With Energy to Spare: A Preview of the 2014-15 Houston Arts Season

Mikelle Johnson, playwright for Clean-Through.
Mikelle Johnson, playwright for Clean-Through.
George Hixson

Well, our theater awards for last season's best have been given out, so it's time to look ahead. As usual, the field is as crowded as ever. Here's a sampling of rich choices that look most promising.

Dracula

The 1927 Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's gothic horror novel starred a Hungarian actor who forever changed the look of that blood-sucking count. A successful film and stage actor in his native Hungary until the 1919 revolution forced the trade unionist into exile in Germany, Bela Lugosi decided to emigrate to America. He never regretted it. He did well for a while on and off Broadway, but his sophisticated lounge lizard was just what playwright John Balderston, hired to Americanize Hamilton Deane's veddy British original play from 1924, was looking for in the new show. The cape, the slicked-back hair, the baritone accent were perfect for the seductive, nasty nobleman. Voilà, Dracula as we know him today, a far cry from Max Schreck's creepy rodent visage in F.W. Murnau's German silent classic (Nosferatu) from 1922. The Alley's matinee idol Jay Sullivan dons the cape in this version with iconic sets and costumes from master cartoonist Edward Gorey. Bite me!

October 3 - November 2. Alley Theatre at the University of Houston. 713‑220-5700.

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Marie Antoinette

A talking sheep tries to set the wayward queen of France on the straight and narrow, but the blockhead won't listen. American playwright David -Adjmi, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous award grants, presents the doomed Marie as a TV reality show housewife, all OMG inflection and little self-reflection. She's the ultimate 1 percenter, never truly understanding what's happening to her. Squashed underneath a hairdo of unsupportable height and squeezed into a fitted tiered ballgown like the ultimate package from Tiffany's, she spouts anachronisms that keep her up to date and so-so-Valley Girl. She douses the sheep with perfume because she doesn't like farm smells, but doesn't heed his warning. Always listen, dear, when a sheep talks to you.

October 8 - November 2. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123.

The Economist

Although distinctive actor Miki Johnson has given up performing (Happy Days, Bluefinger, Spirits to Enforce), happily she hasn't left the stage. She's become a playwright (Fleaven, American Falls and clean/through -- our current winner for Best New Play). Her voice is just as idiosyncratic and cutting-edge as were her performances. We know nothing about this world premiere except what the press releases tell us: "It's 1999 in Indiana and 15 year old Matt is fighting to balance his bi-polar and suicidal older sister, narcissistic mother, naive father, sweet girlfriend and a world full of American heartland depression. The play is about psychiatric medicine, the devastation of mental sickness and the bond between a brother and sister, too smart and complicated for a tiny town in the Midwest." Sounds like classic Johnson to me.

November 21 - December 13. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Texas Freeway.

Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult

Thoroughly inventive, the Kneehigh Theatre, based in Cornwall, England, loves spinning tales in the most unusual ways. They can do site-specific works, as on a cliff or in a quarry, or perhaps in their gargantuan tent designed to be assembled anywhere in less than a day, or even somewhere as mundane as a theater. They adore fairy tales, giving the old stories a real kick in the ass. In 2004 the company created its own Tristan, from the medieval legend of a soldier boy and his forbidden love for an Irish princess. In his opera, Richard Wagner, of course, put his own stamp on this tale of passion and adultery. From a London review soon after the premiere: "End-staging by Bill Mitchell places the action on an island with a mast complete with multifunctional hoists, while lighting by Alex Wardle plays a significant role. But the key to success mainly lies in Stu Barker's marvelously eclectic score, seamlessly combining Graeco-mambo with a shipboard romance, percussion with tango, plus Wagner's Lie-bestod with dry ice." This should be fun.

April 24 - May 24, 2015. Alley Theatre at the University of Houston. 713-220-5700.

 

Romeo and Juliet

Every choreographer wants a chance to tackle this mother of all love stories, especially when the score is all ready to go, Prokofiev's incandescent music for the Kirov Ballet's version in 1940 that set the standard for 20th century ballet music after Tchaikovsky left the scene. All that's left to do is design sets and costumes, get some dancers and oh, yes, make up some choreography. Stanton Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet, has all these wrapped up. Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno is in charge of the production's look (if you saw her Merry Widow two seasons ago at HB, you know she knows what she's doing); there's an overabundance of young-lover wannabes who can dance and act waiting in the wings, no problem there; and Welch, after his superlative, evocative adaptations of Swan Lake, Rite of Spring, La Bayadère and Madame Butterfly, will have no trouble turning these feuding Renaissance families into volcanic, passionate dance.

February 26 - March 7, 2015. Houston Ballet, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas.

Die Walküre

Any time Richard Wagner's epic four-opera Ring cycle is produced, it's cause for celebration, sometimes consternation. After Houston Grand Opera's opener Das Reingold last season -- they're producing one opera per season -- at least we now know what to expect from the concept: state-of-the-art stagecraft with kaleidoscope video projections; wondrous singing; and a sweeping orchestral account led by maestro Patrick Summers. All this will play well indeed in Walküre, the most consistently gratifying work in the cycle. The drama never stops. This is where adultery and incest collide, as young hero Siegmund, hiding out in his enemy's home, discovers his long-lost sister, Sieglinde. She becomes pregnant before Act II. Wagner's wild, woolly ways shocked the staid Bayreuth audiences in 1876, and still do to this day. This is also the opera in which Viking maiden warrior Brünnhilde makes her entrance with her classic, career-enhancing or killing "Ho Yo To Ho." She's supposed to arrive on horseback as Wagner instructed, but that staging has long gone out of fashion, since it's nearly impossible to replicate for so many reasons. The opera ends with the justly famous, exceptionally emotional father/daughter farewell as god Wotan kisses Brünnhilde to sleep, taking away her godliness for disobeying orders in Act II. She is prey for any fearless hero who can survive the magic fire that surrounds her. End of opera. Who shows up many years later to save her? Surprise! Siegmund and Sieglinde's son. He gets his own opera next, Siegfried, as if you didn't know.

April 18 - May 3, 2015. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228-6737.

And not to be overlooked: Waiting for Johnny Depp (TUTS Underground); George Gershwin Alone (Alley Theatre); Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking (Ensemble); The Miracle Worker (A.D. Players); Mack and Mabel (Stages Repertory Theatre); Stupid F***ing Bird (Stages); Frost/Nixon (Company OnStage); The Cherry Orchard (Classical); Kinky Boots (TUTS); The Skin of Our Teeth (Theatre Southwest); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Stark Naked)...and so on and so on...


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