Anna Bella Eema The world of the surreal and the real is fashioned into bold theatrical relief by playwright Lisa D'Amour, composer Chris Sidorfsky, a trio of superlative actors and the backstage wizards of sound effects, lighting and creepy set design. Under the watchful, all-knowing eye of director Jason Nodler, Catastrophic Theatre delivers the goods and creates a miniature pendant that gleams with tantalizing brilliance, old-fashioned, white-hot '60s feminist rhetoric, and symbolism too heavy at times to bear its own weight. Sparkly, it's a jewel too big for its setting, but a jewel nonetheless. D'Amour's 2003 play is a little of Alice — both Toklas and Wonderland — swirled with Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, overlaid with a love of lush language that's practically jungle-humid. The fog is thick and fragrant. Three women are already seated at their TV trays in the black crumpled void, making sounds and rhythms with all manner of kitchen utensils, rifling book pages or tinkling pixie-like with something metallic swirling inside a glass jar. It's Mom (Elissa Levitt), wild daughter Anna Bella (Ivy Castle) and Anna's creation, a mud girl (Jessica Janes), who live in the decrepit trailer park, a trailer park of the mind. It's weird and familiar. Solid as an oak, Mom remains in place, except when she flies in her dreams. Nature and instinct are stronger than the social worker, the policeman and the construction crew waiting in their backhoes to demolish the trailer park for an interstate. This startling piece of theater, although much too long and rather obvious, flies largely through Sidorfsky's magical music, which caws in animal cries, caresses with swooning lullabies or holds us captive with glittering, otherworldly harmonies. Married to the sound effects, the play's an aural delight — a bird's flight is conjured with two playing cards flapped together, and then let loose in a pack sprung open to cascade through the air. It's the most creative musical in town. The three women sing as well as they act, which has got to be a prerequisite for this most musical of plays. Levitt triumphs as magisterial, witchy Mom, a Medea who will later become Bertha the owl, holding wooden spoons to her eyes, or the sly old fox leading Anna on another journey of self-discovery. Castle is wild and wild-eyed as exploratory young Anna, who learns most from her mother when least willing to be taught. And Janes, who plays other subsidiary roles, is quite magical in her own way as Mud Girl, whose laughter both comforts and seduces. Who hasn't wanted to go down that rabbit hole, or at least under the floorboards of the trailer, to test our fortitude and see what treasures lie beneath? Through December 23. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — DLG
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A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage @ 1959 A satire of marital advice from a clueless "expert" chronicles two very different 1959 Iowa marriages. Molly Pierce plays Abby, a Doris Day type, and she links up with quarterback Mason, also naive, played by Cameron Bautsch, who has the lanky good looks of a young Elvis. They follow the unseen narrator's advice to save "it" for the wedding night, with disastrous and hilarious results. Pierce and Bautsch are excellent, and when the marriage hits a snag, Abby fortunately turns to her mother, played by Mary Hooper, who brilliantly captures the prejudices of the time: anti-gay, anti-black and with an inability to distinguish between a liberal and a communist. Abby's sister Sheryl (Claire Anderson) is good, but Dorothy has the lines. In a parallel courtship and marriage, the academically precocious Daniel (Bobby Haworth) is seduced, nay, overpowered, by Ruth (Adrian Coco Anderson), seven years older. The couples breed, and daughters are born. Ruth is scripted as a bitch on wheels, with hair like a harpoon. The unseen Narrator (Greg Dean) continues to give feckless advice rooted in a complete lack of knowledge of human nature, but with the plummy assurance of the clueless, and this is often quite amusing. Divorces ensue, and when Ruth and Daniel's marriage fails, it is no laughing matter. Lightness re-emerges, and Andy Ingalls plays a gay hospital orderly and Shondra Marie an inhibited nurse; both are delightful. Director Jimmy Phillips keeps the pace brisk and the portrayals authentic, and lets the humorous incongruities work their charms. Young playwright Robert Bastron has a deft comedic touch, and the full evening passes far too quickly, leaving one wanting more — and that doesn't happen every day. Through December 11. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — JJT
The Grand Manner As a teenager, playwright A.R. Gurney (Mrs. Farnsworth, The Cocktail Hour, Sylvia) once met the legendary actress Katharine Cornell backstage after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. He was so enthralled with her and the power of theater that he memorialized it in this, his latest play (2010), brought to us by Edge Theatre. Cornell, constantly referred to as the "first lady of the American stage," helped bring the works of George Bernard Shaw to the public. Her theatrical style was immensely versatile and full of depth — her roles were later filmed by such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Famed for her dark beauty, she was a lesbian in a "lavender marriage," as they used to say, with gay director/producer Guthrie McClintic. But Katharine Cornell would never have been caught dead in the dress Bonnie Hewett, who makes a very fine Cornell indeed, wears for her last scenes here. Cornell was of the theater, not burlesque. Other than this major gaffe, Edge Theatre sews up Gurney's little comforter of a play and wraps us in its warm embrace. Directed by Jim Tommaney (also a theater reviewer for the Houston Press), the play is far from Gurney's best, but it's a lovely valentine to theater days of lore, when great actresses could bemoan the passing of their own time and let spill all sorts of intimate secrets they would never tell anyone. Young Pete (Alex Randall), who lies to get backstage after the performance, is all too quickly brought into the seedy confidences of both trusted adviser Gert (Mary Westbrook) and salacious McClintic (John Kaiser), who sets his gimlet eyes on the youngster. It's left up to us to assume McClintic's ultimate intentions, whether he really wants to seduce the kid or scare him away so the couple can get to the party after the performance. Hewett turns on the wattage as theater's leading light. Cornell was known for her down-to-earth attitude and never being pretentious or phony, and Hewett lets just the right amount of star quality shine forth. She's still a star, lest we forget, and some of her bass-deep outbursts later ring true to divahood. As lamb Pete, Randall is convincingly wide-eyed and open-mouthed in the presence of such a star, and has a neat way of reacting backward whenever Kaiser lurks over him, getting cozy on the couch. Kaiser is appropriately oily, even in his dapper gray gloves and top hat. He knows insinuation better than anyone, and how to play it. As confidante and business manager, Westbrook never quite gets comfortable in the brittle yet knowing role of Gert, although she's dressed in the best period style. The Grand Manner is all about attitude and the illusion of theater. It should be smooth and effortless, like those "new" revolving sets McClintic is so wild about. While there are too many bumps along the way, some supplied by Gurney, we should never see the machinery. Through December 11. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 713-521-8803. — DLG
Museum of Dysfunction IV Here's an enticing little Christmas present from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company — an evening of short new plays — that doesn't even require batteries, they're already supplied. The company received so many submissions it has stretched the festivities into two nights with different rosters of shows. Museum, certainly Group I, has more than enough pleasure to pique interest in a visit to see Group II. None of these short plays falls flat, and there are no outright clunkers, so somebody at Mildred is doing a fine editing job. To be expected at such festivals are the one-note skits, the psychologically surreal riffs and the jabs at the war between the sexes, but we don't expect such constant entertainment from these age-old chestnuts. The acting is particularly fine throughout, enhancing the playwrights' intentions much more than hiding or overwhelming them. The highlight from Group I has to be Stoned Apples by James McLindon. Invigorated by a particularly hilarious take by Brandon Dinklage as a very stoned dude, he and a fellow dude, who just happens to be a Cortland apple, solve the woes of the world. It's a slacker's paradise of a play and an actor's golden opportunity. Inside his own glorious stoner haze, Dinklage runs amok. He could probably high-five himself if his eyes ever focused. The play is its own high and gives us a sweet contact buzz. Evenings devoted to new short plays are acts of discovery, whether it's a fledgling playwright you've never heard of or a familiar actor showing us new facets of the craft. These evenings usually amaze, sometimes stupefy, but always leave us wanting more. Museum of Dysfunction does all of this in a fascinating little package that anyone interested in the theater would want to tear into. Merry Christmas. Through December 10. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak., 832-463-0409. — DLG
The Nutcracker Even if you've seen The Nutcracker 100 times, you've probably never seen it like this. This is the choreography of Ben Stevenson, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 until 2003. The choreography is noticeably different from Marius Petipa's original version, and it's lovely. Arabian is danced as a pas de deux, not a contortionistic solo. Using two dancers allows for an even more beautiful, serpentine variation. The Russian variation, usually danced in a trio, is turned into a solo. The effect is astonishing. Jim Nowakowski commands the high-energy piece, literally kicking his face four times during his jumps. Anyone else in this variation would have been irrelevant, since it was impossible to ignore Nowakowski. Kids gasped. Nutcracker is, after all, about children. It should be presented as magically as possible. Houston Ballet agreed; this was the most kid-friendly production we've ever seen. The sets and costumes, created by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, were lush and elaborate, from the expandable Christmas tree to the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets. Pastry chefs suspended by wires flew across the stage comically in the second act, and kids in the audience roared. The giant mice too were out in full form, wearing shaggy brown rat suits as repulsive and squeal-worthy as they were realistic. But what truly sets this Nutcracker apart is the dancing. The Nutcracker Prince, played by Jun Shuang Huang when we saw the show, executed perfect double tours with landings as soft as the snow falling from the rafters. Katharine Precourt as the Snow Queen was breathtaking, and Sugar Plum Fairy Amy Fote glowed onstage. There seems to be no weak link in the Houston Ballet. Even Waltz of the Flowers, at which point the young audience usually gets restless, demanded rapt attention. The flower corps did work worthy of soloists, whipping off triple turns effortlessly. If seeing The Nutcracker is a tradition, don't plan on quitting this year. And for first-timers, go — but you might not see a Nutcracker this good after the Houston Ballet's. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. — MO