The Mezzanine Lounge

Unfortunately, in Houston, if you want to play poker against actual people and not computer avatars, and you don't want to go to an "underground" room where there's always the possibility of participating in a police raid or having a gun pointed at your face, you'll have to settle for the bar leagues. None are better than the Snowman Poker League hosted by Mezzanine Lounge, usually three nights a week. The entire downstairs fills up with poker tables and players, and at Mezzanine, if you want to get away from that scene, you can simply walk upstairs to the bar's sprawling second floor, where the bartenders are great and the booze is cheap.

West Alabama Ice House

West Alabama Ice House has Outer Loop suburban icehouse charm right inside the Loop, with a healthy roster of beers in their coolers and an all-star cast of friendly bartenders slinging them for you. Most every weekend, something fun is going on outside on the expansive patio, from gourmet taco cookouts to live music from bands like Sean Reefer & The Resin Valley Boys. The bar celebrated its 80th year of service in 2008, making this one 82-year-old you won't mind hanging with on a Friday night for a few free hot dogs and a few cold Lone Stars.

When it comes to this year's crop of local films, For the Sake of the Song is far and away the most significant. Other films were as well done, others as interesting, but For the Sake of the Song captured an only-in-Houston story like no other. Taking home awards from this year's Nashville Film Festival and the Park City Film Music Festival as well as the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, Sake of the Song documented the history of local music venue Anderson Fair. Over the last 40 years, the venue has been a launching pad for some of the most influential acoustic music artists to ever grace a Texas stage, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and the late Townes Van Zandt. Through four decades of a rapidly changing music industry and with an all-volunteer staff, Anderson Fair remained loyal to one idea: It's all about the music. And it's that spirit that For the Sake of the Song so vividly captures.

Burlap Barrel Pub

Here at Spring Branch/West Houston's gateway dive bar, the owners don't stop at pool and all those golf and deer hunter electronic games. Nor do they add in good-to-great cork dartboards and call it a day. Nope. The Burlap Barrel does strip-mall dive bars everywhere proud by also rocking a full-size, very well-maintained shuffleboard set and a cup-flip table. There's also a ping-pong table. As the Barrel is super-popular with waitstaff and other industry types from the many restaurants in the nearby Energy Corridor, Westchase and Memorial City Mall districts, all these indoor sports could help you unlock the heart of the Chili's server of your dreams. PS: As the official home of Kansas Jayhawk sports-viewing in the Houston area, the Barrel's unofficial official sport might just be (Missouri) Tiger hunting.

The Energy definitely doesn't promise you a rose garden over their debut album's eight gruesome tracks of suicidal Stooges- and Danish punk-rock-derived anthems. Led by singer and graphic artist Arthur Bates, the Energy is made up of some of our city's best and brightest punkers who somehow banded together to make the only Houston album this year that will make even your worst day feel like a picnic in comparison. "Girls Don't Like Me at All" is the sound of being locked down on a romantic merry-go-round with a gut full of whiskey and a handful of medicinal courage.

Glassell School of Art

We're stretching the meaning of the term "student" for this year's Best Student Art Exhibit award. The painters, multimedia artists, sculptors and scholars who showed work during the Glassell School of Art's "2010 CORE Exhibit" were actually bright and diverse emerging artists who won fellowships at Glassell, the teaching arm of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. One of the "2010 CORE Exhibit" participants was Lily Cox-Richard, winner of the MFAH Long Prize. She showed pieces of sculpture that displayed a less-is-more attitude. One work was inspired by a 19th-century painting that showed a Native-American woman fleeing Western occupation, her skirt rustling against a tree trunk as she ran past it. Cox-Richard's piece captured just a small part of the painting, the tree trunk and a bit of the skirt hem. Reduced to just a detail, Cox-Richard's sculpture was, she said, "as good a monument to a conquered frontier and to the fetishized 'ruin,' as the original work."

Dean's Downtown
David Rozycki

A former-clothing-store-turned-bar might be a strange place to screen newly produced local movies, but Dean's Credit Clothing has found a kindred spirit in the Houston Film Commission, which co-produces the monthly First Thursdays screenings at the bar. Dean's regularly hosts a showcase of just-released films, clips of works in process and chats with filmmakers. And lots of schmoozing by screenwriters, directors, actors and audience members takes place here.

In Tracy Letts's nightmare Bug, Lance Marshall inhabited his character so fully, he put us on the edge of our seats out of sheer panic — and fascination. As the story went, way off-center skinhead Peter appeared in the squalid apartment of down-and-out Agnes, needing a place to crash. Suffering from delusions and medical experiments, this Gulf War vet — or so he claimed — was as screwed up as one could get. Yet Marshall revealed Peter's internal scars gradually, allowing the horrors to intensify. Those downcast eyes, ever-shifting, became beams. His doper shakes became paroxysms. The bugs were in there; they were growing under his skin. He was infested with them, with something deep and terrifying. He scratched and clawed at them. Love took a wicked-wrong turn as Peter zoomed into psychosis, dragging Agnes down with him. Marshall kept us mesmerized by this over-the-top, ultramodern Grand Guignol. He never let up. His unbearable pressure, nicely calibrated through director Ananka Kohnitz, reached full boil and blew the roof off Theatre Southwest. And that was before he wrenched out his tooth with a pair of pliers.

Playing a real-life diva is no walk in the park, especially when your model is opera diva assoluta Maria Callas. But we'd go anywhere with Celeste Roberts after her spellbinding performance in Terrence McNally's bit of open-heart surgery, Master Class. Without singing a note, Roberts conjured the very voice of Callas: attitude, star quality, insufferable ego and gigantic insecurities. As she drilled her hapless trio of students in the fine art of singing — when she permitted them a moment to perform — Roberts opened up Callas's private world that once included incredible fame, her brutish lover Aristotle Onassis, her nemesis Jacqueline Kennedy and her rival singers (although to be fair, there were no singers who could touch Callas). Roberts gave us the heartache without sentimentality, the talent behind the ego and the woman behind the myth. It's a tour de force role, full of earthy fire and bursts of volcanic temperament, and Roberts (one of Houston's finest artists) sailed into the stratosphere like a shooting star.

Dominic Walsh Dance Theater Studio

The breadth and scope of this spring's Mixed Rep: Escape to Europe by the Dominic Walsh Dance Theater leaves no question about the winner for this year's Best Dance Performance. The three-work program included the United States premiere of Small Hour by Czech choreographer Václav Kuneš, a reprise of Pression by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, and a revival of Walsh's own I Napoletani, an homage to illustrious Naples. Moving easily from athletic and powerful to graceful and delicate, somber and intense to witty and carefree, the DWDT performers were nothing short of mesmerizing, making the evening a must-see for local dance fans. Especially impressive was Pression, with Walsh and Domenico Luciano alternating performances with Ty Parmenter and Randolph Ward.

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