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No shoo-in success for two new plays about female artists

You get a sense of journey from Renee Calarco’s “#Solestories: Or a Play Staged Around a Lot of Feet” — and not just because the title implies the idea of steps. This still-rough-hewn piece, which the playwright refers to as an “experiment,” gambles with form: The script is based on Instagram posts. Perhaps reflecting the challenges of translating social media into stage drama, director Deborah Randall’s spare production for Venus Theatre feels like the beginnings of a trek to find the material’s ideal nondigital shape.

Humor and tangy writing do intermittently jazz up the production, based on an Instagram project of local playwright Calarco’s that involved photographing commuters’ shoes and writing accompanying caption-scale stories. In the play, the undertaking is the brainchild of the prickly Vie (Jasmine Brooks), whose cyber-fiction obsession frustrates her neglected lover, Lia (Tina Kumpel).

Between sequences that depict Vie’s life, the play dramatizes the Instagram vignettes: Ensemble members Claire Gallagher, Graham Pilato and Jane Petkofsky roam the alley-style staging area, delivering snippets of narration and conjuring characters, such as the woman who frets that she shares her name with a celebrity, or the animal lover who hares off in a minivan with three adopted dogs.

The play doesn’t root the vignettes firmly enough in Vie’s existence, and fails to give her own story a satisfying arc. In general, the dramaturgical structure and pacing are too loose. But the script abounds with piquant turns of phrase. “Cleo’s anxiety finally up and left, looking for someone else who’d appreciate the creative effort it took to bore into a skull and pierce a heart and slither into nightmares,” begins one mini-tale.

The production benefits greatly from the terrific Brooks, who infuses even prosaic moments — chitchat with Lia over potato chips, for instance — with interesting inflections and intense personality. (The other performers deliver their lines in sturdy fashion but lack Brooks’s arresting vitality.)

For all its flaws, “#Solestories” displays ingenuity and vigor that are lacking in the stodgy “Gwen & Ida: The Object Is of No Importance” another new work about female artistry. Written by David S. Kessler (whose works have appeared at the Capital Fringe Festival), directed by Lynn Sharp Spears and produced by Nu Sass Productions and Uncle Funsy Productions, the play recalls the careers of Ida Lupino (1918-1995) and Gwen John (1876-1939).

After making her name as an actress (“High Sierra,” etc.), Lupino became a trailblazing film and television director. John was a significant Welsh-born artist (and also Auguste Rodin’s lover and Augustus John’s sister).

In the play, Ida (Rebecca Ellis) barges in on studio bigwig Jack Warner (Matty Griffiths) to pitch a movie about the deceased Gwen. After Gwen herself (Aubri O’Connor) materializes to quibble with Ida’s approach, the women engage in mutually supportive retrospection, recalling struggles and breakthroughs in a patriarchal world.

While O’Connor’s acting is stiff, Ellis creates a reasonably sharp profile for Lupino, and looks every inch the Hollywood golden-age VIP. (Bridgid Burge designed the costumes and the low-key studio-office set.) And Griffiths is funny as the exasperated Jack.

But the storytelling in “Gwen & Ida” is simultaneously ploddingly direct and — what with the talky reminiscences — lacking in immediacy. One applauds Kessler for striving to rescue Lupino and John from obscurity. Maybe in a future draft of the play, the rescue journey won’t be such a slog.

#Solestories: Or a Play Staged Around a Lot of Feet, by Renee Calarco. Direction, costumes and props, Deborah Randall; set and lights, Amy Belschner Rhodes; sound, Neil McFadden. 90 minutes. $20. Through June 22 at Venus Theatre, 21 C St., Laurel, Md. venustheatre.org. Gwen & Ida: The Object Is of No Importance, by David S. Kessler. Directed by Lynn Sharp Spears; lights, Helen Garcia-Alton; sound, Charles Lasky. 90 minutes. $20. Through June 29 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. nusass.com.

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