Leave it to the Catastrophic Theatre to throw a critic into an existential crisis.
Catastrophic is no stranger to risk-taking, or staging WTF moments, and Toast, a world premiere straight from the minds of director Brian Jucha and the ensemble over at Catastrophic, offers both in abundance.
Toast marks Jucha’s triumphant return to Houston and completes the trilogy started with Last Rites (premiered in 1997) and We Have Some Planes (premiered in 2002), both created with Catastrophic predecessor Infernal Bridegroom Productions. Jucha collaborated with members of the Catastrophic Theatre to create Toast, and to be a fly on that wall.
Unconcerned with narrative, Toast begins with a man lamenting love never received and from there, as they say, life happens. In the program, Jucha says Toast is structured as a descent through Dante’s nine circles of hell, and at the very least the production itself does feel like a 90-minute trip into limbo, a place where anything and everything seemingly exists simultaneously as you wait for whatever comes next. It includes reminiscences of relationships, meaningful moments, and countless pop culture references pulled from all throughout a person’s life cycle.
Though the show promises text ripped straight from the headlines, it’s more so ripped straight from various transcriptions. Large swathes of dialogue come straight from R. Kelly’s now infamous interview with Gayle King, the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, Michael Cohen's congressional testimony, Leaving Neverland and the classic sci-fi horror film Alien. It, Clarence Thomas, and childhood game Operation also make appearances, among other things. The political, social, and (pop)cultural references come fast and furious, and if it sounds like music isn’t well-represented, you’re wrong.
Together, Tim Thomson (sound design) and Miriam Daly (music arrangement) have crafted quite the aural landscape, which does include its share of recognizable tunes employed in interesting and curious ways. Instrumentals that range from menacing to rousing reside alongside songs like “It’s a Hard Knock Life” or “Bad Romance.” And don’t be mistaken, the cast also sing and dance. In one memorable moment, Kyle Sturdivant sings a mesmerizingly melancholy rendition of “I'm A Lonely Little Petunia (In an Onion Patch)” while surrounded by about three dozen pink, plastic flamingos.
Jucha leads a cast of eight centered around Sturdivant, who plays a character (also named Kyle) that is in turns vulnerable and defiant. Much is asked of each cast member and it’s safe to say they all deliver in all the roles they embody. Notably, Xzavien Hollins and Jeanne Harris stand out in a haunting recount of their abduction by aliens as Barney and Betty Hill, as do Noel Bowers as an antagonistic judge, and Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers and Troy Schulze as ill-fated space travelers. Sturdivant, Hollins, and Amy Bruce (who also spit some serious if nonsensical Latin fire as a lawyer) are also achingly earnest during their solo monologues. But in maybe its crowning achievement on first watch, Toast offers something you never knew you needed: Tamarie Cooper as R. Kelly, bringing to life today’s most topical meltdown – with a Southern accent.
One aspect of the production that must be singled out is the lighting design. A quick peek up at the ceiling before show time revealed the dense network of lights designer Roma Flowers would be utilizing for the production. Using seemingly every color of the rainbow to great effect, Flowers’s complex design of static and roving spotlights, shadowy and stark landscapes, and bright pops of color certainly steals the show in its own way. It’s also perfect to illuminate the multitude of prop designer Lauren Davis’s seemingly random assortment of items – including but not limited to lemons, a troll doll, a plastic mouth opener, an umbrella, hourglasses of various sizes and, of course, a toaster.
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If it sounds weird, well, it is. But Toast is more than just weird. (Though I will say that when it comes to works borrowing from Dante’s nine circles of hell, the comic series L’Inferno di Topolino – staring the one and only Mickey Mouse – sets a high bar for weird that Jucha and co. safely clear.) To say Toast defies explanation is a clichéd understatement. Watching Toast is like trying to traverse unstable ground – just when you think you’re safe to shuffle a few feet forward a David Bowie number comes along to knock you back down. It’s “Boys Keep Swinging” if you’re curious.
The majority of theater produced each season leaves little room for interpretation. Sure, you may leave with food for thought, or you may leave ready to debate your friends about whether or not you agreed with a show’s point of view. But so rarely is a production so full of meaning and yet so very ambiguous. The thing is, art by its very nature is subjective, but only in trying to analyze a work like Toast, does that fact hit you in the face. There is something undeniably enjoyable and compelling about Toast, like there’s something undeniably enjoyable and compelling about watching the entire cast line up to sing “The Court of King Caractacus” for a couple of minutes, even if you can’t really glean why. (Yes, that happens, too.)
The program playfully warns not to ask about the flamingos. But the truth is, with all the questions Toast raises, that’s the one that’s going to keep me up tonight. What the heck was going on with all those flamingos?
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, please call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay-what-you-can; suggested price $40.