Cassandra Young playwright Katharine Sherman has a nimble touch with ancient fables. She keeps the unfortunate Trojan prophetess within the walls of her ancient hometown, but brings her smack up to date with searing apocalyptic visions of mushroom clouds and twin towers falling. Sherman makes her photophobic, a neat touch, and plays variations upon her constant picture-taking, as if all the pix hanging on the clothesline are her visions. Anachronisms — like Cassandra's a capella rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and multiple references to Cinderella — keep the ancient very much in the present. In her lace minidress and grunge boots, she's a pop diva without an audience. A bit of prehistorical backstory: A precocious and pretty teenager, Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, caught the eye of Apollo, god of art and light. He promised her the gift of prophecy if she'd sleep with him. She said yes, and he bestowed the gift. When he tried to collect on the sex, she furiously rebuffed him. Apollo cursed her: She retained her all-seeing knowledge, but no one would ever believe anything she foretold. Sherman catches just the contempo tone for Cassandra, hip and showboaty, naive yet all-knowing. It's a delicate balance, caught between adolescence and adulthood, but Shelby Bray carries it off with a shaded, shimmery performance. At times she rants in an expressionistic rush of words, at times she cowers by the side of her bed, chain-smoking cigarettes and scouring through piles of newspapers (she knows everything, you know), all while bedeviled or becalmed by a Chorus trio (Arianna Bermudez, Kaylin Zeren and Curtis Barber), who hark back to her happier childhood. She's calmest with brother Hector (Adam Zarowski), Troy's great warrior prince, but he's as lost as she is, following a soldier's life just because "I'm good at it." Mom and Dad, Hecuba and Priam (Kay McStay and Ryan Kelly), don't know what to make of their young daughter who interrupts dinner parties with tantrums and creepy visions. They're clueless, like parents out of a '50s sitcom, and lock her in her room and get her a shrink (Cris Skelton). In a clever reveal near play's end, the doctor turns out to be Apollo, and thereby we learn of his fateful curse. In a nice piece of irony, Cassandra's closest pal turns out to be Helen (Lisa Villegas), who's been wooed by Paris, Cassandra's brother. Helen is willingly abducted and brought to Troy, and her adultery begins the Trojan War. Beauteous Helen is portrayed as pretty, but dumb and eager to please, considering she can't do anything else. The two outsiders form a bond, of sorts, as Helen teaches Cassandra how to wear high heels and does up her hair. They're gal pals, but how can she make friends when she knows the end of the world is nigh? Co-presented by Mildred's Umbrella and Wordsmyth Theater, Cassandra is played outdoors. This al fresco treatment sharpens the play's obvious edges — as long as it doesn't rain. In the courtyard of Westbury Square, which resembles some forlorn movie studio back lot, the world of poor Cassandra is conjured with only a sheet, a ladder, a fireplace mantel, a table and chairs, and a makeshift bed surrounded by bundles of newspapers. A slide projector makes an appropriate appearance with hellfire visions, and when the other actors aren't in a scene, they skulk around the perimeter watching the action like extras in an Antonioni movie. Sherman's scenes are short and impressionistic, some working better than others, but director Melissa Flower keeps the tension in high gear and the poetry down to earth. The slo-mo sequences could be dropped without losing any momentum — didn't that theatrical device go out in the '80s? "I've been locked in a camera obscura," Cassandra explains to us. Her world is dark and upside down. Everything she loves will be hideously destroyed, but she can do nothing about it. Her "crash moment" is constant. Ultimately, the play stalls because it has nowhere to go. Since Cassandra is powerless to control her own destiny, she can't control the play, either. Don't blame Sherman, blame the Greeks. But the imaginative production lets her go mad outdoors, under the stars. That's very old-style theater — and it works like gangbusters. Through May 24. The courtyard at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 832-463-0409. — DLG
Heartbreak House George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, set in 1913, is a wonderful comedy of delightful cynicism. The setting is the large estate of Captain Shotover, excellently played by Charles Krohn. Shotover savors his rum, and is forgetful, but is often wise, except for wanting to blow up the world. Shotover's older daughter, Hesione Hushabye, is portrayed by Celeste Roberts, in a truly magnificent performance, commanding the stage with charm. She's married to the dashingly handsome Hector Hushabye, played by Joe Kirkendall, who makes the most of the role. Ellie Dunn (Joanna Hubbard) has been invited to the estate in order for Hesione to dissuade her from marrying Boss Mangan (Jim Salners), an older man who's apparently very wealthy. Salners is outstanding, handling a complex role with dexterity. Ellie is marrying for security, but is really in love with a man who turns out to be...Hector. Shotover's younger daughter left decades ago, but returns as Lady Ariadne Utterword. Portrayed by Elizabeth Marshall Black, she is beautiful, and is drawn to Hector, and he to her. Ellie is accompanied by Mazzini Dunn, assumed to be her father, though in fact he's her uncle. Ariadne arrived with her husband's younger brother, Randall Utterword (Joel Sandel), a tearful wreck of a human being. A rather clumsy third act, rather than wrapping things up, dynamites us into a different play resembling Theatre of the Absurd. But nothing can spoil the rich joy of the first two acts as a witty, mischievous playwright makes serious points about human nature and the idiocy of the upper classes. Director Rebecca Greene Udden has found the comedy's rich humor and sardonic wit. Through June 1. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. — JJT
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The Whipping Man The final moments of Matthew Lopez's thrillingly theatrical The Whipping Man, now smoldering inside Stages Repertory Theatre, now bursting into scalding flame, are silent. Two young men, one laid out on a ratty divan, one dressed to leave the war-ravaged house, share a bottle of whiskey. After all that has come before, we don't know what will happen next. It's just as likely for the whiskey to go flying, smashing into someone's head. John, a young black man (Joseph Palmore), reels back into the house. He wants to leave; he has threatened to leave and has big plans to go up north, but he can't quite make that first step. He's free at last, but what's he to do? Caleb (Ross Bautsch), the young white man recuperating on the couch, pulls him back. As he has done so many times before, John pulls out that whiskey bottle and takes a drink, sitting across from Caleb. After a pause, wherein we can fill in all sorts of meaning, he moves closer and hands the bottle to Caleb. The gesture, replete with resignation and acceptance and forgiveness, is everything. The drama ends on this quiet note, an enigmatic gesture that sums up the great themes Lopez has intertwined — freedom, liberation, personal choice, religious belief and, most important, scars from the past, both psychic and graphically physical. The healing has just begun for these two "peas in a pod," as they're described by stalwart house steward Simon (Shawn Hamilton) before he, too, rushes off into that rainy night in search of his missing wife and daughter. The "well-made" The Whipping Man, quickly making playwright Matthew Lopez's reputation as it burns through the stages of America, scorches anew at Stages. After the play's finish, you're likely to look up to see if the roof is still there. Dramatic reversals and revelations come swift and powerful, like Grant's bombardment of Richmond, which has left that city in ruins and all but deserted. These three men now tentatively share what's left of the house and what John can "liberate" from their neighbors' property. Newly freed, Simon and John are still slaves of their past, while Caleb, dependent upon them after a brutal amputation, has had his independence horribly curtailed. Perhaps the most surprising twist of all is that the family and their former slaves are Jewish. Faith drives Simon, whose celebration of Passover ironically occurs when victory is declared at Appomattox, but is tempered by the news that Lincoln has been assassinated. He is the play's bedrock, and Hamilton is downright magnificent: wise, stoic and seething underneath with a prophet's righteous anger. He is matched by Bautsch's pain-wracked Caleb and Palmore's scallywag of John. This three-man cast, dredging up the past that forever haunts the present, keeps Lopez's finely etched period drama aboil and exceptionally fragrant. Under Seth Gordon's tightly paced direction, the drama takes time for comedy (the horse-meat-eating scene is a little gem), but the big moments are fraught with edge-of-your-seat excitement. The amputation scene is shockingly conveyed not by the actual event but by Simon's autopsy-like description of exactly what's going to happen when he saws through bone, muscle and skin. You can almost smell the smoke and mold of the once-fine house laid bare in Jodi Bobrovsky's nuanced set design. Claremarie Verheyen's costumes are masterworks of the threadbare, of blood and soil. Renee Brode's lighting is exceptionally exquisite, echoing dim candlelight. Throughout this gripping drama, the dialogue crackles and spits. Freedom, so much desired and killed for, can become another set of chains if one doesn't know which path to take. Lopez thrillingly lays open the road, the festering wounds, the giddy rush of liberation toward that beacon now within reach. Stages gives us a tantalizing glimpse into this young playwright, whose other works we long to see. He has a fresh and startling voice. Stages sings his impassioned siren song in triumph. Through May 25. 3102 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG