Saturday, February 24, 2007

365 Days/365 Plays

Last night, we took a drive to Mt. Holyoke College to take in ten of Suzan Lori-Parks' "365 Days/365 Plays." Brought to and for hundreds of venues across the country, the concept is remarkable. Parks, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who learned her craft at MHC (assist to James Baldwin) and Yale Drama, wrote a play a day for a year. At the moment, her alma mater serves as one of many locations for the plays. During the current run, New World Theater of the University of Massachusetts presents the short works which Parks and her friend Bonnie Metzgar produced.

Not surprisingly, some of the scenes ("Babe Catcher," "Coney Island Joe's," and "Project Macbeth," in my case) appeal more than others. The quality of performance, from actor to actor, varies greatly. Cast members included some teenagers, others who are college theater veterans, and at least one individual who has appeared on the regional stage.

So, this is cool.
I've been fortunate to watch premieres of Parks plays such as "Topdog/Underdog," "Venus," and others at New Haven's Yale Rep. She is a vastly talented writer. "365" demonstrates her versatility and vitality. What about the days when she awoke and really hadn't any notion or desire to think hard, long, and specifically enough to compose maybe a ten minute play?

Monday, February 12, 2007

"Fully Committed" - Frenetic Fun

Catch Vince Gatton's exceptional performance in Becky Mode's "Fully Committed." The off-beat, Off-Broadway, often hilarious one-person show continues through the coming weekend as Barrington Stage Company brings the play to Pittsfield's Berkshire Museum.

Gatton plays Sam, wannabe actor- desperate to support himself, who currently handles dinner reservations at a snappy Manhattan restaurant. The performer flips from French to Spanish to German to Asian and many more accents as he adeptly leaps from one to another of more than thirty high-maintenance characters. Those in need trust and anticipate that Sam Peliczowski will nail a reservation for him/her.

That reservations have been booked months ahead of time causes problems for: Bryce, the personal assistant to model Naomi Campbell; Bunny Vandevere or is it Vandelear of the Upper East Side; Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn, an aggressive (to be kind) New Yorker....... Diane Sawyer wants a table. Tim Zagat is around and about. The chief chef is impossibly oppressive, demeaning, and snide. Gatton's Sam must also vocalize as his father, recently widowed and a touching soul, telephones from the Midwest, hoping that his son will return for Christmas.

You have to love the set: Brian Prather furnishes this cellar office with desks, hanging Christmas lights, clutter of all kinds, spare restaurant glasses. The ominous red phone rings and a bulb blinks when the almighty chef is on the line. Otherwise, Sam sits amid the boxes and junk as he fiddles with his headset and swiftly juggles calls.

Well-meaning Sam (and Gatton is just terrific throughout), arrives at the outset just in time to gulp coffee as he settles in for the imminent barrage. He moves, without hesitation, from one persona to the next to the next. It's not a stretch for the theatergoer, midway through the proceedings, to begin to visualize the demanding, persistent oddballs who blitz Sam with their whines, needs, and pleas.

It is Sam who must grab a disgusting looking mop to deal with an even more disgusting catastrophe in the ladies room. As his patience wanes, Sam gets that longed-for callback for role at an upcoming Lincoln Center play. Take a breath! He sings a bit of "Lady is a Tramp" as the basement lights shut down and this eclectica and quite irresistible comedy concludes. All the while, Andrew Volkoff's direction is invaluable. Gatton is not sedentary. Rather, he is on the move.

Author Becky Mode wrote for HBO and for The Cosby Show, too. She knows this territory, having acted, waited on tables, checked coats....."Fully Committed" is her first play, and it premiered in New York in 1999. She has written a clever piece which oozes satire through exaggeration/amplification.

Gatton must exercise great control to manage chaos and confusion with seeming ease. His is an enviable performance. While "Fully Committed" has often been staged at different locales in this country, it's tough to imagine going one-up on the current BCS production.; (413) 236-8888

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Hartford Stage Honors Magnificent "Fences"

Vast, poetic and profound, the late August Wilson's "Fences" remains one of the finest plays ever written. Hartford Stage extends the run of Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning drama (inclusive of some comic dialogue) through February 18th. Thereafter, this galvanic production moves along to the Dallas Theater Center and Portland Center Stage in Oregon. If you've not seen it, please do. I was privileged to observe "Fences" when it opened and drew immediate raves reviews at Yale Repertory Theater in spring of 1985; and I saw a fine presentation of the show at Springfield's StageWest early in 1990. With those memories still vivid, I wondered whether it might not be wise to let them be -- and I contemplated passing on the Hartford Stage production. That would have been a serious mistake. Michael Wilson, Stage artistic director, Jonathan Wilson, director of the production, and just a stunning cast bequeath stirring art and passion.

Having reviewed the play earlier, I choose not to replicate. Instead, allow me to quote from the introduction of the first published book version of "Fences." The opening is written by Lloyd Richards, who passed away seventeen months ago. Richards, thought by many to represent either an older brother or father figure to August Wilson, directed the initial production of "Fences." It was Richards who noticed and noted Wilson's writing potential during the early 1980s at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT.

Richards writes: "'Fences' encompasses the 1950s and a black family trying to put down roots in the slag slippery hills of a middle American urban industrial city that one might correctly mistake for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"To call August Wilson a storyteller is to align him at one and the same time with the ancient aristocrats of dramatic writing who stood before the tribes and made compelling oral history into legend, as well as with the modern playwrights who bring an audience to their feet at the end of an evening of their work because that audience knows that they have encountered themselves, their concerns, and their passions, and have been moved and enriched by the experience. In 'Fences,' August Wilson tells the story of four generations of black Americans and of how they have passed on a legacy of morals, mores, attitudes, and patterns through stories with and without music.

"He tells the story of Troy Maxson, born to a sharecropper father who was frustrated by the fact that every crop took him further into debt. The father knew himself as a failure and took it out on everyone at hand, including his young son, Troy, and his wives, all of whom 'leave him.' Troy learns violence from him, but he also learns the value of work and the fact that a man takes repsonsibility for his family no matter how difficult circumstances may be. He learns respect for a home, the importance of owning land, and the value of an education because he doesn't have one.

"An excellent baseball player, Troy learns that in the land of equal opportunity, chances for a black man are not always equal, and that the same country that deprived him asked sacrifice of his brother in World War II and got it. Half his brother's head was blown away, and he is now a disoriented and confused beautiful man. He learns that he must fight and win the little victories-given his life-must assume the proportion of major triumphs. He learns that day to day and moment to moment he lives close to death and must wrestle with death to survive. He learns that to take a chance and grab a moment of beauty can crumble the delicate fabric of an intricate value system and leave one desolate and alone. Strength of body and strength of purpose are not enough. Chance and the color of one's skin, chance again, can tip the balance. 'You've got to take the crooked with the straight.'" - Lloyd Richards


"Fences" bears witness to life, in 1957, in The Hill district of Pittsburgh, where August Wilson lived early on. Designer Scott Bradley's depiction of the Maxson two-story brick house and yard is terrific. Wilson's protagonist Troy (Wendell Wright) is strong, vocal, tempestuous -- and an individual who collects garbage to support his people. Onece, he was a baseball star in the Negro Leagues but never received his shot to play Major League ball.

Rose (Wandachristine) is also strong and vocal; and she is smart, compassionate, and wise. She is very much tuned into the promise of the biological son Cory (Rob Riley) she and Troy try to monitor. Actor Ray Anthony Thomas plays Gabriel, Troy's brother whom Richards in the aforementioned introduction brilliantly desribes. Bono (Don Mayo) is Troy's best friend and confidante, is loving, warm, and most perceptive. Lyons (Che Ayende) is Troy's older son - a product of an earlier marriage. Troy's new daughter is named Raynell (Hannah J. Maximin).

This is a superlative cast and Jonathan Wilson interprets August Wilson's language and intent with vision, scope, and consummate understanding.


I spent two long mornings, a few decades ago, in New Haven with August Wilson. He drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, answered my questions, spoke from mind and heart. I drank coffee, listened, wrote, and attempted to discover (while I realized this was impossible) the genius of his approach/art/craft -- just how could he be so talented -- what was the secret? This he could not explain.

So, too, I interviewed Richards a few times, the final meeting transpiring at his uptown Manhattan apartment one warm spring afternoon a dozen years back. He was soft-spoken yet his words were precise and the import, for me, indelible.

I recall the day, during the late 1980s, when Eric Hill, then artistic director of StageWest and current theater department chair at Brandeis, and I were discussing the import of August Wilson's early plays. Hill said, "I think Lloyd Richards is really one of the great men of the theater." When Hill staged "Fences," his choice for Troy was actor Ray Aranha, who originated the role of Bono several years earlier at Yale Rep. I listened carefully as Aranha spoke about his affiliation with "Fences."

The linkage continues. I extend praise to to the three Wilsons (August, Jonathan, Michael) who are not related. I attended a Wednesday matinee performance at Hartford Stage. Not a seat was vacant. Attendees included many beyond the age of seventy; and a large array of high school students. "Fences," forever relevant, inspired/inspires all.; (860) 527-5151

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Composition" - Difficult Musical Etude

"Composition," in world premiere at Hartford's TheaterWorks through Mar. 11, is unsettling. Henry (role taken by playwright/actor Timothy McCracken) is a young composer who cannot progress with a piano piece he's written. Randy Redd furnishes the music and McCracken plays the upright piano. Blocked at, with, and by a specific sequence, he, the picture of the contorted artist, appears to be on the brink of a breakdown. Again and again.

He shares an NYC apartment (somewhere near the Lincoln Tunnel) with Curtis (Tommy Schrider), who writes often but is uninspired. Alexandra (Tara Falk) is involved -- well, she sleeps with Curtis. Sympathizing with Henry, Alex (a former cellist) explains that she knew Henry's now-deceased sister, Lucy -- who was a wonderful cellist.

So, Henry is a wreck while the less tortured Curtis attempts to lift his buddy out of the doldrums. Alex, adorned in many an outfit by Camille Assaf, is pivotal.

"Composition" is simultaneously interesting and exasperating. Perhaps the artistic team, inclusive of director Steve Campo, seeks that type of response. To its credit, the piece is complex and probing. Questions are raised and only some are answered; this is all to the good.

Yet, the evening is broken into fragments by the many, many, many blackouts which separate mini-scenes. The "go dark" punctuation annoys.

McCracken does an excellent job of inhabiting the Henry he has created. Schrider paints Curtis as a character without a naturally likable upside. Tara Falk creates an original Alex, a woman who is sincere, genuine, warm, and selfless. Will, however, the audience find her appealing?

The best portion of "Composition" occurs just before intermission when the script is sharp and enticing. Patrons must ponder just what occurs during the next segment. The final hour of the play, though, is fairly predictable. I will not divulge the conclusion.

All of that said, TheaterWorks (featuring a reality-based set by Adrain W. Jones) must garner applause for taking an educated risk by staging a play which, previously, has been performed in workshop or reading environments. "Composition" includes some excellent writing and some of the moments during its two hour running time are special ones. It would be far safer yet less ambitious to bring in a proven work. (860) 527-7838