Spirits dares to be inventive

With most theaters trending to the safe and cozy for the holiday season, leave it to Jason Nodler and his intrepid colleagues at Catastrophic Theatre to serve something bold and crazy — and, in its unique way, absolutely inspired.

Spirits to Enforce is the second half of Castastrophic’s two-show series introducing Houston audiences to Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, one of the most original voices in American theater today. (Maher will attend Saturday’s performance and participate in a discussion after the show.)

For anyone who saw Catastrophic’s knockout production of his The Strangerer, that’s probably recommendation enough to see this one.

With The Strangerer, Maher set himself the challenge of a play confined to the set of the Bush-Gore debate, achieving wildly unpredictable results by introducing unexpected elements.

With Spirits, he has confined the action to a phone bank: 12 telemarketers making fundraising calls behind a long table. Yet as he skillfully unfolds his ingenious fable, layer by layer, amid snatches of overlapping, sometimes simultaneous calls, he turns this seemingly limited situation into a heroic adventure and a completely original take on the time-honored "putting on a show" theme.

We’re on a rusting submarine off the coast of Fathom Town. The 12 callers are trying to raise money for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest being produced by the Fathom Town Enforcers, the town’s superheroes, whose latest triumph was defeating the now-jailed archvillain Dr. Cannibal.

Unable to raise a cent, the callers are forced to reveal that they, themselves, are, in fact, the 12 superheroes, though making the calls in their civilian guises. Maher further invents an actual connection between these figures and the events of The Tempest, centuries earlier, as well as a glitch in the time-space continuum that has jumbled their past/present/future.

Spirits is so inventive, so packed with fresh writing and unlikely yet apt juxtapositions, that even if it’s not wholly successful, it is consistently fascinating.

As usual, Maher is getting at a lot of things at once. Among them: a reflection on actors and their roles, a musing on the mysteries of time and a heartfelt homage to The Tempest.

The title, of course, comes from Prospero’s final speech: "Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant. …"

With its tricky rhythms, periodic outbursts and silences, Spirits plays like a piece of chamber music. As director, Nodler has conducted expertly, with a feeling for the reality of its fantasy.

Spirits makes an ideal ensemble showcase for the Catastrophic company. It’s a triumph of deftly calibrated team playing by Wayne Barnhill (as The Untangler), Noel Bowers (Fragrance Fellow), Tamarie Cooper (The Ocean), John Deloach (The Tune), Mikelle Johnson (The Intoxicator), Karina Montana Bowers (The Silhouette), Cathy Power (The Bad Map), Charlesanne Rabensburg (Memory Lass), Mike Switzer (The Snow-Heavy Branch), Kyle Sturdivant (The Pleaser), Tek Wilson (The Page) and Walt Zipprian (Ariel).

Their superhero identities indicate the coolness of Spirits.

If anyone in this team effort is placed in a leadership role, it’s Zipprian’s Ariel, and he commands his material with manic elegance.

But all are fine, emerging as distinct individuals in each brief solo passage. When all are pitching simultaneously, the level of energy and commitment is awesome.

Kevin Holden’s dramatic lighting underscores the play’s changing moods and realities, helping vary its stage pictures.

I took it as a favorable omen that there were rare (for Houston) snow flurries as I arrived at Barnevelder for Wednesday’s preview performance: a Catastrophic Theatre Christmas miracle!

Fans of adventurous theater likely will agree there’s one on stage, too. If you see one show this month that has absolutely nothing to do with the holidays, it should be Spirits to Enforce.