March 3rd, 2010

Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company – The Flu Season: The Absurd Is Alive and Well

Despite having peaked nearly forty years ago, rumors of the death of Absurdist Theatre have been greatly exaggerated. In the hands of Will Eno and Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company, Absurdism proves to be alive and kicking. Mr. Eno’s play, The Flu Season, opened last week and is Mildred’s Umbrella’s newest offering as it nestles comfortably into an otherwise vacant niche in Houston theatre.

The Flu Season is a play that strikes quickly and adeptly with sharp, witty humor while providing a keen insight into the conflicted mind of the playwright. As an audience, we begin in darkness, hearing only footsteps and voice. When the lights come up, we are introduced to the body of the voice, conveniently and simply, Prologue. Played by Sean Patrick Judge, Prologue offers us a foreword to the play, and begins each of the vignettes with an introduction about the setting, time and place (and usually some romantic insight into the plot, such as it is). Mr. Judge gives a stoic and truly charming performance.

However, Prologue never seems to get the last word in, as (you guessed it) Epilogue immediately follows each time. Bobby Haworth’s cynical and slovenly character is given an expert portrayal. Mr. Hayworth’s excellent embodiment of Epilogue gives the audience shivers as he breaks down over the course of the play, ranting and retching about the vignettes, his cheerful counterpart, and the difficult experience that was the apparent writing of the script itself.


These two characters, clear foils for one another, put forward a distinct air of self-awareness as they directly address the audience and give their commentary on the sketches that follow the interaction of the four other characters.

The Flu Season is set in a psychiatric hospital and tells the tale of Man and Woman: how they meet as patients, how their relationship grows, and its inevitable end. Jessica Janes’ performance as Woman is striking and ripe with broad emotions and connection to the other actors on stage. She manages to accomplish all this despite the typical shallowness of Absurdist scripts. Ms. Janes’ clarity is evident throughout and there is only a moment or two of muddiness as she falls back on common “acting crutches.”

Caleb George takes the stage as Man and gives another noteworthy presentation. Mr. George uses his keen comic timing and heartbreaking, hangdog looks to fill out this intentionally two-dimensional character. His strength resides in his ability to exemplify the clear dichotomy between the funny, comedic moments and the tense unhappy ones at the drop of a hat.


The Man and Woman are treated in their story by, of course, Nurse and Doctor. Operating themselves as foils to the Man and Woman, we see their relationship throughout its development. Lyndsay Sweeney, with her bold characterization, brings Nurse to life for us. Her quirky movements and broad Midwestern accent (when did that become the voice for all comical bureaucratic characters? Was it Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?) had the audience wanting more. The Doctor, yet another in the litany of sad characters in this play, is given life by Wayne Barnhill. Due to the precision and deftness of the other actors in the production, Mr. Barnhill lags a bit behind. Where the rest of the cast gives sharp, clear performances, his is rather muddy and stunted. His line deliveries got in the way of some comic moments, and often, he did not look comfortable onstage.

The play, as in most Absurdist pieces, has very little in the way of story (only the most basic necessities are included). The characters are in hopeless and repetitive situations in an attempt to magnify the fact that life, and all that we fill it up with, are pointless and… absurd. Mr. Eno’s play is funny, poignant, and touching at times.

Matt Huff directed the piece with precision. The Flu Season is a play that can very easily fly right over the audience’s heads, but Mr. Huff keeps it reigned in quite well. His use of the space, and the general actors’ facility with their movement and lines are evident of his solid direction. Throughout the play, the audience stays in the world of the piece and entertained, and isn’t that the point, really? It is a little disappointing, however, with a script as wide open as The Flu Season, that a little more creativity wasn’t included in the staging.


The scenery, designed by Greg Dean, is as scattered as the dialogue. Unfinished chunks of hospital-esque tile cling to the walls and hang over the audience, breaking the boundaries of the performance space. The clinical-style chairs and table constitute the furniture pieces utilized in the scenes. Although it was hardly a major issue, a bed was called for in the script, and in its stead, the actors created a makeshift one out of the chairs and a sheet. A couple of major points in the play happen in the bed and I couldn’t help but notice that it looked very uncomfortable for the actors, but it was only briefly distracting.

Flu Season is a clear success for Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company. It is a bold and unique play that is produced in a fashion that does the script justice. It would be a shame to miss this rare opportunity to see Theatre of the Absurd in Houston done, and done well.

- George Sims

[Photos from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company and Anthony Rathbun]

February 23rd through March 13th, 2010
Show times are at 8PM on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday
$15 General Admission, $8 Senior and Student
(Monday shows are “pay what you can”)


The Flu Season
By Will Eno

Presented by Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
Midtown Art Center
3414 LaBranch, Houston, TX 77004 (Google Map)

Director: Matt Huff
Set Design: Greg Dean
Costume Design: Kelly Robertson
Lighting Design: John Wind
Sound Design: Philip Hays
Lighting Design: John Wind
Production Stage Manager: Jonathan Shafer

Sean Patrick Judge (Prologue)
Bobby Haworth (Epilogue)
Wayne Barnhill (Doctor)
Caleb George (Man)
Lyndsay Sweeney (Nurse)
Jessica Janes (Woman)

— The Loop Scoop


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