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Made in Houston

Hometown stages feature more than one sort of menagerie

Last week provided a wry opportunity to take in the lively extremes of homemade Houston theater, from the compositional precision of Edward Albee at one end to the pop-bohemian excesses of Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds at the other.

Albee, Houston's part-time resident Pulitzer-winner, has been much in the news recently, after picking up his third Pulitzer for Three Tall Women, his homage to the complicated memory of his mother. As a city we can't stake much claim to Albee's particular genius, which retains its East Coast (especially New York) mental landscape, but in recent years his direct influence on local theater has been persistent and refreshing.

The latest evidence is the collection of young talent at the heart of the Westheimer Art Bar and Theatre, currently staging an astute production of The Zoo Story, the play that, with The American Dream, launched Albee's career more than 30 years ago. Most of the people involved in the theater and this production have also worked in Albee's playwrighting workshops at the University of Houston, and Albee himself took a hand in the casting and rehearsals.

The result has both the buzzing energy and the rough edges one expects of this sort of non-professional production. The Zoo Story is an almost minimalist one-act -- a brief, tense and revelatory encounter between two strangers in New York City -- and director Marty McGovern has staged the play simply, directly and with a minimum of fuss. Although the literal setting is a "sun-drenched afternoon" in a secluded corner of Central Park, placed very precisely by Albee within sight of Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, the only concession to realism within this stark black box of a stage is a park bench. Inside that abstract frame, the script takes on an intriguing tension between the artificiality of the staging and the aggressive naturalism of the dialogue. Albee found a way to focus large cultural conflicts of class, intellect and spirit within the confining frame of this duet, and this production quietly highlights his achievement.

The conflict is established between Peter (Jason Douglas), a sedate family man attempting to spend a Sunday afternoon reading in the park, and Jerry (Wade Mylius), a brooding loner who engages Peter in conversation, delivers a sort of desperate, capsule autobiography and then forces matters to a violent climax. Not simply two men but two worlds collide: Peter's well-framed bourgeois world of practiced manners, fulfilled expectations and precise boundaries, and Jerry's shapeless one of angry suspicion, broken illusions and limitless longings. Jerry does most of the talking and seems initially more sympathetic, but Albee characteristically freights the outcome with ambivalence.

Over the years I've come to see this play in various ways, changing with the time, the place, the staging and no doubt my own preoccupations. This time, it seems to be about frozen oppositions, unbridgeable social walls, and its bitter climax carries an almost tragic inevitability. But it also delivers a good deal of very dry city humor, especially Jerry's stories of his run-down walk-up apartment complete with lecherous landlady, colored queen and voraciously malevolent hallway dog.

Much depends on the casting, particularly of Jerry, who drives the action and speaks almost non-stop. Peter ("a very sweet man ... possessed of an enviable innocence") is virtually a vaudeville straight man to Jerry's anarchic harangue, and Jason Douglas handles well Peter's edgy reticence, his self-effacement, his polite shame. Mylius has the much heavier burden, from Jerry's ingratiating/insulting opening moments through his compulsive narrative, to his final desperation. The young actor is not entirely up to the task; he captures Jerry's sardonic edge but less of his solitary pathos, and his very limited range of gestures is eventually distracting. But he gives an assertive performance in a very difficult role, anchoring the play sufficiently to carry

Albee's brooding meditation on spiritual isolation: "Sometimes it's necessary to go a very long way out of your way to come back a short distance correctly."

Speaking of detours, it's an even longer way 'round to the "Houston Gland Opera's" production of Kitchens of the Karankawa III -- Making Mud, the most recent incarnation of Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds' continuing pop-ceremonial marriage of neo-psychedelic rock, eco-science fantasy and cornpone histrionics. Two weeks back, Beans and the rest of the motley crew played the European Tavern on Feagan, a larger venue than their usual digs, which are on the other side of the Heights at Dan Electro's.

If you missed this installment of the Karankawa extravaganza, the next time around you need to get your Houston passport stamped. Beans is indubitably a local institution and home-grown pop visionary, singularly possessed of the liberating tradition of "rock and role" and surrounded by a team of similarly inclined Maenads and Furies who do their best to sing in tongues, prophesy the future and blow the roof off the joint.

The Bi-Peds (Wiley Hudgins, Jimb Jackson, Susan Jackson and Dr. Poison Zoomack, with assistance from Kenny Watkins and Big Skinny Brown) blast an eclectic cornucopia of rock that runs the aural memory from rockabilly to early Jefferson Airplane to late Mothers of Invention to George Clinton to Sun Ra. They are supported by a company of thespians, including an arachnid temptress (Tek Wilson), ambisexual chorines, a human spotlight (Noah Ramon) and the odd gar fisherman or two, all directed by Stages' Big Skinny Brown. The opera's "plot" is more or less a pantheistic, millennial version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which intergalactic cannibals make Third Coast pit stops to fuel up on live music and feast on local musicians ("who won't be missed").

The details are mostly indescribable, Jackson Pollock on rollerblades, but Beans is a hoot, the music rocks, and the whole show is living evidence that Texas remains a home for jubilant invention and handmade ecstasy.

 
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