Anna Bella Eema from Catastrophic Theatre: A Startling Piece of Theater

The setup:

Like fine jewelry, the world of the surreal and the real is fashioned into bold theatrical relief by playwright Lisa D'Amour, composer Chris Sidorfsky, a trio of superlative actors and the backstage wizards of sound effects (Chris Bakos), lighting (Kevin Holden) and creepy set design (Jodi Bobrovsky). Under the watchful, all-knowing eye of director Jason Nodler, Catastrophic Theatre delivers the goods and creates a miniature pendant that gleams with tantalizing brilliance, old-fashioned white-hot '60s feminist rhetoric, and symbolism too heavy at times to bear its own weight. Sparkly, it's a jewel too big for its setting, but a jewel nonetheless.

The execution:

D'Amour's play from 2003 feels like a relic from downtown Village grunge theater when blacklight was ubiquitous. It's a little of Alice -- both Toklas and Wonderland -- swirled with Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, overlaid with a love of lush language that's practically jungle-humid.

The fog is thick and fragrant when the audience enters. Three women are already seated at their TV trays in the black crumpled void, making sounds and rhythms with all manner of kitchen utensils, rifling book pages, or tinkling pixie-like with something metallic swirling inside a glass jar. They slap and bong and crash in cacophony, soon to be pierced into quiet by One (Elissa Levitt) and her disquieting monologue.

We're in a trailer park, of the mind or not doesn't really matter, we're there, and so is One, planted solidly like a tree, to tell us her wild story. She's met werewolves and vampires, keeps an eagle's eye and shows it off to us, knows of things she shouldn't know. She mesmerizes us with her story and manner of telling. It's weird and familiar, as is she. Her teen daughter Anna Bella (Ivy Castle) yearns to be free, to get out of the trailer park. Or maybe not. Anna has created a child out of mud (Jessica Janes), and her new creation has set her free. The triad of homebound women coalesces into a force to be reckoned with. Implacable, resolute, Mom will not be moved. Nature and instinct are stronger than the social worker, the policeman, the construction crew waiting in their backhoes to demolish the trailer park for an interstate. Mom flies in her dreams, she flies in Anna Bella's dreams. She is her own force of nature.

This startling piece of theater, although much too long and rather obvious, flies largely through Sidorfsky's magical music, which caws in animal cries, caresses with swooning lullabies or holds us captive with glittering, otherworldly harmonies. Married to the sound effects, the play's an aural delight -- a bird's flight is conjured with two playing cards flapped together, and then let loose in a pack sprung open to cascade through the air. It's the most creative musical in town. The three women sing as well as they act, which has got to be a prerequisite for this most musical of plays.

It's a field day for the actors, who get to plumb their animal natures. D'Amour supplies the three ladies with a Wild Kingdom, Disneyesque assortment. Levitt triumphs as magisterial, witchy, and oak-strong Mom, a Medea who will later become Bertha the owl, holding wooden spoons to her eyes, or the sly old fox leading Anna on another journey of self-discovery. Castle is wild and wild-eyed as exploratory young Anna, who learns most from her mother when least willing to be taught. And Janes, who plays other subsidiary roles, is quite magical in her own way as Mud Girl, whose laughter both comforts and seduces.

The verdict:

Yes, this goes on too long and like an old friend used to say, I got it twice the first time, but Anna is worth the visit. Who hasn't wanted to go down that rabbit hole, or at least under the floorboards of the trailer to test our fortitude and see what treasures lie beneath?

Lisa D'Amour's theatrical fest of the mind plays Wednesdays through Saturdays until December 23 at DiverseWorks. Order tickets online at or call 713-522-2723. Pay what you can, but the suggested price is $20.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover