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Capsule Stage Reviews: April 3, 2014

Looks at By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Gidion's Knot, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Time Stands Still.

 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

Lucia di Lammermoor The Houston heavens opened up during Opera in the Heights' opening night galloping performance of Gaetano Donizetti's operatic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), appropriate for this Gothic romance full of ghosts, family dysfunction, vengeance, and omens foretelling disaster. But there was already lightning onstage. Full of dazzling radiance, soprano Jessica E. Jones lit up the intimate space as virginal Lucia driven mad by unrequited love. She supplied her own thunder and sparks to Donizetti's vocal fireworks. Lithe, with a full mane of auburn curls, Jones looked splendid in Dena Scheh's Restoration gowns and equally fetching in Lucia's bridal negligee, now spotted with the blood of her husband, whom she has just stabbed after her arranged marriage. You see, Lucia, heroine of Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), from which Donizetti's opera is loosely adapted, is the prototypical romantic heroine, buffeted by fate and the opportunistic maneuvering of her brother Enrico. In love with family rival, Edgardo, Lucia is browbeaten into marriage with the financially secure and much more socially prominent Arturo. She's unsteady at best during the opera's first two acts, seeing ghosts of her mother rise from the castle fountain, but Edgardo's sham betrayal (through a forged letter) sets her reeling in earnest. In one of opera's most glorious "mad scenes," of which there are plenty onstage during the early 19th century, Lucia goes unhinged in the most aurally stunning way, running riot through scales and roulades of incomparable difficulty. Listen and watch as Jones dances through the flute arpeggios, played as in love by Wendy Bergin. Entranced, Jones smiles with the tunes, then matches them flawlessly, her coloratura always bright and shining clear. It's a wondrous duet, the epitome of bel canto technique of which this opera is a prime example. Although baritone Octavio Moreno supplies a Mephistophelean overlay to mean brother Enrico with his plangent voice and solid acting, and Rubin Casas dives deeply into his stentorian bass to enliven the role of chaplain Raimondo, the rest of the cast didn't approach Jones in technique or stage presence. Edgardo's role lies high and is treacherously difficult to pull off smoothly even with the best of singers, so we'll give an A for effort to tenor Anthony Webb. His voice is light and tightly wound with vibrato, and while he squarely hit all the notes, some were faint and just too lightweight for the fervency the role required. Big and burly, he sounded as if he were in another room just off stage. He wasn't the most ardent of suitors. But perhaps the fault lies with director Carlos Conde, who seemed to be giving directions from another room, too. No one seemed to know what to do onstage, sitting down when they should stand or haphazardly going up the stairs just to come down the other side, without dramatic rhyme or reason. Sounding glorious, the chorus was clueless dramatically. What motivates these crazy, vengeful characters? The setting is a church — hey, where's the gloomy Ravenswood castle? There's no atmosphere here. Of course, Donizetti doesn't help either, especially at first, with his bouncy waltzes and rather peppy atmosphere that's supposed to conjure Scottish mist and long dead ancestors. He gets it together during Act II, and effectively brings it home in Act III with Lucia's mad scene and Edgardo's plaintive tomb scene. Finally, he moves into Verdi territory. You can actually hear where opera's future great master got his inspiration. Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo keeps Donizetti hopping. Lucia sounds most alive, though, when Jones is onstage, singing her heart out, going mad and looking fabulous while she does. April 3, 4, 5 and 6m. (Soprano Amanda Kingston and tenor Wesley Morgan portray Lucia and Edgardo in the "emerald cast," April 4 and 6m.) 1703 Heights Boulevard. 713-861-5303. — DLG

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