By Alex Wukman
The end of the year. A time when we return to our ancient roots and look to families and gods to help us make it through the cold and bitter months. However, for the Houston theatre scene November and December are the months that put asses in seats. And all those patrons, who come in their ill-fitting, off the rack at Sears suits and last year’s dresses, are looking for the same thing–the true spirit of the season and Houston theatres are willing to give it to them.
Artshound, a clearing-house of information for the Houston arts scene, lists no less than eight separate Christmas themed productions going on this year. And three of them are variations on the classic Dickens Christmas Carol. It’s fashionable amongst some members of the Houston arts scene to bash the Alley’s big budget adaptation of the Dickens short story or the Houston Ballet’s take on the Nutcracker.
For some of the city’s self proclaimed indie-arts aficionados the only exposure they’ve ever had to the ballet or the theatre were less than stimulating school trips to partake of the city’s holiday traditions. For others Christmas Carol and Nutcracker are symptoms of a much larger problem, the lack of an adventuresome spirit at Houston’s premiere performing arts venues. Like all criticisms there is some truth to that, even a cursory check of this year’s Houston Ballet season shows Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet both on the bill.
However, any argument about daring, originality and creativity in November and December programming runs up against the reality of Houston when one looks outside of the six-or-so blocks that house downtown’s ‘theatre district.’ The city’s smaller companies have populated their calendars with the fantastical, the funny and the ferocious.
Catastrophic: Anna Bella Emma
Jason Nodler, everyone’s favorite underground theatre rock star, is directing a script by Lisa D’Amour that Catastrophic website describes as a “ghost story for three bodies with three voices.” Anna Bella Emma is the classic mother, daughter, twin daughter makes from mud outside their trailer story. D’Amour describes the play as a chamber piece for three women in three chairs and asks the question “What’s a mother to do when her little girl makes her own girl out of plain, wet earth?”
Obsidian Art Space/Mildred’s Umbrella: Tender Buttons and Museum of Dysfunction IV
There are names and books that resonate across history. Ginsburg and Howl, Homer and The Odyssey, Cervantes and Don Quixote and Stein and Tender Buttons. The story of Tender Buttons, a young undergraduate participates in a psychological experiment that produces a ground-breaking piece of literature, is almost as interesting as the story of its author Gertrude Stein. And, now with the assistance of Obsidian Art Space and the Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company, Houston gets to experience Stein’s stream of consciousness prose-poem the way it was meant to be heard: with an avant-alt rock soundtrack.
Tender Buttons took shape at New York’s Medicine Show Theatre under the guiding hand of the Van Reipen Collective before it was taken on the road to Liepzig, Germany. Billed as a live performance of a concept album the show weds Gertrude Stein’s sound poems, as interpreted by Cassandra Victoria Chopourian, to a post-punk soundtrack that has drawn comparisons to Patti Smith, Tom Waits and the Sisters of Mercy.
On a side note Tender Buttons also marks the first Houston performance for score co-composer, and former Houston live music scene regular, Gary Heidt. Heidt used to front Devil Donkey an 80’s era psych-experimental-noise-industrial-avant garde-hardcore band from Clear Lake that used to hold court at Houston staples like the Axiom, Fitzgerald’s and the Pik-N-Pak.
In addition to helping to host the Van Reipen Collective’s touring show, Mildred’s Umbrella is spending the holiday season in their Museum of Dysfunction. This year’s MOD features new plays from all over the country that, as Mildred’s press kit says, “focus on the agony of love and the roller coaster that is the human relationship.”
Gingerhead Productions: Kriegie Wartime Log
No alternative holiday season preview is complete without Nazis and Gingerhead Productions is making sure that the evils of the Third Reich are represented in the season of giving with Kriegie Wartime Log. Premiering on Veteran’s Day Kriegie Wartime Log tells the story of a 2nd Lt. Warren Arieux, an American bombardier who was shot down in February 1944. Arieux was taken to Stalag Luft I a Nazi POW camp located in Barth, Germany. Arieux was issued a wartime log by the YMCA when he arrived at the camp and spent the remainder of the war documenting his time behind the barbed wire. Gingerhead Productions describes the resulting text as “painful—and sometimes humorous.” The play that was adapted from Arieux’s wartime log, and other sources, tells a story of “brotherhood, loss, love, greed, hope and sacrifice” and was supported in part by a grant from the City of Houston.
Main Street Theatre: Cakewalk
No mention of the Nazis is complete without a Holocaust story, and Main Street Theater helpfully obliges with the world premiere of Cakewalk. Nalsey Tinberg’s script tells the story of telling a story. Bershala wants to tell about her relationship with her mother Sprintze, a Holocaust survivor. The problem is Sprintze wants to tell the story her own way. Between the two of them the audience is taken on a decade spanning journey that detailing the transformative qualities of their lives. Sprintze’s journey from Holocaust surviving refugee to American homemaker is given as much weight as her transition from daughter to mother and care giver to care receiver.
Country Playhouse: Speed the Plow
I was talking to an acquaintance of mine the other night and she said, “There’s this attitude in Houston theatre that’s all ‘Ugh, Country Playhouse.’” I told her then I didn’t understand it and I stand by that assessment. Country Playhouse, or CP as it’s known, is a fine community theatre that produces some interesting plays. This fall CP is offering up a David Mamet classic Speed the Plow. The play is set in Hollywood and offers a witty take on the trials and tribulations of the development process. When it debuted in 1988 Speed the Plow wowed critics and picked up Tony nominations for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play. Ron Silver, who inhabited the lead role of Charlie Fox for the B’Way premiere, took home the statue for Best Actor.
Anna Bella Emma is being performed at Diverseworks Art Space, 1117 E. Freeway, from December 2 through December 23 all performances are at 8 p.m.
For more information and tickets call 713-522-2723 or visit www.catastrophictheatre.com
Tender Buttons and Museum of Dysfunction IV are being performed at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Drive. Tender Buttons is scheduled to be performed November 25 and November 26 at 8 p.m. while Museum of Dysfunction IV is scheduled for December 1 through December 10.
For more information and tickets call 832-889-7837 or visit www.mildredsumbrella.com.
Kriegie Wartime Log is being performed at the Divergence Music and Arts Space in the Spring Street Studios building, 1824 Spring St. The production runs Friday through Monday from November 11 through November 21. Show times are 8 p.m. everyday except Sunday, which is a 2 p.m. matinee.
For more information or tickets call 832-338-9003 or visit www.brandy-holmes.com.
Cakewalk is being performed at Main Street Theater’s Rice Village stage, 2540 Times Blvd. From November 3 through November 27. Show times are: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
For more information and tickets call 713-524-6706 or visit www.mainstreettheater.com.
Speed the Plow is being performed at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, from November 4 through November 19. Show times are: Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sunday, November 13, 2 p.m. and Thursday, November 17, at 7:30 p.m.
For more information and tickets call 713-467-4497 or visit www.countryplayhouse