Capsule Stage Reviews: Caroline, or Change, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Sugar Bean Sisters

Caroline, or Change Somewhere in between tonal poetry and contemporary opera lies Tony Kushner's admirably somber musical Caroline, or Change, a complex, emotionally cool collage of characters and music that slowly comes together to capture the rich nuances of a difficult moment in American history. It's 1963 — the year J.F.K. is shot. Caroline Thibodeaux (Tamara Siler) is a black maid working in hot Louisiana for a liberal Jewish family. She's angry at her poverty, her loneliness and her daughter's political ideas about desegregation, but she's understood by one boy, Noah Gellman (double cast with Sean Hardin and Julian Brashears), the lonely child of her employers, who spends his afternoons in the basement with the difficult woman. Noah, like Caroline, suffers from a broken heart. His mother has recently died of cancer. As tender as this might sound, there's nothing sweet in Kushner's musical. The only tenderness comes from the character of the Moon (Marion Vernette Moore) that shines down on this tale with constant wisdom. Kushner's show is strongest in the second act, once he's dispensed with a lot of exposition. But the entire show is sung through and takes some patience. Happily, Rebecca Greene Udden's thoughtful direction keeps the production moving forward. And when the final scene happens, the imaginative puzzle of Kushner's entire project works its way to a surprisingly satisfying end. Through January 20. Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — LW

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead For his first international smash hit, playwright Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and gave them their own play. These inconsequential, rather ineffectual characters are set center stage while all the famous scenes and dramatis personae from the classic swirl around them. Unfortunately, the two dupes only know their own parts, and they spend the evening trying to figure out what it all means. All the typically Stoppardian traits are present: sizzling wordplay, clever structure, love of theatrics and brittle existentialism mingling with low comedy shtick. As former school chums of prince Hamlet, dense Rosencrantz (Allen Dorris) and a somewhat sharper Guildenstern (John Mitsakis) have been summoned to the court by King Claudius, Hamlet's fratricidal, throne-usurping uncle, to "draw him out" and make sense of his "troubles." Since they have no recollection of any previous life before they were summoned, they haven't a clue what to do except what they're told, as best they can. As in Shakespeare's tale, the duo unwittingly become involved in Claudius's plot to murder Hamlet but inadvertently deliver their own writ of execution instead. They face their extinction with begrudging resignation and an actor's final movement — they exit. While Mitsakis is very good indeed as the brighter bulb of the set, it is Dorris, one of Houston's finest actors, who brings the play up a notch with his witless yet jovial Rosencrantz. More Shakespearean bombast would well serve Casey Coale as the leader of the traveling players, and more Shakespearean ease would serve all the others, except for John Kaiser's brief but encompassing Polonius, who only makes us yearn to see him in Shakespeare's original. Through January 26. Company Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Sugar Bean Sisters Nathan Sanders's Southern gothic fantasy is a potent, odd mix of Tobacco Road's shabby poetics and Ma and Pa Kettle's whimsy, with a dollop of supermarket tabloid Weekly World News thrown in. After a slow start the play begins to captivate, and soon we lose ourselves in the pungent Florida swamps. As the last remaining members of the hardscrabble, dirt-poor Nettles family — Pa was lynched by the townspeople after he inadvertently poisoned 12 beauty queen contestants, Ma was eaten alive by flying cats and younger sis was set upon by gators — flinty Faye (Dottie McQuarrie) and flighty Willie Mae (Marianne Lyon) long to escape. Faye waits with sandwiches and a packed suitcase for the return of the flying saucer that will whisk her away, while Willie Mae pines for the return of her hair so she can woo a man and move to Salt Lake City to be near her beloved Mormon celestial kingdom. With a few backwoods plot twists involving the Reptile Woman (Julie Oliver in delicious scene-stealing mode), the Bishop Crumley (James Walsh), who may or may not be an angel, and a Las Vegas lounge singer under a voodoo curse (Helen Warwick, a bit too much in overdrive), the sisters' dreams don't evaporate under harsh reality, they metastasize. The production's a tad bumpy and needs tightening, but it leaves us pleasantly lightheaded nonetheless. Through February 16. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG


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