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Houston: By Land or Air

When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, the immediate magic of the theatre can make an audience forget the unseen hand of the director. But sometimes what a director has—or hasn't—done is all too clear, as two recent productions in Houston show.

Directorial problems were at the heart of the ultimate failure of Car Pool, in its Southwest premiere by Stages Repertory Theatre. Laura Hembree's play focuses on five men who ride together to their jobs at an unnamed corporation. Since all the scenes take place in a car, director Peter Webster saw fit to have his actors nearly always sitting down in chairs that represented the inside of the vehicle. And that was the problem.

Because the play was presented in the round, Webster's tack meant that the faces of the characters were never fully visible to the entire audience at once. He tried to make up for this flaw by having the actors ritually move their chairs about in different directions at the start of each scene, but this little bit of action solved neither the visibility problem nor the essentially static nature of Webster's direction.

Nevertheless there were moving moments in Car Pool. David Born, William Hardy, Jim Lawrence, Manning Mpinduzi-Mott, and Timothy Wrobel gave good performances as businessmen struggling against corporate indignities and personal tragedies. But even though Car Pool is set in the present, it seemed dated. Women were oddly absent from the drama, and costume designer Margaret Monostory should have taken a closer look at today's corporate worker—the hard-edged briefcases she had the characters carry vanished from the scene years ago.

Meanwhile, Theatre Under the Stars was presented with a directorial challenge even more dicey than that of Car Pool. The problem, in one word, was helicopter. Still awaiting the completion of its new home, TUTS has to present its spring and autumn shows in the Arena Theatre, a pop-concert venue with no fly space. So when TUTS became the first U.S. company to secure rights to produce Miss Saigon, the question buzzed: How was the famous scene showing the descent of a helicopter going to be staged?

Happily, the answer was imaginatively. Director and choreographer Bruce Lumpkin solved the problem with inventive use of the aisles that radiate out from the Arena's circular stage: He had the audience hear the deafening roar of the engine and blades, then, with effective use of lighting, directed its eyes to an aisle exit where the side of a helicopter loomed large. Certainly it wasn't as spectacular as the Broadway staging, but combined with the drama and emotion of the scene it was nearly as effective. With an excellent cast led by Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Engineer, Emy Baysic as Kim, and Sean McDermott as Chris, Miss Saigon was an exciting and moving beginning to TUTS' 2001 season.

Another highpoint of the spring theatre season was a collaborative production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, presented at the University of Houston. For the first time, the Alley Theatre combined its talents with those of the School of Theatre's drama students, staff, and faculty. The result was a powerful production that bodes well for future planned collaborations.

Directed by UH drama chair Sidney Berger, All My Sons was blessed with a fine cast that included veteran Alley actors James Black and Robin Moseley, as well as UH students Josh Morrison, Jennifer Cherry, and Tom Prior. Black made a tough, craggy Joe Keller, while Moseley was chilling in her role as Kate Keller. But the students held their own against the more experienced actors, with Morrison displaying a strong, honest presence as Chris Keller, Cherry showing both charm and steeliness as Ann Deever, and Prior most effective in the pivotal role of George Deever.

Back at the Alley's home base, the familiar faces were gone from the stage as the repertory theatre presented the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, Dinner With Friends, by Donald Margulies. The Houston premiere, running through May 5, follows director Dan Sullivan's original production, as re-created by Pam McKinnon. It's a fine show, marked by the excellent performances of four Alley newcomers: Andrew Polk, Lynne Wintersteller, Claudia Fielding, and Gregory Northrup.

—Holly Hildebrand

Denver: Wit and Wealth

Playwright Gary Leon Hill has taken up a two-year residency with the Denver Center Theatre Company, courtesy of a $100,000 grant from the National Theatre Artists Residency Program. In addition to establishing a playwrights unit, Hill will work with students at the National Theatre Conservatory and with the DCTC on two plays. One of them, Inna Beginning, had its world premiere this month.

A collaboration among Hill, director Jamie Horton, and composer Lee Stametz, Inna Beginning parodies and probes our relationship to time, energy, and one another. The show is funny in an off-the-wall way, with a plot that mixes everything from spiritual auras to subway muggings. The central characters, beautifully realized by Paul Michael Valley and Devora Millman, are a high-octane executive and the healer he consults when he develops neck pain.

Crisply staged by Horton, the tale zips between New York, where a musician (finely portrayed by Keith L. Hatten and backed by Neil Haverstick's guitar chops) is stymied by his instrument's bizarre, unbidden riffs, and Boulder, where a worried professor (William Denis) is having problems with the atomic clock. While plot developments sometimes drift too far afield, the show is imaginative and entertaining as it explores our time-obsessed lifestyles.

Wit, also presented by the DCTC, is one of those rare works that makes you laugh, cry, and think, sometimes all at once. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play mesmerized Denver audiences, thanks to Margaret Edson's luminous script, Anthony Powell's impeccable direction, and outstanding performances led by Annette Helde, as the intellectual professor whose terminal illness gives her a new perspective on the meaning of kindness and humanity.

The production, which also features Aaron Serotsky, as a physician better suited to conducting laboratory studies than caring for live patients, and Jane Welch, as Vivian's compassionate mentor, is staged in the round. On the positive side, this increases the sense of intimacy for the audience. But as the position of Vivian's hospital bed shifts periodically, each section of the house sees part of the show from the back. My turn unfortunately came toward the end of the play, when I yearned to see the characters' faces as Vivian, only moments from death, finally was given the comforting human touch she craved all her life.

The DCTC's third spring production is a solid revival of The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman's incisive study of three nasty siblings who have been gouging the locals long enough to know they're ready to move up to bigger things. Greed, of course, never goes out of style, making the play as relevant now as in 1936 when it was written—and 1900 when the story is set.

Directed with style and escalating tension by Bruce K. Sevy, The Little Foxes stars Gordana Rashovich, John Hutton, and Bill Christ as the sly, avaricious trio intent on moving up from well-off to filthy rich. Their scheme, set in a Southern town still coming to terms with the aftereffects of slavery and a fading aristocracy, involves a carefully orchestrated commercial deal, stolen bonds, and the challenge of seeing how craftily they can cheat.

The show's fine supporting cast includes Caitlin O'Connell, who gives a heartbreaking portrayal of an abused wife wed to one of the brothers. Sharon Hope also shines as a family servant, her subtle, shaded reactions an expressive commentary on conflicts involving race and class. All is played out on Vicki Smith's atmospheric set, with its crimson walls and air of showy wealth

In an entirely different emotional vein, Gertrude Stein and a Companion, in its regional premiere by Theatre Group, is a low-key look at one of the 20th century's most notable twosomes. Win Well's two-hander does a better job of making Stein and Alice B. Toklas likable than dramatizing their life together. As the play moves back and forth in time, beginning with Stein's death in 1946, we get a good sense of the women's supportive relationship, which allowed Stein to devote herself to her writing at their Paris salon. But the play, coupled with Nick W. Mischel's bland direction, provides little in the way of complexity or dramatic tension.

The saving grace is its gentle humor, with Stein often speaking in repetitious patterns reminiscent of her writing style, and appealing performances by Judy Phelan-Hill as the droll, humorous Stein, and Marion R. Rex as a feisty Toklas. Together they create characters whose final moments, with Toklas 90 and in ill health, end the piece on a poignant note.

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