Times call for staging of 'Mourner' at Catastrophic Theatre

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by Wei-Huan Chen, Houston Chronicle
 Yi-Chin Lee, Staff / © 2016  Houston Chronicle

Jason Nodler knew he had to do something.

After the election of Donald Trump, the artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre asked himself a question many artists have been struggling with since November: "What now?"

"The implications of the election shook me hard," Nodler says. "I felt a desperate need to do something. What's next? What's going to be our part?"

The answer came almost immediately: to stage Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner."

Written in 1996, Shawn's play features three people living in a country in political turmoil, in which a fascist government is jailing and murdering subversives and intellectuals.
 

As recently pointed out in an essay in the New Republic by Rumaan Alam, the play's central conflicts feel strikingly familiar when read today. In one scene, for example, the daughter of a famed political poet makes the following observation on the state of the nation:

"Incidentally, have you ever noticed the way that people are always asking, as if there would be a new answer each time, 'How could this have happened?' 'How can that have happened?!' 'Why, it seems impossible!' et cetera. And yet, actually, the answer to those questions is always the same."

The Catastrophic Theatre first staged "The Designated Mourner" in 2010. It's Nodler's favorite play written in the past century, and he says this is the first time the theater has staged a work and timed it specifically as a response to current events.

It's a rare move by the theater to announce an off-season production out of the blue and begin rehearsal right away. But Nodler, as well as a community of artists who bombarded him with requests to stage the play, felt a special sense of urgency.

"I feel so alive and alert right now," he says. "I'm so engaged in a common cause. And the play is very funny."

Greg Dean, who starred as Jack in 2010, will reprise his role.

"It's going to feel a lot like being in church," Dean says of the play. "Because so many have fallen into such a despair, to hear these things talked about and examined in such a way, where we talk about the current state of the world, the merging of the personal and political, and questions like, 'Have I behaved courageously? Have I paid attention to the things I've paid attention to?' "

Dean will be joined by Patricia Duran, who plays Jack's partner, Judy. Paul Menzel plays Howard, Judy's father, the political poet who argues for pseudo-populist ideas.

Howard, though a member of the liberal elite, centers his philosophies on how societies should treat the poor. Dean notes that because Howard and Judy show a degree of ineptitude when faced against the government, some accused "The Designated Mourner" as an attack on the liberal intelligentsia.

But the play's complexity lies in its ability to contain a multitude a perspectives, and "every one of them is right," Nodler says, adding that "this is not a partisan play."

 

In fact, working on the play has given the cast and crew a much needed sense of unity, he says.

"I've never been in a rehearsal process where everyone felt so excited," Nodler says. "We are collectively inspired to a degree that we've never been. This is different. It's special and critical. We're like a SWAT team. We have a mission."

 

More Information

'The Designated Mourner'

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 15. The final Sunday performance is at 7 p.m.

Where: MATCH, 3400 Main St.

Tickets: Pay what you can. $35 suggested donation; catastrophictheatre.com