Ho Ho Humbug: The Story of One Man's Journey Out of Housewares to Elfdom and Eventually Santa's Throne

Categories: Stage

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Scott Burkell wrote and stars in Ho Ho Humbug making its world premiere
Photo courtesy of Stark Naked Theatre
For years, New York actor and playwright Scott Burkell got a lot of mileage out of telling stories at parties about the time he worked as a Macy's Santa.

But he never thought of putting it together to make a play because of its similarity to David Sedaris's tale of his time as Crumpet the Macy's elf Santaland Diaries (performed in the past by Alley Theatre company member Todd Waite but not this year).

But he was persuaded otherwise because their experiences were different, he says and ended up writing the two-act Ho Ho Humbug which is about to make its world premiere at Stark Naked Theatre in Houston.

The premiere site is fitting because Philip Lehl, co-founder of Stark Naked performed dramaturg duties as Burkell developed his script. Lehl will direct and his wife and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl is one of the actors in the play.

Burkell says he never set out to be an elf, let alone a Santa. He was between acting jobs and needed one more week of work to qualify for unemployment. Looking for limited seasonal work, he applied to Macy's, figuring he'd work in housewares but after two days of training, they telephoned him and said they thought he'd be a good fit for Santaland as an elf.

"They kind of lied to me," he says, by telling him there were elves of all ages. "There was a whole bunch of twenty-somethings - a sea of them - a grandmother and me. So it was embarrassing."

After a week and a half as an elf, Burkell got moved to Santa when a spot opened up (well after Burkell ratted on a bad Santa.) Thrown onto the Santa throne wearing a Santa strait jacket (AKA padding; Burkell is a whippet says he found the work affected him more than he ever thought it would as he listened to kids and their wishes.

Lehl says he and his wife "both thought the play was right within our aesthetic, that it needed actors who would be able to play with truth and honesty and yet it would still be funny."

"We're telling a story that has a true journey for a character," says Tobin-Lehl. "Even though this is a story about a guy who goes to Macy's and becomes an elf and a Santa, every single person who watches this show will relate to this person, and will feel like they have been this person moving through the Christmas season."

All stressed that this is not a play for children, especially those who still believe in Santa and suggest that no one under 13 should attend. Burkell (who also wrote LMNOP which will be performed at TUTS Underground this spring) is the only one of six actors who plays one character throughout the play; the other characters divide up about 50 characters among them.

Ho Ho Humbug runs December 4-24 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday with a special 3 p.m. Christmas Eve matinee at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information call 832-866-6514 or visit starknakedtheatre.com.$12-$40.


A Passionless Dirty Dancing Has Two Left Feet

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Samuel Pergande(Johnny), Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Jenny Winton (Penny)

The set up:

The story of how Dirty Dancing came to be is as Tinseltown-ready as the film itself. The year was 1987 and Eleanor Bergstein had written a dance movie of the Flashdance/Footloose variety but with somewhat more realistic characters and issue stuff like abortion and class snobbery thrown into the mix. The studio hated it. Initial test audiences hated it. Yet by some miracle the film got shown and, mimicking the perfect Hollywood happy ending, grossed just under $214 million worldwide, won an Oscar and several Grammy's for the music and became the dominant album on the charts for weeks on end.

Fast forward to 2004 and Bergstein decided that no one puts Dirty Dancing in the corner. She dusted off the script, adapted it for the stage, brought in director James Powell and choreographer Michele Lynch (to channel Kate Champion's original dance vision), added some additional music and scenes and kicked off an Australian tour. From there the show has been seen in Germany, London, Holland and South Africa with records broken for advance sales and production runs in many of the stops.

The global appeal of Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story Onstage, as it's fully titled, is now getting its North American litmus test in a multi city tour. Whether it's as big a hit here as overseas remains to be seen as Houston is one of the early stops in the run. But as we all know, hit and critical acclaim don't always go hand in hand or two step to two step in this case. Sure we loved the movie in North America. Or loved to hate it in some cases. No one can argue that. But let's cast aside nostalgia and gooey teenage memories from the late '80s and see if the play lives up to the hype on its own merits.


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The Servant of Two Masters: A Farce With Confusion and Romance at Rice

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of Rice University
Clarice (Ashley Torres) is astonished to learn that her fiance is alive, as Beatrice (Yena Han) impersonates him


The setup:

Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters, a farce in 1743 -- it employs stock characters from Commedia dell'arte and originally left extensive room for improvisation, but Goldoni rewrote it in 1753 to create the present script.

The version used by Rice is an adaptation by Jack Young based on a translation by Edward Joseph Dent, and it employs many of the comical devices of Commedia dell'arte, including the tradition of punishing a character by beating him, so prevalent that the protagonist here carries a stick with him to facilitate this ritual.

The execution:
The lead character is the servant Truffuldino, always hungry, who decides that if he gets a second master, he might be able to double dip in the culinary department. Truffuldino is resourceful but not especially bright, and hasn't learned to read, so complications ensue. Dennis Budde plays Truffuldino in a triumphant performance, filled with energy, amusing body language, engaging good will, and blundering charm.


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The Liar at UH: Great Fun in All Directions

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of the University of Houston
Harry McEnerny plays Dorante and holds the stage like a master

The setup:

The Liar, a classic French farce from 1644 by Pierre Corneille has a new translation and adaptation by David Ives, and the University of Houston is presenting it at its Jose Quintero Theatre. The protagonist is Dorante, a gallant of whom it can be truly said "the truth is not in him." The lies flow as glibly as a mountain stream, and the humor is compounded as his memory for what he invented is deeply flawed. With typical Gallic savoir-faire, there is no moralizing, just a fascinating tale of human chicanery.

The execution:

This production is directed by Jack Young, and it is flawless, and Young is courageous beyond belief in taking risks and pulling them off. The result is great fun in all directions, and also a production so polished by all its designers that I kept thinking: probably nothing this good on Broadway.

Young has cast against type as Dorante is described as handsome, and is portrayed by Harry McEnerny, attractive but portly. McEnerny's energy, charm, and jubilant enthusiasm, however, are so devastatingly alive that the gamble pays off, well, handsomely. McEnerny holds the stage like a master, even alone, but fortunately it is often shared by Joshua Clark, portraying Cliton, a servant for hire. Clark is the perfect foil for McEnerny, and they play off each other brilliantly, with Clark's quicksilver portrayal of honesty (he cannot tell a lie) the polar opposite of Dorante's cascading embellishments.


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Late, A Cowboy Song Gives Us a Look at Early Work by Playwright Sarah Ruhl

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Rod Todd.
Lindsay Ehrhardt and Sara Ornelas as Mary and Red.

The set up:

Written by Sarah Ruhl in 2003, Late: A Cowboy Song is an early effort by a playwright on the cusp of becoming one of the most celebrated names in modern American theater. A quick glance through the reception of her later plays reads like a writer's dream list of accolades. Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist? Check. Tony Award nominee for Best New play? Check. A Pen American Award? Yup, that too. This ticking of tribute boxes also includes The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize a Helen Hayes Award and the prestigious and lucrative MacArthur "Genius Grant". So yes, the gal's got game as they say.

Or at least she came to have it.

It wasn't until 2004 with the production of Clean House, a fanciful and fantastical romantic comedy about a Brazilian cleaning woman with a gift for comedy, that Ruhl's work became widely lauded. In fact, Late: A Cowboy Song, a play about an ill-matched dichotomous young couple and the mysterious gender bending female cowboy that threatens to undo them, didn't have critics widely singing her praises at all. Including me, who has previously described the play as irrational to the point of tedium and lacking any real affection for anything other than Ruhl's beauty with words.

But the value in paying attention to a marquee playwright's sophomoric efforts is to see the genesis of what gets perfected into greatness with more mature outputs. In this case, Ruhl's trademark sprinkling of the surreal and her ability to create characters she describes as occupying "the real world and also a suspended state."


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Mass Appeal Shows Contentment and a Full Collection Plate May Not Be Enough

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of A.D. Players
Father Farley (Ric Hodgin) has his comfortable existence upended by seminary student Mark (Braden Hunt)

The set-up:
What an apt title playwright Bill C. Davis gives his gentle two-character drama. Although set in a posh Roman Catholic parish where Father Tim Farley is the beloved priest, Mass Appeal (1980) could just as easily be set at the local Wendy's or some plumbing supply company. The message Davis preaches of basic human kindness could apply anywhere.

The execution:
Father Farley (Ric Hodgin, twinkling as usual) is complacent and not about to make waves. For ten years, he's had a comfortable existence at St. Francis Church. He drives a Mercedes, the collection plate is always filled after his sermons - a sure sign of success, like the Nielsen ratings, he says with satisfaction - and he receives presents from his distinguished parishioners, like bottles of sparkling burgundy, which he consumes with increasing frequency. If he keeps his herd at a respectable distance, coddling them with harmless little lies and sweet compliments, who gets hurt? Like the proverbial fatted calf, he is quite content.


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Company: An Abrasive and Comic X-ray of Marriage

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of Music Box Musicals
A well-polished cast keeps the musical moving

The set-up:
Bracing and potent as a vodka stinger, Company (1970), Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's multiple Tony Award-winning "musical comedy" on marriage, commitment, and New York City, is the ultimate That '70s Show. The mordant musical ushered in Sondheim as potential king of Broadway. (He had to wait until the following year when Follies finally bestowed the crown upon him.) Company was so different, sophisticated, and wicked that it took a while until the work truly sank in. This intimate production from MJR Theatricals and Music Box Musicals supplies plenty of grit, polish, and a well-rounded cast to keep this classic show spiky and full of attitude.

The execution:
Perpetual bachelor Bobby (Michael J. Ross), best friend of five conflicted married couples, refuses to settle down. He's so close to his married friends that when they burn he gets seared. He sees only the faults, not the pleasures in wedded bliss. He makes lame excuses for his noncommittal; he expects some future wife to be an amalgam of his women friends; he sleeps around and can't remember his bedmates' names - he's probably gay, but the show's creators adamantly deny that's the subtext. It's either/or for "Bobby baby, Bobby bubi," but there's not much positive reinforcement from the couples. His Act II epiphany, "Being Alive," is as much of a happy ending as anything you'll find in a Sondheim show.


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Romeo and Juliet Complete With Tattoos and a Skateboard

Categories: Stage

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Photo courtesy of the University of St. Thomas
Emanuel Nguyen as Romeo woos Kathleen Smith as Juliet

The setup:
This tale of star-crossed lovers was written toward the end of the 16th century by William Shakespeare, and has captivated audiences ever since. The titular roles in Romeo and Juliet have attracted and challenged actors over the centuries as well, leading to the witticism: "By the time an actress is old enough (i. e., has learned enough about life) to play Juliet, she is too old to play Juliet."

The principals are teenagers, 14 and 13, but they are making adult decisions, though some of these are rather rash.

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Dirty Dancing on Its Way to Houston in Short Run

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Matthew Murphy
Samuel Pergande as Johnny and Jenny Winton as Penny
Jenny Winton grew up dancing ballet, including time with the San Francisco Ballet and five years with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago when a casting agent trying to fill roles in the stage version of Dirty Dancing gave her a call.

"They were looking at pictures of different ballerinas from companies all over the world and asked me if I would be interested," she says. Following a successful New York audition, Winton took on the character of Penny Johnson, the regular dance partner of Johnny Castle, who becomes pregnant during the course of the show.

Now on its way to the Hobby Center courtesy of Broadway Across America, the musical doesn't differ much from the 1987 hit movie by the same name starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, Winton says.


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The Pillowman: Where a Dark and Eerie Chill Extends Long After You've Left Theatre Southwest

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Scott McWhirter
A lot of scary stories are being told in this one
The set-up:
Halloween may be over, but its eerie chill lingers through mid-November at Theatre Southwest where a superlative production of Martin McDonagh's dark and dank The Pillowman (2003) elicits icy shivers.

These aren't the jump-out-and-scare-you type of chills, although there are a few frights in the police-state interrogation room where the tale is set, but more subtle psychological thrills. McDonagh conjures these with singular mastery, easy as if he were sitting around a campfire. It's creepy and gothic, the stuff of nightmares. Theatre Southwest's production, also, has its own distinct chills: evocatively simple set (Xandra Homes), brilliant lighting design (John Baker), atmospheric sound (Trevor B. Cone), stunning direction (Scott McWhirter), and immaculately empathetic acting. This is must-see theater on every level.

The execution:
Impoverished writer Katurian (Aaron Echegaray), who works in a meat slaughtering plant, lives for writing. Only one out of hundreds of his short stories has ever been published, but they are his very life. He tells stories because storytelling is what he does best. His gruesome fairy tales, most of which involve mutilation, torture, and/or disfigurement of innocent children, are morally ambiguous, socially neutral, apolitical. "I'm not trying to say anything at all," he desperately apologizes to the policemen interrogating him (Scott Holmes and Trevor B. Cone). They don't believe him.


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