Capsule Stage Reviews: Artifice Eight, The Elephant Man, Falstaff, The Night of the Iguana, Tristan and Isolde

Artifice Eight's vivid and very varied characters are invited to a private showing of art, but trapped into an overnight stay thanks to a blizzard. Hosting the gathering is Maggie LaRue (Lindsay Smith), whose estranged husband, a talented painter, has perished, and she and his art dealer, Richard (Christopher C. Conway) hope to sell his art – all of it – to a wealthy hotelier, Mick Fitzgerald (Jim Wyatt) to install in his chain of hotels. But Mick may have underworld connections, and upon this thin thread hangs the alleged plot. Drinks are graciously served by Graciela (Sabrina Rosales), garbed as though fresh from a Playboy Club audition – yes, this is a comedy. Trent Matlock (David James Barron) portrays a self-centered actor who has been dating the widow LaRue. Emma (Amesti Reioux) is an art critic with a sullen pout, but she has a surprise for us in Act Two. Judith Fontaine (Heather Gabriel) is an influential publisher whose article on the sale may put Richard's gallery on the map. Cory Grabenstein's late entrance puts the plot into motion. Barron brought a ready smile and an ingratiating, cheerful persona to his role, and hostess Smith held it all together with unfazed aplomb. Conway as the art dealer was nuanced and intense. All the actors had their moments, and performed well, and the set, by Elvin Moriarty and Judy Reeves, was detailed and interesting. Reeves directed the comedy and she has done much to deliver the humor, with the pace sparkling in Act One. The plot is hugely implausible, but comedy enlivens the stage as eight disparate characters meet, scheme, entertain, and pursue their conflicting goals. The work is intended to be merely fun, and succeeds at this. Through May 11 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. – JJT

The Elephant Man Strapping and near naked, actor Jay Sullivan is sculpted under the white hot light of a medical school lecture hall. His immense and gruesome physical deformities, like some sort of human nightmare, are described in scientific, unemotional detail by Treves, a Victorian surgeon and teacher (Jeffrey Bean). As each more horrible particular is mentioned – gargantuan lumpy head, bony growths, pendulous flesh, fin-like hand, misshaped useless leg, a face incapable of showing emotion except for tears – Sullivan obliges. His head tilts off kilter, too heavy to hold upright, one shoulder rises, his arm withers, his hip turns inward, his foot bends backward, his back crooks. In a most magical form of coup de theatre, frightening in its simplicity, Joseph Merrick, the infamous Elephant Man stands before us. Period photographs of Merrick's actual body project on the background, but what we react to is Sullivan's beauty transformed. When Merrick speaks, Sullivan emits a tiny bark beforehand, as if the very act is painful and ill-formed. Bernard Pomerance's 1979 Tony Award-winning Best Play relishes in this dichotomy between the actor playing Merrick, always portrayed by a robust young man, and our imaginations of what Merrick was in the flesh. Every indignity, every scream of recoil, every beating he received during his short Dickensian life – Merrick died, 27, in 1890 – is doubly felt when delivered to one so lovely. It certainly drives home the author's point that beauty is not the mirror of the soul, for Merrick possessed a stomach-churning facade but the most sensitive interior. He becomes the looking glass for the Victorian age, whose panoply of characters see in him what they want to world to see in them. Pomerance sketches Merrick's strange-but-true story with broad, expressionistic strokes that director Gregory Boyd expands exponentially, enough Grand Guingol freak-show effects for a lifetime, but Boyd also supplies the play with the fluidity of a dream, and we can't fault him for his guidance of Sullivan's superb interpretation. Sullivan is matched by Bean's prudish, yet empathetic Treves. Bean, a Houston treasure, knows just how to give Treves that edge of modernity, while skating squarely through the Victorian age. Also appealing is Elizabeth Bunch as Mrs. Kendal, the theatrical diva who befriends Merrick and gives him, without censure or rebuke, the only gift he truly wants. Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design is off, neither inventive steampunk nor actual re-creation: a bizarre mishmash of riveted metallic panels, concentric circles on the floor, all encircled by makeup mirror light bulbs, it doesn't begin to enhance the play's foggy moodiness. The sad life of Joseph Merrick, which sparkled with a glimmer of sunshine near the end, has been a fascinating read ever since his story was told in the London Times. In an incandescent performance, Mr. Sullivan makes each page of Merrick's life burst into flame, and us into tears. Through May 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-220-5700. –DLG

Falstaff Giuseppe Verdi's final opera (1893) is like the best champagne. It fizzes with life, sparkly and clean, and sets one to smile at first sip. Comedy wasn't Verdi's strong suit — it's not opera's strong suit, either — but here is one as effervescent as anything by Rossini. Thrillingly sung, conducted with buoyant humor by artistic director/conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo, directed with a lively comic touch by David Ward, simply designed by Rachel Smith (sets), Dena Scheh (costumes) and Kevin Taylor (lighting) to fit snugly into the Globe-like setting that's been used for all four productions this season, Verdi's intimate look at Shakespeare's earthy, most human character pleases without qualification. The utter delight of discovery is baritone Guido LeBrón, who truly can be said to "own" this role of the self-deluded, gluttonous fat knight. His deep, sonorous baritone spreads through Lambert Hall like honeyed mead, thick and rich and immediately tactile. His big belly precedes every entrance, and he constantly massages it with pride. Sir John, old and getting older, likes his food and wine but loves the ladies more. (Verdi lets us hear wine's dizzying effects in one of the opera's most picturesque passages as the drink courses through the ever-increasingly tipsy Falstaff.) He's foolish enough to think the ladies love him in return. When he writes love letters to two merry wives of Windsor, Alice Ford (soprano Michelle Johnson) and Meg Page (mezzo Patricia Cay), inviting himself to a tryst, the opera takes off in a gallop. That Ford is married doesn't faze him in the least; it only whets his libido. When he goes a-wooing, he dolls up in foppish finery, looking like Humpty Dumpty in Oscar Wilde drag, a sight gag worth admission. Singing Verdi with supreme control and exquisite diction, LeBrón runs with Falstaff — well, as much as any potted sot can run. Librettist Arrigo Boito sharply condensed Shakespeare into gossamer lightness. There's a subsidiary love plot between Ford's daughter Nannetta (soprano Julia Engel, beguiling of voice) and Fenton (plangent tenor Eric Bowden) that's written as lush Italianate romance; Alice's jealous husband Ford (Adam Meza, in hearty Verdian baritone mode) assumes his wife is having an affair; and there's a trio of comic characters who surround Falstaff, his two slapstick henchmen Bardolfo (tenor Nathan de Paz) and Pistola (bass Daymon Passmore), and Mistress Quickly (mezzo Alissa Anderson, comically perfect), who delivers the billets-doux to Falstaff with false flattery and a flash of ample bosom to snare him. In the opera's sunny ending, the cast turns directly to us for the moral. They sing, "All life is a joke...he who laughs best laughs last." The finale swirls and builds, bubbling and joyous, from soloist through chorus, louder and louder, until we're all grinning in agreement. Through May 5. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG


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The Night of the Iguana The Night of the Iguana in 1961 was Tennessee Williams's last real success on Broadway. Now Theatre Southwest mounts its own revival, with its intimate space successfully creating the feeling of a sleepy, slightly run-down hotel on the coast of Mexico, and into these premises strides Lisa Schofield as Maxine Faulk, recently widowed and the owner/manager of the hotel. Schofield creates an involving and grippingly authentic portrait of a woman rooted in reality and seeing things clearly, but lightened with charm and a sense of humor, anchoring the play. Tyrrell Woolbert portrays Hannah Jelkes, caregiver and granddaughter to the 97-year old poet Nonno, whose memory and mind are receding. Woolbert stamps the role with quiet authority, and in her description of Hannah's limited sexual experiences, Woolbert finds the majesty in truth-telling and the poetry in the tattered human soul. Less successful is Scott McWhirter as the Reverend Larry Shannon, disgraced minister reduced to a position as a tour guide, with a taste for the bottle and an eye for 16-year-old girls. Shannon enters as a man driven by demons, all twitchy and distraught, defeated, cowardly and panicky, an object of derision and contempt, leaving him nowhere to go for the rest of the play. McWhirter portrays Shannon without dignity or charm rather than as the intended chick magnet. John Stevens as Nonno creates an interesting and convincing portrait. The rest of the large cast is admirable in less prominent roles, and director Mimi Holloway keeps the pace flowing and has ingeniously solved the many production problems inherent in the script. A complex, dynamic play by a theatrical master is brought to exciting life by skilled actors, resulting in a fascinating evening filled with insights, power and moments of pure magic. Through May 4. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Tristan and Isolde Hail, Nina Stemme, goddess of opera! If you are, as I am, an unrepentant Wagnerite – or for that matter a lover of any exceptional operatic singing – there is reason for mighty celebration and a breathless run to Houston Grand Opera's Tristan und Isolde. You won't want to look at it, for director Christof Loy's production is misguided in conception and a dreary eyesore that drains all the fiery color out of the work, but just close your eyes and revel in the beauty of sound and depth of interpretation that Stemme instills as the star-crossed princess of Ireland. Any singer who can navigate through the heady waters of Richard Wagner and make it sound as easy as paddling a canoe across a calm lake is the rarest of the rare. Her voice, full and round, is strikingly clean from top to bottom. It rings with clarion purity, yet is always warm and pliant. No need to scoop to reach those Alpine summits Wagner throws in her path, she leaps from peak to peak with glee and pinpoint precision. In quieter passages, she caresses the musical line like an enthralled lover. To top it off, she's a consummate actress, alive in every scene, no matter what nonsense the director has her do. Since the century has just begun, I'm reticent to call her the "voice of the century," but I'm fairly certain Stemme is the voice of the decade. You can't have a complete Tristan and Isolde with only Isolde, no matter how radiantly sung. Sad to say, her Tristan, Canadian Ben Heppner, another international superstar and preeminent Wagner interpreter, is slogging through a rough patch lately. His voice, once trumpet bright, easily frays when pushed hard, and Wagner pushes hard. His gleaming heldentenor, still evident during softer scenes, is now arduously produced. With commanding technique and a pro's experience, he made it through Tristan's mad scene – one of opera's most demanding arias – and managed to resurrect past glory days. We hope Heppner overcomes these difficulties and resumes his rightful place in the Wagnerian pantheon. The other members of the cast are downright revelatory, strong and powerful – Mezzo Claudia Mahnke's velverty Brangäne, baritone Ryan McKinny's virile and riveting Kurwenal, bass Christof Fischesser's betrayed and shattered King Marke. Disregarding the demented stage pictures, maestro Patrick Summers paints a glorious panorama. With clarity and empathy, he evokes every wave of ecstasy, fury, languor, and remorse in Wagner's swirling soundscape. He connects with this score on a very deep level, driving it forward as if he were the opera's third lover. HGO's orchestra has never sounded more lush and shimmery. While lacking a full-blooded Tristan, HGO's blissful rendition of this operatic masterpiece is filled with more than enough vocal glories to compensate. Ms. Stemme, Maestro Summers, et al., conquer. Once you open your eyes, you'll be on your feet. For once, a truly deserved standing ovation. May 2 and 5. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas. 713-228-6763. - DLG

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