New Gatherer blends outrageous fun, reality

Catastrophic Theatre director Jason Nodler wants everyone to know that the company’s current production of Hunter Gatherers is “new and improved in nearly every way” from last year’s well-received staging of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s dark and savage comedy.

First off, Nachtrieb has made revisions in his play about two couples who reunite for their annual celebration of their joint anniversary and, during a long night’s journey to dawn, gradually unleash their pent-up urges, frustrations and furies. This is the Houston premiere of “the definitive published version.”

Shelley Calene-Black joins returning cast members Amy Bruce, Greg Dean and Troy Schulze, which changes the chemistry somewhat.

Set and lighting designer Kevin Holden has designed the show anew, for DiverseWorks’ proscenium stage, a change from the three-side thrust stage format at Stages last year.

Most important, Nodler’s direction is different.

“We approached it as a totally new production,” Nodler says. “We saw opportunities to make it so much more than it was in its first run, which we considered more of a workshop. Last year’s production was played more as an over-the-top, farcical comedy, while this one is more rooted in real people with real problems, which, we hope, increases the impact. It’s still a wild comedy, just told from a more sincere perspective.”

A particular reason for an encore is that ticket demand exceeded capacity for the short run at Stages last year.

All that said, in revisiting Hunter Gatherers I found it more the same than it is different. That’s not to contradict Nodler. There are substantial changes and virtually all for the better: refinements, even a deepening of feeling at key points. It is, however, still the same play (the script changes are minimal) — and that’s to the good, as it means the work has the same strengths (and few minor shortcomings) that it had last year.

Hunter Gatherers essentially is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Lord of the Flies. Through two couples’ frank dialogue and ever-more-outrageous action, the play strips away the veneer of civilized behavior to reveal the beasts within. It begins with host couple Richard and Pam slaughtering a lamb because Richard craves something that’s still bleeding. As soon as Tom and Wendy arrive, Richard pounces on Tom in his annual ritual of humiliation, a wrestling match that ends only when the whipped Tom is forced to bleat, “You’re the stronger man.” Wendy frankly declares her desire to mate with Richard, as Tom is incapable of producing a child.

With those as early milestones, you can imagine the sex and violence to come as the party turns more primal, amid much wine, that lamb dinner and brownies.

Nachtrieb gets good mileage from his chief veins of wry sarcasm and cartoonish exaggeration. Each couple is a shrewd study in contrast: Alpha-male bully Richard and his doormat spouse, Pam; bitchy, aggressive Wendy and her wimpy mate, Tom.

Nachtrieb’s writing gets a bit forced at times, with the sense of tossing in any outrageous element that might supply a shock. But much of the time, the play is as mordantly funny and slyly subversive as it’s intended to be.

Nodler balances the more “real” aspects with the outlandish ones. I can’t entirely agree the cartoonish element is gone, as a certain amount of that is inherent in the action. It’s part of the play’s fun. But in bringing deeper feeling to the quieter moments, he has increased a feeling that the characters and relationships are rooted in reality.

Hunter Gatherers again proves a sturdy actors’ showcase.

Calene-Black is a marvelous addition as Pam. She’s the soul of sweet, long-suffering wifeliness, ultra-nice and eager to please. But she conveys the underlying tension and frustration that will make her ultimate explosion believable.

The returning players have sharpened their already excellent portrayals. Dean does his impressive wild-man act as hedonistic Richard, funny as he is appalling, yet strangely believable.

Bruce is a brazen treat as the formidable Wendy, tossing her caustic barbs at Tom while panting after Richard. As put-upon Tom, Schulze again finds the quiet humor in being everybody’s fall guy: quiet, smiling, seething with rage.

Though Hunter Gatherers may lose some of that “element of surprise” on a second encounter, it’s still nervy and funny.