Before the curtains part on Things Being at the Worst, the audience sits in the dark, listening to the sounds of the disastrous opening night of a play-within-a-play called The Wedding Planner. Its audience riots after being subjected to a violent, bloody "comedy" in which children are slaughtered while opera music plays.

Things recounts how a modern theater troupe implodes while contemplating sex, death, rope, incest, murder, the taste of cum, the theater, more sex and even more rope. With its meditations on the creative process and how it can be perverted, the dark and hilarious piece is a fitting undertaking for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, the four-person collaborative group founded by University of Houston poetry professor John Harvey and actress Jennifer Decker in 2001. Their goal was to showcase local talent, and Things is their third production. Harvey wrote the play with help from former New York sketch artist Richard Taylor and Things director Greg Dean, who both joined Mildred's this year.

Both Things and its inner play, The Wedding Planner, take their inspiration from The Duchess of Malfi, the work by death-obsessed Renaissance playwright John Webster about a duchess who falls in love with her servant. For The Wedding Planner, Webster's tragedy is reinterpreted -- poorly -- as a romantic comedy. Its author, a woman named John Taylor, is a vicious drunk who hasn't yet written the ending, doesn't care for Webster, loathes words and is herself way too fond of death. Things takes audiences behind the scenes to Wedding Planner rehearsals, leading up to its tragic opening night.

"Along the way," says Harvey, "bodies pile up, secret fetishes open their closets, mysteries reveal unsatisfying conclusions, and a marriage slowly dissolves. Things Being at the Worst offers the very heart and history of theater: chaos...and rope."

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from Friday, September 5, through September 20. Helios, 411 Westheimer. For information, call 832-418-0973 or visit $10; if that's too expensive for your broke ass, there are two "pay as you like" performances at 8 p.m. Monday, September 15, and Monday, September 22.

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Scott Nowell