Capsule Stage Reviews: The Apostle, Arms and the Man, Black Comedy, The Light in the Piazza

The Apostle Right now, the most commanding performance by an actor doesn't occur in a play. The Apostle at A.D. Players is a dramatic reading of the book of Romans 1-10 from Eugene Peterson's Message Bible, a contemporary translation eventually published in its entirety in 2002. Chip Simmons plays Apostle Paul as he exhorts the Christians in Rome to uphold their faith and find salvation through Christ. This isn't the archaic, yet stirring, poetry writ in the exotic Jacobean style of the King James version, but there's still plenty of drama packed into Paul's devout epistle concerning sin, belief and "the way." Simmons mines every nugget. In overcoat, baggy jeans and scuffed work boots, with his hair disheveled, he's a hip proselytizer, a corner prophet. Delivering his letter to the Romans, he stands at a lectern, slumps in an old chair or sits on the steps that edge the stage, but he doesn't stay there long, grabbing another book at the table to preach God's promise as if struck by sudden insight. (The fluid direction is by Lee Walker.) His eyes sear as he stammers passionately, finding the right expression for the inexpressible and thumping his forehead as he searches for meaning. There's brooding electricity that sparks from him; there's also great hurt, redemption and powerful belief. It's quite a remarkable performance — fresh, vibrant and true. If you're not a believer, Simmons just might make you one. Through January 18. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Arms and the Man G.B. Shaw's sparkling romantic comedy from 1894 takes on manly soldiers who are praised for desertion, a middle class as snooty as the upper class, headstrong servants, blustery fools, romantic heroines who save the enemy because they've just seen an opera where such a thing happens, parents as clueless as their children, and Bulgarians. Only Shaw could manage it all with such buoyant, throwaway charm. Fleeing from the Bulgarian army, Swiss mercenary Bluntschli (Brian Heaton) escapes into the bedroom of Raina (Eva LaPorte), a member of one of Bulgaria's richest and most respected families. They're so upper-crust, Mama Petkoff (Karla Brandau) keeps reminding everyone, they have a room devoted to nothing but books, and a bell to ring for the servants so Papa (Glenn Dobson) doesn't have to shout — so déclassé. Raina instantly falls for her "chocolate cream soldier" even though she's engaged to blowhard Sergius (Travis Klemm), a pompous ass who looks dashing in a uniform, but is all moustache and no brains and not above making a pass or two at the family's haughty maid Louka (Renata Santoro). There's lots of activity, but not much really happens, yet Shaw juggles his pet theories about heroism, the futility of war and illusion vs. reality with masterful aplomb, never once dropping a theme. Making her Houston debut, LaPorte is a beaut as Raina, all fetching and bubbly. Watch as she flounces onto the hassock, next to her soldier who's found her out; she doesn't crumble at the news, she deflates gradually, with grace to spare. Houston's theater scene is richer for her arrival — and a little richer, too, for this confection of a production. Through February 14. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG


The Apostle

Black Comedy It takes a scene or two for the cast to settle into Theatre Southwest's production of Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, but once it does, the farcical story about a night in England when a starving artist manages to destroy both his love life and his career is a charming hoot. The play, which debuted in New York in the late '60s, is most famous for one central gimmick: It opens in the dark. We hear the actors talking and know the production has started, but the stage lights never come up — that is, until the breakers get fried in the building where artist Brindsley Miller (Louis A. Crespo Jr.) and his fiancée Carol Melkett (Hayley Shaw) are preparing for a visit from a wealthy collector. With the electricity fried, the room goes dark for the characters, but the stage lights suddenly come up for the audience, and we get to watch the characters stumbling around in darkness dealing with multiple problems, including two difficult neighbors and Brindsley's ex-girlfriend, who shows up to wreak havoc on his current relationship. This eclectic group of oddballs is lots of fun to watch; especially funny are Sam Martinez's Harold Gorringe and Kathy Drum's Miss Furnival as Brindsley's two quirky neighbors. Director Mack Hays pulls the group together and spins a story that flies by in less than two hours. And with tickets at just 15 bucks, the show might be the best bargain of the new year. Through January 24. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — LW

The Light in the Piazza At the lovely heart of Main Street Theater's charming production of The Light in the Piazza is a pair of lovers who have genuine chemistry, a rare thing in live theater. Haley Dyes plays the simple and sweet Clara Johnson, a young American woman who is traveling Italy with her mother Margaret (Susan Shofner) in the 1950s. As the two women wander the enchanting streets of Florence, they run into Fabrizio Naccarelli (played by the gorgeously silver-voiced Ross A. Chitwood), who promptly falls hard for the golden-haired American. It is the sweet, sexy fireworks that happen every time Dyes's Clara looks at Chitwood's Fabrizio that makes this production such a treat. Based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer, the musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel tells an unlikely tale about a girl with some serious baggage who manages to find love in a foreign land despite her history. And though this production, directed with affection by Ron Jones, is marred by some weak singing by most every cast member except the central characters, there is something so genuinely moving in this love story and in the way Dyes and Chitwood gaze at each other that it's worth a tender evening of your time to see the Houston premiere of this new musical, which won a Tony in 2005. Through January 25. 4617 Montrose, 713-524-6706. — LW


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