Capsule Stage Reviews: Aida, Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, Death and the Maiden, Die Fledermaus, Venus in Fur, Veronica's Room, Blood Wedding

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. 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. Maestro Antonino 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. November 1, 3 and 9. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Blithe Spirit Noël Coward's clever Blithe Spirit (1941) is all wisp, seeing as how one of the four principal characters is a ghost and another will soon become one. Mystery writer Charles (Steven Fenley) needs research for his next book and asks local psychic Madame Arcati (Marcy Bannor) to perform a séance. Neither he nor current wife Ruth (Lisa Thomas-Morrison) believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but they humor the odd old lady, until she goes into her trance and conjures Charles's first wife, Elvira (Lauren Dolk). Of course, only Charles can see her. Need I add that comic complications ensue, since henpecked Charles is now besieged by two competing harpies: Ruth thinks he's delusional, while Elvira attempts to seduce him back into her ectoplasmic arms. Texas Rep's production is a delight from the first glance of the Alley-esque, detailed and cozy Kent country home designed by Trey Otis to the delightfully appropriate musical numbers, played during the scene changes, from English dance band master Ray Noble. The ensemble does a spirited turn at keeping Coward bouncy and full of wicked glee. During one of their frequent arguments, Elvira describes Charles as having "seedy gravitas" and looking like a "wounded puppy." As deliciously portrayed by the exceptional Mr. Fenley, this is Charles to a T, a Saint Bernard in tuxedo. Exasperated at being told he's drunk by no-nonsense Ruth, Fenley blusters magnificently, yet turns all soft and mushy when seduced by Elvira. Looking like a specter of Carole Lombard at her prime, Dolk, a siren on a mission, absolutely beguiles as she swirls through the house creating mayhem. Driven to distraction by Charles's constant protestations of sanity, Thomas-Morrison is a revelation as cold, rational Ruth. When Charles suggests that maybe Elvira should stay around — considering Arcati doesn't really know how to exorcize her — Ruth explodes in perfectly contained ire, played by Thomas-Morrison with wonderful nuance. She's so convincing as this privileged lady of the manor, I think I saw steam pour out of her ears. Coward's delightful comedy, nimbly directed by Scott Carr, may not make you believe in spirits, but you'll wonder afterward what you'd do if an ex-lover came back into your life. That's a haunting thought. Through November 10. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

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. Through November 10. Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374. — JJT


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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

Die Fledermaus If Houston Grand Opera's sparkling production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") isn't the finest vintage grand cru champagne, it is nonetheless from a very good year. It looks great in the glass, the bubbles tickle your nose and by the end you will be pleasantly intoxicated. Although reset to 1930s Manhattan via a fantasy Art Deco Hollywood (designer Richard Roberts and Academy Award-winning costumer Angus Strathie are invited back to HGO any time they wish), Strauss's eternally fresh operetta remains firmly planted in its true home, fin-de-siècle Vienna (1874), during the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where patrons waltzed the nighttime away and pretended that Vienna was still the center of the universe. Marital fidelity gets a bashing in this bracing tale. Although husband Eisenstein must serve a five-day prison sentence, he receives an invitation to Prince Orlovsky's swanky masked ball. He's all too anxious to get there to meet the girls, so he lies to his wife: He'll go to the party first, then go to jail. Meanwhile, wife Rosalinde has been besieged by former lover Alfredo, a singer (who arrives on a window washer's scaffold), and is about to relent when she, too, receives an invite and a costume. Her sassy maid Adele gets asked also, and she lies about a dying grandmother to get out of work and attend the party. Everyone's on the make. All this is an elaborate ruse set up by Eisenstein's friend Falke, who's out for comic revenge for a prank Eisenstein pulled on him at a previous party. Adultery and champagne — what a combo, how Viennese. The A-list cast is first-rate, getting into the giddy mood with soaring abandon. Former HGO Studio alum and baritone Liam Bonner is a standout as Eisenstein. Not only does this tall, handsome singer look terrific in tuxedo or dressing gown (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., anyone?), but his sonorous, resonant voice fills the Brown Theater with impeccable diction. Those annoying, incessantly rhyming English lyrics by David Pountnet and Leonard Hancock, adapted by director Lindy Hume, sound positively Noël Coward-esque when phrased with his surefire stage presence and technique. Bonner is on his way to the operatic big leagues. An Eisenstein with the looks and moves of Cary Grant needs a co-star like Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur. While not quite in this cinematic league, soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer is game, with a radiant, silvery voice that sails over Strauss's orchestration and matches Bonner's in precise diction. (No need for surtitles when these two sing.) Her best number — with the cleverest lyrics — is when she impersonates a Hungarian countess at Orlovsky's party and is asked to sing one of those sweet homeland songs. She makes it up as she goes along, confusing Bucharest with Budapest, that sort of thing. It's very funny and she sings it beautifully. International coloratura soprano, Texas native and HGO favorite Laura Claycomb chews up the impressive scenery as parlor maid Adele with winking glee, playing the antic second-banana role with scene-stealing trickery and patented brilliance in her singing. Meanwhile, the international mezzo Susan Graham, another HGO favorite, plays it cool and manly in her pants role as Orlovsky. Her thick, creamy voice, like the best crème brûlée imaginable, envelopes her signature "Chacun à son goût" ("Each to his own taste") with that dusky tone that is one of opera's natural wonders. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, perhaps the pre-eminent interpreter of Benjamin Britten's tormented Peter Grimes, shows a very sprightly side as randy Alfredo. Delightfully silly, he boogies with sexual tension, wrapping a leg around Rosamond as he pins her to the sofa. As usual, HGO's chorus sounds lilting throughout, and maestro Thomas Rösner dances through Strauss's glittering score. November 2, 8 and 10 (matinee). Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG


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. 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. 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. 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. Through November 10. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

Veronica's Room Playwright Ira Levin in Veronica's Room gives us an intimate drama and the sense of looming danger, unexpected twists and suspense for which he is noted. An elderly couple have discovered a young woman and her newly met date at a restaurant, and persuaded them to accompany them to a mansion to view a photograph of Veronica, the deceased occupant of the mansion, to whom the young woman bears a striking resemblance. The girl is persuaded to dress up as Veronica, to provide some forgiveness to a woman who's dying of cancer and is delusional. Sally Edmundson and James Belcher portray the elderly couple, and mesh seamlessly into their roles, providing the same distinctive acting they had displayed in the two-hander The Unexpected Man at Stages last year. Teresa Zimmermann as the girl is persuasive and interesting in a very complex role as she attempts to comprehend increasingly strange events. The young man, portrayed by Dwight Clark, has an early minor role but gives an impressive performance in a powerful later re-emergence. The material is strong stuff, not for the weak of heart, as Levin has pulled back a curtain on the tortured extremes to which human beings can resort, and has asked us to join him on a voyage into the heart of darkness. Director Josh Morrison keeps the pace appropriate for whatever deception is on deck at a given moment. Consummate acting and unexpected events take us on an entertaining, gripping roller-coaster ride from a proven master of suspense. Through November 3. Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT


Blood Wedding Gabriel Lorca was a Spanish playwright, poet, theater director and artist, born in 1898, and arrested and executed in 1936. His family drama, Blood Wedding, has a cast of 23 actors, and the director, Keith Byron Kirk, marshals them adroitly in the series of vignettes that make up the play. Brendon Lara plays Lorca, and is quite good, capturing his probing intelligence and adding a note of narcissistic smugness. The central character is the Bridegroom's mother, bitter at the loss of her son and husband but alive to the happiness grandchildren will bring. The Mother is histrionic, self-dramatizing and powerful in personality, and in playing her, Kiara Feliciano finds all these traits, as well as the self-admitted element of madness. Crash Buist is excellent as the Bridegroom, imposing in his straightforward honesty and love for the Bride, and convincing in his anger as fate turns against him. Lisa Wartenberg has the difficult task of portraying the Bride, a woman who doesn't seem to know her own mind, as she moves from genuine affection for the Groom into an active distaste. A scene between her and an amour, Leonardo, played by Kyle Powell, is intended to illustrate this transition but she and Powell have zero chemistry together, though Powell is quite good as an unfaithful husband. Nate Ruleaux plays the father of the Bride and creates a vivid, interesting portrait of a man happy despite working grudging soil. Precious Merenu is wonderful as a maid. Unfortunately, in the second act, Symbols enter — the Moon and Death. The pace slows, but might be better speeded up, to get them behind us. UH delivers Lorca's intriguing take on the irrationality of passion, brought to life by stimulating acting in an innovative adaptation. Through November 3 at UH's Jose Quintero Theatre, 133 Wortham, 713-749-2929. — JJT

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