By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
It would seem The NOLA Project, those upstarts who mostly came to New Orleans from New York’s Tisch School just prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and, despite all obstacles, elected to stay in the Crescent City and break theatrical barriers of all kinds ever since, had done just about everything.
The company was one of the first in the area to successfully operate without a brick and mortar venue. Their choices of works by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Behanding in Spokane) initially set them apart, but their approaching previously unseen works like Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade and a full-blown local production of Stephen Sondheim’s never-before-seen Assassins also marked them for greatness.
For more than a decade they have presented Shakespeare at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) both in the Grand Hall (Romeo and Juliet and A Winter’s Tale) and in the outdoor Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
One of their favorite in-residence writers has been Gab Reisman, whose New Orleans-centric Taste proved to be so successful that they remounted it a second time. Other pieces she authored included the highly touted Storm City about the Johnstown Flood and Catch the Wall, a contemporary hip hop-tinged work about the drama in a New Orleans high school classroom experience.
When co-artistic director and one of the founders of the company A. J. Allegra approached Reisman almost three years ago about her possibly tackling a work of Anton Chekhov, it was for them a proposed trek upon virgin territory for The NOLA Project.
But then the pandemic from COVID set in. It would seem with little else to do but concentrate on finalizing the work, Reisman was firing on all cylinders. The result is The Seagull, or How To Eat It, finishing its run at the new amphitheater of the NOMA Sculpture Garden on Sunday.
As director Allegra notes in the online program, the initial production of The Seagull – Chekkov’s first play – was an unmitigated disaster in 1896. But then it was reset and enjoyed hitherto unknown popularity. Reisman’s resetting of this opus to the Northshore of New Orleans near Mandeville does not need any similar retooling. It is a fresh and smart work that updates the original Chekhovian tale in a charming manner and fashions the characters into relatable figures of the current era.
Chekhov’s Konstantin becomes the brooding writer Connie Thaw, played by the remarkable Ross Brill. The son of Irene Andrepont, a famous stage actress and featured performer on TV and in films, Connie tries to find new meaning with his latest play, a work he insists should be called “a time-based/art piece.”
The only star of the time-based/art piece is Nina Flores, a teenager with whom he is hopelessly and none-too-wisely in love. Played by the sparkling Payj “P.J.” Ruffins, Nina is an impressionable youngster who is drawn to Irene’s significant other Barry Tishman, an author whose success is a constant reminder to Connie that talent does not necessarily generate fame and fortune.
Connie warns Nina: “He’s a fake. Once you meet him you’ll be so bored.” But Nina does not take the heed.
Meanwhile, Chekhov’s Masha is renamed Mandi Hebert by Reisman. Mandi is the original goth, wearing black and bemoaning her existence. She is in love with Connie, who hasn’t a clue while he is fixed on Nina and trying to gain his mother’s favor. “I’m legitimately dying of boredom,” she confides to Simon, who is more than infatuated with her. She wants nothing to do with him, though, other than friendship.
Simon is played by the energetic Khiry Armistead, who has worked well with the company previously in several shows including its recent outdoor show in the Sculpture Garden, Treasure Island. Armistead also directed the ensemble’s science fiction-tinged historical black comedy Harry and the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer that dealt with identity issues, Harriet Tubman, slavery and “lots of guns.”
Kyle Daigrepont convincingly plays Pete Andrepont, Irene’s older brother, an aging gay man with a drinking problem and attendant health issues like diabetes. Pete is now living in the family complex across the lake, but wishes he were back in his familiar haunt of the French Quarter. When he’s cogent and not knocked out by alcohol, Pete is able to comment on the dynamics of the family with a sagacity born out of his own life experiences.
Attending to Pete’s health is Dr. Yvette Dorn (Delphine J.), a lesbian physician who is having an affair with Mandi’s mother Polly. Polly’s husband Ike, played by John Collins, is in love with Irene and works as the groundskeeper and manager of the family estate to be close to her.
When Connie’s mother seems unimpressed with his time-based art piece, he orders the production to halt and storms off after ranting. Irene responds with tough love. “I love him, that isn’t the question,” she tells Barry. “But art is art. Don’t tell me how to eat it. I’m gonna react how I react.”
As Connie continues down a predictable, pitiful path dealing with the futility of life, Nina complicates her life by moving closer to Barry. Barry, in turn, begs Irene to permit him this one dalliance and she protests. Mandi remains discontented, while her parents seek solace in the arms of others. Simon stands by on the sidelines pining for Mandi, while Pete drinks himself into a stupor. It’s a perfect cycle for a dark comedy of the unfulfilled, made famous by the realist Chekhov and brought up to date by the witty pragmatist Reisman.
A. J. Allegra directs this delightful romp with more than a few laughs, but which also allows for an examination of suicidal ideation, unrequited love and the fact that no one is ever truly happy. Sometimes, Reisman suggests, we get what we deserve or, perhaps, not what we are expecting.
The ensemble performs so very well and it is a pleasure to see Argus perform in a non-singing role unlike her prior starring status in so many Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane productions. She has already indicated she is ready to tackle more performances like this. She demonstrates she can hold her own with any of the other ensemble members and her work adds immeasurably to the tension with veteran performers Brill and Prejean as her son and lover.
Once again, those upstarts from The NOLA Project have checked off another worthy accomplishment as they reshape the local theatre scene. Now, having had their way with Chekhov, one can only wonder: could Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard be next on their hit list?
The Seagull, or How To Eat It by Anton Chekhov and Gab Reisman continues Wed. – Fri., Oct. 26 – 28 and ends its run on Sun., Oct. 30 with shows at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, click here.
Director: A. J. Allegra
Scenic Design: Raquel M. Jackson
Costume Design: Baylee Robertson
Lighting Design: Joan Long
Sound Design: Ryan Wiles