By Josh Inocéncio
Rarely do theatres in Houston offer rich experimental plays that depart starkly from the theatrical canon. But The Catastrophic Theatre, building upon its tradition of producing work that “will destroy you,” is premiering a play that is experimental and queer. The company, housed in the MATCH through the facility’s residency program, has consistently produced harrowing works, from Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. But Leap and the Net Will Appear, which premiered on February 9 and runs through March 4, is a play that wrestles with questions of gender and sexuality norms.
“I wrote this play that was a lot about struggling with received knowledge of femininity,” says Chana Porter, 33, the Brooklyn-based playwright who wrote Leap. “And all the capital letter ‘Shoulds’ of what we’re supposed to do. Should I get married? Should I have a child? How do I find joy in the world of career? The main character,Margie, struggles with all this in an external way. She’s searching for things from the outside and then applying them to her.”
The play follows Margie, who’s pressured by her parents and grandparents (played by the same actors) to get married and settle down, as she searches for her identity, eventually going on an Elizabeth Gilbert-inspired journey to Italy, India, and Bali. But as she abandons family to find herself, her youngest son, Constantine, probes inward to discover his own gender identity. The core conflict, then, surfaces through the means in which characters work through their identities. Punctuated by abrasively queer monologues, Leap portrays characters at their most vulnerable and transitional as they question social norms.
Shayna Schlosberg, the managing director of Catastrophic, noted the generational differences of the characters and how they grapple with meaning as a key reason why this play is crucial for Houston audiences right now. “There is a pretty significant and interesting gap between how Millennials can and want to talk about gender and sexuality versus the vocabulary Baby Boomers and even Gen-X feel comfortable using,” says Schlosberg. “I think Chana crafts the conversation between these two generations in a very light, loving, yet honest way.”
But the play, alongside its queer content, moves with surreal-like fluidity, as scenes will jump forward decades in an instant. And, like Porter’s other work, Leap features musical interludes and monologues that often reveal characters’ inner struggles and dreams—in particular, Margie’s visceral desire to be a lion. “All of my plays contain something that is highly theatrical, that feels distinctly like ‘let’s all gather together in the dark,’” describes Porter. “Most of my newer plays are partially or entirely sung through. So I’ve started to work with composers.” Her next project utilizes a fifty-person choir.
“But Leap is a very good example of what’s more of a straight play,” adds Porter. “The language is very important. There are a couple of musical points that really span the emotional landscape of the play, but it’s not a musical.”
A few years ago, Porter wrote the play while on a silent retreat with Erik Ehn—an experimental playwright famous for his cycle of plays on human rights and violence. Through silence and writing exercises each day, Porter produced what she considers a “strange and unexpected” personal play that she then spent several years developing into Leap. From the retreat, she developed the play with her director, Tara Ahmadinejad, through Playwrights Horizons in New York City. After they workshopped the piece, the script found its way to Catastrophic. “The play came to us from Adam Greenfield at Playwrights Horizons who is a friend of Jason Nodler’s and a champion of Chana’s work,” says Schlosberg. “After reading the play, Jason immediately fell in love with her voice and found the play to be one of the strangest, most imaginative, hilarious, ‘pataphysical, and moving things he has ever read. He then circulated the play to other core artists who all quickly agreed that Catastrophic had to do this play.”
Since then, Catastrophic has brought Porter and Ahmadinejad down to work on the world premiere of the play. For the last month, the playwright and director have worked with Catastrophic’s actors and production team to get the play on its feet. But Porter’s and Catastrophic’s work doesn’t end with the production. The theatre is offering a series of creative lectures on surrealism and Porter is returning to Houston next month to teach a mini-mester on experimental playwriting at the University of Houston.
And Porter, a pioneer in today’s experimental landscape, is honest about how audiences should engage with her work. “I want people to feel celebrated and brave. They should expect to laugh a lot. To be constantly surprised. To feel,” she says. “And to know that, with a more experimental play that allows things to happen more quickly, there’s not some great philosophy or trick to get. There’s nothing to get. I want them to just show up, be present, and enjoy. Certain things will resonate and certain things will not. And that’s what art should be. It’s not one static thing where everyone will have the same experience.”
The Catastrophic Theatre’s Leap and the Net Will Appear runs now through March 4 at MATCH. A special Spectrum South Night at The Catastrophic Theatre will be held on Friday, February 23. Click here for ticket information.