In March of 2013, a room that I was sitting in suddenly went dark, and I was whisked away into an underground world of runaway orphans, midnight circuses, complimentary muffins in strange rooms, and breakneck escapes through butcher-paper forests before being led up a winding staircase into a magical dance party. This thrillingly theatrical odyssey, titled Slip River, was devised for that year's Cohen New Works Festival by a quartet of the UT Department of Theatre & Dance's most enterprising and inventive students at the time – Katie Bender, Stephanie Busing, Abe Koogler, and Gabrielle Reisman. Their show topped this crusty old arts writer's list of favorite theatrical experiences of 2013 and won the Austin Critics Table Award for outstanding production of a comedy. Now, the masterminds of that exhilarating exercise have banded together under the name Underbelly Theatre and concocted another immersive adventure. Church of the Passionate Cat ushers its audience into "the city's most secretive nightclub," a noirish den where a mysterious minister for a strangely feline faith may hold the key to redemption for a drunken, down-on-her-luck detective. It is, we are told, "a murder mystery turned on its ear," a whodunit with a jazz beat.
Part of the delight of Slip River was not knowing where I was being led and what surprises lay in store around the next bend (a 19th century underground railroad for orphans headed by Beyoncé?!), so I wouldn't want to spoil that wonderful unexpectedness for myself or you, dear reader, by learning too much about this new Underbelly project. However, I did tease out this much from one member of the company's gang of four: "We work to delight, frighten, and move our audiences," allows Bender, and in The Church of the Passionate Cat "each audience member will start in one place and end somewhere else. They will be offered a beverage and a delicious snack. They will be welcome to join us in a song and be asked to give something up. Finally, while I can't promise that audience members will experience a life-altering, ecstatic spiritual transformation, it's certainly possible."
Church of the Passionate Cat runs May 8-18, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, with additional show Saturday, 10pm, at the Off Center's Center Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.underbellytheatre.com.
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