In Darfur – Houston Press Review

Leslie Lenert as Maryka, Precious Merenu as Hamida, Yemi Otulana as Hawa and Manuel Abascal Jr. as Carlos.

Leslie Lenert as Maryka, Precious Merenu as Hamida, Yemi Otulana as Hawa and Manuel Abascal Jr. as Carlos.Photo by Troy Scheid.

 

In Darfur

Written by: Winter Miller

Directed by: Troy Scheid

Company: The Landing Theatre Company

Run dates: Through May 13, 2017

 

Read my review of In Darfur for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/in-dafur-at-the-docks-theatre-review-9380343

Some thoughts on Barthelme’s Snow White

The stage adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s 1967 novel will have its world première on Friday, in Houston.

Catastrophic Theatre’s production of  Snow White. Photo by Anthony Rathburn.

Snow White

Written by: Donald Darthelme

Adapted and Directed by: Greg Dean

Company: Catastrophic Theatre

Run Dates: Through May 6, 2017

http://www.catastrophictheatre.com

 

Absolutely possible to be eagerly impressed with a production and yet utterly unmoved by the play. My reaction to Barthelme’s Snow White.

This was the tweet I posted immediately after seeing Catastrophic Theatre’s many years in the making/labor of love/world premiere adaptation of Donald Barthelme 1967 short story, Snow White. While the reaction’s topline came to me easily, its substance did not. Why wasn’t I enamored with the play itself? This re-imagining of Snow White, tethered to her seven sex-obsessed male keepers, unhappy with her domestic situation and snobbishly waiting for the promised prince has many hallmarks of a narrative I should like.  It’s subversive, dark and disturbed. It throws a beloved trope on its ass and it does so with humor. It upends and exposes less than flattering gender roles and behavioral crutches. Plus it has death and sex, thankfully not at the same time. And it’s a play that holds language and the power of words in the highest, albeit unorthodox regard.

And yet, still, I was left cold. So what gives? Turns out, it wasn’t just me asking the question. After my tweet, I heard from more than a couple curious folks urging me to elaborate. Including some involved with the production. So while I hadn’t planned on writing about the show, I feel compelled to at least say something.

It’s taken me a couple days to really think about how I wanted to express myself on this. A review seemed the wrong method. I could easily go on and on about how Greg Dean (the adapter and director of the show) and his team have done wonders bringing this narratively muddy and non sequitur riddled story to life on stage. Through magnificently deviceful and evocative set design, sound, music, costume, lighting and video projection, we are treated with oodles of gloriously clever post-modern mood and atmosphere. From a shower room orgy scene to a mid-show audience survey to a gorgeous umbrella-accompanied New Orleans-style funeral march to angsty phrases projected on a scrim that sits in front of the show’s ever vaping shadowy narrator, the production is a stunner at every turn.

But I’m here to talk about what didn’t move me rather than what did.

And I think it comes down to this – I just don’t dig Barthelme’s writing. I know, I know….blasphemy!  How dare I decry the acclaimed short story writer that called Houston both his part time home and creative/professional outlet. Shame on me that the man they call genius for his absurd style (and who many refer to as the Beckett of Houston) leaves me so indifferent. Trust me, I’m not thrilled about it either. But I am willing to try to explain.

Where others extract provocative and incendiary from this story, I see overly cute. That the seven men refer to Snow White as a “horsewife” and that she herself refers to her “venereal life” may seem like clever word play to some, but for me it smacks of someone laboring to be witty. While some see the projected titles like THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE’S ARSE or THINGS SNOW WHITE IS AFRAID OF as clues plugging in the abundance of narrative holes, I roll my eyes at the pretension. Wordy passages project throughout the show, ghosts of Barthelme’s original text. But while a Freudian passage, for example, in itself may be enlightening, it’s juxtaposition to the story feels like a grad student wildly throwing up his latest intellectual ‘connect the dots’ in an effort to show off how scholarly he’s become. Stop trying so hard, I wanted to shout at the stage.

Apart from the aggravated state these literary antics stirred in me, I also took exception to the humor – meaning that I didn’t find it at all funny. Sure having the seven men split their work time between washing all the buildings in the area and running a highly successful Chinese baby food factory is….different….I didn’t find it laugh worthy. Especially not the “Oriental” fan dance the men do whilst naming off all their products for what seems like an eternity. Not because of the political incorrectness. No doubt there’s that. But because, absurd as it may be, it didn’t strike me as sly enough or in any way veiled to elicit a clever or satisfying meaning. It simply was what it was and what it was for me was a dud.

As for Barthelme’s supporting characters – for sure some curious takes. Paul, the “Prince Charming” character wants neither to be a Prince nor to step gallantly forward and save Snow White from her housekeeping/sex slave prison, so he becomes a monk. Hogo de Bergerac, described as the most loathsome man around (truly not as bad as I wanted him to be) acts (perhaps) as a kind of Magic Mirror to all those he counsels. But neither character, though written to elicit laughs in their broadness tickled me one bit. And neither character, with their metaphoric layers about responsibility and opting out felt all that revelatory. I got it…I was just less than whelmed.

As I was with Snow White herself, complicit in her slavery yet not unhappy enough to leave unless the suitor’s pedigree is up to snuff. Bill, the head of the seven men, doesn’t want her anymore. He’s grown not unfond, but unattracted. Yes this says much about the toll time takes on our fantasies and how even when we don’t want someone we still want to be wanted. But once again it’s all layered in wordy absurdity that frustrates far more than it enchants with dialogue either fading off into nothingness or rambling on to tiresome effect.

In fact, the only character that intrigued me at all was Jane, the wicked witch. I’m not sure for what reason exactly she killed her mother or why we need a gorilla-familiar to interject on her behalf, but watching her dial up random strangers and threaten them with knowing their phone numbers was a deliciously witty creation. Power is in the perception. Her ultimate poisoning attempt on Snow White is expected, but the joy she takes in the emotional journey that gets her to that place is sublime. Accepting malice is her theme and it could easily inform any modern day mean girl/girl power anthem. So why isn’t the rest of the writing as tightly formed with such timeless appeal?

I don’t have the answer for that.

And you may think my answer for why, as a play, Snow White, didn’t float my boat shows limited scope on my behalf. Perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps this is just one of those cup o teas or not kind of narratives.

By way of close, I’ll relate a conversation I had with an arts writer friend of mine who is an enthusiastic fan of both Barthelme’s writing and this production of Snow White. A native Houstonian, she explained that some of her love comes from her days studying mid-20th century American literature in school. After slogging through the staunch realism of Carver and Hemingway, she said, it was such a delight to wiggle your toes in the absurdity of Barthelme’s work. Like a breath of fresh air.

All I can say in response is that I wish I could see this one through her eyes.

The Barber of Seville – Houston Press Review

Calvin Hudson, Brittny Bush and Philip Hays in The Barber of Seville

Calvin Hudson, Brittny Bush and Philip Hays in The Barber of Seville. Photo by Pin Lim.

 

The Barber of Seville

Written by: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Translated by: John Johnson

Directed by: John Johnson

Company: Classical Theatre Company

Run dates: Through April 23, 2017

http://www.classicaltheatre.org

 

Read my review of The Barber of Seville for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/the-barber-of-seville-at-classical-theatre-company-review-9339222

 

A Heroine Free Summer

Patricia Duran and Gabriel Regojo in A Heroine Free Summer

Patricia Duran and Gabriel Regojo in A Heroine Free Summer. Photo by Pin Lim.

 

A Heroine Free Summer

Written by: Dr. Janet Lowery

Directed by: Chesley Krohn

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella

Run dates: Through April 15, 2017

http://www.mildredsumbrella.com

 

Read my review of A Heroine Free Summer for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/a-heroine-free-summer-review-at-spring-street-studios-9315381

 

An Act of God – Houston Press Review

Emily Trask as Michael, Todd Waite as God and John Feltch as Gabriel in An Act of God at the Alley Theatre.

Emily Trask as Michael, Todd Waite as God and John Feltch as Gabriel in An Act of God at the Alley Theatre. Photo by Lynne Lane.

 

An Act of God

Written by: David Javerbaum

Directed by: James Black

Company: Alley Theatre

Run dates: Through April 16, 2017

http://www.alleytheatre.org

 

Read my review of An Act of God for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/an-act-of-god-at-the-alley-theatre-a-review-9296632

 

The King and I….and your children

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

 

The King and I

Music by: Richard Rogers

Book and Lyrics by: Oscar Hammerstein

Directed by: Bartlett Sher

Choreographed by: Christopher Gattelli

Company: Broadway at the Hobby Center

Run dates: Through March 19, 2017

www.thehobbycenter.org

 

Last month, as I was waiting for the curtain to rise on An American in Paris, my plus one turned to me and asked if I thought this show was something she’d want take her children to. You could, I said. I mean it’s technically appropriate for a young audience. But I don’t think they’d like it.

Three hours later, after a quite lovely production, my plus one agreed. Gorgeous but overly long dance numbers, a love story that doesn’t really cause us to swoon and ultimately forgettable characters wouldn’t cut it for her tots.

In fact, this season of musicals has been a tough one for parents wanting to either introduce their children to the miracles of live theater or continue developing their burgeoning interest. Rocky Horror Picture Show and Book of Mormon were definite no goes for the younger set. The satire of big business that is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying isn’t exactly bulls-eye interest for kiddies. In the Heights could work for a younger audience but the tear jerky death of a beloved character and the sexual innuendo might be too much for some sensitive souls. Without the nostalgia for the music, Jersey Boys holds little sway for children. Into the Woods was billed as a holiday show, but the second act with its dark themes and markedly unhappy ending may be just too much for kids to handle. For those that haven’t already seen it or wanted to see it again, Lion King made a pit stop and Finding Neverland is coming up…but still…these are slim pickings for a family theater night out.

Then in steps The King and I. In town at the Hobby Center for only one week, it’s a show you not only could take your kids to; it’s a show that you should.

Now, I’ll admit that I have a distinct personal bias baked into that recommendation. The King and I was the first musical I ever saw (age 9) and it’s a show I’ve loved ever since. But it’s not just warm childhood memories that fuel my endorsement. This production of takes what I (and most likely many adults) remember from this beloved show and revives it to grand splendor.

The version on stage here in Houston comes to us from New York’s Lincoln Center Theater where this critically acclaimed production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I was directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher. If those names mean nothing to you – take note of the fact that it won four 2015 Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical. Deservedly so, I strongly maintain.

So then why is this show such a good bet for a young audience? Topline, the story of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who travels to Siam to teach the King’s many wives and children is funny, the musical numbers are terrific, the characters are easy to love and it’s an utterly digestible narrative no matter one’s age. But more specifically, I feel that there are several important things that children can get from this highly entertaining show.

 

Kids on Stage

Who doesn’t love watching adorable kids on stage doing one heck of a professional job? We all do, right? But y’know who loves it more than us adults? Our kids.

Watch their eyes light up when they see actors their age dressed in costume and having a grand old time in service to the story. We all go to the theater to see ourselves and our stories represented on stage and for kids, this means watching other kids.

Whether this means they connect better to the story/art form or even possibly get the acting bug themselves – exposing our kids to other children in a show creates an interest that lays the foundation for life long theater lovers.

 

Culturally correct casting

If you follow theater news, you’ve probably read a lot lately about issues of culturally appropriate casting and matters of racial representation on stage. To make it simple, this is often about casting roles with actors who are of the same ethnicity as the character.

In this respect, The King and I scores big. The entire Siamese host of characters are played by Asian actors, requiring not one ounce of makeup approximation or other questionable smoke and mirror tactics to create the desired effect.

Regardless how you feel about the whole, who gets to tell whose story on stage debate, there’s no doubt that exposing children of all backgrounds to actors of color is a good thing. It shows them that not only white folks can be the stars and that talent goes far deeper than one’s outer packaging.

 

Feminism

As a young girl watching this show, I remember being struck by how strong and smart and influential the character of Anna is. With a firm hand absent of any rudeness, she stands up for herself and others, demands to be treated as equal and as a result wins the respect and love of everyone around her. Even the King.

Now when I say love, I mean it in the most platonic of ways. Blessedly this isn’t a show that devolves into a schmaltzy love story between the two protagonists. Anna and The King come to love each other as friends, nothing more, and for a 1950’s musical that is quite a feat.

Is there a better message to give our children – this notion that women are strong and deserving of admiration? That they don’t need rescuing or kid gloving and they can and should fight for what they believe in. That men and women can love each other as friends.

Frankly, this lesson alone is reason enough to take your children to this show.

 

Respecting differences

Just because Anna and the King are friends doesn’t mean they approve or like everything the other does. The King take acceptation to the way Anna dresses and behaves and more seriously, Anna takes acceptation to the King’s polygamy and treatment of women and subjects/servants in general.

Yes there is some European superiority baked into the story, this ‘we English know better’ attitude, but it does get tempered elsewhere. A wonderful number by the wives decrying how the English try to change them, goes a long way in showing how ridiculous the West has been in foisting their values on the East.

What we take from this is that even though we’re different, we can learn to understand and honor each other while at the same time standing up for what we believe in. A reach across the aisle moment so to speak.

And I don’t think I need to tell anyone at this time why we need this message now more than ever.

 

But what about the sad/scary parts?

OK so sure, these are all good things for kids to see/hear…but what about the one scene that almost turns violent and the two deaths in the show?

My answer to this is that it’s Anna’s strength of character that stops a slave from being whipped. Indeed it’s a tense scene, but right wins out over wrong, no one is hurt and we are happy for it. For kids it’s a punishment that wasn’t deserved being righted. They can stomach that.

As for the two deaths – One we are simply told of which, while sad, doesn’t have great impact. The other, namely the death of the King at the end of the show, is handled so graciously and without melodrama that I can’t imagine any child being upset or put off by it. They may not even really know it happened.

On my way to the parking garage I overheard a mother and daughter talking about the show. “So is the King sick”, asked the young girl? The mother explained that no, he wasn’t ill, he had died. “Well how did he die”, she asked. A simple explanation of his heart being sick and stopping was given. The girl thought about it for a moment and then said, “It was such a fun show Mommy, can we see it again?”

I wanted to stop and hug both of them right then and there. I want to hug every adult that takes a child to this performance. But instead I’ll just say Bravo for starting them young.

Five Course Love – Houston Press Review

Dylan C. Godwin and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Five Course Love.

Dylan C. Godwin and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Five Course Love. Photo by Os Galindo.

 

Five Course Love

Written by: Gregg Coffin

Directed by: Mitchell Greco

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run dates: Through April 6, 2017

http://www.stagestheatre.com

 

Read my review of Five Course Love for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/five-course-love-review-9266289

Syncing Ink – Houston Press Review

Playwright and lead performer NSangou Njikam as Gordon in Syncing Ink.

Playwright and lead performer NSangou Njikam as Gordon in Syncing Ink. Photo by Christopher Diaz.

 

Synching Ink

Written by: NSangou Njikam

Directed by: Niegel Smith

Company: Alley Theatre

Run dates: March 5, 2017

http://www.alleytheatre.org

 

Read my review of Syncing Ink for Houston Press at:

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/a-story-of-hip-hop-and-searching-in-syncing-ink-9193364

 

Joshua Kyle Hoppe, Colin Brock, Jonathan Gonzalez and Rachel Dickinson in Small Jokes About Monsters.

Joshua Kyle Hoppe, Colin Brock, Jonathan Gonzalez and Rachel Dickinson in Small Jokes About Monsters. Photo by Clinton Hopper.

 

Small Jokes About Monsters

Written by: Steven Strafford

Directed by: Clinton Hopper

Company: The Landing Theatre Company

Run dates: Through Feb 18, 2017

http://www.landingtheatre.org

 

Read my review of Small Jokes About Monsters for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/small-jokes-about-monsters-is-a-successful-stab-at-an-overworked-genre-9154089