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Vulgarians at the Gate 

One of the exciting developments in local theater is the energy going into new work. Le Chat Noir has offered many original plays (R.J. Tsarov's latest offerings are on view this weekend). The remarkable cabaret theater also hosts an annual one-act play contest (this year's winners will be staged in June).

True Brew and Cowpokes continue to take chances on local writers. Meanwhile, Southern Rep has spawned a tradition called the Southern New Plays Festival, a series of staged readings with the purpose of locating scripts for full productions later on. Cloning Judson by J. Daniel Stanley, for example, was tried out as a reading in last year's Festival, and enjoyed a full staged production as part of this year's Festival.

The recent Southern Rep festival featured three New Orleans playwrights: Sean Patterson, Lenwood Sloan and John Biguenet.

Biguenet, who teaches at Loyola University, has established himself as a poet and a writer of fiction. He is credited in the playbill with an O. Henry Award and a Harper's Magazine Writing Award, among other distinctions. Biguenet has written for many national magazines, such as The New York Times Book Review and Esquire. His books include the short-story collection The Torturer's Apprentice and the novel Oyster. Other books of his are The Craft of Translation, Theories of Translation and Foreign Fictions. A radio play by Biguenet was premiered on a German broadcast station. The Vulgar Soul, which received an excellent staged reading at this year's New Plays Festival, under the direction of Ryan Rilette, was first conceived as a radio play.

The Vulgar Soul has a weird and haunting premise: an unbeliever is afflicted, or possibly blessed, with the stigmata -- that is, with the wounds of Christ. This affliction or blessing seems more appropriate to a medieval saint than a gentle, if somewhat withdrawn, lapsed Catholic. But then again, we may have too idealized a picture of medieval saints to appreciate their struggles. We see them portrayed, even in their moments of suffering, crowned with the divine approbation of a halo. In any case, in the aftermath of Dr. Freud and his cool, peremptory mapping of the unconscious, nonexistent wounds are more likely to get us an audience with a shrink than with a papal nuncio.

In The Vulgar Soul, Thomas Hogue, the man with the stigmata, and Dr. Marie Burke, the psychiatrist, are the main characters. Or, they are credible contenders for that honor, at the least. They were played at Southern Rep with impressive conviction by Aaron Blakely and Ashley Nolan, who alone in this well-balanced cast had single roles. Paul Schierhorn played three parts, while Janet Shea and David Dahlgren played four apiece.

One of the fascinating aspects of the play is the unusual path down which the unusual premise takes us. Dr. Marie Burke is a fascinating individual. She's got problems of her own -- her marriage has hit a morass, for one thing. The nuptial bed has become exclusively a place of rest. Her relationship with her husband and her relationship with Thomas give us a good view of this aspiring and troubled woman. That triangulation -- stigmatized young man, woman psychiatrist and her husband -- remains a crucial part of the story to the very end.

But playwright Biguenet pulls a surprise, though I will touch on it only lightly so as not to ruin the surprise for the audience in the event of a full production. Biguenet turns our attention to a different order of latent hysterics in the populace: those who desperately need faith, the religious fanatics -- to put it in the negative terms to which we've become accustomed. A cult leader named Rapallo (Schierhorn) from The Society of the Paraclete is drawn toward Thomas and his bleeding palms like a shark who smells blood. Here is a miracle, he thinks, an irrefutable, palpable proof of God's existence. Thomas and his stigmata should be put on display, offered to those who desperately need faith. Thomas, from Rapallo's point of view, is a rare, pure incarnation -- a living, breathing relic, one of the chosen, and, as such, unfortunately a sort of a freak. The young man's confusion mounts exponentially.

Does he ultimately learn something of value from his stigmata and celebrity? If so, what? That one leaves the theater with these questions in mind is a tribute to a play that explores situations rather than forces answers. The play could be tighter. But it's well worth tightening up. Here's hoping a full production is on next year's schedule.

click to enlarge John Biguenet's work in progress, The Vulgar Soul, enjoyed a promising reading at the Southern New Plays Festival at Southern Rep.
  • John Biguenet's work in progress, The Vulgar Soul, enjoyed a promising reading at the Southern New Plays Festival at Southern Rep.
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