BWW Reviews: Emotionally Flat FLEAVEN Fizzles Instead of Pops

It is the mission of The Catastrophic Theatre to destroy audiences with impressive and unique theatre. Unfortunately, the World Premiere of FLEAVEN only destroys audiences by sending them out into the world wondering what was missing. At 27 years old, I thought maybe it was not living through the Disco era that left me benumbed by the performance. However, it's disco era vibe pastiche is fleshed out with 90s inspired rap beats and cultural references from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Furthermore, my parents' eclectic tastes in everything pop-cultural ensured that I had a strong understanding of many things I did not live through. So, simply put, that wasn't it. The problem was that despite laughing out loud at a few outlandish and genuinely humorous moments, I simply was not moved in any emotionally tangible way. From beginning to end, I felt no emotional connection to this Grinchian tale? (Think of Grinchian as being similar to Faustian, but with Dr. Suess' Grinch.)

Miki Johnson's FLEAVEN utilizes flashback, flashback within flashback, Dr. Suess inspired rhyme schemes, Disco, and early 90s rap to expose the audience to a place where: "The mall is the town. The town is the mall. The mall is a disco mall." We are introduced to Heaven, an ambiguously gendered character, who is ruthlessly tormented by Flame, a masculine figure that also terrorizes the whole mall/town. We come to understand the root of Flame and Heaven's problems started when Heaven quit being the electronic drum kit player for Fleaven (Flame and Heaven's disco band) and began playing the electronic drums for Denim Shorts, another Disco group. Denim Shorts' success angered Flame further, and he sought revenge against the band with a Japanese sword. Heaven, spared by the blade, was given an ultimatum to join Flame again or Flame would have Heaven canned from all future jobs.

FLEAVEN's plot is wholly predictable, which could be accredited to using Dr. Suess' infamous Grinch parable as its structure. However, unlike Dr. Suess' Whos and Grinch, none of Miki Johnson's characters leave a lasting impression on the audience, nor do they develop enough beyond caricatures to really allow us to relate to them in any fashion. Instead, the audience is able to laugh (maybe even reminisce) at the follies of Disco fashion, Diet Rite, taking antibiotics "for FUN!," and the simplicity of early rap beats. Yet, like a flashback on Seth MacFarlane's FAMILY GUY, when it's over it's just over. Other than noting a smile and a pocketful of laughter there is nothing else to take away from the experience.

Upon entering the performance space at The Frenetic Theatre, the first thing the audience sees is the detailed and well produced set, designed Laura Fine Hawkes. On the downstage, right corner of the space is a detailed mall map that is filled with traditional and stereotyped mall storefronts. For a bit of fun, many stores on the map would have never existed in a mall at the same time (i.e. PacSun and Sam Goody Music Store). Other nice touches on the set were realistic looking replicas of escalators, bright colors made dingy over a period of disuse and/or misuse, and graffiti. The whole set had a once-glorious, now dingy feel that created a wonderful ambience for the production.

Kirk Markley's lighting design is moody and atmospheric. It utilizes vibrant, colored washes to distinguish Flame and Heaven. Additionally, he uses lighting to help the audience at least have some semblance of the mention they're expected to have during a particular scene.

As the full cast takes the stage in Heaven's first of numerous flashbacks, the fantastical and whimsical costume design by Kelly Switzer delights as well. She has expertly captured 70s Disco fashion and 90s hip-hop fashion. Each piece is brilliant and evocative of the character that wears it, ultimately binging a layer of life in the characters that the script itself does not.

Direction by Jason Nodler ensures that the audience experiences the piece in its entirety, as he keeps the short, roughly 70 minute, performance ambling towards its finale. On the downstage left side is a list of three elements that serve to structure the plot. While the 2nd section was lit, the show does unmercifully slow down, almost to a complete halt. The tale of the breaking up of Denim Shorts becomes a laborious story, and when it finally climaxes the audience is more than ready to move on. It is during this section, or scene, that Heaven begins a flashback within a flashback and the novelty of the concept begins to wear thin. The saving grace is when the monotony of this section is broken-up by a seemingly random inclusion of a story about Seven's dead bird, which is acted out by a woman dressed as the bird and dancing around en pointe in roller-skates. Jason Nodler and his assemebled and very skilled cast simply do the best they can with a flat and trite script.

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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