Mildred’s Umbrella, Midtown Arts Center through March 13
BY JOHN DeMERS
Suppose William Shakespeare married Lewis Carroll. And then, suppose Samuel Beckett married Eugene Ionesco. And then, what if all four of them had a baby?
The kid would have to sound a lot like Will Eno.
Though only about 45, Eno writes like a wrinkled old man of the theater, picking up accolades from the likes of Edward Albee and comparisons to geniuses like the four who are so clearly his literary “parents.” With the current Mildred’s Umbrella production of his first successful play, directed by Matt Huff at the Midtown Arts Center, Eno should prepare himself to pick up a few more. Like his later work Thom Pain (based on nothing) – staged here sometime back by Nova Arts Project – Flu Season is a tour de force not only of emotion but of language. It’s been a long time since Houston audiences have so enjoyed the sheer roller coaster of words.
The primary conceit, the primary gimmick, is that the play has two narrators – called Prologue and Epilogue – and brilliantly rendered by Sean Patrick Judge and Bobby Haworth. Now you’d think, given their names and all, that P would turn up at the beginning and E at the end. But they actually turn up at every juncture, during every pause, both of them. As the action and/or inaction increases in intensity, P and E are left to fill each other’s empty spaces, to repeat with approval or disapproval what the other just said, sometimes even to almost violently disagree. Both, by the end, are turning some of their deepest questions on the audience: You think? Wouldn’t you? Have you ever noticed that? It’s like Chekhov played by Groucho Marx, by way of Jerry Seinfeld. It’s frightening, it’s intoxicating. And it’s very funny.
Huff’s savvy casting of Judge and Haworth as battling bookends is mirrored in the actors chosen for the four characters “in” the story, set (we’re told) in a white-tiled psychiatric hospital designed by Greg Dean and evocatively lit by John Wind: Wayne Barnhill as Doctor, Lyndsay Sweeney as Nurse, Caleb George as Man and Jessica Janes as Woman. The latter two are patients of the former, by all evidence, and they deliver the darkest thing that could pass for a romantic relationship in The Flu Season. Timing is lively and perfect from start to finish, especially in the Ionesco-like Absurdist reminders that we all talk past each other and never-ever listen. There are hilarious non sequiturs stashed in every drawer of this house that Eno built, and it takes dead-on comic timing to milk them for all they’re worth. That’s the timing this production serves up.
If this play has a “subplot” at all, it isn’t among the characters but between the playwright and his audience. Especially via the increasingly acerbic asides of the Epilogue, even as the Prologue becomes so emotional he’s nearly speechless, the questions that haunt every playwright (or indeed every creative artist) take on a life of their own. Have you ever, E asks us just past the halfway mark, started writing a play and completely lost interest? Have you ever changed how you feel about the characters you’re writing about? What then? Should you “abort” (his word) the whole thing? Since we are all, to some degree, the playwrights of our own lives, these questions take on deep shadows from the actions onstage as well as actions in our lives.
As in Waiting for Godot, even if it’s as funny as Waiting for Guffman, the situation is recognized as hopeless. And then it goes on, just the same.
Photo by Anthony Rathbun: Lyndsay Sweeney, Wayne Barnhill, Jessica Janes and Caleb George in Mildred’s Umbrella’s The Flu Season.