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Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna in the Tropics, Damaged Divas of the Decades, Ether Dome, Farragut North, Republic Day, Woof

 Anna in the Tropics While the cigar rollers toil in a small factory in '20s Tampa, Florida, a new "lector" reads to them to pass the time and alleviate boredom. He chooses Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions Anna Karenina, and their lives change forever. Tradition, morality and dreams dash against modernity, passion and reality. You can almost smell the smoke inside the tobacco-stained factory at Country Playhouse in its colorful co-production with Talento Bilingüe. The mottled walls with transoms angle provocatively across the stage; the slatted doors, the linen pants and the sundresses scream tropics; and the workers' desks are appropriately battered and bruised. It's Nilo Cruz's claustrophobic play that doesn't fit. The foundation's sturdy, but it's the unending linguistic gingerbread he nails on everywhere that hobbles the play. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry that the play fairly drips with humidity. They don't talk, their words "nest" in people's hair; a kiss isn't a kiss, but someone who "slips into your mouth like a pearl diver"; and cigar smoke isn't smoke but "the veil of a bride." Who speaks like this? There's so little heat between lector Juan (Jorge Diaz) and eager, unhappy wife Conchita (Cynthia Leal) that we must take their passion on faith. It's up to matriarch Ofelia (Lidia Porto) and husband Santiago (Luis Suarez), owner of the factory, to bring heart and sizzle into the play. Although Ofelia is prone to evocative language that doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, Suarez plants her on earthy bedrock and anchors the drama with natural warmth. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. And Marela (Sayra Contreras), the young idealist who's always dreaming of a better life somewhere other than where she is, has a flapper's natural vivacity that neatly counterbalances the ache in her character. Once you get past the overly thick dialogue, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama catches you up in its melodrama as a window into an exotic world. However, the evening's most authentic touch was the professional cigar roller seated in the lobby demonstrating her art. That's what's missing from Cruz. Through October 1 at the Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. From October 7 through 16 at Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Dr., 713-222-1213. — DLG

Damaged Divas of the Decades A particularly high style of cabaret is in performance through November at Music Box Theater. This second production from the newly minted troupe is called Damaged Divas of the Decades, and if that title alone doesn't propel you to Colquitt and Kirby, what kind of theater queen are you? As the only cabaret in the Bayou City, Music Box is like a classy Manhattan nightclub of yore, intimate and boozy, sophisticated and in-the-know. The troupe's five performers, all locally known and highly respected in the musical theater world (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel and Colton Berry) have musical talent to spare and intriguing personalities to blend together when necessary and to cause sparks when needed. It's a bracing mix and, vocally, is unchallenged anywhere in town. As pros, they know through instinct and training how to put across a song. They also know how to entertain. As a tribute to music's self-suffering icons, from jazz's Etta James and Billie Holiday, to rock's Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, to pop's Barbra Steisand and Mama Cass, the entire evening is solidly entertaining. The musical spectrum is rich and varied: a Jim Beam-infused rendering from Dahl of "Me and Bobby McGee," Scarborough's patented falsetto in "Big Girls Don't Cry," Taylor's spot-on Streisand in "Get Happy," Wrobel's heartfelt "La Vie en Rose," and Berry's absolutely wickedly hilarious take on Liza or his simpatico treatment of Cline's "Crazy." Guest host John Gremillion plays a William Shatner emcee and an assortment of crafty personae to lead us through the evening. While the divas may be damaged, the show is without blemish and first-class all the way, with formidable talent on display. As the Kander and Ebb song says, if life is a cabaret, then I love a cabaret, especially this one. Cabaret just doesn't get any better. Through November 13. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG

Location Info

Map

Country Kitchen

4840 N. Shepherd Drive
Houston, TX 77018

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Outer Loop - NE

The Music Box Theater

2623 Colquitt
Houston, TX 77098

Category: Theaters

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby

Alley Theatre

615 Texas Ave.
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Theaters

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Frenetic Theater

5102 Navigation
Houston, TX 77011

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: East End

Obsidian Art Space

3522 White Oak Drive
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Theaters

Region: Heights

Main Street Theater

2540 Times Blvd.
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: Kirby-West U

Ether Dome The 19th-century "invention" of surgical anesthesia, demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 by dentist W.T.G. Morton, is the centerpiece of Elizabeth Egloff's extremely earnest biographical drama, an Alley Theatre world premiere. Unlike the similar biopics of golden-age Hollywood (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Madame Curie), of which this could have been a worthy descendent, the play veers disastrously from a solid central narrative and divides Egloff's lengthy story into three main characters, all involved in the discovery of ether as an inhaled anesthetic. But they're so sketchily drawn, they waft away like the fine mist that permeates the Neuhaus stage. We, and the play, drift away with them. Dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen, in a finely modeled performance) wants respect; his young, eager partner William Morton, a wily opportunist (Sean Lyons), wants fortune; and master geologist/chemist Dr. Charles Jackson (Jeffrey Bean), who colludes with Morton in his dubious patent for ether, wants fame. All three are terribly flawed, as the historical facts bear out, but each could be his own play, they have so many facets. Egloff sets them spinning in cinematic short scenes that skim the surface, cut off abruptly just when things get interesting, or are tangential to the great themes at hand. Although sequences are staged with a movie's fluidity by acclaimed director Michael Wilson, the play arrives in fits and pieces, like its own anatomy lesson. The scenes in the operating theater are appropriately grisly and medieval, but the others pass by without effect. We never feel we're a part of this play, just spectators watching it unfold. As if to compensate for the lack of sustainable drama, the production is luscious: period costumes, lively sound and light design, bizarre yet accurate medical props, and a cabinet-of-wonders for a set. All the space needs is a play with characters we care about to fill it. Morton's use of ether during surgery was the great moment medicine so desperately needed to move forward. Sterilization of instruments and hands would come later, but unendurable pain was, at last, conquered. Egloff's drama needs a lighter touch. A sniff of Morton's own ether wouldn't hurt. Through October 9. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

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