Fleaven: Imagining An Entire Town Contained Within a Huge Shopping Mall

The set-up:

After Miki Johnson's first play American Falls received the Best Play Award at the Houston Theater Awards this year from the Houston Press, her next play has been eagerly anticipated by theater buffs, and it arrives on the scene surprisingly different. Johnson is not a playwright, it seems, who repeats herself.

The execution:

Johnson has creatively imagined an entire town contained within a huge shopping mall – the mantra here is: "The town is the mall. The mall is the town. The mall is a disco mall." The set itself is the disco bar, and there is the familiar "Galleria-style" illuminated map at stage right, a paging system at stage left for locating lost children, and at the back of the stage escalators to get to another shopping level. And of course a bar and a raised disco platform for the comedic madness about to ensue.

The opening introduces us to Heaven, a drummer (no, not the salesman) who had a huge success with the disco band Denim Shorts, until its success was cut short (I use this term advisedly as it involves a saber) by his arch-enemy Flame.

Kyle Sturdivant plays Heaven, in a bravura performance that is strong, hilarious, captivating and practically flawless – all in an open-shirt, reeking of lounge-lizard, and revealing one of the hairiest chests in Christendom.

Flame is played by Noel Bowers in a red comic-book-hero costume; he comes complete with a large entourage, varying in height and ethnicity but united by rich, raw talent. Bowers' physique is not cast in the heroic mold, as his form-fitting outfit makes abundantly clear, but he provides a powerful protagonist, determined upon revenge against Heaven, who had left a band (and bond) with Flame to join Denim Shorts.

Heaven's sidekick, Seven, is portrayed by Troy Schulze; Seven is in love with Feather, a member of Flame's entourage, but is too shy to pursue her. Feather is portrayed by Ashey Allison, tall, slender, stunningly beautiful, with a model's gift for wearing exotic garments.

Seven's role is primarily interlocutor – as Heaven recounts events in flashbacks, Seven has lines such as: "Please go on". Schulze delivers his trademark low-key performance, appropriate for the parts he usually plays, but less so here: a more lively characterization might have worked better, as the other characters are excitingly vivid.

Chief among these is Jeff Miller as Slick, deceased owner of a motorcycle repair shop, whose eager eyes gleam with maniacal glee, peering from raccoon-style eye makeup, and shedding grave-dust with every movement. He is a comic delight.

The large ensemble is wonderful, and the choreography by Tamarie Cooper is inventive and witty. The lines are written in doggerel, and this often pays off in humor, though not always.

The set design is by Laura Fine Hawkes and the excellent set construction is by Mark Jircik Exhibits Fabricators. The lighting by Kirk Markley and Bryan Nortin is varied and adroit. The costumes by Kelly Switzer deliver elegance where needed, and low humor when wanted.

The entire production is polished – I'm still admiring the choreography, and the escalators. Director Jason Nodler and playwright Johnson have created an entertaining event of sustained levity. The plot is complex, and more thoughtful and credible than most comedies, and the entire concept is richly involving, and contains considerable well-crafted elements of suspense.

As performed here, the tone is "camp", but the concept is strong enough that it might work equally well as film noir. It is a work that may well have legs, and be produced elsewhere. It runs about seventy minutes, with no intermission – with the addition of a few show-stopping songs with great lyrics, it might become a rival to The Rocky Horror Show; the timing would permit that. 

The verdict:

In her second play, Johnson continues her home-run streak, and gives us a fresh, witty and vastly entertaining comedy, in a polished production certain to delight.

Fleaven continues through November 17, from Catastrophic Theatre at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-522-2723 or contact www.catastrophictheatre.com.