Capsule Stage Reviews: Don Juan in Hell, Oklahoma!, Who Was That Masked Man?
Don Juan in Hell Inside literary lion G.B. Shaw's philosophical comedy Man and Superman (1903) stands a dream scene like no other. Known as Don Juan in Hell (officially Act III, sc. II), it lasts about an hour and a half and is a complicated intellectual debate between Don Juan (James Walter), the Devil (John Kaiser), Juan's former paramour Dona Ana (Lisa Schofield) and her father the Commander (H. Brandon del Castillo), slain by Juan while defending his daughter's honor. The lengthy scene can stand alone and is usually cut from the full-length production or presented as a concert reading, as is given by Houston's newest theater company, Edge Theatre. (Edge's artistic director and director of its Houston premiere is Jim Tommaney, who also writes about theater for the Press.) Much enthralled by German philosopher Nietzsche's theories of the Superman, Shaw inverted the German's lofty moralizing into a condemnation of English hypocrisy, using his patented linguistic flair and biting wit to make his thrusts. Shaw loved causing a stir. So: immortal lover Don Juan is a prig; Hell is full of art and love, not death and torture; and Heaven, dour and sterile, is filled with thinkers, not doers. All points of view get equal weight. This is a play to really listen to – to enjoy, in part, for the very sound of it. Sitting at music stands with scripts, the cast handles Shaw's curlicue logic, tempered prose and stylish cleverness with moderate success. Kaiser and Schofield, old pros that they are, juggle Shaw with a jaunty air, creating characters where not many hints exist. Kaiser is clearly enjoying himself, employing an attitude of immense devil-may-care; Schofield sculpts Ana, whose piety on earth shouldn't place her in Hell, into a late-blooming Life Force, where biology trumps intellect. Dark and handsome, Walter is picture-perfect as libertine Juan; while at times Shaw's convoluted prose gets away from him, he sails nimbly through his aria about the denizens of Hell (i.e., Britain) not being what they seem. The Commander is a statue come to life, and Castillo, sitting ramrod straight, blusters through the role without much finesse. A rarity among Shaw's performed works, this Don Juan in Hell, though not the most heavenly, is filled with enough Shaw deviltry to make it a must-see. No Shaw at all would be Hell, indeed. Through August 6. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-894-1843. – DLG
Oklahoma! The much-loved musical Oklahoma!, the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, set a new standard of excellence for musical comedy in its 1943 B'way premiere. Now produced by the Houston Family Arts Center, it springs into joyous, exuberant life at the Berry Center. Set in 1906 just before Oklahoma becomes a state, Oklahoma! chronicles with amusement the fluctuating romantic interests of the younger settlers, but adds a darker element of conflict as well. Dance plays a larger part than usual. The original choreographer, Agnes de Mille, used it to advance the story line as well as to add energy and sweep, and this fine production more than does justice to this approach, with the ample stage filled at times with almost 50 highly talented and well-rehearsed performers. The heroine is Laurie Williams, portrayed by Adrienne Whitaker with fresh, engaging charm, aided by a lovely voice and wonderful dancing. Andrew Traylor plays her love interest, Curly McLain, and he has the requisite good looks and likability, as well as a powerful, magnetic singing voice, from the opening "Oh! What a beautiful mornin'" to the enchanting "People Will Say We're in Love." I wished for more catlike grace in movement, and more passion in some of the exchanges with Laurie, but Traylor handles deftly a very difficult, dark, quasi-comic scene with the villain of the piece, Jud Fry, portrayed by Tyler Galindo with an intensity and skill worthy of Sean Penn at his best. Ado Annie is one of the best-written roles, and Lindsay Sloan captures her warm heart and flirtatiousness, delighting with her song "I Cain't Say No." Luke Hamilton plays Will Parker, one of her suitors, bringing spectacular energy and dancing to the part, and Austin Almanza plays the other suitor, the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, nailing his comic scenes with perfect timing — a delight to watch. Heather Hammond plays Gertie Cumming and has mastered beautifully the high-pitched laugh that is her trademark. Karen Clayton plays the leading role of Aunt Eller and does so with charm and warmth, from the opening butter-churning to breaking up fights to a stint as picnic-box auctioneer. She also dances up a storm, and her enormous talent serves as an anchor to this extraordinarily gifted cast. Overall direction is by Ilich Guardiola, assisted by Sam Brown, who also does the musical direction; the choreographer is Ellen Dyer. And they are skilled indeed. Utter professionalism and remarkable talent storm the stage to create a theatrical triumph. Through August 6. 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-685-6374. — JJT
Who Was That Masked Man? The term "meller-drammer" says it all — outlandish acting, deliberately exaggerated actions, simple plots, a mustachioed villain and a damsel in distress. Hisses at the villain were encouraged, as were cheers for the hero, and Theatre Suburbia capped it all by providing popcorn to throw at the cast, who sometimes threw it back. An uncomplicated set permitted something like a theater-in-the-round arrangement, and a bar in Slick Willy's Saloon doubled as a teller's cage for the local bank. The widow (tearfully well-played in the expected histrionic mode by Susan O'Connor) was slated to lose her home to the evil bank president whose mustache and black cape are certain emblems of villainy. Glenn Dodson played the morally challenged villain with confidence, but I did miss some of the lip-smacking relish and the savoring of pure evil that's the traditional hallmark of roles such as these. I especially liked Donna Dixon, who played the barmaid in an attractive red gown with eye shadow to match, and who dominated the stage with her powerful self-assurance. Daniel Corrigan was great as the dim-witted, bungling sheriff, and he managed to add nuance — believe it or not — to his role. Amesti Reioux played the widow's daughter — she can flutter a mean eyelid, nailed the ingenue smile and made us want to protect her virtue from the inevitable assault. The young Andrew Miles was effective as the Magnolia Kid, a gunslinger dressed in black but with so much cherry-red jacket fringe that I feared it might slow down his quick draw. The hero was the Masked Man, played by James Plake, and, while I found him unconvincing as the hero, he came to life in a dance routine in a dress — no, not cross-dressing, just a disguise. There was more dancing in the play, including an energetic, engaging can-can by a woman well past the first blush of youth. And there was singing as well, by the cast and the audience — a song-sheet was provided with the program, though the songs are familiar classics. The entire cast worked well together under the able direction of Doris Merten, creating a world of high jinks and low humor that, much to my surprise, I came to believe in. The events were enhanced by Alice Smith's appropriate piano accompaniment. Nineteenth-century histrionics were displayed shamelessly onstage in a fun-filled performance, and unless you're a curmudgeon by nature, you'll enjoy it. See it — you may exit with popcorn in your hair, but there will be a smile on your lips. Through August 27. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT
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