...and L.A. Is Burning In 1992, the whole country raged after the officers accused of (and video-taped) beating Rodney King were acquitted of the crime. In L.A., there was rioting in the streets; in the rest of the country, there was outrage and shock. Y York's ...and L.A. Is Burning, premiering at Main Street Theater, is a smart and moving response to the trial, achieved through three very different characters living in Seattle in 1992. Working in a government office is Haddie (Michelle Britton), a white, middle-aged, lonely soul who knows little of the world beyond her office and apartment. Her cubicle mate is Alvin (Timothy Eric), a thirtysomething, African-American go-getter who wants nothing more than to advance in his job. Into their ordinary lives comes Sylvia (Gwendolyn McLarty), a left-wing writer and academic who becomes interested in Haddie after she makes an offhand, nonsensical comment comparing racism and communism. The play, directed with quiet grace by Troy Scheid, focuses on Haddie's transformation as she watches the trial on TV and gets to know Alvin. The woman, who starts out thinking the officers might be innocent, learns to examine her own prejudices by the end of the play. Britton does a lovely job as the seemingly simple American who has depths that most people, especially über-liberal Sylvia, don't suspect. Eric is moving as Alvin, a straitlaced, uptight black man trying to get ahead in the world. And McLarty's Sylvia is wonderfully unlikable. This tender play is a powerful examination of a changing nation. Through November 9. Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — LW
Beatrice and Benedict Lush and utterly gorgeous, Houston Grand Opera's production of Hector Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict is a treat for multiple senses. The charming love story, adapted from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, is the perfect backdrop for Berlioz's complex and enchanting music. Rarely performed, the opéra comique about two people who are tricked into falling in love demands a great deal from its performers and, happily, the powerful cast sweeping across Michael Yeargan's breathtaking set at the Wortham is more than up to the challenge. As lover-comedians, Norman Reinhardt's Benedict and Joyce DiDonato's Beatrice are often laugh-out-loud funny. And their singing is swoon-worthy. But some of the best moments come when the three central women in the cast sing together. The duets between Ailish Tynan's Hero and Leann Sandel-Pantaleo's Ursula are hypnotic, and when DiDonato joins them for a trio, the music and the moment spin together into a rich and arresting moment of theatricality. Michael Hofstetter's graceful conducting and Robin Tebbutt's visually and emotionally clever direction make the most of the stunning music and cast, creating a production that anyone who enjoys Berlioz isn't likely to forget. Through November 14. Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 713-228-6737. — LW
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The Strangerer Admit it, you're in the mood for another presidential debate, aren't you? Okay, don't groan, and don't stop reading, because Catastrophic Theatre's dramatic presentation of Mickle Maher's phantasmagoric 2004 head-to-head between Bush and Kerry, moderated by Jim Lehrer, is a must-see. Whatever you may think of these three empty suits, you won't think of them in the same way after this absurdist romp, which is wickedly accurate. The debate begins in documentary style with Lehrer (Seán Patrick Judge) doing a sound check, straightening his coat, putting in eye drops. The two participants enter — wild-eyed and wary Bush (Paul Locklear) and doe-eyed, stiff Kerry (Troy Schulze). During the first answer, Bush inexplicably stabs Lehrer in the back. Music from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western starts, as does the sound of wind, and the lights soar to white and then quickly cut to black. When they come back on, Lehrer, fixing his hair, explains that what we've seen is a theatrical moment staged by all three of them. What Lehrer doesn't get is that Bush is going to keep trying to kill him — with a gun, a pillow, cyanide — all senseless, without motive, somewhat like the main character in Camus's The Stranger (the book Bush was said to have read one summer, which set Maher on track to write this marvelous invention). We delve into Bush's psyche (yes, he's got one, and it's a beaut) as he attempts to make sense of the world and where exactly he fits into it. Fatuous Kerry drifts off to sleep — "He's a zombie," Bush jokes — and Lehrer is pompous and out-of-touch. Only Bush connects. Locklear gives the performance of his life, nailing W. with his weird pauses and malaprops ("middle-evil" is especially fine for "medieval"). He glides through the difficult non sequitur monologues, giving Bush a comprehensible, maddening humanity. Just as spot-on are Judge and Schulze. Matter of fact, the entire production is incredibly realized. "Perfectness," as W. might say. Through November 8. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-880-5216. — DLG