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Congeniality vs. Phantasmagoria 

Amazing Place, This New Orleans and Lucifer, Her Mysteries and Covenant. As the titles suggest, these two original presentations are the alpha and omega of performance art.

Amazing Place, presented three times a week at True Brew, is a stage adaptation by Roberts Batson of his popular walking tour of the French Quarter. The idea -- quite reasonable as the mercury begins to climb -- is that you can take the tour in your mind's eye, while sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of a cabaret.

Batson, wearing a white suit and Panama hat, introduces himself as Beauregard Claiborne Ellis the Third, known as Trey. Although he claims this is a reference to his numerical position within the male heirs of the family, there is a persistent rumor it's actually short for "outre" (defined by Webster as "not conforming to conventional custom, behavior or style").

"Outre" is more to the point for several reasons. One is because we never again hear anything about Mr. Ellis or his personal history. Another is because the charm of the presentation comes from Batson's delight in the inimitable and ineradicable nuttiness of New Orleans, which he describes as "an island off the coast of America."

Personable and witty, Batson gives local history his own agreeable spin by way of a series of aphorisms, such as, "Three frightening words: Protestant work ethic."

The show is geared for out-of-towners. In fact, Batson dryly remarks that his audience is the Spouses Club of the International Association of Synthetic Rubber Producers. I can't think of a better place to send visiting friends and relations for a succinct and amusing introduction to the city. For Batson not only comments deftly on the New Orleans mystique, he embodies it. Spending some time with Trey sure beats the hell out of being plunked down in front of a videotape, which is, of course, where one so often ends up nowadays, even in the hallowed precincts of museums.

At two hours, the show is longer than I expected. But it never drags. And I have to say, I was not only entertained, I came away with new facts and new insights.

If Amazing Place is a casual, congenial chronicle of facts, Lucifer (produced recently at Zeitgeist) was an intense, phantasmagoric convocation of archetypes.

The strangest thing about this phantasmagoria is that it took place in a bare room under bright lights and without music. To transport an audience to another dimension of existence under those conditions is not merely a challenge; it's more like a dare. And my reactions were two-fold. On the one hand, the remarkable Vanessa Skantze certainly won her bet. The piece was absorbing and her culminating dance/monologue, in particular, cast a potent hypnotic spell. I suspect, however, that additional evocative elements, such as lighting and some sort of visual ambience would enhance, rather than detract from, the overall effect.

It's clear from the accompanying literature that the piece has a more-or-less precise narrative content. However, if you attended the show (as I did) without having read about it, you would probably be hard-pressed to explain the fluid, dreamlike sequence of spoken words, sung passages, whimpers, groans, movements and gestures that you witnessed.

A sort-of androgynous double creature enters, consisting of Death/Jaldabaoth (Alex Haverfield) and Lucifer (Vanessa Skantze). They are both in black and bare feet. Death has long red hair, a goatee and wears a sport jacket over his bare torso, which is scarred and has nipple rings. His head is wrapped in a thin black shawl with scarlet embroidery. In a gravely voice and down-home country diction ("You ain't never heard nobody ..."), he spins a bizarre metaphysical explanation for the universe having to do with a glob of matter and a "stranger" with a shovel.

Then he and Lucifer, "his mother," do a dance that reeks of sexuality, the attraction/repulsion inherent in bodily fluids and suppressed violence. This evolves into an incoherent lament, where Death is comforted by his mother -- who, I should mention, is dressed in skin-tight black leather, has a large serpent tattooed on either shoulder and a wild stand of black hair.

Then, oddly, Death sits down to have lunch (from a black plastic lunchbox), while Lucifer takes the stage and immolates herself in solitary dance and improvised a cappella song, all in defiance of God and his heaven full of sycophantic angels.

Skantze is a graceful and committed performer. Clearly, she is trying to talk about things that matter to her deeply and she is dancing to her own drummer. Bravo. Nonetheless -- if I can take the discussion down to a less-lofty plane -- a few more visuals and a few less-metaphysical conundrums would make a better show.

click to enlarge Roberts Batson walks visitors through his own inimitable tour of the city in Amazing Place, This New Orleans at True Brew.
  • Roberts Batson walks visitors through his own inimitable tour of the city in Amazing Place, This New Orleans at True Brew.
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