the best of the baddest
Houston theater's baddest: Bad bosses, bad romances, MJ's 'Bad,' and more of 2023's best stage stars
While live theater has taken a post-pandemic hit all over the country, Houston theater survived and thrived in 2023. This year was a particularly fun one for audiences thanks to one theatrical theme, characters behaving badly.
Fundamentally comedy, drama, and every theatrical genre in between rely on onstage bad behavior to create a good story. But in 2023, we saw an unusual amount of deliciously bad acts.
So as 2024 draws near, we thought we’d look back and celebrate the best of the bad that made for some truly good theater experiences.
Best Bad Mom: Medea (Callina Anderson) in Classical Theatre’s Medea
What if theater’s most infamous, murderous mother had a legion of social media followers? Classical Theatre’s stellar and streamlined production posed this question and Anderson responded with, a Medea that seemed to take directorial notes from Hamlet.
With apologies to to both Shakespeare and Stoppard, in this production Medea was mad north-northwest. Between live-streaming episodes, she knows a hawk from a handbag. The tragedy, of course, resides in her need for revenge outweighing her love for her children, but under John Johnson’s direction, Anderson portrays a maternally calculating queen, who delivers the killing cut with love.
Best Bad Dad: Salter (Shawn Hamilton) in A Number at Rec Room
Using a sci-fi story about cloning, this Caryl Churchill play wrestled with that most ancient of questions: is it nature or nurture — or a lack thereof — that makes us who we are?
Hamilton plays the dad who, failing one son, decides to have an exact copy made to begin again. (Many kudos to Philip Kershaw for making the original son and clones completely unique.) In a series of scenes between Salter and three different “sons” with the exact same genetic code, the father’s flawed love copies and mutates to create distinctly different lives for his sons.
Best Bad (Puppet) Kids: Flora and Miles from Catastrophic Theatre’s The Turn of the Screw
Houston theater went all in on child characters played by puppets, for great sympathy (Wolf Play at Rec Room, Medea) or even wisdom (The Oldest Boy at Main Street). But Catastrophic’s fantastic retelling of the Henry James classic Turn of the Screw brought us the wickedest puppet children of the year.
Adding layers to the original take, the world premiere play was framed as a psychic society investigating strange historical occurrence and used projections, immersive seating, and yes, puppets.
Designed by the production co-director Afsaneh Aayani, those small, simple faces and syrupy sweet voices provided by puppeteers John Dunn and Brittny Bush just upped the creepy kid factor and created one of the spookiest endings of the year.
Best Bad Animals: the birds of Dirt Dog Theatre’s production of The Birds
True, we only heard their cacophony caws and the beating of their wings from off stage. And the whole message of the play seemed to be that when the bird apocalypse comes, it’s the humans who are the real murderous animals.
Still, those were some scary bad birds.
Best Bad Boss: Clyde (Michelle Elaine) in Clyde’s at Ensemble Theatre
Elaine has a devilish good time playing the wrathful truck stop diner owner and supervisor of a kitchen workers in their first employment after time served in prison.
The budding chefs find purpose and redemption trying to create the perfect sandwich. As they strive for sandwich high art, Clyde daily crushes their spirit tempting them ever back to mediocrity. We root for the hopes and dreams of this motley kitchen crew, but we also just have to admire that bad, bad boss queen, Clyde.
Best Murderous Twist: Stages’ Switzerland
Honorable mention goes to the narrative sleight of hand of the Alley’s excellent production of Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But, we have to yodel “bravo!” to Switzerland, which layered about three dark twists with one genre-defying twist before the end.
Some extra, thrilling goodness: The show starred Stages favorite Sally Edmundson as Patricia Highsmith, the real-life, Texan author of the Talented Mr. Ripley books. And the production was the last show Kenn McLaughlin would direct as Stages artistic director.
Best Existential, Dread-Inducing Set: Rec Room’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning
On the surface, this show about a reunion of old friends reminiscing about their time attending a conservative Catholic college looked to be a fascinating exploration of political ideas not often discussed onstage.
Yet amid the clashing rhetoric, Heroes walked the edge of almost every cinematic horror motif, from a lone cabin in the woods to characters who seems of the verge of needing a cleansing exorcism. Strong performances abound, but it was Rec’s resident set designer Stefan Azizi’s dark, deep woods set that we couldn’t take our eyes from.
Azizi has learned to make every inch of stage count at Rec Room, one of the smallest theater spaces in Houston. Yet, this set seemed to require dark magic indeed to create what looked like an infinite void in the world, where neither light nor hope could escape.
We’re still shivering.
Best Bad Romance: Sweeney Todd (Danny Rothman) and Mrs. Lovett (Sally Wilfert) in Theatre Under the Stars’ Sweeney Todd
TUTS played bloody tribute to the late, great Stephen Sondheim with a killer production of the macabre classic — and brought us a fine romance made-in-hell for the ages.
She’d kill for him, and while he’s codependent, in the end, he just really wasn’t into her — as much as seeking revenge on the whole of London for the loss of his wife and daughter.
We’re also bestowing Best Bad Small Business Owner award to Mrs. Lovett. Sure for a time she becomes the queen of meat pies, but it’s never a smart business decision to rely on a serial killer as your sole meat vender.
Best Past Imperfect: What the Constitution Means to Me at Main Street Theatre
Houston theater mined the past for superb drama, but also to make connections to our very imperfect present.
We have to give bravos to two standout touring shows in particular: Broadway at the Hobby Center brought us a still-timely To Kill a Mockingbird, with television and film star Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch. While early in the year, the Alley Theater presented Cambodian Rock Band, which rocked the line between music and drama for a sometimes harrowing sometimes joyful night of theater.
But our favorite homegrown journey into the past took the form of a theatrical lecture about how the U.S. Constitution affects our daily lives at Main Street Theatre. Playwright Heidi Schreck turned her personal, moving — and sometimes truly funny — stories about how the Constitution has touched generations of women in her family into a Tony-nominated play, What the Constitution Means to Me.
Directed by Sophia Watt, this local production starred MST regular Shannon Emerick as Heidi, a role she seemed born to play. Having seen the production on Broadway, we can say the intimacy of the MST stage and Emerick’s performance took us on a sometimes divesting, sometimes hopeful journey into the past — and through the Constitutional amendments — to see what the Constitution means to, and for, us all.
Best “Bad”: MJ The Musical
Honorable mention goes to 4th Wall Theatre’s hilarious production of Sense and Sensibility for the particularly apt use of the song “Bad Reputation” during one couple’s scandalous, unchaperoned, buggy ride of a doomed romance.
But the best “Bad” of the year, of course, must go to MJ, which manages to stuff most of Michael Jackson’s hits into one show. While the story doesn’t look all that deep into the man in the mirror, the musical numbers, including “Bad,” did help to portray an artist fighting past demons while giving Houston audiences some of the baddest, thriller live theater.