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Total Excess: Ignatius J. Reilly, Nick Offerman and A Confederacy of Dunces

Confronted by a suspicious and eager policeman, Ignatius J. Reilly —the central character of A Confederacy of Dunces — rattles off the list of New Orleans denizens more worthy of attention: “It is odd that in a city famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, fetishists, onanists, frauds, jades, and litterbugs, the police would make it a point to harass the likes of me.” Readers of the classic novel — written by John Kennedy Toole in the 1960s and published posthumously in 1980 — know that the story of Dunces is driven by the epic, extravagant, terrifying brashness of Ignatius himself, somehowmore sordid and distorted in his own way than any of the other outsiders in the Big Easy.

Excessive in all things, Ignatius J. Reilly is one of the most indelible characters created in the 20th century. Henry Kisor in a review for the Chicago Sun Times described him as “huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter.” Adaptor and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher leapt at the opportunity to translate the challenging character for the stage, and as he began, quickly seized that his work would have to make a divisive, potentially alienating character into someone that audiences could connect with. The breakthrough was when Hatcher realized that behind Ignatius’ hideous behavior — his ranting at his mother, his leftist lectures to coworkers, his philosophical ravings on theology and geometry, his gross physical condition and lack of hygiene — was a classic archetype. “Inside this big blob was Clifton Webb in Laura, Claude Rains in Casablanca, and George Sanders in All About Eve,” Hatcher says. “Underneath his blancmange-like facade, Ignatius is precise, witty, and urbane. Once I understood that he was that kind of theatrical character, making the book into a play made sense to me.”

In casting the play, Hatcher and director David Esbjornson had to find someone who could inhabit the larger than life aspects of Ignatius’ persona, an ability they discovered in actor and humorist Nick Offerman. “The book tells you he’s an egregiously fat guy, so a lot of roles are easier to cast than Ignatius,” Hatcher says. “Nick isn’t fat, but when his name came up, we saw what Ignatius could be. Ignatius has a Falstaffian persona: so has Nick. There’s a deadpan quality to his acting which I associate with characters in Oscar Wilde. Ignatius is a descendant of Wilde’s Lord Goring by way of Kaufman and Hart’s Sheridan Whiteside with some Alfred Jarry on the side.”

Much as the stage version has echoes of Shakespeare and Wilde, the plot of the original novel is a modern mash-up of the sensibility that drives the great comic novels of all time; echoes of Dickens, Cervantes, Swift, Fielding, and Rabelais all get swirled together in this postmodern 1960s landscape. In the play, after Ignatius’ badgering sends his mother careening her car into the side of a building, they have to pay exorbitant damages or risk poverty and imprisonment. Ignatius, who is a grown man but has never held down full time work, goes in search of a job, a quest that brings him into contact with a vast swath of an exploitative, corrupt society from factory floor protests to street corner shakedowns.

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.” The story of A Confederacy of Dunces crashes together some of the great social forces of 1960s America — counterculture, race relations, labor — and questions whether Ignatius can outwit the nitwits around him. “A lot of the people in this play are trapped,” Hatcher says. “The way out for them may be success, it may be freedom, it may be leaving New Orleans. Ignatius is frightened of leaving New Orleans, but he must leave New Orleans. Like the rest of them, he’s trapped and looking for a way out.”

– CHARLES HAUGLAND


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