Let's start at the beginning, which is not often the place master short story author Donald Barthelme often begins.
Snow White is not your childhood's beloved fairy tale.
A surreal, sexed-up romp through a fantasyland of the mind, this world premiere from Catastrophic Theatre, which knows better than most how to do “postmodern” theater with a real kick in it, will fill you with wonder: the wonder of language, the wonder of superb stagecraft, the wonder of the bizarre, the wonder that is theater.
Barthelme's first novel (1967) has been something of a love affair for Catastrophic member Greg Dean, who's been working on turning the slim novel (not slim in thoughts) into a stage work for years. Originally, Barthelme adapted his book into a play but shelved it after a New York reading in 1976, calling it “poor...awkward...too long.” When the Alley Theatre held a reading in 1996, Dean and Jason Nodler, Catastrophic's artistic director, jumped at the chance to finally get this performed. After years, through lengthy negotiations with the Barthelme estate, advocated via Inprint Houston's head, Rich Levy, a typewritten manuscript with Barthelme's annotations was discovered, the rights released and Greg could begin anew.
It's been well worth the wait.
And how fitting that this world premiere should happen in Houston, Barthelme's second home. Though born in Philadelphia, he grew up here, where his father was a distinguished professor of architecture at the University of Houston. Barthelme wrote for The Houston Post, later became director of the Contemporary Arts Museum, and would become a founding member of UH's Creative Writing Program. Sadly, he also died here, at the unseemly age of 58 in 1989.
A phantasmagorical adventure, Snow White is pure Barthelme. Fragments come and go, language is created and massaged, tropes are turned on their head, graphics are displayed, there is a wry Narrator to lead us through the knotty non sequiturs, and there is that shower scene – the bawdy, mundane ritual between heavenly Snow White (the nubile Coralee Young) and her coterie of seven roommates – which caused all sorts of complaints and subscription cancellations when the novel was published in full in The New Yorker, Barthelme's major source of publication for most of his short fiction.
Describing the play would do it injustice, for the theatrical weirdness must be experienced, his convoluted disquisitions heard out loud, his modern literary minimalism felt in the flesh. What I can tell you is that Catastrophic's team of wizards has performed wonders of their own. Barthelme's collage-like antics have been swathed with a visual aesthetic that is the perfect equivalent of his own distinct fragmentary style. Everything meshes. The page becomes the stage.
Ryan McGettigan's tiered staircase, framed by skewed window frames, with a large shower curtain upstage center, is a dreamscape all its own. Snow White stands at the window, letting loose her long black hair like Rapunzel, admiring herself with lewd distraction. Everybody at some time shows up in the windows, usually for a quick sentence or two, enough to keep us on our toes. Hey, is that President Lincoln or an IRS agent? (Both are played by John Dunn.)
Frequently, projections designed by Full Media Jacket LLC and Tim Thompson play across the curtain, from skyscraper windows to that all-important shower head and a creepy black and white movie about Snow White's inner life. The Narrator (Greg Dean, also the show's spit-polish director) sits behind another tilted window, smoking furiously as he reads to us this adult tale of female beauty, entitlement, commodity, boredom and inevitable disenchantment.
Don't look for Sneezy, Dopey or Doc. Snow White's companions are not cute little guys who mine diamonds just for the fun of it. These priapic companions are industrious men of another sort: They wash windows on the side when not making Chinese baby food, vats of it. I warned you this is not Disney's fairy tale. These group numbers present ripe inspiration for choreographer Tamarie Cooper to unleash her inner Busby Berkeley. The Chinese fan dance is a deluxe showstopper, sublimely silly and, oh, so incorrect. Lovely. I do not know who composed the music for that (no one is listed in the program), but Thompson's subtle sound work elsewhere takes grand hints from Wagner's Ring and Tristan and Isolde.
Bill (a resplendently grumpy Luis Galindo) is the leader, but he's tired of it all and doesn't want to be touched anymore by anyone. The others who sit at the table with their little cereal bowls are Clem (Noel Bowers), Dan (Bobby Haworth), Henry (Xzavien Hollins), Hubert (Joel Orr), Edward (Charlie Scott) and Kevin (Abraham Zeus Zapata). They've all got issues, life problems, and can't quite figure out why Snow White is so unhappy and unfulfilled. Aren't they enough?
There's a wicked witch, of sorts, named Jane (a spirited Courtney Lomelo), who rings up random people from the phone book to berate them and wield her diminishing powers. And there's a Prince, there's always a Prince. But Paul (Greg Cote) doesn't want to be one. He spies on Snow White from a cave while he figures out what he wants to be. Maybe being a monk would suit him? Jane's poisonous vodka will end his soul searching. And then, who enters to try to seduce Snow White but leatherman Hogo (perfectly sleazy Jeff Miller). He may be the embodiment of the Magic Mirror itself, wherein Snow White sees the reflection of her empty sybaritic existence. “Her venereal life,” she calls it with snappy particularity.
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This entire production is snappy and bizarre, rife with irony and '60s angst. Right in the middle of the show, we're asked to fill out a questionnaire about what we're watching. Do you like the story so far? Does Snow White resemble the Snow White you remember? Do you stand up when you read? In your opinion, should human beings have more shoulders? We snicker and dutifully tick off our answers with the little pencils that have been placed under our seats.
But while the play makes us think and forces us to fill in the blanks that Barthelme wittily supplies with flourish and finesse, Snow White makes us laugh, uproariously so, as it upends our preconceptions of this age-old tale. Happy ever after for these sad sacks? I don't think so. We've all lived through too many fairy tales too. We're left with the projected titles: THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE'S ARSE and THE HEROES DEPART IN SEARCH OF A NEW PRINCIPLE. HEIGH-HO.
What surely will be a happy ending is the future of this world premiere. I don't need a magic mirror to predict Snow White's enduring success. Catastrophic and Mr. Dean, you've done it again! Heigh-ho, indeed.
Snow White continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through May 6. The Catastrophic Theatre at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-522-2723 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay what you can; suggested price is $35.