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It's a Mystery

At the Ensemble and Main Street, death is summer fun

The artistic directors of some of Houston's theaters believe that the cure for the summertime blues is a little light, spine-tingling entertainment. And they may be right.

Following in the footsteps of the Alley and its successful Summer Chills series, the Ensemble Theatre and Main Street Theater have selected mysteries to deal with the summer doldrums -- one played broadly and mostly for laughs, the other played subtly, to induce shivers.

The lighter of the two is the Ensemble's Who Killed Hazel Patton?, an amiable stew of soap opera, Agatha Christie and the kind of melodrama in which the audience hisses the villain. The play, written by the theater's late founder George Hawkins under the nom de plume Carl Anderson, gathers together a bunch of possible answers to the title question and then lets them gambol. Soap opera effects, including dramatic lighting and stagy gestures such as the actors all looking at each other in horrified anticipation at the ring of a doorbell, let the audience know they shouldn't take anything that happens on-stage too seriously.

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When the play opens, we're introduced to the still living Hazel (Helen Sanders), a fearsome creature with a motorized chair that she wields like a weapon and features distorted by an apparent stroke. Anticipating her death (and hoping for slices of her huge financial pie), relatives and friends have gathered to hover near. There's conniving half-sister Felicia (Pamela Thompson), who's as acid as the chartreuse pantsuit she wears in the first act, and her 22-year-old daughter Ingrid (Tisha Dorn); neither of them has seen Hazel for 15 years. Then there's Hazel's next-door neighbor and apparent friend Margaret (Tezra Bryant), who may not be as selfless as she appears.

Adding to the mix are half-brother Bobby (Ray Walker) and his alcoholic wife Karen (Barbara Hartman), who don't even bother to seem upstanding, and Reed (Larry Johnson), an urbane judge who has a virtuous veneer. The young and handsome Carlester (Michael Green) may be just a gigolo out of a David Lee Roth ditty -- but then again, maybe not. Green makes the most of his seemingly stock part through mime as well as words -- his kissy-faces airmailed across the room to Hazel are priceless.

This squabbling group slings insults such as "there's as much venom in you as in the rest of the snakes," swings fists and makes the occasional sexual pass. Meanwhile, Hazel plows into the room in her chair, dominating the gathering with rude truths and a few promises of future wealth. But alas, right before intermission she's stabbed to death in pitch darkness.

Though obviously a production titled Who Killed Hazel Patton? requires that Hazel Patton die, it's a pity to see her go. With Sanders as Patton off the stage, the momentum diminishes; Sanders's scenes may be few, but they're funny, borderline scary and full of energy. The accusations that fly in act two can't quite fill the gap she leaves behind. Still, the second act does introduce a new character, a detective named Reese who has a touch of Columbo in him -- the belted raincoat, the cigar, the request/order of "just a few more questions." Hazel Patton also repeats the tiredest catch phrase of the nineties, "Show me the money," using it at least five times when once would have been more than enough. The play ends with a startling special effect and a burst of confession.

The show is silly, occasionally vulgar and usually enjoyable. Who Killed Hazel Patton? demands audience participation, and it gets it, not only debates during intermission about who done it, but vocal participation during the play itself by audience members who, when I attended, had to be shushed frequently.

Shushing isn't required at Main Street Theater's The Woman in Black, a spectral tale set in early 20th-century England. As the story begins, a man in a suit wanders onto the stage carrying a notebook. He's not the play's stage manager, bearing news of upcoming productions or cast changes, but a major character named Arthur Kipps. Kipps, a drab-looking London solicitor, has a story to tell his family and friends; after mumbling to himself in a monotone, he seeks out an actor -- the play's only other performer, save for the silent title character -- to help him put the narrative across. "It must be told," Kipps tells the actor he finds with an unnatural intensity.

"We'll make an Irving of you yet," the unnamed actor vows, referring to Henry Irving, a titan of the British stage. But Kipps's theatrical skills need work; as the actor admonishes him, "Performing is an art acquired with tears and time." To demonstrate his point, the actor winds up playing Kipps as the play's events unfold, while Kipps takes the parts of the men the real Kipps encountered. If it sounds confusing in theory, on-stage it makes intriguing sense.

Kipps's tale takes him to a remote corner of Britain. The performers refer to the location as "(ahem)shire" in the manner of 19th-century novels that sometimes left blanks for a reading audience that presumably didn't need to know exactly where the action took place. Wherever he is, Kipps is sent there to attend to the funeral of an 87-year-old widow and clear up her affairs.

But disturbing portents and veiled warnings beset the lawyer, who of course winds up staying in the widow's gloomy, isolated house and investigating its secrets. Most mysterious is the title character, a wasted woman with a white face who is wont to appear silently and leave behind quivering observers. Kipps sees her first at the widow's gravesite, but her point is not made quite so easily as that.

Without performers as skilled as Rodney Walsworth and George Brock, the simple setting and chilling story would be only a pale piece of Poe or a wisp of Wilkie Collins. Deliberately wooden as Kipps, Walsworth not only makes the most of that role but slips under the skin of a variety of other characters of various ages and accents. Brock, the unnamed actor whom Kipps meets, and who then plays the part of Kipps during the bulk of the story, is almost as compelling sorting out the widow's papers as he is shrinking in dread at disembodied howls in the distance.

Equally important is the subtle direction of Patti Bean, the moody lighting by Kirk Markley and the evocative sound effects, without which it would be difficult to propel a Houston audience in midsummer onto a chill, misty marsh in (ahem)shire.

With these assets and a few props, an almost bare stage becomes a pub, a graveyard, a locked room, a carriage driven by a wordless yokel. The Woman in Black aptly follows the unnamed actor's instructions to "draw upon your emotions, and upon our imaginations."

Who Killed Hazel Patton? plays through August 10 at the Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 520-0055; The Woman in Black plays through July 24 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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