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Book-It's adaptation turns Confederacy of Dunces into a comedy hit

Author's confession: Confederacy of Dunces was never a favorite of mine. I found the book more annoying than amusing when I tried to read it. But this production was a delight from beginning to end and completely sold me on Book-It's style (something that I also had found less than appealing in their early years).

Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces turned a “love it or hate it” book into a universally acclaimed comedy hit this fall.

The novel revolves around the odyssey of the fat and flatulent Ignatius J. Reilly through New Orleans while clad in a green hunting cap and muffler. While proponents of Confederacy adore Ignatius and his personal quest to be a cultural critic, bastion of morality, and eater of hot dogs, not everyone is the fat man’s fan.

Among those less than enamored with Ignatius was Mary Machala. So when Book-It called and asked her to adapt John Kennedy Toole’s novel for their 20th anniversary, she took some time to read the book and rethink her initial reaction to Ignatius.

“I hadn’t read the novel since the 1980s,” she said, and she found Ignatius simply unlikable in her first encounter with him.

“But I came to realize that his arrogance towards others is because he is having to deal with a world that he doesn’t belong in,” Machala said. “Ignatius should have been a monk in the 12th century writing treatises, not living in 1962 New Orleans.”

She also felt the humor of the book translated well into a time when people are being downsized and taking on jobs that may not be the best fit for their personality or talents. “It’s the dilemma of many creative people: having to take jobs that are not really what we should be doing with our time and talent.”

Collaboration key to Book-It process

Mary Machala works with Brandon Whitehead and Ellen McLain,
Photo by Laine Mullen.

Unlike other theaters, Book-It shows are developed as a collaboration between the director and the actors, taking the script directly from the printed page (even to the point of leaving in chunks of narrative as well as dialogue in the performance). For Confederacy of Dunces, this meant cutting down a lengthy tome into something that could be performed in under three hours.

“At most theaters where I direct, the material comes to you finished. The adaptation is done by whoever wrote the play,” Machala said. “At Book-It, you’re starting with the raw material. For my initial adaptation of Confederacy, I had 160 pages and I knew that was too much.”

So Machala went through her pages and cut it down to 139 pages for the first workshop with the actors. “Then we had time to comment, make a note of what scenes lagged, what needed to happen. After the workshop, I cut to 126 pages. By the time we got to rehearsal, I had 119 pages of material.”

The adaptation didn’t stop there. As the rehearsals went on, the scenes continue to change, lines were dropped, scenes tightened. “The actors heavily contribute to this process,” said Machala. “The Book-It process really doesn’t finish until opening night. And that’s not for everybody. Not every everyone can handle it well. I had a fabulous cast and crew who were able to roll with the punches.”

Using the space to get in the audience's face

Ignatius (Brandon Whitehead) and Mr. Clyde (Kevin McKeon)
Photo: John Ulman, Book-It Repertory Theatre

On Book-It’s open stage, complete with permanent pillars and no curtain, Machala was also dealing with a performance space that can often seem awkward. “Kurt Walls, who designed the set, did a wonderful job of evoking New Orleans of that period and the French Quarter,” she said. The set also allows the action to flow seamlessly from Ignatius’s home to his job at the pants factory to the action in the French Quarter’s bars to a roaming hot dog vendor just as the book hops from scene to scene.

“It is a challenging space, and there’s the pillars, but in all my theater career, there’s been those theaters were created out of spaces built for other purposes. Book-It lives in the basement of a former armory (the Center House),” she said. “But the stage actually helps us. It allows us to play the show wide and pretty much get into the audience’s face.”

The result has been a comedy acclaimed for its warmth and faithfulness to Toole's novel.

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