You are in the Black Lung Lounge." That's printed on a black matchbook taped inside the program. Beneath the matchbook, there's a real cigarette with the words: "Smoke me, please!" -- a fitting invitation, I suppose, for a hip, young Alice who finds herself in a suitably postmodern Wonderland.
The fictional Black Lung Lounge (in the real One-Eyed Jacks) is where R. J. Tsarov's newest play, Otherwise Harmless, takes place. The name of the lounge helps explain those two mollusk-shaped cutouts in front of the red curtain. They aren't oysters; they're lungs. And they're not pristinely pure, either; they're a smoker's lungs.
OK, so far, so good. But the pleasures to be had here in the Black Lung Lounge -- as the name implies -- are not pristine, either. In fact, they're somewhat chilling, not to say bewildering. At least, they were to me.
A thin, young man (Mike Driscoll) enters. He is barefoot, wears jeans, a white T-shirt and a flashy, black-and-white sport jacket. He also wears lipstick. It's smeared, drastically, on one side of his face. Why has he come out to do his act with the lipstick so obviously smeared on his face? Is he out of control? On drugs? Making some sort of symbolic point? Smart money is on the last guess.
The man starts a monologue about breathing. Inhale. Exhale. "Smell the flowers" (that is, inhale). "Blow out the candles" (that is, exhale). He demonstrates with a cigarette. The spotlight copies his in-and-out rhythm. The man welcomes us to something called an "interactive evolution adventure." Then, he calls our attention to a pack of cards, maybe tarot, which will be used in the presentation.
Suddenly, the man says he's screwed up the introduction and yells to an off-stage technician to take down the lights and start again. The lights go down. The man exits, reenters and starts again. However, if what you expect now is to learn more about the "interactive evolution adventure" involving the pack of cards, then you have a sadly linear take on what it means to start again. Maybe the man is starting again, but going off in a new direction. Or, maybe the interactive evolution adventure is, in fact, continuing. It's possible.
Tsarov fans -- and there are legions of them hereabout -- do not go to his plays with the expectation of pristine clarity. They go for a kind of bold, dark inventiveness. Part of the fun of the experience is the argument afterwards about what it was all about. Part of the fun for everyone, that is, except Tsarov, whose reaction (to the puzzlement of his audience) has often been a frustrated outcry: "But it's so obvious! How could I have possibly made it any clearer?"
Well, who's to say? A more relevant question might be, would it be improved or weakened by greater clarity? In any case, under playwright Tsarov's direction, Mike Driscoll gives an intense, compelling and disquieting performance. He leads us through an hour-long psychic Grand Guignol -- a nightmare world of exploding farmhouses and traps for wildlife that suddenly snap shut on household pets. And to think the guy is only telling us a history of his romantic life.
A tip of the hat to Max Bernardi (set), Amy Reuben (lights), Eric Laws (sound) and Valerie Kasprzak (costumes).
Otherwise Harmless is a weird, eloquent and complex monologue -- not Tsarov at his most accessible, but a challenging addition to his oeuvre.
A quite different "weird, eloquent and complex" story is on the boards at Le Petit: The Bible (Abridged). The same group of writers who came up with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) penned this latest abridgement. Think of it as an attempt to put the fun back in fundamentalism.
The tone is set by a huge faux-fresco panel that shows the hand of God in the lax, graceful gesture of creation from the Sistine Chapel. Alongside it, the other hand of God, gives a hearty thumbs-up -- soft-core irreverence, you might say.
Gary Rucker (who also directed) stars with Sean Patterson and Robert Richardson in this mock epic. In their first incarnation, the actors appear in the flesh (sort of) as Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Then, they don cassocks and race through various high points of The Good Book, in a series of helter-skelter blackout sketches that has the audience in stitches much of the time. Volunteers from the audience also show great comic flair in their roles as animals on Noah's ark.
With its songs and clowning, The Bible (Abridged) is more a high-spirited cabaret show than a play. It's a diverting divertimento.