‘A Very Tamarie Christmas’

24 Jul

photo: Anthony Rathbun - www.anthonyrathbun.com

By JOHN DeMERS

In the summer of 2001, shortly after I moved here, one of several new friends who embraced my development as a Houstonian as a personal project insisted I go see something called Tamalalia. It had a number after it, like the Super Bowl always does, and she said: “You want to live here? I mean, really? Then you need to see this. I’ll get the tickets.”

The show, I recall, was performed at a dicey-neighborhood venue called the Axiom, which seemed ready to crumble around us. And the audience, at least in my memory, was dressed mostly in black, with no shortage of piercings and tattoos. This is Houston? I wondered. Once the show was up and running, the phrase changed to: Now THIS is Houston!

Each summer’s Tamalalia, produced then by Infernal Bridegroom Productions, was part revival meeting, part love letter to musical theater and part audience-participation Rocky Horror Show, a nonstop laugh orgy that pushed the limits of all kinds of good taste yet remained weirdly innocent and even idealistic at the core of its cynical little bitchy heart. As the French have a way of pointing out, the more things change…

Produced by Catastrophic Theatre, A Very Tamarie Christmas is local goddess Tamarie Cooper’s 17th flirtation with musical as drug-induced memoir, a thing that begins with a thought, maybe with a question, and then romps joyously downhill from that point forward. In addition to “celebrating” Christmas in Houston summer (and running through August 30), the show ponders the eternal “What if.” What if, since nobody can agree on the “meaning of Christmas” – every year’s show has much about Tamarie’s being Jewish, along with her near-sexual obsession with pork products – what if we invested our devotion instead in a different American holiday. As if in a dream, or nightmare, all sorts of other holidays appear before Tamarie, and of course before us, making their case in funny dialogue, not to mention spirited song and dance.

The script is original, the music is original, the lyrics are original, the set and costumes are original, so it probably follows that some bits and pieces of A Very Tamarie Christmas seem more finished or satisfying than others. But taken together, they are remarkably successful entertainment. Tamarie’s life is different now – she has a husband and a little girl – so there aren’t the same old rants about how she’ll never find a guy. In their place, though, are wise and knowing vignettes of American culture she perhaps understands better now that she’s living them. Her re-creation of the innocent, costume-and-candy of Halloweens past gets pasted over with parents who fear every neighbor is a “potential child murderer.” The innocence of this show resides in Tamarie herself, in her memories of what all such holidays used to mean and how those memories collide with what We the People have let them become.

As in all the Tamarie musicals I’ve seen, in addition to the heroine of our story, Kyle Sturdivant lives on the edge of stealing every scene he’s in. He embodies the devilish wink of several alternative lifestyles with a childlike vulnerability. He works wonders as a tree on behalf of Arbor Day, but he downright channels Tim Curry as an overly plump Thanksgiving turkey who truly deserves the name Butterball. Thanksgiving is my favorite scene in the entire show, both for the turkey and for the wild, disgusting and oh-too-familiar assortment of Tamarie’s relatives who turn up to eat and complain. I love it that, by the end of Thanksgiving, the hostess herself is seen chugging from a bottle of wine. Other delightfully familiar faces include Greg Dean at Christmas itself, who kind of goes Grinch for a while, and Noel Bowers as a series of angry, foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking holidays, most memorably the Cupid of Valentine’s Day who, as we all know by the time we’re 12, can’t shoot arrows worth a damn.

There are dozens of unforgettably funny moments in A Very Tamarie Christmas – watching Tamarie “do” Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” as Christopher Columbus is a comic stroke worthy of Robin Williams. We leave the theater feeling strangely unburdened, if slightly breathless from so much laughing, having watched our own hopes and fears about the holidays manhandled in a way that makes it all better – manhandled by one very talented woman.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun

Alley’s Vanya and Co.

29 May

Alley Theatre

By JOHN DeMERS

The first playwright to parody Chekhov on a regular basis was, well, Chekhov. And there’s been a small but ever-vibrant theatrical cottage industry doing so ever since. What else are you going to do with a guy who has characters announce Big News like “I’m in mourning for my life!”

That line, several others borrowed from the master himself and a whole bunch created in his style and/or honor fuel the constant humor and occasional pathos of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened last night at Houston’s Alley Theater. If any additional bittersweetness were required, a la Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, the theater itself is about to be closed for a yearlong renovation and modernization, with next season to be performed at the University of Houston. That’s a whole lot like The Cherry Orchard, in fact.

Durang’s play picks both low-hanging and hard-to-get fruit from the Russian playwright’s greatest hits album – from the jealousies and hysterias of people “wasting” their lives to the serio-comic desperations of people the world assumes are happy. Hope and despair lurk side-by-side under every rock around the inherited country house in Pennsylvania whose upkeep is paid for by semi-talented movie star Masha but that’s lived in by her brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia. The two siblings have done little with their adult lives except ease their parents’ final years; with them gone now, the two see nothing of interest on the horizon. On any given day, it seems, that is or is not okay – the source of much utterly Chekhovian angsting over “what’s it all about.” At the same time, the play’s early scenes are both send-ups and serious – until Masha turns up for a visit, with her latest boy toy Spike in tow in the aftermath of her five failed marriages.

No further background is required (really, probably not even that) to thoroughly enjoy Vanya et al as directed by Jonathan Moscone. The Alley does this comedy the way it does virtually every comedy – full-bore, over-the-top, with the company’s greatest fear being a moment when nobody is shouting, over-emoting, throwing something or falling down. At important junctures, it seemed to me that a little more “dare to bore” might have been good for Durang’s play, to let its serious or even profound observations sink in. Still, there’s no doubt this is a wickedly funny evening of theater, whether you know your Chekhov backwards, forwards and sideways, or not at all.

Jeffrey Bean and Sharon Lockwood are terrific as the life-becalmed brother and sister, channeling every family member trapped amidst nature’s beauty between The Seagull and On Golden Pond. Lockwood is pitch-perfect near the end, when she receives what may be her first-ever phone call from a suitor, a tangle of contradictory emotions that together point the way toward hope. And Bean is dazzling in his otherwise bizarre monologue attacking technology and the isolations of modernity in preference for Ozzie and Harriet (you can Google them, children), Mickey Mouse Club and coonskin caps. Last night’s audience, most of whom could remember and prefer right along with him, felt little choice but to applaud the sentiment.

Josie de Guzman follows the Alley party line in terms of comic style, being goofy and loud and more than a little manic in her desperation, while Jay Sullivan does a fine job of playing Spike in limited amounts of clothing, making every guy in the audience feel dreadfully out of shape. Sarah Nealis is idealistic and touching as Nina, the young acting hopeful who takes an affectionate “Uncle Vanya” interest in Bean’s character – while Rachael Holmes as Cassandra rules the stage every time she’s given some new hilariously dark pronouncement to make. As the family’s “cleaning lady,” she’s a soul sister who’s wandered into Greek tragedy by accident. And like so many of us in the Chekhovian sense, she’s fallen and she can’t get up.

Photos by Jann Whaley: (top) Jeffrey Bean and Sharon Lockwood; (bottom) Jay Sullivan and Sarah Nealis.

Alley Theatre

‘War Horse’ in Houston

28 May

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By JOHN DeMERS

How is it possible, you will ask yourself walking out of the Hobby Center, that you’ve just watched a play about the dark, dreary and impoverished English countryside giving way to the horrific trench warfare of World War I – and it still managed to be the most visually beautiful piece of theater you’ve ever seen.

The self-answer to your self-question has everything to do with the National Theatre of Great Britain’s evocative, poetic rendering of War Horse, a book that has also become a popular film by no less than Stephen Spielberg. Having now experienced the current touring production at the Hobby Center, I’m tempted to believe this story of “a boy and his horse” was destined for the stage all along. Then again, that took some doing.

Foremost, there’s the little matter of the horse. A showbiz axiom is to never work with children or animals, and in anything titled War Horse, it seems somebody’s going to have to. The single most magical and unforgettable decision made by the production team working to stage Michael Morpurgo’s novel was inviting the Handspring Puppet Company to create the horse named Joey and his equine pals. More than any similar stage illusion I’ve ever seen, including the clever-enough animals in The Lion King, these horses manage to be so realistic that we “pay no attention” to the men  walking them around yet also so powerful and lyrical, all mane and tail and muscle, that they become a kind of visual poetry.

The story takes a while to get going: slow-witted country man buys horse to best his estranged brother at a village auction, gives said horse to his teenaged son (who shows a special skill at training the animal) but then accepts an offer to sell the horse to the British Army heading off to fight the Kaiser in Belgium and France. Fearing for his best friend’s life, the teenager will eventually enlist in the infantry and go off to find him amid the carnage.

Two major components join the puppets in creating indelible moments of beauty. One is the simple set formed and reformed around projections on what looks like a violent gash across the stage’s backdrop. Many scenes – rustic etchings mostly, occasionally giving us a time cue from 1912 to 1918 – merely establish place. Still, the projections truly earn their keep when combat kicks in and they create the motion of a ground attack, the ear-splitting violence of an artillery bombardment and the quick suffusions of blood that are the too-casual result of all such military misadventures. At times, the stage fills and trembles with such a “light show” that Jefferson Airplane would feel at home performing “White Rabbit.”

The final poetic component of War Horse is music. Yes, this is that oddity at the Hobby Center: a play rather than a musical. But it does come packaged with a kind of Greek chorus – ranging from one guy up to most of the cast – walking through the action (unharmed) and dazzling us with a keening, Celtic-sounding refrain that supplies the show’s major themes of suffering, courage and sacrifice.  Taken together and mingled with a master’s touch, these three elements, each worth enjoying on its own, become a sustained piece of remarkable theater.

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Stark Naked’s ‘Winter’s Tale’

10 May

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By JOHN DeMERS

As most of us understand by this point, William Shakespeare turned out a whole bunch of plays in several different categories – tragedies, comedies and histories being the best known. And for the most part, he was careful to color inside the lines. In his bizarrely affecting The Winter’s Tale, however, Shakespeare seems to delight in tossing crayon strokes in all sorts of unexpected directions. In that light, it’s even more unexpected how engaging the play can be.

By staging Winter’s Tale in a modern and minimalist way, Houston’s own Stark Naked Theatre Company is taking on one of my fondest theater memories: seeing the play at the Bard’s Stratford-on-Avon during the bicentennial summer of 1976. I remember knowing nothing about the play when I took my seat for that matinee, yet feeling tears fill my eyes as the ending neared. It is a strange show, no doubt about it – an extended (and now more intense than ever) stretch of tragedy, a brief spurt of comedy that’s actually funny, and then a flourish of crystalline poetry at the end that should affect almost anyone the way it first affected me.

Though the production that opened last night at Spring Street Studios is impressively polished, there is an intriguing backstory. Just days before the show was to open, Stark Naked co-founder Philip Lehl was the director and another accomplished actor had the lead role, Leontes. When that actor felt he had to drop out, Lehl felt he had to step in. The opening was pushed back a week so he could learn the many, many speeches, and co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl (a respected acting coach) stepped in to help her husband and the rest of the cast prepare. None of this backstage drama (or trauma) is evident when you’re watching Winter’s Tale.

The story is one of the darkest imaginable: an ancient king decides, on very little evidence, that his wife is being unfaithful with his best friend. That “other man,” also a king, manages to escape back to his own land, but the wife and the son die and a newborn daughter is sent far away – to that other kingdom. Years pass. The first king, Leontes, painfully aware of his own recklessness, does little but mourn his life away. But that life, though mourned, awaits him with healing, with a kind of miracle, in the future all the same.

In giving us a thoroughly satisfying, believable and ultimately touching Leontes, Lehl gets solid help onstage from Los Angeles-based actor Luis Galindo as best friend Polixenes – and since virtually all the actors take on several roles, also as a servant who carries the near-mythical baby to that distant land. Women are an important part of the mix, even when they’re playing men – and that means Tawny Stephens as doomed (but innocent) wife Hermione and Courtney Lomelo as Paulina, a woman who seems to be orchestrating the sad king’s salvation. Truly eye-opening is the work of young Shunte Lofton, who’s still studying acting at U of H. She convinces us first as the king’s affectionate son but ultimately as his banished daughter, whose own coming into love helps move the metaphorical calendar from winter toward spring.

With flawless comic timing, the rest of the cast takes on role after role, often changing a hat or a coat in front of us to mark the change, then emerging as an entirely different person. The delights in this seem to never end, whether it’s Jeff McMorrough as Camillo, Mike Sims as Autolycus or Matt Lents as Florizel. In one of the play’s most entertaining touches, Shakespeare’s often-used lower-class “rustics” are served up with Texas redneck accents. Like so many things about Stark Naked’s Winter’s Tale, it doesn’t seem like it ought to work. But it does.

Photos: (top) Lofton and Lehl, (bottom) Lofton and Lents, by Gabriella Nissen

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HGO’s Dazzling New ‘Carmen’

26 Apr

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By JOHN DeMERS

In any given year over the past few decades, Bizet’s Carmen may be the single most performed opera on earth. There’s reasons, of course: a strong story built around a few clearly defined characters, a collection of “hit songs” that could fill a late-night infomercial, and some searingly gorgeous orchestral music in between. Plus lots of Spanish dancing, smuggling and bullfighting. No wonder, right?

As with any such wildly popular opera – La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto – the question becomes not whether to do it but how? Audiences need the shove of something new each time, but generally speaking (in all but the most avant garde world capitals) also require the comforting salve of the oh-so-familiar. This becomes something of a game in the end, having a little fun with the traditional components, but never “too much” fun.

As performed by Houston Grand Opera, and produced along with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, the current production of Bizet’s masterpiece is just about perfect. And as a showcase for one of HGO’s homegrown stars, Ana Maria Martinez, it’s exciting stuff indeed. We’ve been lucky enough to catch her in one of the finest Bohemes ever, back in 2002, as well as in Butterfly in 2010 and 2011, but her native Puerto Rican sensitivity to Latin rhythms and Latin passions makes her a Carmen for her generation. Her singing is bold and expressive, from soaring (or softly feminine) high notes to the lowest utterances meant to connect the character to unfettered sexuality and the street. Martinez proves no slouch at flamenco either. Not bad for a fiery Spanish gypsy cigarette girl – in an opera sung entirely in French!

Since Carmen the woman is essentially (we might even say elementally) torn between two lovers, both her romantic soldier boy Don Jose and her macho bullfighter Escamillo have a lot to say about her ability to generate heat. We love tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Jose, not least because he can pour on the sweetness that’s written in this music (his highlights-reel “Flower Song” in particular), sidestepping the breathy belting that has caught the bus up from Broadway to Lincoln Center. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, like Martinez an alum of the HGO Studio, starts off a bit stiff as torero (no, not toreador, no matter what the terrific song calls him) Escamillo, but that seems mostly choreography. He’s allowed to loosen up later, particularly in his confrontations with Jose as Carmen’s affections shift in his direction.

One of the less-noticed jewels of Carmen is the quiet-faithful country girl Micaela, who keeps showing up with news from Don Jose’s mother, of all people. Obviously, she’s mostly a contrast with Carmen, but she gets two of the loveliest musical stretches in the opera: a recurring theme that works as a duet in Act I plus her often-performed “Micaela’s Air” in Act II. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sings this shimmering music with flourishes of youthful love and lyricism.

To be this good – that is, to work this well as live theater – Carmen needs a lot more than terrific singing. Generally, Rob Ashford delivers the goods as both director and choreographer, the two being more intertwined here than is often the case. Against a dazzling 1930s set (especially the De Chirico-meets-Dali bullring of the final scene) by David Rockwell, Ashford gives us not only passionate acting but a series of dance treatments that manage to intensify rather than distract. The flamenco scenes are wonderful, as is the metaphorical ballet of senoritas and bullfighters that pushes things toward their tragic conclusion. The final violence that is Carmen gets a riveting counterpoint in a pas de deux between a matador and the bull (the latter danced with masculinity and grace by Rasta Thomas) who has appeared with the opera’s brooding “fate theme” before he, like our heroine, meets a ritualized, preordained end.

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HGO’s ‘A Little Night Music’

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By JOHN DeMERS

I love it when “grand opera” takes the night off. Indeed, whenever it does, it becomes possible to see how wonderful the art form actually is – or can be, if liberated from the layers of definitional straightjacket that tell it what it’s allowed and not allowed to do. The current Houston Grand Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a shimmeringly beautiful example of what happens when opera opens its mind and our eyes.

So yes, A Little Night Music is a Broadway musical – as in, not an opera. And Sondheim is a Broadway composer and almost unbearably smart Broadway lyricist. The result is a show that only “sounds like opera” at the Wortham Center because opera singers are singing it. Yet, by the end of this dazzling, heartfelt and rather heartbreaking production, it has done what all the best operas try to do. We have met and cared about a set of characters, we have entered their joys and sorrows more profoundly than we do in most operas, and we have taken their lives (for a while) as our own. A Little Night Music is deeply moving theater, unforgettable visual art made of set, costume and light, and moment after moment of glorious vocal expression.

For starters, the show is nothing short of gorgeous to look at. Somehow HGO managed to snag superstar designer Isaac Mizrahi to handle the sets and costumes, and the whole package transports us back in time to shows like My Fair Lady and Gigi, which were fashion festivals along with everything else. Lighting designer Brian Nason gets in on the fun, giving the versatile, outdoor-indoor set  - a green forest I want for the next Midsummer Night’s Dream I see – a golden glow that evokes the same sunset many of the lyrics describe. Though the romantic loves chronicled here happen at many ages onstage, they are certainly seen from an older, wiser and more saddened perspective. From a sunset, as it were.

The story, based on a Swedish art film by Ingmar Bergman, seems complicated but happily ends up not. It serves up what Sondheim does best: the contrast and occasional conflict of our tireless, indeed undying romantic fantasies with the often-cruel realities of living our stories. Yet we believe, he says. And yet we embrace. By the time the lead character, a much-loved stage actress appropriately named Desiree, sings the musical’s mega-hit “Send in the Clowns” near the end, the song we’ve heard by itself a few hundred other times finally makes sense. And it, without question, reminds us of ourselves, breaking our hearts at the same time.

Operating (on purpose) without percussion, the HGO orchestra conducted by Eric Melear paints the show’s emotional landscape with the same golden glow the lighting uses on the stage. Soprano Elizabeth Futral is irresistible as Desiree – it’s easy to imagine any man who sees this actress onstage wishing to leave his wife and run away with her, at least for the weekend. HGO favorite Chad Shelton is terrific as Fredrik, the widowed-then-remarried man with an almost-grown son, who discovers that his memories of a younger Desiree pack more romantic punch in the present tense than he ever understood. Equal praise is due the others involved in this very oddly shaped triangle: Andrea Carroll as Fredrik’s too-young wife (in a marriage unconsummated after eleven months), Mark Diamond as the stuffy, obnoxious military man who is Desiree’s current lover, and Carolyn Sproule as that officer’s charming but decidedly long-suffering wife.

A Little Night Music increases its emotional reach through commentary from outside these entangled  characters: from Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother remembering her own loves (wonderfully played and sung by Joyce Castle) and from Desiree’s young daughter (Grace Muir) – whose name Fredricka may or may not hint at her paternity. Alicia Gianni enlivens the strange role of Petra, a kind of lady-in-waiting, with a sublimely earthy, world-weary nobility, especially in her Act II number about the course of any marriage.  Lastly, the stage is filled with other beautifully costumed and lit beings, who climb trees and ladders, sing bits of choral music, move set pieces on or off, and most compellingly, serve up Sondheim’s commentary. No magical moments of love are allowed to stand without older, wiser, more cynical comments. Yet, in Sondheim’s world as in our own, the moments happen all the same.

Mildred’s Umbrella’s ‘Rome’

11 Mar

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BY JOHN DeMERS

Plays by John Harvey are never pretty, sweet or uplifting. Drawing on many theatrical forces of the late 20th century, the playwright based at the University of Houston seems to major in cruelty with unrelenting sexual tendencies, degradation and dark observations about the human animal. In general, you’d do well at a Harvey play to focus on the word “animal,” letting the word “human” fend for itself.

The man’s latest play, produced by the local company called Mildred’s Umbrella and directed by MU’s own Jennifer Decker, is titled Rome. Yet it seems it’s not actually set in Rome, since there’s much talk of going there – just as it seems that several of the characters, onstage and at least one offstage,  are actually brother and sister. This fact has not prevented several of them from having sex, apparently, never in the sense of falling in love or even making love, always in the sense of dominating, conquering, punishing and destroying. The lead female character even wears a floor-length, slinky black dress, bringing one pop-culture reference unavoidably to mind. It’s as though The Addams Family had been rewritten, sexually abused Morticia and all, by Sigmund Freud.

You can’t demand a lot of clarity or certainty, or indeed a lot of plot resolution, if you’re going to enjoy watching Rome. I must not demand such things, since I did enjoy its 90 minutes served up at Studio 101 without an intermission. There is much to admire in Harvey’s dark poetry: his creation of a world in which all reassurances and protections have broken down. Image after image floats through the air of nocturnal spaces outside this single drawing room, of creatures slinking carrying weapons (or body parts?), of riots over food, of the entire machinery known as civilization creaking and clanking to an exhausted halt. It’s hard to tell if Harvey’s vision is real and physical in time, or whether it’s metaphorical – exploring the darkest places that have always lurked within us. In Rome, he seems to be picking with gruesome curiosity at both.

Decker fields an ensemble of actors willing to be as fierce as Harvey’s language. All are excellent. Since every second of the play takes place in a single drawing room, we are continually reminded of all those English dramas in which keeping a stiff upper lip seems to be the main action – unless of course, it’s an Agatha Christie mystery, in which this propriety is shattered by some terrible murder. Some stretches of dialogue seem to be philosophical just to be philosophical, yet others hint at mean-spirited and hurtful doings buried deep in the past, as when Georgina remembers for her sister Fanny the night their father showed up to molest one of them, and then chose Fanny. Sympathy mixes disturbingly with jealousy in the telling.

Bobby Haworth and Patricia Duran are first among equals in the cast, their characters (and her sheer Morticia beauty) marking them as central to whatever passes for a traditional plot. The two are apparently married, though none too happily. Each is suspicious of the other’s every move, every motivation, past, present and future. Haworth and Duran are masterful at this sniping and suffering, yet they are almost equaled by H.R. Bradford and Christie Stark-Guidry as sexually charged brother and sister George and Georgina, their very names evoking some kind of matched pair. Jon Harvey and Amy Warren portray friends caught somehow in this same drawing room, each with sexual fireworks both together and separately.

Just as the play’s setting is ambiguous, just as the characters relationships are ambiguous, so is what we’re supposed to make of or take away from the denouement, involving the arrival of soldiers directed by an S&M “Captain” played with ice-in-veins by Courtney Lomelo. Unlike at the close of Hamlet, it’s hard to picture the arrival of these particular soldiers bringing anything resembling order to John Harvey’s chaos.

Photo by VJ Arizpe.

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