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Capsule Stage Reviews: Gem of the Ocean, Illyria, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Scarlet Pimpernel,

Gem of the Ocean This is the first play in August Wilson's monumental ten-drama series chronicling the American black experience during the 20th century with one work for each decade. Gem introduces us to Aunt Ester, a mysterious legend among African-Americans in Pittsburgh. The one character that appears throughout the series, she's part shaman, part medicine man and part voodoo queen, and she's always mentioned with love and respectful awe. The profoundly written Ester is such a formidable presence (and limned with such a wonderfully cranky, no-nonsense performance by Bebe Wilson) that we have no trouble at all believing she's 287 years old. She's the primal connection to that first slave ship from Africa. The play takes place in 1904. Citizen Barlow (Timothy Dickson) has run away from the racial terrors of Alabama to find solace in Pittsburgh. Once there, he's desperate to see Ester. He must have his "soul washed" immediately, and mythical Aunt Ester's the only one who can do it. This is the beginning of the play's journey into knowledge, awareness and fulfillment. Some make it; some don't. Aunt Ester can only help Citizen so far, and then it's up to him. Citizen's not the only one on a quest out of personal bondage. Wilson fills his canvas with a rich panoply of earthy seekers and mystical explorers. But while all the characters meld and collide in their reactions to freedom, the heart of Gem is Citizen's phantasmagoric trip to the City of Bones, the underwater repository of the slaves who died while undergoing the infamous "Middle Passage." Conducted by Aunt Ester, it's his rite of passage. Citizen can never be free if he can't remember the pain of the past. Through February 24. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

Illyria Shakespeare's beguiling, sex-shifting romantic comedy Twelfth Night — with its immortal line: "If music be the food of love, play on!" — is a natural for musical adaptation; the play already sings. In previous musical versions, Your Own Thing (1968) rocked; Music Is (1976) soothed with easy-listening pop; and Play On (1997) incorporated jazz. For this 2002 incarnation, composer/lyricist/author Peter Mills lays on a contempo Broadway sound influenced by Sondheim and, to a greater extent, Jonathan Larsen of Rent fame. It's a sprightly, clever score, full of ideas, a few strained rhymes, one totally gorgeous torch song, "Save One," and a rousing comic number for prude Malvolio, who lets loose in "Malvolio's Tango." The music works beautifully for Shakespeare's tale of gender misidentity, as well as all the complexities of love that the Bard weaves with his poetic precision. Texas Rep's physical production is four-star all the way, from its fairy-tale set, silky lighting and sumptuous costumes to the game cast who give their all, especially Natalie Arneson as a young woman, Viola, masquerading as young Sebastian; Dylan Godwin as fey aristocrat Andrew Aguecheek; and Kregg Daily as Puritan incarnate Malvolio. Although the orchestra's amplification often overpowers the singers and there are a few scenes that could be excised without harming old Will's intentions, this musical is thoroughly entertaining and keeps the imminent death of the Broadway musical very much at bay. Play on, indeed. Through February 24. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

The Lieutenant of Inishmore The Alley Theatre is dripping in bloody good fun, and we're not speaking in metaphor. Martin McDonagh's 2006 Tony nominee The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a festival of violence about a man so dangerous that even the IRA won't have him, is a funny farce for the new millennium. Anyone who appreciates Quentin Tarantino or even a good slasher film will be able to laugh at McDonagh's strange fascination with violence and death. The characters include a handful of Irish knuckleheads who are all afraid of Padraic (Chris Hutchison), a crazy gun lover who enjoys torturing people in the name of Ireland. When he finds out his best bud, a black cat named Wee Thomas, isn't doing so well, all hell breaks lose. Nobody is safe from Padraic's rage, and silly plots and big, bloody messes are the name of the day. Think I Love Lucy meets Pulp Fiction, and you'll get close to how silly and how violent this story is. The ending is as fabulous as any that McDonagh has written, and director Gregory Boyd, who does farce better than anyone else in Houston, finds the ridiculousness in every moment. While there's certainly not as much meat on the bone here as in past works by McDonagh presented at the Alley, all the blood should satisfy anyone hungry for more of this great Irish writer's work. Through February 24. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW

The Scarlet Pimpernel This may be the only show on Broadway that took a thorough drubbing by the critics, underwent a complete rewrite, kept right on playing while revisions were tried out in rehearsal, closed down for a week, then had a grand reopening night — and received another drubbing, just not as vicious as the first. Frank Wildhorn's adventure/romance is about English nobleman Percy Blakeney, who, disguised as the Scarlet Pimpernel, sails to France — a lot so it seems — to save the unfortunate from the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. It was adapted from Baroness Orczy's popular novel and play. The original is a natural for the musical treatment, but maybe not as much as Wildhorn slathers on. Every time someone stops in this breathless yarn, you know there's going to be a heart-wrenching, lung-busting song. It's all too much the same, which causes the smaller, less intrusive numbers to pop out and shine: opening "Storybook," a lovely set piece that captures the sentiment of the entire show; "The Creation of Man," in which Percy and his loyal band of do-gooders comically decide to out-fop the fops to deflect suspicion; and "Into the Fire," a stirring, manly anthem that could easily slot right into Les Miz. Actually, much of this show could slot into Les Miz, which is part of its problem — Pimpernel has no distinctive voice of its own. Yet it doesn't matter, because The Scarlet Pimpernel still manages to be lots of fun. Buoyed by Masquerade Theatre's ardent, tonally rich cast (Luther Chakurian, Kristina Sullivan and Ilich Guardiola, among others) and sumptuous production, the show's full of campy daring, a lecherous villain, a damsel in distress, duels and even a guillotining. Now, that's a musical! Through February 24. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. — DLG

 
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