Caught Up in the Apocalypse at Catastrophic With Tragedy: a Tragedy

If you ever wanted to see moonlight on stage, go to Catastrophic Theatre and bask in the light that Jayden Key throws off as The Witness in Will Eno’s absurdist, existential comedy, Tragedy: a Tragedy.

Key is one of five characters caught up in an apocalypse – the final one, it seems – that Eno depicts in his idiosyncratic theatrical manner.

The sun has not risen, and the Earth is now enveloped in deathly, eerie darkness. A local television station covers the event in the patently fatuous style that is the hallmark of any 24/7 news broadcast. Anchorman Frank (Greg Dean), silver-haired and sleekly unctuous, tries to hold himself and his program together as the world outside falls apart. Reporter Constance (Elizabeth Marshall Black) is stationed at an abandoned house where the owners have fled. John (Jovan Jackson) is in the field, literally, a woods where the animals, behaving like animals, as he duly reports to fill time, thereafter menace and loom on the lightless horizon. Legal adviser Michael (Bryan Kaplún) reports from the governor’s mansion with dispatches from the increasingly frazzled politician. Some of the clueless governor’s advice: “People might consider holding hands…or panicking and running.”

The Witness appears behind John, first silent and spooky, disappearing into the inky shadows. Later, he answers a few of the reporter’s vacuous questions but seems shell-shocked and bemused. When John has melted down into a puddle of insecurity and fright, The Witness returns for the play’s final moments. Like the others, he tells a story of his childhood, of sweet dreams, and his parents walking slowly backward out of his bedroom, saying “good night.” Is his tale one of hope in this darkest night, or the final resignation in the face of total disaster? Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper? Is this the way anyone’s life ends?

Enveloped in Hudson Davis’ spectral lighting that illuminates only his face, Key is mesmerizing. There’s not a sound in the theater as he weaves his spell of innocence. This scene is one of Houston theater’s most magical moments, probably not to be repeated any time soon. It’s rare, wondrous, and terribly moving. Key showcases Eno at his best.

Even though this is his first published play, Eno’s distinctive ironic voice is in full sail. This most contemporary playwright is rare, wondrous, and moving, too. Middletown, Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Realistic Joneses, revel in language, bounce and romp around the starts and stops of quotidian talk, squeal with non sequiturs, and quiet the room with the poetry of description and aching emotion. His theater voice is unique, grounded in the everyday, yet absurdist in its uplifting flights of fancy.

This early work doesn’t quite fly on all cylinders. There’s too much sketch comedy to the early scenes of broadcast news mockery, which unfortunately prompts the audience to expect some full-length SNL version. When things turn dire and nihilistic, the audience still laughs. The comedy has stopped scenes ago. After 70 minutes or so, when each character has broken down in primal hurt and numb inaction, and the TV lights at the station have gone off, The Witness appears out of the darkness for a final report. Key is so pure, radiantly alive and truthful, no one dares laugh.

Catastrophic embraces Eno in warm, loving arms. Ryan McGettigan’s elemental settings of Constance’s abandoned house, John’s woods, and Frank’s News 12 newsroom are shot with color that pierce the gloom. A sky backdrop twinkles, while down on earth, only the reporters’ camera lights offset the eternal blackness. Yezminne Zepeda’s sound design with musical electronic thrum spells encroaching doom, while director Tamarie Cooper tamps down the surreal and turns it intensely personal.

Eno loves life. He just seems to think it’s hell to live through it. What else can we do at its end but whisper a sweet “goodnight” and gently close the door?