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Disemboweled at Dinner

Things get savage in Catastrophic Theatre's hilariously gory Hunter Gatherers.

Civilization is a ruse. Down in our guts, we're all just bloodthirsty animals. That's the truth devouring audiences of Catastrophic Theatre's remount of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's hilariously gory Hunter Gatherers. The four-character play Catastrophic first produced last year to critical raves is running this year at DiverseWorks. The script is a sort of postmodern remix of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963), the Tony Award-winning drama that imagines what happens one terrible night when two college professors get together for civilized cocktails with their wives. By dawn, the four have revealed their savage hearts and disemboweled each other — metaphorically, of course. Nachtrieb's new-millennium tale tests the boundaries of Albee's metaphor. His characters are cruel, but, unlike Albee's, they want more than each other's souls.

The opening scene foreshadows all the violence to come. We meet sleek urbanites Richard (Greg Dean) and Pam (recast this year with Shelley Calene-Black) standing in their hip living room gazing into a cardboard box shaking on the floor. The box is also bleating, and soon enough, we learn that it holds dinner in the form of a living lamb. Richard, who sees his own cooking as an art form, plans to butcher the iconic symbol of innocence himself so that it will be as fresh as possible. He wants Pam, his "skipper," to help. Ever the nice girl, Pam wants to oblige, but she's also tenderhearted. The worst thing about living in the city for her is "all the sadness."

Once the poor animal's in the oven, things can only get uglier — and funnier. The dinner is for a yearly get-together with a couple Richard and Pam have known since high school. And when Wendy (Amy Bruce) and Tom (Troy Schulze) arrive, it's the start of a party that will change everyone's lives. Wearing a tight miniskirt and high-heeled boots, Wendy bangs through the door in manic mode. Tom's parking the car, and good riddance! She smells the air, licks her lips and announces, "I've been craving flesh all day." And when she looks at Richard, it's pretty clear she's not just talking about dinner.

The play (with Greg Dean, Amy Bruce, ­Shelley Calene-Black and Troy Schulze) has lots of sex and violence.
George Hixson
The play (with Greg Dean, Amy Bruce, ­Shelley Calene-Black and Troy Schulze) has lots of sex and violence.

Later, when the two women are alone, Pam sits quietly while Wendy agonizes about how she wants babies and Tom is sterile. "Every single sperm in his nuts is a retard," she screams, waving her arms at the tragedy of it all. Later, she rages that "the closest thing Tom has to an orgasm is an apology." She hates her husband and wants more than anything to steal Pam's.

Tom and Richard are having their own problems. Richard pins Tom yet again in their yearly match of who's the strongest man, a game the mild-mannered Tom would just as soon do away with, unless they add "a written portion." Tom is also appalled at the slaughtered lamb. He's a doctor who's worried about possible health-code violations. He declares that he'll only eat the salad, and Richard sneers, "Salad is for homosexuals."

And this is just in the early part of the evening. The lying, cheating and violence get so loud and wildly dangerous, they seem to have nowhere to go. But Nachtrieb is not afraid to take his story to the absurd cliff where all the action is hanging when the lights go black at the end of Act One.

Act Two finds its way past the ordinary bad behavior most 21st-century audience members are used to and charts new territory. The beast inside each of the characters is laid bare. The ridiculous trappings of civilization are put away to make room for the primal desires that keep humans connected to their animal hearts — sex, violence, domination, the urge to procreate.

Through all this is director Jason Nodler's marvelous grasp of every comedic possibility in this script. Dean is perfectly cast as Richard — testosterone personified. Bruce is a wonderfully awful man-stealer. And Calene-Black is a pool of calm reserve in this storm of hedonism. But the real standout in this show is Schulze, whose razor-sharp comic timing amps up the volume of this entire production as soon as he finally gets onstage. (When is this company going to find a show that puts this Houston genius at center stage where he so clearly belongs?)

Part of what makes this show so wonderful is the shock of where it dares to go. Second-timers might not enjoy it as much as last year's production, just because they know what sort of whacked-out weirdness is coming next. But even without the surprises, the show is good and nasty fun.

 
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