Capsule Reviews

Culture Clash in AmeriCCa Back in September 2004, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa sneaked in from California under the radar and landed in Houston for an eye-blink of a stay at the Alley. If you were lucky enough to stumble into the show, you were treated to an hour and a half of laugh-till-your-jaw-hurts scenes that explored our country as theater rarely can. Unfortunately, the off-season jewel was gone before most Houstonians got the word. Lucky for us, the Alley has brought back the irreverent comedy, and this time it's playing as part of the regular season. During the next couple of weeks, these fine performers will again be stirring up lots of laughs and even a little controversy. Written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza, the wicked little one-act offers a fast-flowing stream of vignettes based on interviews the trio conducted while traveling the country and performing during the last 20-odd years. The collection of eccentrics who show up here include an Asian boy who drag-races Japanese cars on the Mexican border, a pair of over-the-hill activists who smoke out on stage and a Muslim father who bemoans the fact that in America his teenage son worships two gods: "Allah and Nike." A clearly left-wing brand of politics drives this show. But there's nothing cynical in its celebration of America's diversity. Ours is a country full of immigrants and countless choices. Culture Clash shows us that the best way to deal with the fabulous collage that is America is to love it for all it offers. Through January 29. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Hold Me! There are two good reasons to see this sparkling little jewel of a play: 1. You know the work of newspaper cartoonist Jules Feiffer; and 2. You don't. In either case, this quirky little bauble will thoroughly delight. Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Village Voice and The New Yorker, has been drawing his distinctive pen-and-ink panels for decades. They're a microcosm of modern life's neuroses, paranoia, dysfunction, emotional detachment and eternal quest for love and acceptance -- all flavored with a wry and simple, but achingly true and very funny, absurdist irony that gently reveals us for the sad little sacks we are. Feiffer's play is a live-action, zippy collection of his cartoons. With a terrific cast (Julie Reinagel, Steve Finn, Carl Masterson, Laura Moss Brown and Shea Feeley) adroitly shuffled around the stage by director Maryanne Lyon and played against a cartoony interior of crayon-sketched red walls, Feiffer's idiosyncratic worldview is lovingly depicted. Wafting throughout these short, needle-sharp little skits or monologues is an iconoclastic Greenwich Village interpretive dancer, who moves to whatever cause, emotion or year she happens to remember. The last vignette perfectly captures the sardonic essence of Feiffer: The character Bernard sits on his bed with the blanket over his head. He says he's all alone, behind walls, in a fort, in a tunnel, buried under the sea. Everyone looks for him. The lights go dim. He stays under the blanket, covered in his protective shell, hiding from the world. "If you love me," he says, "you'll find me." Through February 18. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

A Tale of Two Cities Say you find a baby on your doorstep minutes before your "big moment" lip-synching the gay anthem "Gloria" at a club called Sally's. How do you entertain it? If you're drag queen Jerry (Kenn McLaughlin), you begin by telling it the story of Goldilocks. Jerry gets through two sentences before baby Dorian screams displeasure. "Rapunzel" fares no better, nor does Jerry's X-rated "Little Red Riding Hood." Exasperated, he begins the classic first lines from Dickens's great novel: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Dorian purrs approval. So as he prepares his drag toilette, Jerry relates Dickens's tale to his new charge. In playwright Everett Quinton's one-man show, all the high points, grotesque characters and flowing language of Dickens are given a spin that would put a smile on Linda Blair. Using everyday objects found in his apartment (detailed with love by set designers Chris Rivera and Christie Guidry), Jerry's run through the novel's plot is like SparkNotes on meth: He uses his red stiletto heel as a knife to kill the evil Marquis Evrémonde, a bath towel as an overcoat, two plastic wastepaper baskets as Miss Lucy's panniers and a cereal box for a judge's headwear -- all while keeping Dickens's tale rushing inexorably toward its cathartic ending. McLaughlin, managing director of Stages Repertory Theatre, stepped into this demanding role two weeks before opening, and to his great credit and that of director Linus Craig, we'd never know it. He prances, flounces, emotes and dramatizes as any great drag queen would in these circumstances, bringing to life not only Jerry but all the 20-plus characters of Dickens's extraordinary novel. Although the ending is rushed and unsatisfactory (with all the self-sacrifice inherent in Dickens, you'd assume Jerry would adopt Dorian), the play -- and Jerry -- thoroughly enlighten us. Through January 29. Unhinged Productions at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Touching Ed Sullivan This is an odd bit of puppet theater. The one-act story plays out like a whimsical nightmare about the insidious dangers of media. Written and directed by Jenny Campbell and Yelena Zhelezov, the show features a strange character named Dr. Oedipson (David Barr) who tries to keep a handful of puppet-beings alive by using his latest invention, the Reverse Entroposcope. Somehow, this invention requires that they watch TV or listen to the radio all the time. The plot is often hard to follow (there's no dialogue), but the weird puppets and creepy sound effects (moaning, cool music, snippets from old TV shows) are often enough to make this performance compelling. Blake Minor's shadowy lights add to the overall gloomy feel, though sometimes the stage is a little too dark for the audience to see the puppets well. And the puppeteers, who start out the show in a sort of choreographed dance that is bizarrely charming, are so peculiarly interesting in their white clothes and white makeup that they sometimes take attention away from the puppets they're manipulating. Taken as a whole, Touching Ed Sullivan is a worthwhile hour of experimental theater. Through January 28 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Fwy., 713-335-3443.

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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