Capsule Stage Reviews: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Electile Dysfunction, Madama Butterfly, Rumors, Shylock, the Jew of Venice

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten Robert Fulghum's feel-good nostrums about life and how best to live it have become a worldwide phenomenon ever since the publication of his first book of pithy essays, which has now been adapted into a play by Ernest Zulia, with music and lyrics by David Caldwell. Except for the classical concert parody "Uh-Oh" with its syncopated series of surprise sounds, the music is sweet and forgettable. A detriment in any other play, when it accompanies Fulghum's brand of Hallmark hokum and his earnest "sandbox school of ethics," it's the perfect sound. It's difficult plowing through Fulghum's golden rules, as if life's complexities could be reduced to a sampler's stitches. We all realize that, yes, laughing is good for you, that if we make a mess, we should be the ones to clean it up, and it's always good to share, but aren't there times when it's appropriate — and necessary — to slap someone upside the head? For all Fulghum's Quaalude-like bromides, there are some choice moments, thanks to the buoyant, personable cast, abetted by the smooth direction of Sissy Pulley and the atmospheric production design of Mark Lewis. Actors Marion Kirby (his story and song about romantic movie star Charles Boyer is touchingly memorable), Brenda Fager, Luisa Amaral-Smith, Marty Blair and Jim Salners romp through the Dr. Phil moments as if these self-evident truths were totally fresh and novel. Through October 19. A.D. Players, 2710 Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Electile Dysfunction Radio Music Theatre has tackled the wild and wacky political season with this funny play, which is full of characters as kooky as the past few months have been. Writer/director Steve Farrell knows just how to put things into perspective. His silly show features the Jones family from Precious Trees, "the most planned planned community" in Houston. Mom, Dad and Junior all support different candidates. The Spy Eye News team finds out about the argument and decides to feature the family as a human interest story. The actors present the newscast complete with commercials; the funniest features a very familiar furniture salesman named Uncle Dan (played by a hysterical Farrell), who sells a "political leaning chair" that leans to the left or the right depending on your preference and a recliner that shoots bullets. Back on the show, Damn Mad (Rich Mills) rants about politics, and the biggest story of the week focuses on the pastor of the biggest church in Texas — it's so big it used to be a whole ranch. Nothing is actually settled during the show, but lots of fun is had as the politics of the hour get chewed over. Through November 15. 2623 Colquitt, 713-522-7722. — LW

Madama Butterfly Opera in the Heights lost its opening performances at Lambert Hall to Ike, but has set up temporary shop at Reagan High School. This impromptu move inspired everyone, for this was OH's most assured aural performance in many a season. Puccini sets this tragic tale of naive teenage Butterfly jilted by American cad Pinkerton to his most thrillingly rhapsodic music, and that includes Bohème, Tosca and Turandot. The OH orchestra, like the famous opera, soared high, sounding radiant and rich under conductor William Weibel. The phenomenon was the Cio-Cio-San of Greek soprano Eleni Calenos, whose nuanced characterization was a true wonder to hear. She sailed through her dramatic arias as if buoyed by the stirring music. Dark and handsome Adam Flowers looked the part of naval officer Pinkerton and sounded great during his opening aria, but he mysteriously lost steam at the end of the heated love duet and never regained power. The two supporting roles of Sharpless, the American counsel who can't bring himself to tell Butterfly of Pinkerton's betrayal, and Suzuki, Butterfly's sympathetic confidant, were sung with depth and conviction by Yoon-Sang Lee and Dawn Padula. There was scant stage direction and little scenic atmosphere — we'll blame Ike and the hasty move to new digs — but with incandescent Calenos breaking our hearts, who cares? Through October 9. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. Call for updated location and schedule. — DLG

Rumors Whenever funnyman Neil Simon gets into plot trouble in his 1988 farce, he resorts to the easy fix and easier laugh: the four-letter word. The constant expletives don't help when he's basically running on empty. Four couples gather for an anniversary party only to discover that the host has shot himself, and his wife and all the domestic help are strangely missing. The guests attempt to keep each subsequent twosome in the dark to prevent scandal, which only complicates the problem and, supposedly, ratchets up the comedy. It's funnier in the telling than in the watching, since the premise seems so utterly preposterous and artificial — they all know each other, so why hide anything? There are moments when we forget the vapid premise and shallow characters, and there are some deft zingers to be sure — this is Neil Simon, after all — but they get diluted by glacial timing that trips up the jokes and by the frantic overplaying of the Country Playhouse cast, who bulldoze through them. Farce isn't enhanced when the slamming of doors is deafening — it's the timing that's important, not the noise. As whiplash victim Len, Kelly Harkins has a built-in manic quality that's perfect for this comedy's standout role, and his revved-up tall tale at play's end is gratifyingly showstopping — too bad the comedy isn't. Through October 11. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Shylock, the Jew of Venice Theater lovers should be filling up the Midtown Art Center thanks to the inaugural production of Houston's brand-new Classical Theatre Company. Shylock, the Jew of Venice is a pared-down and astonishingly moving version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that imagines two Auschwitz prisoners forced to perform the controversial play for their captors. The setup is elegant in its simplicity. As the audience walks into Midtown, the unnamed prisoners depicted by Thomas Prior (who also plays Shylock) and David Wald (who plays various other characters in Shakespeare's story) are moving slowly through the dark business of sorting through the suitcases of the Jews sent to their deaths. Once the audience is seated, both hollow-eyed and broken men move to the edge of the stage and announce The Merchant of Venice, then proceed to enact only the scenes from the play that focus on Shylock, one of Shakespeare's most confounding characters. This adaptation, created by Lara Haberberger, Laley Lippard, Sammy Wegent and John Johnston (also the director), revisits the Shylock question: Is he a horrid stereotype or a critique of Christian bias? The results are an extraordinary production, one of the best of Shakespeare anywhere in Houston over the last decade. Prior is astounding, and Wald moves gracefully through several characters. And in the end, the stunned audience I sat with leaped to its feet in applause. Buy your ticket today. Through October 5. 3414 LaBranch, 713-963-9665. — LW

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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