Both lunch and the play were Worth. Every. Penny. Especially the play, which has an official ticket price of Pay What You Can.
Get thee to this show. It's a sentimental celebration of basketball, set on the island of Lilliput, assembled by some big fans of the game—but it's so much more than that. Rest assured that you don't have to like basketball, or even know much about it, to appreciate it.
As an exciting by-the-way, over at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill's Intercepted podcast next Wednesday the 18th will feature an audio-only production of Talk House, which is likely to be just as chilling but without the kitsch-Americana furniture that dominated the Catastrophic stage.
As the Catastrophic site makes plain, Small Ball is a collaboration between co-founder Jason Nodler, Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, longtime Catastrophic musical whiz Anthony Barilla and his bandmate Merel van Dijk, and the Houston Rockets' enormously successful general manager Daryl Morey. Give the troupe's other co-founder Tamarie Cooper some props for choreography, but nothing as heavy-duty as what she does for her annual summer shows.
The Cats have created original works in collaboration with playwrights and musicians before, mostly with astounding success. While I never got to see the two Daniel Johnston–inspired works, Pax and I did see the Herman Brood bio Bluefinger, with songs by Frank Black of the Pixies. Bluefinger was an absolute treasure, a high water mark in the theatre scene of a city that knows something about high water.
Compared to Bluefinger, this latest gem is considerably more intimate: not a lot of physical gyrations or over-the-top vocalizing. I would call it a chamber musical, one that works best for a small to medium-size room and crowd, in the tradition of The Fantasticks.
So What Was So Terrific about It?
My intent with this entry is not to summarize the plot or describe any of the details. Here are some facts and impressions:
- Mr. Morey was in attendance at the Sunday matinee, which was kind of exciting. Kayleen floated the idea of getting a selfie with him to make her Rocket-fan friends super-envious, but she demurred.
- Barilla's music, and at his usual level of quality, although there wasn't a tune that one could easily leave the theatre humming. One would probably sing the right words but get the melody totally wrong.
- As many times as I worried that the actors might lose track of the loose and unorthodox rhythms in the songs, they fell right back into the groove every time.
- The mini-orchestra behind the scrim played the entire complex score note-perfect, with Cathy Power's percussion adding the appropriate atmospherics for each song.
- I don't know whether Maher would be flattered by the comparison, but this script would fit comfortably among the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman, one of my very favorite screenwriters. If you are at all a fan of the absurdism in Being John Malkovich or Synechdoche, New York, you will find a lot to love in Small Ball.
The play has so many satirical undercurrents, expressed mostly through the Lilliputians, that one could accuse Maher of dramatic overreach. While most folks acquainted with Gulliver's Travels think of Lilliput's inhabitants as small in stature, they may forget that Lilliputians are also small-minded traditionalists and more than a trifle xenophobic. Basketball on a regulation-size court, with a regulation-size ball, may not be the ideal sport for six-inch humanoids, but (tiny spoiler alert) it serves as the key to shedding their backward mindset.
On a scale of 0 to 10, I give the play, the cast, the crew, and the orchestra 600 poisoned arrows in Michael Jordan's face. (You'll have to see the show to learn what that means.)