A Suitable Encore

In Houston, new theater companies seem to sprout with every change of the season; that few of them survive may say as much about the theatrical talent available as it does the city's theater audience. Still, any flicker of new activity is worth a first look, and from what I saw last week at the Encore Theatre, one of Houston's just emerging companies, some flickers may be worth a second and third look as well.

Encore is the creation of Harold J. Haynes, a local playwright and teacher who defines his mission rather grandly as "creating opportunities for those underaddressed: blacks and Hispanics." By that, he means that Encore is set up to instruct as much as to entertain; such a facility is needed, he claims, because in Houston "there is really no training facility for minority actors."

Some local schools might raise an eyebrow at that assertion, but Haynes dismisses university theater as overrun with prejudice and other obstacles -- an interesting comment coming from someone who earns part of his living as a theater instructor at Houston Community College. Haynes says he plans to have his productions address acting challenges and community issues; and each season of plays will be mapped out to include a new work, a classic and at least two Pulitzer Prize winners. Since Haynes is a playwright, it's no surprise that Encore debuted with one of his own works. What is surprising, and maybe even cause for a little skepticism, is that he plans to mount another later in the season.

Still, bravado aside, Haynes doesn't seem to be about organizing a vanity company. Operating out of a former upholstery shop, his modest storefront theater of 49 seats is a study of efficient economizing. Donors are withholding contributions until Encore's non-profit status comes through, which means that Haynes has had to shell out his own money to get the theater up and running. With framed African prints in the lobby and gilded railings bordering spiffy red seats recycled from the old Heights Theatre, his $8,000 has gone a long way.

Will Encore be the high intensity minority theater Haynes intends? If the company's second production of the season, Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box, is any indication, maybe. The play is a dramatization of the five stages people go through when they die, and the young actors undertake their roles earnestly, even if they're not particularly accomplished. Director Haynes, however, is the star, fully thinking everything out, from the slightest character tic to costumes in shades of impressionistic gray. And anybody who can create three distinct cottages on a 22-by-16 stage deserves attention.

-- Peter Szatmary

The Shadow Box plays through May 13 at Encore Theatre, 3224 Fannin, 527-0632.

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Peter Szatmary