Well, 2003 went out in a blaze of Christmas spoofs. Significantly, three of the four yuletide laugh-fests were originals: Christmas Carol: The Whole Story by and starring René Piazza at the UNO Downtown Theater; The Pecan Cracker by Ricky Graham and Bob Bruce at NORD; and Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas by Richard Read, Flynn De Marco and Dorian Rush at 735 Club -- although Double-Wide might be described more accurately as the travesty of a spoof or, perhaps, the spoof of a travesty. In any case, this emphasis on "the new" mirrored the 11 months that had come before. For 2003 engendered a veritable cornucopia of work by local playwrights.
Counting playbills, I get 24 original shows -- and that doesn't include staged readings, performance art or the 16 short pieces from Dramarama. Several playwrights managed to get more than one show on the boards. Pat Hazell, a writer who contributed to TV's legendary Seinfeld, bought a home in Mandeville and planted his standard at Le Chat Noir with two amiable comedies (that he also starred in): The Wonder Years and Bunk Bed Brothers. R.J. Tsarov was represented by Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You, a radical deconstruction job on "the greatest American playwright" (among other things) and Swerve, whose subject remains somewhat obscure, partly due to an elaborate and highly abstract staging by Lane Savadove.
Southern Repertory Theatre produced two plays by its literary manager Jim Fitzmorris: The Visitation, the final installment of his trilogy about local political skullduggery; and The House of Plunder, a swashbuckling fantasia on the Louisiana Purchase. Also at Southern Rep, Barret O'Brien directed his own script, Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood, a tragicomic look at marital competitiveness in the rarified heights of moviedom. Meanwhile, our own "Irrepressible Ricky" Graham kept up his remarkable outpouring of hits with Hollywood Heaven, in which he and chum Roy Haylock summoned up the ghosts of superstars past, and with Our Class Reunion and All, a riff on his long-running And the Ball and All (not to mention the already cited Pecan Cracker).
Also weighing in with multiple original shows was Running With Scissors, which -- in addition to Double-Wide Christmas -- gave us a Tennessee Williams lampoon, I Suddenly Know What You Did Last Summer. And that leads us to another phenomenon: the Tennessee Williams Tsunami. For, in addition to the two originals honoring (more or less) the great man's memory, we were offered The Rose Tattoo (directed by John Grimsley), Small Craft Warnings (directed by Stacey Arton), Vieux Carre (directed by Aimée Michel); three one-acts (directors: Luis Barroso, Blake Balu and Steve Patrick); and the never-completed script, A House Not Meant to Stand (directed by Aimée Michel). There was also an unplanned mini-fest in honor of a deceased playwright of quite a different hue: Charles Ludlam of Ridiculous Theatre fame. George Patterson directed Bluebeard at the UNO Downtown Theatre, while Carl Walker gave us the quick-change melodrama The Mystery of Irma Vep at Le Petit.
Changes in the theatrical landscape are always important in this venue-hungry town. The Shim Sham Club bit the dust, leaving the hip young crowd casting around for a new home. The 735 Club on Bourbon Street is a possible substitute -- because of both its location and general vibe. The A.R.K., I am told by impeccable sources, is hopelessly embroiled in bureaucracy and inspections -- due to an implacable neighbor who is apparently obsessed with closing the place down. Uptown, The Fine Arts Center (around the corner from Martin's Wine Cellar) is a promising new playhouse. And the UNO Downtown Theater has established itself with a varied potpourri of independent productions, ranging from Salome to a weekend blowout of performance art.
This year's Hidden Treasure award is a tie; the honor being shared by John Grimsley's direction of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog (starring Lance Nichols and Don Guillory) at the Contemporary Arts Center and Karl Lengel's direction of Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat (starring Ryan Rilette and Ashley Nolan) at NOCCA. These were fascinating two-handers -- one that looked at black America, one that looked at white America. That suddenly indispensable adjective "edgy" could have been invented as a description of both these plays. The acting in both was superb.
Finally, here's a brief arbitrary trip down memory lane with some of my favorite moments as an audience member: Brandt Blocker's rafter-shaking Five Guys Named Moe at Le Petit sent me scurrying to Tower Records for Louis Jordan's greatest hits; Jonne Dendinger's The Rocky Horror Show at Cowpoke's demonstrated how much magic you can create late-night on a shoe string; and Keith Brigg's Proof at Rivertown Rep gave us thought-provoking contemporary drama with a particularly fine touch.
With the usual apologies to all the wonderful performances that were not mentioned, that was the year that was.
- Ryan Rilette and Ashley Nolan provided a fascinating two-hander in Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat, directed by Karl Lengel at NOCCA.