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Festival of Originals Theater mavens love Theatre Southwest's three-weekend program of new short plays. The works are fresh, as in recently written, and usually run under 20 minutes. The length can be a godsend, because if you can't stand the one you're watching, your irritation or boredom will soon be over. Even with the time limit, some playwrights are flummoxed to create a satisfying short story, which, I'm happy to report, is not the case with this 16th annual festival. Each play, solidly crafted, has a different director and cast, which gives the audience a chance to see some favorite actors, or better, to discover new faces. There's no dearth of talent in Houston's acting pool. None of the plays was an outright stinker. But none was particularly memorable, either, although at least two of them will probably find life outside of TSW. These are middle-of-the-road works, pleasing and pleasurable in their entertainment. I have to admit, two hours passed pretty quickly. That's a big plus. RE: Kill the Messenger, by Bryan Maynard, is a visceral, mano a mano slice of Mamet via Quentin Tarantino. The Recipient (Wade Gonsoulin), a killer employed by an anonymous corporation, anxiously awaits the Messenger (Andrew G. Barrett), who apparently bears bad tidings about his future at the company. Gonsoulin, world-weary around the edges, knows he's out of there and feels guilty about his murderous career. Barrett, sucking on a toothpick, arrives wearing black leather gloves and a creepy top-dog attitude. There's impressive physicality, and two (if not three) fight scenes neatly staged by director John Mitsakis as male dominance gets a sweaty workout when this cat-and-mouse game intensifies. Maynard's overly symbolic passages about quantum physics and a dead cat (?!) flew completely over my head and muddied the elemental theatrics, but the amoral Mr. Barrett stayed stunningly alive, mean as a junkyard dog. He deserved his promotion. Many Miles, by Rose-Mary Harrington, is absolute catnip for ailurophiliacs. This "life and times" adventure of Miles the cat (Taylor Biltoff, a scruffy bon vivant) is an absolute audience-pleaser. If you're partial to dogs, you're on your own. Actors playing animals isn't exactly my bowl of Meow Mix, but this picaresque tale is larded with charm, although that's about all it has going for it. (The costume and hair design deserve a note of praise — those ear top-knots are inspired.) As in most short adventures, salient events are quickly outlined while others are glossed over. A choppy narrative is the order of the day. Harrington, while covering most pertinent cat points, has two really good ideas: Uncle Winston (Scott Holmes) and Racoon (Jose Luis Rivera). Sax-playin' Winston is one cool cat, and Holmes plays him like he's the coolest white dude in the hood. A consummate actor, Holmes always surprises, and he bats this character around as if it were the tastiest little rodent. Later, when Miles arrives in Hollywood, he ventures outside at night, only to be confronted by the gang-bangin' mammal in a mask. Rivera gives him feverish comic attitude. Their culture clash around the garbage cans is delicious fun. The play has no ending; it just runs down, out of steam and ideas, leaving Miles and friends purring on the sofa. Not a bad place to be — for actor or audience. Through August 3. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Hollow The Alley has had 21 prior productions of Agatha Christie's plays, with The Hollow its 22nd. The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is magnificent, the garden room of an imposing estate. The owner, Sir Henry Angkatell (James Black), is respectable but without warmth or charm. His wife, Lucy (Josie de Guzman), is absentminded, a bit dotty, bringing a delightful joie de vivre to the party. An actress, Veronica Craye (Laura E. Campbell), is played with fervor and an exaggerated style. Edward (Jay Sullivan) is a wealthy twit who proposes in the course of the play to two women and attempts suicide. Henrietta (Elizabeth Bunch) is an abstract sculptor, serious and glum. Midge Harvey (Emily Neves) is a poor-relation cousin too proud to accept financial aid from her very wealthy relatives, preferring to grumble about her uninteresting job. The butler, Gudgeon (Todd Waite), is angry throughout and speaks loudly. Diandra Langenbach as Doris, the maid, is persuasive. Guests are Dr. John Cristow (Mark Shanahan) and his wife, Gerda (Melissa Pritchett); the plot revolves around them. Cristow appeals to the opposite sex, but he is brusque and stolid, and we don't see why. Gerda is clumsy, with no poise — Pritchett found the character and is irritating. Inspector Colquhoun (Lee Sellars) is a role with no relish, and David Matranga overplays the comic role of his assistant. The acting style is old-fashioned British: "Hit the mark and say your lines," and I kept searching — in vain, except for de Guzman — for signs that the actors believed for a minute what they were saying. This is a so-so script, without flair, intrigue or suspense, and a so-so production, except for a magnificent set and an exciting performance by de Guzman. Through August 4. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell It wouldn't be summer without a Tamarie Cooper musical, and this year's tightly written show deals with the problems of old age. For Tamarie, the great fear of aging is not the aches and pains, the forgetfulness and the incontinence, though these are faced ruthlessly, but the dark, forbidding dread of being terminally...unhip. Death holds no sting, but being unhip is the bourn from which no traveler returns. The show is breathtakingly funny, approaching brilliance, and aided by consummate actors who seldom miss a chance to enhance the wit with pantomimic vulgarities. Kyle Sturdivant provides a bravura performance. The classic porn pizza delivery scene is skewered, with Karina Pal Montano-Bowers sexy in a towel. Internet "trolls" each have a laptop and horns, and Tamarie tries to upgrade from flyers to "social media." The plot pretends the show is closed down by policemen (Noel Bowers and Seán Patrick Judge) because Tamarie is too old to play an ingenue, and she is replaced by a younger actress, but fights to regain her fame, her hipness — and her boa. Xzavien Hollins is cool as a rapper, and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott has great reactions as a hipster; all actors play multiple roles. There is an amusing confrontation between an older Tamarie and a younger version (Jessica Janes) exploring youthful dreams. Tamarie's enormous energy, expressive face and engaging persona light up the stage. She sings, she dances and she can carry a show. She is wonderful, and if you haven't met her yet, there is no time like the present. The exciting book is by Patrick Reynolds and the engaging music by Miriam Daly. Get to this annual jamboree of Tamarie Cooper and friends. Through August 24. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT

Wicked With all the aerial modes of transportation on display in Stephen Schwartz's (and book writer Winnie Holtzman's) megahit musical Wicked — winged monkeys, broomstick, tornado, fairground balloon and bubble — you'd think this theatrical juggernaut from 2003, the fourth incarnation to visit Houston via Gexa on Broadway, would have learned how to fly. But like an unwieldy zeppelin, the show lumbers along, dragged only intermittently into fresh air by the sorcery of Hayley Podschun as Glinda. Channeling the original necromancy of Kristin Chenoweth, Podschun adds her own brand of bubblelicious charm to Munchkinland's legally blond witch, which lifts this heavy, overproduced musical into the heavens. Whenever she's onstage, the musical floats high and light; when she's offstage, this gigantic, misguided dirigible collapses as if hit by lightning. Based very loosely upon Gregory Maguire's adult "prequel" to L. Frank Baum's classic series of children's books, this Broadway adaptation owes whatever magic it possesses to the long-ago wizards of MGM. Wicked's creators should be on their knees in thanks, because without the cinematic references to character, costume and set design, even dialogue, this show would be nowhere. The musical can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Themes plod in and out, while characters change motivation almost mid-scene. Is this a musical about the power of sisterhood? About being different? About being kind to animals? Or is it just the old Broadway plot of the odd girl finally getting the hunk? There's no cohesive message; it's about everything. The show drifts, using our memories of the movie to give it momentum and heft. And has there been a bigger, more successful musical in the last two decades with a score of less distinction? Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, lyrics for Disney's Pocahontas and Dreamworks's Prince of Egypt) supplies enough anthems for an entire season of American Idol, but except for Glinda's comic "Popular" and a heartfelt duet for Glinda and Elphaba (Jennifer DiNoia), "For Good," the pop numbers come and go without touching us in the least. There's no charm in the music. Even Elphaba's power ballad "Defying Gravity," which ends the long first act with blasts of stratospheric singing and blinding light cues as Elphaba ascends on her broomstick to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is surprisingly forgettable. It's the slickness of the staging that we remember at intermission. The production is rich and eye-popping, no question about it, with Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set designs and Susan Hilferty's award-winning costumes traveling well on the road. However, Wayne Cilento's stiff choreography doesn't travel at all. Has there ever been such a blockbuster with less exhilarating dancing? Or less fun? What a ponderous musical. Judy and her indelible friends on the yellow brick road cast a mighty spell. Looking over their shoulder, Wicked's writers attempt to bring the backstory to life but trip over themselves and muddy up our nostalgia. They've created a monster, a huge cash cow, but one without much courage, heart or brains. Through August 11. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — DLG

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