Thursday, January 31, 2019

Two Trains Running by August Wilson: A Review

We saw the Arizona Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running last week. It was the seventh play in Wilson’s ten play Pittsburgh Cycle and premiered in New York in 1992. It was directed by one of the Deans of Wilson production, Lou Bellamy. I remember seeing some of his work at the Penumbra theatre in Minneapolis/Saint Paul while a grad student at the U. of Minnesota. He was good then and is good now.

The play is set in a run-down restaurant run by a black businessman named Memphis played with a little too much volume and too little diction by James Craven. It is the 1960s, and the neighborhood is heading into major economic re-development and gentrification. This so called positive piece of urban planning had the effect of moving out whole communities of urban blacks who had mostly come up from the south and had built new lives with manufacturing jobs and by starting small businesses.

In Wilson's play some of the last hangers on in the community congregate at the restaurant, which now always seems out of short ribs and chicken. This leaves the patrons with only beans and toast. The good times are “going going gone.”

All except one of the remaining characters are male. Aside from Memphis, who is holding out for top dollar from the city for his now condemned property, we have Wolf, a bookie who works in the numbers racket, Holloway, a retired painter, and Sterling, a young black man just out of prison, who still sees the world as a fiddle that if played slyly will get him a Cadillac rather than another term in the big house.

Then there is the local funeral director, Mr. West. He is doing better than most because more people are dying here than living. On the side he also has been buying up buildings at cheap rates and then setting them on fire to collect the insurance money. He is currently now low-balling Memphis to get his restaurant. Maybe that’s why he always wears gloves. No sense dirtying your hands even if you are screwing your own people. One critic called him, “the Demon of urban renewal.”

In my mind the two most sympathetic characters are Risa, the restaurant cook and waitress and a retarded vagrant named Hambone. Both have assumed protective veneers in an attempt to insulate themselves from the life around them. Risa slow walks through her life while being constantly berated by Memphis. She has slashed her legs with a razor to help defer the attention of men but still remains a symbol of the time when especially black women were under-appreciated and often unseen by men. Clean, cook, and make babies; that was the drill and it is seen here.

Hambone, in some ways the lynchpin of the play, seems to represent all the downtrodden folks who have and will continue to suffer under a system that has little to offer them. His signature line "I want my ham" ultimately juices the entire work and manages to bring feeling to everyone. 

The production is finely tuned by Bellamy though some of the actors' voices get lost when the men start shouting at each other. Otherwise they tend to talk, gossip, and argue in a convincing manner. Some critics have noted that the characters don't really engage the more violent aspects of the late sixties, although there is talk about going to a demonstration. Wilson has responded by saying that he was not interested in writing “what white folks think of as American history for the 1960’s.” He was interested in making the point that “by 1969 nothing has changed for the black man."

Finally, I must admit that what I remember most about the experience was a developing awareness that we were sitting in a theatre chock full of well-off elderly white people watching six actors of color trying their best to portray an aspect of American history that no one in the audience could honestly say they had experienced or been able to experience. Judging by the number of empty seats after intermission, I think it is safe to conclude that the racial divide may still be alive and well in 21st century America. Somehow the standing ovation given at the end of the show didn't quite assuage my feeling that we still are in need of progress.    


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Saturday Stroll Sabino Canyon

It was a gorgeous sunny morning and our Sabino Canyon walk took us along the Bear Canyon trail to the first crossing of Sabino Creek.  The majestic Saguaros are everywhere.

We were joined along the way by one of the ubiquitous roadrunners.

It is still early in the spring out here and the brittlebush is one of the first to flower.

Lots of other diggers are starting to make new homes.
We'll keep an eye on this old nest and see if it will be occupied again.


At the Sabino Creek bridge the water level is back to fairly low again, but it does gurgle pleasantly.

It has enough force to manufacture some fascinating foam patterns.

And some neat little bubbles.

 Our fair lady in the woods beckoned me on to show me an evening primrose that she discovered. And it wasn't even evening.



 Back we trudged to the parking lot.

Much later the day finished with a colorful display of mountains and clouds.

Thanks for reading this. I don't post as much as I used to, but do hope you do enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing at Tucson's Rogue Theatre

I have seen Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing a number of times, played Verges as an undergraduate, and directed it at Monmouth College in 1987.  And now I have just seen a near perfect production of it at the  Rogue Theatre in Tucson, AZ.  It was technically immaculate, articulate, elucidating,  and a lot of fun.  Director Joe McGrath gets super kudos for serving the Bard in superior fashion.

The simple open stage and functional set is the perfect environment to become real when inhabited by a true company of players.  Each role in the show from mechanical to lead was clearly delineated and no single actor, even the leads,  seemed to wish to stand out or vie for bragging rights. What they produced was clearly spoken, marvelously enriched by pause, business, and small reactions, and a tribute to the idea that a group dedicated to playing together easily rises above the sum of its parts. I have seen the Rogue company do this in The White Snake and The Grapes of Wrath and here they do it again. Though Holly Griffith as Beatrice and Ryan Parker as Benedick clearly stand out, they also give to the group by helping with the scene changes. Yes,  Claudio’s heartless public attack on Hero does grate on modern “Me too” ears, but the final surprise comeuppance for all the villains seemed so in tune  that I must admit to forgetting completely about young Claudio's cruel adolescent behavior.

The technical elements in the show are also superb.  The ability to see it in the intimate Rogue space allows you ample opportunity to glory in the incredibly rich and detailed costumes designed and built by Cynthia Meier and her crew. The lighting  subtlely embroiders the action without attempting to grab attention for its own sake and the music and dancing fitted the show as beautifully as Benedick’s gloves fitted him.

This was just plain an evening of enchantment. You will revel in the rich repartee of Beatrice and Benedick and almost want to boo and hiss when Don John and company does his dastardly deeds.  Of course you will laugh out loud at the malapropisms of Dogberry and his incompetent sleepy minions.  There is also just the right amount of audience interaction.  All told it was  entertaining , lucid, and funny.  If this production does not prove that Shakespeare can be understandable and enjoyable for a modern audience, nothing will. 
My production with college students in the 1980's didn't hold  a candle to the Rogue's, but I do have a photo from it to share. I still hear from some of these dedicated students.  They were a joy to work with and I remain proud of each one of them.