By the Bogs of Cats The past weighs heavily upon the residents of the desolate, wind-swept peat bogs of rural Ireland -- especially for Hester Swane (a fiercely determined and utterly believable Michelle Edwards). Hester was abandoned long ago by her father and mother, and now she's losing her lover, their daughter, her home and her mind. For this boggy, slightly feminist retelling of Euripides's ancient Greek classic Medea, Irish contemporary playwright Marina Carr has added enough brogue, leprechaunish humor and idiosyncratic Irish temperament to fill three John Ford movies, four plays by Synge and multiple chapters of Joyce. It's wildly uneven, swinging from bleak despair to ghostly apparitions, from drunken operatic outbursts to incredibly beautiful cascades of poetry, from heavy-handed symbolism to substance. Hester's fate is more the result of her own misjudgments and bad behavior than in the original version, which dulls the tragedy but not the play's power. It marches toward its harrowing conclusion with inevitable drumbeat, and Hester, no matter how willful, cannot withstand her own past's juggernaut. Edwards is magnificent as a woman wronged, seeking vengeance and justice from unhearing gods. Eric Doss is equally good as weak-willed, opportunistic lover Carthage, who callously throws Hester aside for property and respect. Patricia Duran is over the top as blind seeress Catwoman, but how else to play a character who speaks to ghosts, eats mice and laps wedding champagne from a saucer? The distinctive voice of playwright Carr, banshee and poet, is brought to life via Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, and we're treated to a most intriguing night in the theater. Through October 22. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-418-0973.
An Empty Plate in the Caf du Grand Boeuf Michael Hollinger's play, now running at Main Street Theater, is a most unusual comedy. Wildly ambitious, the play invokes some of American literature's most familiar images, including Ernest Hemingway, a Parisian cafe and existential angst. But revered as they may be, many of the motifs running through this script feel oddly out of place, and they come off as over-the-top melodrama, seeming almost quaint against the backdrop of our current consumer-driven world. On the other hand, there is so much wonderful clowning enacted by this story's collection of quirky characters -- who come to dazzlingly hysterical life with the help of director Rebecca Greene Udden's wonderfully capable cast -- that it's hard not to come away from this peculiar play feeling strangely satisfied. The premise spins around a man named Victor (Charles Tanner) who wants simply to tell his life story while he slowly starves himself to death. But the employees of the Grand Boeuf come up with a clever plan to save their patron. They tempt him with a make-believe dinner. They bring out empty plate after empty plate, describing the dishes they wish they were serving in so succulent a verbiage that it's impossible not to come out of this show hungry as a bear. As the head waiter, James Belcher enjoys every minute he spends curving his lips around each syllable as though it were a bite of manna. He leads the terrific cast of foppish staff members as each reveals that they are every bit as troubled as Victor. Frankly, Victor and his problems sound narcissistic when held up to those of his sadder and funnier staff. But happily, the workers get as much time on stage as Victor does, and they make for a sinfully tasty treat. Through October 23. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.
Hapgood Too clever for its own good, Tom Stoppard's Hapgood often comes off like a convoluted math problem. The play is filled with long stretches of weirdly confusing plot twists made even more ponderous by its stitched-in poetic soliloquies on the wonders of quantum physics. Of course, most Stoppard fans go to his shows prepared to pay attention. But Hapgood spends too much time with its head in the clouds to pack much of an intellectual or emotional punch. The story, which takes place during the cold war, focuses on Elizabeth Hapgood (Josie de Guzman), the loving boss of a pack of rather hapless British agents who spend much of their time trying to keep secrets from the Russians. Among Hapgood's troubles is the fact that she can never be sure who is loyal to whom. Pitched into the middle of this thriller is Stoppard's fascination with the world of physics. A character named Kerner (Todd Waite) explains two theories of light as a means of explaining why we can't really know one another: If we try too hard to pin each other down, we're likely to get it all wrong. All this might be interesting, except we don't really see much in the way of human behavior here. These characters -- spies with little else in their lives to make them interesting -- are slight. Still, the Alley Theatre's production, directed by Gregory Boyd, will appeal to anybody who likes all the slick bells and whistles common in today's television spy shows. And Waite makes an enormously appealing Russian physicist. His utterly charismatic performance makes Kerner's poetic speeches about the secret life of light worth listening to. But taken as a whole, Hapgood lacks the humor, heart and elegance of most of Stoppard's work. And in the end it comes off like that student who sits in the front row, knowing all the correct formulas. He might be the smartest boy in the room, but he's also the most annoying. Through October 23. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
By the Bogs of Cats
The Mousetrap This mother of all murder mystery plays, written by Dame Agatha Christie, the mother of all murder mystery writers, opened in London in November 1952, where it's still running. Needless to say, it's the longest-running play in the history of mankind. Whether it deserves such legendary longevity is questionable at best, since Christie was a much better novelist than playwright. This stage classic creaks a bit more than most other 53-year-old works, but the smooth production at A.D. Players keeps the unnecessary exposition, class commentary and clunky dramatics well oiled, quieting the noisy mechanics. Under Marion Arthur Kirby's thoughtful direction, the sprightly cast believes what it's doing, which goes a long way in making the audience itself believe in this old chestnut. Five guests arrive at a young couple's secluded hotel, as does a police sergeant on skis who's chasing a murderer among them. A snowstorm rages (although we never see any snow falling outside the large French doors), the telephone lines have been severed, there are back staircases galore, and we wait for the murderer to strike again if the policeman can't figure out whodunit in time. Of course, everyone has a secret that may link him or her to the past murder, which makes everyone a prime suspect or the next victim. This play has enough red herrings for a Russian fish market, and the ending is a classic among its kind. If you like murder mysteries, this Christie's for you. Through November 6. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.
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