Capsule Stage Reviews: October 23, 2014

Marie Antoinette The ill-fated queen of France (Emily Neves) sashays down the halls of Versailles to a heavy techno beat. Gigantic neon fleurs-de-lis flash blindingly. Looking as tasty and pastel as any of those luscious macarons piled into a decorous pyramid on the acrylic table, she could be a classy runway model: cool, vacant and relishing the ego kick that comes when everybody is looking at you, just you. Then she opens her mouth. Out pours pure Valley Girl. In David Adjmi's contempo take, Marie Antoinette (2012), France's most notorious and misunderstood queen is the original material girl. Pampered, spoiled, rich beyond imagining, this vacuous celebrity has everything. She's not a 1 percenter, she's a 0.001 percenter. Always on display, "built to be queen," silly Marie is leader of the pack. But in one of history's most vicious pranks, this teen queen is too stupid to realize how the world sees her. First idolized, then detested, scrutinized at court with a gaze that could sear flesh and later mercilessly mocked by the public, Adjmi's Marie whines her way through her short life and this play's two acts. She never "gets it," not even when this surfer girl gets slammed by the tumultuous tsunami of the revolution. The first act is artfully crammed, a rushing who's who of court intrigue, sweet and sour memories of her princess girlhood in Vienna, and dollops of history on the march. Marie has a dalliance with handsome Swedish count Axel Fersen (David Matranga), who idolizes her as an "exotic butterfly with opalescent wings." Marie's prescient enough to know that butterflies get pressed between sheets of glass or pinned into a frame, but the next instance she's snapping her fingers in defiance of convention, dropping her corset's confining whalebones and shaking her panniers with sensual abandon. Her marriage woes with backward teenager Louis (Mitchell Greco), soon to be Louis XVI, is sharply conveyed when he enters rolling his American Flyer wagon, stuffed with clocks, his passion. He's as petulant and spoiled as Marie, but he's stuck in boyhood limbo, unprepared for royal duties or those in the bedroom. To save the dynasty and everyone's reputation — the people blame her for the lack of an heir — Marie's disapproving brother Joseph, Emperor of Austria (Shawn Hamilton), lectures the innocents and convinces the childlike husband to get the operation which will revive his sagging interest. At her faux little hamlet built on the grounds of Versailles with its cottages, mill, dairy, and perfumed sheep and cattle, she's no more comfortable acting like a shepherdess than acting a queen. In the play's most satisfying scene, little sheep are rolled around, along with a larger one, handled on the side by actor Luis Galindo. He nuzzles up to her, grazes on her skirt, then talks. It's odd, surreal, comic and just right. He bluntly warns her of the coming storm. "The people are very angry," says this ovine Cassandra, "step carefully." When the revolution comes with a thunderous coup de théâtre, as the white floor is ripped apart, the neon goes out, chairs are overthrown, all overlaid with the hellish sound of mobs and panic. Scruffy Revolutionist (Benjamin McLaughlin) marches ominously toward us, holding out his scrolled piece of paper as it tears away from the background — an endless petition of grievances. Act II is less fulfilling. Adjmi turns stuffy polemicist to air his views on democracy and the rights of man. The ancient regime may be dead, but what comes after is no better. Alone in the Conciergerie prison, her family dead or forcibly removed, she goes mad. It's neither convincing nor accurate, although Neves makes this moment shine brighter than it should. Smartly directed by Leslie Swackhamer, Adjmi's contemporary look has the moves of a fine music video. Stages's starkly abstract production is ravishing to behold: those opulent fashions, scenic designer Ryan McGettigan's wondrous neon installation, Devlin Browning's searing lighting, Bryan Ealey's superlative sound work. As disco queen deluxe, Neves is radiantly charming and bubble-headed, continuously finding new ways to show how unmoored from reality she is becoming. Through November 2. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

Of Mice and Men If you don't have access to those iconic Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange, turn your gaze to Texas Repertory Theatre's evocative production of John Steinbeck's classic tale of '30s hardscrabble migrant workers, Of Mice and Men (1937). The stage pictures are unrelenting: dashed dreams, crushed hope and aching loneliness. There's a flutter of male bonding, what Steinbeck called "somebody to talk to that gives a damn," but friendship can't compete with grinding poverty, bigotry, and forces beyond your control. Steinbeck paints a mighty gloomy picture of the American Dream. Yet his poor itinerant workers dream on. That's all they have. The play's heart is odd couple George and Lenny. George (Mark Roberts) dreams of a farm where he can be his own master, free to come and go as he likes, answerable to no one. "Slow" Lenny (Seán Patrick Judge), a bear of a man with incredible strength but a child's capacity, shares George's dream because all he wants is a pen full of soft rabbits to raise and fondle. Caretaker to this man/child, George is too decent to ditch him. Lenny couldn't survive without him, and George needs Lenny's boundless optimism to fuel his dream. But Lenny's innocent yearning to touch soft things has caused trouble, like that recent incident with the woman in the soft dress, which is why they're on the way to a new ranch job. In Steinbeck's microcosm of hardship, the ranch hands have their own problems. Feeble, one-handed Candy (Toby Mattox) is as useless around the ranch as his cherished companion, an old, stinky, half-blind dog. He knows his days are numbered, and so are his dog's. Bitter and disillusioned, black stable hand Crooks (Brandon Balque) is shunned by the whites, forbidden to eat or fraternize with them. His only solace, the books he constantly reads at night. Curly (James Monaghan), the boss's son, has problems of a different sort: his nubile wife (Haley Hussey). Pathologically jealous, Curly picks fights whenever he can, usually with someone smaller. As the only woman on the ranch (she's the only character without a name), "Curly's wife" loves to sashay into the bunkhouse whenever Curly's not around and give the guys "the eye." With no friends, the wife just wants to talk to somebody. A little warmth would be okay, too. She has her own pie-in-the-sky dream: Hollywood. Slim (J. Cameron Cooper), Carlson (David Walker) and Whit (Shane Manning) share the bunkhouse, rounding out the story with atmosphere, and the actors seem very much at home on the range. Gruff yet sympathetic, Roberts's George might be down but not out. But there's no dreamer in him. He's as caught up in the vision as Lenny, but there's no wildness in Roberts's obsession. We've got to believe in those chickens and barley fields, too. He doesn't make us see them. Looking like Goliath among the farm hands, Judge plays Lenny with clean simplicity. Keeping his head bowed so as not to attract attention, he's a powerful presence. Those lethal hands, capable of snapping a mouse or a pretty woman's neck, hide in his jeans or hang limply by his side. Childlike, he doesn't know what to do when a puppy nips his hand other than hit it or quiet it by stopping its mouth. Judge builds Lenny's character layer by layer. Lenny can't figure out what's wrong, only that he's done something bad and George will be sore. Judge lets us peer inside. Nicely shaded to bring out her desperation, Hussey's hussy is deeper than just a tramp; Balque's Crooks is edged with quills; and Monaghan's Curly is a bantam rooster, all puffed up, until Lenny silences his crowing. Texas Rep's production looks great. Scenic designer Trey Otis's unit set of slatted wood is worn and weather-beaten; costumer Macy Lynn's overalls and boots are sweat-stained and scuffed; while lighting designer Eric Marsh's pastel evenings and blood-red sunsets add to the tragic mood. Perhaps hampered by the gravity inherent in this international bestseller and Broadway hit, director Steven Fenley steers it leisurely. Time is made for Steinbeck's rough-knuckled poetry and sentiment, but other scenes lumber, allowing the tension to lapse and our focus to wander. Steinbeck is, and always was, on the side of the little guy, but even he can't do anything to help these drifters on the edge. Sometimes there's nothing to do but bear witness. Of Mice and Men does that with noble eloquence. Through November 9. 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — 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