Capsule Stage Reviews: Debt Collectors, I Am Barbie, Four Places, [title of show]

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

I Am Barbie With a bust worthy of the Himalayas and a waist the circumference of a pencil eraser, Barbie has set little girls' hearts a-dreaming ever since her "birth," March 9, 1959. Through 52 svelte years and a career arc that spans more than 130 careers — ballerina, jet pilot, naval officer, NASCAR driver, surgeon, paleontologist, Canadian Mountie — Barbie has inspired, provoked, seduced and accessorized her way into legend. In Walton Beacham's huggably sweet world premiere at Main Street Theater, I Am Barbie, the little doll that could talks. What she says is surprisingly shrewd and extremely funny. Barbie (Ivy Castle-Rush) fantasizes, whines, purrs and squeals in girlish delight as she reminisces on her 50th birthday. On her odyssey, she greets her bland on-and-off boyfriend, the neutered Ken (Justin O'Brien); hulking, gruff G.I. Joe (O'Brien); her jealous little sister Skipper (Sarah Beth Roberts); sexy race-car driver Danica Patrick (Jennifer Dean); TV's animated She-Ra: Princess of Power (Dean); a randy cowboy (Seán Patrick-Judge); and Freud (Patrick-Judge). She is demure with Ken and feisty, yet still demure, with Joe. Danica teaches her how to kiss guys, and in true girlfriend fashion uncovers Barbie's dreaded secret: no female equipment. No wonder she's been paired with Ken – he hasn't got any equipment either. A subsidiary theme chugs along with inventor "mom" Ruth (Celeste Roberts) battling cancer and, later, a disfiguring mastectomy. A little of this goes a long way, and Beacham, undoubtedly, will prune and shape this new work to tighten the repetition. Fortunately, he never lets the drama get too intense, capping a downer of a scene with a little comic snap. Her doll-size fantasy world has been imaginatively crafted by Jodi Bobrovsky (a bed made from a box of matches, a table from a spool of thread). And then there's that amazing wardrobe. Thank you, Macy Perrone, for the marabou trim, the jaunty red beret, the mermaid-tail dress that Ken admires and She-Ra's cascading hair, not to mention Barbie's 39FF chest. Castle-Rush imbues the indomitable plastic goddess with a real heart of gold. No airhead, she. Barbie thinks, maybe not too deeply, but she's a lot more than a pretty face and impossible figure. Even when down, she's never grumpy — after all, she's not just a fashion model, she's a role model. Through May 29. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. — DLG

Four Places Ethical questions abound in the drama Four Places. An adult brother and sister cope with two aging parents, though the father is never seen on stage, and the problems their decline presents are compounded by reliance on alcohol. The play takes place with the siblings driving to and from a luncheon with their mother, Peggy, who is portrayed with such grace, beauty, elegance and charm by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis that my sympathies were with her. She may lie a little, but drinkers do that, and she can hold it like a trooper, as even the adult kids admit. Peggy adds to what the caregiver has related, corroborating some highly unseemly behavior, but explaining her own motivations. Of course, Peggy is hardly a reliable witness. The daughter, Ellen, is played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and she embodies the pain of a daughter forced to choose sides in the midst of a crisis. The son, Warren, portrayed by Jack Young, has anger-management problems demonstrated far too clearly in this 90-minute session, as the adult children, with ostensibly good intentions, connive against their mother. As written by playwright Joel Drake Johnson, and as directed by Kenn McLaughlin, Young has no choice but to be distinctly unpleasant, and he does this admirably. The waitress at lunch, well played by Lisa Thomas-Morrison, has a tangential connection to this dysfunctional family, but that is simply to add much-needed flavor. The plot is so minuscule that I won't divulge what little there is. The play is awkwardness itself — it begins with deliberate awkwardness as it's clear on the ride to lunch that there is no real warmth or communication between mother and children, just competitive hostility and familial duty. It's awkward because we lack adequate information to make a considered moral choice. It's awkward because the tactics adopted by the children seem clumsy and unrealistic, including leaving the mother alone after a day of grueling intensity. But the lighting by Christina R. Giannelli works wonders to delineate areas as needed, and the minimalist set by Liz Freeze is highly effective and enhanced by a simple but imaginative backdrop. Four Places is worth seeing for the extraordinary, sensitive and enchanting performance of McMurdo-Wallis as the mother, but she and the waitress are rays of light in a cavern of darkness. Through May 22. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JT

[title of show] The strangely named [title of show] is simply wonderful. It's a fountain of energy and talent, dancing its way into our hearts as four young performers cavort on a nearly bare stage and, in an intermission-less 110 minutes, reach deeply within to make us share their dreams and aspirations. I use the word "dancing" because they seem never to be still; their motto is, apparently, "Why walk across the stage when you can dance across it?" Superbly directed and choreographed by Jimmy Phillips, the movements enhance the action while adding humor and authenticity. I totally believed what was happening onstage — this is rare for a musical comedy, and its triumphant success may be that it was written by two guys huddled together in a room instead of being cobbled together by a committee. The plot is simplicity itself, how two artists sat down to create in three weeks a musical that made it in several stages to B'way, bringing the audience with it to cheer it on. Jeff Bowen wrote the music and lyrics, and he is portrayed by the ebullient and charming Mitchell Greco, looking like a teenager with a mop of hair to be reckoned with. The book was written by Hunter Bell, portrayed with variety, style and unflagging energy by Corey Hartzog. They rope in two female friends to make a showbiz quartet: Susan, portrayed by Danica Johnston, a tall blond beauty with a jawline most women would gladly kill for, and Heidi, portrayed by Beth Lazarou, who brings the same sincerity and warm appeal she showed in the recent Gone Missing at Theatre LaB. The musical direction and the music are provided — and very well indeed — by Adam Stout on the keyboard. The pace is unflagging, the relationships interesting, the characters wildly different yet blending into a smooth ensemble in both acting and singing. Many of the obscure showbiz names that are dropped will pass unrecognized, but it hardly matters. The play is fun throughout, but I especially liked the staging of "Awkward Photo Shoot," in which artistic disagreements shift effortlessly into flawless smiles whenever a photographer's flashbulb goes off, and "Monkeys and Playbills," in which theater archives are searched for inspiration. The songs are not destined to be classics, but the memory of a light-hearted, warm parable much like The Little Engine that Could will linger on. [title of show] is one of the most enjoyable productions of the season — it is definitely not to be missed. Through June 12. Theatre LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.  — JT

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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