Isabella’s Room

Theater Shorts: Oct. 2009

Columns | David Warren | October 2009

Isabella’s Room opens with a direct appeal to the audience: the actors, standing around a stage littered with objects, fetishes and symbols from black Africa, are introduced in a matey, casual way. These characters include – the now blind – Isabella, her mother, Anna, and her real father, Arthur, not to mention the "left" and "right" side of her brain. We are in Isabella’s small flat in contemporary Paris, and the remainder of the play will describe the chronology of her life.

That chronology spans the 20th century and is self-consciously modern in the events it covers. The story of Isabella’s paternity, for example, would not be out of place in a contemporary celebrity magazine: Having spent much of her life clinging to the belief that her father was the "desert prince", a romantic Livingston-esque figure who disappeared before she was born on an expedition in the depths of Africa, the truth is actually more grisly than that, involving the rape of her mother by the father’s best friend.

Sex is not far removed from the rest of the play, with the copulation being thoroughly modern – questioning old-fashioned taboos and re-assigning outmoded gender stereotypes. So, Isabella is the predator, making mincemeat out of the men she seduces, paying for sex with a black erotic dancer because she likes the sight of his enormous member (although that is one stereotype this drama fails to deal with), and then later as an older woman seducing her very own grandson.

Some of the darkest moments of the recent hundred years are also touched upon. Alexander for instance, one of Isabella’s many lovers, loses his sanity while watching the physical embodiment of the century’s destructive power, the blast at Hiroshima. At one point, a pair of slave’s shackles is held up, reminding the audience of Africa’s abominable treatment at the hands of the West.

Contemporary notions of identity are also entertained. Isabella has to be reminded that it was a reading of a book by James Joyce she once attended, not just "some author." As she points out, he was just another author before he later became "Joyce": Could it be that in Isabella’s Room, people and things don’t have an inherent worth before they are ascribed it?

The play raises such questions, challenging the beliefs and assumptions that traditional society has rested upon. Yet, the drama can also be seen as just a kind of vaguely entertaining mishmash of live hypnotically rhythmical music, pulsating quasi-erotic dances and bursts of synchronized uncontrolled emotion, as when the members of the cast screeched in unison at the audience.

On that level, if you like that kind of thing, it might be enjoyable.

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