Ring out the old, ring in the new.
In 2011, there was quite a bit of ringing, and some of the ringing out was disappointing. New Orleans lost one venerable institution and part of another.
Owner Barbara Motley closed her chic cabaret theater Le Chat Noir, which had provided a unique venue for cabaret shows and hosted all sorts of original drama, comedies and musicals since it opened in 1999. Le Chat went out in grand style, hosting local and national cabaret acts in a final flurry of showcases.
Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre found a solution to its financial woes, but 60 percent of its space will become a restaurant run by Dickie Brennan. It's comforting to know the jewel-like main auditorium will return to activity, but the second stage (not part of the original theater) — which hosted more adventurous pieces and children's plays — will be no more. How this division will affect the courtyard and lobby remains to be seen. The theater is scheduled to present plays again in 2012, but the distinction of being one of the nation's oldest continuously operating theaters gets a footnote because the end of the 2010-2011 season was canceled and the theater was dark in the fall.
Those closures aside, theater is flourishing in many venues, including relatively newer ones. Small theaters are cropping up around the Marigny and Bywater. The AllWays Lounge's theater space is a popular spot for independent productions. Cripple Creek Theatre finished a residency with the original coproduction The Future is a Fancyland Place. The AllWays also hosted Harry Mayronne's restaurant musical Waiting Around and more exotic literary and theatrical events such as Esoterotica, a series of original erotic readings by local writers. The Shadowbox Theatre recently hosted Four Humours' outdoor production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Skin Horse Theater pumped punk-rock energy into its production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Backyard Ballroom. Inside the New Orleans Healing Center, Cafe Istanbul is open.
A deconsecrated church on St. Ferdinand Street has served as a venue for the New Orleans Fringe Festival for several years and is now the Marigny Opera House. It is expected to host more theatrical productions and concerts. The 2011 Fringe Festival brought an array of exciting alternative theater productions to those venues and many more unconventional performance spaces around town.
In the CBD, Elm Theatre offered grim delights like Orange Flower Water. The Mid-City Theatre opened in the fall. Fred Nuccio launched the 80-seat auditorium in a former Doerr Furniture warehouse on Toulouse Street, just off Bayou St. John. It's already hosted several shows that likely would have played at Le Chat in previous years, including Santaland Diaries, Theatre 13's Play Dates and musical variety shows by Ricky Graham and friends.
Also of note are productions at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. The NOLA Project just completed a run of Romeo and Juliet in the museum atrium, and it mounted two popular runs of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The group also presented Yasmina Reza's Art in Stern Auditorium.
The Contemporary Arts Center hosted an array of intriguing puppet shows, including All Weather Ballads by Vermont's Sandglass Theater and the satirical found-object puppetry of Paul Zaloom. The imaginative production Darwin the Dinosaur by the local company CORBiAN Visual Arts and Dance was a total delight for both adults and children. Here's hoping Darwin is a harbinger of the future for both the company and the underused space at CAC.
Then there were the tried-and-true standbys. The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane deserves a tip of the hat for its production of Julius Caesar set as a modern political thriller. Southern Rep maintained its high standards with challenging fare like the 2010 Tony Award-winner Red, about abstract painter Mark Rothko, and a hilarious whirl through Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests. Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage explored contemporary civilities. Southern Rep also provided a venue for shows by other companies, like Ricky Graham's original holiday family musical The Pecan Cracker.
A second comic, Norman, entertained audiences at The Actor's Theatre of New Orleans in Norman, Is That You?
The Anthony Bean Community Theater presented The Good Negro and August Wilson's Jitney, but its most memorable production was Reflections: A Man and His Time, which starred former City Council President Oliver Thomas and was about his career and time in jail.
For musicals, local audiences were treated to a trio of classics including Man of La Mancha and Into the Woods at Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre. At the Mahalia Jackson Theater, more recent touring Broadway shows included Shrek the Musical and Rock of Ages.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society experienced continued delays and complications in construction of its new center on Airline Highway, but shows at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre included The Drowsy Chaperone and Jim Fitzmorris' new work From a Long Way Off , which deals with local politics and culture.
The city is still an exciting incubator for new works. The 6x6 series is an ongoing monthly showcase of short pieces at Southern Rep. Before Le Chat closed, Carl Walker directed another installment of Native Tongues, this chapter entertainingly dedicated to food.
An easily overlooked auditorium that has offered consistently entertaining shows is the Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum.
While it's disappointing to have a couple of the city's better-established theaters closed at this time, it is encouraging to see productions just about everywhere else. There's so much, it's hard to keep up with it all, so apologies to shows not mentioned. Here's looking forward to a busy 2012 on local stages.