A year of brave new companies, of fresh keen moments, and of Beckett and Albee evermore

In the gold-glittering wake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, now bull-roaring its way to more prestigious and expensive venues, it's reassuring to recall that the year in Houston also delivered plenty of often more satisfying, if less spectacular, grown-up theater. On the musical stage itself, there was Theatre Under the Stars' own Sayonara, last spring's lovely contribution to the tradition. And in that tradition, last year also brought to Jones Hall the touring reprise of Frank Loesser's splendidly Runyonesque Guys and Dolls -- followed quickly in the spring, for those who couldn't get enough, by a charming, open-air (and free) HITS rendition at Miller Theatre.

More memorable over the year were quieter moments on smaller stages. Two of the most luminous were the work of the old grey modernist master, Samuel Beckett. BeckettÕs Happy Days received a straightforward and vigorous production at the University of Houston, directed by Edward Albee and featuring Patricia Kilgariff in a wonderfully witty performance as the indomitable Winnie. Beckett fans might have been expected to look to Albee for an aficionado's version; a more unexpected (and unhappily fleeting) pleasure was Anna Krecji's riveting Rockabye, which ran for a couple of quick and unheralded weekends at Curtains Theatre. I hope you were one of the lucky few.

The Curtains company has become something of the grand old man of the smaller city stages, still full of determination and invention, and particularly good at trying to use its space in creative ways. There's a bit of Albee in the air there as well; several company members have come through his seminal UH workshops, which happily continue to generate theatrical sparks around town.

At this time last year, I wrote that the biggest local theater story was the last-minute salvation of Stages Repertory Company, nearly scheduled for the wrecking ball. Saved by the bell (a.k.a. the mayor), Stages lives on, although not much visible has come, as yet, of the city's announced plans to turn the theater into the anchor of a city "arts center."

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New theater companies are like Texas wildflowers -- perennial, colorful and almost invariably short-lived -- but 1993 welcomed more than the usual share of new ventures, fresh with dreams and possibilities. The most substantial of these efforts were the West-Mon Repertory Company and Theatre LaB Houston, which have already put together productions of remarkable merit on what appears to be a combination of shoestrings, donations and desire.

Both theaters have staged excellent off-Broadway material that heretofore seldom made it to Houston. Most recently, the West-Mon produced a sharply etched version of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, featuring Tom Vaughn as a nihilistic, driven radio host. The Theatre LaB productions have all had a professional polish and intensity unusual for a fledgling company, and an intriguingly quirky intelligence of scheduling. Their most recent production, Maria Irene Fornes's unpredictable Fefu and Her Friends, had the freshness of a show newly rediscovered.

On a more ephemeral note, the Urban Theatre Company found a temporary home at the Heights Theater, staging a solid production of Macbeth as well as the world-premiere adaptation of Kafka's The Trial. At the moment, the Urbans report they are "on hiatus," hoping to resume productions this spring. More recently, the self-describing Gypsy Theatre Company opened its peripatetic arms with Teresa Rebeck's Spike Heels on the back stage at The Ensemble -- they plan to be rambling around town throughout the year.

May their numbers increase.
One of the special and selfish pleasures of theater is that, like life, it's irretrievable. Looking back over the year I recall a handful of moments to hold in the memory, like talismans in the hand: fortunate occasions to be savored, that will not come again.

Among these for me in 1993 (in no particular order):
Hobson's Choice, Actors Workshop. Harold Brighouse's comedy of turn-of-the-century Lancashire manners has the keen edge of a small world loved and clearly observed. As stout-hearted Maggie, the tradesman's daughter who takes her father and her husband firmly in hand, Theo Lane Pitre gave a performance as bright-eyed and fiery as any on stage in Houston this year.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Alley's Large Stage. "Not everyone is dying from AIDS... There are other malevolent forces at work on God's miraculous planet." That preciously small comfort is one of the themes running through Terrence McNally's elegy for a Fourth of July on Fire Island, in the familial presence of celebration, ritual and death. At the time I praised Annalee Jefferies's "risky, magnanimous and lovable" performance as Chloe Haddock; she was the anchor of a wonderful ensemble with James Black, Peter Webster and Shelley Williams. Lips Together is a play truly about our time, and so it will last.

A Raisin in the Sun, The Ensemble. I was surprised to discover how fresh Lorraine Hansberry's anthology classic could be in the hands of the right company. Sterling Vappie's direction found an old soul and a new heart in this play, still about us. Visually and emotionally, what I remember best is its opening moments, with Eileen Morris (as Ruth Younger) literally producing a family breakfast with the desperate, professional and true concentration of a mother, while the angry dialogue flew thick and fast.

Happy Days, University of Houston. Except for perhaps another Beckett play, there is nothing in the world quite like the implacable Winnie (Patricia Kilgariff) of Happy Days, planted immovably in the earth, waking to a naked morning in an empty landscape under an unforgiving, unacknowledging sun, smiling brightly without irony or self-pity, and declaring: "Another heavenly day." We could all do with a bit of Winnie. Albee periodically promises to do a Beckett every year forever; would that he could.

Dracula, A Musical Nightmare, The Alley; Chekhov in Yalta, Main Street Theater. One of the cumulative pleasures of this job is watching an actor come into his or her own. The work of John Feltsch over the last couple of seasons at the Alley, from Cuckoo's Nest to Cyrano de Bergerac, has been progressively revelatory, and his music-hall song-and-dance Count was a melodiously bloody delight. Similarly, Joel Sandel has been a steady presence in the variegated company of the MST; his convalescing Chekhov carried just the right air of world-weariness and human credulity.

The Gin Game, Actors Theatre. Lee Osborne Hickle and Jim Jeter shined in D.L. Coburn's actors' set piece about the vicissitudes of life and the humiliations of age. They'd worked together 40 years earlier, at the Alley, in Miss Julie of all things -- could it be that The Gin Game is Strindberg for retirees? Thankfully, no -- but Hickle and Jeter brought a zest to this production, under Chris Wilson's direction, that renewed a potentially stagey play. A very good deal.

This is but a handful, I know. There were also: Zora Neale Hurston's Spunk at the Ensemble; Brandon Smith in Dylan at the Actors Theatre; Ariel Dorfman's chilling Death and the Maiden at the Alley; Sight Unseen at Stages; bookend brilliant one-actor shows, Billy Bishop (Jeffrey Bean) and Shirley Valentine (Karen MacDonald), at the Alley. There was Sidney Berger's now almost predictably dazzling summer Shakespeare Festival, with memorable contributions from James Gale, Linda Ewing, Jeff Baldwin and Paul Peacock among myriad others.

But enough, and not enough. There was, by God, Burke Moses as cartoon macho man Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, a comic performance that resonates beyond the limitations of its setting, even its conception.

If you hadn't enough reasons to go back to the theater in the new year, I offer these few, for remembrance, in 1994. The rest you have to find for yourselves.

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