Archive | September, 2009

RED LIGHT WINTER – A Review

30 Sep

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RED LIGHT WINTER – Horse Head Theatre Company

Horse Head Theatre Company is launching its first-ever season with Adam Rapp’s grim drama Red Light Winter, not exactly an out-of-the-gate play. But Horse Head has little interest in doing anything aligned with the status quo. 

Rapp’s play roughly follows two old college chums, Davis and Matt, first in Amsterdam, where Matt is suffering from a combination of a loss of a will to live, a woman and a successful play. He’s terminally emerging only to submerge. Davis, a cocky but rising book editor, brings home Christina, a prostitute, to cheer up his sad sack of a buddy. What a chum. She falls for the creepy one. Matt, the word nerd, falls for her, and the rest doesn’t turn out well for anyone. 

Rapp’s deliciously rich banter drives much of the play. Dialogue, both hurtful and playful, establishes the strained but dependent relationship between these two. Matt may be a walking stereotype and Davis, a feral savage, but these are over-educated men of letters, so when the words fly, they are hilarious. 

The second act takes place in the East Village in Matt’s drafty garret. Christina returns looking for Davis, finds Matt still pining for her, and more trouble follows. (A sick girl knocking on the door of a starving artist seems like an odd nod to Rent. Rapp is Rent star Anthony Rapp’s brother after all.) 

Troy Schulze (Matt), Drake Simpson (Davis) and Amy Burn (Christina) are perfectly cast in their respective roles. Schulze’s depressed playwright just tears us apart. He’s damaged, broken, yet incredibly endearing as the poster child for tortured poets. Simpson gives Davis a sexual charge that is both repulsive and seductive, stomping on his pit bull character with a manic glee. We hate him but laugh at his jokes anyway. Burn’s gentle performance contains a wide-eyed innocence. She’s positively luminous when she sings for the smitten duo. The potency of this motley triangle carries the play.  

Kevin Holden’s close-to-the-nerve-center direction hones in on Rapp’s brand of despair. The claustrophobia is palpable—tension, difficult pauses, jagged edges, all intact and adding to the closed-in hotel room stuffiness. In addition to Holden, Anthony Contello, Frank J. Vela, Elisabeth Meindl, Matthew Schlief, Andrew Harper and Robert Thoth contributed to the set and lighting design, which proved mostly effective. It’s bleak, intimate, in your face, too close for comfort and full of garish lighting effects. How Amsterdam-y. 

As for the Horse Head approach, that’s another story. Theater goers are greeted by a party atmosphere found in a holding pen, where they can drink, visit, and listen to Holden’s audience re-education lecture. Tight quarters, in an airless room, prepare us for Rapp’s shut-in world. Next, the audience is led through a narrow hallway complete with Amsterdam ladies of the red light district, and finally into the space where we were encouraged to mingle about the denizens of Amsterdam. 

Habit doesn’t change that quickly and most just grabbed a seat. There was no intermission for this two-plus hour play, which meant the audience suffered through a rather clunky scene change. (Rapp’s play could have benefited from a breather.) Actors and designers are listed as “collaborators” and there’s not a bio to be found, which goes against the collective manifesto. Horse Head aims “to create the same amount of ecstasy as the artists that create it,” a noble goal for certain. (The beer menu needs to expand before that happens.) It was all kind of strange, and strangely exciting. Change doesn’t come easy, so bravo to these bold folks who dare to rethink and repackage the way we experience theater. 

All in all, Rapp’s play under the house of Horse Head goes down much like the Tom Waits songs that serenade us intermittently, with a bittersweet pathos, a ragged lullaby equally designed to soothe and unsettle.  – Nancy Wozny

Horse Head Theatre Co. presents Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp through October 10, at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. Visit www.horseheadtheatre.org

Photo of Amy Burn and Troy Schulze by Anthony Rathbun

IT’S GUMBO NIGHT IN MARFA

29 Sep

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BY JOHN DeMERS

Make no mistake: I always hate it when the Astros preempt my food and wine radio show on a Saturday morning – no ifs, ands or buts about it. On the other hand, if you’re lucky, there just might be chicken and sausage gumbo.

That’s the feeling I get after “celebrating” my lack of airtime this week by driving the 10 hours to Far West Texas, the setting of my upcoming series of mystery novels, led off by Marfa Shadows in early 2010, followed by Marfa Rocks and eventually, whenever I get around to writing the damn book, Marfa Blues. By the way, “the damn book” is a term of endearment in all known languages, used by writers the world over.

I’ve taken up housesitting in a big country place on the northwest edge of town, with a backyard garden bursting with tomatoes, squash and cantaloupe and a black-and-white border collie named Al that I’m supposed to walk over the hills once or twice a day. Hold on a minute, Al! Can’t you see I’m trying to write something!

With no TV and no phone, I’ve been cooking and eating out of this garden all week – tomatoes in and with everything, of course, and demand still can’t keep up with supply. One night I even overpowered an 18-inch-long zucchini enough to whip up a Moroccan version of cous cous, complete with chick peas, pine nuts and sultanas – and cocktail-sized meatballs, just because I wanted them. Sultanas from the Sultan, I suppose. Other days, for a light lunch, I just layer sliced pastrami from a Houston deli on whole-wheat bread and then cover it with slices of yellow tomato and leaves of green and purple lettuces from the garden. Truth be told, I haven’t even been washing this stuff. It seems disrespectful somehow, under the circumstances.

And this morning… I rolled out of bed at 6:30 to boil the chicken that makes the stock that lives in the House that Gumbo Built. I’m having friends over tonight: one couple my favorite landlords in all of Marfa, another a long-lost pair of co-conspirators from New Orleans, who now live in an old house on a mountainside 20 miles away in Fort Davis. Lloyd, a veteran photographer for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as well as for that state’s Seafood Promotion Board, and his wife Karen had me over for a crawfish-pasta dinner the other night – apologizing the whole time about the puny frozen crawfish that were the best they could find. When in Rome, I guess the moral is: don’t try to eat like you’re in freaking Tahiti.

Even so, tonight is Gumbo Night in Marfa. And, to paraphrase a movie filmed near here: There Will Be Leftovers. I made as much as I could fit into the huge black cast-iron pot (the proof is in the photo) I found on a shelf near where I keep Al’s leash.  Also on the menu: green salad from the garden with balsamic vinaigrette, hot garlic bread and flambéed bananas Foster (definitely not from the garden).

I’m thinking, hmm – maybe Beaujolais-Villages by Louis Jadot, since Lloyd and Karen seem to prefer French. The other night they poured an amazing Cotes-du-Rhone with that crawfish pasta, and I won’t even think about getting them Goats Do Roam from South Africa, since I haven’t seen it anywhere here. Beloved Blackstone merlot would be terrific with gumbo too – but then again, so would my favorite “cheap thrill” wine of all time, the 1.5-liter merlot from Corbett Canyon. At Spec’s, that double bottle runs about $6 – yes, like $3 each – but I’m afraid my friends might laugh at me. I love the stuff, year after year after year. Where did that backbone get off to, anyway?

I love making gumbo, anywhere and everywhere, from New Orleans and Lafayette to Fredericksburg and even Ajijic, Mexico. You can always find the right stuff, if you poke around the shops a little. Ajijic, for instance, inspired me with the best (and cheapest) roast chicken I’ve ever seen, turned bright red from hours in its spicy marinade. And now Marfa inspires me, selling me fresh-picked pods of okra at the Marfa Farm Stand, the Saturday farmers market an onion’s throw from Presidio County’s peach-and-cream wedding cake of a courthouse and even closer to the graceful old Paisano Hotel.

Heck, that historic property is where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed when they were here filming Giant in the 1950s. And it’s where the Quaids stayed far more recently, when they were here trying to get arrested. Do you think, just maybe, they might want to come over tomorrow night for some excellent gumbo? There will certainly be enough left!

NEW ORLEANS GUMBO IN MARFA

Note: Nothing is ever measured when you make gumbo, since it (like so many things) is all about relationships. It’s about steering toward what you know you want in the pot. I measured nothing to make the following. But I’ll try to describe where you’re going and why.

1 whole chicken, 4-5 pounds

3 yellow onions

3 stalks celery

1-2 pounds andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced

2 green bell peppers

1 pound fresh (or frozen) okra

2 cups tomato salsa (controversial, see Note below)

Creole seasoning to taste

Black pepper

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Powdered caldo de pollo, optional

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

Tabasco or other brand hot pepper sauce

Steamed white rice

Chopped green onions 

To make the stock (while cleverly cooking the chicken), cut up the whole chicken and set in a large stockpot, filling with water. Sacrifice 1 onion and 1 stalk celery, chopping and adding to the water – along with scraps from all other vegetables cut up a bit later. Season with Creole seasoning and bring almost to a boil, reduce heat. Simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked. Remove chicken and let cool enough to handle. 

While stock is being made, heat some oil in a large (preferably cast iron) pot, kettle or Dutch oven. Brown the sausage pieces until starting to get crisp on outside, then chop and add: 2 remaining onions, 2 remaining stalks celery, 2 bell peppers. Stir until the onion starts to caramelize – don’t be afraid of golden brown, for here lies flavor. Stir in cut-up okra and cook until the “strings” of sticky stuff begin to cook out – don’t be afraid of sticky stuff, for here lies thickening (not to mention the West African name for okra that gives us “gumbo.”) 

Add the salsa, or other chopped or puree tomato – Ro-Tel  is great for this too. Season the thick, vegetal mixture with Creole seasoning and all other spices. Strain the stock into the gumbo pot. Taste and add caldo de pollo powder (chicken bouillon) for a more intense chicken flavor. Debone the chicken and add the meat in bite-sized chunks. In a separate pan or skillet, thoroughly combine the flour and oil until smooth, cooking over medium-heat until this roux turns dark brown. And no, don’t be afraid of heat – just, as the old saying goes, watch that basket! To help smoothly incorporate the roux into the gumbo, carefully pour a cup of the gumbo into the roux in the skillet – DO be afraid of a steam burn to your hands. Get in, and get out fast. Stir the roux, applying more gumbo until it’s a kind of delicious-smelling sludge. This is perfect to add to gumbo. 

Add roux and let gumbo simmer another hour or so, so all the ingredients can learn to get along. Season again as needed. Add pepper sauce as desired. When ready to serve, ladle gumbo over steamed white rice in large bowls, topping with chopped green onions. Serves, well, 6-30, depending. 

Note:  In southwest Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country, putting any kind of tomato in gumbo is heresy. In New Orleans, the heart of Creole country, putting tomato in gumbo is pretty much mandatory. I love the burnt sienna color and the extra layer of complex sweetness tomato brings – and I haven’t worked on cookbooks with bazillions of great chefs over the years not to care about layers! Over the years, I’ve tried all versions of tomato in gumbo and, by far, the best, is chunky tomato salsa right from the supermarket. Don’t yell, don’t scream – just eat it, okay? Which, I promise, even if you’re from gray-gumbo Lafayette, you WILL!

  

ANCIENT TALE WITH A FRESH MESSAGE

28 Sep

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Written in 415 B.C., Euripides’ drama Troades (Trojan Women) tells a timeless story which eloquently demonstrates the futility of war, a topic all too relevant in our own times.  The Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest will bring an all-new staging of this powerful drama all the way from Athens to Houston this Friday at Houston Baptist University’s Dunham Theater. 

It has been said that the mark of a classic work of art is its ability to speak meaningfully to successive generations.  If this is the case, then Troades (Trojan Women) certainly passes the test, transcending its own time to provide a salient message to modern viewers.  Houston audiences will have a rare opportunity to hear the work performed in Greek and English, with English hyper titles projected above the stage.  The English translation is provided by Michalis Kakoyiannis. 

Troades (Trojan Women) is produced by The Theatre Scheme of Leonidas Loizides.This company, renowned for its interpretations of Greek classics, will present the play in an innovative new staging which highlights the power of Euripides’ words.  The music will be drawn from Mikis Theodorakis’ score for the 1965 film Troades

Euripides (480 BC – 406 BC) is considered the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles.  Hailed for his numerous contributions to the dramatic arts, Euripides is recognized as one of the first authors to portray strong, intelligent female characters in his works.  Troades, the final tragedy in a trilogy of plays dealing with the Trojan War, is a prime example of this particular facet of his creative genius. 

To purchase tickets for Troades (Trojan Women), call 713-522-2300 or 713-522-4273, or visit the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest web site at www. hcc-sw.org. Troades (Trojan Women) is presented by the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest in partnership with Houston Baptist University. 

The Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest promotes an understanding of the rich history and legacy that Hellenes have given to civilization, focusing on Hellenic contributions to language, government, arts, architecture, athletics, science, medicine, and philosophy.

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AUTUMN SPECTRE: An Interview with Misha Penton

28 Sep

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By NEIL ELLIS ORTS 

The internet record will show that Misha Penton and I have been friends for more than five years, so I’ll dispense with the usual laudatory introductions that start many interviews and just give a very brief history. Misha debuted her company, Divergence Vocal Theater, last fall with the Ottavia Project, based upon Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea and the play Octavia, attributed to Seneca. DVT followed up in the spring with The 10th Muse, based upon the writings of Sappho, Gounod’s opera Sapho, and Berlioz’ Les Troyens, with the poetry of Jill Alexander Essbaum added to the mix. Both featured the choreography of Toni Leago Valle. 

October 2 and 3, DVT will perform its latest creation, Autumn Spectre at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church (2119 Avalon Place), at 8 p.m. each evening. It features art songs in English by such composers as Argento, Glass, Meredith Monk, Heggie, and Britten. Find out more about that below. 

Not on the record, Misha hinted at something else happening this fall . . . but it’s going to come fast and furious. Now would be a good time to get on the DVT mailing list so you don’t miss out. Sign up at their website: http://www.divergencevocaltheater.org (And order your tickets for Autumn Spectre while you’re at it.) 

Neil Ellis Orts: Let’s talk about the structure of your first two shows as Divergence Vocal Theater, because I think some people who have seen them weren’t expecting what they saw. So let’s help out the people who come to see your shows. There seems to be an arc or a progression, but would you say there’s a plot or story? 

Misha Penton: I would say no, there’s not a story in a linear sense, but there are strong themes that are either based in character or, in the case of Autumn Spectre, the [song] texts. The first shows were built around taking opera excerpts and merging that with text that was on the same themes or even the same character from literature and also having a dance element, which is just my own personal thing. I just love dance. So the first two were based on operas. The first one, the Ottavia Project was based on the character Octavia and there’s an opera that is based on her story and also a play and so I drew from both of those. And the second was based on Sappho. There is an opera based on Sappho and then we used the poetry of Sappho and original poetry. 

NEO: What I come away with your work is a mood more than a story. Is that fair to say? 

MP: That is very fair to say. I’m moody. [Laughs.] Autumn Spectre is very much like that. It’s very much a mood piece. It’s based loosely on the text of contemporary art songs in English. There is an actor [Timothy Evers] in it who is also a playwright and he’s written a role for himself. But it’s very loosely strung together and it’s a very moody piece. We have a designer, Megan Reilly, from Austin who is making some film and creating lighting design in the church we’re performing in. One of the things about the setting is that I wanted to embrace that we’re in a church and have the church be the setting for the evening. 

NEO: So you’re in a church and you’re not pretending it’s anything other than a church. How does that play out in the themes of the show? 

MP: The themes are loss and longing and death and the end of the year, and the poetry that is set to the songs has a dark quality to it. The way that I think of the church environment is that very sort of deserted autumn feeling, of being in a church or churchyard. Here in Houston, I don’t know that we have them, but up north you have a lot of churches that have graveyards that are right adjacent to a church. 

NEO: You’ll find that here more out in the country. 

MP: So that’s in my imagination, the setting has that sort of ethereal quality to it. 

NEO: Is this all 20th Century music? 

MP: Autumn Spectre is all 20th Century music, yes. 

NEO: And the dance element is something sort of Butoh-ish? 

MP: Toni Valle is a Houston dancer-choreographer who sometimes does Butoh-inspired performances. I’ve seen her do a couple of things in that vein and that really resonated with me. So she is going to be what I think of as an elemental character, a very root chakra kind of being in the performance. 

NEO: That makes sense, since Butoh is a 20th Century phenomenon that grew out of post World War II Japan and often has a very stark quality to it. There’s probably some resonance from its beginnings with the themes you’re exploring. 

MP: It’s very stark, very intense, and it has a very earthy quality to it. 

NEO: And if the other two stories had an arc that explored characters, what is the arc to this story? 

MP: This is more an experience of mood, but there is somewhat of an arc. I guess the realization of the impermanence of life and yet there’s some joy or hopefulness even at the end of that idea. I hesitate to use the word redemption, but that’s what comes to mind. That impermanence or that change isn’t the end necessarily, that there is at the end of that darkness some kind of luminosity. 

NEO: And what about the future? Are you doing two shows this season as well? 

MP: We are planning to do something in late spring/early summer. 

NEO: Any sneak preview of what that might be? 

MP: It’s in development and under secrecy. 

NEO: Top secret! 

MP: Top secret!

Photo of DVT by David Brown.

‘SOUTHERN RAPTURE’ AT STAGES – A Review

28 Sep

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Stories about the culture wars usually make we weep. Still, Eric Coble’s Southern Rapture, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, is first and foremost a comedy. Face it, theater people who will go down for their convictions and a bunch of uptight southern church people in the same room can be funny. 

Southern Rapture is based on the saga of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s 1996 production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer price winning epic, Angels in America. A seven second full frontal nude scene, crucial to the play’s core, set off a firestorm of controversy that put their funding and future in peril. A snarky local critic fueled the flames, inciting even more trouble. The themes of Coble’s play are also especially timely in light of recent southern-born silliness in the headlines. 

The cast has a blast with this material. Sally Edmundson, as artisic director Marjorie Winthrop, is spot-on. If ever there was an archetype of a stubborn theater maven, Edmundson is it. Rutherford Cravens is terrific as Mayor Winston Paxton, the guy that just wants all the fuss to just go away. Unfortunately, the Mayor has an election coming up, so he needs to cave into his base. Sounds oddly familiar. Cravens captures the man on an ideological edge with a robust performance. 

Pamela Vogel inhabits each of her four characters with equal gusto. She lends Allissa, the conflicted board member, a subtle turn. Vogel pulls out her comedic chops as Laverne, the churchy lady who objects to just about everything. Jon L. Egging gets to play on both sides of the aisle as the Rev. Dubree and Mickey, the actor with the scene in question. Egging steals the scene when he explains exactly why the nude scene needs to be included as written. David Wald gives Donald Sherman, Winthrop’s assistant director, an edgy quality. Wald lets us feel the edge of your seat vibe of the brouhaha. Jovan Jackson is a hoot as the southern- metaphor talking lawyer and a clueless actor. 

Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin directs with an ear for the comedy, in an unfussy production that stays focused on the characters and their compelling narrative. (McLaughlin has weathered through a controversy or two on his own stomping ground. I am still recovering from the talk-back trauma after Mr. Marmalade.) 

Kirk Markley’s set consists of several interlocking platforms that produce a wretched sound when yanked apart, which happens in the opening moments of the play. Although the raised platforms create a bit of a hazard for the actors, it’s an effective visual metaphor for the divisions of territory and thought that play out during the course of Coble’s story. Chris Bakos’ sound design works well in conjunction with Markley’s puzzle set. Listen up people, if you ever wondered what an ideological divide sounds like, this is it. 

Back to weeping, there’s that too. In the play’s final moments, each character sums up the experience. And we finally get to see the scene that set the town on fire. In a low light, it’s played out with utmost dignity. I had a little fantasy of some hard core religious Charlotte folk coming to see this play and becoming transformed by the power of theater. Coble lets us dwell in dreaming that such a thing is possible.  –Nancy Wozny

CLASSICAL ‘HAMLET’

28 Sep

Classical Theatre Company (CTC) opens its 2009-2010 season with Hamlet, an original one-man adaptation of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece.  This piece was adapted by and stars Guy Roberts, artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare Festival (PSF).  Co-directed by CTC executive artistic director John Johnston and Guy Roberts, Hamlet runs at HITS Theatre from October 8 – 18. 

Tickets can be purchased through the Classical Theatre Company website at www.classicaltheatre.org, or by calling the CTC box office at 713-963-9665.  Free post-show discussions follow Sunday evening performances, and there is an additional Monday performance on October 12 at 7:30 pm. 

The production promises to offer new insights into this complex character.  In 90 minutes, Roberts takes on eighteen different characters from the play.  The adaptation allows us to focus only on scenes that Hamlet is directly a part of, or that he overhears.  As John Johnston states, “This adaptation will cast a play with which we are so familiar into a totally new light.  Hamlet is like one of those nesting dolls, with layer upon layer.  I like to think that we’re able to get deeper with our take than another full-cast production would be able to.” 

Roberts’ performances this past summer in the Houston Shakespeare Festival were astounding in their depth and distinction, according to Johnston, and this production only further showcases his skill with the Bard’s work.  Choosing to undertake Shakespeare’s greatest opus, Roberts has more than a few interesting thoughts: 

“Perhaps what keeps Hamlet fresh and exciting is that these questions remain for each audience: why does Hamlet not immediately avenge his father’s murder?  Is it the weight of the conscience ‘that doth make cowards of us all?’  What keeps us from acting on our basest and most immediate impulses – is it social convention, personal morality, or simply the fear of punishment?  What keeps us alive when all forces point towards giving up and submitting to death – that ‘undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns?’  Hamlet is an exciting and essential theatrical experience compelling audiences to decide for themselves whether he is philosopher, dilettante, hero, villain, lover, madman, fighter, victim or some fluid, ambiguous and contradictory combination of all of these.” 

Classical Theatre Company (CTC) is dedicated to being the preeminent producer of classical theatre in the nation, presenting the classical canon on the stage, in the community, and in the classroom in an engaging, visceral, and visually spectacular way.  Founded by Houston actor and artistic director John Johnston, CTC “looks to indelibly change the Houston arts community, and strives to be a cultural force in the region for years to come.”

TEXAS REP’S ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’

28 Sep

Texas Repertory Theatre continues its 5th anniversary season until Halloween with the delightful sci-fi spoof musical Little Shop of Horrors. Previewing this Wednesday and Thursday, and celebrating its gala opening night this Friday, this charming and tuneful musical seems certain tol please the entire family!

One of the longest-running Off-Broadway shows of all time, this affectionate spoof of 1950’s Sci-Fi movies is full of soaring pop-rock music, lovable comic characters, and a man-eating plant from outer space! Little Shop of Horrors is a rock musical by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, about a hapless florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood. The music, composed by Menken in the style of early 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown, includes several show-stoppers including “Skid Row (Downtown)”, “Somewhere That’s Green”, and “Suddenly, Seymour”, as well as the title song.  

The Texas Repertory Theatre’s new production showcases the work of Seattle puppet artist Daniel Roberts, who has created the innovative new Audrey II for this production, and features Blythe Kirkwood, Joshua Estrada, Rachael Logue, Arianna Bermudez, Matthew Wade, Steven Fenley and Susan Draper among the cast.  

For tickets or more information, call our box office at 281-583-7573 or log onto http://www.texreptheatre.org.