Catastrophic’s disco flashback is seventh ‘Fleaven’
When I elected to devote my life to theater criticism, little did I dream it would one day be necessary to use the term "disco fever" in a review.
Yet that's the only explanation for Catastrophic Theatre's "Fleaven." Playwright Miki Johnson, director Jason Nodler and their cohorts have unexpectedly succumbed to a mass outbreak of the long-dormant bug, resulting in a whacked-out flashback of alarmingly funny proportions.
If this outing were any more camp, they'd need tents and insect repellent.
Just peruse the assemblage of platform shoes, hot pants, spangled tops and out-of-this-world coiffures devised by costumer Kelly Switzer (in collaboration with the cast), and you realize what Catastrophic's crazy gang is up to. Cockeyed nostalgia for the 1970s disco era fuels Johnson's deadpan satire. Yet the show's aesthetic encompasses the same tongue-in-cheek affection for other bastions of pop culture, from superhero comic books, to nonsensical kid-vid, to that irresistible genre of so-bad-they're-funny movie melodramas such as "Johnny Guitar" and "Valley of the Dolls."
"Fleaven" evokes the style of all these and more, along with a dash of John Waters, maybe a soupcon of Ed Wood and the occasional inspired non-sequitur. (How did Christopher Plummer and Captain Von Trapp work their way into the mix?) Even when not lapsing into song-and-dance to the droll parodistic score by Joe Folladori, much of the script unfolds as ear-inveigling verse. This sometimes takes on an almost Shakespearean lilt but more often advances with the hypnotic singsong cadence of Dr. Seuss, rhyme making simple statements more emphatic.
The narrative peg on which Johnson has hung all this nonsense is the clash between Heaven and Flame, two former disco band mates and soulmates who parted nastily when Heaven split for greener pastures with a group called Denim Shorts. Flame retaliates by becoming something like a super villain from the old "Batman" TV series, a costumed baddie forever wreaking havoc and terrorizing the town. The rivalry builds to the inevitable epic showdown, which takes a properly preposterous form.
"Fleaven" also works in a subplot involving Heaven's loyal sidekick, Seven, and his shy love for his idol, Feather, willowy lead singer of Denim Shorts.
Johnson wisely keeps the tale-telling tight, at just about 75 minutes.
Nodler's direction helps with its brisk directness and matter-of-fact way of presenting the ridiculous – as when Flame slices off arms and feet of Heaven's band members. For all the outrageousness, the tone is earnest and innocent.
Choreographer Tamarie Cooper bolsters the proceedings with hilarious ensemble numbers that strike like a bad dream of a '70s TV dance party – not to mention the loopy dream ballet on roller skates, representing Seven's swoony amour for Feather.
Yet it's the fearless cast, more than anything, that sells the show.
Kyle Sturdivant really pops as Heaven, all snide sarcasm and snippy exasperation, punctuated with eye rolls and flouncing gestures. He's on antibiotics, he says. Why? he's asked. "For fun!" He could be channeling Paul Lynde, forever the gold standard for this sort of comic delivery.
Noel Bowers radiates an absurdly ominous presence as Flame – outlandishly garbed, venomously spitting out his rhyming threats and insults. But there's a breaking heart beneath all the menace, so Bowers' ogre even gets a moment of puppy-dog dejection.
Troy Schulze's guileless, wide-eyed Seven is both understated and funny. Ashley Allison's blasé Feather evokes Cher, so cool she's practically catatonic. Jeff Miller exudes crazed energy as the zombielike Slick – a dead character who can't resist jumping back into the plot now and then.
Posterity will tell whether "Fleaven" has lasting significance – and it hasn't even decided yet about disco. For now, the show certainly is a hoot. But don't be surprised if Catastrophic Theatre's disorienting disco flashback leaves you dizzy and running a temperature.