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The Marriage of Figaro Mozart's sublime opera is all about love. All kinds, from raunchy seduction to moonlight serenade. Based on Beaumarchais's scandalous, satiric play, in which low-class Figaro and wife-to-be Susanna get the jump on their master Count Almaviva, who has neglected his wife and is chasing Susanna for a midnight tryst, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte's opera is ever-fresh and immortal. Houston Grand Opera gives it a near superlative rendition, with an ensemble cast so good, with voices clean and expressive, they carry us over the somewhat glacial pace conducted by maestro James Gaffigan. There are no superstars in the cast, but everyone shines. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi is a bit more of a subdued Figaro than usual, with a smaller heft to his voice, but he's certainly spirited enough when he stands up to the philandering Count or when wooing his love Susanna (soprano Adriana Kucerová). Susanna is the first modern woman in opera and has all of Mozart's respect; you can hear it in the music. Of silvery voice and bright presence, Kucerová imbues her with clever appeal and charm. The count, as embodied by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, is a sexy, dangerous antagonist. Tall and handsome, he commands the stage but, constantly thwarted, never quite gets the upper hand, although his ego thinks he deserves it. As the long-suffering Countess, soprano Ellie Dehn brings regal reserve, authority and a velvety voice to break our hearts. The "pants role" of young stud Cherubino, in love with love, is deftly handled by mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand. A natural comedian, she positively purrs in the "buffa" scenes when she hides behind, next to and in the wing chair while Almaviva courts Susanna. In the subsidiary roles, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, bass Carlo Lepore, tenor Jon Kolbet, soprano Kiri Deonarine and bass Michael Sumuel supply all the acting and vocal facets necessary to make Mozart's musical jewel sparkle. Directed by Harry Silverstein, based upon the previous staging by the late Göran Järvefelt, given an uncluttered set design by Carl Friedrich Oberle (something like Ikea goes to Drottningholm) and brought merrily to life, Mozart's mighty hymn to love in all its many guises, heartaches and joys is just about as good as it gets. This is one of HGO's most accomplished productions this season. Through April 30. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

King Lear There is so much to praise in the Classical Theatre Company and The Prague Shakespeare Festival's joint production of King Lear (which is playing in repertory with As You Like It) that I could fill a short review by simply listing everyone in the cast and crew and remarking on their excellence. Let's start with the potentially daunting play itself: someone, likely director Guy Roberts, did a masterful job of conflating and editing two versions of Shakespeare's thunderous masterpiece, so that the play flies, reaching its tragic, corpse-filled finale in a trim two-and-a-half hours. The story unfolds on the barebones set created by the excellent Jodi Bobrovsky. Lear (Rutherford Cravens), ready to retire from the throne and devote all his waking hours to hunting and "riotous living," calls together his three daughters so that he can abdicate and divide his kingdom among them. Showing himself to be the most foolish of the play's many fools, Lear puts his daughters to the love-test before telling them which portion will be theirs. Goneril (Holly Haire) and Regan (Jessica Boone) have no trouble conjuring up the honeyed words the old man's ego requires, and winning their royal third, but Cordelia (Blair Knowles) has too much integrity to flatter, so her father disinherits her in a rage, and his descent into self-inflicted hell begins. Haire and Boone both grow powerfully into their characters' darkness. The parallel plot involving Gloucester (Thomas Prior) and his two sons, Edmond the traitor (Guy Roberts) and the loyal but betrayed Edgar (Jeff S. Smith), is extremely well performed. The dashing Roberts (who also directed) revels in his character's Machiavellian evil, while Smith most impressively descends into feigned madness when Edgar takes on the disguise of Poor Tom. But the play is titled King Lear for a reason. The foolish former king contains multitudes, and Rutherford Cravens registers powerfully in each of his phases. He wears the part's demands lightly, and doesn't stint on the humor. It's the performance of a career. Guy Roberts also directs the English-language Prague Shakespeare Festival. Some members of the Houston cast, including Cravens, will be taking Lear and As You Like It to Europe, and a couple of Czech performers are in the Houston production, most notably acclaimed actor Pavel Kÿíÿ, who brings an impressive physicality to his performance as the Fool. Through May 1. Main Street Theater – Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Blvd., 713-524-6706. – DT

Come Back, Little Sheba Never has a bottle of whiskey perked up a play so much. Until Doc (Mack Hays) careens into the kitchen, screaming, taunting and threatening his wife Lola (Tess Wells) with an axe, the everyday sadness of life -- of which playwright William Inge was a master at delineating -- has been uncommonly slow-paced under director Jack Dunlop. It's like we've been watching the play under water. Then Doc goes on a classic bender, and the play lives. The leisurely attitude shows itself right at the beginning as Doc prepares breakfast before slovenly Lola wakes up. He puts on an apron (a powerful Inge touch), gets the pans, pours the orange juice, and goes about his business with deliberate slowness, as if the world hinges upon his making breakfast. It seems a waste of precious stage time: all preparation and no pay-off. Doc and Lola are haunted by the unforgiving past. Their marriage is a sham, a shotgun affair from high school coupled with a botched abortion that left Lola forever childless and Doc resentful. Love is for others. Their free-spirited college boarder Marie (Emily Cunningham) and her sexy ways with athlete boyfriend Turk (Adan Inteuz) rekindle some of Lola's lost warmth, but curdle memories for Doc. He dives back into the bottle. Throughout, Lola has pined for her beloved dog, Sheba, who ran away. In the end, she gives up all hope of a return, and she and Doc settle back into their dull routine of a marriage. Quotidian touches like the arrival of the mailman (John Mitsakis) and milkman (Scott McWhirter), the next door neighbor's nosiness (Janina Gebel), and other bits of business fill out the play and Lola's meager existence. But this version from Country Playhouse is mostly sketch. Wells doesn't make Lola ache for her past; she just seems befuddled. And the house that's supposed to be such a mess only reads as untidy. Except for Hays's mighty fine drunk scene, there's no pace to this production. Everything gets the same emphasis -- those eggs in the skillet, the telephone call from Western Union, the searching for little Sheba. With its theme of sexual repression squarely in your face, Sheba is more upfront and daring than ever. This production just doesn't know how to deal with it. Through May 7. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

Under the Big Dark Sky Not since the head trips of cinemaverick , especially that psilocybin deluxe El Topo, has there been such a rich, incomprehensible, ultimately silly work as John Harvey's world premiere for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Co. See if you can make sense of this: We're at a Victorian carnival whose barker is pasty-faced Mr. Bones (Ricky Welch, stepping in at the very last moment for an ailing actor and doing a very fine job of it) who eagerly displays his sideshow attractions. Among the freaks: the Three Headed Barking Man (James Reed, Norm Dillon, Stephen Foulard), the Woman Who Slices Away Her Skin (Mia Migliaccio), the Little Boy Whose Throat Sprouts Wings (Adam Pecht), the Woman Who Shits Chickens (Julie Oliver). She not only defecates a leg, she lets loose an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried. There's the talking head on a table (Aaron Asher) who spouts the poetry of John Keats. Then there's this terribly dysfunctional family. Dad, called Theresa's Father (Rod Todd), is obviously lost from some bogy Easter pageant. He has a Jesus fixation and keeps corpses in his basement, waiting for the "little green bits of Jesus," His "divine chlorophyll," to either re-animate what remains of them or to bring back the dead body of his son Shem (Adam Pecht of the Little Boy Whose Throat Sprouts Wings, above). Dad killed Shem, or his randy daughter Theresa (Ashley Allison) did. Theresa sleeps with anybody who asks, but she really, really loves John Keats. Of course, Mom (Jennifer Decker) might have smashed in little Shem's head with a rock, too. There's plenty of putrefaction and violence as the twisted tale goes on and on. What works to its advantage is the extraordinarily effective live music played by composer Andy McWilliams -- his simple guitar riffs and phrases run almost non-stop but never intrude and always keep the drama interesting -- and the swirling background projections, like scudding clouds, from set designer Mark Krouskup and lighting designer Kevin Taylor. This allegory is so "deep" and "meaningful," for the life of me I can't figure it out. The family certainly gets a drubbing from Harvey, and the moral might very well be, "Don't neglect your children." Even God's accused of that. But other than that, it's anyone's guess. Through April 30. Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 832-463-0409. — DLG

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