Catastrophic Theatre is off to a bold start
When Catastrophic Theatre sets sail Friday with the area premiere of Big Death and Little Death, you can expect the journey to be a bit jarring.
Director Jason Nodler wouldn't have it any other way.
Comfort-food theater is not Nodler's dish — as anyone familiar with his work can attest. In 1993, Nodler co-founded Infernal Bridegroom Productions and was its artistic director until 2003. Houston's leading alternative theater troupe folded last year due to financial difficulties.
After several years freelance directing around the nation, Nodler is back helming a new company, with former IBP icon Tamarie Cooper as associate artistic director (and so far, the group's only other staffer). They are launching Catastrophic with Mickey Birnbaum's apocalyptic comedy, produced in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance.
"I began in the theater as a playwright," Nodler says, "but wanting to write a play unlike anything else I'd seen in theater. Something very funny, very weighty, very pop — equal parts art and entertainment. In finding this play, it's as if I found the play I was always trying to write."
As the company describes it, Big Death is "a dark comedy with pit-bull cannibalism, death metal, war veterans, car crashes, drugs, sex, teen angst and the end of the world." Premiered in 2005 at Washington, D.C.'s, Woolly Mammoth, it has divided critics there and elsewhere. Peter Marks of the Washington Post found it "pretty excruciating … a shrill meditation on nihilism in America."
Yet reviewing the production Nodler directed later that year at Providence, R.I.'s, Perishable Theatre, Bill Rodriguez wrote: "Nodler has assembled a perceptive cast that nails this bittersweet play like a stake through the heart of oblivious contemporary culture … (it) can be a high point of your theatergoing year."
"It's about a returning Gulf War vet who finds himself unable to reintegrate into society and his family," Nodler says. "And the effect on his teen son and daughter who need his attention. There are flashbacks to the story's core traumatic event that happened one year earlier, when he'd just returned, when he's greeted by his family and during his ride home with them.
"Really," he adds, "it's about one big death and myriad little deaths."
A pivotal theme is the death-obsession of the three teen characters — the vet's son and daughter and their friend.
"The teen years are when we're just becoming real people," Nodler says, "and when we're becoming aware of issues such as death. Everyone experiences alienation then. The world is never weirder than it is then."
When Nodler left IBP and his native Houston in 2003, it was never meant as a permanent departure.
"Leaving then was about the fact that I'd been working in the same circles for a decade," Nodler says. "It was important to experience other situations, work with other artists. I always planned to return periodically to work with IBP, and if the money had been there, that would have happened at least once a year."
After IBP's demise, and with its artists seeking another forum, Nodler and Cooper decided to regroup for a new venture with the same revolutionary aesthetic — and maybe a shade more maturity.
"We have different concerns in our mid-30s than we had when we started IBP in our early 20s. We've learned a lot, we hope, in the course of making theater and living over the past 15 years. What remains the same is a real commitment to honest, deeply personal work and the increasingly absent element of fun. I think if we're having fun and we're really engaged in honest storytelling, then the audience recognizes and becomes part of that."
Big Death features Catastrophic members (and former IBP regulars) Cooper, Walt Zipprian, Noel Bowers andJeff Miller, along with four UH students. UH faculty is involved, too, with Mikelle Johnson in the cast and John Gow designing the production.
"When Jason brought this to the table (as potential inaugural show), it seemed ideal," Cooper says. "I think it's a great play. It has all the elements that would have attracted our old IBP audiences. It has humor and it has pop elements. It's poignant and also apocalyptic. The dialogue is wonderful. Some people think it's really dark, but I find it to have a lot of hope."
Big Death provides another example of the increasing collaboration between the UH school and the city's arts companies under Steven Wallace, who became the school's new director in September.
"It's important for our students to work with different theater companies so that they understand what it's like in the professional world," Wallace says, noting the varied methods and approaches employed by different directors and companies. Wallace is convinced that such collaboration is helpful to the arts scene at large and "an invaluable experience for students who are serious about pursuing stage careers."
Nodler was pleasantly surprised at Wallace's familiarity with his work and support for a collaboration between UH and Nodler's new company.
"I came in ready to make a complicated pitch, to explain who I was and what I'd like to do," Nodler recalls. "Instead, Steve was like, 'Great to meet you, I've read a lot about your work and can we do something together?' He understands the value of exposing students to different sorts of theater, different methods of working."
John DeLoach, a sophomore theater major, is cast as Gary, the veteran's disaffected son.
"It's helpful for the student actors in the cast to work with professionals from the outside community," DeLoach says. "We're all meshing well. Jason is great about giving us the freedom to explore different possibilities. And it broadens our horizons to do this type of show, which is definitely not the type of work you usually get to do as a student actor. The whole play — it's a car crash."