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Capsule Reviews

Our critic weighs in on local theater

 Crimes of the Heart Wow, what a magnificent production of Beth Henley's 1981 multi-Tony Award-nominated comedy. In the hands of the Country Playhouse, this tale about the three Southern Magrath sisters, which takes place on one memorable October day, is rendered as crisp as fried chicken, as rich as pecan pie, and as tangy as a chilled mint julep. Plain and sheltered Lenny (Leigh Anne Mitsakis) has wasted her life caring for her ailing granddaddy. Favorite and baby of the family Babe (Michelle Hill) has shot her abusive husband because, she says, "I couldn't stand his looks." Rebellious Meg (Lara Hermes) returns from L.A. with a derailed singing career and a big case of "nobody loves me." Will Lenny break out of her suffocating shell? Will Babe go to jail? Will spoiled Meg put the make on her old flame, the now-married Doc (Lance Marshall)? Will Babe's lawyer Barnette (Adam Stallings), now soft on his client, have any case at all after he sees a private detective's candids of Babe with her 15-year-old black lover? Henley's Southern Gothic comic valentine about these three steel magnolias is a tribute to the power of sisterhood and a great big kiss to family values -- the good, timeless ones. The splendid ensemble cast, under O'Dell Hutchinson's tenderhearted direction, supplies all the magnanimous warmth and soul that these characters require. There's not a misstep among them as they wring every drop of warm humor and pathos from Henley's adroitly plotted script. As dowdy Lenny, Mitsakis gives an incandescent performance that adds layers to an already complex character. She centers the play and makes the entire cast shine, and we get to bask in their glow. Through November 27. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Danton's Death Houston's newest theater company, Theatre Collide, lived up to its mission statement with its evocative production of Georg Buchner's historical pageant, Danton's Death. Collide wants "to perform new, unknown and neglected works, using eclectic approaches and found spaces." The company picked a winner for the premiere work of its first full season. Buchner's epic 1835 drama, written when the radical firebrand became a playwright at the ripe old age of 22 (he died two years later from typhoid), is a classic of the highest rank. It was so far ahead of its time, the swirling, impressionistic work didn't debut until 1902. It's still ahead of its time. The French Revolution is the subject; Georges Danton is the anti-hero; Maximilien Robespierre is the villain; the put-upon gullible peasantry is the force of vengeance; and the nihilism and uselessness of the world is the subtext. There are more than 50 speaking roles in the sprawling play, so Collide's "eclectic approach" is to use 11 actors who wear shawls or hats to differentiate the characters. (Everyone, except Danton, the outsider, wears red shoes -- a nice touch.) Danton is such a powerhouse of a play that even in its brief scenes if you just went with it and paid attention, the complex maneuvering of all those Jacobites, revolutionaries and whores made sense. Actor Craig Cashio, lean where Danton was a great bear, was an impassioned anti-hero, exalting in life's chaos and nothingness. Brian Bibeau made ardent pamphleteer Desmoulins into a Romantic tragic figure; Emily Abrams as Danton's sympathetic wife was an intelligent foil to Danton's anti-life force; and Angelie De Los Santos gave Desmoulins's wife a marvelous dramatic tenderness. Collide's use of "found spaces," however, needs an overhaul. While the great canopy covering the backyard space at Helios blew with fierce appropriateness during the Reign of Terror scenes, the music wafting from nearby La Strada restaurant didn't exactly help the mood.

La Forza del Destino Giuseppe Verdi's uneasy alliance of the sacred and profane, the master's 22nd opera, thundered through Opera in the Heights's Lambert Hall without much subtlety, but with a whole lot of passion, befitting this tale of family blood feud. Even though this is one of Verdi's less-than-stellar compositions, the music is still sublime and emotionally affecting. But Destino is one of those operas where the surtitles get in the way: This story you don't want to know. What librettist Francesco Piave calls "destiny" is nothing more than a series of unbelievable coincidences. Don Alvaro accidentally kills the father of his lover, Leonora, after he discovers that they're about to elope. As the old man lies dying, he curses Don Alvaro. Leonora's brother, Don Carlo, whom we don't see until Act II (five years later), has sworn to uphold the old man's dying damnation and wants to punish his wayward sister for her scandalous affair, even though she staunchly professes virginity. She flees to a monastery to live in a cave. But when Alvaro joins the monks, he's soon discovered by big bad brother. Goaded into a duel, Don Alvaro stabs the brother, who in turn stabs his sister, who has emerged from her cave to offer assistance. Somehow, destiny is fulfilled. It's all much too long and uneven, even though OH cut Preziosilla's famed "Rataplan" coloratura aria and the battle scenes in Act II. Kirsten Hoiseth (Leonora) has a lovely smoky soprano, dark and rich like espresso, and she sailed through Verdi's dramatic bel canto with absolute conviction to spare. Tenor Gabriel Gonzalez (Don Alvaro) wasn't so lucky. He had an unfortunate tendency to "scoop" into high notes, never landing on them securely but instead catapulting from some lower note not written in the score. He eventually hit them, at full volume, to be sure, but comfort and ease were abandoned. Baritone Arturo Rodriguez (Don Carlo) matched Hoiseth with his beauty of tone and impressive stage presence. Maestro William Weibel pulled out all the stops from the truncated orchestrations, and Verdi's final ethereal measures -- after Leonora's soul has ascended -- made this unwieldy opera a lot less clumsy.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife Consider Theater LaB's sparkling rendition of Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife an early Christmas present. You'll kick yourself if you miss it. This literate, witty and sexy comedy has playwright Busch going mainstream, after decades of gay camp classics including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die. If you're familiar with Busch's work as both writer and drag actor, you weren't surprised by all the breathless acclaim he's gotten lately -- or his Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2001. Marjorie (Terri Carter), married for more than 30 years, is in a midlife rut. Hell, she's in a chasm. Depressed and taking out her frustrations on the Disney mega-store by smashing pricey figurines, she's "curious, yes; profound, no!" Marjorie is hungry for life's meaning but thinks she's of limited intellect. Her loving husband (Mike Lovell), an allergist, is worried, but more concerned with his exalted position among his devoted students. Marjorie's Jewish yenta mom, Frieda (Dorothy Edwards), whose primary concern is undergoing yet another colonoscopy -- her third in six months -- just wants her to buck up. "Go, do volunteer work, make yourself useful," she crows while apotheosizing her bowel movements. Marjorie is pushed out of her lethargy -- they all are -- by the magical appearance of her childhood friend Lee (Josephine John), whose sophisticated yet sinister fairy godmother changes everything. The laughs are nonstop, even when the conversation turns to Marjorie's beloved German novelist, Herman Hesse, and the deeper significance of Siddhartha. Sex, of course, is the great liberator, bringing morning-after guilt along with wonderful repercussions. Carter is splendid as out-of-sorts Marjorie, as is Edwards as Frieda, but it's Josephine John who centers the show with her sleek elegance and name-dropping and her panther sultriness. Lee is the great enigma, the girl who's both good and bad, seductive and creepy -- and John portrays her magnificently. Through December 12. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

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