Capsule Stage Reviews: Crave, Debt Collectors, Essential Self Defense, Jekyll and Hyde

Crave Crave is by Sarah Kane, the acclaimed British playwright who committed suicide at the age of 28, and the Catastrophic Theatre describes the work as a tour-de-force tone poem for four voices. It's not really a tour de force, nor is it especially poetic, but Crave does have four voices, and very good voices they are indeed. They remain seated throughout the 40-minute performance, but their body language is nonetheless expressive. The voices rise and fall, cadence tumbling after cadence, epithets hurled like javelins, accusations spewing forth from angry mouths like bullets from a machine gun as they vent their rage at themselves and others — Crave is a rant for four voices. The two male voices (Greg Dean and Matthew Carter) and two female voices (Mikelle Johnson and Carolyn Houston Boone) are given no names — we are intended to create our own interpretation of who they are and what they did, but clues abound like mile markers on a marathon. Quasi-insights are provided — "Nobody survives life," for example — but the recurring theme is: "Look at me! Look at me !! Look at me!!!" It's not giving too much away to say that the word "pedophile" hovers in the air like a bird with a broken wing, seeking to land. The characters are self-referential, concerned about themselves and their emotions, needs and old age; they're more prone to playing the victim than really scrutinizing their own behavior, or taking any responsibility for it. The set, by Greg Dean, is appropriately simple, with wooden planks much like a pier, as though trapped in limbo between the treachery on land and the watery grave of the sea. The lighting design, by Kevin Taylor, frames the four chairs, creating a desired intimacy, but the footlights, though present, are inadequate — the eyes of the actors remain shrouded in darkness, and when they lean forward to gesture, their faces elude the light. The work is directed by Jason Nodler at a rat-a-tat-tat pace and the actors provide it with a vengeance, but it is anger and rage that rule, not poetry. There is no wit, no catharsis, only nonlinear peals of despair, cries for help from those too self-centered to process the evils of life and get on with it, but prefer instead to remain screeching at the world in the anteroom to an asylum. The Catastrophic Theatre has shown its courage yet again in presenting a work so far from the ordinary, and those who cherish experimental theater will surely want to see it. Through June 4. DiverseWorks ArtSpace, 1117 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JT

Debt Collectors It's a wonder the influential Swedish playwright (also painter, novelist, photographer and essayist) August Strindberg wrote any autobiography at all. After all, his life is richly detailed in every play — all his psychoses, neurotic desires, internal demons, prejudices and dreams. He changed theater forever with such sexy psychodramas as The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888), suffered a breakdown accompanied by an occult religious conversion after his marriage failed and his new works weren't successful, got married again twice, and created a new expressionist theater when his free-form The Dream Play (1902) and Ghost Sonata (1908) rocked Europe. Surprisingly, his forceful work is not produced much outside university theater, so Stark Naked Theatre, a new company in its world-premiere production, is to be applauded for bringing us one of Strindberg's great early successes, The Creditors (1889), or as they're calling it, Debt Collectors. It contains all of Strindberg's major themes: power vs. weakness, marriage vs. freedom, male vs. female. During a Mexican vacation, while successful-writer wife Thea (Kim Tobin) is away, artist husband Andrew (Philip Lehl), crippled and suffering from asthma, is befriended by mysterious stranger Justin (David Rainey). With gnawing insinuations about Thea's faithfulness, Justin, like Iago, worms his way into Andrew's consciousness. He convinces Andrew to eavesdrop when Justin meets Thea, so he can prove to Andrew that his wife is no good. The kicker: Justin is Thea's former husband, out to destroy her for writing about him, and if he must take down milquetoast Andrew to do it, so be it. That's the way of Strindberg's world. Naked Theatre does wonders with the psychotic Swede, from the adult sandbox set conjured by design wizard Jodi Bobrovsky to the imaginative sound design of gulls and far-off surf from Chip Schneider. The emotionally explosive trio discovers all Strindberg's sadistic twists and artfully bats them back and forth. Co-directed by husband/wife Lehl and Tobin, the game is feverish and shiveringly good. Prepare to have your obsessions stripped Stark Naked. Through May 29. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 832-866-6514. — DLG

Essential Self Defense The Horse Head Theatre Company seeks to change and enliven the theatrical experience in nonconventional ways, and succeeds admirably in presenting the Houston premiere of Adam Rapp's drama Essential Self Defense. While the mystery of 16 missing children is a subplot, this is essentially a love story as Sadie (Bree Welch) somewhat inexplicably falls in love with Yul (Houston Press contributor Troy Schulze) — inexplicably, since Yul is a passive-aggressive semi-recluse given to silences, who speaks with almost no expression in what is close to a monotone. This is what the playwright wants, a robotic human, and I assume Yul is intended to be a downtrodden Everyman, but the unfortunate result is to drain his many scenes of vitality — Schulze plays the role as written, so the fault is not his. The Frenetic Theater has been transformed into an impressive cabaret/art installation worthy of a major gallery, with unobtrusive playing areas scattered throughout the generous space, the addition of a jazz band, and the stage peopled with vivid characters brought to exciting life by talented actors. The band is part of the play, and the lead singer and emcee is played by Rebekah Stevens, who uses energetic charm and raw language to enchant us, while guitarist Danny Painter and drummer Kirk Suddreath rattle the rafters with melody. Josh Morrison gives a strong characterization of a highly competitive butcher with both a mean and a lascivious streak — and sells a song on open-mike night at the cabaret. In a cameo role, Xzavien Hollins plays a barber to perfection. And Josh DeLoach is good as the boyfriend to the band singer. Welch is wonderful as the pursuing female and makes believers of us through a variety of experiences, but some of her scenes with Yul have all the excitement of watching grass grow — a strange contrast to the surrounding circus ambience. Except for this, the proceedings are well directed by Drake Simpson. The very complicated lighting works well, thanks to Jeremy Choate, Kevin Holden and Frank J. Vela. The scenery by Matthew Schlief is imaginative — the corner poles of a boxing arena morph into blue fluorescent lights for the cabaret scenes. The live music captivated, and was composed by band members Painter and Suddreath, and Painter played several minor characters, as well as sporting as guitarist an admirable day-glo green wig that captured perfectly the joyous spirit of the occasion — it is just too bad the playwright barred Yul from joining the party. Through May 28. 5102 Navigation Blvd., 713-364-4482. — JT

Jekyll and Hyde Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote his classic novel about the duality of man — the good Dr. Jekyll experiments upon himself and transforms into the beast Mr. Hyde — two years before Jack the Ripper's autumn reign of terror in 1888 London. The monsters share surprising similarities. In Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusses's monster-cult musical adaptation from 1990, there's not nearly enough Stevenson and way too much Wildhorn and Bricusse. In its time, Wildhorn's show, his most consistently entertaining and melodic (up to a point), had the kind of devoted quasi-religious veneration that now envelopes Wicked. There's grand sweep to the story and enough pop anthems to fill an entire season of American Idol; the scenes move crisply, and the stage is constantly full of Victorian London low-lifes and hypocritical high ones. It's a huge songfest, which is the problem, because Wildhorn's soaring music always sounds the same, except when it samples Cabaret ("Bring on the Men") or Stephen Sondheim ("Murder, Murder"). It comes as no surprise that veteran Masquerade Theatre stars Luther Chakurian (Jekyll/Hyde) and Kristina Sullivan (prostitute Lucy) belt their lungs out — radiantly, by the way — and deliver definitive performances. Michelle Macicek, as Jekyll's fiancée Emma, is heavenly; and grand trooper Michael Ross takes a nothing role like Jekyll's trusty friend John and spins it into gold. Kendrick Mitchell turns pimp Spider into a creepy lithograph straight from the East End's Police News; and Tyler Berry Lewis, in his Masquerade debut as prig Simon Stride, disappears from the musical much too soon but fills the house with robust singing. The costumes and settings are a grab bag of second-tier Victoriana without much thought to grand design — Lucy would never, even as the lowest of the low, show so much leg in public. She'd have been arrested for exposure, not soliciting. If you stall out because of those atrocious Bricusse lyrics — he clobbers you with rhyme until you want him to be Hyde's next victim — Wildhorn's power ballads will propel you into the next scene. While Jekyll and Hyde may not please every Broadway baby, Masquerade knows how to wrap it up vocally and make it sing. Through May 29. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. — DLG

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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
Jim Tommaney