Capsule Reviews

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) And now for something completely different for the Ensemble Theatre: the Reduced Shakespeare Company's cult comedy smash, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Known for its African-American productions, the Ensemble has enhanced its diversity with this irreverent zip file of the Bard's entire output. This whacked-out play, which is still selling out theaters in London, is more condensed than a couplet -- it's a slacker's look at his histories, comedies and tragedies in 90 minutes. With a special nod to the absurdity of Monty Python, Mel Brooks and old-time TV variety shows, Works is both parody and homage. You know what to expect when the universal tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is described as an "icky, pooh-pooh day." The histories are spoofed as a football game, with the English crown passed downfield; Othello is told through a rap; the comedies are summed up during the improbably complicated "Love Boat Goes to Verona"; and the gruesome Titus Andronicus is played as an over-the-top cooking show. The show, slickly directed by Ed Muth, succeeds in its sublime silliness through its trio of clowning actors. Keith Caldwell is the pompous "actory" one; Ensemble veteran Henry Edwards brings downtown cool to his roles; and Alvaro Saar Rios, in cut-off shorts and sneakers, goes all out in goofy drag. Act II is devoted to Hamlet: a "straight" version (or as straight as they can do it), then a fast rendition, then a faster one and, to top it off, a backward reading. With flying dummies, splashing water and audience participation, it's a free-for-all show-stopper. Through June 27. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.

Life Beyond the Loop That loony Fertle family is on hiatus until September, so instead you'll just have to content yourself with Radio Music Theatre's hilarious parody Life Beyond the Loop. The show is as bracing as a headfirst dunk into a bucket of ice water. Here, the superb comic trio (author Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills -- with sound- and music-effects wizards Mark Cain and Pat Southard) takes us to Houston-area planned community Precious Trees and proceeds to shake out enough nuts to feed the elephants at the zoo. Among the numerous topical items and persons expertly lambasted: our new accident-prone Metro, the unstoppable developer Tilman Fertitta, the nudie bar/restaurant Kajankers, George and Barbara Bush, the sleazy televangelist Jiffy Dillman and the incompetent Spy Eye News, with its consumer advocate Damuel Madd ("I'm Dam Madd"). There's a plot -- there's always a good plot at RMT's three-ring circus -- but it's only an excuse for timely gags, razor-sharp timing and brilliant song parodies. And let's not forget the Margaret Mueller Miller Mitchell...something, something...Pavilion, the "instant damnation" of Al Franken, Uncle Dan's insane furniture commercials and the dessert of choice at Precious Trees: pudding! Through August 28. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722.

Oliver! Oliver! opens on one of those dismal Victorian orphanages, the sort of place where every child is dressed in shades of gray and no one ever gets enough to eat. The children's sorry state is underscored by all the great trays of steaming "glorious food" that drift by on their way to the fat grown-ups' table. One pathetic bowl of gruel is all the kids get. When the angelic Oliver has the audacity to ask for more of the nasty stuff, he gets sold on the street to a foppish undertaker and his horrible, chalk-faced wife. This introduction to our little hero's dreadful situation is full of song and dance. The undertakers sing about funerals, while the adults sing about the awful things they'll do to Oliver: "feed him on cockroaches served in a canister!" At one point, all the children sing about food as they march up and down four different sets of stairs, then over tables and benches. Young and old, the actors work hard to lift this story to life. But under Graham Gill's overwrought direction, none of the opening songs ever manages to catch fire. Instead, the actors just seem to be stomping themselves into a weird frenzy as they bounce about the stage trying to look energetic. It's not until Oliver runs away from his terrible circumstances that the story begins to exude some of the charm that Dickens is so famous for. When he makes his way to those infamous London streets and meets up with a feisty bunch of bad-boy pickpockets, some oxygen is finally breathed into the show. Through June 20 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

Suburb Robert S. Cohen and David Javerbaum's Suburb is, most of all, a musical love note to the land of wide green lawns, shopping malls and do-it-yourselfers. Citified folks might not have much sympathy for this song to the land of the "undead," as one character calls the suburbs. But the little musical, now running at Main Street Theater, makes the nirvana of soccer moms look quaintly appealing. The story focuses on a warring young couple. Pregnant Allison, played by the lovely-voiced Kaytha Coker, is afraid that moving to the suburbs will turn her into a younger version of her own unhappy mother. Husband Stuart (Rob Flebbe) believes that "to have a lawn is Avalon," which he sings about in a funny number called "Mow." Their conflict is complicated by a charmingly aggressive realtor named Rhoda (Terri Branda Carter). When the perfect house, owned by handyman Tom (David Grant), presents itself, everyone (including Rhoda and Tom) must make a decision about what to do with the rest of their lives. Cohen and Javerbaum's show says nothing new about suburbs, but the music, which has a Sondheim-like quality, is often rich and bizarrely funny. During "Mow," for example, blades of grass float around Stuart as he sings, "Master! Master! Teach me your culture! Give me a shot of your magical mulcher!" Through June 27. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

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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