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Capsule Stage Reviews: Beauty Queen of Leenane, Big Range Dance Festival, Fiddler on the Roof, Of an Era

Beauty Queen of Leenane If you know anything about the works of playwright Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, Lieutenant of Inishmore), then you're well aware that his vision of Ireland does not include leprechauns, four-leaf clovers or pots of gold. His plays are infamous for their willful violence, black-as-pitch humor and solid theatrical craftsmanship. This humdinger from 1996 has all of the above, plus a crushing sense of dread and foreboding. Twisty as a shillelagh, the plot keeps one guessing from scene to scene as new info is cleverly introduced and expectations derailed. Even the mundane objects in the ramshackle Fenley cottage in the remote town of Leenane take on ominous import. Will fortyish spinster daughter Maureen, chafing under her harridan mother's control, take that spoon out of Mom's oatmeal bowl and stab her in the eye? Is that pot of boiling water, used for tea, waiting to be thrown in a face? Who's the crazy one here? And will poor Maureen take up with sweet neighbor Pato Dooley down the way, and run away with him to Boston? Will Mom let her? McDonagh answers these questions with natural ease and, dare I say, charm; his choices are a testament to his great gifts. The quartet cast is downright superb, without one false note — Melrose Fougere and Julie Thornley play sharp-tongued hag and spiteful daughter; Wade Gonsoulin and Joey Melcher play the Dooley brothers, one knowing and one clueless. Under Ananka Kohnitz's edgy and right direction, the claustrophobic play becomes as taut and relentless as a murderer's hand around the throat. It's another haunting winner from a sparkling season at Theatre Southwest. Don't miss it. Through June 20. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

Big Range Dance Festival Summer leaps back into Houston with the annual Big Range Dance Festival, a fun way to get acquainted with some of the best contemporary dance choreographers from Houston and afar. It plays out over three weekends with three different schedules. Program A featured dances from Jane Weiner, Kristen Frankiewicz and Andee Scott, among others. Weiner excerpted a section from Village of Waltz that deconstructs some of the movements we associate with waltzing. This was the most athletic of the pieces and had some of the most complex choreography, cycling from funny (they danced in black socks while Ana Treviño-Godfrey sang a little ditty about black socks) to serious, with the dancers lifted high in the air in lush, muscular flights of movement. Frankiewicz's I'm So Alone started off with the dancer trying on high-heeled shoes in the mirror, and then exploded into an energetic hip-hop-infused joy-ride of a dance about all the things we do when we're alone. Scott's I Am Stranger was perhaps the most avant-garde piece from Program A; using movement, video and amusingly odd monologues, Scott explores such wondrous linguistic paradoxes as the fact that when we move from "here" to "there," we are no longer "there" but "here" again. Together, the pieces made for a pretty terrific anthology of what's happening in the world of contemporary dance. The festival includes choreographers from Atlanta, New York City and Austin, along with all those terrific Houston dance masters. Through June 14. Barnevelder Movement/Arts, 2201 Preston, 713-529-1819. — LW

Fiddler on the Roof Part of the charm of Fiddler on the Roof is Joseph Stein's tender and universal story. Tevye — philosopher, milkman and Jewish papa, who lives in turn-of-the-century czarist Russia — must learn to accept the new ways of the world, including his daughters wanting to marry men he doesn't approve of. Another reason for the show's success is all those singable tunes created by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — songs like "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Tradition" that have survived half a century. They're still so well known that many in the audience at the Hobby Center, where the much-loved musical has currently landed, did all they could to keep from humming along. But there is absolutely nothing more compelling about the current production than Chaim Topol, who plays Tevye like a man channeling the gods of acting. He's inhabited the role thousands of times since the 1960s, and his performance as the lovable, thoughtful, humble peasant embodies everything that's good about live theater. His warm, honeyed voice is as rich as burnished gold. He is both sweetly funny and heartbreakingly serious. He's alive and true every moment he's onstage, and he makes this whole world completely real. At the end, when Tevye and his entire village are packing up to leave Anatevka, the only home they've ever known, Topol turns a Broadway musical, the most lightweight of all American art forms, into a story of transformative depth. Topol claims that this tour will be the last time he plays what has become the signature role of his career. If that's true, it would be a true shame to miss this production. Through June 7. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-622-7469. — LW

Of an Era Christopher Wheeldon handed Houston another don't-miss ballet in the form of Carousel (A Dance). Part of Houston Ballet's current mixed repertory program, this brilliant dance distilled the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein musical into ten minutes of pure delight. Of course, the dialogue and plot were stripped away, but what was left was the essence of love among the bright lights of the carnival. Second-cast Linnar Looris made a strapping, if sometimes sinister, Billy Bigelow to Melody Herrera's delicately charming Julie in a stunningly fleet-footed pas de deux, and the entire ensemble seemed to be on a sugary cotton-candy high as they whirled and twirled about the stage. When the guys hoisted the girls aloft and pranced about in a circle, we definitely saw a carousel of colorful ponies. The company's other Wheeldon piece, Carnival of the Animals, which premiered here in 2007, proved that Houston Ballet's dancers love his choreography, and it loves them back. By comparison, Stanton Welch's Nosotros seemed downright long-winded. A classical exercise in partnering, this 30-minute ballet hit its stride when the Houston Ballet Orchestra launched into a beautiful rendition of Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini — otherwise known, to generations of romance lovers, as the theme to Somewhere in Time. Also on the bill: Spanish hotshot choreographer Nacho Duato's Jardí Tancat. An earthy, primal ballet that had three couples plowing the stage in despair and hoping for rains for their crops, this was set to a recorded score of Catalonian folk songs by Maria del Mar Bonet, whose poignant voice was both inspiring and tear-jerking. Through June 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MG

 
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