We are told early on in Elizabeth Doss’ “Catalina de Erauso” that the titular Catalina and her staged autobiography are a work of historical fiction. As we observe Catalina’s sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, increasingly outsized misadventures, the complexities and monstrosities of her life take on the shape and force of history, or, more accurately, historical interpretation.
“Catalina de Erauso” is the latest work by Doss, created with Austin’s Paper Chairs theater company, of which she is the co-artistic director and resident playwright. The production, directed by returning Paper Chairs co-founder Dustin Wills, launched the company’s 2017-2018 residency at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a nonprofit sustainable design and architecture firm in East Austin.
The firm’s unique campus — combining a variety of buildings, lean-tos, campers and other structures with wild growths of grass and more than a few mosquitoes (so don’t forget the bug spray) — helps to set the mood for a production that takes its cues from the conventions of traditional traveling theatrical troupes, children’s theater and even, to an extent, Punch and Judy puppet shows.
Alexis Scott plays Catalina, taking her through a picaresque journey from a spunky 14-year-old escaping from a life as a 17th century nun all the way through to becoming a conquering heroine/genocidal monster in the New World. Scott is perfect for the role, presenting the young Catalina with a charming, bouncy, hysterical energy that combines childlike enthusiasm with a much more adult sense of mania.
The rest of the cast take on a variety of roles (both human and animal) but together serve as a kind of Greek chorus of players simultaneously enacting and reacting to Catalina’s story. Their vibrancy and intentionally hyperbolic antics early in the play provide the show with its strongest conceit — using the over-the-top conventions of children’s theater to tell an increasingly dark, adult story.
Unfortunately, the second half of the play takes an extreme turn away from this conceit. In an attempt to infuse the play with both commentary and poetry, Doss and Wills go a bit too far with the metatextual winking that peppers the play, crossing over from self-referential to self-reverential. This is a shame, because Doss is clearly skilled enough to infuse the play with the messages she is trying to get across without having to resort to such heavy-handed techniques.
Though uneven in its second half, “Catalina de Erauso” is certainly an interesting experiment. Fueled by a broadly talented cast and a distinctive performance venue, it raises vital questions how we can relate — and relate to — history through the veils of fiction and theater.
“Catalina de Erauso”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 30
Where: Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, 8604 FM 969
Information: 512-686-6621, paperchairs.com