Stage Capsule Reviews

Cunning Little Vixen Although a friend of fellow countryman Antonin Dvork, Idiosyncratic Czech composer Leos Jancek remained unfazed by European musical trends, influenced mainly by Moravian folk melodies, sounds of nature and the musical tonality of speech. His music is unlike anyone else's -- certainly not primitive or amateurish, as it was stupidly judged by critics at the time, but not cold or overly studied either -- something wonderfully free-form and natural. His chord modulations can be as powerfully striking as anything in Wagner, while his rhythms are just as distinctively wild as Stravinsky's. It's luminous orchestral writing, as if we're hearing light. There's also an unabashed eroticism that runs throughout his operas. He was 70 when Vixen premiered, and it's a beauty, as is Houston Grand Opera's staging, which infuses this autumnal embrace of nature with all the vibrant warmth of a summer's night. A celebration of the Circle of Life as well as a study of the Eternal Female (a Jancek obsession), the opera tells the story of fox Sharp Ears (Lisa Saffer), along with the humans, especially the Forester (Hector Vsquez), and the woodland creatures she encounters over the years. Although shot by a poacher for her magnificent coat, her death is the Forester's epiphany, as he adopts one of her orphans and finally realizes nature's significance and his part in it. (If PETA had any sense at all, it would proclaim Vixen its anthem.) The production, adoringly conducted by maestro Patrick Summers and stylishly designed by David Zinn, is humorous retro for the animal world ('50s dresses for the insects, sock-hop chickens, frogs in goggles and swim fins) and atmospheric impressionism for the human domain (huge rustic cupboards and suitcases with a surround of gigantic sunflowers). Posthumously, Jancek finally got his respect; nothing can stop it now. Certainly, not as long as Vixen's around to enchant and astonish. Through May 12. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

The Lower Depths After seeing Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov's most famous play in dos chicas theater commune's stirring rendition, you can tell why he used the pen name Maxim Gorky ("bitter"). This drama is a harrowing view of society's most unfortunate. Crammed into a filthy basement apartment, the derelicts on display have no room at all to keep their personal demons at bay. At the mercy of a greedy landlord and his equally rapacious wife, the men and women consume themselves and each other with animal fury, pumped up with vodka and unattainable dreams. They yearn to escape, to "get away," but no one does -- except into the oblivion of death and disease. They rage at life as they gamble and drink away the few pennies they have, which only fuels more heated arguments, lies and mocking dreams of former loves. When a new boarder, mysterious old Laca (Lee Finch), tries to give them optimistic counsel and spiritual guidance, none of the lowlifes has the strength to battle the unyielding specter of bleak fate. They live by failing; they thrive on it; it's all they know. Gorky paints his pre-Revolution Russia with vivid strokes of inky black and sooty gray; devoid of color, his characters have had the life drained out of them. This unapologetic drama was quite a shocker in 1902 at the Moscow Art Theatre, already known for its psychologically probing productions of Chekhov and Tolstoy, and it's still a shock today. In its unflinching portrait of squalor and human misery, love is degraded, goodness is mocked and life is living death. Under Mark Carrier's piercing direction, the huge cast, especially the men and Donna Kay Yarborough (the dying Anna), mesh into an ensemble of dangerous desperation and fleeting alcoholic joy. John Dunn (unemployed locksmith Klestch), Brian Nichols (blackmailing lover Vassily), Jeremy Carlson (drunken musician Alyoshka), Wilson Limpo (street thug Satin) and Mike Switzer (dyspeptic Actor -- he's so sick, he can't remember his name) contribute immensely to the haunting Russian gloom. Through May 19. Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation. 832-283-0858.

Take Away the Lady This play is Theatre Suburbia's most pulled-together staging this season. Set in a gloomy country house where tea is always served with fish-paste sandwiches and stiff upper-lip propriety, Jimmie Chinn's deadly puzzler, Take Away the Lady, goes Agatha Christie one better by deftly incorporating the necessary exposition right at the start. Christie sometimes takes up the entire first act to set up her elaborate mousetrap plot machinery; Chinn simply begins. Stern, dour, autocratic sister Lavinia Doubleday (Rebecca Pipas Seabrook), who runs the family manse as if it's an army installation, has called the family together for an ominous announcement. Lavinia and her sisters don't get along, and the sarcasm and tension between them cut to the bone. Her great message is that brother Matthew (Kerry Jones) is "coming home" at last. It's not so much that he's arriving, but where he's been that's the problem. After 15 years, he's out of prison, having served his sentence for murdering dear Mother, whom he pushed off the balcony during a heated argument about finances. This news sets the dysfunctional, batty family flying. What complicates matters further is Matthew's resolute insistence on his innocence. If he didn't do it, who did? The murderer could be any one of them. Smoothly directed by Barbara Hartman, the play's embodied by an excellent ensemble cast who react to each other as if they really are members of the same nutty family. Through May 12. 1410 W. 43rd, 713-682-3525.

Zero HourIf you've never had the absolute pleasure of experiencing the one-and-only Zero Mostel -- and that's the only way to describe his free-wheeling performances, an experience -- then Jim Brochu's one-man show on Mostel's life and times, running concurrently at Stages Repertory Theatre with another one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, is probably the nearest and best you'll ever get. Three-time Tony winner, Mostel is one of Broadway's monstres sacrs: an original, something titanic, a force of nature. As a performer, he was his own shock and awe, and his story is one of steely determination, fierce pride and unquenchable anger at what happened to him and his many friends during the '50s Communist witch-hunts. When his performing career was curtailed, he survived through his first great love -- painting -- his lifeline to creativity. Mostel was one of the lucky ones; he outlived his adversaries and returned in triumph to Broadway (Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Harnick and Bock's Fiddler on the Roof) and then Hollywood (Mel Brooks's The Producers). An incredibly versatile actor, he made you weep with his brilliant insight into James Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown), or roar with laughter from his antics with The Muppets. All the highlights and lowlights of Mostel's complicated, seismograph-like life are covered by Brochu, who bellows, cajoles, pleads and charms much like Zero. There's a snippet from Mostel's comic days at Caf Society; an improv from his first drama class; his "Hello, loose lips" speech in front of the full Forum cast, coldly welcoming HUAC rat Jerome Robbins as the show's new director; and endearing personal family confessions. Comedy, pathos, Borscht belt schtick, bombast and sentiment, and Mostel's instantaneous shift from one to another, it's all here and rendered with loving photorealism. The physical resemblance is downright eerie: a slicked-down comb-front that Mostel should have trademarked, those haunting saucer eyes, that surprising agility like one of the hippos from Fantasia and that melodious thunder of a voice. The intermission, though, is redundant. Mostel, the classiest of class clowns, would have relished telling his life story without taking a break -- or a breath. Through May 13. 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123.

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