Catastrophic Theatre’s Big Death and Little Death Former IBP players leave us wanting more

Out of the ashes of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Houston’s infamously wicked avant-garde theater company that went down in flames last season, rises The Catastrophic Theatre. Created by ex-IBPers Jason Nodler and Tamarie Cooper, Catastrophic looks a lot like IBP — the company has the same push-the-artistic-envelope-goals and the same performers as IBP. For the company’s Houston premiere, the typically fiercely independent Nodler has teamed up with the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance. Using some student performers and faculty designers, Nodler has clearly tried to bring his unique vision to Mickey Birnbaum’s Big Death and Little Death, a postmodern apocryphal tale about war, drugs and family. But the resulting production of this team effort doesn’t get Catastrophic off to the wild start that anyone who admired IBP, including this reviewer, would hope for.

The production certainly looks good. John Gow’s set and lights offer up strange delights, such as an old VW van plowing straight down into the stage floor, rock walls climbing to the ceiling, and a nighttime sky filled with twinkling stars. The show sounds great, too. Chris Bakos has filled the scene changes with angry metal music, evoking the dark hearts beating inside the disenfranchised teens at the center of the story.

There’s Gary (John DeLoach), a lanky stick of a boy who raises pit bulls and gets involved with the wrong kind of girl. His buddy Harley (Noel Bowers) hangs out smoking pot, drinking Cokes and making googly eyes at Gary’s sister, Kristi (Mikelle Johnson), who’s in as bad a shape as the boys. She keeps a scrapbook of photographs of dead people under her bed, all taken by her dad at his insurance job.

Dad (Walt Zipprian), who gives his daughter the horrific images as a way of connecting with her since he can’t seem to find any other way, is just one of a whole host of badly behaving adults who make these kids miserable. He’s come back from the first war in the Middle East so damaged that he can’t relate to anyone, especially his wife (Tamarie Cooper). Dad’s so angry that when, during a car ride, Mom tells him she’s been having an affair, something terrible happens. It involves a sudden flight — and a death.

True to its title, there’s a lot of death in this play. Puppies get eaten. Uncle Jerry (Jeff Miller) phones Gary from his death, and, of course, something very strange happens to Mom. Then there’s the matter of the apocalypse looming up in the sky in all those gorgeous stars.

As strange and dark as all this might sound, the production itself is oddly bereft of emotional power or, in fact, intellectual edge. The energy is scattered, and whatever it is that drives these characters is never clear. There is also often an uneasy disconnect between the actors. The ones playing the kids are more real, while those playing adults tend to be more campy. If this is Nodler’s intention, one can only speculate that he might be trying to underscore the distance between the grownups and the teens. But what ends up happening is that these two groups often appear to be in different shows, and generally, the kids are besting the adults.

As Gary and Kristi, DeLoach and Johnson get the closest of anyone onstage to the kind of energy that’s needed to move this show into high gear, which is where a story this long needs to spend most of its time. Though both are too old for their roles (and that is a problem in this story about teenagers), Johnson’s morose Kristi is as close to a heartbreak as this show gets. She’s the kid no grownup wants to encounter — needy and plain, with every bad adolescent quality. She could break your heart, if Johnson were in a stronger production. DeLoach is also almost someone we could care about, but his Gary still lacks focus. He doesn’t fully embrace the angst-driven kid who would have sex with his school counselor and sell out his pet dog for a mystery drug known only as “bub.”

It was hard leaving the theater and wishing for more — more energy, more laughs, more emotion, more razors of pain. That’s especially the case here, knowing that Nodler is capable of all that and more. But there’s always tomorrow. And it is very good to know that he’s back in town; Houston needs his energy. While this first show might not be the gorgeous phoenix this reviewer was hoping would rise from the fall of IBP, The Catastrophic Theatre is bound to show us what it’s capable of in the not too distant future.