John Harvey, Houston’s reigning dark prince of indie theater, has unleashed his unruly imagination again in Night of the Giant, a Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company production. Most known for his hilarious horror romp, Rot, co-produced by Bobbindoctrin and Mildred’s, Harvey has crafted yet another creepy tale. This one features two scary sisters who tend to their tied-up dad, known as just it, an original score by Elliot Cole and his chamber orchestra playing live on stage and plenty of Harvey’s deliciously weird prose. By day, Harvey teaches at Houston Community College and is an artist-in-residence at the University of Houston’s Honors College. Since 2001, he has also served as Mildred’s Umbrella resident playwright. Harvey helps us navigate his tangled web of a play below.
29-95: How is this play different from your last dark, twisted and highly poetic play, Rot?
John Harvey: I’ve upped the darkness, poetry, and it’s even more twisted. Yet, there’s a joy in the darkness.
29-95: We all have strange families, but this one takes the cake. What instigated this story?
JH: The impulse to both project and destroy the child, which comes from being a parent myself. There’s a long history of great plays that link to this subject matter from Eugene O’Neill to Sam Shepard.
29-95: Sounds epic, mythic really.
JH: Oh yeah, Oedipal elements echo throughout the play.
29-95: From the very first passages of the play it’s clear that there’s a formality present: in the sisters’ speech rhythms, the stylized movement, and even in the way the music fills in the space. The formality creates a bit of distance with the difficulty of the material.
JH: Yes, I wanted the sisters to maintain formal movement, attempting to hold in the violence and abuse that their stories and interactions indicate, or let’s say a formality created through a painstaking attention to word and gesture. The words, sentences are created to form jagged edges and holes through which Joe (the father) crawls through and the sisters smile through. I want the audience in the same place, experiencing a work of art (which is a certain formality) that also implicates the work of art. I want the audience to look for what shatters or refuses to shatter, a type of crucible that will walk home with the audience.
29-95: As a melancholic myself who refuses to be cured, I love the somber tone of Elliot Cole’s score. It soothes the jagged edges. Cole understands something about us dark-craving people. Do you agree?
JH: I had Elliot in mind as the composer from the beginning of the project. The orchestra functions as a kind of Greek chorus. Elliot’s music finds those notes for the play, a screech, a sweet melody.
29-95: Families are their own kind of prisons for certain, but this one is particularly grim. Yet, visually there’s a lot of open space in Barnevelder, so the drama is both contained and not contained. The openness makes the play even more unsettling, these are folks you want to find in a gated community with jumbo-sized locks. Wayne Barnhill’s set of a home gone feral feels very exposed. Is this intentional or is it just too expensive to build walls?
JH: I didn’t want walls in order to take advantage of just what you noticed with Barnevelder. I talked to Wayne about lightly shaping a space, a room, a house. It’s a claustrophobic play in an open space. Kevin Taylor’s use of the lights had this intention as well. That which should be behind walls leaks out into the performing space.
29-95: Walt Zipprian, last seen as Ann Coulter in The Tamarie Cooper Show, spends the entire play as the father bound by ropes and with a burlap bag over his head.
JH: Ann Coulter is bound in her own way too. I had Walt in mind from the beginning.
29-95: Talk about the shift from poet to playwright?
JH: There’s a long tradition of poets writing plays. I wanted a more collaborate experience, more three dimensional.
29-95: Your plays are funny but it’s an odd kind of laugh. We catch ourselves laughing.
JH: Exactly, it’s an implicating laugh.
29-95: Let’s talk about the actors. An overly natural actor could wreck your work. It seems to me that there needs to be an element of recitation, that is in keeping with the piece’s formal style. Jennifer Decker understands this well, which is why she was so great in Rot too. Any thoughts on this?
JH: Yes, actors who feel energy from the style of illusion, from being in step with the creation of illusion and what it opens, those are the actors for me.
29-95: Where do you stand on the disturb to entertain continuum?
JH: Let’s say I’d be honored to share the space with Maria Fornes, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Aeschlyus. Oh, yes, and I love Sweeney Todd. Let me also say that I think putting together “disturb” and “entertain” is a philosophic position. I think it begins questions of how we put together the world, and why we let illusions make us. Why do I go to the theater? Why to be put together in such a way that I’m always awake, that’s the effect of “disturb” and “entertain” together. Well, there may also be a bittersweet lullaby effect as well.
Mildreds Umbrella Theater Company presents Night of the Giant by John Harvey on September 23-26, 8 p.m., at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex; October 2-3, 8 p.m. at Ovations Night Club; and October 8, 7 p.m. at Houston Center for Photography, as part of the national Free Night of Theater event. $13; $7 for students/seniors. The October 8 performance will be free.
Reprinted from 29-95.c0m.