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Museum of Dysfunction IV Here's an enticing little Christmas present from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company — an evening of short new plays — that doesn't even require batteries, they're already supplied. The company received so many submissions it has stretched the festivities into two nights with different rosters of shows. Museum, certainly Group I, has more than enough pleasure to pique interest in a visit to see Group II. None of these short plays falls flat, and there are no outright clunkers, so somebody at Mildred is doing a fine editing job. To be expected at such festivals are the one-note skits, the psychologically surreal riffs and the jabs at the war between the sexes, but we don't expect such constant entertainment from these age-old chestnuts. The acting is particularly fine throughout, enhancing the playwrights' intentions much more than hiding or overwhelming them. The highlight from Group I has to be Stoned Apples by James McLindon. Invigorated by a particularly hilarious take by Brandon Dinklage as a very stoned dude, he and a fellow dude, who just happens to be a Cortland apple, solve the woes of the world. It's a slacker's paradise of a play and an actor's golden opportunity. Inside his own glorious stoner haze, Dinklage runs amok. He could probably high-five himself if his eyes ever focused. The play is its own high and gives us a sweet contact buzz. Evenings devoted to new short plays are acts of discovery, whether it's a fledgling playwright you've never heard of or a familiar actor showing us new facets of the craft. These evenings usually amaze, sometimes stupefy, but always leave us wanting more. Museum of Dysfunction does all of this in a fascinating little package that anyone interested in the theater would want to tear into. Merry Christmas. Through December 10. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak., 832-463-0409. — DLG

The Nutcracker Even if you've seen The Nutcracker 100 times, you've probably never seen it like this. This is the choreography of Ben Stevenson, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 until 2003. The choreography is noticeably different from Marius Petipa's original version, and it's lovely. Arabian is danced as a pas de deux, not a contortionistic solo. Using two dancers allows for an even more beautiful, serpentine variation. The Russian variation, usually danced in a trio, is turned into a solo. The effect is astonishing. Jim Nowakowski commands the high-energy piece, literally kicking his face four times during his jumps. Anyone else in this variation would have been irrelevant, since it was impossible to ignore Nowakowski. Kids gasped. Nutcracker is, after all, about children. It should be presented as magically as possible. Houston Ballet agreed; this was the most kid-friendly production we've ever seen. The sets and costumes, created by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, were lush and elaborate, from the expandable Christmas tree to the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets. Pastry chefs suspended by wires flew across the stage comically in the second act, and kids in the audience roared. The giant mice too were out in full form, wearing shaggy brown rat suits as repulsive and squeal-worthy as they were realistic. But what truly sets this Nutcracker apart is the dancing. The Nutcracker Prince, played by Jun Shuang Huang when we saw the show, executed perfect double tours with landings as soft as the snow falling from the rafters. Katharine Precourt as the Snow Queen was breathtaking, and Sugar Plum Fairy Amy Fote glowed onstage. There seems to be no weak link in the Houston Ballet. Even Waltz of the Flowers, at which point the young audience usually gets restless, demanded rapt attention. The flower corps did work worthy of soloists, whipping off triple turns effortlessly. If seeing The Nutcracker is a tradition, don't plan on quitting this year. And for first-timers, go — but you might not see a Nutcracker this good after the Houston Ballet's. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MO

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