ATLANTA (AP) -- Atlanta's Theatrical Outfit is taking advantage of an opportunity to stage "A Confederacy of Dunces" with a new adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that opens Saturday.
The Louisiana State University Press, which owns the rights, rarely permits more than staged readings of adaptations of John Kennedy Toole's comic novel, published in 1980, about life in New Orleans in the early 1960s.
LSU Press won't say why only a handful of productions have been permitted.
Two years ago, the Outfit's artistic director, Tom Key, was offered a chance to adapt the book for a full production. Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, which also accepted the opportunity, staged its version last fall.
The novel focuses on Ignatius J. Reilly, a medievalist who holds a master's degree but makes no effort to put it to use. At 30, he spends most of his time going to movies or in his room in his widowed mother's home. He expects her to do his bidding, and the story develops as she starts a social life and considers placing him in a mental institution.
Despite restrictions that include when the play can be performed, Key says he's delighted to produce it.
"It transcends just being a funny book and has become what I believe is a classic. I think Ignatius' character is still going to engage us, like Falstaff's, 400 years from now," says Key, whose production will run through Sept. 5 at the 200-seat theater.
One previous production was done by Swine Palace Theatre in Baton Rouge, La., in 1995, then taken around the state. "We had a lot of success with it in Louisiana," said director Barry Kyle.
"The rights situation was very, very tight," said Kyle, who said his theater was helped by its close association with LSU Press. He said the green-lighting of an often-discussed film version could freeze all other dramatic rights.
There have been numerous attempts to film the story, with actors including John Belushi, John Candy and Will Ferrell considered for the lead role.
Book-It's managing director, Charlotte Tiencken, said her company was contacted in 2008 by a literary agency that represents LSU Press, and was told the stage rights were being offered to arouse public interest for a forthcoming movie.
"We were happy to do it. We sure wish we could do it again. The show was a huge success, and we had a number of theaters call us about doing the script. We had to tell them we didn't have permission," Tiencken said.
Key and Tiencken said they've been told permission was granted recently for a New York production, but no announcement has been made.
The novel was written about 1962. Toole failed to get it published and killed himself in 1969 at 31. The book was finally published at the urging of prominent author Walker Percy, who had read the manuscript at the insistence of Toole's mother.
"It's the best book ever written about New Orleans," said Kenneth Holditch, a retired University of New Orleans professor whose own adaptation is regularly performed as a staged reading at the city's annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
Many scenes are humorous, but many readers find Ignatius hard to take because of his gluttony and related digestive problems, superior attitude, and blustering and confrontational style.
"I think that by putting Ignatius on stage, that gives us permission to encounter him as a human being and we give him a chance," says Key, who has adapted two of Percy's novels for stage.
"It becomes very touching and we wonder, 'What if this were our child?' We all know obnoxious people and wonder how they got that way."
As for Ignatius' mother, Irene, "Eventually, she realizes she cannot survive and continue to take care of him."
Director Richard Garner, familiar with Falstaffian characters as artistic director of Georgia Shakespeare, has devised strategies to control the volatile Ignatius, played by Aaron Munoz, who appeared as the manager in the movie "Cadillac Records" (2008).
"He doesn't need to deliver all his lines in a histrionic way. He has his flare-ups. There are moments when he does get high and mighty and he's chewing as much scenery as he can," Garner says.
The stage version deals with Ignatius' grossness. "Aaron does the burps, but it's with small things, the way he adjusts his valve (which Ignatius imagines controls his digestive system), the way he grimaces while he's doing it, the way he holds himself."
At a rehearsal, Munoz was low-key in a scene in which Ignatius takes a job at a hot dog vending company but does more eating than selling.
"There are times that Ignatius gets so worked up that he can't help being bigger than life," Munoz said. "The way to keep him grounded is to keep thinking about the things he wants.
"Ignatius is maybe the smartest character I've ever played, and as an actor you have to rise to that. He's a huge brain in a world of small brains."
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