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Reviewed by:
  • Nomads by Julia Jarcho
  • Jennifer Cayer
Nomads. By Julia Jarcho. Directed by Alice Reagan. Incubator Arts Project, St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, New York City. 10 June 2014.

For a modernist artist who wrote only one play, Jane Bowles—the critically unsung and queer wife of novelist and composer Paul Bowles—has exerted tremendous creative influence on a devoted group of contemporary theatre artists. Admired by Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams during her lifetime, Bowles’s 1953 play In the Summer House received a Broadway revival in the 1990s under the direction of JoAnne Akalaitis, and her work recently inspired Elevator Repair Service’s 2013 production of Fondly, Collette Richland by Sibyl Kempson at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In Nomads, one of the last productions at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery by the long-running Incubator Arts Project, playwright Julia Jarcho and director Alice Reagan distilled the strange spirit of Bowles’s tiny body of work into a brief though jarring mid-century funhouse. Pervasive anxiety and periodic hilarity fuel a hyperbolic romp with the uncomfortable premises of Bowles’s fictional worlds.

In lieu of adaptation, Jarcho and Reagan amplify the tensions facing Bowles’s self-aggrandizing if insecure women, who are often aloof to others’ emotional needs and quickly fall into uneven intimacies with newly encountered men and women. The play’s title refers to those who forsake bonds of family and community in Bowles’s short story “Camp Cataract.” Likewise, Nomads’s Joan and Jean reckon with the lure to escape upper-class urban domestic life, experimenting with alternatives that threaten self-recognition and sunder conventional relationships. Jean (Rebecca Lingafelter), akin to Bowles herself, is a gin-guzzling writer who travels to South America to jumpstart her next project, while Joan (Kate Benson)—modeled in part on Miss Goering, the primary character of Bowles one novel, Two Serious Ladies—suffers from a dislodged sense of self and lost memory of her own intimate past. The play opens with a disembodied voice alerting Joan to an unnamed something that has happened to “Joan.” Much to her matter-of-fact dismay, she has lost someone, but forgotten who, as well as the identities of those who have sent her the piles of letters stacked atop her desk.

Joan’s and Jean’s overt dilemmas and the far more ambivalent conflicts they initiate drive a play that purposefully races ahead of both the audience’s and the characters’ abilities to make sense. But the frequent and cryptic moments of encounter are [End Page 127]

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Kate Benson (Joan) and Rebecca Lingafelter (Jean) in Nomads. (Photo: Yi Zhao.)

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Kate Benson (Joan) and Ben Williams (Driver) in Nomads. (Photo: Yi Zhao.)

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nonetheless charged because they teeter on the precarious lines between closeness and violation, banality and emergency, independence and domination. As in Bowles’s worlds, such pursuits for transformation or recognition are rarely rewarded with easy or even legible resolutions, and Nomads enacts the gaps and losses of coherence between the self and one’s sense of self, as well as those between the self and others. Witnessing this can be at once frustrating and surprisingly satisfying.

The gravity of finding and losing one’s self was leavened with an intermittently zany production style. As Jean entered the jungle, exaggerated green vines dropped accompanied by cartoon “boing!” sounds. Joan’s gold-trimmed caftans and Jean’s safari-chic khakis (designed by Ásta Bennie Hostetter) opposed set designer Carolyn Mraz’s orange and caution-tape-yellow set. The contrast between 1930s period-specific jeweled velvets and the artificial quality of the duotone set evoked the play’s disjunctive sense of time. Jarcho’s characters, at once idiosyncratic individuals and eddying swirls of dangerous desires, collide, atom-like, in unexpected ways that seem alien to everyday conventions. And yet, their struggles slyly resonate with the universal dilemma to make sense of ourselves and the routine ways we must play along or resist our radical reliance upon others.

Jarcho delights in the playful disorientation and peculiar distortions of language. Streams of thought...


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