Tennessee Williams & New Orleans 2008 – PART 2
Tennessee Williams’ Dueling Divas Hit The Big Easy… Hard
Last week I began the saga of my third journey to perform at the annual Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, where Karen Kondazian and I had the honor of presenting our original A Witch and a Bitch, reprising our roles as dueling divas in scenes from last fall’s award-winning Fountain Theatre production of Tennessee’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at Jackson Square’s historic Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.
One of the highlights for me this year was former LA actor-playwright Jeremy Lawrence’s one-man Everyone Expects Me to Write Another Tennessee, his fascinating sequel to Talking Tennessee, Jeremy’s first self-created solo performance as Williams, which originated in Studio City at the Laurelgrove along with Lament for the Moths, the play which first brought me to TennFest in 2003—also playing Mr. Williams. Wrote David Cuthbert in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune of Jeremy’s latest masterpiece: “Lawrence inhabits the role of the aging playwright wittily and wondrously. He is wildly funny, authentically moving, and his rapport with the audience is a marvel.”
The annual Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, affectionately known as the “Stell-Off,” is held each year right in front of St. Louis Cathedral in the middle of Jackson Square on the last day of TennFest. It proved to also be a major event this time around, featuring its first ever silent mime finalist and heralding the spirited win of touring Aspen Sante Fe Ballet Company ensemble member Nolan McGahan, who swept the judges off their feet after just finishing dancing in his company’s final visiting performance at Tulane University. As I surmised in print last year, I am now even more convinced the best way to win this event is not just to shriek your best “Stell-AAAAAAAAA!,” but to rip off your Brando-blessed white t-shirt as your finale. Works every time—especially if you have a dancer’s body tucked away under your soon-to-be discarded Fruit of the Loom classic.
Now, if you have any aspirations to attempt sporting that dancer’s bod, the only thing you could possibly do in this city, where all good southern-fried New Orleanians laugh uproariously at the word “diet,” is simply to fast while you’re there. Among all the world-class eateries and greasyspoons in the world, this city has some of the best of both. From professional athlete-sized portions of fresh seafood at Jack Dempsey’s in the Bywater to the Camellia Grill on at “River’s Bend,” where the St. Charles Avenue. streetcar meets the levee at the Mississippi, the food here is pure ambrosia.
There’s that trio of Tennessee’s own favorite world-famous and even historic hangouts where you can overindulge: Galatoire’s, Court of the Two Sisters, and Arnaud’s, as well as Irene’s on St. Philip for the best Creole spin on Italian food you could possibly imagine; the Basil Leaf on South Carrolton, the only Thai restaurant where you’ll ever taste a crawdad eggroll, I suspect; the renowned Acme Oyster House, where I always go each trip for their knockout seafood gumbo and a massive plate of chargrilled oysters covered in seasoned garlic butter and crusty romano cheese; Cafe Du Monde for their deliciously bitter chicory coffee and a lapful of powdered sugar plummeting uncontrollably from their signature beignets; and the neighborhood-ly Nardo’s Trattoria in the Garden District, the place to savor a Pinot Noir-infused veal chop topped with boursin, prosciutto, portabello mushrooms and artichokes.
This trip my dear pals Penny Stallings and her husband Barry Secunda, Angelenos who live in N’awlins part of the year, gave Karen and me a dining tour to rival anything seen in Marco Ferreri’s 1973 gluttonous film masterpiece La Grande Bouffe. Among my favorite treats were the fried alligator with chili-garlic aioli appetizer and bacon-fried oyster entrée sandwich at the very reasonably priced Cochon in the warehouse district, the grilled pork porterhouse with brown sugar sweet potatoes and toasted pecans at Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA on St. Louis (near Napoleon’s house on Chartres), lemongrass scallops with coconut-lime broth and roasted eggplant at Susan Spicer’s Bayona on Rue Dauphine, and the layered bluecheese and fig cheesecake-like appetizer at EAT near our Biscuit Palace on Dumaine. Good lord, I swear I’m still full.
Beyond our depraved gastronomical excesses, the highlight of any trip to attend or work at TennFest will always be the privilege to wander around experiencing the sights, the sounds, the food, the music, and above all the history of this mysterious, unearthly city. This year, the fun was doubled by the fact that Karen—surely the consummate Williams heroine—had never been to New Orleans and had decided to join me this year before we were set to participate as actors. We stayed in the heart of the French Quarter at the Biscuit Palace, a former 1820s Creole mansion on Dumaine Street about two blocks from Tennessee’s last home in his favorite city and right next to John T. Martin’s Voodoo Museum, residence of my friend Jolie Blonde, the world’s most affectionate python.
Originally the home and law office of Christian Rosaleus, founder of Tulane’s School of Law, the Biscuit Palace is now an amazingly atmospheric guesthouse that has retained all of its original architectural detail, unobtrusively enhanced by the hotel’s equally atmospheric owner Clayton Boyer in the early 1980s to accommodate modern conveniences without sacrificing any of the old worldly charms and environment. Karen and I were given the adjoining Bourbon and Royal suites, sharing a grand N’awlins-style balcony that overlooked the Mississippi on one side and down Dumaine to Louis Armstrong Park (the original Congo Square where owners took their slaves on Sunday afternoons to dance and play their forbidden drums under their dubious supervision) on the other.
My suite was the original “gentlemen’s parlor” of the house, the place where Rosaleus and his friend General William Tecumseh Sherman himself drank brandy and snorted cocaine—ironic since the Biscuit Palace was later utilized as a hospital during the Civil War at about the same time Sherman set fire to Atlanta. Clayton also announced proudly the room was also where Clint Eastwood got a blowjob in the movie Tightrope, but I told him it must be my age or the burnout of my randy early years, because at this stage of my life, I was more excited about the brandy and coke than I was about the prospect of getting a Lewinsky. O, the ravages and revenges of time!
To be concluded next week…
For information on the Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, check out www.tennesseewilliams.net; for a handy-dandy restaurant guide, try the aptly-named www.neworleansrestaurants.com; and for a virtual look at the Biscuit Palace, click on www.biscuitpalace.com or call Clayton Boyer at 504.525.9949 — he knows all the good dirt.