Cats seem to have it all figured out. Eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, unaware of the past, unburdened by the future.
Could their total commitment to the now be enough to inspire a religion?
The answer is yes in “Church of the Passionate Cat,” a playful and surprising new show produced by Underbelly and co-produced by Rude Mechs, now running at the Off Center.
Katie Bender, Abe Koogler, and Gabrielle Reisman founded Underbelly in 2013 after the group produced “Slip River” at UT’s Cohen New Works Festival. The trio share writing and directing credits on “Church of the Passionate Cat.”
As the show begins, it’s 1941 in San Francisco, and hard-drinking detective Molly McGuire (Hannah Kenah) is in crisis. Her partner Suzy Lou is gone, her secretary is threatening to quit, and she’s hard up for business.
A search for a man’s missing wife soon leads McGuire into a strange world of cat-worshippers led by the charismatic preacher Sammy Samuelson (Diana Small) looking to embrace the feline philosophy of “living in the now.”
If this all sounds incredibly bizarre, it is. But it’s also a lot of fun.
The show’s tone mixes the mysteries of film noir with the call-and-response choruses of church revivals. It embraces well-worn detective clichés while also twisting our expectations by putting a woman in the role. The smart, witty script and the company’s quirky aesthetic leave the audience wanting to know what happens next.
Underbelly has a penchant for site-specific work, and scenic designer Stephanie Busing has created several richly textured spaces for this production, from the dramatically lit detective’s office to a secret candle-lit backroom that the audience is invited to enter.
Despite all its humor, “Church of the Passionate Cat” taps into some deeper ideas about seeking a purpose and passion and finding strength in relationships. That it can do this while also featuring tap-dancing cat worshippers is a testament to the creative minds behind the production.
“Church of the Passionate Cat” continues through May 18, Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m.; Saturdays also at 10 p.m. Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St. $10-$15. www.rudemechs.com/tickets/