The nihilist wonks at Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company are at it again, this time, with Mac Wellman’s A Murder of Crows, his surreal comedy on civilization in one slippery sludge slide into a self-inflicted apocalypse. The frisky Umbrella is three for three with plays addressing the particular poetics of demise. First, Rot, a collaboration with Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theater, followed by One Spare Flea, and now, A Murder of Crows. Someone’s gotta squash all that sentimental cheeriness generated by the Forever Plaids of the world, and this stalwart troupe has the delightfully subversive chops to do it. Wellman, with his three Obies including a 2003 lifetime achievement award, arms these edge dwellers with just the right voice to fulfill their mission.
The title “A Murder of Crows” refers to the whimsical habit of naming groups of animals, as in a pride of lions, an ascension of larks, and so on. As a reference to creatures that thrive on trash, the title feels right for the species and the play. The scenario: the world—ruined and polluted beyond hope, the people in it—the same. The train wreck of a nuclear family is on its last legs here. Ma (Nella) lost her house and hopes due to her husband’s unfortunate meeting with some radioactive chicken droppings. What’s left of him is in a bucket on stage. Son (Andy) returned from Iraq and has assumed the role of a front yard monument complete with a bronzed body. It’s a bitter comment on the trophy-ization of military service now haunting the airwaves. Daughter (Susannah), perhaps the only one left playing with a medium-full deck of brain cards, pins her hopes on a change in the weather. And this, all on the eve of Hurricane Gustav. Talk about timing. The family lives off the questionable kindness of Uncle Howard and his Tammy Faye Baker look alike wife, Georgia, who has developed an uncanny skill of picking winners due to a rivet in her head. Dad (Raymond) briefly returns to life to save the day, and to do a little Broadway dance number.
Wellman depicts a world too far gone to save, so they might as well enjoy the descent, and they do. It’s less of a narrative than of a report from the frontlines of certain doom. The crows, decked in racy black trash bags, dance to perk things up. Nothing is too pretty here, sometimes funny, and often times clever.
The production, directed by Jennifer Decker, has its strengths in casting and its straightforward approach. The cast handles the confessional tone of Wellman’s rhetoric well, letting his dense prose spill forth in a deadpan free fall. Karen Schlag’s Nella gives the right undertones to her tell it like it is monologues. Christie Guidry Stryk imbues Susannah with a faint glimmer of hope. Tom Vaughan’s Howard pushes the more absurdist moments, especially in describing his wife’s “beautiful bigotry.” Amy Warren is a believable poster girl for trash culture as Georgia, the clan-leaning wife. Bobby Haworth as Andy eventually gets to step out of statue mode and describe his delicious state of enlightenment, and does so with a stoic grace. Alan Hall is oddly charming as the song and dance back-from-the-dead dad Raymond.
The actual crows, choreographed by Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, and performed by Montaño -Bowers, Dana Pike and Bobbi-Jo Davis, spice up the proceedings with some modern dance. When in doubt about the future of civilization, always turn to modern dance. Rebecca Ayres’ riff on A Moon for Misbegotten set, features pool noodles sprouting from the toxic ground.
At times, the pace feels sluggish, heavy almost, and the dance sections remained untethered to the whole. The airless climate of the Midtown Art Center added to the experience, although not in an entirely good way.
As we stand on the eve of an election that could possibly put two of the most abysmal protectors of our environment in power, Wellman’s play packs a potent punch. As one character says, “we are downwind of something peculiar.” I’ll say.
A Murder of Crows continues at Midtown Art Center until September 13. Call 832-418-0585.