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Body Awareness It's Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, and our typical American family prepares. Lesbian professor Phyllis (Pamela Vogel), who wears her feminism like chain mail to ward off objectification and that evil male gaze, has scheduled an exciting program of guest lecturers and performers — puppet theater, Palestinian schoolchildren, a domestic violence quilt and artist Frank (Drake Simpson). Phyllis doesn't realize that Frank's art entails taking photos of naked women, all sizes and shapes — all ages, too. He's the embodiment of everything she despises. Her partner Joyce (Kim Tobin), with much less of an edge, wears her political correctness like a comfy blanket, more to hide from the world than to wield as defense. Living with them is Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (Matt Lents), who has Asperger's syndrome. When house guest Frank moves in for the week, the prickly jousting among the four sets off sparks. The heat Frank engenders threatens to melt the partnership and damage the already frail Jared — and might just propel Joyce to pose naked. Throughout the play, Annie Baker flies her woman's flag proudly, but fortunately never surrounds it with trumpets. Her softly etched characters won't let her get away with it. One of the running gags has pedantic Phyllis writing each day of the seminar on the blackboard as she introduces that day's topic and guest. As her home life spirals out of control, so does the writing on the blackboard. By Thursday, all that's left of her steely resolve is a limp "TH." It's a sweet touch that softens her considerably. With delicate shading from director Philip Lehl, the ensemble quartet sparkles. No actor does embarrassed normalcy better than Tobin, who grounds the play in the ordinary. Tobin's an immediately likable presence, an Everyman we all relate to, and she lets Joyce "come out" with a natural, unforced ease. As fox in the henhouse, Simpson romps as either regular guy or sleazy opportunist. Baker writes him this way, which lets us decide whether to trust him or run away. We never know what his motives are for taking those nude photos; Simpson wisely keeps it that way. As confused, afflicted Jared, Matt Lents is haunting. With detailed physicality, he etches his portrait in fright and empathy, a word Jared later learns all about. He's a young actor to watch. Through November 10. Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 832-866-6514. — DLG

The Italian Girl in Algiers Let's start with some undeniable facts. (1) Rossini's glittery opera buffa dazzles with an impeccable cast. It is magnificently sung. (2) There isn't one scene in this Houston Grand Opera production that doesn't wow the senses. The opera's mise-en-scène is a sumptuous riot of cartoon color and inventive stage design. Sets and costumes, conjured by Joan Guillén, are inspired. The whole show is phenomenally pleasing to the eye (and, naturally, the ear — see fact No. 1). But there's a third fact to weigh. (3) Spanish director Joan Font is incapable of letting his singers shine by themselves. He can't help himself; he's got to interfere. No sooner has an aria begun when some bit of background business, some mime in a lion suit, or a phalanx of mincing eunuchs, will upstage the artist and draw our eye away. The extras take over. This direction by distraction is annoying. Consider Act I, Scene 2. While Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), bickers with Lindoro, his recent Italian captive (tenor Lawrence Brownlee), a toy boat floats by in the background. The lights flicker, and the boat sinks as if pulled down by a kid in a bathtub. It's a delightful effect, and we can't take our eyes off it. However, we miss the duet. Minutes later, rescued Isabella (mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona) displays comic mettle in her beguiling, proto-feminist "Cruel fate," but she must compete with the downstage pirates ransacking through her waterlogged lingerie who put her bra on their heads like rabbit ears. The dreamy cast makes all this warmed-over Cirque du Soleil nonsense worthwhile. International bel canto superstar Brownlee glides through all that treacherous Rossini filigree with sweet, effortless command. Rising sensation Barcellona, with agile, velvety mezzo, shimmies as a feisty, no-nonsense heroine. In poofed turban and fat pantaloons, Carfizzi blusters as vaudeville villain Mustafa, sailing through his tongue-twisting arias. Baritone Daniel Belcher had a field day as buffoonish Taddeo, Isabella's much older suitor who's also rescued from the shipwreck. Maestro Carlo Rizzi didn't quite capture all of Rossini's bright musical fizz, and there was often a slight disconnect between pit and stage, yet Rossini's diamond of a comedy, a smash hit at its 1813 Venice premiere and a triumph soon after all over Europe, has plenty of natural musical sparkle. Tarting it up with useless directorial touches only dulls its sheen. Through November 11. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

La Bohème Giacomo Puccini's eternally fresh opera (1896) never shows its age. Among the world's most beloved and performed works, this radiantly romantic tearjerker set among a community of struggling artists in Belle Époque Paris never fails to make an impression. Houston Grand Opera's new production from Tony winner John Caird keeps this musical warhorse on a slow, steady track, but only finds romantic fire — and heartache — within the supporting roles. Soprano Katie Van Kooten (Mimi), tall and imposing, cuts an imperious figure onstage. As she so brilliantly demonstrated last season as haughty Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Mary Stuart, she can command the stage while spinning vocal filigree with the best of them. Her voice is large and supple. What she can't do is fade into the wallpaper. While she coughs convincingly and acts like the sickly young thing Mimi is supposed to be, Van Kooten can't hide that powerhouse voice. You can hear her all over Paris. This young woman is as far away from death as one can be. As her besotted boyfriend Rodolfo, tenor Dimitri Pittas has a more difficult time negotiating through Puccini's ardent vocal lines. He never quite manages to get there smoothly; we hear the effort, not the passion. Fortunately, the production is warmed with the heat from baritone Joshua Hopkins and soprano Heidi Stober, as jealous lovers Marcello and Musetta. They supply the real juice in this production, and the opera breathes easy with them around. All their scenes together are infused with that on-again/off-again, can't-live-with-'em/can't-live-without-'em attitude. Young maestro Evan Rogister keeps Puccini's lush score on medium flame instead of the usual roiling boil that this work cries for, so the impetuous fire in Puccini's magnificent score is somewhat banked and tamped down. Yet there's enough Puccini in evidence to let us newly appreciate the opera's glories that keep it so fresh and loved. Youthful dreams and wistful yearning infuse the music. The artfully told story, adapted from Henri Murger's more gritty newspaper serial and later novelization, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, still grips us with the neo-romantic picture it paints of these friends' everyday struggles in life and love. In another one hundred years, La Bohème will still sing to us. Through November 10. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

The Oldest Profession Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paula Vogel has turned her attention to prostitution and created a play about four women of a certain age who turn tricks in a Westside hotel in New York. The set is stark and grassless, with a park bench that's extra-long because it has to contain four full-bodied women sitting side-by-side. This arrangement might have worked on a proscenium stage but is a disaster here on a thrust stage. Playwright Vogel has imagined these women as sweet ladies, caregivers to lonely older men. Carolyn Montgomery plays the madam and creates an interesting, though unrealistic, portrait of a den mother. Cheryl Tanner plays Vera and makes us care for her. Lisa Schofield plays Edna, an underwritten part and a waste of her vast talents. Mary Lou Roschback plays Ursula, so angry and charmless one might well pay not to sleep with her. Sandi Morgan plays Lillian with an unnecessary intensity. There are jokes, and director David Holloway has the actors "sell" these. The going price for sex seems to be $10, a cheap joke. As the ladies die, they shed a raincoat to reveal hot pants with sparkles and do a sort of nightclub wriggle — the formulaic writing ensures that many such tortures lie in wait for us. Schofield has the most fun with this, and her exit lines draw the biggest laughs, but these jokes are borrowed from Mae West. Theatre Southwest is an important artistic landmark outside the Loop, and has had many brilliant productions — this is not one of them. If your taste is for weak, grim, sentimental comedy, give it a shot. But be warned that it's a four-minute Saturday Night Live skit stretched far beyond its breaking point. Through November 17. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? In Mark Medoff's award-winning play, a sleepy roadside diner in southern New Mexico awakens with a bang when invaded by a sadistic psychopath. The action begins with deceptive quiet as Angel (Lyndsay Sweeney) arrives late for her shift, replacing the night-shift operator, Red (Keenan Hurley). The manager, Clark (Alan Hall), stops in briefly, as does Lyle (Ted Doolittle), who runs the nearby gas station. The rhythm is natural, unhurried, aided strongly by a brilliant, fully detailed set by Trey Otis. A couple, Clarisse (Lendsey Kersey) and Richard (Tom Long), enter to eat as their Cadillac is gassed. The pace picks up with the entrance of Teddy (Travis Ammons) and Cheryl (Katrina Ellsworth), garbed as though fresh from the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Teddy is gregarious, talkative, an extrovert — he intrudes on Clarisse and Richard, challenges Red, playfully but with an increasingly sinister tone, and in a few moments links all together in distaste for him. He segues from charm to bullying, first by force of personality and then by other means of persuasion. The success of this suspense drama hinges on Teddy, and Ammons nails the part with an animated energy that is riveting. Director Steven Fenley has found an excellent cast and shaped it into a smoothly functioning ensemble. The evening may not be everyone's cup of tea, but cruelty can be engrossing. Playwright Medoff creates suspense and includes indications of how these events have altered lives. His depiction of Teddy is frighteningly plausible — he may be the next youth with a gun in the shopping mall. The thriller gains increasing speed and power as Ammons creates the psychopath, in a compelling performance, and brings this suspenseful drama to vibrant life. Through November 4. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

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