Awesome America! from Ohana Theatre Company: A Most Entertaining Evening

The set-up:

In its inaugural production Awesome America!, the Ohana Theatre Company is presenting four short plays, unrelated, but with each representing a singular geographical idiosyncrasy, a landmark of sorts - but not necessarily monumental.

The execution:

The evening opens with Whatever Happened to Big Nose George, by Pamela Jamruszka Mencher, a tale, set in Wyoming, of a train-robber who embarrasses a male victim in front of his fiancée, but later pays a price for his misdeeds. This is played for farce, moustache-twirling broad humor, but the recounting takes three scenes and meanders. It is not particularly funny, and the direction by Gene Kato, one of the principals of Ohana Theatre, doesn't solve the script problem with unmotivated movements, unfunny bits of business, and a so-so pace.

But Kato more than redeems himself in directing the second entry, Two-Point-Five, by Scott Gibson, occurring where four U.S. states touch, and a tourist can stand in one spot and be in four of them. The tall and imposing Kevin Bray played a reporter in Big Nose George, and here plays a park attendant. He brings an authenticity to both roles, but Susan Bray steals the show in a compelling and heart-rending portrait 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; I hope to see more of her on Houston stages. The writing by Gibson is persuasive and subtle, and its echo may linger long.

The second half of the evening is beautifully directed by John Lazo, the other principal in Ohana Theatre, and it begins with an unusual long-distance love story, The Promise of the Moon, by Diana Howie. Edward has emigrated to America from Latvia to find work, and to build with his own hands the perfect domicile for his bride-to-be, Agnes, back in Riga. But Edward has created the betrothal in his own imagination, while Agnes, who barely knows him, sends him letters of refusal while entering into a relationship with the postman. Playwright Howie tacitly makes the point that love may take just one person, and can be equally powerful, and this is made compelling by a tight, controlled and fascinating performance from Bryan Maynard as Edward. His romantic fantasy - nay, folly - might have seemed ridiculous in other hands, but it becomes ennobled here by its purity and strength. Midway, the play veers toward the poetic, with Edward falling in love with the Moon, and becomes less satisfactory in this phase. Julie Thornley plays Agnes, and David Bradley plays the postman - both are excellent - and Amanda Baird personifies the Moon with grace and beauty.

Gene Kato is one of Houston's renaissance men -- he is a talented actor as well as a producer and director, though he is not onstage here. But he is also a playwright, and contributes the fourth play, Perspectives on the John, inspired by the Toilet Seat Museum in San Antonio. This extended skit is hilarious, as first a young couple enters, then an older Hispanic woman and Hispanic youth, then a middle-aged "biker-type" couple enter, then two women, and finally a solitary man. Kato uses the museum as a strong visual sight-gag, of course, but elevates the goings-on very quickly into sophisticated humor, and engages us most entertainingly in a discussion of "what is art?" The nine actors are all good, but Jacob Beltran as a mischievous youth is a standout, with great timing and stage presence.

Ohana Theatre Company's initial offering is rich in originality, wit, humor and the poignant capacity to reach out and touch both hearts and minds. Ohana has begun large, with a cast of 17, and its courage and innovative choice of material makes it a most welcome addition to Houston theater.

The verdict:

A variety of comic material, and some compelling moments of pure drama, make for a most entertaining evening, enhanced by some outstanding performances and deft direction.

Awesome America! continues through October 6 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston. For information or ticketing call 832-892-6342 or contact the company website.

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Jim Tommaney