Capsule Stage Reviews: Gidion's Knot, A Little Night Music, Rome, Ruined, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily

Gidion's Knot Playwright Johnna Adams's play explores how and why a fifth-grade student, Gidion, came to blow his brains out just before dinner on a Friday, after being suspended from a public school in Lake Forest, Illinois. It pits the bereaved mother against Gidion's female teacher in a teacher/parent conference a few days later. This 75-minute play takes place in one continuous scene, with no intermission. Adams has failed to provide a compelling script — the dialogue is scattered and often irrelevant, and the stakes are trivial, as the two women engage in debate, with the issue being who scores points. And the play ends not with a bang but a whimper. Shelley Calene-Black plays the bereaved mother, and delivers well the mother's preferred mode of expression: irony, with a soupçon of malice. Bridget Beirne portrays the teacher, and gives a nuanced performance, capturing her stress and dedication. Nothing really happens for the first two-thirds of the play, until the teacher reveals the reason for the suspension: a piece of writing Gidion had penned in which school teachers were disemboweled and in which he accuses another student of raping a first-grader. The detailed, colorful set is by scenic designer Liz Freeze and properties designer Jodi Bobrovsky. The costumes are by L.A. Clevenson; the mother looks smart, though I would have welcomed more-funereal garb. Beirne is handsome, and wore a dark shirt and gray slacks, both inexplicably a size too small, which would be distracting to the raging hormones of 11-year-old males. Stages Repertory provides a valuable service in finding and presenting plays that have come to be widely produced. They all can't be winners, and the talented director, Sally Edmundson, has done what she can to breathe life into this poorly crafted effort. Through April 6. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

A Little Night Music Has any classic Stephen Sondheim musical ever looked quite so ravishing as this Houston Grand Opera production borrowed from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis? Sondheim's multiple Tony-winner (awarded best Book, Score and Musical), freely adapted from Ingmar Bergman's period romance Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), now takes place entirely within some enchanted woods like one of Shakespeare's beloved magic forests, where lost people, disjointed in love, discover themselves and their rightful partners. Famed couturier Isaac Mizrahi, tripling as director and set and costume designer, overlays the bittersweet, wry story with an autumnal sheen. Vines twine up the legs of the piano, twigs sprout from bedposts, nature is ever-present. Magic's in the air. Sondheim's musical, perhaps his most beloved and accessible, beguiles like the Scandinavian light. It's all theme and variations on waltz tempos, but never once does it overplay or cloy. In Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestrations, the music keeps reinventing itself, dropping in a strange harmony or double rhythm to keep things interesting. Like Sondheim's smart lyrics that drip sophistication with pinprick insight, the waltz is the perfect sound for this European-inspired operetta that teases the old world while showing it anew and refreshingly relevant to this current one. Nothing much changes in affairs of the heart, it sings with illusive ardor. Love is foolish, lovers are fools, but the world couldn't be any other way. The HGO cast weaves its own spell. Most are current or former Studio artists, which proves the program's depth of field. In classic Broadway or classic opera, these alums have been carefully taught. Even with his boyish face ringed by fluffy beard, Shelton is a robust Fredrik, young enough to ensnare virginal Anne, mature enough for Futral's wily Desiree. He sings with superb diction that allows Sondheim's patented spiky wit to shine through. Futral is a glamorous, if slightly unkempt, Desiree, her upswept hair falling in wayward tendrils as if she hasn't had sufficient time to do it right. Being an actress — "the one and only," her posters proclaim — she gets away with it with attitude. Her formidable attraction for chauvinist Carl-Magnus and true love Fredrik is easy to accept. But she's weary of lovers and the empty life on the road. Her resignation in "Send in the Clowns," when she realizes that she's blown her chances at long-term happiness, sends quiet chills through us. That's us up there on the stage. Diamond's Carl-Magnus exudes quintessential male posturing, all smug and handsome; Gianni's Petra smolders with earthy delights; Ryan's Henrik burns comically with confused desire. Carroll's bright, shiny soprano brings out Anne's innocence and petulance, while Carolyn Sproule's deeper, darker mezzo eats up the role of bitchy, needy Charlotte. Lucky Sproule gets to sing "Every Day a Little Death," one of those trademarked Sondheim anthems for the worldly-wise, here a caustic paean to marriage and the erosion of spirit. Castle's Madame Armfeldt, gowned in black as if in mourning, has the hauteur of the super-rich and an old lady's prerogative to say just what's on her mind. She's the epitome of soignee and sadness. The show's chorus, the Quintet, who serve as commentary throughout, begin the musical with a lovely surprise, a vocal overture. Although attired in Edwardian undress — garters, baggy drawers, slips and peignoirs — they also wear fey little fairy wings, as if they've jumbled out of an adult-size Midsummer Night's Dream. This is designer Mizrahi run amok, too precious by half, as are the bewinged extras who clutter up the space and move the many set pieces on and off stage. The constant shuffling wastes time, even when underscored with Sondheim's sublime melodies. Under maestro Eric Melear, this classic show does indeed sing to perfection. Night Music is ball gowns, trysts and fin de siècle, a world soon to explode. At least when the world ends, you go out waltzing. March 19, 20, 22, 23 (matinee). Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228- 6737. — DLG

Rome John Harvey has written Rome, a world premiere and his tenth play for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company. Three men and three women discuss death, mutilation, body parts, murder and suicide; engage in flirtations; and plot seduction and midnight rape, done with such intensity that we realize this is also a continuing aesthetic debate, though macabre. We meet a duo, Charles (Bobby Haworth) and Fanny (Patricia Duran), and then a couple, George (H. R. Bradford) and Georgina (Christie Stryk), all about 30 and attractive. Another duo is Lauren (Amy Warren) and Thomas (John Harvey), who complains about the absence of wine as he chats up Lauren. George asks Charles about the best way (fasten your seat belts here) to seduce a child. This is an upper-class milieu, peopled with self-indulgent aristocrats, fixated upon sex, an Anglo-American version of Liaisons Dangereuses. An employee, Joseph, middle-class, is less protected, as we find out in the gripping finale when a female captain enters (Courtney Lomelo in a brilliant cameo) with two armed soldiers. Jennifer Decker directed superbly, with style and pace. Actor Jon Harvey is compelling in a complex role, and Warren is good, with interesting body language, as is Reeder, whose pantomime in a climactic scene is excellent. The four principals — Haworth, Duran, Bradford and Stryk — deliver sharply etched, fascinating portraits of deeply flawed individuals with overreaching needs. The Captain urges them to travel to Rome, whetting appetites with a vivid description of the pedophilia of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The play runs an uninterrupted engrossing 90 minutes. Brutal discussions deepen the mystery in a brilliant, wonderfully acted play that hurtles us into a world we seldom contemplate, providing riveting entertainment and an intellectual treat. For adults only, but don't miss it. Through March 22. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0499. — JJT

Ruined Lynn Nottage's play Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and its Texas premiere at Obsidian Art Space makes clear why — it is a powerful drama of human frailty, populated with strongly individual characters and filled with humor, set in a bar/brothel in the Congo in the middle of a long-running civil war. A few tables and chairs serve to define the establishment run by Mama Nadi, played by Qamara Black, who has created an oasis where guns are checked at the door and where a drink and a girl can let a soldier forget his cares. A frequent visitor is the civilian trader Christian, played by Atseko Factor, who has feelings for Mama. Both these actors provide nuanced performances of energy and charm, and Black finds the manipulative charisma of Mama, who keeps her raft of a business afloat in a pool of sharks. Christian persuades Mama to take in two girls who have been raped by soldiers or otherwise "ruined," so as to be unfit for marriage and rejected by their families and villages. Sophie (Miatta Lebile) becomes a bookkeeper and "cabaret" singer, and Salima (Ujo Edoziem) joins another girl, Josephine (Teri Mills), in providing pillow comfort to the troops. Each of the three creates a unique portrait. The intimidating commanders of opposing forces are played by Dave Shepard and Jerome Kisembe, who deliver the requisite menace and authority and yet reveal their human sides. The entire cast is excellent, creating an ensemble that is persuasively credible, thanks to director Tom Stell and assistant director Denise O'Neal. Playwright Nottage has penned a play for the ages, and has created characters who will linger long in your memory, perhaps forever. This may well be the theatrical event of the year. Through March 22. 3522 White Oak, 832-889-7837. — JJT

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, so authors other than the originator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, can use him. Playwright Katie Forgette has created a comedic mystery set in 1890 that involves the theatrical star Lillie Langtry, known as "The Jersey Lily." The other characters are Dr. Watson; Oscar Wilde, here Lily's constant companion; Mrs. Tory, Lily's housekeeper; Professor Moriarty, Holmes's archenemy; Shahab Pierre, a henchman of Moriarty; and Abdul Karim, an emissary from the Prince of Wales, with whom Lily once had a dalliance. The plot includes Pierre chloroforming and later abducting Lily, an incriminating letter, a forged letter, blackmail, a valuable necklace, lies, deceptions, professional jealousy, guns, knives, bondage, cross-dressing and a duel. Yet the play is primarily characters standing around while they chit-chat. Holmes impersonates a lady, veiled, but still revealing the chiseled features of actor Arnold Richie. Richie captures the look, but doesn't find the smug arrogance Basil Rathbone brought to the film role. Maud Ella Lindsley plays the Jersey Lily, conveying her beauty, poise and sophistication. Tad Howington plays Dr. Watson, communicating his infatuation with Lily so well it makes the character an idiot. John Mitsakis portrays Oscar Wilde, posing a lot, with a mannered delivery suitable for the role. Peggy Butler plays Mrs. Tory, the housekeeper, and I quite liked her. Shawn Havranek plays Moriarty well, with polish and an evil glint in his eye. John Smythe is excellent as Moriarty's henchman, finding his disgruntled malice. And Sam Martinez is credible as the Prince's agent, a cameo role. Doris Merten directed and has found some of the humor, and some engaging actors contrive to find the bright spots in a comedic drama that never quite takes off. Through March 22, Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West, 713-682-3525. — JJT


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