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 Assassins Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's disturbing and deeply inky cult musical (1990), whose main characters happen to be either presidential assassins or attempted assassins, is brought to chilling life by Music Box Musicals, a newly formed venture between our favorite cabaret quintet The Music Box Theater and MJR Theatrics. If Assassins is proof of what is to come from this exciting association, bring it on! Technically, this is a play larded with Sondheim music. In pastiche mode, Sondheim conjures a carnival atmosphere with snippets of such all-American musical styles as minstrel cakewalk, twangy bluegrass, barbershop quartet and a brassy Ziegfeld-like anthem ("Everybody's Got the Right") that could be accompanied by leggy showgirls trailing marabou. Every battered psyche gets a musical portrait. By any stretch, this is not your standard musical. The show is a difficult work to cozy up to, a Coney Island sideshow of freaks whose only claim to history's infamy is their success or failure in killing our commanders-in-chief. They point guns at our heads and sing out their neuroses. Neither condemnatory nor sympathetic, the caustic show asks us to understand their pain, but there's not enough depth in this showbiz kaleidoscope to warrant much empathy. It's unsettling yet also slightly facile. But there's no denying the unorthodox power and theatrical pizzazz from the stellar performers. It's an ensemble dream cast. Shining like supernovas, they add provocative highlights and shadows to Weidman's sketched-in people. The villains collide and interact through the ages: stage star John Wilkes Booth (Brad Sacrborough), plainly insane Charles Guiteau (Braden Hunt), downtrodden Leon Czolgosz (Luke Wrobel), pathetically ordinary Lee Harvey Oswald (Michael J. Ross), deranged hippy Squeaky Fromme (Cay Taylor), crazy housewife Sara Jane Moore (Rebekah Dahl), full-of-rage shlub Sam Byck (John Gremillion), sickly immigrant Giuseppe Zangara (Eric Edward Schell), sexual virgin John Hinckley (Eric Ferguson). Others in the cast include Adam Delka, as the smarmy carnival barker; Stephanie Bradow-Hunt; Marco Camacho; John Dunn; Elizabeth Tinder; and Kristina Sullivan, who co-directs with Ross. In the intimate space of the Music Box, the musical's impact broadens by this very closeness, with the psychopaths up close and personal. They bring out the best that's in Sondheim. Through November 11. 2623 Colquitt. 713-522-7722. — DLG

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

Fleaven Playwright Miki Johnson has creatively imagined an entire town contained within a huge shopping mall. The set is the disco bar, with escalators to get to another shopping level. Drummer-musician Heaven had a huge success with the disco band Denim Shorts, until its success was cut short by his archenemy, Flame. Kyle Sturdivant plays Heaven, in a bravura performance that is strong and hilarious. Flame is played by Noel Bowers in a comic-book-hero costume complete with a large entourage, varying in ethnicity but united by rich, raw talent. Bowers is a powerful protagonist, determined upon revenge against Heaven, who once partnered with Flame in a band and bonded with him. Heaven's sidekick, Seven, is portrayed by Troy Schulze; Seven is in love with Feather, a member of Flame's entourage, but is too shy to pursue her. Feather is portrayed by Ashey Allison, tall, slender, stunningly beautiful, with a model's gift for wearing exotic garments. Jeff Miller is Slick, deceased owner of a motorcycle repair shop — his eager eyes gleam with maniacal glee, peering from raccoon-style eye makeup. The large ensemble is wonderful, and the choreography by Tamarie Cooper is inventive and witty. The lines are written in doggerel, usually amusing. The set design is by Laura Fine Hawkes and the excellent set construction is by Mark Jircik Exhibits Fabricators. The lighting by Kirk Markley and Bryan Nortin is varied and adroit. Director Jason Nodler and playwright Johnson have created an entertaining event of sustained levity. The plot is complex and contains considerable suspense. In her second play, after last year's award-winning American Falls, Miki Johnson gives us a fresh, witty and vastly entertaining comedy, in a polished production certain to delight. Through November 17, Catastrophic Theatre at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-522-2723. — JJT

Murdering Marlowe 'Ods bodkins, good gentlefolk, there's an intriguing premise at work in Charles Marowitz's English Renaissance thriller Murdering Marlowe. If you have a passing interest in Elizabethan theater and the world of Shakespeare, this will be your goblet of tea. Scribbler Marowitz has turned the immortal Bard of Avon into a green-eyed, envious young lout who plots the death of fellow playwright, the honored Christopher Marlowe, playmaker of such popular London hits as Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus. Sweet William becomes the biggest opportunist in town, a struggling upstart who paves the way to success by hiring thugs to ice his rival and, to really gild the lily, bed Marlowe's mistress and make her his own. The basic premise is shaky, but there's so much love for the ripe language of the time that we forgive the skewed painting of Shakespeare and focus on the gilded frame that's bright and dazzling. This play is a treat to listen to. We're caught in the net from the very first scene, young Shakespeare in prayer as he confesses his hatred, fear and obsession over Marlowe. He compares him to a "giant compass so wide-extended that his north cannot his south observe," whose "dark genius is to mine like a firebrand to a lighted straw." This honey-tongued language sounds so true we smile as it hits our ears, for it contains both reverence and parody. Actor J. Cameron Cooper has a long history with Shakespeare, so it must come as something of a delight for him to actually be playing the Bard. Lean as sea grass, he's a passionate poet brimming with ideas and hot for married lady Emilia. He reads those sweet Elizabethan phrases of Marowitz with tender feeling and ease of command. Scott McWhirter is Marlowe encapsulated: usually drunk and continuously horny. He's dark and conflicted, and McWhirter eats him up. As conspirators Poley and Frizer, Sam Martinez and Anthony Torres play them with relish; Haley Cooper, as free-wielding Emilia, overlays her sexiness with wiles; L. Robert Westeen blusters convincingly as interrogator and royal toady Maunder; and Scott Holmes, as theater producer Henslow with one eye on the cashbox, mines all the comedy out of his toadying character. While we never really understand what drives genius Shakespeare to this murder most foul, the Elizabethan spider web of treachery, deceit, debauchery and high-soaring language is amply on display. Marowitz flies his banner high; Country Playhouse waves it with panache. Through November 17. 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. — 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

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