Archive | June, 2010

Catastrophic’s Hunter Gatherers: A Review

26 Jun


Dinner parties with old high school friends are rarely a good idea. Add an animal sacrifice into the mix, and well, things get frisky. The Catastrophic Theatre takes its tagline, “We will destroy you,” to epic levels in their sassy new production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, now playing at DiverseWorks. Why not end the season with some savory meat and a blood bath? Feels right and, dare I say, yummy to me. 

Cat-in-heat Wendy, boring doctor Tom, Neanderthal Richard, and demure Pam gather annually for their collective wedding anniversary. Things go downhill the moment Tom finds a parking place. Wendy can’t control the weather in her underpants, Richard can’t control anything, Pam lives for control and Tom invented control. Therein lies the volatile mix of these four characters stuck in a room for two hours. Nachtrieb turns back-to-nature fools on their heads with his riff on primal urges. Think The Flintstones crashing full speed into Housewives of New Jersey. 

Nodler directs with a back-away-from-the-mayhem approach, letting the play’s absurd moments have a glory all of their own. Catastrophic’s artistic director knows his way around a riot, yet this is subtler than last year’s production. Leave to Nodler to find tenderness in the most extraordinary ridiculousness. 

The superb cast includes Greg Dean, who puts average cave men to shame with his take on the feral Richard. Amy Bruce imbues Wendy with a manic glee, like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on steroids. Shelley Calene-Black as the polite Pam singlehandedly proves ladylikeness can kill. Troy Schulze gives Tom an absurdest flare, as if he’s escaped from an Ionesco play and is wondering how he ended up with these insane people. 

Kevin Holden’s set and lighting design draw the action closer than his previous version at Stages Repertory Theatre. It’s tighter, sleeker, more in your face, lending a more claustrophobic space for these four to mate and merge. Holden gets us way too close this wayward flock, making the antics feel visceral as all get out. At Catastrophic Theatre it takes just a lamp chop to bring down Western Civilization. As it should be. Trust me, this is full-frontal fun. 

The Catastrophic Theatre presents Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers at DiverseWorks Art Space through July 17. Call 713-522-2723 or visit

Photo by George Hixson: Shelley Calene-Black, Troy Schulze, Greg Dean, Amy Bruce



Why I Love My Mystery Genre So…

10 Jun

Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade


The genre that I choose to work in – traditionally called the “mystery novel” but more and more called “crime fiction – has transformed itself over the past 50 years, from pulp claptrap written quickly for money into, many would argue, the closest thing we have to what once was mainstream fiction. Though considered “literary” in their day (oh, these categories!), such novels of the early and mid 20th century were primarily driven by plot and character. The author’s “style” was a function of how he or she treated plot and character, how he or she chose to make those two things operate on the printed page.

Today’s crime fiction – or suspense novel, or thriller, or whatever – is driven by plot and character. And if that seems a given, a yawner, then it’s worth remembering that today’s literary fiction quite often is not. Experiments with form, with language, with narrative structure have moved to the forefront, thus (almost by definition) making the unseen author the actual protagonist. It is the adventure of a writer doing writing – which, based on my 35 years of experience, ain’t really much of an adventure. We writers make our heroes cops, private eyes, soldiers, spies and assassins for a reason. By every normal measuring stick, that’s where the action is, not at our desks.

Following this logic, the suspense in any suspenseful situation comes primarily from plot – from something that happens, not from how much heavy breathing we pour into describing it. I find that I do a lot of heavy breathing in the first draft – word, words and more words – and then I cut most of them out. Some editors and readers might prefer I didn’t, but I do and I will. Something about the simple march of terrifying events strikes me as more dramatic than all kinds of silly “feelings.” In other words, I get tense best when I read something like: It was pitch-dark in the room. The curtain moved. A man stepped out, holding a gun. Sorry, that’s what scares me. Not the picture of some writer saying: Here look at me, I’m writing!

There are two main dramatic components in modern crime fiction, at least as I see it and definitely with names I’ve personally given to them. Kids, don’t name these things at home. These are the components that all modern masters – you know, the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva – have a flair for giving us, almost always in the methodical, workaday language I’m talking about. Be on the lookout for these components. They’re absolutely WHY we keep turning the pages.

Peter Ustinov as Dame Agatha’s Hercule Poirot

THE TIGHTENING NOOSE: No, every book isn’t about a hanging. But whereas the old-fashioned Agatha-Christie-style British mystery was about following clues, sidestepping “red herrings” and peeling the onion till you reach the truth, the modern American version is about continuously raising the octane. There is danger at the start, sure, a suggestion of menace, most often directed at someone other than the protagonist. But that danger, that evil, gets closer and worse with every page, constantly more personal, till only one person is in the sights. Yep, it’s the protagonist, the person we identify most deeply with. The whole universe is aligned to kill or maim him, hopefully for some reason we can understand and believe in. The mantra of every great read today might be: This time it’s personal.

THE DANGEROUS SECRET: The question, no matter how much we hear the word still used, isn’t usually “whodunit” anymore. The thought of having a completed crime and a novel that’s primarily an exercise in identifying the criminal strikes me as archaic – and yes, lacking in American octane. Rather than a completed crime, the best books have what I call a “dangerous secret,”  something dark and unknown that’s out there, waiting to be discovered but also committed to destroying anyone who tries.

Of course, Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code did this better than anyone, though any “Pendergast” novel by the duo known as Preston-Child (the series began years ago with Relic, which may have cost me more sleep than any other book) will be a textbook lesson as well. Steve Berry is a great example of using little-known bits of real history, the same thing James Rollins does with little-known bits of real science – thus picking up the mantle of the late-great Michael Crichton. To this day I don’t know what was true and what was made up in thrillers like Jurassic Park, because Crichton made me buy it all.

I have a few final thoughts about this protagonist – yes, in several senses, the hero – of modern American crime fiction. Yes, he usually is still a he, though Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta can balance that budget almost on her own. And yes, he usually still is a cop or private eye or some other “occupation” that puts him regularly in harm’s way. But two strange and wonderful things have happened.

One is the “amateur sleuth,” a dumb-sounding antiquated phrase to describe people in other, non-violent walks of life who are “drawn” or “dragged” (favorite words) into narratives filled with personal risk. Technically, Chef Brett Baldwin in my Marfa Shadows and the novels that follow is an “amateur sleuth.” If anything, I sometimes think he needs to be more of a professional chef, since he and his sidekick Jud Garcia are always being drawn or dragged away from Brett’s restaurant Mesquite into something ending in bigtime bloodshed. But real chefs are actually like real writers, no matter what line reality TV keeps trying to feed us. They are serious, day-to-day, consistent workers. They are, by crime fiction standards, boring. Brett, I suppose, will always be MIA from his restaurant.

And second, these men and women we follow have gotten extremely complicated of late – and I mean in a good-verging-on-great way. Think of the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe-Mike Hammer model: almost always single men, with no ongoing relationships (women loved quickly becoming women killed quickly, an act of dazzling narrative convenience), with no children, living in a rented room with a small rented office, owning only a car and a handgun. Sheesh, too simple! Today’s sleuths and amateur sleuths not only often have spouses but ex-spouses, not only in-laws but ex-in-laws, plus children who look at them and make them feel bad more days than not, unrealized dreams, broken pasts, night sweats and histories of substance abuse, mortal combat or, best of all, both.

Every day in every novel, they face these personal demons and, if only for the moment needed to do what needs to be done, stare them down. By becoming less generic “heroes,” these men and women have, in the truest sense, become heroic.

Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ Extended at Main Street

6 Jun

Main Street Theater, now held over through June 20


Tom Stoppard needs to be stopped – if for no other reason than for making the rest of us feel so dumb. His plays over the years have virtually all been wonderlands of images and ideas, possibilities and puzzles, all set forth less in action than in what Hamlet once dismissed as “words, words, words.” This guy is in love with words. And if you’re not after sitting through something like three hours of talking in Arcadia at Main Street (no fistfights, no sex scenes, no desperate chases) – like I say, if you’re not in love with words by the time this play ends, there’s something wrong with you. 

In recent years, Main Street has emerged as a significant force on the Houston theater scene by doing the two things that matter most: filling their seasons with a wide variety of gutsy but still entertaining works and then pulling them off with some of the finest actors in town. If some companies specialize in tap-dance happy musicals – and hey, you know who you are – Main Street specializes in making us think and feel, if possible a little outside the box. Arcadia fits this mold beautifully, being as funny as a sitcom from start to finish but covering subjects that would make the blood drain quickly from any TV comedy producer’s face. 

So, as best I can simplify it, there’s this room in an old English manor house with two sets of conversations going on. As the outfits make clear, however, right along with the speech patterns, these conversations are almost 200 years apart in history. Both involve scholarship and literary creativity, the second often delving back to the first in the manner of a mystery novel, yet it quickly becomes clear that workaday human lust has a role in both conversations as well. Some things, the message seems to be, never really change. 

As with any Stoppard play, language is king, more than story or set or costume, though all are handled just fine by this present group of Main Street players. The small, intimate and in-the-round setting of the company’s Main Stage works in the show’s favor, setting the audience in the center of conversations that go on and on, and also up any lazy but witty river the playwright considers interesting. There are illuminating discussions of poetry vs. literary criticism, art vs. science, antiquity vs. modernity – the list is pretty much endless. All these regularly scheduled zingers are delivered with confidence, passion and solid British accents by the spirited cast assembled by Main Street artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden.  She makes sure that some of the breathless quality that Stoppard brings to his dialogue translates into interest, even into excitement. No small achievement. 

In the 1809 sections, Steven Laing sits (for that’s what he mostly does, reading and/or writing in a series of journals) at the center of it all. He’s the tutor of young Thomasina Coverly (beautifully played by Jennifer Gilbert) at the very moment she seems to want to seduce the good-looking, worldly older man more than learn algebra and other disciplines from him. Still, we get the sense that something smart and important is going on, especially anytime Crystal O’Brien is onstage as Lady Croom. There is a distinct and sexual energy between the lady and the tutor, these adults passing through the room embodying in their own talked-about dalliances all that Thomasina longs to discover as she approaches her 17th birthday. 

Returned to again and again with a kind of “whodunit” fascination, this scene is set against the same table in the same room in contemporary times, as two sharp-tongued scholars argue over the evidence and the meaning of it all. It’s hard to get any better than the charismatic antagonism of Philip Lehl and Shannon Emerick playing these two – if this were a sitcom, they’d surely end up together. Their battle royal is complicated and deepened by the observations of statistical scientist Valentine Coverly, who now owns the manor, getting a terrific portrayal from Justin Doran. Ivy Castle-Rush throws her two cents into the fray as Valentine’s sister Chloe, not to mention an 1809-style dalliance with the male scholar as his efforts to tame his own personal shrew come to nothing. 

Arcadia is a hyper-intelligent and beautifully crafted entertainment, one that walks a deliciously fine line between the drivel all around us and the high-toned profundities we‘re guilted into taking like medicine. Arcadia is neither, and it is both. 

Photos by Ric Ornel Productions: (top) Steven Laing and Jennifer Gilbert; (bottom) Philip Lehl and Shannon Emerick