Catastrophic Theatre’s MIDDLETOWN is Darkly Comic and Philosophical
Will Eno, who is currently enjoying his Broadway debut with THE REALISTIC JONESES at the Lyceum Theatre, won the 2010Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play with his darkly comedic musings on the lives we lead between birth and death in his play MIDDLETOWN. The play has enjoyed successful runs Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Dobama Theatre of Cleveland Heights, and Actor's Shakespeare Project of Boston. With a solid Regional Premiere, The Catastrophic Theatre is gifting Houston audiences with a chance to experience the wry, philosophic work that celebrates the mundane.
In MIDDLETOWN, a non-descript American suburb, there is nothing but ordinary people leading unexceptionally ordinary lives. There's an insensitive cop, a drunk mechanic, a cheerful but dry librarian, a frank doctor, and a pensive plumber. Mary Swanson (and her husband that we never see) has just moved to MIDDLETOWN, and much of the play centers on her exploration of the quaint burgh and her getting acquainted with the locals. As the play moves forward, we soon see how everyone is connected by a pervasive air of isolation and loneliness that allows each character, without any filter, to wax philosophic about birth, death, and the seemingly endless chasm between the cataclysmic events that demarcate the beginnings and endings of human existence.
Directing the show Kyle Sturdivant has cleverly created a theatrical event that is equal parts humorous and discomforting. If you're like me, it may take some time and digestion before the profundity of the work and its implications sink in. If this is the case, expect a light bulb moment over the next morning's coffee. However, if you're like my theatre going companion, you can expect Kyle Sturdivant's direction and Will Eno's words to viscerally stir your emotions both during and after the production. Regardless of your personal reactions to the piece, there is no denying that Kyle Sturdivant has coached his cast to make the weighty material accessible, interesting, and thought provoking. At times the exercises in the commonplace seem excruciating, but that is only because the mirror the audience has held up to them conceals no flaws. Will Eno and Kyle Sturdivant have the audience face truths head on, adding only the trappings of pure artistry (i.e. lyrical words and capable performances) to separate what occurs on the stage from the actual lives of the audience.
The play itself, the cast, and the even Ryan McGettigan's Scenic Design are surprisingly and satisfyingly conceptual. Each element blends and melds together to bring Will Eno's fictional hamlet, inspired by Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, to life before our eyes. Without hesitation, the central male character, John Dodge states, "I just want to be a regular living person." As a friendly neighbor, a decently skilled plumber, a human troubled by his own self-aggrandizing ideations about birth, life, and death, is he not a regular living person? That is the question that Will Enoseems to toss around the most. Aren't we all simply regular living people? Don't we all contemplate whether aspects of life are worth doing? In Will Eno's play the librarian praises Mary for wanting to get a library card, stating "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.'" Will Eno, Kyle Sturdivant, and this cast all present these day to day and commonplace aspects of life to show audiences how meaningfully meaningless our individual existences are, and each does it with precision.
As Mary Swanson, Patricia Duran leads the show. Like the audience she is an outsider navigating Middletown. Her discoveries about the population are ours as well. Meanwhile, she consistently talks of her absentee husband, which highlights her own loneliness and allows her, and the audience alike, to feel connected to her genial neighbor John Dodge, the town plumber.
As John Dodge, Kevin Lusignolo is desperately seeking to understand why his own existence matters. Skilled as a plumber and in various other ways, he is charmingly neighborly and agonizingly alone. Inescapable loneliness drips off of his character. Kevin Lusignolo expertly crafts a character that is overwhelmingly mundane but also always searching for a way to live a life that has some semblance of greater meaning.
Fleshing out the inhabitants of the town, Kyle Sturdivant's Mechanic is the loveably awkward town drunk whose woozy ramblings are far more intelligent and perceptive than they may initially appear. Rutherford Cravens' prickly and domineering cop is abusively authoritative. Lindsay Sweeney's Librarian projects an ebullient persona, but her words are unsettlingly morose. Amy Bruce's Female Tourist demanded truth and her Female Doctor is compassionate but candid in her assessments of life. Greg Dean creates a Public Speaker that tediously tries to acknowledge every possible human to have ever existed in his welcoming overture, a poetic astronaut, and an industrious janitor. Kevin Jones' Male Tourist also demanded truth and his Landscaper was weirdly optimistic in some of the play's darkest moments. Candice D'Meza is caring as Attendant. Miranda Herbert Aston's Tour Guide just wanted to do her job appropriately and her Attendant #2 was a conscientious hospital employee.
In the play's most metaphysical moment, Will Eno fascinating gifts audiences with a faux intermission where he has a new set of characters divorced from his fictional Middletown discuss the play while hinting at why people even bother with attending live theatre. Amy Bruce as a doting Aunt, Candice D'Meza as the outspoken Woman, Xzavien Hollins as a discerning Man, Kevin Jones as a self-absorbed Freelancer, and Karen Morey as Sweetheart, a child who almost seems Autistic, make this scene incredibly absorbing.
Ryan McGettigan's Scenic Design is captivating for being both fully realized and sparse at the same time. The symmetry of the Swanson and Dodge homes and hospital rooms are realistically unrealistic, as are the brick wall wings painted sky blue with clouds. This all made even more pronounced because of the Astroturf flooring.
Dustin Tannahill's Lighting Design is surreal and emotionally devoid. He bathes the stage and cast in lights that are realistic; however, his uses of cleverly designed dusks on the upstage cyclorama are not always plausible. Also, he utilizes brilliant blackouts to give the audience a couple of false endings before the curtain is drawn closed.
Macy Lyne's Costume Design looks appropriate at all times.
The Catastrophic Theatre's production of Will Eno's MIDDLETOWN is dark, edgy, and delightfully unpredictable. There may be times where you sigh and hope for it to end, but there will be more times where you find yourself completely engrossed in the production and attending to each powerfully awkward revelation of the human condition. It is also a play that will leave you thinking. The more time you spend contemplating it, the more you'll find yourself liking and appreciating it.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
MIDDLETOWN, produced by The Catastrophic Theatre, runs at The Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway, Houston, 77002 now through June 14, 2014. Performances are Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. As always, all tickets are Pay What You Can. For more information and tickets, please visit http://catastrophictheatre.com or call (713) 522-2723.