The Pine: Playwright Mickle Maher's Latest Is an Uneven Blend of Sitcom and Tragedy

'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. He never ceases to amaze.

One of America's most idiosyncratic playwrights, Maher, co-founder of Chicago's avant-garde Theater Oobleck, has practically become the resident playwright at our own Catastrophic Theatre. The fit is irresistible. Smart and ingenious, his plays strike all sorts of resonant chords, each one unique with startling premises: The Strangerer, a blissfully barbed existential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry, moderated by a soporific Tom Brokaw; the comic, surreal dream Spirits to Enforce, where telemarketing superheroes woo potential clients for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest; the mind-bending There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, perhaps his most satisfying play, all in rhymed verse, studded throughout with witty references to English metaphysical romantic poet William Blake. 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 just 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 sitcom, this play unreels relentlessly. The tone veers 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. Perhaps the newness of the material cowed them (highly unlikely for Catastrophic), or the company became intimidated by the weight of a world premiere from their favorite author. Everything is too literal and laid out in extended exposition, or it's pinched and terribly pretentious. The audience doesn't know how to respond to the constant shifts, so what might be intended as heavy drama is greeted 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 when Danelle suddenly 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 mysterious bellhop (Christian Holmes, movement, and Abraham Zapata, voice) a nine-foot-tall green ogre who loses his head more than once this evening? Or Clave (the wondrously oily Jeff Miller), the sadistic hotel manager whose purpose in the play seems to be to throw wrenches into the action at every possible turn? Then there are various doppelgangers who double and triple Danelle, confusing Gordon until he rampages through the hallways, skewering everyone in sight. This apparently sets their spirits free.

While Maher's symbolic clouds threaten to suck all the air out of the play, who should appear like an avenging angel 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, accompanies Gordon on his quest and never fails to buoy Maher's heavy-handedness. Dean is a godsend and should be knighted for what he adds to this play.

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 got squashed near the finale, I shuddered to think that we would be asked to clap if we believed.

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 Motaño-Bowers, as ghostly Susan; and Miranda Herbert Aston, as another Danelle.

I so wanted to like Maher's world premiere production, long an admirer of Catastrophic's anarchic track record and the exceptional work of director Jason Nodler. All about longing and eternity and how time doesn't heal all wounds — a major theme of Dickinson — 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."

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover