Arts / Performing Arts

Dark Comedy Brings Magic to Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre, Makes You Think About What You’d Do to Get In

Will You Be The Wolf?

BY // 02.21.24
photography Anthony Rathbun

Along came a wolf, who knocked at the door and said, ‘Little pig, little pig, let me come in.’ –The Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs, a 19th century children’s fable

“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”

That famous line, from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has inspired many to look at themselves and their place in the world in a new way. But what we are willing to do, or sacrifice, to become players on that stage?

This very personal question is explored in Catastrophic Theatre’s Houston production of Mickle Maher’s It Is Magic. The play is a comedy, or a dark comedy. You decide. It is showing through March 2.

The vehicle Maher uses is an audition taking place at the Mortier Civic Playhouse, a small community theater in the Midwest, for an adult adaptation of The Three Little Pigs. If you’ve ever tried out and been turned down for anything — a job interview, a seat in the university program of your dreams, a place on a team ­— this play might bring to mind those hurt feelings. Perhaps it wasn’t you who were lacking, but those judging you who were lacking. Regardless, you were still turned down – left outside and not in.

“And the pig answered, ‘Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.”

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Tamarie Cooper as Deb Cooper and Amy Bruce as Sandy Chandler in The Catastrophic Theatre's "It Is Magic (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
Tamarie Cooper as Deb Chandler and Amy Bruce as Sandy Chandler in The Catastrophic Theatre’s “It Is Magic (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)

Maher’s script makes this social angst and its consequences very amusing, especially in the hands of a director who avoids letting the characters become caricatures of themselves. Director Jeff Miller, teamed with a brilliant and experienced cast, brings Maher’s intention to its fullest potential.

While laugh-out-loud hilarious in the first half, It Is Magic is not without shades of pathos. Throughout the play, we might see glimpses of ourselves in moments when we tried desperately to get in or at least not to be shut out.

When the lights go up on the shabby theater basement, Tim (Dillon Dewitt) is at his third callback, reciting with mighty effort from the script, trying to convince playwright/director Deb (Tamarie Cooper) to cast him as the Big Bad Wolf. And so ensues one of the funniest scenes and examples of fine acting I’ve experienced in the theater.

Already we have the cognitive dissonance between the drab run-down basement and Tim in yet-unexplained full-out formal Scottish attire — kilt, sporran, jacket and hose. Under a bright spotlight, his spruce appearance is delightfully incongruous, magnified by the small stage of the intimate theater where he acts his heart out striving to be the Wolf that Deb is looking for.

It Is Magic (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
Amy Bruce as Sandy Chandler and Luis Galindo as Ken Mason in “The Catastrophic Theatre’s “It Is Magic” (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)

Of course we wonder: “Is this how he dressed for the audition — something eye-catching?” It turns out that he’s dressed for his role as the Second Murderer in Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” as they refer to it, in the theater upstairs. I’m not sure why discovering that tickles the funny bone as much as it does. Maybe it’s because we find it amusing that a murderer would be quite so dressed up for the occasion.

One thing we’re sure of: Tim has something in common with the Big Bad Wolf. He wants to get in. When the Wolf is turned down, he huffs and puffs and blows the house down, or tries to.

And Tim? Will Tim get in? And if he’s denied, what will he do?

He seems to be doing a fantastic job in the audition, which we discover has been going on for two and a half hours. I, for one thought, he’d nailed it. How much better a Wolf is it possible to be? And so we’re surprised to find that Deb isn’t satisfied. She has him try it this way and try it that way.

The intensity between Deb’s desire to perfectly execute her imagined ideal and Tim’s passion to break through creates a palpable, almost-visible rope connecting them, their eyes locked on each other like magnets. It’s rare to see actors in a scene pull off so high a level of concentration and nuance. It is striking and won’t be easily forgotten.

Tamarie Cooper as Deb Cooper and Dillon Dewitt as Tim Padley in The Catastrophic Theatre's "It Is Magic." (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
Tamarie Cooper as Deb Chandler and Dillon Dewitt as Tim Padley in The Catastrophic Theatre’s “It Is Magic.” (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)

With tension building and only a few minutes before places are called for the Scottish play upstairs, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Tim as Deb dithers. However, we soon learn that Deb has more problems than her indecision. She has not decided on a title for the play and, worse, the script has not even been greenlighted for production by Ken (Luis Galindo), the company’s artistic director.

Like Tim, Deb has invested every measure of her identity and self worth in her success in being let in. In her way, she is auditioning too. And maybe because she is older than Tim, she has been knocking on the door longer, and her vistas have become narrower, the stakes for her success seem even higher.

The next bit of hilarity begins with the appearance of Ken, artistic director in name but company dictator in reality. He embodies a succession of community theater stereotypes, presented in a light-hearted way not intended to be cruel, but still recognizable to anyone with theater experience. Ken is a pompous, conceited, egocentric blowhard with some of the funniest lines in the play.

Sandy (Amy Bruce), whom we assumed was Deb’s assistant director, turns out to be Deb’s sister. She also wants the part of the Wolf, and – in a surprise revelation – also happens to be, shall we say, keeping company with Ken from time to time.

The script pokes good-natured fun at the theater’s fundraising functions with the requisite cheese platter and “culture nibblers,” i.e., donors “in khakis and Keds,” which gets a big laugh. The town’s lone theater critic for the Gazette also comes in for some mocking and a fate I won’t give away in case you go.

Circumstances spin somewhat out of control toward the end of the 1 hour 45 minute performance (there is no intermission) with the appearance of Deb and Sandy’s third sister Elizabeth (Courtney Lomelo), who claims it’s been 400 years since they were all together. Thereupon they are transformed into the three witches in Macbeth, complete with chanting and Isadora Duncan-style interpretive dance.

“So the wolf said, “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!”

Tamarie Cooper, Amy Bruce, and Courtney Lomelo as sisters in The Catastrophic Theatre's "It Is Magic." (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)
Tamarie Cooper, Amy Bruce, and Courtney Lomelo as sisters in The Catastrophic Theatre’s “It Is Magic.” (Photo by Anthony Rathbun)

The magic and horror devolve into a representation of the violence, fire and murder that has taken place in the theater upstairs.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the chaos is the dramatic reappearance of Tim, still in his kilt and sporran, but bloodied. “I am the Wolf,” he declares. “Got my own project. Sorry, Deb.” Tim’s blown the house down. He has let himself in, but into what? And at what cost?

The theme at play here, specifically the need we all have for belonging and recognition, predates all of theater – the Mortier Civic Playhouse, the Globe and even the ancient Greek theater at Epidaurus. It was born with humanity. Kudos to It Is Magic and The Catastrophic Theater for not letting us forget that.

And kudos to Mickle Mayer for remembering the wise words sung by Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

It Is Magic continues through March 2 at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. For more information and tickets, go here. Due to mature subject matter, no one under the age of 12 is permitted at the shows. Tickets are open seating.                                                         

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