Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Margaret Edson just might be the only kindergarten teacher in the country who can list the Pulitzer Prize on her résumé. But Edson is no ordinary teacher -- or writer, for that matter. It was just a couple of years ago that the unassuming teacher won the award for her stunning play, Wit. All about an erudite college professor who learns her greatest lessons while dealing with the ravages of stage-four ovarian cancer, the script is a knife blade of intelligence that cuts right into the guts of living and exposes some of the most foolish and destructive masks we live behind. The story, which ruminates on the artifice of university life and the obfuscating capacity of language, was rendered gorgeous and ultimately heartbreaking on the Alley stage under the direction of Martin Benson. Actor Megan Cole snapped professor Vivian Bearing to life and found her grieving heart underneath all the bombastic irony and wicked wit that had kept the iron-fisted English professor going throughout her life. Finely intimate and huge in its lessons about life, the production was the sort that lingers long into the dark night.
Stevenson's biggest ballet since Dracula was billed as a star vehicle for Lauren Anderson, the African-American principal Stevenson spotted at the Houston Ballet Academy when she was just a child. But while the title role certainly allowed Anderson to show off her explosive athleticism and theatricalism, Cleopatra turned out to be a much broader ballet for the whole company, including, most surprisingly, the men. In Cleopatra's dances with her lovers, Stevenson let Caesar (Timothy O'Keefe) and Marc Anthony (Dominic Walsh) out from the conventional male partnering positions behind -- or beneath -- the ballerina, and both men seemed to jump at the opportunity to dance and act as much as the star. Stevenson even left Anderson out of the picture entirely in another pas de deux. The homoerotic and devilish dance between the burly Nicholas Leschke and the diminutive Mauricio Canete was as captivating as it was unusual. And the male corps de ballet, Stevenson's stars of tomorrow, nearly stole the show with a sequence of leaps in the Roman Senate that barely allowed the dancers' feet to touch the ground. Once again, Houston Ballet's artistic director has shown he can tweak the traditional in just the right way.
During a CD release performance at Fitzgerald's earlier this year, Middlefinger lead singer Matt Kelly asked the crowd in between songs for the correct pronunciation of the name "G-O-E-T-H-E." Whoever answered first would get one of the Middlefinger CDs Kelly held in his hands. After getting nothing but quizzical looks, Kelly, a wheatstalk wearing thick black eyeglass frames, asked again: "G-O-E-T-H-E." "Ger-ta," a concertgoer blurted, as if she had just unraveled a trigonometry equation in her head. The response prompted Kelly to launch one of the jewel boxes in the direction of the answerer. Whatever connection the band thought it had with its crowd at this point looked a little strained. As "Ger-ta" wrote in Faust: "Man still must err, while he doth strive." So, yeah, five-year-old Middlefinger still has much to work out in its stage show. But a decent-to-bad Middlefinger show is most likely better than anything else going on at the same time in Houston. Sudden tempo changes, clean yet raw punk sound and Kelly's too-cool-to-be-choreographed moves -- like the one in which he boinks himself on the head, sinks a couple of inches, then pulls himself back up to full height by the shirt collar -- make for engaging entertainment. And no one's asking you to sell your soul for the pleasure.
Acquaintances who happen to see 27-year-old Jug O' Lightnin' front man Aaron Loesch tooling around town in that glossy, black late-model Jaguar of his might well wonder whether The Jug has somehow managed to parlay its regular free Sunday-night gig at Rudyard's into a multimillion-dollar deal with Sony or somesuch. No such luck. Fact is, Loesch poured a good amount of blood, sweat and tears into piecing that ride together. Literally. Turns out Loesch works for his father's Galleria-area Jaguar of Houston repair shop, where he fixes the lean machines by day and maintains an upstairs studio by night. And if you think such knuckle-banging work seems like an unwise choice for a guy who gets his yayas out as a finger-picking guitarist of substantial speed, just remember that Loesch arrived at his modified Scruggs-style picking only after having busted his hand too badly to keep up on the banjo. Hell, maybe another busted knuckle is just what the guy needs to take it to the next level.
Seasoned musicians drift into Dan Electro's on Thursdays and jam with whoever happens to be around. Frequently these impromptu groupings kick ass. On a recent night, veterans Andy Williams and Diunna Greenleaf took the stage with three others and unleashed a feverish set of blues. Williams made his guitar moan, while Greenleaf hammed it up diva-style, showcasing her rich, booming voice. Another group included two dudes named Jeremiah -- front man Jeremiah Johnson, fresh in from rural Missouri, and bassist Jeremiah Hamilton, who had just returned from doing sound for a Tower of Power tour. They played a set of full-throttle rockabilly and electric blues. Dan Electro's weekly blues jam has drawn the likes of Gregg Allman and Chris Duarte in its 12-year history. But it's the lesser-known players who give the event its gritty flair. "There's a lot of good local players you don't see till they come around and jam," says owner Jim Medenhall.
Usually an open reading serves a particular clique, but when Mike Alexander started running things at the Mausoleum, he made an effort to create the kind of environment where anti-intellectual anarchists could follow the academic folks from the creative writing programs. A selected poet opens the reading every Wednesday at 9 p.m., and poets who sign up to read are randomly called up to the stage, with rotating hosts. Just about every subgroup of poetry is represented here. Angst-ridden teenage death poems, Afrocentric rants and political rallying cries can be heard the same evening as AIDS poems, the sappy-rhymed verse of bored housewives and even the poetry of a staff-wielding regular known as Merlin. The night we were there, a drunken redneck staggered in, as if looking for some venue with a liquor license that hadn't banned him from the premises. "What is this -- open-fag poetry night?" he kept shouting after each shot glass he emptied. Yes, sir, it is. And it ain't too bad.
What's in a name? The Trailer Park Playboys, we reckon, are the sort of fellas who understand the lyricism of Jerry Springer and the poetry of the WWF. They're the kind that growed up on Momma's broken heart and Daddy's whiskey breath. These boys, we suspect, now find it in their hearts to minister to all those attention-starved trailer maidens dying for love. The Trailer Park Playboys are unfazed by the sour winds of the refinery or the one-armed neighbor's homicidal mutts. They stare down tornadoes. They know there's salvation in monster trucks. In real life, the Trailer Park Playboys are a smokin' alternative-country band with roots in the Texas singer-songwriter tradition and flourishes of blues harp and rock. Mike Manning, the bassist and singer, describes their act as "three chords and a cloud of dust." Cheatin' women are a recurring theme in their songs, he says.