BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARKby Lynn Nottage
Director – Bruce Richard Coleman
Scenic Design – Bruce Richard Coleman
Lighting Design – Amanda West
Costume Design – Tory Padden
Sound and Video Design – Rich Frohlich
Stage Manager – Stew Awalt
Lottie McBride/ Carmen Levy-Green – Stormi Demerson
Anna-Mae Simpkins / Afua – Raven Garcia
Gloria Mitchell – Lee Jamison
Maxmillian Von Oster / Peter Rhys-Davies – Aaron Roberts
Leroy Barksdale – Calvin Roberts
Mr. Slasvick / Brad Donovan – Paul J. Williams
Vera Stark – Yolonda Williams
Photo Credit: Mike Morgan
Reviewed Performance: 6/23/2014
Reviewed by Scott W. Davis , Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
There’s not a lot of history with this show so far. It was first introduced Off Broadway in 2011. It won the Lily Award which is given by Playwrights Horizons in New York. On the other hand, there’s a little more to say about the playwright. Lynn Nottage is a very successful author, playwright and musician from the East Coast. Born in Brooklyn, she graduated from New York’s High School of Music and Art. From there she went to Brown University in Providence, RI, then to Yale School for Drama for a degree in playwriting. She was only the second African American woman to graduate from the program. Ms. Nottage has received several awards, including The Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, two New York Critic Circle Awards for her plays Ruined and Intimate Apparel, Two Obie Awards for Ruined and Fabulation, or the Re- Education of Undine and a Pulitzer for Ruined.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a show about the acting career of Vera Stark, a housekeeper for the infamous actress Gloria Mitchell. The time is 1933, Vera and her two best friends aspire to get into the film industry. But Vera has the shoe in, her employer. As the show goes on some get cast and some don’t.
Bruce R. Coleman’s vision was so complex but so fluid you never noticed that you’d been sitting for over two hours while watching it. Mr. Coleman multi tasks during Theatre Three’s production not just as the director but also the scene designer. Through my career I’ve heard many directors’ say “Three quarters of a director’s job is casting” and this one was done impeccably. He found seven actors that gelled and really played off each other well. The blocking through the play was so well done; from where I was sitting, I could see the action in the show with no problem for the most part. Mr. Coleman had the actors move and turn enough so that if one person had their back to you the other actors in the scene were opened up to your side of the theatre.
Mr. Coleman turned the entire show into a Hollywood film shoot. Even the scene changes were lit while a production person made sure the scene was set correctly then screamed, “Action” and on with the next scene. The most impactful part of the show for me was Act II when the play kept flashing back to Ms. Stark’s last television interview. The director’s way of splitting time with separations on stage, plus the lighting shifts done to separate the 70’s from the present, was absolutely brilliant. The scenic design utilizes the space extremely well. The floor was painted tan with an art deco design throughout. The larger corner area was decorated floor to ceiling with gold lines in art deco design but was broken up by back lit circles to give them a three dimensional look. In the center of the wall was a video screen which was used quite extensively throughout the show. A duplicate of the backstage wall was built directly across the room from it. Set pieces were brought out on a hand cart or moving platform which came out of the backstage wall. The furniture became the bulk of the set. The Act II television studio had the look of 70’s The Mike Douglas Show, from white plastic swivel chairs to the neon-colored droopy flower centerpiece in the middle of the platform.
The video done for the play reflected a tremendous amount of work. Not only did designer Rich Frohlich build stills into the show, but he made an in depth five minute feature film and snippets for Act II. Wow, they were all intensely ambitious but he pulled it off. The feature film was so well done I seriously had to go look up whether there was a celestial film company. The quality of the work was great - no shaking camera, no rapid movement making one seasick - and the video graining to age it was very effective.
Costume Designer Tory Padden went above and beyond to find true to period-looking garments. Gloria Mitchell’s dresses were impressive, especially the beautiful red dress during the party scene. it was a long satin dress, but what I couldn’t stop looking at were the jewels that lined around its neck and down the back. She had a few other show stoppers though. The men’s tuxedos in the same scene were extremely elegant. While I loved the 1930’s looks I still have to mention the 1970’s garb used in the second act. The minute Peter Rhys Davies comes onstage you have to laugh. The bell bottoms and shirt unbuttoned down to his navel just screamed 70’s. I know I was there!!!
The lighting really set the tone for the play. There was a lot of sepia-toned gel mixed with lavender that aged the acting area quite a bit. Amanda West really did a great job with several different aspects of her plot. It’s always hard to do a show in the round without lighting up the first row. Sitting there, I never once got hit with light. And the focus was perfect, with were very little dead spots in the acting area. I loved the lighting in Act II best. It’s not often you get to make a play that colorful, but Ms. West certainly did.
This was one of the most well-rounded casts that I’ve seen in a while. They all interacted extremely well and the timing as far as their comedy lines was perfect. The opening scene has Vera Stark and Gloria Mitchell at Ms. Mitchell’s house. Yolonda Williams’ portrayal of Vera Stark was outstanding. She had a little pep to her step and almost bounced around the stage the entire time. Banter is Vera’s weapon and Williams used it on every character that entered. Her timing with responses was so quick it made a lot of the punch lines funnier. There is a forty year difference between Act I and Act II, and even with an intermission it’s hard for any actor to age that much. Her walk and the way she glanced at others really helped sell the performance.
Lee Jamison has the privilege to play Gloria Mitchell and she blasted it out of the park. She’s lounging on the love seat as the lights come up in the first scene. The way she was sitting on that loveseat just screamed “Look at me”!!! Polished and suave were two of the three words I wrote down during her performance. The last word was drunk, which was the best part of her character. She took overacting to a new level during “The Belle of New Orleans” short. Her facial expressions during the film were hilarious to watch.
The best female performance of the night I must give to Stormi Demerson. Taking on two different personas in a show is not easy, but Ms. Demerson pulled it off with ease. Her facial expressions through the first act had me laughing in my seat. Mimicking what the producer thought a hard working woman should be like, so that she bounced around hunchbacked from the living room to the bar and back while singing, was priceless.
Raven Garcia is the third woman in the show and made her presence known as well. With her first appearance, she sang a wonderful acappella verse I wasn’t expecting but was enthralled with her voice after I heard it. While she had good movement onstage, Ms. Garcia’s real strong suit was dialect. She went from American to Brazilian and back all in the same scene.
Leroy Barksdale plays a chauffeur in the first act, while in the second he’s a television host. Two dramatically different characters but Calvin Roberts made them both fun to watch. With a house the size of Theatre Three’s, diction and emphasized facial expressions become keys to a great performance, and Mr. Roberts brought both to the table. He was extremely adept at using costume pieces, like his hat or his glasses, as an extension of his character.
Comic relief came in the form of Aaron Roberts and Paul J. Williams. Mr. Roberts portrays Maxmillian Von Oster, the director of The Belle of New Orleans, and then Peter Rhys-Davies, a singer for a hippy-styled band. He played the first character stalwart and stiff which worked well. As the band singer, when he entered in a really bad wig, bell bottoms and his chest hair hanging out, I just lost it. To think we used to dress like that. Both characters were played so differently I didn’t realize it was the same actor.
Mr. Williams also plays two different characters for each of the acts. He is film producer Mr. Slasvick and then talk show host Brad Donovan. What else can I say - I’ll put it in an acronym - LMAO. Mr. Williams’ Slasvick was funny but not really memorable, but his portrayal of Brad Donavon was brilliant. He took Donavon and played him like Mike Douglas with absolutely no sense of anything going on around him. Williams kept a straight face the entire time Vera Stark is slamming him for being a terrible television host, and showed no recognition to the insults. It took character acting to a new level.
Lynn Nottage’s writing for By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is great. The banter is well thought out and fun to read. The show was great before Bruce Coleman got his hands on it, now it’s brilliant. Holding one of the best casts I’ve seen this season, it wasn’t over produced and was the best two hours of my summer so far. This is a great show that should be seen by all.
2800 Routh Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
Runs through July 13th
Performances are 7:30 pm Thursday and Sunday, 8:00 pm Friday - Saturday, and
2:30 pm Sunday. The Hooky Matinee is Wednesday, July 2nd at 2:00 pm, and an additional performance is on Saturday, July 12th. The July 4th performance is changed to 2:30 pm.
Tickets are $25.00 - $50.00. Hooky Matinee prices are $10.00-$15.00. Seniors and students receive a $3.00 discount for most performances.
For information and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 214-871-3300 or go online to www.theatre3dallas.com.