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The Kindness of Strangers 

"Cymothoa Exigua is the only known parasite that functionally substitutes itself for a host organ. Tennessee Speaks in Tongues (Or the 3 1/2-Character Play) marks the first time the parasite has appeared on local stages." So reports writer/director R.J. Tsarov in the playbill for his latest work, currently on the boards at True Brew. It's a statement few would argue with.

The play begins with an out-of-focus slide of a Cymothoa Exigua, securely nestled in the mouth of its host, a large spotted red snapper. "Ladies and gentlemen," complains a tipsy Williams (resplendently incarnated by Bob Edes), "as you know, this show had been booked many months in advance at Le Petit Theatre and having to switch venues like this at the very last minute was something no one, not God himself, could have foreseen."

And so, with a perfect-pitch, thoroughly weird prologue, we set off on a mind-boggling psychic journey into ... well, if I could complete the sentence, I would have missed the point of the journey.

Let me start again. A few years ago, to my great discomfiture, I was forced to learn a movie-industry term: high concept. It means a plot you can summarize in a single, simple, declarative sentence. Tsarov is a radically low-concept playwright. The experience that he provides is intimately bound up with breaking free from the comfortable limits of habitual perception. He seems, in fact, to hate comfort, limit and habit. And he takes revenge upon these invisible constraints with laughter. His humor has the demonic glee of a child setting off forbidden fire works at the most inappropriate moment of adult solemnity.

Now, let me add, so that I don't receive a notice of intent to file suit from Morris Bart on behalf of an outraged client: your aunt Tilly is going to need her smelling salts to get through certain moments of this thing. I could have used a whiff myself. But, the deliberate provocation is contained in a beautifully written, remarkably crafted, thoughtful and entertaining piece of theater.

The plot concerns a fictitious script this fictitious Tennessee is writing about a brother and sister (brought intensely to life by Steve Zissis and Diana Shortes) who have fled to a condemned housing project after murdering their parents. But the play is haunted by the idea of the parasite. And, when Tennessee (take out the smelling salts, now!) bites out the brother's tongue, Tsarov seemed to be commenting on the parasitical nature of naturalism (which steals people's words and lives) as opposed, by implication, to the free-flowing, phantasmagorical theater he himself creates. Ironically, however, it is the character of Tennessee -- speaking in his familiar, inimitable cadences -- who dominates and enriches the story. But, in any the case, this interpretation is only one possible path through the complex and fascinating labyrinth of the text.

While Tennessee Speaks in Tongues is a dark comedy, I Suddenly Know What You Did Last Summer!, over at the Shim Sham Club, is a sort of screwball tragedy. Writer/directors Richard Read and Flynn De Marco have set loose "the usual suspects" of Running With Scissors on yet another fictitious script by the great theatrical exponent of Southern Gothic.

In the first act, we watch the initial meeting of the cast. Jim Jeske is Cecil Hudson, the high-strung director. Jack Long is Herschel Winchester, a leading man so light in his loafers a summer's breeze might carry him off. Dorian Rush is Charlotte Belcher, a "you-know ingenue or whatever" (and, in the second act, Irma von Putzkammer, a Nazi-esque stage manager). Travis Acosta is Douglas Arnold, a dim-witted but well-endowed hustler. Brian Peterson is Moira Judd, a loose cannon of a has-been headliner, who becomes looser with every drink. And finally, Flynn De Marco is Maxine Skeffington, a delightfully acidic diva with a wit as sharp as her knitting needles.

The first act is an amusing set-to of outsized egos, all of whom condescend to the downtrodden stage manager (Elizabeth Pierce). But the second act, which swings cleverly from backstage shenanigans to onstage disasters, rises to a sustained hilarity as these veteran zanies hit their stride.

Inexplicably adding to the chaos are a series of grisly vengeance murders -- a type of paranoid apocalypse that must keep Read and/or De Marco up at nights, judging from the way it creeps into their plays.

New Orleans has entered a bountiful, exuberant spring tide for theater in general, and original work in particular. Both Tsarov and the Running With Scissors duo are prolific, and both have strong, recognizable styles. In these two plays, they are also on the top of their forms. Take advantage of our good fortune and see them both.

click to enlarge The cast of I Suddenly Know What You Did Last Summer!, clockwise from below left: Flynn De Marco, Elizabeth Pearce, Jack Long, Travis Acosta, Dorian Rush, Jim Jeske and Brian Peterson
  • The cast of I Suddenly Know What You Did Last Summer!, clockwise from below left: Flynn De Marco, Elizabeth Pearce, Jack Long, Travis Acosta, Dorian Rush, Jim Jeske and Brian Peterson
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