You may not “show up” to a performance of A Confederacy of Dunces. You must be fully prepared to either sympathize or empathize with its characters. Those are the only options; forgo either choice, and this two-and-half hour production will find itself unpleasantly lodged in your throat like the sauerkraut hotdogs its lead character advocates. Gratefully, I fall into the “empathy” category.
For eccentric is as eccentric does in this tragicomedy of New Orleans. The play follows the daily tribulations of one Ignatius J. Reilly, a self-proclaimed “anachronism” with a penchant for grandiloquence and flatulence. Conventions such as hygiene and work are out of the question for our hero, the passions of his adult life being philosophy of the Middle Ages (hello, Boethius!) and a consuming disdain for modernity. A street accident caused by his aging mother (played by the darling Ellen McLain), forces a reluctant Ignatius into the work force. As a factory filer, and then a vendor, Ignatius must toil amongst the “sloth” and dregs of the humanity he so detests. Quite by accident, Ignatius is a Don Quixote for the American South, smashing his hot-dog vending cart into the imagined windmills of the 20th century.
Actor Brandon Whitehead makes his perfection in the part of Ignatius known in his first moments on stage, and then flaunts for the remaining two hours. Clutching a brandy snifter to his sagging bosom (or is that, perhaps, more stomach?), he belches, “Fortuna! You vicious slut!” with zeal.
Brandon Whitehead and Ellen McLain in Book-It’s A Confederacy of Dunces
photo by John Ulman
Around the flickering bulb of Ignatius’s brilliance, a slew of moths flutter, each more outrageous than the last. Many of the actors assume dual roles, a feat made daunting by the independent quirkiness of each character. While the other characters exude the same frenetic genius of author John Kennedy Toole, Ignatius is clearly the beloved child. However, the talent of the ensemble gave nearly unaffected recreations of New Orleans regulars. Particular praise must go to actor Cynthia Geary; her work as saloon proprietress Lana Lee was a happy union between Blanche of The Golden Girls tribe and Satan. As love-interest Myrna Minkoff, Samara Lerman is adequate. Lerman makes an unfortunate caricature of the feisty intellectual, shouting her way through any shadows in her performance.
If Confederacy succeeds, it is entirely the fault of director/adapter Mary Machala. In its twenty-year history, Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre has displayed great finesse in adapting unwieldy literature for the stage. One feels Machala’s adoration of the material in her handling of dialogue and detail. Southern literature masochists apart, the ordinary theatre attendee appreciates an epic effectively condensed onstage.
Do not, dear reader, be deterred by the running time of this production (two and half hours, with a fifteen minute intermission). The joyous romping of the performers is infectious. The middle-aged gentleman who dozed beside me had misplaced his brain earlier that evening.
A Confederacy of Dunces
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through October 11th