Capsule Stage Reviews: Frozen, Love, Janis, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Veronica's Room

Frozen The "Arctic frozen sea" of a pedophile's mind lies at the chilly center of Bryony Lavery's smart, mesmerizing Frozen. The play about a child killer and his victim's raging mother was so affecting when it opened on Broadway in 2004, it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Thanks to Theater LaB Houston and director Ed Muth, Houstonians can now see what the excitement is all about. Told in a series of short monologues and scenes, the three-character story takes place over several decades, beginning with the abduction of a ten-year-old English child named Rhona. Her loss sends her mother Nancy (Andrea Hyde) into years of hand-wringing hope followed by seemingly endless grief. On the other side of the stage sits Ralph (Alan Heckner), a walking, talking nightmare. But he is fascinating. He describes his encounters with children on the street as if he were some sexy rogue stalking a singles bar, able to lure prepubescent girls with a lovely, low "hello." Finally, there's Agnetha (Julie Boneau), an American psychiatrist who specializes in serial killers. She argues that the brains of serial killers are wired differently from everyone else's, the result of head injuries and psychological abuse. They're not evil, they're ill; and difficult as it may be, they deserve some compassion. Technically, this production is a mess, and some of the performances feel a little off. But the production is still worthwhile — in fact, it's the hottest show of the season. Through February 9. 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. — LW

Love, Janis Put on your tie-dyed crushed velvet, light up the blunt and pass around the Comfort, dude, because the wailing earth mother of Haight-Ashbury, the one and only Janis Joplin, is blowin' the roof off the Alley. With that unique booze-raspy voice and uncompromising fuck-you attitude, Joplin personified the '60s hippie generation. In Randall Myler's wobbly musical tribute — part concert, part bio — the certifiable star power is on amplified display with a blistering, full-throttle performance from Katrina Chester (who alternates with Mary Bridget Davies in the role of "singing" Janis), who so incredibly and accurately channels Joplin's timbre and stage mannerisms, it's spooky. She's backed up by a band so hyped up and on her same wavelength (brilliantly supervised by Eric Massimino, formerly of Big Brother and The Holding Company), you'd swear you're having flashbacks. But it's what's between the numbers that's such a downer. One performer sings the role of Janis, while another, the resourceful Marisa Ryan, acts the role by reading letters she wrote home. Loosely adapted from Laura Joplin's bio of her sister, the jukebox musical features repetitious readings of her approval-seeking letters home, and the juicy insider dish that she likes her pets. This standard, tissue-thin, little-girl-lost stuff may very well be true, but it hardly illuminates her gargantuan, self-destructive demons. One moment she plaintively asks her parents to be proud of her, then she melts steel with a blockbuster rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee," then she jabs a needle in her arm. Big disconnect here. Dead at 27 from drugs and booze, unparalleled powerhouse Joplin requires a more insightful requiem than this. Cut the dialogue, cue the pot smoke and let's party! Through February 10. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421. — DLG

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead For his first international smash hit, playwright Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and gave them their own play. These inconsequential, rather ineffectual characters are set center stage while all the famous scenes and dramatis personae from the classic swirl around them. Unfortunately, the two dupes only know their own parts, and they spend the evening trying to figure out what it all means. All the typically Stoppardian traits are present: sizzling wordplay, clever structure, love of theatrics and brittle existentialism mingling with low comedy shtick. As former school chums of prince Hamlet, dense Rosencrantz (Allen Dorris) and a somewhat sharper Guildenstern (John Mitsakis) have been summoned to the court by King Claudius, Hamlet's fratricidal, throne-usurping uncle, to "draw him out" and make sense of Hamlet's "troubles." Since they have no recollection of any previous life before they were summoned, they haven't a clue what to do except what they're told, as best they can. As in Shakespeare's tale, the duo unwittingly become involved in Claudius's plot to murder Hamlet but inadvertently deliver their own writ of execution instead. They face their extinction with begrudging resignation and an actor's final movement — they exit. While Mitsakis is very good indeed as the brighter bulb of the set, it is Dorris, one of Houston's finest actors, who brings the play up a notch with his witless yet jovial Rosencrantz. More Shakespearean bombast would well serve Casey Coale as the leader of the traveling players, and more Shakespearean ease would serve all the others, except for John Kaiser's brief but encompassing Polonius, who only makes us yearn to see him in Shakespeare's original. Through January 26. Company Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Veronica's Room To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy houses are alike, especially the dark and stormy ones. And this old manse somewhere on the outskirts of Boston is as dank and foreboding as any found on the Yorkshire moors. It comes with its own thunderstorm, too. Ira Levin, the mastermind behind Rosemary's Baby, Deathtrap, A Kiss Before Dying and, in sunnier days, No Time For Sergeants, penned this creepy shocker in 1974. It had an all-star cast on Broadway but failed to attract much attention. I don't see why — it has a chilling pseudo-Twilight Zone premise with enough twists for a pretzel. Aggressive Boston student Susan (Sara Jo Dunstan), on a date with shy Larry (Raygan Kelly), is approached by a solicitous old couple (Lisa Schofield and Steve Carpentier) who are the caretakers of the aforementioned spooky mansion. Susan looks exactly like Veronica, a child who died in the house in 1935. The child's sister is still alive, but ailing and feebleminded. Would Susan do them the great honor of impersonating Veronica for just a few minutes to give the dying sister a chance to say goodbye? Larry's suspicious, but Susan welcomes the challenge and the chance to do a good deed. What could go wrong? She's obviously never seen a creepy old-house thriller. What happens in Veronica's room is penny dreadful, I assure you, but will guarantee a genuine Victorian gothic tingle or two, thanks to the atmospheric direction by Ananka Kohnitz and fine ensemble work. Dunstan is appropriately naive, then terrified. Who wouldn't be, with pros Schofield and Carpentier lurking in the shadows ready to pounce? Through January 26. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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
Lee Williams