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KOOZA In KOOZA's loose narrative, a shy, foppish character known as The Innocent discovers a world of magic, acrobatics and illusion. He's not only awed by the fantastic, but also finds a sense of self and purpose. If that story doesn't sound compelling, that's because it's really not. There has only ever been one reason to go to a Cirque du Soleil engagement, and that is to be thrilled by the feats of strength, flexibility and athleticism on display. The primary appeal of the performers at Cirque has never been what the human body can emote but what it can do. And these bodies can do quite a bit. The Innocent's journey to self-discovery is marked by a series of circus acts, some more jaw-dropping than others. The first real crowd-pleaser of the first act is the trio of contortionists dressed in skintight gold-leaf costumes. They move with a lithe energy that can only be described as feline. The choreography showcases their hyperextended backs as they fold themselves in ways that suggest their spines are really made of Play-Doh rather than bone. Equally stunning is a balancing act that sees a performer hold himself on one hand 23 feet in the air. The rest of the show is just as entertaining and features a solo trapeze performance, a unicycle routine, charivari, hoops manipulation, a teeterboard act that is not to be missed and a couple of funny, if not obscene, comedy acts. The Wheel of Death in Act II is not for the faint of heart, but is so thrilling, it has to be seen to be believed. KOOZA is at its best when it's not trying to be an emotional journey. When there's this much showmanship and exoticism on display, any attempt at creating a personal trajectory is pointless. Cirque du Soleil is a circus, after all, and KOOZA is another entertaining entry in its long list of spectacles. Through September 9. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Pkwy., 281-807-8700. — AC

Mr. Marmalade "How do I look?" asks goth babysitter Emily (Keshia Lovewell), salivating and pulling down her top in anticipation of her boyfriend's arrival. Her four-year-old charge Lucy (Monica Passley, in one hell of a performance) doesn't miss a beat. "Easy," she squeaks out with Borscht Belt precision. Watching Noah Haidle's R-rated comedy about precocious Lucy and how she copes with life through her imaginary friends, you think: Do kids really do this? Should kids do this? We don't know the exact origin of Lucy's vivid imagination, which can so easily conjure an adult playmate, Mr. Marmalade (Taylor Biltoft), who begins too good to be true, then turns dangerously sexual. Before the play is minutes old, Lucy suddenly blurts out in innocence, "How come you haven't touched me?...Is there someone else?" The question is practically obscene. What could very well be taken as child abuse or too painful for us to watch, Haidle turns inside out by having the children, Lucy and her real playmate, suicidal Larry (Louis Crespo Jr.), played by adult actors. The comedy can now be smart instead of snarky and objectionable — and still pitch-dark. Passley and Crespo do marvels with these roles, bringing wide-eyed wonder, deep-seated loneliness and bouncy playground charm to these children who see their world like adults but behave like tots, complete with tantrums, food fights, playing house and doctor, and manipulating obtuse Mom (Laura Chapman). When they eventually cast off their fantasy playmates, they find some kind of happiness with each other. The ensemble cast, under Scott McWhirter's sensitive direction, is foolproof. Biltoft is marvelously smarmy, suave when he's the husband from Heaven, enjoying a cup of Lucy's coffee and promising her a trip to Mexico; next, slovenly and abusive, lapping up cocaine from the living-room table and spilling out porn and sex toys from his briefcase. Danny Seibert plays Marmalade's secretary, Bradley, with exquisite aplomb, all prim and proper, except when he too is abused. Haidle's portrait of childhood revolves around desperately lonely kids who survive the world by creating a new one that is both funny and disturbing. The next time a youngster asks to play house, be on guard. Through August 25. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Steel Magnolias This comedic drama portrays Southern women as wittier than the Algonquin Round Table and more warm-hearted than a petting zoo. The setting is a beauty shop, the former carport of Truvy, converted by her husband so she "could support him." Truvy hires the young Annelle as an assistant, and a controlling mother, M'Lynn, and her strong-willed daughter Shelby arrive for treatments; they are affluent, but the even wealthier Clairee enters, followed by Ouiser, self-described as "richer than God." What a cast it is — faster with a quip than a quick-draw artist, with big hair and personalities to match. The direction, by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin, is virtually flawless, with a cast to match — ensemble acting of the first order, each character etched vividly yet integrated into the milieu of a small town. Playwright Robert Harling displays inventive brilliance in the sallies and adds drama, based on some medical difficulties of Shelby. Even here, the laughs are plentiful, and the theme of "smiling through the tears" is developed adroitly. Holland Vavra Peters plays Shelby and provides stunning beauty and a nuanced performance. Sally Edmundson plays M'Lynn and captures her nurturing needs and disappointment at her suggestions going unheeded. Susan Koosin is excellent as Ouiser, a straightforward, outspoken diamond in-the-rough personality. Genevieve Allenbury is equally good as Clairee, and Shelley Calene-Black finds Truvy's easy grace and warmth. Rachael Logue guides us through Annelle's transformation from ugly duckling to incipient swan. Superb comic timing allows the wit of Harling to shine in all its brilliance. Even if you've seen this comedic wonder, see it again, as the humor is fresh and timeless, the wit inventive and the characters so memorable that the mind will reel with pleasure.Through August 19, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Tamarie Cooper's DOOMSDAY REVUE (the greatest musical ever) Tamarie Cooper, co-founder of The Catastrophic Theatre, brings her annual musical comedy revue to DiverseWorks in a colorful, splashy production. The set, designed by Kirk Markley, is a handsome, elegant skyline of skyscrapers, soon overtaken by bedlam as Cooper enters to start the merry antics — she not only holds the stage, she owns it with a vengeance and doesn't leave it for 90 minutes of uninterrupted frivolity. This revue is ostensibly about the end of the world but is really about energy and enthusiasm and irreverence for all the graven images of our culture. The witty costumes, by Kelly Switzer, are part of the unrelenting fun, especially The Dancing Cupcake and the multi-limbed giant roaches. Tamarie's plans for a blockbuster musical are interrupted by forecasts of imminent doom, and every doomsday prediction from the Mayan calendar to the Rapture comes in for skewering. There is an inspired sequence involving Barbie dolls, including Prostitute Barbie. A brilliant sequence nails the teenage angst of being the outsider; the wit here is incisive, gentle and sweet. And who knew there was so much humor in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Musical theater is there to rebuild the world, with zombies from Cabaret, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Annie, Hair and Fiddler on the Roof. All the very talented actors play multiple roles and sing and dance. Tamarie can do no wrong, and her skill and professionalism shape this motley bag of concepts into a cohesive whole. A large, triumphant cast brings to life a revue of great humor, considerable wit and inspired foolishness, guaranteeing an evening of delightful enjoyment. Through August 25. Catastrophic Theatre at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT

The Wrong Side of the Law Theatre Suburbia presents its annual summer "mellerdrammer," complete with boos and hisses, and yes, you are urged to toss popcorn at the actors. The set is the lobby and bar of a saloon/hotel, the time is 1908 and there are period costumes. A pair of evildoers arrive, garbed in black as though fresh from a vampire convention. There is a plot, but this vehicle is about fun, not suspense. The first act is slow, but the second act opens with warmth as the cast parades and sings two oldie songs. These actors are determined that you have a good time, and will stop at nothing. Donna Dixon acts as mistress of ceremonies and also a telegraph operator, and she is excellent, as is Cory Grabenstein as the owner of the establishment. His mother is played by Susan O'Connor, who brings mature charm to the proceedings. The background piano music is ably provided by Alice Smith. There is a cast of 13, some of whom appear to be there to gain experience. Daniel Corrigan as the villain lacks menace and seems too aware that this is a spoof. The co-directors are Doris Merten and Haig Caesar, and they allow too much winking at the audience — it could be funnier if the actors stayed in character. The evening grinds to a halt whenever a character marches downstage to deliver an aside, then marches back to continue the play. What might have been amusing the first time becomes tedious a score of times, and the asides often fall flat. As "mellerdrammer" indicates, this is lighthearted summer fare — bring patience and a sense of humor — the popcorn can be purchased at the theater. Through August 25, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

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