Crowns Even an atheist -- one with at least an ounce of fashion sense -- will be rockin' and clappin' hands at the end of Ensemble Theatre's thoroughly joyous musical production of Crowns, adapted by Regina Taylor from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Set as a stylized black Pentecostal church service in Darlington, South Carolina, the show centers around church ladies in hats and why they wear them. After the murder of her brother, punk gangsta wannabe Yolanda (played and danced by talented young actresses Jasmine Taylor and DomiNique Coleman) is sent away from Brooklyn to live with her grandmother in Darlington. As she meets the various members in her grandmother's congregation and hears their stories, this hardened young woman mellows and eventually discovers her personal worth. All the stories that these resilient, humorous women tell are connected to their hats: fantastic confections courtesy of milliner deluxe Michael Pollard. Gospels and spirituals -- "Ain't That Good News," "I'm On the Battlefield" and "Marching to Zion," among others -- are central to the production. Two men complement the cast (a fine Christopher Wright sings the preacher), but it's the seven women who carry the show. Spark plug-sized Shanica McKinney has enough energy to power Houston for a year, and her "Hat Queen rules" is a comic highlight: "Don't touch the hat. Don't knock the hat. Don't hug too close (or you might knock the hat)." Loretta Gurnell stops the show with a blistering rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," and powerful LaTreva Herndon as Mother Shaw, the "National Prayer Warrior," leads the cast in the rousing dance number "That's All Right." Under Bebe Wilson's sparkling direction, the entire ensemble is first-rate. The conviction they bring to this bright, colorful celebration is infectious, if not downright heavenly. Through May 2. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Dirty Story No side of the horrific Palestinian/Israeli conflict is served by the cartoon treatment John Patrick Shanley's black farce gives both in Dirty Story, now on view in a handsome production at Stages Repertory Theatre. Jewish writer Wanda (Christine Auten) seeks help on her novel from tormented and condescending firebrand Brutus (Alex Kilgore) and then moves in and appropriates his apartment. A disastrous S&M love-hate relationship ensues. Through broad hints and references to territory, identity, Wanda's dream ("Someday I'm going to have my own place") and Brutus's impermanence and lack of roots, it doesn't take long before we realize that these two characters are stand-ins for larger issues. Wanda's dramatic revelation -- "Call me Israel" -- as she aims a gun at sadistic Brutus, from whose tortures she has escaped thanks to the timely arrival of cowboy boyfriend Frank (John Richard Johnston, read: USA), puts a grand end to Act I, but it also puts an end to the play's intriguing mystery. Act II is coarse, overblown, obvious and quite a letdown after Act I and its dangerous, compelling battle of the sexes. Still, Kilgore makes a sexy grunge Palestinian as he hurls impassioned polemics and coils up seductively against a helpless Wanda before he goes after her with a buzz saw. As an actor, he keeps us on edge throughout; we never know exactly what he's going to do. It's a provocative, hip performance. Auten smoothly goes from naive idealist to victim to beret-wearing, Uzi-toting aggressor, and she manages to be whiny, air-headed, ultra feminine and tough as nails, sometimes all in the same scene. Even so, there's got to be a better way of enlightening us than this play's smug conceit. Through April 11. 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
The Illustrated Woman Nancy Kiefer's depression-era drama seeks, but never finds, adequate focus. It has enough backstories for a half-dozen plays -- incest, rape, amnesia, adultery, hard times -- but the major plot devices hinge around daughter Jane Ellen's secrets resulting from a childhood trauma, which are telegraphed through the reading of diary entries. When the work's most fascinating character, a traveling carnival's tattooed lady, doesn't appear, you know the play's in trouble. Furthering that impression are Ma and Pa, who always look surprised when abused daughter Jane Ellen starts acting "schizo and scary." She's been strange for years, we're told through blocks of exposition -- and now they notice? These are juicy, over-the-top roles that demand fire and flash, not the limp-laundry line readings given here. Laura Schlecht is convincing in the role of fractured daughter Jane Ellen's alter ego, who's a very bad girl. But her wimpy Jane Ellen comes across as demented, not psychologically scarred. It's not entirely her fault; playwright Kiefer glosses over all her characters. Dean R. Dicks puts alcoholic Dad on solid ground, though, giving this paper-thin villain a semblance of reality, and Danitra Tapscott tells her long monologue about meeting the "illustrated woman" with refreshing naturalness. But no one is helped by the staging, which places most of the scenes upstage, behind a hanging window frame and mirror that block our view. There's an intriguing play lurking somewhere between the lines, it's just hard to find when so covered up. Through March 27 at Theatre Suburbia, 1410 West 43rd, 713-682-3525.
Steel Magnolias UpStage Theatre's fragrant rendition of Robert Harling's tale of small-town southern womanhood, Steel Magnolias, might succeed with some other actress playing beauty-parlor maven Truvy, but Lisa Schofield is, in a word, magnificent -- and reason enough to head to the Jewish Community Center for this show. It's refreshing to find such a centered performer, so at home in turquoise toreador pants, tight black sequined top and killer high-heel sandals. Truvy is the big mushy heart of this southern-fried comedy/drama, whose immense success has turned the play into a cult franchise. A tower of strength to the other women at her salon, she gets the show's best one-liners. Hard as press-on nails, she's a softie underneath, waiting for her "sofa slug" husband to rekindle romance and her two from-hell grown boys to settle down. With a voice like a whiskey sour and a star's presence, Schofield nails her role. Dottie McQuarrie's football-lovin' Clairee is close on Schofield's heels, giving the "first lady of Cinquapin, Louisiana" a highball-tinged touch of class. Sheri Lynn's haunted-rabbit Annelle blossoms in the second act when her character finds Jesus. Christiana Carroll's mean ol' Ouiser pulls back just short of over-the-top, which is too bad, because the town curmudgeon is an over-the-top character. The hankie-wringing drama comes from the illness of vibrant young Shelby (Alex Aurisch) and her combative yet loving mother M' Lynn (Ann Reese). The actresses' tentative approach saps the play, so by the final scene, when mom breaks down, we've stopped caring. Reese, though, finally comes alive at the end. And count on Schofield's Truvy to pull us back in and makes us care -- both about these six best friends and about the power of live theater. Through April 10 at JCC, 5601 S. Braeswood, 713-838-7191.