Ex Marks the Spot

Local playwright Stuart Bousel pens a sexy comedy about romantic entanglements.

The Exiled, billed as "a touching tale of art, drugs, casual sex and true friendship ... or whatever," could turn out to be the most popular thing Stuart Bousel has ever done--much to Bousel's chagrin.

The young Tucson writer-director has built his local reputation mainly on provocative versions of such classics as The Oresteia and Faust for Quicksilver Productions and Edward II, Salome and a reworking of Gilgamesh during the past year for Horror Unspeakable Productions.

But his wholly original The Exiled, last seen in a Quicksilver reading in early 2000, is the thing that's gotten the most attention--even from MTV.

The Exiled started out a couple of years ago as a stage play, but quickly became a screenplay optioned by MTV. "When the bottom fell out of the film and nasty e-mails started showing up from famous people, I decided it belonged on stage," says Bousel. "Christian Bale hated it. Alanis Morissette liked it. If that tells you anything. It falls in that category of screenplays that have gone nowhere but have raised enough eyebrows that someday somebody will care about them."

Locals already seem to care about The Exiled. After the Quicksilver reading, Bousel says, "People became very attached to it; the actors in the show were being recognized for months afterward as they were walking out of clubs. It jelled with the younger non-theater crowd. At every play I've done since then, people have said, 'When are you going to do The Exiled again?' I've been browbeaten by actors who want to be in it. It's my underdog play, the one thing I feel emotionally attached to, and the thing I feel has never received the attention it deserves."

It should get some attention during the coming week and a half, as Horror Unspeakable mounts it at the Temple of Music and Art's Cabaret Theatre.

Bousel describes it as 49 vignettes "loosely connected along a story line that came out of the last 10 years of gossip in my life.

"I originally wanted to do a contemporary kind of Shakespearean comedy, where you have the serious lovers and the non-serious lovers and lost letters and everybody gets scrambled with the wrong partners, but then everyone ends with the right partner in a contrived twist. But what I wound up writing is something about sexuality in a very '90s situation: The characters are confused not only about who they want, but what gender they want, as well. And you get people's professional lives locked up inside it, because that defines who we are."

Before he knew it, the Shakespearean framework had collapsed into something far more contemporary, with a cinematic structure of very short scenes. Yet Bousel believes The Exiled's cast of confused 20somethings fits in better with classical traditions than with contemporary theater.

"In this country, there's a dearth of theater about people in their 20s," he complains. "There's a lot about teenagers, and a lot about people who are 30-plus. You go from children's theater to Arthur Miller, and there's nothing in between. That's why I've always been drawn to classical theater, because that's more or less about things that happen to people in their 20s."

One of the few vestiges of classical style remaining in The Exiled is the denouement. "There's still a contrived climax, but the contrived climax doesn't quite work," Bousel says, and he seems both disappointed in and proud of this presumed failure. "The problem with popular culture in general is it keeps insisting on hitting us with a happy ending, which is absurd, because nothing really ends until you end. So this is a comedy because nobody dies, but they do wake up after the contrived ending and realize that things are still going to continue going on. So I guess it's not that satisfying by popular-culture standards."

One of the reasons the MTV deal fell through, in fact, is that Bousel refused to tie things up neatly at the end.

"Some people think it's below me to do a tongue-in-cheek play like this, but others think it's refreshing," he says. "It was written out of love, but not out of a desire to create great and bold art with a message."

The story revolves around a 26-year-old guy named Chester. "He's just become manager of this little home-grown video store in a Tucsonesque town," Bousel says. "His girlfriend is this aspiring actress-pothead named Susan, who is getting phenomenally bored with the lifestyle they've been leading, which has been getting progressively domestic. The problem is that he's not bored. He's trying to eke out what he perceives as a normal existence. All his friends have all bought into some pop-culture trope; his best friend is a jazz musician who says things like 'Recording jazz kills the soul of the sound.'

"Chester thinks he wants to be normal, but he's not sure that's what he wants. So he starts getting back in touch with an ex-girlfriend who's an award-winning poet who leads a glamorous lifestyle; she travels and leaves the most articulate phone messages you've ever heard.

"Normally my characters just want what they want and go for it, but in this case the characters are confused about themselves, and that's why the play works so well with the 20somethings in the audience. But on the other hand, Chester's not depicted as whiney. He's regretful that he can't make up his mind. He cramps these women's style by being who he is, who is exactly what they want him to be."

Confused yet? Welcome to Bousel's life.

"Is this a tragedy that he can't have either woman, or is it oddly more romantic that way?" he asks himself. "I'd like to say that the play takes a stand, but it doesn't, and that's what makes it work. I still don't know who Chester ends up with.

"I don't want to lump this in with the modern school of theater where nothing happens; in The Exiled, things happen and you keep going somewhere, but you don't necessarily arrive, and that's OK. That's why it's a benevolent play; it's about how you go about not knowing where you're going.

"I refer to it as my date comedy, because compared to Edward II, it kind of is."

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