Capsule Stage Reviews: Don Giovanni, Dr. Faustus, Freud's Last Session, The Good Thief, The Meeting, Into the Woods

Don Giovanni Over the years I've seen many productions of W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's eternal masterpiece Don Giovanni, but never one with so much sass and sexy charm as Opera in the Heights's. The young cast captures the work's comedic drama and shakes it vigorously. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo and his very fine orchestra, sounding better than ever, rush headlong into the sublime score, beautifully balancing hellish fury, heartbreaking tenderness and the sinuous, wayward ways of the profligate title character. (A special nod of thanks to harpsichordist Teruhiko Toda, who plays the continuo part as if singing himself.) If you've never seen Don Giovanni onstage, this is the production to see. Rising opera director Stephanie Havey gives the tale of the fabled debauched Spaniard an invigorating makeover, updating the action to the '50s. The program notes say it's the '60s, but it's definitely the era of early Rat Pack, Balenciaga-like couture, and rebels without a cause. I question a few of her choices. No matter how twisted the logic between "what is hidden and what is seen," surreal artist René Magritte is an odd visual metaphor for the world's greatest womanizer, and the elegant, prim Donna Anna would never, ever — I repeat, never — dance some hootchy-kootchy number and act all wild and crazy before her seduction by Giovanni in the first scene. She is a lady and would never party down in public. It's completely against her grain. The most surprising update, thoroughly right and constantly entertaining, is the libretto, marvelously re-translated here into period slang. Catchy and breezy, "Time to party" and "Do I Hear a Rat" are entirely apt for this classic tale. Master wordsmith Da Ponte would heartily approve of this new buzz. (I'm guessing that director Havey is the author of the surtitles, but no credit is given in the program.) Giovanni is opera's ultimate bad boy. An unrepentant seducer, he loves 'em and leaves 'em, an equal-opportunity male chauvinist pig. He has no redeeming social value other than the uncanny ability to get women into bed. Yet we grudgingly admire his nerve, suave technique, and unquenchable, unstoppable libido. There's no one in the world of opera like this sparky, spiky man about town. One tantalizing musical phrase, one mandolin solo, one little touch is all he needs to conquer anyone. In a brilliant flourish during the famous "Catalog Aria," his servant Leporello (bass/baritone Justin Hopkins in a standout performance) lists all the hundreds of his master's conquests — young, old, blond, redhead, rich, poor, fat, thin — while he pulls out one Rolodex after another, flipping through the numerous card entries until they blur. Baritone Brian K. Major, as Giovanni, is one smooth operator, in action and voice. While not as outwardly sexy as some more recent "barihunks" who've sung the role, he easily compensates with a commanding voice that's agile and very easy on the ear. In his pseudo-pimp outfit of fur-trimmed car coat, under which is his concealed handgun, he cuts a dangerous figure. Major's Italian diction, like all the others, is crystal clear. Rachel Smith's set design is simple and effective — a series of scrim panels that open like screen doors anchor a double flight of stairs. You don't need much when Mozart supplies all the atmosphere. Jim Elliott's lighting was best by far, imbuing each scene with just enough hint of moonlight or lamplight. Dena Scheh's costumes were a vintage wonderland of bowler hats, party gowns and biker chic. Don Giovanni is one of the musical wonders of the world. It never gets old. OH's youthful update keeps the lovable rake alive and kicking. Treat yourself to his adventures. You may not repent, but you'll be changed for the better. February 6, 7, 8 and 9. 1703 Heights, 713-861-5303. — DLG

Dr. Faustus What a thoroughly bewitching production this is. The magicians at Classical Theatre have outdone themselves in bringing to life this rare Elizabethan gem from Christopher Marlowe. Everything about it works, from the antique English dance band tunes which set the tone, to the imaginative, awesome theatricality that gives the play sweep and power. If you're under the impression that a creaky, arcane drama from the days of yore might be a yawn fest, this show will mightily convince otherwise. With an intelligent adaptation by Timothy N. Evers that shrewdly edits great Marlowe down to more modest size — a few subsidiary characters are excised, without doing overall damage — director Philip Hays and his team of sorcerers conjure up an enchanted evening in the theater not to be missed. In case you're unfamiliar with this play, you're certainly familiar with its universal plot: proud Dr. Faustus makes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul for 24 years of unalloyed pleasure. Needless to say, his adventures bring him momentary gain but no lasting happiness. At the end, no surprise here, he is dragged kicking and screaming into hell. Adam Gibbs and James Belcher anchor the play and are magnificent as smart-ass Faustus and a wily, seen-it-all, been-there Mephistopheles. At one point, they both do a little softshoe, a neat vaudeville turn that says everything you need to know about the seductions yet to come and how easy it is to be tempted. Dain Geist and Johanna Hubbard play the good and bad angels (and other roles, like the Pope and Helen of Troy) who try to convince him to go straight or prompt him to be more devilish. Throughout, the poetry is crystal clear and made manifest in the leads' stirring performances. Ryan McGettigan's atmospheric design of raked floorboards, a carnival's dangling electric lights and those cabinets of wonders — out of which all manner of hellishness appears — is its own wonder to behold. Matt Schlief's lighting is mesmerizing, Macy Perrone's costumes beguile, the masks by The Maskery & Pirate Mask Workshop are a treat (the bejeweled face of Helen of Troy is an inspired touch), and Justin Dunford's puppet design (the Seven Deadly Sins) is quite captivating. Turning Faustus into English music hall transforms Marlowe's stuffiness by making it smoothly palatable and more relevant, while adding a sweet layer of contemporary irony. Man, says Marlowe, must forever battle pride, gluttony, lust, et al., but if you give yourself to the dark side, well, then, you get what you bargained for. In its scintillating production, Classical Theatre Co. makes going to Hell an absolute pleasure. Through February 16. The Barn, 2201 Preston, 713-963-9665. — DLG

Freud's Last Session In London on the day when Germany invades Poland in 1939, superstar father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, an unrepentant atheist, invites the brilliant young university professor C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, to his home for a chat. In Mark St. Germain's bumpy yet intriguing two-character conversation, Freud's Last Session, feisty, hard-edged Freud (James Black) engages upright, morally unshakable Lewis (Jay Sullivan) in an 80-minute round of intellectual tennis. Their exegeses on Jesus, man's suffering, a bit of sex talk and lots of daddy issues ends up in a tie, while the drama takes a snooze. The debates are smart as the guys serve and volley with professional precision, batting back and forth such capital-letter subjects as emotion vs. intellect, faith vs. the scientific method, even fathers vs. sons. They are both expert at the game. "An insidious lie" is what Freud calls religion; "There is a God," counters Lewis. Curmudgeon Freud, dying from jaw cancer, usually gets the best lines, but Lewis parries with the finesse of youth and the implacable rightness in his Christian faith. Just as the game gets heated, it's invariably cut short by phone calls from the outside world to remind old Sigmund to turn on the radio to hear the latest bad news, or by the screech of air-raid sirens that sends both men scrambling for gas masks. The specter of death is close, adding a poignant, human touch to Freud's stoney pronouncements and Lewis's prim priggishness. The pain and grisly details of his cancerous disease soften Freud, as do Lewis's still-fresh memories of the horrors of trench warfare during WW I. While trying to present both sides without judgment, St. Germain drains the life out of the play, not that there aren't moments of levity during the dry debates about free will, moral conscience and obsessional neuroses. Both men get their share of audience sympathy. Although he appears as rumpled as his black suit, Black makes shuffling old Freud a still-smoldering volcano, bellowing smoke and fire when appropriate. The explosions sap him, leaving him more pained and therefore more resolute for his suicide to be. He's still a mighty lion and knows his place in history, but his body is broken, even if his ego is secure. As a young C.S. Lewis, before he became internationally famous as an unrepentant Christian from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, Sullivan is as clean and bright as Freud is sooty. He's had his revelatory road-to-Damascus moment, and his conversion makes him shine. He radiates goodness and morality, with a whiff of insufferable rightness. If you're going to war with unbelievers, he could lead the troops into battle with unconquerable cheer. His jousts with Black sparkle. Directed with unmatched fluidity by Tyler Marchant, Freud moves swiftly. No one stays in one place very long, not even on that famous couch. Designed by Brian Prather, Freud's examining room is a hothouse beauty, draped in oriental rugs and cozy as a dream, with every nook holding leather-bound tomes or a phalanx of ancient statuary, guardian angels and totems that spur the mind. The set is the most well-appointed arena in town. Although Freud's Last Session resembles SparkNotes more than Tom Stoppard, St. Germain's game of advocates and adversaries is literate and adult and hinges on the mysteries of life. There's plenty to think about. We're grateful for that. Through February 23. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DLG

The Good Thief Playwright Conor McPherson attracted attention with this early 1994 play, and went on to write The Weir, winner of the Olivier Award as Best Play in 1999, and to receive a Tony nomination in 2008 for his The Seafarer on Broadway. The Good Thief is a one-man monologue filled with plot and events that are described in vivid detail by the unnamed narrator, a low-level Irish hoodlum portrayed by Santry Rush. It begins ominously as Rush mourns the loss of his girlfriend to a man higher up in the Irish underworld, assuring himself it was not much of a loss, but with a lingering resentment. The brutality of his speech and the coldness of his eyes indicate that violence comes easily to him, a ready solution for almost everything. There are increasing revelations of amorality and crassness, of insensitivity, but with the perception of a wounded animal searching the wind for the scent of danger. But not carefully enough, for an expedition to do some enforcing runs into a snag, and he becomes prey instead of predator. A gunfight launches him into flight across Ireland, accompanied by Mrs. Mitchell, survivor of the melee in which her husband was killed, and her young daughter. There is high adventure, and it becomes clear that those who embroil themselves with the narrator may wish they had never met him. Rush commands the stage with a powerful presence, seething with hostility, as he recounts horrific events with equanimity. We share in his desperate moments, and struggle to believe in a quasi-redemption that an extended sojourn in prison may have led to. John Tyson's deft direction matches Rush's compelling performance, and the gripping narrative speaks to the rich talents of playwright McPherson. Through February 15. Presented by Stark Naked Theatre Company at Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-866-6514. — JJT

The Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met just once, briefly, but playwright Jeff Stetson has imagined a longer meeting at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Stetson permits each protagonist to voice with equanimity and occasional passion his views, but his inner muse, aided by casting, betrayed him into creating a more vivid character in Malcolm X, graced by Stetson with a sarcastic sense of humor. Malcom X is portrayed by Mirron Willis, tall, with an imposing stage presence, a rich, sardonic laugh, and a keen sense of theatricality. It is a masterful performance. Jason E. Carmichael portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and captures his dedication, and at times his voice echoes the cadence of Dr. King. Carmichael is strong and articulate, but the script makes him seem defensive, perhaps because King's nonviolent path to integration is less colorful than the revolutionary credo of the Muslim Malcolm X: "By any means necessary." The set, designed by Jason Lont, is handsome and tiered, with an outdoor balcony — it works well. The direction by Shirley Whitmore is spirited and appropriate. Stetson has made the debate between the two icons conversational, and the dialogue rings true — we are carried along by the torrent of words. This is no dry-as-dust academic debate but a struggle between two men who have labored in the trenches. The script falters at its conclusion — too many endings — and a rapprochement based on both men having daughters seems pat — it trivializes what is otherwise a powerful, articulate presentation of the strongly held views of two significant leaders who have devoted their lives to a cause. The Meeting is a fascinating study of what might have been, filled with intelligence, wit and strong performances by gifted actors. Through February 15. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Into the Woods Familiar fairy-tale characters spring to exciting life in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical as Little Red Ridinghood visits her grandmother, Cinderella meets her prince, Jack grows his beanstalk and Rapunzel lets down her hair, while a new tale is created about a baker and his wife desperate for a child. The action is nonstop, and delightful, as director Andrew Ruthven brilliantly crams wit and joy into the intimate space of Main Street Theater. Thirteen actors play a score of characters, and the ensemble blending pays off with style and pace, but standouts still emerge — talent will out! Christina Stroup plays a powerful Witch disguised as a crone, then sheds her rags (a wonderful costume by Macy Lyne) to reveal her beauty in a black velvet gown. Stroup dominates the stage with a vivid presence and an enchanting voice. The youthful Scott Gibbs shines with pathos as the cow Milky White — Gibbs must have the most expressive face in Houston — and serves handsomely as Rapunzel's lascivious lover. As the baker's wife, Amanda Passanante has no star turn but is consistent and credible in inhabiting her leading role. These three also project their voices beautifully, while some others do so less well, so lyrics can fade under the beat of the music. Act One ends with the possibility of living happily ever after, but Sondheim and Lapine warn us in Act Two that life is harsh, and provide murder, adultery, child abandonment and scapegoating to prove it. Some songs in the Tony Award-winning score seem too brief, so I especially enjoyed "Agony," which lingers longer, as Gibbs and Kregg Dailey as two Princes in Act One lament the problems of pursuing damsels, and in Act Two reprise it to lament married life. Through February 16. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — JJT


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