Capsule Stage Reviews: Race, Spamalot, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Warrior Class

Race The title of David Mamet's last successful play is a four-letter word. Surprise? Mamet is the Shakespeare of the scatological, the poet of the profane. He's the only contemporary playwright who can drop the F-bomb with such gleeful aplomb, as well as other earthy, Chaucerian depictions of anatomy and procreation. He turns salty street talk into nouns, adjectives and adverbs, like an improper Strunk and White primer. At his best, his brittle dialogue sparks and sets fire to our imagination. His desperate characters dare say things we can only dream of saying. He likes to slap us hard to slap us awake. Think of those real estate sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross (his Pulitzer Prize winner), the movie producers in Speed-the-Plow, the hapless university professor in Oleanna. The desperate lawyers in Race, Jack and Henry (Kevin Daugherty and Mirron Willis), want to win. Their prospective client is phenomenally rich white business whiz kid Charles Strickland (Justin Doran). They don't trust him. Black co-partner Henry doesn't like him at all, and says so as soon as the play begins, practically spitting out his contempt. New associate Susan (Joy Brunson) states with unequivocal verve, "He acts guilty." (If you know your Mamet, this beautiful office accessory will quickly turn into a black widow spider.) Pompous and arrogant, Charles proclaims his innocence. He didn't rape that black woman in the hotel, but as the facts pile up, his lily-white innocence is anything but rock-solid. Charles wants Jack and Henry to take his case because the law firm is biracial, so if he's defended by a black attorney, he figures that will sway the jury. Everybody's out for something, bribable or amoral, in Mamet's gimlet-eyed view of the world. Right from the start, Mamet blowtorches our perceptions. About race, about gender, about gender and race, about the law and gender and race, about privilege, about the obsequious press. He throws it all at us, like a delirious adults-only Law and Order. Mamet holds nothing back, and the first half of Race is thoroughly absorbing, exceptional, edge-of-your-seat theater, with surprising plot twists that make us smile at the playwright's wickedly playful inventiveness. Truly, we don't know what's coming next. After an unnecessary intermission, Mamet's ever-provoking theses hit some speed bumps. There's no definite ending, which neatly leaves Charles's guilt or innocence undecided, but the conclusion leaves us unsatisfied. Obviously, this is Mamet's point, but he's set up such an intriguing courtroom whodunit from the beginning that we feel cheated. The shark turns toothless. Under the perceptive and quick-witted direction of Eileen Morris, the acting quartet is exceptional. They breeze through Mamet's frayed, jagged dialogue as if spewing bolts of silk. They make curses sound like benedictions. Mamet gives us an emergency room full of blunt force trauma. Even with the slight detour near the end, Race hurtles onward. The racial collision is bloody, and we're never sure who's ultimately at fault, but we can't look away. This is theater at its rawest, incendiary and provocative. It's red meat, but USDA prime for sure. Through June 2. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

Spamalot A show this downright deliciously silly is the drug of choice for legions of Python-maniacs, who still exist decades after the British TV troupe's demise and who can still quote whole sequences by rote. Even if you've never heard of Monty Python's Flying Circus and its anarchic blend of the Marx Brothers, British panto, Alice in Wonderland and Samuel Beckett, Spamalot, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2005, will thoroughly amuse. It beats you over the head with such sublime comedy, low and high, that you're left helpless, sore from laughing. As the subtitle proclaims, the show — deliriously brought to us via Theatre Under the Stars and Kansas City Starlight Theatre — is "lovingly ripped off" from the troupe's classic 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the ultimate slap at King Arthur (Tom Hewitt) and his round table. Written by Python alumni Eric Idle (music, book, and lyrics) and John Du Prez (music), all our favorite routines from the movie are here in the flesh — the fatuous narrator, animator Terry Gilliam's cutout feet of God, the killer bunny, the taunting Frenchman ("I fart in your general direction"), the catapulting cow, the Knights who say Ni, Tim the Enchanter, Prince Herbert (Brian Shepard) waiting to be rescued from his tower, hapless servant Patsy (Brian Sears) clopping together his coconut-shell sound effects, and the clueless knights themselves: cowardly "run away, run away" Sir Robin (Jeremy Webb), rashly stupid Sir Lancelot (Jonathan Hammond), preening Sir Galahad (Adam Monley), flatulent Sir Bedivere (Kevin Covert). Into the stew — or should I say added to the spam — is the diva Lady of the Lake (Janine Davita) and her gyrating Laker Girls, along with a host of Broadway knockoffs and put-downs, cheesily presented with tons of Las Vegas glitz and candy-colored glamour. The cheeky laughs come nonstop. What Broadway babe can resist parodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Producers, The Boy from Oz and even Fiddler on the Roof? The entire show, regardless of its cinema origins, is a wicked deconstruction of our modern musical. Think of it as Monty Python goes to Broadway and you get the flavor. It pays reverence with irreverence, mocking and stroking with equal fervor. The cast has a great time entertaining us, and sometimes entertaining themselves, as they ham it up with devilry and showstopping chutzpah. All get to shine in individual numbers, and they take to the light like gleeful little gnats. Especially delightful are Sears as downtrodden servant Patsy, who gets to hoof it mightily in the show's best number, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (purloined from the Python's Life of Brian); and Hammond, who chews any and all scenery within view as The French Taunter, the Knight of Ni, Tim the Enchanter, and the disco-grinding, out-of-the-closet Lancelot. Crisply directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, the show never stops moving, piling one-liners upon existential comedy routines upon outright goofiness (arguing over what type of swallow could carry coconuts into England is classic Python). The fun never stops. Be sure to read your program, which will have you laughing even before the show begins. Through May 26. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. — DLG

There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. In 2011, Catastrophic Theatre mounted There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, Mickle Maher's boldly original dedication to "love, sex and the poetry of William Blake," and due to popular demand they have brought the production back for another limited run. Directed by Catastrophic's Artistic Director, Jason Nodler, the play takes place at a financially failing liberal arts college where Bernard (Troy Schulze) and his lover Ellen (Amy Bruce) are two professors who both happen to teach the poetry of William Blake. The play opens with Bernard's acknowledgment to his Blake class that he and Ellen got somewhat swept away during the previous evening when the two, in the midst of a Blake oratory, went at it on the campus lawn for all to see. The entire play is written in rhymed verse, and the first half consists of monologues by the two actors of the event and how it is related to Blake's writing. For Bernard the act of passion was a thing of beauty, two bodies coming together out of pure love and exultation. Bernard's recounting of the evening is childlike and dreamy and Schulze makes his innocence, and perhaps naiveté, absolutely convincible and lovable. Ellen, on the other hand, does not see eye to eye with him. Bruce plays her as a tightly wound up ball of nerves. She refuses to apologize to the school or to the Dean (Kyle Sturdivant) because she doesn't think he deserves an apology. Ellen is painfully angry and Bruce gives her the perfect amount of emotion and depth. While some of the reasons behind Ellen's anger toward Bernard and their fleeting love seemed out of character, the duality between Bernard and Ellen's perceptions and the influence their night of love has had on them is a wonder to watch, especially as it is woven into both the poetry of Blake and Maher's own mastery over the English language. This is not a simple play, which is what is so wonderful about it. It makes you think, and you have to pay attention. Maher's verse and plot are so intricately married to the two Blake poems that you'll feel proud of yourself for keeping up with it all. Go with your thinking cap on tight, but go, seriously. This is what theater is supposed to be. Through May 25. 119 East Fwy., — AK

Warrior Class A Republican assemblyman from New York, a Chinese-American, has given an inspirational talk that has gone viral and brought him to the attention of some political kingmakers. He is being vetted for the nomination for a Congressional seat by a veteran political practitioner, who works behind the scenes to bring together donors with money and candidate. The dialogue by award-winning playwright Kenneth Lin is subtle, accessible and compelling, making for an engrossing play. Vito D'Ambrosio as political matchmaker Nathan Berkshire finds the nuances — smooth words cascade even as he scavenges for politically damaging flaws; this is a bravura performance. Nathan has discovered that potential candidate Julius Weishan Lee, played by Nick Maccarone, had a relationship with Holly Hathaway in college, and Julius stalked her. Holly, now Mrs. Eames, refuses to certify that she and Julius had a typical relationship unless they find a job for her unemployed husband. Julius refuses, and tension-filled negotiations begin. Holly is portrayed by the excellent Caroline Hewitt, holding her own against Nathan. Maccarone provides the ambiguity the playwright intends: has he matured and changed, or is his still violent temper the better indicator he hasn't? The script rips the curtain off the political compromises, payoffs and deals made in private, which become disastrous when exposed. The main setting is a private room in an upscale steakhouse, and it is handsome indeed, thanks to designer Eugene Lee. The direction is by Wilson Milam, who understands the subtlety of the script and delivers its authenticity. A subtle duel of wits between strong personalities creates gripping tension, and three skilled actors create theatrical power, with Vito D'Ambrosio delivering a performance memorable for its variety and intelligence. This is a must-see event. Through June 2. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT


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