Review: 'Brainpeople' a taxing, meaningful exercise

Take “Hamlet.” What is it about? There is a ghost, a confused and confusing hero, a heroine who goes mad pretty much at the drop of a hat, etc. Still, a great play. Unlike TV sitcoms, a play is not defined by its story, but rather by the thoughts and feelings it stirs up.

Now regard José Rivera, screenwriter for the terrific film “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and author of “Brainpeople,” whose world premiere is being produced by American Conservatory Theater in the Zeum Theater.

Needless to say, Rivera is no Shakespeare. (Who is? Some say even Shakespeare wasn't.) But “Hamlet” is mentioned here because “Brainpeople” too has a complex/convoluted, at times downright Byzantine story, and it too stirs the mind and the soul.

Building upon an already strange basic situation, the play gives free rein to its three characters to rant and rave, confuse each other and the audience, allow multiple personalities struggle with one another _ but, and this is a significant qualification _ “Brainpeople” doesn't just toy with the audience. There is a definite There there. Or, as the Richard Dreyfuss character said in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – “it means something.”

Before venturing into that something, however, this needs to be said: Chay Yew's direction, and performances by René Augesen, Sona Tatoyan and Lucia Brawley add up to an exciting event.

It's unusual to see Augesen, one of A.C.T.'s “core company members” in the Zeum, a venue usually occupied by Conservatory students. Tatoyan, an impressive newcomer to the company, is the playwright's wife, but there is no nepotism about her casting _ she is exactly right for the role.

The play takes place in a Los Angeles dining room. Outside, there are sounds of disorder, chaos even, the city under martial law _ that's just the environment, it has no direct bearing on the story. The dining room belongs to Mayannah, the character played by Brawley, a mega-rich woman from Puerto Rico. Augesen and Tatoyan play two strangers invited by Mayannah, who offers them a great deal of money if they last through the dinner. The main course: tiger meat.

Augesen is Rosemary, a woman of many conflicting personalities. Tatoyan is Ani, from an Armenian family, sharp, peculiar, pathologically lonely. In a series of monologues, dialogues, and a concluding _ most unexpected _ trio, the women reveal their bizarre, painful lives, their totally unexpected (and unconvincing) overlapping experiences. The real and imagined figures in their memories are the “brainpeople” dominating them.

Rivera has said of the play's first draft that it was like a “tone-poem — very interior, very illogical, where characters spoke in non-sequiturs. It was very hard to follow and very dense.” Through an intensive series of workshops and rewrites, some of those daunting characteristics have given way to a theatrically more palatable offering, but Rivera's unselfconscious surrealism is still at play here.

IF YOU GO

Brainpeople

Where: American Conservatory Theater at the Zeum, 221 Fourth St., San Francisco.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Feb. 16

Tickets: $20

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org  

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