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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Nun's Tale & The Priest's Tale

By Laura Hitchcock

"Ouroboros is a palindrome play, " writes the playwright Tom Jacobson, delivering two words to look up in the first sentence of his Author's Notes. The title which refers to an ancient concept of a dragon swallowing its own tail not only mirrors the cyclical and circular structure of the play but is an apt metaphor for the two self-absorbed couples who make a feast of guilt and a career of regurgitating their feelings.

The definition of a palindrome as something which is the same backwards or forwards, is the structure Jacobson employs brilliantly to trace his characters' search for faith, love and death. The five scenes take place in Italy which the couples are touring. It begins in Rome with Margaret and Tor who tell The Nun's Tale, a comedy. The scenes that begin in Milan with Catherine and Philip tell The Priest's Tale, a tragedy. The two versions are performed on alternate week-ends by the excellent Road Company.

That background information out of the way, let's look at Margaret, a postulant (apprentice nun) seeking a vocation, played with cheerful heartiness by Taylor Gilbert. She's traveling with her best friend, a gay man named or self-named Tor (Paul Witten), who has accompanied her to Italy to heal a heart broken by the loss of his lover of seven years. He also worries about Margaret who is in love with him until she meets Philip in either Rome or Milan, depending on which version you see.

Philip, a Lutheran minister, is a gently dithering Walter Mitty of a man, portrayed with careful clarity by K. C. Marsh. He is married to Catherine, a masochistic art historian who identifies with St. Catherine of Siena.

As Catherine whose compulsion is picking on the scabs on her breasts just like St. Catherine, Shauna Bloom expresses the power of her obsessions without lapsing into a Mad Agnes caricature. She's the one character whose history we would like to know more about. Paul Witten's natural flair for humor could succumb to a clichéd interpretation of Tor as a flamboyantly gay man but Witten's passion and sensitivity pull him out of this particular pitfall. The many Italians met by the main characters are portrayed by one versatile and hunky actor, Josh Gordon, whose capacity for quick change is so incredible one suspects him of being twins.

Jacobson's universe plays tricks with time, using it to put the characters on a collision course that meets in the middle of the play where Margaret and Philip make love. The last two acts deal with their reactions. One chooses Heaven, the other Hell. The central act of their lives is reflected in many other metaphors -- for example, Margaret's beautiful voice which she loses when she comes to Italy and regains during her odyssey, and Tor's stigmata as a result of the erotic and highly dramatic fulfillment of his fantasy to make love to a priest.

Jacobson's writing is so dramatic and tight and director Michael Michetti's direction so rivetingly paced that there's little time to contemplate the subtleties but in this case broad brush strokes are enough. The play is a wonderful way to explore how differently people react to the needs and imperatives of faith and love. Did I mention humor and suspense? .

It is always a pleasure to revisit one of Desma Murphy's sets which make towering ecclesiastical use of The Road Company's infinitesimal stage. Jeremy Pivnick's shadowy lighting is almost a character in itself.

September 11th: The Second Installment -- The Priest's Story.
This version ends on a more puzzling note than the above reviewed The Nun's Tale. Perhaps because Margaret, the nun, has a naturally sunny upbeat temperament despite her trials and sorrows, her leap off the Duomo (which becomes an ascension through rays of light to a happy Heaven) seems more natural than the assumed disappearance into the Lower Depths of Philip, a perennially guilt-plagued Lutheran minister, who is swallowed up during an earth quake. The only reliable clue comes in their discussion of an Empty Throne, a vision seen by Tor's dying lover Walter. Margaret declares that there is no judge so that we must be our own judges.

Jacobson is too intelligent a writer not to have given some thought to his theme and if he is following this trail, then the conclusion may be that we create our own afterlife, as well as just plain life. Faced with the Empty Throne, Margaret loses her voice but regains it through her act of love with Philip and ascends into heaven. Philip can't leave his wife and, swamped by guilt, sinks. Their viewpoints are reflected when Margaret wonders why one would choose the pain of martyrdom over the pain of life. As Philip puts it "Martyrdom is shorter."

Tor, lusting after men in skirts who, in Italy, are usually priests, gets stigmata for his pains. "If my man got stigmata, I'd jump off the Duomo too," says Catherine. "Why? Envy."

Whatever, there's just as much to savor along the way in this fascinating, funny, highly dramatic Priest's Tale, as in its palindrome The Nun's Tale.

OUROBOROS: The Nun's Tale & The Priest's Tale
Playwright: Tom Jacobson
Director: Michael Michetti
Cast: Shauna Bloom (Catherine), Taylor Gilbert (Margaret), Josh Gordon (The Italians), K. C. Marsh (Philip), Paul Witten (Tor).
Set Design: Desma Murphy
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick
Costume Design: Rae Dawn Belt
Sound Design: David B. Marling
Running Time: Two hours ten minutes with one intermission
Running Dates: August 20-October 23, 2004
Where: The Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood, CA, Ph: (818) 761-8829
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on September 5 and 11.
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