Compleat Female Stage Beauty In 1660, when the English monarchy was restored after the conservative rule of the Puritan Roundheads, one of the first acts of "merry monarch" Charles II was to reopen the theaters that had been shuttered for 20 years. Unfortunately, the boy actors who played the female roles — in a theatrical convention that besotted Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences — were found to be terribly passé, so for the first time women were allowed upon the English stage. What were the bewhiskered Cleopatras and Desdemonas to do for a career? Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher parlays this rarefied theatrical conundrum into a lively, sexy Restoration romp that Mildred's Umbrella embraces with ribald panache. Hatcher weaves his tapestry around real historical people — actors Edward Kynaston, Thomas Betterton and Margaret Hughes (played by Chris Rivera, Jamie Geiger and Christie Guidry Stryk); diarist Samuel Pepys (Timothy Evers); fun-loving Charles II (Marion Kirby); the unstoppable Nell Gwynn (Sara Jo Dunstan); Villiars, Duke of Buckingham (Steve Bullitt) — but there's no whiff of waxworks about it. He doesn't let history get in the way of a ripping good yarn, either, as Kynaston, down on his luck to say the least, turns his professional life around with the invention of method acting centuries before the fact. All have fun getting down and dirty in Restoration London, but Kirby, Dunstan and Evers wear their flounces and furbelows with especially intriguing abandon. Through March 28. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0585. — DLG
Doubt Given its pretentious subtitle, "A Parable," as if this warrants deep, after-theater discussion, John Patrick Shanley's phenomenally successful Catholic-school whodunit is a play that should be hawked on Oprah's book club. Shallow, anemic and faintly homophobic, it has inexplicably been bestowed a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. It's not that good, for God's sake. What it does have, however, are four powerhouse roles that, when done just so, make this play speed by, keeping us on the edge of our seats and fooling us into thinking the play's better than it is. Prim and rigid Sister Aloysius (Julie Oliver) is convinced that unconventional and beloved Father Flynn (Patrick Jennings) has molested one of his students. She sets in motion her personal inquisition to investigate. Innocent Sister James (Kathryn Noser) has doubts, while the boy's mother (Sophia Flot-Warner) has her own unique take on the situation, temporarily dealing a setback to the fanatical Aloysius. Oliver doesn't need thumbscrews or the rack to define her character — a firm mouth and hands planted inside her habit will do. She's on a mission, and God himself cannot deter her. Although Jennings begins too high and has nowhere to go when his big scene occurs, his lower-decibel scenes with Sister James ring true. Whatever you think about Shanley's play, it's still a gripping crowd-pleaser. Through April 11. Company Onstage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG
Five Flights If you want to catch a playwright on his way up, check out Adam Bock's little charmer from 2002. Here's the perfect opportunity to taste his rich, savory outlook on life. The Receptionist just finished a highly regarded run on Broadway, and The Thugs won the 2006 Obie Award for Best Play, so this is the closest to Bock you're going to get for a while. In the throes of dividing their parents' estate, brother and sister Ed and Adele (Josh Taylor and Beth Hopp) must decide what to do with the huge, decaying aviary — their father's monument to their mother — on the property. Wounded by a gay love affair gone sour, Ed could care less and wants the structure to crumble; Adele wants to give it to flaky "friend" Olivia (Alexandra Dorman) to turn into a bird cult church; and practical sister-in-law Jane wants to tear it down and build condos. There's much symbolism about birds and flight, hockey and ballet (don't ask). Bock writes in halting, choppy phrases that can be murder for an actor, but Unhinged Productions does wonders with this everyday poetry that, yes, takes flight and soars distinctively. Brandan Kankel, Ilich Guardiola and Heather Bryson round out the impressive cast. Roy Hamlin's unobtrusive direction grounds all the airy-fairy and keeps this impressionistic play from getting lost in too many clouds. Through March 28. 5102 Navigation, 281-781-7035. — DLG
Compleat Female Stage Beauty
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The Objectification of Things The hamburger is a mighty thing, especially in Michelle Ellsworth's The Objectification of Things, a charmingly funny performance piece that ran last weekend at DiverseWorks. Ellsworth's offbeat script teaches us everything from the science of carbon (we are all made of it) to the effects of cow farts on the atmosphere. All this info is surprisingly entertaining. Ellsworth, who also stars in her piece, performs in an auburn, page-boy hairdo with fiery energy. The idiosyncratic writing is chopped up into short segments that include a fantastic array of curious props, video, contemporary dance and hilarious monologues. We hear all about her struggles to stay away from burgers in a breathlessly sweaty sort of tone poem that she performs while dancing and stroking the soft bun of a burger. There's also an informative game segment involving a roulette wheel with stops named things like "God's Will" and "Carbon Cycle." It ends with a resurrection of the burger; she fashions it in plaster onstage while we watch. The performance is smart and rich with quirky details. We hope DiverseWorks will see fit to bring her back for some sort of encore soon. — LW