BWW Review: TOAST Goes Against the Grain at the Catastrophic Theatre
TOAST is strange. It's meant to be that way. It is a symphony of surrealism, with an intentionally indescribable plot. This is not a show that translates easily into a review or analysis, given the visceral and polarizing nature of its content. TOAST was created to be individually experienced. All audience members will connect with the show in vastly different ways. Please keep that in mind, as I perform my due-diligence.
TOAST is a deeply layered, highly surrealist adventure through time, space, realms of reality, and varied states of consciousness. It is a mashup of vignettes, featuring current events, scenes from the movie Alien, stories about love, and a parade of flamingos. It reveals and revels in themes of loss, betrayal, love, and the meaning of life. There is song and dance and rigorous excavation of absurdity and emotion. TOAST is perplexing, mind-bending, sincere, and touching, planted at the intersection between Hunter S. Thompson and Love Actually. The show is Theatre of the Absurd in its most exposed form, and exactly why the Catastrophic Theatre is so very deserving of your support, as a singular voice in the Houston theatrical landscape.
New York-based creator and director Brian Jucha is a 'theatre artist,' not a traditional 'playwright', who utilizes Mary Overlie's Viewpoints Method to create collaborative, movement and text heavy, absurdist performance/dance pieces. With TOAST, Jucha arrived in Houston with just the beginning, ending, and name of the show in mind, and worked with Catastrophic's company to create the kaleidoscope of imagery and imagination that is on stage today.
TOAST marks the third installment of a collaborative trilogy that started between Jucha and the (sadly) now shuttered Infernal Bridegroom Productions. LAST RITES premiered in 1997, followed by WE HAVE SOME PLANES in 2002. TOAST reteams original Bridegroom players with Jucha, as an ending to an experience he described as, "...the perfect convergence of everything that I believe theatre should be. It was a commentary on life using all the stuff I do - with a message - and a brilliant company of actors whose energy was infectious and whose spirits soared." After all this time, it comes as no surprise that the long-awaited TOAST is a great big boom of creativity.
The ensemble production opens with Kyle Sturdivant as Kyle (the only character who uses his real name), mourning his lack of love. "Not a Grindr kind of love, but a soul-mate kind of love." He reasons, "Isn't that the meaning of life? To love and be loved?" That highly relatable moment is soon followed by the sincere longing to "be a nut," as a ping-pong of seemingly unrelated scenes follow. TOAST bounces from an alien invasion, to the Michael Cohen Congressional testimony, to very honest personal monologues featuring the characters ruminating on the nature of their own existence, to the heartbreak of the Michael Jackson abuse survivors, to a song about a Petunia, and a dance with flamingos.
Noel Bowers, Amy Bruce, Tamarie Cooper, Jeanne Harris, Xzavien Hollins, Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, Troy Schulze, and Sturdivant, give everything to this exhilarating, out-of-control, 'what comes next?' theatrical experience, each playing various oddball characters with multiple costume changes, and yet all managing to find sincere, honest, accessible moments within the madness.
Music and sound by Tim Thomson, and songs arranged by Miriam Daly, elevate the chaotic landscape at certain moments, and calm the energy at others. Thomson and Daly's contributions match TOAST's indecisive, ping-pongy nature, as they take you through time and scenes with Beethoven and Lady Gaga. Their strategic choices not only add dimension to the vignettes, but also enhance the audience's connection.
Peppered within the text are hundreds of blink-and-you'll-miss-them pop-culture references. This results in scenes that are thoroughly modern, also connecting audiences to the often other-worldly material. You don't remember Barney and Betty Hill? That's okay, here's a RuPaul reference. Did you play Operation as a kid? No? That's cool, you definitely saw Billy Porter wearing that Christian Siriano gown at the Academy Awards.
Of particular note is Cooper's reenactment of R. Kelly's mammoth meltdown during his recent interview with Gayle King. This scene ranks among the most startling and compelling, mouth-agape, five minutes of theatre I've seen to date. That scene, though just a transcript of the telecast, serves as a gentle reminder that although audiences may not understand the plot or even the point of TOAST, they know they are witnessing unbridled artistry.
I liken the experience of TOAST to the unforgettable, hilarious dinner party scene in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, when the characters become possessed, and start randomly singing Harry Belafonte's Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) around the dinner table, and their shrimp appetizers become animated hands.
The uniqueness of Jucha and this talented ensemble is that within the madness, you find moments in which to identify. Within the confusion, and the in-your-face exploration of gender, sexuality, and body politic, there's ample absurdity and enough levity for you to laugh.
Award-winning lighting designer and decades-long collaborator, Roma Flowers, reteams with Jucha to bring an added layer of depth to the already mesmerizing production. She utilizes the barebones set's walls to create stark, lonely, isolating shadows, so alluring at times, that I had to remind myself to look back at the actors. Her commanding use of spotlights draw attention to Lauren Davis' simple, effective, and creative prop designs. Obviously TOAST features a toaster, but it's the way that Flowers' lighting captures a lemon, plastic flamingos, and hourglass timers, for example, that remind audiences that the props are also metaphors within the scenes themselves.
TOAST is farcical, hilarious, mesmerizing work, presented without restrictions or traditional confines. It is sheer madness, joyous, frustrating, relatable, and very, very odd. It is theatre for those who like to be challenged. And just like all art of that nature, you don't have to completely understand it, in order to relate to and appreciate it. You don't have to love it, to be touched by it. You just have to be yourself to connect with it.
The Catastrophic Theatre's TOAST runs through May 5 at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. All tickets are pay-what-you-can; suggested ticket price is $40. For more information, please call 713-521-4533, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit catastrophictheatre.com.