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Romeo and Juliet To open its 12th season, UpStage Theatre makes its first foray into the thicket of Shakespeare with this ambitious production. Anna Yost as Juliet looks beautiful and virginal, and her looks and poses are sufficient to evoke some sympathy for the heroine's plight. But her voice is high, approaching shrill, and her usual expression is one of petulance. We fail to see the luminous spark of young love. Young Romeo is played by 14-year-old Jacob Allen, who is handsome enough, and stalwart enough, to carry off the role, if that were all it required. But he strolls through the role without passion or fire, and delivers his lines flatly, without much reference to their meaning. The result is that there is a hole at the center of the play where there should be a heart. Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is fortunately blessed with major roles other than those in the title, and director Sean K. Thompson has cast many of these well. In the major supporting role of Nurse, Jackie Lovell is wise, humorous and caring, and provides a powerful anchor to Shakespeare's genius. So does John J. Zipay, who creates a wholly human and interesting Friar Laurence, a key adviser to the lovers, who marries and plots with them. Brian Heaton brings rollicking humor and exuberant, gifted body language to Mercutio, creating a vivid, memorable character. Equally memorable, but for the wrong reasons, is Mack Hays as Lord Capulet, apparently under the impression that the play is about him. His extravagant gestures and overly broad theatricality might better suit a vaudeville turn. Tyrrell Woolbert as Lady Capulet is restrained and elegant, and gives an interesting, nuanced performance. Joseph Moore as Prince Escalus finds the authority in his voice and commanding mien, though he might be less stilted. Joshua A. Costea does very well as an apothecary, making the most of a bit part through gait, manner and timing. Lenvi Tennessee as Tybalt has a strong stage presence, perhaps too strong for ensemble acting. The simple set serves quite well, some costumes are opulent and the direction in general is competent. But the rhythm of Shakespeare comes and goes, and one of the great love stories of all time is portrayed with words but no passion. However, strong performances in important supporting roles provide a taste of the brilliance of the Bard and his mastery of human relationships. Through October 22. UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-838-7191. — JJT

String of Pearls The talented playwright Michele Lowe uses pearls to link vignettes that bridge generational gaps with poignant humor and adroit storytelling. As the evening opens, a 74-year-old grandmother (Antoinette Anders) is distraught that her granddaughter's wedding day is approaching and the family heirloom string of pearls can't be found. Anders has an inner poise that rises to the surface, and she handles complicated emotions with aplomb, even when describing how "a string of pearls" — the words alone — can be an aphrodisiac and save a marriage, to hilarious effect. Her granddaughter is played by Laura Schlect, who brings a slim blond beauty and a zest for life to the proceedings. All six female actors play multiple roles, and Kelly White is enthusiastic and effective as a wife who moves with her husband from Dallas to an apartment in New York City but takes with her a Texan sense of reality — and sense of humor. Rachel Manuel plays a much younger lesbian who falls hopelessly in love with Anders's straight 74-year-grandmother, and their pas-de-deux is graceful and heartwarming, a most original love story. Natasha Sebeyran and Cindy Parker each play five parts and handle them deftly. The primitive set of a table and benches serves admirably to showcase the acting and writing talent. Playwright Lowe's scenes are brisk and salient, she conveys powerful emotions without sentimentality, and is a talent to be reckoned with. Abby Esparza directed the series of semi-related vignettes — the various shifts in scenes and characters occur smoothly, and she's found a talented cast and evoked enjoyable performances. Strong storytelling and engaging, effective acting make String of Pearls a gem itself, powerful and seductive in its charm. Through October 22, Pandora Theatre at Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch at Holman, 713-364-8541. — JJT

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Playwright Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife; Psycho Beach Party; Die, Mommy, Die) didn't invent camp, but his early drag classics most assuredly enriched and, dare I say, ennobled the genre. And here's the best of those gay-tinged extravaganzas, a swirl with Hollywood's lost glamor and a very gay read of sex and the city. A struggling actor and solo performer, Busch wrote this silly romp (1984) in two and a half days after he got a gig at the funky Limbo Lounge, an East Village performance space/bar/punk art gallery. What the Limbo audience wanted, he said later, after the show kept running and running, was "something campy, something sexy, and something not too long, because you're standing up, holding a beer. You don't want to see The Three Sisters." So he gave them this spoof of Hollywood and its grand divas like Crawford, Davis and Shearer. Of course, here the ladies are more B-picture Maria Montez, but they are divas nevertheless. Nobody does diva like Charles Busch, and the success of his early work relies almost exclusively on a good drag queen. Unhinged Productions should be on their knees — in thankful prayer, I mean — for Chris Rivera. He puts the showbiz snap into diva Magda Legerdemain, who starts out as the legendary vampire succubus in Sodom, seducing virgin sacrifices. He's got Harlow's pencil eyebrows, Swanson's turban, the gams of Clara Bow and the gargle of Bankhead. In a needed plot device, the succubus — all done up in silent film DeMille vamp — is bitten by her sacrifice (Courtney Lomelo), who in turn becomes a vampire, too, and Magda's archrival through the ages. They compete for fame, nubile young companions and our hearty laughs. It's all cheesy glee as we're treated to a funhouse parody of all things drag and glorious in Biblical Sodom, '20s Hollywood and then '80s Las Vegas of fat Elvis days. The two goddesses are ably enhanced by the zany supporting cast: Will Gough, Roy Hamlin, Susan Ly and Giddony Sanchez. And a special air kiss to Rivera and Nathan Estrada, who co-designed the sumptuous over-the-top costumes with a panoply of peacock, lamé, boa and bugle bead. Busch would weep for such extravagance. Sprightly spun — or just turned loose, who can tell — by Joe Angel Babb, the entire enterprise whirls away with bitchy attitude. It's almost like a lost era. It's grand to see its ridiculous return. Through October 22. Unhinged Productions at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation. 832-250-7786. — DLG

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