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Unexpected Moments in Houston Theatre 2011

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There are moments in theater when your heart seems to stop and you dare not breathe, lest you miss the power on stage. There are moments when you want to collapse in the aisle with uproarious laughter. And there are moments, usually quieter and often minor, when there is simply the click of recognition, as you notice that the hand of a master is at work. Here are some of these from this year's productions. 10. A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre

In A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre, there is a moment when the vendor of cider from a cart offers Ebenezer Scrooge a cup of cider. The vendor's two very young daughters, children, are on the cart and one pours the cider. The pouring is done with such hospitable grace, the movement has such gentle beauty, and is accompanied by such a sweet smile, that we instantly know volumes about that family: that there is so much love that there is no room for resentment at Scrooge bullying their father, that their poverty is so enriched by love that they are truly wealthy, that they have been taught and know the value of honest labor, and that this family unit will survive and thrive, no matter what their circumstances may be. It took a few seconds, but the moment is etched in memory.

9. There Is a Happiness That Morning Is at the Catastrophic Theatre

Much less subtle but equally memorable is the moment in There Is a Happiness That Morning Is at the Catastrophic Theatre's tiny mini-theater (they have a larger venue as well) when a patron in about the fourth row stands up to harangue the two characters on stage -- college teachers, one male, one female, who have slept together in public on a campus lawn.

The first thought I had is: "He hasn't taken his meds, today" as we wait for the management to escort him out. But the patron moved past the other seated patrons, not to exit, but to come up on stage to continue his tirade, and we gradually realize that he is dean of the college, and has been in the audience auditing the teacher's explanations for their behavior.

Kyle Sturdivant plays the dean and proceeds to give a bravura and hilarious performance after this brilliant launch. This is the best use of audience-to-stage since Equus, where the father is most effectively buried in the audience for a crucial scene.

8. Stages Repertory Theatre's Panto Red Riding Hood

In Stages Theatre's successfully ambitious Panto Red Riding Hood, we arrive in the second Act at Grandma's cottage in the woods, and what a cottage it is, with the exterior wall we see covered with what appeared to be sparkling ceramic circles that came close to covering it. It had the effect of an enticing jewel box holding Christmas goodies, and I thought "How lovely" and looked at my program to discover the expected, yes, it was Jodi Bobrovsky doing her magic again. But wait . . . there's more!

When we needed to enter the house, stagehands unfolded the exterior wall of the house to create a full, wide interior that covered the entire stage. And the interior was handsome, seemingly authentic for a Tyrolean cottage, filled with furniture, and apparently seamlessly joined where the walls came together. Of course, it folded back up almost effortlessly when needed. It was a triumph of design and craftsmanship, and does what theater should do -- give the audience enormous pleasure.

7. A.D. Theatre's Best Christmas Pageant Ever

In A.D. Theatre's Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Abigail Richardson plays an unruly child who is cast as the Herald Angel in the Manger scene. She misconstrues the angel to be an avenging one, and swoops to wreak havoc on the poor mortals. Seldom have I seen such dedication, enthusiasm and pure joy emerge in a performance, and suddenly I was in Bethlehem, not in a theater, and fearing for my life as the Avenging Angel swooped. She had me convinced her interpretation of the role of the Angel was the right one, after all--at least in dramatic terms.

6. The stilt walkers in Frenetic Theatre's The War of the Worlds

I know a brilliant performance artist in Miami, Natasha Tsakos, who, among a great many other talents, is a gifted stilt walker. On stilts, she can lean over to put her head at your level for conversation without having to shift her balance. But that is nothing compared to the stilt walkers in Frenetic Theatre's The War of the Worlds, where they had a third stilt.

The aliens, of course, were Tripods in this iconic epic, and, as I was savoring the genius of this production, suddenly three aliens entered the stage-on their three legs. I thought: "OMG-they're giving us the Tripods!" Yes, they were ungainly (you try walking on three stilts), but that was in character, as the aliens were in a strange environment. The moment far exceeded my expectations, and as I left the theater, wreathed in smiles, my thought was: "They gave us the Tripods!"

5. Wild Oats at the University of Houston

Wild Oats at the University of Houston was directed, superbly, by Gus Kaikkonen and starred Dylan Paul in a compelling performance as an actor/cowboy. He was pretending to be French in one scene, when the scene was interrupted by other characters having an important exchange center-stage. Paul had been stranded downstage left, at the lip of the stage, during the exchange.

By chance I was seated in the first row, about three feet away, and thought "Uh oh", here is an actor's quandary: if he froze he would be out-of-character, and if he moved he would steal focus from the central dialogue. What Paul did was to make, almost invisibly, a tiny gesture of adjusting his cuffs, as though to make himself a shade more French. An insignificant moment? Of course, but God is in the details.

4. Evil Dead, The Musical at Stage Door, Pasadena

In Evil Dead at Stage Door, Pasadena, they added a great throwaway line as the characters discuss watching a movie "but not Spiderman 3-badly directed!" It was of course directed by Sam Raimi, author of the play being performed. But the moment I have in mind is really a running gag repeated a lot (for which I am eternally grateful).

The slacker hero, Ash, has severed his own hand (well, wouldn't you? It was possessed!) and the bandaged stump is of course highly sensitive to pain. But Ash continually forgets this as he pounds various inanimate objects with it, and the mixture of surprise, pain, and anger at his own forgetfulness is a wonder to behold. Colton Wright plays Ash, with breathtaking conviction. The other arrow in the running gag quiver is that Ash tends to point to things with his stump but, abashed and ashamed, he catches himself and quickly switches to the arm with a hand on it--as though table manners were important in the midst of the bloodbath on stage! It's hilarious. Reactions are always crucial to a performance, but these are priceless. Especially while simultaneously fighting off a horde of the evil dead. 3. In It's a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play at Texas Rep

In It's a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play at Texas Rep, Artistic Director Steve Fenley plays 15 characters, in a "radio" broadcast of the perennially-popular movie. After finishing some lines as one character and on his way to coffee as the radio producer Freddie Filmore, leaving the microphone to another actor, he gives a silent "Thumbs-up" gesture to the actor, as though to say "Good work! Keep it up!" It is unnecessary to the narrative, but it anchors us to a sense of reality, and we are cemented backstage at the radio studio with him, no longer in the audience of the theater. What is seen onstage is much more important than what is heard, and Steve Fenley, who directed this unexpected gem (What?! A radio broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life?!!) clearly understands this.

2. The Mildred's Umbrella production of Museum of Dysfunction IV at Obsidian Art Space

2. In the Mildred's Umbrella production of Museum of Dysfunction IV at Obsidian Art Space, one of the short plays has a large cage on stage, center, upstage, in a dominant position, with a very large chicken in it, doing chicken things. I admired the stagecraft, as sets were necessarily limited when you have ten plays (many brilliantly written and acted) in one evening. It instantly persuaded us we were on a farm, in admirable shorthand, and without a word spoken--unless you count a cackle.

It was the only prop on stage, well, almost the only prop, as one of the two characters had just had a finger severed, and it was wrapped in tissue in his pocket as he urged an intellectually-challenged young woman to phone for assistance to have the finger re-attached. But he made the error of going to phone himself, leaving the finger behind, and I watched in growing apprehension and glee (they wouldn't dare, would they?!) as (you guessed it) the young woman tossed the severed finger into the cage and, not missing his cue, the chicken ate it. An essential plot development, adroitly and tersely handled. Talk about being anchored in reality!

1. Spring Awakening from Generations Theatre at Rice University,

1. In the exciting Spring Awakening from Generations Theatre at Rice University, there are three moments. One is Tyce Green's haircut as Moritz, the haircut deliberately as ugly as sin, as though cut with a lawnmower, snatched bald in spots, and then spiked. We instantly know the character, and Green came close to stealing the show with his performance.

The song "Totally Fucked" (there, now you've heard the lyrics) explodes with such energy and passion that we instantly know we are dealing with teenagers dangerous in their combination of ignorance and passion. The third is when a smitten schoolmate confesses to another "I love you" and Andy Ingalls replies with a perfect reading "And so you should", succinctly etching a submissive/dominant relationship in a mere four words.

And with that I close. There are other memorable moments, of course: In Ensemble Theatre's Cinderella, the first Act finale is wonderful as the pumpkin/coach arrives with six actors as the white mice, and, yes, these mice can dance! And there are performances: Brian Heaton's Shakespearean vigor as Mercutio in Theatre UpStage's Romeo and Juliet, Ryan Jacobs' hilarious and subtle performance as Bottom in HFAC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and John Stevens layered performance as Fagin in Theatre Southwest's non-musical Oliver Twist. But I've written far more than four words, and I fear the editorial hook.

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