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Dogged Pursuit

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I suppose Venus is in retrograde or the sun has entered the house of Jupiter or some such heavenly conjunction has occurred creating conditions here in our chaotic metropolis favorable for original theater. There seems to be a new wave of home-grown plays. Much of this is traceable to offbeat groups like Running With Scissors and Theatre Louisiane; to impoverished warehouse spaces like the A.R.K. and the Pickery; to entrepreneurial authors like Joyce Pulitzer and company (of Cherries Jubilee fame); and to university-connected companies like the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, who (in conjunction with Red Noses) produced Jim Fitzmorris' With Malice Towards All.

But, there has also been a burst of creative energy at our classy little theatres-de-poche: True Brew and le chat noir.

At True Brew, Jack-of-all-theatrical-trades Ricky Graham is unveiling his latest comic case study in urban anthropology. When Ya Smilin', which I've not yet seen, sounds a bit more personal and lyric than Graham's other outings. Though I have no doubt this coming-of-age story set in the 1950s will boast the trademark wit and wicked humor that made And the Ball and All one of the longest running shows in New Orleans history.

Meanwhile, le chat noir is running a veritable Festival of New Works. Prophecy, written and directed by Hiram Ed Taylor, is the story of one Clayton Burnbeck, "a down-and-out working stiff" whose life is changed by the preternatural help of Owiga, a fortune teller on Jackson Square. Clearly not your everyday slice-of-life, but hold on, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Pleady, a birdman from the fourth dimension, also appears on the cast of characters.

Taylor, who wrote Heaven's Bar and Bourbon Street, both of which were produced at le chat noir last year, is cited in the press release as "the youngest director ever to be featured on Broadway" -- a phrase that has a vaguely fourth-dimensional ring about it, after all.

Late nights, these days, le chat noir is featuring Hellhounds by R.J. Tsarov. This is Tsarov's third play to premiere in the last two years. His Level 10 and Love Sauce were oddly compelling, sardonic tales of modern life. For lack of a better word, one is thrown on the old standby "surreal" to characterize the free-floating, associative webs that tie Tsarov's mad little universes together. The problem is that "surreal" sounds a little tired, but Tsarov's approach is fresh and engagingly out of kilter.

Hellhounds starts with Stan (Steve Zissis) sitting in his bed, listening to the incessant yapping of a neighbor's dog. Finally, he picks up a pistol and heads offstage. There is a shot. The barking stops. Killing the dog impels Stan to make a phone call to a girl he had stopped seeing. They will meet at a Chinese restaurant.

From here on, the story rises on weird updrafts of dialogue and floats about somewhere between dream and reality; often that which is mentioned eventually materializes -- like the machine the SPCA uses to kill "companion animals," or pets, as they used say in the days before circumlocution became the lingua franca of acceptable discourse. Words generate realities, and these realities intertwine. One of the noises that drives Stan crazy is the sound of roofers hammering. Before we know it, we are in the company of a pair of roofers (Kim Collins and Christian Middleton). And they are up in arms about the person who has been killing dogs in the neighborhood. They also are much absorbed by the question of telemarketing; in particular, a new company that's soliciting organ donations as a "for-profit" investment on the part of the donor. Stan, as we have seen, works for this very company.

We also watch Stan's meeting with a penniless young drifter (Sarah Stellato) who is on her way to cop a free meal at the Hare Krishna House on Esplanade. Stan takes her home, cooks a meal for her and they shack up. Meanwhile, Stan's noise obsession and dog obsession spin out of control.

While there are many flashes of the special sensibility that made Tsarov's other plays such amusing enigmas, Hellhounds never quite comes together. It seems more like sketches for a play than a completed work. And this rough-hewn quality is in evidence in the staging as well, where the time spent on ingenious but overly complex scene changes interrupts the flow of the story.

Although I lack the psychic insights of Madame Owija, I'll risk a reading of my own: "a certain very talented writer should slow down, in order to keep working at his highest level."

Sara Stellato, Steve Zissis and Veronica Russell ponder the notions of barking dogs and telemarketing in R.J. Tsarov's latest bizarre work, Hellhounds, at le chat noir.
  • Sara Stellato, Steve Zissis and Veronica Russell ponder the notions of barking dogs and telemarketing in R.J. Tsarov's latest bizarre work, Hellhounds, at le chat noir.

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