its out there trying.
- Best foot upward: ArtSpot Productions -- New Orleans Suite is a hybrid of dance, theater and music.