Recently I stood in a crowd in front of Colton School on St. Claude Avenue listening to Jeanne Nathan, president of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, launch The Studio a beehive of artistic endeavors she put together over the course of a year with the help of 78 local artists, volunteers and city officials.
The next night, I found myself in Colton School watching Brian and Shevat, written and directed by local playwright Gabrielle Reisman. The auditorium on the first floor of Colton is cavernous, more fitting for a grand opera than a two-character drama, so Reisman and her players used a classroom.
The play begins in a small Riverbend apartment, but no effort was made to hide the green boards on the classroom walls from pre-Katrina days. Production values were rudimentary, limited to clip-on lights and a few sound effects. The apartment was defined by a bed and a window. A few scenes took place outdoors in Audubon Park, indicated by a bench and a vendor's pushcart.
As the play begins, a young man and a young woman are asleep on the bed. The woman, Shevat, gets up and goes to the window to greet the morning sun. She's wearing shorts and a T-shirt. The man, Brian, notices her. 'What are you doing in my room?" he calls.
"This is my room," she answers.
They are in a postmodern looking-glass world that continues to confound and intrigue us until the lights fade on it an hour later. Did they sleep together? They're not sure. Is she wearing his clothes or hers? Everything is uncertain and ambiguous. Shevat thinks Brian is "over-reactifying." To calm things down, she suggests they have some tea.
"I don't have any tea," Brian says.
"I have some tea," Shevat says. "Why would I offer what I don't have?"
She explains that she got a filter for the water because it was full of disappointment. That charming, comical conceit shows the dialogue at its absurd best. We delight in the wit, even as we grow somewhat irritated with the tortuous ambiguity of the narrative. When Shevat cuts off Brian in midsentence, she explains: "I didn't have anything to say, I just wanted to interrupt you."
Absurdism may be the most helpful reference for appreciating Brian and Shevat. Think of Samuel Beckett: in Endgame, the main character's father is concealed in a trash can, but he pops up to tell a long, irreverent joke. What's the point? It's hard to say, but we are clearly miles away from Ibsen and realistic drama. Maybe Reisman is holding a mirror up to nature, but not the nature of routine daily life.
Reisman's play seems to sway between the poles of realism and absurdity. Her characters are not comfortably rooted in a cockeyed realm, like Beckett's or Lewis Carroll's. They seem like normal people imprisoned in a maze of mirrors. They don't know what's real and what's not. They live a waking dream or, more often, a waking nightmare.
To describe the numerous twists and turns of this nightmare would be a daunting task. The actors double as several side characters, and mysterious themes intrude with an ominous regularity, such as a knock at the door from an unseen person delivering telegrams. Sometimes, veritable tsunamis of telegrams arrive. Shevat throws them out the window. The reading of telegrams with their short sentences and points of punctuation ("Stop") is like an homage to film noir. But are there really still telegrams in the age of the Internet?
Reisman elicited strong, clear performances from her cast. James Bartelle as Brian and Claire Gresham as Shevat fought a sublimated romantic battle of attrition that was as impassioned and, perhaps, no more confused than courtships of a more traditional kind.
Reisman founded the Alamo Underground where Brian and Shevat premiered earlier this year. And years ago, Jeanne Nathan helped found the Contemporary Arts Center. This convergence of artistic pioneers bodes well for the theater scene.
- Brian (James Bartelle) and Shevat (Claire Gresham) share a room and an ambiguous relationship.