Capsule Stage Reviews: Cosi fan tutte, Dear Santa, Speed-the-Plow, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, When the Day Met the Night (a moosehunt experience)

Così fan tutte Among all of Mozart's splendid operas, perhaps Così is most special, because it has taken the most lumps, molding in the closet after its 1791 premiere for more than one hundred years and then bowdlerized when it later infrequently appeared. Hard to believe that a work with such mastery, wit and finesse could be forgotten and unloved, but it was. Well, times change, and now Mozart's comic sex masquerade is regarded as a masterpiece. Opera in the Heights delivers Mozart's genius — and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's, too — with a genius all their own. Could this be the company's best production ever? When Ferrando and Guglielmo (Emanuel-Cristian Caraman and Kevin Wetzel), two army officers, crow of their lovers' faithfulness, old cynic Don Alfonso (Erik ­Kroncke) bets them that within the day, their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi (Ann Sauder and Emily Newton), will be unfaithful. In his plan, the men pretend they're called to war but immediately return in disguise as two "Albanians," with great plumed mustaches, to each woo the other's betrothed. Needless to say, the women prove inconstant. The title freely translates as "they're all alike." At its time it was a shocking, ultramodern theme, with infidelity, casual sex and an irreverent, saucy maid, Despina (Jennifer Whalen), added to the mix. You can almost hear Mozart purring in the background, as his unique voice gives the characters weight and emotion. The whole affair bubbles. Music and words meld just so in this opera, fitting perfectly on the ear. Opera in the Heights has it right, too, with a flawless ensemble cast and an intelligent, witty staging from director Lynda McKnight, who gracefully applies layers of irony and smartness to Mozart and Da Ponte's artifice. Nothing is overplayed, overwrought or overthought. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo conducts orchestra and chorus with a jaunty passion, and the singers romp through Mozart with vigor and elegance, tuning his phrases into electricity. Sophisticated and full of charm, Così at OH sings with the dimensions of Shakespeare, which this masterpiece of adult operatic comedy most resembles. It's a triumph. Through November 17, 18 (Ruby cast with Sarah Beckham, Rebecca Heath, Zach Averyt and Brian Shircliffe), 19, 20 (Ruby cast). 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG

Dear Santa Christmas comes early to Theatre Suburbia with a comedy set in Santa's North Pole workshop, where elves cope amusingly with production problems. But if you're looking for Ibsen, you're barking up the wrong chimney. This line might be from Bozidar, Santa's mechanic, who delightfully garbles common expressions — a device which works beautifully. Bozidar is played by Tony D'Armata with perky energy and great style. Equally fetching is Kelly Browning as Octavia, Santa's housekeeper, combining body language and a high voice to create an interesting and likable character. Santa himself oversees all the hijinks, and Michael J. Steinbach shows us the human Santa, a dedicated, benevolent manager with authentic charm. Bob Galley plays a glib, aggressive salesman intent on selling Santa a rocket sleigh, and makes the character compelling, persuasive and funny. Keitha Mae Hanks plays Kit Bishop, a young stowaway with an agenda, and finds life in the character in Act Two. There are subplots: A missed shipment of glue threatens disaster, Octavia's unrequited love, Kit Bishop's hardworking mother — but much of the fun is in the running gags, the amusingly detailed set and the colorful costumes — I loved the elf shoes with the curled toes, and Octavia's vest with Christmas scenes. David James Barron plays Algernon, Santa's chief-of-staff, but fails to find the fun in the role. Elvin Moriarty, artistic director of Theatre Suburbia, directed this comedy and found its gentle humor, though the pace might be picked up. The work is by Norm Foster, Canada's most produced playwright, and this is its Houston premiere. This slight comedy, perfect for the holiday season, delights with gentle charm, and is strengthened by skilled acting which adds humanity and wit to the pleasant goings-on. Through December 3. 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

Speed-the-Plow David Mamet's 1988 withering, perverse dissection of Hollywood insiders achieves a caustic, take-no-prisoners production at Country Playhouse. New head of production Bobby Gould (Trevor B. Cone) green-lights an inane blockbuster that's brought to him by longtime partner and underling Charlie Fox (Jacob Millwee). It's an easy sell with a bankable star, a deal sure to make both men's fame and, much more importantly, fortune. Money and power are what's made in Hollywood, not movies; they're just byproduct. Bobby wants to "do right" by his work, but he's clouded by a lack of fortitude and self-esteem. Temp secretary Karen (Mischa Hutchings) throws a dangerous curve into both men's easy path. In Mamet's world, the ones at the top possess the least awareness. Workplace loyalty, male bonding and Eve in the garden are standard Mamet fare, and while this isn't the best of him (that would be Glengarry Glen Ross), ironic Plow has enough nifty twists and turns all its own — and nifty turns of phrase, a Mamet specialty — to warrant a look. As conflicted Bobby and go-getter Charlie, both Cone and Millwee careen through Mamet's patented elliptic dialogue at breakneck speed, savoring the guys' insightful banter and boys-are-us demeanor. Their partnership is palpable. As hyper Fox, Millwee barges through the play with flailing arms and voice pitched to auction his own grandmother if this deal doesn't work out. He brings out the dread in the comedy. Hutchings brings out the serpent. As new-agey hipster Karen, she breaches the male lair with defiant innocence. If you're unfamiliar with Mamet, Plow's a primer into his archetypical male world that's full of bluster, taunts, threats, conceit and unbridled buddy sex. Hermetically sealed, it's not for the faint of heart. Under Joey Milillo's cohesive direction, Country Playhouse serves him up with a spoon. In Hollywood, it's difficult to tell if it's gold plate or 24-carat, but always bet on the plate. Through November 17. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

There Is a Happiness That Morning Is When Troy Schulze's character Bernard ambles onto the tiny stage of Catastrophic Theater's "micro-theater" to open There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, he is planning to give a lecture on William Blake's poem "Infant Joy" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He's also going to explain the leaves. Rather, he's going to apologize for the behavior that led him to be covered in same. The night before he and his love, Ellen, a fellow Blake scholar at the same financially strapped small college, had been inflamed by Blake's poetry to the point of ripping off their clothes and making love in front of their students — and school administration. To keep their jobs, Bernard and Ellen are going to have to publicly apologize for their display of — what? Bernard argues that their lovemaking was an act of innocence, and he uses Blake's poem to make his case. Schulze is wonderful in this long opening monologue. He gives a down-home touch to the often high-flying rhetoric of playwright Mickle Maher. It's so high-flying, in fact, that much of it comes in rhyming couplets. Ellen (Amy Bruce) takes the stage, setting up for her afternoon class in which she is going to damn well refuse to apologize for anything. She has contempt for the school administration, particularly Dean James (Kyle Sturdivant). But James upends the expectations of both Bernard and Ellen. He wasn't horrified by their lovemaking — he was turned on by it. He doesn't want to kill their Blake seminars; he's cut funding to the rest of the university so that they can continue. In short, he's in love — with both of them. Despite the strength of the other performers, Sturdivant dominates the stage. A large actor bursting with manic energy (that sparkle in his eyes comes from a deep place), Sturdivant fills the stage with his character's degradation. Under Jason Nodler's direction, the play's energy never comes close to flagging, and the experience of seeing it in the tiny theater ups its already considerable ante. Through November 19. Catastrophic Theatre Micro-Theatre, 1540 Sul Ross, 713-522-2723. — DT

When the Day Met the Night (a moosehunt experience) The world premiere of a new, experimental play explores five friends using recreational drugs 20 years ago, then leaps into the present to see them as they are today. The first act re-creates the ambience of an all-night party, with a variety of mind-expanding drugs available for the taking, and take them they do. Diana (Lindsy Greig) is having a bit of a bad trip, and she provides enough eye candy for several plays. She loves Elery (Cris Skelton), the host of the party, but physical interactions with others are apparently not taboo. In attendance are Bryan (Joshua A. Costea), Gene (Ricky Welch) and Annie (Randi Hall). From the outside, none of this seems like much fun — the mind may be expanded, but humor, wit and pace are not. Act II is a different kettle of fish entirely, and different actors now play the characters. Elery is played by Jonathan Harvey, Bryan by Tom Stell, Annie by Susan Blair and Diana by playwright and director Leighza Walker; Gene is still played by Ricky Welch. Also present are Elery's young son Henry (Rider Welch) and Alan Kitty as Bill, Henry's grandfather. The acting of all is excellent. Here future lives are grappled with, and characters emerge as much more interesting. Leighza Walker's first full-length play here indicates a gift for plot, characterization, tension and surprises, and the authenticity of the drama is due in large part to the directorial authority brought by playwright Walker. This experimental work is well-acted and well-directed, and, after a somewhat slow start, creates a vivid, gripping portrayal of adults facing a moment of crucial decision-making. Through November 19. Big Head Productions at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT


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