Though written in the early 1980s, Maria Irene Fornes' surreal, apocalyptic "The Danube" still defines "experimental theater."
With its bleak worldview, arbitrary devices and bizarre flourishes, the play is catnip for the artistes of Catastrophic Theatre, Houston's foremost alternative theater company.
Indeed, director Jason Nodler and actors Amy Bruce, Troy Schulze, Charlie Scott and Kyle Sturdivant are returning to the same roles they played in their 2000 production for Infernal Bridegroom Productions, forerunner of Catastrophic. Not unexpectedly, given the intervening years of both stage experience and sheer life mileage, the current mounting seems a particularly knowing and accomplished rendition. The work's darkness and ironic questioning feel more mature, more genuinely earned - about 15 years' worth.
"The Danube" begins in 1938 Budapest, where visiting American businessman Paul meets bureaucrat Mr. Sandor; his daughter, Eve; and family friend Mr. Kovacs. Paul and Eve fall in love, but as their romance takes hold, so does a mysterious sickness that bedevils them with fainting spells, tremors and other alarming symptoms. The other characters we see are soon similarly afflicted, suggesting this plague is sweeping the city, and maybe beyond. Paul and Eve soldier on, or try to, while becoming increasingly incapacitated.
The peculiarity of the situation is heightened by Fornes' writing choices. The opening scene of Paul meeting the other characters is delivered in the manner of a language-lesson recording. A recorded voice speaks each line, in English and Hungarian, then the actor repeats (in English). The lines are flat, innocuous questions and answers, about the weather and such. The cheery, detached delivery gives the whole process an air of archness and absurdity. Though this format is not used consistently throughout the play, it returns periodically - but with different effect in some later scenes. In a love scene of the leads, for instance, the repeating of lines, spoken without the arch emphasis but with simple feeling, gives them greater depth and meaning.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Oct. 17;
Where: Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 Interstate 10 E.
Tickets: pay what you can; 713-522-2723, catastrophictheatre.com
In another of Fornes' unusual choices, the two closing scenes each play out twice - with the actors manipulating delicate puppet figures of their characters, and with the actors playing the roles themselves.
Though the play is ostensibly set on the eve of World War II, Fornes makes little reference to the period. It could be any time.
With its unexplained threat to life and sense of a world running down, "The Danube" could be interpreted many ways. One could see it as a metaphor for nuclear disaster, natural cataclysm, a specific illness such as AIDS - the play ran off-Broadway in 1984. More likely, Fornes is pondering the inevitable deterioration that, with just a little time, overtakes everyone - no particular disaster required. One senses in her construct, beyond its oddity and wry gallows humor, a sadness and nostalgia for all that will soon be no more - even meaningless routines of coffee and cigarettes and talk about the weather.
Nodler makes the most of the material, letting the audience enjoy laughing at the archness in early scenes, while the darker permutations sneak up gradually or, sometimes, with a sudden impact. The crucial thing is Nodler knows how to handle the stylized content; he knows when to have his actors deliver a line or move "in italics" and when to play it straight.
Schulze convincingly charts Paul's journey from smiling, upbeat and confident to tormented, confused and helpless. Bruce brings warmth and sincerity to Eve, with a great resolve in her farewell to the Danube. The two leads play their key love scene expertly and, in later scenes, are especially good at making it seem that each move and line is a struggle.
Scott invests Sandor with avuncular presence and insane bravado, beaming and impervious - at least until he, too, is overtaken.
Sturdivant, in four roles, impresses once again with his comedic skills. His turn as a waiter is a little gem of timing, facial expressions, perfect pauses and aptly employed takes.
Kevin Holden's production design, with Katie Jackson's attractive painted flats, makes a good arena for the surreal action. Frank Vela's lighting and Shawn St. John's sound design, with well-chosen music, ably enhance the moody atmosphere.
Amid all the play's strangeness, it has some poignant and provocative moments. Nodler and his cast put those across, making Fornes' "The Danube" an interesting place to visit.