Capsule Stage Reviews: January 22, 2015

Frost/Nixon There's an emotion rushing through Company OnStage's bumpy production of Peter Morgan's quasi-historical Frost/Nixon that is, if not unintentional, quite unexpected — sympathy for Richard Milhous Nixon, our disgraced, Machiavellian 37th President. High crimes and misdemeanors, including burglary, hush money for witnesses, suborning perjury, willfully disregarding subpoenas, wiretapping the press and stonewalling the American public occurred inside the Oval Office under his direct commands. Facing the wrath of Congress and an outraged citizenry, Nixon, alone, miserable and ofttimes drunk (so it's said), resigned his office in 1974 before imminent impeachment proceedings could be brought against him in Congress. He's the only President to walk out of his job. Only his most loyal staff members were sorry to see him board that helicopter that whisked him out of Washington. Later pardoned by Gerald Ford, Nixon never atoned nor stood trial. Clouded forever by the Watergate scandal, "Tricky Dick," for all his historic international coups, remains our most divisive president, most loathed and least admired. Sympathy is not for him. Morgan's play entertainingly recounts the famous interviews the British TV personality David Frost conducted with him in 1977. Broadcast in four installments, the one-on-one shows remain television's most-watched interviews. With some disregard for historical fact, Morgan's play flits in chronological order as it sets these two protagonists on a collision course: the washed-up lightweight personality known as a softball interviewer of celebrities and showbiz types against the ultimate devious, crafty, crooked politician. Frost (Dano Colón) wants to "get" him and make him confess his sins; Nixon (Russell Snow) wants to rehabilitate his tarnished image and get his respect back. Both guys are damaged goods. The convoluted personal negotiations, TV contracts and broadcast rights, the scrambling for advertisers are played for maximum frat-boy humor and wily dramatic effect. The build-up to the "Watergate" segment, saved for last by Morgan but in reality aired first, is suspenseful, as each background team watches the telecast on monitors on opposite sides of the stage. Frost's side includes crusading newspaperman James Reston (James Henderson), our Greek chorus narrator and voice of righteous indignation; ABC news producer Bob Zelnick (John Zipay, delightfully robust); and Frost compatriot John Birt (Caleb Walker); Nixon's aide-de-camp is ramrod-stiff Marine Colonel Jack Brennan (Wayne White). The opposing forces whack it out during the interviews, struggling to maintain control. At first Frost seems inadequate to the task, letting Nixon dodge and weave and, yes, stonewall, but then, like the cavalry riding to the rescue, Reston unearths a damning taped conversation between Nixon and White House counsel Colson, conveniently overlooked by all. This leads to Frost's "get" and a weaselly confession of sorts from Nixon. Snow plays Nixon as awkward, a bit bumbling, but slyly devious. It's not quite the Nixon we love to hate, but underneath is that desperate need to be "in," to show those elitist bastards that he's still got it. His drunk phone call on the eve of the Watergate taping session brings Nixon's inner demons screaming to the surface. This scene, shaded with Snow's nuance, is a definite "get." Colón's Frost conveys the young man's own prickly awkwardness, his preening need to be among the A-list, his ache for a comeback. He needs to be "in" as much as Nixon. However, the production directed by Susan Salter, which should scamper during its intermissionless 90 minutes, trips up constantly with incessant blackouts between scenes to slide airplane seats off stage, remove podiums and generally change the minimal settings. The play's flow stops dead. And I wish the video projections of the interview were less hazy and dreary mid-shot. Frost's show was all tight close-ups, with Nixon trapped in the frame, the better to reveal his darting eyes and unconscious body language. Contrary to the joy of Frost's team in forcing a confession, Nixon came off in the interviews with surprising dignity, if slippery motive. He apologized for the "mistakes" of Watergate but never confessed to anything other than letting the country down and, most shocking of all, "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal." Nixon sidestepped with dexterous aplomb and masterful deviousness. Morgan might see victory; we see sympathy for the devil. Through February 8. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

Metamorphoses The more things change, the more they stay the same. Myths that were written by a Roman poet hundreds of years ago can still speak to our human emotions of wrath, insecurity, lust and despair. They can still show us what kind of change we willingly or unwillingly undergo at the mercy of our behavior. But rather than simply mount these myths in classic form, writer/director Mary Zimmerman chose to take Ovid's epic work, Metamorphoses, and give it a superbly distinct tone and staging. Ovid may have not known what a Tony Award was, but no doubt he'd be proud that his work, in Zimmerman's über-creative hands, was a 2002 nominee for Best Play and winner of the Best Director Award. If there were an award for best use of a gigantic pool in the middle of the stage, this play would have won that, too. Taking up ninety percent of the stage, the pool in Bayou City Theatrics' production has a square-shaped interior deep-ish end (the water is about knee length) surrounded by an outer square of shallow wading depth, fronted on the audience side by a banquet table covered with various clear glass receptacles half filled with water. None of this is simply for show; the pool/water serves the production in many forms. Water is the symbol of transformation for all the characters as they wade and wash and are drowned or reborn in it throughout the play. It is the visual grounding of a set design that has little to no props. It provides the sometimes soothing, sometimes maudlin and often melancholy sound effects as the cast splashes about in the various scenes. It is at once beautiful and harrowing and comes very close to stealing the spotlight. Thankfully, director and designer Colton Berry has such a firm grasp on the feel, look and meaning of this show that no matter how downright cool it is to see a humongous pool of water onstage, our attention isn't merely focused on the effect. Instead, Berry's superb finesse with the emotions in Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's work captures our rapt attention as we follow the 11 myths in this two-hour production that flies by in a series of short scenes. Alternating between comedy and tragedy, modern dialogue and something closer to the way Ovid himself would have spoken, the show is narrated by a rotating cast of black-dressed washerwomen and performed in ensemble format with the ten cast members playing several roles. Each scene tells a myth in which one or all of the characters undergo some kind of water-enabled change, imparting eerily relevant takeaways for our own non-mythical lives. Some of the characters we're already familiar with (Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice, Cupid and Psyche), and others will probably be new to most audience members (selfish Erysichthon, cursed Myrrha and the heartwarming Baucis and Philemon). But regardless of your level of knowledge about Roman mythology, the show is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to visual enthrallment, moving storyline and brain-engaging change-ups in style. The feel of the stories seesaws from modern Kim Kardashian/Valley girl-sounding narration to Freudian analysis to splendidly classically told tales. But the one thing the scenes have in common (besides terrifically moody lighting and wonderfully eclectic sound design) is a uniformly talented cast that makes splashing about in water and often being soaked head to toe at turns sexy, horrific, upsetting and lovely. Here's the thing about a good myth about change: It doesn't matter if it's hundreds of years old or was written by some Roman dude who never had a Frappuccino. If the lesson is a good one, it stands the test of time. The thing about a play about transformation myths? Well, if it embraces the old and makes it new by taking risks in the writing, thereby forcing a jaded audience to look at their own personal paths and decisions, then it too is good. Finally, what about a production of a new play about change based on old myths? In this case, under the superlative design and direction of Colton Berry and his merry band of standout performers who take us on a journey as gorgeous as it is meaningful, we get a night in the theater that is nothing short of life-changing. Or, at the very least, theater life-changing. Through February 1. The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main at Capitol, Suite B, — JG

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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
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman