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Remember the Alamo 

Life begins and ends in darkness. So does Thom Pain (based on nothing). In fact, darkness almost seems like a character in the drama -- the predatory void that devours Thom, even as he struggles against it.

Sound confusing? Well, it is. Thom is aware of the confusion. In fact, he uses it to protect himself from being revealed. Or maybe -- on the contrary -- he uses it as his own obscure way of revealing himself. We feel he needs to reveal himself and to hide in equal measure.

Thom Pain was recently performed as a one-night, free engagement at a new "raw" theater called the Alamo Underground. Raw is the producers' own description, and it fits. The theater is in the above-ground cellar of a house off Esplanade Ave. It has few amenities. No air conditioning yet. One pipe in the ceiling intermittently gushed a stream of water. There were so few sockets that light cues became part of the action.

The producers of Thom Pain were The Alamo Underground (artistic director Gabrielle Reisman) and The Nola Project (artistic director Andrew Larimer). Both companies are a part of the outburst of young bohemian creativity that gave us Kennedy's Children at the Hi Ho Lounge and Waiting for Lefty at a storefront on Magazine Street. Are we witnessing the birth of N.O.L.A.O.O.B. (New Orleans Off Off Broadway)? And if so, how do you pronounce it? It has shades of the Contemporary Arts Center back at its founding in the '70s, when it had nothing going for it but a deserted old warehouse and idealism.

The Nola Project is in its third year. So far, it's only performed here in the summer because the core members were studying in New York. It caught my interest with such varied offerings as Get This Lake Off My House, an original comedy by Larimer, done outdoors at sunset on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and Moliere's The Misanthrope, done in the N.O.M.A auditorium.

Now, the group plans to set up shop for good and become a full-time theater company. "We've graduated and it's time to kick it up a notch," Larimer says.

Larimer (a native son who attended NOCCA) says he meets lots of creative people these days who have moved here or want to move here -- people who feel New Orleans is an exciting place to be. Larimer clearly shares their enthusiasm for his hometown.

At the Thom Pain show, the lights went out soon after the Alamo Underground was full. There was a pause of cavelike impenetrable blindness, then "snap." A cigarette lighter clicked on, sending out a stronger flash of light than you'd suspect. The barely perceptible figure holding the lighter said: "How wonderful to see you all," which provoked a wave of laughter, then he let the lighter go out.

This Beckett-like mixture of absurdity, irony and suffering set us off on a wild roller coaster of a monologue -- so wild, in fact, that the word "monologue" seems to imply too much logic and control. What Thom gives us is an anguished rhapsody that seems to consist of independent stories about a variety of different people. Only gradually do we get the sense that those different people are one person: Thom, himself.

Finally we see Thom again (played with great brio by James Bartelle, who also directed). He is a slim, young black man with a mustache and a small beard. His feet are bare. He wears a tie, but his jeans are ripped at the knees and his shirt is out. He has on a light, long coat. Once again, there is something Beckett-like about this abstract hobo or homeless guy.

Thom has many exchanges with the audience, who are listed in the program as a character in the play, and these exchanges fly off in unpredictable directions. Sometimes, Thom is charming; sometimes he explodes with anger.

If this is a character study, playwright Will Eno deliberately tosses some postmodern monkey wrenches into the works, like when Thom yells excitedly that it's time now for the raffle, then, just as abruptly, announces there is no raffle.

Non sequiturs ricochet amid a slowly forming narrative that has to do with a little boy whose dog gets electrocuted and a weird love story, possibly about the same boy grown into manhood. Both boy and man are possibly Thom Pain. Possibly is the operative word here.

All in all, Thom Pain was a fascinating, cutting-edge piece. It's great to have Nola Project and The Alamo Underground as part of the theater scene.

click to enlarge Thom Pain (James Bartelle) offered an inspired albeit abstract monologue in a performance in the new Alamo Underground space.
  • Thom Pain (James Bartelle) offered an inspired albeit abstract monologue in a performance in the new Alamo Underground space.
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