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 Androcles and the Lion It should come as no surprise that great Irish literary lion George Bernard Shaw would write a play with a lion as one of the main characters. In his 1912 "comic fable" based upon the ancient Roman tale, Shaw embroiders the pagan story of Androcles and weaves a thesis on Christianity and the power of faith. Escaping persecution, animal-loving Androcles (a perfectly humble Lee Walker) stumbles upon a lion in the forest (Jan van Amerongen) who has a thorn embedded in his paw. Talking baby talk to the fierce beast, Androcles plucks it out. Captured later, Androcles is thrown to the beasts in the Coliseum. Who should be there to eat him but his friend, the lion. As they embrace, their friendship is rewarded by Caesar (Orlando Arriaga) with the release of all prisoners. While Shaw was no follower of formal religion, espousing a fuzzy social mysticism that he called the "life force," his Christians, for all their flaws, turn out to be stalwart, esteemed fighters for their cause. Nevertheless, Androcles is not Shaw's best. The comedy stops mid-scene for disquisitions on faith between the patrician Lavinia (Courtney McLaughlin), who's headed for the arena, and the virile Roman captain (Joey Watkins) who's fallen for her; or between Lavinia and Caesar, the sophisticate who's Shaw's mouthpiece; or Lavinia and her fellow Christians who've lost their nerve, strongman Ferrovius (Jeff McMorrough) and opportunist Spintho (Kevin Dean). Obviously, Shaw's intent is to lecture entertainingly, but the orations stop the drama cold. If Shaw's wit and bite were more pronounced, and if there were a bit more scenic spectacle -- there's too many drapes and too many people lined up in a row -- then the apparent flaws in the play might not be quite so obvious. But with van Amerongen's purrs and growls, you couldn't ask for a better lion. Through March 19. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721.

The Government Inspector There are many ways of staging Nikolai Gogol's absurdist classic comedy well. This University of Houston School of Theatre production isn't one of them. Overwrought and heavy, this show delivers knockwurst and stale beer instead of caviar and blini. It yells when it should purr, clumps when it should glide, yodels when it should sing. Gogol's universal indictment of government bureaucracy, crass humanity and social inequality is played like Benny Hill on steroids. It's just wrong. In some backwater Russian town, the corrupt mayor has received word that an inspector general is arriving incognito with "secret instructions." Graft and corruption run rampant here, and the leaders decide to clean up the place to pass inspection. If that fails, there's always a bribe. They mistake a spendthrift, driftless clerk for the government official and fawn all over him. The opportunist takes the townsfolk for all their worth, simultaneously wooing the mayor's wife and daughter, and gladly accepts all the rubles everyone hands him. When he bolts town, the dumbfounded citizens are left in a state of shock as the real inspector general is announced. Rutherford Cravens catches the mayor's bluster and oily charm but has nowhere to go since he starts off in hurricane mode. As the fake government inspector, Caleb George plays it much too urbane for Gogol's grand joke to take flight. Timmy Wood, as valet Osip who's smarter than his master, is refreshingly cool but has no one to play against. And David Ello, as the snooping Postmaster, and Scotty Fults, as the idiotic Superintendent of Schools, capture village ineptitude with flair and precision, when not directed to overplay in boldface. The sets and costumes, by Kevin Rigdon and Margaret M. Crowley, are sumptuous and clever. The incidental balalaika music is comic and apt. The direction is unforgivable. Through March 26. Wortham Theatre at the University of Houston, Entrance #16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929.

The Pillowman In Martin McDonagh's exhilarating new play The Pillowman, now playing at the Alley Theatre, a character named Katurian has an affinity for those old-timey yarns. He loves those dark and lurid tales that involve children meeting untimely and gruesome deaths, where ravenous wolves stalk lost girls into the dark woods and hideous witches gleefully roast runaways in their ovens. In fact, throughout the three-act play, he tells several of his own grisly tales, each as horrifying as anything from the Grimm brothers. And like the dark fairy tales of old, Katurian's stories pull you to the edge of your seat even as you recoil at their dreadfulness. Each involves some extreme act of violence (just imagine what terrors a handful of razor blades can inflict), and all claim children as their victims. No wonder the police have taken the young writer into custody. After all, the neighborhood kids have started showing up dead, and it couldn't be just a coincidence that they've all been murdered in the uniquely terrible ways described in Katurian's stories. The play follows Katurian as he's questioned about the murders. He must deal with cruel authorities, a brain-damaged brother and his own lurid imagination. The play is thrilling, and so is the Alley's cast, which includes John Tyson, Jeffrey Bean, Rick Stear and David Rainey. All are pulled together by Gregory Boyd's hard-punching direction, making The Pillowman one of the most haunting productions of the season. Through February 26. 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

 
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