CTC's Striking Candida One of the Season's Best

The Setup: George Bernard Shaw, a great admirer of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (which had scandalized Europe), turned its theme of female emancipation inside out. Instead of leaving her husband and slamming the door, Shaw's enlightened heroine Candida (Shannon Emerick) -- hey, wait a minute, you've got to see this for yourself to appreciate what a clever tweak Shaw gives to that dour Scandinavian.

The Execution: There's no front curtain at Classical Theater's production of Shaw's sparkling comedy, so when you enter Talento Bilingue, you're immediately dazzled by set designer Liz Freese's wondrous Art Nouveau living room, an airy confection that is just about the handsomest thing ever seen. Will the play match this marvel?  It takes, oh, I don't know, seven seconds, before that other magic -- theater's siren song -- takes effect and lifts us aloft, keeping us there until the end. The ensemble acting is superb, without a false note anywhere, Julia Traber's direction is fluid and strong, and Shaw's play is a true beauty -- a real charmer full of Shavian wicked wit and sprightly eloquence. It's laugh-out-loud funny, too, a play still fresh and novel as if it were written only last week, not a hundred years ago.

There are choices to be made, not that Candida wants to make them, but she's forced to choose between "her boys": her stolid, ministerial husband Morell (Thomas Prior) or her new friend who's head over heels in love with her, the teenage poet Marchbanks (Matt Lents). Shaw asks, what does a woman want? For that matter, what does a husband, or a lover, want? He answers his own questions with entertaining vivacity and a love of pointed conversation not heard again until the modern works of Tom Stoppard. The supporting cast -- Rutherford Cravens, Holly Haire and Philip Hays -- is a dream, as full of panache as the leading trio. The striking costumes by Clair Hummel and the lighting design etched by John Smetak set off this glowing production like the faceted jewel it is.

The Verdict: Everything grand that is "theater" happens in this production, without question one of Houston's best shows this season.

(Through February 13. Classical Theater Company at TBH Center, 333 South Jensen Drive, 713-963-9665)

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