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Soul on Fire 

Originality is bursting out on local stages these days -- so much so it's hard to keep up.

To begin with, Southern Rep is in the throes of its Southern New Play Festival, which features readings of eight new scripts on various nights through March 9. Plus, you can see The Vulgar Soul by John Biguenet onstage in an impressive full production. The Vulgar Soul was chosen from last year's crop of new play readings.

Biguenet, who teaches at Loyola University, is new to theater, but he has racked up some impressive credentials as a writer of fiction with The Torturer's Apprentice, a collection of short stories, and Oyster, a novel. The Vulgar Soul, in fact, began life as a short story; it's an odd, fascinating, contemporary look at faith.

Thomas Hogue (Barret O'Brien), a lapsed Catholic who works as an insurance actuary, finds himself developing rashes or irritations on the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet. At times, these irritations bleed. A doctor runs tests, but the disease seems to have no physical basis. Hogue is suffering from the stigmata; the wounds of the crucified Christ are appearing on his body.

Now, the idea of a skeptical, white-collar working stiff starting to display physical signs that would be more appropriate on a medieval saint is an intriguing premise. And the way Biguenet works out this dilemma is both satisfyingly offbeat and convincing -- though I won't spoil it for you by revealing the plot in detail. Let's just say that the unwilling mystic attracts the attention of a fringe element of the Catholic congregation. This cult-like group wants desperately to believe God still performs miracles, and Hogue's stigmata confirm their belief. There is also a haunting subplot about Hogue's sympathetic, unhappy and ambitious psychotherapist.

The Vulgar Soul is the first story in Biguenet's short-story collection. The play version is considerably more explicit and complex. The two versions are at once the same story and a quite different story -- a fascinating and successful transformation.

In short, The Vulgar Soul is Southern Rep doing its thing at its best. Bravos to director Ryan Rilette and to the cast: Barret O'Brien, Dane Rhodes (as the cult leader), Diana Shortes (as the psychotherapist) and Bernard Hocke and Christine McMurdo-Wallis (in multiple roles). This talented group keeps the strange tale grounded in reality -- a task that's made more challenging by David Korin's amazing allegorical set that features a huge, forlorn granite outcropping and a background of metallic gray squares. It's as though the insurance actuary undergoes his afflictions in a bleak, forgotten corner of Dante's Inferno. The set's bold departure from everyday realism emphasizes the philosophical questions that reverberate (somewhat perplexingly) at the heart of the text. A tip of the hat, as well, to Paul Whitaker for lighting, Tony French for costumes and Eric Shim for sound.

On a much lighter note, New Orleans was recently treated to Madea Goes to Jail at the Saenger. The show was written by, directed by and starred Tyler Perry, a Crescent City native. It also featured our own Lady B.J. (who is known now to the wide world as B.J. Crosby). Madea is a drag character that Perry first invented about 10 years ago. He's crisscrossed the country since then, doing shows about this gutsy old gal, and she's developed a large, loyal following particularly in the African-American community. So large and loyal, in fact, that I latched onto the only ticket still for sale in Madea's week-long engagement at the vast old movie palace.

Madea is a musical comedy. The ever-versatile Perry co-wrote the songs. B.J. sang the finale -- leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that she still has one of the world's great sets of pipes.

Finally, let me add one more quick note of praise for one more remarkable original effort. Composer Jay Weigel (who is also executive/artistic director of the Contemporary Arts Center) brought his new opera, The River May Cry, to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts recently for two performances. Weigel himself conducted members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Ray Vrazel directed the stylish production that starred Leah Chase and the Rev. Dwight Webster, among others. Miguel Lopez and Michelle Gibson came up with the imaginative choreography and David Raphel designed the haunting silhouetted set. The River May Cry departed from traditional opera format. It was a sort of musical docudrama about an incident of racial injustice in rural Louisiana during the 1950s. The staging had a freeform, expressionist feeling that fit well with the accessible, but rigorous score.

click to enlarge Psychotherapist Dr. Burke (Diana E.H. Shortes) examines Thomas Hogue (Barret O'Brien) in Southern Rep's current production of John Biguenet's The Vulgar Soul. -
  • Psychotherapist Dr. Burke (Diana E.H. Shortes) examines Thomas Hogue (Barret O'Brien) in Southern Rep's current production of John Biguenet's The Vulgar Soul.

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