Happily Ever After

Onetime Mardi Gras queen and current avant-garde playwright Lisa D'Amour looks for the sinister side of our fairy tales

Reviewing Ten Thousand Things' production of Waiting for Godot this past year, I wrote, "I wasn't alone in passing through the barred doors that lead into the Ramsey County men's correctional facility to see Ten Thousand Things' production of Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic: A pale young woman with a Joan of Arc haircut also attended the play." Curious, I asked the play's director, Matt Sciple, if he knew her. He wasn't sure of her name, but told me that she was a local playwright. "A fan of the company," Sciple said.

Several months later, I saw her again in the audience for 15 Head: A Theatre Lab's production of Cheri. Again I went to the director--in this instance Julia Fischer--with the question of the stranger's identity. This time, success. The pale young woman with the Joan of Arc haircut was indeed a local playwright, by the name of Lisa D'Amour. "I got a phone call from a friend," D'Amour told me upon our introduction. "She said that City Pages had reviewed my hair....I don't even know what a Joan of Arc haircut is," she added.

Playwright Lisa D'Amour, without her 45-foot velvet train
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Playwright Lisa D'Amour, without her 45-foot velvet train

I am certain Joan of Arc's haircut has a proper name, but for the life of me, I can't track it down. It has, on occasion, been called a dauphin's cut, a tomboy cut, a butch cut, a Buster Brown cut, and a Prince Valiant cut, although D'Amour wears her hair cropped more closely to her head and bleached a straw-colored blond. A little bit more length, though, and she could don cloak, slashed doublet, and lance, and nobody would think twice.

That being said, I mentioned her hair in the Godot review simply as an act of authorial shorthand. In the roulette that is brief, to-the-point descriptions, hair and skin tone came up. Another spin of the wheel, I might just as likely have described her height (tall) or her age (early 30s). In fact, even with her medieval boho coiffure, there is little of the airy-fairy about D'Amour. And this is worth noting because she was raised in New Orleans, was once the queen of a Mardi Gras ball, and currently writes plays that frequently involve supernatural or fairy-tale elements. An easy literary parallel would be Anne Rice, who dresses in black, with long, ironed hair, haunts a mansion in New Orleans that is stuffed with books on cannibalism and porcelain dolls, and will occasionally launch into morbid reminiscences about a child she lost to illness.

Well, so much for easy literary parallels. D'Amour has none of the affected morbidity of Rice, and her plays, while often fantastical, are hardly contemporary works of gothic horror, even when she is rewriting Poe. Her play Red Death: A Thriller in Seven Scenes, running through the end of this weekend at Red Eye, draws its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's melancholy short story "The Masque of the Red Death," which tells of revelers trapped in an abbey with a spectral figure that is the embodiment of a deadly plague. Poe's language in the story is never less than purple, such as when he describes the revelers as wearing costumes that showed "much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust."

D'Amour's thriller, by contrast, looks to the bureaucratic paranoia of Franz Kafka as it borrows from Poe ("Everything I took from Poe was tangential," D'Amour says), and her script has stripped away Poe's ornamentation. Scenes take place on mostly bare stages and consist of stripped-down dialogues between characters who sit perched between monochromatic stage properties. These backdrops are meant to represent a different year and city: For example, a set of orange beach chairs, inhabited by a woman in orange beachwear, represents Golden Sands Beach in Florida sometime toward the end of the 20th Century.

D'Amour's play tells of a psychologically deteriorating agent (played with a series of nervous tics by Red Eye cofounder Miriam Must) from a shadowy organization. Her assignment: to track down a childhood friend named Prospero (an imperturbable Tony Papenfuss, best known as one of the brothers named Darryl on Newhart), with whom she witnessed a horrific double suicide. The agent stalks her quarry like Poe's plague, burning his house, poisoning his family members, in the process destroying everything that Prospero hopes to protect. In turn, the agent is pursued by a giggling detective (Sam Rosen), to whom she robotically protests the megalomaniacal grandeur of her mission: She seeks the source of evil.

It is not surprising that D'Amour would be attracted to Poe's story of sinister, masked revelers, as the tale loosely recalls a sequence from D'Amour's own life. Although she was born in St. Paul, the playwright's family is from New Orleans, and they returned to the city when she was still very young. Her grandfather was a member of one of the innumerable social clubs of the city (the Krewe of the Olympians, specifically), all of which have parades and masked balls around Mardi Gras. D'Amour grew up with her grandfather informing her that one day she would be the queen of their annual ball. "It's a debutante tradition," D'Amour explains over a drink at a University of Minnesota bar on a recent Monday evening, adding that for months in advance of Mardi Gras she received instruction in "how to walk, bow, wave your scepter." More than simply being finishing-school-type lessons, these instructions were a necessity of physics, as her gown had a 45-foot velvet train that was specifically tailored for her.

"I was 18 or 19," D'Amour remembers. "I had just gone off to college in Jackson, Mississippi, and I had just taken my first women's studies class." As a result, D'Amour was ambivalent about the whole experience, which culminated in the surreal scene of her being presented to a massive hall filled with masked men in tuxedoes. "I did a performance about it recently at [the women's cabaret] Vulva Riot," D'Amour says. "I showed a video of it. People couldn't believe what they were seeing."

 

Though D'Amour moved back to the Twin Cities four years ago, she has mostly remained a stranger to local stages. "It has taken me awhile to get a play produced here," D'Amour says. Though her decision to move here came from a connection to the Playwrights' Center, which offered her a Jerome Fellowship and where she currently is a core member, Red Death marks her first full-length production in town. In part, this is because her scripts have been traveling back to Louisiana and Austin, Texas, where she attended graduate school, and where she maintains professional relationships. (She still "calls New Orleans home," according to her artist's résumé at the Playwrights' Center.) D'Amour frequently collaborates with an Austin-based director named Katie Pearl, often co-creating a style of theater that D'Amour calls "site-specific performance work."

An example would be a piece called SLABBER, a solo performance that has appeared at festivals in Austin and New Orleans (D'Amour has also performed the piece at Red Eye and Intermedia Arts). The performance revolves around a woman with an indeterminate and seemingly terminal illness, though D'Amour and Pearl reconstruct the piece for each new location. They pass out maps and cassette tapes to their audience, who must then track down D'Amour, who waits at an undisclosed spot, seated silently on a chair, swathed in plastic and a faux-leopard skin jacket.

Peal also directed a script by D'Amour called Anna Bella Eema. The play was a collaboration between D'Amour and composer Chris Sidorfsky (Ten Thousand Things will produce a new version later this year), and D'Amour describes it as "a play for three women sitting in chairs." Through a mixture of storytelling and a cappella song, Eema tells of a young girl facing homelessness who builds a friend out of mud. A reviewer for the Austin Chronicle was so struck by a recent production as to write that the play's "beauty and its depth are almost beyond language other than its own." A new production was to have opened at a Lower East Side Manhattan theater a few weeks ago, her first full-length play to appear in New York. The production was, however, interrupted by the World Trade Center tragedy.

"We proceeded as best we could," D'Amour said of the production, "but after a while it became clear that one of the performers was not going to be able to continue." Additionally, the company that was to have produced the play was uncertain about funding: Their fundraising letters had gone out on September 11.

The Twin Cities, at least, will see more of D'Amour in the next year. She is developing a play for the Children's Theater, whose recent projects with such distinctive local artists as Kevin Kling, Michael Sommers, Kari Margolis, and Tony Brown have revealed an unexpected daring. The production follows a short D'Amour script called Dreams of a West Texas Marsupial Girl. "There is always some sort of a creature in my plays," she says. "There's always a little bit of a fairy-tale feel to them, or a children's story."

Such a preference seems fitting to a playwright who traces her interest in writing for the theater back to her own childhood. "I remember putting up a full passion play when I was in second grade," she says. "I had it set up in different places in our backyard, so you had to move from one scene to another"--a dramatic conceit that recalls the peripatetic drama of SLABBER. Though, presumably, the Savior never wears any faux leopard skin.

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