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Capsule Stage Reviews: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Gidion's Knot

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark The award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage is as gifted at humor as she is at drama, delivering a sophisticated comedic tour de force that makes fun of Hollywood's stereotypes of blacks. The lead characters — it's Hollywood in 1933 — are Gloria Mitchell and her black maid, Vera Stark. Mitchell is America's film sweetheart, Caucasian, blond, a bit hysterical and an airhead, played by Elizabeth Marshall Black as all froth, insecurity and manic energy. Mitchell also reappears as one of the interviewees in a 1973 television show. Vera Stark, portrayed by Michelle Elaine, is a fount of levelheaded wisdom, beautiful and ambitious. Stark anchors the play, helped by her two roommates, Lottie (Tisha Dorn) and Anna Mae (Kimberly Hicks), also aspiring black actresses. Vera is also on the 1973 interview show, seasoned after bad marriages — her film portrayal of a maid brought her early fame, never sustained. We move ahead another 40 years, to 2003, as Vera's career is discussed by a black professor (Tisha Dorn, again), and a black lesbian activist (Kimberly Hicks, again), in hilarious sendups of intellectuals gone awry. L.D. Green plays an African American would-be composer and chauffeur, and is a play unto himself, all movement, detailed and nuanced gestures, a kinetic bundle of energy, illuminated by a keen intelligence. Kevin Daugherty is excellent as a film producer in 1933, and also in 1973 as the television host. Roy Hamlin plays a film director in 1933, and in 1973 portrays an aging hippie, and is delightful. The direction is by Ensemble Theatre's artistic director, Eileen J. Morris, and it is deft and lighthearted, finding depth where it blossoms but recognizing the brilliance of subtle satire and also the elements of broad comedy. A must-see, for all audiences. Through April 13. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

Gidion's Knot Playwright Johnna Adams's play explores how and why a fifth-grade student, Gidion, came to blow his brains out just before dinner on a Friday, after being suspended from a public school in Lake Forest, Illinois. It pits the bereaved mother against Gidion's female teacher in a teacher/parent conference a few days later. This 75-minute play takes place in one continuous scene, with no intermission. Adams has failed to provide a compelling script — the dialogue is scattered and often irrelevant, and the stakes are trivial, as the two women engage in debate, with the issue being who scores points. And the play ends not with a bang but a whimper. Shelley Calene-Black plays the bereaved mother, and delivers well the mother's preferred mode of expression: irony, with a soupçon of malice. Bridget Beirne portrays the teacher, and gives a nuanced performance, capturing her stress and dedication. Nothing really happens for the first two-thirds of the play, until the teacher reveals the reason for the suspension: a piece of writing Gidion had penned in which school teachers were disemboweled and in which he accuses another student of raping a first-grader. The detailed, colorful set is by scenic designer Liz Freeze and properties designer Jodi Bobrovsky. The costumes are by L.A. Clevenson; the mother looks smart, though I would have welcomed more-funereal garb. Beirne is handsome, and wore a dark shirt and gray slacks, both inexplicably a size too small, which would be distracting to the raging hormones of 11-year-old males. Stages Repertory provides a valuable service in finding and presenting plays that have come to be widely produced. They all can't be winners, and the talented director, Sally Edmundson, has done what she can to breathe life into this poorly crafted effort. Through April 6. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — JJT

 
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