Just try to pinpoint the central story in John Harvey's Things Being at the Worst. We dare you. Oedipus, Sherlock Holmes and a dark-haired duchess from an obscure 17th-century melodrama all figure in the strange narrative in one way or another. Then there's the necrophilia-loving wedding planner, a director who snaps Polaroids of bad actresses tied up in ropes -- and the playwright who chokes to death on her own words, literally. Think Tom Stoppard on methamphetamines, and you land in the general ballpark of one of the most surprisingly sexy productions to push its way into Houston's avant-garde theater scene in quite some time.
Mildred's Umbrella, the fledgling group that produced this madness, has become the brave little theater company that could. With no budget to speak of, members have built their tiny repertoire of three productions entirely out of scripts written by company co-founder John Harvey. Smart and funny, both of Harvey's earlier scripts showed off an intellectual breadth that's rare in contemporary theater.
But Things Being at the Worst lands in new territory altogether. Funny, wicked and even a bit gross, Harvey's latest story leaps off the page and onto the stage with ferocious velocity, thanks in large part to the company's most recent addition, Greg Dean. Contributing to the project as director, actor and sometime playwright (he's listed as a co-writer in the program), Dean exudes a scorching charm and charisma that send Harvey's intellectual pyrotechnics straight to the fires of hell, where they burn brighter than ever.
As director, Dean has brought a delicious bag of theatrical goodies to Mildred's Umbrella, the least of which is some terrific music that includes creepy piano notes and oddly broken-sounding tunes. There's even an unnerving voice-over featuring cows mooing, children screaming and a man shouting, "I'm going to have the children set on fire. It's my play!"
Dean has also brought a good deal of visual energy to the production. Wearing a crimson vinyl cape, a grouchy cardinal sweeps onto the stage. His lady friend, the duchess, wears a black bustier shined up so slick it looks wet. The stage floor is taped up in white paper, and two black chairs are tied up with white rope. All these visuals are done on the cheap, but the show looks terrific and wild. Dean even makes the most of the sad lighting offered at the miniature theater in Helios, doing disturbing things with a single ordinary incandescent bulb, hanging at center stage.
As an actor, Dean all but walks off with the show. With his dark eyes blazing and his hands twittering about the air in nervous worry, he opens the show with these lines: "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know." But from the start, it's clear that Dean knows exactly what's what. Igniting the stage every time he muscles onto it, Dean turns Harvey's postmodern wail for the contemporary writer into a sort of magical incantation. "The problem is the very words we speak," he cries. And we must believe him. His speeches are long and dense, but nevertheless, one can't help wishing they were even longer so that Dean might get more time to bewitch us with his erotic and strange intelligence.
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Of course, he does get strong support from his cast. This is an attractive group that's able to carry off the extremes demanded from the show. As the naive actress who finds herself tied up (literally) on a bizarre casting couch, Christin Davis looks gorgeously wide-eyed in her white gown.
Christine Auten is utterly convincing as the playwright/professor attempting to modernize an obscure Elizabethan play called The Duchess of Malfi -- a difficult chore, considering that the original is apparently "a bad play" that "only survives today because sadistic literature professors inflict it on their freshmen students in an attempt to reduce class size." Auten marches around the stage wearing a black suit, her chestnut hair slicked back, looking every inch the scary professor. And her sharp comic timing makes her angry character one of the funniest in the show.
Likewise, Jennifer Decker is hysterical as Puttenesca, a wedding planner who dreams up a secret ceremony made to look like a funeral, "with white lilies instead of roses, dress in basic black and hundreds of candles."
All this oddness is wrapped into a story that has no ending. Each character bemoans the fact that the story isn't working and that the ending isn't written. Soon enough, it becomes evident that this is a play about writing a play against an impossibly intimidating literary history. Harvey's grand mishmash of references includes everything from Denis Johnson's contemporary story Emergency to Virgil. The miracle is that Harvey pulls it off in a Marquis de Sade-meets-the-Marx Brothers sort of way. The writer's efforts, combined with Dean's keen sense of theater, have managed to concoct one of the most inventive and truly avant-garde shows of the year.