By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
Mickle Maher is a playwright with an offbeat sensibility. His dark comedies (or are they funny dramas?) take absurd and/or extreme premises and follow through on their strange logic to create plays that defy easy categorization, or even explanation.
This is what makes him a perfect fit for Austin’s own purveyor of offbeat dark comedies, Capital T Theatre.
Related: Capital T celebrates 10 years of edgy theater in Austin
Capital T Theatre’s production of Maher’s latest play, Song About Himself (running through November 19th at Hyde Park Theatre), is true to form. It follows the story of Carol, a woman living in a dystopian future where the ability to communicate with other people has been degraded to the point of meaningless mumbles. Her quest to actually connect with another human being leads her to the mysterious “Weed,” an online social network populated only by the Host/Hostess program, until a strange, mentally disturbed man named Tod also finds his way into The Weed.
Song About Himself is heavily stylized, presented almost as a chat room log that has been printed out and staged. The action all takes places in The Weed, and thus it is fittingly performed on a bare stage, filled with haze, spotlights and dark corners that heighten the locale’s strangeness.
Director Mark Pickell has staged this production in the round, creating an intense intimacy in the small space of Hyde Park Theater (and reminiscent of the theater’s recent production of Lungs) that allows the audience to identify with the confusion, loss, and longing of the three characters.
Katherine Catmull, as Carol, captures the character’s sense of existential crisis, and her extreme desire to connect with another human being provides the driving force that motivates the entire play. Jason Phelps is her perfect counterpoint as the charming, often funny, and increasingly disturbing Host/Hostess, while Ken Webster’s Tod is awash in confusion, anxiety, and quiet strength.
All three performances are heightened by bold lighting and sound design, from Patrick Anthony and Lowell Bartholomee, respectively. In Song About Himself, the playing space, and its light- and soundscape, take on gigantic proportions, physicalizing the strange cyber-realm in which the characters find themselves.
Song About Himself is a play about language, communication, connection, and the problems that come from the breakdown of all three. Capital T’s strong production takes its audience along on that confused journey, leaving us to wonder about our own social networks, both on- and offline.