Fools Neil Simon's comic fable was a big fat flop when it appeared on Broadway in 1981 and ran for 40 performances. Although apparently written in his sleep and savaged by critics, this tissue-paper-thin little comedy has plenty of Borscht Belt charm and Catskills know-how in its incessant one-liners, easy-on-the-brain story and characters whose main purpose is to be stupid. What's easier for the master of comedy than put-downs? Leon (Kevin Dean) is the new head schoolmaster in the remote Ukrainian village of Kulyenchikov. Eager and earnest about his job, he has stumbled into a place that's been cursed with stupidity for 200 years. The shepherd (Cliff House) constantly loses his sheep; the butcher (Ric Hodgin) sweeps dirt into his house; the doctor (Orlando Arriaga) offers up any prescription because "some people like prescriptions"; the postman (Chip Simmons) can never find the right address. Leon discovers he has 24 hours to lift the curse -- which entails the lovely but dumb-as-a-stump doctor's daughter Sophia (Jessica Lewis), with whom he's fallen hopelessly in love, and the pompous Count (Jeffrey McMorrough), who proposes to Sophia twice a day. Pitfalls and verbal pratfalls hound Leon in his quest to educate the girl, but this being simple Simon, the outcome's never in doubt; nor could it be, or this fragile comedy would blow away. A.D. Players, under Marion Arthur Kirby's snappy direction, plays this vaudeville as if it were vintage Sid Caesar, which adds a sprightly and soothing naturalness to the time-worn routines. If exchanges like the following set you aglow, you'll find Simon's merry Russian village much to your liking -- Sophia: "Would you like to kiss me?" Leon: "With all of my heart." Sophia: "No, I mean with your lips." Through March 18. Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.
Hitchcock Blonde The Alley Theatre's production of Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde is a heady mix of sexual tension and technical thrills. Directed by Gregory Boyd, the play skitters over a vast landscape of subject matter, with a narrative focusing on Alfred Hitchcock himself (played with a convincing likeness by James Black) woven into a story about a modern-day college professor obsessed with some old cans of film shot by the great director before he became famous. Over the course of the play we bounce back and forth in time, moving from a Greek island where Hitchcock aficionado Alex (Mark Shanahan) and his student Jennifer (Elizabeth Bunch) are spending a few weeks examining found cans of film, to 1950s Hollywood, where Hitchcock is working with a blond body double (Melissa Pritchett) on the famous shower scene in Psycho. That both couples eventually move from work to play is no real surprise. The blond is a classic bombshell, with red lips and an oozing desire for fame. And Alex and Jennifer are alone in the sun with nothing to do but look at old film. The sexual tension on stage is palpable. Even more interesting, though, is what sexuality reveals about the characters. As with any Hitchcock film, sexual fulfillment here is dangerous indeed. As these two stories move forward, images of women showering, hidden knives and sliced skin all begin to stack up into a surprisingly suspenseful plot that is smartly informed by Hitchcock's famous shower scene. And as impressive as the narrative is, the story would not have nearly the power it does without the technical wizardry that designer William Dudley has produced here. Through March 18. 615 Texas Ave., 713-220-5700.
Madame Butterfly/Red Earth The poster for Houston Ballet's Madame Butterfly has a big quote: "This Butterfly soars...a visual feast for audiences. The Houston Press." Yeah, we said that in 2002 when now artistic director Stanton Welch premiered his two-act narrative of the famous love story in Houston, and we're standing by it. Madame Butterfly is part of the current rep evening at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, and the ballet is as beautiful now as it was then. It is a lyrical love story as delicate as a monarch's wings. Peter Farmer's costumes and sets evoke the Japan of old, and Welch's choreography speaks volumes. Subtle gestures with fans and robes turn ballerinas into geishas, and the naval officers move with the grace of Richard Gere at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, although Lieutenant Pinkerton, who "marries" Butterfly and then abandons her, is far from a gentleman. (What is it about geishas -- and astronauts -- that they fall for two-timing naval officers?) When Pinkerton returns, with a new American wife, Butterfly gives him their child and then ends her life. Poignant, beautifully danced by the company to a lush Puccini score, this Butterfly is definitely one of the finest story ballets by Welch. Opening the program is another Welch work, the Houston premiere of his 1996 Red Earth. It's an abstract ballet depicting the hardships of prisoners relocated to the Australian outback, and the stark backdrop painted by Pro Hart and the forlorn fence posts create a desolate landscape for this earthy choreography. Red Earth is an excellent piece that doesn't need tricks. Trim the sand throwing at the end and the grunting by the dancers, and Houston Ballet will have a superb modern ballet. Through March 18. 713.227.ARTS.
Rot John Harvey's mind seems to be a tortured place indeed. In Rot, the newest story coming from Harvey's dangerous pen, incest, disease and a general sense of the hatefulness in us all are wrapped up in an outrageous examination of family life. The fact that the bitter production, created by Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company and Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre (under Harvey's direction), is also laced with deliciously dark moments of ironic humor and painful humanity only makes the theatrical experience that much richer (and, yes, that much more disturbing). The nasty family in question consists of a tyrannical mother named Barbara (Patricia Duran), a spineless father named Earl (Eric Doss) and a hell-raising daughter named Ann (Jennifer Decker). Visiting the family are two strangers in nothing but boxers and T-shirts who do a very good job of reminding these miscreants of all their past bad behavior. Enacted with some beautiful puppets, Earl and Barbara of decades ago show us how dreadfully they behaved back when Ann was just a child. Ann, too, gets to watch her history being enacted by a puppet. We make all sorts of discoveries about the family, none of which speak well of these people. While there is no moment of redemption, no uplifting ending, there is artful grit to this theatrical trip along the outer boundaries of familial "issues." The story is creepily compelling, and the use of puppetry is surprising and powerful. It truly is funny -- shockingly, disturbingly funny. The two companies together have created a smart, wildly literary piece of experimental theater the likes of which no Houstonian will see anywhere else this season. Through March 16. Gremillion Gallery, 2501 Sunset Boulevard, 832-418-0973.
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