The set-up: "Astound me! I'll wait for you to astound me," dared Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev to young pup Jean Cocteau, who had just been inducted into the great man's inner circle of choreographers, artists, musicians, and writers in 1912 Paris. If only Diaghilev had met Mickle Maher.
This contemporary playwright never ceases to amaze. The execution: One of America's most idiosyncratic playwrights, Maher, co-founder of Chicago's avant-garde Oobleck Theatre, has practically become the resident playwright at our own Catastrophic Theatre. The fit is irresistible. Each of his works is unique, with startling premises. Smart and ingenious, his plays strike all sorts of resonant chords. First, there's a use of language that's almost physical. He loves how words go together, how they sound when they go together. He's one of our best poets, sometimes using rhymed couplets like a latter-day Restoration dandy. He and Tom Stoppard would make intriguing collaborators.
Of his work, all brilliantly produced at Catastrophic, we've been blessed to have The Strangerer, his existential political satire which used Camus as jumping-off point for a blissfully barbed presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry, moderated by a soporific Tom Brokaw. That same season brought the comic, surreal dream Spirits to Enforce, where telemarketing superheroes woo potential clients for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Two seasons ago, his mind-bending There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, perhaps his most satisfying play, tempted us with two English poetry professors offering up individual mea culpas for consensual sexual transgressions, all in rhymed verse, studded throughout with witty references to English metaphysical romantic poet William Blake. Maher doesn't disappoint. Each play is so different from every other one, so shrewdly constructed, that you wonder where he will go next.
With The Pine, a world premiere commissioned by Catastrophic, we now know. If Diaghilev had read this fable, inspired by Emily Dickinson and ancient Greek myths about Orpheus and and his quest through the underworld for beloved Eurydice, I know what he would have done. He'd have tossed the manuscript into the Seine. Maher's latest doesn't astound, it stupefies.
Too long by half, with an uneven blend of tragedy and sit-com, this play unreels relentlessly. The uneasy tone teeters between misty remembrance and knock-about Sartre. Most of the actors don't know what to do with this, reciting their poetic dialogue with catatonic sameness or shouting out in frustration. Perhaps the newness of the material cowed them (highly unlikely for Catastrophic), or did the company became intimidated by the weight of a world premiere from their favorite author?
With a surprising lack of cohesion, this is not Catastrophic's shining moment, nor Maher's. The language is overripe and too literal with scenes laid out in top-heavy exposition, or it's pinched and terribly pretentious. The audience doesn't know how to respond to the constant shifts between farce and drama. Is this purple symbolism supposed to be funny? The opening night audience thought so, greeting scenes intended as serious with unintentional laughs. Miss Dickinson would not approve.
We're in a decrepit hotel for the grief-stricken, a way station for lovers who "pine" for their lost loves. Clara (Amy Bruce, without any noticeable inflection at all), in prim Victorian attire and sporting an eye patch, conjures the place for us with palpable language more alive than she. The faded hotel, realized by set designer Laura Fine Hawkes with incredibly musty detail, sits on the shores of Lake Michigan where "its fish are sulky and gray." Sad faraway wails and wispy traces of a piano tune filter through the haunted space. She invokes the past - or is it the present? - and Gordon (Troy Schulze, so memorable in Catastrophic's recent Waiting for Godot) and piano teacher Danelle (Patricia Duran) materialize and quickly act out their love affair on the piano bench. It's over before it begins. Danelle surprisingly downs a bottle of pills, committing suicide and therefore checking into this hotel of the damned.
Gordon, either in the past or the present, I can't remember, owns the troubled hotel and is soon in hot pursuit of his beloved with a pair of garden shears he appropriates from Death (Noel Bowers). Did I mention the belligerent bellhop (Christian Holmes, movement; Abraham Zapata, voice), a nine-foot tall green ogre who loses his head more than once during the evening? Or Clave (the marvelously oily Jeff Miller), the sadistic hotel manager whose sole purpose in the play seems to be to throw wrenches into the action at every possible turn? Throughout, there are various doppelgangers who double and triple Danelle, confusing Gordon until he rampages through the hallways, skewering everyone in sight with those garden shears. This apparently sets the doomed spirits of the hotel free.
Recalling the movie comedians from the silent era, Schulze is wondrously physical. Watch how he attempts to get out of the hotel but can't, as if magnetized to the floor. There is beauty in his movement, but he has no character to play. His great romance with Danelle, sketchy at best, renders their plight insignificant. We're not interested in what happens to them. To quote another American poet, "there's no there there."
While Maher's symbolic clouds threaten to suck all the air out of the play, who should appear like a spirited deus ex machina but Morris the Hesitant (the miraculous Greg Dean), a medieval knight lurking through the hotel in search of his lost love, his tabby cat. This character is so Monte Python, the play actually beams in gratitude. Gruff, endearing, and the worst swordsman in living memory, this low-comedy character, spouting his lines like a bus-and-truck Shakespearean ham, accompanies Gordon on his quest and never fails to buoy Maher's heavy-handedness. Dean is a godsend and should be knighted for how he saves this play.
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With acknowledgments to Dickinson ("I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"), there's also Gordon's pet fly, nicely characterized in Chris Bakos's crisp and at times eerie sound effects. The fly, when not perched on Gordon's arm, saves his life more than once. When it gets squashed near the finale, I shuddered to think that we would be asked to clap to revive it.
Also in the cast are George Brock, as Clara's former love; John Dunn, as Gordon's twin spirit; Jessica Janes, as Danelle's double; Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, as ghostly Susan; and Miranda Herbert Aston, as another Danelle.
The verdict: I so wanted to like Maher's world premiere, long an admirer of Catastrophic's anarchic track record and the exceptional work of director Jason Nodler. The Pine is all about longing and eternity and how time doesn't heal all wounds - a major theme of Dickinson - but when the loudest applause at curtain call is for the cat (who is absolutely adorable), you know something's not right. In the words of Diaghilev, "Maybe next time."
Acclaimed playwright Mickle Maher's world premiere runs through October 19 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway, at Naylor. Purchase tickets online at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. "Pay what you can."