Catastrophic Theater finds the funny and sad magic in Beckett

Houston’s independent Catastrophic Theater troupe celebrates 30 years with a production about a woman buried by life and memories.

Take a dancer and cover her in a mound of dirt. The action seems counterintuitive. But the Catastrophic Theater knows what it’s doing.

The company decided to sink one of its founders, Tamarie Cooper, into an increasingly swelling pile of soil, while another, Jason Nodler, directs her through the muck. Stick around long enough with an independent theater company, and the work consumes you. So as Winnie — the tragic but not too tragic lead in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” — Cooper calls upon other aspects of her training as a dancer while her legs are submerged in detritus.

Cooper and Nodler did the play more than 20 years ago, a previous staging back when Catastrophic was known as Infernal Bridegroom. A review at the time suggested Cooper turned in a strong performance but was a little young for the role.

“I was indignant,” Cooper says. “I got all, ‘Uh-uh.’ But now, I think, God, yes, that was true. I still believe you don’t have to be an old person to play a role like this. But the play has so many themes in it about aging, it helps to have more life in you. And we approached work differently back then.
“It’s funny, I don’t really have a lot of memories of the process the first time. It’s not because I was drunk …”

Nodler: “I’m sure I was.”

Two decades later, the two have aged into the work. Which isn’t to say Beckett’s play about a woman sinking into memories and lost potential has to be about aging, necessarily. But both Cooper and Nodler suggest the passing of time has enriched their connection to the text, which is sweet, sad and funny.

Nodler points out that some of the more glum aspects of Beckett’s work are too often emphasized in the shorthand connected to the writer.

“He’s very funny,” Nodler says. “There’s always humor in what he does.”

“Happy Days” — its title deliberately tart — opens the Catastrophic Theater’s 30th anniversary year. In many ways, it feels like a perfect choice: for this creative group. The theater company started in Houston as an underdog that sought to marry feeling with thoughtfulness, doing theater that veered from the mainstream. Nodler found Beckett somewhat by accident. When he and Cooper were students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, they enjoyed a period at that school where students took a break from their course of study and dove into electives.

“I didn’t sign up in time for the electives I wanted,” he says. “So I got this class, Theater of the Absurd. And it resonated with me. … It put me on a path. Beckett became my theater origin story.”

Beckett’s “Endgame” was an early Infernal Bridegroom show. And the Irish playwright has never drifted too far from the company’s doings. Every few years, Catastrophic — which emerged in 2007 from Infernal Bridegroom after a financial, well, catastrophe — returns to Beckett. His mix of sad and funny is the company’s magnetic north.

But “Happy Days” is an intriguing endeavor. Nodler and Cooper are staging the play with some degree of familiarity. But they also have lost members along the way. And they’ve aged from punky upstarts to venerable punky upstarts. Their endeavor has hardly codified into a mainstream institution.

Catastrophic continues to program theater that is thoughtful while also needling the soul. But it does so now with a seasoned quality. If youth is wasted on the young, Catastrophic has aged into itself. Provocative theater that felt avant-garde was just waiting for its viewers (and performers) to catch up to its storytelling.

“To be fair, I feel I have some of the components of Winnie,” Cooper says. “Jason says there’s a pathological optimism on my part.”

Nodler: “She’s pathologically well-adjusted.”

Cooper tamps down such commentary by calling it “just the bright side of my personality.”

Nodler says the pair almost perfectly work together as the smiling and weeping masks associated with theater. He doesn’t need to point out that he has his moments of jest and she has her moments of grief. Theirs is a natural collaboration, even three decades later.

Which makes “Happy Days” a perfect play for Catastrophic now.

“Obviously we’re all aging,” Nodler says. “And it’s a play about aging. It’s commonly played by a very old woman. Beckett wrote something like, ‘a woman of 50.’ ”

Cooper adds, “A woman about 50, well preserved and ample bosomed. Which is finally a perfect description of a character I can play.”

A dancer originally, Cooper has — over three decades — proven dance is not a vacuum but rather a suitable jumping-in point for all manner of creative experience that encompasses comedy and tragedy and any terrain between.

Beckett serves as a logical choice for her and Nodler.

“We try to choose timeless plays,” Nodler says. “Things that speak to the strangeness of the human condition. Winnie has a line that speaks to that, talking about the weather and asking about ‘temperate times.’ ”

Which makes “Happy Days” a perfect play for 2022, amid churn prompted by politics, cultural fissures and a pandemic. It’s an appropriate play for a time when people reassess their goals and interests. When we reassess what matters.

As Nodler points out about the mound that consumes Winnie: “We’re all sinking. We’re all facing diminishing circumstances.”

But he and Cooper both refer to the lightness of touch in Beckett’s work. He didn’t stare into the void and then send that void back into the world.

“There’s humor there,” Nodler says. “Which makes it such a great role for Tamarie now. She’s a great dramatic actor. But she’s also a great comedic actor.”

Cooper cites a fulcrum that occurred between when she first did the role two decades ago and now.

Winnie looks into a mirror and applies some lipstick.

“I don’t necessarily feel 52 now, doing this role,” she says. “But it’s this moment that takes me back. I find these thoughts I didn’t necessarily have in 2000. I think we all have those moments. You look into a mirror, like Winnie, and maybe we falter. Or maybe we think back to who we were before.
“We don’t always have these thoughts when we’re younger.”