The Catastrophic Theatre is not shy about promising a lot of its latest world premiere, the intriguingly titled “Fleaven.”
“Unlike any play you’ve ever seen before” Catastrophic’s latest extravaganza (we’re told) will “sing and play, rhyme and rap, dance and roller skate its way through a Seussian disco dreamscape,” providing “a joyride in the truest sense of the word.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m already delirious with excitement, and I don’t even know what it’s about yet. I mean, rap and roller skates I can take or leave – but if it attains the Seussian, it’s bound to be fun.
Whimsical speculation aside, there are perfectly pragmatic reasons to expect cool things:
1) It’s from Catastrophic, Houston’s leading alternative theater troupe, which in recent seasons has generated such outstanding and unusual offerings as “Spirits to Enforce,” “Hunter Gatherers,” “Crave” and “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is.”
2) Directing is company founder/artistic director Jason Nodler, known for the original vision and intense involvement he brings to his productions.
3) The writer is Miki Johnson, who has repeatedly impressed with her forceful acting and who made an intriguing playwriting debut earlier this year with Catastrophic’s “American Falls.” (Nodler and Johnson are a couple offstage.)
4) The cast includes an eclectic mix of Catastrophic favorites such as Troy Schulze and Kyle Sturdivant and other brave souls making their company debut. The choreography is by Tamarie Cooper, known for her zany annual summer musicals, with original score and musical direction by Joe Folladori, another Catastrophic reliable.
All these talents are being applied to the clash between Heaven, a “disco professional,” and Flame, the town villain. As per the synopsis, Flame “was left behind when Heaven achieved international disco stardom with the band Denim Shorts. Flame and his entourage terrorize the townspeople in an attempt to reunite with Heaven, leading to an epic disco-mall showdown.”
If this sounds like a festival of camp, it also has a theme: “the breaking up and reconciliation of a friendship gone dark.”
And the title? Well, the show centers on the clash between Flame and Heaven. Combine the two names and see what you get.
But why do Johnson and Nodler – usually found digging into works by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane – suddenly have disco glitz on their minds?
The spark for this project was struck in spring 2011, when Johnson was acting in Catastrophic’s Houston premiere of Kane’s minimalistic, darker-than-dark “Crave.”
“I started writing this while doing that super-heavy play,” Johnson says. “I would leave rehearsals and work on this fantastical, frivolous (in the best sense) piece, mostly in verse. It has a lot of Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss in it. Two things really inspired the writing – a need for brightness and a newfound interest in hip-hop.”
Where does the disco angle come into that equation?
Johnson elaborates: “Heaven is the protagonist, and Flame is the antagonist. In the ’70s, they were in a disco band called Fleaven and had this deep friendship. Then along came a trio of disco professionals who recruited Heaven as drummer in their band Denim Shorts, which became a big success. Heaven forsook Flame and their hometown – which devastated Flame, who has turned into this classic villain. He takes the town hostage and mutilates band members. He gets Heaven fired and sets the stage for a showdown between the two.”
In Johnson’s construct (which makes no claims to historical accuracy), Heaven and Flame represent the clash between disco and hip-hop. Kyle Studivant plays Heaven and Noel Bowers plays Flame.
“It walks a fine line between being a musical and a play with music,” Johnson says. “It’s about bands, so naturally, there are performance numbers. But not all the numbers are presentational. Some move the plot along. It’s a mixture. Though there are nods to certain music genres, Joe’s stamp is all over the original music, creating a genre of his own.”
“There are historical references,” Nodler says. “Styles of music that are in line with specific times from our real world. But the show takes place in a magical world. It’s a completely made-up story of hip-hop, a nontraditional musical.
“The first thing that appealed to me in reading it,” Nodler adds, “was the fresh voice, her completely different way of telling a story. Yes it’s whimsical, it’s campy, it’s mostly in rhyme – but like patter, beat poetry. It has a serious theme everybody can identify with, which has to do with friendship. Particularly, friendship lost and how the love between friends can turn to hate. And whether you either restore the friendship or go on without it and the effect that has on our lives. All that is a very deep thing to me as I relate it to friends I’ve lost over the years. But in this show, it’s told in a light way. It’s hilarious. I’m having so much fun in rehearsals, I’m laughing so hard.”
Something about “Fleaven” jibes with Nodler’s personal aesthetic – whose founding influences, he says, were “the original ‘Batman’ TV series, the live-action-and-puppetry kid-vid of Sid and Marty Kroft (‘H.R. Pufnstuf’) and the beat poets from Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan.”
Nodler sees in the made-up world of “Fleaven” the power of pataphysics – “the science of imaginary solutions” as defined by French playwright Alfred Jarry, a pioneer of the avant-garde.
“In terms we can all understand, it’s the world of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner,” Nodler says. “The world where you’re going along and you come to a mountain in your path. So you pick up a piece of chalk and draw a tunnel on the mountain. And you go through it. I love the concept – and that’s the world of this show.”
Though some find it difficult having a life partner as professional collaborator, Johnson and Nodler say living and working together works fine for them.
“We have an amazing dynamic,” Johnson says. “Like any good working relationship, it’s not perfect. It has days when there’s more tension than others. But that’s true for all of us. What’s really great about our working together is we can come home and have conversations about what we’re working on, but we’re in that relaxed space. It’s part of the fabric so we don’t try to turn that off at home.”
“We enjoy it so,” Nodler says. “We may bring our work home, but we’re also clowning and we have great admiration for each other. The ongoing collaboration is as playful as it is fruitful. And no one else makes us laugh the way we make each other laugh.”
Johnson says she will continue to take the occasional acting role, the ones she cannot refuse. But with two shows under her belt, she intends to focus on writing.
“I prefer writing plays to acting in them,” she says. “I have this really bad stage fright, see? I always have. It’s super-gratifying to be writing now, because I get to experience all the joy of the rehearsal room and none of the anxiety of the performance. I am experiencing probably my happiest time as an artist.”