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ARTS PREVIEW: Houston Theater Is Your Safe Space

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Impressive lineup of fall shows will take your mind off our troubled world.

Editor’s Note: Due to the impacts of Tropical Storm Harvey, dates and showtimes listed are subject to change. Check with individual venues for updated information. 

By D.L. Groover

Considering all the news stories, wicked blogs, and infighting memes, the fall theater season is light on red state/blue state woes, and maybe that’s a good thing. Politics come later in the season, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit Hamilton bowing in April via Broadway at the Hobby Center, and Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, his LBJ sequel to his Tony winner All the Way, arriving at the Alley in January.

One of the blessings of theater in all its variants is its ability to help us escape our woes, lift depression, and lose ourselves in another world. There’s still plenty to argue over and debate, if you so desire, with good solid adult fare like Disgraced at 4th Wall or Enemies at Main Street. But politics be damned, let’s have fun. Everybody into their safe space—the theater!

Disgraced

Cast member Gopal Divan

September 7–30
4th Wall Theatre Company
1824 Spring Street

The 4th Wall opens its season with this distinguished Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner from Ayad Akhtar. In a posh dinner-party setting that goes from simmer to full boil, lapsed Muslim Amir faces his ancient Pakastani heritage and the devastating effect it’s had on the current world. He lives the high life in a New York City penthouse with his white artist wife, but history has a nasty way of intruding into the personal. Cultures clash in this electrifying drama that is ripped from the headlines.

The Groundling

September 8–30
Theatre Southwest
8944-A Clarkcrest

In Marc Palmieri’s farce with a tinge of heartbreak, Bob (who is mesmerized by a production of Shakespeare he has just seen) writes a play about his marriage—in rhyming couplets, no less. He then stages it in his garage, has friends and neighbors act in it, and hires two bickering former lovers to direct and star. Need I tell you that things go awry quickly, as they invariably do in backstage shenanigans? The Groundling premiered off-off Broadway in 2015, and the New York Times, usually not smitten with farce set on Long Island, was kind in its review: “Borrowing a neat trick from Shakespeare, Mr. Palmieri tops off the saccharine comedy with a bittersweet finish.” We’ll see.

 

Cast members rehearse for Theatre Under the Stars’ production of American Idiot at the Hobby Center.

American Idiot

September 15–16
Theatre Under the Stars
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby

Green Day’s blistering portrait of disaffected youth arrives for only two days, which isn’t nearly a long enough run for this classic rock opera. This is a production from the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, so you know the cast will be age-appropriate—and perhaps shocked by what three young men experience in their American odyssey that takes them from vice dens, drug abuse, torrid love affairs, Vietnam, and the mean streets ruled by the seductively obsequious St. Jimmy. If this version has half the punch and electricity that Obsidian Theatre overlaid on it two seasons ago, then it will be gangbusters. Okay, kids, are we all ready for the needle number?

Describe the Night

Playwright Rajiv Joseph (Rohit Chandra)

September 15–October 15
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas

Perhaps the world premiere of any production in the fall, Rajiv Joseph’s Russian phantasmagorical drama opens the Alley’s fall season. Workshopped during the theater’s “2017 All New Festival,” Rajiv’s political play ping-pongs through the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s Great Purge, Cold War KGB activity, and the mysterious circumstances of the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed most of Poland’s leading politicians. I don’t think Russian president Vladimir Putin will be in attendance. Young American playwright Joseph, among a handful of innovative contemporary writers, has resuscitated theater with his impressive body of works that includes Gruesome Playground Injuries (Alley world premiere, 2009); Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Pulitzer Prize nominee for Drama, 2010); and The Monster at the Door (Alley world premiere, 2011). The Alley should make him playwright in residence. Joseph has a winning way with the surreal, a true sense of style, and a darkly comic imagination that thrills when it’s not breaking hearts. Could Joseph be our Tom Stoppard? The Alley, I think, picked a winner.

Enemies

September 16–October 15
Main Street Theater
2540 Times Boulevard

Firebrand Russian writer/activist Maxim Gorky (he changed his name from Peshkov to “Gorky,” which means “bitter”) was perhaps the world’s first bum to become internationally famous. His tales and stories lacerate with their indelible portraits of the down-and-outers and his railings against the czarist society that caused such degradation of his fellow citizens. Gorky’s outspoken writing and public support of other revolutionary writers gave him some powerful enemies. After being released from arrest following the 1905 revolution, he went into self-imposed exile on the island of Capri. Not too shabby for a proletariat. When he returned to Russia prior to the big one—the 1917 Revolution—he had softened his positions and was aghast at the violence preached and the outright ditching of Mother Russia’s rich cultural past. He then founded both the House of Arts and the House of Scholars to give struggling writers a place to live and work. His gravelly voice never lowered, though, and any outrage he witnessed he wrote about with relentless, sanctified realism. His death in 1936 while in a Moscow hospital remains suspicious, and he was probably killed on orders from Stalin. A keystone of Gorky’s work for theater, Enemies (1907), a collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance, merges the humanism of Chekhov with the turbulent fervor of revolution bubbling under the surface, waiting to catch fire. Follow the smoke to Main Street to see this incandescent play.

 

The Contemporary Arts Museum’s production of Everybody Talks About the Weather . . . We Don’t includes references to queer S&M club life and an interstellar dimension. (Courtesy the artists, Ellen de Bruijne Projects, and Marcelle Alix)

Everybody Talks about the Weather . . . We Don’t

September 16–January 7
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
5216 Montrose

Based in Berlin, queer duo Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz have worked together since 2004. Known for their 16mm film installations, their work has been shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Venice Biennale, and in galleries throughout Europe. I’m unfamiliar with their work, so I’ll quote from the press release for Telepathic Improvisation, a new film set to Pauline Oliveros’s 1974 score that is a major part of this show: “While the action of the film appears abstract, it nonetheless includes references to specific moments of leftist protest, queer S&M club life, acts of surveillance, and fantasies of new relations between human and non-human objects in an interstellar dimension.” Whoa, you had me at queer S&M club life!

Mayerling

September 21–October 1
Houston Ballet
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas

On the morning of January 30, 1899, Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shot himself and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at Mayerling, the imperial hunting lodge near Vienna. This was no Strauss waltz. The results were devastating for the imperial family, for the dynasty, and for the fate of Europe. The murder/suicide was immediately covered up, but the lurid facts persisted to haunt the royals. Without a male heir, the Habsburg line passed to Franz Joseph’s brother and then to his eldest son, the heir apparent archduke Franz Ferdinand. The empire was destabilized, and the factions in Austria and Hungary grew so contentious that a Serb national assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia at a military revue in Sarajevo in June 1914. Those bullets were the first shots of World War I. Austria declared war on Serbia, and history begat utter chaos. English choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan created this dark, rich tapestry for the Royal Ballet in 1978, using orchestral and piano works of Franz Liszt—perhaps the most famous composer/pianist of the 19th century and the father-in-law of Richard Wagner. The ballet is fierce and lush, and contains a killer role for Rudolph, who has five demanding pas de deux and numerous solos throughout the evening-length work. Lust, dementia, absolute power, sexual dissolution—what’s not to like?

Russian Masters

Vassilly Sinaisky (Marco Borggreve)

September 28, 30, October 1
Houston Symphony
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana

The Russians are coming! Not since Putin and Trump had that wrestling match in Red Square . . . oh, wait, that was only a bad dream. Not since, well, I don’t know when has the Houston Symphony blessed us with extraordinary Russian tunes led by an actual Russian maestro (Vassily Sinaisky, making his debut with the group). The program features Borodin’s gruff “Overture to Prince Igor,” Shostakovich’s youthful Symphony No. 1, and Tchaikovsky’s haunting Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Winter Daydreams.” Wave your red flags if you have them.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession

October 4–22
Classical Theatre Company
4617 Montrose Boulevard

The curmudgeonly Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, Heartbreak House, Man and Superman) had an uncanny knack for knowing when to push society’s buttons. In this 1898 shocker, Mrs. Warren’s profession is the oldest one. She has raised daughter Vivie in luxury and social standing, but when mom reveals the family secret—and that mom is still practicing—liberal Vivie turns tail and leaves the house like Ibsen’s Nora to find her own way in the world. English censors had a field day with Shaw, a respected music critic and socialist pamphleteer, and most of his plays were banned or closed down. Mrs. Warren, which premiered in New York City, didn’t see the light of the London stage until 1925. Now you, too, can see what all the hypocritical gnashing of teeth was about, and be enthralled with that patented Shawian wit. Recently awarded a grant from the American Theatre Wing (home base of the Tony Awards), Classical Theatre Company is poised to continue its inventive stagings of the work of long-past writers, bringing their worlds thrillingly to life.

Balls

Tennis legends Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King (ABC Sports)

October 11–29
Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway

This is a tennis game for people who don’t like tennis. If this world premiere by Tony nominee Bryony Lavery and Edinburgh Stage award-winner Kevin Armento has the visceral excitement of Stages’ wrestling smack-down The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, then Stages has another winner. Set in the Astrodome in 1973 (still here, as we all know), this most physical play details the tabloid matchup between tennis queen Billie Jean King and 51-year-old male chauvinist and former champ Bobby Riggs. Billed as “The Battle of the Sexes,” it was the live-TV sporting event of the year with a $100,000 prize. Riggs was fresh off his “Mother’s Day Massacre” win over Margaret Court, the top female player in the world, when King accepted Riggs’ renewed challenge. Most of you are far too young to remember the over-hyped event, so you’ll have to see the play to learn about the outcome. Riggs and King remained great friends and competitors up until Riggs’ death from cancer in 1995. Game, set, match!

Feathers and Teeth

October 19–November 4
Mildred’s Umbrella
1824 Spring Street

Teenage Chris is not a happy camper. Not only is Mom dead from cancer, but Dad’s getting married to Carol, the sexy nurse who cared for Mom. In Charise Castro Smith’s ’70s sitcom/horror parody, Chris’ all-too-real fear of what’s happening manifests into an evil little creature in a stock pot who has a yen for human flesh. Is this Chris id exploding? Did Carol kill Mom to get Dad? Will Boy Scout Hugo save the day? When Chris means to clear the house of its malicious vermin, does that include Carol? This little pot of horrors is the perfect addendum to Halloween.

Julius Caesar

October 27–November 10
Houston Grand Opera
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas

George Frideric Handel goes to Hollywood in this inventive ’30s Deco production from James Robinson and his ace team: Christine Jones (sets), James Schuette (costumes), and Christopher Akerlind (lighting). Handel’s most accessible Baroque opera seria (1724) is full of political intrigue, bedroom romps, and those marvelously fluid arias that “the sublime Saxon” could pen in his sleep. Written for superstar castrato Senesino, the role of Caesar is treacherously beautiful, with its eight separate arias and two recitatives. It’s all over the map, and international opera phenom Anthony Roth Costanzo is just the guy we’ve been waiting to hear. Up-and-comer coloratura soprano Heidi Stober will no doubt join the pantheon after her debut as sultry Cleopatra. And as if more feathers needed to be flown from the Houston Grand Opera’s tricorn, the cast includes Stephanie Blythe as Cornelia, widow of Pompey, and male soprano David Daniels as Ptolemy, Cleo’s treacherous brother. All this is set on a movie soundstage with echoes of DeMille, Lubitsch, and Busby Berkeley. What a cast! What a show!

Some Enchanted Evening

October 28
Houston Chamber Choir
Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive

Sometimes you just can’t get enough Broadway show tunes. Our Bayou City’s oldest professional chorus supplies the alfresco pizzazz, you supply the bug spray. The history of the American musical, from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s historic Showboat (1927), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945), through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s current blockbuster Hamilton (2015), with its historic ticket prices, will come wafting over the great lawn and guarantee to conjure up the sparkle, the glitter, and the glory of the Great White Way. If a wayward Life Flight helicopter flies overhead, pretend it’s from Miss Saigon.

Broadway Across America’s production of ‘Escape to Margaritaville’ comes to the Hobby Center in October. (Matthew Murphy)

Escape to Margaritaville

October 31–November 5
Broadway Across America
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby

Want laid-back entertainment, you Parrotheads—no doubt lubricated by ice-cold alcohol-infused drinks with umbrellas sticking in them? Does anyone portray this islander laissez-faire lifestyle any better than Carib-esque crooner Jimmy Buffett? Yes, men in ponytails and Hawaiian shirts also will be plentiful in this escapist show with book (?) by Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Mike O’Malley (Shameless). Don’t look for O’Neill or Albee here on the islands, just shameless fun and infectious musical numbers given pagan life by Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley (Come From Away) and choreographer Kelly Devine (Rock of Ages). Hey, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.

The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise: Youth Is Not the Only Thing That’s Sonic

November 3–18
Horse Head Theatre
1506 Lorraine Street

Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada is a rarity in Houston theater (hell, he’s a rarity in almost any theater), so we’re pleased to see Horse Head Theatre present him to us. He’s been called the “Thornton Wilder for the Google generation” (whatever that means), although Wilder constantly broke the fourth wall with his universal humanism. Be careful what you wish for, Okada implies with a wink—what you long for is actually out there, lying in wait for the five restless shape-shifting and gender-bending characters. Comfortable and without drama in their lives, they hope for more. In only 65 minutes, everything will be different. Well, they asked for it.

Italian Sirens

November 12
Ars Lyrica Houston
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby

Now here’s something you don’t hear every day: music from 17th-century female composers. Leave it to artistic director Matthew Dirst to unearth these forgotten gems from Isabella Leonarda, Francesca Caccini, and Barbara Strozzi. Singer and composer Strozzi wrote mainly secular pieces that immediately set her apart from composers who were elbowing each other for attention in church. One of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era, Leonarda has the singular distinction of writing everything while a member of the Ursuline Convent in Novaro, where she was prioress and mother superior. Caccini is known as the first woman opera composer (The Liberation of Ruggiero, 1625) and highest-paid musician at the Medici court in Florence. All noteworthy women, to be sure.

On Your Feet!

Broadway at the Hobby’s production of ‘On Your Feet’ offers a behind-the-scenes look at Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine. (Matthew Murphy)

November 21–26
Broadway at the Hobby
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby

Meeting cute isn’t half as dramatic as almost dying cute, but this spirited backstage look at 1980s husband/wife dream-team Emilio and Gloria Estefan (including that car crash that almost put an end to it all) will satisfy any cravings you may harbor for times past. The Miami Sound Machine swept the charts in a crossover miracle. Salsa, conga, and gushy pop anthems abound in this formulaic jukebox musical, but its musical numbers, splashily augmented by Sergio Trujillo’s surging, pulsating dance moves, will certifiably win you over. “Look very closely at my face,” Emilio hisses at an unconvinced record producer who disdains the band’s singing in English. “This is what an American looks like.” Big and brassy, too.

A Wynonna & The Big Noise Christmas

December 7
Society for the Performing Arts
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana

Just when I was wondering whatever happened to Wynonna Judd, one of my favorite country singers, here she comes (courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts) for a one-night-only concert. I don’t think there’s another living female singer in her league with such a resonant voice. Rich and chocolaty, her powerful belt is Merman-esque, if not operatic. She can growl like a rocker or purr like Fitzgerald. Unlike her mother, Naomi, I don’t believe Wynonna is a nasty woman. Her voice is too pure, her style too unique, her sassiness too down-home. Pumped by her band, The Big Noise (led by husband/manager/drummer Cactus Moser), Wynonna will  shake it up for Christmas. Bring it on home, darlin’.

Hansel and Gretel

December 7–23
Rec Room Arts
100 Jackson Street

Sad to say, we missed Matt Hume’s innovative theater troupe’s inaugural productions The Rite of Spring and Dead Rock Star Sing-A-Long Club, so we don’t plan to miss this one. Amidst Mina Gaber’s wooded installation, Engelbert Humperdinck’s neo-Wagnerian 1893 fairy tale is ripe for the expressionist Hume treatment. When the thoroughly naughty Grimm Brothers’ youngsters wander into the woods, they meet the Sandman, the Dew Fairy, and their polar opposite, the Wicked Witch who wants nothing better than to turn the tasty kids into gingerbread. The  witch is often played in bad drag, although the role was originally written for a female contralto. Humperdinck’s music is swellingly romantic, chromatic (thanks to his love of Wagner), and eminently singable. Next to Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Humperdinck’s festive opera is the perfect treat at Christmas. Why the Houston Grand Opera doesn’t program this—or Amahl, for heaven’s sake—for its annual family Christmas show is beyond me. Well, Rec Room Arts has, and we are greatly pleased. •

This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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D.L. Groover

D.L. Groover writes on the arts for the Houston Press, OutSmart magazine, Arts & Culture, and Dance Source Houston. He has received two national awards for his theater criticism from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), and has previously won three statewide Lone Star Press awards for the same. He is co-author of the irreverent appreciation Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin’s Press), now in its fourth printing.
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