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Isabel

A dark comedy about transgender siblings with suspenseful elements.

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Haruna Lee and Ni-Ni in a scene from reid tang’s “Isabel” at the Abrons Art Center (Photo credit: Marcus Middleton)

Consider if you will an old, dilapidated house in a forest somewhere in North America near a small town. It is in the midst of renovations by a young, gender-confused person. It is a house that speaks with creaks and groans as if expressing memories of all the life that had passed through it. There are mysterious things about this forest, such as staircases that lead nowhere and yet beckon to all who come near but are better left untouched. It is the forest surrounding Hindsight, a quaint little town at the edge of reality.

Isabel is a story written by reid tang and directed by Kedian Keohan. It uses various stylistic techniques to tell the story of a trans sibling relationship. It has elements of dark comedy mixed within a dramatic arc of psychosexual exploration of gender, all wrapped within a framework of dark mystery but without a clear point of view. The performances are uneven, the “smoke” special effect is distracting, and the staging misses defining the locales of the scenes. The production comes across as more of a dress rehearsal than a fully-realized staging.

It all starts with a prologue of Matt (Sagan Chen) entering an area that looks like the backstage of a theater with a high brick and cement wall at the rear of the performance area. A toolbox and a small table are on the left, and a mattress and another small table are on the right. In the center is a carpeted staircase set back into a dark alcove. Matt wanders around the space, picks up a beer bottle from the table near the toolbox, drinks, and then goes to the mattress. There are creaking and groaning sounds coming from the walls of the house. Matt lies down, the room goes dark, and he goes to sleep.

Ni-Ni and Sagan Chen in a scene from reid tang’s “Isabel” at the Abrons Art Center (Photo credit: Marcus Middleton)

In the morning, Harry (Ni-Ni), Matt’s brother, enters this space unannounced. It is later revealed that Harry’s real name is Harriet, and they are transsexual. This bit of information is presented in a dialog, almost as an afterthought part of a discussion between Matt and Isabel (Haruna Lee) about Harry and Matt’s mother.

MATT: I’m having a hard time believing this.

ISABEL: Your mom cares about you! She just refuses to show it.

MATT: No, that Harriet cares about me.

The name Harriet does not reappear in dialog until the story shifts into what is supposed to be a suspenseful, borderline scary section of the production. It takes on a surreal and otherworldly feel but, again, without much depth. At this point, Harry has been transformed into a backpack that, according to Matt, is named Loaves, and he says it is a she.

Haruna Lee and Ni-Ni in a scene from reid tang’s “Isabel” at the Abrons Art Center (Photo credit: Marcus Middleton)

What follows is a flashback scene of Harry and Isabel wandering lost through the woods until they are drawn to a staircase that leads nowhere. Their involvement with the staircase leads to an interaction that culminates in a surreal sexual encounter that ends with a blackout.

The following sections continue the surreal journey into the past and then back into the present without a clear transition from one point to the next. From there, another scene opens with Matt and Harriet at home around Matt’s 18th birthday and before all the adventures with the house begin. They are talking about disappearing from their mother. Towards the end, a U.S. Forest Service ranger, who looks and acts a lot like Isabel, is speaking on the phone with Matt and Harriet’s mom about them going missing. What transpires in that conversation adds to the weirdness of the whole story.

RANGER: How old is Matt?

17 nearly 18, okay

And possibly also like 27 going on 28, got it

There was another one?

Harriet H-A-R-R-

I know how to spell thanks

13 going on 14

Might be 23 going on 24 depending

Sagan Chen in a scene from reid tang’s “Isabel” at the Abrons Art Center (Photo credit: Marcus Middleton)

The scenic design by dots does not provide a strong sense of the location being a dilapidated house. The set looks like a backstage area with props to give a sense of something different. There is also the intrusion of a large staircase set back in an alcove that has nothing to do with the action until later in the production. It is supposed to be an object in the forest.

Barbara Samuels’ lighting design respectfully sets the tone for the scenes and guides the changes in action. When coupled with Tei Blow’s sound design, it gives the setting a sense of strangeness. Hahnji Jang’s costumes work well in defining the changing definitions of the characters.

Isabel (through July 6, 2024)

National Asian American Theatre Company

Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/209/production/1200322

Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission

 

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About Scotty Bennett (86 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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