Leave it to Jason Nodler, the long-absent founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, to return with a bang. After spending time working around the country, Nodler visited the Bayou City just long enough to create his best original show to date. Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston, told the story of a lonely guy longing for love. Cult musician/artist Johnston, who's been written about everywhere from Texas Monthly to The New York Times, suffers from severe bipolar disorder, and his musical world is inflected with mental illness and the extreme loneliness depression can bring. But the story Nodler constructed out of Johnston's powerful tunes was uplifting. There was a disarming innocence to the show and wonderful moments of strangeness -- angels, undertakers and Captain America all came together on the same stage. IBP and Speeding Motorcycle got a terrific write-up in The New York Times, proving yet again that Houston grows some original thinkers.
Given her bookishly shy demeanor and a willingness to step back and let others shine under the spotlight, Shannon Emerick hardly seems like much of a star. Yet when she moves across a stage, something in her deeply intelligent gaze takes over. It's difficult to take one's eyes away from her face, as it's so full of contradictions and subtle hues of emotion. Gentle and mesmerizing as ever, Emerick stole the show in Main Street Theater's production of Wondergirl, a profoundly sad tale about a woman who loses her daughter in the neonatal unit before ever taking the child home. As the plaintive mother, Emerick turned what could have been a maudlin melodrama into a thoughtful examination of the sometimes contradictory nature of modern medicine and the human heart. Emerick's quietly intelligent and intensely moving performance captured a profound truth in this ordinary tale. And when the lights came down, all we could do was weep for the mother she created.
Jeffrey Bean is one of Houston's most valuable theatrical treasures. A character actor with all the charismatic glow of a leading man, Bean makes just about every show he's in better. But last season's production of Martin McDonough's much-lauded The Pillowman gave Bean a chance to show us the depth and breadth of his talent. The plot focused on a horror writer who's taken into custody when kids start turning up dead. Bean played the writer's brother, Michal, with a hilarious and terrifying menace; the character was a startlingly powerful tour de force of a performance in Bean's capable hands. Brain-damaged and broken in every way possible, Bean's Michal was also clever enough to deliver a good joke. He hobbled around the stage with his twisted hands and blinking eye, troubled by an "itchy ass" and a devastating history. He was the sort of character who could haunt your dreams for days, weeks, even months after the stage lights went out.
Five years ago, Mildred's Umbrella started out in a cavernous, cold room, putting on original shows with virtually no set, no lights and no money. It's come a long way. The company is still putting on new work by resident playwright John Harvey, but MU has also added some terrific nationally known writers to its season. Marina Carr, Melissa James Gibson and Edna O'Brien were on the bill this past year, along with a fiercely avant-garde script by Harvey, featuring a woman who falls in love with a bull. And while the company still doesn't have a permanent home, the Little Troupe That Could has attracted actors and technicians who've worked at some of Houston's most well-endowed theaters. Best of all, the company, under the artistic direction of founding member Jennifer Decker, has kept its artistic integrity intact. The strange and sometimes head-scratchingly difficult work is never commercial and always intellectually challenging. MU has firmly established itself as an important part of what makes Houston's theater scene one of the richest in the country.
In this day and age of musicals that have little to do with artistic expression and everything to do with making buckets of dough, it's wonderfully refreshing to discover a song-filled night of theater that actually asks us to think. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked, which ran last fall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, is that all too-rare musical that explores complex issues such as moral ambiguity even as it makes us laugh and cry at its delicious characters. Those characters include the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, whose motivations are explored as the imaginative plot slips elegantly across the witches' past, a history that includes their prep school days, where they learned all that magic.
Any theater that can land the regional premiere of The Pillowman for its season deserves a standing ovation; producing Martin McDonagh's much-lauded sensational drama about a writer of horror tales was a true feat. But the Alley Theatre and its artistic director, Gregory Boyd, did more than grab up one of the most recent and sought-after Broadway hits. It also managed to bring an inventive new production of The Miser to Houston, plus a return engagement of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa. And of course there was the more standard fare that included a terrific production of the Agatha Christie classic Witness for the Prosecution. We only hope next year's season is half as exciting.
Once upon a time, Downing Street Ltd. was the hangout for local politicos, trust-funders and single yuppie guys. The crowd has changed a bit -- there are more scenesters and social climbers these days. But most folks flock to this River Oaks lounge to simply enjoy the cigars, premium Scotch, weekly jazz and elegantly casual vibe. The 400-square-foot humidor is the spot's centerpiece, a marvelously crafted mahogany cigar shop. Step in and find your favorite stogie -- there's Zino Platinum, Arturo Puente and Greycliff for aficionados (many store their own cigars here), and Davidov and Macanudo for casual enthusiasts. Light up and kick back in a booth or on one of the plush leather couches. For the full, regal experience, nurse your smoke with a sip of 25-year-old single malt.
You might think all strip clubs are the same: Naked women shaking their asses to "pay for school"; cheesy 50-year-old men paying a girl their daughter's age to spend five minutes pretending they're interested in them; and some DJ named Rick playing a ten-year-old Limp Bizkit song for Sinammon's upside-down routine. But you'd be wrong. The discerning voyeur needs to keep in mind the kind of promotions each strip club offers. At The Men's Club, there's always something going on. Do you like chicken-fried steak? Check out Chicken-Fried Steak Tuesdays, when the club serves up a mean meal for $7.95. Same price for their steak-and-shrimp combo on Mondays. They also have barbecue specials and cool events in which daytime waitresses become dancers and a Texas Hold 'Em tournament can net you a trip to Vegas. So take your singles, your empty stomach and your prurient interests to The Men's Club, posthaste!
If you switch on the radio mid-song and hear Bun B's latest joint segue into a ferocious live attack from Irish punks Flogging Molly, you've probably tuned in to Rad Rich's Rock & Roll Revue on KPFT/90.1 FM. In a city that's far too often bound by the dictates of dozens of independent scenelets, Rich knows no such bounds, either on his radio show or at the concerts he puts together and hosts. He is equally at home in a hip-hop club or at a rockabilly bash, and it's a shame more people don't follow his example.
Taking listeners on a musical ride that has as many ups and downs as a voyage at sea, Sharks and Sailors combines heavy choruses with soft breakdowns. Featuring former members of Panic in Detroit, the group emerged from the Super Unison scene to deliver their sound to Houston. Reminiscent of groups such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Unwound, Drive Like Jehu and Dinosaur Jr. (and that's just from their first EP), the group is staking their sound in the post-hardcore scene and seems to have wasted no time in the "getting their feet wet" stage. Those who have seen at least a handful of their performances can testify to their promise as a mainstay in Houston and beyond. Look for their debut full-length (slated for release in early 2007), which will no doubt garner a few more awards in the year to come.

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