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Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 20, 2024

Sagan Chen and Ni-Ni
Photo by Marcus Middleton
Mark Twain's preface to "Huckleberry Finn" famously states, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." A similar warning might accompany Isabel, reid tang's new play produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) and co-commissioned by Long Wharf Theatre. Variously set in a ghost-inhabited house, a dense forest with carpeted staircases rising from the ground, and a childhood home in which the mother roars with a voice of a mountain lion, tang's play teems with absurdism and irreverence. Unfortunately, the elements ultimately don't cohere, and although Isabel putatively addresses issues surrounding gender identity, it is frustratingly and self-consciously obtuse.

tang's introduction to the play includes the enjoinder, "gender is scary!! embrace the fear," and initially there is an intriguing fairy-tale like quality as the three characters navigate their way through the magical woods, which offer a place both of refuge and unspeakable dangers. (And for heaven's sake, don't go near those mysterious stairways!) Matt (movingly portrayed by Sagan Chen), who is identified as "a nonbinary transmasculine person early in transition," has moved into a ramshackle house deep in the woods, and he appears content in his new surroundings. And since he claims to have "an unimpeachable inner sense of gender," he congenially identifies the tools, furniture, and accessories in the home with appropriate pronouns. The toolbox, for instance is a "he," his phone "is a she but questioning," and his shirt "is a he/they but they prefer they."

Matt's sibling Harriet (an effervescent Ni-Ni) along with his "favorite lover" Isabel (Haruna Lee, utterly winning), who are gender nonconforming, have ventured into the woods as well. Ostensibly, they have been looking for Matt, but after a brief visit they intend to continue their quest to an unknown destination or goal. "The goal," Harriet explains, "isn't a place, it's a ... a feeling." Matt, on the other hand, is quite content staying put in his haunted fixer-upper on the outskirts of a town called Hindsight.

With direction by Kedian Keohan, the conceit is interesting, and the metaphorical elements make sense in the nightmare-scape setting of the 70-minute play. Additionally, performed on the stage of the Abrons Arts Center, with the audience on scaffolded seating on the apron and the eerily dark auditorium behind them, the production evokes a ludic netherworld. The design elements (including scenery by dots, lighting by Barbara Samuels, sound by Tei Blow, and costumes by Hahnji Jang) contribute to the perception that time and place are out of joint.

After the promising set up, though, tang's writing gets weird, seemingly for the sake of getting weird. Isabel (and it's not clear why the play is named for her character), for example, suddenly shows up from under Matt's floor clutching Harriet, who has bewilderingly become a backpack named Loaves. There is also a long description of bubblegum-flavored-Slurpee-cum-projectile-vomit, and there is an assortment of brightly colored dildos thrown across the stage. (Kudos to the uncredited props person.)

By the time the play moved to a flashback with Matt and Harriet plotting their escape from their mountain-lion roaring mother followed by a coda (possibly) ten years in the future, I had stopped trying to figure things out. This is a case in which the playwright has too many ideas or perhaps not enough.

Gender is indeed scary. It can also be confounding, enigmatic, and inscrutable. These are productive terms for understanding the fluidity of identity and sexuality, but they are perilous liabilities in drama.

Through July 6, 2024
National Asian American Theatre Company
The Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street at Pitt Street, New York NY
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