Living in the fourth largest city in the United State, we might not often think about the ties that bind a community together in a small town and how easily those knots can unravel, but it appears as if Houston playwright Miki Johnson does.
The Catastrophic Theatre company member, and award-winning actress, has recently made the move to writing plays for her fellow players and given Catastrophic two world premieres to produce this year.
Tonally her first play American Falls which debuted in May and her second Fleaven, which is on stage through Saturday at Frenetic Theater could not be more different. In American Falls ghosts and barflies told their tales of woe to the audience and each other.
When I saw an early rehearsal of American Falls last spring, I found it to be a kind of puzzle play which asked the audience to put the pieces of the characters’ stories together in order to understand the whole story of the town.
Essentially, Johnson takes the plot of every Western, sets it in a mall, and music director Joe Folladori gives it all a disco and '80s rap beat.
Falls did have flashes of humor, especially from the character Billy-Mound-of-Clouds with his constant stream of television show references. But, the play’s dreamy, sad tone is the polar opposite to the new Fleaven, a frantic, rhyming disco farce where, with little provocation, the characters can break into song and dance, cartoon-like violence, or a dramatic flashback at any given moment.
Fleaven is the name forced upon the small town of Rolling Acres which lies entirely in a giant mall. The Frantic stage seems dressed to basically answer that eternal question: What if a remote wing of The Mall of America went to disco hell?
Fleaven is also the word we get if the names Flame and Heaven are smushed together into Brangelina contortions. In continuing flashbacks (one narrated by a ghost), we hear the sad ballad of Heaven and Flame. Back in the '70s, the two men were disco band mates, but when Heaven quit the partnership to join the band Denim Shorts, he skyrocketed to fame while Flame was left in disco mall obscurity.
At the height of Denim Short’s success, Flame took his violent revenge out on its members and continued to make Heaven’s life a disco purgatory, all the while terrorizing the tiny, giant-mall town that did him wrong. Essentially, Johnson takes the plot of every Western, sets it in a mall, and music director Joe Folladori gives it all a disco and '80s rap beat.
Kyle Sturdivant, dressed in white hot pants and platform shoes with his luxurious chest hair exposed to all the world, manages to portray a Heaven bewildered and burnt out by Flame’s decades of psychological abuse. Noel Bowers, as Flame, aims for, and achieves, misunderstood baddie hiding a tortured soul. However for my own television-soaked brain, Flame’s bright orange, gravity-defying hair and red unitard accessorized with a golden cape and flame emblem on his chest didn’t scream super villain as much as Mister Heatmiser.
Taken by itself, Fleaven is light, fun, and very silly, but when viewed as a comic continuation of some of the themes Johnson first wrestled with in American Falls, the play takes on some added depth .
Taken by itself, Fleaven is light, fun, and very silly, but when viewed as a comic continuation of some of the themes Johnson first wrestled with in American Falls, the play takes on some added depth. Somewhere around the denouement as Flame and Heaven voice their regret for their mutual betrayal, I found myself remembering American Falls. In both plays, love easily morphs into obsession, oppression, and violence. With that violence comes the severing of community ties.
In CultureMap’s interview with Johnson last May, she confessed she’s watched practically every episode of Law & Order ever made, so it’s intriguing that neither play contains a character of central authority who could possibly bring order to each town before the relationships disintegrate into violence.
There’s no sheriff to ride to the rescue in American Falls, no mall cop to bring Flame and his disco-rapping outlaws to justice. Instead it’s only when each character is allowed to give voice to his or her perspective on the past, when each character, whether living or dead, oppressor or victim is allowed to tell his or her own story and weave it into the town’s narrative that those communal threads have a chance to be mended.
Fleaven doesn’t always work as more than just a disco comic fable, but when it does it reminds me that for all Houston’s amazing fiction writers and poets and our world renowned theaters, we only have a handful of local playwright consistently producing new works. Here’s hoping for many world premieres from Houston's budding crop of playwrights in the future.
The final three performances of Fleaven are sold out, but you can call 713-522-2723 to get on the wait list.