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Either direction's a rewarding trip

The reversible 'Ouroboros' provides two distinctive experiences.

September 02, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Palindrome -- a word or phrase that can be read backward or forward -- is the structural metaphor underlying "Ouroboros." Only the most skillful and meticulous construction could allow Tom Jacobson's love story involving the repeatedly intersecting spiritual quests of two American couples -- each traveling through time in the opposite direction -- to be performed in either of two chronological sequences (a circular construction reflected in the title reference to the mythical snake that devours its own tail). Although Jacobson considers the piece played one way a comedy and a tragedy when played in reverse, these labels apply only in the classical sense, depending on whether the conclusion is happy or not. Offering both versions (each on alternating weekends, with a discount for return visits), the Road Theatre Company's impeccable staging makes it easy to appreciate this new work in all its dazzling ingenuity.

Performed as "A Nun's Tale," the story follows the Italian pilgrimage of repressed Margaret (spunky, finely nuanced Taylor Gilbert), whose decision to become an Episcopalian nun was both a vocation and an excuse to hide from life. Margaret's spiritual journey through five Italian cities is infused with abundant comedy by her traveling companion and best friend Tor (a hilariously acerbic Paul Witten), a gay choir conductor with a conflicted religious history.

Versatile Josh Gordon nails 12 well-differentiated supporting characters, most impressively through lightning role and costume changes during the pivotal middle scene, when the two opposing timelines converge and the play's rich thematic dichotomies achieve perfect balance. Amid typically stunning Road Theatre production values, director Michael Michetti illuminates these themes regardless of the presentation sequence.

The unifying paralysis that seals the four protagonists' fates -- even when the future is revealed to them -- is that they've all embraced sacrifice because they believe themselves unworthy of love.

In the sequence billed as "A Priest's Tale," the forward-moving timeline puts the focus on Philip (haunted K.C. Marsh), a Lutheran minister worn out from putting the needs of others above his own, and racked with guilt over his wavering loyalty to his emotionally unstable wife, Catherine (Shauna Bloom, in a harrowing depiction of crumbling identity). Ironically, the play's only limitation is its sheer cleverness, as piecing together the converging story lines somewhat distances the viewer from the emotional devastation in Philip's downward spiral.

Tom Jacobson's "Ouroboros," with its reversible five-scene sequence presented on alternating weekends, takes advantage of context-sensitive audience perception to create two distinct theatrical experiences -- each involving and richly rewarding in its own right. As its two pairs of tourist protagonists keep meeting in the same cities as they travel through time in opposite directions, we tend to adopt the point of view of whichever couple is moving forward -- the conventional way in which their story unfolds makes them more knowable and naturally sympathetic. Simultaneously tracing the other couple's journey from its final moments back to its beginning provides the mystery and intellectual challenge as we try to reconcile their cryptic memories of future events with the story so far. Since each scene is precisely (and masterfully) performed the same way, regardless of the overall sequence, the cumulative differences in perceived tone and plot brilliantly enlist the audience as active co-creator in this witty, moving narrative palindrome.

*

'Ouroboros'

Where: Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 23

Price: $20 ($30 for dual-version passport)

Info: (818) 761-8829 or www.roadtheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours

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