Capsule Reviews

A Fertle Holiday One of the best ways to spend an evening this holiday is with the Fertles, the oddball family that resides at the Radio Music Theatre. Yes, it's time yet again for A Fertle Holiday. The laugh-out-loud show is full of the small-town characters that Rich Mills and Steve and Vicki Farrell have made famous. Everything takes place in Dumpster, Texas, and the cast of characters sound like a long clich. But the performers at Radio Music Theatre have turned The Singing Fertle Family into a lovable bunch of wackos that audiences fall into absolute love with -- many shows sell out during the holidays. The story finds all the Fertles coming home, including a wealthy sister who lives in California and who charters a plane to get to Dumpster. Her fancy family includes a teenage son who likes the drama club and student council more than sports, something the other Fertles don't really understand. There are the continual struggles between in-laws and the bad-for-you Southern cooking that features huge helpings of butter pie. Most of all, there's the extraordinary talents of Mills and the Farrells to delight us all for yet another holiday season. Give yourself a terrific gift this year -- take yourself, your family and even the in-laws to one of the best holiday treats on any stage this season. Through January 13. Radio Music Theatre, 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Hide Town Apocalyptic, strange and wonderfully entertaining, Lisa D'Amour's Hide Town, created with company members from Infernal Bridegroom Productions, is everything experimental theater should be. Thoughtful and funny, the one-act speeds across a futuristic landscape covered in snow and darkness. No matter that this is Hide Town, Texas -- all the sweltering heat and bright sunshine the Lone Star State is so famous for seem to have vanished. Memories and a lonely, rough-hewn bar in the middle of nowhere are all that appear to be left of that mythical world. The characters, including Olive (Charlesanne Rabensburg) and Swimming Otter (Troy Schulze), are lost souls who spend their time in the dim lights of the bar rehashing what once was: a town full of camels, a reality television show featuring Hide Town, some sort of alien invasion, the end of America. On paper, all of this might sound like a silly mishmash of oddities that have been thrown together just for the sake of weirdness, but on stage, in the hands of IBP actors, an odd logic begins to emerge out of these disparate elements. This script plays to the company's strengths and brings out everything Houstonians have grown to love about IBP. Energetic, smart and supremely quirky, the production is first and foremost fascinating. It adds up to an unusual, unpredictable story that manages to reveal its secrets even as it stays supremely strange. Through December 16 at The Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

The Nutcracker Despite competition this year from the fabled Rockettes, The Nutcracker is continuing to draw theatergoers this season. With its promise of sugary dancing treats, lavish Victorian-era sets, rich costumes by Desmond Heeley and a sparkling score that's one of Tchaikovsky's most recognizable, it's an annual holiday tradition. Opening night, there was not only a packed house of little ones in velvet suits and princess dresses, but also a flurry of balletomanes who had come to say goodbye to a local legend and hello to what may be Houston Ballet's future. The 41-year Lauren Anderson is ending her 24-year career in Houston performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy. (There are eight different casts, so check with the box office if you specifically want to see Anderson or another dancer.) Opening night, she was greeted with heavy applause when she appeared on stage, before she even took a step. But she didn't disappoint; she was the light and sparkling fairy whose classical steps -- delicate and sharp as Christmas bells -- enthralled her onstage court and Clara, as well as the audience. She is partnered in this run by 24-year-old Rolando Sarabia, who defected from Cuba last year and is making his debut as a principal dancer with HB in The Nutcracker. It's tempting to say that Sarabia might be the second coming of Carlos "Air" Acosta -- Anderson's legendary partner from the 1990s who was also Cuban-trained -- but that might be an understatement. It's hard to tell from the choreography for the Nutcracker Prince, which is not the most demanding in classical ballet, but Sarabia just might be the best male dancer HB has ever put on stage. Through December 27. Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas, 713-227-2787.

Oliver! It's a hard enough job to stage-manage a phalanx of adorable child performers, but to turn them into hardened Broadway babies who are supposed to be amoral Dickensian urchins is well-nigh impossible (unless, of course, you are on Broadway, where they're common and unstoppable). Playhouse 1960 is content to show off the tykes to their adoring parents and relatives, in a production that bears no resemblance to the Victorian underworld. Lionel Bart's English music hall rendition of Charles Dickens's immortal serial, wherein woebegone orphan Oliver Twist undergoes adventures with petty thief Fagin, evil Bill Sykes, maternal if slatternly Nancy and boy-pickpocket Artful Dodger, is rendered with perfunctory sameness, as if there wasn't enough time for heavy-duty rehearsals. An oily Royce Scott gives a nice portrayal of Fagin; nimble Jackson Grabois plays the Dodger; Jennifer Miscovich competently belts out Nancy's showstopper "As Long As He Needs Me"; and sympathetic Colton Croft is Oliver. But it's Dave Carter, as Bill Sykes, who bursts open the show with a blast of menacing testosterone. If the others in the cast had but a helping of his passion and conviction, this would be an Oliver! to remember. At one point, the upstage area is revealed as Fagin's lair, and the stage seems to be as deep as Radio City Music Hall, but too many scenes are played back there, miles away from us. And all atmosphere is quashed by the blindingly bright front light, which removes all depth and shows all warts. Except for recognizing Sykes, poor Dickens wouldn't know where he was. Through December 17. 6814 Gant, 281-587-8243.

Sadomasochistic Xmas For many, the title Sadomasochistic Xmas might seem a bit redundant. But this dos chicas theater commune production company is bringing real S&M to the stage. While a holiday play that deals with frayed family ties and unmet expectations is pretty much par for the course, Sadomasochistic Xmas cuts out the in-laws, the bad presents, the screaming children and the silly desserts, going straight to the heart of the matter -- the bedroom. Each Christmas, Steve and Susan give to "charity" by humiliating and torturing a repressed couple into sexual communication and openness. This year, their special brand of shock therapy extends not only to their friends, Beth and Bill, but to the audience as well. Like a holiday party with spiked eggnog, the play devolves into more debauchery as the scenes roll on, but in a good way. It's fun to see these vaguely familiar characters get drugged, tied up and beaten with a dildo, all to the tune of "Holly Jolly Christmas." Detailed descriptions of sexual acts, from characters' victimized pasts to their current favorite stunts, definitely reserve this play for older audiences. The craziest ideas here are somehow the sanest ones -- an uncomfortable joke on the audience, which is forced to choose between two extreme life philosophies: total openness and deviance or total closure and repression. This play is mostly for fun. But if Sadomasochistic Xmas were to teach anything, it would be to question what we don't know, but should, about those closest to us. Through December 16. Freneticore Theatre, 5102 Navigation, 832-283-0858.

Tryst The Alley Theatre's riveting production of Karoline Leach's psychological thriller Tryst, set in 1910 London, delivers a gothically gorgeous world. Leach's writing is smart, funny and disturbingly profound in its psychological complexities. The central story line -- about a conman who romances spinsters for money -- is as old as love. But the twists and turns Leach brings to this plot make it so much deeper than that. Of course, as exciting as this story is, the power of the Alley's production burns from its small but fiery two-person cast. Mark Shanahan is haunting as a con artist named George Love, a mysterious, erotic dream of a man. Andrea Maulella's Adelaide Pinchin makes a mesmerizing spinster; smart, controlled and also passionate, she moves with a broken grace. Holding all these complexities together is Joe Brancato's stunning direction. He has created a night of theater that's both beautiful to look at and impeccably paced. Sexually charged, intellectually complicated and emotionally thrilling, the production is the best that theater can offer. There's something wonderfully alive and deeply human in this story, and this powerhouse of a production team has pulled it off the page with erotic grace, intelligence and a beating and bloody heart. Through December 10. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Lisa Ray
Lee Williams