BWW Reviews: The Ensemble Theatre's BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK is As Poignant As It Is Hilarious
Earlier this season Houston was introduced to Lynn Nottage with a production of RUINED. The 2009 play RUINED tackled issues surrounding the Congolese Civil War, and brought Lynn Nottage critical acclaim in New York City and other markets. Now, The Ensemble Theatre is putting this playwright on everyone's must watch list with a sterling production of her 2011 play, BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK. This intellectual comedy powerfully explores the legacy of American-Americans in 1930s Hollywood and leaves audiences with plenty to think and talk about.
The first act of BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK shows how, in 1933, Vera Stark went from being a housemaid for Gloria Mitchell, "America's little sweetie pie," to Hollywood actress. In the interim between the two acts, the audience is lead to believe that Vera Stark, like the talented actresses of 30s films, made a career of playing maids, slaves, and mammies. Act II picks up in 2003 as a trio of pundits view and discuss footage from a 1973 television interview with Vera Stark.
Direction by Eileen J. Morris perfectly balances the show, allowing the audience to get swept away by the comedic moments and the zany caricatures while still being impressively moved by the piece. Lynn Nottage's writing for the piece bluntly critiques society and African-Americans for buying the product that Hollywood served them and discusses how that removed agency from the actors who played these stereotyped and historically inaccurate characters for financial gain. She also looks at issues with exociticizing African-Americans, the effects of othering, and critiques cultural hegemony. Eileen J. Morris ensures that these relevant social issues keep the audience uncomfortable as we laugh at the scenarios on stage. With her skilled direction of the piece, under each laugh it's almost like we can hear Lynn Nottage say, "This is the problem. What are YOU going to do to fix it?"
As Vera Stark, Michelle Elaine delivers a phenomenal performance that truly touches the heart of the audience. In the first act, we see a vibrant and young woman who has big dreams. Working hard as a maid to a Hollywood star, she hopes she'll one day land a role in a film and become a star herself. In the second act, we see a woman jaded by her Hollywood career. Forty years of work in the film industry has bankrupt her soul, spirit, and drive. Her bubbly demeanor is gone, and we see the shell of a woman who is fighting against the limited characters Hollywood is willing to assign her. Defeated and worn out, she rebels against the system by openly critiquing it; however, the system simply doesn't care to listen.
Elizabeth Marshall Black walks a delicate line between spoiled narcissist and tender friend with her portrayal of Gloria Mitchell. As "America's little sweetie pie," there are moments where she absolutely disgusts the audience because of her absurdity and sheer ignorance to what is happening around her. Despite this, Elizabeth Marshall Black creates a character who genuinely cares for Vera Stark, and her affectionate side makes Gloria Mitchell redeemable yet all the more frustrating.
The remainder of the cast gets to double up on caricatured characters, playing different people in each act. Tisha Dorn is hysterical as Lottie, a maid and friend of Vera Stark, who has dreams of making it big in Hollywood with any role, no matter how degrading or stereotyped, that is offered to her. As Carmen Levy-Green she is erudite and ready to expose and teardown the destructive myths Hollywood force-fed people for the last 70 years. Kimberly Hicks plays the comically conniving Anna Mae, a friend of Lottie and Vera Stark, with fascinating precision. Her complexion is light enough to pass as Latina, so she pretends to be a girl from Rio de Janeiro in hopes of landing a large role on the silver screen. In the second act, her Afua Assata Ejobo is an outspoken African-American lesbian poet that embraces Vera Stark for being a rebel. L.D. Green creates a love interest for Vera Stark as Leroy Barksdale and an Oprah Winrey-esque host with his Herb Forrester. Kevin Daughtry's Frederick Slasvick is a conceited German director with too much power and his Brad Donovan is a 70s talk-show host with little interest in Vera Stark's problems. Roy Hamlin's Maxmillian Von Oster is an eccentric mogul type and his Peter Rhys-Davies is an out-of-touch with reality hippie stoner.
James V. Thomas' Scenic Design is expansive and beautiful. The living room he has created for Gloria Mitchell's home is grand, warm, and inviting. In contrast to this, the home shared by Vera Stark, Lottie, and Anna Mae feels small and humble yet comfortable. He also makes wonderful use of The Ensemble Theatre's fly system to allow for quick changes between scenes and to ensure that his sets are indicative of different locations. Lastly, his set for act two cleverly divides the stage into two separate places, allowing the action to occur simultaneously in 1973 and 2003.
Costume Design by Shirley Whitmore capably covers the three different and distinct time periods, letting audiences to know when each scene takes place.
BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK isn't afraid to discomfort audiences with poignant and relevant social issues. In many ways, it seems like a large risk for The Ensemble Theatre to produce the show, since the play never backs down. It gets in the face of the audience and challenges each and every member to do something to improve the situations it discusses. Lynn Nottage doesn't answer any questions for us, instead she asks us what we are going to do ourselves to make a difference. Even with the ample comedy that keeps the audience rolling in the aisles and attending to every word of the show, there is no denying this play's powerful and affecting undercurrent.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK, produced by The Ensemble Theatre, runs at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, Houston, 77002 now through April 13, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.ensemblehouston.com or call (713) 520-0055.
Photos courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre.