Donald Barthelme once said his first attempts as a writer were in an "ersatz Hemingway fashion," the results of which disappointed him greatly.
When Samuel Beckett exploded in the 1950s, Barthelme felt energized but knew that he must not imitate the writer, since Beckett himself, by defying James Joyce, had set a standard of upending tradition.
And so, like many of the great alchemists of form – Marcel Duchamp, Jean-Luc Godard – Barthelme's experimentation was less the anti-establishment anger of a literary punk and more the aesthetic inquiries of a creative individual. The idea that stories must have heroes, conflicts and climaxes was, to Barthelme, terribly mundane. He could do better.
Which is to say that everything that makes the first-ever stage adaptation of his 1967 postmodern novella "Snow White" exciting involves breaking rules.
Seen in a dim light, this intellectual roller coaster of a play – 20 years in the making by Greg Dean and the Catastrophic Theatre – could be miscast as scattered and opaque. But judged using the right mindset, which is one that believes language can be suspenseful and satisfying even without the foundation of narrative clarity, "Snow White" has every bit the brilliant formal playfulness of the original text, with the added benefits of music, color and raunchiness.
In a remarkable moment for avant-garde art in Houston, Catastrophic Theatre, in partnership with Inprint, the Barthelme Estate and University of Houston's CounterCurrent 17 festival, has made claim to Barthelme, who died in 1989, as not only a New Yorker-approved writer's writer but as Houston's most provocative narrative demolitionist.
After all, the fact that the production brings new life to the Barthelme legacy, not to mention assert Houston's artistically vibrant Midtown, was not lost with all the hype leading up to Friday's premiere. And while audiences might not have unanimously liked or understood Dean's loud, sometimes campy adaptation, which played up the sex, gravitas and comedy of the novella by way of big physical performances, no one was debating that they were witness to a special event.
Coralee Young plays the lithe beauty at the heart of the play, a sighing modern-day princess whose ebony hair, draped over her window, draws gazes from men with the intensity and frequency of a peep show. Rather than the virginal child popularized by Disney, Snow White is the center of a creepy yet somehow touchingly yearning polyamorous relationship with seven men who operate a factory that churns out baby food marketed to Chinese people.
Leading these men is Bill, embodied with gravitas and pathos by the phenomenal Luis Galindo. His unexplained tragic outlook on life becomes a problem for his housemates, who demand a proper reason for his opting out of their scheduled orgiastic activities. No man can match his magnetic gloom but Hogo, played by the devilish Jeff Miller, a nihilist who loves to say vile things at random. If Bill was Camus' hero, then Hogo would be Nietzsche's. And if Bill's the most dramatically compelling character, then Hogo's the most amusingly crass.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through May 6
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main
Tickets: Pay what you can, $35 suggested donation, catastrophictheatre.com
Still not entirely sure what "Snow White" is about? The insertion of Paul (Greg Cote), as a prince figure, and Jane (Courtney Lomelo, breathing sparkling, venomous energy into the show), as the supposed witch, do little to ground the story in anything you'd expect from a fairy tale.
"Snow White" is indeed a defiance of the need to understand. Lines unfold with surprise after surprise. Every monologue becomes its own devious little narrative, a vignette about what one character thinks about one thing – like Freud, or poems about loss – whose connection to everything else is metaphysical at best. Dean captures Barthelme's roving style with the deft hand of a longtime fan, retaining the language's vague yet strangely specific nature.
To talk about "Snow White" in terms of category, after all, would be like asking what kind of religion atheism is. It isn't. And to say that Barthelme is postmodern or absurdist does no justice to how different his writing is from Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Steven Millhauser or David Foster Wallace.
"Snow White" is a tonal, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic hodgepodge that, by staying true to the writer's voice, nevertheless retains a sense of singularity.
The only negative side effect of the page-to-stage translation is rhythm, with moments, like a cringe-inducing Chinese fan dance, that linger too long.
Aside from that misplaced musical interlude, I was surprised at how much of the adaptation was unfiltered and literal, and how much of the humor still worked.
Dean, playing a shadowy narrator with a dry wit, simply reads passages from the novella out loud, to great effect. And, as in the stage adaptation of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," "Snow White" throws the unconventional formats from the text onto a projection screen, displaying images such as a vertical line of dots representing the titular character's beauty marks, a long quote by Sigmund Freud and thoughtful yet mischievous titles like "THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE'S ARSE."
Barthelme's conceptual acrobatics are taken at face value rather than scrutinized for symbolism, which, in my opinion, is always the best way to read him.
Viewed as a whole, Catastrophic's staging – set by Ryan McGettigan, video by Full Media Jacket – is a nod toward abstract expressionism, featuring windows that are too big and that lean too far to the left or right. In a stirring scene, Snow White and her so-called dwarves watch a movie that's stolen straight from "Nosferatu." F. W. Murnau's 1922 film is the perfect reference point for a production filled with sharp angles, wide eyes and campy thrills, and it's when the actors embrace such atmospheric moments that the show rises from its messy, sometimes inconsistent energy and reaches sublimity: Miller chortling with a monocle in his eye. Galindo chased by a pair of headlights in the middle of the night, imagining it's a childhood nightmare manifested as a black horse. Lomelo cackling over a poisonous concoction, her schoolgirl uniform an ironic gesture of innocence in this midlife-crisis world of lust, vengeance and ennui.
As theater, "Snow White" now has more room to both fail and thrill.
But this production has no interest in perfection, and its best scenes show us just how dastardly and entertaining Barthelme was. Favoring chaos over continuity, the Catastrophic Theatre's "Snow White" is less a stream of consciousness than a Jackson Pollock splatter of bold, conflicting ideas. It makes an undeniable case for Barthelme's genius, recalling what New Yorker editor Roger Angell once said, that his stories were "rich and elusive, evanescent and nutritious, profound and hilarious, brief and long-term, trifling and heartbreaking, daunting to some readers and to others a snap, a breeze, a draft of life."