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Hair Apparent 

AART's “Steel Magnolias” tackles death and hair spray, while Richmond Shakespeare gets crazy with donkey ears.

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The hair salon is a weekly ritual for many black women — a place to catch up on the latest gossip, on each others' lives, to get and give advice and to strengthen bonds. So it makes sense for African-American Repertory Theatre to translate “Steel Magnolias” into a vehicle for a black cast. The concept works but some inconsistent performances and a weak climax mar the final product.

The interactions of six women over a couple of years play out in Truvy's beauty salon, where the credo is, “There is no such thing as natural beauty.” This production really begins when Diana Carver's boisterous Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux explodes onto the stage halfway through the first scene. The pace picks up and the play begins to flow nicely, especially in the third scene, when M'Lynn (Rhonda Jackson-Smith) and Shelby (Erin Nollie) make a surprising announcement. But in the final and textually most moving scene, director Tony Cobb allows his cast to play up the tragic mood rather than honor the individuality of the characters, a bit of melodrama that spoils the touching ending.

The script is still a delight and “Steel Magnolias” can still steal your heart. The metamorphosis of Sharalyn Bailey's Clairee from dull caterpillar widow to a vibrant butterfly of a woman is wonderful. Carver brings new life to the line: “I'm not crazy. I've just been in a bad mood for the last 40 years.” And the tenderness of M'Lynn and Shelby's final moments together on stage can bring tears to the eyes. Here's hoping that the momentum created by moving to CenterStage this year will further boost the potential of AART's shows.  — Mary Burruss

 

There was a moment during Richmond Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” when I literally could not stop laughing. Near the play's end, the sheer lunatic brilliance of director Andrew Hamm's off-kilter rendering of the Shakespeare classic reached such a fever pitch that I found myself lost in the sea of silliness. I would have been more embarrassed about my guffaws if there weren't several others in the audience doing the same thing.

Possibly the Bard's most endearingly romantic comedy, “Midsummer's” plot involves fairies, love potions, a man semitransformed into an ass, and quite a bit of mayhem. As if that were not enough, Hamm's inspired cast pushes every envelope available. Sensual interludes between lovers stray into serious PG-13 territory. Characters who are supposed to be bad actors are hilariously horrendous. Some of the physical comedy looks downright painful, thanks to fight choreography help by David White.

Ensemble members throw themselves into multiple roles with abandon. Brandon Crowder leads this rowdy band, effecting breakneck changes between the regal Duke of Athens to the almost aggressively swishy Flute and eliciting laughs with as little as a well-placed glance along the way. Adam Mincks chews the scenery ravenously as donkey-eared Bottom, who attracts the affection of Fairy Queen Titania (Stacie Rearden Hall) thanks to the juice of a magical flower administered by Puck (Kerry McGee). Hall's lusty looks are bracing while McGee is alternately fervent as the love-struck Hermia and delightfully impish as Puck. Sandra Clayton rounds out the crew ably with several small but vital bit parts.

It seems peckish to note that some of Shakespeare's lyrical language gets lost in modernisms such as “Sweet!” and “Awesome!” But Hamm makes up for it by inserting charming musical interludes into the action with a cast (particularly Hall) in spectacular voice. For a show not billed as a musical, this “Dream” sings. — David Timberline

“Steel Magnolias” plays through April 26 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center, 4901 Old Brook Road. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 355-2187 or visit www.africanamericantheatre.org.

“A Midsummer Night's Dream” plays at the Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St., through May 10. Tickets are $13-$26. Call 232-4000 or visit www.richmondshakespeare.com.

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