The Stranger’s Disease, Adeline and Joe (April Louise and Ian Hoch) dancing (photo credit: Joshua Brasted)
Almost every New Orleanian has some kind of hurricane evacuation plan mapped out – where to go, when to leave and what to take, be it grandma or Fido.
But what if there were no Weather Channel, Contraflow and Super 8 Motels? Such is the situation for seven 19th-century characters in The Stranger’s Disease, an immersive theater experience that evolved out of a unique collaboration among The Louisiana State Museum, Friends of the Cabildo and Goat in the Road Productions. The theatrical disaster is not a storm, however, but a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 that takes siege of New Orleans.
The museums’ Curator of Exhibits Cassandra Erb asked the playwrights to develop a dramatization to enliven Madame John’s Legacy, a French colonial house museum on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter. Co-directors Chris Kaminstein and Kiyoko McCrae chose one moment in history that might “put some external pressure on the characters,” including two brothers, Joe and Louis Mathis, their servants and the Creole proprietress of a first-floor hat shop, the widow Mme. Eleanor Picot.
The entire household is nervous about a recent outbreak of Yellow Jack fever. Carlota (Denise Frazier) considers jumping on a banana boat to take her back to Cuba. “If I stay here, I die,” she says. That epidemic affected the entire Mississippi Valley, eventually resulting in 4,000 New Orleans deaths. The Picayune has already reported infections as the play begins, but since 10 years have past since a serious epidemic, many doubt its urgency. Louis (Keith Claverie) tries to persuade his devil-may-care brother to leave, but Joseph (Ian Hoch) prepares for a night on the town, dinner at Antoine’s and performance at the opera.
The Stranger’s Disease, Eleanor (Jessica Lozano) and Caoilfhoinn (Shannon Flaherty) (photo credit: Joshua Brasted)
The playwrights wanted to show the social implications of the household’s decision-making. The time period is the post-Reconstruction era. The Union Army left a year ago and White supremacists are exerting control. Of African descent, Adeline Stringer (April Louise) cannot freely evacuate because “no place in a day’s drive will take coloreds.” She and Joe have been romantically involved for several years, although they are forbidden by law to marry. She is his wife in “all but name.”
“I want Addie to come,” Joe insists as the Irish maid Caoilfhoinn (Shannon Flaherty) summons a carriage.
Personally, I’ve always considered Madame John’s Legacy a dreary, dank structure. One of the French Quarter’s oldest buildings, it is authentically unadorned. “How do we evoke the feeling, knowing it was impossible?” Kaminstein wondered. But the production of “The Stranger’s Disease” lit up the historic house. Joshua Courtney replicated the ambiance of gaslight with gels placed over electric lights; Hope Bennett’s period costumes took us back 140 years; and Owen Ever’s contemporary props looked antique. The actors felt transported back into that world.
But the most remarkable aspect of this 40-minute production is its nonlinear narrative. Action happens simultaneously in the hat shop, courtyard and bedroom as actors bustle from one location to the next, brushing past audience members, who stand in the doorways, in the courtyard and on the stairs. We were free to roam from one scene to the next, examining museum artifacts (without touching!), while following each character’s storyline. The creators tested three ways to watch the show. So, you can follow one character around, sit in a single location or drift around, as I did.
“People can sit anywhere and watch anything,” Kaminstein says. “Even if somebody just sits in the hat shop, they will still watch an entire story.”
After one run-through, the whole show repeats, just in case you missed anything.
The Stranger Disease runs through April 15
Thursdays – Saturdays at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.
Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.)