The 2016 Houston Theater Awards

Herman Gambhir was stunning in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

Herman Gambhir was stunning in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre.

 

It was a terrific crop of shows and artists we had to choose from for this year’s awards. No, me and my Houston Press colleagues didn’t always agree on things, but then what fun is it discussing theater when everyone likes the same things? What we could agree on though, is how truly pleased we are with this year’s award winners and finalists. Some old faces and some new. Some large companies and some that fit into a small living room. But what all these talented artists share, is their talent and courage to put it all out there on the stage and wow us. Bravo to each and every one and thank you for all your hard work.

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/presenting-the-2016-houston-theater-awards-8693759

Gambrels of the Sky – Houston Press Review

Cindy Lou Parker, Cheramie Hopper and Shelby Marie in Gambrels of the Sky.

Cindy Lou Parker, Cheramie Hopper and Shelby Marie in Gambrels of the Sky. Photo by Paige Kiliany.

 

Gambrels of the Sky

Written by: A.M. Keel

Directed by: Leighza Walker

Company: The Landing Theatre Company

Run dates: Through August 20, 2016

http://www.landingtheatre.org

 

Read my review of Gambrels of the Sky for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/gambrels-of-the-sky-pushes-our-imagination-of-eve-post-eden-8638653

El Nogalar – Houston Press Review

Eli Solis, Adriana Dominguez and Melissa Milano

Eli Solis, Adriana Dominguez and Melissa Molano. Photo by Kelsey McMillan.

 

El Nogalar

Written by: Tanya Saracho

Directed by: Kelsey McMillan

Company: Obsidian Theater

Run dates: Through August 20, 2016

http://www.obsidiantheater.org

 

Read my review of El Nogalar for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/el-nogalar-is-both-inspired-by-and-constrained-by-chekhov-s-the-cherry-orchard-8624807

The Maids – Houston Press Review

Patricia Duran and Courtney Lomelo in The Maids

Patricia Duran and Courtney Lomelo in The Maids. Photo by Aaron Asher.

 

The Maids

Written by: Jean Genet

Directed by: Jon Harvey

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella

Run dates: Through August 13, 2016

http://www.mildredsumbrella.com

 

Read my review of The Maids for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/a-neutered-production-turns-the-maids-into-something-less-than-stellar-8619374

 

Shear Madness – Houston Press Review

Deborah Hope in Stages Repertory Theatre's production of Shear Madness.

Deborah Hope in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Shear Madness. Photo by Jon Shapley.

 

Shear Madness

Adapted by: Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams

Directed by: Josh Morrison and Mitchell Greco

Company: Stages Theatre

Run dates: Through August 21, 2016

http://www.stagestheatre.com

 

Read my review of Shear Madness for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/talents-shine-bright-in-the-interactive-shear-madness-at-stages-8574881

 

 

Spider’s Web – Houston Press Review

Jeffrey Bean, Josie de Guzman and John Tyson in Agatha Christie's Spider's Web

Jeffrey Bean, Josie de Guzman and John Tyson in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web. Photo by Lynn Lane.

 

Spider’s Web

Written by: Agatha Christie

Directed by: Gregory Boyd

Company: Alley Theatre

Run dates: Through August 11, 2016

http://www.alleytheatre.org

 

Read my review of Spider’s Web for Houston Press at

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/alley-theatres-production-of-agatha-christies-spiders-web-is-a-delight-8577172

 

Born Yesterday – An angry rant

Alley Theatre-BornYesterday-_096-web

Stephen Pelinski as Harry Brock and Melissa Pritchett as Billie Dawn
in the Alley Theatre’s production of Born Yesterday. Photography By Lynn Lane.

 

“I haven’t left the theatre this spitting mad in a long time.”

That was the Tweet from me just minutes after seeing the Alley Theatre’s production of Garson Kanin’s 1946 play, Born Yesterday. I’ve taken a couple days to simmer down, collect my thoughts and most importantly see if my ire would abate. Perhaps I was just having one of those days when I saw the show. Maybe I was overly irritated. Possibly I wouldn’t be angry any longer.

No dice, I’m still pretty miffed. Here’s why:

Born Yesterday is the IKEA of stage comedies. It’s flimsy and utilitarian and sure it fills the room, but it’s the kind of show that you desperately want to replace with a better, more substantial and witty production once you have the time and money to do so. I say this not because the Alley, in their usual splendid design fashion, didn’t make the show look good. The upscale two story hotel room set looks plushly glorious. I say this because the plot itself is remarkably shallow and lacking.

Harry Brock is a bully, a boor and a billionaire who made his money in the scrap metal business. He and his ditsy girlfriend Billie arrive in Washington D.C so Brock can grease a Senator to help him arrange favorable circumstances for his junkyard business empire. Brock is concerned that Billie’s stupidity will make him look bad in front of the D.C. crowd, so he hires journalist Paul Verall to educate her. The teacher and student fall for each other and Billie gets half a brain outta the deal. With her new found smarts, she realizes how crooked and abusive Brock is and thwarts his shady business plans.

That’s it. That’s the whole show. No backstory. No insight. No twists or turns or tension or anything that would make this a remotely interesting comedy to partake in. Worst still, like the uber obvious plot, we see the low hanging fruit jokes coming a mile away. But this alone, while frustratingly disappointing, wouldn’t have been enough to tip me over to the rage side of town. That happened when I realized just how disrespectful those low handing fruit jokes are to a modern audience.

Born Yesterday is a show that asks us to laugh at how dumb a woman is. Over and over again. Billie is a floozy and happy to be that way. She doesn’t read the paper, or know anything about how the country runs and is quite sure that London and England are two different places on the map. With her squeaky baby voice that turns loud and raunchy when she’s pissed, Billie faux pas her way through most of the show and it’s our job to laugh AT her for it.

As for her acquired smarts by the end of the play, well she doesn’t start to get “learned” until she realizes she has a crush on Paul, her teacher. She herself even admits that the only reason she agreed to study is that she figured it was the one way to seduce him.

So yeah. She does it to bag a guy.

I have no doubt that this was hilarious in the 40’s when it hit the stage. But just like Canada’s new Prime Minister said when explaining why he made sure 50% of his Cabinet were females, it’s 2016. A year where rape culture and female victim blaming is front and centre in our news and minds. A year where Hollywood is being called to task on inequitable pay for woman artists. A year where the United States has its first female Presidential nominee.

And yet THIS is what the Alley Theatre thought would be a good programming choice? Look I know these decisions are made way in advance, but c’mon…who didn’t read the tea leaves over there? I don’t care if it was ten years ago, this type of misogyny without irony, substance or anything important to say to us has no business being produced. I don’t say it often, but I was offended. Worst still, I was offended that the Alley, who call themselves “one of America’s leading not-for-profit theatres” thought so little of their audience, male and female, that they would offer this up as a good time comedy.

Shame on them. They know better. We deserve better.

Some thoughts on Bedlam’s Saint Joan

Saint Joan Dress Rehearsal Bedlam Theater Company Stark Naked Theatre Company Date: 5/31/2016 Photographer: Gabriella Nissen

L to R: John Russell, Samantha Steinmetz, Stephan Wolfert, Spencer Aste. Photo by Gabriella Nissen.

 

Saint Joan

Written by: George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Eric Tucker

Company: Bedlam

Presented by: Stark Naked Theatre

Run dates: Through June 18, 2016

http://www.starknakedtheatre.com

 

Growing up in Toronto, just a short drive away from the venerable Shaw Festival, I had the fortune of being exposed to the deliciously wordy Irish playwright at an early age. Barely a summer passed where I didn’t sit in a dark theatre and chew on Shaw’s provoking ideas, witty quips and human commentary. And I loved every minute of it. Even when those minutes sometimes seemed endless under the weight of Shaw’s lengthy and often times stuffed just over the brim scripts.

So when I heard that we in Houston were to be treated to New York theatre company, Bedlam’s take on Shaw’s Saint Joan, I was cautiously optimistic. You see, this is a company that strips bare the padding of classic plays. No elaborate sets. No grand costumes. No huge cast. No large stage. Just a handful of actors, the playwright’s words and fairly simple staging in order to transport us. Could Shaw’s work stand up to this kind of Spartan treatment? Do we need the frills to help entertain us when things get overly verbose? Could we sit for 3.5 hours with nothing but four talented actors playing multiple roles in simple dress telling us the story of Joan of Arc?

The answer is resoundingly yes.

Not only yes, but to my delight, this bare bones treatment not only was eminently watchable, it was an exciting and utterly fresh experience that allowed us to engage with the work in a whole new manner. So, rather than review the play in traditional form – you can look up the synopsis for Saint Joan here if you want plot details https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Joan_(play) – I’ll instead make some observations about why Bedlam’s take was so successful.

 

Houselights

One of the first things that struck me was that the houselights remained on for the entire first act. With a tiny stage and an audience on three sides, this could have led to numerous distractions away from the actors and action. Instead, it brought us communally closer. We felt like a band of witnesses all together involved in this intimate thing being created.

We the audience were as exposed and bare as the actors on stage and it made us listen even more intently, almost as if in direct conversation with the dialogue. Unlike other viewings of Shaw, the words didn’t come at us, they were among us.

 

Actors

We all know that on stage great dialogue lives and dies with those that deliver it. In this case, the uniformly strong cast (with special mention to Spencer Aste) did Shaw’s dialogue justice and then some. But it was in a different way that we may be used to.

Director Eric Tucker has injected casualness into the delivery that while still voluptuous with Shaw’s erudite language, feels modern and relatable and devilishly funny in places. Most importantly, there is an ease to listening. Look, I won’t lie. There have been many Shaw productions where I’ve had to take a small mid show mental time out in order to recover from the bombardment of language. But not here. The ease with which the dialogue is delivered is equally rewarded by our pleasure in listening to it.

 

The Comedy of Switching Characters

All three men in the production play multiple characters (Steinmetz plays only Joan) and it makes for some great physical gags. Changing nothing but their expressions and stances and perhaps donning a hat or glasses or a robe, the actors provide us with a whirlwind of supporting roles, sometimes only seconds apart.

Shaw is often witty, but to see his work be physically funny as well was like a swish of sorbet cleansing the palate for the headier moments to come. My only quibble here is that amidst some of the whirlwind character changes, I was a bit lost at times as to who exactly some of the bit players were.

 

Moving stages

Anyone who has sat through Shaw knows that intermissions are a must. Bedlam knows this and goes one step further, not only giving us a break, but moving us to an entirely different space for Act 2 and then back again to our reconfigured original space for the final Act.

It reminded me of an interview I once read with Sting about his formula for writing a compelling pop song. Just when folks are getting used to the rhythm, he explained, you need to change it up dramatically to keep the listener’s brain engaged.

In Saint Joan, the physical move was not only a fun surprise; it went a great distance in keeping our brains interested and involved.

 

Scene that blew me away

And by best I mean not the best acted or the best written, but the moment that gave me shivers for just how cleverly it was realized.

Joan is on trial for heresy, her verdict is near. She stands alone on the stage in spotlight. Her many male accusers shout out questions, allegations, indictments offstage from the dark alleys in and behind the audience. We see them in shadow only as they run around to various places to hurl insult, all the while Joan looking out at the voices trying to respond.

The aural effect is of a crowd. We know there are only three actors out there, but the darkness, the tension; the surround sound effect makes the effort feel huge and Joan’s fate all the more dramatic. It’s a brilliant piece of staging that gets distinctly under our skin.

 

Final Thought

Saint Joan has never been my favorite Shaw play. Yes there are some great debates including one concerning miracle vs fraud and as per usual some wonderfully biting satire about the English. But I’ve never felt it has the same gravitas as other works. Plus there is the silly epilogue where a very dead Joan materializes in character’s dreams so we can catch up what became of them and learn of her beatifying.

None of which Bedlam and their terrific production can really do much about.

But what they can and did do was give us a Saint Joan like we’ve never seen it before. And in doing so, taken a good (if not altogether great) play and made it thrilling to watch.

Many thanks to Stark Naked for bringing this show to us here in Houston.

 

things missing/missed – Houston Press Review

201605100978

Philip Hays and Melissa Flower in things missing/missed at Obsidian Theatre. Photo by Pin Lim.

 

things missing/missed

Devised by: Philip Hays, Melissa Flower and Justin Locklear

Company: Obsidian Theatre

Run dates: Through May 28, 2016

 

Read my review of things missing/missed for Houston Press at:

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/its-okay-to-miss-much-of-whats-being-shown-in-things-missing-missed-8399008