Capsule Stage Reviews: Dollhouse, Henry V, The Night of the Iguana, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Dollhouse Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House remains hugely popular, and Chicago's Goodman Theatre commissioned Rebecca Gilman to create an updated version. The parallels to Ibsen's play are strikingly successful and brilliantly integrated, but this is a sparkling contemporary comedic drama that stands on its own hind legs and roars. Nora, the feminist heroine, is played by Rachel Logue with such warmth and charm; a dazzling smile; a sultry, voluptuous body; and mercurial changes in mood that it's easy to see why husband Terry (David Matranga) lusts after her and why his best friend Pete (Jon Egging) carries a torch for her. Logue conveys not just the siren song of sex unparalleled but equally vividly the perception that she is a caged lioness, strong, seething and searching. Matranga is excellent in establishing the sense of community so essential to a play about a family, and comes into his own in the powerful climactic scenes. The entire cast is outstanding, including Egging as Pete, Jennifer Bassett Dean as Nora's college friend Kristine and Samuel Jon as Raj in principal roles. The play is brilliantly directed by Eva Laporte, who has honed the cast into ensemble acting and kept the pace energetic. Dollhouse is about moral choices, yet they are not black or white but instead come in as many shades of grey as an E.L. James novel. Its success is that it portrays humans grappling with situations crucial to them, each one unique but perhaps similar to ones shared with the neighbor next door. Well-intentioned but thoughtless behavior can mushroom into a tsunami threatening to destroy an existence. But that wave is not water, it's money. This is exciting theater — don't miss it. Through April 28. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Henry V In this thrilling coproduction between Main Street Theater and Prague Shakespeare Company, whose collaboration produced last season's equally thrilling Richard III, Shakespeare's stirring yet ironic flag-waver bursts onto the stage. As the untested, newly crowned heir to the throne, Guy Roberts has eyes that can pierce through you with a steely unconcern, weep with you or wink knowingly as if you're an unindicted co-conspirator. In the intimate playing area at Main Street, this glorious panorama of war and its consequences is up close and personal. The mud and blood is right in our faces, as are those eyes. They glint through the gloom like watch fires. After a dissolute adolescence, Harry has matured into a formidable yet untried English monarch. He's a mash of contradictions: rash and bold, clever and tricky, heartless and sympathetic, brutal and gentle. Shakespeare's humanism prevents quick judgment; he presents Harry warts and all. Virile and blustery, a master diplomat, a simple wooer and valiant warrior, Roberts captures Harry's paradoxes with gleeful flair. He loves his men, but will not spare them in pursuit of his own glory. Roberts is equally adept as director. The mighty pageant flows like the Thames and is given an overall wash that resembles Japanese anime meets Mad Max. Red takes center stage with the swathes of blood that drench the battle-weary soldiers. Some of them carry medieval axes, others automatic weapons. The mashup gives the production a bleak, apocalyptic tone. The finest touch is the addition of two taiko musicians, Khechar Boorla and Nicholas Hill, who thump their great drums and use other eerie percussion effects to enhance the warlike, end-of-the-world mood. Shakespeare's epic history play is cinematic as it cuts from English court to French palace, war-scarred trench to princess's boudoir, beleaguered town to rain-soaked battlefield (a striking coup de theatre effect from set designer Ryan McGettigan). We never lose our way. The splendid cast, who all double and triple up roles, make poetry out of the aromatic, dense text. Standouts include Philip Hays as petty thief Bardolph and the clueless, headstrong Dauphin of France; Seán Patrick Judge as wily Archbishop and burr-besotted Scotsman Jamy; Celeste Roberts as bawdy Mistress Quickly and comic lady-in-waiting Alice; Crystal O'Brien as petulant herald Montjoy; Jessica Boone as spirited Davy and English-challenged Katherine, Princess of France; Rutherford Cravens as opportunistic Pistol; Mark Roberts as hotheaded Irishman Macmorris; and Bill Roberts as loyal Welshman Fluellen. War is hell, Shakespeare shouts in Henry V, but replete with life. Kings are good, kings are bad, kings can be mediocre. Patriotism is courage and cowardice, like soldiers, like all of us. Shakespeare shows us the world; Main Street chisels the panoply of medieval life as finely as any Gothic icon. The eyes have it. Through April 28. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-521-6706. — DLG

The Night of the Iguana The Night of the Iguana in 1961 was Tennessee Williams's last real success on Broadway. Now Theatre Southwest mounts its own revival, with its intimate space successfully creating the feeling of a sleepy, slightly run-down hotel on the coast of Mexico, and into these premises strides Lisa Schofield as Maxine Faulk, recently widowed and the owner/manager of the hotel. Schofield creates an involving and grippingly authentic portrait of a woman rooted in reality and seeing things clearly, but lightened with charm and a sense of humor, anchoring the play. Tyrrell Woolbert portrays Hannah Jelkes, caregiver and granddaughter to the 97-year old poet Nonno, whose memory and mind are receding. Woolbert stamps the role with quiet authority, and in her description of Hannah's limited sexual experiences, Woolbert finds the majesty in truth-telling and the poetry in the tattered human soul. Less successful is Scott McWhirter as the Reverend Larry Shannon, disgraced minister reduced to a position as a tour guide, with a taste for the bottle and an eye for 16-year-old girls. Shannon enters as a man driven by demons, all twitchy and distraught, defeated, cowardly and panicky, an object of derision and contempt, leaving him nowhere to go for the rest of the play. McWhirter portrays Shannon without dignity or charm rather than as the intended chick magnet. John Stevens as Nonno creates an interesting and convincing portrait. The rest of the large cast is admirable in less prominent roles, and director Mimi Holloway keeps the pace flowing and has ingeniously solved the many production problems inherent in the script. A complex, dynamic play by a theatrical master is brought to exciting life by skilled actors, resulting in a fascinating evening filled with insights, power and moments of pure magic. Through May 4. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Spell e-u-d-a-e-m-o-n-i-a. What's the definition? From the Greek, the state of being happy. Please use it in a sentence. Music Box Musicals' production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee put me on cloud nine, where I experienced a definite sense of eudaemonia. So will you. This non-PC musical, a smash hit off-Broadway before it moved up to the big boys' street, is amazingly refreshing: Its theme is rather inconsequential when you come right down to it; sure, it's about winning and losing, but not about winners and losers. Maybe that's why it's so darned appealing. Six middle-school spellers compete "at the bee," augmented by some audience members (who've been chosen earlier in the evening) and the adults: unflappable moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Kristina Sullivan); vice principal Panch (Luke Wrobel, all scrunched up shoulders and pants pulled up to his armpits), who's in charge of reading the definitions; and Mitch Mahoney (Chioke Coreathers), who's doing community service by helping out with tough-love guidance as he hands out juice boxes to the kids who get eliminated. We get to know the other misfit kids as the musical progresses: precocious little Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Martha Katherine Patton) — she has two dads, you see; Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Marco Camacho), who gets distracted by a raging erection; flighty Leaf Coneybear (Braden Hunt), who doesn't think he's smart, although he can spell without even thinking about it; William Barfee (Rick Evans), the know-it-all nerd with a mucous membrane disorder who spells with his "magic foot"; Olive Ostrovsky (Cay Taylor), who waits in vain for her dad to arrive and whose mom is off at an ashram in India; and Marcy Park (Beth Lazarou), who speaks six languages, plays Chopin and rugby, never cries and is the classic overachiever. They're all looking for something — acceptance for who they are, for a start — and they all grow up a little under the fresh music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain) and the wickedly sly book by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a 2005 Tony award for Best Book of a Musical. With spirited direction by Michael J. Ross and Adam W. Delka, and swinging musical direction by Glenn Sharp, Music Box Musicals and MJR Theatricals make the most of this minimal little showstopper. Flawlessly performed, this production has a grand heart, a warm soul and a breezy, winning style. You could spell it a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l. Through May 4. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — DLG


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