The Catastrophic Theatre’s THE PINE – A Modern Take on Purgatory

When attending a production at The Catastrophic Theatre, I always know I am in for a journey. My favorite aspect of this group is that each and every one of their productions is a risk-taking endeavor, guaranteeing Houston audiences access to fresh, cutting-edge presentations of theatrical craftsmanship. Their current production, the World Premiere of Mickle Maher's THE PINE was commissioned by The Catastrophic Theatre and funded in part by a grant awarded by The MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Unfortunately, THE PINE wasn't to my liking, but the opportunity to see something crafted with this company in mind is reason enough for anyone to attend a performance.

Playwright Mickle Maher is a favorite of both The Catastrophic Theatre and Houston audiences. Their productions of THE STRANGERER, SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, and both prsentations of THERE IS A HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS garnered positive responses from audiences and critics alike. At last night's premiere performance of THE PINE, the regulars at The Catastrophic Theatre couldn't get enough of the zany new play. I, on the other hand, was left completely befuddled and entirely lost. The play, told entirely in verse, seems to be a modern quasi-adaptation of Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio that exists at a crossroads between existentialism and absurdist theatre; however, it lacks the meaty, weighty observations about life found in existentialism and observations about society in absurdist theatre.

In the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy, Beatrice is Dante's muse and salvation. He journeys through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for her. In many ways, Mickle Maher's Gordon, the owner of a decrepit hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan, is like the intrepid Dante. His Beatrice is a piano teacher named Danelle. One year after her suicide, a forlorn Gordon takes the same red pills she did in an effort to reunite with her. Gordon finds himself in a ghostly purgatory of stasis where all time has no meaning. He is ensconced in a ethereal hotel that is a labyrinth of rooms, people, demons, darkness, grief, misery, and sorrow. He is instantly charged with recovering Danelle from this haunted purgatory that exists between life and death, and takes on the quest. Aiding him on the journey is a fly, a book Danelle asked him to read but he never did, a pair of gardening sheers gifted to him by his neighbor Steve (who is also death), and Morris, a Battle of Hastings knight that followed his cat through an enchanted cat door and ended up in the hotel as well.

While I didn't find the script to be all that enthralling or funny, I did rather enjoy how Jason Nodler staged the piece. Doors and stairs, often used for exits, can be used to lead a member of the cast right back onto the central portion of the stage, giving a whimsical and mystifying element to the production. Likewise, he has coached the cast to embrace the uniqueness of the play, and most deliver characters that appear to be fully realized, even though I don't quite grasp the meaning of the play itself.

Of the cast, my favorite character was Greg Dean's Morris, known as Morris the Hesitant. Upon first meeting the brash knight he comes across with a heavy bravado. Yet, when called to action he hesitates and is rather indecisive. Greg Dean appears to have fun bringing life to his character's hefty foible and makes Morris an unlikely and comical sidekick. THE PINE only elicited a few small chuckles from me, all of which were brought on by Greg Dean's characterization. However, from other members of the audience, Greg Dean's portrayal of the character earned many riotous and hearty guffaws.

Playing Gordon, Troy Schulze creates a totally nondescript, almost nerdy everyman. He reluctantly becomes the hero of the production and initially has many qualms with his quest. Over the course of the production, he grows as he releases others from their grief and misery.

Amy Bruce's flatly stoic Clara narrates the show and served as the largest disconnect for me. Her delivery of her lines never moved me or interested me. Her lengthy opening monologue of exposition sets the tone for the whole play, letting us know we were in for a long night. While the script and the direction encourage and support her apparent lack of enthusiasm, I found it to be almost unbearable.

Completing the cast, Shanon Adams, Miranda Herbert Aston, George Brock, Noel Bowers, John DunnPatricia Duran, ChristIan Holmes, Jessica Janes, Jeff Miller, Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, and the voice of Abraham Zeus Zapata flit in and out of the story, some of them playing multiple characters. They fully commit to their strange characters, bringing life to the Mickle Maher's words.

Scenic Design by Laura Fine Hawkes, with assistance from Kyle McAnally, is stupendous. They define the proscenium space well, even incorporating exterior elements of the hotel into the design. I also felt that their representation of the shore of Lake Michigan was inspired. Every element and detail of the set is attended to with expert precision, creating a gorgeous masterpiece for the cast to perform on.

Lighting Design by Kirk Markley, with assistance from Dustin Tannahill, is adroitly atmospheric and moody. The complex design cleverly uses blue washes and minimal ambers to create a lingering glow that is sublimely ghostly. Where lights are incorporated into the set pieces themselves is where we see most of the color, shifting mood and tone as needed. My favorite aspect of the design was the impression of burning buildings created by fervent and flickering reds during Clara's description of the Great Chicago Fire.

THE PINE wasn't my cup of tea, but a majority of the opening night audience really loved it. The Catastrophic Theatre knows their audience and this play giddily plays into what their audiences expect and love about the avant-garde company.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.