Catastrophic Explores America's Meme, "How Could This Have Happened?"

The Catastrophic Theatre felt it was time to resurrect Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner.EXPAND
The Catastrophic Theatre felt it was time to resurrect Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner.
Photo by George Hixson

This tumultuous election year has split America apart, magnifying the worst of both red and blue in a slurry of hurled insults, misinformation, Russian tampering and late-night satire. Whether election day brought about feelings of euphoric triumph or wretched hangover, there's no denying that things are moving at an incredibly fast, 140-character pace and the Cold War seems all but forgotten.

Social media is aflutter with talk of the weakening of democracy, the unraveling of society and a gradual slide into the clutches of fascism. More than a few shell-shocked Americans have been asking the question "How could this have happened?" and The Catastrophic Theatre's artistic director, Jason Nodler, looks to Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner for answers.

It's been a favorite of Nodler's for years, long before Shawn ever released the rights. "So for ten years or so, we just waited and every day we wished that we could do it. I constantly – a thing that I love to do – I would be out drinking with friends, actors and musicians, late into the night, and I would say, 'I have an idea; let's go to my apartment and read The Designated Mourner out loud,' and it would be a profound experience each and every time." Nodler says that, over the years, he's given away 60 copies to new acquaintances, labeling it "just so extraordinary, and it is unlike any play that was written before or since."

The apocalyptic play garnered rave reviews for Catastrophic when the company finally produced it in 2010. Houston Press theater reviewer Lee Williams described the play as "a place without poetry, art or wisdom," putting forth "a bleak worldview that doesn't seem all that far-fetched."

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"I need to say that it is an incredibly funny play," says Nodler, though stressing its importance and relevance to the times in which we live. "It's true that on election night, the lines for this play were rapid-fire in my head. Then all the next day, when five different people reached out to me, [I knew that] it's time for The Designated Mourner. Further confirmation came about after Nodler made the decision to remount the play: Rumaan Alam published a piece in the New Republic with the lede, "If suspension of disbelief is central to the theater, someone should immediately mount a production of Wallace Shawn’s 1996 play The Designated Mourner."

It wasn't planned, but Catastrophic hopped to it and shoehorned the production into its tight schedule. It helps that two of the actors from the 2010 production – Greg Dean and Paul Menzel – are resurrecting their roles, Nodler is stepping up to direct again, and Patricia Duran (Middletown, The Pine) is taking on the role of Judy.

"It's not a partisan play and it's a very personal play, although it's also a very political one and it speaks to what we have to lose as a civilization and how dangerous that is, the danger in considering an entire class of people to be enemies," says Nodler. "The way that it's told is largely through direct address."

He adds that the play is purposely vague, especially in describing the events that led to this dark future where high culture no longer exists, allowing the audience members to fill in the blanks with their own personal experiences.

"There's something magical that happens when these words are spoken in a room and the audience receives them," says Nodler. "It's a magical spell that absolutely requires the audience."

Performances are scheduled for January 5 through January 15. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., January 8 at 2:30 p.m., January 15 at 7 p.m. at The Catastrophic Theatre, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com or matchouston.org. Pay what you can; suggested price is $35.

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