Capsule Stage Reviews: Memory House, The Mountaintop, Private Lives, Ubu Roi (King Ubu), The Young Man from Atlanta
Memory House A mother attempts to connect with her adopted daughter, while the daughter works on finishing an essay required for a college application. The daughter, Katia, was adopted from Russia at the age of six, and is resentful because she has no memory of her early life. Katia is played by Joanna Hubbard as though she were 13 or 14 instead of pre-college — but, oddly, this is how the part is written. Hubbard never manages to make Katia interesting or make us care about her petulance. Rebecca Greene Udden as the adoptive mother, Maggie, creates a portrait of a sincere and dedicated woman, long-suffering and patient, as she bakes a pie from scratch. The playwright, Kathleen Tolan, has actually given Maggie a keen sense of humor and a dry wit, but Udden and the play's director, Claire Hart-Palumbo, seem unaware of this. The real action is bickering, back and forth, insult and retort, reconciliation and sulking — and no intermission. The director and the actors haven't forged a connection between these two women — I never believed they shared the same household and knew each other intimately. Katia is anti-American because of U.S. military intervention abroad, and drops the F-bomb often enough to serve an entire theater festival, but despite these shock devices, the pace is like watching a glacier melt. There is the predictable reconciliation at the end, but it's not enough to atone for the long, dreary beginning, when Maggie made her pie crust and Katia did nothing much, enlivened by long moments of silence. Good intentions and some homilies are not enough to bring to life a play that meanders aimlessly, and pedestrian direction and acting do little to solve the problem. Through February 10. Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — JJT
The Mountaintop It is April 3, 1968, the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and Dr. King is staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An attractive black maid, Camae, enters — she is feisty, quick-witted, attractive and "built," so the situation is suggestive and the body language of the characters becomes a pas de deux. Cigarettes are smoked, and shared; drinks are consumed, and shared; and a connection develops. This long beginning is very funny indeed. Dr. King is portrayed as more of an everyman than a heroic, epic figure, and Camae has all the best lines. The play suddenly shifts gears and moves us into magic realism. The segue is handled smoothly, aided by sound effects and some striking lighting — what happens is best not revealed, but the play becomes a drama of desperation. There is an epilogue involving video montages, skirting the shoals of moralizing, and the play might be stronger without it. Camae is played by Joaquina Kalukango and she is brilliant, with a commanding stage presence, an easy poise and great timing in delivering lines, and she even makes slouching in a chair mesmerizing. Bowman Wright portrays Dr. King and is excellent. The play is directed by Robert O'Hara, and he is skillful in generating action within the confines of a motel room and just two characters. Playwright Katori Hall here reveals a rare comic gift for dialogue and shows the courage of a lioness in breaking theatrical traditions, and succeeding. Two skilled actors keep interest alive and treat the audience first to humorous banter and then to highly charged drama as the situation turns serious, resulting in a strange hybrid of a play, but one which succeeds in both of its endeavors. Through February 3.Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT
Private Lives This classic comedy by Noël Coward is a much-revived vehicle because of its wit, rich humor and vibrant characterizations. The plot is simple — a couple divorced five years ago meet by chance in the south of France on their respective honeymoons, discover that the passion of their mutual attraction has just been smoldering and abscond to Paris. In Act Two, they engage in repartee and fond — and some not so fond — memories, as the strong personalities of Amanda and Elyot emerge, clash and repeat the chaos that had been their marriage. In Act Three, the abandoned spouses confront Amanda and Elyot. The good news is that Autumn Woods plays Amanda and brings to the role an exciting personality, striking looks and a talent to amuse, all the elements making for a star. Brian Heaton plays Elyot and captures his verve, charm and the self-centeredness the role calls for. Heaton and Woods have the onstage chemistry essential to make the play work, and the ensuing wild turbulence is delightful. Roy Hamlin plays Victor, Amanda's abandoned new husband, and is excellent. Whitney Zangarine plays Sybil, the abandoned new wife of Elyot, and is less successful. The director, Gregory Magyar, has Zangarine play Sybil as such a twit that Elyot becomes defined as an idiot for having married her. The play is a gentle satire on the self-importance of the British upper class, a comedy of manners and sophistication, and loses some of its charm when played for farce. But Magyar shows his skill in the interactions of Heaton and Woods — this dynamic duo is the heart and soul of the production, and make this a triumphant revival. Through January 27. From Encore Players at KVPAC, 2501 S. Mason Rd, #290, Great Southwest Equestrian Center, 281-829-2787. — JJT
Ubu Roi (King Ubu) Ubu Roi is one of those famous works of literature that no one ever sees. If its influence has been diluted over the century through countless imitations, it is still the ur-text in absurdity. Classical Theatre Company does itself proud in this definitive, inspired production. Jarry once famously said that "the applause of silence is the only kind that matters." Well, Jarry, you're wrong this time. It's a standing ovation. Ubu, a slovenly, grotesque force of nature, is the corrupt face of bourgeois conventionality and raw power. His first word upon entrance is "Shit." As you can imagine, in 1896, even for à la mode Parisians, this was over-the-top. There was a mini-riot at the theater, somewhat orchestrated by Jarry himself, who had planted friends in the audience to heckle the hecklers. He knew perfectly well the value of publicity and scandal, being one of the weirdest Frenchmen of the belle époque. Ubu, with its sets painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, lasted for one preview and one performance, but its influence was shattering. In this one moment, the theater of the absurd was born. Wielding a toilet brush as scepter, this corpulent tyrant, the King of Poland, with his obscene vocabulary is the Dada of them all. In an embodiment of all the seven deadly sins, a terrifying buffoon, Ubu is theater of the ridiculous. Without Jarry, there would have been no Beckett, no Ionesco, no Monty Python. The ingenious production is a feast for the eyes, with its sweeping wooden arc of a stage littered with trap doors from which the cast appears and disappears. We're constantly amazed by the droll staging, crafted with wide-eyed enthusiasm and wicked wit by director Philip Hays, abetted with superb design by Ryan McGettigan, exquisite lighting by Alex Jainchill, inventive costumes by Macy Perrone and a minimalist Kurt Weill-like cabaret score by Lucas Gorham. Everything works to turn Ubu into the subversively silly — and threatening — masterpiece it is. The cast is sublime: Bellowing and blustery in his fat suit, Mark Roberts is Ubu's flesh made id. Susan Koozin, with clownishly amplified bosom and butt as Mother Ubu, drips with sloth like an earth mother gone to seed. Carl Masterson brings Shakespearean gravity to doomed good King Wenceslas. Dylan Godwin, in greasy black wig and striped union suit, poses with hands splayed on his attenuated body like an actual Jarry drawing. But it's young Lorenz Lopez who steals the show as an androgynous Jarry himself, as he sets the scene cribbed from Jarry's printed intro to the play. With exaggerated enunciation and puppet-like movement, he is the whole weird play encapsulated in human form. It's quite a performance. Dain Geist, Jovan Jackson, Blair Knowles, Eva Laporte and Kalob Martinez round out the talented cast, each one bringing their own touch of absurdity to the proceedings. Through February 3. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 713-963-9665. — DLG
The Young Man from Atlanta The "young man" in the title of Horton Foote's 1995 drama is never seen. He's talked about by everybody, usually with suspicion, but sometimes with sympathy. He calls Mr. Kidder at work daily, although Kidder won't talk to him; he's been given thousands of dollars by Mrs. Kidder, unbeknownst to her husband, to pay for medical bills and other emergency family expenses; the young man even waits patiently in the car in the Kidder driveway in hopes of persuading Mr. Kidder to look upon him as fondly as Kidder's dead son supposedly once looked upon him. This young man is Foote's unseen deus ex machina — unknown, but known; mysterious, but always present; sinister, yet somehow comforting. More mysterious than the "young man" kept forever in the background is how this pale work ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Company OnStage doesn't ground this lightweight production with any sort of gravity. It floats out of their reach. After a most distinguished career that includes Academy Award-winners To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, as well as Broadway hits The Trip to Bountiful, Dividing the Estate and his epic nine-play The Orphans' Home Cycle, Foote's late play is irritatingly amorphous. Granted, it's set in the early '50s, when certain pointed questions — like, Who is this young man from Atlanta and what exactly is his relationship to the Kidders' unmarried son? — weren't talked about ever, but all this priggish circumspection reminds us of rehashed closeted Inge. We long for the young man to make a star turn and give this play a kick start. The world of old salesman Will Kidder is moving fast and out of his control, but the play's so overly calculated that nothing seems real. Big chunks of exposition are clumsily shoehorned into monologues; characters enter, leave, then re-enter to complete scenes in a stilted, bygone theatrical style; coincidences mount in an almost comic progression, prompting unforced laughter from the audience. This isn't the Foote we love, who can move us to tears with his simple honesty and homespun smartness; this is faux Foote. Company OnStage doesn't know what to do with this problematic play. Everything is off: the set, the music, the cast. The actors seem uncomfortable, either miscast, woefully underrehearsed or misdirected. Only Robert Lowe, as a knockoff Willy Loman-type salesman whose life quickly careens downward, strikes the right tone. While he doesn't dig deep enough, he digs deeper than the others and has enough confident bluster in the early scenes, later turning into feisty stubbornness until he reaches a deflating acceptance in the final scene. He doesn't move us as he should since he's basically acting alone. Through February 16. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG
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