'Belle': Characters are colorful, but show often feels washed-out

June 11, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"The Belle

of Bourbon Street"

Where: Avalon Theatre Company, Catonsville Career Center, 106 Bloomsbury Ave., Catonsville

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinee June 13 at 2 p.m. Through June 19

Tickets: $7

Call: (410) 747-0080

** 1/2

This year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival has opened with a play that deals with the appropriate theme of the creation of art.

Grant Carrington's "The Belle of Bourbon Street," the first offering of the 12th annual festival, poses such questions as: Who dictates the nature of art -- the artist or the consumer? Where does art come from? And, if it is inspired by a real person, is it rightfully the property of the artist or the subject?

In "The Belle of Bourbon Street," the title character is the inspiration, and she's not exactly delighted to find her life story celebrated in fiction, song and on canvas. A woman of the streets, as her name suggests, LaRue plays a role somewhere between mascot and muse for a frustrated novelist, the young rock band he allows to crash in his one-room walk-up, and the novelist's best friend -- an artist who sold out to the tourist trade years ago.

It's a colorful assortment of characters, and Carrington heightens the color by setting his play in New Orleans. However, due partly to the performances and partly to Jack Bludis' rather languorous direction, Avalon's production frequently feels more washed-out than colorful.

This shortcoming is accentuated by Marty Hayes' lackluster portrayal of Dan, the novelist who serves as a father figure for the creative souls he takes in, the way someone else might take in stray cats. The character has the difficult task of establishing the show's atmosphere with an opening monologue, and Hayes gives that atmosphere an uncomfortably self-conscious air.

In the pivotal role of LaRue, Rebecca Joseph displays a come-hither, street-smart attitude that would inspire more than just artists, but she's too young and attractive for this over-the-hill character, who is described several times as an old bag lady. However, Joseph conveys just the right tone when LaRue angrily accuses the others of "stealing" her life for their art. Instead of overplaying the character's hysteria, which would make it easy to dismiss her as a crank, Joseph maintains enough decorum to make you stop and think, "Who's art is it anyway?" which is precisely the playwright's point.

But there is one major problem with LaRue. Her impact on the starving artists she befriends is so momentous that she almost seems like a fairy godmother in a children's story. After she shows up, Dan signs a book contract, the band gets a record deal and the artist paints his first serious painting in years.

"The Belle of Bourbon Street" is ostensibly about the way art imitates life, but life rarely works out this happily-ever-after. Carrington's play, which begins with a gritty flavor -- suggested, in part, by excessive profanity -- ends up like a sugary sweet fable.

Still, the script poses some intriguing questions, and besides Joseph's valiant effort as LaRue, the production boasts an extremely fresh performance by Nguyen-Tu Tucker as the band's manager. It would be nice if the characters who are supposed to be New Orleans natives hinted at a New Orleans accent, but particularly in amateur performances, sometimes no accent is better than a bad one.

Most of all, it's encouraging to see this year's festival launched by a work that attempts to examine serious issues in an entertaining way. That's what good theater is about, and if "The Belle of Bourbon Street" doesn't always accomplish this, at least it's an effort in the right direction.

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