Capsule Stage Reviews: Arms and the Man, Dryope and Iole, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Arms and the Man G.B. Shaw's sparkling romantic comedy from 1894 takes on manly soldiers who are praised for desertion, a middle class as snooty as the upper class, headstrong servants, blustery fools, romantic heroines who save the enemy because they've just seen an opera where such a thing happens, parents as clueless as their children, and Bulgarians. Only Shaw could manage it all with such buoyant, throwaway charm. Fleeing from the Bulgarian army, Swiss mercenary Bluntschli (Brian Heaton) escapes into the bedroom of Raina (Eva LaPorte), member of one of Bulgaria's richest and most respected families. They're so upper-crust, Mama Petkoff (Karla Brandau) keeps reminding everyone, they have a room devoted to nothing but books, and a bell to ring for the servants so Papa (Glenn Dobson) doesn't have to shout — so déclassé. Raina instantly falls for her "chocolate cream soldier" even though she's engaged to blowhard Sergius (Travis Klemm), a pompous ass who looks dashing in a uniform, but is all moustache and no brains and not above making a pass or two at the family's haughty maid Louka (Renata Santoro). There's lots of activity, but not much really happens, yet Shaw juggles his pet theories about heroism, the futility of war, and illusion vs. reality with masterful aplomb, never once dropping a theme. Making her Houston debut, LaPorte is a beaut as Raina, all fetching and bubbly. Watch as she flounces onto the hassock, next to her soldier who's found her out; she doesn't crumble at the news, she deflates gradually, with grace to spare. Houston's theater scene is richer for her arrival — and a little richer, too, for this confection of a production. Through February 14. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

Dryope and Iole Having already presented three Nancy Kiefer plays (Could Angels Be Blessed, The Illustrated Woman, The Eighth Order), Theatre Suburbia has a lock on her work, and this one is the best yet — except for its highly pretentious Greek-myth title and subtext that promises so much more than this gentle play can hope to deliver. Anyway, just enjoy the Depression-era family drama about sisters Genevieve (Pamela Hensley) and Bernice (Laura Schlecht), who haven't seen each other in 20 years, and the effect Bernice's return to the family homestead has on Genevieve's impressionable daughter Sissy (Kathleen Baker). The framing device of grown-up Sissy (Barbara S. Hartman) commenting on past events like the wise narrator in Our Town doesn't work nearly as well as it should, since Sissy has grown, inexplicably, into a woman of great insight and impeccable diction. These little imperfections don't dampen the play's sweet nature, its soft exploration of family skeletons or the pastel painting of the vanished way of life in a backwater Ohio town in 1936. Hensley, as strong and moral maternal head of the family, seems most at ease with Kiefer's easy-flowing drama, which turns the cooking of apple butter into the stuff of grand passion. Through February 7. 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. — DLG

Macbeth There's not an ounce of fat on Giuseppe Verdi's athletic operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's tale of murder, vengeance and madness. Carrying a cleaver, Verdi's librettists Piave and Maffei race through the grizzly story, hacking the plot into musical chunks that flow like...well, like blood. This 1847 gore-fest — with an overhaul by the maestro in 1865 for the Paris premiere — is unashamedly raw and earthy, and helped sweep away whatever Romantic ghosts of Rossini and Bellini were still haunting European opera. Opera in the Heights assembles its most impressive cast yet, giving this masterpiece a turbulent, majestic, beautifully sung showing. In the Emerald cast (there's an alternative lead couple in the Ruby cast), baritone Brian B. Carter and soprano Courtney Ames bring the dysfunctional, deadly duo of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to feverish heights. While Ames's vocal finesse in the coloratura passages goes slightly smudgy, her power is undeniable as she pours out clarion sound. Her sleepwalking mad scene and her scrubbing her hands raw to remove the blood stains are both deeply impressive. Tenor David Ekstrom, as survivor Macduff, conquers his treacherous aria "Ah, la paterna mano" with ease. The voice of the night, though, belongs to bass Benjamin LeClair as ill-fated Banquo, whose sonorous voice, impeccable diction and charismatic stage presence create an indelible portrait that would have made both Shakespeare and Verdi proud. Through February 7. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG


Arms and the Man

A Midsummer Night's Dream There's magic afoot at Houston Grand Opera. The heavenly production of Benjamin Britten's 1960 operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's most youthful comedy is bewitching, as Elizabethan gossamer and moonbeams are "translated" by Britten into a weird aural world of deep silvery glissandos, dissonant fourths and sevenths, and major/minor chord juxtapositions. It's an earful. While it doesn't exude Mendelssohn's sparkling effervescence and weightlessness, the music has a unique, beguiling unearthliness about it. The setting — another of Shakespeare's wondrous forests — breathes with life and teems with sprites, mixed-up lovers and bumbling "hempen homespuns." Each set of characters gets its own particular sound, with Oberon's countertenor the most distinctive and powerful as it soars clear and bright, when the King of the Fairies (Iestyn Davies) weaves his spells on unsuspecting bumpkins and his lustful queen Tytania alike (Laura Claycomb). The unreal setting glows with a phosphorescent sheen, all green and blue with sudden flashes of purple for the spells. The whole sings with a timeless quality, and the cast effortlessly performs Britten's difficult music. The wizard on the podium is Maestro Patrick Summers, who weaves his own enchantment via the score. Whether or not you can whistle any of Britten's complex tunes as you leave the Wortham, I guarantee you'll leave spellbound nonetheless. Through February 6. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG


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