The setup: After making their audiences bust a gut laughing at their summer Tamarie revue, Catastrophic Theatre likes to begin a new season by slapping that same audience upside the head. In a good way. This year's slap comes via There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, written by Catastrophic favorite Mickle Maher, author of previous company hits The Strangerer and Spirits to Enforce.
The execution: Maher tends to base his work on classic literary texts, riffing on them brilliantly and hilariously to create something new and strange. Here, he turns his penetrating gaze on William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As literature professor and one-time poet Bernard, Troy Schulze (a frequent Houston Press and Art Attack contributor) opens the play by ambling onstage (in the aptly named "micro-theater" at Catastrophic's office) covered in leaves and twigs. The night before, he'd made sweet love to his dear Ellen (Amy Bruce), a fellow Blake scholar, in public, under the collective gaze of students and school administration.
Shedding leaves as he lectures his class on Blake's vision of innocence, naive and aw-shucksy, Schulze's Bernard apologizes to the class for his indiscretion, but attributes it to an excess of innocence, not of perversion. Bruce's Ellen, wound considerably tighter than Bernard, comes on to give her own version of the events via a lecture based on Blake's much darker vision of experience.
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This bare-bones outline doesn't begin to hint at the play's -- and the production's -- riches. Maher has written most of it in metered, rhyming verse, some of which sounds truly Shakespearean. But, lest ye tremble, he's also made it great fun. Ellen will growl a line from her side of the tiny stage, and Bernard will provide the rhyme from what is supposed to be a different room.
When the manic Kyle Sturdivant comes on stage as the disheveled president and ostensible villain of the piece (representing the "worm" of experience), the play takes off in explosive, totally unpredictable directions. I didn't completely follow the play's argument, but it really didn't matter, given the strength of the performances and Jason Nodler's strong direction.
The verdict: I laughed, gasped and scratched my head. A great night of theater.
Through October 23. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30. The Catastrophic Theatre office, 1540 Sul Ross.