Archive | March, 2010

Catastrophic’s Our Late Night: A Review

25 Mar

By NANCY WOZNY

Imagine inviting a bunch of people over to a party, say in New York circa 1975, and on the way something in their brains shifts so that they lose the ability to inhibit their innermost thoughts and fantasies, and especially their revealing of sexual escapades and desires.  Wallace Shawn does exactly that in Our Late Night, now playing on the Catastrophic Theatre stage at DiverseWorks. 

And what a dishy lot Shawn has conjured. This tribe knows no barrier between brain and mouth; secrets cannot be contained. Tony (Kyle Sturdivant) tells all about his night in the tropics. When Kristin’s (Karina Pal Montano-Bowers) plan of applying burning jelly is rejected by Jim (Troy Schulze), she suggests bondage as a second choice. Grant (Jeff Miller) gets off on his daughter’s leg hair and Samantha (Carolyn Houston Boone) vomits up bird feathers. These are the best friends of  hosts Annette (Mikelle Johnson) and Lewis (Greg Dean), who just may kill each other later that night. 

Our Late Night isn’t so much a play as it is a dreamy dip into full-on voyeurism. Director Jason Nodler sets this up exactly with the facade of a modernistic hi-rise apartment. We literally watch the play through the stunning windows of their sleek digs. We are not the only ones peeking into this naughty world. The characters all listen to each other with an intensity that amplifies the seedy content. Never has doing nothing on stage been this sexy. Gently miked, it’s as if the actors are whispering into our ears. It’s marvelously creepy and effective. 

The cast—superb all—consists of veteran Catastrophic company members along with seasoned newcomers. Johnson evokes a wistful Annette, girlish and devilish in one swoop. Her velvety voice pulls us right into the space of the play. Dean’s stern husband, Lewis, projects a rough authority and commanding presence. Schulze imbues Jim, the only one to keep secrets to himself, with an uncomfortable awkwardness. If the play had a second act, I imagine he would be next to explode. Schulze holds the tension well. Miller gives Grant, the smarmy doctor, a delicious edge. Sturdivant carries the arc of Tony’s tropical adventure with a manic momentum. Montano-Bowers gives Kristin a dark-side-of-Nancy-Sinatra vibe, equal parts funny and scary. Boone is understated, elegant, and the best listener in the bunch. She holds the space of this strange play with an uncanny grace. We want to know more about why she coughs up feathers. 

Nodler’s direction holds true to Shawn’s brand of deviant realism, letting the silky prose push forward into the intimate spaces, without neglecting the base humor. It’s a difficult play made oddly beautiful, even serene and tender in parts. Nodler mines the material’s breathing spaces, keeping it authentic, and always human. Dean’s set is impressive and monumental for DiverseWorks, while Kirk Markley’s lighting design adds to the seductive ambiance. With Our Late Night, Catastrophic lives up to its tag line, “We will destroy you,” with yet another winning night of theater. 

The Catastrophic Theatre presents Wallace Shawn’s Our Late Night through April 3 at DiverseWorks.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun: Foreground L to R – Troy Schulze, Kyle Sturdivant, Greg Dean; Background – Carolyn Houston Boone

MY PARTNERS IN VIOLENT CRIME

25 Mar

The World of Chef Brett in Far West Texas

By JOHN DeMERS 

I can’t really tell you the first mystery novel I remember reading and loving – not the least because, these days, genres can be such dicey things. The briefest stroll around Murder by the Book, glancing casually at what’s on its tables and shelves, tells us that, well, Toto, we aren’t in Sherlock Holmes-Hercule Poirot Kansas anymore.

There are, of course, still traditional mysteries being written, bought and enjoyed: books in which peeling through the layers of clues, sidestepping those dastardly red herrings and identifying “whodunit” on the final page is the primary source of our enjoyment. But there are also dark tales of remembered childhood abuse, paranormal adventures, vampires and werewolves, espionage thrillers set in dazzling world capitals and, most of all, gritty modern narratives in which all-too-real human beings struggle with relationships, children, alcohol and drug addiction, even aging parents. The fiction sold in the “genre” spotlighted by Murder by the Book has become, by my reckoning, the fiction of our time. More than lots of so-called “literary fiction,” it is the time capsule those proverbial future visitors from another planet might use to understand what was on our minds – and what weighed heavily on our hearts.

What is fiction anyway? My definition, which I will create now before your eyes, is: words pulled together in the form of an interesting, non-factual narrative that makes us think, makes us feel, makes us grapple with issues and, most of all, makes us come to know people that somebody made up better than we know the real people we think we know. Such fiction, done right, has provided entertainment, amusement and the occasional call to action since the days of Homer. And it still does, primarily in this genre I have chosen to call my own.

When it comes to the difficulties of modern relationships, my heroes before writing Marfa Shadows (and the other Chef Brett novels I hope will follow) were Ridley Pearson and Dennis Lehane. Ironically, both writers seem to have made a lot more money working apart from their initial inspirations – in Pearson’s case, the sizzling Seattle police department affair of Lou Boldt and Daphne Mattthews (and a convincing, often moving look at Boldt’s troubled marriage and children), and in Lehane’s, the similar sizzle between South Boston private eyes Patrick Kinsey and Angie Gennaro. Anyone who thinks real characters can’t suffer real slings and arrows in “crime fiction” should give a look at these early novels.

Other windows into the world of personal angst by characters who burn up pages solving crimes, or at least unknowns, should include the wonderful Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell, the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke (never has my native south Louisiana sounded so beautiful in print, even when seen through a cursed, alcoholic, Vietnam-vet former cop’s worst nightmares), the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford and my beloved Gabriel Allon espionage books by Daniel Silva. Yes, I have a stake in this guy – we long ago were both reporters for UPI. The fact that Daniel covered big stories all over the world and I covered little stories in little cities says a lot about the differences between his novels and my Marfa Shadows.

Finally, if you haven’t had the pleasure – or if you just want to talk the talk – make your own pilgrimage to the guy that most writers in the genre credit with giving them a swift kick where it counts. Until his death a few months back, Robert B. Parker churned out some of the best, funniest, tautest and most suddenly violent novels in the marketplace. By being our hero, Parker connected us directly to his heroes, the guys like Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler who gave all American crime fiction its standards, its machinery, its countless cliches to accept or reject. That’s the job, after all, of each new guy or gal who announces in a public place: Hey folks, you just have to hear this story!

Debut signing of Marfa Shadows today at Murder by the Book in Houston, starting at 6:30. Complimentary tastings of Chef Brett’s Terlingua white bean chili and the beers of Shiner! 

TWO VIEWS FROM THE PAST TWO WEEKS

25 Mar

Another warm spring day in Finland…

And another one on the French Riviera! (The town is called Cassis!)

A Stage We’re Drinking Through

13 Mar

FAULT LINES by Horse Head Theatre: A Review 

By JOHN DeMERS

Based on one experience, going to the theater inside a bar isn’t the worst idea anybody ever had.

Horse Head, which emerged last year as a force to shake things up on the Houston theater scene, delivers on its promise (or threat, if you prefer) by offering us a play set in a bar that, wonder of wonders, is actually performed in a bar. By way of explanation, downtown’s Brewery Tap more or less becomes a private club for the no-intermission duration of Fault Lines by Stephen Belber – so all except a few stubborn regulars are people who paid $20 for a “theater ticket.” Still, there is considerable cross-pollination between these two worlds, with audience members standing up to order beers and filling up on the popcorn and pretzels set out. That’s if they haven’t already bought a chili dog from the vendor Horse Head invited to set up just outside the door.

The experience is a bit unnerving, overall, not unlike those times in life when arguments or even physical fights break out and someone invariably laments, “I can’t believe this is happening.” The action in Fault Lines not only is happening, but it resembles just enough those things we’ve seen happen that the reality level is high. There’s music before the play by a band called Plump, which also supplies an exotic soundtrack throughout the action – one more way Horse Head and director Kevin Holden erase the lines separating before, during and after.

The plot of Fault Lines concerns two old friends facing what they struggle to consider middle age, their late 30s, through Bill actually seems a great deal “older” than Jim. Bill has a wife, a stable career and the desire to have children, while Jim is traipsing through some crazy environmentalist pursuit whose main products are biodegradable toilets and one-night stands with idealistic 20-year-old women, at least one of whom may or may not have recently killed herself. In so many ways, the friends are facing the realistically portrayed challenges of growing older, with a ridiculous amount of talk about their prostates. Yet in a manner worthy of Edward Albee, all seems increasingly not well in their friendship behind the good-natured façade of beer and tequila shots.

Drake Simpson and Rick Silverman are exemplary as Bill and Jim – real, funny, 100% comfortable in their own shoes. If anything, Philip Lehl is even better as the play’s “mysterious stranger,” an obnoxious guy named Joe who turns up, barges into the conversation and ends up serving as catalyst for the greatest challenge (other than day-to-day living) this 19-year friendship has faced. Ivy Castle-Rush is convincing as Bill’s late-arriving wife Jess, especially as she realizes she’s the epicenter of a sudden earthquake rippling out from a long-ago kiss she shared with Jim.

Starting with the play’s title, Belber makes much of his ongoing geological imagery. The earth is indeed shifting under these two men’s feet, breaking open chasms between them and perhaps even between husband and wife. Fault Lines wrestles with some very real human problems, some very recognizable life experiences. And it does so with considerable humor, more than a little sensitivity and copious amounts of alcohol. In this, Horse Head Theatre’s sophomore outing, Holden draws from his players some of the most natural ensemble work we’ve seen in quite some time.

And, yes, you can get your own beer and tequila shots while you watch. This being Houston, though, it’s best if you leave the cigarette smoking to the folks onstage.        

Performances at 8 p.m. Monday March 15, plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through March 27. www.horseheadtheatre.org.

CAJUN ARTIST HAPPILY SINGIN’ THE BLUES

11 Mar

By JOHN DeMERS 

It’s been a quarter-century since I sat in Chef John Folse’s now-gone restaurant Lafitte’s Landing in Donaldsonville, La., and admired the dark, atmospheric paintings of Cajun life adorning the walls. Now I know what they reminded me of: gazing at a stranger’s old photographs from another era and knowing that everyone in the pictures is dead. That day, I only knew I loved the paintings, and I told the chef so.

“Hey,” he responded, with a slightly wicked grin. “You wanna meet the artist who did those?” 

“Why, um, sure,” I said, uncertain what level of field trip he had in mind. 

John Folse rose from his seat. “That’s good,” he said. “Cuz he’s sittin’ right over there.” 

That was the first time I met George Rodrigue. The second time I met him was last week, and he was lots of money, at least two famous presidential portraits and one strange-eyed Blue Dog richer than he had been that afternoon in Donaldsonville. For the most part, he doesn’t paint scenes from Cajun folklore anymore. He’s way too busy painting that Blue Dog. 

Last week I sat down and recorded a Houston ArtsWeek radio show with the nationally renowned Cajun artist, most famous for but by no means limited to his Blue Dog series of paintings. We talked about the upcoming three-day celebration of his newest art and cultural attractions.  The city-wide unveilings, entitled Rodrigue’s New Orleans, will take place throughout the New Orleans area March 19 – 21.  Rodrigue, who lives in the city’s colorful Faubourg Marigny with his wife Wendy, will be in attendance at all functions taking the opportunity to visit with his collectors. 

For the first time in his career, Rodrigue owns a space all his own, and will host the Grand Opening of this new French Quarter gallery during the unveiling weekend.  Located in an historic setting adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral, the longtime Bergen Gallery has been gutted and redesigned to specifically showcase Rodrigue’s artwork spanning his entire career, including oversized pieces as large as 14-feet across, and works from his private collection. 

“We enjoy the fellowship and interaction that comes with these events,” says Wendy Rodrigue. “More than anything, we hope people will find a personal connection to the artwork, something beyond George’s intent, something inward and poignant in their own lives.”

In addition to the Grand Opening, the weekend will feature a second-line parade to the gallery, a “come-in-your-best-blue” costume party at the recently re-opened Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, a 1940’s swing party at the National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, a lecture and painting demonstration by George, and a visit to the giant three-dimensional 30-foot steel, aluminum, and chrome Blue Dog sculpture, recently installed in the suburb of Metairie. 

The three-day event package includes a three-night stay at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, access to all events, receptions and parties, and a limited edition signed Rodrigue silkscreen valued at $1,800.  The cost of the package with hotel room is $2,500 per couple or $1,500 per person.  Package price without hotel room is $2,000 per couple or $1,000 per person.  Price includes food and drinks at all Rodrigue’s New Orleans events and transportation to and from all Rodrigue’s New Orleans events from the Sheraton.  Space is very limited; reservations may be made by calling 504-324-9614 or online at www.bluedogevent.com

These days, Rodrigue is able to paint exactly what he wants to paint, whether that’s the Blue Dog inspired by his earliest encounters with Pop art by Andy Warhol and others, or the eerily prophetic abstract pieces called “Hurricanes” that he launched in 2000, five years before Hurricane Katrina decimated the city. He spends a lot of his time focused on the efforts of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, which awards scholarships in art education to gifted Louisiana high school seniors. www.georgerodriguefoundation.org

Now, after 20 years of leasing a much smaller gallery space in the French Quarter – right across the street from his new gallery, in fact – Rodrique is a business and real estate owner in the city he loves. His famous Blue Dog doesn’t really smile, even when he’s presumably happy about something. It’s now George Rodrigue’s job to smile for him.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps: A Review

11 Mar

Alley Theatre through March 28

By JOHN DeMERS

In the past few seasons, the Alley has developed an annoying tendency to vamp, mug and otherwise camp its way through shows (especially scripts that stylistically are past their prime) that aren’t necessarily the better for it. Sometimes it’s just a wink at the audience when the audience least wants to be winked at. Otherwise, it’s a whole ridiculous scene. 

It can he hoped that with the company’s Pythonesque romp through the ruins of British thriller novelist John Buchan and especially the Fat Man himself, Alfred Hitchcock, at least four of our best actors have gotten this out of their systems for a while. The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow is hilarious, though sometimes it knows it is a bit too much – makes a bit too much of how easily it can make us laugh with this particular brand of antics. But then, as with the best Monty Python – or for that matter, the best of Steve Martin, with echoes of Gene Wilder directed by Mel Brooks – that becomes part of the joke as well. The opening performance last night had several technical glitches (a knife in a woman’s back that just wouldn’t stay there, a crucial pair of handcuffs that broke in two), and with a pained glance at the audience, maybe a quickly inserted line, the audience got to laugh it off as well. 

If you love Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller films – you know, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and, yes, even The 39 Steps – you are in for a ride. There’s even a quick pit stop for the iconic black-and-white TV series Hitchcock hosted in America in the 1950s and 1960s. You don’t necessarily have to catch all the film-buff references; in fact, you’d probably laugh if you just dropped in from some country that has no cinema and speaks no English. But the more you know, the more you’ll laugh. 

The biggest joke in The 39 Steps, other than this rabid onslaught of motion-picture trivia, is that a mere four actors play something like 150 roles. And actually, since Todd Waite plays troubled-but-innocent Hitchcock hero Richard Hannay throughout, and Elizabeth Bunch tries on “only” three women, that leaves two actors. Jeffrey Bean and John Tyson play everybody else, changing costumes backstage in a frenzy – and of course, this show being what it is, making way too much hay with this particular sunshine. There is the ridiculously wrong hat that stays on, the silly business with two spies in trenchcoats waiting under a London lamppost, several flurries in which the actors take turns becoming each other’s characters, and even one costume that’s TWO characters, split down the middle for turning right or left as the script requires. Everything about this is totally silly, but like the bits of projection and the shadow shows of everything from a chase across Scotland to the silhouetted Bates Motel from Psycho, it’s also inspired. 

Director Mark Shanahan, who first caught our eye at the Alley (appropriately enough) acting in a play called Hitchcock Blonde, keeps the action ripping along through Hugh Landwehr’s properly reverential but also tongue-in-cheek set. The whole thing is one big homage to one of cinema’s true masters. And if Hitchcock’s stylistic touches aren’t always timeless, then The 39 Steps proves that the jokes spun off from them certainly are.

Photos: (above) Todd Waite, Jeffrey Bean and John Tyson; (below) Elizabeth Bunch, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at the Alley Theatre. www.alleytheatre.org.

South Pacific: A Review

10 Mar

Theatre Under The Stars, Hobby Center through March 21

By JOHN DeMERS

South Pacific, by my parents’ beloved Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was actually the first Broadway musical I ever saw – and it wasn’t on Broadway but at the movies. 

At least going to a movie was still a big deal in 1958. It involved going downtown rather than just to the mall. It involved making a modest effort to look nice. And it involved buying a ticket into a world that doesn’t exist anymore, except in the occasionally loving restoration that, happily, more and more American downtowns are doing. A world of Art Deco swirls, of opulent color and form with symbols we later learned were Greek, Roman or even Egyptian. It involved sitting with no phone in our pocket and no texting two seats over, letting Broadway work its magic on us by way of Hollywood. 

Ironically, for all this swirling amazement, I didn’t know then that the movies were running scared. This particular version of South Pacific was produced by frightened little men in Hollywood concerned that once another group of frightened little men in New York convinced America to stay at home and watch television, these very movie palaces would shut down, as would the long-powerful entertainment companies that supplied them. A strange new technology was taking over, they understood – or half-understood – and that would be the end of everything. That was why movies like South Pacific, How the West Was Won and others were now in This-a-vision or That-a-ma-Scope. They splayed large and they played loud; they defied you to step away to your own refrigerator for a snack. This was Hollywood, after all! 

And then, for something like three hours on that oversized downtown screen, this was something else again. This was loss, this was courage under a type of fire we never saw but that always lurked just offstage, this was hope and happiness and sadness and anger – yes, this was even racial prejudice. And more than anything and everything else, this was love. The kind of love that had sustained my parents as just-marrieds through the very war on this screen. It would require such love to make it through a war like that, I somehow understood. It would require such love to, well, become and be what I most wanted to be: a grownup.   

Right now, for our edification and inspiration, everything about that lost world is back where it belongs. Thanks to director Bartlett Sher and the folks at New York’s Lincoln Center, what some call the “greatest musical ever written” has its single best chance of convincing us it is, stepping over the intimidating spirits of Phantom and Les Miserables with all their foreign grandeur, to show us a grandeur as homegrown as it is homespun. Like the war that gave us the world we live in, the characters who populate Sher’s fresh vision are anything but perfect. But they are, almost without exception, everything we might aspire to be. 

If you happen to love this musical from ages past, or from the movie ripped down off that screen and now squeezed into your TV set, have no fear. This isn’t “fresh” the way, say, Tim Burton, Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino might make it fresh. Sher comes off as 100% in love with this material: the mismatched collection of fast-talking Yankees and slow-talkin’ Deep South hicks who gave us so many of the freedoms we still enjoy, the tangled survivors of French (or any other) colonial misadventure, the dark-skinned locals who lived, loved and died on the fringe of this unprecedented makeover of the world. They are all onstage at the Hobby Center, along with the spirits of our parents or our parents’ parents, placing the stories we so often ignored before us in a way that can’t be ignored again. 

Amidst the quiet luminosity that shimmered from Sher’s previous Lincoln Center love story, The Light in the Piazza (composed by Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel, no less), Houston native Carmen Cusack lights up the auditorium as Ensign Nellie Forbush from “Small Rock,” Ark. (as “her” Frenchman, Emile de Becque, puts it early on). Teenaged girls in the audience may be surprised by how much Nellie’s happy-sad-frightened-angry-confused emotions mirror their own, not to mention (if they think about it) by how well two older men managed to capture it all in words and music. Cusack, after starring turns as Elphaba in Wicked and Fantine in Les Miserables, gives us a Nellie far more Southern than Mitzi Gaynor in the movie, and even more than Texas-born Mary Martin in the original cast album. At times, she sounds like she just escaped from Best Little Whorehouse, except that not only are the accent and attitude true to Nellie but they make the whole love story make sense. Again and again, choices that Sher and his cast make take an iconic tale and demand that it simply work as a human story. Cusack is a dream come true. 

Rod Gilfry, like several of his predecessors in the role of de Becque, brings an operatic majesty to some of Broadway’s most operatic baritone hits. “Some Enchanted Evening,” while perhaps a victim of its own over-familiarity, has never sounded more heartfelt. And de Becque’s lesser-known but far better aria, “This Nearly Was Mine,” will leave your heart in your throat. Though portrayed as old – he’s 44, we’re told – de Becque’s tall, serious, world-weary presence makes him, at long last, the perfect foil to the boys yanked from their mothers to fight this war a bazillion miles from home. Anderson Dean serves up a resolute and believable Lt. Cable and delivers true-but-dated-sounding songs like “My Girl Back Home” and the anti-prejudice anthem “You’ve Got to Be Taught” with conviction. There is nothing not to love, however, about his “Younger Than Springtime,” sung to the gorgeous and properly tiny Liat of Sumie Maeda. 

The two hip operators who power the comedy of South Pacific are both magnificently rendered here: the Luther Billis (yes, every U.S. military encampment on earth had one, I’m told) of Matthew Saldivar and the remarkable Bloody Mary of Keala Settle. All the island’s Seabees, in fact, and their matching nurses, are magnificent, believable, real. Look long and hard at these bright young faces, director Sher seems to be telling us. There’s nothing about them that isn’t us. Or at least the very best we can hope to be.

Photos from South Pacific: (top) Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack sit down to dinner with the kids; (middle) Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda; (bottom) Matthew Saldivar and the Seabees.