Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Confederacy of Geniuses

Book-It Repertory Theatre celebrates its 20th year in business with a production personifying everything that makes them a world class operation, tackling a novel both beloved and untranslatable with uncommon skill and passion for the written word. What the hell, let's call it genius and leave it at that. They've carved themselves a peculiar niche, creating more than spoken novels but less than full-blown theatrical productions, using their small budgets to force you to use your imagination, just as you would be doing if you were actually reading the book instead of having it read to you by a troop of actors. It's an approach that's intrinsically philosophical, where each performer is not just the character they're portraying but the narrator of their own story. This decision to avoid a central narrator, spreading the author's words around to every performer on stage, lets you float in and out of the reality of the narrative. Every production is about people who are omniscient, unable to separate themselves from the person telling their story.

Mary Machala didn't adapt and direct the book so much as get out of its way, letting every idiosyncrasy shine through. If you love the book, you will love this production, and if you hate the book, you will probably hate this production. If you haven't read the book, it's completely entertaining on it's own terms.
Harry Knowles disapproves of this review

It tells the story of Ignatius T. Reilly, a 300 pound adult still living with his mother in New Orleans in the '60s. If it were the '90s, he'd be Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, but the internet hadn't been invented yet so Ignatius has no choice but to take out his snark against everyone around him, including his mother, all her friends, a local cop, his fellow workers in a pants factory, his ex-girlfriend, and a poor hot dog vender who offers Ignatius a job, not knowing he's just given Ignatius carte blanche to eat all his hot dogs. It's a cavalcade of comedy chaos as the audience wonders how anyone on earth can put up with him for one second.

Ignatius is an unforgettable literary creation, much like Holden Caulfield, right down to the deer cap, you come away from the book not with the plot but with the indelible memory of a character so uncompromising and irritating that you don't know what to make of the fact you identify with them.

House M.D. is currently the biggest asshole on television. You can forgive House his idiosyncrasies because he's also a genius who saves lives, but Ignatius and Holden have no such noble qualities. They're both snotty losers who think the problem with the world is everything but themselves. Neither display a single positive attribute. Oh sure, they're both funny, but they aren't trying to be.

The Wikipedia page on A Confederacy of Dunces is a movie unto itself since the story of the novel is as fascinating as the story in the novel, creating its own mythology separate from the book. In a nutshell, John Kennedy Toole wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, killed himself in 1969, his mother took the only manuscript to Walker Percy who convinced the University of Louisiana to print up a few thousand copies in 1980, leading inexorably from good reviews to the 1981 Pulitzer Prize to major cult status. John Belushi, who would have been great, was going to do it with Harold Ramis, but died, then John Candy, who would have been great, died too, and Chris Farley, who would have been great, well, you get the drift.

Luckily, Brandon Whitehead survived the Ignatius curse to give a flawless performance of nuance and hilarity. From the opening second, he owns the stage, looking down his nose at us like the whole audience just cut a fart. Ignatius is a horrible combination of total loser and cultural snob, a wallowing ball of negativity who finds the worst in everything while contributing absolutely nothing. It wouldn't work if Whitehead didn't give Ignatius all the depth necessary for such a deeply flawed character, making him not just massive but massively entertaining.

Ellen McLain is patience personified as Ignatius' mom Irene, who surely deserves, and gets, a life of her own. The rest of the cast are every bit Whitehead's equal, especially the ones in multiple roles. With countless changes of costume and make-up, Samara Lerman is hilarious both as Darlene the sleazy barmaid and as Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' radical college sweetheart. Similarly, Betty Campbell, Cynthia Geary, Bill Johns, Todd Licea, Enrique Olguin, Kiri Nelson, and Kevin McKeon all revel in their multiple characters. Backstage must be a madhouse of costume changes.

One quibble. All have differing mastery of one of the hardest accents to do, the New Orleans. Unfortunately they're all trying to do the SAME New Orleans accent when real New Orleans accents are as varied as New York accents, which is something only an asshole like me would point out. Yeah, you're a liar if you're a critic and you say you don't identify with Ignatius, who should be the opposite of a role model for the rest of us cultural snobs, who have precious little to complain about when we visit Book-It Repertory. Here's hoping for another 20 years.

This is John Kennedy Toole, which means if they make a film
about him, Andy Richter better free up his schedule

Get tickets at through October 11.

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