By the time our main character Margie is snarling on all fours around the bedroom of her sleeping ex-husband as if she was a lion ready to attack, while her abandoned son is speaking to some kind of sooth saying bonobo in a transported alternate rainforest reality, and her lover/pretend son/rent boy is transported to an underground cowboy hustle bar, we know one thing for sure. We have no idea what the hell is going on.
Funny then that our utter fogginess doesn’t mean we aren’t bewitched, intrigued and even a bit moved by Chana Porter’s eccentrically imaginative and decidedly odd Leap and the Net Will Appear, getting its world premiere at Catastrophic Theatre. After all, this is a play with strokes of brilliance, in turn incredibly funny and blatantly mournful, among the clutter of more than occasional incomprehension.
So let’s concentrate on what we do get from the show.
An eccentric family that left me achingly homesick for my own relatives
With hysterical acuity, Porter has captured the peculiar combination of narcissistic naval gazing, fussing over children and just plain muchness that makes up a modern secular Jewish family. But make no mistake, there’s no borscht belt humor going on here. Porter’s characterizations are far more absurdly biting than that.
Margie (a wonderfully unmoored Amy Bruce) is an oddball woman in her 20s desperately trying to find herself. Trying to figure out how to live in world she really doesn’t fit into or understand. She has no interests. She has no motivation. She wouldn’t know a good idea if it hit her on the head. What does a good idea sound like, she asks? Does it sound like a bell? She would rather be a lion than a person she claims. At least they have clear, uncomplicated purposes in life.
Her parents don’t get it. They offer her money to get going. They warn her that if she doesn’t figure something out she’ll (God Forbid) be a check out girl for the rest of her life. Her larger than life, aphorism spewing father, Simon (Tamarie Cooper owning this show in male drag) blusters about men being men, women being women, that no one died having fun and how, with a beautiful face like hers, she should get married already. People shouldn’t be alone he insists. Her mother, Alice (Pamela Vogel) gives her more practical advice. Marry someone that loves you more. Not needs. But loves. An ugly man that loves strongly is a catch, she says.
Interspersed with these fairly typical family moments are the gems. Ones that keep us giggling for most of the show. Simon is a comedy act unto himself. “I am going to read classical literature now” he opines out of nowhere with fist punches and leg kicks for emphasis. And he will do so as if smoking a pipe even though he doesn’t anymore, because it looks like the right thing to do. Later in the play Alice delivers a similar grand proclamation about immediately wanting to gaze upon European men in small bathing suits the size of underwear.
No filter. And without guile. That’s the personality Porter mines. And anyone who’s grown up in a family with characters such as these (my hand rises in affirmation to that question) knows that this kind of genuine crossing between inside and outside voice is par for the often hilarious/groan-worthy course.
The continuation of inside voice breaking free
“I make $200K a year”. “I have just recently decided to care about the environment.” “I would like to put part of me into part of you.” These just some of the lines that wealthy Lawrence (a wonderfully bombastic Jovan Jackson) and Margie say to each other on their first date.
It’s as though Porter has taken the Jewish family’s no filter and turned the absurd up to 11 for the rest of her characters. Not only do they speak their inner thoughts, they do so with no regard for how shallow, ridiculous, petty and yet refreshingly honest they sound.
When the two marry and Margie reveals to Lawrence that she has no idea what she likes, his response is in turns amusing and all too chauvinistically real. “Why not like some of the things that I think you should like,” he responds.
This leads to the next - perhaps most important thing we get from the play – the examination of the female place.
Porter explores the ‘how should a woman be’ in various forms though Margie’s unfolding 20 year journey. We watch her date, because she’s supposed to. Marry because it’s the right thing to do. Spend her husband’s wealth indiscriminately because that’s how we believe rich women conduct themselves. Abandon her husband and child to go looking for her truth, because that’s the trajectory of privileged spoiled women. Mourn a family member according to the methods forced upon her. And behave like a blood thirsty lion because, a woman who doesn’t fit into a neat category, is dangerous.
As frustrating as Maggie can be, with her limp noodle conviction and whiny woe is me refrain, we can’t help but feel empathy for her plight as a woman tossed and turned by the tides of societal mores that wish to shape her one way or another. And not just empathy, but in this #metoo new dawn, we feel a sisterhood with a woman trying to define herself in deference and then defiance of what is “expected”.
Nowhere is this better expressed than by the original musical interludes of Andrew Lynch, who appears sporadically, guitar in hand, to put Margie’s innermost thoughts to blunt song. It's here we learn of her disappointments and false pretenses. It’s here that we learn of her fantasies of life. And it’s here that Lynch lovingly takes Porter’s words and sings them out loud.
So then after all this, what to make of the lion, bonobo, gay hustle moment we frustratingly find ourselves in? And what to make of the similarly off the rails and far too long remainder of the show? Clocking in at just under two hours with no intermission, Leap and the Net Will Appear goes from a smart and surreal story about Maggie and her journey to a chaotic free for all about her real and pretend sons (Jayden Key and Mateo Mpindui-Mott) that seems not only beside the point, but never ending.
Director Tara Ahmadinejad (a strong steady hand for the first half of the show) does manage to find some granules of magic among the messiness of the latter portion. Much of the success is thanks to the re-emergence of Cooper as Simon, bringing his braggadocio Catskill swagger back to center stage and our attention thankfully rapt on his larger than life moves.
“I never know what to expect”, commented a colleague of mine as we exited the theater. That kind of expression shouldn’t be taken lightly. Porter’s show, with all its successes and flaws is most certainly anomalous, in keeping with much of the programming Catastrophic offers. We go to this company’s shows to be jolted out of our comfort zone. To try new things out and see how they fit with our tastes.
Leap and the Net Will Appear is a bold, remarkable and frustrating play. Yes we can all play armchair editor and discuss how to excise some of the production’s flab. But in a city so full of fatty sameness show after show, Porter’s type of risky storytelling is, well…. like a lion’s roar in an all too often timid jungle.
Leap and the Net Will Appear continues through March 4 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For tickets, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchhouston.org or catastrophictheatre.com. Suggested ticket price $40.