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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

 Billy Bishop Goes to War As much as we love Canada and all things that sweet country to the north represents, John Gray and Eric Peterson's Canadian import Billy Bishop Goes to War is a hard play to get excited about. The Stages Repertory Theatre production, directed by Chelsey Santoro Krohn, is certainly earnest enough. The tiny musical about a Canadian World War I fighter pilot pays gung-ho homage to the rough-and-tumble soul of the "Colonials," as the English say. And in this production, the small cast, consisting of Jim Johnson as Billy Bishop (and several other characters) and Michael Harren as the Narrator/Pianist, does a bang-up job of bringing Billy's wartime struggles to life. But the slender tale that follows Billy from his early days as a ne'er-do-well in military school to his glory days as a decorated pilot should most appeal to fellow Canadians. Lots of jokes are made about the "Colonials" and their general brutishness compared to the elegant Europeans, and these jokes feel a bit foreign on an American stage. The two-performer format doesn't do much for the show either. As good as Johnson is (and he is often terrific) playing all the different characters who come into Billy's life -- including a proper English dowager, an Irish airplane mechanic and a naughty French chanteuse, among others -- the show would probably be more fiery if these characters could be inhabited by other actors. Still, given the restraints of the script and the budget of this production (the set consists of little more than a few posters tacked up on the theater walls), Johnson and Harren do as good a job as any two could at making an American audience care about a Canadian war hero. Through May 1. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

...for those who live in cities After suffering a humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany suffered further defeat. Inflation tore apart whatever remained of the fragile social structure; the cream of Teutonic manhood lay dead in the trenches; riots erupted over scarce jobs; bread lines snaked through once-great cities. You were forced to scrounge, or you might starve tomorrow. When the future loomed bleakest, the pursuit of pleasure became a priority. Amid crushing poverty and nihilism, the arts flourished, and one of the most powerful, idiosyncratic voices was that of playwright-provocateur Bertolt Brecht. His feverishly communistic, virulently antifascist works (The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, Galileo, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) are as revolutionary, controversial and relevant today as when they shocked the bourgeoisie in the '30s and '40s. His lesser-known poetry chronicles the turbulence of these post-WWI times like a deep-focus photo -- all the blemishes appear in the foreground, while foreboding shadows recede into infinity. Bob Morgan has adapted Brecht's trenchant verses into one of dos chicas theater commune's most satisfying works. Using haunting cabaret tunes by Mischa Spoliansky and Friedrich Hollaender as musical interludes and/or commentary (performed by Karen Schlag in pseudo-Dietrich mode), the poems are dramatized in brief scenes and monologues that visualize the dying gasps of the Weimar Republic. This is a nitty-gritty Cabaret, imbued with the caustic S&M spin that's so much a part of the dos chicas aesthetic. It works like a jackboot to the head. Through April 30 at Free Range Studios, 1719 Live Oak, 832-283-0858.

Four Dogs and a Bone Playwright-director John Patrick Shanley -- who received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for the drama Doubt and an earlier Academy Award for Moonstruck -- penned a black-edged valentine to the movie industry with his early-'90s comedy Four Dogs and a Bone. Two has-beens, the Producer and the Star, and two newcomers, the Second Lead and the Screenwriter, claw at one another for their chance to make it in Hollywood during the filming of the mother of all B movies. These shallow knuckleheads are, of course, inspired by the ones Shanley has had to deal with in his own career (though Shanley had his own knucklehead moment with his lame Joe vs. the Volcano). The Producer (John Stevens in a wry, knowing performance as both snake and snake charmer) wants to cut the screenplay to save money. He also needs a hit to remain viable in this town that values only what you've done lately. Collette (Tina Samuelsen) needs a smash to move from ingenue to leading lady, or it's character-actress time from now on. Dim but adorable Brenda (in a delectable turn by Julie Gutman) just wants to be famous -- and yet knows exactly what scenes need to be rewritten for her to take over the lead. Writer Victor (Howard Block), fresh from off-Broadway and full of principles, displays feet of clay as he's seduced by dreams of becoming a director. In the meantime, he's entirely content to sleep with either actress. The ins and outs of moviemaking on the cheap receive loving treatment from the excellent cast, but the play itself could benefit from its own rewrite to tighten the four scenes and give the caricatures a bit more oomph and believability. And would someone explain Collette and Brenda's thick Nuu Yawhk accents? Are they shooting this movie in the Bronx? Through April 23 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497.

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