IT IS MAGIC is a Weird Surprise and an Even Weirder Gift at The Catastrophic Theatre

Courtney Lomelo, Amy Bruce and Tamarie Cooper in The Catastrophic Theatre's It Is Magic. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Courtney Lomelo, Amy Bruce and Tamarie Cooper in The Catastrophic Theatre’s It Is Magic. Photo by Anthony Rathbun

“Things are getting crazy at the local playhouse…” in The Catastrophic Theatre’s latest production, Mickle Maher’s It Is Magic. And surprisingly, that’s kind of an understatement.

In the basement of the Mortier Civic Playhouse, aspiring playwright and actual admin Deb hangs on every word spoken by Tim, who’s reading for the role of her play’s big bad with all the pathos befitting a wolf “so hungry…for love” in an untitled adult adaptation of “The Three Little Pigs.” Yep, that’s what Deb is trying so desperately to cast. It’s Tim’s third callback, and it’s now going on two-and-a-half hours with only minutes left until places upstairs. Upstairs, it’s opening night, and Tim’s got the role of Second Murderer in William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, the euphemistic name ascribed to the show because, superstition says, bad luck will befall the production if its actual name is said aloud.

The play is Macbeth, by the way. And everyone knows that, except Deb, who despite working at this little Midwestern community theater for decades (and for a pittance) doesn’t seem to know it at all. Neither does Sandy, Deb’s sister, decidedly unimpressed with Tim’s audition and openly coveting the role for herself. The Playhouse’s artistic director Ken eventually wanders downstairs to give the sisters some news – if he can remember it. In the meantime, disillusioned with theater and disdainful of his audience, Ken declares theater “an inert glob” with no magic to be found in it. Deb vehemently disagrees, and things take a sharp turn with the arrival of Elizabeth, ostensibly there to audition after smelling Deb’s flier at the Y, but really on the hunt for her two missing sisters. It’s been 400 long years since the three weyward, wyrd, weirdsisters have been together.

With an eerie haze, eruptions of violence, and pizza crust prophecies, the point is that tonight, we will know if there’s magic in the Mortier Civic Playhouse.

Nothing says you’re at The Catastrophic Theatre like an evening of creativity bordering on absolute insanity, which is exactly what It Is Magic is. Too full of wit and intent to be mistaken for total lunacy, but so clever and unexpected that you might think Maher wrote this – just like The Strangerer, The Hunchback Variations, etc. – on a dare. But oh my God it works. The purgatorial cellar of the Mortier Civic Playhouse turns out to be the perfect setting to turn the lens on, yes, theater, but also just us and our desires, fixations, obsessions, ambitions, self-importance, ruts, and so much more. And if you want to talk about things that are, in fact, magical, it’s Maher’s way with words. Turns of phrase everywhere that just stick on your mind: “spoke darkly of his scant facial hair” … “flaming children” … “cultural nibblers” … “immortality is a kind of death” and more.

Director Jeff Miller should get a lot of credit, too, as the script itself leaves the audience in the dark about where it’s going, which can lead to restlessness (of which this production isn’t entirely immune from). But Miller keeps up the pace and has a mighty talented cast, who sell every word of Maher’s dialogue with an unreal ease.

Tamarie Cooper earnestly sells ridiculous notes (say your lines like your lips aren’t moving or “this is an audition, not a tap dance with sparklers”) with as much ease as she tugs at your heart with Deb’s pitiable desperation and laser-focus on getting her play produced. Though Sandy calls herself “forgettable,” Amy Bruce ensures she’s anything but. Bruce is defiant with the wild-eyed frustration of someone “on the outside of a play” for the last 20 years. Dillon Dewitt’s Tim – exasperated and surprisingly good-natured considering what’s happening around him – is perfect, but it’s his final monologue, bloody and tattered, that’s epic. Courtney Lomelo enters the play silently and moves through the space almost predatorily, radiating mystery and danger. And Luis Galindo’s self-importance as Ken fills the stage, but what you’ll want to watch for most is every shade that comes out with each new reveal as the play comes to an end.

Scenic Designer Lee O Barker and Prop Designer Lauren Davis produced a set that is brick and foreboding, with a rack of costumes and stacked file boxes, messy table and production posters on the wall, never letting you forget that yes, this is the basement of a community theater. From Tim’s kilt to Sandy’s blazer, Deb’s frumpy duster-length sweater and Elizabeth’s dress – perfect for work a metaphysical store – Macy Lyne’s costumes are 10/10, with of course Ken’s silk shirt and black-framed glasses (not to mention long hair) deserving special mention. Andrew Archer’s atmospheric lighting (with particular love for the glow of the basement windows) sells stark and unease in varying measure, and Tim Thomson’s sound designs just become more impressive as the show goes on. Starting the show with the warning chimes of an impending production, by the way, is an appreciated touch.

Since Shakespeare makes an appearance in this one, I can’t help but think of how “all the world’s a stage” or, in the case of It Is Magic, “the world at last is the theater.” But you’re not going to find anything quite like this out in the world on your own, so do yourself a favor and go see it. It’s hard for media to surprise you these days, and It Is Magic is not only a surprise, but a gift.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and February 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through March 2 at the MATCH, 3400 Main. Due to mature subject matter, no one under the age of 12 will be admitted. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit Pay-what-you-can (with a suggested price of $35).