Capsule Stage Reviews: Kiss of the Spider Woman, New Arrivals, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, The Psychic
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
New Arrivals Part of Song of Houston: East + West, its continuing series of original chamber operas that document Houston's amazing diversity, HGOco presents New Arrivals, the true story of Cambodian refugee – and now proud Houston citizen – Yani Rose Keo, founder of Houston's Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, which assists refugees and immigrants in finding a new home here in the Bayou City. In an escape that could plot a Hitchcock thriller, Yani, with husband and young child (the older children were studying in Paris), fled the evil Communist regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. She and her husband never again saw their parents, relatives, or friends who were all killed during that holocaust. Composer John Glover and librettist Catherine Filloux turn the symbolic plane trip into an impressionist musical sketch that never lives up to its magnificently human subject. The opera makers have placed Keo's character (soprano Mihoko Kinoshita) far from any conflict – opera's lifeblood. There's nothing for her to do except be noble and inspire the other refugees on board (baritone Carlton Ford, soprano Katherine Jolly, tenor Peter Tran), who tell their stories in brief arias. All this is set to Glover's earnestly modern music, spiky and agitated even when calm. Although the string quartet with percussion is skillfully managed under maestro Timothy Myers, there's a definite disconnect between story and music. The musical coup is Glover's use of Cambodian "smot," native Buddhist chanting. He interweaves the placid chanting of singer Phoeun Srey Peou against his more jagged harmonies. This undercurrent of east and west is the stuff of real drama, and I wish there were more of it. Kinoshita, who has sung under the baton of international maestros Seiji Ozawa and Lorin Maazel, is a revelation with her warm, sonorous tone. As a character she has nothing to do nor obstacles to overcome – at least in Filloux's overly poetic libretto – so we are left with her clarion voice to lead us into the promise land. She triumphs like a crusader. June 22 and 23. Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore Blvd., 713-546-0230. Free; call for reservations. – DLG
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins The life and times of famed Texan journalist Molly Ivins are chronicled in a one-woman show at Main Street Theater, spiced by samples of invective wit aimed at elected officials. Sara Gaston plays Ivins — she looks a lot like Ivins when she was younger and keeps this persona throughout. Gaston is likable, perhaps more so than Ivins, who relished the role of attack dog. Ivins's life has been organized into a play by the twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, themselves journalists, and the script is largely chronological, as Gaston recounts Ivins's early family life with an articulate and dominating father, her variety of jobs at Texas newspapers as well as at The New York Times, and her evolution into a nationally syndicated columnist and best-selling author. Examples of Ivins's rapier wit are many and delightful. There are moments of drama — the death of lovers, for example — and Gaston describes these but is less successful in conveying the depths of Ivins's anguish at these losses. Ivins's battle with breast cancer is bravely described, and Gaston captures the mixture of wit holding at bay the deep pain. Ivins's courage in publicly recording the treatment and surgery is admirable and well-portrayed. The set is simple, a bare office with a Teletype machine; two screens show slides of Texas governors and U.S. presidents, but these add little zest. Patti Bean directed the proceedings, handicapped by a script that contains too much preaching. Ivins knew that battles were won by skewering opponents, not by wagging a finger at them, but the Engels have forgotten that. An enjoyable tour of reminiscences, and abundant examples of Ivins's trenchant wit, make this docudrama both amusing and insightful. Through July 1. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — JJT
The Psychic The ever-popular genre of humorous murder mysteries takes some strange twists and turns in The Psychic, from prolific playwright Sam Bobrick, as an impoverished writer seeks to finish a novel. The main characters are the writer, portrayed by Ryan Rasmussen, and the wealthy Laura Benson, played by Vicky McCormick, and both say their lines flatly, so that the narrative is conveyed but not the flavor. Rasmussen was excellent in the recent Play On at this same theater, so director Lee Raymond must share some of the responsibility, as the too-rapid speech of Rasmussen must have caught her attention, as well as the largely emotionless line readings of McCormick. Bob Galley plays Laura's husband, Roy Benson, and he mugs and widens his eyes to ensure we see that chicanery is afoot – this might be over-acting in a different production; here it is a breath of fresh air. Natasha Sebeyran plays Rita Malone, mistress of Roy; she is intended to be a bit of a strumpet and is dressed accordingly. Dean R. Dicks plays another lover of Rita, a gangster, and he is excellent, both credible and interesting. Gene Griesbach plays detective Norris Coslow, and brings an urbane charm and quiet confidence that is disarming, and unusual. The Psychic won the Edgar Award as the Best Mystery Play of 2010, a mystery in itself. In the beginning, writer Adam was seized unwittingly by outbursts of truth, in which he foresaw events like a psychic, but playwright Bobrick soon dropped this promising theme. Some strong acting by secondary characters helps overcome weak leads, and some occasional humor and an inventive finale end the performance on a strong note. This one is best enjoyed by lovers of the mystery genre. Through June 30. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive, 713-682-3525. – JJT
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