Capsule Stage Reviews: Festival of Originals, The Hollow, Tamarie Cooper's Old as Hell, Wicked

Festival of Originals Theater mavens love Theatre Southwest's three-weekend program of new short plays. The works are fresh, as in recently written, and usually run under 20 minutes. The length can be a godsend, because if you can't stand the one you're watching, your irritation or boredom will soon be over. Even with the time limit, some playwrights are flummoxed to create a satisfying short story, which, I'm happy to report, is not the case with this 16th annual festival. Each play, solidly crafted, has a different director and cast, which gives the audience a chance to see some favorite actors, or better, to discover new faces. There's no dearth of talent in Houston's acting pool. None of the plays was an outright stinker. But none was particularly memorable, either, although at least two of them will probably find life outside of TSW. These are middle-of-the-road works, pleasing and pleasurable in their entertainment. I have to admit, two hours passed pretty quickly. That's a big plus. RE: Kill the Messenger, by Bryan Maynard, is a visceral, mano a mano slice of Mamet via Quentin Tarantino. The Recipient (Wade Gonsoulin), a killer employed by an anonymous corporation, anxiously awaits the Messenger (Andrew G. Barrett), who apparently bears bad tidings about his future at the company. Gonsoulin, world-weary around the edges, knows he's out of there and feels guilty about his murderous career. Barrett, sucking on a toothpick, arrives wearing black leather gloves and a creepy top-dog attitude. There's impressive physicality, and two (if not three) fight scenes neatly staged by director John Mitsakis as male dominance gets a sweaty workout when this cat-and-mouse game intensifies. Maynard's overly symbolic passages about quantum physics and a dead cat (?!) flew completely over my head and muddied the elemental theatrics, but the amoral Mr. Barrett stayed stunningly alive, mean as a junkyard dog. He deserved his promotion. Many Miles, by Rose-Mary Harrington, is absolute catnip for ailurophiliacs. This "life and times" adventure of Miles the cat (Taylor Biltoff, a scruffy bon vivant) is an absolute audience-pleaser. If you're partial to dogs, you're on your own. Actors playing animals isn't exactly my bowl of Meow Mix, but this picaresque tale is larded with charm, although that's about all it has going for it. (The costume and hair design deserve a note of praise — those ear top-knots are inspired.) As in most short adventures, salient events are quickly outlined while others are glossed over. A choppy narrative is the order of the day. Harrington, while covering most pertinent cat points, has two really good ideas: Uncle Winston (Scott Holmes) and Racoon (Jose Luis Rivera). Sax-playin' Winston is one cool cat, and Holmes plays him like he's the coolest white dude in the hood. A consummate actor, Holmes always surprises, and he bats this character around as if it were the tastiest little rodent. Later, when Miles arrives in Hollywood, he ventures outside at night, only to be confronted by the gang-bangin' mammal in a mask. Rivera gives him feverish comic attitude. Their culture clash around the garbage cans is delicious fun. The play has no ending; it just runs down, out of steam and ideas, leaving Miles and friends purring on the sofa. Not a bad place to be — for actor or audience. Through August 3. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Hollow The Alley has had 21 prior productions of Agatha Christie's plays, with The Hollow its 22nd. The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is magnificent, the garden room of an imposing estate. The owner, Sir Henry Angkatell (James Black), is respectable but without warmth or charm. His wife, Lucy (Josie de Guzman), is absentminded, a bit dotty, bringing a delightful joie de vivre to the party. An actress, Veronica Craye (Laura E. Campbell), is played with fervor and an exaggerated style. Edward (Jay Sullivan) is a wealthy twit who proposes in the course of the play to two women and attempts suicide. Henrietta (Elizabeth Bunch) is an abstract sculptor, serious and glum. Midge Harvey (Emily Neves) is a poor-relation cousin too proud to accept financial aid from her very wealthy relatives, preferring to grumble about her uninteresting job. The butler, Gudgeon (Todd Waite), is angry throughout and speaks loudly. Diandra Langenbach as Doris, the maid, is persuasive. Guests are Dr. John Cristow (Mark Shanahan) and his wife, Gerda (Melissa Pritchett); the plot revolves around them. Cristow appeals to the opposite sex, but he is brusque and stolid, and we don't see why. Gerda is clumsy, with no poise — Pritchett found the character and is irritating. Inspector Colquhoun (Lee Sellars) is a role with no relish, and David Matranga overplays the comic role of his assistant. The acting style is old-fashioned British: "Hit the mark and say your lines," and I kept searching — in vain, except for de Guzman — for signs that the actors believed for a minute what they were saying. This is a so-so script, without flair, intrigue or suspense, and a so-so production, except for a magnificent set and an exciting performance by de Guzman. Through August 4. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

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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