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Capsule Stage Reviews: Anna Bella Eema, A Christmas Carol, Cinderella, Fruitcakes, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, The Nutcracker

Anna Bella Eema The world of the surreal and the real is fashioned into bold theatrical relief by playwright Lisa D'Amour, composer Chris Sidorfsky, a trio of superlative actors and the backstage wizards of sound effects, lighting and creepy set design. Under the watchful, all-knowing eye of director Jason Nodler, Catastrophic Theatre delivers the goods and creates a miniature pendant that gleams with tantalizing brilliance, old-fashioned, white-hot '60s feminist rhetoric, and symbolism too heavy at times to bear its own weight. Sparkly, it's a jewel too big for its setting, but a jewel nonetheless. D'Amour's 2003 play is a little of Alice — both Toklas and Wonderland — swirled with Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, overlaid with a love of lush language that's practically jungle-humid. The fog is thick and fragrant. Three women are already seated at their TV trays in the black crumpled void, making sounds and rhythms with all manner of kitchen utensils, rifling book pages or tinkling pixie-like with something metallic swirling inside a glass jar. It's Mom (Elissa Levitt), wild daughter Anna Bella (Ivy Castle) and Anna's creation, a mud girl (Jessica Janes), who live in the decrepit trailer park, a trailer park of the mind. It's weird and familiar. Solid as an oak, Mom remains in place, except when she flies in her dreams. Nature and instinct are stronger than the social worker, the policeman and the construction crew waiting in their backhoes to demolish the trailer park for an interstate. This startling piece of theater, although much too long and rather obvious, flies largely through Sidorfsky's magical music, which caws in animal cries, caresses with swooning lullabies or holds us captive with glittering, otherworldly harmonies. Married to the sound effects, the play's an aural delight — a bird's flight is conjured with two playing cards flapped together, and then let loose in a pack sprung open to cascade through the air. It's the most creative musical in town. The three women sing as well as they act, which has got to be a prerequisite for this most musical of plays. Levitt triumphs as magisterial, witchy Mom, a Medea who will later become Bertha the owl, holding wooden spoons to her eyes, or the sly old fox leading Anna on another journey of self-discovery. Castle is wild and wild-eyed as exploratory young Anna, who learns most from her mother when least willing to be taught. And Janes, who plays other subsidiary roles, is quite magical in her own way as Mud Girl, whose laughter both comforts and seduces. Who hasn't wanted to go down that rabbit hole, or at least under the floorboards of the trailer, to test our fortitude and see what treasures lie beneath? Through December 23. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — DLG

A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens's evergreen tale of misanthropic Scrooge and his ultimate redemption on Christmas Day is given a splendid retelling in Country Playhouse's one-man show performed and written by John Stevens. Dickens made a fortune performing dramatic readings of this novel, along with other works, but Stevens goes it one better by acting out most of it, capturing the very essence of mystery, compassion, poverty, comedy and salvation that is so critical to the story's success. He is aided immensely by Rod Harty's atmospheric sound effects, which weave children playing, midnight chimes, clanking chains — for Marley, of course — and festive carols into the background to add another tasty layer to Dickens's so-sumptuous feast. The setting is simple, yet effective: a bed and fireplace (edged in tile just like Dickens asks for) for Scrooge's decrepit house; a worn kitchen table and chairs for the Cratchit home; a scrivener's desk for Scrooge's business at the counting house; and a tombstone off to the side for the fateful visit of the last ghost. The lighting, also by Harty, conveys damp and fog, mist and midnight, gaslamp and ghostly specter with deft color and dramatic timing. It's all of a piece, and acquits Mr. Dickens's timeless tale with honor and dignity. Playing the entire gambit of Dickens's Victorian world of 1843 is a tour de force, and Stevens is downright magnificent, whether as miserly Scrooge with a slight crook in his back and pinched expression; the unimpassioned, yet droll, Ghost of Christmas Past, like a butler who doesn't know his place; tearful Belle, bidding her young fiancé Ebenezer goodbye, losing him to his true love, money; the gregarious, laughing Ghost of Christmas Present with rolling Scottish burr and outsize love of life; or bedraggled Cratchit and his entire clan, with Tiny Tim, to cheer on the holidays when all seems lost. Everyone's brought to heady life through Stevens's unbridled imagination and flawless technique. During the telling, Stevens roams the stage, cavorts up and down the aisles, lectures the audience from down front or sinks into an armchair, as if relating a cozy bedtime story. Wherever he is, he brings us smack inside the story, shakes us alive and makes us see it, just like Dickens's magnificent prose. Within his sincere and genuine performance, he reveals the very nature of Christmas and Dickens's abiding message. Through December 18. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

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