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The 5 (+ 1) Best Things to Do in Houston This Weekend: The World Premieres Edition

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Houston audiences received their Christmas presents a little early this year - in the way of five (yes, cinco) productions making their world premieres this weekend. Our choices for Friday include Ashley Horn's Dans La Lune, a dance program inspired by the film of the same name. Also on Friday, and just to make it really difficult to decide which one to see on that day, we've got Kendal Kaminsky's new play The End of Side A. (Both productions also have a Saturday performance, so you can see each of them.)

On Saturday, we recommend Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies) over at Stages Repertory Theatre. The latest installment in the company's ongoing panto series, Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies) includes some non-lethal zombie cast members. Also on Saturday, there's the Houston Grand Opera's A Christmas Carol. The holiday opera may be just the first in what the organizers tell us may be an ongoing tradition for HGO.

On Sunday, there's Ho Ho Humbug, an original stage play being presented by Stark Naked Theatre. Our sixth suggestion (our +1) is the comedian Hannibal Buress, who has a one-night stand set for the House of Blues on Sunday.

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"I have a real love for special-effects pioneers in film," choreographer/dancer/filmmaker Ashley Horn tells us. "[When I was younger,] I saw Dans La Lune, which was one of the first silent films to ever have special effects in it, and it really stuck with me." In the newly created evening-length program incorporating dance, film and art Dans La Lune, Horn echoes many of the qualities of the original film. The production, presented as part of the Rice University Dancer-in-Residence program, is making its world premiere during a two-day run at the university starting on Friday.

At the time of its release, the 1902 film by Georges Méliès was a sensation. Considered the earliest example of science fiction, the short showed a group of men traveling to the moon in a rocket and exploring the lunar surface. (The scene in which the rocket lands in the Man in the Moon's eye became one of cinema's most iconic moments.) It was awe-inspiring.

It was that sense of awe that Horn hoped to capture in her own project. "You sit down and you see these rocket ships that are being blasted out into space and there's all this smoke and then aliens pop out of them, and it was just mind-boggling. What was that like for the audience? That's where this [Dans La Lune] came from."

The beginning of the program is a structured improvisation inside the visual art installation in the theater's gallery. From there the performance moves to a theater-in-the-round configuration. Dans La Lune features eight dancers and costumes by Horn ("I'm working on these black-and-white costumes, which is really hard for me because I love color!").

See Dans La Lune at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dance Theater in the Rice University Recreation and Wellness Center, 6100 Main. For information, visit recreation.rice.edu/dance/dar. $10.

Having a production of your first full-length play is a big deal. Having a production of your first full-length when you're still in college and only 22 years old is a huge deal. University of Houston theater student Kendal Kaminsky's The End of Side A, one of our choices for Friday, is making its world premiere under director Robert Shimko. Kaminsky initially got the idea for Side A three years ago after watching a documentary about the audio vérité movement. "I knew I wanted to do something with found sound clips," she tells us. With support from UH, that something eventually became Side A.

In the play, a college-age brother and sister discover a cache of audiotapes their father secretly made years before. Thinking the young couple next door had the life he always wanted, the father taped their conversations, making a record of their lives. As the brother and sister listen to the tapes, they discover a side of their father they never knew.

"A lot of the play deals with that sort of searching for something that you can't find. There's frustration for the siblings, who want something from their father but he's unknowable. And nothing on these tapes is going to give them the closure that they want."

The End of Side A's short run includes 7:30 p.m. Friday; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. University of Houston (Studio 208 in the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center). For information, call 713‑743‑3003 or visit uh.edu. $20.

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When an actor "lays an egg onstage," it's usually not a good thing. For Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies), currently at Stages Repertory Theatre including a Saturday performance this weekend, however, it's one of the highlights of the show. Director Josh Morrison tells us that, along with Rapunzel, the family musical includes a frog that paints, an evil governor and a goose that regularly lays golden eggs onstage. "Our props department made an apparatus that allows her to lay ostrich-size golden eggs onstage," he says. "[The woman who plays the goose], who's a wonderfully comedic physical actress, has found various ways to lay these eggs. One time she's goes into labor; another time it just falls out. It leaves us all on the floor every time she does it."

An original production written by Joseph Blanchard and Jodi Bobrovsky, Rapunzel is an over-the-top musical take on the familiar fairy tale. Rapunzel's still locked away in a tower, but this time it's a tiny office where she does the accounting for her family business, The Big Patootie Corporation. Rapunzel's mother and aunt, Ima and Ura Biggenbottom, run the company and one of them has been illegally siphoning to support an evil politician. It's up to Rapunzel, her friend The Frog Formerly Known as Prince, and a few others to put a stop to it.

So how exactly do the zombies fit in? "Oh, zombies are just fun," Morrison says. The zombies, he's quick to tell us, aren't bad. "They're singing and dancing zombies. More Tim Burton-esque than Walking Dead."

While this is a holiday show of sorts, there aren't any Christmas songs in the score. Instead, pop and blues tunes, including some by Michael Jackson and Ray Charles, have been reworked to suit the plot. The evil governor character (a satire of our state's sitting governor) sings Ray Charles's "I Got a Woman" about the Biggenbottom sister who's illegally contributing to his political campaign. For Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies), "I Got a Woman" becomes "I Got a Woman Who's Helping Me Fund My Project."

7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Through January 4. 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713‑527‑0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21 to $100.

Two and a half years ago, British composer Iain Bell was about a third of the way through his first opera, A Harlot's Progress, a dark work with a less than happy ending, when he met with Houston Grand Opera's Artistic and Music Director, Patrick Summers, and they began talking about something lighter. "Summers said he had a longtime dream of a series of holiday operas," recalls Bell, who says the idea of working on something "with some redemptive quality" was very appealing. A commissioned work was quickly agreed upon, and this weekend, including a Sunday performance, the opera A Christmas Carol, based on, of course, the famous Charles Dickens work, makes its world premiere in Houston.

Simon Callow (a well-known British writer and actor who has played Charles Dickens, including on Doctor Who) wrote the libretto and will direct the 90-minute, one-singer (Jay Hunter Morris) performance. Dickens himself performed as a one-man show in a condensed version he had created and modern-day actor Patrick Stewart did an acclaimed one-man version, so Bell thought a one-man opera was more than feasible. Bell, who has composed a number of song cycles, said the role calls for a tenor who sings with range and with dramatic instincts to enable him to move quickly and clearly among the 20 characters, including Ebenezer Scrooge and all his ghosts.

See A Christmas Carol at 8 p.m. December 5, 9, 11, 16, 17, 19 and 20; 2:30 p.m. December 7, 14 and 21. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713‑228‑6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $30 to $105

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For years, New York actor and playwright Scott Burkell got a lot of mileage out of telling stories at parties about the time he worked as a Macy's Santa. But he never thought of putting it together to make a play because of its similarity to David Sedaris's tale of his time as Crumpet the Macy's elf in Santaland Diaries (performed in the past by Alley Theatre company member Todd Waite but not this year). But he was persuaded otherwise because their experiences were different, he says, and ended up writing the two-act Ho Ho Humbug, which makes its world premiere at Stark Naked Theatre this weekend, including a Sunday performance. The premiere site is fitting because Philip Lehl, co-founder of Stark Naked, performed dramaturg duties as Burkell developed his script. Lehl will direct and his wife and Stark Naked co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl is one of the actors in the play.

Burkell says he never set out to be an elf, let alone a Santa. He was between acting jobs and needed one more week of work to qualify for unemployment. Looking for limited seasonal work, he applied to Macy's, figuring he'd work in housewares, but after two days of training, they telephoned him and said they thought he'd be a good fit for Santaland as an elf. "They kind of lied to me," he says, and told him there were elves of all ages. "There was a whole bunch of twentysomethings -- a sea of them -- a grandmother and me. So it was embarrassing." After a week and a half as an elf, Burkell got moved to Santa when a spot opened up (well after Burkell ratted on a bad Santa). Thrown onto the Santa throne wearing a Santa straitjacket (a.k.a. padding; Burkell is a whippet), Burkell says he found the work affected him more than he ever thought it would as he listened to kids and their wishes.

Lehl says he and his wife "both thought the play was right within our aesthetic, that it needed actors who would be able to play with truth and honesty and yet it would still be funny." "We're telling a story that has a true journey for a character," says Tobin-Lehl. "Even though this is a story about a guy who goes to Macy's and becomes an elf and a Santa, every single person who watches this show will relate to this person and will feel like they have been this person moving through the Christmas season." All stressed that this is not a play for children, especially those who still believe in Santa, and they suggest that no one under 13 should attend. Burkell (who also wrote LMNOP, which will be performed at TUTS Underground this spring) is the only one of six actors who plays one character throughout the play; the other characters divide up about 50 characters among them.

Get in the Ho Ho Humbug spirit at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays with a special 3 p.m. performance December 24. Through De-cember 24. Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832‑866‑6514 or visit starknakedtheatre.com.$12 to $40.

Two minutes into our conversation, comedian Hannibal Buress, who is another choice for Sunday, stops to take another call. "Sorry," he says when he comes back to the phone. "I had to have a big bottled water conversation with the hotel's front desk." Before the interruption, Buress, a former writer for 30 Rock, was explaining his attitude about making comedy accessible to the average audience member. "I try to make stuff relatable, but first, it has to be funny. It doesn't have to be a familiar experience or situation for it to be funny. Chris Rock has a bit about being at the White House and talking to Michelle Obama. I haven't been to the White House or talked with Michelle Obama. I think 99 percent of the people in the country haven't either, but Chris Rock can still make his story funny to me even though I haven't been through the exact same thing."

Most of the current tour is new material, he says. "There's not like a theme or anything; it's just stuff I want to talk about. It's a lot of dark material. It's funny, but it's got a dark tone."

A knock at his hotel room door calls Buress away again. A few seconds later, he comes back. "I just got delivered four hotel bottled waters -- put that in the article. I'm doing it big out here," he deadpans. "I take that power really seriously. I want to inspire kids across the country, you know, tell them, hey, one day you might be doing a phone interview and have to stop because the hotel is delivering you bottled water."

Hannibal Buress performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. For information, visit hob.com. $25 to $29.

Margaret Downing contributed to this post.

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