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Volume 69, Issue 138, Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Arts & Entertainment

Professor's play defies convention

UH's John Harvey constructs a crazy ride through Auschwitz of 'Tomorrow Morning"

By Chris Brunt
The Daily Cougar

Beware the avant-garde, for it can set you free. Upon encountering said avant-garde, you may begin to have heady experiences, terrible urges and lunatic theories.

There is a man at this University who writes dangerously avant-garde plays. That man's name is John Harvey. 

Sprung from that locus of artistic might that is the University's Creative Writing Program, Harvey has launched a blitzkrieg on the Houston literary terrain. The Houston Press has likened his work to "Tom Stoppard on methamphetamines," which is a distinction bearing an array of implications.

After co-founding the theater troupe Mildred's Umbrella, he wrote, produced and acted in four original plays. He teaches poetry workshops at Houston Community College and lectures on literature in The Honors College. He has co-written works that appeared in the Art Car Ball and the Menil Collection. He's graced the stage with Dos Chicas Theater Commune. 

A perennial favorite instructor here at UH, Harvey's lectures have garnered him a certain amount of notoriety. It has been said that on some occasions, he employs the use of interesting props. One former student recalled a shocking episode involving high-end ouzo and the works of Jorge Borges. Another claims that Harvey successfully convinced her she was a figment of her own imagination. Both these students spoke under a strict condition of anonymity. None of this is by any means orthodox teaching, yet all of it ties into his vision of the theater.

The repertoire of Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company consists of the original Harvey works Kama Sutra, Eros: A Circus, and Things Being at the Worst. Harvey's fourth opus, Tomorrow Morning, recently opened at a new venue for the troupe, 1415 California. As they previously hung their hats at Helios, the 1415 space is an improvement on all fronts for Mildred's Umbrella. The stage and seating are several times larger, and the bar upstairs offers a spacious balcony and posh interior.

Speaking of bars, those who attend a Harvey play are always encouraged to drink heavily before, during and after the performance. He wants to catch you with your guard down. And even if you elect to remain sober, he'll find a way. There is no escaping the avant-garde.

In each of Harvey's quartet of plays there is some new idea swimming around in an absurd and often dazzling roar of language. Many of his characters are people whose reality is invented onstage, in their perpetual spoken thought processes, which is a dramatic style that invites chaos. 

And Tomorrow Morning may be the finest work from Harvey yet. He's taken several themes and motifs from earlier plays and reworked them into a cogent framework, that is to say, a discernable plot that positively bristles with dreadful potentialities. That is not to say his other plays lacked structure. This one is just better.

A train carries a group of passengers on a tour of Auschwitz. Included in the ranks are a Kafka scholar, a famous detective, an arsonist, various other tourists and the employees of the train company. Certain employees of said train company espouse an imaginative form of Holocaust revisionism. As the playwright himself announces early on, "I believe that evil is a passenger on this train!" That is the premise, boys and girls, and what Harvey does with this will send you on a tour of alienation and forthright soul-shaken perplexity.

Harvey began his career primarily as a poet and scholar, and his plays frequently evidence this to their benefit. References are as diverse as they are numerous, and most of them are completely apocryphal. 

In Things Being at the Worst there were many lines that bore a heightened sense of the poetic. Tomorrow Morning, however, becomes a vast poem unto itself, unified and resonant as a Wagner opera. Or thousands of tons of nuclear weapons detonating all at once -- resonant like that.

With a tour of Auschwitz comes the idea of memorials -- who they serve and what is achieved by the fact of them. Follow that train of thought and you arrive at the threshold of death. It is fortunate for the viewing public that Harvey has scripted the course of that train, assuring as always an unhealthy dosage of ghoulish literati, unfathomable violence and exotic food that aims at more than sustenance. 

Tomorrow Morning

1415 California, 1415 California St.

Playing: through May 8

The verdict: How many playwrights can serve you a murder mystery, concentration camps, hallucinogenic seafood and the gin-soaked angel of history in two hours? Only one.

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