Climbing New Heights

Fledgling theater companies are nothing new in Houston, a town still struggling to establish a third Equity house. Dead theater companies are nothing new either. Many of the companies launched with great to-do in the last few years are now either defunct or in seeming suspended animation: whither Houston Repertory Theater, the Gypsy Theater Company, the Theatre on the Square, the Urban Theater Company, WestMon?

That list of the lost includes two -- Kenny Joe Spivy's Dreem Katz and James Gales' Urban Theatre -- that called the renovated Heights Theater home. So why does Ron Jones, known for his work at Theater LaB, think he can pull off a new company in the same location? A new company that plans six shows a year, and with six-week-plus runs? "Just bodacious, I guess," Jones laughs. "I hope I don't sound outrageous, but I really think God gave me the gift of reading a play and knowing whether it was going to fail or it was going to sell."

Named the New Heights Theatre, Jones' new company debuted on February 10 with David Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Although Larry Kramer is (to mix metaphors) straight-up gay, Jones doesn't want his theater identified with any one genre. "What I'm really hoping to do is present theater that is provocative and entertaining and somewhat different from what audiences will see in other theaters," he says. "Shows that deal with the gay experience, the black experience, Hispanic, Jewish -- characters that maybe we haven't been exposed to here in Houston." For example, one of the next plays Jones plans to stage is The Rez Sisters, which is about seven American Indian women in Canada. And, no, I can't remember having been exposed to that in Houston.

If nothing else, Jones has one of Houston's better venues for a new theatrical troupe. When the Heights Theater, which was built as one of the first "suburban" theaters after World War II, was bought and renovated in 1987 by art patrons Gus and Sharon Kopriva, it was just a brick shell with no ceiling. But now the remade theater -- which has a gorgeous tile lobby and bathrooms, and white Christmas lights to illuminate your way to your seat -- is worth a visit, even if you're not seeing a show there.

Jones, of course, is hoping his productions will do some attracting as well. Indeed, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me was sold out on opening night, and to a lively, appreciative crowd at that. Joe Kirkendall showed amazing stamina and appeal in this non-stop, one-person show about the many faces of being a gay man: from the amazed tenderness of his first kiss with the high school swim star; to a bar-cruising, romance-ad rap that starts funny then gets so brutal I had to close my eyes; to a candlelit eulogy to all his friends and lovers taken by the "unprincipled invisible killer." Directed by Jones, the play's timing is deft and tight, and Kirkendall makes the most of a play that probably overstays its welcome a bit. He has a dancer's sure presence (not to mention a body to die for, of which we get to see a lot), and didn't seem to get winded by the most aerobic of sequences. Although the play is occasionally limited by its gay-centric viewpoint and its call to arms against the "straight oppressors," taken as a whole, it's a moving soliloquy, a one-man tour de force -- and a good introduction to New Heights.

-- Ann Walton Sieber!


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