Archive for the Mardi Gras Category
As readers of No Applause know, I am a huge fan of the concept of Carnival, at least in theory. (It has been decades since I have been near anything like a genuine Bacchanalia and I’m uncertain whether the old Will to Party Recklessly is anywhere to be found in my make-up any more. Tell me, do such celebrations come equipped with cots for snoozing?) At all events, the birthplace of America’s homegrown Carnival Mardi Gras has long captured my imagination. (I already hated W, but during the Katrina disaster his indifference to the home of jazz, voodoo, Louis Armstrong, Dr. John, Captain Beefheart, the Neville Brothers, Fats Domino, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Anderson and a thousand other American institutions I could name took my hatred to a whole new level. If the importance of this city to American culture is not deep in your bones, you are unfit to be President as far as I am concerned, and that’s putting it mildly. End of rant).
At any rate, my play Universal Rundle, is among other things, a celebration of that culture, and I’ve long wanted to present it at Mardi Gras time. The current production at Lamama (opening March 17, 9 days late for Mardi Gras) is pretty close, though. It tells the story of one King Louie, a possibly insane voodoo priest and blues man (Timothy McCown Reynolds) who lives deep in the bayou country defending his mystical compound from the interlopers he knows will eventually come to replace him in his role as King of the Blues (like the legendary Robert Johnson is said to have done, he has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his powers). Unlike Godot, Louie’s anticipated visitors do eventually show up, in the persons of Miss Baby and Brother Lloyd (played by the husband-wife theatrical team Hope Cartelli and Jeff Lewonczyk of the Brick Theatre’s Piper McKenzie Productions). There follows a series of twists and turns — or perhaps I should say “revolutions”.
Like a lot of my work, this play began in embryo decades ago, and has been gestating and developing ever since. It started with a sketch called “King Louie in the Lowlands” when I was still at Trinity Rep Conservatory; that’s the origin of the character King Louie, though not the play. I don’t think the sketch had any plot, and no copies survive. In the late 80s, a passage in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough about the mythical King of the Wood gave me a shape for the thing, and some early workshops were done at the Tree Cafe in Portland, Maine and the Vortex Theatre in NYC. I decided to call the play Universal Rundle in honor of my brother, who exerted an enormous influence on me as a young person. He’d played in rock and blues bands ever since he was 11 years old; Universal Rundle was the name of his first garage band. It is also the name of something else; if you don’t know, I won’t tell ya, because it’s a spoiler.
In the early 90s I did massive amounts of research on the blues, voodoo and African American culture, in general for a projected full length version of the play. (The main character in this play is purposefully left racially ambiguous. Like many people of the Delta region, I imagine him to be multiracial, and he is designed so that he can be played by a person of any color or background. Culturally, however, the character echoes African American and Cajun voices in the same way I have played with representations of WASPs, crackers, Italians , the Irish, and whoever else I could think of in other plays). The full length Universal Rundle was over 200 pages and four hours long, and so dreadful I have destroyed every known copy. But I began to fold the research back into the one act. Around 1993 I began rehearsing a production in which I would play King Louie, but aborted it.
The play lay dormant until 2006, when I worked up a sleek, new version, which was presented in Soho Think Tank’s Sixth Floor Series, with myself as King Louie and Hope and Jeff as Miss Baby and Brother Lloyd. This was one of my happiest experiences as a playwright. I told Hope and Jeff at the time that never had I had any of my characters so perfectly realized from soup to nuts…it’s very much as though the parts were written for them. In the current production, their performances have only gotten better. Jeff is an encyclopedia of codified schtick, channeling Warner Brothers’ cartoons, Jerry Lewis — and himself. Hope gives us Southern Gothic, “Ole Pappy” and a deeply affecting performance as — herself (8+ months preggers, I need hardly add. This is the last time you will get to see her onstage when she is not yet a mom).
To complete the Triumvirate, I was fortunate to get Timothy McCown Reynolds, one of my favorite downtown actors, a performer I have respected so much I have held off asking him to work with me until I conceived of something I considered worthy of his talents. (A couple of years ago his name was floated for one of my plays, and I said, “No, no, I can’t waste Timothy’s talents in this thing.”) Not that I claim that the current play is any great shakes either (that’s for you to decide) but it DOES provide copious challenges of the sort only an actor with Timothy’s chops can tackle. A weird accent and dialect, the ability to sing and dance in a distinctly NON-Broadway fashion, to be be menacing, sympathetic and funny at the same time, and to possess a probing, curious and educated mind to recognize the poetic and religious themes and references woven into the script (and to research the unfamiliar aspects). Unbidden, Timothy has pointed out stuff he’s noticed in the play (and that I took great pains to place there) that I assure you will go over 99% of everyone else’s heads. Needless to say, I hope to work with him a great deal more.
I mentioned singing and dancing. The show has three musical numbers. One’s a country blues in the manner of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton and others. One is more 60s style Rhythm and Blues (with dancing choreographed by the unstoppable Miss Becky Byers). Citizen Art Wallace, as “the Old Cracker in the Chair” and myself play guitar on these. The third number is a mock voodoo ritual with Timothy on tambourine and maracas. Here, and elsewhere in the show, we will be employing the percussive talents of Frankie Didonato.
Music, dance, poetry, religious ecstasy, mask, transformations both theatrical and metaphysical…and above all, hopefully, celebratory laughter are the ingredients we have cooked into this gumbo. I hope you can come see it (along with three of my other plays) in Trav S.D.’s Tent Show Tetragrammaton at La MaMa E.T.C. March 17 through April 3. For more info please go here.