Stage Capsule Reviews

Charlie & Out at Sea Having lived under Communist domination, modern Polish migr writer Slawomir Mrozek thrives in the "theater of the absurd" as if he were a hothouse exotic bloom, fragrant but deadly, colorful but showing rot around the edges. His early short works -- two of which, from 1961, are being put on by dos chicas theater commune -- are polemics masquerading as dramas. The characters might as well wear sandwich boards advertising what they stand for: capitalist pig, hapless bureaucrat, nave simpleton, sniveling toady. These one-acters work well in spite of Mrozek's capital-letter signage because the absurdity of the situations kicks everything into goofy high gear. Life's senselessness reigns. Mumbling, shuffling Grandpa wants glasses so he can find the elusive Charlie and shoot him dead. Once he can see, though, everyone looks like Charlie, and the murder spree begins. This opening piece is stiffer than it should be thanks to an awkward translation. The characters are "ideas," but so is their dialogue. Out at Sea is the better play. Stranded on a raft, "Fat" (David Harlan), "Medium" (Julie Boneau) and "Thin" (Heidi Daniel-Morgan) decide who should be eaten so the other two can survive. The symbolism of its political satire is obvious, but the absurdity is so over-the-top (the dinner service brought out of the trunk, the postman and obsequious butler who swim up to the raft) that the subversive message arrives fresh and wicked. Through February 24. Freneticore Theater, 5102 Navigation St., 832-283-0858.

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) Take Shakespeare's entire oeuvre, add great quantities of British pantomime -- outlandish drag, boob humor and silly slapstick -- gloss it with lowbrow Benny Hill and the higher absurdity and wit of Monty Python, add healthy doses of uppers and caffeine, and then just sit back and laugh yourself stupid. This sidesplitting reduction of Shakespeare, fully entertaining via a trio of madcap guys at Texas Repertory Theatre Co. (the original played for ten years in London), not just takes down the Bard, but first spins him overhead before bouncing him off the ropes and head-butting him to the ground. While dissing the Great One, this zany whirl respects him, too, if only subliminally. So, for example, all the histories are played as a spirited football game with the English crown being tossed down field; the comedies are encapsulated in the whacked-out, ridiculously plotted "The Love Boat Goes to Verona"; the tragedy of Othello is animated with uptown rap; and the surreal, gory Titus Andronicus is parodied as a TV cooking show. The second act is devoted to Hamlet, and if their initial telling is not funny enough, which it most surely is, then you get to see the boys perform it faster, then fastest, then backwards. Even a passing knowledge of the plays will not deter your admiring laughter. The ultra-talented trio boasts Craig A. Miller, Steven Fenley and Ryan Schabach, who stop at nothing to get a laugh, for which we thank them heartily. Through March 3. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573.

Homebody/Kabul Written before September 11, 2001, Tony Kushner's prescient story takes us from a middle-class British housewife's intimate library to the tragedy of modern-day Kabul, where the Taliban stalk the streets armed with rifles and religious rage. In the first hour of the show, a monologue, we become acquainted with the character known only as The Homebody. Bored, lonely and deeply intellectual, The Homebody lives life as a good English Housewife "overwhelmed" by the mediocrity of her days. Her husband is "dull" and her grown daughter is a disappointment. So Homebody buries her refined nose in "outdated" guidebooks, where she learns about the turbulent, exotic history of Afghanistan. There is always a wry, charming self-effacement in this character, and Christianne Mays, the luminous actress who plays The Homebody, captures every ounce of graciousness and intellectual warmth written into her lines. The last two hours of the play take place in Kabul. The Homebody has traveled to Afghanistan, where she apparently has been murdered by fanatics. Here we meet Milton and Priscilla, The Homebody's husband and daughter, who have come to pick up the body. None of this is as smoothly written as the opening monologue. But somehow, the cragginess of the writing fits the situation. This is a ferociously unpredictable world, full of desperate people who are willing to take desperate chances. And the cast, under Cheryl L. Kaplan's direction, does a terrific job. This is not an easy story to tell, nor is it easy to hear. But fine art is rarely easy, and Kushner's play is rich with writing at its finest. Through February 25 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.


Charlie / Out at Sea

A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams at his most sublime -- during the first decade of his work for Broadway (Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) -- can blister paint with his intensely personal poetry and archetypal characters, who go to their doom embracing their executioners. Streetcar melted asphalt when it premiered in 1947 with the incandescent Jessica Tandy as fake Southern belle Blanche DuBois and magnetically sexy #159ber-man Marlon Brando as brute Stanley Kowalski. Blanche, whose past is filled with trash she'd rather pretend didn't exist, wants "magic" and soft light from paper-covered lanterns, not the harsh light of reality and truth. Stanley rips off those paper shades, leaving her at the piteous mercy of her demons, which wreck her mind. At its core, this play is all about sex -- its beauty, mystery, power and, simultaneously, all its destructive aspects. Doctoral theses have been published about the play's not-so-closeted gay subtext. While the University of Houston's production supplies Williams's power and a beautifully designed decrepit apartment in New Orleans's Vieux Carr, the sex is absent. There is fine playacting and volume (especially Laura Frye as an earthy Stella), but the real heat's been turned down to a simmer. Through February 25. UH Wortham Theatre, entrance No. 16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929.

Waiting to Be Invited In S.M. Shephard-Massat's uplifting comedy/drama on glorious parade at the Ensemble Theatre, the simple act of eating lunch at a department store takes on earth-shaking importance. Why? Because we're in Atlanta in 1964, and the Supreme Court has just upheld the sweepingly straightforward Civil Rights Act. So when four middle-class black women, decked out in their Sunday best, decide to march into the classy lunchroom of Marsh's Department Store and order its famous fish sticks, their determination and grit are as momentous as a thunderclap from Mount Sinai. Refreshingly free of cant, the play stalls at times, but the four ladies are endearingly written and portrayed (by Shirley Marks Whitmore, Joyce Anastasia Murray, BeBe Wilson and Deborah Oliver Artis). Although all take turns keeping the group on track when anxiety threatens to sunder their resolve, it's cantankerous Odessa, with her take-no-prisoners style, who centers the play, and Ms. Whitmore, arms akimbo and defiantly planting her feet like the flag on Iwo Jima, grumbles and sasses with trademark precision. She gets laughs just by her silent, seething impatience with the others. Ably supported by Wayne DeHart as wise, avuncular bus driver Palmeroy and Julie Oliver as prattling biddy Miss Greyson, whose condescension hides a sympathetic heart, the four women, hand in hand, stand at the store's entrance as the curtain falls. It's a rich image of solidarity and unconquerable courage. History may be the province of the great, but it's the thousands of little people who made it happen. Through February 25. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

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