Capsule Stage Reviews: Big Love, The Flu Season, Machinal

Big Love Charles Mee's Big Love, a wild ride of experimental theater currently running at the University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance, is a provocative work, especially as directed by Leslie Swackhamer. Her version of Mee's remake of Aeschylus's The Danaids has muscular men flying in on helicopters, lovely ladies going wild with butcher knives, and lots of sexy music and dancing. It's a mostly successful production of Mee's weird hybrid of a play, in which the overtly political is made more palatable by lovely bits of romance. The story follows 50 daughters who flee their father's land before they are forced to marry 50 cousins. Mee focuses on three sisters who start out in agreement — they're all anti-husband. But somewhere along the way, one sister discovers she might actually like the idea of marriage, especially after she falls in love with her intended after he and his brothers are airlifted in by helicopter to recapture their runaway brides. Lots of speeches cover everything from political asylum (the women ask for it) to the rights of all lovers. An especially strong speech comes from Bella (Krissy Richmond), a grandmother who uses her pot of tomatoes to symbolize her many sons — the bad ones all get tossed to the ground, while the good ones get patted with tenderness. The women are the center of this piece, but the real performing strength comes from the men. Especially good is Kelly Burnett's Nikos, who makes a dreamy lover who knows how to dance, and Jonathan Colunga's Giuliano, who looks amazing in his white wedding dress, complete with a long train. We should all be grateful to UH for producing Mee's weirdly wonderful plays (last season the school produced bobrauschenbergamerica). And Swackhamer's inventive production, which incorporates music, dance, mime and even aerial ribbons, holds together despite the long first act, giving us access to one of the most inventive voices in American theater. Through March 7. 133 Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center. For information, call 713-743-2929. — LW

The Flu Season We got our first savory taste of writer extraordinaire Will Eno last year with Nova Arts Project's Thom Paine: Based on Nothing, a searing, angst-filled monologue that seemed to peer directly into our souls, whether we wanted it to or not. Now Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company is offering his slice of theater-of-the-absurd dramedy, and it's one of this company's finest productions. The Flu Season is marvelously served here by a most talented sextet of actors under the guiding hand of director Matt Huff, who keeps this unpredictable play on course and always heading true. It looks great, too, with set designer Greg Dean's incomplete tiled walls, Philip Hays's evocative sound design and John Wind's clinical, then autumnal, lighting. It's a love story, of course, that Eno spins like an expressionistic gyroscope, as Man and Woman (Caleb George and Jessica Janes) fall in love in an asylum in which Doctor and Nurse (Wayne Barnhill and Lyndsay Sweeney) are both ineffectual and maddeningly professional. The story is watched over, commented on and glossed by two contradictory yet omniscient authors, Prologue and Epilogue (Seán Patrick Judge and Bobby Haworth), who can't seem to get it right. Sometimes even authors are powerless to change one's fate. Eno fills his tale to the brim with wondrous wordplay that intertwines and grows back upon itself, using plenty of snarky humor and sometimes just plain weirdness, yet he makes it all work without too many seams showing. We hang on for the ride, breathless, with muscles aching from the strain — you can't relax at an Eno play — and the outcome is quite unlike what we may want. But it's all most satisfying, even when we're lost in a most tantalizing maze. Through March 13. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0973. — DLG

Machinal This 1928 Broadway antique has more life and freshness than any half dozen contemporary dramas. Playwright Sophie Treadwell, whose rich bohemian career could easily be its own play, wrote a very personal example of "expressionist" drama — that curious style that had a few years of prominence in the roaring '20s. Unlike in Elmer Rice's Adding Machine or Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, here alienation has a very human face, as Young Woman (Meghan C. Hakes) searches for love and heartless murder results. (All expressionist plays made use of such general character names and scene location.) Young Woman's husband (Mark Roberts) is a kind one, but a bore nonetheless, so when she meets The Man (Jovan Jackson), who personifies freedom in all guises, she can't cope with the crushing choices. She gets lost in her guilt. Nothing, no one, can help her, not rock-ribbed Mother (Heather Bryson), whose older-generation attitudes might as well date from ancient Egypt, nor soulless work, where everyone speaks yet never communicates. In Main Street Theater's exemplary production directed by Troy Scheid, the tone of endless, over-the-top misery is pulled taut scene by scene until the outcome is inevitable, if not preordained. You'll not forget the opening scene in the office, with its stream-of-consciousness sound and overlapping dialogue. It's good to have Treadwell back where she belongs — onstage. Her play is prefaced by Caryl Churchill's A Number, a clever if one-note take on the ethics of cloning, which is really a disquisition on parenting and what it means to be a son, or have one. David Wald and Rutherford Cravens parry and thrust like Olympic fencers, leaving each other bloody and scarred for what's left of their lives. Through March 14. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG


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