Capsule Stage Reviews: La Bohème, One Flea Spare, Twelve Angry Men

La Bohème It doesn't really matter that there's no passion or fire between Ana Maria Martinez and Garrett Sorenson in their roles as eternal lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, in this Houston Grand Opera production, because there's plenty in the orchestra to make do. Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is usually called the world's most popular opera, and rightly so – it's a marvel of construction and orchestration, with a tight, bare libretto and soaring lines of unalloyed romance that heave and climax all over the place. The opera's six bohemian friends are instantly likable in their poverty, camaraderie and on again/off again love affairs. As with any classic, these archetypal characters speak to us on some unconscious level. If you're going to die, from love or anything else, you might as well go out with Puccini. No one, though, is helped by director James Robinson's wet-blanket production, which, during the lovers' most ardent duet, has them singing miles apart from each other on either side of the vast proscenium. The whole thing is glossed by Robinson's death fixation: The guys' walkup apartment is itself plopped inside a grimy industrial box, the toy vendor Parpignol is given a skeleton head, Act III's winter landscape is highlighted by stacks of coffins waiting to be loaded on the train and the original 1890s timeframe is moved to WWI, so we're sure to get the morbid connections. Maestro Patrick Summers goes morbid, too, slowing the tempi like a dirge. Martinez, with her burnished soprano, sings some amazing passages but dramatically phones in her performance. Only baritone Joshua Hopkins, as hot-headed Marcello, sings with conviction and is worth watching. Through May 3 (with alternate casts at the May 1 and May 3 matinee shows). Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

One Flea Spare Naomi Wallace's neo-historical drama is set in London during the ravages of the Great Plague of 1665, and the pestilence is viciously mowing down Londoners without regard to social position. The wealthy Snelgraves are quarantined within their townhouse, whose windows and doors have been boarded up by authorities to prevent their leaving until the plague that has killed their servants has burned itself out. Their 28-day grace period is ending when a vagabond sailor and a young girl from the neighborhood break into the house looking for shelter. Once discovered, all four of them are trapped inside for another deadly, claustrophobic 28 days. Playwright Wallace, who's won numerous prizes for this work, has an eye for the putrid and a poet's savage tongue. Her premise is a Restoration-period No Exit: The characters are placed squarely in hell and not likely ever to get out. She plays with all sorts of themes — gender politics, economic inequality, feminism — then glosses them with an unsurpassed beauty of phrase and apt dramatic gesture. At times it can be awfully heady, but more often it's intense, revealing, and absolutely right and true. Under Patricia Duran's probing direction, the Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company cast (Bree Welch, Mark Carrier, Greg Dean, Jennifer Decker and Eric Doss) explores Wallace's surreal view with an almost visual clarity. With its hypnotic and grotesque strangeness, Flea is unlike any other play in recent memory. Through May 10. Midtown Arts Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0585. — DLG

Twelve Angry Men Reginald Rose's souped-up theatrical version of his Emmy Award-winning 1954 TV drama packs quite an emotional punch in this broiling production at Theatre Southwest. Director Mimi Holloway and her acting gang overlay this seminal take on the American jurisprudence system with an abundance of dramatic juice. In many ways it beats the Broadway touring version seen here early last year, because the intimate space heightens the tensions by bringing us smack up against the action. The plot is classically simple. Twelve jurors must decide the fate of a young slum kid on trial for murder; if found guilty, the young man will die. The disparate characters, of all ages and from varying social and economic backgrounds, seem convinced at first of the "open and shut" nature of the case. One witness has placed the man at the crime scene; another actually saw him commit the murder; the motive's clear; the knife was found and identified. All that's needed is the conviction. They take a cursory vote. Juror #8 (Kurt Bauer) is the lone dissenter. He isn't convinced one way or the other of the boy's guilt, but the outcome is far too serious a matter not to discuss it — and for the next one and a half hours, the jurors battle for a fair and impartial trial. Prejudices, old scores, accusations and even parental conflicts get dredged up as the men grapple with the facts and reveal themselves. They put on quite a show, and the ensemble cast is terribly impressive, especially Bob Maddox as blowhard Juror #3, David Holloway as cut-and-dried Juror #4, John Ellsworth Phillips as poor but honorable Juror #5, Ken Vandervoort as sharp-eyed old coot Juror #9 and Robert Lowe as bigoted Juror #10. If you like courtroom dramas, here's the daddy of them all. Through May 3. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG


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