Capsule Reviews

The Illustrated Woman Nancy Kiefer's depression-era drama seeks, but never finds, adequate focus. It has enough backstories for a half-dozen plays -- incest, rape, amnesia, adultery, hard times -- but the major plot devices hinge around daughter Jane Ellen's secrets resulting from a childhood trauma, which are telegraphed through the reading of diary entries. When the work's most fascinating character, a traveling carnival's tattooed lady, doesn't appear, you know the play's in trouble. Furthering that impression are Ma and Pa, who always look surprised when abused daughter Jane Ellen starts acting "schizo and scar." She's been strange for years, we're told through blocks of exposition -- and now they notice? These are juicy, over-the-top roles that demand fire and flash, not the limp-laundry line readings given here. Laura Schlecht is convincing in the role of fractured daughter Jane Ellen's alter ego, who's a very bad girl. But her wimpy Jane Ellen comes across as demented, not psychologically scarred. It's not entirely her fault; playwright Kiefer glosses over all her characters. Dean R. Dicks puts alcoholic Dad on solid ground, though, giving this paper-thin villain a semblance of reality, and Danitra Tapscott tells her long monologue about meeting the "illustrated woman" with refreshing naturalness. But no one is helped by the staging, which places most of the scenes upstage, behind a hanging window frame and mirror that block our view. There's an intriguing play lurking somewhere between the lines, it's just hard to find when so covered up. Through March 27 at Theatre Suburbia, 1410 West 43rd, 713-682-3525.

A New Brain Charming and strange, William Finn and James Lapine's odd little musical A New Brain fits perfectly on the small stage at the Masquerade Theatre. Not the stuff of typical musicals, A New Brain tells the story of Gordon Michael Schwinn (Luther Chakurian), a songwriter who is hospitalized early in the story because of a brain illness or, as the song says, "Trouble in His Brain." One of the best things about A New Brain is the story's quirky humor. Gordon has a "nice nurse" (Kory Kilgore) and a "thin nurse" (Laura Gray), who treat him as their names imply. He's also got a recurring nightmare in the form of a giant frog named Mr. Bungee (Russell Freeman). A strong cast has been directed with care by Phillip Duggins, who is helped by the talents of choreographer Laura Gray. Both direction and choreography have been toned down to fit the small theater with this production, making it one of the most successful the company has staged since its formation. Through March 13. 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. $21--$26.

Parallel Lives: The Kathy & Mo Show Actors/friends Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney had no idea that their 1989 two-woman feminist romp would become a staple of regional theater. In the Bayou City alone, there have been three different productions in as many years, but the current incarnation at Theatre New West, presented by Theatre con Queso Productions, brushes the dust off this faded valentine to the female gender and adds spirited new lace to its frayed edges. In 12 sketches, the women play a host of characters, male and female. When the material is good, it's very good. Leigh Anne Patterson and Shannon Woelk bring several fully rounded characters to vibrant life: not-so-grieving sister Karen gulping ice cream right from the container, Jewish matron Madeline explaining her gay nephew, single mom Karen Sue straightening out her fringe jacket while her country/western song-like life unravels. The show's success lies in the winning combo of actors Patterson and Woelk, who burst onto the stage with bubbly enthusiasm and make us feel right at home, even when some of the material in these sketches is subpar. Their camaraderie is infectious, and we get as much pleasure from their playing together as they do. Through March 13. 1415 California, 281-224-3170. $20.

Symphony of Rats Stepping into the theater at the Axiom, where Infernal Bridegroom Productions has opened Richard Foreman's Symphony of Rats, is a bit like walking into some strange, wonder-filled attic. Splattered across the cinder-block walls of the theater is a crazy quilt of cartoon images -- TVs, spaceships, skeletons. Gaze at this psychedelic landscape long enough, and it begins to take on its own weird logic, especially given the acid trip of a show that Symphony of Rats soon becomes. The hour-and-a-half-long ride through Foreman's formidable imagination takes us deep into the land of the avant-garde, where presidents can receive messages from space-alien robots who make bubbles and smoke cigarettes as they delve into philosophical discussions about knowledge and the constructs by which we live. While it's a bit unclear exactly where our man of the hour, the president (played with impish innocence by Paul Locklear), ends up, we can say for sure that aliens, sex, music and a delightful bit of dancing are all involved in his quest. Of course, he can't just up and go off to places like "Tornadoland" without making a few folks mad. His odd staff, consisting of two men (Noel Bowers and Walt Zipprian) and two women (Tamarie Cooper and Charlesanne Rabensburg), does everything it can to get in his way. There's no story here, only surreal moments filled with the strange sort of light produced by art that can shatter your world -- if you let it. Through March 13. 2425 McKinney, 713-522-8443. $10--$15.

Twelfth Night or What You Will Wildly innovative, wonderfully strange and never stodgy, Gregory Boyd's Shakespeare always can be counted on to shake up our schoolmarmish expectations of the greatest playwright in the English language. And his deliciously entertaining production of the comedic Twelfth Night might be the director's best dance ever with the Bard. Not only is Viola (Josie de Guzman) herself a compelling sprite of a character, but so are the oddballs spinning around her. The stunning ensemble cast functions like fine clockwork, telling Viola and her brother Sebastian's tales of love and gender-bending with heartfelt charm. Aristocracy takes on glamorous proportions here. As played by Todd Waite, Orsino the Duke is a pop star of a ruler. And the beautiful Countess Olivia (Elizabeth Heflin) is fairly incandescent with her crown of golden hair. Leading the pack of hangers-on in Olivia's house is Sir Toby Belch (James Black), Olivia's poor and dissolute uncle. He manipulates a visiting wealthy fop named Sir Andrew Aguecheek (John Tyson) into believing that the lovely Olivia might fall in love with him. Tyson is hysterical here, tromping across the stage in his pink high-heeled shoes, flame-red stockings and white wig. All the energies in this fine production are held together by Boyd's brave, wonderfully inventive direction and his willingness to make Shakespeare utterly new all over again. Through March 14. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. $35-$50.

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