Theater often reflects the preoccupations of its time and place. The spooky, raunchy new play "The Subletter's Omen," running Halloween week in a Montegut Street warehouse space, is a lighthearted horror-comedy anchored in the stresses of New Orleans' unfolding housing crisis.
Its producer, local graffiti artist and event impresario Hugo Gyrl, promises the play is "funny, over-the-top and ridiculous," despite its potentially grim subject matter. "You work with what you're dealt; I think a lot of really good comedy comes out of serious situations."
The play's cowriter and director, Xavier Juarez, is from San Francisco's Mission District, a once working-class Latino neighborhood that's become, he says, "a crazy hipster hub ... where a studio apartment goes for $3,000 [a month]." The building in which Juarez's extended family lived since 1922 now is in the hands of "a trust fund kid who wants to use it for pickling."
Since moving to New Orleans five years ago (a span about which Juarez is both forthright and somewhat abashed), he's seen similar patterns of displacement. The genesis of "The Subletter's Omen" was the unexpected loss of a Mid-City neighbor, “Ms. Audrey,” who was forced to relocate to Kenner when her rent jumped from $750 to $1,350.
"She'd been on our block for a long time," Juarez says, "someone who was always on the porch, talking to people, feeding the cats. Now there's an Airbnb there. The house next to us is an Airbnb too, and on the corner is a giant place that's been divided up into four Airbnbs. And this is Mid-City, not Bywater! I felt in a way that when we lost Ms. Audrey the neighborhood lost its heart."
That painful farewell became the opening of “The Subletter's Omen.”
"It's the only scene in the play that's pure realism," Juarez says. "This character who's being pushed out of New Orleans is a real person." Local actor Carol Sutton "brings so much to the role,” he says. “The same essence that exists within Ms. Audrey."
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The rest of the play is far more fantastical, inspired by real experiences Juarez and his cowriter Sam Springstorm opted to "camp up.” One morning after working on the play, Juarez was awoken at 5 a.m. by a stranger pounding on his door. "It was this barefoot, blonde white woman," Juarez says. "When I opened the door to ask if something was wrong, she bum-rushed me, pushed past me into the house and got into my bed. I couldn't figure out if she was maybe someone my roommate knew. She said her Apple Watch was dead and began demanding I use my phone to call her an Uber. I finally figured out she was from the Airbnb next door."
That sort of surreal situation fuels the play, which is about Rosa (Jamila Jacuzzi) and Oscar (Franky Canga), two housemates trying to scare up a last-minute third via the fictionalized version of a now-institutional "queer housing" social media group. Desperate for anyone who can help them make rent, they end up with what Juarez describes as "this strangely normal person named Gæyle,” played by Joesph Garske. "She's not subcultural at all, she doesn't look or act like other people they know,” Juarez says. Soon the roommates notice odd, creepy details about Gæyle and begin wondering just who — or what — their new subletter really is.
"They attempt a protection spell on the house," Juarez says, since Rosa is "the kind of transplant who gets one tarot reading and thinks she's a witch."
As one would hope in a horror (or even a horror-comedy) narrative, dabbling in the forbidden arts goes badly wrong, setting off a spiral of supernatural terror. There's also plenty of sexual humor, including a demonic Grindr hookup. "We're making fun of ourselves and our peer group," Gyrl says. The giant green monster-finger of the play's satire is "pointing inwards as well as outwards. It's outrageous tongue-in-cheek."
Gæyle's look, a sort of dumpy-yet-belabored plainness, is memorable and iconic.
"Joesph Garske is definitely a fashion icon in his own right," Gyrl said. "It's part of why he's perfect for the role. I feels like he invented 'normcore' years before anyone was talking about it. He's always known how to put together just the right combination of wrong things to be unsettling. He mixes elements of the banal and slightly cringy and gets these haunting results."
The play is staged across multiple art-installation sets created by a dream (or nightmare) roster of New Orleans queer and outré artists; local designer Jami Girouard is among many contributing to the play's look and feel, helping style its human actors and sinister puppets.
Gyrl and Juarez praise the production's diversity of backgrounds and talents, with Gyrl calling the cast "a mixture of legendary, established New Orleans actors, a burlesque star, and New Orleans underground staples like Jamila Jacuzzi."
"A lot of people working on this are not necessarily theater folks," Juarez says. "I've been doing theater here for a while, but I wanted to straddle 'theater' and this New Orleans underground queer art world that exists beyond the city's more formal theater spaces."
For Gyrl, producing a play is a further development of large-scale organizational skills honed on parties, art installations, drag pro wrestling shows and haunted houses. "It's about making sure there's really amazing underground events in New Orleans, because that's what I've always loved about this place,” Gyrl says. “I just try every time to go bigger, better, weirder."