March 26th, 2012

Our House: A Black Lab Theatre Production

Merv is one of those guys who watches a bit too much TV. He’s overly concerned with the affairs and politics of various reality TV stars and he has recently developed an unhealthy obsession with a cable news anchor. His daily routines rarely require him to venture from his designated dent on the sofa or bother with the nuisance of pants. But let’s not be fooled by his slacker façade. He’s a fairly smart cookie, always quick to offer up a psychologically scathing diatribe laced with fifty dollar words. But clever insults won’t pay the rent. He eats his roommates’ food, doesn’t respect their boundaries and eventually, he snaps and finds himself in the middle of a mess that even he can’t charm his way out of [i.e. Hostage crisis]. Merv, in other words, is a grad student.

On the other side of the TV screen, we have Jennifer, the talented and ambitious news anchor who has captured Merv’s fancy. Off camera, she rages and schemes in an illicit relationship with her network’s executive, Wes. She’s well on her way to clawing her way to Katie Couric-like fame when she suddenly finds herself thrust into Merv’s warped mess, which could very well prove to be the biggest break of her career.

Does all this sound a little vague? Yeah, I thought so. But Our House, produced by Black Lab Theatre, is just one of those shows that begs to not be spoiled. The end of Act One brings with it one of the more genuinely shocking twists of any play I’ve seen in recent memory and who am I to go spilling key plot points? We’re just going to have to skirt the specifics on this one, and focus on the general dark hilarity of both scripting and direction found in this regional premier production.

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Black Lab Theatre, founded in 2011, is apparently still young and fearless enough to recognize the tremendous benefits in selecting and producing relevant and sharp plays. The script of Our House, written by award-winning playwright Theresa Rebeck is wrought with jarring language and abrupt scene changes that force the audience to constantly adjust its focus. Director David Rainey is to be applauded for his skilled handling of both timing and styling in this production, as actors are permitted to overlap their lines and raise their voices to near painful pitches. The overall effect is very reminiscent of – what else? – good ole’ reality TV. Metaphor duly noted.

Despite the obvious and often (deliberately) hysterical unrealistic plot twists of Our House, the audience is treated to a pithy and relevant theme. We are forced to reflect on our own habits of media consumption and evaluate if we, like Merv, are allowing our own minds to stagnate. Do we even notice anymore when a news anchor stumbles over her copy and reports on a “shite” mosque? Do we know or even care that TV execs might look at a sociopath and see instead “a star that only TV can make”? Our House offers the theory that “staying informed in America is optional” and the audience is thus passively aggressively challenged to evaluate and potentially alter our brain food diet. Maybe it’s time for us all to turn off reruns of The Real World and opt instead for a good book, a decent gallery or even a night out at the theatre. Yeah, that’d be a good start.

Now let’s take a run through those credits, shall we?

Mike Yager offers up a brilliant blend of sincerity and over-the-top insanity in the role of Merv. Yager handles lengthy and often preachy speeches with a sense of humor that charms the audience into constantly rooting for him, even as he spirals into blatant criminality. With past credits including appearances at Frenetic, Horse Head, and other cutting-edge Houston theatre companies, I’m putting Mike Yager prominently near the top of my “ones to watch” list.

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Kelley Peters is dazzlingly beautiful and just a bit evil as Jennifer, the aggressive cable news anchor. She offers proof positive that often; the most charming facades conceal the most shocking motivations. Ms. Peters delivers the role of Jennifer with a believable sense of humor as well as ceaseless ambition that makes the audience relate and eventually, recoil.

Chris Patton plays the role of Wes with all the forceful selfishness and greed that one would expect of a high-powered network exec. Patton offers an interpretation redolent of say… the Bobby Gould of cable TV? (Speed the Plow? David Mamet? Anyone?) Suffice to say, that’s a good thing.

Xzavien Hollins is wry and witty as Stu, the head of the news department and the apparent lone voice of sanity in the quick-paced, money-hungry TV world. A familiar face from our ongoing love affair with Classical Theatre Company, Xzavien brings an uncanny sense of comedic timing to every role he plays.

Danica Dawn Johnston’s instincts are dead-on in her take of Alice, the roommate most frustrated by Merv and his slacker status. She manages to tap into a surprising amount of character depth in the relatively brief time we’re grace with Alice’s presence.

Claire Anderson personifies the peacemaker in her role of Grigsby, the roommate who constantly aspires to span the gap of animosity between Merv and Alice.

Jordan Jaffe is not just Vince, the fourth roommate and co-peacemaker alongside Grigsby. Jordan is also the artistic director of Black Lab Theatre, and is to be commended, not only for his fine performance in this particular production, but also for his vision and courage in heading up a theatre company that welcomes challenging and pertinent productions.

Our House by Theresa Rebeck
Produced by Black Lab Theatre
At Frenetic Theatre
March 16-31
Fridays & Saturdays 8:00 pm
Tickets $24

— Kerri

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