The Importance of Being Earnest Is Oscar Wilde at His Best

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Pim Lin
Pamela Vogel as Lady Bracknell, John Johnston as Jack, and Lindsay Ehrhardt as Gwendolen
The set-up:
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's glittering comic bauble, his last play and masterpiece (1895), gleams brighter the older it gets. I challenge anyone to name a funnier play. Classical Theatre Company's production sets off sparks of its own, but doesn't quite approach the Tiffany setting this unique jewel so richly deserves.

The execution:

Wilde subtitled his delightful comedy "a trivial play for serious people," and this eminent Victorian did not disappoint. G.B. Shaw, reviewing the premiere, enviously called it "froth without pith." It is all that, and more. Written as if with a needle, Earnest skewers the posh upper classes with a dismissive wave of the hand. The implicit irony is thick, but it's handled like master chief Escoffier whipping up the silkiest of cream. Wilde beats his 19th century audience about the head with the lightest and funniest velvet gloves. No comedy before or since has been so trivial, yet so chock full of meaning. Artifice, just as Wilde himself so desperately desired to live it to its fullest, is raised to high art.


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Rice University Does Well By Little Shop of Horrors

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Ian Mellor-Crummey
Bryce Willey and Ariana Morgan as lovers in Little Shop of Horrors at Rice

The setup:

There is nothing little about Little Shop of Horrors, a comedic musical spoof by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, a rock musical about a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh. It made a fortune for its investors, running for five years, 1982 to 1987, at the Orpheum Theater in Manhattan's East Village and exiting as the highest grossing off-Broadway production in history. Nor is there anything little about its enduring ability to delight audiences, and the apparently universal appeal of its book, and its music.

The execution:

Rice University has given this gem the quality production it deserves. The setting is a downscale florist shop on skid row, and set designers Mark Krouskop and Jake LaViola, clearly brilliant, have created not only the shop, but the neighborhood, as a strongly three-dimensional set includes the buildings behind the skid row, graffiti on exterior walls, and "lounging" areas for impoverished denizens. Our hero is Seymour (Bryce Willey), shy and easily intimidated, in love with co-worker Audrey (Ariana Morgan), and working for the shop's owner, Mr. Mushnik (Curtis Barber).

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Insko Lends Time Stands Still Some Tracks

Categories: Stage

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Insko
Over at Main Street Theater you can catch some seriously dark excellence in the form of Donald Margulies's play Time Stands Still, and just to make it even sweeter local band Insko has lent their music to the score.

The play follows two journalists played by Sean Patrick Judge and the always-awesome Sara Gaston as they return from covering the horrors of the Iraq War. At the center of their lives are heaps of survivor's guilt and deep questions about the nature of what they do. Are they actually improving the world by chronicling such tragedies as parents burying their own children killed in combat, or are they simply showing us such things with no appreciable positive impact on society.

To really capture the mood of the internal struggles of our two heroes sound designer Alex Worthington decided to bring in the music of Insko, who play every note like it's coming straight out of a dream. Their work is ethereal and strange, and just perfect for the mental tribulations that they are being explored in the play.

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Olive and the Bitter Herbs Might Have Been Better if We'd Been Able to See the Ghost

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Elvin Moriarty
Terry Jones, Lee Raymond and Nora Hahn in Olive and the Bitter Herbs at Theatre Suburbia

The setup:

Playwright Charles Busch's considerable fame rests on his parodies of film genres, in drag himself, with his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom becoming a five-year off-Broadway hit, opening in 1985 at the Provincetown Playhouse. Another work by him, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, opened on Broadway in 2000 and garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. This was the story of a midlife Jewish marital crisis, and Busch returns to this theme in 2011 with a New York production of his Olive and the Bitter Herbs, though his protagonist here, Olive Fisher, is single and intended to be seventy or so, long past the first blush of middle-age.

The execution:

Olive is written as a female curmudgeon, a kvetcher at war with her neighbors in a Kips Bay co-op, but Lee Raymond brings a sense of humor to the role, as well as considerable warmth and charm, and makes Olive likable, a feat, judging by reviews, which was not achieved in New York. There is much bickering in the play - when was bickering ever funny? - and Raymond goes a long way toward salvaging a play filled with non-events and largely devoid of credible motivations. My question is: Where is the real Charles Busch, and what have you done with him? I hasten to add that Theatre Suburbia has given this work a better production than it deserves.

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Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie: Seafarers Caught in Strong Emotions

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Cheryl Tanner
Kelly Walker and Brian Heaton as tempestuous lovers in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at Theatre Southwest
The setup:

Eugene O'Neill is one of the towering playwrights in American theater, and this play Anna Christie about seafaring men, and their women on shore, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and a 2011 production in London won the Olivier Award as Best Revival. Despite its credentials, it is rarely produced, and Theatre Southwest is to be commended for bringing its raw power to Houston.

The execution:

The set is simple, outlined by ropes on stanchions suggesting both the sea and a prizefight ring, very suitable as O'Neill has given us characters who are at each other, hammer-and-tongs, fighting for their sense of self, to hold onto whatever fragments of identity remain to them. The flexible venue has been transformed into theater-in-the-round, and the deceptive bareness is soon overflowing with powerful emotions.


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Alley Theatre Announces Its 2014-15 Season in Its Home Away From Home at UH

Categories: Education, Stage

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley, seen here in Dividing the Estate, will be back with another Horton Foote play in the Alley Theatre's 2014-15 season
A version of Dracula that hasn't been seen since the Broadway production in the 1970s , another Horton Foote play featuring Elizabeth Ashley and Hallie Foote, and the return of The Foreigner with company member Jeffrey Bean are all part of the seven-play season that Alley Theatre will be kicking off next August, Artistic Director Gregory Boyd said.

Today the Alley Theatre announced its next season with a line-up that they believe will keep their audience numbers high, even while the performances are moving to the theater at the University of Houston while the Alley undergoes some much-needed renovations.

"Instead of 13 plays in two theaters, we'll be doing seven plays in one," Boyd said. So there's been some reconfiguring of production schedules since the UH theater has 565 seats compared to the Hubbard Stage's 824. Another factor -- and one that Boyd looks forward to -- is that the UH theater boasts a proscenium stage which enables the Alley Company to do some things that would be much more difficult on its "thrust" stage, he says.

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"Crimes of Passion" - Inspired Art Show Arrives in Connection With TUTS Underground's Murder Ballad

Categories: Art Space, Stage

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All art reproductions courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars
This is just some of the "Crimes of Passion" - inspired art
Works from 20 local artists will be showcased in a special art exhibit reception connected to the approaching TUTS Underground production of the pop rock opera Murder Ballad.

The one-night-only event -- a partnership between Texas Art Asylum and Theatre Under the Stars -- runs from 5;30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday April 11. A silent auction closes at 8 p.m.

Artists will be there to discuss their works as well as representatives from both organizations who'll be more than willing to talk about their individual projects. Food and beverages come courtesy of Phoenicia MKT Bar.

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Communicating Doors: A Time-Warping Comedy-Thriller

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Mike McCormick
Julie Sharbutt time trips as Phoebe in Communicating Doors

The set-up:
On the modern British stage there are three old masters: Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Alan Ayckbourn. Pinter spins pauses into taut existential thrillers, Stoppard spins words into new worlds, Ayckbourn literally spins doors into plays. His Communicating Doors (1994), a comedy thriller sandwiched somewhere between a good episode of "Twilight Zone" and a not-so naughty sit-com like "Three's Company," receives a refreshing spin in the Alley's current production.

Sir Alan is England's most prolific playwright with at least 78 plays on his resume. He's a master at tweaking the tweedy middle class and sending his hapless characters spinning out of control, usually not knowing how to stop the chaos they've created for themselves. Thoroughly ingenious in his plotting, he loves playing with time and multiple settings, or, as here, multiple time in a single setting. An Ayckbourn play is always clever and entertaining. For all its professional polish and sleight-of-hand, Doors is clever, if somewhat on the thin side.

Check out our interview with Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd.


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A Behind the Scenes Rehearsal Video at Murder Ballad

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Monica Fuentes
Steel Burkhardt as Tom and Lauren Molina as Sara run through their lines in Murder Ballad

While the rest of the set is onstage in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center, a crucial centerpiece -a bar - has been carefully built in a nearby rehearsal hall so that the actors in Murder Ballad can run through their paces for the upcoming TUTS Underground production.

Tuesday we sat in on a rehearsal as Theatre Under the Stars Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin watched the four actors go from one pop rock song to another in the murder mystery tale whose cast includes a lovers' triangle and a narrator.

Not only do you have to wait till the end to find out who the murderer is, you won't know the victim for much of the show. (We left before they got to that part.)


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Puppets Gone Wild: A Look at Puppetsploitation X (With Video)

Categories: Stage

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Courtesy of Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre
Kites are Fun by Anthony Butkovich
Puppetsploitation X, Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre's annual puppet slam, features live puppet plays and films that range from the creepy to the absolutely hilarious. Carmella Clements and Larkin Elliot debut two shadow-puppet satires at this year's festival, including Frogophobia, which is about the late, great Marvin Zindler. "I've been fascinated with MZ since childhood," said Clements via email. "His perfect balance of eccentricity and commitment to defending the little guy make him a perfect subject for puppetry. He's a Houston folk hero."

Joel Orr, the founder of Bobbindoctrin and the de facto majordomo of the Houston puppet-artist community, will also be working in shadow puppets this year with Problem Solver, in which a bold man sacrifices his life and family in a brave and tireless efforts to imagine a better world.

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