Round and Round Trip

26. January, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #4: Ouroboros, Renegade Theatre Experiment, January 16.

Chad Eschman, Paul Stout and Cindy Powell in Ouroboros. Photo by Jeff Crook.

Tom Jacobson’s Ouroboros is a deucedly clever play, in that it’s actually two plays. Its five scenes are played in one order one night and the reverse order the following night, in effect telling two different stories with the same lines, same blocking and same set of characters. Nun’s Story ends as a comedy, and Minister’s Story as a tragedy.

The play follows two American duos vacationing in Italy, in both cases sort of as a religious pilgrimage.  One couple is a long-suffering Lutheran minister, Philip, and his wife Catherine, who has a history of mental problems. The other pair is a young Episcopalian novice nun and her gay best friend, whose boyfriend has recently died. Tor is also Margaret’s choirmaster, but she’s lost her voice along with her faith when Tor’s boyfriend died. Philip and Catherine keep running into Margaret and Tor in Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, and Rome. The trouble is that one couple is moving backward in time while the other is moving forward, depending on your perspective, so when they meet in Venice city two of them have just been to Milan while the other two are going there next. Somewhere in the middle Philip and Margaret fall in love, which means that at either end one of them is smitten while the other has no idea what the lovey-dovey one’s talking about.  In the first scene of either play, the other couple, the one that’s been through the rest of the play already, just seems like a couple of crazy people.

The characters become fully aware of their temporal displacement as the play goes on, and Margaret and Philip each carry a matching ring that is actually the same ring, because one gives the ring to the other at the beginning and end of the play. The ring depicts a snake eating its own tail—which is the ouroboros symbol of the title, indicating an eternal cycle. Although there’s a lot of discussion about what the heck is happening to them, it’s not strictly sci-fi, and it milks some spiritual resonance (and a lot of humor) out of its Twilight Zone premise.

Renegade Theatre Experiment gives the play a lively production in a San Jose middle school auditorium, right across the street from the Rosicrucian Museum, performing the two versions on alternating nights. Director Virginia Drake’s brisk, bare-bones staging makes for a lively, brain-teasing hour and a half.

The acting tends toward the melodramatic, but mostly in places where the situation really is over-the-top enough to warrant it. Paul Stout makes a mild-mannered, forthright Philip, making it at least momentarily believable that he could say he’s madly in love with Margaret and would never leave Catherine because she needs him in pretty much the same minute. He simply lives his truth, self-contradictory as it may seem, without examining it too closely. At the start of their journey he and Blythe Murphy’s Catherine seem like a perfectly normal American couple—you’d never know he was a minister until they mention it, and she may be a little high-strung but nothing out of the ordinary until things start to get weird and she gets panicky.

Despite some fretting and perplexity, Cindy Powell’s Margaret shows the sparkling default cheerfulness of someone who tries to make the best of any situation, without getting too Pollyannaish about it. Michael Wayne Rice has an engagingly playful, gently mocking air as Tor, who’s seemingly only along for the ride because he has a priest fetish. Chad Eschman is quite funny playing every Italian they meet: tour guides, cops, priests, jewelers, guards, gondoliers, or what you will.

It’s obviously a gimmicky play, but the gimmick is a lot of fun and deftly executed. At the beginning of each play, one couple is clearly the focus of the play, while the other couple is secondary and less known to us. But as the play reaches its later scenes, the other couple comes much more to the fore while the first couple recedes into the background a bit. Thus in either direction it gives the impression that the first pair you meet are the protagonists of the piece. I saw Minister’s Story, the tragic version, but Nun’s Story has the more satisfying ending of the two, and not just because it’s the happier one.

There’s a fair amount of repetition in the exposition as the characters get each other up to speed on what’s about to happen to them. And both endings feel out of the blue no matter which order you see—there’s foreshadowing in the sense that the two who already saw it tell the other two what’s going to happen to them, but these seemingly miraculous things happen without explanation or even much buildup, except that crazy stuff has been happening to these people all along.  It’s a whirlwind round trip with a few rough patches, but it’s one worth taking.

Ouroboros runs through February 5 at Historic Hoover Theatre, 1635 Park Avenue, San Jose.

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