HOUSTON CHRONICLE REVIEW: Catastrophic Theatre’s quarantine web series a surprising delight

“Tamarie Cooper’s 2020: Quarantine Edition!” is a new webseries from the Catastrophic Theatre that falls squarely right in the middle of amateur and professional. It has the homemade quality of a stitched-together Zoom project, the thoughtful effort of seasoned performers and every bit the awkward charm of local theater. A replacement for the theater’s annual summer musical, “The Tamarie Cooper Show,” this series captures the Tamarie Cooper tradition via a string of original satirical songs and short sketches.

I started the first half-hour with my full attention, my laptop in full-screen mode placed on another laptop on top of my kitchen table. But soon I moved the laptop into the kitchen, still keenly watching while I washed a few dishes and wiped off bits of last night’s barbacoa on the countertop. This is not to say “2020” doesn’t hold your attention, but rather that it’s a light ride, akin to a zany Zoom Happy Hour. Because the Catastrophic Theatre has no control over the method or manner of consumption, its art takes on a more relaxed, flexible quality.

What does it mean that you can now watch a piece of “theater” while doing dishes? Consuming theater during the pandemic, where artist and audience are both in the domestic environment, means the “theatricality” of the experience is removed.

The Catastrophic Theatre wittily plays with this situation. They recognize theaters are a bit helpless right now. They admit, through self-effacing jokes, that it’s quite ridiculous to worry about art when people need money, healthcare and systemic police reform, not jokes. (Cooper compares her web-show to a soldier bringing a whoopie cushion to the front lines).

In an introduction with actor Kyle Sturdivant, Cooper asks her co-host what people need more than ever right now. “Face masks? A systemic end to racism? ICU beds? Police reform?” Sturdivant replies. “No! Art,” Cooper says, lifting hands up and out in a self-congratulatory flourish.

The self-aware, self-parodying humor makes “2020” a surprising delight. Nearly all the sketches, delivered in quick-fire manner, poke fun at the pitiful situation of performers and audiences being trapped in their houses. When the cast video-dials in, Sturdivant finds, to his horror, that everyone is singing in costume. He ends the musical raucous with a yelp. “Everybody stop musical theater-ring!” And so the series continues in this way, constantly editing and critiquing itself. The show becomes an experience of watching theater artists struggle to find a voice in an online-only world.

In one song, Catastrophic members sing about how they’re going crazy being home all day. In another musical number, by Joe Folladori, four performers play an original song via videoconference, only to have the song foiled by technical difficulties.

And so “2020” finds a bit of honesty in its voice. It lays bare the sad state everyone is in right now, trapped at home without the ability to see and collaborate with other humans. If the Catastrophic had staged a serious show, it might have risked the out-of-touch narcissism of Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video. Gadot’s intention was to invite fellow celebrities to inspire a troubled America by singing a song into their phones and upload it to Instagram. What was intended to be an act of healing through art came across as a desperate cry for relevance, imbued with an optimism that reeked of privilege.

The act of singing for someone to “save” them borders on insensitivity. But the problem is that many artists, especially those in the theater world, do think art can heal minds and save souls. They wouldn’t have become artists if they thought otherwise. Insignificance, more so than social distancing, is theater’s number one threat now.

“2020” acknowledges that “theater matters” is simply too out-of-touch a stance to take right now, and takes the route of self-critique in an effort to reflect the state of theater. It was the best, and perhaps only way, to compete with everything else that we can watch on our phone or laptop — it provides a raw look at local performers struggling with their lives. Images of the Catastrophic cast in their homes reminded me that nearly everyone is in the same desperate situation. In that way, the show made pandemic feel more like a unifying experience.

Which is to say that although “2020” didn’t heal me, or even hold my complete attention during its half-hour, it did offer me something an HBO or Netflix show never could give me — it made me feel just a little bit less alone.