‘Confederacy of Dunces’ offers cartoonish laughs at Williams Festival

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As sure of a sign as a robin heralding spring, a colorful array of eccentric characters in outlandish situations taking to the stage signals the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, celebrating the life, works and influence of the city’s favorite playwright.

The centerpiece theatrical work of this year’s festival, however, was not written by Tennessee Williams. “A Confederacy of Dunces: Off the Page onto the Stage,” nevertheless featured figures who could’ve stepped directly from the Williams canon.

The adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s work, which might well be considered the best-loved novel about New Orleans, had its premiere with several sold-out performances throughout the festival. Adapted by Kenneth Holditch and directed by Francine Segal, it was presented in a semi-staged reading at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center.

Ever since its 1980 publication and subsequent Pulitzer Prize, various attempts have been made to dramatize the comic novel. Set in New Orleans of the 1960s, it centers on Ignatius J. Reilly, a slovenly cynic and erudite snob, a mountain of a man, and one of the generally more repulsive protagonists a reader is likely to encounter. From encounters with police while waiting for his mother beneath the clock outside D.H. Holmes on Canal Street to adventures selling hot dogs in the French Quarter, we also meet the various misfits of New Orleans who either befriend or besiege him.

Hollywood has repeatedly shown interest but failed in bringing “A Confederacy of Dunces” to the screen. Despite its seemingly cinematic appeal, Holditch’s script reveals why it is more likely a work for the stage than the screen.

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If anyone is capable of taking Ignatius J. Reilly and cohorts from the page to the stage, it is Holditch. His script shows an affinity and understanding of the picaresque book that few could achieve. For all of the innate theatricality of the novel’s figures, it is Toole’s use of language that brings them vividly to life. The primary parts of the script are taken directly from the novel.

The play opens with an introduction by Thelma Toole, the novelist’s mother who worked diligently for years after her son’s suicide in 1969 to have the work published. She was splendidly played by Brenda Currin, showing Thelma was quite a character herself as she relates the story of finding the manuscript and eventually bringing it to novelist Walker Percy, who helped get it published. Currin sculpts a genteel but powerful figure who could easily emerge from a Williams drama, equal parts Violet Venable from “Suddenly Last Summer” and Amanda Wingfield of “The Glass Menagerie.” It gives a focal point to the entire evening. Following the introduction by Currin, the story is told in a series of vignettes from the novel.

Charlie Talbert is a blustery, belching and bellowing Ignatius. His misadventures stem from being thrust from his mother’s house into a world comically alien to him. Talbert maintains a haughty pretension, ever ready with the grand gesture as he battles his bêtes-noires of cops, strippers and his own intestinal issues.

Tracey E. Collins is the very picture of the long-suffering Irene Reilly, Ignatius’ mother, creating a role that draws upon many a New Orleans maw-maw for inspiration.

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The cast is well rounded out with comic performances by Kate Adair, Edward R. Cox, Kyle Daigrepont, Zeb Hollins III, Vatican Lokey, Marie Lovejoy, Jo-Ann Testa and director Segal herself. The full ensemble captured what Holditch called “so real, so New Orleans. It’s like going to Schwegmann’s.”

The production itself, presented with minimal scenery and costumed actors with scripts in hand, only hints at what it could be. Told in an episodic nature, Segal emphasized the cartoonish level of the comedy, which aimed for and achieved the bold laughs over the subtle. It does whet the appetite of the audience for a more fully realized production, which has been hinted.

An equal part of the pleasure of the show’s opening night was Segal’s onstage discussion with Holditch. A writer and longtime scholar on the works of Tennessee Williams and other Southern writers, Holditch also has been involved with “A Confederacy of Dunces” since before it was published, and was a close friend of Thelma Toole. A master raconteur, he gave rich insights into the novel and the challenges of dramatizing it, while offering a number of entertaining stories and quips. Audiences and readers can only hope he will decide to complete his biography of John Kennedy Toole.

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