Capsule Stage Reviews: Evil Dead: the Musical, Oliver Twist, The Retreat from Moscow, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Wait Until Dark

Evil Dead: the Musical Sam Raimi's 1981 cult film The Evil Dead has been reincarnated as a stage musical, with all its gore and rich, take-no-prisoners humor. Audience members are greeted by zombies as they enter the theater, including a plant recognized as "undead" only when it springs to startling life. There is a down-front "splatter zone" as gallons of fake blood are hurtled at the audience (ponchos are available). The story line is classic: Two young couples and the sister of one adventurer arrive at a cabin in the woods for a night of revelry, and inadvertently unlock the portal that keeps the undead at bay. If a favorite character is brutally slaughtered, don't worry, it doesn't mean we've seen the last of him. The pace is fast and furious, the set is remarkable in its detail and comes to life itself, and the acting does its job of keeping the momentum going on an increasingly bloody trajectory. A stand-out was Colton Wright as Ash, who moves from hedonist to savior of the human race in a triumphant performance, in which he is onstage almost the entire time and has to deal with the loss of a hand (don't worry about that hand; it too has a life of its own). Stephanie Kirkpatrick is terrific as Annie, whose father owned the cabin and dabbled in the black arts. This wholehearted comedy is of course a deadpan spoof, and I can't recall when I laughed so long — or so continuously. The limited choreography is well-done, and the songs are entertaining, if not memorable. This carnival is directed by Marc Anthony Glover, and all concerned merit our gratitude. This is a night of comic inventiveness brought to vivid, interactive life — don't miss it. Through October 29. Stage Door, Inc., 284 Pasadena Town Square Mall, 832-582-7606. — JJT

Oliver Twist Charles Dickens's classic tale of orphan Oliver and his most adventurous "progress" in the underworld of Victorian London gets a faithful retelling in Neil Bartlett's ultra-theatrical adaptation at Theatre Southwest. Bartlett decides to go all "theatrical" in his retelling, as if plain old dramatizing weren't enough for this 1837 masterpiece. Here, he overlays scenes with tableaux vivants, a device from the Victorian stage where the action freezes in a well-composed picture. This hoary convention might still work, but not when it happens in the middle of a scene. It stops the action deader than a door nail. Dickens's mighty work is rich with incident and overflowing with iconic portraits that have become firmly etched in the world's consciousness. Who doesn't know Oliver's plea for another bowl of gruel, "Please, sir, I want some more"? Who isn't familiar with the perverse machinations of Fagin, master of his ragamuffin army of hooligans and petty street criminals, led by the Artful Dodger, prince of pickpockets? And what about slut Nancy with her psychotic attraction to Bill Sikes, one of literature's most sadistic villains? With his face "like an angel," little Caleb Ortega is the very picture of Oliver and is most sympathetic. He must constantly react to all manner of situations, none too pleasant, and he acquits himself like a trooper. John Stevens eats up Fagin, crouching over like a crooked spider to work his evil ways. In his worn greatcoat, he insinuates himself with false modesty and gentlemanly pretense. Liz King, as Nancy, is handsome enough for a Cockney beauty gone to seed, and her misguided love for Bill is plain to all. What a fantastic horror Adan Inteuz makes as Sikes, amoral and threatening, solid and moving like a shark. Avery Stinson, as the Artful Dodger, moves like he could pick a pocket or two and gives this street kid a very cool reading. The subsidiary characters are handled with authentic finesse by Carolyn Montgomery, Monica Passley, Michel Stevens, Casey Coale and Bruce Blifford. All of them would've been granted a nod of approval by Dickens. The tribe of lost boys, however, needs tightening up to be a more effective gang. These kids aren't playing at the arcade after school; it's life or death on the mean streets of London in 1837. Make it real. The tale is timeless, and Theatre Southwest's telling, under David Holloway's direction, is eminently watchable. Through November 30. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Retreat from Moscow After 30 years, a middle-class English marriage comes apart at the seams in William Nicholson's perceptive and elegiac chamber drama, beautifully detailed and acted in Country Playhouse's production. Alice and Edward (Karen Ross and Jim Salners) have kept at their marriage for three decades, but neither is happy. He's emotionally distant, which drives her batty. She's nitpicky and has been "getting at him" for years now. "Look at me, talk to me," she implores. "Talk about you." He retreats into his beloved crossword puzzles or historical diaries about Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Russian campaign, when the invincible French army was torn to tatters by incompetence and the fierce winter weather. Edward's inevitable retreat is into the arms of another woman. Alice is betrayed and feels as if she's been murdered. The entire marriage has been a sham. Into the vortex, their unmarried son Jamie (Scott McWhirter) is forced to be referee. Asked to deliver messages from both camps, he attempts to be as comforting to each as best he can, although he's not strong enough to be either rock or shelter. What's to become of them is the quiet mystery the play sets out to resolve. Under Rachel Mattox's elegant and softly pointed direction, the trio does exceptional work. Salners, at first all tweedy and worn about the elbows, shows banked fire when pushed to the wall. His Act I closing monologue, in which he remembers meeting Alice on a train and how that day irrevocably changed his life, is immensely moving. Ross is simply superb as the smart wife whose life seems all but over when her marriage collapses. At least widows have a definite ending to their marriages, she spits out in envy. Her flashes of wicked wit help illuminate even the darkest of her hours. McWhirter finds the haunted adult interior to Jamie's little-boy-lost and turns that quiet life of desperation into a finely etched portrait. Scenic designer Steve Carpentier's gauzy backdrop, behind which can be seen silhouettes of trees stripped of their leaves, is the perfect visual accompaniment to Nicholson's taut, wintry personal drama. This is high drama of a very special kind. Through October 27. 12802 Queensbury Lane, 713-467-4497. — DLG


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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

Wait Until Dark As a follow-up to his ultra-successful suspense tale Dial M for Murder (filmed in 3-D by Hitchcock in 1954), Frederick Knott upped the ante by making his leading character blind. During the final scene, when housewife Susy is menaced by sadist Roat, trying to get his grubby hands on a doll filled with heroin, all the lights go out onstage. Susy has leveled the playing field. Until that point, which is presented by Texas Repertory Theatre with chilling precision, the play's fairly leaden with top-heavy exposition and some plot mechanics that don't creak so much as scream. Susy's got to be the most resourceful heroine since Scarlett O'Hara saved her beloved Tara from those nasty Yankees. Once she realizes that the dutiful policeman and the former marine buddy of her husband are not who they say they are, and that the old man who just barged in happens to wear the same shoes as his son who came to talk to her earlier, her suspicions go into overdrive. She concocts an elaborate plot, too, just like the meanies. The fun of this thriller is finding out if she can outfox the foxes. An innocent in peril is the epitome of suspense, and TRT delivers the chills with gusto. It helps to have some fine actors deliver Knott's knotty lines with conviction. Watch old pro Steven Fenley (TRT's artistic director), playing a recently released petty criminal who's eating a sandwich, and you'll see an entire seminar in acting as he turns throwaway action into the stuff of character development. Ross Bautsch, as evil Roat, has real menace in him as he baits poor Susy. He makes a glorious villain. And Lauren Dolk, as Susy, radiates convincing innocence and, later, compelling resourcefulness in her battles. She's fierce and comely. The rest of the cast is ably played by Keiana Kreitz (bratty Gloria), David Walker (thug-with-a-sympathetic-streak Mike) and Fong Chau (stalwart husband Sam). Jodi Bobrovsky's ratty set really looks like a Greenwich Village basement apartment, and Eric Marsh's lack of lighting is pretty spiffy, especially the last blinding effect that not even Susy has thought of. Chills in the theater are difficult to come by. This one takes the cake. Make a wish and blow out the lights. Through October 30. 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — DLG

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