Capsule Stage Reviews: Dr. Faustus, Failure: A Love Story, Freud's Last Session, The Good Thief, Into the Woods, Sexy Laundry

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

Failure: A Love Story Playwright Philip Dawkins's work requires inventive staging and offers a challenge to the producing theater. It deals with events in the clock-making Fail family of Chicago, chiefly the deaths of the parents and of three daughters, in separate accidents, in 1928. The deaths are depicted in a lighthearted, sprightly manner; this is a comedic fable. Events are presented in an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, with entrances and exits abounding, and with elements of carnival, of a circus and of Cirque du Soleil. The set features a huge clockwork mechanism upstage, and at one point birdcages drop to hold simulated parakeets. One daughter, Jenny June (Brittany Halen), attempts to swim across Lake Michigan, and disappears, apparently drowned in the attempt. The final swim is on fabrics suspended from the ceiling. The first daughter to die is Nelly (Nina L. Garcia) and the third is Gertrude (Courtney D. Jones). A man named Mortimer Mortimer (David Matranga) courts them all, in turn. The parents are Michelle Elaine as Mother and Luis Galindo as Father, and there is an adopted brother, John (Lex Laas), who isn't good with people. There is a plot, but the frenetic pace and rapid-fire line delivery allow no breathing space for personality to emerge, so the characters are like stick figures with balloons drawn from their heads, saying their lines in a loud, flat tone, just short of a shout, and then dashing off. The single exception is Garcia as Nelly, who manages to stay in sync with the general tone of the other actors but also to add a piquant charm that is captivating. A festive atmosphere entertains, and stagecraft is successfully given the reins, in a production that feeds the eyes with color and activity. Through February 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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


Upcoming Events

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


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

Sexy Laundry The great staple of comedy is the midlife marital crisis, and Canadian playwright Michele Riml has added to the genre with a two-character play about a wife seeking to rejuvenate sexuality by booking a room in an upscale hotel tor her husband and herself — and bringing along a "how-to" book. Alice is elegant, slender and highly articulate, and Henry is sincere and agreeable, though so unenthused about the "rejuvenation" project that it's hard to imagine why he agreed to it. The very good news is that the actors playing them both have warmth and charm, and can turn what might be bickering in other hands into comfortably light banter. Susan Koozin plays Alice and is wonderful as a controlling woman, still quite beautiful, though with doubts about her looks. Josh Morrison plays Henry as a less complicated human being, a husband and father of three whose idea of a good time is to watch the news after work. They are celebrating 25 years of marriage. The play begins as a romantic comedy, but about halfway through its 85-minute journey, more serious matters emerge, and it appears that reality might intrude, and then it veers into farce as Alice engages in behavior that is comical though out of character with her dignity. The set by Kristina Miller is very attractive, and lighting design by Bryan Ealey, an important part, is excellent. The direction by Kenn McLaughlin is impeccable, and he has evoked the charm from the actors that makes this endeavor worthwhile. I would hate to see this comedy with less-gifted actors, but with Koozin and Morrison, it pays off handsomely as they find the humor and rich comedy in a midlife marital crisis and carry us along with them on a most pleasant theatrical journey. Through March 16. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

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