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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 Boston Marriage David Mamet, one of America's most important living playwrights, is well known for his smutty-mouthed male characters -- they scrape the bottom of the world as they eke out a bitter living, usually involving some sort of nefarious activity. His 1999 Boston Marriage, getting its regional premiere with the folks at Unhinged Productions, gives us an altogether new spin on Mamet's quintessential scam artist. Set in the Victorian age, the play focuses on a pair of lesbians who live discreetly together in a "Boston marriage," which is a 19th-century term describing the close (supposedly nonsexual) friendships between women who choose to cohabitate instead of marrying. Born from Mamet's imagination, these ladies are as capable as any of his male characters of hurling a nasty insult. Anna (Sara Gaston) and Claire (Patricia Duran) call each other everything from "vacant cow" to "impertinent cooz" to "immoral harlot" as they battle over who gets to sleep with whom. In true Mamet form, they're also willing to scam for money and for sex. Lighter and funnier than much of Mamet's work, Boston Marriage is a celebration of language and philosophy. The characters say things like "what a vast and pointless shithole it all is" as they explore the meaning of words and the meaning of love. Directed by Michelle Edwards, this show is clean and tight and often laugh-out-loud funny. Especially riotous is Gaston as the acid-tongued Anna. These women are catered to by their Scottish maid Catherine, played by Kelley Stolte with flaming red hair and fiery wit. Her well-timed curtsies are priceless. No Mamet fan should miss this production. Through March 27 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

The Elephant Man The bizarre but true story of Joseph Carey Merrick, a.k.a. the Elephant Man, is the ultimate tale of the ultimate outsider. Hideously deformed during childhood by the extremely rare disease known as Proteus syndrome, Merrick was a living monstrosity during the heyday of Victorian England, and was treated as such for much of his short life (he died in 1890, at the age of 27). Cast out of his family as a boy, exploited in the workhouse, exhibited in freak shows, degraded and treated with absolute contempt and horror by everyone who crossed his path, Merrick, miraculously, did not become hideous on the inside. Merrick's savior, the eminent Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital, showed him kindness and compassion, giving him a home with loving care that included trips to the country and visits with the upper crust of London society. Merrick blossomed for a time, but it wasn't enough -- what could be? One afternoon, he lay down -- he always slept upright, his knees pulled up with his immense bulbous head resting on them -- and the weight of his head crushed his windpipe, suffocating him to death. Bernard Pomerance's Tony Award-winning play lays out the details of Merrick's life, embellishing some and truly moving us with this remarkable story. Unlike David Lynch's graphic movie bio, Pomerance allows us to use our imagination to see the monstrous. As Merrick, Nathan Railey is sublime, and so is Connie Embesi Bennicoff as sympathetic actress Mrs. Kendall, who elicits Merrick's humanity during her visits. And as Dr. Treves, Lee Honeycutt amply supplies his character with distinction and morality. The Country Playhouse production, sharply directed by Meghan C. Hakes, is immensely affecting and evocative. Through April 2. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

john & jen Rebekah Dahl and Luther Chakurian, veterans of Masquerade Theatre, work sheer magic on Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's mundane 1995 off-Broadway tuner. (Lippa would later compose the more mature and satisfying Jazz Age-themed The Last Party.) Although the two-character musical john & jen sometimes soars with moments of poignancy and humor, in the end, it's strictly paint-by-numbers. The show is so predictable, you can tell the tenor of the songs by their very titles: "Welcome to the World," "Think Big," "The Road Ends Here," "Every Goodbye Is Hello." Act I concerns Jen and her younger brother John's conflicts with an abusive father; their staunch, united defiance; their inevitable growing apart as age defines them; and their last fight before John ships out to Vietnam. In Act II, single-mother Jen raises her son John, her brother's namesake, as she attempts to come to terms with the past and see that her son is kept safe from harm. The sibling-parent conflicts move from A to B with a sketchy patness that flattens our involvement. The music is clever, if unmemorable, but there's ample room for the two pros to put across this stale material with affecting verve and needed dash. While the musical line lies about three notes higher than comfort, Dahl eats into the score and conquers by sheer dramatic power. And Chakurian shows a welcome softer side, which is a good thing and long overdue. Through March 19 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045.

Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare's tale of feuding families and doomed love remains timeless -- both emotionally and politically. And Ben Stevenson's 1986 ballet based on the tale holds its own amid other ballet versions by Sir Frederick Ashton and John Cranko. The pas de deux flaunt Stevenson's lyrical brilliance, and all the elements that make story ballets seem like museum pieces -- mime, folksy street dances and tedious nonessential interludes -- are kept to a minimum. Sergei Prokofiev's delicious score moves the story along with finesse, and David Walker's sets and costumes rise to high-brow-opera level as he re-creates Verona with the glow of a Renaissance painting. Sara Webb, in her first performance as Juliet, triumphs as the sweet teen finding love. At first, Juliet is all girl and games, amusing her nurse and annoying her mother. Webb captures that pesky teen spirit in her lightness and flightiness, her tiny steps and weightless leaps evoking the carefree nature of adolescence. All this changes when she sets eyes on Romeo, whom Simon Ball plays with a stoic, more adult quality. Webb plays up the "coming of age" theme beautifully as her qualities shift, later in the ballet, to those of a woman in bloom. After Romeo mistakenly finds Juliet dead, he hopelessly dances with his limp secret wife. It will make you want to yell, "She's only sleeping!" Webb handles the final moments of waking and finding Romeo dead with the subtle drama that this epic story deserves. Through March 20 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.

 
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