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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Carmen If you were going to be remembered for only one opera in your prolific career, you'd do no worse than Carmen. Composer Georges Bizet died during its premiere run in 1875, thinking his Gypsy girl had shocked his native Parisians, who weren't accustomed to such brazen hussies on the stage of the Opera-Comique. Boy, was he wrong. After a bumpy start, which was scandalous only because the Paris audiences pretended they were above such things, the opera shot off around the world as if from a cannon, and it hasn't stopped since. The familiar tale of the fiery, liberated woman who'd rather die than be hemmed in by jealous lovers is as evergreen and fresh as ever, thanks to the revival at Houston Grand Opera. In her patented interpretation, Béatrice Uria Monzon -- the reigning Carmen of the day -- is all sexy smoke and fire, with a lush vocal beauty that could melt ice caps. As she waits for her lover at the tavern, she arrays herself across a table, hikes up her voluminous skirts, shows off those shapely gams and still manages to sing up a storm. Hapless Don Jose (Marcus Haddock) doesn't stand a chance; he throws everything away to be in her arms, and his robust tenor fills the house with ardor, passion and dramatic surety. Raymond Aceto's baritone is a trifle too grainy for him to be utterly convincing as Carmen's current honey, but the five smuggler pals rip through their "pizzicato quintet" with precise abandon and excellent technique. Studio alumna Jessica Jones can't make milksop Micaela any less insufferable, but she sings all her prayers with radiant conviction. The production is sultry and minimal, and the orchestra sparkles and glows under the heated conducting of Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Viva Carmen! Through May 2. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737.

CloserLove goes terribly wrong in Patrick Marber's award-winning Closer, which is given a very adult spin by Country Playhouse. Like an ice pick through the heart, this lethal, contemporary and dark comedy kills without leaving much of a wound. The hurt is internal. In this brittle battle of the sexes, four disparate, desperate people meet, swap partners and swap again, searching for life's most precious commodity. That the quartet doesn't learn anything in the round-robin search is Marber's nasty take on modern life, but the bumpy road these characters insist on traveling is thoroughly satisfying, unpredictable and full of sexy trash-talk. As soon as love comes along, the characters muck it up by saying just what's on their minds. Invariably, it's the truth -- just what their lovers don't want to hear, although they all insist otherwise. Their lives intertwine so acutely, they strangle whatever chances they have for happiness. Under O'Dell Hutchison's pinpoint-accurate direction, actors Michelle Hill, Craig Cashio, Kenneth Jones and Julie Thornley limn the four wayward searchers with a searing, go-for-broke intensity that's adults-only viewing and extremely refreshing. "Where is this love?" Alice pleads with philandering Dan. "I can't see it. I can't feel it." Not one of them has a good answer, or gets any closer. The atmosphere might be toxic to the soul, but you'll leave the theater cleansed. Through April 22. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Dead Guy Satirizing what's already a parody -- the pop-culture phenomenon known as reality TV -- is a heady task, if not a downright futile one. But playwright Eric Coble succeeds better than most at making fun of this mind-numbing, overhyped trend, which doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon. To propel her flagging career, producer Gina (Elena Coates, in a witty, nasty, multifaceted take on Greta Van Susteren and her ilk) has a surefire sweeps-week idea to put viewers in front of the boob tube and advertisers at her feet. She'll pick a poor sap with nothing to lose, offer him $1 million to spend in one week's time, film his every moment and, at the end of the week, have the audience vote how they want to see him die. Amoral, mercenary and totally devoid of good taste, it's not such a far-fetched idea. Reality television seems headed there sooner or later, which is why the play works as well as it does. But it wouldn't work at all without Dwight Clark's winning portrayal of stoner deluxe Eldon. In his Led Zeppelin T-shirt and bad hair, he's the goofiest of goofs, in perpetual motion like some animatronic pinball, all sass and "cool, dude." Absolutely adorable in the role, he captivates from the get-go. It's a must-see performance. Joanne Bonasso, Adrianne Kipp, Brandon Peters and Michael Mullins round out the fine cast. If only Coble's one-note satire had more of the prickly, wicked bite that infuses its advertisement parodies, or had more of the mock/serious tone of its "show within the show" (with its own absolutely silly theme song), then The Dead Guy might have some real life to it. Through April 23. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Moon over BuffaloTheatre Southwest has been on a roll for its 46th season. First came the sprightly Molière farce Imaginary Invalid, then the chilling if expository Night Must Fall, then the lovely, atmospheric Bus Stop. Now, TS gives us Ken Ludwig's backstage riot Moon over Buffalo. It's their best production to date, full of charm, wit, pratfalls and hammy actors (they're supposed to be). Ludwig's laugh-out-loud comedy (his best ever) is really a big, squishy bear hug to all those "crazy" actors who lovingly labor in the theater. It's the old-pro Kaufman-and-Hart school of adorable eccentricity that supplies Ludwig's textbook, and he sets up his spinning plot twists and reversals like a whirligig. It's a wonderful contraption, designed purely for laughs. Under the always-in-control direction of Sheryl Stanley, the octet of felicitous actors knows exactly how to play this farce for everything it has. There's not a false move anywhere, from any member of this well-oiled ensemble. As George and Charlotte Hay, the old married pros still making the rounds in the hinterlands and hoping for that one big fat chance at Hollywood, Carl Masterson and Jeanette Sebesta are like warm, cozy sweaters. You want to wrap them around you, and their finely detailed relationship -- expansive, theatrical, snippy, bellowing -- carries the play. They're incomparably matched with Malinda Dunlap, Salle Ellis, Adan Gonzalez, Aaron Thompson, Laura Romero and Jay Menchaca as all the nutty relatives, friends and fiancées who swirl through the backstage lounge of the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo, New York, circa 1953. The play has a delightfully sunny glow, and that's just how you'll feel when it's over. Through May 6. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

Orson's ShadowThe magical land of great theater bubbles forth from the minds of titanic narcissists in Austin Pendleton's compelling Orson's Shadow.Now running at the Alley, the strange and funny play takes us back to the '60s, during the sunset years of theatrical monarchs Orson Welles (Wilbur Edwin Henry), Laurence Olivier (James Black) and Vivien Leigh (Elizabeth Heflin). Pendleton re-creates the fascinating rehearsals for Ionesco's Rhinoceros, in which stadium-size egos and beautifully broken hearts battle for a little bit of respect in a world that has all but forgotten them. The play opens on famous theater critic Kenneth Tynan (Jeffrey Bean) persuading Welles to direct Rhinoceros and to feature Olivier in the starring role. Now Tynan has to persuade Olivier to do the project with Welles, and the Alley's production picks up speed once Black's Olivier walks on stage. Wearing a pair of black horn-rims and a starched dark suit, Black is a flurry of frenetic and self-absorbed energy; he captures the grace and the unique body rhythm of Olivier. This is one of Black's best performances at the Alley in quite some time, reason enough to see the production. Another good reason: the opportunity to watch the rehearsals within the play. As directed by David Cromer, these delicious scenes capture the creative work that goes on behind the lights and costumes. There is something highly romantic in Pendleton's curious story about what happens to creative geniuses as they grow older. But because it is based on true events, the romance moves through the tale with an abiding melancholy. This production will linger in the hearts of those who revere artists and all they go through to make our lives richer. Through April 30. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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