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Inside the Mind of R.J. Tsarov 

R.J. Tsarov's journeys have taken him from Cairo to Old Algiers -- but that's nothing compared to the trips he takes his audiences on.

The 52 Epistles of the Brethren of Purity.
That may seem like an odd place to start. But then again, if you are a member of the select but ever-growing cult of Tsarovians, you know that oddness is part of the pleasure.

Tsarovians are a recent phenomenon, existing nowhere but in New Orleans. They gather several times a year to immerse themselves in the phantasmagoric visions and haunting poetry-- or anti-poetry -- of the founder, R.J. Tsarov. The celebrants do not chant; they show their participation by outbursts of laughter that are deep and somewhat nervous. The end of the ceremony is marked by a brief moment of puzzled silence, followed by applause. The puzzled silence is the Tsarovian equivalent of the transubstantiation in the Catholic Mass; it is the communal acknowledgement of an essential mystery. I feel certain the Tsarovian cult is destined to spread far and wide.

But back to The 52 Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. They are a 10th century Islamic compendium of knowledge that deal with the hidden significance of such things as why a circle is divided into 360 degrees. Why not 40 degrees, for instance? Why not 361?

Tsarov picked up the book on a trip to Fez, Morocco. "It was quite a find," he recalls with a flush of suppressed glee, sitting in the front room of his shotgun apartment in Old Algiers, sipping a cup of freshly brewed chai tea.

Behind him, hanging on the wall, is a painting by his wife Max, who has done the sets for most of his plays. The painting shows two swans gliding around a nude woman, up to her waist in the water of a bucolic pond. The woman has a noose around her neck -- a touch that might account for their successful collaborations. "Macabre" is the quintessential mood of the Tsarovianism.

The question that had led to The 52 Epistles of the Brethren of Purity was how Tsarov got started writing plays. It had seemed like a reasonable place to begin a discussion. But here we are, already lost in a psychic labyrinth, not unlike the labyrinthine plots that mark past Tsarov plays from Level 10 to Trust Fund Babies.

"I went to Morocco in search of Arabic texts, because" -- he confesses a bit sheepishly -- "for the preceding seven years, I had read almost nothing except Arabic."

Trips to the Middle East in search of books, he explains, were a luxury he occasionally permitted himself to escape the combined drudgery of his job at Tower Records and work on a stalled novel he had been trying to finish for nearly three years.

Where did he learn Arabic? During a year in Cairo, after having converted to Islam. "Actually I joined the Psmaililli," he adds, with a flair for precisely accurate, exotic detail that once again calls to mind his plays. "The Psmaililli are a small sect that began under the Fatimid Empire. The Fatimids ruled Egypt and other lands of the Middle East in the 10th century."

At this point in the narrative, he pauses -- takes a "beat," as they say in theater and as, in fact, Tsarov often directs actors to do in his plays. He realizes his interlocutor has a dazed look on his face.

"All right, all right," he says, shifting nervously in his seat. Clearly, the only way to explain is to reveal more about himself than he would like to reveal. In fact, since my first sip of chai tea, I have been assailed by variations of the refrain, "Do we have to talk about my life? It's so boring. Can't we just make something up?" In reply to these objections, I admit that I can't imagine making up anything to equal Tsarov's tale of youthful wanderlust and obsession. So he agrees -- with some reluctance -- to continue, starting this time from the jump.


Robert Joseph Tsarov grew up, he tells me,
in Canoga Park, a suburb of Los Angeles that he compares to Marrero. His father taught history in high school, with special emphasis on Holocaust studies. This entailed the use of grisly film clips that may have contributed to young Rob's fascination with morbid states of mind and bodily decay.

The family was an uneasy mixture of intellectuals and down-to-earth types: one Russian Jewish grandmother was such a radical socialist that she did not allow the word "God" to be said in her house, while on the other side of the family, the men were plumbers and electricians.

After graduating in 1991 with a degree in English literature from California State Northridge, Tsarov set out with a girlfriend for India to study Sanskrit, so as to read the sacred classics, like the Vedas and the Upanishads, in the original. But he kept getting sick. In three months, he shrank from 165 to 125 pounds. (In Tsarov's plays, parasites, pariah dogs from the banks of Ganges and tales of the Buddha turn up, hauntingly and unexpectedly.)

Tsarov left India, but unwilling to surrender his dream of studying an ancient culture and religion first hand, he moved on to Cairo. There he learned he could enroll in school for almost no money, provided he was a Muslim. Necessity was not only the mother of invention, in this case, but of conversion. He ardently threw himself into the role of convert, as though trying out the possibility of a traditionalist, devout, circumscribed life. It had some attractions. But it didn't work. At all. Like many intense individuals who try and fail to submit to a hierarchical, organized system of belief, he retreated back to a skepticism bordering on the cynical.

Tsarov's money ran out just about the same time antagonism between the fundamentalists and the government in Cairo made the streets of the poorer sections too dangerous for comfort. He went back to California, got an apartment in Hollywood and a job at Tower Records. There, a transferee from the New Orleans store filled his head with tales of the low rents and bohemian lifestyle of the Crescent City. He transferred to the shop on North Peters Street, got a small place in the Quarter above Haagen-Dazs, and threw himself into "a life of degeneracy" -- which apparently agreed with him, for he started writing again. This time, plays.

In June 2000,
having just read The 52 Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, Tsarov got an idea for a play that would weave many different and disparate strands together, in the spirit of classic Arabic literature. He called the play Level 10 -- a numerology based not on Pythagorean mysticism, but rather on the level of effort flashing on the screen of a treadmill exercise machine.

In Level 10, the Tsarovian world was born, all of a piece, like Athena from the head of Zeus. The world is lurid, vaguely menacing, yet inexplicably funny. Separate scenes form out of the dark, seemingly unrelated to what has come before. Yet, with a weird fatality, they link up -- sometimes through the direct action of the characters, sometimes through a kind of contagion of words, images and ideas. This Tsarovian world is almost instantly recognizable.

It's also a world that's difficult to describe. In Level 10, after a series of mythical/archetypal scenes having to do with a blind beggar and a crippled beggar, we find ourselves transported to the bedroom of a 10-year-old contemporary American boy. He is smoking cigarettes, the script notes, while listening to a tape that demonstrates the "parabuccal speech" of someone who's had a tracheotomy. Then, we zoom away to a scene in which a taxi driver confesses to his friend (who turns out to be the 10-year-old's father) that he only likes to make love to women who've just slept with another man. A discussion of monogamy and promiscuity takes place -- conducted in religious terms, as parallels to monotheism and polytheism (or henotheism, which, we learn, is the term for Hindu marital practices). As the strands are woven together, we realize that the mythic scenes are part of a recurring dream the taxi driver is having. The 10-year-old's father gives the cabbie some of his wife's sleeping pills to help him escape the dream. But, it turns out the pills, which the wife got from a fraudulent diet center, contain tapeworms and leave the cab driver so emaciated that his love life becomes nonexistent. Also, the 10-year-old is chain-smoking because he wants to develop cancer and have a tracheotomy so he can talk in the strange way that he so admires.

Each of Tsarov's works is unique, yet you feel you could walk through a door in one of the plays and find yourself smack in the middle of a scene from one of the others. It is as though Tsarov is going off, wandering through some dark, phantasmal, acidic, contemporary Wonderland and bringing back reports. The plays reflect the world we live in and yet they are not by any means a copy of that world. In that way, they are truly like dreams. And like dreams, they don't end, really. At a certain point -- a point in which they seem to have fulfilled their own mystifying purpose -- we simply wake up from them.

And what does it feel like inside these dreams? "Alienation" and "loneliness" are the words you hear most often from actors who've inhabited them. Beginning with Love Sauce, Tsarov has directed every one of his plays, and, with his direction, he intensifies the disconnect implied in the script.

"Each one of these characters is on his own track," explains Raphaelle O'Neill, who played a sex-starved wife with a torrential nosebleed in Tsarov's first real local hit, 2001's Love Sauce. "No one really hears what the other person is saying."

"In Trust Fund Babies, I have this one-on-one scene with a girl," remembers actor Gary Rucker. "We are getting deeply involved with each other. But Rob wouldn't let me look at her. 'Don't look at her,' he keeps saying. 'Just stare straight ahead and say the lines.' Finally at the end of the scene, he says, 'Now, look at her. That's so creepy!' That look, we kept."

Of course, the audience doesn't always know quite how to take all the weird goings-on. And, although Tsarov clearly relishes the idea of wreaking havoc with the onlooker's expectations, he also wishes to please and to entertain.

"One of my lasting impressions," recounts Greg Di Leo, a favorite Tsarov leading man, "is seeing Rob, pacing back and forth in his long black coat and knit cap, at the end of a show as the people sit there scratching their heads in bewilderment, muttering, 'What didn't they get? I hit them over the head with it!'"


Of course, no
audience would ever have had the opportunity to savor that unique Tsarovian bewilderment, unless the plays Tsarov wrote somehow found their way to the stage. This would probably never have happened if it hadn't been for a Shim Shamette with an eclectic taste in music.

Max Bernardi grew up in Mobile, Ala. After college, she moved to Atlanta, where she sketched and painted -- and produced burlesque shows. When she'd had enough of Atlanta, she moved to New Orleans, for which she "felt more of a kinship." With her artistic talents, she landed a job with Blaine Kern's float-building empire and eventually started dancing at the Shim Sham Club. She also caught the eye of the intense, bearded young man at Tower Records, who remarked one day that it was unusual for a customer to buy CDs by Mae West, Beethoven and R&B master Andre Williams, as she had done over the last two weeks. "Oh, well now, I thought," remembers Bernardi, "this boy's been paying awfully careful attention."

In short order, the artist and the writer were an item. In typically nonlinear fashion, they got married -- seven months after the birth of their daughter Anabella.

"Rob had written these incredible plays, but he was afraid to make the calls to directors, to people he didn't know. So I decided to help him," says Bernardi, who gives the impression, in an altogether charming way, that she is not afraid of anyone.

What happened next depends on who is telling the story. Mikko Macchione, New Orleans' most open-minded and under-financed theatrical impresario, says it all began with a Russian army wristwatch he had received as a present and couldn't figure out how to wind. He took it to Hoover Watches, a Royal Street store owned by a friend. Bernardi was working behind the counter.

"Well, I guess she knew who I was, because she started talking to me about performance and stuff. And she was very pretty. All right. Good!" says Mikko. "But then, the subject swings around to her boyfriend. Ugh! 'My boyfriend is a great writer!' They all say this! 'My boyfriend is a genius!' Which, of course, only makes it worse! So I said, 'Fine, show me his play.' She drops off not one play; she drops off a stack. And I can't believe what I'm reading. He's like a 'writer' writer, you know what I mean? The real thing!"

At 11 p.m. on a chilly evening in November, 2000, on the stage of Le Chat Noir, Level 10 by R.J. Tsarov (produced and directed by Mikko) received its world premiere. In my brief review, I noted, "This imaginative conflation of News of the Weird and real-life TV was buoyed up by a sly, dry humor and a satisfying sense of form."

Since then, local critics and audiences have begun to notice the steady outpouring of Tsarov's strange narratives on local stages: Hell Hounds, Love Sauce, Tales for the Witching Hour and Trust Fund Babies. This week, Trust Fund Babies received a Big Easy Award nomination -- but if Tsarov has established himself as a dominant new voice in local theater, he nonetheless remains an outsider. Nothing demonstrates this paradoxical situation better than the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Tsarov's new play is probably the event most anticipated by followers of local theater, yet it's being produced independently (by Tsarov himself) outside of the precincts of the Festival proper.

Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You (or the 3 1/2-Character Play) is a strikingly original piece. It's a tribute to the master, not in the sense of reflecting upon or celebrating his accomplishments. Rather, it embodies the bold spirit of Williams' imagination and pays tribute to the power and delight of a singular dramatic vision. The play is also imbued with that wicked sense of humor Williams displayed so often in his plays, his essays and, above all, his interviews.

In Tennessee Speaks in Tongues, Williams himself appears (a masterful incarnation by Bob Edes) in a hallucinatory world of dynamited buildings. "The greatest literary artist of American theater" unwillingly shares these shabby quarters with two fugitives, a patricidal brother and sister (played by veterans Steve Zissis and Diana Shortes) who have been living on nothing but canned cat food.

Although the play seems utterly fantastic, there are, it turns out, little fragments of real life that served as pebbles to produce the pearl. Amy Rubens --who has done the lighting for every Tsarov play, except the first -- got the playwright a "paying gig" as stage manager for last year's Festival. Tsarov was taken with one of the productions, A Distant Country Called Youth, in which an actor playing Williams read from letters at a podium. Tsarov also noted the pervasive odor of a dead rat that greeted the crew every day when they entered the theater. Somehow, these two unrelated impressions joined up with the vague memory of a crustacean parasite Tsarov had read about while leafing through a National Geographic in a doctor's waiting room. He punched "tongue-eating parasite" into the search window of Google and actually ended up in touch with the parasite's discoverers -- who were so bemused at the idea of their research going into a drama that they supplied the necessary pictures for a fictional slide show.

But enough. Let that serve as a teaser. Tsarovian cult members will of course be out in droves for the new play. Hopefully, they will be joined by the uninitiated, as well. For these newcomers, I can think of no better preparation than to repeat a story told me by one of the actors from a Tsarov play.

The actor had chatted with an audience member, a Frenchman, after the show.

"Did you like it?" asked the actor.

"Yes, I did," said the Frenchman.

"It bothers some people," continued the actor, "how confusing it is and the way it just kind of ends, with nothing really resolved."

"Ah, yes," said the Frenchman. "I know what you mean. Like life."

click to enlarge TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
click to enlarge After LEVEL 10 premiered at Le Chat Noir in November 2000, Tsarov's steady outpouring of strange narratives has included Hell Hounds and Love Sauce, his first local hit.
  • After LEVEL 10 premiered at Le Chat Noir in November 2000, Tsarov's steady outpouring of strange narratives has included Hell Hounds and Love Sauce, his first local hit.
click to enlarge cover_story-5949.jpeg
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