Dallas — The eight-member cast steps forward in the small darkened theater, singing of the universe and how “so below” such grandeur we live our lives. The crowd fades, and a tall man on a low stool bends over and cocks his head to peer through the big telescope aimed at the starry skies above. He chuckles softly as he unfolds himself, pretzel-like, and smiles in ecstatic recognition. “There it is—there again,” he murmurs in quiet glee. Astronomer Ansel Barber (playwright, director, and scope wrangler Matthew Posey) is spending his 60th birthday exactly as he wishes, tracking a newly spotted black hole with his own telescope mounted on his roof, and accessed by crawling through the dormer window behind him.
We’re off and scrambling through a half-cracked window and into Posey’s funny, emotive, magnetic musical drama, Soft Noodle Map a Balanced Almond Production onstage at The Ochre House, a boxcar space flanked by bars near Fair Park where Posey and his creative crew regularly perform sleight-of-hand feats that never fail to surprise and command our attention, even in wobbly moments. So it goes here.
A man who’s lived most of his life gazing at the heavens, Ansel is brought abruptly down to earth by the reappearance of an old acquaintance, and the domestic disaster the man invariable ignites in the astronomer’s life. Therein lies the plot, the songs and the fleshy characters that bring it all to life. The retired astronomer’s cool intellect is at odds with his painful past, and his heart pumps fiercely against total power failure as he takes a quantum leap—or at least a big step—into a new, softer mapping of the human heart, a unique place that can’t always attain the grand, hard-edged moral ideals of the culture.
Ansel prefers to spend his birthday in his green plush Honey Bear bathrobe staring into space, but his wife Sarah (a pert Carla Parker giving blonde a smart turn) has crawled out on the roof to announce she’s invited their pals, Doc Gunther (Kevin Grammer displaying his classic comic timing) and his woozy wife Sam (a wide-eyed Cassie Bann doing smashed with style) to celebrate his sixth decade of existence. They’ve no sooner downed a couple of Black Mollies with a vodka martini than the Barbers’ surly, cutie-pie daughter Cordelia (a curvaceous Konnar Hunter, with relentless pouty lips) climbs through the window to take a break from her stinky, howling Baby Elvis.
Everybody knows rebellious Cordelia “got herself knocked up” the last time Ansel’s ex-buddy Pooky (a smarmy Josh David Jordan, with a flash of ruthless nihilism in his smile) dropped in, and now she mostly neglects her bastard child. She leaves him to be cuddled and changed by an adoring dorky young neighbor named Elwood Montgomery (a sweetly weird Christian Taylor), a snuff-dipping, determined nerd who “gnawed his way out of the crib,” according to Ansel. Cordelia’s deepest wish is to somehow get child support from Elvis’s long-gone baby-daddy to pay her way to the Mackie-Brown School of Fashion. Taylor is hilarious, all wiggles and rolling eyes, in her delivery of “I Got Poise,” the show’s funniest song.
It’s not the grooviest of worlds already when spooky Pooky shows up, having been born again and bringing his sexpot Mormon bride Kristy Anne (a fluttery Danielle Bondurant in funny fundamentalist mode)—and bearing some dastardly gifts. The shooting stars are not only on the starry night walls of the theater (the big mural work of scenic artists Justin Hunter Allen, Isaac Davies and Lucy Kirkman). Smoldering emotions ignite and explode, shifting Ansel’s perspective on the universe he personally inhabits.
The show’s original score, providing a rhythmic, dynamic soundscape, is the team effort of the musicians: percussionist Bobby Fajardo, bass guitar Jeff Keddy, keyboardist Trey Pendergrass, and guitarist and vocalist Deanna Valone. Sitting along one wall on the small stage, the musicians literally are part of the play, as they look on and respond, chorus-like, to the actors and their mood swings and songs.
Posey, as we’ve seen him do so often, delivers the goods—in the script and on the stage. (He’s written two dozen plays in two decades in Dallas.) His Ansel Barber is a man who, simply through pursuing what he loves most, has somehow allowed the very devil into his house. Posey’s gruff voice may not hit the high notes but his gritty performance convinces us that Ansel can deal with whatever hobbles him.
Ochre House boasts a playwright who not only has the courage to create, but the balls to put the show on the boards without an army of advance previews and press releases, and let the work speak for itself.