Avenue Q Take Sesame Street and give it a college coming-of-age story and an R rating and you've got the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, now being presented by Music Box Musicals. The musical, which stars puppets, monster puppets and humans, is being mounted by Music Box in its intimate theater space, and is quite a different experience from seeing it in a large venue. The stage is small, not giving the large cast of actors and puppets much room to move around. To make up for the lack of space, director Michael J. Ross has placed much of the action to the left side of the stage, taking away some vantage points for those patrons seated on the opposite angle. Marco Camacho and Allison Sumrall aptly play the main puppets, Princeton and Kate Monster, respectively. Both actors portray additional puppets as well, and the jumping between the two characters, even when they are both required in one scene, is done skillfully and without missing a beat. The other puppets and actors keep the comedy moving along and more or less have the vocal chords to match. The nature of seeing this type of production in a small theater may be jarring to some who find being right in the action too close for comfort, especially for those who find it awkward watching puppets have sex. If that's the case, then just find yourself a spot in the back of the theater and enjoy a good show. Through November 23. Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. For information, call 713-522-7722 or visit themusicboxtheater.com. — AK
Carnival 'Round the Central Figure A man lies comatose in a hospital, kept company by his wife, as visitors come and go. A variety of methods of dealing with death are explored; this is not a drama but a dark comedy. Paul (Rod Todd), a middle-aged accountant, lies abed, dying, his face whitened, Kabuki-style. Paul's wife, Sheila, is portrayed by Karen Schlag, who chatters incessantly, her way of denying the reality of Paul's looming death. She is visited by Kate and her husband Richard, quarreling, as Richard wants to leave almost immediately while Kate wants to stay. Matt Benton plays Richard and captures his domineering, hysterical tyranny, and Arianna Bermudez is excellent as Kate, exuding much-needed warmth and caring. The stage lights up with John Dunn as a cynical televangelist preacher dragging Becky (Elizabeth Marshall Black) to the camera to deliver her terrified testimony, which she does with stark authenticity. Dunn's performance is hilarious and compelling. Maryanne, the hospital psychologist, portrayed by Courtney Lomelo with style and wonderfully self-confident poise, lectures on survival. A four-person chorus enters from time to time, sometimes in masks, to sing or move about the stage as though dancing. The running time was 68 minutes, with no intermission, and is directed by Jennifer Decker, who has delivered the playwright's intentions and has evoked interesting, authentic performances from the actors while keeping the pace appropriately brisk. And the staging of the televangelist's performance, with a live televised feed creating the impression that the audience is in the studio and also at home viewing, is a triumph. An experimental play deals with reactions to death in satiric terms, though the humor is sparse. See it for its strong production values, vivid characters and fine acting. Through November 23. From Mildred's Umbrella, at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0409. — 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