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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 Impossible Marriage In Beth Henley's stylized Southern universe (she's best known for her prize-winning Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest), her eccentric characters with their eccentric names (here, Kandall, Floral and Pandora) speak wistfully of times and emotions past. They also pontificate in florid, literary pronouncements, as if Oscar Wilde had dropped into the Mississippi swamps. It takes a while to get used to Henley's odd people, who certainly mean no harm, as they talk with faux gentility about mundane topics -- like innocent Pandora's wedding to Edvard, a much older hippie-type novelist (Scot Smith). Her wise-to-the-world married sister Floral (Stacy Ann Spaeth), most visibly pregnant, attempts to talk Pandora (a dewy Rae Alexander) out of making such a mistake, but the impressionistic Pandora, wanting to experience all of life, will not hear of it. Ditsy mom Kandall (Barbara Hartman) doesn't want a scandal, while Edvard's estranged eldest son, Sidney (Eric Dunlap), argues that the marriage will cause the suicide of his own mother. We also learn that the pious Reverend (Bill Artzberger) has earlier sinned with Floral (hence the pregnancy) and Floral's roué of a husband, Jonsey (Roy Johnson), has never laid a gloved hand upon her or anyone else, contrary to what everyone in town says. No one in this make-believe Mississippi is quite what they seem, and all their marriages and relationships have been impossible from the beginning. The tone of the performance should fall somewhere between arch and utter sincerity, which is difficult enough to describe, let alone achieve, but under Victoria Beard's direction, the attractive cast at Theatre Southwest gets it just about right. They manage to make the impossible probable, and isn't that what theater is all about? Through June 24. 8144-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

KBBJ: All Access All the Time If you're of a certain age, you remember the semi-classic CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. If you do, you might remember co-star Loni Anderson's pneumatic wardrobe or perhaps Gary Sandy's skintight jeans. The comedy was set in a radio station where the zany on-air talent and equally zany backstage management coexisted with heartwarming symbiosis. Houston playwright Tony Esparza has got to be a fan of this oldie, since his current new work, set in a public-access radio station, has the same arc. But since we're in the new millennium, a few changes are in order. Instead of Anderson's pinup breasts, Esparza gives us a co-worker's vagina (there's a sex toy based on her anatomy). Instead of smarmy innuendo, he gives us in-your-face sex farce, which also includes strap-ons, an extraneous porn-scene fantasy, pussy-whipped husbands and adulterous affairs. There's still time for group-hug sentiment among the workers, but where the comedy starts out is pretty much where it ends up, which doesn't make for a scintillating journey. There are funny bits throughout, but they're separated by deadly-dull on-air segments that would have this station bumped off the airwaves for mind-numbing tedium. The pace is bumpy and greatly needs quicker timing and a smoother ensemble. Suzanne King, as station manager Suzie, is a fun psycho combo of Nurse Ratched and Mommie Dearest, while Julie Boneau captures the new-age naíveté of DJ Dharla with her marvelous voice, which sounds like torn silk. But for a station that plays such an eclectic music mix, there's a lot of static. Through July 8. Fan Factory at Midtown Arts Center, 1423 Holman, 832-651-5287.

Mass Appeal "If you want to become a priest, lie," advises Father Tim (John Stevens) to his firebrand young deacon Mark (Aaron Thompson) in Bill C. Davis's two-character study of faith, love and commitment, now playing at Country Playhouse. He ought to know -- he speaks from experience. Comfortably ensconced in his parish for the last ten years, Father Tim knows how to play the game, how to get along. He doesn't make waves and never challenges his well-to-do congregation. He doesn't want to end up in the wilds of Iowa, running a parish as a "Bangladesh granola head." He drives a Mercedes, goes to the races on Monday and drinks fine wine supplied by his parishioners. In fact, he drinks a lot of wine. He also gives comfort when it's convenient, but with minimum effort. Mark, the new guy in the pew who's learning to be a priest, speaks the truth without thinking through the consequences, which is admirable but hazardous to his future career. These two seemingly diametrically opposed men of the church butt heads throughout the play, until they realize their similarities and discover the personal strengths they assumed had been lost. You don't have to be Catholic to relish this faith-based duologue, which brims with humor and humanity. Though set in a church, the men's quest is universal. It seems odd, though, that Stevens, the mouthpiece for uptight tradition, sports a ponytail. He's wearing the other character's hair. It's the only wrong note in this warmly entertaining piece, which makes us laugh and think, most often at the same time. Through June 24. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

The Race If the new Houston theatrical troupe GEMKNEM (pronounced "jim-nim") and its inaugural production is a herald for the quality to come, then unfurl the banners and blow those trumpets, because their first play is a doozy. Written and directed by George Oliver, Angela Watson and Dejamion McDowell, The Race is a provocative compilation of 13 playlets that confronts black reality head on. This production is superbly acted (and sung) by the writers themselves, along with Anthony Darden, Josette Harrison and Aurelia Holland. What supplies powerful new life to another play about such recurrent issues as drug use, absentee fathers, self-worth, prejudice, crime, gangsta culture and empty churches, among others, is that the authors focus their blistering lasers within the community. They laud personal responsibility, faith and family. Victimhood, seductive as it may be, is a relic of the past, as demonstrated in "Jim Crow and the Negro Display," an MTV-vaudeville number, and in the searing "Jones," in which Darden plays a pimp from hell who becomes a chilling force for evil, as he sells his vile elixir for "happiness," called Passion. The universal human spirit gets a phenomenal uplift in "Love Is a Scat and a Moan," a wordless operetta sung scat-style by McDowell and Harrison that details the truth of a relationship through courtship, pregnancy, breakup, reconciliation and childbirth. "And You Know How They Can Be" is a screamingly funny satire about reverse discrimination, as the black community is frightened to death by a lone white woman jogging through the 'hood. At the beginning of the show, the ensemble promises to make us think. They succeed gloriously, while also making us laugh, weep and recognize ourselves, whatever color. Through June 25 at Silverhouse Theatre, 1103 Chartres; then through July 16 at SHAPE Community Center, 3815 Live Oak. For information, call 832-242-0156.

Speeding Motorcycle He's back! Jason Nodler, the founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, has returned to Houston and the Axiom to direct Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston with grant monies from the Rockefeller Foundation. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a cult musician-artist, who lives in Waller, where he continues to write and draw despite the fact that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder. As one might expect, Johnston's musical world is inflected by mental illness and extreme loneliness. He writes often of unrequited love, deep despair and death. So it's a strange and altogether wonderful surprise that the story Nodler has constructed out of Johnston's powerful music is nothing if not uplifting. The weirdly moving story focuses on a man who falls in love with an undertaker. When she marries another undertaker, our hero -- who goes by the unlikely name of Joe the Boxer and is played by three different actors (Kyle Sturdivant, Cary Winscott and Joe Folladori) -- realizes the best way to attract his lover's attention might be to die. After all, she is an undertaker. As maudlin as this might sound (and Johnston's songs are often so woeful they can move one to tears), the utterly unpredictable story turns in some fascinating directions. Angels appear. So do preachers. We watch an undertaker care for a dead body. And somehow all this gets happier and happier. One might read this musical as mimicking the emotional manic-depressive roller coaster that bipolars ride. But it is sweeter to think of this show as the least ironic and perhaps most joyful production that Nodler has ever created. Through June 23. 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

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