Unfortunately, when people think of theater, words like "dry," "stuffy" and "serious" all come to mind. It smacks of the passive rituals of church more than the engaging stimulations of the nightclub, which is one reason the playgoing crowd tends to be small in number and over 50 in age. The nomadic troupe Infernal Bridegroom Productions and the very strange Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, on the other hand, come from rebellious backgrounds: The former started out in the old punk-rock club Catal Hüyük, and the latter used to open up for rock bands at Mary Jane's. Their shows are often strange, twisted and hilarious. As a result, you can find younger faces in the audience, many who have never before gone to a cultural event.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
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Yet look at the list of past productions: Bertolt Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros and Leo Tolstoy's Ivan the Fool. Hardly the light fare you find on Thursday-night sitcoms. "We do a Beckett play, we can't find enough chairs," says IBP's artistic director Jason Nodler. "We deal with some heavy shit, but it's got to be funny and entertaining."
"Beckett's actually very funny," says Bobbindoctrin's creator, Joel Orr.
It doesn't take long to see these two are on the same wavelength. In fact, it was seeing the crowds IBP could draw for avant-garde shows that kept Orr from taking his weird puppet idea to New York. So it comes as no surprise that Houston's two theatrical oddities will be collaborating on the disturbing The Danube, a surreal play about an apocalyptic Hungary, circa 1930s, that requires puppets for the final scenes.
The only surprise about this collaboration, it seems, would be that it took so long. "There's certainly not a lot of puppet scripts out there," Orr says.
But then came The Danube. The two groups had been wanting to work together on the play for years (Nodler studied under its author, Maria Irene Fornes), but they wanted to wait until they could build the perfect team. The complex production requires almost every core member of both companies.
"I'm interested in satire that's very brutal," Orr says. "If you're going to make your point, make it loudly."
"Joel's just mean," Nodler jokes, though both admit they like to unsettle an audience. Especially gratifying are those moments when something shifts as the crowd is laughing, and everyone suddenly feels a little sick for having done so. Both Nodler and Orr enjoy the kind of laughter that comes from sheer discomfort.
The secret to making this play a success is to concentrate on the audience's emotional reaction, not its intellectual one. "We do plays with big issues and very big questions," Nodler admits. "We don't answer the questions. We aren't interested in changing their minds, but their moods."
Engaging playwrights tend to deal with the ironies, oddities and absurdities of life -- the very things that make us laugh. By keying into the humor of a dark piece like The Danube, these guys may understand the seriousness of the play better than anybody.