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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 Castro's Beard If not for the investigative reporting of the Washington Post's Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson in 1967, we never would have known about the spy-vs.-spy internal workings of the CIA during the mess that came to be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba -- or the U.S. government's subsequent wacky plots to kill Castro. English playwright Brian Stewart telescopes history to a single 1960 day inside headquarters at Langley, Virginia, just as "Operation Mongoose" is set in motion. The play's group of four CIA agents calls their destabilization operation "Ortsac," but it's immediately pointed out by everyone how easy that acronym is to decipher. This satire is a Looney Tunes version of the truth, but based on facts that turned out to be more ridiculous and deadly than anyone would have thought. Bumbling and inept, the plots devised by these CIA Keystone Kops include dusting Castro's boots with thallium salts, which would cause his beard to fall out, staging the return of Jesus -- and thus Christianity -- into Havana harbor, planting an exploding seashell, and downing a commercial airplane full of disadvantaged children in order to stir hatred against Castro, among other dopey ideas. It's chilling -- and sadly hilarious -- that the best and the brightest wasted our country's espionage resources on such dubious work. (And the 9/11 Commission Report is sad testament that nothing much has changed.) Stewart attempts to thicken his one-note play with an abrupt tone change in Act II, when dopiness gives way to dialogues about ethics. So fervently espoused, the political platitudes and sticky morality come from another play and throw the satire into territory it doesn't want to visit. Even so, the production is slick, the actors credible and sincere, and the truth -- as always -- stranger than fiction. Through October 24 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

The Exonerated Shadowy, dark and brutally haunting, the Alley Theatre's mesmerizing production of The Exonerated is everything live theater should be. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's script comes from interviews and legal papers that have been artfully shaped into a docudrama. The play weaves together the narratives of six true-life victims of the judicial system. Rob Bundy's understated direction puts his quietly raging cast on an empty, dark stage backed only by concertina wire. There they tell their stories of years spent on death row. The powerful cast includes Alley favorites K. Todd Freeman and David Rainey. But the most disturbing stories come from Annalee Jefferies's Sunny Jacobs, who spent 17 years in prison for a double murder she didn't commit. Jefferies takes to the stage in a state of almost angelic calm to tell Jacobs's story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also heartbreaking is Philip Lehl as Kerry Max Cook, who spent two decades in a Texas prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence and released. Because it was said that he was homosexual during his trial, he was sodomized and brutalized in prison. Texas has been responsible for almost a third of the people put to death in the United States since the late '70s. Of the 451 people on death row in Texas, 161 are from Harris County alone. The Exonerated has gotten rave reviews across the nation, from California to New York, but in no place are these stories of a broken judicial system more meaningful or devastating than right here at home. Through October 31. 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421.

Little Fascist Panties No, this world premiere is not an exposé of Eva Braun's kinky sex life, although playwright Bob Morgan might have been on firmer ground had he taken on the Third Reich. Instead, this grubby little shocker from dos chicas theater commune is a primer on their grunge, existential aesthetic. It starts out as an S&M Pygmalion, with serial killer and utter whack-job Mia (Anne Zimmerman) and her terribly gender-confused roommate, Lisle (played by Morgan), adopting young but accomplished streetwalker Jenna (Tanya Fazal). Oozing parental concern, they bring her into their low-rent family, but we know their smarmy attention is only pretext and that something really bad is going to happen. Perhaps that's because Mia is constantly shooting men dead on the street and stealing their money to pay bills. Maybe it's because Lisle, a rent boy for old married men from the suburbs, equally loves wearing women's lingerie and being whipped and humiliated by Mia. This happy little perverted home spins out of control -- and out of the playwright's hands -- when Mia's psychotic urgings go into overdrive after Lisle is beaten into a coma by one of his johns. Down one breadwinner, Mia knows just what to do: have Jenna hustle back onto the streets. The kid's transformed her life by now, so naturally she balks, and then all hell breaks loose -- labial rings, dark closets and a policeman's billy club called Tim take the stage. Morgan makes a splendidly conflicted Lisle -- naughty and childlike, and later, utterly fragile and heartbreaking. Anne Zimmerman, with her Susan Hayward features and whiskey contralto, relishes playing sadistic Mia. And as her torments increase, Tanya Fazal comes into her own as hapless Jenna, victim of these vipers from hell. As playwright, Morgan rushes full steam into the hopelessness of street life, using deeply scarred characters who can't escape their past to illuminate his thesis that "choices have consequences," but the X-rated melodramatic situations he concocts are more fraught with peril than a dozen installments by Charles Dickens, via Hustler. Moral: Don't make the choices these characters have. Through October 30 at Helios, 411 Westheimer, 832-283-0858.

 
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