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Guilty Pleasures 

The last madam? Well, let's say the last madam from a decade just far enough removed to exude a glamorous fragrance of nostalgia, but close enoughÊto be a thrilling part of our times. After all, the play of that name (written by Jim Fitzmorris and Carl Walker, based on the biography by Christine Wiltz) is set in a French Quarter courtyard in 1964.

Of course -- to continue the quibble about that "last" -- we did have a flare-up of sleaze a few years ago with the Canal Street whorehouse whoop-di-do. And while bordellos may be scarcer than they once were, we can't say they are entirely absent. After all, success in the skin trade depends on what you might call discreet notoriety. For instance, when I first arrived here in 1973, I got a cheap little place on Burgundy Street. Imagine my shock one day when a seemingly unexceptional building down the block was busted, and a gaggle of scantily clad ladies was hauled off in squad cars for plying the world's oldest profession.

But if madams are an endangered species, sex workers still abound. "Sex workers." What a lovely Orwellian turn of phrase, like when the stewardess turned into a flight attendant. "Sex workers" caught my eye in a recent front page story in The Times-Picayune about the lusty recovery of filles de joie in the post-Katrina Quarter. These days, it seems, the hookers pass out cards with an email address, so johns can make "dates" in cyberspace. It's a new world, baby.

In a way, that's the point in The Last Madam, enjoying a triumphal return engagement at Southern Rep. Storyville -- the mother of all red-light districts -- flourished, created a legend and came to an end on a specific day. Norma Wallace -- who in a sense picked up the torch -- flourished, became a legend, and also retired from the business on a specific day -- the day this drama takes place.

Cristine Wiltz's engaging biography of Norma, published in 2000, follows her intrigues over many years. After all, we're talking about a gutsy gal who arrived in the Crescent City in 1916 at the age of 15, set herself up as a harlot and by 1920 was running a brothel that became such a landmark that tour buses pointed it out.

Playwrights Fitzmorris and Walker might easily have gone with a more episodic, narrative approach. Interestingly, they chose to focus on the decisive moment. In a sense, they went the Greek way, not the Shakespearean way. Norma, played with a husky-voiced relish by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, likes to be -- and expects to be -- in charge. Most importantly, she thinks she is in charge. From the moment she enters her courtyard, she snaps out orders like a "frill" sergeant. Her position is under attack and she's already marshaling the counter attack. She's been attacked before. Once she even spent six weeks in jail. But six weeks out of a four decade-long illegal career is a pretty good average.

How does she do it?Ê Well, here's where playwright Jim Fitzmorris is a smart choice of collaborators -- not for Norma, with whom, as far as I know, Fitzmorris never collaborated, but for Walker and Wiltz. Fitzmorris, who hails from a famous political family (State Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris was his uncle), has written a series of plays about the shenanigans of Louisiana electioneering.

It would be a shame to tip you off to how The Last Madam plays out. So let me just give you a sense of the dynamics. Norma stays in business by making payoffs to the D.A. through one of his assistants, a flamboyant sleazebag named Pershing Gervais (Sean Patterson). But the Police Chief and the D.A. are insanely competitive and the chief wants to grab the media spotlight by busting Norma. Norma thinks she can elude, outsmart, payoff and sneak by -- as always. In this case, she reasons that the cops can't bust her without a warrant, they can't get a warrant without convincing a judge they have probable cause, so what she needs is a judge in her pocket.

These are the main elements of the drama. And quite a drama it is. Walker, who also directed, has reassembled the excellent cast from the play's first outing in June. The actors are more seasoned and nuanced in their roles. Along with McMurdo-Wallis and Patterson, Carol Sutton, J. Patrick McNamara, Michael Aaron Santos and Jessie Terrebonne create an offbeat, raunchy world that's sometimes funny, sometimes abrasive and sometimes poignant.

This is a fascinating original play by local writers, based on a fascinating book by a local writer about a fascinating local legendary figure. You don't want to miss it.

click to enlarge Norma Wallace (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) courts a judge (J. Patrick McNamara) in  The Last Madam.
  • Norma Wallace (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) courts a judge (J. Patrick McNamara) in The Last Madam.
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