Let’s talk about what we don’t get a lot of in the Houston theater scene. Premieres of local playwrights. Shows set in, and about, our city. Site-specific theater. Purposefully intimate/small audience productions. Shows that embrace racial and sexual diversity not as badges of honor, but as simple and not always needing to be amplified facts of life.
Shows that many theater lovers (this critic included) are desperately hungry for in this town.
Now – imagine a play that ticks all the above boxes and (hallelujah) is smart, funny, surprising, thought-provoking, gorgeously performed and creatively directed to boot. All in a tight 50-minute production, a runtime alone that deserves a happy dance.
Between Two Caves by Brendan Bourque-Sheil (A Landing Theatre Company New Works Initiative) invites only 18 audience members at a time into a Heights-area Airbnb bungalow living room to watch a two-hander about conspiracy theory and the psychological etymology that births such beliefs. And miraculously does so without one whiff of pretention or insufferableness. Instead, we get insight, tenderness and much to laugh at.
Alex (Anna Maria Morris showing great emotional dexterity) has a successful interview podcast based in Houston where she grew up. The kind of successes that affords her an agent and sponsors, the professional clothes she wears and the house she often conducts her interviews in. She didn’t mean to start the show, she says. It was her therapist’s idea, a way for her to engage with people again after a suicidal period in her teens and years in a mental health facility. Perhaps, by listening to other people’s ideas, Alex can figure out what she believes in and who she really is.
Parker (Camron Alexander, awash with superbly paced nervous ticks and antsy energy), attended not only high school with Alex, but the mental health facility as well. They have a history. She knows what makes him tick and she knows that his inner clock has been battered by the recent and tragic death of his older sister, a woman Alex used to have a crush on. She knows his old demons are knocking hard at his door.
So when Parker (donning a man bun and Thor T-shirt) shows up at Alex’s home, pitching a ridiculous theory about what really caused Hurricane Harvey and who was behind it as an idea for her show, she can’t simply dismiss him. Even though he quotes George Bernard Shaw – “All Great Truths Begin as Blasphemies.” Even if he has a killer PowerPoint presentation, that we, the audience, get a full weird/hysterical view of via his laptop.
But she can’t say yes either. Borque-Sheil begins his play with the two characters discussing the latest, and most talked about interview Alex has conducted – one with a famous white nationalist on his deathbed at his heavily guarded safe house in the woods. It’s a brilliant piece of narrative writing that subtly takes jabs at all sorts of modern media practices, political correctness, and social media ills. A story arc that frankly could have been a show unto itself it’s so compelling and slyly suggestive.
Point is, Alex is getting death threats from all sides, sponsors are threatening to pull out and she just can’t afford another controversial interview right now. So sets up the tension between the two old friends and co-patients. Where does the conspiracy end and the mental anguish begin? How does one cope with grief? When should we stop thinking that events are just coincidence and realize that our actions play a part in what happens to us as a society? And should we in Houston really revere Mattress Mack or Sylvester Turner or even JJ Watt? Should we think that Buc-ee's turkey jerky is an acceptable dinner three nights in a row?
Shows that inject local references to get audience laughs/nods are nothing new. We’ve seen the plays that reference a Houston street name/neighborhood here or there or even a sports team to get an audience reaction, but what Borque-Sheil does here is something completely different. This isn’t cheap name dropping. This is total immersion.
Between Two Caves is unapologetically a Houston show. Yes, the ultimate themes are bigger than the city we live in, but the events that bring those themes out are decidedly our own. It’s was our hurricane. It was our floods. IntraCare is our not-for-profit behavioral health services facility. Everything from the character’s high school to the importance of the NASA Johnson Space Center is locally based. This isn’t cheap familiarity-baiting, this is strong home-grown storytelling. More importantly, because we know these spaces, places, and events deep within our bones, our empathy for these characters and what brought them to this weird and often funny but troubled place, expands as far as the Texas sky.
Even when Borque-Sheil occasionally overplays his hand.
It’s highly unusual for a new play to stick the landing perfectly, especially one by a playwright who just wrote his first show ever a mere two years ago (see my review of his problematic but highly promising initial effort ). And while Borque-Sheil comes as close as any I’ve seen this time to delivering excellence right out of the gate, there are some unnecessary plot additions (including a very funny but unnecessary bit with a bat) and a final note that seems incongruously packaged in an overly neat and tidy manner.
But I’m a critic; it’s my job to nit-pick. I highly doubt anyone else in the audience will really dwell on these moments. Especially when there is so much else to get excited about.
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Sure there are times that one actor or another disappears in the margins of the French doors that encircle our view from one room to the next. At least that was the case from my vantage point sitting on the far aisle. But Vasquez has smartly considered every angle so that, from what I gather, each seat gets a more than satisfactory view of the whole shebang. And he’s empowered his cast with strong vocal prowess so that even what we don’t see (either by design or by circumstance) resonates wonderfully.
Now here’s the potentially even more exciting news. Between Two Caves is actually just one of the performances being offered as part of the Landing Local initiative. On alternating nights, in the same space but with an entirely new artistic team, The Visit by Esme
Between Two Caves continues through November 4 at 1520 Rutland. For information, visit landingtheatre.org. $25 and up. Prices are subject to change.