Bus Stop In the 1950s theater world, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge did for the Midwest what Tennessee Williams did for the South: He brought it sex. His 1955 comedy Bus Stop is a primer on various facets of love: the getting, the losing and the keeping (although when the characters actually get what they think they want, they seem fated for a crash). During a vicious Kansas snowstorm, a bus pulls into Grace's Diner to wait until the roads clear. The passengers include Cherie (Kristin O'Toole), a sweet, no-talent singer with Hollywood stars in her eyes who's literally been carried aboard the bus by gruff, macho cowboy Bo (Houston Hayes); after a one-night stand with her, Bo has decided to take her to his ranch in Montana as his wife. Along for the ride are Virgil (Tom Parker), Bo's laconic ranching partner, and Dr. Lyman (Bob Maddox), an intellectual, self-loathing professor with a taste for adolescent girls who immediately zeroes in on Elma (Nicholl Varga), the diner's high school waitress. Carl (Scott Mendell), the philandering bus driver, puts the make on earthy Grace (Zona Jane Meyer), who's equally in need of a quickie. Will (Robert Lowe), the small town's sheriff, oversees this lusty, rowdy group, and he vows to protect Cherie from Bo's unwanted advances. Under Lisa Schofield's persuasive direction, Theatre Southwest's able cast makes the most of Inge's rather unhappy worldview, where the most macho turn out to be virgins, marriage vows last only until a different urge strikes, and lechers and loners usually stay that way. Through March 18. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.
Dance the World Round The highlight of this three-piece program is Hush, a new piece by legendary choreographer Christopher Bruce. If you've ever wondered what circus folks do when the big top closes, Hush gives an answer: They act and feel exactly like the rest of us. Set to, and inspired by, the Bobby McFerrin/Yo-Yo Ma album of the same name, Hush embraces life, from youth to old age, in the guise of a clown-faced family ending their day under the big top. Bruce's brilliance lies in expressing human emotion through simple, almost minimalist, yet fluid movement. Houstonians may remember Bruce for his deep, often dark works, such as Land and Ghost Dances, but Hush is more in the vein of Rooster a lighthearted, raucous work that lifts your spirits while keeping your toes tapping. There is one desperate-housewife solo, but the majority of the piece is about the sheer joy of family life. The company shines like diamonds, especially in the duet between the father and the little girl, set to the song "Hush," where the papa clown does piggy-back lifts, then swings the girl under and around his shoulder, only to deposit her in a makeshift trapeze swing, hanging upside down from her brother's arms. The Bruce piece is bracketed by artistic director Stanton Welch's Indigo, danced to a vibrantly played Vivaldi score by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, and Balanchine's Western Symphony, a classic ode to the Hollywood's horse operas. Houston Ballet has never looked this good dancing the Balanchine piece one can only hope they revive it every time the rodeo rolls around. Through March 19 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.
The Human Voice and Send (who are you? I love you) Forty-three minutes of a woman whining on the phone to her departing lover, even when they're scored by the incomparable Francis Poulenc, is about 40 minutes too much. But that hasn't stopped Houston Grand Opera from presenting the one-woman vehicle The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine), a 1959 "lyric tragedy" with libretto by Jean Cocteau, translated almost word for word from the original. The Human Voice isn't Poulenc's best work; the Frenchman is at a loss to breathe life into this masochistic, B-grade melodrama. After a five-year affair, "She" is losing her lover to another. Having already downed a fistful of pills, she keeps popping them during her interminable phone call to "He." At first she's sweet and noble, then she's shrill and accusing; always, she blames herself for the failure of the relationship. It's hard to take in French, but in English it's unbearable. What happened to the female self-respect so prominently on display two decades earlier in those hardscrabble '30s films? Where's Joan Blondell when you need her? Caressed by the creamy, dramatic voice of Audra McDonald, we're lulled into thinking momentarily that this is better than it is. That's the power of an authentic Broadway diva. Send (who are you? I love you), Broadway composer John LaChiusa's curtain-raiser, is a contemporary reworking of the Poulenc a prequel, as it were. Still creamy, McDonald can't make LaChiusa's innocuous, disposable music sound any better. The "Woman" waits by her laptop, hoping for an instant message from someone she has yet to meet in person. She smokes dope, drinks wine and fantasizes about their life together. After much psychobabble, she finally gets that all-important call for which she has put her entire day on hold. Some power-woman. She seems nuts to me, although she does have a smashing pop-art-style apartment. Through March 26 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.
Journey's End A band of March twilight sky is tinged lurid green by the enemy's flares, illuminating no-man's-land, that 100-yard patch of broken, scorched earth separating the Allies from the Germans on the western front during World War I in R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End. A shell explodes, rattling the underground fortifications and dislodging a stream of dirt upon the British officers huddled around their meager dinner. One of them snatches the map from the table and catches the falling dirt before it mixes with his tea. Below hell on earth, life goes on. Impeccably produced and directed, superbly cast and acted, the Alley Theatre's cinematic production of this rarely seen classic is magnificent in every way. Without any qualification whatever, it ranks as one of their finest achievements. Part documentary and part well-made play, Sherriff's unflinching look at the "war to end all wars" was written in 1928, a decade after the armistice. In the work, valor and courage, precious commodities, are not easily won, but a good cup of tea even if it tastes of onions because the cook doesn't have soap and water to wash out last night's dinner pan sets things right, if only for the moment. Ritual, class and rank keep these soldiers going. Appearances keep them sane. Sherriff's play finds no hero in any one character the entire infantry company is our hero, and the exceptional ensemble cast meshes brilliantly under artistic director Gregory Boyd's subtle, muscular direction. Through March 19. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
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