Capsule Reviews

...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.

Four Dogs and a Bone Playwright-director John Patrick Shanley -- who received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for the drama Doubt and an earlier Academy Award for Moonstruck -- penned a black-edged valentine to the movie industry with his early-'90s comedy Four Dogs and a Bone. Two has-beens, the Producer and the Star, and two newcomers, the Second Lead and the Screenwriter, claw at one another for their chance to make it in Hollywood during the filming of the mother of all B movies. These shallow knuckleheads are, of course, inspired by the ones Shanley has had to deal with in his own career (though Shanley had his own knucklehead moment with his lame Joe vs. the Volcano). The Producer (John Stevens in a wry, knowing performance as both snake and snake charmer) wants to cut the screenplay to save money. He also needs a hit to remain viable in this town that values only what you've done lately. Collette (Tina Samuelsen) needs a smash to move from ingenue to leading lady, or it's character-actress time from now on. Dim but adorable Brenda (in a delectable turn by Julie Gutman) just wants to be famous -- and yet knows exactly what scenes need to be rewritten for her to take over the lead. Writer Victor (Howard Block), fresh from off-Broadway and full of principles, displays feet of clay as he's seduced by dreams of becoming a director. In the meantime, he's entirely content to sleep with either actress. The ins and outs of moviemaking on the cheap receive loving treatment from the excellent cast, but the play itself could benefit from its own rewrite to tighten the four scenes and give the caricatures a bit more oomph and believability. And would someone explain Collette and Brenda's thick Nuu Yawhk accents? Are they shooting this movie in the Bronx? Through April 23 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

Movin' Out Movin' Out is a collaborative effort between pop composer-performer Billy Joel and ballet choreographer/critics' darling Twyla Tharp. Joel may be our homegrown Elton John, but Tharp is no Balanchine, and her whirligig choreography is full of gymnastic contortions, falls to the floor and pseudo-classical ballet steps that aren't particularly inventive or fetching. Her spastic movement is best suited to characters in extremis, so it's no surprise that the most moving scene in this show is the fog-enshrouded Vietnam War battle sequence with our heroes thrashing about the jungle, getting wounded and graphically dying. Appended to this cobbled-together compilation of favorite Joel tunes ("Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," "Uptown Girl" and "Shameless," among others) is a watered-down story that follows three best friends from high school as they grow up during the '60s, fall in love, enlist in the army, suffer war's psychological damage, and emerge changed and chastened. The plot is completely danced, with the songs sung from above the stage by Matt Wilson, whose flat and gnarly singing is far removed from the cabaret smoothness of Joel's originals. The show is routine and mundane, except for the dancers' energy and indefatigable goodwill, especially Nancy Lemenager, as good/bad Brenda and the muscular Brendan King as messed-up Eddie, whose Olympic Games-inspired routines earn a well-deserved ten. If this show impresses, check out Houston Ballet, where this type of greatest-hits compilation (Paul Taylor's Company B, Stanton Welch's Cline Time, Christopher Bruce's Rooster) has been a staple for years -- all with better choreography. Through April 24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.

The Underpants Steve Martin could fill an entire shelf at Blockbuster with his films. It somehow makes perfect sense that the wild-and-crazy guy would bring American audiences his adaptation of an irreverent turn-of-the-century German farce called The Underpants, now playing at the Alley Theatre. Written in 1910 by Carl Sternheim, The Underpants tells the story of a pretty young matron named Louise Maske (Alyssa Rae) who loses her apparently lovely panties in public, at the king's parade. This happens before the opening scene, in which we meet Louise and her horrible, dunderheaded husband, Theo (John Tyson), as they return from the embarrassing event. Ashamed of his wife, he yells and stomps about the apartment. Poor Louise. It's clear that she has dreadfully married. But she's in for an enormous change when not one but two men come asking about a room for rent in her home. Though Theo doesn't realize it, we learn quickly enough that both Frank Versati (Todd Waite) and Benjamin Cohen (Jeffrey Bean) were at the parade, and both have been inspired by Louise's underpants. What follows is a slapstick comedy of errors infused with some philosophical musings about the short life of fame and the difficulties of balancing a private self with a public persona. Under Scott Schwartz's direction, the production zips along. It lasts just under two hours without an intermission, and the time flies by. Still, lively as Martin's adaptation is, the show has moments where it sags a bit, especially after Louise realizes that her fame is fleeting. She can't really do all that much about her lousy husband, as the story takes place back when good girls didn't divorce the boorish bears they regrettably married. The end result is an often charming, if not earth-shattering, night of theater. Of course, there are several laugh-out-loud moments of comedy -- we'd expect nothing less from Steve Martin. Through April 24. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

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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