Capsule Stage Reviews: Arms and the Man, How I Learned to Drive, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mrs. Warren's Profession

Arms and the Man G.B. Shaw's sparkling romantic comedy from 1894 takes on manly soldiers who are praised for desertion, a middle class as snooty as the upper class, headstrong servants, blustery fools, romantic heroines who save the enemy because they've just seen an opera where such a thing happens, parents as clueless as their children, and Bulgarians. Only Shaw could manage it all with such buoyant, throwaway charm. Fleeing from the Bulgarian army, Swiss mercenary Bluntschli (Brian Heaton) escapes into the bedroom of Raina (Eva LaPorte), member of one of Bulgaria's richest and most respected families. They're so upper-crust, Mama Petkoff (Karla Brandau) keeps reminding everyone, they have a room devoted to nothing but books, and a bell to ring for the servants so Papa (Glenn Dobson) doesn't have to shout — so déclassé. Raina instantly falls for her "chocolate cream soldier" even though she's engaged to blowhard Sergius (Travis Klemm), a pompous ass who looks dashing in a uniform, but is all moustache and no brains and not above making a pass or two at the family's haughty maid Louka (Renata Santoro). There's lots of activity, but not much really happens, yet Shaw juggles his pet theories about heroism, the futility of war, and illusion vs. reality with masterful aplomb, never once dropping a theme. Making her Houston debut, LaPorte is a beaut as Raina, all fetching and bubbly. Watch as she flounces onto the hassock, next to her soldier who's found her out; she doesn't crumble at the news, she deflates gradually, with grace to spare. Houston's theater scene is richer for her arrival — and a little richer, too, for this confection of a production. Through February 14. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

How I Learned to Drive Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winner glides into Country Playhouse's black box theater as if on wings, not wheels. Slick, immensely effective and terribly moving, this dream play has all the allure of chrome plating and real leather seats. It's such a fine ride, you won't realize how smoothly you've been run over. But flattened you will be. Precocious Li'l Bit (Elizabeth Marshall) looks backward from her mature vantage point as she remembers being taught to drive by her Uncle Peck (Chuck Houston). Although he wants her to pass the driving test, he also wants something else from her and is prepared to wait a long time to get it, with a touch here, a cheesecake photo there, passing the time until it's his. The surprising thing is that Li'l Bit knows this almost from the beginning and welcomes the attention and the fatherly advice, along with the lewd advances. Vogel doesn't judge her sad, displaced characters; she sets them spinning with driving instructions read to us from a Greek chorus trio (John Dunn, Maria O. Sirgo, Monica Lynn Passley), who then play various roles, from Li'l Bit's horny grandpa to a horny high schooler, all while singing favorite hits from the '60s. Comic visual road signs like "Route 69" flash overhead while troubling monologues pass by from Li'L Bit's inebriated mother or Uncle Peck as he calmly lures his young nephew Bobby on a fishing trip. These quieter disturbances jar harder than potholes. Expertly steered by director Sheryl Stanley, Vogel's drama is not to be missed. Through January 31. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

A Midsummer Night's Dream There's magic afoot at Houston Grand Opera. The heavenly production of Benjamin Britten's 1960 operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's most youthful comedy is bewitching, as Elizabethan gossamer and moonbeams are "translated" by Britten into a weird aural world of deep silvery glissandos, dissonant fourths and sevenths, and major/minor chord juxtapositions. It's an earful. While it doesn't exude Mendelssohn's sparkling effervescence and weightlessness, the music has a unique, beguiling unearthliness about it. The setting — another of Shakespeare's wondrous forests — breathes with life and teems with sprites, mixed-up lovers and bumbling "hempen homespuns." Each set of characters gets its own particular sound, with Oberon's countertenor the most distinctive and powerful as it soars clear and bright, when the King of the Fairies (Iestyn Davies) weaves his spells on unsuspecting bumpkins and his lustful queen Tytania alike (Laura Claycomb). The unreal setting glows with a phosphorescent sheen, all green and blue with sudden flashes of purple for the spells. The whole production sings with a timeless quality, and the cast effortlessly performs Britten's difficult music. The wizard on the podium is Maestro Patrick Summers, who weaves his own enchantment via the score. Whether or not you can whistle any of Britten's complex tunes as you leave the Wortham, I guarantee you'll leave spellbound nonetheless. Through February 6. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Mrs. Warren's Profession Woe be to the mother who raises an unappreciative daughter. Mrs. Warren, the title character of the Alley Theatre's firecracker production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, can tell us all a thing or two about such girls. When Vivie, the daughter Mrs. Warren raises to blueblood respectability, learns how her mother paid for her fancy-pants education, she tells dear old mum to take a hike. What kind of thank-you is that? At the turn of the 20th century, when Shaw wrote this elegant polemic for gender equality, few jobs were open to women, especially those of the working class. His story, full of irony about the hypocrisy and cruelty of his Victorian world, focuses on Mrs. Warren (Elizabeth Heflin), a woman who raises herself out of the gutter to become a wealthy, well-traveled madam, running several brothels throughout Europe. Woven into the angry tale are four men enacting problems Shaw sees in the world. There's Sir George Crofts (played by a wonderfully oily Todd Waite), the cruel capitalist; Praed (John Tyson), the priggish artist; the Reverend Samuel Gardner (James Belcher), the ultimate hypocrite; and his son Frank Gardner (Brandon Hearnsberger), who wants to marry Vivie because she's rich. The Alley's production, directed with speed and clarity by Anders Cato, brings several of Shaw's arguments into focus. And Heflin is a wonderfully tawdry Mrs. Warren. This production is built of the stuff that will make you think and argue with friends afterward. Shaw weaves some terrifically paradoxical arguments about capitalism, the rank of women and the place of morality in business into his story – all of which is still pertinent today. Through February 1. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — 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