Sona Tatoyan, Lucia Brawley, and René Augesen
in Brainpeople
(© David Wilson)
Sona Tatoyan, Lucia Brawley, and René Augesen
in Brainpeople
(© David Wilson)
In the same way that audiences must decide early on when watching a David Lynch film, whether they are going to stick with it, that same dilemma is posed to audiences when they sit down at José Rivera's gripping play Brainpeople, now being given its world-premiere production at the American Conservatory Theater.

If they choose to go ahead and ingest this bold, creative, and complex production, directed by Chay Yew, they are in for a warped yet captivating treat. Indeed, much like the tiger meat that serves as the production's gory centerpiece -- for what becomes an apocalyptic last supper -- they will be hard-pressed to have it ever leave their systems.

Yes, tiger. That's what being served by congenial host Mayannah, a lonely, orphaned, and immensely disturbed heiress (played by the stunning and talented Lucia Brawley), who invites two strangers, Rosemary (Rene Augesen) and Ani (Sona Tatoyan), to her opulent mansion for an intimate dinner. There is a catch; the guests each stand to take home $20,000 each if they can make it through dessert. And as this production unfolds, it's not surprising why. The hostess is, after all, trying to resurrect her dead parents.

But there's also the trouble with Rosemary's personality, make that multiple personalities, that effortlessly take turns flowing in and out of the channels. Augesen absolutely nails this difficult role, and she shines brightest in the show's final scene, when she morphs into Mayannah's dead father. Meanwhile, Ani, an interesting mix of uptight nerdiness and unabashed crassness, initially seems to be the only sane one of the bunch -- until you find out what and who really broke her heart. Then one wonders why Ani isn't the craziest one of this dysfunctional trio. Tatoyan also delivers an outstanding performance, one that ends with a potent and very surprising transformation.

Oh, and then there's the tiger, served rare and heaped high on an elegant platter, and made even eerier by a butcher knife sunk deep into one bloody shank. Moreover, the stunning stage design from Daniel Ostling gives the production the beauty and elegance of a Renaissance painting, yet accented with enough modern touches that this play completely feels as if it is in the here and now.

Rivera has penned a gorgeous, riveting play -- one that's only risk, as it goes out in the world, is that it will not be as effective without its original cast.