Love Under the Umbrella

These days, pop psychologists like Oprah's Dr. Phil would have us think that love is a relatively simple thing. We solipsistic nincompoops of the 21st century just need to slow down, be reasonable, think things through and use the old noggin. All those horrifying complications -- the aching mistakes that can make us drop to our knees, grovel through our tears and beg for more -- are just so much folderol and phooey inspired by bad TV and extraordinarily stupid expectations. According to Dr. Phil and kin, there's nothing in our perpetually broken hearts that a good verbal kick in the lovesick pants wouldn't fix. Thank goodness poet/playwright John Harvey is around to set the record straight. His new play, Eros: A Circus, now running at Helios, insists that angst-ridden wailing through the dark and lonely night is what love is really all about. Dr. Phil can go peddle his self-help someplace else.

More angry philosophizing than narrative, Harvey's play within a play covers a vast and absurdist landscape of thoughts on lust, heartbreak, violence, art and our modern attachment to pornography. Like a throwback to the days of Dada, Harvey's script contains a little bit everything: Allusions to unicorns and Greek mythology are butted up next to Lewis Carroll-like snippets of dialogue that have the characters discussing such things as the definition of "narwhal" and the ingredients of foie gras. Most of all, Eros: A Circus attempts to define for us the notion of love, in all its head-scratchingly complex and indeterminate manifestations.

Sometimes love is tender: "I hear old men and women whisper at night into their pillows some name that has eluded them, some name that they carry with them, that they hold under their tongues until night… Then they let it roll down their wet cheeks… the name of the one they will no longer see, they will no longer touch, Eros."

Sometimes love is grotesque: "I'm not going to end up losing my head over skin and bones, over pus and sacs, over wrinkles and smell, over urine and excrement."

This bleak take on sex and love and all that makes our hearts go pit-a-pat is mitigated by Harvey's deeply ironic tone, which creates odd moments of whimsy, such as when two characters decide to become secret agents for love and develop an "elaborate code" of "inverted hieroglyphics" to get to what they desire most.

The often gorgeous script points to Harvey's experience as a graduate of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program and a poet whose work has appeared in such impressive periodicals as the Paris Review and The New Republic. But as beautiful as much of the language is, Eros often comes off as a long, elaborate poem that lies somewhere between Hart Crane's astonishing "The Bridge" and D.M. Thomas's haunting novel The White Hotel. The most successful theatrical moments come in the scenes of plain speech. When the character of the old man steps forward to tell of a love named Rebecca and the night he first met her, the simple, ordinary story of regret burns with the dramatic tension live theater needs.

Evocative, too, is the way Harvey experiments with the ideas of performance, role-playing and memory, and how these ideas inform the way we articulate and define love. At various points in the play, each of the three characters asks about the performance, and everybody's memory becomes suspect. "We have roles," explains the circus Tumbler (David Anderson). We are all playing an "invisible game," says the Acrobat (Jennifer Decker). Nothing is real, not even love; everything is just "rehearsal" or "performance," even when the audience "hasn't been seen in months."

Harvey's script is difficult, requiring a strong cast and an even stronger director to wrangle the energy of his big ideas into the milieu of theater, where sets and lights and music can make his words fly. Unfortunately, the inexperience of Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company shows. No one is credited as a director, and the lack of directorial vision is one of this production's most vexing problems. Carved out of the top floor of a two-story house in the middle of Montrose, the bedroomy theater at Helios is intimate and funky, in many ways perfect for Harvey's absurd play. But the small cast is pushed back into a postage stamp-sized area at one end of the space, where they spend a great deal of time navigating around the pieces of rummaged brown furniture that serve as a set. The strange, floaty music that pops up here and there adds a wonderful dimension to the dialogue, but it too points to the lack of attention given to the visual aspects of the production.

This show is all words. There is absolutely nothing to look at -- no costumes to speak of, no set, no lights. This is especially frustrating with a script that is so full of odd and potentially graphic allusions to everything from dead bodies next door to a magic window that offers up a strange succession of images, including a tiny model of the concentration camp Buchenwald.

Full of promise for something new and different, John Harvey and Mildred's Umbrella seem to be on the road to someplace exciting. What they need now is that essential element for powerful theater: a great director to show them the way.

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Lee Williams