Wilmington has been abuzz recently with the host of changes surrounding its stellar theatre scene. From staff transitions to existing companies, new, innovative troupes also are making waves. Among the premieres comes C’est La Guerre, which will be opening its first production with “The Lady in Question” at The Blind Elephant this Friday, September 19.
Launched by husband-and-wife team Bryan Cournoyer and Nina Bays Cournoyer, along with George Domby, the trio of producers have had their fill of local theatre. Each has worked in some form of fashion with the likes of City Stage Co., Browncoat Pub and Theatre, Opera House Theatre Company, Thalian Association, and Big Dawg Productions. Along with Nina’s background in marketing and design for Wilma magazine and The Greater Wilmington Business Journal, together the group is launching C’est La Guerre as a project-based arts company. They’ll be producing shows of high quality and underground caliber, which will include dance performances and site-specific art shows, among other creative mediums.
“C’est La Guerre aims to take the arts out of their traditional context to create another level of accessibility within the community,” Nina tells, “while also cultivating the voices of local artists through fringe productions of visual, theatrical and musical performance.”
It will debut Charles Busch’s campy “The Lady in Question,” inspired by the Rita Hayworth film of the same name. Busch wrote the production in the ’80s with his main character in drag. The show also lampoons 1940s big-screen romantic thrillers like “Notorious” and “Escape.”
“Drag is being more—more than you can be,” Busch once said. “When I first started drag I wasn’t this shy young man but a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression. It was less a political statement than an aesthetic one.”
The play yucks it up with a satirical send-up of classic Hollywood. “The Lady in Question” tells the story of Gertrude Garnet, a glamorous concert pianist. Taking place in ‘40s Bavaria, Gertrude must wrestle with her self-absorbed nature in the face of wartime atrocities, when a studly American professor enlists her help in rescuing his mother from a Nazi prison.
“When George and I started talking about it, I saw us as these two vaudeville wash-ups attacking a growing Nazi regime,” Bryan details. Formerly part of a comedy troupe in LA, Bryan starred in Busch’s famed “Psycho Beach Party” while in college. The experience gave him insight into the playwright’s style, one which he is comfortable directing. “It was such a bizarro-fun experience,” Bryan says. “I picked up more of his plays and tried to see them whenever available.”
Keeping with the gender-bending tradition of “The Lady in Question,” George will produce and fill the role of Gertrude—his first time playing a role in drag. He will bring Gertrude to life and fully showcase the grand, affected manner in which the celebrity-obsessed star speaks. Underneath her over-the-top façade, she’s still the same Brooklyn girl who worked the vaudeville circuit. George is tasked with marrying these two facets of Gertrude’s personality.
“For it to be a role Charles Busch performed himself, it’s been more than a little intimidating,” George describes. “This experience has certainly given me an even greater appreciation for women. I can’t believe everything they put themselves through to look pretty. I may never touch a razor again after this show.”
Adding to the cross-dressing motif, Bryan will play Gertrude’s side-kick, Kitty. As well, local actor and former artistic director for Thalian Association Tom Briggs will play the professor’s mother.
Originally, the play was produced by the WPA Theatre in New York City in 1988 before receiving its Off-Broadway debut at the Orpheum Theatre the following year. This will be the first time it’s been staged in Wilmington at downtown’s newest speakeasy, The Blind Elephant. The bar is reminiscent of the original space used for the production and relies on low budgets and high imagination. Much like Busch’s earlier productions, it blurs the line between audience and stage. Set design will be minimal and comprise only a few key props to accentuate the mood and scene. C’est La Guerre will utilize the back end of the cozy, ‘20s-style pub to facilitate the show. The bar’s proprietor, Ashley Tipper, has given them free rein to use the rest of the bar for seating, which will create an intimate environment.
Original music by local pianist James Jarvis will accompany the show. Costuming has been a collaborative effort, provided by the cast and the generosity of the theatre scene at large, with Paula Lemme undertaking hair and make up. Ultimately, the production will rely on the actors to create the world wholly.
“I admit: I’m letting all of these wonderful actors get as big as they want, but I think that’s all a part of this kind of Brechtian theatre,” Bryan comments. “You get to see all the characters face ridiculous life-altering choices with sincerity, and then—as they play out—become unglued until it’s a madhouse. It’s gonna be a riot.”
The Lady in Question
The Blind Elephant, 21 N. Front St.
Fri.-Sat., Sept. 19-20 and 26-27, 7:30 p.m.