Capsule Stage Reviews: January 29, 2015

Madame Butterfly The girl in the chrysanthemum kimono never stays too far away too long. Depicted through Puccini's most rhapsodic melodies that use a subtle pentatonic framework for its swirling overlay of Japanesque atmosphere, this universally beloved opera is continually on the annual top-ten list of most performed operas. Written after Tosca, this beautiful and disturbing work (1907, then revised four more times until its present form) never fails to wring the audience's appropriate sympathetic response. It's bold and modern in theme, lush in score, and fairly wrenching in emotion. Houston Grand Opera's production is blessed by Ana Maria Martinez in the title role, who conveys a feisty stubbornness in Cio-Cio-San, as well as bringing her patented shimmering sound, and by tenor Alexey Dolgov, as bounder Pinkerton. His bright tenor trumpets through Puccini's hothouse music. His music is so triumphant and Italianate, you'd think he was some sort of hero. Puccini never clues you in on his wickedness. Pinkerton fools us like he fools Butterfly. Puccini fools everyone. The story's a great one, terribly tragic as we witness the innocent young geisha make one bad decision after another, all in the name of love. She falls for a cad, American naval officer Pinkerton, who marries the child bride for one purpose only. She gives up everything for him: her culture, her gods, her family, her friends. His leave over, Pinkerton departs, telling American consul Sharpless he intends to find a real wife in America. Ecstatically in love and intensely loyal, Butterfly waits patiently for three years for his return, rebuffing a marriage proposal from a Japanese prince, which would end her poverty and misery. "I am American. I am married," she stubbornly replies. She is also raising her young son fathered by Pinkerton. Pinkerton returns with his new wife to retrieve the child, but is hit with waves of remorse for what he's done. Unable to face her, he runs away. Butterfly realizes the awful truth. In a heartbreaking twist of irony, she vows to give up the child, but only if Pinkerton himself comes to get him. When he enters their little house overlooking the harbor of Nagasaki, he finds her dead from suicide. The rest of the cast was okay, while some were actually inaudible. No one was particularly outstanding. Veteran baritone Scott Hendricks, as consul Sharpless, had a bad night of it, sounding gruff and muffled, which is not the way he usually sounds. In her HGO debut, mezzo Sofia Selowsky, as Butterfly's confidant and maid, Suzuki, has smooth, smokey overtones to her voice that enhanced the character's conspiratorial qualities and brought out her downright steadfastness toward her mistress and friend. The Michael Grandage production, a co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève and Lyric Opera of Chicago, is a remounting from 2010. It's impressionistic and pastel with pine tree silhouettes, gilded stepped perspective frames, a ubiquitous sliding shoji screen, and a giant arc of wood walkway that will later creakily revolve for the famous "Vigil scene" with its delicate and moving "Humming Chorus." Neil Austin's atmospheric lighting is the third star of this show, imbuing each time of day with exceptional color and clarity. Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero began in fevered rush, forcing the singers to keep up, but slowed down considerably in Acts II and III (combined into one, the acts bridged by Butterfly's vigil.) Maybe he got a call from breathless singers backstage to put the brakes on. While not as hefty a voice as one would wish for Butterfly — to pierce through Puccini's thunderous outpourings — Martinez possesses a tone of unfailing beauty, with an abundant blush of freshness and purity that conveys youthfulness and unbridled passion. That she's a consummate actor only adds to her complete portrayal of this innocent young girl, scampering in tiny little steps and giggling behind an upturned hand, then seduced, then abandoned, then ultimately shattered, maturing with a vengeance, when her dreams of love get trampled. Her aching farewell aria to her little son, "Sorrow," brings tears from even the most jaded of opera patrons. If the supporting cast had risen to the principal's lofty heights, this Butterfly would have soared that much higher. January 31, February 6 and February 8 m. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Tigers Be Still Wonders don't often happen in the theater, not with regular occurrence, but via the wizards at Black Lab Theatre and its amazing cast of four, this production happens to be the real thing — a truly blessed event: Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still (2010), a tender, raucous, odd comedy that has made the rounds of regional theaters since its NY premiere. Although Tigers was originally written back in her Yale graduate days, young Rosenstock's TV bona fides (co-writer and producer of Fox's New Girl with Zooey Deschanel) have paid off handsomely in the reworking. The many scenes are short and impressionistic yet always succinct, mining new emotional ground as the characters (and we) discover more skewed aspects about them. The revelations fall into place at just the right moments, but nothing is forced. The writing is fresh, tinged blue the way people speak today, but always hits home. There's no sound in theater as satisfying as when the audience, suddenly laughing, catches its breath and goes ominously silent when a scene turns dramatic. There are three or four of these moments in Tigers, and they stop your heart. And then the laughs start up again. Sherry (Samantha Slater), older sister Grace (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and their mother, Wanda (unseen during the play), are at a standstill. They are so discombobulated with what life's thrown at them, they can't move. Literally. They've been in bed or, in Grace's case, ensconced on the couch for months at a time. Sherry, a graduate in art therapy, can't find a job, a boyfriend or any friends her own age. Depressed, she's moved back into Mom's house and has been holed up in her small childhood bed. Grace, once she discovered her fiancé's unfaithfulness, has made very good friends with a bottle of Johnnie Walker. She has left the house periodically to ransack her boyfriend's apartment and steal as much as she can: his two Chihuahuas, his karaoke machine, the kitchen spice rack, the bathroom doorknob. Splayed out on the couch, Grace wallows in drunken grief watching the love scene from Top Gun over and over with her lovelorn detritus strewn at her feet. Mom stays barricaded upstairs in her room, not letting her children see her ever since she ballooned out from medication. She communicates with them by telephone. This unholy riff, something akin to a demented Cherry Orchard, gets a blast of air when Mom wrangles Sherry an art-teaching job at the local high school. Principal Joseph's teen son Zack (Ty Doran), surly and morose, needs anger management, so who better to comfort him than sincere, wistfully out-of-her-league Sherry? Nervous, flighty, yet eager to succeed, she turns Grace's couch into her home office, even sometimes while Grace is sleeping off the liquor. Oh, did I mention that a tiger has escaped from the local zoo and has the entire town terrified? The tiger adds another surreal touch to Rosenstock's cast of clueless but precisely drawn loonies and losers, each of whom has a beast of sorts roaring inside him or her. The cast is electric, superlative. Slater (Sherry), making her Houston debut, I believe, has a standing invitation to come back anytime. From Sherry's nervous, quivering first words as she introduces the play using that industrial-size karaoke machine, her feisty little lamb grows into a tiger cub as she finds her confidence. Behind those nerdy glasses and pulled-back hair beats a sincere, generous heart. Sherry's duckling will become a swan, even if the glasses remain. Slater, unspoiled and unassuming, plays her with bounding giddiness, even when Sherry isn't very enthused, which makes her character even more endearing. Ehrhardt (Grace) has the juiciest role, the most surefire. Who wouldn't want to play the blowsy tart who's so unhappy about her cheating boyfriend who stole her future that she sleeps with the geriatric mailman because she sympathizes with the Depends commercial? Ehrhardt is perfection, whether slurring her words or just lying in a liquored coma. The purple crumpled velour jumpsuit is perfect, too. If Justin Doran has ever given a bad performance, I've never seen it. He's a Houston theater pro of the highest caliber, and Joseph is but another of his impressive turns. Joseph, too, has been caught by life's curveballs and can't ever seem to say what he really means. When he tries to cancel his dead wife's magazine subscription, the finality of it all catches in his throat. Doran imbues Joseph with unremitting pain while shifting immediately into controlled outrage and caustic wit toward the unsuspecting telemarketer. Thanks to Doran's flawless performance, the brief scene is telling in its expansiveness. Young Ty Doran obviously has picked up some mighty fine pointers from his father (the aforementioned Justin Doran), for his Zack is all sass and pain, beautifully realized. He's the most believable teenager I've seen onstage in years. No false moves, no false anything. His scene with Sherry as they sit in his mother's shoe closet — a seduction scene without seduction — is one of sheer transparency and almost crushing heartbreak. Director Jordan Jaffe showers this play with both realism and fantasy, keeping a delicate balance between the crazed situations and half-crazed characters. The bizarre is always checked with truth, though, which keeps Rosenstock's sharpness slightly off-kilter and nicely hazy. His team is impressive as well, especially Claire "Jac" Jones's swiftly changing set design (which turns into a classroom, Joseph's office, a Walmart checkout counter and Mom's shoe closet with fluid ease), and Yezminne Zepeda's evocative sound design. Those unseen Chihuahuas in the basement certainly sound annoyed. This show is Houston theater at its best, or rather theater anywhere at its best. I guarantee, you won't forget it. I'm not one for making predictions, but I'll make this one: When the season is over — and there are plenty of Houston premieres yet to come — Black Lab's Tigers Be Still will remain the freshest, most innovative, most deeply felt of them all. Let's roar. Through January 31. Wildfish Theatre, 1703-D1 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-515-4028. — DLG

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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