The Austin Chronicle

This Is Who We Are #5: Salvage Vanguard Theater's Death of a Cat

By Robert Faires, May 8, 2020, 10:00am, All Over Creation

Our ability to experience art in person and with others is presently in lockdown, and we don't know when it will return, if ever. Local artists are already adapting to this situation – many sharing art online – which speaks to Austin's driving spirit of creativity. In tribute to that spirit, this series recalls past works that affirm our creative force.

This is who we are.


The Death of a Cat

The Off Center
Through Oct. 2
Running time: 2 hrs, 15 min.

"I think God is a cat," offers the child in black, in a matter-of-fact and yet gloomy tone. "That's why he ignores us for long periods of time."

Not conventional theology, perhaps, but this odd observation has an appealing resonance in C. Denby Swanson's unconventional new play. The house in which the drama is set would seem indeed to be one from which the Almighty has turned his gaze. A contagion has swept through its rooms like Poe's Red Death, and seven people have succumbed – both servants and relatives of the family that lives there, even the family's innocent babe. Now Father lies stricken behind the massive door that dwarfs everyone who stands before it. The doctor has been summoned, but considering that each of his previous seven visits has ended with the patient's demise, he seems more an agent of death than of life. The twins – the only children to have survived the plague – have developed the theory that he is the devil, stealing into their home to snatch everyone in it away, one life at a time.

The notion of the Prince of Lies making house calls – in the guise of a modest country physician, no less – might seem strange in other households, but not here, not in this eerie 19th-century manse, where one twin wears a miniature cash register strapped to her chest and the other cannot resist the impulse to animate any object with his hand, be it cat puppet or dinner napkin, and where their sibling bickering takes the form of exaggerated mock attacks on one another: bestial clawing and gnawing, mimed disembowelment, and the like. Here, Mother appears like a monument to Queen Victoria – grim, domineering, her hands clasped as if for a portrait – and speaks in the language of commerce and finance, weighing assets and debits and futures. This is a weird world, removed from ours by time, custom, language, style, and nature.

And yet that very strangeness is what makes it so absorbing. As with the works of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, the outré atmosphere and Gothic humor, wringing laughs from our fear of and fascination with death, prove captivating, particularly as realized in Salvage Vanguard Theater's world-premiere production. It's both funny and creepy to see the twins embodied by Jenny Larson and Jeffery Mills with their chalky faces and red-rimmed eyes, looking like downtrodden orphans from some Dickensian melodrama, to see Larson's China doll features metamorphose into something snarling and feral, to see Mills' pale, oversized hands sticking out of stovepipe sleeves, sneaking, as if of their own accord, into flat, lifeless puppets to give them skeletons and intelligence. Their feud is hysterically epic, lobbing words at one another like spitballs, contorting mouths into grotesque maws, engaging in faux battles with whipsaw motions of overwrought violence expressed through childish fury. Only the stern visage of Cyndi Williams' Mother can stop them; her lips so tight and disapproving, they form a crimson scar above her chin. But they defy even her (and the punishing spoon she wields) to deal with the devil/doctor. Dan Dietz, with a starch-stiff goatee and moustache, seems at once the humble healer he professes to be and someone infinitely more mysterious, someone perhaps possessed of diabolical power. Dietz has such focus that he appears to walk that line between light and shadow.

In a sense, all these characters are somewhere between: between life and death, between human and animal, between the natural and the supernatural. Director Jason Neulander orchestrates their navigation of these regions with as much skill and atmosphere as in any SVT production in recent memory. All the elements fuse together, from the cast's command of Swanson's stilted language to the oppressive weight of Chase Staggs' antique furniture and framing curtain to the slashing strings of Graham Reynolds' score to the ominous dimness of Diana Duecker's lighting to the otherworldiness of Erin Randall's puppets. They create a balance of darkness and comedy, death and light.

As we see these characters inch toward bargains with this possibly sinister figure, as their language grows more dense with talk of worth and futures and sacrifices, and as blood is shed, one's sense of allegory grows. Is this somehow a parable about our society, with its unshakeable faith in the marketplace, even when it leads us to betray those closest to us? Or is the dying Father the one in heaven, his house being invaded by the Tempter? Who's to say? The meaning you find within The Death of a Cat may depend upon how far you're willing to venture within its dark and funny hallways.

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