Living La Vida Del Carne

Catastrophic Theatre’s renewed production of last year’s Hunter Gatherers is a welcome dose of humor to help get us through the long, hot days of summer. We weren’t lucky enough to catch last summer’s run, but the new show is a thoroughly enjoyable two-act comedy that oscillates between craven fits of passion and self-doubting ennui. Filled with memorable one-liners, spontaneous wit, and bouts of perverse physical humor, the script finds two couples of long-time friends faced with the equally-long-awaited moment when social propriety just isn’t going to be enough to keep them from showing their true, animalistic natures.

As far as entertainment goes, summer is that time of year when your TV sinks into the familiar world of sitcom reruns while the movie industry does its best to outdo itself. Somewhere in the darker, shadier, after-hours corner of that media landscape, Catastrophic’s production seems happy to make its home. The set design is striking upon entering the theatre — especially in comparison to the last few of the company’s productions. The openness and minimal and careful detail of the previous stages has given over to more visceral use of bright colors, mix-and-match decor, and room partitions. The stage is centered on an apartment living room with a bedroom and bathroom off in separate raised wings. Together, the rooms abound with the sort of casual clutter and mismatched furniture of a young couple still sorting things out, and the effect is, in a way, very TV-like, somewhere between the nonreality of the Manhattan apartments in Friends and the surreality of PeeWee’s Playhouse — there’s exposed brick, there’s paneling, there are loud colors, there’s modern furniture, older furniture, and somehow countless artifacts of primitive art are tucked away within it all. Like color TV, like blockbuster films, the stage is saturated — or, to use a metaphor more appropriate to the play itself: saturated like animal fat, like a cut of meat with gristle and lard and tendon strewn throughout. As we sat and took this all in, the lights went down and The Kinks’ “Apeman” started to enchant the darkness with the same blend of sugary surreal exoticism and animal-kingdom confusion as the stage (the use of music throughout is quite the treat).

Like the foursome of the play, the very title “Hunter Gatherers” is destined to faction off into its fundamental parts: you’re only ever one or the other, hunter or gatherer. On opening night, the company’s resident videographer made the rounds before the show asking everyone to choose for themself (video link). Of course, there is the illusion that we can all get along, live in a “hunter gatherer” society, but, like a not-quite-perfect coupling, the illusion can just get utterly tiresome — or so the premise of the play suppose (back in the real world after the show everyone in the audience still seemed to get along). But the play takes this emboldened premise, gives it an unbridled sense of humor and uncensored frankness, and uses it all to, of course, reveal some truth about our lives and how much we sell ourselves short in order to get along. The lesson seems to be that you ought to be more hungry, but maybe the afterthought is that you should know what food you actually like. The food and meat motifs of the play, which begin when you find out that cardboard box in the middle of the stage is just the temporary house for the night’s entrée, give this hunger for life a true corollary. Houstonist left the play hungry, a reminder not to have eaten more that day (if you’ve never been to a Catastrophic opening, the food and drink and company are wonderfully satisfying), but to sink your teeth into something as if it was all that mattered.

The setup is fairly straight-forward: Richard and Pam (“hunter” and “gatherer”) are having their old best buds from high school Tom and Wendy (“gatherer” and “hunter”) over for dinner, a sort of annual tradition that has been established in the 15-some-odd years since prom. As soon as we meet them, each couple is in the middle of realizing they are not so perfectly matched up as they had once convinced themselves, coming to see as well that the memories shared between them have sharpened over the years into daggers quick to bring about the play’s violent revelations. The script uses familiar ploys and intrigues to get the audience up to speed and quickly recognize who is who and what they’re after, but the jokes are fresh and the actors all embrace the dark silliness of the plot’s detours, immersing themselves in their roles.

Playing the gatherers of their respective couples, Shelley Calene-Black and Troy Schulze give wonderful life to characters who could otherwise easily be crowded out by the wild plotting and ranting of the hunters (Greg Dean and Amy Bruce) — Calene-Black with a fantastic version of housewife nervousness and Schulze with a perfectly muted sense of self-confidence and self-acceptance. Dean takes his role with visible caveman glee and Bruce, who was in last summer’s run as well, knows exactly how to pull off her scheming dissatisfaction. The cast becomes the kind of sitcom family you grow to know too well, but there’s no way that everything will return to normal by the end of the night.

Houstonist doesn’t want to give away the ending, but for a play that begins with the slaughtering of a baby lamb, you can guess it’s got a lot to live up to, and it does. So if you think you are ready to see a flurry of (fake) hard-ons, (real) ziplock bags of (pretend) sperm, (real) bare (real) asses, and some good old fashioned (pretend) murderous crimes of (serious) passion, get yourself down to DiverseWorks. We’d say it’s probably not the kind of thing you’d bring your mother to — but we’ll come clean and admit that we actually did — and she had a blast! Hunter Gatherers runs Wednesdays through Saturdays until July 17. All performances are at 8 p.m. at DiverseWorks ArtSpace.