Archive | May, 2011

Review of Stark Naked’s ‘Debt Collectors’

14 May

By JOHN DeMERS

Whatever the precise relationship between the two, August Strindberg’s Debt Collectors (adapted by the principals of Houston’s new Stark Naked Theatre Company) plays like Othello on some really bad drugs.

Whereas Shakespeare’s tragedy gives us one villain, Iago, whose bitterness and jealousy drive him to lead the Moor to slaughter the one person he loves, Desdemona, the triangle in Debt Collectors gets a lot more complicated. And, in recasting the show from a no-doubt brooding Danish island in the 1880s to a sunny Mexican island in our own day, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin also recast the title – from Creditors to Debt Collectors. This script doesn’t merely focus on the debts we who love owe each other but on the ways we might keep coming back to get what we’re owed.

It’s safe to say we usually don’t. In love, which in Strindberg’s eyes seems to be the search for sex, most people do “move on” in one way or another. Or sometimes we do the same damn things, just with different people. But what, this play asks… what if the debt owed us by someone felt so immense that we tracked them down in their new relationship, saw to our horrified delight that many of the same powers were at work, and set out (yes, a bit like Iago) to make all things different? What if, indeed.

Stark Naked Theatre, on its first outing after springing from an earlier independent company called Brave Dog Theatre, seems entirely up to these dark doings. For one thing, Lehl and Tobin are known to be play-driven actors. Lehl heard about a production of Strindberg’s Creditors (directed by Alan Rickman, no less) that did well in London and New York, decided it was totally contemporary but needed a bit of updating, then wrote the first draft himself. Tobin went over the script line by line, with an eye toward clarity of intent – and, surely, an actor’s instinct for what could feel right and true and life-or-death onstage.  The result, performed in the intimate Obsidian Arts Space in the Heights, primarily by the two and Alley veteran David Rainey, is all these things and a few more.

Debt Collectors plunges us, without Shakespearean prelude or exposition, into a bizarrely intense conversation between two men at a beach resort. The one named Andrew (played by Lehl) is a successful artist who’s plagued by various nervous disorders that have reduced him to getting around on crutches, and the other named Justin (Rainey) seems strangely aware of Andrew’s real problem, despite the fact they’ve just met casually and seem mostly hanging out for the cervezas. Each revelation through the play’s 90 minutes with no intermission packs a punch, so it would be wrong to give any away. Yet we in the audience come to suspect that Andrew’s emotional and physical problems stem from his soon-to-arrive wife Thea (he, logically, translates her name as his “Goddess), who can’t wait to reunite with her “Little Man.”

Sexual jealousy flows like bad plumbing all over the set of Debt Collectors. At one point, Justin even jokingly calls it the “green-eyed monster,” which of course points us back to Othello. Yet if Iago’s own wounds don’t make us even begin to forgive him, Justin’s do cry out for at least consideration. Thus, instead of a man and woman under attack from a single monster, we face something closer to an agonized and agonizing triangle. Again, not so much a love triangle as a sex triangle, with sex being the force of nature that gives people maturity, lets them find themselves and a kind of personal freedom, and eventually builds up that uneven balance of trade that this shadowy bit of Strindberg-once-removed is all about.

Lehl, Tobin and Rainey are pros, in absolute control of the tangled and fast-changing emotions involved in telling (more like revealing, actually) the secrets in this story. Lehl is particularly great at becoming Thea’s “Little Man” before our eyes, whether he’s reaching for his inhaler, shaking to climb up onto his crutches (no small metaphor there) or speaking in a higher and ever-more halting voice. Rainey brings strength and masculinity to Justin, and, while we figure Strindberg wasn’t interested in his more-macho-than-thou man being played as a black guy looming over a wimpy white guy, the effect is not lost upon us. Besides, as many works have been honest enough to make clear, all men know what it’s like to be in awe of a larger, more confident, more powerful male who takes what he wants, who seems both our single hero and our single greatest fear.    

Tobin takes on the ambiguous role of Thea with all jets firing, at times seeming exactly the self-centered bitch who moves through time ruining men. But as with Justin, Tobin forces us repeatedly to question our own rush to judgment. Is it all her fault? Surely not. Or is she only giving men what they, in some ways, really want – even if it destroys them? It’s hard to watch Debt Collectors without thinking of our own relationships, however boring and innocuous they seem by comparison. And it’s impossible to watch Stark Naked make its debut without owing them something. Let’s hope they don’t show up on our doorstep someday to collect.

Stark Naked Theatre Company presents “Debt Collectors” at Obsidian Art Space, May 12-29. www.starknakedtheatre.com.

Photos by Gabriella Nissen. (top) Tobin and Lehl; (middle) Lehl and Rainey.

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Opening Night at the Music Box Theatre

13 May

 

By JOHN DeMERS

Cabaret, especially as performed by, at and as the brand-new Music Box Theatre, is the Great American Musical for the ADD Generation.

Instead of costumes to change and sets to shove around, instead of all those pesky writers trying to tell a meaningful, believable story, you have song after song after song – pasted together, as witnessed at a special preview last night, with jokes that actually are funny. And since the five performers who constitute the first iteration of Music Box aren’t playing characters, they can happily play themselves. Or at least, since they are performers, those parts of themselves they want us to see.

A dream of former Masquerade Theatre standouts Rebekah Dahl and Brad Scarborough, who also happen to be newlyweds, this ambitious song-and-comedy act takes the place while filling the space of the former Radio Music Theatre. The idea is to put on a loose-knit but high-energy show – a songfest, at its best – around some sort of theme. The debut production called “Opening the Box” is essentially putting on a show about the favorite theme of all those who do: that is to say, putting on a show. The spirits of young Judy and Mickey must be smiling somewhere nearby.

With Masquerade artistic director Phillip Duggins in the audience, along with company leaders like Luther Chakurian and Kristina Sullivan, Dahl, Scarborough and Co. led a merry, musical chase all evening long. Only a few efforts at banter on opening night fell flat. From the beginning, anything involving singing, harmonizing or the show’s simple choreography was spot-on. The cast was polished in its interactions with the four-piece band, which sometimes managed to sound like at least twice that many.

Dahl, of course, is one of Houston’s true stars, one of the most talented and charismatic performers the city has ever seen, as anyone who caught her in Masquerade’s Annie Get Your Gun, Evita, Gypsy or Sweeney Todd will attest. Yet two other veterans of that company, her husband and Luke Wrobel, match her stride for stride in this production. It might be Scarborough wringing every laugh (in a Robin Williams-crazed late-night Time-Life infomercial) as Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill performing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” or as The King and I’s Siamese monarch puzzling through Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” And it definitely might be Wrobel channeling Ole Blue Eyes in an atmospheric rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” or bringing a whole new, yearningly masculine language to “Over the Rainbow.”

In “Opening the Box,“ these longtime players get solid support from two members of the younger generation. Colton Berry makes the most of his love of Lady Gaga and his experience coming close on American Idol (he insists he can’t say the show’s name for fear of a lawsuit), while Cay Taylor provides considerable humor in her bits as Martha Stewart. Still, just when you think she’s all about the joke (as she is in that same Time-Life bit, as Maria Von Trapp in nun’s habit opera-tizing “Sweet Home Alabama”), Taylor pulls out a syrupy, husky torch-song seductiveness that wanders evocatively between country and blues.

For all the pleasures of this lighthearted cabaret fare, fans of such gifted performers will surely miss them in fully developed roles. But you didn’t notice any of that last night when, with barely the blink of an eye, Dahl launched into the show-stopping “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. And since her self-inspired character was filled with doubt and fear about launching a new theater company, the song – at once so specific to a truly bizarre story – became the perfect anthem for Music Box Theatre’s impressive debut.

“Opening the Box” runs through Aug. 7. Music Box Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, www.themusicboxtheater.com. Shows Friday – 8 p.m., Saturday – 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.,  Sunday – 2 p.m.

Review of Last Night’s ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ by HGO

8 May

By JOHN DeMERS

Is you’re not a lover of “pure music,” or a student of unexpected, shimmering orchestrations, it’s unlikely that Richard Strass’ Ariadne auf Naxos is one of your favorite operas. In fact, if I faced the multiple-choice “Strauss’ Ariadne is (a) a romance, (b) a comedy, or (c) a tragedy, I would demand a (d) option: none of the above. 

Still, this strange tale that debuted in 1912 and now pretty much breaks into two one-act operas (one set in golden-age Vienna, the other in ancient Greece) features some incredible music to sing. All of the female roles, and at least one of the male roles, are given to actual women to sing, and Houston Grand Opera has reeled in two big-time Houston favorites to light the way. Divorced from its “none of the above” story line concerning a serious opera being staged for a Viennese rich guy – who then decides a comedy troupe he’s also booked should perform at the same time – there is plenty to enjoy in Ariadne auf Naxos. Most of it vocal. Some of it visual. None of it dramatic. 

It always bothers me when male roles are given to women for no reason, though so-called “trouser roles” don’t make me mad if they do something for the story. Needing a guy and wanting to write women’s music is just not good enough. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, however, is more than good enough to sing the Composer, the young “man” who’s creating the serious opera titled Ariadne auf Naxos, about the namesake heroine from mythological times longing for death after being abandoned by Theseus – he of defeat-the-Minotaur-in-that-Labyrinth fame.  Graham is believable enough as a man and sings beautifully throughout what functions as Act I, even though it’s billed as a Prologue. Not surprisingly, the “plot” doesn’t let her come back in Act II, which actually does say a lot about how lame this narrative is.

In Act II, the actual performance of the opera-mixed-with comedy, there’s a largely ineffective counterpoint between Ariadne’s mournful ponderings and the troupe’s bright twittering (no, not tweeting) about life and love, led off in the form of “girl talk” by a lovely flirt named Zerbinetta. The most enthusiastic ovation goes nightly to the singer of the opera’s only semi-famous aria, usually translated from the German as “High and Mighty Princess.” It actually is a lovely coloratura showpiece, handled with equal parts pizzazz and precision by Laura Claycomb. The audience laps it up, just like water made tastier by being found in the desert. 

We can be excused for thinking “Wagnerian” when we hear Christine Goerke sing the long, rising, hall-filling notes given to Ariadne, since she was last heard at HGO as Ortrud in Lohengrin.  And her lengthy duet with Bacchus, or Hermes or whoever that guy covered in gold is supposed to be, also echoes the climactic scene in Puccini’s Turandot, which was finished from notes after the Italian master’s death. Too bad it lacks Turandot’s painfully pleasurable movement toward a single climax. This thing keeps seeming to wind down, then start up again. Not a note is faulty, however, in Goerke’s impressive performance. 

Tenor Alexey Dolgov does fine work as Ariadne’s blond-locked and gold-plated other-half, though it’s often unclear whether he’s trying to love her back into living or kill her on the spot. The libretto’s overused word “transformation” could use a little clarification here, or maybe Wagner was right when he talked about “love death” in the case of Tristan and Isolde. Three “nymphs” who serenade Ariadne right out of some ancient Greek staging of “Sex in the City” provide the evening’s loveliest harmonies, thanks to Kiri Deonarine, Catherine Martin and Brittany Weaver. 

Patrick Summers doesn’t miss a nuance in the wowie-zowie orchestration, making the sounds of the HGO orchestra a wonder to behold. And with a boost from director John Cox and set/costume designer Robert Perdziola, Ariadne auf Naxos makes as much dramatic sense as it’s ever likely to – and looks damn good doing it.

Photos by Felix Sanchez: (top) Goerke and Dolgov sing their love duet; (middle) Claycomb flirts as Zerbinetta; (bottom) Graham “trousers” as the young Composer.