Capsule Reviews

The Chalk Garden Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden is an old-fashioned English yarn about a governess with a dark secret who's hired by an eccentric grandmother (Jeannette Clift George) to care for a smart-mouthed, teenage granddaughter (Kacy Smith). After many scenes that involve a wacky houseman (Chip Simmons) and lots of metaphorical chitchat about how to care for the dying garden outside, it becomes clear that the governess (Cyndi Scarr Crittenden) is just what the strange family needs. Not only does she know a thing or two about flowers, she clearly knows how to tame a wild girl. The garden starts to grow, the adolescent becomes more civil, and the grandmother finds a friend. In fact, everything is going splendidly until one fateful afternoon when an old judge (David Parker) comes for lunch and tells the story of a young woman he once condemned to death for murder. All hell breaks loose! Secrets come to light! Emotions run high! It's easy enough to tell where the story is headed, but the fun is in the journey. Unfortunately, A.D. Players' production is marred by the performance of its star player, George. On opening night, the elderly actress, who is a charming performer and a still frankly beautiful woman, did fine through the first act. But by the middle of Act II, she was clearly getting tired. And by Act III, a stagehand was feeding her her lines. The show would have gone more smoothly had she simply carried a script. Because George shines with such natural charisma, it is difficult to watch and even more difficult to report her troubled performance. But when a theater charges $30 a ticket, the actors should know their lines. Through June 4. Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

The Colored Museum In George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum, the black experience of the past is mocked and parodied in stinging little tidbits that nip away at pretension, victimization and shallow self-aggrandizement. Yet running underneath all the laughs -- and there are many under director Alice M. Gatling's satiny direction -- is a heartfelt quest for identity and acceptance, and the gnawing question of how to deal with the baggage of history. As the high jinks play out on stage, historic lithographs of slave-ship interiors, minstrel coon shows, lynching and pop-cultural travesties are projected on both sides of the proscenium. Wolfe asks, how do we overcome the pain, the nuttiness, the bigotry and the Jheri Curl? With a swank museum design by James Thomas, atmospherically lighted by Kelly Babb, 11 "exhibits" constitute Wolfe's historic storeroom, and the surreal/serious tone is immediately set by "Git on Board." We're flying from Africa to Savanna on Celebrity Slave Ship airlines, served by Miss Pat (Nicole Ford), an annoyingly peppy flight attendant in an annoyingly perky pink outfit (the costume design by Shirley Marks Whitmore is, as always, spot-on). As the plane flies through a time-warp storm, American black history swirls by. Among the ten vignettes that follow, a few don't have the same screwball logic or prickly sense of humor because the jabs show their age -- Museum premiered in 1986 -- but they're all infused with wicked wit and Wolfe's sharp observation. The five Ensemble actors gobble up this high-calorie feast. This Colored Museum should be listed in everyone's guidebook. Through May 21. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Johnny Guitar, The Musical Send yourself to summer camp a little early by heading to Theater LaB for this extremely funny musical adaptation of Nicholas Ray's 1954 film-noir western. The cult film was pretty much a parody to begin with, considering its subtext of womanly homoeroticism out on the range, its overheated dialogue and its inclusion of Joan Crawford in skintight jeans, acting more butch than the guys. New creators Nicholas van Hoogstraren (book) and Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins (music and lyrics) have taken the extant screenplay almost word for word, tossed in some '50s-type songs and created their own camp classic. Right from the start, as tumbleweed is pulled across the stage, we can sit back, relax and laugh ourselves silly. The hilarity continues with the show's cartoon cutout set design by Boris Kaplun, no-holds-barred performances, wonderfully goofy costuming (uncredited) and deft staging from director-choreographer Jimmy Phillips. The folks at Theater LaB deliver the goods -- and then some. Carolyn Johnson plays tough saloon owner Vienna, the gender-bending thorn in the townsfolk's side, with enough of Mommie Dearest's grand mannerisms and eyebrows to make you look twice. Mary Hooper, as rival Emma, who so hates Vienna that there's got to be more going on underneath that calico dress than even she lets on, belts out her songs and straps on her six-shooter with manly bravado. Jonathan McVay, as Johnny Guitar, Vienna's real love and former gunslinger, plays it cool, sings it hot and wears his own tight-fitting jeans; while Alex Stutler, as Johnny's rival the Dancin' Kid, is all burly posturing, with a lovely baritone to back it up. The sheriff and his posse of doo-wop singers, who keep popping up from behind the set, are nimbly handled by Craig Boucher, Josh Wright, John Berno and Luke Marsh. There's not a straight shooter in the house, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Through June 10. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

Ladies at the Alamo Known for a slew of young-adult novels as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, playwright Paul Zindel penned this heartfelt tribute to Houston's regional theater scene after the Alley premiered Marigolds in 1964. Ladies is a big old-fashioned confessional drama, somewhat akin to Mart Crowley's earlier Boys in the Band. And it's just as gay. The story centers around Alamo Theatre, which, celebrating its first anniversary in its upscale new home, is teetering on the fault line of a major internal earthquake. Quirky artistic director/founder Dede Cooper (Barbara Lasater) is about to be pushed aside by rich patron Joanne Remington (Maud Ella Lindsley), who wants former Alamo actress Shirley Fuller (Stacie Williams) to take her place. Dede's best friend, town tramp Bella Gardner (Lisa Schofield), smells a rat and zeroes in on Dede's secretary Suits (Zona Jane Meyer) as the Judas who's betraying them. Each character has secrets to unload and skeletons in her closet, and these five roles are juicy. The ladies, in true soap-opera fashion, reveal their melodramatic tales with gusto and panache, thanks to the swift pacing of director Bob Maddox. Meanwhile, there's the sex offender across the street to ogle, numerous bourbons to be drunk, and that stuffed "bull's goober" -- that's dried bull penis, to you -- to fondle. A fond tip of the hat to the ladies. Through June 3. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

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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