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Theatre in Review: Isabel (NAATCO at Abrons Art Center)

Sagan Cheng. Photo: Marcus Middleton

In Isabel, you can't see the forest for the staircases. If that seems like an odd comment, you have no idea what awaits you at the Abrons Art Center. reid tang's cryptic family tale is so overloaded with bizarre devices and strange fancies that it is impossible to separate the real from the metaphoric. There's plenty of fog onstage in Kedian Keohan's production, but it's nothing next to the fog that obscures the script.

Matt, who lives off the grid in a decayed fixer-upper furnished with little more than an inflatable mattress for furnishings, is visited by his brother, Harriet, and Harriet's lover Isabel. Exactly why Harriet and Isabel are passing through the nearby wilderness is unclear. "It's not wandering if you have a goal," Harriet insists. "The goal just isn't a place, it's a... a feeling. Isabel explains it better." Not really; she doesn't even try. The forest, quite obviously, is a strange place. "Did you see the staircases?" Harriet asks. "The ones that go nowhere, just hang in the air." "Oh yeah," Matt replies. "Those are... around. They say not to go near them." This last bit of information comes from Matt's unseen next-door neighbor, known whimsically as Next-Door Matt, but no reasons are given.

In any case, Matt isn't too happy to see Harriet, who pointedly wonders why Matt needs such a big house. Harriet notes that the cost of keeping it up means "you're probably going to end up looking for a JOB and if you end up looking for a JOB, they're gonna start asking some questions about-" "I'm not going to look for a job," Matt says, cutting him off. Wait -- is the playwright flagging some startling family secrets? Hard to say, since the point gets dropped. Then the conversation goes down a pronoun-related rabbit hole. "The house is a she," Matt says. "Like the house we grew up in a he. And the toolbox over there is also a he. The mattress is a they. My phone is a she but questioning. The shirt I'm wearing is a he/they but they prefer they." And you thought French pronouns were tough...

Anyway, Harriet and Isabel continue their hike but only Isabel returns, announcing that Harriet has been transformed into a...backpack. (Apparently, Harriet became violently ill thanks to a toxic Slurpee -- the unfortunate results of which receive the only detailed writing in the play -- but the rest of the incident is a mystery.) Isabel produces the backpack, which Matt names Loaves Chapman. "Loaves, as in bread plural," he says. "Chapman, as in... I don't know. I don't know white name meanings." (All three characters are Asian.) This cues a flashback -- in which, oddly, Isabel displays knowledge of future events -- featuring Harriet's discovery of an enormous bruise that acts as a kind of erogenous zone; Isabel applies a dildo to the affected area, but the lights black out before we find out what happens next. I'm pretty sure this episode has something to do with that backpack transformation but, hey, I was just an audience member.

Another flashback shows Matt and Harriet living at home with their mother, an offstage presence represented by savage animal growls. Harriet, rather unexpectedly, is dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl. They discuss escape plans but apparently do nothing about it. Or maybe not: A forest ranger appears, talking about two young men lost in the woods, noting that they are either teenagers or adults in their twenties or maybe both. Any questions?

A clue, provided in the script's notes (if not the script), is that Matt is "a nonbinary transmasculine person early in transition." This may suggest why he is living in isolation -- actually, it doesn't, but it seems intended as a motivating factor -- and it may have something to do with the number of dildos that get passed around. The script is silent about Harriet's gender status, although the name and plaid skirt suggest that he, too, is in transition. Possibly, this clarifies why the adolescent siblings want to run away from home, noting that when they do, "We won't be dead anymore." But everything about the play -- the character's gender identities, the time frame, virtually any detail you can think of -- is fluid to a confounding degree; Isabel often seems to be written in a private language understood only by the playwright.

All I can tell you is that the scenic collective dots has made good use of the theatre's grimy, decaying backstage area, placing an imposing staircase at center stage; Barbara Samuels has provided effectively eerie or moody sidelight looks and night washes; and Tei Blow contributes enough creaks, groans, and animal cries for any six horror films. (Given the characters' often ambiguous identities, costume designer Hahnji Jang dresses the cast surprisingly effectively.) It's difficult to say much about Sagan Chen and Ni-Ni as Matt and Harriet, since the characters are so vaguely imagined. As Isabel, the veteran playwright and performer Haruna Lee is an assured presence who commands the audience's attention. I realize the previous graphs read like a dada exercise by, say, Tristan Tzara. What can I tell you? Thanks to its murky action, a preponderance of strange phenomena, and its ultra-precious sense of humor, Isabel is an off-putting enigma. NAATCO, a fine company, must see something not immediately apparent in tang's work; maybe the next time we'll crack the code. --David Barbour

(24 June 2024)

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