THE CATASTROPHIC THEATRE does certain types of plays very well, and they specialize in absurdist pieces that somehow resonate with our modern world. One of their favorite playwrights to produce is Mickle Maher, and his latest SONG ABOUT HIMSELF fits the company like a ridiculously ornate glove that could double as a hat. The whole thing is a linguistic fantasia set inside of the chatroom of a post-apocalyptic social network. This is intellectual sci-fi drama played on a sparse set and focused on how we connect as humans and machines. There are ghosts here on both sides of humanity's line, and language suffers the most as a result.
The future has come, and communication is now a lost art for humans. Most people can barely speak anymore, they just mumble and mutter without any coherence or logical thought. Carol (Tamarie Cooper) is one of the few remaining people who can string together a sentence, and she longs for conversation. She gets a notice on her door telling her to learn to play jazz clarinet so she can enter a social site with others like her that crave human exchanges. The only trouble is when she gets into the site YOUSPAKE, she is the only one there and has to interact with a pre-programmed host (Jovan Jackson) who has rules and protocols to follow. But it doesn't take long before someone stumbles in by mistake. His name is Tod (Noel Bowers), and he is willing to struggle through to communicate and connect with Carol. But the host is none too happy he is in the site, and he is jealous of Tod's humanity and ability to engage the only woman he knows.
The actors have a unique challenge because they are playing constructs of computers or people talking in cyberspace. To execute this they all insert stage directions into their lines such as "there is a pause" or "sobs". It takes some getting used to, but by the end you follow it just fine. Cooper plays far against her usual musical comedy type to portray Carol, a wounded and lonely woman who is frazzled and desperate. It's a touching portrayal that anchors the show's human emotions. Meanwhile, Jackson plays the host of YOUSPAKE and manages to do a brilliant job in creating a machine that somehow wants to become a friend to someone. His computer longs to connect with the humans, and he manifests an interesting veneer that cracks along the way. Bowers is Tod, who reminded me of Charlton Heston, desperate to talk with the chimpanzees in PLANET OF THE APES. He is break-your-heart sweet even if his character has trouble saying much at first.
There is no set for SONG ABOUT HIMSELF, and the production relies solely on two technical aspects to create the computer world – the lights and sound. Dustin Tannahill creates the effect of computers stuttering and rebooting with pinpoint spotlights and well executed pools dancing in the black box. Chris Bakos imagines the sounds a social network will make, and keeps everything humming along. There is a nice touch pre-show where we hear Carol practicing her clarinet.
There is an irony in all of this watching audience members pre-show looking at their phones and not even talking to each other. I saw a man that I know who never looked up from his screen to notice I was there. SONG ABOUT HIMSELF weaves in the idea we have lost the art of communication and connection, and it is a premise that feels painfully true. This isn't the type of play you're going to see around Houston often, but it is certainly one that has a great deal to say to our world. CATASTROPHIC's mission to "destroy you" is probably all for naught because you are already reading this on the tool of your demise. Let's just hope you can quote Walt Whitman when all of this is over. The play is moving, timely, and something that will make you think for days later.
SONG ABOUT HIMSELF runs through December 3 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, please visit the link here.