Capsule Reviews

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go There's a play buried somewhere inside Catherine Filloux's comedy/drama about transvestites vs. the Amish (yes, you read that correctly), but you'd be hard-pressed to find a coherent one in this messy production, now stumbling all over itself at Theatre Suburbia. Come to think of it, there are four or five plays wobbling about on their high heels, but playwright Filloux would rather clomp around playing grown-up than be one. Talk about your seams showing! A dramatist in residence at the University of Ohio, Filloux has written a slew of plays, so she should know better. The mixture of drag queens and the Amish is flammable enough, but Filloux unwisely throws in an unnecessary feminist tract, more family drama than three Eugene O'Neill slugfests, a patronizing rainbow attitude and jagged chunks of exposition that lie there waiting for life. Numerous plot digressions and monologues go nowhere but are nevertheless given the dramatic weight of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Filloux has done her research on the Pennsylvania Dutch, but she can't explain their sincere quirkiness without condescension. Potentially interesting characters are dropped after they're introduced (trannies Cleo and Toni) or are expendable (Joan, the motel owner); then there is Sarah, whose dramatic function is utterly unfathomable. Joan isn't the right character to give life-changing lessons to confused teenager Rebecca -- that's the province of principals Barbie or Jacky. There's a reason why God invented star roles. Only actors Gene Griesbach and Jay Menchaca (as matronly Jacky and sexpot Barbie) are comfortable on stage in their high heels, but even their professionalism can't save this bedraggled play, which badly needs a shave and a Botox injection. Through July 1. 1410 W. 43rd, 713-682-3525.

KBBJ: All Access All the Time If you're of a certain age, you remember the semi-classic CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. If you do, you might remember co-star Loni Anderson's pneumatic wardrobe or perhaps Gary Sandy's skintight jeans. The comedy was set in a radio station where the zany on-air talent and equally zany backstage management coexisted with heartwarming symbiosis. Houston playwright Tony Esparza has got to be a fan of this oldie, since his current new work, set in a public-access radio station, has the same arc. But since we're in the new millennium, a few changes are in order. Instead of Anderson's pinup breasts, Esparza gives us a co-worker's vagina (there's a sex toy based on her anatomy). Instead of smarmy innuendo, he gives us in-your-face sex farce, which also includes strap-ons, an extraneous porn-scene fantasy, pussy-whipped husbands and adulterous affairs. There's still time for group-hug sentiment among the workers, but where the comedy starts out is pretty much where it ends up, which doesn't make for a scintillating journey. There are funny bits throughout, but they're separated by deadly-dull on-air segments that would have this station bumped off the airwaves for mind-numbing tedium. The pace is bumpy and greatly needs quicker timing and a smoother ensemble. Suzanne King, as station manager Suzie, is a fun psycho combo of Nurse Ratched and Mommie Dearest, while Julie Boneau captures the new-age navet of DJ Dharla with her marvelous voice, which sounds like torn silk. But for a station that plays such an eclectic music mix, there's a lot of static. Through July 8. Fan Factory at Midtown Arts Center, 1423 Holman, 832-651-5287.

(Loosely) Lysistrata The reason Unhinged Productions' (Loosely) Lysistrata, Stewart Zuckerbrod's adaptation of Ralf Knig's gay comic book, has any legs at all is Houston theatrical treasure Jimmy Phillips. He plays Hepatitos, "Athens's most famous drag queen," appearing in a slinky silver sheath slit all the way up Broadway, opera gloves and a lacquered bouffant wig. One more shimmy and she would literally bring down the house. She brings it down anyway, for whenever Phillips appears -- which isn't often enough -- he resuscitates this moribund romp. We first meet him in another role, as an SNL "coffee klatch" Jocasta, with owl glasses, tasseled belt and decorative scarf, when the women of Athens secretly meet to discuss the incessant war their men are waging against neighboring Sparta. Lysistrata (Beth Borck) has her own reason for ending the war: Her new girlfriend Lampito (Bridget Krauss) is a Spartan. The women decide to barricade themselves inside the Acropolis, thereby denying sex to the men until they stop fighting. Except for the lesbians and Phillips, this is standard Aristophanes. Wily Hepatitos, though, takes the plan further. Since the men, denied access to their women, are vexed by constant, painful erections, why not institute "emergency homosexuality" into the army? We know where this is headed: The men, now blissfully gay, decorate their homes with flowers and talk about feelings, while the unfulfilled women bitch. There are a few comically snappy moments as the straight guys go gay, but the play peters away with clunky exposition, repetitive subplots, a superfluous hetero couple planted in the audience and an unsatisfying conclusion. Of the floundering cast, only Stephanie Wittels, as frustrated Myrrhine, knows what to do. It's Hepatitos's show from the get-go, thank Zeus. Through July 2. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123.

The Race If the new Houston theatrical troupe GEMKNEM (pronounced "jim-nim") and its inaugural production is a herald for the quality to come, then unfurl the banners and blow those trumpets, because their first play is a doozy. Written and directed by George Oliver, Angela Watson and Dejamion McDowell, The Race is a provocative compilation of 13 playlets that confronts black reality head on. This production is superbly acted (and sung) by the writers themselves, along with Anthony Darden, Josette Harrison and Aurelia Holland. What supplies powerful new life to another play about such recurrent issues as drug use, absentee fathers, self-worth, prejudice, crime, gangsta culture and empty churches, among others, is that the authors focus their blistering lasers within the community. They laud personal responsibility, faith and family. Victimhood, seductive as it may be, is a relic of the past, as demonstrated in "Jim Crow and the Negro Display," an MTV-vaudeville number, and in the searing "Jones," in which Darden plays a pimp from hell who becomes a chilling force for evil, as he sells his vile elixir for "happiness," called Passion. The universal human spirit gets a phenomenal uplift in "Love Is a Scat and a Moan," a wordless operetta sung scat-style by McDowell and Harrison that details the truth of a relationship through courtship, pregnancy, breakup, reconciliation and childbirth. "And You Know How They Can Be" is a screamingly funny satire about reverse discrimination, as the black community is frightened to death by a lone white woman jogging through the 'hood. At the beginning of the show, the ensemble promises to make us think. They succeed gloriously, while also making us laugh, weep and recognize ourselves, whatever color. Through July 16 at SHAPE Community Center, 3815 Live Oak, 832-242-0156.

The Secret Garden Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's Tony Award-winning adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's famed 1911 children's novel The Secret Garden, playing at Main Street Theater in a smartly minimalist revival, is the only musical that begins with a cholera epidemic. It might also be the first eco-friendly musical, as the eponymous garden holds the secret to everyone's wholeness. The little girl with the green thumb is Mary Lennox (Stephanie Styles), orphaned in India after the aforementioned epidemic, who's sent to live with her maternal uncle Archibald (Ilich Guardiola) in his dank, creepy manse on the bleak English moors. Strange cries echo down the corridors, while the ghosts of Mary's parents and her Indian servants swirl about. Distant and preoccupied, tormented by memories of his dead wife, Lily (Ivy Castle), Uncle Archie lets Mary run free, to the displeasure of Archie's brother Dr. Neville (Kregg Alan Dailey), who wants Mary put away at school so he can inherit the property. Watched over by sympathetic maid Martha (Katherine Randolph), kindly caretaker Ben (Jeffrey Lane) and Martha's nature-communing brother Dickon (Michael J. Ross), Mary discovers not only a secluded, walled garden gone to ruin but also Archie's spoiled son Colin (Lucas Postolos), bedridden and going to seed, too. The musical chronicles the miraculous changes wrought by little Mary at lifeless Misselthwaite Manor. At its heart-tugging finale, the garden blooms into life, as does the family. With its lilting tunes, a fine ensemble cast, smooth direction from Guardiola and a script unafraid to make us dream, this family-friendly show is a magical treat for children and parents alike. Through July 2. 1617 Montrose, 713-524-6706.

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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
Lee Williams