Archive | July, 2015

MU’S ‘The Drowning Girls’

25 Jul

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By JOHN DeMERS

Brutal, eerie, disturbing and at times unexpectedly poetic, The Drowning Girls is a personal invitation to spend an hour and five minutes in the presence of pure evil. And unlike many killers in our own recent events, there is little to no sense that the murderer here is “disturbed” or “mentally ill.” No, in the real-life England of 1915, George Joseph Smith was convicted of marrying three different women under three different names, taking all their money and buying life insurance on them, and then murdering each in a bathtub in a manner that passed for accidental. Almost. Smith was hanged just over a month after his conviction, still claiming to be innocent.

This play about the three women (indeed, Smith himself is never seen) was actually written by three women for, naturally, three women to perform. That, however, doesn’t limit its storytelling to three characters. Patricia Duran, Courtney Lomelo and Miranda Herbert Aston also play everybody the victims come in contact with – friends and family, their killer husband, police investigators and, in one of the show’s finest moments, a pair of doctors called in to assess the women’s conditions while they’re still alive. With Cockney accents on overdrive, these moments are funny – but also dark and frightening considering that we all know the outcome.

As directed by Jon Harvey with set design by Jodi Bobrovsky, lighting by Greg Starbird and costumes by Lindsay Burns, the Mildred’s Umbrella production is as gutsy in its minimalism as in its subject matter and treatment. There are simply three antique bathtubs with showers that actually work overhead, water in the tub from which the victims emerge and to which they return repeatedly, and a ghost-white backdrop that evokes a trio of weathered tombstones. The set is all about function, but it ends up being a moving, unforgettable form as well.

There is a political edge to The Drowning Girls, a kind of inevitable and natural feminism speaking of a time shortly before most of the advances in the history of women’s rights started being made. While, most assuredly, nothing can probably protect any of us from a single madman bent on our destruction, had these three women possessed more options, more freedom and more societal meaning in their lives, they would never have been such easy prey.

The University of Tamarie

19 Jul

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By JOHN DeMERS

For the 18th time, come hell AND high water, Houston’s own Tamarie Cooper is trotting out her bag of tricks and neuroses for all to see. Maturity, marriage and motherhood (yes, Tamarie actually does have a real life) have taken their toll on her once-subversive subject matter – but none of those things has made her the least bit shy.

Unlike her earliest original musicals, which went by the iconic names Tamalalia I, II,III, etc., her latest is called The University of Tamarie. It takes as its starting point, as her own daughter gets ready for kindergarten, Cooper pondering the fact she dropped out of college several times without benefit of degree. The show playfully allows her to go back and make it all right again. Except, of course, you can’t. Except, of course, you probably don’t really want to. The premise is only a premise anyway, a loose-fitting pole from which to hang colorful, mostly outrageous outfits crafted from comedy, song and dance. As such, University should please Tamarie newcomers as well as this talented performer’s cult-like following, presumably the ones entering the theater with the most bottles of beer.

Just as University isn’t at all a one-woman show, it’s not a one-woman creation either. Over the years, Cooper has knitted together a network of talent and friendship (sometimes going back to her high school days at HSPVA). There’s something soothing about reading the bios – filled with other shows too of course, as with other, sometimes larger companies than Catastrophic Theatre or the Infernal Bridegroom that preceded it. Still, it’s almost always part of each narrative: Tamalalia 3, 6, 8, 9, plus Tamarie Cooper’s Old as Hell and The United States of Tamarie. These are artists who know each other, good times and bad. The clever, cutting-edge book this time is by Patrick Reynolds, with music by Miriam Daly and Joe Folladori, and lyrics by those two plus Cooper and Reynolds . Presenting Cooper’s world is a team effort, to be sure.

To say a Tamarie show is “uneven” seems so obvious as to not bother. Both in terms of material and live performance, these things work as wild-eyed revues anyway, not as unified or stable plays night after night. Certainly, the two showstopping numbers this outing are “Sex Education” (featuring longtime Tamarie star Kyle Sturdivant as a kind of Chris Farley in PE teacher drag), and “Here Comes the Texas State Board of Education.” Epecially as Cooper’s own daughter enters The System, this last is a pointed and hilarious mashup of all things anti-educational about Texas education, from Moses joining the Founding Fathers to Jesus turning up with his best friend the dinosaur. Again, it’s Sturdivant who explains in song why these and other “facts” are the perfect antidote to all the lies spread by liberals all these years. There is even a brilliant bit about how and why pre-Civil War slaves really loved being slaves. Talk about funny – and pretty damn sad.

Other ache-producing laughfests include the ESPN-style narrated TV “battle” of private schools, public schools and home schooling – as usual in a Cooper summer musical, you probably can’t think of a cliché or stereotype left un-dredged – and near the beginning, the seemingly simple but heartfelt plea against the pressures on kids these days, “Welcome to Kindergarten,” featuring Sara Jo Dunstan in the first of multiple impressive outings. The entire cast works, acts, sings and dances with enthusiasm all show-long, and always seems to be having the time of their lives. Or, at the very least, they’re having the time of Tamarie Cooper’s life. I expect we’ll all keep showing up for that.