The final apocalyptic image in María Irene Fornés's dystopian drama The Danube finds her hapless characters flash-frozen in a blinding burst of white light and a giant whomp of electronic noise. They go out with a bang.
A mysterious illness plagues 1930s Budapest, felling these ordinary people one by one. Broken and in pain, they lurch and tic like marionettes entangled in knotted strings. Their crippled fists cramp. Their legs contort inward or drag behind them. Their skin is pocked with sores and crusted blood. Their clothes are ragged and caked with mold. They wear soot-stained goggles. A miasmal mist swathes the stage, oozing from under the slatted floor. In surreal understatement, someone says, “The weather is bad.”
It wasn't always like this; there used to be hope and love and the mundane pleasures of just living and falling in love. There was the soft beauty of the river flowing between the twin cities of Buda and Pest, a nourishing bowl of meat broth for lunch, maybe chicken with paprika for dinner, and American movies at the cinema. But it was never normal. Fornés's unsettling drama starts with unease.
Newly arrived American businessman Paul (Troy Schulze) meets Mr. Sandor (Charlie Scott) on a park bench, but the scene is prefaced by an unseen translator, “Unit 1, Basic Sentence Structure.” They speak as if studying from a Rosetta Stone language lesson. “Hello, my name is Paul.” We hear the dialogue first in English, then its Hungarian translation, then the actors repeat it. The effect is oddly funny, mechanically polite and stilted. It's also strangely affecting, as if the innocent niceties of social intercourse can only be rendered from a primer. When Sandor's daughter Eve (Amy Bruce) joins them, the formalities continue as more exposition is revealed with hints of attraction between Paul and Eve.
Scenes progress in this way pretty much for the remainder of the play. Soon, though, disquieting omens weave into the narrative. A waiter at the restaurant (Kyle Sturdivant, who plays multiple roles as family friend Mr. Kovacs, a Doctor and a Barber) urges them to eat since “the crops have not been good,” hinting that food may be scarce in the future. The bad weather is brought up again. In a fragrant monologue, Sturdivant, standing off from the action, compares Europe with America. Europe is slow; America is fast. Europe is heavy; America is light. “Americans sleep light and wake up briskly. You create life each day. Here, the little trousers a boy wears to school are waiting for him at the store before he is born.” Fortunately, Fornés lets this sink in without the interruption of constant translation. It's an eerie little pause that laser focuses the drama with tantalizing oddness.
Eve collapses without explanation. She and Paul have an affair. They dance at a club. Paul has a seizure. “Your blood is thin,” says the obsequious doctor without any more explanation. Paul is a soldier. His condition worsens. In the hospital, he struggles to write a letter to Eve; he must push his hand along the paper. “Hungary, we cannot save you.” Later, in another “unit,” Paul and Mr. Sandor, as crippled as Paul, serves coffee in agonizing pain with every movement. They wear goggles in the mist. “The coffee is cold.” Mr. Sandor apologizes and pulls a mass of goo, like a clump of hair from a drain, out of Paul's cup.
“You have polluted me,” Paul screams at Eve, who lies crumpled on the floor. He announces he's leaving. They reconcile, holding each other in twisted arms. With mounting anguish, he breaks the dinner table with his fists. “I didn't feel anything!”
By now, all of them are barely comatose, moving like puppets. That's when the puppet show begins. Standing around the toy theater, the three of them act out Paul and Eve's packing for their escape. Into a miniature suitcase, they throw tiny blouses, pants, socks and handkerchiefs The little people hobble like their characters; fog comes up through the floor of the little stage, too. The faces of the dolls look exactly like the actors. (The magicians at Joel Orr's Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre crafted this simulacrum.)
If this might seem to be too much expressionistic overkill, the final live-action scene repeats the doll scene. However, there's an added detail in the adult world: Eve discovers a gun in Paul's suitcase. Nothing is made of this, however. It's left hanging, unexplained, waiting for us to fill in Fornés's expressionistic ellipses. As Paul and Eve say their good-byes to papa Sandor and stumble to leave, that's when they're transfixed in that blinding light and increasing rush of noise.
Nothing dates so completely as the avant-garde.
Fornés was the darling of the '70s New York experimental theater scene. Until stopped by Alzheimer's, she wrote and directed more than 40 plays (The Successful Life of Three, Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, The Conduct of Life) and received numerous awards and accolades, as well as mentoring many downtown playwrights through her teaching. But what was once cutting-edge can often look slightly faded and a shade comic. Witness the laughter Danube engendered from some of Catastrophic's opening-night audience. While there's irony aplenty to garner wry smiles – that opening “unit” is sheer theatrical legerdemain for getting our attention and hooking us right at the start – only Dr. Strangelove could laugh at the end of the world. But laugh they did, inappropriate as it seems, at the most dramatic moments.
Fornés can flounder with her highfalutin poetry that hits the ear with dizzying effect. It's too much at times. Eve's bedroom declaration to her lover, “Adieu, sweet eyes,” is not something out of a Berlitz phrasebook. It rings false and arty. That's why the Waiter's unique monologue is so matchless. Concrete and precise, it stands alone, free of purple prose yet so moving, as is Sturdivant's sublime rendition, which he savors like the most tasty goulash.
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Under director Jason Nodler, Catastrophic's production is earnest to a fault, which is why perhaps it elicits unintentional laughs. Slow and stately (even the stagehands who move the scenery are solicitous and terribly formal), it's encased in amber, a museum piece. The acting is flawless (the same cast as Catastrophic forerunner Infernal Bridegroom's 2000 production), with Scott a standout as sweet Sandor, rumpled yet infinitely polite as his beloved way of life disintegrates and destroys him.
The stagecraft is impeccable, abetted by costumer Macy Lyne's utilitarian '30s wear; sound man Shawn St. John's evocative backgrounds; and Kevin Holden's minimal settings. Best of all is Miriam Daly's tremendously effective score. This is just the sound Fornés's overheated apocalypse needs. There's an opening trace of British dance band Ray Noble and his peerless vocalist Al Bowlly to set the antique tone, then we're off with, naturally, Strauss's “Blue Danube.” But each time we hear that eternal waltz as it intros the next scene, the famous tune is slightly modified. Like the characters, it becomes more disjointed, atonal, jarringly diffuse. By the end it's pulled out of whack entirely. Daly weaves a dream score, holding an aural mirror up to Fornés.
Overly ripe, Danube can still leave a bruise. While her former cutting-edge effects have been neatly folded into contemporary theater, Fornés once led the way. For that, Catastrophic pays loving tribute. Still on the barricades, they wave her banner with pride.
The Danube continues through October 17 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 I-10 East at Naylor Street. Order tickets online at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. Pay-what-you-can.