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Capsule Stage Reviews: Southern Rapture, Night of the Giant, Oliver!, Seven Guitars

Angels in America In 1996, a regional theater in Charlotte, North Carolina produced Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Angels in America. Little did they know that the relatively small-town production and the national trouble it caused would become the inspiration for yet another play, Eric Coble's Southern Rapture, a satire on America's culture wars and all its many warriors. Now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, the amusing comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, even if director Kenn McLaughlin's production is a little bit wobbly. All the usual suspects show up for this fight. There's the politically savvy right-wing mayor (played with hilarious blustering bravado by Rutherford Cravens), the sleazy ­gossip-mongering critic (Jovan Jackson), the attention-seeking producer (David Wald), the theater director in the blousy, brightly colored shirts (Sally Edmundson) and the ridiculous hellfire-and-brimstone reverend (Jon L. Egging). The cast of six (including Pamela Vogel) is often very good, though some seemed a bit shaky on their lines at moments. And Kirk Mark­ley's smart set, with its floor that splits apart in surprising ways, is reason enough to see the show. Still, as funny as all this is, Coble paints in such broad strokes, with McLaughlin doing so little to fill in the details, that the cartoonish characters don't really add much to what we already know about the state of culture in America — zealots are scary and often way too powerful when it comes to government intrusion into the arts, and sometimes theater people like the sound of their own voices too much. Through October 11. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

Night of the Giant Resident playwright John Harvey's new play for Mildred's Umbrella takes a big bite out of old-fashioned theatrical expressionism, which is both good and bad. The tone is macabre and creepy (good), but also so over the top that it veers into unintentional comedy (bad). We're in the moldy house of two fraternal twin sisters (Amy Warren and Jennifer Decker) and their father "It" (Walt Zipprian), who's trussed like a turkey ready for stuffing, his hands and head bagged. They do not like It, and they tell the story — again and again — of their beloved mother, her untimely death when they were born, their discovery of their older brother living in the basement, his horrible disfigurement, and It's sordid, unsavory luring of small boys down into the basement where, mutilated, they are fashioned into playmates for their brother. Like conscientious, good family members, they've had enough, and we witness the last day of dear old Dad — it's about time, we think. The dank, threadbare setting (beautifully atmospheric work by Wayne Bernhill on sets, Kelly Robertson on costumes and Kevin Taylor on lighting) and the gruesome details of the story recall Martin McDonagh's Pillowman, but the play meanders and never quite gets down to really nasty business. Even inside a bag, Zipprian commands the stage, and Warren, with ratty stole and veiled hat, is every inch the faded, whacked-out beauty. Elliot Cole's astonishingly apt music, played live, is like listening to a quartet scored by Edgar Allan Poe. It's the evening's best surprise. October 2 and 3: Ovations, 2536 Times Blvd. October 8: Houston Center for Photography, 1441 W. Alabama. 832-418-0585. — DLG

Oliver! Having a girl play Oliver — no matter how musically pure her singing and how very fine her acting — just doesn't work. Much like the Alley, which made a similar misguided attempt in Treasure Island a few seasons ago, Masquerade Theatre knows better. Here, it's precious and fake, completely throwing us out of the story. Shakespeare's a whole other universe and immune to this, but Dickens needs realism, ­especially when on stage, to camouflage his plot conventions and contrivances. Drag is another layer of artifice neither Dickens nor composer/author Lionel Bart needs. Young Mia Gerachis (Oliver), already a seasoned veteran though only in ninth grade, holds her own against the Masquerade players, excellent singers and dancers. She's not the only girl playing a boy in this production — most of the orphanage and Fagin's gang of underage cutpurses are in drag, which, we suppose, could be a comment on up-and-coming talent. Are there no boy actors anymore? Director Phillip Duggins has found a good one in Trey Stoker, as the Artful Dodger. Quite the song and dance man, he leans against the proscenium during a lull, taking in the show, as knowing and wary as the Dodger would be. Luther Chakurian creates another indelible portrait as Fagin, whispering his way through the lines like Alec Guinness did in David Lean's incomparable 1948 film version. Laura Gray, as put-upon Nancy, belts her anthem "As Long As He Needs Me" with all the emotional heft this goodie deserves, and Luke Wrobel electrifies as mean-as-mean-can-be Bill Sykes. William Martin's sprightly choreography is Broadway caliber, Joe Gunter's costumes cry out Dickensian Victoriana and Andrew Forbes's unit set is imaginatively used to keep the pace smooth and flowing. Through October 4. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045. — DLG

Seven Guitars It's 1948, and the Pittsburgh Hill District is full of possibility for the fast-talking, fine-dining folks who populate August Wilson's gorgeously poetic Seven Guitars, now running on high octane at The Ensemble Theatre. The story about four men and three women who dance, dream and hope for the good life is American theater at its very best, and under the direction of Eileen J. Morris, the cast in the little theater on Main Street get down to the very marrow of Wilson's astounding tale. Shaped into a beautiful circle, the story starts at a funeral, and then flashes back over the course of events that led up to the dark day. Each character wants something. Floyd (Broderick "Brod J" Jones) wants to make music. And with his tune playing on the radio, it looks like he's on his way to fame and fortune, if only he can get enough dough together to get his guitar out of hock. "Quiet" Vera (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) wants Floyd, but he burned her once, leaving her for another woman. When he comes around to her doorstep, she's not sure she wants to trust him with her heart again. Sexy Ruby (Jordyn Lorenz) wants a father for her unborn child. And crazy Hadley (Wayne DeHart) wants to be somebody someday. There's also Louise (Bebe Wilson), Canewell (Timothy Eric) and Red Carter (Byron Jacquet), who round out this tight group of friends who preen and strut, showing off their guns and knives and foreshadowing the great danger to come as they tell their histories of heartache and struggle. These actors have entered into the lives of these characters with rare generosity and grace, and it all plays out on James V. Thomas's moody backyard set. This is the wondrous sort of theater that leaves you tingling when it's all over, amazed at the delicious power of a committed cast and crew paired with a truly great play. Through October 18. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — LW

 
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