The Quadroon Ball: An American Tragedy The New York Times described Damon Wright's play about a mixed-race southern family as an "intelligent, affecting new play about race, family, honor and freedom." In it, Jeanette, a quadroon in 1830s New Orleans, wins the heart of a white French prince at a ball. She falls in love and bears him a child, but when the prince is summoned back to France, leaving her in New Orleans, she creates a new life (and another child) with her own black slave. Of course, Jeanette is forced to choose between her two lives. Thru Nov. 2. Opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. (see Thrills, Theater for other dates and times). Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, 524-6706. $12$17.
Houston Fire Fighters Calendar Celebration By now, lots of Houstonians have flipped through the pages of those sexy firemen calendars. Each month is graced with yet another glossy, handsome, hunky guy who has gallantly doffed his clothing and allowed his image to be sold, all in the name of helping the Fire Fighter's Burned and Crippled Children's Fund. (What a really good reason to get naked!) This year, you have a chance to meet your favorite guy in the flesh, so to speak. Evin Thayer Studios and La Strada Restaurant are hosting a calendar-signing party. Meet Chelsi Smith-Blair, Miss Universe of 1995, or your favorite firefighter, and enjoy the atmosphere of La Strada Restaurant, which is also celebrating its 11th anniversary at this party. 6-9 p.m. La Strada Restaurant, 322 Westheimer, 223-5287. Free.
The Good, The Bad and the Bugly! Creepy, crawly and completely wonderful! Jillions of little boys and little girls, too, are going to love the new permanent exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Leaf cutter ants, aquatic insects and giant beetles are ready to show their arthropodic selves in the new Insect Zoo, which is housed in the lower lobby of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. See a toe biter, a spiny devil, a velvet ant, or if you're really brave, the hissing cockroach from Madagascar. Not to mention insect relatives such as spiders and scorpions .... Some of the bugs are so accessible that the staff and docents can bring them out for visitors to touch. Just imagine that millipede tickling your palm -- or if not yours, then certainly that of the child sitting next to you. At the opening celebration today, see a bug and puppet show along with special guest Dr. Arthur Evans, one of the world's foremost experts on beetles. Learn a lot, and meet a death-head cockroach while you're at it. Opening celebration, 1-3 p.m. (See Thrills, Museums for regular museum hours.) The Houston Museum of Natural Science, 1 Hermann Circle Drive, 639-IMAX, $3.50, adults; $2.50, children.
Camino Faux Infernal Bridegroom Productions, one of the most innovative and talented theater companies in town, hosts its second annual season-kickoff/fundraising party at the Art Car Park. In the spirit of their opening play, Tennessee Williams's Camino Real, the gathering promises to be as festive and fun as a crowded bordertown street fair. The strangely beautiful creatures of the Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre will take the stage, and the group de Schmog will perform de Schmog Fairy Tale, a 45-minute rock opera. Sidewalk artists, jugglers and street dancers all will wander among the guests, performing for the crowds that gather. A smoking room will offer air conditioning for the faint of heart who can't stand all the grime of street life, but the oily dirt and sandy grit are part of the fun of being out among the elements. A cheap, loud, delirious way to spend a night on the town. 8 p.m.-1 a.m. Art Car Park, 1615 Travis, underground parking garage at the corner of Travis and Pease (the entrance is on Pease), 802-0250. $14.99 tickets include free beer and wine; $2, cocktails.
Bus Stop One of Marilyn Monroe's most memorable movie roles has to be the part of Bus Stop's Cherie, the sexy, funny blond full of a visceral yearning for stardom. In William Inge's wonderful script, a bus full of folks moving west from Kansas City ends up stuck in a roadside diner during a snowstorm. Trapped together, the ordinary folks reveal their extraordinary dreams and hearts. The University of Houston School of Theatre has smartly chosen this gently written play to open its 1997 season. Inge, who also wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, is a master at revealing the tender and complicated psychology residing under the seemingly ordinary exteriors of everyday Americans. Thru Oct. 12. 8 p.m. (See Thrills, Theater for other dates and times.) Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, UH Main Campus, entrance no. 16, 743-2929. $9; $7, seniors and students.
Antigone Poor Antigone, faced with one of those classical conundrums: let her brother's soul go to hell or be exiled for breaking the laws of the state. What's a girl to do? Of course, Antigone's a good sort, and gives up everything for her dear brother's eternity, but Creon, her uncle and king, turns out to be the jerk Oedipus accused him of being way back in Sophocles's earlier play, Oedipus Rex. In this latest Houston offering of the very old Greek tragedy, Renaissance Performing Arts Center's artistic director Tyrone Dargins has transposed the play to Africa. Patrick Allen, a former Houston Oiler, plays Creon; thus, this production promises to be muscular, to say the least. Thru Nov. 1. Opens to-night at 7:30 p.m. (see Thrills, Theater for other dates and times.) 400 Northline Mall, Suite 308, 695-7469. $10; $7, seniors and students.
Joseph Cornell Cornell's famous boxes -- exquisite assemblages of small, common objects, text and memorabilia -- were inspired in part by his dreams. Walter Hopps, the big kahuna at the Menil, has remarked, "Among the American artists of his generation, Cornell was a pioneer in expressing the evocative poetry inscribed in objects from the real world ...." From the Menil's own Cornell holdings and from other private collections, Hopps has gathered 75 of the boxes and a smattering of Cornell's lesser-known collages and films. 11 a.m.-6:45 p.m. (See Thrills, Museums for other days and times.) The Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400. Free.
Houston Downtown Street Festival Festival time is upon us. This weekend's big offering is the revamped, renamed Bi-Annual Westheimer Street Festival. Of course, there will be the obligatory arts and crafts vendors, lots of Houston restaurants will show what they can do with food and music will sound forth from six different stages. But best of all, the festivities will now happen downtown among the canyons of our skyscrapers. If you haven't been downtown lately, now's your chance to see some of the changes taking place there. Noon-10 p.m. today and Sunday, downtown Houston, bounded by Franklin, Prairie, Milam and Texas, 688-3773. Free, but organizers ask that you bring a children's book in the name of fighting illiteracy.
Texas Renaissance Festival The Texas Renais-sance Festival happens on 50 acres of piney land about an hour outside of Houston. A strange and fantastic group of artisans, musicians, chefs, actors and ne'er-do-wells assembles for this festival's astonishing run of seven weekends. Watch glass blowers blow glass, coins being minted, broom-makers twine straw together. If artisans don't interest you, spend the day eating Scotch eggs, wild boar, peasant bread and emu trencher. Buy homemade shoes, stained glass or Renaissance clothing. Or just watch the crowd as spectators mingle with 1,000 costumed characters. You might find the Flaming Idiots juggling trio, Merlin the Magician or Robin Hood battling the Sheriff of Nottingham. Historical accuracy, of course, comes second to fun. 9 a.m. to dusk, FM 1774 between Hwy. 105 in Plantersville and FM 1488 in Magnolia, (281) 356-2178,(800)458-3435, www.texrenfest.com. $14.95; $6.95, children five-12; free, children four and under.
Race for the Cure The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure series is the largest series of 5K runs in the U.S. More than 400,000 runners and walkers are expected to participate in 78 cities this year. Of the money Houstonians raise, 75 percent will remain right here to provide breast health care and education for Houston's medical community, including the medically underserved population. Join other women to work up a sweat in the race to cure breast cancer. 7 a.m., registration; 7:30 a.m., women-only 5K run/walk; 7:40, one-mile family walk. The Galleria, Westheimer at Post Oak, 850-9877. $25.
The Heights Festival The Heights Fes-tival -- complete with a parade of local high school marching bands, Boy Scout troops waving from homemade floats and important Heights citizens perched on the convertible rims of shiny red Mustangs -- is one of the sweetest afternoons you'll spend all year. The weather is suddenly October fair, the people are generally kind, and it's not so crowded that you can't move. Food vendors, a petting zoo, music on four different stages and children's games ought to keep the whole family happy. Noon-6 p.m. Heights Boulevard down to 19th Street, 861-4002. Free.
Millennium's Milestones Remember college? It came before the big bills and the weed-whacker and the nights of endless sitcoms droning in the background of that workaday life all college students look so longingly toward. If only you could go back; now that you've been in the "real" world, you'd know how to appreciate those hours of philosophical lectures on big ideas and big historical moments. Rice Continuing Studies Series offers you that chance. With classes such as Humanity and Inhumanity: The Holocaust in Perspective, or Ideas That Sparked a Revolution: The Intellectual Basis of Calculus, you can't help but get wiser -- especially since you'll be paying for the classes out of your own paycheck. Better still: no grades. For information, a catalog or to register, call 520-6022, ext. 416; or send e-mail to scs
Public Art and Private Gardens: An Introduction Though fall is upon us and the last thing you may be thinking of is your garden, now is the time to start planning for spring. To help get you going, the Museum of Printing History offers a lecture tonight on "The Philosophy and Art of Gardens." Dr. Kathleen Haney, of the University of Houston, will show slides and ask you to consider the metaphoric meaning of the earth and the work that goes into tilling it. 7 p.m. The Museum of Printing History, 1324 W. Clay, 522-4652. $10.
Not-Cormac Writing Contest Many think that Cormac McCarthy (author of Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing) owns one of the most original and significant voices in fiction today. It's difficult not to believe in such large sentiments about the El Paso writer when you read sentences such as this one: "He pulled his breeches off the footboard of the bed and got his shirt and his blanketlined duckingcoat and got his boots from under the bed and went out to the kitchen and dressed in the dark by the faint warmth of the stove and held the boots to the windowlight to pair them left and right and pulled them on and rose and went to the kitchen door and stepped out and closed the door behind him." In light of McCarthy's literary status, it's only fitting that the El Paso Library holds a contest for the most outrageous parody of their city's most famous writer. A brief passage from last year's first-place winner: "The alert ching of the gas station bell sounded upon his crossing the black hose that lies across the lot like an acquiescent serpent. Then the slow crunch of the attending man's boots sluffered along the pavement, scattering the infernal infestation of eternal insects coalescing in the buzz of yellow lamplight which had spread itself across the whole scene like the flooding gaze of the great being below Himself." Sit down today and see if you can top that: First-place prize is $300. Each entry must be no longer than 500 words, but there's no limit to how many entries you can compose. Type your entry and double-space it. Write your name, address and phone number on the back of the first page, and make sure it's postmarked by October 24. Send it to: Not-Cormac Writing Contest, c/o Nathan, 511 Randolph St., El Paso, Texas, 79902. Enclose a $3 entry fee payable to the El Paso Public Library.