Rock Poet

Corny as it might sound, Infernal Bridegroom Productions' Actual Air really is poetry in motion. Adapted by IBP company member (and Press assistant calendar editor) Troy Schulze from David Berman's book of poems by the same name, the show translates his ragged lyricism from the page to the stage with astonishing grace. In fact, IBP's exquisitely crafted world premiere may even make Berman's youthful verse stronger.

Schulze brings the hazy voice of a disenfranchised-artist-as-a-young-man into sharp focus. His twentysomething landscape is sketched out in brief scenes suffused with oblique meaning. The scenes move like a dream of words and images too strange to shape into a narrative yet too powerful to dismiss. This isn't poetry put to a beat, shaped into dance or rapped into rhythm. It is a collage of quiet musings over such modern dilemmas as the weirdness of snowmen, the dangers of smoking and "the paradox of multiple Santas" at the mall. The odd voices in Schulze's play capture the vague yet brutal disappointments of newly acquired adulthood in a world filled with endless small anxieties and ironies.

The production is technically beautiful. Incidental music by Mike Switzer and Anthony Barilla adds to the moody darkness. And set designer Kirk Markley's zigzagging stretches of gauzy scrim thread back and forth across the stage like a tiny version of Christo's early-'70s sculpture Running Fence. A creamy, translucent slip of a curtain ends scenes with white silence. Markley's lighting is striking as well: Circles of playing area are chiseled out in golden light, focusing our attention on the smallest detail, such as the way an asthmatic with lush red lips can suck air from an inhaler in the most delicious way.

"Do you ever think of cancer?" she asks her lover, suitcase by her side. He drags off his cigarette and says with the arrogance of youth, "Yes, but always as a tree, way up ahead in the distance where it doesn't matter."

Schulze's careful attention to each scene gives the piece a dancelike feel, even though the actors might not raise more than an arm as they speak. Tamarie Cooper is especially strong throughout this production, in part because of her dancerly sense of the power in a single gesture. Sometimes the actors don't move at all, and the still-life scenes come off with the grace of a sepia-toned photograph. Punctuating the stillness are unexpected moments of nudity, which are most surprising for their painterly beauty. To underline his point about the struggle of the young artist, Schulze has invited different local artists to paint a self-portrait on stage as Patrick Reynolds recites Berman's "Self Portrait at 28."

Berman's poetry is clearly the work of a young man preoccupied with lost girlfriends, the strangeness of popular culture, "honesty" and his angst-ridden teenage past. On who was cool in high school: "You could tell who'd been to last night's big metal concert by the new T-shirts in the hallways. You didn't have to ask, and that's what cool was." Schulze creates a tenuous "drama" from Berman's neuroses; the anxiety is palpable in the muscular reserve of the show.

In many ways, the subject matter is perfect for IBP, a company that's clearly still fighting the good fight against established ideas of what theater is supposed to be. Grungy and tattooed, this chain-smoking group of actors really does seem to think of tragedy as something way up ahead in the distance where it doesn't matter. It's their youthful bravado coupled with a mature ability to work hard that makes this production so strong.

In fact, the only misstep is when Schulze himself tries to sing songs from Berman's indie rock band the Silver Jews. Though skinny Schulze, with his intense eyes and hollow cheeks, looks every bit the lead singer when he stands on the stage dressed in a red shirt, dark slacks and bare feet, he can't carry a tune. The songs are saved only by his backup singers and a band that does a pretty good job of drowning him out. It's hard to understand why Schulze didn't give these songs to Cary Winscott, who does a lovely job with the closing monologue, "The Charm of 5:30."

Rarefied as all this might sound, the show moves quickly, and its brevity is part of what keeps it from slipping into the abyss of self-indulgence. Lasting no more than an hour, it is as fleeting as a poem and leaves you with the same sort of wistful, melancholic glow.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams