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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 A Doll's House It's the most famous door slam in history. At the end of Henrik Ibsen's influential 1879 "problem play," Nora leaves the confines of her outwardly happy and conventional marriage and abandons her children, husband and social standing in order to "find herself." She might as well be slamming the door on the 19th century. Nora is selfish, pampered, spoiled and kept as sexual ornament by husband Torvald, who repeatedly calls her "my pet squirrel," "feather brain" and "child." Out of love for him, she's borrowed money from an unscrupulous business acquaintance. He proceeds to blackmail her since she forged a signature on the contract. While this action propels the well-made play, it's only the tip of the iceberg. It's the roiling stuff underneath -- 19th-century society's subtle put-downs, male chauvinism, the burgeoning feminist revolution -- that boils up in Nora and causes her, at last, to confront herself and rethink her entire life. Ibsen brought a daring psychological realism to the theater that was terrifying and new. He spotlighted his audience's own hypocrisy, and this controversial play was a sensation throughout Europe. Actresses clamored to portray this new woman, and the character of Nora became one of drama's lodestars. She's a difficult lady to put over -- girlish and giddy at the beginning, secretive and guilt-ridden during her potential exposure, strong and resolute at the conclusion. In a whirligig interpretation, Karen Schlag, at times, seems to be channeling one of D.W. Griffith's silent film heroines -- all fluttering virginity and perpetual motion -- but her edginess galvanizes our attention and pays off handsomely when she finds her center and calms down at the end. Less satisfying is Patrick Jennings as prig Torvald, who must convince as both lover and puritan. But Mark Carrier as blackmailer Krogstad and Kimberly Scoville as desperate Kristine supply a refreshing naturalism. Through February 19. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

Anything Goes Theatre Under the Stars' visually delightful production of Cole Porter's positively silly musical 1934 confection first ran in 1987 at Lincoln Center. That revival starred Patti LuPone as naughty nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney (originally performed by the incomparable Ethel Merman). What the TUTS rendition lacks is any sense of spontaneity. There's not a lot to the story: Reno Sweeney and her friend Billy travel to England on a ship; both are looking for love, and typical musical comedy high jinks ensue. And in this version, except for Jennifer Cody's tiny, tarty gun moll Bonnie La Tour -- catchphrase: "charmed, I'm sure" -- everyone's on autopilot. When their mikes aren't turned on, you expect to see them yakking on their cell phones. Replete with musty vaudeville gags and a refreshing contemporary attitude that tweaks society's nose, this old Broadway chestnut is blessed with -- saved by, really -- some of Porter's most magical songs ("You're the Top," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes") and fluffed up with some tunes not written for this show ("Night and Day," "It's De-Lovely"). When aroused, the cast is fine. Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee, is a statuesque Reno, with a clarion voice that rings through the Hobby Center, and she fills out her spangled art deco gowns in just the right places. Matt Cavenaugh, last seen starring in the failed show Urban Cowboy, is certainly an attractive presence on the stage. He's pleasant and moves deftly, but his ingenue's lightness works against him. Hoty, a consummate pro, tamps it down to avoid bulldozing him. Except for the songs and Miss Cody, nothing else makes a lasting impression. During intermission, you've already forgotten what you've seen. Nothing, however, can erase those melodies. They're the top! Through February 13. 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

Varekai Cirque du Soleil's production of Varekai, with all its dizzying circus acts, is shaped around a loosely constructed story that happens in a fantastically imagined world. Enter the canvas flaps and be amazed. Wondrous beings appear and wander through designer Stéphane Roy's mazelike set, against a backdrop of slender cane rods. Along with composer Violaine Corradi's otherwordly music, the sounds of birds and insects flitting and singing around the tent add depth. Nol van Genuchten's lighting infuses the stage with the dappled glow of morning, and the whole place becomes some forgotten fairy-land grove. Dressed in Eiko Ishioka's fantastic costumes, the performers create a menagerie of beings, the sort that might come from the most fabulous childhood dream. One of the most astonishing acts is also the one most integrated into the story of the show. According to press materials, varekai means " 'wherever' in the Romany language of the gypsies." And so this show is a sort of homage to the wanderer, who appears in the shape of an Icarus-like being who falls from the sky dressed in angel-white and long wings. Once he lands, he loses his wings, and in an act called "The Flight of Icarus," he must work his way out of a creamy-white net that holds him captive. Performer Anton Chelnokov is breathtaking to watch. Other acts -- such as "Water Meteors" and "Icarian Games" -- amaze simply because they look so impossibly difficult and dangerous. As with all of the Canadian company's productions, this circus provides a story with characters that infuse the acrobats and jugglers with an almost mystical energy. The show takes us to another world that anyone with an imagination would love to inhabit, if only for one night. Through February 13 in the parking lot of Reliant Park, 1-800-678-5440.

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