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.
By the Bogs of Cats
Honky Tonk Angels The three women who populate Ted Swindley's surprisingly mediocre Honky Tonk Angels have a dream. Angela, Darlene and Sue Ellen all want to be country singers. Stuck in individual ruts, they're desperate to "fly away" to Nashville, the Hollywood of country music. Watched over by their guardian angels, the three meet on the Greyhound bus trip and decide to form a trio. Without so much as breaking a sweat, they land a job on their first try. Angels is a "jukebox musical," a compilation of songs -- here, mostly country -- strung loosely together into a show. The skill lies in the weaving. Swindley, founding artistic director of Stages and creator of Angels, knows all about jukebox musicals, having created one of the most enduring, profitable ones, Always...Patsy Cline. Unfortunately, lightning hasn't stuck twice. Angels is strictly second-hand goods. There's no conflict, no roadblocks to the women's success, no compromises to force them down unfamiliar paths. What makes this low-rent show worth the trouble are the three performers, who use their entire arsenal of stage tricks to keep this jalopy of a show constantly moving. Susan Shofner (Angela) is the comedic Sophie Tucker of the group, the mama who's the glue that holds them all together. In Act II, the sleazy lounge act, Shofner stops the show with "Harper Valley PTA," jiggling across the stage in platform wedgies, animal print mini, padded bosom and stovepipe hairdo. The lovely-voiced Deanna Julian (Darlene), a pig-tailed, bib-overalled "sweet young thang" who could have sashayed straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard remake, gives "Ode to Billy Joe" a fragrant, romantic flavor. And Brooke Wilson (Sue Ellen) gives her material more oomph than it gives her. She manages to make "These Boots Are Made For Walking" (one example of the second-rate songs used for this revue) really sound good -- and hot. With Honky Tonk Angels, Swindley has taken the easy road, employing guardian angels in place of drama, taking the sex and heat out of the story, and making it palatable for children of all ages. It'll run for years. Through October 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
Mentors & Prodigy If you missed last weekend's Rita-truncated run of Houston Ballet's Mentors & Prodigy, you may have missed the best -- and worst -- the company offers this season. The rep bill featured three contemporary one-act ballets, starting with Brian Enos's world premiere of Dark and Lovely, Mmmm. The Houston-trained Enos, who's now with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, shows vision and promise, but his choreographic chops aren't up to the standards one expects from an HB performance. At best, the work was derivative. At worst, when shown side-by-side with two choreographic greats, it was just plain boring. The second work, the company's premiere of Jirí Kylián's brilliant 1981 Forgotten Land, was powerful and provocative, invoking the ancient struggle of man against nature. Recent Rita experiences aside, Forgotten Land is a forceful addition to the company's repertory. Set to a thunderous score by Benjamin Britten and performed against a painted backdrop of darkening skies, the dancers hurled themselves through the steps with lightning speed and flawless precision. Deeply emotional to watch, this work reminds us why Kylián is a master of movement. And so did the closing dance, Stanton Welch's Divergence, remind us why he is now the company's artistic director. Divergence is one of those gems of contemporary ballet that thrills with ensemble staging and intricate partnering. The provocative costumes and Michelin-tire tutus are inspired but not necessary. When it comes to dancemaking, the difference between talent and greatness is all in the steps. Even if the Kylián and Welch pieces had been performed butt-nekkid under a bare light bulb, they would have been amazing.