Capsule Reviews

Faust Fest Definitely worth an exploration, the six works being put on by Theatre Collide are loosely -- and I mean loosely -- based upon Goethe's Faust story, wherein Faust sells his soul to Satan for worldly pleasures and fame. Four are world premieres; the two shortest pieces (both under ten minutes) might be familiar if you're a fan of Boddindoctrin Puppet Theatre. The puppet plays are the most interesting in that their childlike sense of the absurd and use of imagination match their subjects; in the ominous, dark House of Lost Roosters, which would do the Brothers Grimm proud, Lenni Zhelezov and Jenny Campbell's creepy papier-mch; characters cavort to a wonderful mix of sound and music. But the best performance of the evening goes to little Lyndze Duke, the child of bickering, soon-to-be divorced parents (Travis Ammons and Kelley Goode) in David Myers' impressionistic Shatterings. This one-act play, which is a bit repetitive, shows us the insidious effects of divorce upon Katherine as her oblivious but well-intentioned parents forget about her needs. The best use of performance space is Troy Scheid's one-woman dialogue, One Two, which ushers us outside the Foundry to a razor-wire back alley, complete with the forlorn whistles of nearby trains and rat squeals. Wearing a '40s gray suit, Scheid recounts her desperate choice to betray her friends while living under the Nazis. And in Jere Pfister's feminist tract A Work in Granite, Amelia Rico, playing wife/mother Sugar, mounts an ancient tree stump -- her "pedestal" -- and perches atop it dispensing prayers, wails of discontent and pearls of not-so-fresh wisdom, all the while slowly turning to stone. It's St. Simeon meets Betty Friedan, and about as enlightening. Through February 27. Theatre Collide at Houston Foundry, 1712 Burnett, 713-528-5108

Me-sci-ah When longtime company member Troy Schulze heads up an Infernal Bridegroom Productions show, the weird-factor goes off the scale. Lately, he's become a master at making theater out of seemingly nontheatrical texts. His recent "adaptations" include Actual Air, a production put together from David Berman's poetry, and Jerry's World, a wild celebration of language cobbled together from the oddball radio shows of Joe Frank. This season, Schulze uses "found" and "published sources" to stitch together a bitingly funny indictment of the Church of Scientology and its most famous follower, Tom Cruise. Me-sci-ah is collaged together from video, music, monologues and interviews, and it delivers some disturbingly compelling scenes. The show moves from weird Scientology behavior to the history of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started Scientology in 1954. He apparently believed that "the best way to make a million dollars" is to start a religion. We get an interview with Hubbard's son, who argues that his father was a violent fraud, and an interview with a wonderfully narcissistic Tom Cruise (both are played by Schulze). The show is riveting, with its dark undercurrent of violence and its utterly creepy statement about our collective ability to be bamboozled by any sort of tomfoolery put out for public consumption -- a message that seems especially grim given our current political climate. This "director's cut" version of Me-sci-ah includes 15 minutes of new material. Through February 26 at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney, 713-522-8443.

Shadowlands Fittingly, the woman who brought life and love to dry-as-dust professor-author C.S. Lewis was named Joy. In William Nicholson's impressionistic -- and not altogether accurate -- play about their relationship, brash American poet Joy Gresham (played here with acerbic wit by Jennifer Dean) is described as "Jewish, communist, Christian...and divorced." After four years of marriage, Joy's untimely death from cancer causes Lewis to finally feel the pain and suffering that will allow him to hear "God's megaphone" that "awakens us to others." Nicholson's thesis is preoccupied with suffering: why God allows it, how it's the inevitable fate of man. But when you get into the meat of this play, it's really a high-toned weepie in which love blesses a sexually repressed intellectual, melts away the dust and cobwebs, and then is unfairly removed. The story is overlaid with intellectual discourse and weighty religious dogma, while the nitty-gritty romance is hastily shuffled off backstage. It's all quite pristine and unerotic, as if the very thought of sex were unseemly in the presence of God. The big surprise is that this peek-a-boo love story works so well and has such power. In this rendition from A.D. Players, much of the credit goes to Marion Arthur Kirby, who gives a devastatingly good performance as Lewis. Whether he's offering a withering put-down to his circle of academic friends, or arriving at wit's end with this baffling, infuriating woman who's wheedled her way into his heart, Kirby is a delight. He moves us, even when Nicholson's lumpy script gets in the way. In Lewis's view, we're all living in a shadowland before we get to heaven. Kirby, at least, supplies all the light necessary. Kevin Dean, as brittle, bitchy colleague Christopher Riley, rises to Kirby's level with a wonderfully smug performance; and Jeffrey McMorrough, as Lewis's live-in brother, is as comfy and personable as a pair of well-worn slippers and a bracing cup of Earl Grey. Director Sissy Pulley keeps the production taut and fluid. Through March 20. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward's Albee's blistering, award-winning 1962 masterpiece spews its toxic perfume with mesmerizing vigor in Country Playhouse's thoroughly fascinating production. Superbly cast and directed with clarifying perception by Penny Corden, America's own dysfunctional husband and wife, George and Martha, come to horrifying life. This blackest of black comedies is a blowtorch of a play -- cruel, humorous, outrageous -- stripping away the four characters' pretenses along with the audience's skin. And this acid-etched production is as good as it gets. Cocktails securely planted in fists, George and Martha lash out at each other with blood lust. The action begins at another drunken faculty party, when guests arrive. The fresh-meat visitors elicit the worst of George and Martha's bile, recriminations, lies and illusions. By sunrise, no one is unscathed. Although spent and chastened, George and Martha clasp each other in their first true embrace. George, unambitious to a fault, is brought to radiant life by Bob Maddox, who relishes his needle-sharp retorts. When Martha breaks the cardinal rule in the couple's desperate game of love, she sends him careening over the edge. Maddox takes every opportunity to unleash Albee's paroxysms of rage and betrayal, while also managing to display George's keen, savage wit and intelligence. Martha (Lisa Schofield) is truly something out of a nightmare -- the earth mother from hell -- and Schofield transforms what could be a blowsy, braying caricature into someone you've probably met at a drunken office party. She gives this gorgon a hidden soul, revealing her dashed hopes and wasted life, making her implosion at play's end all the more stunning. As Martha seduces puffed-up would-be stud Nick (Jeff Featherstone, in a perfect incarnation), she takes his tie and wraps it around her hand, pulling him to her. It might as well be a noose. Nick's wife of convenience, the mousy, brandy-swilling Honey, is played by the spot-on Stacie Williams. None of these fabulous four makes a false move. Ensemble acting of the highest caliber in one of American drama's supreme achievements -- what more could you want? Through February 26. 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