As we enter the intoxicatingly rich world of Zona, we encounter a deceptively simple melodrama. It unfolds in shadow play on a gold-hued screen fronting a kind of rectangular tent at the back of the stage. We see the silhouette of a mother cradling her newborn infant, swaddled in a blanket, as an old recording of an Italian operatic duet comes seeping through. The woman sets the baby down and briefly retires from the scene, giving opportunity to a snarling beast which promptly swoops in and snatches up the child. Returning to find the babe gone, she collapses in a fit of grief and anguish as the music swells to its climax, her gently unduutf8g hand rising from her swooning body in a kind of unconscious farewell.
This same gesture, delicate and precise, returns later as another woman, played by the same male actor (a deft Stephen Lawson, now out in front of the curtain in another of several consecutive female guises), finally greets the beast that has been pursuing her a naked male figure with the head of a bear with a frightened reflex that suddenly transforms into a come hither call.
In its straightforwardness, the shadow play at the start of Zona is anything but straight. It sets up a number of complex tensions that will wend their way through a layered 55-minute multimedia collage of drag performance, lip-synch, camp iconography, and dark revelry presented by Montreal cabaret performance duo 2boys.tv (Lawson and Aaron Pollard). These tensions include the art form itself, as Zona recycles the tropes of queer cabaret in a focused reclamation of an intensely dark strain in midcentury American film and theater brooding on madness, desire, and loss.
Not that Zona isn't also immediately rewarding and funny. A scene in which Lawson repeatedly mimes a looped sample of Elizabeth Taylor's screams in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is as hysterical as it is, frankly, hysterical. But it's less an excuse for knowing camp humor than part of an attempt to push the queer cabaret form in a more dramatically serious direction, while allowing it more self-reflexivity than ever. Enveloped in an often breathtaking series of video-based images and a haunting soundscape, Zona traces a somber, troubled mood throughout, while eschewing any easy resolution of its themes.
Although originally created for a 2006 theater festival in Calgary, Canada, rather than a bar or cabaret, Zona's design stays true to its roots in underground queer theater, and is so intimate and compact it almost makes the modest stage at New Conservatory Theatre Center look overly roomy. At the same time, Pollard's video and audio direction add greatly to the show's ingenious layering of textures, cultural references, and associations. In one achingly lovely movement, a reclining Lawson, as the actress whose love has led her to the brink of madness, opens a large book toward the audience from the lip of the stage. On its blank pages appear two small video projections: one of the naked beast with bear's head, and the other of the actress' character herself, both dynamic images subtitled in halting phrases of pain, regret, and remembered passion. Lawson's mesmerizing performance, meanwhile, strikes an eerie balance between human emotion and jagged masquerade.
Zona marks the West Coast debut for the Canadian duo, with thanks due to NCTC's artistic director Ed Decker for bringing the denizens of Montreal's vibrant scene out to the Bay Area. Here's looking forward to the next time the boys are back in town.
WedSat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m., $22$34
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF