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The Altruists For Unhinged Productions' electrifying version of Nicky Silver's mordant black comedy, set designer Dominic Klovensky has made a mess. There's stuff strewn across the three-room set — crushed beer cans, assorted bottles, M&Ms, soiled towels, Cheerios, used Kleenex and various clothes. It's the magnificent visual equivalent of Silver's used-up, internally soiled characters. A season shouldn't go by without a visit from theater's blackhearted, sexy rapscallion. All Silver's plays — Pterodactyls, The Food Chain, Fat Men in Skirts, Raised in Captivity, the brand new Three Changes (which just closed off-Broadway) — dissect the worst that's in man with a tone between a funhouse laugh and a scream. The laughter eventually pales, as we're left with some very bleak people screaming for love. In Silver's world, they'll do anything for it. Here, the oddballs are a merry band of assorted radicals who'll protest anything — the disenfranchised, the homeless, drunk drivers, Indian rights, Bosnia, AIDS, government cuts to arts funding, free cheese — whatever the cause du jour, they'll gather after an all-night booze, coke and sex fest to plan tomorrow's bombing, sit-in or whatever. Their private lives are as messy as their political ones, and Silver (with director Karen Heimbaugh) keeps them bouncing, bedwise, in a frenzy of political incorrectness. "Politically, I'm a lesbian," proclaims Sybil (Michelle Cherie Drake) as she paws firebrand Ethan (Sean McDaniel), whose rich girlfriend Sydney (Sara Jo Dunstan) is so fed up with his philandering that she threatens to withhold money to pay for the necessary bombs. Meanwhile, social worker Ron (Jeffrey Ott) has fallen in love with dunderhead hustler Lance (Nate Suurmeyer) and is planning their commitment ceremony as a luau. Sydney shoots Ethan, but not really, and somebody's got to take the fall for the dead body in Sydney's bed. This is mighty fine theater no matter how you slice it. Go see it — you can protest tomorrow. Through November 1. Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation, 281-312-9379. — DLG

...and L.A. Is Burning In 1992, the whole country raged after the officers accused of (and video-taped) beating Rodney King were acquitted of the crime. In L.A., there was rioting in the streets; in the rest of the country, there was outrage and shock. Y York's ...and L.A. Is Burning, premiering at Main Street Theater, is a smart and moving response to the trial, achieved through three very different characters living in Seattle in 1992. Working in a government office is Haddie (Michelle Britton), a white, middle-aged, lonely soul who knows little of the world beyond her office and apartment. Her cubicle mate is Alvin (Timothy Eric), a thirtysomething, African-American go-getter who wants nothing more than to advance in his job. Into their ordinary lives comes Sylvia (Gwendolyn McLarty), a left-wing writer and academic who becomes interested in Haddie after she makes an offhand, nonsensical comment comparing racism and communism. The play, directed with quiet grace by Troy Scheid, focuses on Haddie's transformation as she watches the trial on TV and gets to know Alvin. The woman, who starts out thinking the officers might be innocent, learns to examine her own prejudices by the end of the play. Britton does a lovely job as the seemingly simple American who has depths that most people, especially über-liberal Sylvia, don't suspect. Eric is moving as Alvin, a straitlaced, uptight black man trying to get ahead in the world. And McLarty's Sylvia is wonderfully unlikable. This tender play is a powerful examination of a changing nation. Through November 9. Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — LW

Cav/Pag Known familiarly by this joint name since 1893, the operatic double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana ("Country Chivalry") and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci ("Clowns") is the perfect verismo coupling. HGO's sumptuously sung production is an excellent opera intro for those who don't know their coloratura from their basso. In Cav, poor Sicilian town waif Santuzza (operatic mezzo-soprano superstar Dolora Zajick) loves small-town playboy Turiddu (tenor Brandon Jovanovich in a thrilling HGO debut). However, Turiddu loves Lola (Maria Markina), who is married to Alfio (baritone Charles Taylor in his impressive HGO debut). Alfio, informed by the spurned Santuzza, kills Turiddu, but not, of course, before he sings goodbye to his mother – that's so Sicilian! In Pagliacci, the original "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," set within a touring commedia dell'arte troupe, art mirrors life as infidelity, betrayal and revenge are literally played out onstage before an audience. Clown Canio (tenor Vladimir Galouzine in splendid voice) loves his flirty wife Nedda (soprano Ana Maria Martinez, not sounding as splendid as usual). So does creepy fellow player Tonio (Charles Taylor again, sounding rich and resonant). Nedda, though, loves nonactor Silvio (baritone Scott Hendricks). When spurned Tonio rats out Nedda, Canio kills her and Silvio during a live performance. Now, that's theater! Maestro Oleg Caetani keeps the melodrama of both operas at simmer instead of full boil, where it belongs, but that allows the singers plenty of wiggle room. Powerhouse Zajick, slapped and thrown about in Cav most impressively, can outsing any orchestra, but she meets her match in Jovanovich, who exudes robust, effortless power. Can't wait to hear him again. Through November 1. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA. — DLG

The Strangerer Admit it, you're in the mood for another presidential debate, aren't you? Okay, don't groan, and don't stop reading, because Catastrophic Theatre's dramatic presentation of Mickle Maher's phantasmagoric 2004 head-to-head between Bush and Kerry, moderated by Jim Lehrer, is a must-see. Whatever you may think of these three empty suits, you won't think of them in the same way after this absurdist romp, which is wickedly accurate. The debate begins in documentary style with Lehrer (Seán Patrick Judge) doing a sound check, straightening his coat, putting in eye drops. The two participants enter — wild-eyed and wary Bush (Paul Locklear) and doe-eyed, stiff Kerry (Troy Schulze). During the first answer, Bush inexplicably stabs Lehrer in the back. Music from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western starts, as does the sound of wind, and the lights soar to white and then quickly cut to black. When they come back on, Lehrer, fixing his hair, explains that what we've seen is a theatrical moment staged by all three of them. What Lehrer doesn't get is that Bush is going to keep trying to kill him — with a gun, a pillow, cyanide — all senseless, without motive, somewhat like the main character in Camus's The Stranger (the book Bush was said to have read one summer, which set Maher on track to write this marvelous invention). We delve into Bush's psyche (yes, he's got one, and it's a beaut) as he attempts to make sense of the world and where exactly he fits into it. Fatuous Kerry drifts off to sleep — "He's a zombie," Bush jokes — and Lehrer is pompous and out-of-touch. Only Bush connects. Locklear gives the performance of his life, nailing W. with his weird pauses and malaprops ("middle-evil" is especially fine for "medieval"). He glides through the difficult non-sequitur monologues, giving Bush a comprehensible, maddening humanity. Just as spot-on are Judge and Schulze. Matter of fact, the entire production is incredibly realized. "Perfectness," as W. might say. Through November 8. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-880-5216. — DLG

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