Mark Payne Another HSPVA alum who's done good, Mark Payne has been touring with a cabaret show in sunny Florida and sunnier Australia, and now he's back for a show at Ovations, Houston's home for cabaret shows. Payne will perform songs from his soon-to-be-released CD. (Amanda McBroom, writer of "The Rose," is his co-writer on that project.) His vocal stylings will be accompanied by a topnotch trio -- pianist Claudia Burson, bassist David Klingensmith and drummer Richard Waters. One night only. 8 p.m. Ovations, 2536 Times (at Kirby), 522-9801. $6.
Over Forty This night has all kinds of history: Celeste Bedford's acclaimed story chronicles the history of four African-American women and their friendship (consider it a mature Waiting to Exhale); the director, Vernell Lillie, is a former Wheatley High drama teacher; and The Ensemble Theatre presents this preview in celebration of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church's 34th anniversary. Why see the show after it officially opens this summer when you can see it now, and on a special night? 8 p.m. Presented by Wheeler Avenue Baptist and The Ensemble at the University of Houston, Cullen Performance Hall. For reservations or more information, call 748-5295. $15$20.
Italian opera and food Twelve voices from Houston Opera Theater will entertain with arias as diners enjoy potato dumplings with rabbit sauce and chicken Carmelo. "If you ever wanted to have your favorite arias performed just for you," Italian Cultural Center director Emily Ponte says, "or if you have a desire to sing opera, then this evening of fine opera and excellent Italian food and wine is an opportunity to fulfill your desires." This evening is the fourth in a series; the first three were sellouts, so make reservations now.7 p.m. Italian Cultural and Community Center, 1101 Milford (at Bell Park), 524-4222. $45.
Buddhist opera Houston Grand Opera claims, and with reason, that it is "going where few opera companies dare": the afterlife. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a liberation through hearing, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Jean-Claude van Itallie draw from ancient Buddhist teachings to create an opera with all the fun stuff from Buddhism (spiritual questing, insight, enlightenment) and none of the bad (Shih Tzus and rice with yak butter). The Houston Opera Studio's world premiere opens tonight, 8 p.m. Subsequent performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Rice University, Shepherd School of Music, Wortham Opera Theatre, 6100 Main, 227-ARTS. $15$50.
HAMS sixth annual Texas Shoot-Out model car contest and swap meet The theme for this year is "Back to the Sixties" and muscle cars will be the models of the moment, but the 24 contest categories offer something for everyone. The Houston Automotive Modelers Society is sponsoring this show and sale (with vendors from all over with kits, books and accessories) to benefit the National Car Modelers Museum. 9 a.m.5 p.m. Webster Civic Center, 311 Pennsylvania, Webster, 997-1658. $1, admission; bring bucks to buy kits.
Island Art Festival and sandcastle competition All of Galveston is hopping this weekend, as the tourist industry there opens its arms to the first post-Memorial Day crowd of day-trippers. All weekend long, the island (and especially, the Strand and Pier 21 area) will have activities and entertainments for the whole family. But the big event is the tenth annual American Institute of Architects/Steelcase/A&E Products Sandcastle Competition. From11 a.m.6 p.m. today, more than 1,000 professional builders, while competing for the Golden Bucket Award, will create masterpieces on East Beach. Architects, designers and contractors will sweat in the glare of the sun and the glare of the sun on the sand and sea; they'll squint and frown and rub their chins thoughtfully as they build -- what could be a more exciting show? Well, maybe this: after all the hoopla, sometime before dawn, the waters of the Gulf will un-create the masterpieces. Sic transit gloria. For more information, call 622-2081 or 521-0133. Admission to the Island Art Festival is $5; parking on East Beach is $5. (Rain date is Sunday.)
Society of Mind Can computers think? That's the question most thriller/sci-fi authors ask because the other question -- can people think? -- is more troublesome. With the machinery question, either way you answer it, people are flattered: either computers can't think, so we're superior, or they can think, and we stammering featherless bipeds are still tops because we can build such grand technology. Author Eric Harry, a Houston attorney specializing in securities law, has a thinking computer in his new near-future thriller; like so many sentient machines in literature, the contraption suffers from mental problems. Harry signs his book today, 13 p.m. Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet, 529-CLUE, firstname.lastname@example.org. (He also signs 6 p.m. Tuesday, at the River Oaks Super Crown bookstore.)