Capsule Stage Reviews: Extremities, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Next to Normal, Rum and Vodka

Extremities Theatre Southwest's production has put the tingle into William Mastrosimone's creepy little Off-Broadway hit. Psychotic stalker Raul (Kevin Daugherty) has set his sadistic sights on the lonely farmhouse shared by Marjorie (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and her two roommates, Patricia (Kelly Walker) and Terry (Melanie Martin). He's done his homework with flair, knowing when Marjorie would be alone and stealing mail to get a psychological edge. It's no spoiler to report that Marjorie turns the tables on her attacker. To his utter dismay, Raul finds himself tied up in the fireplace, having been blinded with bug spray, doused with boiling water and ammonia, smashed with a hammer and constantly poked with the fireplace equipment whenever he becomes snarky. All his tortures are greeted with whoops of appreciation from the audience, who applaud Marjorie's spunky ingenuity at extracting revenge for the "animal's" beastly behavior. But then the roommates return and their various reactions to Marjorie becoming like her attacker set the play spinning. Marjorie has a simple solution for Raul: bury him alive. No one will miss him. Meanwhile, Raul works his wiles on the women, playing them against each other, trying to get their sympathy. Every time someone steps a foot closer to the fireplace, we catch our breath as we wait for Raul to spring forth and wreak more vengeance. Black is an avenging angel on a mission. Righteous and indignant, she takes command with force. There's no messing with her. She can't believe that her roommates would doubt her version. "Me or him, choose!" she screams. Matching her every step is Daugherty, who makes psycho Raul a chilling portrait in sexual sadism. The attack is harrowing, and the table-turning is exciting physical theater. For this, praises go to director Malinda Beckham and her valiant actors, who don't flinch from the seedy and sordid. They go for it! Through June 16. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

Kiss of the Spider Woman This is not the Kander & Ebb musical version of Manuel Puig's best-selling novel. There are no shirtless chorus boys gyrating around Chita Rivera in a birdcage. This is the earlier stage adaptation, dramatized by Puig and translated into English by Allan Baker. Unhinged Productions, Houston theater's prime interpreter of all things GLBT, in a provocative co-production with Talento Bilingüe de Houston, gives us a Kiss that sings anyway. It's one of UP's finest productions. We do not miss the chorus boys. Directed with both sensitivity and flair by Unhinged Artistic Director Joe Angel Babb and wondrously acted by Abraham Zeus Zapata and Anthony Hernandez, Kiss weaves a most affecting spell. By the end, we're thoroughly ensnared. What begins as a claustrophobic two-person prison drama between two of the most disparate types of men evolves into the most unlikely love story. The irony in Puig's mesmerizing tale is that apolitical gay window dresser Molina (Zapata) has lived his entire life in a dreamland, while macho Valentin (Hernandez) lives only to serve the revolution, making no room at all for imagination. The stories that Molina tells to keep both men's spirits up transform them both. By the end, soft Molina has been hardened and stoic Valentin softened. Babb shoves the prison cell (pungently detailed in set designer Dana Harrell's moist, peeling walls and the painterly lighting by Zack Vierla) way over to stage left, leaving stage right nearly empty except for the hint of a hallway, but he fills the small acting space with cinematic dexterity. At times the Baker translation sounds like a literal transcription of Puig's poetic Spanish instead of normal speech, but the two actors inhabit their characters with such fervor that we forgive them some bumpy passages that would trip up the most veteran of performers. Zapata's emotional Molina is swishy without apology, while Hernandez's Valentin is compact fire, not knowing exactly how to respond to this alien Scheherazade in drag. Both actors depict their characters' completion with quiet, affecting force that brings Puig's unlikely love story to thrilling theatrical life. Through June 17. Talento Bilingüe, 333 S. Jensen Dr. 713-222-1213. — DLG

Next to Normal The regional premiere of the rock musical Next to Normal has opened at Stages Repertory Theatre, giving us a vehicle of pure entertainment that will break your heart as well. Diana is wed to Dan, and they live with their daughter, 16-year-old Natalie. Diana is bipolar, and the disease is progressing. Happy McPartlin plays Diana, and she is understated, endearing and powerful as she grapples with unmapped territory in her mind. Brad Goertz captures her endlessly patient husband Dan with humor, charm and heart. The brilliant director Melissa Rain Anderson and Stages have created a kaleidoscope of a set that works wonderfully. The pace is comedy, but soon the gravity of Diana's condition takes center stage. Natalie is played by Rebekah Stevens, who's required to portray primarily petulance and rebellion. Tyler Berry Lewis plays her brother Gabe, required to be sullen and vaguely menacing, and nailing that. The day is saved by young Henry, steadfastly in love with Natalie, and Mark Ivy brings an attractive sweetness to the role. Kregg Alan Dailey plays two doctors, and his tall authority serves the roles well. The music by Tom Kitt is virtually continuous, with standouts: "I'm Perfect for You," "I Am the One," "Make Up Your Mind" and "Why Stay? A Promise!" Lyricist Brian Yorkey had created a perfect combination — achingly deep involvement with ironic distance — that serves the work admirably, making it vibrate with the pulse of life, poignant and heartbreaking, and likely to be etched in the memory of viewers. Brilliant direction, a galloping pace and powerful acting make an award-winning musical thoroughly enjoyable and deeply moving, in a triumphant production not to be missed. Through June 24. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT

Rum and Vodka Don't ever get between the Man (Andy Ingalls) and a pint of stout. You'll be steamrolled. In Conor McPherson's (The Wier, The Seafarer) boozy monologue, written when he was a college student and soon on his way to become a rising star among Irish playwrights, The Man regales us with the tale of a recent three-day bender after he freaked out at work and threw his computer through the window. His outburst was fueled by alcohol, but the Man keeps drinking -- it's his lifeblood. Mostly it's his anesthetic. Like a low-rent homage to James Joyce's ultimate odyssey, the play has McPherson's "hero" puking his way through hell, which just happens to be Dublin. "My life's one big sordid detail," he mumbles in a fog, still "pissed" from the night before. Ingalls gets it all down in wonderful, horrific detail: the stagger, the Guinness slur, the volcanic anger, the sudden tears, the edge. His close-cropped hair and scruff of a beard, his narrow frame and his rumpled suit are his everyman's armor. He's there and not there. Ingalls gives a decidedly dangerous performance and we sit back against our seats, for if we lean in too close, we fear we'll get a drubbing. "This was as good as things were going to get," the Man confesses when remembering his wife, two children, the mortgage and the dead-end civil service job, so he fills the weekend with booze, meaningless sex, drugs and more booze. A lot more booze. He flails through life, occasionally landing a punch, but he swings at air. McPherson makes us care for this swaggering hothead by the weight of all the mundane details he puts into the writing. There's simple clarity in the descriptions, a regular guy's poetry. It pricks up our ears, and Ingalls has an easy mastery in saying it. On the prowl, Ingalls struts, but always a little off-kilter. His buddy's favorite hangover cure is rum and vodka on ice. "It awakens the dead," he preens. It does, but only for a weekend. Through June 9. Thunderclap Productions at Wildfish Theatre, 1703D1 Post Oak Blvd., 1-800-494-8497. — DLG


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