The Horse Head Theatre Company seeks to change and enliven the theatrical experience in non-conventional ways, and succeeds admirably in presenting the Houston premiere of Adam Rapp's drama Essential Self-Defense.
While the mystery of 16 missing children is a sub-plot, this is essentially a love story as Sadie (Bree Welch) somewhat inexplicably falls in love with Yul (former Art Attack editor and current contributor Troy Schulze) - inexplicably since Yul is passive-aggressive, a semi-recluse given to silences, who speaks with almost no expression in what is close to a monotone. This is what the playwright wants, a robotic human, and I assume Yul is intended to be a down-trodden Everyman, but the unfortunate result is to drain his many scenes of vitality - Schulze plays the role as written, so the fault is not his.
The Frenetic Theater has been transformed into an impressive cabaret/art installation worthy of a major gallery, with unobtrusive playing areas scattered throughout the generous space, the addition of a jazz band, and the stage peopled with vivid characters brought to exciting life by talented actors. Yet the production fails to satisfy fully because the central protagonist and the narrative lack the vitality of the surroundings.
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But the good news first. The band is part of the play and the lead singer and emcee is played by Rebekah Stevens who uses energetic charm and raw language to enchant us, while guitarist Danny Painter and drummer Kirk Suddreath rattle the rafters with melody. Josh Morrison gives a strong characterization of a highly competitive butcher with both a mean and a lascivious streak - and sells a song on open mic night at the cabaret. In a cameo role, Xzavien Hollins plays a barber to perfection. And Josh DeLoach is good as the boyfriend to the band singer. Bree Welch is wonderful as the pursuing female and makes believers of us through a variety of experiences, but some of her scenes with Yul have all the excitement of watching grass grow - a strange contrast to the surrounding circus ambiance.
Except for this, the proceedings are well-directed by Drake Simpson. The very complicated lighting works well, thanks to Jeremy Choate, Kevin Holden and Frank J. Vela. The scenery by Matthew Schlief is imaginative - the corner poles of a boxing arena morph into blue fluorescent lights for the cabaret scenes. The live music captivated, and was composed by band members Painter and Suddreath, and Painter played several minor characters, as well as sporting as guitarist an admirable day-glo green wig that captured perfectly the joyous spirit of the occasion - it is just too bad the playwright barred Yul from joining the party. There are tables for drinks - some on stage - and the bar is open throughout the performance.
The verdict: Horse Head Theatre demonstrates an awesome ability to move beyond conventional staging and to attract a vibrant troupe of gifted performers - who knows to what heights they might soar with a stronger script.
Through May 28, Horse Head Theater Company at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-364-4482.