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Life Is a Dream Pedro Calderón's 1635 classic Life Is a Dream is the ultimate nature vs. nurture play. With a fresh translation from playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and a sprightly production, there's plenty of life in this antique chestnut from Spain's Golden Age. The multiple plots are bold and vivid, but it's Calderón's solidly visual language that sets him next to Shakespeare for sheer poetry in motion. Cruz keeps him down to earth somewhat, modernizing a lot of the high-soaring passages and condensing some of its heavy weight, but he always allows those crystalline Calderón images to float front and center. Imprisoned since birth to forestall the dire prophecy his horoscope predicted, Prince Segismundo (David Wald) is brought back to the palace by his guilt-ridden father (Steve Garfinkel). If he proves wise and good, the prince will reign; if he behaves like the monster his father believes him to be, he will return to his nightmarish prison. In crisp, short scenes, Calderón laces this psychologically cogent thriller with the bracing idea of free will. Can man overcome his fate? Must the beast inside always win against our better angels? Then he ladles on the intriguing notion that if life is but a dream, what is real? And how can one tell the difference? Into the heady mix, Calderón throws in a vengeance subplot and a Borscht Belt comic in wise-ass servant Clarin (Philip Hays). Wald makes a terrifically sympathetic prince, whether howling at his fate or opening up to the beauties of Estrella (Crystal O'Brien). "What must the sun do after you rise from your bed," he raves Romeo-like upon seeing her. Beth Lazarou, usually seen singing dramatically on other stages around town, creates a fierce, proud princess in Rosaura — she looks at ease carrying her sword as would Joan of Arc. Garkinkel shows the paternal warmth beneath the king's Lear exterior, and Justin O'Brien gives imperious Astolfo a sharp edge of ego. There are a few moments when rage and braying get the upper hand and threaten to swamp the good ship Calderón, but director Pablo Bracho steadies the boat immediately. If life is a dream, as Calderón so ably implies, then Main Street Theater's exceedingly minimal production — sweatshirts and everyday wear overlaid with period trappings — has a dream logic all its own. It's impossible to make Calderón up-to-date; his ornate language won't allow it. But his particular message to live life fully and do your best in the living of it is a fit lesson for any age. Through October 21. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Superior Donuts In this play, the taciturn owner of a donut shop in Chicago with few customers hires an African-American male to assist him, and they develop a prickly relationship. Playwright Tracy Letts tackles a multiplicity of themes: racism, the gangster underworld, addiction, the rise of Starbucks and Vietnam-era draft evasion. We meet first the owner of an adjacent shop (Scott Holmes) and two police officers, investigating vandalism. Holmes delivers an interesting and credible characterization, and Osbie Shephard as the male officer is commanding and authentic. The female officer, played by Vicky McCormick, is courting Arthur, the donut shop's owner (John William Stevens), but McCormick seems to be still searching for her character, so the play includes an unconvincing romance. Stevens is a powerful actor, but the script unfortunately calls for him to change his mood and motivation almost capriciously. Sam Flash plays Franco, the young African-American, and is brash as required, but the chemistry between him and Arthur never quite materializes. Flash and Stevens anchor the play and nail some eloquent moments. There is considerable humor in the form of one-liners. A lot happens in Act Two, most of it implausible, and the comedy turns ugly toward the end, but playwright Letts tugs at our heartstrings, so there are rays of light in the midst of cowardice, brutality and penury. The play reeks of nostalgia for a bygone Chicago — that may have been the appeal in writing it. Directed by Trevor B. Cone, the work has a slow pace that creates a sense of naturalism. Through September 29. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Women@Art As far as choreographers are concerned, the world of ballet is a male one. But Houston Ballet continues its tradition of celebrating female dance-makers with Women@Art, a mixed-rep program featuring work by Julia Adam, Aszure Barton and the incomparable Twyla Tharp. Ketubah, Adam's Jewish wedding portrait, is a delight. Much of the choreography draws from Eastern European social dance, and what really brings these piquant scenes to life is the klezmer music performed by The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas. Enough cannot be said of the world premiere of Barton's Angular Momentum. It's a fascinating piece, and one that takes some time to digest. Even then, it's a bit difficult to fully grasp its intentions. Contemporary sci-fi ballet may sound a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it might be just as good a description as any. The dance is characterized by its sharp, birdlike movements and common gestures that one would not expect to see on a world-renowned stage. Hands wave, shoulders shrug and torsos shimmy for choreography that is as bizarre as it is stimulating. There are throbbing, palpitating sequences where the dancers take striking Eastern poses and move in hypnotic undulations of the space. All this while they're in spacesuits. It may be redundant to fawn over Tharp's The Brahms-Haydn Variations, but there's a reason Tharp is a seminal figure in contemporary dance. Tharp matches Brahms's music with choreography that complements the central melody. Dancers in creams and soft copper enter and exit the stage in waves of lifts and extensions; men leap and women promenade, at moments in pairs and at others in groups. The most gorgeous moments are when the full cast is onstage, the fractured movement becoming a single unit that swells and falls in warm energy. This is ballet for sure, but it's dance that feels of this moment, fresh, relevant and vital. Through September 30. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — AC

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