The big news in theater this year was small. Some of the biggest surprises were either small shows or on small stages.
The New Orleans Fringe Festival appeared on the scene almost magically, like a flock of doves out of an opera hat. Directors Dennis Monn and Kristen Evans assembled a vast grab bag of nearly 120 performances at 14 locations, some of which are new and bear intriguing titles like the Skull Club and Dr. Velour's Living Room. Familiar downtown venues included the Marigny Theatre, the Hi-Ho Lounge and the Voodoo Mystere Lounge. Le Chat Noir presented its New Plays Festival (10 original shorts directed by Carl Walker) in association with Fringe. Growing pains for the Fringe Festival included the collapse of a box-office tent, but the event is off to a solid start and the organizers expect to make it an annual one.
Southern Rep continues to thrive and offer well-honed productions of contemporary works like The Seafarer. The theater also provided a venue for independent companies. Newly formed FourFront Theatre presented the satiric Gutenberg! The Musical! as well as The History Boys, a meditation on traditional versus modern approaches to pedagogy.
The Anthony Bean Community Theater has presented many plays by the late August Wilson, who is best known for his ambitious decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. This year, Anthony Bean directed Radio Golf, the last installment in the sequence. Bean continued to write and direct new works, including the sensitive and nuanced Unplugged, a play that looked at sexual identity issues among young men in a popular boy band.
Actors Theatre of New Orleans made an audacious departure with Rabbit Hole (directed by and starring René J.F. Piazza). The company is best known for comedy, often zany, but it showed skill in challenging dramas this year, bringing a fine sensibility to Rabbit Hole's tale of loss.
Le Chat Noir brought us director Natasha Ramer's staging of I Take Your Hand in Mine, the story of the love affair between playwright Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, one of the stars of the Moscow Arts Theater. Le Chat also staged its share of comic offerings, like a return engagement of Goin' to Jackson, written and performed with verve by Jamie Wax. Ricky Graham was as busy as ever on Le Chat's stage, and Running With Scissors added some of its hilarious cross-dressed parodies to the mix.
Le Petit Theatre's two stages were full of music. The main stage featured a lineup of popular musicals. John Grimsley skillfully directed Annie, Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey gave us Rent, and Cabaret rounded out the classics. Next door in Muriel's Cabaret, the NOLA Project and InSideOut Productions teamed up to stage Side Man, a dark, fascinating study of the difficulties of being a professional musician and supporting a family.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society presented a full array of productions, from serious drama to musicals to opera, but some of the most enjoyable shows struck a similar chord with quixotic titles like The Great American Trailer Park Musical and Return to the Forbidden Planet. The results were suitably sensational in both cases.
Marigny Theatre presented a couple of notable plays about relationships at opposite extremes. Glenn Meche directed Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, a look at the men behind a notorious and not-so-perfect murder scheme. Meche also directed Gertrude Stein and a Companion, drawing a portrait of the private lives of early modernism's most celebrated lesbian couple, Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Director Perry Martin played midwife to another theater, opening the Bayou Playhouse in his hometown of Lockport. With the theater overlooking Bayou Lafourche, local playwright John Biguenet's Rising Water was an appropriate christening production.
In closing, I'd like to present my buried treasure award to Story Circle, presented at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Writer John Grimsley and director John O'Neal collaborated on an engaging, clear-eyed look at race relations in this inspired local work.