Twisted Tale: Under the Big Dark Sky from Milded's Umbrella

The setup:

Not since the head trips of cinemaverick Alejandro Jodorowsky, especially that psilocybin deluxe El Topo, has there been such a rich, incomprehensible, ultimately silly work as John Harvey's world premiere for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Co.

The execution:

Okay, you've got your Victorian carnival, whose barker is pasty-faced Mr. Bones (Ricky Welch, stepping in at the very last moment for an ailing actor and doing a very fine job of it) who eagerly displays his sideshow attractions. Among the freaks: the Three Headed Barking Man (James Reed, Norm Dillon, Stephen Foulard), the Woman who slices Away Her Skin (Mia Migliaccio), the Little Boy Whose Throat Sprouts Wings (Adam Pecht), the Woman Who Shits Chickens (Julie Oliver). She not only defecates a leg, she lets loose an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried. Then there's the talking head on a table (Aaron Asher) who spouts the poetry of John Keats.

The visitors at the sideshow are just as deformed, only not outwardly (Candyce Prince, Jon Harvey, Ryan Kelly). They quote from newspapers about grisly murders and disfigurements and people who die horrible deaths. They don't quote, exactly, they bluster and bark, and get fairly annoying rather quickly.

Then there's this family, you see. All this sideshow crap is just an inducement, a lure to get you in. It's the family who's important to Harvey. If only they'd be as important to us. Pity.

There's Dad, called Theresa's Father (Rod Todd) who is obviously lost from some bogy Easter pageant. He has a Jesus fixation, or a God-is-coming-to-reclaim-His-son-and-He-is-mad fixation. Whatever. He's a body snatcher who keeps corpses in his basement, waiting for the little green bits of Jesus, his "divine chlorophyll," to either re-animate what remains of them or to bring back the dead body of his son Shem (Adam Pecht of the Little Boy Whose Throat Sprouts Wings, above). Dad killed Shem, or his daughter Theresa (Ashley Allison) did.

Theresa sleeps with anybody she can, but she really, really loves John Keats. She might have killed her little brother because he touched her book of Keats after she asked him not to. Of course, Mom might have smashed his head in with a rock, also. When we first meet Mom (Jennifer Decker), she's sitting on the floor eating what looks like a small loaf of pumpernickel, unwilling to speak or interact with her daughter, who is screaming her childhood pain at her. Mom turns away and keeps eating. She will tell us, eventually, of course, why she's so uninterested.

There's plenty of putrefaction in evidence, and much violence as the twisted tale goes on and on. What works to its advantage is the extraordinarily effective music played live by composer Andy McWilliams. His simple guitar riffs and phrases run almost non-stop but never intrude and always keep the drama interesting. That and the swirling background projections, like scudding clouds, from set designer Mark Krouskup and lighting designer Kevin Taylor, as well as the atmospheric sound effects from Jon Harvey, help us stay awake.

The intentional comedy -- few and far between -- is most welcome and probably seems funnier than it is, but I liked the revival songs, "When I'm a Corpse I'm Stayin' in Bed" and "Don't Make Me Go Outside, I'm Dead."

What are we to make of Edward, who wants to become a book (of Keats poems, naturally), and then does so, his face sticking out of an open cartoon tome looking like the Magic Mirror in Snow White? This is all so "deep" and "meaningful," for the life of me I can't figure it out. Not at all. Family certainly gets a drubbing from Harvey, and the moral might very well be, "Don't neglect your children." Even God's accused of that. It's also said that He has perfect white teeth to mow the grass. Other than that, it's anyone's guess what's going on.

The verdict:

We at the Press do not condone drug use, but if you must see the latest surprise from Mildred's Umbrella -- and this company always surprises -- a little wouldn't hurt.

The show runs through April 30. at Mildred's Umbrella Theater Co., Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, 2201 Preston. For information, call 832-463-0409.

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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