Paul Russell

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A FREE MAN OF COLOR - U.S. Regional Premiere, Swine Palace: Paul Russell, director


U.S. Regional Premiere

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Guare & When
AMERICAN THEATRE MAGAZINE

Paul Russell, John Guare

New Orleans, 1801: The city at the mouth of the Mississippi saw itself (much as it does today) as a singular entity of multiple backgrounds and diverse characters. With the impending purchase of Louisiana from France, the U.S. would begin to discover the city as a beacon of light for writers and artists—and a center for the debauchery that would eventually inspire the nickname "The Big Easy.".

(Above: Paul Russell & John Guare discuss
A Free Man of Color
)

 

It was "a time of monarchy and a time of turmoil," says John Guare, speaking of the setting for his play A Free Man of Color, which premiered at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre in 2010, with Jeffrey Wright in the title role. "The world was suddenly becoming connected—things were changing, shipping became globalized. And there was New Orleans, this anomaly that represented the wild card in the U.S. The kind of irrationality the city represented, things that are out of the norm—we still don't know how to deal with that which does not fit," Guare believes.

A Free Man of Color follows Jacques Cornet, described as "a new Don Juan," living his life as the wealthiest colored man in New Orleans. For its first post-Broadway outing, the play is coming home to the state that inspired it. A new production, mounted by Swine Palace and directed by Paul Russell, will open September 21st at the Shaver Theatre on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Cornet, a role written for Wright, will be played by Alvin Keith.

"John has brilliantly penned a sprawling saga," says Russell. "My mantra from the start has been to simplify the storytelling, while remaining true to the essence of the colorful, vibrant historical collage he created." As for Cornet, Russell sees him as "Othello on steroids, without the bloodshed, brandishing wit as his sword."

Swine Palace slated the production for its Bicentennial Celebration. "Our plays this season showcase characters who are forced to examine their own lives by events greater than themselves," Russell notes. "Cornet's journey of self-discovery is juxtaposed against the changing landscape of New Orleans and Louisiana, as instigated by the Louisiana Purchase." -- Eric Freeman, Jr.

Director's notes...

 

 

The desire to chase and capture discovery partly fuels AFMOC. Whether for Cornet it’s discovering the landscape beyond the Mississippi or his passion to explore the landscape under the dresses of women he has yet to conquer. This run for revelations races through other characters: Dona Polissena is dogged in her determination to discover the cause for yellow fever. King Carlos seeks to discover solutions which will sate his daughter’s gluttonous appetite for possessions. Murmur seeks to discover true freedom. Margery idealistically embraces her discovery of a diverse and wondrous New Orleans. Even Josephine’s whiter linen obsession is a chase towards discovery; discovering that which satisfies her vanity.

But what motivates discovery? Self-enlightenment? Or is knowledge harvested born of a desire to be desired, accepted, regarded, and respected?

That desire to be desired—accepted—is also partly the passion that propels the historical and fictional characters of AFMOC. Each journey to the desires’s goal is fueled by the wants of acceptance which bloom individually from separate but entwined roots: A desire for respect among peers (Cornet). Recognition of being valued (Dona Polissena). Being revered geopolitically (Napoleon). The vigil for a husband’s heart (Dona Athene). The yearning for affection (Dona Smeralda). The hope for independence (Murmur). AFMOC characters reflect reality’s truth: Few of us are protected from the creeping shadow of needing acceptance.

The Man behind the Man

Despite Cornet envisioning this as ‘his play’ the true orchestrator of the event—for our purpose—is Murmur. He will be the play’s and Cornet’s ‘bar back.’ Laboring to make Jacques’s desires fulfilled while Murmur himself has an eye towards his own desire of freedom.

Behind-the-scenes video

Playwright...

 

John Guare“I realized doing my research that the Louisiana Purchase – which is what made America America – was a story whose intricate realities nobody knows! We know the main facts of it but the story of how our nation came together became so intriguing and insane a challenge to pull off that it took over my life for a few years. How to reimagine a Restoration comedy and charge it with a new energy by playing it against this historical panorama became an exhilarating mountain to scale.”-- John Guare

Bringing A Free Man of Color to the stage was a long journey. George C. Wolfe approached Guare to write a play about American his­tory that would feature the multi-talented actor Jeffrey Wright. Mr. Wolfe had loved Guare’s play A Few Stout Individuals, a comedy about the death of Ulysses S. Grant. They talked about a Restoration comedy-style play set in New Orleans during the Louisiana Purchase. Guare was intrigued and went away to research and draft.

Two years later, he presented George Wolfe with a script that was five and a half hours long. Wolfe stated in an interview that Guare’s passion for the history was undeniable. The two worked together to revise and shape the play, eventually staging a workshop production at Lincoln Center Theatre in summer 2009 directed by Mr. Wolfe followed by a main stage production at The Vivian Beaumont. Swine Palace of Baton Rouge became the first theater to produce A Free Man of Color following its Broadway production.

Production...

 

Set Designer: Ken George

Ken GeorgeApproach: A Free Man of Color is an eclectic view blending cultural views, ideas, colors, and architectural textures.  Scenically a majority of the physical environment is placed in New Orleans in the very early 1800s. Other scenery changes take place in various places around the city as well as Washington D.C., Paris, France; and the unknown of the Louisiana Territory also known as the “white space."

The overall concept for the scenery of AFMOC was that of a deconstructionist view of culture, color, and texture.  The overall feeling and visual look of the set was a gritty, yet rich, historic environment, fragmented and layered with color, texture and a play with scale to reflect Cornet’s search for perfection as well as the kaleidoscope of French, Spanish, Native American, and Caribbean influences that have and continue to influence Southern Louisiana, New Orleans, and the country as a whole.

The set was non-realistic with realistic elements, symmetrical with asymmetrical aspects helping to reflect the plays farcical tendencies and Paul Russell’s desire to reflect a melting pot environment and culture.  With the marriage of these line and scale ideas, radical colors, extreme textures, and multiple cultural styles, the scenery allowed for multiple entrances and environmental surprises reflecting a true “Laugh In” motif desired in the scenery design.

Costume Designer: Corey Globke

Corey Globke

Approach: The costume design for A Free Man of Color was a celebration of the diversity and eclectic atmosphere present in 1801 New Orleans. Beyond the direct celebration of a specific locale, the costumes also celebrated global diversity through the mixture of various ethnic elements which combine to create a three-dimensional collage. Through the use of color, texture, and embellishments the costumes clearly identified each cultural group visually.

Each specific group contained a controlled color palette which individualized each country and enhanced the overall collage-like feel of the design. These palettes include: The Spanish in black and gold, the French in cream, blue, and red, and the Americans in rich earth tones. The Spanish palette was a nod to the monochromatic Castilian palette associated with the Spanish Court. The French palette was a nod to the forced sense of patriotism created after the French Revolution. The American palette was created from colors that would have been present in the early Colonial landscape.

Although strongly based in historical research, the costume design applied the historical elements in a whimsical and stylized manner which supports the theatricality of the text. Such elements created a fanciful historical world that allowed the audience to view various characters as the caricatures Cornet has painted in his mind. Such elements included a tarot card table dress for Josephine, rubber ducky epaulets for Napoleon, an exaggerated 18th century porcelain doll silhouette for the Infanta, and the crazy-quilted patchwork jacket for Murmur.

The energy of Mardi Gras was a key visual element of the costume design. The costumes for the Ball created a visual kaleidoscope effect on stage with an explosion of color, reflection, and fantasy. The Mardi Gras costumes recreated the celebratory nature of a bygone era in which highly embellished masks and costumes were worn to express the inner wants, wishes, and desires of the wearer.

Another key element of the design was the costumes for the ensemble. The look for the ensemble recreated the distressed palette and texture of New Orleans architecture. The palette was comprised of faded versions of the ethnic court colors to symbolize that the lower class is becoming shadows of their lands of origin. By containing a monochromatic palette, the ensemble was able to function as a unit while maintaining visual individuality through construction details.

Composer: Raul Gomez

Raul Gomez

Approach: Working on the music for A Free Man of Color I found inspiration in the clash and interaction of the different cultural influences present in New Orleans in the early 1800s, both at the sociological and psychological levels. Our characters' personal journeys—especially Jacques'—reflected the journey of New Orleans as it searches for identity and acceptance, while its main components—the European and African—coexist but don't quite blend.

We stayed true to the historically-accurate music of this era in a way that helped tell the story. We wanted the score to have a "New Orleans flavor," which brought up the challenge that what a 21st century audience perceives as "New Orleans sound" is not quite what was around back then. Brass bands, blues, ragtime, second line, Dixieland, etc. are all rather modern results of many decades of blending. What we are left with, back in 1801, is direct importation of European court and dance music (Mozart had only been dead for 10 years, Haydn is still alive), and direct importation of African sounds by slaves mainly from the Senegambia region. In a Mardi Gras ball, like the one at the top of Act 2, the ensemble danced to a minuet played by a trio while the sounds of hand drums and chanting filtered in from the streets through the set's windows.

Finally, the humor in Guare's text left room to have a little musical fun with a few of our characters and transitions, while the "epic-ness" of the journey offered plenty of chances for cinematic underscoring.

Behind-the-scenes-video...

 

 

 

Company

 

Swine Palace / Louisiana State University Theatre Arts:

Production:

Composer: Raul Gomes; Sound Design: Eunjin Cho; Lighting Design: Ken White; Costumes: Corey Globke;, Set Design: Ken George; Projections; Ken George; Fight Director: Nick Erickson; Vocal Coach: Joanna Battles; Stage Manager: Karli Henderson; Choreographer: Molly Buchman; Playwright: John Guare; Director: Paul Russell; Producing Artistic Director: George Judy

Cast:

Jacques Cornet; Alvin Keith; Cupidon Murmur: Donald Watkins; Dr. Toubib: Oneal Isaac; Thomas Jefferson: George Judy; Meriwether Lewis: Ben Koucherik; Margery Jolicouer: Jessica Jain; Pincepousse / Tallyrand: Drew Battles; Juan Ventura Morales / Napoleon: Nicolas Hamel; Alcibade / Toussaint Louverture: Renaldo McClinton; Mecure / Count Achille Creux: Jason Duga; Pythagore / General Le Clerc: Anthony McMurray; Jonathan Sparks / Major Walter Reed: Weston Twardowski; Dorilante / Georges Feydeau: Jason Bayle; Harcourt / James Monroe / King Carlos: Gregory Leute; Mme. Mandrgola / Lady Harcourt / Livingston: Jenny Ballard; Dona Smeralda / Josephine de Beauharnais: Kristina Despain; Calliope / Dona Athene: Ruby Lou Smith; Terpsichore / Infanta / Mrs. Sparks: Molly Conarro; Euterpe / Mme. Dorilante: Chia-Wen Hsu: Melopomene: Lakendra Moore; Leda: Mercedes Wilson; Ophee: Shea Stephens;

Ensemble: Michael Alexander, Seth Disalvo, Sofia Hurtado, Karmin Kennedy, Sarah Patin & Kristina Sutton

 

 

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