When Catastrophic Theatre sets sail Friday with the area premiere of Big Death and Little Death, you can expect the journey to be a bit jarring.
Director Jason Nodler wouldn't have it any other way.
Comfort-food theater is not Nodler's dish -- as anyone familiar with his work can attest. In 1993, Nodler co-founded Infernal Bridegroom Productions and was its artistic director until 2003. Houston's leading alternative theater troupe folded last year due to financial difficulties.
After several years freelance directing around the nation, Nodler is back helming a new company, with former IBP icon Tamarie Cooper as associate artistic director (and so far, the group's only other staffer). They are launching Catastrophic with Mickey Birnbaum's apocalyptic comedy, produced in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance.
"I began in the theater as a playwright," Nodler says, "but wanting to write a play unlike anything else I'd seen in theater. Something very funny, very weighty, very pop -- equal parts art and entertainment. In finding this play, it's as if I found the play I was always trying to write."
As the company describes it, Big Death is "a dark comedy with pit-bull cannibalism, death metal, war veterans, car crashes, drugs, sex, teen angst and the end of the world." Premiered in 2005 at Washington, D.C.'s, Woolly Mammoth, it has divided critics there and elsewhere. Peter Marks of the Washington Post found it "pretty excruciating ... a shrill meditation on nihilism in America."
Yet reviewing the production Nodler directed later that year at Providence, R.I.'s, Perishable Theatre, Bill Rodriguez wrote: "Nodler has assembled a perceptive cast that nails this bittersweet play like a stake through the heart of oblivious contemporary culture ... (it) can be a high point of your theatergoing year."
"It's about a returning Gulf War vet who finds himself unable to reintegrate into society and his family," Nodler says. "And the effect on his teen son and daughter who need his attention. There are flashbacks to the story's core traumatic event that happened one year earlier, when he'd just returned, when he's greeted by his family and during his ride home with them.
"Really," he adds, "it's about one big death and myriad little deaths."