Strange Rites

Since 1993, when the company first took shape, Infernal Bridegroom Productions has been the closest thing Houston has had to avant-garde theater. Some of their shows have been as fanciful, as absurd and as wickedly devilish as the Mad Hatter's tea party. They've put on Beckett in a warehouse, used a bus to haul audiences around for a kitschy song-and-dance extravaganza, held their fundraiser in a parking garage and rented out a chunk of the quaintly dilapidated Westbury Square to stage one of Tennessee Williams's most confounding scripts, Camino Real.

That these and many other IBP productions have been blessed with favorable reviews, sell-out crowds and a few standing ovations says a lot about the company's we-can-pull-off-just-about-anything attitude. Still, as off-the-wall as IBP's work may seem to some, their experimenting has actually been rather mild. The scripts they've chosen have been, for the most part, by well-known, well-respected playwrights. And as for their creative performance spaces -- well, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. IBP has no permanent home, and sometimes creative spaces were the only ones available.

But this weekend, IBP is looking to make good on its innovative reputation. With Last Rites, their 21st production, the company is jumping with both feet into the dark waters of truly experimental theater. After four years of proving himself, Jason Nodler -- IBP's energetic, fast-talking artistic director -- is ready to start testing his boundaries for real; ready, he says, to start finding out just how far he and his troupe can actually go.

Nodler insists that he's been wanting to do new material for some time, even though, with the exception of IBP's first production (In the Thunderloo, which Nodler wrote himself) and Tamarie Cooper's Tamalalia, the company hasn't done a completely original show since it was founded. The problem, according to Nodler, is that good new scripts are hard to come by, and IBP doesn't have the money to develop new plays on its own. So when DiverseWorks' performance director, Loris Bradley, approached him early this year and asked if he and the rest of the company would be interested in collaborating on something original with a guest director, he didn't even have to think about it. In no time at all, he was sifting through a series of audition tapes offered up by Bradley.

Among those tapes was one from Brian Jucha, artistic director of the Via Theater in New York City. Jucha has a lot in common with Nodler. In fact, in some ways he's a sort of Big Apple twin of the Houstonian. Like Nodler, Jucha directs a theatrically homeless group that struggles to find spaces in which to perform. Both men went to New York University for their training and both are bored with what Nodler refers to as "rule-bound" theater. "Why," Nodler asks, "when there aren't any rules [to theater] do we limit ourselves?" In Jucha, who refers to his work as "stream-of-consciousness," Nodler had found an artistic comrade.

By this July, Jucha, who has taught in such prestigious places as Playwrights Horizon in New York, was in Houston auditioning by way of a week of workshops he gave for IBP. He impressed his hosts, and they impressed him back. By week's end, the quietly passionate New Yorker felt as if he'd found his home away from home. The Via Theater has been around some five years longer than IBP, and since its inception, it's been on the cutting edge of the cutting edge, with a number of rave New York Times reviews to indicate Jucha knows what he's doing. It was clear he had something to offer his Houston counterparts, and so it was decided he would write and direct an original piece of theater for IBP.

Jucha spent the summer putting a script together, and since early November he's been settled in Houston to work through the piece with Infernal Bridegroom. "IBP is a family," he says now, and for the last month he's been acting as a visiting paternal figure for that family. Jucha titled what he came up with Last Rites, and just as Jucha is no ordinary director, Last Rites is no ordinary play. In fact, Jucha, who was once told to abandon theater because he "moved too much" when he acted, bases his whole theatrical philosophy on a technique that was originated by dancers in the 1960s. His plays, or performance pieces, incorporate dance, music and text with an emphasis on movement and music. In fact, many of his performers in New York started out as dancers. But because IBP is a troupe of actors, Jucha decided the piece he developed for IBP needed to be more text-driven than the work he usually does.

Jucha calls what he came up with a "text" rather than a "script" in part because no narrative, no linear story, holds together the collage of scenes, monologues, songs and dances that make up Last Rites. Rather than being plot-driven, the piece is guided by its theme. Starting with the music from Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring -- which is about ancient tribal ritual and sacrifice -- Last Rites examines modern-day cults and sacrifice, such as the Heaven's Gate mass suicide, as well as pop culture and the hauntingly terrifying idea of the end of a millennium.

The piece moves from political to sexual to philosophical questions. Often these questions are explored all at once, as the stage virtually explodes with movement, words and music. Speeches overlap. Snippets of movement evoke images from diverse human arenas, including everything from children's clapping games to sex. The dances are often processional, the speeches almost incantatory. But the dark and seriously somber effect can turn, with the ringing of a telephone, to the sublimely silly. The piece manages to be at once ridiculously funny and mesmerizingly thoughtful, and it promises to leave audience members puzzling over what they saw for days.

This suits both Jucha and Nodler perfectly. In fact, Jucha says he works "towards giving each individual member of the audience their own experience." And he's not averse to using sensory overload to make that happen. "The thing about my pieces," says Jucha, "is that a lot of times people [respond with] 'I'm not sure I got it, but I sure had fun,' and that's fine by me." And as for Jason Nodler, it's the questions, the boundaries, the edge that's beginning to interest him most. With this new work, he's ready to see his company venture into strange new territory.

Posing questions lies somewhere in that murky liquid essence of what art is. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring so profoundly perplexed its turn-of-the-century Parisian audience that they gathered in angry mobs, arguing through the streets of Paris after seeing it for the first time. And though Houston audiences probably won't go raging down Naylor after seeing Last Rites, IBP will no doubt leave a good deal of its audience curious. For Nodler, "evolving and getting better" has nothing to do with following rules and making easy-to-watch theater. Indeed, when he has been cornered by folks demanding to know what some of his more obscure works have meant, his response has been a wonderfully coy, "no, no, no, you don't want to answer [the questions]. You just want to ask them."

Last Rites will play through December 20 at DiverseWorks, 1117 E. Freeway, 223-8346.