By Pat Launer
There are Two Trains Running
To Freedom NY
Where, Under the Elms, desires uncork.
TAKE THE A TRAIN
THE SHOW: Two Trains Running , the fourth of ten works in the monumental play cycle of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson. In his epic cycle, completed just before he died in 2005, at age 60, Wilson chronicled, decade by decade, the African American experience in the 20th century. In addition to his prodigious artistic legacy, 14 days after his death, Wilson became the first African American to have a Broadway Theatre carry his name.
THE STORY: Like almost all the works in the cycle, Two Trains is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson spent his youth. It’s 1969, and the formerly prosperous black neighborhood is going to seed – and destined for the bulldozer of urban renewal. There isn’t much action here; the play is a dramatic, and sometimes funny, slice of African American life. The conversations and disquisitions are often thrilling. The denizens of Memphis Lee’s café come and go, plan and remember, contemplate love and death, getting even and getting their due. Civil Rights are on everyone’s mind. In this production, giant photos of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, in symbolically, antithetically, peaceful and defiant poses, loom over the proceedings, though the leaders themselves only get a passing mention. Another potent offstage presence, who weaves through several of the cycle plays, is Aunt Ester, the mystical, healing “washer of souls,” who’s reputed to be more than 300 years old.
There’s a generational divide in dealing with black-white relations; the older men, one of them a former sharecropper, are of the ‘go along to get along’ mentality. But the itchy young ex-con, Sterling , comes swaggering in, spouting the slogans ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is Beautiful,’ encouraging the assemblage to accompany him to an activist rally. The philosophizing Hollaway prefers to get his strength, wisdom and direction from Aunt Ester. Wealthy, stealthy West has his own approach; he’s capitalized on all the death in the neighborhood, as a successful undertaker/funeral director. He even offers to buy Memphis ’ property, but at a lower price than the long-term proprietor wants. Memphis stands firm, and he literally fights City Hall to get what thinks he’s owed. Wolf peddles a little hope by running numbers; like Sterling, he makes a play for the beaten-down waitress Risa , so traumatized by her interactions with men that she disfigures herself, razor-slashing her legs to become less attractive. And then there’s Hambone, the anguished, mentally impaired fence-painter who obsesses about the ham he’s owed as payment for a job he did for the local white butcher more than a decade ago. “I want my ham !, ” he wails repeatedly. “He gonna give me my ham!” It’s the plaintive, unyielding demand for dignity and respect that is every character’s motivation and aspiration.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production is outstanding, beautifully designed by Tony Fanning, who also created the Globe’s 1991 production of the play, and its Broadway debut in 1992. The period-perfect details of a ‘60s diner are remarkable, from the counter stools to the wallphone , the jukebox to the (working) cigarette machine. Karen Perry’s costumes are spot-on, and Chris Rhynne’s lighting pinpoints the divide between Martin and Malcolm, and the highlights the contrast between the rundown, black and white stores across the street and the colorful characters and red-hot passions inside the restaurant.
As Memphis, the owner of that former hotspot, Chuck Cooper is magnificent: funny and philosophical, a reminiscer and forward-thinker, who exhibits an eye-opening array of emotions, but fails to realize how abusive he is to his browbeaten employee, Risa , or how angry he still is over having been robbed of his Southern land decades ago. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance, the standout of a strong ensemble cast.
James Avery, a familiar face on the small screen, required surgery for a circulatory problem shortly after the rehearsal period began. The ever-flexible and imaginative director, Seret Scott, incorporated his wheelchair into the production, and it works just fine, though he can’t really get around independently. He was at times shaky on his lines on opening night, but Avery proved a wise and wizened elder, constantly writing in his little book, observing and advising, railing about white men who exploit black labor, equally opposed to those blacks who fight back. A devotee of the prophet Ester, he’s a fascinating mix of the old and new, the rational and the spiritual. As the blustery numbers-runner, Wolf, Montae Russell starts off sounding a little too high-end, too precise in his speech. But as he settles into his characterization of the ambitious ladies’ man, he does an excellent job. Al White brings poise, pride and rich-man’s condescension to the role of the wealthy, glove-wearing West. Edi Gathegi’s Sterling (a role first assayed by Lawrence Fishburne , called ‘Larry’ when he was here in 1991) is a jumpy, edgy, high-energy dreamer/activist who manages, by the end, to snag a financial windfall, a woman’s affection and a moment of sweet revenge. In the difficult, potentially one-note role of Hambone, Willie C. Carpenter is riveting, by turns wild, amusing and heartbreaking. Roslyn Ruff brings a good-hearted, opinionated, depressive honesty to Risa , but those leg-scars aren’t at all believable, and there doesn’t seem to be any of the roundness or beauty in her that all the men seem to see. Scott, who’s directed five of Wilson ’s plays, has a wonderful feel for the music and rhythm of the piece, and its often angry, angular and lushly lyrical language.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, through May 27
NOTE: To date, the Globe has produced three of Wilson ’s ten plays, and this is a repeat for Two Trains Running. The purported reason: this is his ‘most accessible’ work. I actually think that tribute belongs more fittingly to the Pulitzer-winning Fences, which premiered locally at Southeast Community Theatre in 1990, was reprised in a stunning Black Ensemble Theatre reading last year, and with several of the same actors (third time’s a charm!), will be part of Cygnet Theatre’s upcoming mainstage season. In the meantime, if you’re hankering for more Wilson wordplay, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre, in collaboration with Cygnet, concludes its reading series of five plays from the cycle, with The Piano Lesson, May 7, 8 and 15 (see details below).
ROCKS AND A HARD PLACE
THE SHOW: Desire Under the Elms, the 1924 ground-breaking naturalistic play (some dub it the first important tragedy written in America ) by the great American dramatist Eugene O’Neill, four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate for Drama
THE STORY/THE SOURCES/THE THEMES: The play is suffused with mythology and the rural coloration of folk drama. With its themes of love and hate, greed and envy, mother-love, incest and infanticide, the work’s Greek roots are evident; O’Neill clearly drew inspiration from the stories of Phaedra, Medea and Oedipus. The influences of Freud and Nietzsche are also felt. But it all comes back to the land.
Set on a harsh Connecticut farm in 1850, the action centers on and circles around the land. Each member of the Cabot family is affected by it. For farmers, land is livelihood, a source of pride, a sense of ownership, a giver of life and death. It is more tangible than the ephemera of emotions and relationships. At least that’s how it is to Ephraim, the irascible, tyrannical patriarch. His God is a “hard God,” and his land, like its owner, is hard and stony. Ephraim is tough and Puritanical; there’s little room in his life for “softness” – in God, son or woman. He’s already survived two wives, but at age 76, he tries yet again, going off and bringing home a woman half his age. Al l his sons (two by his first wife, one by his second), chafe at the invasion. Al l covet the land, but the youngest, the disaffected Eben , steals from his father to buy out his brothers, who high-tail it to California in search of gold. To them, the stones of the land were nothing more than confining prison walls.
So Eben is left behind, hellbent on hating the new intruder. Eben is “soft” by his father’s standard, a mama’s boy who still misses his mother, blames his father and brothers for her premature demise, wants more than anything to avenge her death, and communes with her still-present spirit in the parlor. Eben is touched with poetry and sensitivity, and awed by the beauty of the land, its life force and fertility. But he also has an animal sexuality that Abbie , who has her own designs on the land, her own need for identity, groundedness , roots and home, exploits to her advantage. But after she seduces him, they actually fall in love, and when they conceive a child, proud and prideful Ephraim is convinced it’s his. Various nefarious plans go awry and end in tragedy. But there’s also a touch of redemption at the end.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The drama is deep, complex and multi-layered. And while the performances are excellent, the cast, and director Sean Murray, haven’t yet mined the play’s tragic profundities. But the commitment and conviction of this production suggest that, over the course of the run, as they settle into the land, as it were, they will sink further into the fecund soil.
Al l do well with the strong New England dialect. Al l look decidedly like farm folk, thanks to Jeanne Reith ’s costumes. The outdoor sounds (George Yé ) and the beautiful lighting (Eric Lotze) of an expansive, cloud-filled, Maxfield Parrish sky highlight the minimalist set (Sean Murray) of wood floors and platforms. The miniature version of the house, seen in so many local productions, is well crafted and lit, but it may not add much to the proceedings besides the suggestion of the titular Elms. And the music, composed by two of the three Cowles Mountain Boys (actor Jason Connors and folklorist Charles Wallace), has the appropriate pluck and twang, but there’s a repetitiveness to the interludes that begins to grate.
As the dullard older brothers, John Garcia and Craig Huisenga are colorful, if not quite as dim as one might expect. In the second act, Huisenga makes a broad comic return as the Fiddler, and the two sport huge mutton-chops to play the sheriffs at the end. Francis Gercke hasn’t fully carved out the character of Eben . He’s got the gentleness and sexual energy down, but less of the angry, tortured soul. His erotic connection with Jessica John’s Abbie is palpable, and their love scenes sizzle. She’s got the ache and determination, but she could show more of the calculating cold-bloodedness of this conniving charmer. When it comes to going over to the dark side, and still managing to show a speck of joy and tender calm, Jim Chovick gives the best performance of his career. He’s as crusty, rough and raw as written. And the final stage picture, of Ephraim hauling those infernal rocks from one side of the stage to the other (which is how the play opened, the sons doing the dirty work), speaks eloquent volumes.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through June 3
LAST OF THE RED HOT NEW WORKS
The UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival was by any definition a success. The out-of-town theater dignitaries were well entertained. The plays’ writing, design, acting and directing were uniformly outstanding. Some pieces felt more finished and mature than others, but all were excellently executed; as mentioned here before, the themes were darker than some of the quirky comedies of the past. The last of the four I saw (the other three were reviewed last week) was Freedom NY, by first-year MFA playwright Jennifer Barclay. Many of those involved in this production, both actors and designers, were first-years, too (some were undergrads), and a very promising group they are.
The play is set in the aftermath of a middle school shooting. Portia’s stern, unbending, uptight grandmother, Justice Mayflower (she’s the judge in this small town) refuses to allow her to go back to school, or even to leave the front yard. What she teaches her impressionable but grieving young granddaughter, along with a bushel- ful about bulbs and marigolds, is fear and xenophobia and the power of forgetting. But when Gabriel, a Mexican janitor at the school, moves in next door, Portia comes into her own. She shares with Gabriel loss, loneliness and missing a mother, and he helps her to learn to remember, so she can begin to heal. It’s a little pat and predictable, but Rufio Lerma is such an engaging presence as Gabriel that we’re happy to learn about Día de los Muertos , along with Portia (winning Molly Fite ). Pearl Rhein has the right upright rigidity for the grandmother’s role. But the brief one-act seems to skim the surface of its themes. Still, the production was simply and elegantly directed (Isis Saratial Misdary ) and designed (sets by Kristin Ellert ; lights by Christian DeAngelis ; costumes by Kim Newton; sound by Jessica Crossman and David Yoder).
Hopefully, once all the papers are signed and sealed, Naomi Iizuka will arrive to head up the MFA playwriting program in the fall (she was here for the visitors’ weekend, as she was last year). Then, it’ll be fascinating to see the direction the plays and playwrights take. Stay tuned.
… The second annual San Diego Student Shakespeare Festival was a terrific event… a gorgeous day in the Park (Balboa), with hundreds of kids in Elizabethan dress parading along the Prado . Glorious! It was fabulous to see elementary through high school students, so focused, committed and excited… all in the name of Shakespeare. There were more than 20 schools and over 200 kids involved. More public schools this year. and fewer Piramuses and Thisbes . Twelfth Night was the most-performed play this year (four scenes presented). The Julius Caesars offered some of the strongest productions and performances. There were three stages (aptly named The Rose, The Swan and, in loving memory of Judith Munk and her beautiful garden/performance venue, The Folly). Each school was allotted 15 minutes, and the three emcees (Richard Lederer , Tom Leech, and last-minute stand-in Steve Lipinsky) kept the proceedings moving and on time. Many of the groups were directed by local teaching actors, including Linda Libby , Julie Clemmons and Tom Haine . Everyone came out a winner, but there were some well-deserved prizes given out at the end of the day. As an observer, strolling from stage to stage, I managed to catch just about every one of the winning performances, and I concur with the decisions of the judges (Sherri Al len and Sabin Epstein; Jack Winans and Jim Caputo ; Jamie Newcomb and Stephen Morgan-MacKay).
The elementary school standout was young Becca Meyers, from Hawthorne Elementary ( Tric Smith and Perla Myers, directors). She did a superb job with the “Friends, Romans” speech of Mark Antony from Julius Caesar. At the middle school level, the notable performance was by Sam Hargrove of High Tech Middle Media Arts (director, Linda Libby ) who, on the very day of his Bar Mitzvah, played a wonderfully well-spoken Touchstone in As You Like It, before heading off to ‘become a man.’ Marisa Perry of Poway High School (Rollin Swan, director) walked away with the prize for her Goneril in King Lear. And the award for best high school comedy was shared by two very funny performers in the Comedy of Errors scene presented by Our Lady of Peace High School (Kathleen Herb Baker, director): Nydia Davenport as Dromio and Lauren Martinez as Antipholus .
The Excellent Scene awards went to Hawthorne Elementary’s Julius Caesar, with its live music, mum play and clever costumes (loved those Centurions!), and the winning Becca Meyers at its center. Her talented brother, Daniel Myers, appeared in High Tech Middle School’s celebrated scene from As You Like It. At the high school level, the awardees were Carlsbad High’s Twelfth Night and The Bishop’s School’s marvelously imaginative, modernized Julius Caesar, with its featured speakers (Brutus and Antony ) dressed in well-tailored suits, Caesar’s bloodied body wheeled in on a gurney, efficiently delivered by scrubs-wearing hospital attendants, and an impressively attentive crowd of commoners sporting hardhats, fast-food waitress outfits and military uniforms (shades of The Village People, but delightfully done). Superb work (directed by Courtney Flanagan and Tim McNamara).
Major kudos to Festival artistic director Mike Auer , Al ex Sandie and the San Diego Shakespeare Society, and all the participants. If you missed the Festival this year, don’t make the same mistake in 2008. This is our future! Get in on the action now.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… SPEAK OUT… Check out my reviews online at kpbs.org, and put your two cents in. Post a COMMENT… and we can have an online chat.
… Cool performance, cool new venue: Check out Sound Check, a music/dance/architecture presentation sponsored by Sushi Performance and Visual Art, at the new Qualcomm Hall. This one-night event features “jazz and fire music” from The SeeSaw Ensemble; a premiere quartet, performed to live music, by Mira Cook & Dancers, choreographed by the City Ballet principal dancer/choreographer. Meanwhile, scope out the state-of-the-art design and acoustics of the new theater space, created by architects Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker. 619-235-8466; sushiart.org.
… The Latest Living Legacies…. The Women’s International Center is about to bestow its 2007 Women’s International Center Living Legacy Awards. The first annual AIDS Activist Award goes to Elizabeth Taylor, who joins the ranks of other distinguished women, spanning the last 25 years: from Eleanor Roosevelt to Margaret Mead, Gloria Steinem to Corazon Aquino , Golda Meir to Dianne Feinstein, Rose Kennedy, Billie Jean King , Mother Teresa, Marianne McDonald — and me. And adding her name to this year’s list is… the year’s most awarded local theatermaker , Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Ten other honorees will be fêted at the event, which takes place Saturday, May 26 at the San Diego Marriott. Suggested attire is ‘formal or 40s,’ since this year’s awards are dedicated to those who defended liberty in WWII. www.wic.org
… Final Round of Fun at the FunHouse…. The local improv troupe, The FunHouse Players, will only be performing in their Rolando home for three more weekends, which culminates in their 1st Annual Improv Festival, May 18-20, including Grindhouse , the premiere of a double feature of improvised “B” films (adult content and nudity); Minor League Show, performed by 14-18 year olds; MySpace the Musical, an improvisation based on one audience member’s MySpace page; and The FunHouse Finale, all the troupe’s improvisers on one stage for one final, farewell performance. But it ain’t over till the Fat Lady improvises. The FunHouse/San Diego TheatreSports will continue to teach improv classes, as they have for 14 years. A one-day intro will be held July 7 and a four-week class starts up July 9; firstname.lastname@example.org . For general info: www.improvise.net .
… Beckett is coming, Beckett is coming… The latest Sledgehammer creation, Beckett3, opens in a Mission Hills warehouse on May 9. Pay What you Can previews are on May 5 and 6. T here’s a special Open Rehearsal/Pay-What-You Can preview on Tuesday May 8, during which composer Tim Root will give a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of this unique theatrical installation, directed by Scott Feldsher , in collaboration with visual artist Becky Gutti , featuring percussionist Nathan Hubbard, with Scott Paulson on double reeds. On this special preview night, audience members are encouraged to “bring their voices and instruments;” some of their music will be recorded for use in the production. This is your chance to Sledgehammer sound, and be a star. Warning: This is not your Grandma’s theater. The installation includes music, text and sculpture; spectators wander through an aural and visual environment in a search for Samuel Beckett (no actual Beckett words will be used, per the master’s estate). Wear comfortable shoes and proceed at your own pace; there is no seating and no fixed beginning or end to the experience. Tickets available at sandiegopoerforms.com or 619-544-1484.
… An Evening with The Butcher of Broadway… Well, that’s what he used to be called. But ever since Frank Rich stopped being the chief theater critic of the New York Times, he’s become the cultural/political conscience of the country, with his provocative, incisive Op-Ed pieces and regular column in the Times, and his searing 2006 book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth, from 9/11 to Katrina.” Rich will appear in the Price Center Ballroom, courtesy of ArtPower ! at UCSD, to talk about the collusion between mainstream media and the White House following the 9/11 attacks. Monday, May 14 at 8pm. www.artpower.ucsd.edu.
… 6th @ Penn Theatre continues its Resilience of the Spirit: Human Rights Festival 2007 with Lemkin’s House by Catherine Filloux , concerning the afterlife of Raphael Lemkin , the man who coined the term ‘genocide’ and was haunted into eternity by victims of society’s most barbaric crime. Will he finish his life’s work after death? Find out, May 24-June 3.
Two one-acts open on May 25: Marianne McDonald’s The Last Class, starring our own Jenni Prisk , as a professor giving her final, most deeply personal lecture, reliving her adventures, losses, mistakes, triumphs and passions. And Ira Bateman-Gold’s A Hundred Birds , about three survivors of abuse poised to commit an act they hope will free them from their haunted, debilitating past. May 25-June 4.
Selected Human Rights films will be shown on Saturdays at 4pm. May 5 – “ Soraida ,” about a Palestinian woman living in Ramallah who, despite military occupation, violence and oppression, is determined not to lose her humanity. May 12: “Ortho-Dykes,” concerning a worldwide underground group of Orthodox Jewish lesbians. May 19 – “God Sleeps in Rwanda ,” the Oscar-nominated story of five courageous women, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, who are committed to rebuilding their lives, redefining the role of women in their society and bringing hope to a wounded nation.
…More stories of women: a fundamentalist snake handler, a baton twirler, an ex rodeo rider and an actress tell their amusing and sometimes harrowing tales in Jane Martin’s Talking With, winner of the American Theatre Critics Association Award for Best Regional Play of 1982. Directed by beloved acting coach/director D.J . Sullivan, the Sullivan Players perform at the Swedenborgian Hall in University Heights , May 5-26. 858-274-1731.
…Re-Blitzed: Isaac, I Am, the play that writer Mary Steelsmith pulled from the Fritz Blitz last year (because she got a more lucrative offer), will be the closer of this year’s Blitz, Fritz artistic director Duane Daniels tells me. It was one of his favorite scripts of the 75 plays submitted last year, and it was awful when the cast, already into rehearsals, had to abandon the project. Steelsmith offered another play instead, but it was a grave disappointment all around. So be on the lookout for Isaac when the Blitz comes around in the Fall .
… Gonna miss it in New York ? See it at a Movie theater near you! Actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are in talks to bring their acclaimed stage performances in Frost/Nixon to the big screen. The film, directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay adapted by Peter Morgan from his own stage play, is set to begin shooting in August. The Nixon-Frost interviews culminated in Nixon’s admission that he had “let the American people down.” A modern-day replay of that scene would be a welcome exchange. Theatre Hall of Famer Langella , who originated the role in London ’s West End before opening last week to raves on Broadway, has already earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations. This will be Morgan’s third historical film; he’s done pretty well with “The Last King of Scotland” (about Idi Amin ) and “The Queen” (about QEII ).
… Concluding its series of readings of August Wilson plays, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and Cygnet Theatre present The Piano Lesson, directed by award-winning Moxie Theatre founder/director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. This is Wilson ’s second Pulitzer winner; set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, it focuses on the struggle of two siblings over a family heirloom, a piano crafted by their enslaved grandfather, carved with images of their African ancestors. The cast includes Mark Christopher Lawrence, Monique Gaffney, TJ Johnson, Rhys Green , Ernie McCray, Madeline Hornbuckle and Kaja Dunn. The Narrator is Wilson Adam Schooley . May 7, 8 and 15, 7:30 pm at Cygnet Theatre; 619-337-1525 ext. 3 or www.cygnettheatre.com .
SPECIAL NOTE: A week-long reprise of all five of this season’s five extraordinary readings, plus a tribute to Wilson by TJ Johnson, is scheduled for June 6-10 at Cygnet.
… A staged reading of Richard III, directed by Jack Winans , co-sponsored by the San Diego Shakespeare Society and the Coronado Playhouse, will take place at the theater’s new digs on May 6 at 2pm (one matinee only).
.. The newly reconvened Chronos Theatre Group will present Aristophanes’ Peace at the Lyceum on Tuesday, May 8 at 7:30pm. The classic Greek comedy concerns a man, tired of war, who flies to heaven on a giant dung beetle to find Peace and bring her back to Earth. Celeste Innocenti and David Cohen (of Grass Roots Greek fame) appear, and Doug Hoehn directs. 619-295-5047.
… Local plays, local playwrights: North Coast Repertory Theatre will explore themes of family bonds and regrets in two new plays produced by The Blue Trunk Theatre and the non-profit arts collaborative art2go. Kangaroo, by Margy Hillman, is a dark comedy that centers on the death of a family patriarch; as the wife and children begin plans for the funeral, the deceased rises from the grave to continue his reign of terror. May 7. The next night, May 8, Welcome Home Sonny Boy, by Joe Powers , focuses on a distanced, disillusioned father and son who may be too far apart to come together. Cast members for the two readings include Bill Dunnam , Sally Stockton, Fred Harlow, Sherri Al len, Sara Beth Morgan, Crystal Verdon , Cris O’Bryon, Andrea Maida and Jason Maddy . Both evening begin with appetizers and a silent auction at 6:30, with the reading at 7:30pm.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Two Trains Running – a beautifully calibrated ensemble, maximizing the musicality of the text
Old Globe Theatre, through May 27
Desire Under the Elms – very well crafted; not quite as deep and dark as one might hope, but showing every promise of getting there soon
Cygnet Theatre, through June 3
Wit – lovely, searing production of a very intense play
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through May 13
Enchanted April – feather-light, but enchanting; and very well done
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 13
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Give the ultimate Mother’s Day gift… Take your Mom to the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.