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Capsule Stage Reviews: Asylum, The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase, Opening the Box, The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Asylum Sweet, nerdy Gary (Chris Patton), who seems permanently stuck somewhere near adolescence, finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into his dream world until he can't tell reality from fantasy. Will his dreams pull him into madness? Keith Aisner's Asylum, mounted in an extremely well-acted and intricately conceived staging from director Ananka Kohnitz at Theatre Southwest, will have you questioning your own dreams and wishing only the best for overwhelmed, sad-sack Gary. His fantasies pop up everywhere. Dream girl Angela (Katrina Ellsworth) emerges right out of his bed and then disappears down between his legs, causing him delicious spasms. Institutionalized Mom (Julie Oliver) swishes out of the wall barefoot and in hospital gown and socks. Muscled leatherman Satan (Lenvi Tennessee) comes by train, arriving at the window accompanied by his Zombie Girl posse (Liz King and Aesha Kohnitz). God (Adan Inteuz), with booming Old Testament voice, calmly walks into Gary's apartment looking like a Goth Oscar Wilde with long stringy hair and top hat, but a rock star's artistically torn jeans and athletic shirt. Neighborhood buddy Davis (Sam Martinez), always eating, usually junk food, pops out of the refrigerator. Brother Frank (Andrew Adams), somewhat sane, uses the front door; bizarro Dr. Capote (John Lazo), with his "Tru" mannerisms, is wheeled in on his office chair to conduct Gary's shrink session; while creepy, disheveled Salesman (Patrick Jennings), selling his fake dreams and deadly nostrums, first appears out of the storage trunk at the foot of the bed. Aisner's play is at least one act too long, with all characters repeating the essence of what had been stated in previous scenes, but Kohnitz keeps the pace lively and our interest varied. The marvelous cast fascinates, letting us know once again (as if we could forget) the depth of talent to be had on the Bayou. Patton, Oliver and Martinez are standouts among standouts, compelling to watch and beguiling to listen to. The psilocybin-inspired pop-art of a set, designed by auteur Kohnitz, is abuzz with reefer madness and dredges up all sorts of '60s-era fun and not-so-fun neuroses, while the video projections and sound design are superbly crafted and executed. Satan's tongues of fire look like infernal dancing waterworks from Vegas's Hotel Bellagio — if that's not Hell, what is? If dreams are the mirror into the soul, come peer into Asylum (a really bad title for this heartfelt yet playful play). The reflection will startle, amuse and thoroughly satisfy. Through June 18. 8944-A Clarkcrest. 713-661-9505. — DLG

The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase An entertaining evening awaits at The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase, with one truly gifted performance by Richard Hahn as Uncle George, but be prepared for some exaggerated performances that detract from the humor. Hahn plays a garrulous senior living in a run-down cabin in the woods, and brings an easygoing charm and well-honed comic timing to the role. Whenever he is onstage, and fortunately this is often, credibility is enhanced — I would love to see him as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Uncle George has invited relatives to the cabin for the weekend, and the reason for this is part of the somewhat thin plot — suffice it to say that the titular suitcase plays a large part in the motivation. The play is a farce and there is ample humor — broad rather than subtle. The set by Lisa Garza (and what must be an army of assistants) is brilliant. It's truly remarkable in demonstrating the comfort that makes George love it and the primitiveness from which the relatives recoil. It shows an artist's eye for detail and would do well, dare I say it, on Broadway — it is that good. Some of the supporting performances blend in well — Joan Fox as a sister is excellent and I kept wishing her role was bigger, and Karen Clayton was good in a minor role. Nora Hahn plays a niece and lets us believe in her, but Mario Garza as her husband gives a highly animated performance, as do Joshua Clark and Jillian Schertle as a pretentious married couple. (The director, Tracy Clayton, shares in the program notes his view that comedic characters should be exaggerated.) I did warm to all three after I got over the initial shock. As the youngest relative, a grand-niece, Ronnie McLaren has a poise beyond her years, and I enjoyed her emerging from spoiled child to endearing friend of Uncle George's. The work is by prolific playwright Pat Cook, a Houston resident, and relies perhaps too strongly on elements that pay off less well, such as mystery-stew dinners and nighttime skulking — more inventiveness from the playwright would have been welcome. This is Clayton's first solo directing effort, and much of his work here is professional. He's succeeded in adding physical humor to the goings-on, which is much appreciated by the audience, but I would suggest that vivid, interesting characters can interact within the framework of ensemble acting. Hold the reins loosely and give the talent its head — but don't let go completely. The ride is enjoyable, the pace usually brisk and good-natured levity carries the day. Through June 19, Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-675-6374. — JT

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