Capsule Stage Reviews: Bus Stop, Gee's Bend, Triple Focus, Weekend with Pablo Picasso

Bus Stop In the 1950s, William Inge was lauded along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as one of the three great American playwrights. His four seminal plays — Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955) and Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957) — were critical and popular successes, with Picnic winning the Pulitzer, and Inge winning an original screenplay Oscar for Splendor in the Grass (1961). Inge chronicled small-town Midwestern life by emphasizing the undercurrent of sexual frustration and failed dreams — sort of a flyover-country Chekhov. His works define an outsider's view of the world, and his last, unsuccessful plays are overt cries from a very sad gay man in the closet. Over the decades, his four great works from the '50s have suffered a precipitous critical decline that they don't deserve, so it's refreshing to see such a loving revival of his one true comedy at Texas Repertory Theatre Co. All the characters are outsiders — bus driver and passengers, waitresses, and the sheriff — stranded in Grace's diner on the Kansas interstate by a blizzard. (A gracious tip of the hat to designer Jodi Bobrovsky for her battered and well-lived-in set.) Rodeo cowboy Bo (Zachary Lewis, a tall drink of water in constant swirl) has fallen head over heels for untalented big-city bar singer Cherie (charming Eva LaPorte, though she sports a very unflattering platinum flip wig). Bo, after a night of lust, has forced her onto the bus and is taking her to his Montana ranch to get married. Impetuous and headstrong, he can't fathom why she hasn't fallen for him just as hard. Hardboiled owner Grace (lively Lisa Thomas Morrison) carries on with bus driver Carl (Jeffrey Lane); creepy former professor Dr. Lyman (Ted Doolittle) puts the make on teenage waitress Elma (Bethany McCade); town sheriff/church deacon Will (David Walker) keeps the peace by beating up rowdy Bo; and Bo's ranch foreman and father substitute Virgil (Ray Phillips) tries to teach Bo how to grow up. In this well-made play, everyone gets his moment to shine, and Inge spreads the love around. Lewis and LaPorte are nicely matched and play off each other with genuine sparkle and sparks. Itchy and full of macho posturing, Lewis never stays still, either rubbing his legs in nervous frustration or thumping his chest with youthful bravado. Seeing Cherie at the lunch counter, he bounds to her and hops over another stool to get cozy. He makes Bo a fascinating blur of adolescent manhood, and Texas Rep brings Inge back into the light. Through February 20. 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — DLG

Gee's Bend The Ensemble Theatre has brought to vibrant life Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's Gee's Bend, the chronicle of a loving family set against the background of the African-American march toward equal rights.  But this is a domestic drama, not a political one. It captures the life of Sadie, from courtship to maturity, and the story of her sister Nella and mother Alice. Her husband, Macon, is portrayed with energy and charm by Kendrick "Kay" Brown, as he progresses from swain to businessman, though his removal from politics is a source of domestic difficulties. But this is essentially the tale of three women — and what women they are.  In her acting debut with Ensemble, Michelle Harper gives a stunning performance, moving and intelligent — we see her coquettish at 15 in 1939 and resolute and compassionate in 2002, the time-span of this family saga. And she is matched by Detria Marie Ward as the mother, stern and protective but with a ready wit, and by Teacake as the sister, whose dry humor gets the most laughs in the production. While the subject is serious, the work is lighthearted, laced with humor and graced with snatches of poignant gospel songs. The narrative traces how quilts made by the descendants of slaves found their way to become art and hang on museum walls — a viewing in a museum by the three women has emotional power.  Similar emotions are evoked by simple elements — a sip at a water fountain, a key, a jar of VapoRub. The handsome wooden set by Jodi Bobrovsky serves multiple purposes well. Director Elizabeth Van Dyke has created an acting ensemble well-suited to a theater with that name — Gee's Bend is likely to be one of the season's most enjoyable productions. Through February 27. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JT

Triple Focus The Jewish Community Center of Houston kicked off the first of three dance concerts for Dance Month at the Kaplan Theater with a showcase of contemporary dance companies Hope Stone Dance Company, HIStory and NobleMotion Dance. NobleMotion Dance's a small place, choreographed by Andy Noble, delivered both the most delicate and the fiercest performance of the night. Erin Reck's incredible solo performance portrayed a woman on the edge of breakdown, while Noble's choreography masterfully teetered between fervent, wild gestures and quiet questioning. HIStory, a hip-hop dance company, rocked the show with the stand-out crowd favorite Check It Out, choreographed by Joel Rivera, Mark Chaves, Bryan Paule, Jesse Garcia and Sharon Roberts. Featuring guest performers from Inertia, the Westside High School student dance company, Check It Out was a virtuosic slideshow of b-girls vs. b-boys, break dance circles and one-upmanship. These dancers wowed with rhythmic unity and anything but out-of-the-can acrobatic feats. But even more noteworthy was the generous and sunny performance HIStory and Inertia offered up. Donning shiny black rain boots and military-gray wool dresses, Hope Stone Dance Company premiered In Situ, laced with political undertones. Artistic Director and choreographer Jane Weiner crafted a captivating dance that undulated between patriotic play and martial servitude. JCC's Dance Month continues with a performance by Houston Ballet II February 12. Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-551-7255. — RT

Weekend with Pablo Picasso Herbert Siguenza, writer and actor in the one-man show Weekend with Pablo Picasso, has said that his purpose here is to make the audience feel "like they are spending an intimate weekend with a master." He largely succeeds. Siguenza is a robust, earthy presence who looks just enough like the great man. He bravely creates some art of his own while onstage, and on a couple of drawings, notably one near the play's end of a bull and bullfighter, Siguenza really does come close enough. But the play finally struck me as being a little thin. Siguenza's approach lacks drama. That's largely because, by 1957, when the play is set, Picasso is a pretty happy man. Yes, as a communist of sorts he agonizes over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which brings back memories of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica. But those dark memories are only a faint echo, and we're left with Picasso's happiness and his freedom to do as he pleases. The play is well staged by director Todd Salovey. Victoria Petrovich's projection design brought in images from both Picasso's life and 20th-century war. Through February 27. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — DT


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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
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