Capsule Reviews

Cabin Fever Theatre Suburbia has a bona fide hit on its hands with Mark Dunn's feel-good comedy-drama Cabin Fever. Perhaps the theater could be persuaded to extend the show's run. Not only is Dunn's gentle play an absolute joy, but its exceptional performers delightfully flesh out their characters with heart and brains. The four Beckle sisters, their widowed father and their dead mother's sister reunite at the family cabin on the Guadalupe River over Memorial Day weekend. Their intertwining lives collide, mesh and ultimately triumph as the splintered family heals itself from within. Karen (Tina Samuelsen) is the type-A bossy sister; Cesca (Lindsey Michelle Brunson) is in an abusive relationship; Georgina (Laura Schlecht) goes through life worrying about her weight while chowing down on pecan sandies; and Pidge (Morgan Mayes) marches to her own drummer and now resides at a halfway mental hospital. Dad (Gene Griesbach) has taken to drink since Mom's death; Aunt Tammy (Carolyn Montgomery) has inadvertently locked herself in the bathroom for all of Act I. And Cesca's husband, Mike (Jesse Bainbridge), arrives unexpectedly in a marvelous comic twist. The familial recriminations and restitutions fuse seamlessly under the co-direction of Elvin Moriarty and Barbara S. Hartman, who give this production a great big heart. Griesbach finds just the right tone of exasperation tinged with desperation as he watches his family spin out of control through a haze of Jack Daniel's. Veteran Montgomery simply can't be bettered in her performance as the warm and kindly Aunt Tammy, whose idiosyncratic cracked voice radiates maternal goodness and decency. But the revelation is Mayes as lost, good-hearted Pidge. She gives a season-best performance that's as close to perfection as it can get, blasting the play alive in unexpected ways. Through July 3. 1410 West 43rd Street, 713-682-3525.

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.

The Unexpected Guest Everything's a little off-kilter in the Company OnStage's rendition of Agatha Christie's Unexpected Guest. The play itself is the main culprit. Dame Christie may be the most published author in history, after the Bible and Shakespeare, but she's a lame playwright. Her improbable and overly knotty plots work much better in books than on stage. Christie resorts to implausible twists and turns to keep us guessing and on edge. No character, especially in this 1958 murder mystery, behaves like a real person. Michael Starkwedder (Mark Carrier) has wrecked his car on a foggy night. He enters the only house in the area and stumbles upon a dead body. Standing nearby is the deceased's attractive wife (Ashley Heathcock), holding a gun. Although she takes credit for the murder, Michael convinces her to blame someone else, going so far as to cut out letters from the newspaper to make a note to be pinned on the body. No one could be so gullible as this wife, or so conniving as this unexpected guest, but everyone carries on regardless. This is the type of play where Carrier knows just the right desk drawer to open for scissors and glue for his dastardly note. This kind of drama has its own rules and must be played with utter conviction so the audience doesn't have time to do too much thinking. Only Carrier knows how to do this. The other actors fumble through a variety of undecipherable accents and unconvincing line readings. Even the curtain call looks painful. Why, if the character of Inspector Thomas is played by a woman (Dottie McQuarrie), do the others all refer to her as "sir"? And no self-respecting valet would ever be caught dead wearing formal white evening wear. Butlers wear black. That much Christie did know. Through July 3. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

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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