Broke-ology A father has medical problems, and two sons cope with his increasing need for care while pursuing their own lives and interests. Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson has created a family drama and filled it with humor and kitchen-sink realism. We first meet in the 1980s the father, William King, portrayed by Broderick "Brod J" Jones, along with his wife, Sonia, portrayed by Autumn Knight, and we see the genesis of a tightly knit, loving family and the vitality of William as a young man. The action leaps forward 26 years, with William now verging on decrepit but reluctant to admit his failings. His vitality has been inherited by his two sons, Malcolm and Ennis. Malcolm, played by Joe "Joe P" Palmore, is home from Connecticut for a visit, or perhaps longer. Ennis, portrayed by L.D. Green, is becoming a father by his girlfriend. Sonia died 15 years earlier. The actors playing the brothers create a real sense of family, and the camaraderie, competitiveness and bickering between these two are gripping. The pathos of the subject matter elicits a general feeling of empathy, and good feelings abound. A secondary theme is inserted episodically to justify the title — shortness of money leads to compromises and restricted choices. Jackson has substantial credits to his name and a true gift for comedic expression, but Broke-ology is poorly constructed and seems to go nowhere, except to a predictable, melodramatic and sentimental ending. Director Eileen J. Morris has showcased the inspired vitality of the sons and found the warmth in Sonia and the likability in William. The play itself is a frail craft but is paddled safely through shoals by the enormous vigor of two young and brilliant actors. Through April 14. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT
Henry V In this thrilling coproduction between Main Street Theater and Prague Shakespeare Company, whose collaboration produced last season's equally thrilling Richard III, Shakespeare's stirring yet ironic flag-waver bursts onto the stage. As the untested, newly crowned heir to the throne, Guy Roberts has eyes that can pierce through you with a steely unconcern, weep with you or wink knowingly as if you're an unindicted co-conspirator. In the intimate playing area at Main Street, this glorious panorama of war and its consequences is up close and personal. The mud and blood is right in our faces, as are those eyes. They glint through the gloom like watch fires. After a dissolute adolescence, Harry has matured into a formidable yet untried English monarch. He's a mash of contradictions: rash and bold, clever and tricky, heartless and sympathetic, brutal and gentle. Shakespeare's humanism prevents quick judgment; he presents Harry warts and all. Virile and blustery, a master diplomat, a simple wooer and valiant warrior, Roberts captures Harry's paradoxes with gleeful flair. He loves his men, but will not spare them in pursuit of his own glory. Roberts is equally adept as director. The mighty pageant flows like the Thames and is given an overall wash that resembles Japanese anime meets Mad Max. Red takes center stage with the swathes of blood that drench the battle-weary soldiers. Some of them carry medieval axes, others automatic weapons. The mashup gives the production a bleak, apocalyptic tone. The finest touch is the addition of two taiko musicians, Khechar Boorla and Nicholas Hill, who thump their great drums and use other eerie percussion effects to enhance the warlike, end-of-the-world mood. Shakespeare's epic history play is cinematic as it cuts from English court to French palace, war-scarred trench to princess's boudoir, beleaguered town to rain-soaked battlefield (a striking coup de theatre effect from set designer Ryan McGettigan). We never lose our way. The splendid cast, who all double and triple up roles, make poetry out of the aromatic, dense text. Standouts include Philip Hays as petty thief Bardolph and the clueless, headstrong Dauphin of France; Seán Patrick Judge as wily Archbishop and burr-besotted Scotsman Jamy; Celeste Roberts as bawdy Mistress Quickly and comic lady-in-waiting Alice; Crystal O'Brien as petulant herald Montjoy; Jessica Boone as spirited Davy and English-challenged Katherine, Princess of France; Rutherford Cravens as opportunistic Pistol; Mark Roberts as hotheaded Irishman Macmorris; and Bill Roberts as loyal Welshman Fluellen. War is hell, Shakespeare shouts in Henry V, but replete with life. Kings are good, kings are bad, kings can be mediocre. Patriotism is courage and cowardice, like soldiers, like all of us. Shakespeare shows us the world; Main Street chisels the panoply of medieval life as finely as any Gothic icon. The eyes have it. Through April 28. 2540 Times Blvd., 713-521-6706. — DLG
The Merchant of Venice While this much-abridged version of Shakespeare's "comedy" is not the first production to be set in a Nazi concentration camp, I hope it will be the last. The physical production from Classical Theatre Company is striking and the acting from the three men (Thomas Prior, Philip Lehl, and Matthew Keenan) is wonderfully nuanced, but the intellectual conceit of reconceptualizing the world of Shylock the Jew as a play-within-a-play in the hell that was Auschwitz seems, at the very least, terribly misguided — a disservice to Shakespeare and a much too easy — if undoubtedly powerful — way to link the play's blatant anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. Merchant is Shakespeare's most politically incorrect play, amazingly insensitive to our contemporary, enlightened ears; it's a Renaissance crowd-pleaser that uses every Jewish stereotype known to Elizabethan England to paint Shylock as stock villain: unholy usurer, obsessively avaricious, diabolical, without mercy or kindness, beastly and so described as dog and wolf. We don't expect the great Shakespeare to bash Jews with such relish, but Shylock gets a thorough thrashing. Divine Shakespeare was very much a man of his time. Yet Shakespeare works his magic, turning this stage Jew — a despised and comic fixture since the medieval miracle plays — into the work's most lively, intriguing character. His role is relatively small, but Shylock devours the play. The focus in Shea Thomas Cooper's adaptation is squarely on Shylock, which skews the play almost as if the Nazis had edited it. Perhaps they have, since Merchant is performed by these two inmates as if we in the audience were Germans at the camp watching them put on the show. This allows the actors to play not only Shakespeare's diverse characters, but two Jews reacting to what they're forced to play. It's brutal in its nakedness and unrelentingly gloomy, especially when the circumstances of where they are and what they're doing rush to the surface and overwhelm them. Prior is a sterling Shylock, neither overtly sympathetic or numbingly evil. He's the put-upon outsider, just wanting to be left alone. But when given the chance to get even with society for the wrongs done him, to right the wrongs of centuries, he turns fierce and steely, a vengeful Fury. He purrs at the news of Antonio's downfall, then softly worries that Jessica will be tempted by worldly influences, not realizing she's about to elope. He handles the trial scene with mastery, raging at injustice, then raging at the Nazis. Does the Bard have a better friend than Lehl? He's a superlative interpreter, bringing all sorts of wondrous personal touches and inflections to flesh out his characters. His loopy Launcelot, coming and going at the same time, is worthy of the great screen clowns. The design is exceptional: set by Thomas Donahue, lighting by Alex Jainchill, costumes by Blair Gulledge, sound by Tim Thompson. The mood of horror is chillingly conveyed and the pace grows unbearably intense under director John Johnston. Shakespeare's most problematic play has troubles of its own for today's audiences, but the Holocaust isn't one of them. Through April 14. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring, 713-963-9665. — DLG
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Waiting for Godot Following the acclaimed success last year of its production of Samuel Beckett's End Game, the Catastrophic Theatre dares greatly yet again, and has mounted the most famous and most produced of Beckett's plays. The two central characters are Estragon, who is dominant, and Vladimir, more nurturing, dressed in remnants of once respectable clothes. They are old friends, deeply committed to each other, and the symbiotic relationship, the mutual need, the rich co-dependency are palpable and brought to pulsing, vibrant life by two brilliant actors: Charlie Scott as Estragon and Greg Dean as Vladimir. They wait in a wasteland for an appointment with a Mr. Godot. Appointments are made, new acquaintances are met and re-met, a messenger adds an element of ambiguity, a man is blinded and a slave mistreated. The narrative is linear — essentially so, since Beckett dares us to face our own mortality, and has given us an example of how two men cope with this inconvenient truth. The acquaintances they make are Pozzo, wealthy, who's on his way to sell his slave, ironically named Lucky. Kyle Sturdivant plays Pozzo, etching a memorable portrait of smugness and vanity; Troy Schulze brings his rich talents to Lucky, creating a vivid characterization of an abused servant. In a cameo role, young Ty Doran is compelling as the messenger from Mr. Godot. The work is brilliantly directed by Jason Nodler, artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre, who makes every moment interesting. The connection between the characters is dynamic — even Vladimir's brief interaction with the messenger sparks with need, hope and disillusion. A deep, intriguing, insightful play is brought to exciting life in a brilliant production — don't miss its breathtaking power and superb acting. Through April 13. 1119 East Fwy., 713-522-2723. — JJT