Archive | November, 2010

BD’s ‘Reckless’ Opens on Thursday

29 Nov

Brave Dog Players, Wild Fish Theatre

At home on an idyllic Christmas Eve, Rachel is brimming with the joy of the season.  A split second later, in fear for her life, she must escape through her bedroom window into the wintry night.  What follows is Rachel’s hilarious journey from terror and insanity to love and acceptance on another, faraway Christmas Eve. 

All this and more takes place during Craig Lucas’s play Reckless, opening this coming Thursday as produced by Houston’s Brave Dog Players. Reckless will be performed at the new Wild Fish Theatre, 1703D-1 Post Oak Blvd.  Houston, TX 77056 (Post Oak at San Felipe), from December 2, through December 19.  Performances will be Thursday through Saturday evenings, with Sunday matinees.  There will also be one Monday evening performance on December 13. 

Philip Lehl will direct Reckless.  Philip is a Brave Dog founding member, and is known throughout the Houston arts community, having appeared as an actor numerous times at The Alley, Stages, TUTS, Main Street Theater, Horse Head Theatre, Classical Theatre Company, The Houston Symphony, Generations Theatre Co., Bayou City Concert Musicals and the Houston Shakespeare Festival, and having directed Brave Dog’s initial production, “Almost Maine.”

The seven-member cast of Reckless will be headlined by Brave Dog founders Kim Tobin (“Speech and Debate”, “Almost Maine”) as Rachel, and Rick Silverman  (“Fault Lines”, “Almost Maine”) as the TV Hosts.  Joining the Brave Dog founders will be Kregg Dailey (“Doctor’s Dilemma”, “History of the World –Abridged”) as Lloyd Bophtelophti; Susan Draper (“On the Town”, “Tomfoolery”) as Pooty Bophtelophti; Zach Bruton (“Among the Thugs”) as Tom, Rachel’s husband;  Julia Traber (director of “Greater Tuna” at Unity Theatre, and “Candide” at Classic Theatre Co.) as Trish; and Candice Meade (Producer, Writer, Director, and Actor in the independent film, “Don’t Get Me Wrong”) as the psychiatrists.

“We were looking for a title that was a Christmas play, but that would offer an antidote, or at least an alternative to the usual Christmas Carol/Nutcracker type fare,” says Silverman.   Kim Tobin adds:  “Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I can’t think of a better way to spend my holidays than working with my friends on this wacky, Christmas romp.” 

Reckless is the second production of Brave Dog Theatre Company.  Brave Dog presented “Almost, Maine,” by Jon Cariani last February.  “Almost, Maine” was both a financial and critical success, prompting Everett Evans of the Houston Chronicle to write: “Making its Houston premiere as the inaugural production of Brave Dog Players, John Cariani’s romantic comedy proves clever, wistful, funny, sweet-natured and warm-hearted,” and John DeMers of Houston ArtsWeek to say: “Thanks to the previously nonexistent Brave Dog Players, John Cariani’s ‘magical romantic comedy’ isn’t just arriving in time for Valentine’s Day; it virtually is Valentine’s Day.” 

Brave Dog has assembled a talented crew to help realize the world that will become Reckless.  Heading the team will be lighting and projection designer Clint Allen (“The Farnsworth Invention”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” at the Alley), costume designer Jodi Bobrovsky (“Tartuffe”, “Ghosts” at CTC, hundreds of scenic and costume designs at Stages), scenic designer Kevin Holden (“Among the Thugs,” “Fault Lines,” “Speech and Debate”) and composer/sound designer Chip Schneider.  

Tickets to Reckless are $25, with a $10 student rate.  The Monday, December 13 performance will be Pay What You Can.  Tickets can be bought through the Brave Dog website, http://www.bravedogtheatre.com, or at the door.

Alley’s Santaland… Just in Time for Christmas!

28 Nov

Alley Theatre, through Dec. 31

By JOHN DeMERS

In every way, the Alley’s production of The Santaland Diaries is smaller than its production of A Christmas Carol. Of course, it’s in the smaller theater – the Neuhaus instead of the almost-Broadway Hubbard. It has a much smaller cast – only Todd Waite instead of the dozen-plus who multi-role their way through the dark Dickens parable. But most of all, it has a much smaller idea.

In lieu of the English writer’s powerful call for humanity in our dealings with each other, delivered with a stern warning from beyond the grave, we get one fairly bright smart-ass with a cute notion.  Like the phrase I hate so much these days, Santaland Diaries “is what it is.” Meaning, it’s a one-joke magazine piece by Davis Sedaris (which it was, in Harper’s) that comes off as a clever NPR commentary (which it was, on Morning Edition), turned into a one-man show that runs only about an hour. Yet in city after city across this great country of ours, including Houston thanks to the Alley, Santaland has become an annual holiday event.

The premise, the big and mostly only gag, is simple enough. A 39-year-old single man finds himself desperate enough during the holidays in New York City to accept a temporary job as an elf in Santa’s Village, the kids Christmas photo operation at Macy’s. Why this gag works is that, while every adult has probably wondered half-heartedly how horrible that job must really be, few have actually bothered to do it. The “insights” of the catty elf named Crumpet, therefore, are more or less what we figured – long lines, crazy bosses, horrible people, Santas of every stripe changing with the shift. But they’re delivered, at least often enough to keep us laughing for an hour, with a quirky understanding, moments of biting satire and at least a little sympathy.

Todd Waite, who’s performing virtually all the company’s Santalands this year, has clearly made the role his own. He is particularly good at breaking the barriers between himself and the audience – sitting down next to them, chatting with them, ad libbing his reactions to their reactions. Waite’s performance is extremely real, believable, endearing. Like Sedaris himself in his NPR persona, Waite gives us a likable-enough guy going through what we always wondered about and bringing back one bizarre tale full of clever, disconnected moments.  Those waiting for the magic of Christmas to transform our hero at the end had better run upstairs to the Alley’s bigger theater.

That Little Ghost Story of Christmas

22 Nov

By JOHN DeMERS

Some old stories cry out to be made new again, especially during the holiday season. And when you have an old story like the one Charles Dickens told about Ebenezer Scrooge, you have the perfect co-conspirator in the Alley Theatre.

As yet another generation discovers what Dickens himself called a “ghost story” – for that it is, especially at the Alley – few manage to walk into the theater totally fresh. I, for instance, grew up watching “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” just as my children grew up watching “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” And before anybody says anything too sarcastic, both animated shows do capture the emotional essence of Scrooge, the three spirits who haunt him on Christmas Eve, and his dealings with others before and then after that death-filled, life-changing night. The same can be said of the flourish of theatrical releases, calling down Dickens’ not-at-all-pretty truth on the likes of Albert Finney and even Bill Murray.

But there is the story itself, still ensconced between covers for anyone willing to read it. And there is the now-annual Alley production, cagily adapted from the original by Michael Wilson and now directed by Alley regular James Black. This production, unlike some holiday traditionals, has actually seemed better every time I’ve seen it. It serves up more of the two things multi-age audiences enjoy more than anything – chills and chuckles – while still managing to touch and, more important to the spirit of Dickens, shatter our hearts.

In some ways, Tim Burton would be right at home directing this production, since the story is told in the macabre midst of not-happy-looking white ghosts who cavort wildly (if balletically) as though life were one long Dia de los Muertos. The Alley’s highly tuned sense of schtick is as likely to make fun as to make horror out of this fact, however. Still, these gruesome presences remind us that, long before the Ghost of Christmas Future arrives like the ultimate undertaker (and even before the chain-bearing Jacob Marley climbs up from the red-glowing pit of hell), this is a holiday story surrounded on all sides by the grave.

Dickens surely meant it to be so. If all Scrooge had needed was a bit of attitude adjustment, he could have simply gone to Cancun. What he needed to become was a new man, and it required the fright of his life to make him become one. It is a credit to Wilson, Black and the cast led by Jeffrey Bean as Scrooge that they show us such a good time while teaching us such a hard lesson.

Several Alley regulars have played Scrooge over the years, and all have been excellent – even if a little different from one to the next. It’s hard, though, to imagine a better Scrooge than the one set forth by Bean: properly small-minded and miserable at the start, hateful but then hurt as we come to know him through his revealed past, frightened, broken and finally resurrected at the end. The story of Scrooge is so familiar from so many versions, it’s difficult to guess what the acting challenges are. But if the first and last challenge of all acting is to make us believe this remarkable story has never been told before, then Bean’s Scrooge is a stirring success.

The cast of A Christmas Carol at the Alley is huge, even if you know the regulars well enough to see them turn up in different get-ups, again and again. There’s even a nifty tip of the hat to The Wizard of Oz – the way characters from Dorothy’s adventure keep a remarkable foot in the alleged real world – but I’ll leave that for you to figure out. Standout performances include Chris Hutchison as Bob Cratchit, Elizabeth Bunch as Mrs. Cratchit, Andrew Love as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and John Johnston as a hilariously befuddled bachelor who seems likely to stay that way. The ever-remarkable David Rainey scares the bejesus out of us as Marley’s ghost, but also does a lovable-laughable turn in drag as Scrooge’s overworked housekeeper Mrs. Dilber.

I’d like to praise the three actors playing the Spirits of Christmas past, present and future, starting with Julia Krohn and James Belcher. But the horrifyingly silent and relentless Spirit of Christmas Future is listed in the Alley program only as “Himself” – a message, perhaps, that he might be coming for us next. “I’m Charles Dickens,” I can almost hear the author say, “and I’ve approved this message.”

Photos by Mike McCormick: (top) Jeffrey Bean; (middle) Chris Hutchison and Duncan Lambert; (bottom) Jeffrey Bean and James Belcher.

The Great Big Book of Judd and Marfa

19 Nov

If Donald Judd had been President of the United States, instead of a “mere” modern artist who re-created a small West Texas town in his own image, the Chinati Foundation in Marfa would have been his presidential library. 

Like the presidential libraries I’ve visited – George Bush’s in College Station and John F. Kennedy’s in Boston, plus all the Lyndon Johnson exhibits around Johnson City – the sprawling museum on a decommissioned U.S. military base offers a first-timer’s survey course in Judd’s life, work and thought, along with (literally) a place to see who his friends were. As at any such library, there is a tendency to look on the bright side, to downplay challenges or disappointments during each president’s one or two terms. And there’s always a staff, paid and volunteer, who will assure you that # XX was The Greatest President Ever. 

Yep, that’s pretty much the Chinati Foundation. 

So I was hardy surprised when the organization, which functions as a near-reverential museum for works by Judd and buddies like Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain, recently released a beautifully printed book. It is, the folks there say, “the first comprehensive overview of the museum’s history and collection.” Edited and principally written by Chinati director Marianne Stockebrand, Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd describes how Judd developed his ideas of the role of art and museums from the early 1960s onward, culminating in the creation of Chinati and including its two predecessors—his building in New York and his residence in Marfa. 

The sumptuously illustrated book (with 149 color and 71 black-and-white illustrations), co-published by Chinati and Yale University Press, begins with an introductory essay surveying the history of Judd’s work in Marfa, then presents the individual installations at the museum in chronological order, with some truly stunning photography.

In addition to the essays by Marianne Stockebrand, the volume contains texts by Rudi Fuchs, former director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London; Richard Shiff, professor and Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas; Rob Weiner, associate director of the Chinati Foundation, and Thomas Kellein, current director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Germany and, as of January 2011, successor to Marianne Stockebrand as Chinati director. 

Also featured, since Judd filled volumes with thoughts on art during his lifetime, are writings relating to his architectural adaptations at Chinati. A detailed catalogue of the collection and artists’ bibliographies are included as well. The book’s design is by Rutger Fuchs, who has designed all of Chinati’s printed materials since the mid-1990s; principal photography is by Florian Holzherr and Douglas Tuck. 

Judd himself published a modest Chinati catalogue in 1987, but that’s long since out of print. Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd surveys and documents everything that Judd achieved in Marfa, and all that has been accomplished in the years since his death. As Thomas Kellein writes in his foreword:

“The book at hand, conceived and edited by Marianne Stockebrand, recreates Judd’s path as he created the Chinati Foundation. She does this with detailed descriptions and with newly commissioned, extraordinary photographs of the works and their setting….[T]he new book about Chinati is as much an exquisite document as it is a personal invitation to discover Marfa and Judd’s achievements—more fully than ever before.” 

Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd retails for $65. There is a special edition of 250 copies, each housed in a clamshell box and signed and numbered by the nine living artists represented in the Chinati collection: Carl Andre, Ingólfur Arnarsson, John Chamberlain, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. The special edition is priced at $2,500. For more information or to order copies of the book, please visit http://www.chinati.org or call 432-729-4362.

Cirque’s ‘Alegria’ at Toyota Center

12 Nov

By JOHN DeMERS

Cirque du Soleil is back in town. And thanks to the company’s new, quick-tour arena format, it’ll be gone practically before the famed old blue-and-yellow tent would have even been set up.

I am one of the many Cirque fans who first saw these magical and definitely mysterious shows when the Montreal-based company would settle in somewhere for weeks, giving shows night after night beneath what it taught us was le Grand Chapiteau. The bizarre mix of traditional circus acts with street theater and more than a little avant-garde fantasy was intoxicating. It had the same sense of childlike wonder delivered by such early Spielberg favorites as E.T. and, played in a different key, Close Encounters. Except that in Cirque founder Guy Lalabirte’s world view, the “extra-terrestrials” were the men, women and animals we took for granted all around us every day.

Now, Cirque du Soleil is a big deal – and, by all evidence, big deals don’t do street theater anymore, least of all the impromptu, pass-the-hat kind that gives the genre its energy. Cirque does shows bigtime in Las Vegas, such as Love devoted to the Beatles songbook and an upcoming production built on the music of Michael Jackson. As slick and expensive as such Vegas productions may be (the Michael Jackson is already being advertised for 2012 at the Toyota Center, alongside Lady Gaga in April), there are those of us who miss the old days. A lot.

The current production of Alegria, running at Toyota through Sunday, is a bit of a happy medium. For one thing, it’s one of Cirque’s most popular shows, having been seen by more than 10 million people around the world since its debut in Montreal in 1994. For another, it travels with arguably the most beloved score, its cast album of jazz, pop, tango and klezmer being the No. 1 seller among the Cirque collection at more than 500,000 copies sold. And many locals know most of this stuff already, since Alegria played here in 2003.

To those who remember the classic Cirque du Soleil, something is undeniably lost playing an arena, even one shared with the Rockets and Lady Gaga. Things simply become more “normal,” and in Cirque terms, that’s a very bad thing. The current raked stage starts in the back, in the shadows, just like any stage, and it tilts forward toward the expensive seats downfront. Just like any theater. In le Grand Chapiteau, all dimensions and directions were thrown off, making a performance resemble more of a happy mob scene from some century that probably never existed.

Alegria itself delivers everything we know to expect from Cirque, before it became as derivative and celeb-driven as Broadway. There’s the title that evokes joy and a fast pace, as in the musical signature “Allegro.” There’s the music with lyrics in a dozen languages or none, sounding like a blend of French, Italian, Greek and what I’m always forced to call “Albanian.” There are the marvelous circus acts, based on traditional skill sets from Europe and Asia, but always driven to new heights by extra speed, costumes and lighting. And of course, there are the clowns.

You can’t have a circus without clowns, and from the casual Disney-style “pre-show” forward, the clowns in Alegria deliver laughs that fill the Toyota Center, delighting young and old with nearly equal success. One little boy a few seats down barely stopped to catch his breath all night as a matched pair of tall and short funny men channeled Laurel and Hardy by way of Punch and Judy – all in that squeaky, honky, squealy magical language that Cirque du Soleil has come to call its own.

Houston’s Own Cinema Arts Festival

6 Nov

Of the more than 3,000 film festivals held each year around the world, Cinema Arts Festival Houston is the only one specifically programmed to celebrate films by and about visual, literary and performance artists.  With support from city leaders, enthusiastic patrons and a highly developed network of arts organizations, the festival is a civic project conceived to highlight one the most vibrant and diverse arts communities on earth. 

“This festival has a curatorial focus on films and new media by and about creative artists, because it is designed to celebrate the vibrant arts scene in Houston,” says artistic director Richard Herskowitz. “I check out films at Sundance, Toronto, Silverdocs, and the Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, among others, and try to bring back the best of the best to Houston. Also, when I find films that local arts organizations like DiverseWorks, the Menil, Aurora Picture Show, and others might want to co-sponsor, or when they approach me with collaborative ideas, those shows take priority.” 

The 2010 Cinema Arts Festival has assembled a first rate program of the very best films from around the world about art and artists. Featured films include Sundance-favorite Memories of Overdevelopment (2010) introduced by Cuban director Miguel Coyula, Sundance Audience Award-winner Waste Land, International Festival of Films on Art Jury Award-winner The New Rijksmuseum (2008), and Silverdocs Sterling Feature Award-winner Woman with Five Elephants (2009) among many, many others. In a special, free-to-the-public screening, Mark Landsman’s multi-award winning Thunder Soul (2010)a documentary about Houston’s Kashmere High School Stage Band – will be presented at Discovery Green and accompanied by a live performance by the Kashmere Reunion Band. 

Joining for the festival’s sophomore outing are silver screen icons Isabella Rossellini, Shirley MacLaine, and John Turturro. Ms. Rossellini – whose father Roberto Rossellini played a significant role in establishing the Rice Media Center 40 years ago – will present her own short works produced for the Sundance Channel, Green Porno and Seduce Me. She will also receive Houston-based Levantine Entertainment’s Levantine Cinema Arts Award at the Rice Media Center during a special screening of Viaggio in Italia, the 1954 film directed by her father and starring her mother, Ingrid Bergman.  

Ms. MacLaine will be on hand to accept the Texas Film Award at a screening of the classic Texas film, Terms of Endearment. Actor and director Turturro will kick things off on opening night with a screening of Passione, his new “musical adventure” about Neapolitan music and dance. Alex Gibney, who directed the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, will present My Trip To Al Qaeda (2010) and his current project, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) 

The festival will also celebrate the growing tradition of Texas films with selections including lens-based artist Robert Ziebell’s 1990 experimental This State I’m In – a Wizard of Oz-inspired tale featuring a cast of Houston art world notables – and The Texas Filmmakers Showcase, a special screening event consisting of the best of Texas short films and videos under 40 minutes in length.  French filmmaker Frederic Laffont and Houston’s own world-class rodeo superstar Clint Cannon will be on hand to present two of Laffont’s works about Cannon and his family, Ballad for a Cowboy (2006) and the in-the-works Cowboy Solitude

Houston Cinema Arts Society is a non-profit organization created in 2008. With the support of former Houston Mayor Bill White and the leadership of Franci Crane, HCAS organized and hosted the 2009 Cinema Arts Festival Houston, a groundbreaking and innovative film and multimedia arts festival featuring films and new media by and about artists in the visual, performing, and literary arts. The festival celebrates the vitality and diversity of the arts in Houston and enriches the city’s film and arts community. 

HCAS is funded in part by grants from the Crane Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, City of Houston Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department, Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Film Commission and Texas Film Commission. The second annual Cinema Arts Festival Houston will be held November 10-14, 2010. For more information and a complete schedule of events, please visit HCAS at www.cinemartsociety.org.

Photo: Isabella Rossellini in ‘Seduce Me.’

Divergence Vocal Theater’s Selkie This Weekend

4 Nov

By MISHA PENTON

I’m the Artistic Director, Founder and Principal Cat Herder of Divergence Vocal Theater, as well as one of the Performer-Creators that comprise our intimate, yet stunning (if I don’t say so myself) ensemble of professional opera artists, media designers and multi-performing arts folk. I’m excited to write about Divergence, its inception, our continuing work, and the world premier of our new company created opera-theater piece, Selkie, a sea tale

Look Back, Look Forward 

I formed Divergence in the summer of 2008 as an adventure-to-adventure outlet for my musical interests  and singer-centered creative pursuits, as well as knowing that our work is a catalyst for change in the classical industry. Each production has been a world premier of sorts: completely new adaptations of existing repertoire fused with theater, dance and multimedia. 

Ah! But The Big Dream is to work toward completely original, company-created new opera-theater works. And that’s exactly what we’ve done with Selkie, a sea tale. The piece is a dreamy love story inspired by Selkie mythology: the half-human, half-seal beings that shed their skins and become human for a time. I wrote the libretto (fancy-schmancy Italian word for lyrics) and Elliot Cooper Cole composed the music: haunting, sensual, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes plaintively aching. It is scored for two female singers, cello and piano, with two actors, and dancer Meg Brooker, visiting us from Austin. Our media and lighting artist is Megan M. Reilly, also from Austin, and Houston photographer and fine artist, David A. Brown is creating an installation as theatrical design. 

What I’m saying is: my friends and I do really cool stuff and we love to share our work, so come out and a meet us. 

Selkie, a sea tale performances are also part of Opera America’s National Opera Week events. Opera for everyone! Woot! 

Divergence Vocal Theater presents Selkie, a sea tale

World Premier.

Seduction to dive below the waves… Have you ever wanted something so much that you’d pursue it without a thought to saying goodbye to your current life? We have. Join us in an other-worldly environment for a fairytale evening of achingly beautiful, multidisciplinary, new opera-theater.  

Elliot Cooper Cole, composer. Misha Penton, libretto. Misha Penton, Natasha Manley, singers.  Meg Brooker, dancer & choreography. Miranda Herbert & Melissa McEver, actors.  Jeremy Wood, piano. Olive Chen, cello.  Sarah Mosher & Serret Jensen, costumes & stylist.  Megan M. Reilly & David A. Brown, lighting, media & design.  Amy Guerin, theatrical consult. Misha Penton, Artistic Director. 

Friday November 5 at 8pm

Saturday November 6 at 8pm, Saturday night after-party with Two Star Symphony! 

Obsidian Arts Space, 3522 White Oak Drive. Houston, TX 77007. In the Houston Heights. 

I’ve decided to do away with all pomp and hassle, so all performances are Pay What You Wish. Seating is limited, so please make reservations online or pay cash or check at the door. Pay What You Wish. Reservations Recommended. Limited Seating. Contact, Info & Reservations: www.divergencevocaltheater.org