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Capsule Stage Reviews: Easter Catechism, The Marriage of Figaro, A Murder Is Announced, The Trip to Bountiful

Easter Catechism When a show is semi-scripted, with ample audience participation, a lot depends on the stage presence of the MC, and Easter Catechism is fortunate indeed to have Denise Fennell filling that role. I had the experience for six years of being taught by nuns in primary school, so the territory is familiar, but my memory is that none were quite so ingratiating and humorous as the one holding center stage in this production. She ranges from educator to drill sergeant — chew gum at your own risk — and yes, you stand when speaking to her, and only after first raising your hand. On the night I attended, the audience was as good-natured as she was, and contributed significantly to the general fun. It was Fennell's debut in the role, formerly played by the playwright Maripat Donovan, but no one would have known had she not mentioned it at the end of a roller-coaster evening. Fennell has great comic timing, is a master of the slow take and the sidelong glance, and carries the audience with her wherever she goes. And the traveling is broad, from the burning question of whether bunnies go to heaven, to an explanation of the true meaning of Easter. My apprehension rose as we neared this point, for explicating the death and resurrection of Christ in an evening of comedy is like walking a high wire across the Grand Canyon, but Fennell traversed even this pitfall successfully. And I came to believe in her as a nun, not an actress, as she tactfully mentioned her low wages and her status versus priests — and of course her shoes sealed the deal. The second half of the evening entails parodies of TV game shows, as semireligious queries are posed — is this a mortal or a venial sin? A lot here depends on the audience members ordered (one dare not disobey) to the stage. Perhaps the writing in some of the scripted sections might be tightened, but one likes Fennell so immediately and so thoroughly that the schoolroom format and audience give-and-take does yeoman service. Through April 24. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JT

The Marriage of Figaro Mozart's sublime opera is all about love. All kinds, from raunchy seduction to moonlight serenade. Based on Beaumarchais's scandalous, satiric play, in which low-class Figaro and wife-to-be Susanna get the jump on their master Count Almaviva, who has neglected his wife and is chasing Susanna for a midnight tryst, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's opera is ever-fresh and immortal. Houston Grand Opera gives it a near superlative rendition, with an ensemble cast so good, with voices clean and expressive, they carry us over the somewhat glacial pace conducted by maestro James Gaffigan. There are no superstars in the cast, but everyone shines. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi is a bit more of a subdued Figaro than usual, with a smaller heft to his voice, but he's certainly spirited enough when he stands up to the philandering Count or when wooing his love Susanna (soprano Adriana Kucerová). Susanna is the first modern woman in opera and has all of Mozart's respect; you can hear it in the music. Of silvery voice and bright presence, Kucerová imbues her with clever appeal and charm. The count, as embodied by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, is a sexy, dangerous antagonist. Tall and handsome, he commands the stage but, constantly thwarted, never quite gets the upper hand, although his ego thinks he deserves it. As the long-suffering Countess, soprano Ellie Dehn brings regal reserve, authority and a velvety voice to break our hearts. The "pants role" of young stud Cherubino, in love with love, is deftly handled by mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand. A natural comedian, she positively purrs in the "buffa" scenes when she hides behind, next to and in the wing chair while Almaviva courts Susanna. In the subsidiary roles, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, bass Carlo Lepore, tenor Jon Kolbet, soprano Kiri Deonarine and bass Michael Sumuel supply all the acting and vocal facets necessary to make Mozart's musical jewel sparkle. Directed by Harry Silverstein, based upon the previous staging by the late Göran Järvefelt, given an uncluttered set design by Carl Friedrich Oberle (something like Ikea goes to Drottningholm) and brought merrily to life, Mozart's mighty hymn to love in all its many guises, heartaches and joys is just about as good as it gets. This is one of HGO's most accomplished productions this season. Through April 30. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

A Murder Is Announced An engaging cast, substantial suspense and a series of surprises combine to produce an excellent evening of entertainment in the Agatha Christie mystery A Murder Is Announced at Theatre Suburbia. Set in an English country house with disparate guests (no surprise here), the plot revolves around a very convoluted will in which who dies first matters enormously. You may want to reach for aspirin in trying to follow the intricacies of the denouement, but better think twice as nothing is quite as it seems in this thriller. The play begins deceptively simply with a dispute as to who borrowed the morning paper, a domestic crisis soon made irrelevant as the bodies start dropping. Presiding over house and guests is the benevolent owner Letitia Blacklock, played with great skill by Kathy Davis, whose talent and poise hold together the household — and the play. Without her the play might have foundered, as the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese and more twists than a corkscrew, but in her capable hands we settle down into an evening of delight and wait for the sherry to be passed. Surprisingly, the maid, played by Courtney Furgason with a strong presence and superb comic timing, is here not just for exposition and to carry in the tea. She is a fully fleshed out character with an important part to play — and play it well she does. The cast of 12 (two parts are quite brief) is ably directed by Barbara Hartman, and deftly shepherded into varying tableaux on the attractive, well-appointed set, though I'm puzzled why characters turn their backs on partners to march downstage and look into the distance. Some of the gentle humor of the play goes unrealized in the drive toward intensity, but Hartman has succeeded in establishing ensemble acting that adds genuine appeal. An exception is Miss Marple, played by Melrose Fougere in such a diffident, understated way that it appears she wandered in from another play. And I was surprised that Inspector Craddock (David James Barron) was not more authoritative, though I found the character likable — perhaps this was a directorial choice. The pace is admirable, the lighting effective and surprises occur with a frequency that keeps us alert and tuned in, wondering what on earth is coming next in this pleasant divertissement, intended to entertain rather than instruct and succeeding with style and a flourish. Through May 14. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Rd., 713-682-3525. — JT

The Trip to Bountiful This is an extraordinary vehicle for an actress of a certain age — it won Geraldine Page an Oscar — and Elaine Edstrom as Carrie Watts, aging and ill and with the final wish to visit once more her childhood country home, finds the heart and strength to carry the play to ultimate triumph. The vehicle itself is showing its age, and the direction is a bit heavy-handed, but this did not inhibit the standing ovation, for the second act seeks to tug at our heart-strings, and succeeds admirably. The play, now running at Houston Family Arts Center, itself is old-fashioned, in the best sense of having traditional values, and in the negative sense that the first act, which consists of exposition to bring us up to date, and family bickering, takes 50 minutes — a contemporary writer could cover the same ground in five. Award-winning Texas-born playwright Horton Foote, who died two years ago at the age of 92, created a memorable character in Carrie, but used less subtlety in the other major characters, Carrie's soft-spined son Ludie (J. Blanchard) and his shrewish wife Jessie Mae (Stephanie Morris); director Sedric Willis hasn't found a way to make them three-dimensional. Everything is spelled out, both in script and body language, as though the audience were mentally challenged — unnecessary in this intimate theater, itself a gem, proscenium stage and tiered seating with great sightlines, where a raised eyebrow would do as well as a raised fist. Even Edstrom as Carrie makes sure we "get" everything. She is ably supported by Morris and Blanchard — though I wish the director had him look a lot less at the floor, a sign of shame — and by Reagan Lukefahr as a bus-mate. I especially liked Anita Darby in a small part she made interesting, and Jeff Brown as a sheriff with a heart. The other minor roles were well acted. The costumes by Michel Brown Stevens appeared authentic, the sets were necessarily simple but highly effective, and changes were handled adroitly. The theater lacks an imposing facade — it is in a strip mall — but its talent, heart and dedication point the way to the pearl within. Through May 8. 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374. — JT

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