Photo by George Hixson
It’s the last supper over there at The Catastrophic Theatre’s production of Mickle Maher’s Spirits to Enforce, except instead of 12 apostles, we get 12 superheroes, kind of nutty ones at that. There’s even a Jesus lookalike at the center, Walt Zipprian as Ariel, orchestrating the action. Here’s the scenario: superheros are holed up in a submarine where they are conducting a telethon to raise money to put on a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Times are tough for this pack of thespian crusaders. All are fearless defenders of the island of Fathom Town, a place they keep safe and tidy with their oddball traits. The Intoxicator gets the bad guys buzzed, Memory Lass remembers the future, and The Pleaser, well you can figure that out. Then there’s Snow Heavy Branch guy who can’t stop talking about a gondola. Of course, there’s an evil doer (gotta have one), Dr. Cannibal (as in Caliban), who has his own sordid history with The Tempest. Turns out they all do, as the gang discovers they are all remnant spirits of Prospero’s Isle. Snippets of their literary legacies come through in various phone conversations. They also find that fundraising and putting on a show may be a way harder job than fighting evil. Bard wonks should pay close attention to choice Tempest-isms cleverly tucked into phone chats.
But if you spend too much time connecting the plot dots, you might miss the lush language. Maher’s work feels more like a symphony than a play. It’s a joyride for choral music lovers, and it’s best to just strap yourself in tight and enjoy the prose-bending trip. Maher enlists all kinds of musical structures. Your ear can get lost in the syncopated rhythms, and let it, because that’s where the juice is. They talk all at once, in sequence, in canon, and in a few marvelous moments, to each other. It’s a delicious cacophony for the ears. For most of the play the actors are glued to the phone looking head on at the audience. At one particularly dramatic crescendo, Zipprian stands up to deliver a satisfying Leonardo da Vinci iconic stage picture.
Maher’s work defies conventions. The set, designed Kevin Holden, is one long desk smack parallel to the audience. We only see the actors from the waist up, outside of an occasional trip to the water cooler, in the dark no less, and in Zipprian’s big Jesus moments. Once or twice an actor stands up and gets off the phone; it’s phenomenally exciting. There’s no blocking to speak of, as most of the play takes place in a narrow rectangle. With so much to listen to why mess it up with action. It’s a tight container, hey, like an orchestra.
The cast —all superb—each bring their own distinct variety of mania to their bizarre characters. The play makes for one snazzy showcase for the current talent trust at Catastrophic. Memory Lass (Charlesanne Rabensburg) projects wacky tenderness with The Tune (John Deloach). The flamed-haired Tamarie Cooper is over the top as the Ocean (that’s a good superhero fit for her). Kyle Sturdivant delivers an endearing performance as The Pleaser, while Mikelle Johnson pushes kooky to new heights as The Intoxicator. Zipprian’s Ariel anchors the show, especially when he hands out lollipops during break time.
Catastrophic Theatre’s artistic director Jason Nodler directs close to the center, keeping true to Maher’s idiosyncratic ways. Bless this stalwart troupe for bringing Maher’s breathtakingly original voice to Houston. “Spirits to Enforce” is a quote from the epilogue of The Tempest. The very next line, “art to enchant” aptly describes the show.