Photo by Matt Smith
When it comes to showing us the way, political theater is about as dead as political discourse in this country. On the campaign trail, we watch and hear the prevalence of smears, mangled logic, lies, hysteria and rage in the place of openhearted discussion. Slogans may tidily sum up fury, but they don’t actually penetrate an idea. “Strong leadership.” “Flip-flop.” “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.” In this polarized nation, the hecklers have seized the day, leading the way to a greater understanding of absolutely nothing.
A recent, telling example appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times shortly after the Republican National Convention. Blowhard columnist William Safire, seeking to prove that both God and the American people are on his side, argued that the president’s 11-point lead in the then latest Newsweek poll demonstrated that, contrary to the whining of “thumb-sucking” liberals, the nation is not polarized at all, that the larger wisdom of the Republican agenda made itself apparent in the swing states, and that Democrats should now wipe the snot off their noses and retire to their corner. It was, as usual, an exercise in derision passing for discussion. Three days later, eminent pollster John Zogby confirmed that, in light of so many voters not being home over the Labor Day weekend, the president’s 11-point upward “bounce” was actually a mirage, that, as of September 14, the presidential horserace remains neck-and-neck. Safire’s premise was, as usual for Safire, planted in marshmallow goop.
Yes, this is a conflicted nation in which one camp is shouting at but not speaking to the other. As a character in Federico Fellini’s last film points out to the noisy people around him, as he pokes his head into a wishing well, “If you’d all just stop talking for a moment, we might actually understand something.”
In the theater, little Bushes are springing up on stages all over the map. Locally, you can find the U.S. president in plays at Evidence Room in Homewrecker, and at Sacred Fools in Dubya 2004. He’s also been sighted recently at Hollywood’s MET Theater, Actors’ Gang Theater and, some time ago, at Santa Monica’s City Garage. Not surprisingly, in New York Tony Kushner incarnated him last month for a work in progress (Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy). And in London, David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Tim Robbins’ Embedded feature our incumbent as a central player. In none of these plays does Mr. Bush appear even remotely sympathetic or halfway intelligent. And though it may be deeply satisfying to vent one’s frustration through art, the half-truth conclusion “He’s an idiot” is not a signpost on any road to wisdom.
Enter Tom Jacobson, among our city’s most brilliant dramatists. His new play, Ouroboros — a reference to the circularity of a snake eating its own tail — at Road Theater Company, is a political play in the abstract, a theological one in the concrete. If you’re swimming in the sewage of the current election, Ouroboros must be seen for the way it floats above histrionic political cesspits, offering the wisdom and beauty of a broader view of what’s in our control and what isn’t. Ouroboros is a heady play, but eerily emotional at the same time. It’s political only to the extent that its core elements, religion and spirituality, are playing such a pivotal role in current American politics.
As a backdrop, Jacobson takes us to the art and architecture of Medieval and Renaissance Italy, with its angels and devils and ghoulish Byzantine influences that are really the source material for the good-versus-evil mentality of our pop culture and, of course, our current White House administration. The contemporary characters, however — Americans abroad — are trying to find moral nuances in their own bad behaviors against this militantly harsh canvas. As in Jacobson’s play, Sperm, presented last year by Circle X Theater Company, Ouroboros (which is considerably more audience friendly), is about the American Character and, like Sperm, is set on foreign shores. Sperm studied an American whaler–con artist who stumbled into the French Revolution. Ouroboros looks at two unrelated modern American couples, refugees touring Italy in order to find some relief from the spiritual malaise of home. It’s as though Jacobson sees Europe as a beacon with some imaginary statue calling to America, “Give us your tired, your confused, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
A woman named Catherine (Shauna Bloom) gazes into the mummified head of her namesake, St. Catherine, and, losing her mind (as she does routinely on antidepressants), sees a reflection of herself. In a further underscoring of the play’s theological impulses, another of the characters, Margaret (Taylor Gilbert) is an Episcopalian postulate nun who literally lost her singing voice after observing the death of a friend from AIDS; in her friend’s final moments, she says, he claimed to have seen heaven, and in it God’s throne — vacant. Her five-city trip, accompanied by a gay choir director named Tor (Paul Witten), is a pilgrimage to Milan where perhaps the opera at La Scala will trigger the return of her singing voice.
The man with whom Margaret winds up having an adulterous affair, Philip (K.C. Marsh), is a guilt-ridden Lutheran minister from Chicago, accompanied by Catherine, his mentally unstable wife, who’s unable to bear children and has just been turned down for adoption. (She’s in Italy to study enamels.) Christ puts in an appearance (Josh Gordon, in one of 12 quick-change roles) as the devil in disguise. Themes of sin, sacrifice, guilt and redemption adorn the play.
Jacobson’s works are both erudite and very, very clever — a cleverness that can sometimes be his undoing, their being more clever than soulful. He’s our local Tom Stoppard but with a penchant for surrealism.
Jacobson’s cleverest trick is to snag his couples in a twilight-zone time glitch. In their five-city tour from Rome to Milan, Margaret and Tor keeping bumping into Catherine and Philip, who at first, mysteriously, seem to know far too much about them. In Scene 1, Philip keeps referring — confessing — to an affair he’s had with astonished Margaret, who insists she’s never seen him in her life. This is because, in a metaphysical quirk, Catherine and Philip are actually traveling in the opposite direction as Margaret and Tor — from Milan to Rome. By the time Margaret and Tor get to Milan in Scene 5, they meet Catherine and Philip as they’re just starting their Italian adventure — stunned that Margaret and Tor know so much about them — the inverse of Scene 1. For the audience, the resolution of this perfectly symmetrical play of opposites and inversions comes in the middle — Scene 3 (Florence) — where both couples temporarily occupy the same time zone.
Meanwhile, Jacobson keeps toying with opposites. At the end of Scene 1, in a labyrinth vault, the ground swallows up Philip, while his deranged wife is left scraping at concrete with her fingernails trying to find him. When we get to Scene 5, Margaret leaps from a banister and floats above Milan. At play’s start, Philip (at the end of his journey) begs Margaret not to go to Milan. In Scene 5, Margaret, at the end of her journey, makes precisely the opposite appeal, that Philip must see Rome.
None of this is letting the cat out of any bag: The subtitle of the play that follows Margaret and Tor from Rome to Milan is called A Nun’s Tale. On alternate weekends, Ouroboros is played with the scenes inverted, subtitled A Priest’s Tale, following Catherine and Philip from Milan to Rome. So one way or another, one play or another, you’re going to know at least one of the endings after the first scene. This isn’t a drama about suspense, it’s a mystery about balance. As Catherine points out in a Florence cathedral, “Notice the symmetry of the four large devils, north, south, east and west. I’ve forgotten their names, probably Asmodeus, Beelzebub — but the interesting thing is the symmetry.” Structure meets theme in Jacobson’s play. It’s like watching a fresco by Raphael come to life.
Michael Michetti’s tender direction accents the actors’ cheerfully wry intelligence that floats over and then dips into their agonies. When Bloom’s Catherine collapses with an emotional seizure in Siena after viewing St. Catherine’s mummified head, Marsh’s kindly desperate Philip tries to calm her by having her pray. “Good,” he says. “Jesus will be here with you while I go get a cab. Then we’ll go back to the hotel and watch CNN.” This is Philip’s unwittingly ludicrous version of comfort: that network news will provide a happy escape from the harsher realities of Medieval relics.
Desma Murphy’s multilevel Byzantine set, with its suggestions of arches and a nave ceiling, plays beautifully with Jeremy Pivnick’s cinematic lighting design and David B. Marling’s seductively haunting neo-Gregorian sound transitions.
When political conversation fails to converse, the arts drift toward theology for some comprehension of what, on Earth, we’re doing. The nihilistic Dada art movement was born from the chaos of World War I. The Theater of the Absurd emerged from the paralyzing terror of the atomic bomb —movements that openly questioned the capacities of reason and language when God’s throne sits so evidently vacant.
Ouroboros, however, skirts nihilism, existentialism and postmodernism. It’s as comforting as a priest who believes. The play is back there with Galileo, looking with wonder at the paths of the stars and relishing the beauty of the trails they reveal. The play screams from inside out, and outside in, that the shape of things is orderly and symmetrical, that there really is a Guiding Hand. As theological dramas go, it’s about as optimistic as any contemporary playwright can reasonably get away with. In the stench of an election year, its perspective is as fresh as an ocean breeze.
OUROBOROS | By TOM JACOBSON | Presented by ROAD THEATER COMPANY, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood | Call (818) 761-8829 | Through October 23