A Lutheran minister and a would-be Episcopalian nun have a brief sexual encounter. They’re traveling on separate vacations in Italy -- the minister with his Catholic wife, the Episcopalian postulant with a gay male friend. In the aftermath of their illicit sex, miracles that seem more akin to Catholicism transform the Protestant lovers.
As all of this unfolds in “Ouroboros,” at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, audience members may momentarily wonder about the religious and other affiliations of the playwright, Tom Jacobson. Not many new plays thrust religion into the forefront as much as “Ouroboros” does.
Jacobson, 43, sees himself as a combination of the two main male characters in his play -- he’s a gay Lutheran. And the two women in the play are based on a friend, Susan Caroselli, who is an Episcopalian nun and -- like the play’s Catholic wife -- an art historian whose specialty is Limoges enamels.
“I have no imagination whatsoever,” Jacobson jokes. “I just steal from real life.”
Most of those who have seen “Ouroboros” or any of Jacobson’s other plays would disagree. He takes the audience on journeys into history or the occult or fantasy that are far removed from mundane conceptions of “real life.” For example, his “Sperm,” seen this year in a Circle X Theatre production at 24th Street Theatre, was about an American whaler who wanders into the pre-revolutionary court at Versailles, is eventually swallowed by a whale and later assumes the slaughtered creature’s spirit -- all in rhyming iambic pentameter.
Back and forth
The contemporary-set “Ouroboros” might have seemed marginally more realistic than “Sperm” except for an extraordinary structural detail -- each of the two sets of tourists experiences events in reverse order from the other couple, as in a time-based palindrome.
The play’s scenes are even presented in two different sequences at different performances. In “The Nun’s Tale” version, the play begins with the postulant and her friend as two naifs who arrive in Rome and gradually proceed through Siena, Florence, Venice and Milan. In “The Priest’s Tale,” the same scenes take place in the opposite direction -- Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena and Rome -- and it’s the minister and his wife who are gradually transformed.
Jacobson says he tends to prefer “The Nun’s Tale.” The ending of “The Priest’s Tale” is “a downer.” But some people who have seen both prefer the unhappier ending, he adds.
The idea of such a structure occurred to Jacobson while he was on a 1996 trip to Italy with his partner, Art Center College of Design teacher Ramone Munoz -- although they experienced no such time-bending or anything like the play’s climactic miracles.
“Miracles just don’t happen to Lutherans,” Jacobson says. “Or if they do, they’re very small.”
Jacobson grew up in Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma. As a teenager, he questioned his faith but eventually came to believe that “even if it isn’t true, Christianity is this incredible metaphor for the aspirations of humankind. The idea of sacrifice for others -- that’s what the Christian Church is about.” The traditional “leap of faith” that Christianity asks is made quite literally in the case of the postulant in “Ouroboros.”
The playwright’s faith also survived his first gay experiences, as a teen in Oklahoma. He didn’t feel much religious conflict over his orientation -- “Lutherans didn’t condemn homosexuality because that would mean saying the word ‘homosexual,’ ” he quips.
After studying theater at Northwestern University in Chicago and playwriting as a UCLA graduate student, he got a proofreading job at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and moved up the ranks there for 15 years, stoking an interest in art history that is apparent throughout “Ouroboros.” Three years ago he moved to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where he is vice president for development -- that is, he raises funds.
But he kept his theater interests active as well, not only as a prolific playwright in L.A.'s small theaters but also as a connoisseur of other writers’ plays in his posts as literary manager at Celebration Theatre for nine years and currently as one of the two literary managers at Pasadena’s Theatre@Boston Court.
“Tom has an incredibly quick mind,” says Jessica Kubzansky, one of Boston Court’s two artistic directors. “And it’s astonishing how diverse his interests are and how he can articulate them on paper. He has almost as many styles of plays as he has plays.”
For example, Jacobson’s next play, “The Orange Grove,” is “more of a heart play,” Kubzansky says, compared to the “chewy brain work” of “Ouroboros.” She should know -- she’s directing “The Orange Grove” in a site-specific production at the Lutheran Church of the Master in West L.A.
Jacobson has been a member of the church for 20 years, where he’s a lay assistant, sings in the choir and serves on the church council. On April 13, 2003, he and Munoz were informally wed there in “a union ceremony” -- the first such gay ceremony held in the church.
“The Orange Grove” is inspired by Jacobson’s fellow congregants. But it’s also an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” in which the equivalent of the declining Russian aristocracy is fading mainstream Protestantism in general and the shrinking population of Jacobson’s congregation in particular.
“It’s a fact that mainline churches are being marginalized,” says the church’s pastor, John Rollefson. “Look at all the attention paid to conservative evangelicals in this last election.” The church is contributing more than $3,000 to Playwrights’ Arena’s $12,000 production on its premises, in part because it hopes that theatergoers might become interested in the church’s potential “niche as a center for faith and the arts,” Rollefson says. He acknowledges that the plot of the play “does end badly for the little congregation, but there’s a lot of hope and genuine good humor as well.”
As for “Ouroboros” and its weird tricks with time, Rollefson appreciates it for “asking us to think about how our stories are enveloped in God’s time framework.” However, he notes that Lutherans “don’t look for God to overrule nature or do spooky things. God has chosen to act within nature.”
Jacobson agrees that “Ouroboros” isn’t Lutheran-specific. Its major theme, he says, is that “people have to make decisions about their own fate, their own salvation. If God isn’t in us, I don’t know where he might be.”
“I’m definitely an ecumenist,” Jacobson says. “Every religion is as viable as any other. The Lutheran church is the right path for me.”
But from a theatrical standpoint -- witness the miracles at the ends of both versions of “Ouroboros” -- “Catholicism is infinitely more fun.”
Where: Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim, North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. “The Nun’s Tale” and “The Priest’s Tale” play on alternating weekends.
Ends: Dec. 18
Price: $20, $30 for both versions
Contact: (818) 761-8829 or www.roadtheatre.org
‘The Orange Grove’
Where: Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.
When: Opens Jan. 21. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 20
Contact: (213) 485-1631 or Lutheran.churchofthemaster.org