Thrilling New Production Opens at Houston’s Boldest Theatre

The marvel of this new production is how deftly it harnesses the chaos.

Avant-garde theater laughs at rational thought, scoffs at plot summary and thumbs its nose at conventional audience expectations. When you go see Catastrophic Theatre’s production of “Eddie Goes to Poetry City,” a mainstay of celebrated New York experimentalist Richard Foreman, you’re enlisting in a fever dream as much as a play. It obliterates connections between meaning and language, burying them under slapstick and an onslaught of sound. What’s it about? It’s about 75 minutes, and its highwire act could scarcely go on longer.

Eddie (Gabriel Regojo) is just a guy, a suit-wearing drone who stumbles through a door at the side of the stage and into a kind of whimsical nightmare. It looks like the well-worn office of a slovenly architect, maybe a designer, papers strewn on tables, bric-à-brac lining the walls. This will be Eddie’s torture chamber and the source of his liberation, overseen by a cryptic doctor (Noel Bowers, sporting a nifty fez) and a pair of temptresses, the blonde Estelle (Karina Pal Montaño Bowers) and the brunette Marie (Jenna Morris). There’s also a voice-of-God narrator (director Greg Dean booming over the sound system), and the occasional hostile words emanating from the back of the stage, sounding like an angry Kraftwerk member, or maybe a science fiction monster. Other periodic noises include alarms, old-fashioned car horns and shattering glass. It all adds to the sense of dissonance.

The characters debate, they observe, they seduce, and they engage in elaborate physical comedy, using every inch of the Catastrophic stage. “I want to take over the world by getting control of myself,” explains Eddie early on, but he appears to be out of luck. Control is in short supply here. The marvel of this production is how deftly it harnesses the chaos. Under Dean’s direction, “Poetry City” is a well-oiled machine, fueled by meticulous timing and disciplined performance. A sloppy production of this play would be an utter disaster, a free-for-all of gibberish. This is anything but. It’s a challenge, it’s a dare, but it’s also finely executed theater.

Regojo is at the center of just about every moment, mixing fear and trembling with hesitant glee. Poetry City can be a scary place, but it’s also alive with awareness and reminders of life’s constants, including sex and death, even if the only actual sex scene takes place behind a doctor’s curtain and includes the phrase “my ostensible tumescence.” As we’re told late in the play, language melts in poetry city. It ceases to mean. This places the onus on the performances to carry the bulk of the interpretation on their shoulders, a task for which they prove more than game.

Foreman, still alive and provoking at 85, is an avant-garde giant, his New York-based Ontological-Hysteric Theater a cradle of the form. His studies at Yale School of Drama left him hungry to melt the boundaries of theater. He has done just that with plays like “Bad Boy Nietzsche,” “Rhoda in Potatoland” and “My Head Was a Sledgehammer.” He’s one of those necessary artists who force a medium to stretch and thereby grow, even (or especially) if the experience can create discomfort in an audience.

In this sense, he’s a great match for Catastrophic. Houston remains one of the liveliest theater scenes in the country, and it absolutely needs inspired weirdness pushing in from the margins to keep the creativity churning. Catastrophic has been keeping it strange for 30 years now, never afraid of a good baffling. Poetry City is their kind of place, and they make themselves right at home.