>Aida Filled with DeMille spectacle, scene-chewing passion and sublime music, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida (1871), one of grand opera's grandest, evokes the moonlit Nile, sumptuous palaces, gloomy temple sanctums, a split-level set that reveals claustrophobia below and splendor above (Verdi's own design), and, most famous of all, a majestic triumphal scene that trumps any parade by Barnum & Bailey. You can almost see the poster: "a cast of thousands!" Aida also covers all the emotions — jealousy, hubris, revenge, patriotism, love, all in capital letters. It is Verdi's masterpiece (if you could choose one among so many). Houston Grand Opera reprises the lame Zandra Rhodes production from 2006/7 with its cartoon sets and costumes straight out of a Maria Montez Republic B-picture. Pushed to the front of the stage, the action is flat and lifeless as a bas relief, although the Lion King-like elephant is imaginative, if derivative, and the lapis-colored stage "legs" that open and close to form pyramid shapes emit a nice Egyptian vibe. The whole thing needs more sand, more grit. The flatness infects the cast, except for internationally acclaimed, volcanic-voiced American mezzo Dolora Zajick, the foremost interpreter of Amneris, the Egyptian princess racked by jealousy. She could sing this role in her sleep. Her commanding voice is one of the wonders of the world, rich and plummy through all ranges, yet she can float a pianissimo with seductive softness. But it's her powerful agility that has made her the leading Verdian mezzo. She is out-of-this-world and rock solid. In the one-dimensional stage picture, you always know where she is. The other sides of the operatic love triangle, enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida (Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastryska) and Radames (Italian tenor Riccardo Massi), the enemy Egyptian commander with whom she's in love, are on shakier ground. This couple is wooden as a mummy case. Monastryska, who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida, has a mahogany finish to her plangent voice, and she, too, can float high notes with distinction. Her radiant romanza, "O patria mia," as she remembers her native country, is like a sigh, noted as a rite of passage for sopranos, much like Radames's hymn of praise to Aida, "Celeste Aida" ("Heavenly Aida") is a tenor's Everest. Monastryska conquers the aria, but seems ill at ease everywhere else. She doesn't make singing look easy. She spends more time glancing at maestro Fogliani than at her supposed lover. Big and solid, Massi looks the part of the ancient army general and sings Verdi's demanding role with determination, if not clarion tone. His lower register is full and buff, but he shades into nasality when going big-time, landing top notes with an extra step up. But he certainly makes singing Verdi look fresh. We never see him breathe, never see the preparation. He just opens his mouth and out pours the sound. With impressive panache, Fogliani elicits ringing fanfares and ethereal melody out of HGO's orchestra. The chorus is best of all, whispering priestly invocations with deep-dish mystery or declaiming in triumph while the faux elephant lumbers on. Dominic Walsh's frieze-fueled choreography enlivens the parade; American baritone Scott Hendricks gives Amonasro, Aida's father, nobility; Estonian bass Ain Anger is appropriately stiff-backed as inflexible high priest Ramfis; and Canadian bass-baritone Robert Gleadow growls imperiously as Pharaoh of Egypt. HGO's Aida is sadly unremarkable. A-list Zajick is surrounded by B-movie. That's something Verdi never intended. November 9. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG
Avenue Q Take Sesame Street and give it a college coming-of-age story and an R rating and you've got the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, now being presented by Music Box Musicals. The musical, which stars puppets, monster puppets and humans, is being mounted by Music Box in its intimate theater space, and is quite a different experience from seeing it in a large venue. The stage is small, not giving the large cast of actors and puppets much room to move around. To make up for the lack of space, director Michael J. Ross has placed much of the action to the left side of the stage, taking away some vantage points for those patrons seated on the opposite angle. Marco Camacho and Allison Sumrall aptly play the main puppets, Princeton and Kate Monster, respectively. Both actors portray additional puppets as well, and the jumping between the two characters, even when they are both required in one scene, is done skillfully and without missing a beat. The other puppets and actors keep the comedy moving along and more or less have the vocal chords to match. The nature of seeing this type of production in a small theater may be jarring to some who find being right in the action too close for comfort, especially for those who find it awkward watching puppets have sex. If that's the case, then just find yourself a spot in the back of the theater and enjoy a good show. Through November 23. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information, call 713-522-7722 or visit themusicboxtheater.com. — AK
The Crucible The Houston Family Arts Center tackles Arthur Miller's masterpiece The Crucible, in which Miller re-creates the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, when mass hysteria led toward the imprisonment and execution of innocent citizens. Bryan Reilly plays John Proctor, and finds his humanity, honesty and caring. Katrina Ellsworth plays his wife Elizabeth, capturing her steely determination yet letting us see her love for John. Children and young women have been dancing in the woods, perhaps naked, and one child is in bed, stricken. Investigations focus on the possibility of witchcraft, and Abigail Williams (the excellent Kristen Raney) claims to have seen the devil, spearheading an investigation, as she accuses others. The narrative moves to the home of John Proctor, then to a judicial hearing room and finally to the Salem jail. There is a cast of 20, and Miller has etched each character with skill and detail. The wittiest role is that of Giles Corey, a successful farmer amusingly down-to-earth, deftly portrayed by Gene Griesbach. Entering late is Deputy-Governor Danforth, played by Jeff Brown in a commanding performance that lights up the stage. Olivia Clayton is distinctive as Mary Warren, torn between truth and survival, and J. Blanchard as the Rev. John Hale, whose faith and self-respect are undone by unfolding events. In minor roles, outstanding performances are delivered by Rita Hughes as the large-familied Rebecca Nurse, Yvonne Nelson as the less nurturing Ann Putnam, and Monique Searles as Barbados-born Tituba. Director Lisa Garza clearly understands the brilliance of the play and has delivered it with appropriate pace and keen sensitivity. If you have never seen this work, this production is must-see. And if you know its dramatic strength, you will want to see it again. Through November 10. Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374. — JJT
Death and the Maiden Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden won the Olivier award as Best New Play in its 1991 London production, and garnered a Tony Award as Best Actress for Glenn Close in the Broadway production in 1992. It is a taut three-hander involving a woman who had been tortured and raped when kidnapped years earlier by a tyrannical regime; her husband, a prominent attorney; and a doctor whom the woman believes to be her rapist. An early scene with her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Kevin Daugherty), involves bickering, unfortunately, as it is the sole chance for her to display warmth before becoming an avenging force. Escobar brings the news of his appointment to a newly formed reconciliation panel — the fascist government is no more. Daugherty is convincing and compelling, though a scene where he turns avenger is written for melodrama, perhaps overwritten. As Dr. Roberto Miranda, John Stevens brings charm and intelligence to the role, perforce shedding these almost immediately as he is tied to a chair, to be interrogated. The power of these actors carries us through several weaknesses in the script, but the writing is brilliant in keeping alive the question of whether Dr. Miranda is in fact the torturer. The play is an acting challenge, a vehicle for brilliant performances, and Daugherty and Roberts inhabit their roles, each wearing his like a glove. Malinda L. Beckham carries the narrative, and delivers a forceful personality and a Medea-like thirst for vengeance, but doesn't include the vulnerability that might lead to greater empathy. Trevor B. Cone directed with exemplary pace. Music and sound are important to the production, and done very well. A powerful psychological thriller uses violence and menace to generate interest, in a suspense-filled study of vigilante revenge. Through November 16. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT
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Venus in Fur Kinky sex comes to the Alley Theatre via David Ives's provocatively funny Venus in Fur (2010). Vanda (the amazing Nicole Rodenburg) arrives with a thunderclap. Almost materializes — the last one in a long line of actresses that harried director/writer Thomas (equally good Michael Bakkensen) is auditioning for the role of aristocratic Vanda in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 classic tale of female sexual domination and male humiliation. Tired and irritable, he spews his frustration at the paltry female talent he's had to endure. They're so young and stupid, he rages in male chauvinist mode. There are no women out there, when — boom — Vanda blows in, dropping her bags, wet script and F-bombs all over the rehearsal studio. She's everything he's been whining about: ditsy, vapid, artsy-fartsy and a little mad. She's three hours late, something about a guy copping a feel on the subway. In a series of comic encounters, including a priceless battle with her raincoat sleeve, Vanda cajoles and wheedles a reading of the script. Against his wishes, she quickly drops her everyday wear to reveal a Victoria's Secret ensemble of leather skirt, black stockings and bustier. It's an indelible moment of sexual frisson. She flicks off the overhead fluorescent lights. The room glows amber. So does she. She lowers her voice into a Dietrich purr. In a whip crack, goofy Vanda becomes woman-of-the-world Vanda, the character from his play. She knows all the lines letter perfect; she drips weary sophistication down to her arched fingertips. Her transformation takes Thomas — and us — by complete surprise. Delightfully so. Thomas reads the part of Severin, the shiftless rich hedonist who wants to be dominated. Oozing guile like a siren, Vanda subtly directs her director. Comically switching into her modern airhead mode, she prods him to dig deeper. Tentative at first but then ecstatic, he submits to her will, as the female character he's created on the page stands in front of him, more vivid than he could have ever imagined. Like Severin, this is the turn-on he's been waiting for. David Ives's provocative play is not your father's sex comedy, although it has a lot of Feydeau farce in it. But even at 90 minutes, the dark sex comedy runs out of steam, or steamy situations, for we know where these stiletto boots are walking. Bakkensen makes a solid male foil to Vanda's exotic female. Blustery and pigheaded, he soon succumbs to the darkness within, not knowing exactly how or why. But, really, who could resist Rodenburg? Her timing, her inflections, whether Austro-Hungarian or whacked-out street profanity, are spot-on, and she looks great wearing those boots. Both of them make submission and humiliation, physical and psychic seduction, look as pretty as an ad from the Erotic Cabaret Boutique. Who is this vixen in dog collar and garter belts? We leave the poor director/author tied up by one of Vanda's black stockings, calling out her name in supplication, fear and, no doubt, desire. If you like your pain with a lot of pleasure, then Venus in Fur will have you on your knees — thanking the Alley for this bright and snappy comedy of sexual mis-manners. Through November 10. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG