Theatre Southwest's Intricate, Amusing Asylum

The set-up: Sweet, nerdy Gary (Chris Patton), who seems permanently stuck somewhere near adolescence, finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into his dream world until he can't tell reality from fantasy. Will his dreams pull him into madness?

The execution: Dream plays, one of the earliest forms of theater, only work really well if the dreams are vivid (or strange, sexy, or enticing) enough to be interesting. Keith Aisner's Asylum, mounted in an extremely well-acted and intricately conceived staging from director Anaka Kohnitz at Theatre Southwest, will have you questioning your own dreams and wishing only the best for overwhelmed, sad sack Gary.

His fantasies pop up everywhere. Dream girl Angela (Katrina Ellsworth) emerges right out of his bed and then disappears down between his legs causing him delicious spasms. Institutionalized Mom (Julie Oliver) swishes out of the wall barefoot and in hospital gown and socks. Muscled leatherman Satan (Lenvi Tennessee) comes by train, arriving at the window accompanied by his Zombie Girls (Liz King and Aesha Kohnitz). God (Adan Inteuz) with booming Old Testament voice calmly walks into Gary's apartment looking like a Goth Oscar Wilde with long stringy hair, top hat, but rock star's artistically torn jeans and athletic shirt. Neighborhood buddy Davis (Sam Martinez), always eating, usually junk food, pops out of the refrigerator. Brother Frank (Andrew Adams), somewhat sane, uses the front door; bizarro Dr. Capote (John Lazo) with his "Tru" mannerisms is wheeled in on his office chair to conduct Gary's shrink session; while creepy disheveled Salesman (Patrick Jennings) selling his fake dreams and deadly nostrums first appears out the storage trunk at the foot of the bed.

Aisner's play is at least one act too long, with all characters repeating the essence of what had been stated in previous scenes, but Kohnitz keeps the pace lively and our interest varied. The marvelous cast fascinates, letting us know once again (as if we could forget) the depth of talent to be had on the Bayou. Patton, Oliver, and Martinez are standouts among standouts, compelling to watch and beguiling to listen to. The psilocybin-inspired pop-art of a set, designed by auteur Kohnitz, is abuzz with reefer madness and dredges up all sorts of '60s-era fun and not-so-fun neuroses, while the video projections and sound design are superbly crafted and executed. Satan's tongues of fire look like infernal dancing waterworks from Vegas' Hotel Bellagio -- if that's not Hell...

The verdict: If dreams are the mirror into the soul, come peer into Asylum (a really bad title for this heartfelt, yet playful, play). The reflection will startle, amuse, and thoroughly satisfy.

Through June 18. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505.

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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