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Capsule Stage Reviews: Awesome America!, Miss Julie, Getting Sara Married, Life Could Be a Dream, Otello, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Awesome America! In its inaugural production, the Ohana Theatre Company presents four short unrelated plays set in different American locales. Whatever Happened to Big Nose George, by Pamela Jamruszka Mencher, is set in Wyoming – a train-robber embarrasses a male victim in front of his fiancée and later pays a price. Played for broad humor, it takes three scenes and is not particularly funny. Gene Kato, one of the principals of Ohana Theatre, directed, and also helmed the second entry, Two-Point-Five, by Scott Gibson, occurring where four U.S. states touch. Here Susan Bray steals the show in a compelling and heart-rending portrayal of a woman committed to truth in a world which no longer seems to feel it matters much. Her performance is riveting, and her late entrance into the action transforms a slight comedy into a cry from the heart. The second half of the evening is beautifully directed by John Lazo, the other principal in Ohana Theatre, and begins with an unusual long-distance love story, The Promise of the Moon, by Diana Howie. Edward has emigrated to America and writes to his bride-to-be, Agnes, back in Riga, though Agnes barely knows him and sends letters of refusal. Bryan Maynard as Edward gives a tight, controlled and fascinating performance, and Edward's folly becomes ennobled by its purity and strength. Gene Kato contributes the fourth play, Perspectives on the John, inspired by the Toilet Seat Museum in San Antonio; this extended skit is hilarious - Kato elevates the goings-on quickly into sophisticated humor. Ohana's originality and innovative choices make it a most welcome addition to Houston theater. Varied comic material and moments of pure drama make for an entertaining evening, enhanced by some outstanding performances and deft direction. Through October 6. Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 832-892-6342. — JJT

Miss Julie August Strindberg's ground-breaking psychological drama, originally set in Sweden in 1874, is transferred to New Orleans in the '20s, as the valet engaged to the cook beds the lady of the house, leading to complications most dire. The setting is the large kitchen to a mansion, and the cook Christine is played by the excellent Michelle Ogletree, who creates a credible characterization of a devout churchgoer with common sense. David Matranga plays Jean, the valet, and provides the requisite good looks and a tall, imposing presence. Miss Julie herself is portrayed by Jennifer Dean, who enters in a flapper dress and dazzles us with an exciting, vibrant characterization, floated with enthusiasm, coquettish charm and a teasing sense of command — she is wonderful, but she's soon torpedoed by the script, which requires her to become morose and hysterical. Julia Traber directed, and obtained vivid characterizations from talented actors. The change to New Orleans in the '20s doesn't work, as the plot requires a closed society, which New Orleans in the Jazz Age is not. What's missing is the sexual chemistry between Jean and Julie. They quarrel, they bicker, they discuss, they change their minds and quarrel again; this might be palatable if we sensed they were caught in the powerful web of sexual attraction. Without it we have a depressing drama, a quasi-tragedy, with too much exposition, and too many themes. Strindberg sensed the dark vortex of the human soul, but The Classical Theatre Company hasn't found a way to present the heart as well as the text of Miss Julie. Excellent acting goes a long way to make interesting a dated drama with an exciting opening, but one which buries itself in a dead end. Through October 14. Studio 101, 1824 Spring St., 713-963-9665. — JJT

Getting Sara Married It's no surprise Sara has TV written all over it — playwright Sam Bobrick is a former master craftsman of the family comedy. He's had his hand in The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among many other classic shows, so he knows all about the technique for writing comedy. The basic hook is whimsy itself. Workaholic Sara (Sarah Jean Bircher), a lawyer in Manhattan, insists she doesn't have time for romance, doesn't want romance, doesn't "need" romance. Her yenta Aunt Martha (Jan Searson McSwain) has other ideas, and, before you can say "old maid," has taken matters into her own hands and dropped off a potential suitor — literally. Knocked unconscious, Brandon (Ozzy Tirmizi) is wheeled in on a freight dolly by teamster Noogie (Ainsley Furgason) and dropped at Sara's feet. Emerging from his amnesiac haze, Brandon comically reveals he has a fiancée (Sabrina Rosales). Cut to his moony eyes and then Sara's surprised face. Go to commercial. We're in sitcom land with a vengeance, where this type of genre demands finesse and a deftness of playing that belies the gravity-less situations. Although she's an attractive performer, Bircher's tone is off. She gives Sara a lot more brittle edges than the character needs. If you let these paper-thin people start to think and have real feelings, you'll collapse their house of cards. Tirmizi fares better, with a sweet, lighthearted approach to Brandon, probably due to those multiple knocks on the head from Noogie. He's young and reedy, barely filling out the three-piece suit, but he's light without being lightweight. When he warms to Sara, there's that glint in his eye. Wacky sitcom sidekicks were invented to give comic relief, and Bobrick invents two good ones in Aunt Martha and Noogie. When McSwain and Furgason are onstage, the play feels right. Martha's an airhead with a heart of gold who kidnaps Brandon for the purest of reasons. McSwain lands her punch lines with a pro's swagger, delivering the gems by the bagful. Furgason barrels in like a Bronx Yosemite Sam, one of those countless delivery men or telephone repairmen made famous by Neil Simon. You know, the guys who have the timing down to the second and the quip even faster. After a while, you start thinking: What if Aunt Martha and Noogie got together? What a play that would be! Through October 13. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — DLG

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