Catastrophic Theatre keeps it wonderful and weird with ‘Anna Bella Eema’

Visionary director Jason Nodler and his alternative theater companies – first Infernal Bridegroom and, since 2008, Catastrophic Theatre – have given Houston many weird and wonderful experiences.

During early moments of Anna Bella Eema, Catastrophic’s current offering, you may fear this one is going to prove simply weird.

But stick with this willfully eccentric creation from Obie-winning off-Broadway playwright Lisa D’Amour, and you’ll find it exerts an eerie and almost hypnotic fascination – even as some aspects leave you scratching your head. Certainly, key lines, images and sequences will stay with you for days, like scraps of some other-worldly, half-remembered dream.

Described as “a ghost story for three bodies with three voices,” Anna Bella Eema blurs the line between the real and the imaginary. The format is stark and simple. Three women sit in chairs and speak their stories, sometimes alternating monologues, sometimes as dialogue. They punctuate the action using the many props on the folding TV tables set out before each one. Periodically, they sing a capella incantations, laments, primal cries – nothing like conventional song.

Listed in the program only as One, Two and Three, the women are: 25-year-old Irene, a disturbed and disturbing agoraphobic who has spent her entire life inside her trailer-park home; Anna Bella, her restless 10-year-old daughter who escapes their limited world in imaginary journeys; and Anna Bella Eema, the girl Anna Bella formed from the mud outside their trailer, who cannot speak but expresses herself in other ways. The mud child also takes on various speaking roles from time to time, including a menacingly macho policeman.

Two crises befall. Under the golem’s influence, Anna Bella falls into what looks like death but is actually a five-day coma in which she goes on a dream journey. Meanwhile, the three are about to be forcibly evicted, because the trailer park is being condemned for a highway, and all other inhabitants have long since departed. The stage is set for a violent confrontation that will determine the fate of the odd trio.

Within a harsh Samuel Beckett universe, D’Amour deftly mines the magic realism vein. Tales of wise talking foxes and such lend a Little Prince vibe. The line “I was visited by a werewolf once” is presented as matter-of-factly as “I was visited by a social worker once.” D’Amour has a way with the psychologically telling line, as when Anna Bella expresses anger with her mom: “Even though I’m only 10, she fills me with the rage of a powerless middle-aged man.”

Did I mention that the writing has a strongly feminist slant?

Fans of this company might have assumed Nodler could not possibly recruit any actress more scarily intense than Catastrophic regular Mikelle Johnson, but Nodler has found three to enact Anna Bella Eema with relentless ferocity.

As Irene, Elissa Levitt acts, sings, keens, threatens with brooding intensity and glowering determination. She projects the witchy air of someone whose house children would be terrified to go near.

Ivy Castle, the marvelous living doll of Main Street’s I Am Barbie, here plays the dark flip side of girlish femininity, dangerously impulsive and unmanageable.

Jessica Janes invests the spit-and-mud girl with demonic force and unpredictability. Watch her evolve an innocent smile into a horrifying, wild-eyed leer. Janes also impresses taking on other roles, such as the nasty cop.

Anna Bella continues Nodler’s recent run of productions such as Crave and The Designated Mourner, demonstrating how to do much with little in terms of strictly limited movement and playing area – notably resourceful work.

Under Nodler’s tautly focused direction, the three women play out their fevered fantasy with the wildness and power of feral animals on a rabid spree.