Doing What Comes Naturally

August Wilson's Pittsburgh Realism; Sondheim's Pretty Pictures

A week or so ago, I listened to a local playwright bemoan the American theatergoer's clinging loyalty to 1950s-style naturalism. A common, mildly snobby complaint, but one I can generally get behind. For realism, after all, you can rent a movie or pay close attention on your next bus ride, and at considerably less expense. Penumbra Theatre's revival of August Wilson's Two Trains Running, though, gives eloquent testimony to the continued relevance of the one-set, real-as-dirt, vox-humana play. Set in a demolition-bound Pittsburgh restaurant-- painstakingly designed by Ken Evans--the show looks, sounds, and smells like real life circa 1969, from the slick sharkskin suits worn by lottery broker Wolf (Ashanti Young) to the aroma of sausage that wafts from the greasy spoon's kitchen.

And then there's Wilson's writing, especially his poetic, vernacular dialogue, fluidly performed by a seven-member cast under director Lou Bellamy. Particularly humane are Adolphus Ward as the sage, semi-retired housepainter Halloway, Marie-Françoise Theodore as the sad, alluring Risa, and James Craven as the heartbreakingly obsessive Hambone. A decade before the play's action, Hambone was cheated out of his compensation for a job done for the neighborhood's white butcher, and his constant, shouted demand, "I want my ham!" becomes the play's symbolic rally cry.

I'll have a plate of black power with a side order of racial justice: 'Two Trains Running'
Act One, Too. Ltd.
I'll have a plate of black power with a side order of racial justice: 'Two Trains Running'

The impassioned speeches addressing injustice, Black Power, and urban renewal could be faulted for lacking subtlety, but the play isn't set in a subtle epoch. Ward's physically relaxed monologues coupled with the somewhat naive sloganeering of the broke charmer Sterling (Kevin D. West) capture both the mournful despair and the inspired optimism of the waning '60s. In keeping with this spirit, the play's resolution is loose, almost ominously uncertain, and yet buoyant and triumphant.

 

Stephen Sondheim's idiosyncratic, frequently gorgeous songs from Sunday in the Park with George had me nearly swooning a few times at the Loring Playhouse, and during those moments I found myself dreaming of an orchestra. This isn't a jab at the three-piece group used by Theater Latté Da; they were superb, though I could have used less chimes (a quibble to be sure, but I feel it's important to speak out against chimes whenever the opportunity presents itself). I realize that for budgetary reasons my wish for additional orchestra pros is entirely unreasonable, and I only bring it up as a roundabout compliment. The music is so wonderfully sung, so thoughtfully interpreted, and so expertly arranged that it deserves--and this is rare--to be louder and concordantly all the more enveloping.

Inspired by the work of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, Sunday is an ambitious show for a small theater company to stage; it's demanding both visually and vocally. In the first act, Seurat (an understated Rodney Coe) works on "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" and breaks up with his mistress and model, Dot (Ann Michels, the best in a pack of holy-cats-she's-good singers). Seventeen actors--playing weekend lollers and the artist's fictional friends and family--pass through the park, while canvases float on and off stage on ceiling tracking to suggest the lush island. The act closes with Seurat ripping down a white backdrop to reveal a reproduction of the painting's background, while the supporting cast freezes to complete the work as a nifty tableau vivant.

In the second act, a descendant of Seurat, also an artist named George and played again by Coe, struggles to rediscover his muse and preserve his soul in the trendy 1980s art world. The satiric components of this act haven't aged so well, and director Peter Rothstein might have encouraged Coe to make his modern George more tonally distinct from the George of act one. But really, who cares, with all these virtuoso songs. I count two lemons and fourteen great ones full of clever internal rhymes, appropriate evocations of the airy experimentalism of Debussy and Ravel, rhapsodic melodies, and a melancholy wisdom that pokes at the heart. So send in the strings. Really, there ought to be strings.

 
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