Maybe it's because his name sounds like it should be written in the Cyrillic alphabet or evokes yellowed headlines in huge block type over a story about anarchists and infernal machines. But R.J. Tsarov, one of our most original and interesting local playwrights, seems to have something vaguely Middle European in his outlook.
The world he creates is unmistakably American and as up to date as the most recent weirdness you shook your head over while browsing through this morning's Times-Picayune. But there is something in the wry, equivocal humor; the hallucinatory blend of real and unreal, and the interweaving of suggestive but never wholly graspable themes that gives one a heady sense of what Milan Kundera dubbed The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Love Sauce, his current outing, on stage at the Shim Sham Club, is set in Cajun country. A couple of tourists named Donna and Roy arrive at the Bon Nuit Hotel in search of an "authentic" experience -- the authenticity to be vouched for by a guide book (a facsimile of which serves as the playbill). Max Bernardi's tasteful, ingenious set gives us several rooms of this dated (and therefore desirable) inn as well as the bar in the lobby. The bartender is a local who wears bib overalls and keeps his head buried in a crossword puzzle book. His lone customer is "a bearded man." That's as much as we are told in the playbill, which describes the remaining character of the play as the "bearded man's wife." These labels would not be unusual toward the end of a cast roll in a movie, but are significantly offbeat when describing two of the main characters in a five-character play. They are clues to the world we've entered.
Everything here has a dreamlike reverberation and connects to everything else through a network of dreamlike associations. Everything, that is, except for a single ray of rational lucidity: humor. This play, like Tsarov's previous outing Level 10 (a "mikko Presents" last year at le chat noir) seems to be saying, "We wander helplessly through a waking dream of symbols cast up from the bizarre everyday reality of our lives -- but there is something droll about it all, nonetheless."
What is the play about? Good question. A better question might be, how can a play so opaque to understanding be so amusing? Certainly, animals figure prominently. At first, they appear as road kill: unspecified animal corpses with a distinctly unpleasant odor. Soon however, they have transmigrated into the realm of ideas. Evolution. The animal within us. Humanity as the opposite of bestiality.
But while the road kill has set off that whole chain of associations, it has also brought blood into the consciousness of the play. Nose bleeds. Mosquitos. Eventually, blood, too, infiltrates the realm of ideas, via the exclusively human trait of squeamishness, which, as one ingenious monologue suggests, is next to godliness.
Analyzing the play in this way, there is the risk I will make it sound dry or intellectualized or formulaic. But Tsarov has a wry, inventive way with characters, words and ideas. One is nearly always bemused or amused or both by the mysterious goings-on.
The love in Love Sauce has to do with some almost random couplings that take place, as Roy and Donna each have a brief fling. And speaking of brief, I was caught off guard when the play lurched to a stop. Too short is always preferable to too long. But, "huh?" (my reaction) is not the most satisfying way to greet the final curtain.
An excellent cast (under the Tsarov's direction) certainly helps put this unconventional drama over. Dawn Faberge brings an appealing sensual insouciance to Donna, a tourist in search of the real thing. Greg Di Leo keeps us intrigued by Roy, whose neurotic fears and impulses continually threaten to explode a calm, normal exterior. Steve Zissis is compelling as the bearded man, a philosopher/barfly with hints of a complicated background we shall never know. Raphaelle O'Neil's "bearded man's wife" is a seductive, perplexing succubus -- Eros and Thanatos in a blood-stained white slip. Travis Acosta gives a restrained, believable performance as the local yokel bartender.
The Shim Sham Club is one of the most attractive nightspots in town and a part of that new wave of youthful enterprise that is invigorating the local cultural scene. It's good to see how well a play can work in this cabaret setting. With Hedwig and the Angry Inch (scheduled for its New Orleans premiere here in July), the Shim Sham seems to be casting its stylish hat into the ring as a major theater venue.