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Season 40 finale, 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' navigates tricky Act II

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"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"

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The play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” rounds out the Unicorn Theatre’s 2014 season, bringing lots of laughs and a look at Black versus White situations, especially in Hollywood, as seen, produced, and promoted in movies of that era.

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For 40 years, Unicorn Theatre brings bold new plays to the Kansas City area, and pushes the boundaries as it educates and enlightens audiences. This year was no exception. Producing artistic director, Cynthia Levin, selected a lineup of shows destined to make audiences leave feeling educated, challenged, and enlightened.

The final production,“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” begins in the 1930s with a blonde, spoiled actress who cannot seem to memorize her lines, and seeks the assistance of her maid, Vera Stark. Gloria Mitchell, the famous actress in this play, comes to life via the acting talents of Katie Karel. Karel said that the actress in the play is a combination of many types from that movie era. Gloria is a combination of such legendary actresses as Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Vivian Leigh, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, and so many others. The character of Gloria draws on those iconic actresses who always seem to lounge in satin dresses and voluminous negligees, and require the services of a maid.

Vera Stark, comes to life with the acting skills of Dianne Yvette. The character of the Vera represents the Black actresses of the day who fought for even minuscule parts in movies. Always relegated to play a maid or a servant, black actresses found their lines limited to “Yes, Ma’am”; “No, Sir”; “Will there be anything else?”; and other small, insignificant lines. Such actresses as Beulah Bondi, Hattie McDaniel, Ruby Dee, and many others found the acting profession limited to roles as servants and former slaves.

Not until 1939 does a Black actress breakthrough with a commanding presence. Hattie McDaniel won the coveted role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind and went on to win the first Academy Award for a Black actor or actress in a supporting role. Even so, McDaniel played a maid and a slave in the classic movie. Still, black actresses and actors alike did not find much success in Hollywood.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” looks to the characters in the burdens they faced in their climb to the top. The play rips away the glamour of Hollywood and shows the heartbreak of those whose dreams never fully materialized. Act I is very lighthearted and funny, but that Act II shows the ravages of years and the pain of sudden fame followed by misfortune, alcohol, and drugs.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” is a comedy to start with but then goes to its darker side as the characters peal back there layers and repeal the persons inside. Count on director Missy Koonce to bring out the best of the cast. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” by Lynn Nottage gets kind of long, kind of dark, and kind of cerebral in the second, but the staging by Koonce The piece flowing and connected.

The character of Gloria Mitchell, changes with each act. Karel gives a nice performance and is especially strong in Act I. Her character is larger-than-life and brings thoughts of those legendary actresses of that era. It is only in Act II that her character allows others in the cast to take center stage–especially the character of Vera Stark.

As Vera Stark, Dianne Yvette seems content to be the maid and the secondary player in the play, but in Act II her character comes on strong and takes center stage and demands the audience’s attention as her story plays out. Yvette is much stronger in Act II and gives a solid performance.

The supporting cast, all develop funny yet unique characters. Each with his own spin on the character and wears it with their own skin. Of the supporting cast, Tosin Morohunfola gives the most dominant of performances with his stage presence. The gentle and subtle nuances of his character and facial expressions do not allow the audience locally from him.

Other supporting characters play dual roles that change with the acts. Donette Coleman, Emily Shackleford, Marc Liby, and Justin Speer all deliver wickedly funny characters. Expect to laugh at all of them. Give the three “ experts” and director lots of credit for making the second act move smoothly when it could easily bog down with lengthy commentary.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” deserves full houses like opening night. The show is darkly funny and everyone will laugh throughout. The talent of the director and actors make the show work and worthy of sell out status.

“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” opened Saturday night, May 7 and continues through June 29. Tickets and more information are available through the theater’s website: www.unicorntheatre.org

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