Capsule Reviews

Billy Bishop Goes to War As much as we love Canada and all things that sweet country to the north represents, John Gray and Eric Peterson's Canadian import Billy Bishop Goes to War is a hard play to get excited about. The Stages Repertory Theatre production, directed by Chelsey Santoro Krohn, is certainly earnest enough. The tiny musical about a Canadian World War I fighter pilot pays gung-ho homage to the rough-and-tumble soul of the "Colonials," as the English say. And in this production, the small cast, consisting of Jim Johnson as Billy Bishop (and several other characters) and Michael Harren as the Narrator/Pianist, does a bang-up job of bringing Billy's wartime struggles to life. But the slender tale that follows Billy from his early days as a ne'er-do-well in military school to his glory days as a decorated pilot should most appeal to fellow Canadians. Lots of jokes are made about the "Colonials" and their general brutishness compared to the elegant Europeans, and these jokes feel a bit foreign on an American stage. The two-performer format doesn't do much for the show either. As good as Johnson is (and he is often terrific) playing all the different characters who come into Billy's life -- including a proper English dowager, an Irish airplane mechanic and a naughty French chanteuse, among others -- the show would probably be more fiery if these characters could be inhabited by other actors. Still, given the restraints of the script and the budget of this production (the set consists of little more than a few posters tacked up on the theater walls), Johnson and Harren do as good a job as any two could at making an American audience care about a Canadian war hero. Through May 1. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Danse Macabre Part Two: The Consummate Host Joel Orr's Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre has been doing strange things on Houston stages for years. His often grotesque, adults-only puppets have committed just about every horrifying act humans commit, including murder. The puppeteer's newest offering, now running at Taft Street Coffee, won't disappoint those looking for more mayhem. The loose-jointed story concerns a "mutant cat" who lives inside people's chests. Once inside, it grabs hold and apparently embalms people alive, using their own blood. Just how this tale is resolved is not 100 percent clear, as this narrative, more than in any other Bobbindoctrin production, is not particularly linear. Lots of sex and violence occurs, and there's some interesting experimenting going on with animation and videography. But this is truly a see-it-to-believe-it sort of thing. Interestingly, the puppets don't actually take center stage in Danse Macabre. They've been relegated to small wing areas on either side of the big platform rising from the floor at Taft Street. Taking up the center space and much of the hour-long romp through Orr's puppet world is a charming musical group called Two Star Performers. They bring together an eclectic assortment of instruments, including bells, traditional string instruments and a marimba, making musical entertainment that's good enough to stand alone. The puppets and all their strange and bloody gore are an added bonus. Through May 7. 2115 Taft, 713-526-7434.

...for those who live in cities After suffering a humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany suffered further defeat. Inflation tore apart whatever remained of the fragile social structure; the cream of Teutonic manhood lay dead in the trenches; riots erupted over scarce jobs; bread lines snaked through once-great cities. You were forced to scrounge, or you might starve tomorrow. When the future loomed bleakest, the pursuit of pleasure became a priority. Amid crushing poverty and nihilism, the arts flourished, and one of the most powerful, idiosyncratic voices was that of playwright-provocateur Bertolt Brecht. His feverishly communistic, virulently antifascist works (The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, Galileo, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) are as revolutionary, controversial and relevant today as when they shocked the bourgeoisie in the '30s and '40s. His lesser-known poetry chronicles the turbulence of these post-WWI times like a deep-focus photo -- all the blemishes appear in the foreground, while foreboding shadows recede into infinity. Bob Morgan has adapted Brecht's trenchant verses into one of dos chicas theater commune's most satisfying works. Using haunting cabaret tunes by Mischa Spoliansky and Friedrich Hollaender as musical interludes and/or commentary (performed by Karen Schlag in pseudo-Dietrich mode), the poems are dramatized in brief scenes and monologues that visualize the dying gasps of the Weimar Republic. This is a nitty-gritty Cabaret, imbued with the caustic S&M spin that's so much a part of the dos chicas aesthetic. It works like a jackboot to the head. Through April 30 at Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

Interieur Nuit Jean-Baptiste Andr; combined contortion, choreography and video in his show last weekend at DiverseWorks, Interieur Nuit. As the piece started, he looked like a dazed boy who'd woken up only to find himself trapped in a plain wood room, with just one tiny window and two small lights. At first, Andr oriented to his environment with a sense of childlike wonder. His protean feet danced to show off his remarkable dexterity and ingenious choreography. And then Andr started moving through space, dancing with astounding grace and executing moves that didn't seem humanly possible. He seemed as comfortable dancing on the wall as on the floor. Also, Andr spent a considerable amount of time standing on his hands while his legs wobbled freely in the air -- it was as if he was immune to the laws of gravity, and his unstudied style amazed and amused the audience. Then the camera entered, adding an entirely new perspective. In one sequence, he balanced on the wall, but the camera's angle made it look like he was sitting on the floor. The piece took a sinister turn when he encountered a pile of clothes and attempted to put them all on, turning into some kind of crazed rag monster. Still, he created wondrous, almost clownlike movements within the clothes. The piece ended with a stunning close-up of Andr's hands and feet projected on the wall in a tender ballet. In the end, he transcended entrapment through his relentless probing of visual and kinetic possibilities.

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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
Nancy Galeota-Wozny
Lee Williams