“I intend to challenge the way you think,” asserts Nick Offerman as Ignatius J. Reilly, the principal character from A Confederacy of Dunces currently showing at the Avenue of the Arts Huntington Theatre Company in residence at Boston University from Nov. 11th through Dec. 20th, extended due to popular demand.
Offerman, whom you may know from his role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” effectively and with meticulous yet seemingly nonchalant accuracy, ignites the brash and corpulent Ignatius character as it was originally written by John Kennedy Toole in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same title in 1981; adapted for the stage by playwright Jefferey Hatcher and directed by David Esbjornson, who coincidentally directed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Malcom Jamal Warner of The Cosby Show. Also working behind the scenes as part of the developmental team is Oscar Winning director Steven Soderbergh.
Confederacy of Dunces is a about an enigmatic and lovably conceited character relatively akin to the Kelsey Grammar character on the TV show “Frasier.” Nick Offerman stars as the all-consuming character Ignatius J. Reilly, brash, weighty, egotistical, unconventional and still living with his mommy in 1960s New Orleans. He goes on a series of misadventures in the vibrant city which is infused with shady dealings, prostitution and of course jazz music.
He meets a cast of characters each more peculiar than the next in search of ideals of justice and freedom from his inferred fears. He is an optimist with an intellectual bent. His favorite book is A Constellation of Philosophy and he looks down on everything and everyone around him, most notably his supportive and devoted mother who financed the education that he uses as a weapon to subjugate her.
“Anything you have to say to me you can say it in front of my mother. She will not understand…” His probity is consistent and readily apparent. After an accident that resulted in strained finances, his mother beseeches him to get a job and when he did, he galvanized what he perceived to be suppressed fellow workers to start a workers revolution against racial and economic injustice and inequity; a thematic ideology that continues to plague contemporary society. He declares: “Had I been a Negro, I would have been a terrifying one.” The play also examines unfair policing of minorities, another modern day challenge impeding social progress and equality for all. Much like the author of the novel turned play, Ignatius seems to titter on the edge of madness, and when his mother threaten to institutionalize him, he runs away with his girlfriend.
“The title of the book comes from a famous Jonathan Swift quote: ‘When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him’”, writes Charles Haugland in an article about the play. The word “dunce” was adapted in 1570 according to Merriam-Webster dictionary to mean “…a slow-witted or stupid person. It was inspired by John Duns Scotus, whose once accepted writings were ridiculed in the 16th century. Basically Confederacy of Dunces translates to “Conspiracy of Idiots.”
Offerman portrays Ignatius tethered with the often complex dualities of humanity: Ignatius is lovable and insufferable, liberal and conservative, logical and irrational and so on. The play is a prima facie comedy, however it harbors a plethora of socio-political and intellectual subtext which indeed has the potential to “…challenge” the way we think about mental illness, economic disparity, classism, and race relations. The murmurings of social dissidence are its conduit. Also present are grandiose utopian ideologies and palpable tensions between law enforcement and civilians all unified to make this play current and relatable. Written at the cusp of the civil rights era, the way in which it captures imminent social upheaval is jarringly prophetic; especially in the face of societal discordance currently in our midst in the form of capricious policing, terrorism and class warfare.
Confederacy of Dunces exemplifies the recurring revolutions ignited by social unease, dissatisfaction and the need for civil disobedience that are the arguable dogmata leading to the American Revolution. The play reminds us that as long as we continue to oppress one another, there will continue to be defiant archetypes like Ignatius P. Riley along with his philosophical “constellations” of human evolution and spurred rebellions against the status quo.
This play is a blatant, caustic, atmospheric, satiric and unusually comical dramatization of serious themes. Confederacy gets to the heart of the matter but not without side spitting laughter. I once heard a dramaturge profess that the theatre is life, film is art and television is furniture. This play effectively reminds us of our protracted love affair with the theatre and essentially with life.
Jacques Fleury is the author of Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue. His collaborative CD A Lighter Shade of Blue with folk group Sweet Wednesday is available on iTunes.