Each year, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival presents a whirlwind of programming through panel sessions, master classes, tours, writing competitions and more. But the aspect of the festival that is really a testament to Williams’ legacy is the theater offerings. One could spend a week or more in New Orleans, going from theater to theater, seeing adaptation from adaptation, sipping on gin cocktails and soaking up the culture.
This year, festival goers can look forward to seeing “Baby Doll” (pictured) and “Suddenly Last Summer,” two of Williams’ well-known plays, but an additional offering brings to life a classic New Orleans novel and legendary local character.
“A Confederacy of Dunces: Off the Page Onto the Stage” will open the festival on March 27 at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center. Adapted by renowned literary scholar Kenneth Holditch with additional material written by Francine Segal, this staged reading presents scenes directly from the novel and follows the misadventures of the eccentric and eloquent Ignatius J. Reilly.
Theatrically conceived and directed by Segal, the cast includes Charlie Talbert as Ignatius, Brenda Currin as Thelma Toole, Tracey Collins as Irene, Edward R. Cox as Mancuso, Kyle Daigrepont as Claude Robichaux, Zeb Hollins III as Jones, Vatican Lokey as Dorian, Marie Lovejoy as Myrna Minkoff, Jo-Ann Testa as Santa Battaglia, Segal as Lana Lee and Kate Adair as Darlene with pet cockatoo.
Guests are invited to dress in early 1960s fashion, and there will be an award for “Best Costume” on opening night. Additional performances will be held on Saturday, March 30, at 3 and 6:30 p.m.
We asked Segal (pictured) how she would describe this new production. Her response: “The characters from the novel spring to vibrant life complete with projections, music, props and costumes. I believe that this novel is very much a historic comedic satire, but I wanted to also give it a 21st-century varnish.”
She did add in some scenes with new characters like Jones the African American porter and Dorian, the gay vintage clothes dealer—and made Thelma the narrator—but stresses that all of the dialogue comes directly from the novel. “John Kennedy Toole was a master of New Orleans dialects,” Segal, who also works as a dialect coach, says. “His mother, Thelma, was a natural mimic, and so I am working on keeping all of the vernaculars indigenous to New Orleans in this show.”
Costumes are being done by Erin Routh, who Segal says has done extended research on the time period portrayed in the novel. “Of course, Ignatius needs to have a believable fat suit,” she adds.
This production will mark “Confederacy’s” return to the festival stage after a 20-year absence in which Spud McConnel played Ignatius and Segal played Myrna Minkoff. This isn’t Brenda Currin‘s (pictured above) first time on stage as Thelma Toole either. She played the role in Vivian Neuwirth’s play “Mr. Toole” in a brief run at the NYC Fringe Theater Festival in the summer of 2016.
She says that role was more of a private Thelma, who “pressured Ken to stay and live at home because they needed the income, and more importantly, so she can continue her control over him.” Segal’s public depiction will be a fresh take for Currin, whose acting career began as Nancy Clutter in “In Cold Blood” at age 15. Currin is a fixture on the TW Fest circuit and has played Violet Venable in “Suddenly Last Summer” in the past.
“Thelma is often given a hard time for her domineering ways over her son’s life,” she laments. “While this is true, I imagine Ken and Thelma sitting around their kitchen table, entertaining each other, falling on the floor laughing at each other’s rendition and imitation of familiar characters in their city. In other words, Thelma was, in a way, a collaborator on Confederacy of Dunces.”
This modern collaboration shouldn’t be missed, nor should any of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival really. There’s the chance to see Patricia Clarkson—fresh off her portrayal of Adora in HBO’s “Sharp Objects“—in conversation with Bryan Batt, “How to Write a Great Sex Scene” with Dorothy Allison, a “Sense of Place” discussion with Hannah Pittard, Robert Olen Butler and Silas House, and the always popular Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest to conclude the weekend.
Tickets for the opening night of “Confederacy of Dunces” are $50 or included with a festival VIP Pass. Tickets for the Saturday performances are $30 ($25 for students and theater professionals) or included with a festival VIP Pass. Click here for more ticket information for all festival events.