Capsule Stage Reviews: Constant Star, Hunter Gatherers, Little Women

Constant Star Five actresses portray the complex post-Reconstruction pioneer Ida B. Wells in Tazewell Thompson's glorious "play with music," but by the time the tribute's over, you'll think there should be more. For someone whose incredible work laid the moral bedrock for our country, crusader Wells has been sadly relegated to a footnote in history; yet her rich life reads like the stuff of myth. Born of slaves, she went to college, became a galvanizing journalist, filed the first civil rights lawsuit when she sued the Chesapeake railroad for discrimination, fought with Booker T. Washington over his conciliatory views of race equality, called President McKinley a fool, co-founded the NAACP, single-handedly slapped America awake to the horrors of lynching, marched with Susan B. Anthony for the women's vote, raised six children and loved her husband. It's all there in Thompson's kaleidoscopic treatment, augmented by spirituals emotionally sung by the actors and effectively staged by director Ron Jones. Each of the five actors — Cynthia Brown, Jo Anne Davis-Jones, Shaunyce Omar, Roenia Thompson and Detria Ward — shines differently, as if radiating another facet of Wells's intricate, prickly personality. She was sweet and sour, jubilant and hard as steel — very much like the country she so loved and fought to change. Through April 12. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — DLG

Hunter Gatherers The inner beast grabs a glorious moment to roar in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers, a hysterical story full of sex, naked butts and death. Thank the folks at Catastrophic Theatre for this night filled with evil laughter — they've put together a stunning production, led by a fabulous foursome of a cast. At center stage is a moving and funny Charlesanne Rabensburg wearing a headband as sweet Pam, who was valedictorian of her class and still likes to relive the glory of the speech she gave as a teenager. Greg Dean will make you weep with laughter at his hedonistically raging Richard, the ex-jock who still needs to prove his worth by pounding other men. Amy Bruce makes an outrageously funny narcissist as Wendy the wild girl, who still wants to whoop at the moon like she did at senior prom. Finally, there's Troy Schulze as the hilarious sad sack Tom, who can't get it up unless he's got a woman's fingers around his throat. They all come together one horrific night to eat dinner, drink gallons of wine, smoke a little weed and relive their past glory. Many terrible and laugh-till-your-face-hurts moments occur: A lamb gets slaughtered, a man is almost raped, a woman orgasms. This is not family-friendly theater, but thanks to this terrific cast and Jason Nodler's dead-on direction, it's the funniest grown-up play anyone's put on this season. Through April 11. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — LW

Little Women If only the stagehands at Country Playhouse would cease moving scenery after every scene, we could really appreciate the exceptional performance of Erin Stallings as feisty tomboy Jo in this ill-fated 2005 musical. As it is, every time Stallings builds up a fine head of steam, or even moves from one room to another, everything stops for another damn couch to be positioned or a wobbly wall containing a window to be placed against the background, or a vase of flowers to be repositioned — and the musical has to be wound up and restarted all over again. This clunky adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved 1868 classic by Jason Howland (music), Allan Knee (book) and Mindi Dickstein (lyrics) needs all the smoothness it can get, for it's written as a "favorite scenes" grab bag where events rush by as if checked off a list. We barely say hello to a character before she's married, sick or dead. If the scenes flowed into one another, we wouldn't have time to think about the threadbare dramatics or lack of cohesion, but we spend so much time in the dark, that's all we do think about. Well, that, and why smaller theater companies feel compelled to accessorize. Imagination is a good thing; we'll believe that ratty couch is gilded in gold if you say so. Just keep the damn play moving. The singing is impressively solid, and every character gets a power ballad in which to shine (it's the only characterization they get). Especially noteworthy are the above-mentioned Stallings, who lights up the stage; Louis Crespo's irrepressible Laurie; Brad Goertz's romantic Mr. Brooke; John Dunn's befuddled Professor Bhaer; and Johanna Payton's stalwart Marmee — her "Days of Plenty" is a stunner. Through April 16. 12802 Queensbury, 713-467-4497. — DLG

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