Strange carnival of a play
Freak show or thought-provoking? Mildred's Under the Big, Dark Sky showcasesHouston's Dark Prince
Edward doesn't have a body, but that's fine with him, he doesn't mind just being a head.
Actually, he longs to be a book, by John Keats to be exact. Jesus is believed to be a plant. There's a woman who flays herself, another who shits chickens, a three-headed barking man, any number of corpses in a basement, one terrible set of parents, along with an assortment of various freaks inhabiting a seaside village where the sun never shows up in John Harvey's strange carnival of a play,Under the Big, Dark Sky, presented by Mildred's Umbrella Theater Co. at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex Thursday through Saturday.
Did I mention that it's a love story? Sort of.
I think it's safe to say that Harvey is Houston's most complex playwright. You can go ahead and throw disturbing, absurd and occasionally funny into the mix. I've called him all manner of silly names — Dark Prince, Goth Boy, Master of the Macabre, Darkster Trickster — all of which have been received as high praise from the curious playwright.
Even if you imagine a love child of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Fellini, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Martin McDonagh, the Brothers Grimm, David Lynch, every Greek playwright and Zeus' private journal, you would still not end up with a play like Under the Big, Dark Sky.
A poet by training, Harvey infuses his prose with an arsenal of literary references, from classical to contemporary texts. But don't think for a minute that your English major will help you decipher his work. It's original for certain: big, collapsing to black dark, mythic, symbolic, violent, and here and there, downright creepy. The text operates in many forms, from verse to song, to nearly normal banter with a dash of epic poem in there, too.
There are glimpses of an ancient formality, all of which makes perfect sense. Harvey's day job is director for the Center for Creative Work at The Honors College at the University of Houston, where he just translated and directed a new production of Aeschylus' Agamemnon as part of the Dionysia. He is a graduate of UH's Creative Writing program, and his poems have been published in The Paris Review, Gulf Coast, The Gettysburg Review and other journals. Harvey is the resident playwright for Mildred's as well. His play Rot, with Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, earned numerous honors, including making my best of the decade list.
I assume you are getting that this is not a play for those who prefer their theater in neat, tidy and predictable packages.
"There's a different kind of dramatic arc in his work," director Trish Ridgon says. I'll say.
Rigdon isn't remotely thrown off by the play's impossibilities, rather, she welcomes them.
"I love a challenge," she says. "We have to solve things with our imaginations." Harvey's Night of the Giantimpressed Ridgon enough to want to direct his next play.
When I first came upon Harvey's play Rot, I figured he was either from the 16th century or New York.
"That's about right," Ridgon says with a laugh.
This is Ridgon's second Mildred's Umbrella production, but her first play by Harvey. He usually directs his own work, but in this case the playwright was happy to hand it over to Ridgon and step out of the process.
"I prefer directing work that is new and never done before," Ridgon says. "At the end of the day, we are still telling a story, and it all goes back to the words."
Mildred's artistic director Jennifer Decker has produced eight of his plays and performed in all of them.
"It's very difficult material, dense and poetic, unlike almost anything else most actors have ever dealt with." Decker says. "You must be able to interpret the words and create your character from that.
"Also, because it is so beautiful and language-driven, it's very important to get the words exactly right so you don't ruin the poetry of it."