One of the biggest challenges for many New Orleans theater companies is a lack of dedicated theater space. For audiences, following your favorite theater-makers often means never knowing where they’ll pop up next.
It involves double-checking an address, trusting your GPS and leaving the house early just in case you get turned around in Bywater, pass your destination in Gentilly or slowly make the block Uptown while looking for a street number.
But sometimes a bug really is a feature. Sometimes the best shows are those that challenge comfort zones, taking audiences off the beaten path and into gritty warehouses, church basements and back rooms of bars, where creativity exceeds budgets in carving out singular spaces for drama to unfold.
This is part of the magic of “The Stranger Disease,” a new work of immersive theater from Goat in the Road Productions.
In “The Stranger Disease,” the experimental ensemble takes over Madame John’s Legacy, a historic French Quarter home owned by the Louisiana State Museum that dates back to 1788. The show is set almost 100 years later, in 1878, and Madame John’s Legacy stands in for a French Quarter boarding house. Occupants are faced with tough decisions as a yellow fever epidemic threatens the city.
Delivered in a choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, the action happens upstairs, downstairs and in the courtyard as characters storm through the house preparing for the worst.
Scenes occur simultaneously, with intersecting characters and story lines. Audience members flit between rooms, following one character here or another character there, dropping in on conversations that add up bit by bit, as details of the story — which takes place during a single hectic afternoon — begin to converge.
The boarding house is owned by two brothers. Joe (Ian Hoch) is a bon vivant, having spent the morning shopping at the French Market and brunching at Madame Begue’s. His immediate agenda involves having a drink and getting dressed for the opera. Louis (Keith Claverie) has more pressing worries. As news of the impending epidemic begins to spread, he’s rushing to pack up and evacuate, and he expects Joe to do the same.
Joe’s concern is Adeline (April Louise, in a moving, show-defining performance), his wife “in all but name” who is a black woman. The interracial relationship is begrudgingly accepted in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, but traveling together outside the city is not an option.
Secondary storylines involve an indentured maid from Ireland (Shannon Flaherty), a Cuban servant trying to get home (Denise Frazier), a hired hand (Khiry Armstead), and a struggling shop owner (Jessica Lozano).
“The Stranger Disease” is a fascinating dive into New Orleans history. The day-in-the-life narrative reveals small moments of late 19th-century city life while exposing larger social issues.
To the ensemble’s credit, the show is impressively accessible to contemporary audiences. This isn’t a museum exhibit. It’s a stirring piece of theater. The style and setting are immediately engaging, and the actors deliver in-the-moment performances that easily overcome the distance of history.
It’s also a fine piece of writing. Scenes are connected seamlessly, so no matter the order they’re viewed, plot points and storylines are revealed without any heavy-handed obviousness. Some scenes are more indispensable than others, but every moment adds layers of texture and detail to the whole.
The performance is a brisk 45 minutes, but the show’s 90-minute run time allows for two run-throughs, giving audiences a chance to start over at the beginning and follow different threads. Still, it’s probably best for friends to split up and compare notes afterwards, just to ensure no detail goes unnoticed.
Co-directed by Chris Kaminstein and Kiyoko McCrae, who also serve as lead writers alongside Owen Ever and Shannon Flaherty, “The Stranger Disease” stands out as a work of theater that is uniquely engaging and uniquely New Orleans.
'The Stranger Disease'
WHEN: Through April 15
WHERE: Madame John’s Legacy
632 Dumaine St.