By ALAN SMASON
A theatre reviewer in a pandemic? Sounds crazy, no? But here in New Orleans with no shows to see, I’ve become more than that. I’ve assumed new roles as a director, a stage manager and in the grand tradition of Bialystock and Bloom, a producer.
How all of this intersected with the story of two long-dead, reclusive New Orleans Jewish sisters is an even more incredible tale. Immigrants from Hungary, the Geller sisters – Flora and Piroska – became the source material for “Nita & Zita,” a play written by Lisa D’Amour with significant input from Kathy Randels, Anne-Liese Juge and Katie Pearl.
It was their work I saw two decades ago, first with Juge in the role of Piroska, and later with Pearl working opposite Randels as the material was expanded and improved over the course of several years.
While “Nita & Zita” started out as a local production, it eventually toured the country with a major stay Off-Broadway, where it was nominated for and, more especially, won a special Obie Award in 2003 for D’Amour, who also served as director, as well as for Randels and Pearl, who had plumbed their imaginations to bring these two spinster sisters back to life.
The last time the show played in New Orleans was not long before Hurricane Katrina brought its might to bear on the city 15 years ago in a Southern Rep production at Canal Place. For all anyone knew, the subject matter of the Vaudeville performers Nita and Zita as well as the sisters Flora and Pirsoska who portrayed them, had breathed their collective last breaths.
But then the worldwide pandemic of the novel coronavirus happened. It occurred to me that there was little for a theatre critic to review with doors of theaters shuttered and panic spreading even further than the disease. Very few people other than the actors, creative teams and technical staffs were remotely interested into walking into a darkened theater, much less being in one when someone sneezed.
I was comforted by others who, likewise felt, there needed to be some traction for theatre. New virtual spaces through programs like Zoom and StreamYard were filling that void and allowing far-flung and disparate forces to come together.
So, I created a Facebook group called NOLA Theatre Folk and invited several friends to join with me in keeping connected as we weathered the crisis. I became a subscriber to StreamYard, an application platform that works seamlessly through internet browsers to livestream or broadcast to multiple websites at once. This was our new theater.
I reached out first to local playwrights Joyce Pulitzer, Marcy Nathan and Harriet Nelson. Together, with the late Lynne Goldman, they had written “Cherries Jubilee,” a funny and tender two-act play that featured five Newcomb College alumnae at their graduation and followed them at reunions over four decades.
Next, I considered local award-winning playwright John Biguenet, who agreed to remount his “Rising Water” trilogy of plays (“Rising Water,” “Shogun” and “Mold“) once a month, over a three-month period, leading up to the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Playwright and former Southern Rep founder Rosary O’Neill contributed two one-act plays around legendary Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe (“Marilyn/God“) and power couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (“Clark and Carole“). InFringe executive director Jon Broder offered his “Brick,” a piece in which the closeted Tennessee Williams character from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was brought into the 1990s.
Rob Florence’s “Katrina’s Path,” a series of monologues written about six characters who fled Katrina, but ultimately returned back home, was also featured in advance of the anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall. Two of the characters actually portrayed themselves in the livestream reading.
But through it all, the memory of earlier performances of “Nita and Zita” kept coming back to my mind. D’Amour (“Detroit” and “Airline Highway“) was reluctant when first approached because she knew how busy Randels and Pearl were even during the pandemic. Her own schedule was also keeping her busy, so getting all three together for rehearsals seemed to be a rather tall order.
But to my amazement and my ultimate joy, they did agree to reanimate the Geller sisters and to incorporate video from the 2005 production into the live action format of StreamYard. Randel’s husband, Sean LaRocca offered his technical expertise, finding a way to incorporate Tom McDermott’s original music that accompanied the actors on stage into the process.
Music and sound effects have long proved problematic with StreamYard or Zoom because whoever is speaking must be seen or an avatar shown while the audio portion is heard.
An interviewer, who is never seen in “Nita & Zita,” but who is essential in carrying the plot along also needed to have an off-stage voice. That meant the actor playing that role would need to be in either room with the Nita or Zita characters.
D’Amour poured over the dark and grainy 2005 video, determining what dances would be essential in recapturing the original show’s magical depiction of the sister act. The routines, which were a weird combination of acrobatics and contortion also incorporated elements of burlesque. She met with the actors and rehearsed them in their scenes, distanced by nearly 1,500 miles, as Pearl was sequestered in Connecticut and Randels, like D’Amour, residing in New Orleans.
Original costumes by Olivia Wildz and the video montage credited to Maria Cataldo were incorporated into the multimedia event along with two slideshows of photos detailing the Gellers’ unusual handmade costumes and their strange practice of painting the interior and exterior of their Creole cottage and furniture with wild, colorful, and imaginative designs.
The final rehearsals were held last weekend and the show was broadcast live on Monday, August 24 running approximately 93 minutes and live streamed to the Nita & Zita website, NOLA Theatre Folk Facebook Group, the Theatrecriticism.com Facebook page (not this website) and my own Alan Smason YouTube Channel (Musiclovers169).
Reports from around the country indicate the piece is still universally treasured and so, in a way, the Geller sisters – Flora and Piroska – or “Nita and Zita” have emerged again as ghosts of the past, intriguing audiences never before exposed to their charms.
D’Amour and company have determined that the piece will be deleted eventually, but while time remains (perhaps another three weeks), I encourage one and all to check out this quirky, original work as possessing some of the very best of theatre at a time when theatre cannot clearly exist as we have known it previously.