THE DESIGNATED MOURNER provokes at Catastrophic Theatre

by Brett Cullum, Broadway World Houston, Jan 6 , 2017

A lot of people in America wonder how things could have happened recently in our political landscape as they woke up to a world they didn't recognize or relate to. There are never easy answers to explain a sudden shift, nor can anyone offer something simple and pure to illuminate the divisions and wars within the culture currently. It's at times like these we turn to art for comfort and exploration of things too dangerous to contemplate. And so Catastrophic Theatre attempts to console and provoke simultaneously with a revival of their 2010 production of Wallace Shawn's THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, back for only a limited time this January.

The play was written in 1996, and it concerns the lives of three characters in an unnamed country where a fascist government has taken to jailing and executing anybody who is considered subversive or intellectual. Writers and artists are particularly singled out, and we sit down with a trio who tell their tale in fragmented monologues that create a world where being insightful is deadly. We meet Howard (Paul Menzel), a celebrated writer who refuses to please the newly elected regime in his work and pays for it. There is also his dutiful daughter Judy (Patricia Duran) who seeks to help him through the horrific events. And finally there is Jack (Greg Dean), a smug and slightly annoying husband to Judy who is more observer than active fighter of the new fascist party in power.

The play is presented with the three actors sitting at a table with a pitcher of water, glasses, and a few books scattered about. They all talk directly to the audience for two hours and rarely interact with each other. When they do finally turn to one another for a moment here and there it feels alien and strange to witness. Wallace Shawn's script is extremely wordy and long, clocking in at this staging exactly two hours. That's a good amount of time to fill with monologues and musings on relationships, culture, and fascism.

All three actors are exquisitely cast and perform the material excellently. Paul Menzel creates the likeable father and author who fights for what he believes in despite the obvious signs his is a losing battle. Patricia Duran plays the fierce daughter who joins the resistance, and her icy cool veneer cracks gorgeously once the script calls for it. Yet the evening belongs to Greg Dean who is saddled with carrying the show from start to finish with his passive aggressive gone to seed literature major trying to make sense of his own purpose in the lives around him. Dean disappears into the role, and he brings the elaborate word porn to life for the audience. His performances are always studied and well executed, and this is one of his best to date.

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER is a verbose treatise on the deterioration of culture delivered by three talking heads. It asks hard questions about what the "dumbing down" of a society means to humanity, and serves as a cautionary tale in this age of fake news and entertainment masquerading as information. Above all else, it offers a glimpse into what could come to pass if we are not mindful and determined to keep our art groups like Catastrophic Theatre alive and well in the coming years. It's a meditation on the state of culture that is wisely timed by one of Houston's most daring theatre companies.

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER will be presented at the MATCH complex located at 3400 Main through January 15th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets can be acquired through the website at