Capsule Stage Reviews: Billy Budd, The Heiress, One Flea Spare, Time of My Life

Billy Budd Throughout Houston Grand Opera's Billy Budd (1951), an unseaworthy mechanical gizmo spins on stage — it's an annoying mechanical platform that's supposed to be the deck of the English warship Indomitable. The thing never stops moving, even during composer Benjamin Britten's most impressionistic scene changes. But if you can ignore the hydraulic metal monster as it whirs away and just listen, you will hear a masterpiece. The opera tells the story of illiterate English sailor Billy Budd, who is pressed into service during the Napoleonic Wars. He is so good and innocent, handsome and virile, that all on board take an immediate shine to him, even Claggart, who vows to destroy him. Our hero's only imperfection is a paralyzing stutter that occurs when he's upset. When Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny and he's commanded by Captain Vere to answer the charge, he can't. In frustration, he lashes out and fells Claggart with one blow. During the shipboard trial, Vere doesn't speak up in Billy's defense, and he's sentenced to hang. On his climb to the yardarm, Billy absolves the captain by shouting, "God bless Captain Vere," averting a potential mutiny. Designer Brian Thompson, under Neil Armfield's direction, confines us to an inky void with a grimy cloudscape backdrop, and of course, the aforementioned platform. But the dramatic and aural glories of Britten's superlative adaptation of Herman Melville's last, unfinished novel are abundantly on display, and it's here that HGO catches the wind. Through May 9. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

The Heiress Concisely adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, Henry James's short psychological novel Washington Square (1880) became a successful Tony-winning Broadway play (1947) and then an equally successful Oscar-winning movie (1949). Writing of just one family — the rich Slopers of New York City's Washington Square — was unusual for James, who limited his usually sprawling canvas. Imbued with parental disapproval and the stifling effect of being plain in a world insistent upon beauty, the deceptively simple story takes on epic flavor. Despised by her father for lacking her dead mother's qualities and lovely outward appearance, shy and socially inept Catherine has become enamored of handsome wastrel Morris Townsend, who has swept her off her feet. Dr. Sloper, with a cruel honesty that borders on the sadistic, warns her that Morris only loves her money — for she has nothing whatever to offer any man. Is Morris sincere in his ardent declarations? Is the plain Catherine doomed to a life devoid of love? Directed with mounting tension by Jeannette Clift George, A.D. Players brings this snappily written play vibrantly to life. Sarah Cooksey is all fidgets and thumbs as ordinary Catherine, who, through love and love denied, is frighteningly transformed into the very thing she most abhors, her father. Marty Blair makes a most charismatic Morris, sparkling and bright as fool's gold. Lee Walker supplies the emotionally distant Dr. Sloper with a terrifying heart of ice. And Christy Watkins bustles and frets most wonderfully as busybody Aunt Lavinia. The handsome set by Mark Lewis and the eye-catching costumes by Patty Tuel Bailey add luster to this production's genuine shine. Through June 1. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

One Flea Spare Naomi Wallace's neohistorical drama is set in London during the ravages of the Great Plague of 1665, and the pestilence is viciously mowing down Londoners without regard to social position. The wealthy Snelgraves are quarantined within their townhouse, whose windows and doors have been boarded up by authorities to prevent their leaving until the plague that has killed their servants has burned itself out. Their 28-day grace period is ending when a vagabond sailor and a young girl from the neighborhood break into the house looking for shelter. Once discovered, all four of them are trapped inside for another deadly, claustrophobic 28 days. Playwright Wallace, who's won numerous prizes for this work, has an eye for the putrid and a poet's savage tongue. Her premise is a Restoration-period No Exit: The characters are placed squarely in hell and not likely ever to get out. She plays with all sorts of themes — gender politics, economic inequality, feminism — then glosses them with an unsurpassed beauty of phrase and apt dramatic gesture. At times it can be awfully heady, but more often it's intense, revealing, and absolutely right and true. Under Patricia Duran's probing direction, the Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company cast (Bree Welch, Mark Carrier, Greg Dean, Jennifer Decker and Eric Doss) explores Wallace's surreal view with an almost visual clarity. With its hypnotic and grotesque strangeness, Flea is unlike any other play in recent memory. Through May 10. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0585. — DLG


Billy Budd

Time of My Life English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is not only one of theater's most prolific writers (some 50-plus works since 1959) but also one of its most experimental and innovative. His work is complex, captivating, a little crazy, revelatory and achingly funny, as the middle class gets its nose tweaked. Don't ever pass up an Ayckbourn. In this little jewel from Company OnStage, love and marriage get dissected, but so does time. After we meet the family of six boisterously gathered to celebrate Mom's birthday at their favorite restaurant, the scenes fragment into a series of intensifying duets — and duels. The parents (Carl Masterson and Cheryl Tanner) stay in the present, full of regret and incriminations; philandering oldest son and mousey wife (Brian Heaton and Kristi Jones Pewthers) move into the future; and spoiled youngest son and girlfriend (Norm Dillon and Renata Santoro) move backward through time, until their last scene is their first meeting. Various waiters at the restaurant pop in and out, too, all lovingly played by John Patterson. The nonchronological order of the scenes lifts what appears to be mundane and ordinary into a realm of heightened sympathy and understanding. It's quite a beautiful effect, pushed even higher by the superlative Masterson and Tanner. The exquisitely shaded performances of these two pros have it all — the faded passion, nitpicking and thousand little cuts that happen as a marriage slowly bleeds to death. If you want to experience unobtrusive acting at its finest and truest, watch these two. The same could be said of Ayckbourn's intimate, yet universal, play. Through June 7. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

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