Capsule Reviews

Cavalia Even if your equine appreciation ossified with Mr. Ed reruns when you were a kid, this artsy-fartsy horse show will astonish you in ways you'd never expect. Conceived by artistic director Normand Latourelle, a founder of the ubiquitous Canadian New Age circus Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia is the hippodrome to end all hippodromes: a mighty pageant to man's enduring love for the horse, overlaid with that inscrutable Eastern feel-good mumbo-jumbo, as well as good old-fashioned Las Vegas glitz and pizzazz. Stunningly designed in a cinemascope format and played underneath a marvelous Arabian Nights fantasy of a tent -- the largest big top since Ringling Bros. -- the score of Lusitano, Arabian, Percheron and Quarter Horse beauties (they're all stallions or geldings, but each and every one is a beauty) prance, cavort, perform dressage and mesmerize with their artistically precise routines, all while human ringmasters, bareback and trick riders, and gymnasts twirl overhead, fly by wire onto their galloping backs, or somersault over, among or between them. Sumptuously costumed, glossed with a hypnotic contempo-hippie live musical accompaniment and meticulously lighted (especially the immense hologram of a white steed projected onto a wall of rain), the show is a perfect mesh of highbrow art and jaw-dropping circus tricks. An amazing evening in the theater, it's definitely a horse of a different color. Through February 19. Post Oak Boulevard at Richmond, 1-866-999-8111.

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.

The Pillowman In Martin McDonagh's exhilarating new play The Pillowman, now playing at the Alley Theatre, a character named Katurian has an affinity for those old-timey yarns. He loves those dark and lurid tales that involve children meeting untimely and gruesome deaths, where ravenous wolves stalk lost girls into the dark woods and hideous witches gleefully roast runaways in their ovens. In fact, throughout the three-act play, he tells several of his own grisly tales, each as horrifying as anything from the Grimm brothers. And like the dark fairy tales of old, Katurian's stories pull you to the edge of your seat even as you recoil at the dreadfulness of it all. Each involves some extreme act of violence (just imagine what terrors a handful of razor blades can inflict), and all claim children as their victims. No wonder the police have taken the young writer into custody. After all, the neighborhood kids have started showing up dead, and it couldn't be just a coincidence that they've all been murdered in the uniquely terrible ways described in Katurian's stories. The play follows Katurian as he's questioned about the murders. He must deal with cruel authorities, a brain-damaged brother and his own lurid imagination. The play is thrilling, and so is the Alley's cast, which includes John Tyson, Jeffrey Bean, Rick Stear and David Rainey. All are pulled together by Gregory Boyd's hard-punching direction, making The Pillowman one of the most haunting productions of the season. Through February 26. 615 Texas Ave., 713-228-8421.

Women Behind Bars Tony Award-winner Tom Eyen's homage to sleazy B-movie matinee-fillers, Women Behind Bars, is exploitation theater to the max. It's set in the Women's House of Detention, smack in the middle of NYC's Greenwich Village, but where it really takes place is at camp -- a delicious, over-the-top, send-up land populated by a butch matron, a toady assistant and seven female prisoners (six nutcases and a sympathetic first-timer). There is nothing redeeming in this mindless, hysterical romp, and even less political correctness, thank goodness. Lesbianism runs amok in the hothouse prison, but then so do S&M, sexual torture, revenge lobotomies and a pet chicken. Under Joe Watts's direction, nobody changes for the better, or for the worse, and the cartoon situations are brightened by a game cast, who play it straight even when in drag. During the show's initial run off-off-Broadway in 1974, drag superstar Divine played the Matron, just so you know what kind of prison play this is. Glen Lambert, though, is himself divine as the bull dyke Matron. Burly, with a rotund contralto voice that Tallulah Bankhead would envy and lime eye shadow arching onto his forehead, Lambert is like a careening semi-wide trailer barreling full-tilt upon you. Actors Ronnie Williams (street-tough JoJo in a pink Afro), Taavi Mark (Blanche, inspired by the neurotic Tennessee Williams heroine), Tara Stevens (Cheri, a dead-on Marilyn Monroe type), Richard Solis (chicken-loving Guadalupe), Melrose Fougere (foul-mouthed Granny), Julie Oliver (a Katharine Hepburn-crazy Ada), Lisa Marie Daugherty (tough-as-nails Gloria), Candyce Prince (innocent Mary Eleanor), David Barron (not-so-dumb assistant Louise) and Joseph Easton (who plays multiple male roles) give these low-lifes just enough semblance of truth to keep the campy high jinks under control and the laughs coming. Through March 11. Club Resurrection, 711 West Gray, 713-522-2204.

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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