Do Not Miss This Play

From 25 September until 17 October, my friends at The Catastrophic Theatre will be producing my favorite play: Maria Irene Fornes’ The Danube.

The same people — director and cast, though I don’t know if puppets are involved this time — staged this play in Houston once before, with Infernal Bridegroom every bit of 15 years ago. I saw that performance, too, and reviewed it for a long-defunct local paper.

Because I am a packrat, I still have that review, which I’ve pasted in below. It’s amusing to me to read, because at the time none of these people were my friends. I hope it’s amusing to you as well, and encourages you to see this show. Performances are all at 8pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. All shows at Catastrophic are pay-what-you-can.

Let me be perfectly clear: prior to entering the Atomic Cafe on Friday night, I had no idea what I was going to see. All I knew was “IBP and Bobbindoctrin puppets,” which sounded at least interesting, so off I went. An article from American Theater posted in the lobby gave me a bit more background: The Danube is a piece by Maria Irene Fornes. (This is a name worth remembering.) Her work as described by the AT article makes her sound like a perfect match for Infernal Bridegroom – experimental, often challenging pieces that may well leave the audience just a bit (or more) bewildered. And, as if this wasn’t enough fun, the Danube includes puppets – making the collaboration with Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theater a natural development.

The Danube has its origins as a piece of found art; Fornes built the play around an old Hungarian language record. The initial scenes between Paul (Troy Schulze), Mr. Sandor (Charlie Scott) and Sandor’s daughter Eve (Amy Bruce) are enunciated and exaggerated to the point of parody. Add to this an intermittent voiceover from the language record itself preceding each line, and an odd sort of disconnection rules the scene. From these pattern sentences, though, Fornes weaves a simple enough story – at first. Paul is an American businessman sent to Budapest; he meets Mr. Sandor and Eve; courting ensures; eventually, Paul is called home, prompting them to marry, which essentially concludes the linear narrative – but not the play’s action. The pattern-sentence language-instruction motif fades (but never completely) in favor of a sort of Euro-film surrealism that grows into the outright bizarre before the play’s abrupt conclusion. Paul becomes ill; he may or may not have been conscripted. Everyone deteriorates dramatically, apparently afflicted with some grotesque palsy. There is plenty of goggle wearing, and frankly there’s just not enough of that in modern American drama. Two scenes are done with tiny puppets manned by the actors on a perfect miniature version of the stage, complete with smoke and light wafting from the floorboards.

So what’s happening here? Is it life during wartime? Is it a plague? What is Fornes up to? In the American Theater article (September, 2000), the author (Steven Druckman) suggests that “the best way to wrap your mind around the plays of Maria Irene Fornes is to abandon all hope of understanding them.” This is probably true. He goes on: “[Fornes] is for people who prefer passion to fashion, who prefer awe to wit. She is for those of us who don’t mind admitting that we’re still groping in the dark.”

Spot on, I think.

To allow this play to swirl around you is to experience it most fully and, ultimately, purely. Do not chase the plot, ticking off characters and events as if you were at a hockey game. There is ample time for reflection after the final curtain. Allow Fornes (and, by association, IBP director Jason Nodler and company) to assemble this thing on their own terms; you will be hard pressed to find this experience elsewhere. Certainly no one else in town will go this far from the beaten path. IBP is in fine, fine form here, aided in no small part by the collaboration with Bobbindoctrin. The small cast – Bruce, Schulze, Scott, and the irrepressible Kyle Sturdivant in four supporting roles – is well chosen. Schultze exudes the alien confidence of a businessman abroad when the U.S. ruled the world; Scott and Bruce are exemplars of a formal old-world charm. Sturdivant, when so called upon, delivers some of the few genuinely comic lines with scene-stealing aplomb – and his almost menacing monologue as a waiter is not to be missed. Costume, properties, and sound are all beyond reproach; the primary set pieces are beautiful drops painted by Bobbindoctrin. Small details throughout the production are universally solid, from the costumed set-changers to the upholstery on the puppet-stage furnishings. This is some of IBP’s finest work yet.

In a conversation with Nodler after the show, he mentioned that this is at least the third time he’s attempted to stage The Danube – and each prior time he cancelled the production when he feared it would miss the mark for some reason or another; that mark must certainly be met here. Nodler studied under Fornes in college, which no doubt drove his ambition for the play, and in turn informs his obvious pleasure with this show. He told anecdotes about the production, the play, and Fornes, and led my date and I backstage to show us the smoking apparatus used for the puppet stage. His excitement and enthusiasm for the play and production were infectious (and this from a director I have previously described as “grouchy”).

You will almost certainly not “understand” the Danube in the way you might understand a more conventional play. You may find yourself, as we did, unable to properly describe the work – or at least unable to do it justice – when you meet your friends for beer afterwards. You will use words like “postmodern” and “experimental” and “surreal,” but none of these will be equal to the task. It is true that Fornes seems to be playing games with narrative, but not in the traditional postmodern sense (if there is such a thing); there is no winking here. What there is seems best described by Druckman’s quote, above: the characters grope about in the dark for meaning, for understanding, just as we in the audience do. This is a splendid script and a strong production of the sort we don’t see too often in Houston. Do not miss this play.

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