Lies, lies … and great fun


Shelby Dryden, left, Sydney Haygood and Emily Buesing rehearse a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Studio Theatre at Lamar University. Courtesy photo

Review: LU theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is terrific entertainment

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” is a farce about deception and triviality, but there is nothing deceptive or trivial about Lamar University theatre’s latest production. The excellence is in plain view.

Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy gets a fresh showing with an ensemble that is fits seamlessly together, under the direction of husband and wife guest artists Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, from Houston’s 4th Wall Theatre.

The play gets off to a rollicking start in the apartment of Algernon Moncrief, played superbly by Chris Shroff, who is louche and bendy, and positively exudes entitled irresponsibility. He is visited by his friend “Ernest,” played Ed Seymour. The contrast between the characters is well balanced, with Seymour acting as a low-key foil to Shroff’s outlandishness. As events progress, we discover that both men have created fictional excuses to be one thing in the country and quite another in town.

“Ernest” is , in fact, Jack Worthing, who, in the country, is the responsible guardian of his ward, Cecily Cardew, played by Emily Buesing. “Ernest” is Jack’s invented, far less responsible brother. Algernon has invented an invalid friend, “Bunbury, whose ailments require frequent trips out of town.

earnestThese fictions afford each man to have his cake and eat it, too (in Algernon’s case, quite literally, as he spends most of the play snacking on whatever is available).

Jack is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, played by Sydney Haygood, and is ready to kill his “brother” off and come clean so they can marry. The couple’s furtive looks and sly flirting are a delight.

This being Wilde, the course of true love is destined never to run smooth. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, will not agree to the marriage and Act 1 ends with Jack on his way to a business meeting, and Algernon secretly off to meet Cecily.

In Act 2, the action bristles as Gwendolyn and Cecily meet, both believing they are engaged to the same man — Ernest (whose name is signifies the “earnest” qualities they seek). Haygood and Buesing are quite a double act, shifting from sisters to rivals and back again as they exchange barely-veiled barbs. Haygood, as the sultry city girl, is hilarious, and Buesing’s almost cloying naïve sweetness is the perfect counterpart. Both women know what they want and will not be thwarted.

Dryden’s Lady Bracknell is domineering and overbearing. She almost barks her lines, leaving the others cowering before her, with a sense of absolute surety and entitlement that comes with her class. Wilde’s play is a commentary and indictment of the shallowness of high society. When Act 3 rolls around, we find she has family secrets of her own.

It would be unfair not recognize the other members of the ensemble, Austin Jones, Brianna Butler, Maddy Hightower and Josh Pendino. There was no weak link in the cast.

The direction is crisp and the three acts positively fly by. The staging, in the round, is wonderfully choreographed as the actors circle each other like predators going in for the kill.

Kudos also go to Cherie Acosta’s costume crew, who have come up with a wonderful color palette (the play is set in the 1950s).

Wilde’s play was first performed in 1895, but it is as funny today — and as biting a social commentary — as it was then. This production is a must-see.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” will continue tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 LU/LIT faculty and staff, senior citizens and Non-LU students and $7 for LU/LIT student with a valid ID.


Review: ‘Mauritius’ earns ‘stamp’ of approval


Sydney Haygood, front, and Chloe Sullivan in Lamar;s production of “Mauritius.” Photo courtesy of University Press by Noah Dawlearn

BEAUMONT, Texas — When Jackie enters a seedy stamp shop to ascertain the value of her stamp collection, she sets in motion a whirling series of interactions that play out like beautifully choreographed combats, with each character in the five-person ensemble thrusting and parrying for the upper hand. Do the stamps have value? And if so, value to whom?

Lamar University’s production of “Mauritius” by Theresa Rebeck, crackles from the opening scene to the last. Much credit goes to guest director Carolyn Johnson for her sure handling of the piece, which is tightly paced, never allowing the audience to settle on the side of any particular character.

However, I am sure Johnson will acknowledge that a director’s first, and most important, job is selecting the cast, and Johnson picked a dandy. The always impressive Sydney Haygood plays the “damaged” Jackie, who has inherited the stamp collection following her mother’s death. Haygood inhabits her character brilliantly, showing us her vulnerability and desperate longing to escape her life, and the steel to fight for something more. She just hopes the stamps have some value to dig her out of the financial hole that is her mother’s estate.

The fly in the ointment is her step-sister Mary, wonderfully played by Chloe Sullivan, who left the family when Jackie was young, never to return until her mother’s dying days. The stamps are her paternal grandfather’s, so she claims the inheritance on sentimental grounds and would never sell them. Mary seems to be all sweetness and light, in sharp contrast to Jackie’s broken bitterness, but when it comes to the stamps, she reveals a steely side that is not quite so sisterly.

When the crusty stamp shop owner Phil, played by Chris Shroff, cannot be bothered to look at the stamps for less than a $2,000 consultation fee, Dennis, played by Eric Rozell, agrees to take a look. Rozell plays the perfect sleazy hanger-on, the kind of guy who is always just there, on the periphery, looking for a moment to take advantage of someone. We see on his face that he knows there is something good in the collection — the “Mauritians” of the title — something worth money to someone. And Dennis is the type of person who will make sure he gets his cut, morals be damned.

Dennis stalks Jackie, following her to her home, where he gets in the middle of a domestic squabble between Jackie and Mary. From there the plan is to set up a deal with Sterling, played with brooding, menacing, gangster-like entitlement by Ed Seymour.

Rebeck doesn’t bother us with an abundance of details. Sterling makes his money in a “murky” way. How much are the stamps worth? No one ever says. Why is Jackie damaged? Does it matter? How much is offered and how much is asked? That would tip one’s hand too much.

Johnson has taken another risk that pays off. The actors, being college students, are technically young for the parts, yet Johnson resists the urge to age them up with make up. When Phil talks about brooding over an incident eight years in the past (also never explained) we just believe it, because Shroff completely inhabits the character. How old is Sterling? Old enough to make a lot of money because Seymour is Sterling so we believe it.

This is as good a production as I have seen in 25 years of watching Lamar theater. If this was a professional show I would feel that I had got my money’s worth and then some.

From the set to the direction to the acting, this was a professional production. My only complaint is the short run. This production deserves more than four performances. There was a good crowd Friday and I hear Thursday’s opening night was a sellout. These students deserve more than the ridiculously short runs. If there was a second weekend I would certainly see it again.

“Mauritius” is an absolute gem, and you can’t “lick” it.

The show runs through Sunday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m.

Review: Tudor twists and turns


Joel F. Grothe, center, plays Thomas Cromwell, Ruherford Cravens, left, plays Cardinal Wolsey and Joel Sandel plays Thomas More in Main Street Theater’s productions of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” through Dec. 18. Courtesy photo.

MST’s ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ a theatrical feast

HOUSTON — Political machinations, a social climber using her feminine wiles, alliances, intrigue and scandal. No, it’s not a post-election wrap up, it’s the 1520s in the court of Henry VIII.

Main Street Theater’s production of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies,” adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels by Mike Poulton, is a sumptuous feast fit for a king.

The play follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell (Joel F. Grothe) as he rises through the ranks of the court to be Henry’s most trusted fixer. Cromwell’s rise is built on loyalty and cunning scheming.

The play begins with Henry VIII (Blake Weir) frustrated by the inability of Katherine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg) to provide him with a male heir. Let’s be honest, most people have at least a cursory knowledge of the tale of the Tudors, but these plays, set in the round in Main Street’s intimate theater, make it feel as though we are in the room with these historical figures, seeing their strengths and weaknesses in the flesh, getting up close with the doubts, fears and ambitions that drive their motives.

A notorious womanizer eventually turns to Anne Boleyn who, with the help of her (very close) family, manipulates Henry into seeking a divorce. Anne, played with devious deliciousness by Lisa Villegas, dominates the men of the court, while inserting herself between Henry and Cardinal Wolsey (Rutherford Cravens).

The hub around which the plays revolve is Cromwell. In “Wolf Hall,” he is the loyal protégé of Wolsey, helping him grease the wheels of power for the king. When Wolsey is undone by Boleyn and her supporters, Cromwell shifts to become the invaluable hand of the king. “Bring Up The Bodies” follows Cromwell’s consolidation of power — and the perils that come with it — as he helps Henry with his quest for an heir.

Grothe’s Cromwell is on stage for almost every scene of the two plays. In “Wolf Hall” our sympathies are with the lower–class boy made good — “The Grim Blacksmith” — as he watches his mentor, Wolsey, buried by his enemies. Grothe plays the part with solid good grace as a loyal friend and family man. In “Bring Up The Bodies,” we see Cromwell for the skillful operator as he gradually eliminates his political enemies. It is in the second play that Grothe really shines. He becomes more animated as he puts his plans into action and his confidence in his abilities grows. It is an assured performance worthy of the material.

whMain Street is not afraid to test itself with epic material, and in most cases, such as this one, the audience is rewarded by their bravado. The play, directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, is set in the round, with only minimal set pieces. The dialogue is crisp and often humorous within the deep historical events.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV says “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and Weir’s Henry VIII excellently reveals this to be true. Far from the one-dimensional blustering womanizer of some portrayals, Weir gives us a king that is truly worried about the country in the event of a fight over succession. Is he a “good” man? Not particularly, but he is thoughtful and, to the extent his upbringing allows, loving — though monogomy doesn’t really play into that.

Villegas is superb as Anne Boleyn. She is fully aware of how to use her sexuality to her advantage, and her rise and fall covers the full range of emotions.

The large cast of 24, many of whom play multiple roles, are admirable, with kudos to Joel Sandel as Sir Thomas More, and Will Sanders as Cromwell’s protégé Rafe Sandler.

“Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” are a must see for any theater fan or history buff. Sharp, witty and intelligent, it is theater at its best.

The plays run through Dec. 18. There are two more “marathon days” where the two shows will play back to back. It is an experience worth doing.

For more information, visit

Review: Sororité, if not égalité, shines at Main Street


Callina Situka (clockwise from back), Shannon Emerick, Bree Welch and Molly Searcy star in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” at Main Street Theater.

HOUSTON — A playwright writes a play about a playwright writing a play. The characters are fictitious imaginings of “real” historical figures, imagined not only by the playwright, but also by the playwright within the play. Is the truth more or less real for all that?

Such are the problems of meta theater, problems that Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” tackles with gusto and relish.

Still with me? I’ll explain.

The regional premiere of the play kicks off Main Street Theater’s 40th season and it is a delight. The play centers around Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright who was active during the revolution, as she struggles to write her final play.

She is joined early on by a black woman, Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean abolitionist, a “friend” off whom Olympe (Shannon Emerick) bounces ideas and philosophies as she attempts to write a play that advances equality for all. Olympe has writer’s block about the direction her play should take, even proposing a musical — “No one wants to see a musical about the French revolution,” Marianne says, eliciting a healthy chuckle from the audience.

The self-referential quips, in the hands of a less skilled wordsmith could be trite, but Gunderson’s script crackles with anachronistic nods to its own cleverness.

When Charlotte Corday, the young assassin who killed the zealous revolutionist Jean-Paul Marat enters, she asks for only one thing — a line. She seeks a playwright who can give her the line that will commit her act to history. Molly Searcy plays Charlotte with youthful conviction of the righteousness of her cause. That her action, rather than ending the reign of terror will, in fact, only make a martyr of Marat, is something her lack of cynicism cannot comprehend.

Finally, the gang is joined by Marie Antoinette, portrayed as a preening comic character who nonetheless has an occasional profound thought among the frippery and folly of her upbringing. Bree Welch plays the doomed queen with impeccable comic timing and flair, and no little pathos, although the entire ensemble create an organic whole, from the thoughtful Olympe to the earnest Marianne (Callina Situka) to the steadfast and committed Charlotte.

As the action progresses, we see that each woman is trapped by their destiny, guiding Olympe to finish a play whose ending is already pre-ordained. There is no place in the revolution for equality of the sexes. This is a revolution of liberté, égalité and fraternité, but one that does not include sororité.

The language is modern, and references to, for the characters, future world events, are thrown in (Marie Antoinette jokes about her lack of real power by saying she could not even get a youth fitness program at the palace, a clear reference to Michelle Obama’s activism).

The real point is that women, while often fighting as hard for change as their male counterparts, rarely reap the benefits of that so-called progress. When Olympe presents her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” in 1791, she does so with the realization that her dreams for the revolution are not shared by the ruling assembly.

In the 319 years since the French revolution, women have made strides toward equality. But the very fact that Gunderson’s play resonates today shows how much work is still to be done.

Despite the guillotine, which literally looms over the proceedings, this play is witty and bright, thoughtful and intelligent, and the characters never lose hope for a kind of world they know they will never see.

Vive la revolution. Vive “The Revolutionists.”

“The Revolutionists” runs through Oct. 2. Main Street Theater is located at 2540 Times Blvd. in Houston. For information, visit

Review: ‘Hamilton’ exceeds high expectations

static.playbillNEW YORK — When a show wins a Tony, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize, one can assume it must be pretty darn good. Normally, such praise lends itself to disappointment, but, amazingly, “Hamilton” is actually better than the hype!

From the opening song where we meet our titular hero, to the final heartbreaking moments, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation is a feat for the ears, the eyes and the emotions.

The performance on July 20 at the Richard Rogers Theatre was two weeks late to see the creator in the starring role, and Leslie Odom Jr. had also departed from his Tony-winning role as Aaron Burr. But the play’s the thing, as the saying goes, and this play is so well crafted that the production did not miss a beat. The power of “Hamilton” is far bigger than any particular actor. Javier Muñoz had already played the title role once a week since it opened, and stepped into Manuel’s shoes, as he had in the author’s previous hit, “In The Heights.”

Muñoz is a slightly better singer than Manuel, and his performance was vibrant and energetic. Surely no one in the audience felt short-changed.

Austin Smith as Aaron Burr, the antagonist that both narrates and drives the story, was excellent, as well as holdovers Renée Elise Goldsberry, in her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler, and Christopher Jackson, as George Washington. Alysha Deslorieux, as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, was also superb.

But really, it is unfair to single anyone out. The strength of “Hamilton” is the ensemble working as a team to tell an immersive story about a man, who until recently was one of the least known Founding Fathers. The stage is constantly full of movement and even the most prominent players sing with the chorus when needed.

Just about the only time I remember the stage being bare is when King George III, hilariously played by Rory O’Malley, whiningly sings “You’ll Be Back.”

The music is superb. At times it is fast-paced rap, at others classically musical theater. And the lyrics are magnificent. “Hamilton” is a three-hour history lesson, and the rap format allows for more words than any other show, I would bet. The history is so entertaining that one of the happy by-products of the show’s success is the number of young people who are getting a crash course on the birth of the country, and also being drawn to the theater.


Cast members fro “Hamilton” conduct a talk back following the July 20, 2016, performance.

So why write a musical set in the late 1700s about a man most people only know from being the face on the $10 bill? Manuel’s brilliance lies in writing a show — designed to have a color-blind cast — that uses its anachronistic soundtrack to show that many of the issues the fledgling U.S.A. faced are the same issues we are still grappling with. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s states-right support vs. Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government; the contribution of immigrants; the philosophy of governance; and even the first political sex scandal.

“Hamilton” is witty, clever, touching and inspiring. It is also brilliantly staged. During the curtain call, I felt tears welling up, not just because of the incredibly moving last scene, but also because I realized I had just seen a piece of pure Art, with a capital “A.” It is rare that one can honestly say, “Don’t believe the hype — it’s much better than that.”

Note: Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton, which inspired Manuel to write the musical, is not necessary to enjoy the show, but it adds texture. Listening to the soundtrack is also a help. Trust me, you are going to want to listen to it once you see the show anyway, so just get a head start. It’s available free with Amazon Prime including lyrics.


Renée Elise Goldsberry leads the Schuyler Sisters in this production shot from “Hamilton.”