Capsule Reviews

Boy Gets Girl In award-winning playwright Rebecca Gilman's thought-provoking 2001 drama, in its premiere production for Houston's newest theater group, The Pendulum Theatre Company, we have an Alfred Hitchcock movie without a murder. The movie master's palpable sense of dread intensifies into fear as the play progresses. Icy blond career woman Theresa (Holly Vogt Wilkison, Pendulum's founder and artistic director) is smart, independent and married to her work, but she nevertheless submits to a blind date. Tony (Travis Ammons), hyper and a touch too eager for commitment, doesn't light her fire, and she says good-bye with a forceful "no." But he sends her bouquets, calls her constantly and barges into her office, refusing to go away and pleading for another chance. Theresa thinks he's stalking her. An accident that happens to her editor (Marc Shellum) might be Tony's fault. Her co-worker Mercer (Steve Scott) is sympathetic but sees her predicament as fodder for a story, while her ditsy secretary (Sara Jo Dunstan), thinking Tony's "cute" and that Theresa needs someone in her life, supplies him with Theresa's phone number and other private info. A psychotic new message from Tony sends in a police detective (Norelia Reed), but the authorities are understaffed and powerless to do anything but issue a restraining order. As Theresa falls apart, Gilman ratchets up the suspense with stylish command, but she also annoyingly preaches about Woman's plight and Man's piggishness, especially when Theresa interviews a soft-porn cult movie director (Ken Watkins). Gilman stacks the deck and holds all the aces, but it's amazing how entertaining -- and thrilling -- the game becomes. Bet on this one. Through September 30. Midtown Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 832-746-7347.

Dracula Houston Ballet is resurrecting Ben Stevenson's 1997 epic full-length Dracula, and it's a real fright fest en pointe. This is one of those big spectacle ballets that are more about theatrics and less about choreography, but even so, Stevenson doesn't shirk his dance steps: There are some interesting pas de deux, a frightfully wild ensemble battle scene between the vampires and the good guys, and an inspired, insane solo for the roach-eating Renfield, Dracula's crazed henchman. But the real stars of Dracula are Thomas Boyd's creepy crypt sets, Judanna Lynn's costumes (including the Count's awesome 30-pound bat-wing cape), Timothy Hunter's eerie lighting and, of course, the special effects. There are careening coaches, disappearing and reappearing Draculas, exploding chandeliers and airborne vampires courtesy of Flying by Foy, the folks who lofted Mary Martin in Peter Pan on Broadway. The ballet is loosely based on Bram Stoker's masterpiece and follows the plight of a dark, anguished count who steals fair young maidens from the Transylvanian village to become his vampire brides. Fun and fast-paced (except for the obligatory happy peasant dances in Act II), this is a ballet that the company takes to like vampires to fresh blood. There are four different casts for the run, but Mireille Hassenboehler used her dramatic talents to perfection opening night as the transformed Flora, and Oliver Halkowich made the demi-character role of Renfield come alive in the world of the undead. Through October 1. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.

Get Your War On Austin fringe theater group Rude Mechanicals is so pumped up about Bush bashing, they could be on steroids. Cleverly adapted by Kirk Lynn from the Internet cult comic strip of David Rees, Get Your War On is snarky agit-prop irony done with the slick self-awareness of comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In case anyone's forgotten W.'s history, the group has adapted the strips in chronological order. Portraying the office workers who star in Rees's comic strip, the Rude Mechs takes no prisoners -- the anthrax scare, "shock and awe," the Patriot Act, Mission Accomplished, Donald Rumsfeld, the Enron scandal, Terry Schiavo and Tom DeLay all get the treatment. There's not a bungled or garbled statement by Bush not savaged, nor a policy statement unscathed. As for the setting, the Rude Mechs take the visual idea of the office and run with it, using overhead projectors to add visual spice to their X-rated comments. Generic clip art panels of office workers, usually seen talking on the phone, act as bland counterpoint to his wicked satire. The show is a liberal's wet dream, but the unstinting shrill criticism, no matter how justified, produces diminishing returns as we're beaten over the head with nonstop parody. Rather than rousing, it leaves us limp. Through September 30. DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.

Rigoletto Giuseppe Verdi's 17th opera established him without doubt as the preeminent composer for the theater. Bellini was dead, Rossini had retired and Donizetti had gone mad. Verdi was next in line to inherit the mantle of his great predecessors, and Rigoletto (1851) pushed him front and center. Although Verdi had composed some stinkers in his career up until then, the ear-opening Nabucco and Macbeth had made him famous throughout Italy. And this shocking story, sublimely depicted through music, made him internationally renowned. That it contained copious amounts of sex and violence -- it was adapted from a play by Victor Hugo, Le Roi s'Amuse, which had been banned in France after one performance -- greatly contributed to its success. But what made this opera an instant classic was Verdi's musically apt, masterful handling of these three-dimensional characters (a self-loathing hunchbacked jester; his virginal daughter; his boss, a debauched duke; and a paid assassin who pimps out his sister). Opera in the Heights's successful production supplies all the requisite drama and dramatic voices. Brian Carter (Rigoletto) makes a thunderous and vengeful, yet sympathetic, jester. Benjamin Bunsold, playing the amoral Duke of Mantua, is appropriately handsome and sexy, with impeccable diction, even if his high notes took the night off. Corinne Brier, as Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, has a silvery soprano and the face of a Renaissance penitent. Scott Tomlinson and Shannon Denise Talley (the evil brother and sister act) are marvelously malevolent. And though maestro William Weibel's tempi are more elastic than normal for Verdi's propulsive score, the opera's still gangbusters. Through September 30. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303.

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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
Marene Gustin