Tom Jacobson's Ouroboros might be one of the most richly textured works Main Street Theater has put on in years. The story is told from two points of view in two productions shown on alternative nights. One is a comedy, A Nun's Tale; the other a tragedy, A Priest's Tale. Both stories collide in the middle, when the minister and the nun make love. Faith, death, the possibilities of miracles, and the corporal sorrows of human love are all at stake in this strange and fascinating work about two lonely couples who meet in Italy. They go searching for answers to some very heady questions.
The program tells us that an ouroboros is "a circular symbol of a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness." This circular shape applies not only to the story, which both begins and ends in death, but also to how the story is told. From the moment the stage lights go up, the narrative is moving backward and forward at once. A Priest's Tale (the only play seen by this reviewer) opens in Milan, where a minister named Philip (Fritz Dickmann) is touring with his brainy art historian wife, Catherine (Sara Gaston). There, they meet Margaret (Celeste Roberts), an Episcopalian nun who insists she knows Philip even though Philip doesn't recall ever having seen Margaret before. She then thoroughly terrifies Philip and Catherine by racing off to the top of a high ledge and threatening to leap. Philip and Catherine are horrified. Still Margaret seems deliriously happy with the possibility of death, as she believes she will ascend to heaven.
This opening is as confusing for the audience as it is for Philip and Catherine. Margaret seems, most of all, crazy, but we have no idea why. To complicate matters, she's traveling with her gay friend Tor (Justin Doran), who also seems to know who Philip and Catherine are. It's hard to know if the nun is crazy or not. In any other play, this initial weirdness would be annoying, but as directed by Robert de los Reyes, it becomes provocative. It's impossible to witness this curious beginning without wanting to know why these smart characters are behaving this way.
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.
Through April 9. $25 - $35.
As the following scenes unwind, we, along with Catherine and Philip, begin to slowly piece together the mysteries that drive the opening. Soon enough, we discover that Philip and his wife are sad, and their marriage is in deep trouble. Though Margaret, the nun, is the one who starts out the play seeming unbalanced, we quickly learn that it is Catherine who is taking antidepressants. "They don't work," she tells us frankly. Guilt-ridden because he's unhappy with his marriage, Philip has resigned himself to his sorry situation, spending most of his time nursing his fragile wife through her suicide attempts and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The Lutheran minister has lost faith. He has trouble believing in the simple joys of life, much less in any miracle.
Just as Philip has lost his faith, Margaret, the nun, is also in a bit of a spiritual crisis. She recently witnessed a death that left her terrified. Her gay friend Tor's longtime partner passed away; beforehand, he had a very dark vision of what awaited him on the other side. It has shaken Margaret to the core. Tor, on the other hand, is simply grieving. He has followed Margaret to Italy to distract himself from his sorrow and to fulfill a longtime sexual fantasy: He wants to sleep with a priest.
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The story takes us through Venice, Florence, Siena and Rome. The characters make strange and mystical discoveries involving a pair of golden rings, the head of Saint Catherine and a darkly violent priest. Somehow, these odd happenings manage to add up to a story that's perfect for the theater. It touches the kinds of profound mysteries death, love, faith that only art and spirituality can answer. Both highly dramatic and wonderfully eccentric, the script and this production are intelligent and so provocative, it's hard to see one show without longing to see the other.