Hats Off 

Strong direction and performances save "Crowns"' thin script.

During the course of the play, we learn of the pleasure that women derive from wearing beautiful hats. We also learn about the importance of hats in church and the meaning of the phrase "hat queen."

Truthfully, the stories begin to repeat themselves by the end of the show. And the conclusion is contrived and utterly predictable. But the show, nonetheless, produces magic because of a talented cast, the joyfulness of the gospel music (under the spirited musical direction of Tony Williams), and some excellent work by the director and choreographer, Leslie Owens-Harrington.

Because the play makes much of the links between generations, the most poignant moments occur between Yolanda and older characters played by Ingram-Miller. But everyone in the cast gets several opportunities to shine, displaying what the characters themselves describe as "hattitude." This even includes Kevin Bledsoe, the only male in the cast. He plays a variety of utility male roles including a preacher with an authentic-looking strut.

Joel Sherry's set, Sue Griffin's costumes and Lynne M. Hartman's lighting design are appropriately simple and straightforward. No design element is allowed to compete with the numerous hats used in the production.

In the last couple of years, Owens-Harrington has mastered Richmond stages like no other theater professional. Just when her choreography seems about to flirt with cliché, she playfully pushes everything off axis a few degrees. And her pacing is similarly interesting. After slowing the movement just a tad, she'll drop in a burst of acceleration that creates a dizzying sensation for a second or two. It's not unlike the unexpected bit of weightlessness you feel when driving over a little hill on an unfamiliar road.

Most important, Owens-Harrington's direction stokes ritualistic coals, evoking shared experiences about family, life in the South and Sunday morning church. Some of these experiences cross boundaries of racial identity, allowing the audience and cast to bond together in ways that are not entirely describable. Who would have thought that some pretty hats and a simple script could produce such an effect? S

Continues through March 6 at Barksdale Theatre. The show transfers to the Empire Theatre March 10-26. Tickets are $38; $4 discount for seniors, students, and Ukrop's cardholders. Call 282-2620.


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