The Death Rattle of Culture

Last Friday night, as thunderstorms rolled in and out of the city, Catastrophic Theatre premiered their production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner in the converted living room space of their offices. And though I am sure the difficulties it supplied the company where not much appreciated, the intermittent rain helped to magnify the haunting and carefully moving nature of the play. Not to say that it was a “dreary” play or that lightning struck at the moment of some criminal act or even that the script mentions the weather that much, but, you see, the play progresses not through a series of actions but of definitions — definitions of beauty, of meaning, of morality, of pleasure, of contempt, of culture — definitions that try, amidst all the wild complications of human society, to either keep things together or mark them as being apart. The rain kept the audience together, cozy in our seats during the performance, packed on the porch at all points before, between, and after — the rain kept the audience apart from the wicked world on the other side of the wall.

The room was small, compared to your typical theater, and with only one set, three characters, and very little in the way of on-stage plotting, the play might even be called “small.” But it is smallness to great effect — on the almost imperceptibly half-raised stage, the actors commanded a presence completely devoid of the distance so often created in a proper theater. In lieu of action, the language of the play takes on a concentrated solidity that is practically a set of props in itself. Moreover, the mechanics of the staging have been hidden in another room. Retaining the feeling of an actual living room, the set and lighting design (by Kirk Mackley and Devlin Browning, respectively) is able to accomplish such a depth of all-too-familiar moods that it enchants the space. The Designated Mourner follows on the heels of Catastrophic’s lush staging of Our Late Night, another Shawn piece, from earlier in the spring (see the Houstonist review here) and for all that the two share (including two cast members) there is as much, if not more, to show the incredible range and subtle prowess that both the writer and the company are capable of.

If the play could be said to be about one thing (which will never do it justice) one might say it is about the idea of privilege and the far-reaching effects it has both on society at large and on the individual’s sense of self. The immediate setting of the play, the living room of Howard (Paul Menzel), a much esteemed writer, insulates us within the world of the privileged — the “high brow” — but, as the play slowly reveals, the world outside is not the one we know. This is a different place, a different time — somewhere in the near future, supposedly — where all the “dirt-eaters” and “enemies” — the “low-brow” — have turned to revolt. Judy (Mikelle Johnson), Howard’s cultured daughter, and Jack (Greg Dean), her fish-out-of-water husband, recount to us how their thoughts have changed, how their lives have been effected, by the novel idea that maybe the world just doesn’t care about them. Watching the play, a kind of privileged and intellectual exercise in itself, the audience might realize that, like Jack and Judy and Howard, they have also been drawn together into a single, small room as the world beats on outside. On the night of the premiere, one could see through the blacked-out windows the faint headlights of cars passing by and hear tires wash through the rain-soaked streets. The production does not offer us the protection of a normal theater; our isolation is not something we can overlook — there is something going on “out there.”

But this is not entirely what the play is about. There is no moral to the story, no distinct lesson to be learned, other than perhaps that introspection often leads to doubt, sympathy to utter confusion, and that contradictions do not ever resolve. As director Jason Nodler sees it, everything the characters say in the play is “right.” They are all right, and yet they are constantly contradicting each other. The actors play in this turmoil with a layered sense of confidence and uncertainty, giving the script the kind of delicate bravado it requires. At the center of the play, Jack, the “designated mourner” himself, is constantly breaking out in a subdued hysteria of laughter (one of the many highlights of Dean’s performance). The eradication of high culture by the revolution, from which he alone was spared, is on par for him with a schoolyard joke — not that he justifies its occurrence. Jack was always a disappointment to Howard and his circle, and the annihilation of the intellectuals must seem as ludicrous to him as the very idea that such a class ever existed. He’s just another fly in the swarm of flies we (and Shawn) call human society — but so were Judy and Howard.

To its enormous credit, the play will leave each audience member unraveling a different thread of thought by the end of the night, but there is no doubt that all will agree on the manifold virtues of its execution. Catastrophic’s production of The Designated Mourner matches the company’s dedication to challenging pieces with a pure distillation of craft. With an eye towards subtlety, the intimate staging and the actors’ engaging performances turn an unquestionably heady script about privilege and contradiction into something personal and moving.

The show runs Wednesday through Saturday until June 5 at the Catastrophic office (1540 Sul Ross, near Mandell). Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-can basis. Seating is extremely limited so reservations are strongly encouraged